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Wednesday, October 13, 1999 Published at 12:46 GMT 13:46 UK

UK Politics

Blair opens door to Gates

Gates expectations: Blair says Britain can lead e-commerce

Tony Blair has again urged British companies to put themselves at the front of the Internet revolution - after a meeting with Microsoft boss Bill Gates.

The men described as the two most powerful people in the United Kingdom met on Wednesday morning in Downing Street.

The telecoms revolution
During their 30-minute talks they covered industry and employment-related matters, the prime minister's office said.

But a spokesman was forced to admit Mr Blair had not yet started the computer course he promised to attend when he confessed his technological illiteracy a month ago.

This did not stop him from issuing a warning to UK companies not to underestimate the power of the Net.

[ image: But the prime minister needs a hand getting on the Net]
But the prime minister needs a hand getting on the Net
"Britain can lead the world in exploiting e-commerce but only if we act now," he said.

"Government is committed to playing its role and business must do the same, seizing on the new opportunities with imagination and ambition.

"Too often in the past Britain has made a good start in new industries only to see others overtake us. We cannot afford to let that happen again."

The comments echoed those made by the prime minister when he announced the appointment of Britain's first "e-envoy" Alex Allan, a High Commissioner to Australia who also spent five years as principal private secretary to the prime minister.

Television pictures of Mr Blair attending a Net firm earlier that day confirmed the self-confessed technophobe was a two-finger typist with almost no experience of the Web.

It is not known if he picked up a few tips on using the Internet from his visitor, who is also the world's richest person.

Mr Gates' software operates on 90% of the world's computers - a fact that led The Sunday Times to place him just below the top of its recent Power List.

The prime minister is clearly aware of the Microsoft founder's importance as a businessman and an employer.

[ image: Bill Gates: Second most powerful person in Britain, according to a survey]
Bill Gates: Second most powerful person in Britain, according to a survey
Yet it is possible that he remains one of the few working people who has managed to avoid any contact with programs such as Word, Explorer, Excel and PowerPoint.

"Like many people of my generation in positions of leadership, I rarely use a computer and when I do I usually need help," he said last month.

"But I know it's not good enough and if I recommend life-long learning to others, then I know I should go back to school myself."

E-commerce Minister Patricia Hewitt and Scotland's Communities Minister Wendy Alexander also attended Wednesday's meeting.

Ms Alexander told Mr Gates about the new opportunities she believed devolution offered e-businesses in Scotland.

"Scotland is an old nation with a young parliament which wants to be at the forefront of the new times," she said.

"The Scottish Parliament gives us the opportunity to link local IT initiatives to a wider action framework."

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