Gates Sees Boom Ahead in Home, Business Touchscreens

Before a summit of global business leaders, Microsoft's soon-to-retire chairman talks up efforts in natural interfaces and other emerging technology areas.

Bill Gates
Bill Gates speaks at the Microsoft CEO Summit 2008
Source: Microsoft
You wouldn't have known that Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates is retiring in six weeks as the legendary tech executive and pioneer continues expounding on his vision of the future in keynotes around the world.

Gates, who is slated to retire from full-time duty at Microsoft in just over a month, gave the opening presentation Wednesday at the start of Microsoft's annual CEO Summit in Redmond, Wash.

Before an audience of Global 1000 CEOs from 26 countries, Gates waxed eloquent about technical innovations he sees reshaping the worlds of home and business.

He spent at least as much time, however, emphasizing what can be done today using Microsoft's existing products and technologies.

Gates himself founded the event in 1997 to present his vision of computing's growing integration with business and daily life in a low-key forum to the leaders of the world's largest enterprises. If Microsoft's continued growth since that time is any indicator of the summit's success, it was a shrewd move.

This year, Gates predicted that technologies such as Microsoft's (NASDAQ: MSFT) Surface computer, with its multitouch user interface, will quickly spread as costs fall rapidly and the technology's capabilities increase -- moving from in-store kiosks and hotel lobbies to become ubiquitous in homes and businesses.

In fact, the flashiest demo by far that Gates presented was a whiteboard-sized Surface-like computer screen with a multitouch display.

Bill Gates
Source: Microsoft
"We will also have that in a vertical plane," like a whiteboard, Gates said, but he added that he sees the technology penetrating much further into everyone's lives. "All the surfaces [on walls and desks] will eventually have a low-cost screen display capability in both the office and the home," he added.

Gates demonstrated moving items, including documents, photos, and presentations around on the screen and paging through them using two hands at once, thanks to the screen's multitouch capabilities.

"You can train people to use this pretty quickly," Gates said. "Our Office group is working on how to use this."

Gates did not say whether Microsoft would actually sell the whiteboard devices itself, although it has chosen to take that route with the Surface. The company delivered the first units of its Surface computer to AT&T for use in its phone stores last month.

As usual for his keynote presentations, Gates also made some more wide-ranging predictions about the future. For example, he said he sees the adoption of unified communications nearly eliminating PBXs within the next five years.

He also made oblique references to Microsoft's recently-announced Live Mesh technology but never mentioned it by name. Live Mesh is Microsoft's new online connectivity and synchronization service in the computing "cloud" that the company aims to use to unify all of a user's data and information. It was introduced three weeks ago.

Users will be able "to delegate tasks off to the mega datacenters that we and others are building," Gates said.

Gates also talked up social computing technologies, such as personal profile pages, which he sees becoming increasingly adapted for use inside corporations to help information workers to find others with the skills and expertise they need.

Multitouch computing, however, remained at the center of Gates' vision of the future.

"Surface will happen much quicker than people think," he added. "We believe [devices like Surface] will be absolutely pervasive."

Gates even gave partial credit to Apple's iPhone for innovations leading the trend towards multitouch interfaces. Both the iPhone and the Surface fit into a category of emerging technologies that Gates calls "natural interface," which also includes speech recognition and pen-based computing.

Gates' presentation wasn't all about prognostication, however. Several of the demos he showed were examples of how Microsoft's own internal management processes have changed from the company adopting its own technologies.

Those technologies include SharePoint collaboration tools tied to Microsoft's business intelligence and performance management product -- Office PerformancePoint Server -- to improve the effectiveness of senior management.

He also demonstrated other current technologies, including the enterprise search tools the company acquired when it bought out FAST last month. The features provide search capabilities without requiring users to type query terms, by drawing inferences from what else the user has up on their screen at the time.

Gates also pointed to Microsoft's use of unified communications technologies -- the central premise of which is that all communications, whether voice, video, e-mail, or instant messaging, will be available from any device at any time.

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