In Part 2 of Time's interview, the Microsoft chief talks about the battle against Google, Origami and other new products from the Microsoft machine
TIME:What other innovations are coming from your research group?
Gates: Videoconferencing is another good example. There’s more of it going on today than in the past. But it’s still not really mainstream. Even with cameras being very cheap, one thing that researchers noticed was that you look really bad in a videoconference image, because the lighting is bad and you get shadows and things. So they’re showing this software that makes you look good, that understands about shadows and bags under your eyes and highlighting the twinkle in your eye and it’s very realistic. It’s what a great makeup artist would do, but the software is doing that with this face recognition and transformation. And so it’s things like that that will take something like videoconferencing and you’ll start to use it more and you’ll start to think of it and you won’t really realize that a fairly key element was a little bit of magic software.
TIME:What's your strategy for developing the next great innovation that will make people go wow!, in a world where new technologies and devices come along frequently and as a culture we're technologically spoiled and harder to impress?
I wouldn’t say that. People know very well that these machines could be easier to use, they could do more for them, and they have a pretty clear filter about whether it has helped them get done the things they like to get done. And if it helps them share memories of the kids growing up with the grandparents then they’ll use it. And some technology things seem very cool and then there isn’t lasting use that takes place with them. Some things are a long time in the works. This high-definition video game, Xbox360, we’ve been working on that 3 1/2 years before we came out with it. And the way that works is that platform will stay the same for over four years and then there will be a big leapfrog.
TIME:Yet, all the early speculation and prognostications about Origami—a new product of yours that hasn’t even been introduced yet—would seem to be an illustration of the challenges of impressing people with technological innovation these days. Already one analyst is quoted saying Microsoft might not earn “cool points” for its Origami because the device—part Ipod, Part PSP and part Blackberry—tries to be all things to all people.
Gates:I don’t think that’s somebody who has seen what that device is. It’s not a device for everybody, and it’s not even in any one of those categories. Innovation has always been a challenge and it always should be. The bar should be set high. The notion that some analyst will be confused all the time and all analysts will be confused some of the time, I think that’s been true forever. Hopefully a few analysts aren’t confused a few times so that the message gets through. Basically products succeed by word of mouth. You do a little bit of advertising to prime the pump, but then people say these things like Microsoft Office is just the way I do my presentations. It’s the way I look at my business data. So it means your product has to be awfully good to get people to switch or to pay money, but there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s the rules we live by and we love it.
TIME:What demos were you most excited about at TechFest today and why?
Gates:There’s this incredible theme of making photos and video easier to work with. I saw over a dozen things that relate to that. Taking a set of photos and creating a 3D environment. Taking and recognizing things in photos or making a transcript automatically from a TV show. People are going to be surprised at how natural we can make these things and the places we can help them out. They’re not used to getting help organizing their photos. Or finding the new show about a particular topic that they would never run into. [One of the Microsoft Researchers] Curtis Wong was showing me this program on AIDS that PBS is doing, and how if you view that with software, you can interact with the information and find other related things and see the progression over time. So that you get the best of both worlds: watching the video, which you can do passively, but then at any point you want something explained or you want more info, it gives you a way of doing that. The future of TV is to have more of that interactivity. And so even some of the things we’ve learned out of what is really the gaming interactive realm is now coming to the educational and business realm. And that’s why we love the idea that anything that’s hard to do in software, we work on. No matter what kind of device it runs on or what type of media or where in the world it gets used, we tackle the hard software problems with an eye to what kind of empowerment it can generate for users.
TIME:What is this next big innovation in search technology that Microsoft has developed that you keep hinting at?Gates:Well, obviously in search you can just sit down and type in input and see if you like the results. A lot of it has to do with understanding which words and which things get you what you want, whether it's local information or national information. There’s a lot that goes into it and over the next year we’ll be talking about the milestones and rolling those things out. I just use it as an example. There are categories where we are all by ourselves, such as interactive TV, the tablet PC. Then there’s categories like teaching the phone to recognize your speech. There are other people doing phone things but we’re probably the most ambitious about the software. And then there are areas like search where at least today, people think of others before they think of the work that we’re doing. Which is fine. We love surprising them as we get it done and they can just sit there and go wow it’s very easy to switch to a better search.