Gates: Tablet PCs will replace textbooks, other predictions

Microsoft 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 this week before the US 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 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 lights out, and software development will use a model-type form, allowing a succinct form of development, 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, a network security provider, said Gates had spent "maybe 10, 20 seconds" of his talk on security.

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