February 26, 2004

The Sun speaks with Bill Gates

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During the sophomore year of his college career, Microsoft chair and chief software architect Bill Gates was living a charmed life at Harvard University. Consistently skipping his own classes while attending other lectures he was not signed up for, the young, single, Seattle, Wash., native was having “a blast” at college.

Because of his affection toward college, it might have been a little bit of a surprise when Gates decided to leave school a year later with childhood friend Paul Allen to focus their efforts on producing software for microprocessor-based computers. Although his parents were against the move, Gates had a good feeling about his new opportunity.

“We really had a sense that we were onto something big,” he said.

Gates’ gut feeling and vision has led to his transformation from college dropout to successful entrepreneur, philanthropist and honored guest at five universities this week — including his own, Harvard. In a roundtable discussion with reporters, Gates addressed numerous issues including his interaction with Cornell.

One of the main contributions made by Microsoft is toward the Cornell Theory Center. Citing its success in helping showcase and improve Windows operating systems, Gates said strong relations will continue between the two parties.

“There’s nothing being discussed right now, but there will be things that are coming on an ongoing basis,” Gates said.

Gates has recently been extremely vocal in solutions concerning computer security. On Tuesday, he demonstrated new security features found on Microsoft’s Windows operating system at the RSA Computer Security Conference in San Francisco. Spending $2 billion each year on security improvements, Gates said that Microsoft has “a huge responsibility to making these improvements.”

“We have to make sure the technology is robust, even in the face of malicious attempts,” Gates said. “This will still be the hottest issue for another three years or so.”

However, Gates indicated that even he is not immune to the downsides of connectivity. His seven-year-old daughter once woke him up early in the morning to show her dad on the computer that their family had won money. When Gates looked at the screen, he saw it was just one of the many popup ads now found consistently in e-mail inboxes.

Popup ads, and more notably spam junk mail, have been main issues as well recently. Gates said that Microsoft, in its attempts to block unwanted e-mail, is collaborating with other service providers to distribute common methods using updated filters to rectify the problem.

“By the summer, we’re hopeful that not only will we be using these techniques, but they’ll also be in broad use,” Gates said.

While Gates could be considered one of the founding fathers in the development of computer software, he said that during his time at Harvard, he did not take any courses in computer science. Gates said the main challenge now is for students to get a sense of how the low-level PC really works. Even though Gates said that the field has become “richer,” departments should show the variety that computer science provides.

“The goal is more to have your mind be logical and understand some of the techniques rather than learn a whole ton of specifics,” Gates said.

In addition to his notable contributions to computing, Gates has donated billions of dollars through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to areas such as education and health care. The $24 billion endowment to the foundation has become a large part of Gates’ life — especially since he is not the CEO of Microsoft anymore.

Even though he has deferred much of the day-to-day operation of Microsoft to former hallmate Steve Ballmer, Gates notes that his current job as chair and chief software architect has kept him quite busy in being entrusted with driving product strategy.

“My job at Microsoft is a full-time job,” Gates said. “[But] I [also] love the foundation, I love the progress we have made down there.”

In envisioning the future of computer technology, Gates said that the PC will change in a variety of ways. According to Gates, keyboards will become a thing of the past, wireless Internet will dominate many sectors and organizing information will become easier.

Nine years ago, Gates wrote a book, The Road Ahead, in which he predicted that information technology would have a substantial influence in business, at home and in other areas. While Gates allows that many of his predictions came true and immense progress has been made, much of the excitement should be saved for the future.

“The key new thing is the optimism about the breakthroughs,” Gates said. “We’re getting pretty close on these things and the irony is that people’s expectations are lower today than in the late ’90s when all the hype was there and the foundation hadn’t been laid.”

Archived article by Brian Tsao

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