Gates' Grand Vision

A seamless computing environment would help businesses move ahead with innovative projects
There's a break between meetings, and Bill Gates is focused on his oversized wristwatch. The timepiece, a new model from Fossil that incorporates Microsoft's Smart Personal Objects Technology, receives a steady flow of real-time data, so much that Gates says he may have to readjust the wireless MSN news feeds it gets to filter the information better.

Getting gobs of data at the touch of a button sounds easy, but Gates will be the first to tell you it's not. Microsoft's chairman and chief software architect has come to the conclusion that a major hurdle confronting many businesses is getting all their computer systems and devices to mesh together to enable what he calls seamless computing, where data flows across systems and devices with no hassle. "In so many ways, in terms of simplicity, and even in power, we're not there," Gates said in his keynote address at the Comdex trade show in November, where he introduced the concept.

Bill Gates

Gates' vision is focused on simpler information access

Illustration by Darren Gygi
The theme will be high on Gates' agenda this year. That's because the challenges, as he sees them, are largely Microsoft's to overcome. "All the problems that need to be solved are now software problems," he says.

There's a double-whammy in the current situation. Not only is information access too difficult for too many people in too many situations, but, because that's the case, businesses are less inclined to move forward with new projects. Gates believes wireless networking, Tablet PCs, and Web services would all get a lift if only today's business-technology environments were more seamless. "There are a lot of things that [users] view as key basics that, if [they could] be solved, it would really open their minds to the ambitious approaches that seamless computing will make available to them in the years ahead," Gates says. During his Comdex speech, Gates described the software-connectivity work needed to smooth out the seams as "the final level" of IT infrastructure.

Gates and company have a full plate of other issues to deal with this year, not the least of which is assuaging customer concerns about security. He forecasts customers will see a marked improvement by midyear in the way Microsoft distributes and implements software patches. It's a prediction that's sure to bring hope to CIOs and system administrators alike.

This year will be marked by key Microsoft product releases, including security-oriented service packs for Windows XP and Server 2003, new technology for speech-enabling apps, a revamped SQL Server database, and more development tools. And all arrows point toward its Longhorn operating system, though it's not expected anytime this year.

Gates says Microsoft will help its customers move toward seamless computing in evolutionary steps. The process will require some new approaches on their part. "The goal is a pretty dramatic change in how IT departments think about customizing software," Gates says.

How long until seamless computing becomes a reality? Gates' high-tech watch doesn't display the answer to that one.