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May 23, 2005

"Information At Your Fingertips", 14 1/2 Years Later

On November 12, 1990, Bill Gates gave the keynote address at Fall Comdex. The speech was titled "Information At Your Fingertips" and laid out Bill's vision of personal computing in the 1990s. I recently watched the video, to see how accurate his vision had been.

The video naturally has historical amusement value. The Bill Gates you see is the sunken cheeks, giant glasses Gates of old. Gates opens the talk by mentioning that at his previous Comdex keynote, in 1983, his father had run the slide projector. Before his talk, there is an announcement from Jason Chudnofsky, President and COO of The Interface Group (organizers of Comdex), that the first Windows World conference will be held the following spring. Mike Hallman is the president of Microsoft. And the videos that Gates show are full of references to the then-current craze over the television show "Twin Peaks", with repeated instances of mass donut consumption and discussion of damn fine cherry pie.

But Gates is there with a serious matter to discuss. It's hard to imagine it now, but he was concerned about the industry. Personal computer growth had decreased each year from 1986 to 1990 (more computers were sold every year, but the rate of increase was slowing). As Gates put it, "The personal computer industry is faced this year with a question: will it continue to be an innovative, high-growth industry?" Gates worried that 1991 might actually have zero growth. No growth would represent a contradiction -- a contradiction with Microsoft's vision of a computer on every desk and in every home. What to do?

In 1990, network cards were rare in computers; the 386 microprocessor and VGA were just becoming standards. The hardware industry was split between the EISA and MCA buses, and the GUI operating system market was a battle between Windows and OS/2. Meanwhile, software users were complaining about the difficulty of configuring their systems, cryptic error messages that made support difficult, and the tediousness of applying updates. Furthermore, people had a narrow view of computers: they were useful for word processing and spreadsheets, but little else. Businesses had difficulty justifying purchases of computers that employees used so little; the benefits were difficult to explain.

Gates recognized that all these issues were hurting the whole industry. What he was pushing was a common vision to drive demand for software, allow the PC industry to continue to grow: "It's interesting to think what the software industry will do with machines that will deliver over 100 million instructions per second running on the desktop." Gates had some ideas on what software could do to entice users to demand that kind of horsepower.

He first mentions some exciting new software: a network search tool called Unite, a news aggregator called News Edge, an information gathering tool called InfoAlliance, workflow software called Fileshare, and Lotus Notes. What these have in common is that they are focussed on making information available to users. This leads into Gates laying out his vision for "Information At Your Fingertips": "Someone can sit down at their PC and see the information that's important for them. If they want more detail, they ought to just point and click and that detail should come up on the screen for them." Information, as defined by Gates, was "All the information that someone might be interested in, including information they can't even get today."

Gates then lays out four scenarios for IAYF:

  • A coffee roaster whose plant burns down, requiring them to reallocate capacity and notify clients. They can't get access to capacity information because it's on a non-networked computer, and their email system is not set up yet. To help them, Gates shows a future desktop with integrated email, voice recorded, and search. The email can include voice attachments and compound documents. You can drag items to the desktop, and right-clicking the mouse gives you a context-sensitive menu.
  • A delivery person who is on the road all day. His delivery list is a printout that is 24 hours old, he spend too much time on paperwork, and he doesn't have his customer history information available. Gates showed a tablet PC with a gesture-driven pen interface, with a cell phone included so the drive can dial in to exchange information with the home office.
  • A couple finishing up their house, who need help visualizing their kitchen, choosing colors, and comparing appliances. Gates demos a desktop query tool, 3D modeling software, and an online home appliance with motion video.
  • Students who want to use computers for education. They only use computers for games and word processing. For them, Gates has a multimedia encyclopedia including audio and video clips, and points out that for this kind of application, "the value goes beyond the code to the content."

Gates them summarizes the five things needed: A more "personal" personal computer; transparent application integration; integrated fax, voice, and email; company wide networks without complexity; and easy access to a broad range of information. His goal is to "make the network an asset, not a liability".

So how did Gates do at predicting the future?

In one sense he nailed it. The demos he gave in 1990 look exactly like the software of today. Of course Gates was predicting this would be available in three years; it took more like 10, and although current software matches the demos, it doesn't really exceed them. The vision took longer than expected to become reality.

But Gates also made one huge, glaring omission. In November 1990, Tim Berners-Lee was working on the first web browser. Beyond a passing mention of "online information publishers", Gates completely missed the notion that information would be coming from a worldwide network. He wanted "a vast array of information to be available to users", but the searching tools he talked about were searching only a corporate network; the multimedia applications were delivered on CD.

If you think of Gates talking about "Information At Your Fingertips" in 1990 and not mentioning the Internet, it seems hopelessly misguided. But in fact "Information At Your Fingertips", while a snappy marketing phrase, was not really what Gates was talking about. What he was really talking about was "Information Displayed On Your Computer In a Useful Way". His interest was not so much where the information came from as it was making the PC a great tool for presenting the information. This means it had to include networking, video, and sound. Once the computer has that capability, it can be easily repurposed into displaying web content--it's just software at that point. Gates, and a lot of the industry, spent some time wandering down the path of CD-based multimedia shovelware, but the end result was PCs that were affordable and widespread, with the hardware needed to make the Web compelling. Gates actually gave an updated IAYF keynote speech at Comdex four years later, which was basically the same speech with the Internet mixed in, and in which he also acknowledge that a good timeframe for all this coming true would be...the year 2005.

Anyway it's hard to argue with the results. Yes, personal computer sales growth was almost flat in 1991, hurt by the recession. People continued to complain about the difficulty of configuring their systems, cryptic error messages that made support difficult, and the tediousness of applying updates--a chorus that continues to this day. But for the rest of the decade, the industry rode a rocket to success, with Comdex peaking at over 200,000 visitors in the late 1990s (before going extinct in recent years). And for Microsoft and Bill Gates, as Jason Chudnofsky said back in 1990, "the rest is history".

Posted by AdamBa at May 23, 2005 09:54 PM

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>>Information, as defined by Gates, was "All the information that someone might be interested in, including information they can't even get today." <<

Unfortunately, it is *my* personal and private information/IP that is at everyone's fingertips. Who is taking it, I don't know. But my personal experience with Windows is that no information is safe from anyone that wants it. The more I treasure my work, the more someone is taking it. And you all know about it too.

Posted by: at May 24, 2005 03:14 PM

Linkage to the 1990 Bill .wmv (or whatever format)?

As an aside: ouch - blogspam. I don't think I'll visit any sc10.net site any time soon. Why don't most blog engines offer a programmatic way to avoid blogspam (which probably has some cooler name of which I'm unaware, like "Bl(ogsp)Am" or "Blo(g)Spam" or BS or somesuch other catchy but otherwise probably meaningless term).

Posted by: Drew at May 25, 2005 02:30 AM

Drew, I don't have a link to the video...all I have is a VHS copy (which I think they gave out to all Microsoft employees at the time).

- adam

Posted by: Adam Barr at May 25, 2005 07:57 AM