Tablet PCs will replace textbooks and other predictions from Bill Gates

Microsoft chairman predicts natural interfaces that will deploy speech and camera recognition and reshape computing. Print will be past tense.

WASHINGTON - Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates today outlined a future of computing akin to a Whole Earth Catalog for technology. The computing systems of the future will be more natural, responsive and capable of easily recognizing objects and people. They will also be completely customizable, he said.

Television, for instance, will be based on the Internet and it "will be an utterly different thing," that's customizable and interactive, Gates said during a talk before the Northern Virginia Technology Council, an industry group gathered at a hotel located just steps from the White House.

Gates appeared Wednesday before the U.S. House Committee on Science and Technology to talk about policy issues, including education, basic research funding as well as to argue for the need for better access to foreign workers through the H-1B visa and other programs. But today he was back to more familiar themes.

One of those themes was building technology based on a concept he calls natural user interface. Building these interfaces is one of the "biggest challenges" ahead, Gates said, and one that is also "greatly underestimated." But it will deliver "new ways of interacting with these computing devices," he said.

This mode of interaction goes well beyond the mouse and keyboard. One example is the tablet computer, which Gates said is beginning to move into the mainstream.

Gates said his daughter goes to a school where she has a tablet PC, "no textbooks at all."

Tablet devices, with video and collaboration capabilities, are "far superior then what used to be done in print," Gates said.

Natural user interfaces will include voice recognition software so advanced that recorded content will be easily searchable. Gates also sees cameras giving computers vision.

"In the future, instead of having the computer on your desk, you will have the computer in your desk," Gates said, and that desktop will have the ability to recognize what the user is doing, as well as the objects and papers placed on it.

In the home, "intelligent surfaces" will be pervasive, he said, to help organize a trip, photos or just about anything. "It can be done without the hardware being significantly more expensive," he said.

Data centers will be automated with little human intervention, and software development will use models that involve less code, the Microsoft chairman said. Software is "much larger than the simple English description of what that business is up to." Software is expensive and hard to fix, and "we want there to be less lines of code," he said.

"These kinds of big breakthroughs are coming because the industry is investing in research and development," said Gates, who noted that R&D has become the most important part of his company.

In the audience were people from companies that are heavily involved in the government market, where they sell services that use Microsoft products. It was a friendly audience, but there were still tough questions.

Pointing out that security is "essentially an afterthought," in technology, Mark Boltz, a senior solutions architect at Stonesoft Corp., a network security provider, said Gates had spent "maybe 10, 20 seconds" of his talk on security.

Referring to new technologies, such as Microsoft's Surface, which uses tabletop-like surfaces to interact with people, Boltz wanted to know how they would be secured. Pointing to one consumer product, a digital photo frame that came preloaded with a Trojan program, he asked how something placed on an interactive coffee table might transmit a virus that would spread to other "smart" devices, such as a refrigerator. The audience laughed at that last point.

Gates said security has been a top priority for Microsoft and has been getting "pretty phenomenal" investment, although challenges remain. He cited as an example the problem of how to determine what privileges a piece of code should get when it's run. He said there is no "sound bite" that provides an answer.

After the talk, Boltz said he thought Gates' response was "a little vague."

Craig Mundie, who joined Gates on the stage for the audience question-and-answer period, said a lot of the effort at Microsoft has been in changing fundamental engineering practices, which includes more sophisticated specifications as well as building more secure software.

Another question came from Bernice Lemaire, an enterprise risk management consultant in Vienna, Va., who said she was going to change the "tempo of the excitement and optimism" in Gates' talk by asking what one might put in a "doomsday vault" for technology, along the lines of the vault built in Norway to protect seeds.

"If you had to create a doomsday vault for technology, what type of computer code and technology would you put into a doomsday vault?" Lemaire asked.

The audience chuckled but Gates didn't blink. His charitable foundation invested in the project to create the seed preservation effort, and he said the seed project wasn't just about doomsday protection, but also about developing hybrids. "So it's not just about doomsday," he said. "I don't know if we would put any technology in a vault," he said, to laughter.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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