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Bill Gates Talks Seamless Computing, Security, And Linux

In an interview, Microsoft's chief software architect says customers will be open to new uses of technology once security problems are under control.
Gates: Management tools from us? It's not like there's a shortage of people who do that.

InformationWeek: Let's switch gears. I'd like to ask you about something called the Information Agent, technology that seems to be popping up at different places in Microsoft's product line. Where did this thing originate and how broadly will it be used?

Gates: It's a concept. There's three people--Eric Horvitz in Microsoft Research, Anoop Gupta [VP in Microsoft's Real-Time Collaboration Business Unit], who came from research, and myself--who are big believers in this idea. The concept's pretty inarguable, which is all the information you want in your current context should come to you, you shouldn't have to go get it. And no information should come to you and take your time and attention that isn't very important to you. So the notion of which E-mails should interrupt you, when should your phone ring? If you're in your office concentrating on writing a memo, do you want every new E-mail that comes in to distract your attention? Or would you rather it just be E-mail of a very important type? So this idea of working with the user, having software that learns what's important to the user, based on what they're doing, what device they're on, what time day it is, using schedule information to do that, and giving you the information you care about--a news item, or a stock-price change, a flight-schedule change. It brings you the information when it's valuable to you and it learns from you over time in terms of which things you care about. That's the concept of Information Agent, and Eric and his group in Microsoft Research have done some amazing stuff that point towards how we can do this. Even today, the phone is very imperfect. If you give out your phone number to somebody, they can call you at any time. Now, why isn't there software that works on your behalf that decides, I'm sorry I gave my phone number to that person. Or, yes, I'm glad to talk to that person, but I'm in a meeting now, but I have such a close relationship with them, I want my software to tell them I'm going to be free at 2:15 because that's the next free slot on my schedule. Eric has done some great prototypes around this stuff. Anoop moved over and is running our [Real Time] group that does things that relate to this vision in a very direct way.

InformationWeek: How widely will we see Information Agent in the Microsoft product line?

Gates: The notion that you have a system you can [tell] what you're interested in, and it understands the different contexts, the first time any operating system in the world will have that is Longhorn. Outlook you can say has a bit of this today. It has E-mail rules. You can put rules in your in-box and it's very easy to write rules that relate to various things. You have these things called Search Folders. I don't know if you've played with Outlook 2003, but you're way more productive with Outlook 2003 because instead of having to file mail just in one folder, you just create these Search Folders and say, OK, my highest-priority mail is here, my unread mail is here, my mail from so-and-so is here. You don't have to file [a message] in there; if it meets the criteria, then it automatically exists in every one of those folders. So the Outlook 2003 people did a fantastic job at the application level of taking the Information Agent concepts forward and making people way more productive in E-mail. There's this toast thing, this little box that comes up when new E-mail comes in, it's so effective because then you can glance and say, "OK, is that something I need to pay attention to or not?" It's one of those things that once you have Search Folders and notification and the way they've done the rules, you can never go back to another E-mail client because it's just so effective.

InformationWeek: I'd like to ask you about Microsoft's Business Solutions business. In particular, we've heard about Project Green and something called the Business Applications Framework, where [independent software vendors] and other application vendors will be able to write to this framework so that there's less work for them to do. How significant is this Business Applications Framework in the Windows architecture?

Gates: It's a huge thing for us because it really simplifies the creation of applications and how applications exchange information and how they think about business intelligence and reports. This is all futuristic stuff. Green is a future generation of the applications, the Business Framework is a future run-time piece. These are things we're investing in. We've taken the R&D budgets of Great Plains and Navision and we're spending today about four times what the combined R&D budgets of those companies were. We're spending more on the existing products, and we're spending a lot on a new generation of products as well, so we are investing very heavily in that. So, people will see a lot of neat refinements to the existing code bases and then eventually, but not anytime soon, they'll see Green. Green is a post-Longhorn kind of thing.