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Gates Tosses Lofty Dreams at Summit

Software is magic and it can change the world, Bill Gates told a crowd of academics gathered for the Microsoft Research Faculty Summit.

As Microsoft moves forward on building the next version of Windows, extending the possibilities of wireless and embedded systems, and moving enterprise systems to Web services , it looks to the academic community for high-level research and a supply of newly minted computer scientists.

The summit drew almost 400 attendees from 135 universities and 20 countries, who gathered for sessions ranging from Microsoft cheerleading to technical roadmaps for flagship products.

Gates promised that the move to 64-bit will be smooth, because new chips will work with 32-bit applications but with 64-bit capability.

"The move to 64-bit will actually be the smoothest address base transition we've had in the history of personal computing," he said. "The chips will go out over the next couple of years, run all the 32-bit software, and yet have the 64-bit capability at no increase in price. That's pretty fantastic.

"There's an opportunity here for software to redefine TV, for software to redefine video gaming," he said, expanding games from shoot-em-ups to collaborative, interactive experiences taking place on high-definition, IP-addressable screens.

Gates acknowledged the company's failure to meet the needs of the business customer. In looking at how expensive and difficult it is for various enterprises, such as financial institutions, to make changes and upgrades to enterprise software, Gates said, "it's clear that we're not expressing what they're interested in, in terms of business rules, business processes in very high-level fashion. We're allowing lots and lots of code that behaves in complex ways to be the expression of what's going on with that business. Certainly, we need to change that."

Gates said the answer is the model-based approach he touted at the company's recent Analysts Day. Modeling is a way of describing how software components relate to each other and the framework for software systems working together.

He said modeling everything from software components to business processes will make customization easier and cheaper for businesses. Modeling is a key element of Microsoft's .NET, the platform for building Web services.

"We expect very message-oriented approaches, with very rich models on top of those, to be the way that we think about applications, and we think about systems interacting with each other in the future," Gates said.

Gates painted a picture of how Microsoft Office will become a collaborative tool, connected with a variety of external information sources, from RFID chips to digital images transmitted via cell phones to the spoken word.

"It's surprising that the paper-based filing is still viewed as the best way to [store information]," he said.

Gates promised that the next generation of Windows, codenamed "Longhorn," will advance the concept of storage. The combination of built-in Web services (codenamed "Indigo"), the structured presentation layer of Avalon and the advanced, XML-based file system turns the database into the file system. We won't have to think about storage, searching and replication as being different from each other," he said.

Gates bemoaned the fact that computer science isnt attracting as many people to the graduate level as it used to, nor are any more women or members of ethnic minorities signing in; but he said nothing about how Microsoft could change that.

"It's ironic that we have this challenge, because it's hard to think of a domain that's going to change the world 1/100th as much as advanced software in the decades ahead," he said. "These are fun jobs; it's very different than going off to Wall Street or something where it's just numbers. You're not really changing anything."

The company also attempted to more clearly define areas of research where Microsoft can make a difference by helping university researchers. Efforts will zero in on the emerging computing environment, the transformation of science by computing and the advancement of the computer science curriculum.

Sailesh Chutani, director of Microsoft Research's University Relations Group, acknowledged that the program frustrated smaller or less well-known schools.

"People had difficulty understanding how to engage if they didn't already know someone in Microsoft Research," he said.

Therefore, Microsoft Research has revamped its university relations program.

"We've moved to a funding model that's more explicit," Chutani said, "with calls for proposals, rather than directed funding that happened because we knew the people doing research." The RFP method is designed to open the doors and give all educational institutions a chance to participate.

Microsoft Research University Relations unveiled the Microsoft New Faculty Fellowship Program, a $1 million endowment to stimulate and support new computer science faculty members' creative research.

The program is designed to encourage and support innovative research that might not normally be funded. Microsoft will award five $200,000 fellowships per year; winners will be announced in the first quarter of 2005. The company also launched the Phoenix Academic Program and Phoenix Research Development Kit designed to make it easier for university faculty to gain access to Microsoft's future compiler infrastructure.

Microsoft Research vice president Rick Rashid said that the approximately 700 researchers in his division are responsible for many key initiatives, such as the digital media division, spun out in 1996; the first e-commerce group; data mining and SQL; and Microsoft's natural language initiatives, which could, among other things, let people control software with voice commands.

Rashid said that SkyServer, a project to provide Web-based public and scientific access to the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, is an example of how Redmond's technical resources can help transform science. Data from the world's telescopes has been federated and is available through SQL Server 24 hours a day.

"It's no longer dusty decks of code," said Rashid. "The project is changing the way scientists think about sharing information with each other. It's also a great educational resource."