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Bill Gates discusses future of information age

If you think that computers have had a major impact on your life, you haven't seen anything yet.

So said Bill Gates during a livly give and take in a packed Memorial Auditorium yesterday.

The chairman, CEO and co-founder of Microsoft spoke in the Graduate School of Business' View from the Top speakers series, part of the school's 1997-98 Public Management Initiative on Technology and Social Change.

"We are really just at the beginning of the information age," began Gates, who drew enthusiastic applause for appearing on stage wearing a bulky GSB sweatshirt. "The thing that is going to separate the successful organizations from unsuccessful ones will be the way that they deal with information: the way that they make decisions, the way they use the tools of the information age to help them design products, communicate with customers and do all the things that are crucial in a business of any kind."

The software business is particularly exciting, he said, because it will reshape not only how companies work, but also the way that people learn, the way people buy things and the way that they entertain themselves.

"The technologies involved here are really a superset of all communications technology that has come along in the past, e.g., radio, newspaper. All of those things will be replaced by something that is far more attractive. The very mechanism of capitalism, the way people buy and sell things, will be changed by having this . . . software."

Creating the building blocks that make these kinds of social changes possible "is one of the most exciting things that you can do," Gates said.

The just-announced acquisition of Digital Equipment Corp. by Compaq Computer Corp. is a real milestone in the development of the computer industry, he said. The fact that a company that was all but unknown until recently can take over the company that 30 years ago was making the most innovative computers demonstrates the highly competitive nature of the industry, one where it is impossible for companies to rest on their laurels, Gates said.

"That's part of what makes things fun: We come to work every day knowing that we can destroy the company," he said. If Microsoft should falter, then it most likely will be replaced by companies that no one has heard of, he added.

One of the big problems that the industry faces is making its products simple to operate, the head of world's largest software company acknowledged. In fact, he punctuated the message with a comedic video clip illustrating some of the problems. Among other cameo appearances, it featured Newman from Seinfeld installing a monster system with a welder and Martha Stewart describing in non-stop technospeak a weekend project of building your own personal computer.

The key to ease of use is natural language recognition, Gates said. In future products, users will be able to describe in English (or other languages) problems that they are having. The computer will parse the sentence and then suggest possible solutions. When the user indicates that the program has failed to help, the computer will send a message over the Internet to the company, where its technicians can analyze the problem and find ways to correct it. And it won't be long until computers will respond to the spoken word, which will make them even simpler to operate, he said. Microsoft is currently developing its first product that incorporates speech recognition: a PC for the automobile.

The other area where real advances will be made revolves around the Internet. Gates admitted that its meteoric rise took Microsoft by surprise. When Internet protocols became industry standards, "We had to reorient the company," he said. "We gave everybody Internet connections, asked them to think about it, and they came up with some very creative ideas." Gates predicted that web access increasingly will be through the television set, via a very intelligent control box.

Communication technologies have a way of spreading out -- people who are connected push others to get connected as well -- so the rate of Internet expansion is generally underestimated, Gates said. Despite the important advances being made to increase the capacity of the connection to the home, he believes that this will be the primary bottleneck in the development of new software.

The software magnate said that he is optimistic that the ongoing advances in information technology will be good for democracy. The new technologies will move news and information away from "sound bites" to in-depth knowledge. By providing people with more in-depth information, it will make the government more transparent. All previous advances in information technology have been good for democracy, and the ongoing changes will be good for it as well, Gates said.

In response to a question about the Justice Department's antitrust actions against Microsoft, Gates responded, "One of the privileges of success in this country is government scrutiny." Because of Microsoft's high profile, government officials enjoy investigating the computer industry more than other sectors, like the staid bread industry. There is a certain irony in the government actions against Microsoft, he said, because the software industry is the most competitive in the country.

When asked about his charitable activities, Gates answered, "If you are as lucky as I am, it is worthwhile giving money back to worthy causes. There is a certain rationale that it is better for society [if you] do this rather than giving all your money to your kids or spending it all."


By David F. Salisbury

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