Bill Gates descended on campus last Friday, and everyone in Richardson Auditorium had Microsoft founder’s rock star status impressed upon them. Audience members were greeted by a 21st century audio-visual display: two high-definition monitors and a gigantic projector screen, all of which prominently displayed Microsoft and Princeton logos along with the sounds of U2, Jet, and Coldplay. It was theatrically perfect: aging geek as rock star.
Men and women in suits and ties – part of the entourage – told you where you couldn’t sit. And at one side of the stage, opposite the podium, was a small table on which rested several expensive toys: a digital camera on an elevated stand, a PC attached to a much smaller camera, and a modest white box, instantly recognizable to video game junkies as the Xbox 360.
Princeton owes Gates’ visit to the Crystal Tiger Award, which claims to be “awarded each year by the undergraduates of Princeton University to an individual who has had a transformative impact on their lives.”
In this sense, there were few choices as apt as Gates. Suffice to say that President Tilghman’s introductory statement that, “our guest is a man who needs no introduction” was more than sufficient. The heartbreak was that Gates did not make a special stop at Princeton, but rather included us as part of a six-college tour. Did we give up our Crystal Tiger for naught? Certainly, there was a noticeable disconnect between the presenters’ remarks and Gates’; the award committee thanked him for his philanthropy, while Gates spoke entirely about the future of software and technological development.
Gates is a brilliant evangelist for computers. His speech focused on innovation in software and hardware through the lens of Microsoft and, correspondingly, contained a heavy dose of self-promotion. Gates’ presentation opened with a film of recent Princeton graduates now at Microsoft, and those present were able to see former Quad and ICC President Corey Sanders wearing a toga and talking about Microsoft’s casual dress code (Conveniently, after the speech one could go to Science & Tech Career fair at Dillon to find… Corey Sanders, recruiting for Microsoft.) Gates also showed a Napoleon Dynamite crossover video that encouraged you to buy Office 2005 to replace Office 2000.
Outside of these promotional moments, however, Gates made a careful and calculated speech to interest undergraduates in computers. In combining a 1950s-esque portrait of the potential of technology with the energy of a high-school motivational speaker, Gates painted a rosy and bright future for all mankind.
According to Gates, anything can be digitized, anything can be represented as data. Gates rattled off the possibilities: personalized television (and personally directed ads), translation software, technology for the disabled, wireless to unify devices. The development of software concerns the world and concerns the youth of today. The future of software is dependent on research now, and the best source of researchers is young college graduates (And despite the one-note speech, Gates has a pretty good rationale: the number of computer science graduates at American universities has declined in recent years, and this loss is certainly a concern for any forward-looking company).
By showing off his toys, Gates gave his words substance, each of the demonstrations looking further ahead. He first demonstrated a new digital picture manager, Microsoft Max, which has impressive features in terms of speed, display, and image sharing, but is not otherwise revolutionary. This was followed with the Xbox 360, which will serve as a unified music, video, and game system.
It was the third demonstration that best illustrated Gates’ theme of software’s increasing utility. Placing a cell phone in front of the elevated camera, Gates brought up an interface that allowed him to download additional information to the phone, make notes on it using a stylus, and control it with several vocal commands. While clearly in development, it was an excellent example of the importance of industrial research. Unstated but nevertheless understood was a message that if you joined Microsoft then you, too, could help bring this future into being.
The audience also learned that Gates is terrible at Project Gotham Racing and that he enjoys the Dave Matthews Band.
While Gates’ speech was largely upbeat – it didn’t hint at any of the conflicts between operating systems, developers and digital rights that are fixtures of our digital era – the Q&A at the end of the talk was devoted to these issues. Gates was grilled on the need for better security to maintain data privacy, the feasibility of using digital rights management to preserve intellectual property, and on how he would change patent law given Microsoft’s position as the defendant in much patent litigation.
Gates bobbed and weaved his way through the answers, generally providing well-founded thirty-second capsule responses. He came out strongly in favor of American patent law (although he hoped for stronger protection of demonstration of prior art and better pay for patent examiners) and emphasized that Microsoft was not by default on the side of “large corporations” in such conflicts.
Gates acknowledged certain technological pitfalls, but nonetheless insisted that the future is bright. And in the end, this isn’t a vision one really wants to find fault with. It’s easy to object to a future in which computers run most every aspect of our lives, but there is no reason to believe that it’s not coming. And given that expectation, there are far worse visions than the one that Gates provides.