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Bill Gates spells out the future

And guess what? It's the PC

Bill Gates has spelt out what he believes is the future in the Sunday Times this week. The article was sparked by the 20th birthday of the PC, reported widely since Billy Boy and Andy Grove got together to say how wonderful it was - and by extension, how wonderful they are.

It's about as likely that Bill actually wrote the piece as it is that Microsoft will release bug-free software, but like Windows, it does the job. It's basically a puff piece for the PC but the Great Bill allows himself to look to the future, and would you believe it? It's the PC.

While you're picking yourself off the floor in amazement, let's consider "Bill's" arguments. He starts by saying what the PC used to be: "Twenty years ago, the typical PC had a monochrome screen, modest floppy-disk drive and only 64,000 bytes of memory." Ignore the obvious memory joke for the moment.

He then goes on to give various stats and say how the PC has revolutionised our lives. Which would be hard to disagree with. "More than 38 per cent of households in Britain have a PC"; "more than 500 million PCs are in use around the world" etc.

Here's where the argument starts coming in: "Another 140 million [PCs] will be sold in 2001 - far more than the number of television sets that will be bought this year."

He neatly brushes over his own inability to see the Internet's importance by going all personal on us. "When I started using personal computers, I was amazed and inspired by what they could do - and by what they might be able to do in the future But what's even more amazing is that, even now, we are a long way from exhausting the PC's potential."

"We're at the start of a wave of digital innovation that will create plenty of new, exciting ways for computers to enrich our lives."

And this remains Bill's argument. Yes, there are lots of "new and exciting" ways to utilise computing power and the Internet - handhelds, TVs, mobiles and other devices that Microsoft has failed to exert its influence on - but it's the PC that "is moving to the centre of an ever-expanding network".

You will still use a PC to "write a letter, balance an investment portfolio or browse complex Web sites" but the information will be accessible through a range of devices.

Obviously Mr Gates wishes that he is right so he can remain the richest man in the world and one of the most influential. But is he? Tough to tell, ain't it? There have been a range of hyped-up products over the last few years that will make the PC obsolete but none of them have touched it when it comes to anything but specialised or simple tasks.

WAP is still crap and 3G is well behind. Digital TV is not proving popular and the idea of people using a TV actively rather than passively has yet to really be tested. Handhelds have been a success but just look at what has happened recently with Psion.

PC sales are certainly dropping too, but no one seriously thinks that the market is doing anything but slowing slightly. WebPCs - which, we would argue, aren't really PCs - have sold but still there remains a fascination with highly spec'd computers, the full potential of which most people never even touch.

It's the fact that the PC can do so much that makes it such a great thing to have. Whether you do anything more than play an odd game, write a letter or check out a couple of Web sites is irrelevant.

But then we ought to remember two things. One, Bill Gates is notoriously poor at predicting the future. Not that that means he can't use his muscle to pull it one direction of another, but anyone betting their future on what he believes would be a fool.

The other thing is that PCs have fascinated us for 20 years precisely because they have continually come up with completely new things that they can do. But this rate of innovation has slowed enormously. When was the last time you saw an application and thought "Wow! I never thought computers would be able to do that"?

As a computer CEO-turned-guru, Bill inevitably ended with the super-optimistic and self-deprecating ending: "If the past 20 years have been impressive, the next 20 will be astounding." ®

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Bill says it like it will be

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