When Bill Gates Told Editors About Our Digital Future: “It Will Notice If You’re Happy or Sad or Confused.”

Bill Gates was the founder of Microsoft and for many years—before Jeff Bezos and Amazon—he was the richest man in the world. How good was his crystal ball? In 1996 he spoke to the American Society of Magazine Editors about “How New Information Technology and the Internet Is Changing the Way We Work and Communicate.”

It was in November, a few weeks after Bill Clinton won a second term as President, and Gates talked some about computers and elections. Here are excerpts from an ASME summary of his speech:

The way people think of PCs has changed, Gates said. “People have switched from thinking of them as simply productive tools for creating spreadsheets and documents. Now they’re thinking of them as communication tools. It’s a breakthrough in communications in your ability to reach out and find what you’re interested in, find other people with common interests.”

Gates pointed out that there’s a lot of “crazy” talk about the Internet. “There are people who think it’s a dead end. There are people who think that overnight it’s going to change the world. There are a lot of challenges to overcome, such as getting more speed on the Internet, getting the security to be there, getting it easy to use and making it a lot more inexpensive than it is today. Only as those problems are solved will we see this as a mainstream device. I think that electronic mail is something that people will do every day. It will be more common than fax machines are today.

“We can already see some neat examples of where it’s being used. On election night, millions of people connected to the site we’re involved in, and it wasn’t just for top stories. We had more hits on local elections and issues than up on the main page. Election night is a wonderful example of where a medium like this can come into play.”

Magazine writers and editors need to be involved, he said. “If there’s one sure thing I’ll say today, I think any writer or editor should have a personal computer with an electronic mail connection, be out on the Internet gathering information to help them do their job better, collaborate with people, and see what the latest developments are. If a company doesn’t have pervasive electronic mail that people use every day and can count on, they are not at the starting line for the information age. This comes way before they should think about having a cool website or trying to make a business out of being in the electronic world.”

To make access easier, the big focus for the next year is ease of use, he said. “This means when you buy a computer, you click a single button, you give your phone number, it will show you all the local people who can connect you, you pick one of those and boom you’re up on the Internet, ready to send electronic mail, ready to browse.”

High-resolution flat-panel screens will make a huge difference, said Gates. “Within ten years you’ll have something that’s the weight, size, and thickness of a tablet of paper that you can carry around and get very high quality web information. You’ll likewise have a screen that’s smaller that you can carry in your pocket and get messages and your news ticker.”

“I talk about a scenario in the book [his book, The Road Ahead] where instead of an advertiser paying for the content, the ad money would go directly to the person reading the ad. You would put in your in-box a threshold, like ‘I don’t like to read ads unless they pay me ten cents.’ Advertisers would look at my profile. Let’s say it’s Porsche. They’ll scan my profile and see I bought one three years ago, and I’m the right demographic. For them it’s worth ten cents to put a message in my mailbox.”

Gates says that within five years computers will be able to be driven by voice commands or we’ll have tablet-based computers that recognize handwriting. “We will teach a computer to see,” he said. “It will notice if you’re happy or sad or confused when you use the machine.”

“The world will change a lot in the next decade.”

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