Gates: 'Information overload' is overblown

Gates opens Microsoft's CEO Summit with takes on information overload, data management and search software.

Ina Fried Former Staff writer, CNET News
During her years at CNET News, Ina Fried changed beats several times, changed genders once, and covered both of the Pirates of Silicon Valley.
Ina Fried
3 min read
REDMOND, Wash.--Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates on Thursday countered the popular notion that workers are universally overloaded with too much information.

Speaking to a crowd of chief executives, Gates cited the need for access to even more data in areas such as sales results and corporate budgets.

"I'd say in all of these cases, we are really dealing with information underload," Gates said in his talk, which kicked off Microsoft's annual CEO Summit. "We still want a lot of information."

The problem, Gates said, is that the information exists, but it is not in one place and cannot be easily viewed in a meaningful way using today's software.

"You have to seek the information out...it is spread across different systems," Gates said.

As expected, Gates also outlined the company's plans for Office 12, the next version of its flagship desktop software, which is due to arrive in the second half of next year.

Gates pointed to e-mail as an area where the information is coming in too quickly to be properly evaluated.

"There is a real temptation that the thing that comes in the latest is the one you shift your attention to, even though that may be the least important," Gates said. The result, he said, is that people either have to leave everything "in one big bucket" or they have to spend a lot of time creating lots of folders. "That turns you into a filing clerk."

In addition to making it easier for individuals to manage e-mail, Gates said, Microsoft is working on technology that will allow companies to set policies to ensure that different types of information are shared only with the right people and archived in a way that complies with legal strictures.

Searching for answers
Gates also devoted a fair amount of time to the issue of search technology, an area in which the company has invested heavily to try and catch up to rivals such as Google and Yahoo. He said that there is still plenty of room for improvement.

The typical Web search takes 11 minutes these days. Gates acknowledged that that is a big improvement over search times and capabilities of a few years ago, when half of the searches didn't yield the needed information. He added, however, that a Web search is still a "treasure hunt" in which one hopes that the top few links contain the desired information.

"We really want to get to the point where you are getting direct answers," Gates said. The company's MSN Search already has that for a few areas, he said, demonstrating queries on "Which country has the second-largest GDP?" and "How many calories are there in spinach?" (The answers: "Japan" and "7 calories for 1 cup.")

Gates also showed off the Windows Desktop Search that Microsoft introduced earlier this week, demonstrating how it could show all his mail from "Steve" and even which documents were attached to those e-mails. "It's certainly the most interesting feature we've ever added in between major releases."

Searching for information within a corporation's own network is another area of focus--one for which traditional Web-search methods do not work, Gates said.

Among the primary concerns in developing internal-search software is that not every worker should be permitted access to sensitive documents, such as financial data or personnel information. Also, Web searches typically answer queries by ranking pages based on the number of links they have, a system that "doesn't work in a corporate environment," he noted. "There just aren't that many links done."