Weekend Edition: Gates’s astounding predictions

Matthew JC. Powell
14 March, 2008
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Hasn’t Bill Gates gone yet? He announced like a year ago that he was leaving Microsoft and heading off into the world of philanthropy. Since then he seems to make another farewell address somewhere every couple of weeks. He’s done more farewells than Kiss at this stage, and unless he shows up at the next one wearing giant platform boots and face makeup, I’m going to be very unimpressed.

His most recent tearful goodbye to the technology industry he has dominated for the best part of his life came at a breakfast presentation to the Northern Virginia Technology Council which — just to keep people guessing — was in Washington DC a couple of days ago. Why wasn’t it in Northern Virginia? That’s just what they’d be expecting, isn’t it? Gotta keep them off guard.

Anyway, where was I? Aside from the geographical confusion*, Gates also offered his audience an insight into the reasons he’s leaving the technology industry. For one thing, he seems to have run out of ideas. You may argue that he never really had any ideas, but between you and me I give him credit for being an extraordinary entrepreneur, able to recognise and realise talent and innovation when he sees it. That is a rarer skill than you might imagine.

However, among his bold predictions for the coming decade, as recorded in his speech to the Virginians in Washington:

• Television and the internet will converge. We’ll watch more movies on TV screens whenever we want rather than going out, and we’ll have on-demand content services to bring us news and suchlike. TV sets and computers will be inextricably connected.

To which the audience responded with a resounding "well duh" while instinctively reaching for their TiVo remote controls, wishing vainly to fast-forward to a bit they haven’t already heard.

• Telephones will become platforms for video, e-mail and other media.

You really think so, Bill? Wow. Can’t wait. Apparently when Steve Jobs was handing out iPhones to his elite techie friends, he forgot Bill. Poor Bill.

• Speech recognition will increase in popularity. On phones, speech recognition will enable users to seek location-based information such as directions to local restaurants.

I’ll admit this is a bugbear of mine, but seriously speech recognition is never going to displace keyboards. Since the dawn of the typewriter people have spoken fondly of the day we would cease interacting with technology by pressing keys, and it has not happened yet despite many many clever people working on it. Why? Because people like privacy. People want to be able to type an e-mail without anyone in earshot being able to glean its content. They want to be able to go to a restaurant without people in the street knowing where they’re going. In an office, people like to be able to get their work done in relative silence. Replacing the clickety-clack of dozens of keyboards with the murmuring of dozens of voices would create chaos and a stressful environment.

Don’t get me wrong — speech recognition has its place. But I’ll make my grand prediction for the next decade right now: speech recognition will not be a mainstream method of interacting with technology. If I’m wrong come find me in 2018 and I’ll settle up.

• More and more software will be delivered as a service over the internet, rather than residing on desktop computers.

Well, he’d like to think that, wouldn’t he? This is the fellow who basically invented software-as-a-service because he realised that as the feature sets of applications got more complex the incentives to upgrade regularly were decreasing. So how do you get people to keep paying for their software? Call it a service, and make them pay a fee. Of course. Next question is, does anyone actually want it? Google is making a reasonable fist of it with Google Apps, but whether that will actually take off after the "let’s give it a go" phase has worn off is anyone’s guess. Remember that users of the funkiest, most futuristic device on the planet — the iPhone — roundly rejected web apps in favour of a proper SDK only just recently. if the mindest is going to change, it clearly hasn’t yet.

But that’s right. Bill didn’t get an iPhone. Poor Bill.

• Computers will move off the desktop. Speech recognition and gesture recognition will allow people to control devices embedded in whiteboards and desktops.

You read that right — computers will "move off" desktops, by getting embedded in desktops. That’s what he said, don’t blame me.

• Textbooks will be replaced by portable computers that contain dozens of books, with video and other types of media.

That would have to be the most startling prediction of 1988. It’s almost as if he’s adumbrating the rise of portable computers and the internet. Eerie.

• Students will increasingly use computers to simulate experiments.

This one at least does seem to be talking about the future, so I give him credit there. However, scientists already conduct many of their experiments as software simulations before replicating them in the real world. The reason that isn’t done in every high school right now is because the technology to do so is very expensive. So what Bill is predicting here is that computers will become more powerful and at the same time cheaper. I think Gordon Moore might want a royalty on that one.

Perhaps I’m being a bit harsh on Bill here. The thing is, he has a long history of making broad predictions about how the technology industry is going to evolve — often in ways that startlingly coincide with the business interests of Microsoft — and then waiting for the rest of the industry to make them happen. Sometimes they come to pass, sometimes they don’t. But really, his record as a pundit is no greater than that of just about any halfway-decent opinion columnist and worse than a lot of them. That’s OK, but you’d expect the predictions of someone with his market position to be a bit more, shall we say, bankable?

What Gates has proven time and time again is that even someone with an apparent stranglehold on their industry can’t make a bad idea fly.

At any rate, he’s going soon, or so he would have us believe. Then, to paraphrase Richard Nixon, we won’t have him to kick around any more. I might miss him then. Maybe it’d be nice to hear him give one more bold speech.

As long as he has the boots and makeup, I’ll be there.

* Speaking of geographical confusion, listeners to Episode 13 of the Weekend Edition podcast may have been a bit nonplussed by Anthony Caruana’s assertion that the distance from Alice Springs to Darwin is about 3000km. That, of course, is the distance from Adelaide to Darwin. Alice Springs to Darwin is around 1500km.

Reader Help of the Week. We didn’t award a prize last week basically because we hadn’t finalised the prizes yet. This week we also haven’t yet finalised the prizes, but we do know they’ll be coming from El Gato and will involve something in the EyeTV range and a subscription to IceTV. We’ll know more over the weekend probably. Meanwhile the winners are:

Last week — rhysbartels

This week — skyhawkmatthew

Congratulations to both winners. We’ll be in touch shortly to finalise prizes.

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