CAMBRIDGE -- Harvard University's most famous dropout shuffled into a conference room in the school's Maxwell Dworkin Hall yesterday, wearing a black sweater and open shirt. He sat down at a table with a roomful of journalists, and folded his arms almost shyly.
William H. Gates III, cofounder and chairman of Microsoft Corp., had returned to talk technology and share his vision of a future empowered by software innovation, not to wax nostalgic about his aborted college days nearly 30 years ago. But he couldn't help recalling that, in April 1975, at Harvard's old Aiken Computation Laboratory, on the site where he now sat, he had written a software program for the Altair computer -- a program that evolved into Microsoft's first product.
"That was a very craftsman-oriented thing where every byte counted and so it had to just be done in exactly the right way," Gates said. "And I still know every byte of code that was in that thing."
Bill Gates is 48 now, no longer the boy wonder of America's business world. His hair, which he still doesn't bother to comb, shows traces of gray. Gates was one of the few entrepreneurs able to lead a start-up company through its transition into a corporate behemoth, and he has been a lightning rod for critics of his company's hardball tactics and Windows operating system.
But after years of battling competitors, the open source movement, viruses, and regulators on both sides of the Atlantic, he has turned over Microsoft's day-to-day operations to chief executive Steve Ballmer, whom he met at Harvard in the mid-1970s, and returned to his first love as chief software architect.
And yesterday Gates was winding up a three-day tour of five colleges -- Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cornell University, Carnegie Mellon University, and the University of Illinois -- from which Microsoft recruits heavily. The road show was partly a platform for Gates to trumpet coming improvements in software productivity, and partly a string of pep rallies designed to get students -- and maybe himself -- jazzed about the continuing potential of computer science to transform the way people, live, work, shop, and connect with one another.
"I'm more excited about computer science than ever, and I'm excited to see what some of you here can do to take it to the next level," Gates told over 1,000 students at MIT's Kresge Auditorium yesterday, citing breakthroughs needed to boost security, integrate voice recognition and machine learning into software programs, and wring out inefficiencies.
Microsoft is spending $6.8 billion on research and development this year, more than any other US company. And it is stepping up its recruiting, with plans to boost its hiring of college graduates by 11 percent over last year.
But there is a sense among some students that while the software industry -- and Microsoft in particular -- seemed to be driving the technology revolution that spurred the economic boom in the past decade, the allure of software has diminished today, or migrated to new areas like the biosciences.
"The hotter area today seems to be merging computer science with biology, exploring biological sciences," said Yiou Wang, an MIT freshman from Frederick, Md., who listened to Gates at Kresge.
"It seems like Microsoft's pulse was in the late '90s," said another MIT student, sophomore Chris Pentacoff from Pleasant Hill, Calif. "Now that pulse is dying off a little bit. Maybe it'll come back."
Gates alluded to the new campus mood during a roundtable discussion yesterday morning.
"We had the buzz in the field in the late '90s," he acknowledged, leaning forward, gesturing with both hands, and rocking back and forth in his trademark manner. "And now we don't really have the buzz in terms of the people coming into the field, the diversity of people coming into the field. And that's a concern for us."
Bill Gates today may be as recognizable as the president or the pope, and his travels have some of the trappings of a state visit. Reporters invited to see him get advance calls from representatives of Harvard, MIT, and Microsoft, confirming details, laying down "ground rules," offering up "embargoed prebriefings" on what he might say. His every movement is choreographed by handlers and security personnel. And people everywhere, from academic leaders to blue-collar workers, scramble to shake his hand or to just catch a glimpse of him.
At Harvard, a group of janitors, including some that were called in at 3 a.m. to sweep and scrub Maxwell Dworkin Hall before Gates's arrival, lingered after his departure to talk of their sighting. (The building, underwritten by Gates and Ballmer and named for their mothers, Mary Maxwell Gates and Beatrice Dworkin Ballmer, opened in 1999 on the site of the former Aiken lab; lines of the code written by Gates are framed and displayed in a student lounge.)
"I got a look at him," said Robert Turner, the cleaning crew chief for Maxwell Dworkin and the adjoining Pierce Hall. "People say he's ruthless, and maybe you have to be in his business. He's the richest man in the world. But to me, he just looked like a normal guy. I don't know why everyone goes bananas over him."
Later, at MIT, John V. Guttag, a professor and head of the institute's Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, clearly came away impressed from a faculty roundtable with Gates. "There's a technical depth there," Guttag said.
Standing in the center of the Kresge stage, Gates reminisced about his infatuation with computing during his student days down the street. He recalled a cold winter day in Harvard Square, when a visiting Seattle friend named Paul Allen showed him a cover story in Popular Electronics magazine about one of the early personal computers and told him, " `You got to drop out. It's happening without us.' "
But when asked by a student what field he might choose if he were a student today, Gates admitted he was intrigued by artificial intelligence and computational biology.
"I'd be looking for some deep paradigm shift where you can make a difference," he advised.
Robert Weisman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.