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Bill Gates Takes on Keyboards and the Cloud

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Like the rotary dial, the keyboard’s role as a technological interface will soon come to an end as more information — especially visual information such as photos and videos — is stored on computers. And Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates hopes to help put the nail in the keyboard’s coffin, according to his presentation at the 12th Annual CEO Summit. In his keynote Gates focused heavily on natural user interfaces that combine touch, pens and speech to navigate computers and phones and that he expects to be available within the next decade. The keyboard, he made clear, is on notice.

He also briefly prophesied the formation of mega data centers built by “Microsoft and others” for cloud computing, but stayed mostly on the topic of Microsoft’s Sharepoint product and new forms of navigation. As part of the changing user interface he showed off an “intelligent whiteboard” from the R&D labs, which is essentially a Surface table standing up.

The demo unit, which had cameras located inside to track Gates’ hand movements, took a few tries before it noticed Gates. That’s never a great sign, but once it worked, the navigation was similar to what one would do on an iPhone writ large. It was less of a whiteboard than a giant, touch-controlled monitor. I can’t see myself dropping my keyboard for this, ever.

But with Microsoft pushing it, I will likely get the chance to try it. The computing giant may not be behind the sexiest Web 2.0 technologies or originating great user interfaces such as tabbed browsing, but it is very good at taking those technology successes, integrating them, and pushing them into a broad market over time.

It’s kind of like the Banana Republic of tech firms, taking different pieces of cool and edgy clothing (technologies), and assembling them into watered-down, business- and consumer-friendly outfits (products). Not everyone wants to wear Banana clothes, much like not everyone wants to use Windows, and Microsoft doesn’t always succeed, but so far Gates’ visions still count for something.

13 Responses to “Bill Gates Takes on Keyboards and the Cloud”

  1. I can see myself appreciating a touchscreen, but it would be an extension of the mouse, which it would replace. But having to speak everything, including dictation is nothing more than a lame gimmick. I concur with Giullermo and Nick Caldwell. To me, the keyboard is not “the least of all evils.” It’s a wonderful thing that I appreciate and really feel needs no replacement or even enhancement. I’ve imagined myself “writing” by dictating, and it makes me sick, whether it’s typing a post like this or writing a piece of fiction. I would probably be okay with speech-writing if I was born two hundred years after it was the standard, but I find its replacing the keyboard as unnecessary and even counter-productive.

    I imagine that others who “write,” be it as professional writers or hobbyists like myself, would feel the same way as I do and that taking away the keyboard (be it the QWERTY, Dvorak, or any other version) would be as though taking away one of their hands.

    Bill Gates need to eff off.

  2. I don’t think Gates can push touch and speech as a UI even though he wants to, for the simple reason that there are many solutions available and they would be adding a very poor one to the market. Replacing the traditional input devices, as opposed to enhancing them with the addition of new ones, is very a bad idea. The keyboard is a proven solution that will stay with personal computers for a long time. I can’t imagine anyone actually working on a device that didn’t have one.

    By the way, I wrote a post in my blog further explaining my opinions on the threat Gates makes in relation to the keyboard.

  3. Nick Caldwell

    Oh, great, we’re all going to have to learn shorthand so we can ‘stylus-input’ as fast as we can type. Sod that.

    One might quibble about the organisation of the individual keys (QWERTY or Dvorak), but the typewriter keyboard is an excellent, high-resolution interface.

  4. Thanks Stacey for clarifying. I think you are referring to Soft Ink (like the font color in MS Word). Correct me if I am wrong.

    As you correctly said:

    “…much like not everyone wants to use Windows, and Microsoft doesn’t always succeed, but so far Gates’ visions still count for something.”

    It will be interesting to see what they bring next on this. Tablet PC is an early experiment by MS in the nineties which went sour and has resurfaced again. And, I find Gates to be obsessive in this area.

    On the other hand, I still do not understand why MS is so silent on cloud computing. Market hoopla is very high (which I think is somewhat stretched); nonetheless market is there. Ray Wozzie seemed not very forthcoming on this, in his earlier interview. Will look forward to some more on that front.

  5. ronald

    @ Stacey
    “The market may not accept it, but it will have the chance to try it.”

    How old are you. Did you mean during this lifetime or the next :-). Remember all those things that would make VISTA so great?
    Bill has not gut feeling for technology, he even admits that.

    Why on earth should I work more with any computer why should I not have it work for me?

  6. As much as I love touch for my newest portable devices, the sad reality is that to get things done at the workplace, I still need the mouse and keyboard.

    Speech is an interesting concept, but until speech recognition is at the point where it can quickly translate and make sense of jargon-y speech, it isn’t gonna be real useful for practical computing.

  7. It’s strange to read that a pen is more of a ‘natural’ interface than a keyboard. More portable, yes. Cheaper, yes. More flexible, yes. And you can write from more positions than you can type (though not by much, if legibility is important). Writing may seem easier to learn just because most of us learned to write when we were very young, but I’ll bet it’s easier to learn typing than it is to learn handwriting.

  8. Stacey Higginbotham

    @Steve, whether you think Gates is a stopped clock who has managed to be right twice a day, or you think the man’s a genius, Microsoft has the muscle to push out products. Look at the Intel/Vista emails for proof. So if he wants to push touch and speech as a UI, they’re going to make it to market. The market may not accept it, but it will have the chance to try it. That’s what I’m saying with regard to his vision.

  9. rohit

    Most, if not all I/O device design suffered due to low bit-transfer rates + processing rates possible at the time of invention of these devices. Keyboard had the added legacy of a typewriter interface to bear. Now that we have MegaBytes and soon GigaBytes across & processed for cheap, (GB across any wired interface (USB n.0) and at least MBytes across a wireless interface), new devices will emerge. If you think about it, the iPhone touch screen is possible now that lots of bits corresponding to each of your mini/micro touches can be transferred + processed for vanishingly low-cost. I doubt the innovation stops at touch screens (however gigantic).

  10. Steve Haney

    “…so far Gates’ visions still count for something.” Stacey: please tell me what that something is, because I’d love to know. Are you referring to when he wrote a book called “The Road Ahead” in 1995 that had nary a mention of the Internet in it? Or when he came out with a GUI for Microsoft operating systems years after Apple already commercialized such technologies? Or the direct, weak knockoff of the iPod known as the Zune? Yeah, great visionary…looking backward at best.

  11. Stacey Higginbotham

    @Satya, the ink and pen are part of the Tablet PC concept, which hasn’t reached mainstream adoption despite a big push by Gates. I’ve used the itnerface and it’s never going to beat out a pen or pencil in my mind, but it’s nice for quick reminders or notations. Gates has said college students use it to take notes, but that seems clunky when compared with typing, an “analog” pen or even some voice transcription option.

  12. Stacey,

    It is definitely news, though Bill Gates has been evangelizing on it for a quite some time.

    Interestingly, he also informed on “ink”, in addition to touch, pen and speech. (With Steve Jobs last year at All Things Digital 5 ).

    I can understand for others. But, where does ink fit in here? What is your take?