Computer Mating

updated 04/12/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/12/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

THE NEWS FLASHED THROUGH THE COMPUTER industry's e-mail network like byte-size wildfire: Bill Gates, cofounder and chairman of Microsoft Corp., had decided to interface in a big way. The 37-year-old computer whiz—America's wealthiest bachelor, with a personal fortune of $7 billion—was getting engaged. "He's always been married to Microsoft," says Estelle Mathers, Gates's former administrative assistant. But now he has decided to make room for a spouse not listed on NASDAQ—Melinda French, a mid-level executive at Microsoft.

The two, who are expected to marry next winter, met at a company picnic just after French, 28, joined Microsoft at its Redmond, Wash., headquarters in 1987. It was "interest at first sight," says Ann Winblad, 42, a longtime friend of Gates.

Gates has always had an eye for attractive, keen-minded women. Like Gales, French is "independent, smart and funny," says Microsoft director Don Marquardt. Raised in a Dallas suburb with two brothers and a sister, she attended Ursuline Academy, a Catholic girls high school, then roared through a fast-track undergraduate computer-science program and graduate business program at Duke University. At Microsoft, the nation's largest software company, acquaintances say she scaled the management ladder with hard work and ambition.

No one knows whether Gates will protect the fruits of his labor with a pre-nuptial agreement, but, says Winblad, "his father is a very good lawyer, so I'm sure he's getting good counsel." Meanwhile, Gates is taking his newly discovered nesting instinct seriously. He is building a $25 million estate near Seattle—complete with an area designed for children. (This from the man who, reportedly, used to point at infants and say, "That scares me.") But it's not certain that he will renounce his passion for fast foreign cars. Says Mathers: "Maybe there will eventually be a station wagon sitting next to the Porsche."

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