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BIRTH DATE: Oct. 28, 1955, in Seattle CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: Founded Microsoft Corp., Redmond, Wash., 1976; now chairman-CEO. PERSONAL: Married to Melinda French, a mid level executive at Microsoft. RENAISSANCE MAN GATES: SMART, RICH AND ENTIRELY FUN

By Published on .

LAS VEGAS-America's richest man walked into the MGM Grand boxing arena and stood all alone. For about 10 seconds.

By then, a stream of people at PC Magazine's product awards show last week began mingling with Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates.

At Comdex/Fall '94, the industry's big trade show, Mr. Gates, 39, is always in his element. He talks freely with power players, but he relishes debating anybody about the nuances of software code. Giving a keynote speech at this Comdex, Mr. Gates fit the role of an exuberant college professor, too wrapped up in explaining his vision of ubiquitous computers to worry about disheveled hair and smudged glasses. Far from intimidating, Mr. Gates is fun to bearound, exhibiting enthusiasm, an awkward but endearing sense of humor and total confidence.

"He's bigger than Sinatra," said Sheldon Adelson, CEO of Comdex's organizer, the Interface Group, Needham, Mass. "He comes out and says, `I did it my way,' and obviously no one can argue."

Mr. Gates will embark on a gutsy play next year that includes a new operating system, all-new applications like word processors and a global online service.

If Mr. Gates succeeds, he will wreak havoc on numerous rivals, including Apple Computer, IBM Corp. and America Online.

Competitors wonder hopefully if Mr. Gates is trying too much. "Being everything to everyone is without precedent in business," said Charles Hamlin, VP-corporate marketing at business software marketer Lotus Development Corp. "Nobody's ever done that, and I don't think anybody ever will."

But no one underestimates Mr. Gates-or Bill, as both enemies and friends of Bill call him. For 20 years at Microsoft, he picked the right products, alliances and people, earning wealth by changing the way the world computes.

Mr. Gates wears the facade of a computer geek-blending into a sea of lookalikes at Comdex-but it is his management acumen that attracts smart, competitive people and lets them do their jobs.

In a market where no one including Microsoft can go it alone, Mr. Gates picks the right alliances-right meaning he comes out on top. IBM put Mr. Gates on the map by choosing his MS-DOS software for its 1981 PC; today, Microsoft has more clout than IBM.

Even when Mr. Gates loses, he wins. Microsoft failed miserably in competing against Intuit's Quicken, the dominant personal-finance software product. This fall, Microsoft agreed to buy Intuit for $1.5 billion, the biggest software acquisition ever.

Microsoft is moving into homes and schools with CD-ROM reference books. A separate company, Continuum Productions, for five years has been buying digital rights to art collections.

On the eve of Comdex, Mr. Gates made headlines with his $30.8 million purchase of a 16th century Leonardo da Vinci illustrated manuscript. It's fitting: Mr. Gates is a renaissance man with the capacity to change the way people work, learn and play.

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