Bill Gates as visionary: A look back at 'The Road Ahead'
By DAVE GUSSOW
Published August 29, 2005
Back in '95, Bill Gates conceded in his book The Road Ahead that he might not be perfect as a soothsayer. And he was correct.
"What I've said that turned out to be right will be considered obvious and what was wrong will be humorous," the Microsoft chairman wrote in the book that outlined his views of future tech.
I read the book because this is an anniversary year for tech. Windows 95, which marked its 10th anniversary last week, promised an era of easier computing (oops). And online retailing sprouted, among other events significant in the technology world.
So, in that spirit, and after shelling out almost $8 (including shipping) for a copy of the book, which is substantially devoted to the coming of the now quaint-sounding "information superhighway," let's check out at least a handful of items from Mr. Gates' crystal ball.
Much of what Gates wrote was right-on: the communications explosion, the reliance on a networked world, online retailing, the digital shift to entertainment, computerlike TV sets (though a cautionary "HDTV might still catch on"), wireless networking and the use of the Internet for political campaigns.
Others are developing, such as the growth of online game playing, boosted by Microsoft's Xbox game console, making remote controls smarter and more powerful, developing what he called universal electronic books and the rise of digital documents and the decline of paper printouts.
Still others are worth a comment or two:
"Every computerized system should be made so simple and natural to use that people don't give it a second thought. But simple is difficult."
Heck, just getting new versions of Windows out on time is difficult. Gates was wrong when he said a new version of Windows would be released every two to three years. Windows XP is at four years and counting, and Vista is at least a year away.
While Windows XP has eliminated many of the problems that plagued earlier versions of Windows, it's still not the "simple and natural" solution he predicted.
"If personal computing still seems too hard or confusing, it doesn't mean you aren't smart enough. It means we still have work to do to make them easier."
Bill, you still have work to do.
"Users won't stand for being confused or frustrated or for having their time wasted. The highway's soft platform will have to make it almost infallibly easy to find information, even if users don't know what they're looking for."
Confused? Frustrated? Having their time wasted? People don't like it, but those remain major issues for computing. And competitor Google steals most of the thunder for finding information.
"The software that runs the highway will have to offer great navigation and security, electronic mail and bulletin board capabilities, connections to competing software components, and billing and accounting services."
The Internet Explorer browser is 10 years old, yet it is taking substantial competition from browsers such as Firefox, Safari and Opera to get Microsoft off its duff to catch up.
"The world will become quite reliant on this network, so it is important that security be handled competently."
Gates mentions security several times in the book. And while Microsoft talks about security as an industrywide problem, it really has to look in the mirror on this one.
It took until 2002 for Gates to introduce Microsoft's "Trustworthy Computing" initiative that was supposed to emphasize security and privacy. Over these 10 years, the company's products have continued to be the main target for viruses, worms, spyware and other malicious code. The results have not backed up the rhetoric.
"We will have to be extremely careful to make sure the upcoming highway doesn't become a pirate's paradise."
Can't put this one on Microsoft, but there's no question this is a big problem.
"When you have a compliment or complaint about a record club, a doctor, or even a computer chip, it will be easy to find the place on the network where that company or product is discussed and add your opinion. Ultimately, companies that don't serve their customers well will see their reputations and their sales decline, while those that do a great job will attract sizable followings through this new form of word of "mouth.' "
The Net has certainly become a great consumer soapbox about products and companies. It's fair to say that many companies monitor and react to online criticism, some better than others.
"You won't be drowned by the deluge of unimportant information because you'll use software to filter incoming advertising and other extraneous messages and spend your valuable time looking at those messages that interest you. Most people will block e-mail ads except for those about product areas of particular concern."
Really? Can you spell spam? The amount of junk e-mail I've been getting in recent months has declined. But it hasn't gone away.
Gates also saw tailored online advertising based on a user's habits as a good thing, but spyware, adware, popups and other forms of online advertising are viewed as plagues, not some kind of service enhancement.
"A decade from now, you may shake your head that there was ever a time when any stranger or a wrong number could interrupt you at home with a phone call."
That's true, but it's more because of the government's Do Not Call list than anything technology has provided.
"Record companies, or even individual recording artists, might choose to sell music a new way. You, the consumer, won't need compact discs, tapes, or any other kinds of physical apparatus."
Nailed that one, though it's rival Apple Computer's iPod that took the market by storm.
"Doubtless I've made some foolish predictions, but I hope not too many."
How can a billionaire look foolish?
And one more thing: The book came with a CD-ROM. Perhaps Gates couldn't see everything in the future, including the fact that the CD-ROM book would not work with current versions of Windows. At least that's what I found trying it on Windows XP and Windows 2000 machines.
- Dave Gussow can be reached at 727 771-4328 or firstname.lastname@example.org
[Last modified August 27, 2005, 09:33:02]
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