Speaking to a capacity audience at Richardson Auditorium on the Princeton University campus Friday, Microsoft founder Bill Gates dubbed the current era the “Golden Age of computers and software coming together” as he accepted Princeton University’s second annual Crystal Tiger Award a student-issued honor awarded to inspiring leaders and thinkers that was first given in February 2004 to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell.
In his 35-minute presentation, Mr. Gates focused on the evolution of the personal computer and the technological advancements in the computing field anticipated over the next 10 years: from increases in global access from one’s hand-held device to an eventual departure from so-called “paper-based” systems.
The idea that software is the key missing element in any advance in hardware was a predominant theme Friday, along with the notion that -having the right software makes possible “the ability to connect to anywhere around the world.”
Such possibilities, however, seemed out of reach in 1975, when Mr. Gates dropped-out of Harvard as a junior to pursue the Microsoft enterprise with Paul Allen, a childhood friend.
“Computers at that point were very expensive and there were literally only thousands of them on the planet.
“People thought of them as intimidating,” he said, adding that there was “no notion that this was something that you would personally use.”
Mr. Gates highlighted the role of computers as political watchdogs making possible an unprecedented fact-checking system. “Even politically, when someone would try to repress information, these digital tools would ensure that information would get out and people would know the truth.”
The first personal computer had only 256 bites of memory a long way from the current notebook standard of 512 megabytes. Mr. Gates cited a “factor of one million improvement” in memory capacity, adding that there have been commensurate increases in processing, bandwidth, disk space, and graphics.
The most demanding challenge in staying atop of the software game, Mr. Gates said, is being responsive to users’ needs and recruiting people who can provide the degree of innovation Microsoft needs in order to be competitive.
While Steve Jobs and Apple operating systems are still a long way from leveling the playing field with Microsoft, Mr. Gates did offer a wink and a nudge when he said that Windows-based systems would support, yes, even your iPod the highly-successful, Apple-manufactured music device.
The Gates presentation switched gears for the question and answer session following the prepared remarks. The first segment had the feel of a Microsoft product expo, but the informal session focused more on the intangibles of technological advancement in the computer software industry, and how that relates to issues of privacy, file sharing, and placing restrictions on the Internet.
“Privacy and security as a whole will always be difficult issues,” he said, adding that more research on how privacy was defined and how to protect it was needed. He also pointed out that the prospect of digitizing medical records to make them available when needed was an important component of defining privacy’s restraints.
“There are going to be huge issues of privacy,” Mr. Gates said, referring to how blogs are done, digital-rights management, and getting society involved in electrical property. He predicted that change would come quickly and thus give a certain urgency to the privacy issue.
On file sharing, which has been a target of the music industry, Mr. Gates said a balance needs to be found between someone who wants to put a product online for free, and someone who does it for a profit. He spoke of “looking for technology solutions” that would ensure that the needs of a musician or author are met.
He did warn, however, that too many restrictions imposed on file sharing would encourage more piracy. “I hope that some type of subscription models and very low-pricing will allow the best of both worlds.” Mr. Gates suggested a combination of high-volume/low-price approach should ultimately complement free downloads.
A longtime champion of education, Mr. Gates has donated more than $2 billion to encourage education around the world through his and his wife’s enterprise, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
While outlining his goal of bringing computers to the far reaches of the world, a goal that is still “a dream,” Mr. Gates fielded the inevitable questions expressing the concern that computers may one day cancel out the basic functions of humankind. He said that while computers will continue to advance, innate human creative processes will most likely remain unchallenged.
Translating the emotive elements of poetry, for example, would be difficult for a Pentium 4 chip, Mr. Gates said: “Perhaps we’ll never be good at that.”