We'll do better, promises Gates

Making Microsoft's software more reliable is a 'key issue' for the company, CEO Bill Gates has told a French audience. Gates' committment came in response to a written question from France's national railway company, asking why Microsoft applications are always released with so many bugs.

Responding to questions from customers and partners, Microsoft chairman and chief executive officer Bill Gates has renewed his company's commitment to releasing more stable software applications.

Shortly after giving a speech at International Data's IT Forum in Paris, Gates moved across town to address an expected crowd of 3,000 -- which appeared to exceed expectations by at least 1,000 attendees.

Together on stage with Marc Chardon, chief executive officer of Microsoft France, Gates spent about an hour and 15 minutes giving a brief speech and fielding a wide range of written questions from the audience

Opening the questions was an inquiry from SNCF -- France's national railway company, Société Nationale de Chemins de Fer -- about why Microsoft applications are always released with so many bugs. Gates didn't answer the question directly but did re-dedicate his company's efforts to improving software reliability.

"The amount of effort we put into testing our software has gone up dramatically -- today we have more testers than software developers," Gates said. "We need to make our systems more fault tolerant so that your total system won't go down (when there's a problem with the software) so you won't lose your work. This is a key issue for us."

The option to be able to load software patches over the Internet will also become simpler, Gates said. "Being able to get improvements automatically through the Internet will be available from us within the next two years."

Someone from France Telecom SA asked when Windows CE will be available in a mobile phone, and Gates said Microsoft has that under development. "We're hard at work, working closely with service providers so users can have their data where ever they go -- so a person can use a mobile phone to connect back to a PC" to get at their PC-based data.

On the topic of electronic commerce, Gates said he has often sent his credit card number onto the Internet to buy things, mostly books.

"When you use a credit card today, the store gets your number," Gates said. "On the Internet, we can set it up so that only the bank can open the envelope with your credit card information and see the number. The electronic world is much more protected from fraud."

To further the development of e-commerce, low-level satellites will eventually give users faster Internet connections, Gates continued. "In three to four years, we'll have 2-way satellite connections. Every hospital -- no matter where -- will find this relatively inexpensive. In four to five years you'll be able to connect anywhere, and we'll get the Internet to achieve its full potential."

When it came to questions about the euro, Gates said Microsoft is ready for the single currency that will be phased into Europe, beginning next year.

"All our software coming out now has full euro support, and we're putting out patches for previous products," Gates said. "We let you work with printers that don't even have the symbol by sending down a bit map to the printer. And we have a Web site focused on this very issue." (See: http://microsoft.com/windows/euro/.)

The French market shouldn't expect a Microsoft research and development center any time soon, Gates responded to another question, as Microsoft's new R&D center opened last year in Cambridge is meant to be a pan-European facility. "We are adding research centers every two or three years or so, the most recent was in Cambridge," Gates said. "And we will be adding a research center in Asia. "

"This is the kind of discussion I enjoy the most, looking out to the future," Gates concluded. The discussion also had a notable lack of questions about antitrust issues, witness lists and senate committee hearings.

Before the question-and-answer period, Gates spent much of his talk waxing poetic about the wonderful world of computing, focusing on future hardware wonders -- particularly those that will run with Microsoft operating systems.

"We'll get machines that are a million times faster over the next ten years," Gates predicted. "We already have NT running on the (Digital Equipment's) Alpha and (Intel's) Merced. We'll be there for the Merced with full support from the beginning."

"The key message here is that we are just at the beginning of the revolution -- today's machines are Model Ts," Gates said. "We will invest more than $3 billion per year on software development."

Gates also promoted the notion of one of the most long-sought treasures of the computer industry: the paperless office.

"We need a PC-tablet form factor no longer than a piece of paper" for taking notes at a speech or while lying in bed, Gates said. "One of our goals is to be sure that the easiest way to find information is on the PC. Today people are still primarily using paper storage. With the right software, we should be able to move the world in a paperless environment."

"Improvements in screen technology are important for this," Gates continued. "We don't read everything on the screen but we do read encyclopedias on the screen. I read Computerworld on the screen -- I don't even touch the paper version anymore."

Gates showed up for his presentation an hour after expected, but Microsoft France officials kept the crowd entertained with demonstrations of a host of existing and pending products from Microsoft, including Office 2000, Exchange Server 5.5, Site Server 3.0, SQL Server 7.0, Excel 2000, and Windows NT 5.0.

Before the event, Microsoft had a remarkably low-tech way of admitting attendees to the auditorium, as hundreds of attendees who had pre-registered to hear Gates speak crowded and pushed around a small registration alcove to listen for their name to be called.

"C'est lamentable!" complained one unhappy Frenchman. But still, everyone kept their place in the crowd, waiting patiently for a name badge that would grant them entrance to the Gates event. One thing was clear: the promise to hear the chairman and chief executive officer of Microsoft continues to draw a sizeable crowd.

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