By Brian E. Clark
MADISON – Several times a year, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates heads off on a “think” retreat to look into his crystal ball.
“I ponder the ideas that people send me,” Gates told more than 200 University of Wisconsin-Madison biology and computer science students Wednesday afternoon.
“I also try to make sure the $5 billion we spend annually on research and development is placed on the right bets,” he said with a big grin.
Gates, who is the globe’s richest man and has given away billions of dollars, earlier in the day dropped in – unannounced – to an introductory computer class with 13 lucky students who were reportedly stunned by his presence.
Gates’ trip to Madison – his first to the university – was part of a three-day college swing through the Midwest that also included a stop at the University of Michigan on Wednesday.
The title of his speech was “The Impact and Opportunity of Technology: Why Computer Science? Why Now?”
The visits are part lecture, part recruitment, part public relations push and part product show. Though he battled a sometimes balky audio system, Gates clearly relished the chance to talk about his company and its software and its role in the future.
In Madison, Gates said his company was not threatened by makers of free software.
“We can coexist with the free stuff,” he said. “We embrace the commercial and the non-commercial. Our whole goal is to have people build software on top of Windows.
“But we think our business plan will create better software. We want to attract creative minds who will be rewarded financially for their work so they can buy houses and send their kids to college.”
Gates told the students – many of whom were freshman – that they are “exactly the right age to come into this golden age of computer science” and help design the products of the future.
“It’s a fascinating field and it is only growing,” said Gates, whose talk included a goofy pep rally video from UW grads who now work for Microsoft.
“I see no saturation coming,” said Gates, who predicted the number of PCs on the earth will soon climb to five billion.
Gates, who dropped out of Harvard University to start Microsoft, gave his rapt audience a short history of his firm and told them that advances in computer software will change business, science and entertainment in many ways.
Gates’ company title is now chairman and chief software architect. He gave up the CEO post five years ago to concentrate on developing new products, an effort to which he now devotes 80 percent of his time.
Gates, who will turn 52 later this month, said when he and colleague Paul Allen started their company nearly 30 years ago, computers were used mainly for keeping track of customer databases.
Since then, Microsoft has grown to employ more than 55,000 people in 85 countries. In 2004, it had revenues of nearly $37 billion.
In the early 1970s, he said the PC was considered a strange and crazy idea, even by the bright lights of the time.
“But Paul and I had a very humble view of what we were doing and figured that we should take a shot while we were young,” he joked. “In my view, I didn’t drop out. I’m just on leave from Harvard. In fact, I still am. I can always resume my course work.”
Gates, who did not recommend his career path to the UW students, then showed students some of Microsoft’s newest gadgets, including a cell phone with the memory of a personal computer.
He said consumers will continue to drive the development of software, and that commerce was one of the main beneficiaries of that advances in computer technology. He said manufacturing jobs will continue to disappear because of advances in software and computing.
“We are pushing the frontiers,” he said, noting that the new portable tablet computers will soon give people students access to all of the world’s materials.
“The wealth of material available for the motivated student is mind-blowing,” he said, countless times more than during his short-lived college days.
He predicted shoppers will soon carry digital wallets and that software that recognizes speech and print one day be commonplace.
And he predicted that intelligent software will eventually be able to diagnose patients’ ills, though he said that job should be left to human doctors.
In response to a query, Gates said the top 10 percent of U.S. students are well-served by their schools and universities – including UW-Madison.
But he said he worries about the remaining 90 percent, who are being inadequately prepared for the future and in many ways do not stack up to foreign competition.
After the talk, engineering major Shaun West said Gates made the “far out seem down to earth.
“I enjoyed hearing how he sees technology being implemented in the future,” said West, a freshman.
But Lorraine Meyers, a biophysics graduate student, said she was a little disappointed with her close encounter with Gates.
“I was hoping he would talk more about applications for biological and research,” she said. “It was a little too much of a Microsoft consumer product show for me.”
A Web cast of Gates’ talk will be available on Friday via the university’s home page at http://www.wisc.edu. The speech was simulcast to students and faculty at Union South on Wednesday.