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Gates to students: Microsoft wants you

In part recruitment effort, part product pitch, Bill Gates champions the "magic of software" before a packed house at Howard University.

WASHINGTON--Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates on Friday preached the "magic of software" to a packed ballroom at Howard University here and said it's up to today's generation of college students to drive innovation in the future.

"The next 10 years will change the world more than the last 30," he told an audience of more than 600 students and faculty, making a thinly veiled reference to the 30th anniversary of the software giant, which Gates co-founded after dropping out of Harvard University at age 19.

Gates' speech--titled "The Impact and Opportunity of Technology: Why Computer Science? Why now?"--marked the final stop on his three-day college tour, which also took him to Columbia and Princeton, the Universities of Michigan and Wisconsin, and the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada.

The crux of his message was nothing new, as the Microsoft mogul has been vocal about the need to boost a shrinking supply of computer science graduates. He delivered hour-long talks at five tech-heavy campuses last spring.

His appearance at Howard, which counts 73 students bearing scholarships from Gates' foundation, was part recruitment effort, part product pitch.

Gates racked up laughs when he showed the audience a recruitment video featuring the title character from the hit indie flick "Napoleon Dynamite." And he garnered a chorus of ooh's and ah's from the audience when he went through a series of demonstrations of tools developed by Microsoft, including the soon-to-be-released XBox 360 game system and a digital photo album program with three-dimensional features.

"There's nothing more fun than doing this," he said of the software profession. "From Microsoft, we need to recruit the best and the brightest and get them involved with these projects."

Gates mused about the inevitable digital turn he envisions other devices taking--the newspaper turned tablet PC, the television news broadcast that displays only what the viewer wants to see, the camera phone that can snap pictures of price tags on products and instantly flag places to find a better deal.

But he also took time to reminisce about the olden days when he was writing software to run on a computer equipped with only four kilobytes of memory.

"Very soon, having four gigabytes of memory will be quite common," Gates said. "Improving something by a power of a million is quite dramatic...We simply don't find that kind of improvement anywhere else in the world."

During a question and answer session, students dressed in job interview attire couldn't resist asking a few questions about the company's competition. Asked by one information systems major how the company keeps up with Google, Gates replied: "What we need to do is make a better search engine."

A sixth grader from Howard's Middle School of Math and Science later asked about Apple Computer's influence on the company's operations. After pointing out that he helped to write software for an early version of the rival machine, Gates conceded with a smile, "They've contributed a lot. They've done a good job."