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Gates still has a long to-do list

Even as he moves to part time, Microsoft's chairman will keep pursuing tech such as tablet computing, speech recognition. Video: Gates' crystal ball

SAN FRANCISCO--Bill Gates has some unfinished business.

For years, the Microsoft chairman has been a fiery advocate, inside the company and out, for the notion that computers should be controlled, not just by mouse and keyboard, but also by more natural means, such as voice, touch and digital ink.

But, as Gates prepares to shift to part-time work at Microsoft next year, his vision is still more common inside the company's research labs than inside the typical home or office. Unbowed, Gates said he expects to keep plugging away as he takes on a new, more limited role at the company.

"Big screens, touch, ink, speech, that's something that I think, along with cloud computing, is the next big change in how we think about software," Gates told CNET News.com on Tuesday. (Cloud computing is the notion that many of the computing tasks handled by individual computers today will instead be tackled by servers in huge data centers connected over the Internet.) "Ray Ozzie is driving our cloud computing stuff...Some of the natural interface stuff, I think he and Steve (Ballmer) will ask me to sort of keep the energy and vision alive there."

"As we take the magic of software to new things, it's OK to be too early. We don't want to be in too late."
--Bill Gates, chairman, Microsoft

Gates continues to lobby hard inside Microsoft for investment in speech and handwriting recognition, though neither has been a huge financial success for Microsoft. The Tablet PC, a frequent staple of Gates' Comdex keynote speeches in the 1990s, remains a fairly niche product. And though the ability to control PCs through voice is built into Vista, the feature has gotten scant attention, and the operating system itself has received less than enthusiastic support in its first year on the market.

Gurdeep Singh Pall, a Microsoft vice president, who has worked closely with Gates in the areas of unified communications, said that Gates has expressed frustration with how slowly speech recognition has found its way into the mainstream. Pall noted that the software maker has been investing in the technology since at least 1991.

"Bill is a very big believer in speech and the potential of speech as a natural way of interacting with machines," Pall said. "That's an area where he is very interested and wants to understand what are the limitations and how do we get past those limitations."

A number of Gates' pet projects have yet to make it into the mainstream. The digital watches that use Microsoft's Smart Personal Object Technology have remained geek toys, and his dream of an all-new Windows file system based on SQL found itself on the cutting-room floor when Longhorn became Vista. But other big bets, like Internet television and the Xbox, appear poised to start paying off after years of investment.

In the coming years, the conference table will be a computer, the whiteboard will be a computer, says Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates.

Gates said Microsoft has been right to invest in those areas, though he agrees his company has sometimes invested in ideas well before they were ready for prime time.

"As we take the magic of software to new things, it's OK to be too early," Gates said. "We don't want to be in too late."

And, as for these new means of interacting with computers, he insists they are underappreciated, not unimportant.

"All these things about natural interface are coming to the fore, and they are probably the thing that's most underestimated right now about the digital revolution," Gates said.

Of all the new ways of interacting with computers, the one that seems to be gaining the ground the quickest is multitouch, where people use multiple finger gestures to manipulate objects on a screen. Microsoft has the feature in its high-end tabletop computer, Surface, while Apple has introduced a more mainstream adaptation of the technology in the iPhone and iPod Touch

"People kind of gasp when they see how touch works on Surface, you know, when they touch their iPhone," he said. "'Oooo, wow,' you know, that's just such a natural thing."

The conference table, the office whiteboard and even the bedroom mirror are all surfaces that will one day be replaced with an intelligent computer screen, Gates said.

"Give us a 5- to 10-year time frame and we will wonder why our tables used to sit there and not do anything for us."
--Bill Gates, chairman, Microsoft

"Give us a 5- to 10-year time frame and we will wonder why our tables used to sit there and not do anything for us," Gates said.

Pall said that Gates' strength is helping the company see where technology will help previously disparate things come together. "He is amazing at spotting what are the connections that need to be made, and then moving on to the next opportunity to make the connection, and letting the rest of Microsoft and the industry innovate once the proper connection has been made."

As for the other projects Gates expects to work on once he becomes a part-timer, he said, "Search is such a fun area right now."

Microsoft has found itself in an intense battle with Google and, despite pouring tons of research into the area, it remains in third place behind Google and Yahoo.

Gates was more circumspect about another area he is working on. "There are some ideas about where Office should go...I'm really quite enthused about some things."

Others at the company say that Gates is particularly driven about the notion of how presence--the notion of a computer knowing whether someone is online or not--can be used by computers to help prioritize work.

Kim Akers, general manager of Microsoft's unified communications effort, said Gates has been pushing her team, as it integrates various modes of communications, to also make other software programs aware of when someone is busy and when--and how--they are available.

"Once you integrate that communication, how can you use the power of software to drive productivity gains?" she said.

If, say, you have an hour free on your schedule, Akers said that Gates believes an intelligent agent should be able to look at your calendar and prioritize some of the top tasks and messages that you might want to tackle.

"It's very futuristic," she said.