CAMBRIDGE, Mass.—Microsoft Corp. Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates lectured computer science students Thursday about using computing technology to combat scourges of the present and create new opportunities in the future, while painting a vision of a more interconnected, integrated technology world.
Gates, speaking to Massachusetts Institute of Technology students at MITs Kresge Auditorium here, predicted that Moores Law—that processing power doubles every 18 months—will continue to hold true for the next “10 to 15 years,” promising more technology innovation in its wake. Meanwhile, he noted, improvements in storage technology are progressing even faster than improvements in microprocessor technology.
One of the new technologies this will yield is a Microsoft product called the Portable Media Center, which will boast 40GB of storage space for movies, video files and photos, all in a handheld device.
Gates also spoke of forthcoming improvements in screen technologies, promising larger, higher-resolution monitors on desktops. The desktop neednt be tethered though.
“The idea of connecting a computer to a screen will become obsolete,” Gates said, predicting that multiple screens could be associated with the same CPU, without wires.
Such a vision isnt limited to displays. Disk storage and peripheral devices would also be separate from the PC, with connectivity through wireless networks. Gates referred to this as the “disaggregation” of the PC.
He also predicted Microsofts Tablet PC technology will be the wave of the future.
“All portable devices will eventually become tablet devices,” Gates said.
On the software side, Gates spoke of linking applications with “visual business processes” rather than code, enabling non-technical users to accomplish the task.
“The information visibility that an information worker has today is extremely low,” said Gates.
Block That Spam
The famous Harvard dropout got his best laugh lines while talking about spam. He showed spam messages he had received in his Microsoft inbox, advertising debt reduction and legal assistance services as well as mail-order college degrees.
“For me, spam is this awful thing, but its also something that makes you step back and laugh,” said Gates.
Gates spoke more seriously though of Microsoft initiatives to block spam, such as improving SMTP authentication, requiring more computing power to send mass e-mailings, and requiring a “proof” of sender authenticity if a message is suspected of being spam.
“No one wants to give up e-mail,” said Gates. “We want it to get better.”
“Bill Gates Solution to the Spam Problem: Make Spammers Pay.”
Gates claimed Microsofts $6.8 billion research and development budget is the largest in the industry and promised advances in security, artificial intelligence, speech recognition and biotechnology.
And he spoke of the need for computer science education and Microsofts commitment to such education around the world.
“Im more excited about computer science than ever,” said Gates. “And Im very excited about what some of you here can do to take that to the next level.”
In a question and answer session with students, Gates was asked to explain .Net. He described the Microsoft technology as embedding XML and Web services into the Windows platform to improve application integration. He said Microsoft was about 60 percent done with standardizing all of its applications on .Net.
Another student asked Gates what he would do today if he were a 19-year-old MIT student and Microsoft already existed. Would he stay in school or leave to pursue another business venture, just as he left Harvard early to start Microsoft?
Gates joked that he didnt drop out of Harvard, he only went on leave from it and was “still on leave.” But he told MIT students hed do it all over again for the right opportunity and they shouldnt be afraid to look for those opportunities, even if it meant setting aside their studies.
“If I were a student today, I would look for paradigm shifts, something like artificial intelligence or computational biology,” said Gates. “Anyone who has in mind a real paradigm shift should take that risk.”
When asked who his “personal hero” was, Gates mentioned Warren Buffet. Another student asked him if he thought the U.S. patent system was flawed for software. Gates described the current system as “imperfect,” but said it has worked “amazingly well.”
When a student asked how Microsoft fit into a software industry where innovation was becoming increasingly commoditized, Gates pointed out that Microsoft lived off one-time license revenues and had to keep innovating to get customers to buy upgrades.
Another student asked Gates if the Windows “monoculture,” its virtual monopoly on desktop operating systems, made the companys software more vulnerable to hackers.
Gates dismissed most Windows hackers as “people who want fame that like to attack the most popular system,” and said Microsoft is more concerned about stopping “somebody who wants to steal information.”
Gates said Microsoft is working on improving firewall technologies to safeguard information security. He said more operating systems would just increase system overhead, not security. “We need less operating systems,” he said.
Finally, Gates was asked how he could justify holding his companys ever-expanding cash horde, which currently totals nearly $53 billion. The company generates more than $2 billion a year in interest and investment income alone.
“We do need to evaluate that,” conceded Gates, who said a stock buyback or dividend increase is possible. Gates agreed that Microsofts balance sheet needs to be made more “pure.”
“Were all about one thing and thats developing software,” he said. “We shouldnt be about holding investments. We should be about, Is there opportunity in software and are we the company thats seizing it?”