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Gates Explores Web's Future in LCS Lecture

By David D. Hsu
News Editor

Bill Gates, the chairman and Chief Executive Officer of software giant Microsoft, spoke to a packed audience in Kresge Auditorium on May 29.

The talk, part of the Laboratory for Computer Science's Distinguished Lecture Series, was entitled "The Internet: Today and Tomorrow" and talked about Gates' experiences in the computing industry and the possibilities of the new information age.

"The PChas come a long way [in] the 20 years" since Microsoft was founded, Gates said.

Right now, people wonder how we dealt with primitive technology four or five years ago, Gates said. And people four or five years from now people will say the same thing.

As computers gain power, Gates says, they will take a more important role in daily life. With the popularity of the Internet, the PC will be as an important a technological advance as the telephone, Gates said.

People often say that we are in or are heading toward an information age. "What the heck does it mean - information age?" Gates said. "In the same way we take electricity or running water completely for granted - it's part of our regular experience - we'll take for granted the idea of using a variety of information appliances connected up to the Internet as our way of getting information."

Gates admits that the real implementation of such an appliance may still be far off. "I always find myself picking up the Wall Street Journal and reading it" even though the online version is available, he said. It will take time before people can accept it as an everyday experience, he said.

Gates surprised by the Internet

The explosive growth of the internet caught Gates off guard, he said. "We were optimistic about online services," he said, "but it was disappointing. It never caught on."

Instead, said Gates, the electronic communications protocols that form the backbone of the Internet became more popular and gained a critical mass of users.

Today, the Internet is "so mainstream you can't get away from it," he said. World-Wide Web addresses are listed everywhere from television news to magazines to movie trailers, he said.

Gates went on to show a pseudo-reggae music video describing computing and the information age. The video spoofed AT&T's "You Will" commercials and IBM's foreign language commercials.

To the delight of the audience, the video poked fun at Internet hype.In a mock infomercial called, "Web of Wealth," a man sells the Web as a guaranteed money maker with testimonials from Gates, Allen, and Steven Spielberg.

Microsoft thinks "Web"

But this mirth masks a larger problem as Microsoft tries to gain ground from Netscape Corporation's popular Navigator for dominance of the Web browser market.

"Microsoft is a distant, distant no. 2" in the browser market, Gates said.

Microsoft is working to improve its own browser, Internet Explorer, in an effort to compete with Netscape, Gates said. A Microsoft employee got up to demonstrate a new type of chat software used in Internet Explorer. Audience members - a number of them Macintosh supporters - reacted with hisses.

Despite the chilly reception, Gates said that browsers would soon become an important part of computing. Browsers and an operating system are essentially the same thing, Gates said. "Today's directories are a degenerate version of the Web" with each file being a link, he said.

Creating documents for the web will soon become very similar to creating documents in a word processor, Gates said. Most people creating Web pages will not program, he added, because there will be software that will allow users to just point and click to create Web programs.

Despite the promise of the web, Gates attacked the idea of having a stripped-down, less expensive computer acting as an Internet terminal. This "network computer" has been pushed by companies like Sun Microsystems, Inc. and Oracle.

A network computer would be unrealistic, Gates said. It's "tough to eliminate much in a PC," he said. A browser is a very demanding application, requiring a lot of memory and disk space. Netscape Communications Corp.'s Navigator, currently the leading Web browser, doubles in size every nine months, he said.

Audience asks about competition

In a question-and-answer session, several people in the audience asked Gates about competition in the software industry. Microsoft has dominated the software industry to such an extent that the Justice Department had considered charging Microsoft with antitrust violations.

One audience member gained applause after asking about Microsoft developing their own standards and cutting competition in the software market.

Gates said that there is lots of competition in software and that a lot of people are developing operating systems.

Any product out there is clonable, and the only way to stay ahead is to develop a better product than what's out there, Gates said.

There is nothing that stops people from competing, Gates said.