INSIDE BUSINESS: Safety Net for Microsoft

Computing: Bill Gates has at last put a superhighway on his road map of the future. Is it too late?

ON THURSDAY Bill Gates gave away a little Microsoft strategy. He was setting up a number of links to push the software giant to the centre of the Internet world. He had, he admitted, been slow in realising just how significant the Net would be.

This was real news, and will make up a little for the lack of innermost thoughts in Gates's long-awaited book, The Road Ahead. It reveals little new material on what Microsoft thinks the immediate future is going to be like, although its folksy style and associated publicity blitz will undoubtedly bring the message to a lot of people who would not have heard it otherwise. You do not become the richest businessman in the world by printing several hundred thousand copies of your corporate strategy.

So although the Gates view of the medium-to-long term is clear enough, the immediate road ahead is murky. How exactly are we going to get from today's personal computers to the wallet PCs, multimedia services piped direct to the home, and the rest of the technological exotica that he describes? One key part of the link has to be Windows 95.

Designed to make multimedia applications more powerful, operation more intuitive and bolt-on technology simpler thanks to "plug and play", Windows 95 was supposed to bestow Apple-like ease of use on the desktop - paving the way for the ultimate "set-top" machine that will act as a conduit between the home television-cum-PC and the information superhighway.

In fact, although the absolute level of sales has been more than satisfactory, relatively few users have upgraded - only 7 per cent, according to figures released in the US last week. The remainder, put off by high associated costs in disk space and memory, are either waiting for costs to fall or the benefits of upgrading to become clearer. So will Windows 95 meet the challenge?

Sitting in his office in Seattle, just before setting off on a European promotional tour, Mr Gates was bullish. "Every two or three years we'll have major new releases that will go another level in exploiting what's happening," he said. "Look at where technology is going - bigger storage, 3-D graphics, middle- band communications like ISDN instead of 28,800- baud telephone lines: so look for new multimedia and Internet stuff to be added to Windows."

As an example he points to digital cameras. "For $500 (pounds 326) you can buy a colour camera. Colour printers are also amazingly cheap. Soon they'll both be cheaper, everyone will buy them and want to pass around photographs of their family and friends. That's supernice, and it's really going to spark a market. And for us, it means we get to do some very cool software."

But it is Mr Gates's reference to "the Internet stuff" that is most revealing. For he has confessed to underestimating both the growth and the potential of the Internet: "We didn't realise just how fast it would reach its critical mass. I certainly didn't expect everyone to be talking about the Internet in the way that they are now."

Critics are seizing on this as an indication that he may be losing his uncanny ability to both predict and manipulate computing's continuing evolution. The irony is immense, for in The Road Ahead, Mr Gates dismisses the risks of this occurring. "Success is a lousy teacher," he asserts. "It seduces smart people into thinking that they can't lose - and it's an unreliable guide to the future." Pointing to former computer visionaries, such as IBM's Tom Watson and Wang Laboratories' An Wang, he concludes that it is difficult for computer companies to make the transition from one era of computing to the next. Nevertheless, insists Mr Gates, "I want to defy historical tradition."

Yet even as The Road Ahead was being printed, Goldman Sachs, the US stockbroker, downgraded Microsoft's investment rating from a "buy" to a "hold", citing its lack of a clear Internet strategy.

Yet that certainly is not a charge that could be levelled at the man some are already calling "the next Bill Gates" - Marc Andreessen, the 24-year-old behind Netscape Communications Corporation.

This summer's highly successful stock flotation saw Mr Andreessen's personal wealth rise from virtually nothing to $50m in a single day - his reward for creating, as a graduate student at the University of Illinois, the first "browser" software for the Internet's World Wide Web, a program called Mosaic. Distributed free on the Internet, the program rapidly became a standard - prompting Mr Andreessen (and others) to develop it further on a commercial basis.

The success of World Wide Web browsers based on Mosaic is one of the reasons why Microsoft had to execute a sudden about-turn with its plans for its own on-line Microsoft Network, by including in it Internet access. The company has also had to rush through its own Web browser, an addition to Windows 95, and is hurriedly developing other Internet applications.

Mr Gates's latest announcement, that he was getting together with companies that include Sun Microsystems and Oracle, is designed to mount a belated challenge to Netscape. He certainly is not admitting he has missed out.

"Perhaps some time in the next hundred years we will miss a turn in the road," he said.

Even so, having for the first time put in print a detailed vision of the future adds to the pressure. People are able to compare what actually happens with what he predicted - and may seize on discrepancies as a sign that the boy wonder is losing his touch. "It's a risk," shrugs Mr Gates. "To that extent, the book is a hostage to fortune."

Premier League Live
footballLIVE Follow all the Premier League action as it happens
The slice of Prince Charles and Princess Diana's wedding cake and the original box from 29 July 1981
newsPiece of Charles and Diana's wedding cake sold at auction in US
Life and Style
3D printed bump keys can access almost any lock
gadgets + echSoftware needs photo of lock and not much more
James Argent from Towie is missing, police say
peopleTV star had been reported missing
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
i100(and it's got nothing to do with the Great British Bake Off)
Arts and Entertainment
Inside the gallery at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow
tvSimon Usborne goes behind the scenes to watch the latest series
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
newsThe industry's trade body issued the moratorium on Friday
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
Life and Style
Silvia says of her famous creation: 'I never stopped wearing it. Because I like to wear things when they are off the radar'
fashionThe fashion house celebrated fifteen years of the punchy pouch with a weighty tome
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Network Engineer (CCNP, CCNA, Linux, OSPF, BGP, Multicast, WAN)

£35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Network Engineer (CCNP, CCNA, Linux, OSPF,...

DevOps Engineer (Systems Administration, Linux, Shell, Bash)

£50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: DevOps Engineer (Systems Administration, L...

Data Scientist (SQL, PHP, RSPSS, CPLEX, SARS, AI) - London

£60000 - £70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A prestigious leading professiona...

Financial Technical Consultant (C++, C#, Finance, MSc, PhD)

£50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Financial Technical Consultant (C++, C#, F...

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone