Gates on the Past, the Future, and Google

Reporter's Notebook: Bill Gates tells Charlie Rose and Stanford University audience at TechNet conference that 'we're at the beginning of something important again' in development of technology -- just as in the 1980s with the advent of the PC.

STANFORD, Calif. -- Philanthropist Bill Gates is able to take things a little slower these days, since he doesnt have to worry anymore about the day-to-day irritations of running a major multinational corporation. He mostly thinks about how to give his -- and colleague-in-cash Warren Buffetts -- money away for the betterment of mankind through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Do not misunderstand: Gates is still chairman of the Microsoft board, and he still sees progress reports, goes to the occasional company strategy meeting, speaks at keynotes and intervenes in big customer deals as needed.

But he also has more time for events like TechNet, held Nov. 15 at Stanford Universitys venerable Memorial Auditorium.

Gates was interviewed by PBSs talk-show host Charlie Rose in a wide-ranging, hourlong conversation before an audience of about 1,000 Stanford students, media members and various guests -- including Gov. Arnold Schwartzenegger of California.

TechNet describes itself as the "bipartisan political network of CEOs that promotes the growth of the innovation economy."

The 200-member organization held its third annual TechNet Innovation Summit at Stanford to discuss the state of innovation and the public policies needed to sustain the United States competitiveness in the global economy.

Here are some observations from Gates in response to questions from Rose:

  • On whether theres another idea today that is as powerful as the idea of the personal computer in the 1970s: "If I knew medicine like I do computers, I would like to be able to control the [human] immune system, to fight against the onset of disease on a world level ... but I think the idea of the PC still would have topped that."
  • On Microsofts increasing competition with Google: "Ive been told that Google is the company most like ours. That may be true. Well, we overlap in a lot of areas. Were both software companies, so were competing on a lot of levels. They hire a lot of smart people, we hire a lot of smart people. Google Earth is fantastic; what they do is free and a huge benefit to all. Theyre very good at knowing how to use high traffic at their sites and turning it into profit.

"Were going to compete in search. We think our will be a better search in a lot of ways. Competition between our two companies will be good for the whole industry."

  • On Microsofts often-contentious relationship with the European Union: "We feel very good about our relationship with the EU." There was loud laughter from the audience.

"No, really," Gates said. "They were mainly concerned about security and open-document formats -- those were the big issues. We have worked out our differences. If they wanted us to leave out some of our components for some reason, we could have delivered a European version of Vista for them. But it turned out that wasnt necessary."

  • On what changes IT will make in society over the next 10 years: "Changes are now coming faster than ever. Well be seeing more and more students using tablets instead of stacks of books in schools and in online learning. Well have computers that can see and learn like people ... well continue to see major breakthroughs in software development, in things like voice recognition, gaming [and] video. Were on to new and important advances in IT, just as we were at the advent of the PC.

"In gaming, [the] TV, high-definition video [and] PC are all coming together now in the Xbox. Voice recognition will get better ... software and services with improved interfaces wrapped around them will be coming soon. Our new Zune [media player] has built-in Wi-Fi, so you can send your friends music and photos and messages ... well continue to see this kind of innovation building on top of what we have today. Were moving toward more connected entertainment everywhere.

"Were on to another wave of innovation; we just need to make sure the United States continues to stay right up there in relation to the rest of the world."

  • On Vista, the corporate version of which is due out at the end of November: "Well have a lot more real-time communication type stuff that new applications can use. Search will work better, the apps themselves will work a lot better, [and] well build in parental controls ... it will be a major upgrade all around -- and it will cost exactly the same as before [meaning Windows XP].

"Yes, its later than we planned. But we want it to be right. It reminds me of when we released Windows 95 late that year, taking much longer than we planned. Its code-name had been Chicago. So when it finally came out, one of our competitors took out a full-page ad in the newspaper that read: "All Flights Are Late to Chicago."

  • On entrepreneur Buffetts announcement that he is donating upwards of $31 billion to the care of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation over the next few years ($1.6 billion has already been transferred): "Its mind-blowing what Warrens done. To leave the bulk of his estate to a foundation like ours in order to deepen its use for good around the world -- it is truly amazing and humbling at the same time. Well just do out best [in using the money]; I get to make sure it goes back to society in important ways -- thats kind of daunting.

