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Jeff Pelline

Bill Gates is eating his competition for breakfast.

“Jeff, have you heard about the Lindbergh kidnapping?” you might ask, wondering if I’d just figured out that Microsoft owns the desktop.

No, that’s not what I’m talking about: I’m referring to, of all things, public relations. That’s right: Mr. Bill–arrogant, aloof and defiant during much of Microsoft’s long-running antitrust trial–has become a media darling–well, sort of. Let’s face it, Bill Gates is no Paris Hilton, but this is the world of bits and bytes, not “Entertainment Tonight”–yet.

Gates’ rising star comes at the same time that his fellow corporate honchos–Sam Palmisano at IBM, Larry Ellison at Oracle, Steve Jobs at Apple Computer, Eric Schmidt at Google, Terry Semel at Yahoo, Jeff Bezos at Amazon (Time magazine’s “Person of the Year” in 1999, no less) and others–might be asked, “Cat got your tongue?” We typically learn from them in “prepared statements.”

While the world’s richest man spent his time at the Computer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week musing about blogging, Apple and Firefox and granting his first interview to a blogger, other tech bigwigs have been ducking “one-on-ones” left and right.

That’s a switch from the “olden days”–at least throughout the ’90s–when tech was booming and tech CEOs lined up to wax eloquent about their latest business plans or products and to jab the competition. It was fun to listen. Ellison talked up the Network Computer, Schmidt mapped out his plan to turn around Novell, and Bezos stressed “get big fast.” Jobs was a magazine cover boy.

Gates, meanwhile, struggled to define his image and endured pies in the face when he showed up in public. While the media was making celebrities out of CEOs and other “Davids,” Goliath Microsoft was portrayed as the “evil empire” and out of touch.

Gates himself was famously intolerant of interviewers who asked questions he deemed irrelevant or just plain stupid. In 1994, he took off his mike and walked off the set when news anchor Connie Chung likened his business tactics to knife fighting.

So what happened to make Bill Gates, of all people, more media friendly? To be sure, a “kinder, gentler” Gates has been rolled out before–typically when it suited Microsoft’s interests in its antitrust battle. But this time around, he seems more genuine. Bill has lightened up, he’s aged–and he’s got other interests. There’s nothing like fatherhood (Gates has three children now) to put the woes of the world in context.

But that’s not all. Nowadays, with Microsoft’s money pile growing nicely and Steve Ballmer running the show as CEO, Chairman Gates is granting Q&As with the “kids” at Gizmodo–a clever decision to reach a new, growing audience. Meanwhile, other tech honchos are taking a more prehistoric approach while juggling mergers, IPO hangovers, competition–even plugging media leaks.

One sad consequence: An increasing number of high-tech companies are being more “strategic” about letting their CEOs meet the press. Translated: Control the interview, stay on “message” and manage risks. For example, it’s OK to talk to Mr. Ellison, but just don’t ask questions about PeopleSoft. (Huh? Isn’t that our job?)

Look, I didn’t fall off the turnip truck: Microsoft isn’t being altruistic when it grants a no-holds-barred “one on one” with Bill Gates.

Or, you can talk to Mr. Jobs or Mr. Semel, but it’s all off the record. (But what good is that to our readers?) Or come meet Mr. Schmidt at Google’s annual holiday gala and eat free food, but no formal interviews, please.

Jobs spoke at Macworld Expo this week but didn’t mingle with reporters much. In fact, some reporters who showed up were forced to watch the speech on closed-circuit TV because the conference room was full–like watching a baseball game on TV inside the park. These and other examples abound.

Jumping through hoops to interview a leading newsmaker is nothing new, but the runaround routine has been gaining momentum in business news, just like in politics and sports. The White House press corps complains about access to the president, and sports writers can’t seem to hook up with Yankees slugger Jason Giambi in the wake of a steroid scandal.

The media itself must share the blame. In business, we have made celebrities out of CEOs, opening the door for companies to call the shots, just like Hollywood stars. (Do you think an “exclusive” interview with Ashlee Simpson comes without strings attached? Think again.) The media also digs itself a deeper hole when it agrees to one restriction after another.

Some of you might be wondering if this discussion is too “inside baseball,” but it’s not. CEOs of public companies ought to meet regularly with the press, explaining their plans and products–just like our nation’s CEO, George Bush. (His record could be better, too.) Besides informing customers, stockholders and the rank and file, these interviews also can show that a CEO is a confident leader who can think quickly on his or her feet.

Look, I didn’t fall off the turnip truck: Microsoft isn’t being altruistic when it grants a no-holds-barred one on one with Bill Gates.

It’s also being “strategic” about drumming up sales for its products. And besides, Microsoft has more to gain and less to lose than others because of Gates’ past image problems, critics would argue.

But Microsoft knows what a growing number of CEOs and companies who compete against the software giant are forgetting: A chance to get your point across amid all the confusion is golden. Or as financial columnist Allen Sloan once quipped, a “no comment” just means “more space for me and less space for you.”

Jeff has never seen an episode of ABC-TV’s “Extreme Makeover,” but he has bought a copy of “Pirates of the Silicon Valley” on eBay.