Gates to students: We need your ideas

Bill Gates told students at Howard University that Microsoft needs their ideas for the future of the computer.

Microsoft needs students interested in computer science to program the IT innovations of tomorrow, including Tablet PCs that users can write on with a pen and wireless camera phones that interpret foreign street signs, Bill Gates said Friday.

"It's key for young people coming into the field to come in with an open mind," said Gates, Microsoft's chairman and chief software architect, speaking at Howard University, a historically African-American university in Washington, D.C. "It's really your generation, and many of you specifically, who will have a chance to drive this forward."

Gates told the crowd of more than 600 people that, in the 30 years of Microsoft's existence, computers have advanced at a pace unlike that of any other product. Within a couple of years, the memory in computers will have increased by a million times since Gates and company sold their first 4 kilobyte-memory machine in the late 1970s. Storage and network speeds have also increased by a factor of a million times in three decades, he said.

"We simply don't have that kind of improvement anywhere else in the world," said Gates, in the midst of a three-day college tour across the U.S. and Canada.

Gates used part of his speech to demonstrate Microsoft technology, including the upcoming Xbox 360, due to be released later this year. To oohs and ahhs from the crowd, he showed how Xbox 360 users will be able to hook up media playback devices and digital cameras.

He also demonstrated a combination camera/network device that can hook up to a wireless phone. Soon, travelers will be able to set down a wireless phones on a table in an airport lounge, connect it to the network device, and project their e-mail onto the tabletop instead of looking at the phone's tiny display, Gates said. The camera attached to the device will be able to read a business card and automatically enter the contact information into an address book on the wireless phone, he said.

Gates also talked about wireless phones with cameras that could take pictures of signs in a foreign language and translate the sign for the user, or take a picture of a product in a store and tell the user where to get a better price. That last bit of functionality drew applause from the students.

In the future, there will be combination TV sets and personal computers with which users can stream programming, such as news, based on their personal preferences, Gates said. Even the TV advertisements will be personalized to the user's tastes, he said.

Gates and Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen had a dream for the functionality of PCs, and "we're more than halfway," Gates said. The Microsoft cofounders envisioned PCs that can be used anywhere, from the living room to the corporate board room, from tiny handheld devices to huge TV monitors, he said.

But Microsoft's dream won't be complete until there are 6 billion PCs -- one for every person on earth -- instead of the current 1 billion, he said.

To fulfill his dream, Gates needs the help of the Howard students, he said. "What is the limiting factor in making these scenarios come true?" he said. "It's simply the ingenuity of the software developers -- their brilliance, their energy in coming together and writing these software packages. At Microsoft, we need to recruit the best and the brightest."

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