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Bill Gates was heads down for most of the meeting, studying notes, until a shareholder asked him a question.

Posting from Bellevue: Since leaving his day-to-day executive role at Microsoft, company co-founder Bill Gates has been known not to say a word from the stage at the company’s annual meeting of shareholders, and for a while today it looked like that was going to be the case — until a shareholder directed a question his way, asking him the age-old question about how the company can boost its share price.

Gates started by replying, “I think the key thing is the profit stream that the company is able to generate, rather than the choices about whether those profits are paid out as a dividend or a buyback or retained.”

He went on to talk about the importance of keeping enough cash to “take big risks even in the face of some economic uncertainty,” noting that dividends will reduce the share price by an amount equal to the cash payout, and adding that he’s always been a big believer in having a strong balance sheet.

Then he talked about the company’s product pipeline.

“I certainly think the opportunity as the world’s best software company is very strong — stronger today than it’s ever been,” he said. “Obviously we have a lot of upside in the phone and tablet business. We’ve got a lot of smart people working on those things.”

(In case its not obvious, the phrase “a lot of upside” is a euphemism for “nowhere to go but up.”)

Continuing his remarks, Gates said, “In the Office business, we have to keep renewing our excellence and keep surprising people with neat new things that are going on. Certainly Steve and his full-time team are good about getting my input on those things, including some specific projects that I’m more involved in.”

For more from the meeting, including comments by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer about Windows 8 and other products, see my earlier live notes.

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