THIS holiday season, Bill Gates is coming to town.
Just in time for the post-Thanksgiving shopping rush, the chairman of Microsoft Corp. is unleashing what promises to be both a bestselling book and a public-relations manifesto.
''The Road Ahead,'' coming out today in a number of countries simultaneously, offers the first autobiographical glimpse into Mr. Software, the man who became a billionaire by selling the instructions that run up to 90 percent of the world's personal computers (PCs).
The book gives Mr. Gates's vision of the impact connected computing will have on business and society. It comes as Microsoft faces new challenges and continuing public concern about its industry dominance.
In ''The Road Ahead,'' Gates paints a picture of an exciting technological future where Microsoft products will be at home, but not monopolize. The company - which has moved from computer software into electronic publishing - ''will not become a bank or a store,'' Gates insists.
Though it has rivals sweating, Gates's Redmond, Wash., firm has also been criticized of late for lagging behind in products that help people navigate the Internet, the global network of computers. Microsoft's stellar stock price has been hit a bit by this concern and by lower-than-expected sales of Windows 95, its upgraded core product.
When he has fallen behind in the past, Gates has successfully stymied competitors by preannouncing products, causing many customers to wait for a Microsoft product rather than buy an existing one. ''The Road Ahead'' and numerous recent speaking appearances give Gates a podium to use this ''vaporware'' tactic again, even as his cohorts ready products and strategies to put Microsoft on the Internet map.
The Gates book is designed to meet a confluence of interests, says Microsoft vice president John Neilson: It's the 20th anniversary of the founding of Microsoft; suddenly the business world has caught on to the Internet, heightening interest in computers; Gates is seen as a leader in computing; and millions of people are trying to see the field's future.
The book has been under strict guard, partly to protect exclusive deals. Newsweek published excerpts in its Nov. 27 edition, and the Times of London published excerpts Nov. 19.
Viking/Penguin USA, the publisher, will spend $1 million promoting the book in an effort to push its sales beyond those of Colin Powell's hot book, ''My American Journey.'' Gates is on numerous news and talk shows this week. The publisher hopes to garner huge sales in the first few days and gain a top spot on the bestseller lists.
In addition to the book itself, Gates has made his PR pitch through a flurry of personal appearances. He is on the road a third of his work time these days.
Gates was in Las Vegas last week, where he gave a keynote talk to a overflow crowd at the giant COMDEX computer show. He was in Boston the week before that, making four stops in one day - the most imaginative one at the Computer Museum, where he spoke to some Girl Scouts after he addressed educators.
The Girl Scouts asked questions basically as good as any he is getting these days. One of the bolder ones: ''What's going to happen to Microsoft now?''
Gates answered that he wasn't entirely sure because the computer scene, entering this new era of interconnectivity, is so competitive that no one has a guaranteed place. He also said it would be a first for a company (his) that led in one era to also lead in another.
For Bill Gates to say he will have to run to keep up must be semisweet words to many. The Girl Scouts don't have it in for Gates, but a lot of others do - envious of his success and objecting to the tough tactics by which Microsoft holds sway. His company is watched by the United States Justice Department's antitrust division, as well as rival software firms. But so far no one has stopped the Microsoft juggernaut.
The first 20 years of microcomputing, in which Gates has played a central role, made individual PCs powerful and plentiful. The next 20 years, Gates and many others say, will involve connecting these computers in sophisticated ways so that information can be shared to a degree never before dreamed of. The recent Internet craze represents the cutting edge of that trend.
Other trends Gates outlines in his book: more workers staying home a few days a week to telecommute; geographic dispersion of people; more home schooling; wallet PCs, eliminating credit cards, checkbooks, address books, etc.; too much documentation of people's private lives.