"We want to move quickly as possible on diseases like malaria and AIDS, to find vaccines; were convinced well have a vaccine for malaria relatively soon. Its tough when you realize that 1 million kids die every year from malaria, and 500,000 each year from rodovirus (a gastrointestinal virus that mostly attacks children). I get a little upset with the media, which will cover a plane crash in India that killed 100 people, but it wont cover the fact that 1,000 times that many died in Africa today from malnutrition or disease."

  • On the United States keeping up with India, Japan, China, Germany and other countries with getting students involved in math and science and keeping them in the field: "The U.S. has been lucky for a long time to remain in the leadership position we are in. Our leadership has been so out of line with our 5 percent of the world population. We are very special for being in leadership for so long.

"As new brains come into the new economy, we will all benefit, thanks to technology. But the [population] numbers are overwhelming -- were going to have to get used to the world catching up to us [in innovation]."

  • On the early days of Microsoft: "When I moved to Albuquerque (in the mid-1970s) to start the company, we knew that we were at the beginning of something big. I mean, we hired like nine people, and they had to move themselves and their families there; it was risky and serious business.

"We always thought we could do a small slice of software business ... up until then, companies always did both hardware and software. Turns out we did more than a small slice."

  • On the off-chance hell return to Harvard to finish his studies some day: "I like to think Im on leave from Harvard. My parents really wanted me to finish. But the likelihood of me returning is not very high."

Local producers on-site at the production said they didnt know when the interview would air on PBS. Roses programs can air "in two days, if its a clean production, or it can air a month later if it needs a lot of work," a production assistant told eWEEK.

This production seemed very clean indeed -- except at the beginning, when Roses microphone refused to work for several minutes during his introducion of Gates.

"You mean the mike isnt working?" joked Rose in response to the giggling audience. "I was wondering why the intro was so entertaining to everybody."

TechNet introduces Green Technologies Initiative

At the event, TechNet announced its new Green Technologies Initiative, which will push Congress for a heightened U.S. commitment to adopt "green technologies" to fortify national security and address global energy and environmental challenges, such as global warming.

Other participants in the TechNet Innovation Summit included: Scott McNealy, chairman of Sun Microsystems; Reed Hastings, founder, chairman and CEO of Netflix; Jerry Yang, co-founder and chief Yahoo, Yahoo!; John Doerr, partner in IT venture capital compnay Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers; and Brian Halla, chairman and CEO of National Semiconductor.

The Green Technologies Initiative will be led by a group of TechNet CEOs and senior executives.

Some companies, such as Sun Microsystems, already have managers at the executive level who are charged with making sure "green" policies -- regarding recycling, power conservation, utilizing renewable fuels and other issues -- are enacted on a daily basis at all of the companys locations around the world.

"The TechNet Green Tech Initiative will provide a roadmap for government and industry to put these technologies to use in solving our serious environmental and energy challenges," said Doerr, a co-founder of TechNet. "We have just a few years to get this right, and it is the power of innovation that will lead the way in combating this crisis."

Doerr, former Netscape CEO Jim Barksdale and Cisco CEO John Chambers created TechNet in 1997 to shape public policy impacting U.S. innovation and technology leadership.

Energy facts, as reported by TechNet at the summit:

  • The U.S. is the worlds largest consumer of oil. It accounts for 25 percent of global daily consumption, but holds less than percent of worlds proven oil reserves. The Middle East by contrast holds more than 61 percent of the worlds oil reserves (U.S. Department of Energy).
  • The power of the sun: All the energy stored in the earths reserves of coal, oil and natural gas is equal to the energy from only 20 days of sunshine (Energy Information Administration).
  • Clean, renewable energy like solar and wind power currently produces roughly 2 percent of U.S. electricity. In contrast, nearly 90 percent of our electricity still comes from traditional sources such as coal and nuclear power (U.S. Department of Energy).
Chris Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger is Editor-in-Chief of eWEEK and responsible for all the publication's coverage. In his 13 years and more than 4,000 articles at eWEEK, he has distinguished himself in reporting...