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Buy my digital nervous systems, Gates tells CEOs

20 May 1999

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It was five years ago today... MS supremo Bill Gates has never been shy of expounding his dream of a better, more caring world. Back in 1999, he used a CEO summit to plug his own particular vision for human advancement. For shame:

Buy my digital nervous systems, Gates tells CEOs

By Graham Lea
Published Thursday 20th May 1999 08:08 GMT

Earlier this week Bill Gates' spin-doctors said the boss wouldn't be making a sales pitch at his CEO Summit. Yesterday Bill stood up and - made a sales pitch. In his opening speech, entitled "Knowledge workers without limits" he told a stack of the Fortune 1000 CEOs about some "practical steps" that they could take, and these naturally included the "to make a real investment in their digital nervous systems".

And, despite Microsoft's trial email hell, he ramains irony-free. They should implement "email and electronic forms, as well as creating a single place to store and access corporate memory". No text of this speech was made available by his PR minders, but the carefully honed press release presented the pitch that Microsoft wanted to make to the world at large.

There are several issues of interest to Microsoft watchers. Microsoft evidently realises that its best chance to maintain its hegemony is to argue for clerks ("knowledge workers") to be allowed to have PCs so they can play games and access the Internet for private purposes ("empowerment"), lest thin clients without Windows replace PCs. Microsoft wants CEOs to treat clerks in the same way as managers, with fat clients and plenty of Microsoft software for everybody. After all, Microsoft wouldn't like clerks to have thin clients, while fat-cat managers had PCs.

So far as the CEOs were concerned, Gates demonstrated his naive view of what he thought CEOs actually did, and how a personalised portal ("digital dashboard") could help them. In practice of course, much CEO time is really spent in PR work for the company, being a fireman, and strategic development - and not operational matters like looking at "customer contact information". We were told by Microsoft PR that "attendees experienced a world where computers see, listen, and learn". Really. Those present were able to learn that Microsoft's "shared mission has been to create technology that removes barriers between information and people". The events in the Washington court room where Microsoft is accused of erecting barriers to competition were not mentioned at all.

We were also informed by Microsoft PR that "Gates showcased [yet again] a new technology, called ClearType, which will make it possible for people to read information online as easily as they do on paper". Hang on a moment. Let's look at the facts about this "new technology". Expert opinion, for example from Auri Rahimzadeh of Envisioneering Inc, has it that this is nothing but a rehash of Steve Wozniak's 1970s patent for colour and resolution enhancement in the Apple II. For once, Microsoft did not have to steal the technology because it is so ancient that the patent has expired.

There was also the work on resolution done for those expensive and slick, black Next machines, before Steve Jobs had to drop the hardware side. And Steve Gibson says on his web site that "Microsoft's ClearType application of subpixel rendering does not represent the dramatic breakthrough that they claim. It cannot be the valid subject for intellectual property acquisition." That's significant: no new patent, no new breakthrough. We wonder how many of those CEOs present expected to learn something from Microsoft, and how many were there primarily to have some private side meetings about the issues du jour.


So, Bill wanted humble footsoldiers to be allowed to "access the Internet for private purposes"? Radical thinking indeed, and God forbid that the hoi-polloi should ever have office PCs, with programmes and email and Internet and everything. Blimey, they'd never get any work done... ®

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