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AT LARGE: When Bill went to Cupertino

AT LARGE: When Bill went to Cupertino

Northern California isn’t Microsoft country. Folks in the Valley revere HP, the company that founded the place, and they revere Apple, the startup that started the startups. Microsoft, with its strange Redmondian ways, has just never quite fitted in.

Last week, Microsoft’s chief cook and bottle-washer, Bill Gates, gave a speech at a dinner in the heart of Silicon Valley, not a stone’s throw away from Apple headquarters. Actually, it probably wasn’t a stone’s throw away. I imagine he’d have been hit if he were within range.

In his speech, Bill outlined his vision for the “digital decade”. Last decade, he said, most people did things like organising their music and photos without using computers. By the end of this decade, he predicted boldly, that will change.

It may seem hard to believe, but that’s what vision is like. Picture JFK four decades ago, inspiring his countrymen to walk on the moon. Before 1970 they laughed at him, too. Of course, the folks over at Apple probably didn’t hear these wild prognostications, because they were too busy organising their music and photos digitally to pay much attention. More’s the pity.

Bill also predicted that, by the end of this decade, handwriting and speech recognition technologies would become commonplace. Fairly safe territory that. Nobody’s going to hold it against him when he’s wrong.

When you write on a piece of paper, you see what you have written at the point of your pen. That’s natural. When you write on a computer — whether it’s a PDA, or a tablet PC, or whatever — you write on one surface, while your output appears somewhere else, usually with a noticeable delay. That is not natural.

As for speech, I had a bet with another tech journalist ($US20, if I recall) who reckoned that speech recognition would be ubiquitous by the year 2000. As I tap this column out on my keyboard, I wonder why he has still not paid up.

The taxi company I use has a voice recognition system for making bookings — I always find it amusing to discover where the cabbie thinks I want to go. They get very disappointed when they discover that I said “the airport”, and not “Darwin”.

In the early days of computing you had to type arcane commands into computers to make them do anything. The promise that sold people on the personal computer was that, one day, it would be easier. Speech and handwriting were exaggerated examples of how easy it would be. Pure salesmanship.

Bill said one other thing in Cupertino I’d like to share with you: “I am still dreaming,” he said, “of a computer that works very, very well”.

Keep dreaming, Bill.

Matthew JC. Powell’s tan is already fading. Send sunny thoughts to mjcp@optushome.com.au.


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