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Gates on the Future of Productivity

Microsoft is ready and willing to help customers make a great leap forward in productivity and security, Bill Gates told top business leaders today.

"We're redefining business productivity and rewiring the economy," Microsoft's Chairman and Chief Software Architect told an audience of 100 CEOs. By the end of the decade, he said, companies will be able to balance the need for IT uniformity and security with users' desire for communication, content creation and collaboration.

Gates opened Microsoft's eighth annual CEO Summit, which brought executives from around the world to Redmond, for two days of discussions on the theme of "Transforming Information Into Impact."

"Current trends in technology and business are creating unprecedented opportunities for increased productivity and business value," Gates told the execs. "This year's CEO Summit will explore how organizations can best take advantage of those opportunities."

Gates admitted that security issues have been a drain on productivity. As businesses connected to the Internet, it was too difficult to properly isolate all the parts of the network. "Making that built into software and making it easy to set up has been a top priority for us," he said. "We've been on a learning curve to identify which features are optional, and make sure that when we apply [fixes], they don't cause problems."

The company's Windows XP Service Pack 2 will focus on plugging security holes. While Microsoft has insisted it will ship when it's ready, analysts believe that the internal schedule has slipped. At the same time, Redmond has warned ISVs that they need to begin testing their software now to make sure it will work when XP is updated.

Pointing out the vulnerability of passwords to cracking, Gates said that Microsoft wants to help customers move to biometrics and smart cards for authentication.

Microsoft has relied on automated feedback from desktops to find bugs, monitor performance and evaluate its online help system. Gates said the company surveys around 10 percent of online help users, then works to improve the help topics that get low ratings. The company plans to build these internal tools into its products. The idea is to enable IT departments to get centralized data that will help them understand which hardware is less reliable or where users are frustrated.

In an effort to make software easier to upgrade and manage, Gates said the company is looking at tactics such as providing simple, automatic upgrades every two and a half years. The company's Software Assurance plan, which asks customers to pay in advance to receive all upgrades in a two-year period, has been criticized because some customers saw no new releases or updates during their SA periods.

Gates foretold a shift from e-mail as the primary means of business communication and collaboration. While at its start, e-mail was hailed as non-interruptive and efficient, Gates characterized it as clunky and obtrusive, even as it's been clogged by spam. He touted Windows SharePoint as a way to let people create ad hoc Web sites for collaboration, with RSS notifications that let people opt to have automatic updates when information has changed.

Windows InfoPath is another application Gates said saved time for information workers, by letting them pull information from back-end systems by means of a form, then update the back end from the form.

Gates said that, after much work creating standards for Web services , businesses are now poised to reap their benefits. "This is the first year I can say a very significant percentage of our accounts are starting to build services around it." He said great technical cooperation among competitive companies, particularly between Microsoft and IBM, has put technical standards "at the finish line this year."

Web services combined with Visual Studio 2005 will let users model business processes by sketching them out; the application will automatically build the services from the schematic. "It lets people design and analyze processes visually instead of using code," he explained.

Gates said Microsoft has finally improved its speech recognition software in order to make it a viable tool. Instead of having customers without Web access make a telephone call to the customer care center, businesses can enable them to use the telephone or a mobile device such as a PDA to connect with the same systems used by the Web portal via Microsoft Speech Server.

Gates said the company has made big investments over the years in television technology. Microsoft TV Foundation supports set-top box services, including HDTV and interactive programming guides. Today, Microsoft announced that Comcast Cable will make Microsoft TV Foundation Edition 1.7 software available to some 5 million customers. According to Gates, Microsoft is working on advancing the platform to let broadcasters personalize the programming guide and provide targeted information and advertising.