Gates shares optimism with U. of I. students

March 1, 2004


At 48, Bill Gates hasn't lost his mojo. He's visionary, cerebral and at times downright funny. He sounds and acts like a statesman. He's optimistic, and still sees lots of potential in technology.

The founder of Microsoft held rock star appeal for the estimated 2,000 students who welcomed him to the University of Illinois in Champaign last week on the first leg of a five-campus swing to discuss the future of computing.

Testifying to our region's importance as a trainer of technology talent, in a post-speech interview, Gates praised the University of Illinois, saying, "This is absolutely one of the top computer science schools in the world."

That's why Gates came to Illinois first. "We hire more people from here than any other place," Gates says. Microsoft will increase college recruiting 10 percent this year, which is welcome news for 2,200 students studying computing at Illinois.

Women in IT

Junior Jorie Walsh, 21, of Park Ridge, says she's "curious to know what Gates is like." The Maine South grad adds, "People don't expect women to be in computer science." Walsh is precisely the kind of student Gates came to Champaign to motivate.

Gates didn't disappoint.

In a 75-minute presentation, the chairman and chief software architect of Microsoft took the audience on a fast-paced tour through the history of computing. He described the days of 80-column punch cards, computer compatibility problems of the '70s and his dream of enabling everyone to have a computer. "A dream that to some degree came true," Gates says with a touch of modesty. He adds, "600 million people get up every day and have personal computers."

There was talk of graphical user interfaces, and praise for the pioneering work done on the Internet browser at Illinois -- all innovations we take for granted.

Gates reminded his audience of past economic downturns and recoveries, describing a time when Japan's dominance in memory chip technology was considered a major economic threat. His point: America will prosper, provided we invest in human capital.

Of the post-Internet bubble, Gates says, "Some people are kind of burned out because of the over-promises that came along with the Internet wave." He cautions against nay-saying, insisting the promise of technology is real.

Gates persuasively handled tough questions about the open source movement. He described the potential of hard-disk and computer-screen technologies. He talked about digital inks, and a near-term future where we'll carry digital scrolls. He predicted progress on voice recognition technology.

Gates showed off his interactive SmartWatch, picking up news and information over the wireless network. He demonstrated Microsoft's Portable Media Center and two research projects code-named Media Variations and MSR Media Browser, and both of these slick new tools for organizing and searching media drew positive crowd reaction.

Gates described his commitment to research and development at $6.8 billion. He plans to keep most Microsoft R&D staff based in Redmond, Wash. but hinted at continuing support for the university.

'You've won money' Gates sees computer reliability, spam and security as major challenges. In a light-hearted anecdote, he described how a couple of days earlier, he was interrupted by his 7-year old daughter, who was playing on the computer. "We won money! We won money!" his daughter announced. "We don't need any more money," Gates said playfully, and of course it was spam his daughter found. The audience loved the story. A highlight of the night was a spontaneous round of applause from 25 Gates Millennium Scholars. Senior Alexis Clarke, 21, a graduate of Chicago's Hyde Park High School was among those applauding. "I thought the speech was great," said Clarke, who emphasized that academic performance is a requirement to retain her scholarship. Beginning in 2003, Microsoft committed more than $1 billion to programs to bridge the digital divide over the next five years.

"If there's a simple message out of my speech," Gates says, "it's an optimism about how much fun it's going to be to work in computer science and the benefits that those advances are going to bring."

Gates came to learn and to teach. He won over part of a new generation.

Michael Krauss is a Chicago-based tech writer and consultant, and senior vice president for Hostway Corp., Chicago.


 ©2004 Marion Consulting Partners