2014: The Year of Free Hardware?

Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates put on his thinking cap and gave Gartner’s Spring IT Symposium in San Diego his view of the future of computing — and the state of development with Longhorn, the next Windows version.

During a conversation Monday with Gartner’s CEO, Michael Fleisher, Gates said speculation about Longhorn’s delay until 2006 is “probably valid.” He also confirmed that an alpha build of Longhorn would appear this year — with the real thing maybe in 2006, depending on how things go.

“It’s not a date-driven release,” he said.

Gates told the audience that ten years from now, thanks to the principles of Moore’s Law with processing power, and the evolution of software, hardware will be so ubiquitious that it would practically be free. Not absolutely free, he added. “But in terms of the power of the servers, the power of the desktop machines, the network will not be a limiting factor.”

He predicted that most of computer science’s Holy Grails will be found: Speech in every device, a portable tablet you can write on with ink, the ability to record and save every interaction over always-connected networks.

“Your PC, you’ll dictate to it; your cell phone, you can talk with,” Gates said.

Fleisher pressed Gates on why, if devices will have speech recognition, Microsoft has such a focus with the Tablet PC.

“Well, ink is super, super important,” Gates responded, because written information can be looked at by several people at once, especially when it’s part of an interactive, multimedia document, such as a sales report that’s linked to a variety of data sources. Besides, he said, there are many situations, such as meetings, where verbal note-taking would be annoying to others. It’s also good for adding annotations to digital documents.

He implied that people who don’t get the Tablet PC just don’t get it. He said, “I mean, I don’t go to any conferences now and have people tell me, ‘Hey, what about a graphics interface, wasn’t that a stupid idea?’ There was a decade of my career where almost every conference like this would be, ‘Why have you bet your company on this fruit-loop graphics interface thing? It’s slow. It’s hard to program to. Who needs 59 icons and 11 fonts?'”

When Fleisher pointed out that there’s a hardware cost involved with adding a Tablet, Gates agreed that the addition of Tablet functionality has to cost $100 or less to be accepted by users. “And that’s what we’re getting to,” Gates said. “Literally, this year, that will be about the situation.”

Gates said graphical application design tools like those in Visual Studio will free developers from writing code and let business users design applications. “The whole game here is to let people take high-volume, low-cost systems and use them for 90 percent of their needs.” The goal is to get a $50 desktop operating system to include all the business process models, manuals and security features.

And that $50 price point may be here to stay for quite a while. Gates said Microsoft has a “very fascinating business model, where we take the $50 operating system, and we spend a high percentage of that $6.8 billion a year [earmarked for R&D] to put new features in it. And when we put those new features in, the price is $50. “That’s our equivalent of Moore’s Law.”

Jupiter Research analyst Joe Wilcox said he wasn’t surprised by Gates’ “outrageous” claim about hardware that’s practically free, “seeing as how Microsoft’s bread and butter business is licensing software for devices.” (Jupiter Research and this publication share the same parent company.)

Wilcox said this prediction is unrealistic because OEMs will still have to license Windows, then pass the cost along to end users. Also, he pointed out, while the cost of PCs has consistently dropped, the cost of the Windows OS hasn’t, so that the OS cost is a ever-increasing percentage of the total cost of the machine.

Wilcox said Jupiter surveys show that end users value products that work well over those that are packed with features. “In some cases,” he said, “adding more features is just too much.”

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