Stanford Report Online

Stanford Report, April 29, 2000

The software revolution has only just begun, Gates says


The software revolution has only just begun, Microsoft chairman, chief software architect and co-founder Bill Gates told a packed Kresge Auditorium audience April 25. While the personal computer (PC) has brought power to the people, software advancements seem more evolutionary than revolutionary to users impatient for more natural computer interfaces and Internet connectivity anytime, anywhere. But dramatic improvements are on the horizon, Gates said.

His comments were part of "Bill Gates in Conversation with John Hennessy," an event sponsored by the Office of the President and Provost. It included an address by Gates, an interview conducted by President John Hennessy and a roving-mike question-and-answer session with the audience. The event was videotaped for future broadcast on San Jose public television station KTEH.

"PCs essentially have become the most important tool of empowerment and [have] driven a whole wave of productivity and additional communication and research and sharing," said Gates, noting that 50 percent of homes now have PCs. "That's really fantastic. If the only thing the technology is used for is the advances in medicine that it enables to take place, that alone would justify everything that has been done. But of course it's far more than that. The key point I want to make is we're really just at the beginning."

What might the future bring? Gates envisioned PCs that prioritize e-mail so users are rarely bothered with low-priority items such as junk mail. On the other hand, a device that's part cell phone, part personal digital assistant could alert a mobile user if a high-priority message -- "You've left water running in the bathtub" -- were sent. Users could e-mail handwritten notes or listen to music from the Internet while driving in their cars. Technology will be a seamless means of personalizing your environment, wherever you may be, he said.

Bill Gates gave his vision of the future of technology Thursday afternoon in an address and question-and-answer session with President John Hennessy. Photo: L.A. Cicero

In the home, Gates anticipated a ubiquitous connectivity where technology would allow family members to point at screens to get the family schedule or select music to listen to. "Underneath that there's a lot of technology," he said. "There's a lot of networking, network management going on, security to make sure that your information isn't shared with the house next door or anybody that it shouldn't be. And yet you're going to want to be able to do that without being an expert in that underlying technology."

In the workplace, business-to-business e-commerce is the prototypical application, but in any meaningful sense it has not happened, Gates said.

He showed the audience a prototype of a product coming out later this year -- a laptop computer that turns into a writing tablet by flipping the display around. Users can take notes with a pen-like device instead of a keyboard. A wave of similar products emerged five or so years ago, but they were flawed, Gates said, with clunky hardware, short battery life and inferior handwriting recognition software. The product also could be used to do all your reading on one device, he said.

Many tough technical problems remain to be solved, and that takes research. In an era of shrinking commercial budgets for research and development, Microsoft's has grown. It's about $5 billion a year, Gates said, and the portion supporting work at leading universities, including Stanford, has increased.

Other obstacles include privacy concerns, which he implied may hinder software fixes. "It's only recently that we've put into our Windows product this self-monitoring capability so that if something goes wrong, if the application stops working, we see across the network what went wrong." Given an opportunity to e-mail a report back to Microsoft, about 70 percent of users do so. The report allows Microsoft to trace what happened and pinpoint the problem. But it also has users wondering if other information is being collected about them.

If the industry doesn't make big advances in security, Gates said, it will hold back the dream of connectivity. Passwords are a terrible way of identifying users, he said. "People take passwords that are easy to guess. They use the same password on very insecure systems they use on secure systems." He suggested a smart card plus a password.

Sniffing software, the last mile and more

During the interview, Hennessy, also a computer scientist and successful entrepreneur, asked Gates his thoughts on the battle between content providers wanting to protect their intellectual property and companies wanting to distribute that content to a wider audience.

Gates said legislation has been proposed to require "sniffing" software that looks for a rights emblem and reports content users who don't have it. While Gates is not opposed to a mechanism in the operating system to honor the rights emblem, he said he didn't think it appropriate for PC manufacturers to be forced to have sniffing software.

"My PC has gotten faster and faster and faster, and when I now use the Internet all the time, it's great when I'm here in the office," Hennessy eased into the next question. "But then I go home and I have this tiny little pipe, and now so much of what I do is on the Internet, and [the speed] stinks! It's terrible! A lot of the things you do here, you can't do at home. It doesn't seem that that situation is improving very quickly. Do you see any hope in solving that so-called 'last mile' problem?"

"You'll have to move on campus," Gates quipped.

"I did!" Hennessy replied, amidst laughter.

Gates said the economics of the last mile are particularly difficult. One country -- Korea -- has broadband costs down to about $20 a month. More than half of Korean households have broadband, enabling streaming video and online games. At $50 a month elsewhere, however, at most 15 percent of households will subscribe to broadband access, he said.

While wireless technologies may provide a way to get around last-mile economics in the next decade, Gates said his company "has a little spare cash" for anyone with a solution. (Microsoft posted revenues of $25.3 billion for the fiscal year ending June 2001.)

Hennessy next asked if Gates saw a technology on the horizon that would dramatically change the face of computing, as microprocessors did roughly 30 years ago, personal computers did 20 years ago and the Internet did 10 years ago.

Speech and handwriting recognition advances might bring dramatic change, Gates said. As hardware evolves in form into more natural interfaces, that might bring change too, he said.

Inquiring minds wanted to know ...

Gates had spent three days prior to the Stanford event in Washington testifying at the Microsoft antitrust trial, where nine states seek to have Microsoft share its internal software code with competitors, which may allow competitors to create Windows clones. The plaintiffs also want a modular version of Windows that would allow Microsoft's Internet Explorer to be replaced with competing browsers, such as Netscape's.

Only one member of the Stanford audience was brave enough to bring up the lawsuit. "While I recognize that you cannot comment on any pending litigation, I'm curious as a former judge, what effect has all this litigation had on you personally?" asked Vice Provost for Campus Relations LaDoris Cordell. Gates said that he was proud that the company has stayed focused. It did not allow the distraction of the four-years-and-counting lawsuit, which made hiring and protecting investments more difficult, to slow it down.

His reply to a question about Microsoft's new video game system, Xbox, promised gamers a jolly holiday season. Last year, Gates said, Microsoft was hardware-constrained. "We sold every box we could make. This Christmas, both ourselves and Sony, our primary competitor, will be able to make as many as people want."

A student asked about the role of technology in freeing people. "There's almost a perfect correlation between the use of personal computer technology and how democratic a society is," Gates said. "I'm very optimistic about China because right now you've seen this huge rise in the use of personal computers."

Beyond his work at Microsoft, Gates seeds the accomplishments of others as founder, with his wife, Melinda, of the largest charitable foundation in the United States. With an asset base of $24.2 billion, it is dedicated to improving health and learning in the global community. To close, Hennessy asked Gates if he wanted to be remembered for his philanthropy or his role in bringing computers to the masses.

"If I had to say what is the thing that I feel best about, it's being involved in this whole software revolution and what comes out of that," Gates replied. "You can go all over the world and go into schools and see these computers being used, and go into hospitals and see them being used, and see how they are tools for sharing information that hopefully leads to more peaceful conditions. And the great research advances that come out of that. So from a professional point of view, the software is the thing that I think I find most gratifying."


Bill Gates showed a new computer that works as a tablet for taking notes to a standing-room-only crowd Thursday. Photo: L.A. Cicero