For consumers, the biggest impact of tomorrow's technologies will be on entertainment. New graphics hardware, networks that can deliver high-definition video to any screen, and advanced software will redefine TV and video games, delivering a real-time generation of incredibly realistic scenes. TV is becoming more dynamic and interactive, with new kinds of content and advertising made possible by powerful software and rich connectivity. Gaming is rapidly becoming a social activity, as software creates vivid and engaging graphics for players and spectators alike and makes it possible to compete with friends around the world. And at work, these graphical advances are enabling richer visualization of data and innovative new interfaces that can help people become vastly more productive.
At the same time, the growing capacity and tumbling cost of storage is enabling unimaginably large databases so that it soon will be possible for people to store every piece of information they encounter. Gordon Bell, a distinguished Microsoft researcher, is already chronicling his life in a project called MyLifeBits--a realization of Vannevar Bush's 1945 Memex vision that can be found at "MyLifeBits Project: Microsoft Bay Area Research Center Media Presence Group."
Even today, most people track information in their lives with a system of files and folders--the same way they work with paper documents. But software is evolving new ways to acquire, organize, analyze, and understand digital information, with ap- proaches to storing data that go far beyond folder systems and advanced search tools that understand users' needs and help them find answers.
Another field poised for a wave of innovation is natural interfaces. We're making breakthroughs that take us close to the longtime vision of computers that can speak, listen, and learn. Accurate handwriting recognition is a reality with Tablet PCs, but we're continuing to make advances that make digital ink more natural, adaptive, and personalized. Simple speech recognition is commonplace in some specialized applications, such as customer service, but advances are rapidly taking us to a world where any device will be able to understand spoken commands.
As computers become increasingly "aware" of their users, they can adapt their behavior accordingly: for instance, sounding audible alerts rather than displaying dialog boxes when the user isn't looking at the screen. Meanwhile, inexpensive cameras and powerful software are spawning videoconferencing tools that offer users a greater sense of presence and more dynamic collaboration, as well as the ability to review and annotate meetings in real time.
Just as software has driven the past 25 years of innovation, it will be the key to enabling another quarter-century of breakthroughs--and in the process, transforming how people live, work, learn, and are entertained. My optimism for the future of computing has never been greater.
Bill Gates founded Microsoft nearly 30 years ago and is now chairman of its board and chief software architect.
Illustration by Dan Brown