The future of the workplace

Podium: Bill Gates; From a speech by the chairman of Microsoft to a recent meeting of chief executives in Seattle, Washington, US
THIS IS still a world that's very, very paper-driven. You know, I said last year that paper forms were on their way out, but even if you got rid of paper forms, as people go to meetings and take notes, and since people want to have long documents to read and scribble on, there's a lot of ways that paper is going to be with us for quite some time. And the whole way that you tie in those paper systems into these digital systems, there is a lot of impedance there; it's a lot of trouble.

The computer has not made it as easy to find things as we'd really like. You know, most people can probably find things in their office, in their drawers or on their messy desk top, a lot faster than they can find it by giving commands on the computer screen. And in some ways that's a limitation of the software; in some ways that's because we haven't made the categorisation of documents as rich as it needs to be. And there are a lot of advances taking place in that right now.

Today, when people think about interaction, when they think about meetings, they still really think about all being in one place, having everyone there together. That's just one kind of meeting. You come together in a room and take the time, and no matter what the type of meeting is, you will find there are no digital tools to help you out to run that meeting in a new way.

You know, it's kind of a mania today. You can't pick up a newspaper without reading about how the Internet is revolutionising this or that. But when you really look out at the statistics and see the percentage of people who are using it, or even when you look at companies that often say they have electronic mail, and you look at the volume of messages that are out there, you get a clear sense that we have a long way to go.

Even the most basic elements - such as the usability of these systems, making them easy to set up - we can do a lot better as an industry. And year by year we have to make sure we remember those basics. One way that we try to stay in touch with that is by asking someone to go out and just talk to the man on the street, sort of get the consumer's view of what they think of all these new developments. And so we hired somebody to do that. But we still have a long way to go.

The concept of giving the knowledge-worker tools is not really something that can happen in a bottom-up way. It's not something that can be done division by division or even project by project. A lot of the infrastructure is a one-off cost.

As we go forward, we see the idea of having office information wherever you go. You often hear people now talk about these different devices, different screen sizes connected up either through wired or wireless networks. What we want to get to is where you can go anywhere and, if you have a screen, you can authenticate it, whether that's by using a password or a little card for a voice print - however you identify yourself, your information is immediately available in the form that you customise it in, so your digital dashboard appears wherever you go.

We also want to make some advances that have to do with how you think of the screen and paper, and really get the screen to be superior in every way - and finally get natural interaction with the computer. And all of these things are highly achievable over the next five years. I think these will be common sense in that time period, in the same way that there was a point at which computers were not graphical - they just had text up on the screen - and people were highly sceptical.

Well, within five years every computer had changed to work in that new way. So these concepts I think will be surprising in how quickly they move out and get implemented.

A classic example of using technology to get people together and get things done faster was when British Petroleum had an oil rig go down and was able to use a cheap video-conferencing capability to get up and running very rapidly. The interesting thing was that that anecdote spread throughout the company, and so now BP today is really one of the leaders in terms of taking the online meeting capability that's built into the PC, called NetMeeting, where you can share screens, work on a spreadsheet together and work on a document together.

It's used very widely because there was a key example that made people recognise that this being able to work at a distance really is a viable technology.

There are a lot of revolutionary things now that are within our reach. The technology itself is available to everyone. So it's how you use these tools inside the company that's going to provide the competitive differentiation.