Gates Discusses All Things Software at Stanford

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates talks up the company's R&D, outreach to scientists and new DreamSpark student program.

PALO ALTO, Calif.-Students, faculty and other invited guests lined up in the rain at Stanford University here Feb. 19 to hear Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates talk about software, innovation, entrepreneurship and giving back.

Gates, who already has a Computer Science building named after him on the campus, took the stage to thunderous applause.

He started his talk by reminding attendees, many of whom were born long after he started the company, that he had lured now-CEO Steve Ballmer away from the university to Microsoft, quipping, "Even though he has an undergraduate degree, I still think of him as a drop-out like me."

Gates showed a video that spoofed his celebrity connections and his last full day of work at Microsoft before he heads over to co-chair the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation full-time later in 2008.

But Gates made clear that he would remain involved in the effort to drive innovation at Microsoft. "I will still be involved in some of the big things, like the natural user interface and around how knowledge is structured," he said.

The world has changed significantly since he started Microsoft, Gates said, noting that people now take for granted that they will get their news and music and make travel reservations online. "My daughter does not know what a record is. I keep meaning to find one and show her," he said, before praising how the Internet had made the world a smaller place.

Gates said he uses the Internet on a regular basis to find the answers to the tough questions his children ask and that he cannot immediately answer.

He also spent some time during his 45-minute speech on the company's commitment to research and development, noting that Microsoft spent more than $6 billion a year on R&D and establishing research centers across the world. "This research activity is risk-oriented," he said.

Software is becoming more important in the broad world of the sciences, and Microsoft is doing its best to reach out to scientists at the top universities and elsewhere, he said.

Gates reminded attendees of the disparities that existed between the United States, the richest country in the world, and countries in the developing world. He called on his listeners to use their knowledge and abilities to change the world and help others.

"This is a wonderful time to be a student and I will be very excited to see the great work that you will do," he said.

As expected, Gates also talked up Microsoft's new DreamSpark student program, which makes a broad range of development and design software available for download at no charge. The program is now available to more than 35 million college students in Belgium, China, Finland, France, Germany, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Some observers view the program's goal as being to not only draw more developers to the Microsoft platform, but to catch them while they are young and before they might become entrenched in Java or open-source tools.

Gates is not the only Microsoft executive to address Stanford students. In March 2007, Ballmer visited the Stanford Graduate School of Business to talk about the world of corporate leadership and management.

In his talk, Ballmer also called for more students to embrace a career in technology.