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Gates calls for better search technology

Someday search will offer more than "just a bunch of links that starts a treasure hunt," Gates says during a talk on coming changes in tech.

SINGAPORE--Describing a future where everyone and every system is highly connected through wireless devices and Web services, Bill Gates said Friday there is still room for improvements in search engines and the Internet.

Microsoft's chairman and chief software architect was speaking before a conference hall here packed with over 7,000 IT professionals, government officials and students. Gates is in Singapore for the day, following a trip to Thailand.

"We have the availability of information wherever you go, delivered by the breakthrough of wireless networks" in the office and in public areas, he said.

People are very impressed at what search is today, but it's really quite poor compared to what it should be.
--Bill Gates
Chairman, Microsoft

"This means that when you take the portable PC with you, you're connected...That portable (device) will get even smaller and will turn into a tablet device where pen and ink can be used as well as the keyboard."

And with a mobile phone in almost everyone's pocket, people are now always connected, he said. Gates added that applications on cell phones will continue to become richer, allowing mobile users to access maps and carry electronic wallets. They can even use their camera phones to "take a picture of an expense receipt and immediately file that with all the information (on it) by using software recognition," he said.

The Internet, powered by a low-level standard, TCP (Transmission Control Protocol), has also provided the ability to send information from one computer to another, he said.

"Now we're moving up to have standards that work at (a) very high level, containing data like health care, supply chain and e-government records, and letting those be exchanged between systems of all types," he explained. These, he said, were made possible by Web services and standards such as XML and emerging service-oriented architectures, or SOAs.

"This means that the software can connect no matter what language it's written in, or what environment it's written for," he added. "So in an e-commerce application, you don't have to insist that the buyer and seller have a common implementation, (but) simply that they abide by the same (Web services) standards."

Competition in the software market is then about finding the IT vendor that can provide products that run on the most pervasive hardware, deliver the highest level of runtime and offer the most efficient development tools, he noted.

But, Gates added, the Internet still needs to be improved, as do search engines.

"The Internet is so popular today that we need to just keep evolving it," he said. "It's not like we're going to throw it out and start over."

He added: "People are very impressed at what search is today, but it's really quite poor compared to what it should be." Gates noted that technology needs to allow users to navigate better and find information more easily.

In the future, he said, "we'll be able to have, essentially, document understanding, so that when you search for something, we give you an answer and not just a bunch of links that starts a treasure hunt that now takes about 11 minutes," he added.

And, as expected, Gates also touched on his company's ongoing rivalry with the open-source movement.

"We're certainly not against open source," he said. "But it is important to recognize that when you take an IT budget, your real goal is to get things done. And (with) packaged software, whether ours or open source, the key thing you want to look at is whether it lets you buy inexpensive hardware, reduce your communications cost and, most importantly, reduce personnel cost (associated with) development and operational" functions.

Gates added that companies will see that Microsoft offers a better "value equation" if they keep "an open mind."

Eileen Yu of ZDNet Asia reported from Singapore.