As users employ and perceive computers in new ways, a transformation is occurring that requires a fresh approach toward software development, Bill Gates said here in a wide-ranging speech that offered humor and history but was short on specifics.
Speaking at the 35th anniversary celebration of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Laboratory for Computer Science, the Microsoft chairman and chief executive officer outlined assorted problems faced by software vendors and predicted that major breakthroughs will occur over the coming years, but did not offer more than generalisations about those advances.
The Internet, which Gates called "the most revolutionary communications device of all time" is the cornerstone of the transformation, only now beginning.
"We really are just at the start of this," Gates said. "We're going to look back and see just how primitive it was even in just 10 years' time."
Adaptable, scaleable systems that can be updated without networks being shut down will be crucial in the great new age of connectivity Gates envisions. He also sees a time when computers will move objects from memory to disk quickly and consumers will hook up new PCs to find all of their data already in the new system, transferred from their old machines without a hitch.
Consumers, in large measure, are pushing for the kinds of changes in programming and development that Gates said companies like Microsoft and academic institutions like MIT are working hard to fulfill.
Internet use is behind the demands, with more users going online to read magazines, newspapers and texts that previously were available only on paper, Gates said. Vendors need to work on technologies that make it easier to read on computer monitors and that enable speech recognition and synthesis, he said.
While software developers work in a fast-paced field, "the actual art of creating software has changed very little since 1975." Over that time, the concept of what a computer is has shifted, Gates noted. Screen size is crucial to how computers eventually will be characterised and the second defining factor will be how the device connects to the network. More and more choices will emerge from hand-held devices used remotely, to appliances that connect.
"There's some interesting software problems in how to create software that scales over all of those devices," Gates said. "All of these devices will have browsers built in. All of them will be connected to the Internet."
Though some devices will have small screens, a larger screen "will be the center of gravity" and remain important to creating and editing documents, he said.
Although 98% of the world's population does not have Internet access, Gates expects the "Web lifestyle" to continue to invade the globe because as people become connected "they tend to become evangelistic."
While Gates' talk covered a lot of terrain, and he didn't offer specifics in terms of how software issues will be resolved, a rare press briefing after his speech was supposed to cover only topics germane to the anniversary celebration. It was announced at the end of his talk that Gates and his wife, Melinda, through their foundation have given $US20 million to build a new facility for the Laboratory of Computer Science. The new building will be named after Gates.
Michael Dertouzos, the lab director, issued the edict that questions were to be related to the topics of the day and as far as he was concerned the big news was the financial contributions. In the end, though, Gates did answer questions that veered from that track.
Queried about the ongoing federal antitrust trial, now in recess, in which Microsoft is accused by the US government of being a monopolistic industry bully, Gates said that his company merely wants to innovate and make good products.
He also provided a stock answer to a question related to privacy concerns that have arisen as a result of identifying code in Microsoft Word. According to some reports, dissidents in Kosovo, Yugoslavia have been tracked using those codes, which also apparently helped authorities nab the man suspected of unleashing the Melissa computer virus on the world.
Gates, whose foundation has given money to refugee organizations to help those fleeing Kosovo, maintained that it is possible to create documents anonymously in Word, ensuring privacy.