Out of all the technologies that Microsoft is working on, which one gives William H Gates III the kind of buzz he got when he set up the company? Not NT 5.0, Windows 98 or Internet servers. The answer is the handheld PC.
“The technologies that are going to have the biggest impact are the ones that relate to this tablet device that you can carry around with you and take notes,” he told a barrage of journalists in Sydney last week. “Here today, people aren’t using computers. At meetings, even at Microsoft, people don’t use computers. Until the computer is in a form factor that is small enough and that we can write to, we won’t get into it. Working on that form factor is very exciting, I’d put it in front of voice recognition and advanced graphics.”
Gates says we’re still in the Palaeolithic era of the information
age. “We’re still very paper-driven. We think of everyone as having a telephone but we don’t think of everyone as having email.”
Following the infamous “pie attack” on him in Brussels last month (the pie didn’t taste any good, he quipped), every one thought security would be heavy when he flew into Australia on his private jet. But it was the usual low-key approach when Gates sloped on to the stage at the Hilton Hotel.
Gates is building closer links to Australia in the form of a $50 million joint venture with Kerry Packer’s company Publishing and Broadcasting. Called NineMSN, the new company has launched a revamped Web content from the Nine television network and ACP’s stable of magazines.
“This is only place where we’re doing that and if it is successful we’ll take learning and spread it around the world,” he said.
But it was to talk about the “the digital nervous system” - basically connected PCs and software - and how governments and business can use it to provide better information to citizens and customers, that was the official reason for the visit.
You couldn’t help but feel that such a vague visit was really a public relations exercise designed to show us the “real” Gates - not a ruthless tycoon on a quest for total domination of the information technology industry, but an idealist and visionary working to promote information technology for the betterment of society.
He repeated his message to customers, the public and politicians at the World Economic Forum held in Melbourne. A Microsoft insider said he would have come across to New Zealand (“He really likes New Zealand and sometimes slips into the country for a holiday.”) but was due back in Washington for another round before the US Senate.
At the Sydney briefing, he generally evaded questions of a financial nature: “I don’t know how the Asian economic position has affected Microsoft, that’s more of a question for our CFO” and of a political nature: “I have clear thoughts that relate to governments and how they can use HDTV (high definition television) as a tool but not on how they should allocate spectrum. It’s very complex. What I’m doing is pointing out to governments ways in which they can use HDTV to share education, information, for closer collaboration across large distances, how governments should be a model of publishing information on the Internet.
“Microsoft’s role is to provide software to help this come to fruition. Digital TV is a complex topic. It encompasses two things - changing the signal itself to digital, so it can provide higher quality and resolution, and also connecting the TV to the Internet. There are various ways of connecting them such as satellite and cable. We work with all of them and our main entry now is through WebTV [set-top boxes] - low cost hardware and a simple interface. We’re also talking to telephone and TV companies about whether our WinCE interface can fit into their plans.”
But will the WebTV kill the PC? No.
“WebTV only provides Internet access. It doesn’t let you run an encyclopaedia or play games. The PC is a superset of the WebTV.
What’s the least expensive PC you can buy? A PC not connected to the Internet. It will be great over time if the price of Internet connections come down to change that. Using Windows CE we give a smooth progression from bottom to top.”
Is Gates concerned that Microsoft will not be able to ship IE 4 with Windows 98 because of the Department of Justice hearings?
“We will ship a full featured version but we will have to make a less featured version available. Internet capability has been part of Windows 95 ever since it shipped. Every copy of Windows 95 uses Internet Explorer. There is no doubt that we are allowed to include Internet Explorer with Windows. But we have to ship a crippled version of the product as well. If users can choose there’s no doubt on which one they will choose.”
Gates side-stepped the question “What do you see as the biggest competitor to Windows?” by listing everything with the notable exception of Sun Solaris.
“The biggest competitor to Windows is previous versions of Windows. I have to convince you that I’ve done such a major job with the new system that you will upgrade. Others include HP-UX, IBM AIX, SCO Unix, Linux and JavaOS. And there’s probably some company out there that we haven’t yet heard of. If you’d asked IBM this question in 1980, they would never have thought to mention Microsoft. If we don’t do a good job with voice recognition, advanced graphics and things like that, there is a company out there which will.”
Gates answered the question “What do you think of charges that Microsoft is anti-competitive?” with a question of his own.
“What company has done more for software innovation and competition? There’s no doubt that it is Microsoft. The software industry is 10 times the size it was and this comes from people writing for Microsoft’s platforms. The PC is a great thing. Sun doesn’t like it because it’s too low-cost and too empowering. You can pick a PC from many suppliers, all of which are constantly lowering their costs. You can pick one of thousands of applications to run on it. People should wish that everybody was as competitive as the PC hardware and software business is.”
And finally, what is he reading?
“How The Mind Works, and I’m reading a lot of bridge books. I have a holiday coming up and I’m getting on the Internet, searching, asking friends what they have read recently.”