The audience in Kresge Auditorium served as perfect, if unwitting, illustrations of Bill Gates's main points in his keynote speech, "The Future of Software," delivered yesterday in honor of the 35th anniversary of the Laboratory for Computer Science (LCS).
As Ethernet inventor and LCS alumnus Robert Metcalfe (SB 1968) introduced Professor Michael Dertouzos, director of LCS, who in turn introduced Mr. Gates, the crowd of computer industry executives, scientists, students and journalists clicked on recording devices ranging from PCs to PalmPilots to ballpoint pens to TV cameras.
And that click, Mr. Gates suggested in his 45-minute talk, is the sound of recent history -- history in the making and history he believes will be made in the next five to 10 years.
As for recent history, Mr. Gates said, the "PC success loop" tells all: the greater the volume of PCs made, the cheaper they get; the cheaper they get, the more people use them; and as more people use PCs, more software variety is born.
With the present "massive growth potential," the questions are where to go with software and how to get there, he said.
"The art of creating software has changed very little since 1975, when I dropped out of Harvard and started Microsoft. What's required now are breakthroughs in techniques," Mr. Gates said.
Noting that people in the audience and industry in general were already "living the web lifestyle," he said the next phase of software development will shift from analyzing and creating documents to "reading, communicating, consuming, entertaining and understanding.
"There's still a huge mismatch between data models and whole language. The future of software will include an entire realm of the senses including vision, speech recognition, speech synthesis and motion. In the next decade I see big progress in these areas," he said.
Of particular interest to both Mr. Gates and his Kresge audience is the "telepresence challenge," he said.
"What do people do at work? They go to meetings. How do we deal with meetings? What is it about sitting face to face that we need to capture? We need software that makes it possible to hold a meeting with distributed participants -- a meeting with interactivity and feeling, such that, in the future, people will prefer being telepresent," he said.
As for other areas, Mr. Gates envisions breakthroughs such as digital life records (in which software captures, organizes and stores all one's personal and professional information) and in storage and retrieval.
"Retrieval of personal information is a challenge, raising deep privacy questions," he said. "It's not clear -- would you want all your personal records kept in a computer? Storage is also a challenge. Today's user is explicitly involved in moving information around -- in the future, all your information will be 'in the cloud,' on the Internet, and it will be constantly backed up and synchronized."
Mr. Gates noted a challenge for the future is in testing software programs. "Testing is the weak link in software," he said, adding that Microsoft has a "huge database of the kinds of mistakes made by programmers. It needs analysis; we've got openings there!"
The LCS anniversary celebration began on Monday, April 12 with a reception at Boston's Museum of Science. An LCS "Time Capsule of Innovations," sculpted by architect Frank Gehry, was sealed by Professor Dertouzos that evening. The capsule is to be unsealed in 2033 or upon solution of a cryptographic puzzle that is estimated to require approximately 35 years to be solved.
A version of this article appeared in the April 14, 1999 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 43, Number 26).