Traditional print media--magazines, newspapers, books--have used a lot of paper over the past two decades trying to chronicle the phenomenal rise of William Henry Gates III and his company, Microsoft. TIME alone has had Gates on its cover three times, first in 1984 and then again in 1995 and 1996, and our library tells me that his name has appeared in 114 issues since he founded Microsoft in 1976. It is not just that Gates has become the world's richest and most famous businessman. In building Microsoft, he has come to symbolize the software and computing industries. Now he intends to do the same thing in the world of digital media, where information, communication and entertainment will converge in ways that will change how we think, work and live.
But for all that has been written, including his own autobiography-manifesto, The Road Ahead, the real Bill Gates has remained elusive, even to those of us who have met him. Because his success stems so much from his personality, the many articles that have appeared in the business and trade press have often seemed wanting. So too have television's occasional efforts to tell the Gates story focused predictably on canned vignettes and snippets of gossip.
We thought that TIME, committed to authoritative reporting, synthesis and analysis, and to telling stories through people, seemed uniquely suited to getting the story behind the Gates myths, and that TIME managing editor Walter Isaacson seemed uniquely qualified to report and write the story.
Isaacson writes that Gates possesses "an awesome and at times frightening blend of brilliance, drive, competitiveness and personal intensity." That is also a pretty apt description of Walter. Like Gates, Isaacson attended Harvard, where he studied computing while majoring in history and literature. Unlike Gates, he graduated (in 1974) and then went to Oxford for two years as a Rhodes scholar. While in England he worked at London's Sunday Times, before returning to his native New Orleans to work as a reporter at the New Orleans States-Item. While there he also bought his first personal computer, a Kaypro.
Isaacson joined TIME in 1978 and rose quickly through its ranks, serving as a reporter, writer and editor before becoming an assistant managing editor in 1991. He oversaw several TIME covers on computing and the emergence of the digital age, and in 1993 he headed a team that created TIME Online. Later that year Isaacson became Time Inc.'s editor of new media, a position he held until assuming his present post a year ago. Along the way he also found time to write Kissinger, the definitive study of the former Secretary of State, and, before that, to co-write The Wise Men, a study of the foreign policy establishment that emerged after World War II. He continues to work on a biography of Ben Franklin, whom he calls "the world's first interactive journalist."