30 July 2007

Bill Gates on natural user interfaces

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Bill Gates
In an article in today’s New York Times about how Bill Gates is planning his leave from Microsoft to devote himself to his $33 billion foundation, a great deal of attention goes to Gates’ decade-long agenda for the company.

According to the article, Gates described at the company’s annual financial meeting last week “a world in which the widespread availability of broadband networks would reshape computing, giving rise to what he said would be “natural user interfaces” like pen, voice and touch, replacing many functions of keyboards and mice.”

“Ubiquitous broadband networks and high speed wireless networks have for the first time given rise to meaningful alternatives to bulky and costly personal computers. In their place are a proliferating collection of smart connected devices that are tied together by a vast array of Internet-based information services based in centralized data centers.

The industry is rushing to “software as a service” models ranging from Salesforce.com, a San Francisco company that sells business contact software delivered via Web browsers, to Apple’s iPhone, which is designed as a classic “thin client,” a computer that requires the Internet for many of its capabilities.

It is a vision that Microsoft itself has at least partially embraced. Microsoft, in contrast, is calling its strategy “software plus services,” an approach that is intended to protect the company’s existing installed base.

During the interview, all three executives indicated that Microsoft is now moving quickly to offer new Internet services for personal computer users. Centralized data storage will make it possible for PC users to gain access to most or all of their information from all of the different types of computers they use, whether they are desktops, laptops or smartphones, and wherever they are located.”

The article raises more questions than providing answers, leaving in the middle how such interfaces could become “natural”, what it might mean for people to have all this information always available (the issue of “presence” comes to mind), and how to make that experience seamless across devices.

So I tried finding out something more about the Microsoft thinking on natural user interfaces (aside from the recently launched Surface, that is), but couldn’t yet find that much. Here is a quote from a review of the Gates presentation at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC 2007): “He also talked about ‘natural user interface’ talking about how important he thinks touch, pen, and voice input will be in the future. In particularly, he singled out work on Chinese and Japanese pen input. He talked about new form factors (some of which will be driven by the new user interfaces); and talked about unified communications, where the ‘phone is going to be the PC and the PC is going to be the phone.'”

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