Bill Gates spoke in a conversation with Dean Newton at Zellerbach Hall today.
As people arrived for the event, we handed out about 700-800 flyers, which probably reached over half the audience. You can see the flyers at http://freewisdom.org/gates/.
Dean Newton's conversation with Bill Gates was consistently positive about Microsoft. The only negative reference that Newton made was to ask Bill what Microsoft has learned after ten years of dealing with litigation. Bill's answer can be summarized as "We were naive to think that we didn't need government lobbyists. Now we have them." During the conversation, Bill made a false statement about the GPL (claiming that it prevents you from selling software commercially). Bill also claimed credit for starting the PC software industry, which he presented as his biggest contribution.
During the question period, i got to ask a question. It was largely ineffective. I noted that Bill had described universities as very important sources of new innovators, and that recruiting from them was probably important to him. I then asked the audience for a show of hands of people who would have concerns working for a company that had been found guilty of illegal business practices, limited its customers' freedom to choose, and misled the public. Dean Newton cut me off; only three or four hands in the entire hall went up. Bill asked me to get to the question. I asked him if he felt it would be good for his recruiting efforts to improve those business practices. He said "Sure!" and that was all.
None of the other 5 or 6 questioners posed questions challenging Microsoft's ethics. Dean Newton also took several opportunities to congratulate Bill between questions.
After the talk, two Microsoft developers-turned-PR-people engaged in a conversation with some of us. One was a recently converted Microsoft-hater. Their intentions seemed sincere and they were well spoken. They admitted that personally they felt Microsoft had made a lot of mistakes and probably should have been more severely punished by the government. They said there was actually active internal controversy at Microsoft about how to behave as good citizens and manage IP fairly. They seemed genuinely interested in finding out how Microsoft could do better. I proposed that they make public commitments to fair use, to freedom of software choice, and to not abusing the patent system. If they really wanted to engage in a dialogue in good faith, then Bill Gates should issue public retractions of his false statements, such as his statement about the GPL today. I also suggested that, because of government's dependence on Microsoft, it was Microsoft's civic duty to open the Office file formats, to which one of them agreed. We talked for a long time, over an hour, while a CNET news crew took individuals aside for interviews.
I was glad they were there to talk, but i can't help remaining skeptical that expressing our opinions to them will have any long-term effect. They did admit that, even though many employees at Microsoft have concerns, Steve Ballmer remains firmly committed to "shareholder value" (read "profit") as his first priority.
I wish i had instead asked "Because of the government's near-total dependence on Microsoft software, doesn't Microsoft have a civic duty to open all of its file formats to the public?"
Or "You made a false statement about the GPL a moment ago when you claimed that it prevents you from selling commercial software. Would you care to make a public retraction of that statement?"
I'm completely exhausted. I'm also pretty disappointed at how things went and in my own poor performance.