Microsoft's Gates Vs. Ballmer: Visions Compared

At the Microsoft Faculty Summit, Bill Gates spoke on the future of technology -- and sounded surprisingly like Steve Ballmer.
Elsewhere, writing specifically about Windows 8, he elaborated that the "UI will be deeply personalized, based on the advanced, almost magical, intelligence in our cloud that learns more and more over time about people and the world. Our shell will natively support all of our essential services, and will be great at responding seamlessly to what people ask for, and even anticipating what they need before they ask for it."

On Monday, Gates similarly stated that "infinite computing and infinite storage" are "almost a reality," setting up a cloud-fueled future in which software is "a powerful assistant that can help us get things done, and help us derive deep insights."

Microsoft's investment in this idea is evident in its development of Azure, and its desire to infuse apps with big data and, via Bing, the Internet's collective knowledge. These efforts are currently in incipient stages; Bing APIs, for example, were just introduced a few weeks ago. But critics have questioned Steve Ballmer's leadership, with successes such as Office 365 overshadowed by discontent over Windows 8. As a result, it's noteworthy that the man who built Microsoft's world-beating past sounds so much like the man tasked with architecting the company's future.

Devoted tech observers might point out that Gates and Ballmer aren't the only people who use this sort of rhetoric. In January, for instance, Intel CTO Justin Rattner told InformationWeek that devices will soon "anticipate [our] needs" because they will able to sense and understand a user's relationship to events, other users, locations and time. With this data, he said the devices will be like a "best friend."

In a sense, then, Ballmer and Gates' respective remarks can be viewed as a faith in an objectively disruptive technology, rather than evidence of a winning Microsoft strategy. That said, Gates suggested the company is taking specific steps to realize this futuristic vision.

In a Q&A, the Microsoft co-founder said the original Microsoft Bob failed but that the concept might "re-emerge, just with a deeper sophistication." The remark implies Microsoft could launch some sort of personal assistant, perhaps in the vein of Siri or Google Now, but with Bing and Azure on the backend to provide -- or so Ballmer would argue -- better personalization and more accurate query returns.

In June, a lost Nokia prototype running an early version of the next Windows Phone update contained references to "Cortana," the artificially intelligent character from Halo. Some speculated that this reference telegraphs the release of a personal assistant app. If such a product appears, Windows Phone 8 is a logical place to start. Based on the way Ballmer and Gates talk, though, the technology will eventually pervade the entire Windows ecosystem, translating from device to device via the cloud.

Given that Siri will rely on Bing in iOS 7, Microsoft's technology might even translate across platforms. The iPad still doesn't have a native version of Office, but Ballmer has said that the new Microsoft must bolster Windows while also intermingling with other platforms, so the intended scope of any project remains to be seen.

The even bigger unknown, though, is whether Bing, Windows 8 and Azure will be the assets that tie everything together. Ballmer, Gates and others agree about aspects of the tech industry's trajectory, but it's not a given that Microsoft will execute the right moves to navigate obstacles along the way.

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