Bill Gates: Man with a purpose

Arabian Business meets Microsoft’s chairman, co-founder and chief software architect.

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By  David Ingham Published  February 29, 2004

|~|gates1.jpg|~||~|Bill Gates, chairman, co-founder and chief software architect of Microsoft, made his first ever visit to the region in January, but said it almost certainly wouldn’t be his last. Taking advantage of his annual trip to Davos for the World Economic Forum, it was just a short hop over to Cairo to attend the Microsoft regional developer conference and government leadership forum. In keynotes to software developers and government officials at the two events, Gates focused on three key themes: economic development, education and governance, and the positive role that IT can play in all three. The overall message was that ‘developing’ countries, like Egypt, can become producers and, potentially, exporters of software products. Governments, Gates added, have the opportunity to use IT to help improve their own efficiency and be more transparent with their own citizens. Not surprisingly, Microsoft’s low cost, high volume products were presented by the company as the best platform to achieve all this. On the educational front, a high profile was given to the company’s Unlimited Potential initiative. Under the programme, Microsoft has pledged to spend $1 billion in cash, software and advice over the next five years to bring IT education to under privileged people. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are amongst the countries benefiting. In the following interview, Gates discusses IT and its role in socio-economic development, his company’s achievements and what Microsoft has in store for users. How can the Arab countries use IT to change their economic model from consumption to production? The economies in the Middle East are very different: Saudi Arabia and what it does; headquarter locations like Dubai or Bahrain; Egypt, which I characterise mainly by lots of people, human resources being their primary way of contributing. We’ve seen around the world that as countries give their people college educations and build these modern communications networks, they get to participate in the world economy, not just by doing manufacturing jobs like textiles, or agriculture, or national resource export, but also in IT related jobs. India, of course, has led the way on this, but it’s something that the countries in this region will also participate in because of the proximity to Europe, because the English speaking skills are coming along here. I think people actually underestimate the export opportunities available in this classic [IT] outsourcing type of activity. We don’t do this directly, we do it through our partners and we want to help them build reputations so that people will really consider them for this type of work. Craig Barrett [CEO of Intel] said that the Arab world could specialise in some kind of software development, but it doesn’t have any chance in hardware or [high end] solutions. Do you agree? I don’t agree and I wonder if that’s really a correct quote. People very rarely rule things out. The world of software’s full of surprises. You never know where the next big idea or great work’s going to come from and any notion that some group of people is really good and some is not, that’s nonsense. Every place I’ve been, when I speak with software developers like at the conference I’ve been to this morning, the talent is incredible and I don’t see any limitation. There are some areas like building microprocessors where the capital investment is so large, that I wouldn’t recommend focusing on that. Building a word processor, I wouldn’t recommend focusing on that. But the world of software has so much variety that there will be applications being [developed], certainly in e-government, that have a lot of variety. Some of the most interesting systems that have been done have been done here in the Middle East: the paperless customs system in Dubai, the ministry of commerce system that was done in Bahrain, the portal that we just inaugurated here [Egypt.] These are not cases where the US did that in advance and people are just following. You are talking about talent and the possibility of making things, but could Linux be a tool to make things more freely? I think that people who do creative work should be rewarded for that work. So if people are happy with their country’s economic situation, then yes they should give their work away. They should use the Linux approach and do it for free and just let the US collect all the money for its work. I happen to think the capitalistic model where people who do great work get paid for it, they get to feed their families, they get to educate their kids, they pay taxes and bring their society up to a higher level, those taxes can fund universities to do great things… I think that’s the model that will greatly reduce the gap in living standards between the rich world versus here. I don’t think that non-capitalistic approach would be at all attractive unless you already have too much money. Can you give us a glimpse of the future. Please, be open with us… We will have software help you everywhere possible. We don’t know how to help you while you’re sleeping, but if we come up with something we’ll do that. We’ve got some work [going on] to build software into the TV set, so that recording shows, finding shows or even using the TV set to see and talk to your friends can be done. We’re doing a lot of software for the car, so that as you’re driving [you’re] seeing the map, seeing where the traffic is - maybe in Cairo that’s a helpful application - being able to be notified of things. Anywhere there’s going to be software, we like to go in and help provide tools and a platform so there can be lots of applications and so that even where people have to adapt it [software] for the small screen or big screen, the amount of change they have to make is very small. So even in the watch we use what’s called .NET software technology across all these devices. We know what we’re doing in software, what the hardware people are doing, then we learn as we put those products out what people like. We don’t know exactly if the watch will be super successful. We hope so. We shipped that a few weeks ago. So far the reaction has been very good. That’s the kind of thing we’re learning about. The idea is a more natural approach with language recognition… If we meet three years from now, I’d hope you’d all have tablet PCs and be recording the audio on the tablet PC and taking your notes. How would you sum up what Microsoft has done over the years? We took computing from being a very expensive, low volume device that was a tool of big companies and governments and we turned it into something for individuals. We created a standard that created immense competition that’s brought the price down and the power up and we reached out to partners. There really was no sizeable software industry before we came along and started reaching out. All the computer work was done in the United States; it was a low volume, high price business that other countries didn’t get to contribute to. Now we see Taiwan, India, the Middle East… everybody gets to use these tools at a very low cost. More and more, we’re seeing partners that do [software development] work in their country, [reducing the need] to import these things and contributing to the world market as well. That whole framework for computing, the competitiveness, the breadth of what it does, the kind of tools, the partners… that’s really our most profound contribution. Now, we say we’re only halfway towards making that platform simple, secure, rich. We have at least a decade more of ideas about things that we need to do to really fulfil that original vision.||**||

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