Q&A: Bill Gates On Supercomputing, Software In Science, And More

Bill Gates talks to InformationWeek about how work done at Microsoft Research can apply to science, medicine, and engineering; how more powerful desktop processors can improve user interfaces; and his evolving role at Microsoft.

InformationWeek: In what areas does Microsoft's investment in 10 new university "institutes for high-performance computing" try to draw on intellect outside of Microsoft?

Gates: The 10 institutes are really more evolutionary. We've always had the deep relationship with Cornell Theory Center. We've always had great relationships with the different universities. And, now, those people will literally have Windows computer clusters among the things that they offer, and they'll be telling us where those are working better, where they're not, what we should do with the product. It's to help us evolve the product very rapidly.

InformationWeek: Will Microsoft staffers with experience in high-performance computing, people like Craig Mundie, Jim Gray, Gordon Bell, take on new responsibilities as you're trying to get traction in the market?

Gates: We've always had some of the pioneers of computer hardware working at Microsoft. Gordon Bell's been with us over a decade. Butler Lampson has been with us over a decade. Dave Cutler has been with us over a decade. Craig of course came over a decade ago. The only thing that's fascinating is even though we're really just a software company, we influence the direction of hardware, and we need to understand the direction of hardware. So a lot of these people are our key liaisons with Intel. Craig Mundie sits down with [Intel senior VP] Pat Gelsinger and talks about how we need to work together with them, that they're doing the chip in the way we like, [whether] we're taking advantage of whatever they're doing in the chip. So that's a great two-way dialogue. The stronger people we have that relationship with the hardware industry. It can be as complex as a new chip design with Intel or as simple as a product from Dell where you just buy that personal supercomputer, and boom, you just plug into the Ethernet, plug in the screen and you're done, you're ready. They've preinstalled the software and done it exactly the right way.

So, Craig works across the company very effectively when we have an initiative like this. Microsoft Office is doing things for data visualization, SQL [Server] is doing things for data storage. Windows itself is making this super, super inexpensive cluster edition that academics will actually get for free. We have had to have product initiatives in many different groups to pull all these pieces together.

InformationWeek: I want to ask you about your own role in the computer industry, and your thinking about that. Do you ever see a day when you might still be very active in the computer industry but perhaps without a day-to-day executive role at Microsoft; maybe still doing things that would accrue benefit to the company, but spending more of your time elsewhere?

Gates: Well, my lifetime's work is Microsoft, and I'll always be involved in Microsoft. Today I have kind of this great job, called chief software architect. And that's worked out super well. This week, I came in from a think week, which is very rare for me. I don't usually interrupt think weeks. But since we were reaching out to include these people, it was just too good of an opportunity. I'll go back out to my think week, literally, as soon as we're done. I get to spend a super-high percentage of my time on product and product strategy, and I really love doing that. Someday, in the years ahead. somebody else will get essentially the hot seat, and I'll still be involved in Microsoft and get to make a contribution. Someday I may not work as long hours as I do today. It's an important job, and it's the company I'll always give my time to. I do spend time on my foundation, but it's full-time Microsoft, part-time foundation. Someday that will probably switch. But nothing imminent there.

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