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Microsoft's Gates says computers not cure-all

Eric Benderoff
Chicago Tribune (MCT)

Some people see baldness as a big issue. Not Bill Gates. And not because he has hair.

"Malaria kills 1 million people a year; baldness hasn't killed anyone yet," he said last week, telling the young minds at the University of Chicago that our priorities need a fresh look. "Less than 10 percent of the money spent on curing baldness is spent on fighting malaria."

At 52, Gates is ready for his next act.

The software visionary who shaped how we use the personal computer will end his full-time employment this summer at the company he co-founded. He will stay Microsoft Corp.'s chairman, but he will devote his time to philanthropy, where there's a good chance his vision will have a greater impact.

Since its inception in 1994, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has granted more than $16 billion. It has a current endowment of $38.7 billion. It spreads grants domestically to help education - Chicago is a major recipient - and internationally, primarily for fighting disease among the world's poorest countries.

"I'm proud of the work we did in the creation of the personal computer," he said after his lecture at the university's Graduate School of Business.

"The foundation work is more at the beginning. But we have ambitious goals. ... In some ways, the way I get to work with brilliant people at Microsoft or the way I get to work with brilliant people who work on malaria or 1/8tuberculosis3/8 or micro-finance, it's very similar."

Gates' lecture was a refreshing lesson for this news-driven reporter: The students did not care about Microsoft's current efforts to acquire Yahoo Inc. - it was never mentioned - but they were intensely interested in how technology can help the developing world or, if technology is so great, why can't some professors figure out how to open e-mail?

Helping the world's poor is not about making cheap PCs available, Gates told the students.

"That is of no value at all to the poorest 2 billion" people in the world. "They don't have electricity, they don't have a teacher, they don't have textbooks, they don't have a network connection."

Instead, using "DVD players that can be carried in and are battery operated is about as high-tech as you need in order to take to farmers and show them best practices," Gates said. With DVDs, "the adoption rate is three times what it was when we weren't using this approach."

I asked him to elaborate after the lecture.

"Certainly computing is great," he said, adding that cheaper computers do help.

But "when you're looking at the poorest, ... a computer is not their most urgent need," he said. That is not "even in their top five of things. You need a schoolroom, you need a teacher who shows up, you need electricity, and then once you get past that, that's where a direct use of shared technology comes in."

What is the best technology for the poor?

"Vaccination," he said. "Small pox killed millions, and now it was the first disease that was completely eliminated. We continue to add new vaccines. That's a huge area of funding for the foundation. Looking for an AIDS vaccine, a tuberculosis vaccine, a malaria vaccine. ... That would make a dramatic difference."

Gates won't be leaving software behind, however.

His current title at Microsoft is chief software architect and he remains interested in improving the operating system.

I asked if he could start over and develop an operating system from scratch, what would he do?

Nothing.

Rather, as computers get faster and storage more expansive, "the operating system gets richer," he said, noting that it's better to build upon what's already in place.

"So things like adding touch, speech, Ink (a notes program for tablet PCs) ... those will be part of Windows running in a personal computer, Windows running in a phone, Windows running in a car, Windows running in your set-top box connected to the TV set," he said.

"The operating system is taking on new things. The fact that it continues to run the applications that you're familiar with and that you've bought in the past, that's a real value for users," he said. "People are going to keep using the keyboard and the mouse."

Later this year, commercial applications for one of Gates' top projects, a technology called Microsoft Surface, will start showing up "in hotel lobbies, restaurant and stores," he said.

Think of a surface like a giant touch-screen iPhone (apologies for the analogy, Bill). Users will be able to open several applications at once and move them around atop a giant surface - from photos to spreadsheets - as needed.

Over the next two years, he sees surface tables in conference rooms and living rooms.

"Even your mirror," Gates said. "You can look at yourself and see what you'd look like in different wardrobes."

He called this a "natural interface technology," and it's the type of application Gates feels will drive the next generation of software.

Other examples include a live search program - what Gates calls "Tell Me" - that runs on some Windows Mobile-operated phones and the Ink software for tablet PCs, which is gaining traction in health care and some schools, including in Chicago.

Gates may be better-known for his work in philanthropy this century, but be certain his imprint on what's next in software will still be felt.

(Eric Benderoff writes about technology for the Chicago Tribune.)

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