The smoke having almost cleared from several years of antitrust proceedings, Microsoft Corp. Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates is turning his attention to what hes calling “seamless computing.” The most influential figure in the software industry is confronting other challenges as well, including following through on his companys Trustworthy Computing initiative to make Windows more secure. In addition, Gates is shepherding a landmark Windows upgrade in “Longhorn,” which is due in 2006, while fending off the Linux challenge and pushing Web services for application integration. Gates discussed these issues and more in an interview with eWEEK Editor in Chief Eric Lundquist at Comdex in Las Vegas last week.
Your theme at your Comdex keynote this year is seamless computing. What is seamless computing, and how is it different from “information at your fingertips” or “the digital nervous system”?
There is a certain commonality to what Ive said at this show for 20 years running. The theme is using software to empower individuals to access information that helps them be productive and do fun things. Whatever the banner is—information at your fingertips or digital nervous system— that is the vision of what I have devoted my life to.
So what is different at this juncture?
What is unique about seamless computing is that boundaries between pieces of software need to be broken down for the next wave. We used to think about people using only one device. Now because of natural form factors such as wrist or pocket computers, we think of the individual, rather than the devices, at the center. Clearly, software hasnt made it trivial to move [data] between these devices, whether it be schedules or contacts or files. There is a boundary between ERP [enterprise resource planning] systems and the way you see data in those systems to easily understand the information and catch trends. We need to break down that seam for the dream of business intelligence to take place.
What is the good news in IT?
If you look at IT costs, there is good news in many different areas. Certainly, the cost of the hardware has gone down and the power has gone up. Intel [Corp.] servers running Windows are winning benchmarks that we didnt even appear in a few years ago. The big challenge is personnel costs, whether external or internal. Our emphasis has to be how to take the magic of software and show people how they can free up a lot of personnel costs.
You sound optimistic.
I believe the rate of productivity advance will be faster in this time period than any other time period.
Where should companies spend the dollars freed up from lowering costs? And where should they spend new technology funds?
Web services is the new architecture for new applications. Web services are being used to connect information that is inside the company in different systems. Theyre connecting people and systems in new ways and connecting across different companies as well. You think of investments for making your knowledge workers more productive. That is the biggest investment companies in almost any industry make.
There are things that are essentially new ways of doing business, such as creating workflows to connect buyers and sellers together. We are seeing lots of interest in taking BizTalk and connecting it up with our XML forms capability called InfoPath. People still want projects that are about five to six months in duration. They dont want a one-year shot in the dark. And they want projects where, if they really look at all the costs, then for a million dollars or less they can be really far along and start to get the payback.
And what about the still-standing issue of cost control for IT?
There is still a huge pressure to save existing costs. That is why I am featuring SMS [Systems Management Server], which is about distributing and keeping software up-to-date with a lot less operational costs, and our ISA [Internet Security and Acceleration] server, which is about securing the perimeter in a very rich way without much operational costs.
And is Microsoft using those new technologies internally?
Weve always pushed the technology to the limit. We use Web services to look at our customer information so people can have exactly the customized view they want. There are about 400 SharePoint sites created every day at Microsoft.
Over the years you have occasionally issued a “call to arms” memo when you felt the company was behind in some area. You did it with the rise of the Internet and more recently with security and the Trustworthy Computing initiative. The rise of RFID [radio-frequency ID] tagging and tracking has been called “the Internet of things” and is being pushed along by a range of companies including Wal-Mart. But Microsoft does not seem to be a major player here. Is another memo on the way?
We are very involved in RFID with tools. RFID is an exciting way to gather information, but it is not moving to the item level overnight. It plays a lot of the same role that case marking with bar codes did. It fits very well with our idea of information availability.
Is Microsofts strategy to be a better distinct alternative to heterogeneous computing environments or a better player in those environments?
I dont understand that distinction. We have been doing interoperability with mainframes and Unix for over 20 years.
But Unix systems have been your primary competition.
In the past decade Unix, in all its forms, has been our primary server competitor.
And what about Linux?
It is gaining share in the Unix space.
But not at your expense?
Our aggregate server share, year to year, was up according to most industry observers. Certainly, the Windows share of servers is strong.
So you dont see Linux as a strong competitor?
It is a competitor primarily on the server.
Is Trustworthy Computing still the No. 1 priority at Microsoft?
It is where we are putting the most money, IQ and priority. When you apply all this IQ to a problem like this, you make incredible progress. The tools are better; the scanning is better.
Will we have to wait for Longhorn to have the security issue resolved?
The security stuff will all be pre-Longhorn.
Are you now ahead of the curve in security or still in reactive mode?
There are several different things you do. You make sure there is no spreading—that is extremely important. That is where you get updating and firewalls coming in. If those things alone are done right, they prevent the problems. You also want to make sure there is less updating that has to be done, and that is where these tools come in. We feel we have made about an order-of-magnitude improvement in that, and we can make another order-of-magnitude improvement.
Is one way to improve security to be more modular in your approach to development, and is this counter to Microsofts deeply integrated software approach?
There is no relation between spreading and modularity.
Certainly, the only way we can build software as rich and powerful as Windows is to be extremely modularized and have each group focus on its piece. Sometimes the groups have to innovate together, such as in handwriting. It is like designing the 747; you have to get all the pieces to fit together.
Is it as complex as designing the 747?
There is more R&D being spent on Longhorn than on the 747.
How does Java fit into your computing expectations?
It is a language that we have supported in Visual Studio for many years. We support C# and VB [Visual Basic] and, the way our language framework works, even Fortran, COBOL and some of the new innovative research languages. Our whole thing is to use your existing code, to use whichever code you are most comfortable with and be able to combine that with code written in other languages. We have been agnostic about languages and supporting all the new things that come along.
I thought you once said that you might retire or scale back when you turn 50. You are getting pretty close to that age.
No, I didnt say that. I have always been extremely consistent about that. Ive always said it is hard to imagine being 60 and being one of the top people here. I have suggested that by the end of my 50s, someone else will have the job I have today. It does not necessarily mean that I will retire.
Have you read any good books lately?
Tracy Kidder came out with the book “Mountains Beyond Mountains: Healing the World: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer.” This is a great piece of work.
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