• Wed. Jun 7th, 2023

Bill Gates on the Next 40 Years in Technology


Jun 2, 2022 , , ,
Bill Gates on the Next 40 Years in Technology

For PC Magazine‘s charter issue(Opens in a new window) in early 1982, the newly minted editor-in-chief and publisher David Bunnell flew to Seattle to interview a fresh-faced, 26-year-old Bill Gates, the president and co-founder of a little software company called Microsoft. Bunnell’s goal with this exclusive interview was to understand the part Microsoft and its software played in the development of the groundbreaking IBM PC that was born less than a year earlier. After all, that IBM PC was the namesake of Bunnell’s new publication. 

In the interview, the two discuss how much fun it was for Bill and his team to contribute to the IBM project, how gratifying it was to have been part of it, and how the IBM and Microsoft teams worked together to actually get it done. They even speak of shooting jokes back and forth via an early form of email used for communication between the two teams. Besides recalling many of the gritty details of how the software and hardware were developed together (it was a two-hour interview!), Gates speculates about the future of the PC and how it would eventually become ubiquitous and change the way people work.

More than four decades later, the concept of the personal computer has evolved so far beyond the 16-bit beige box that it’s barely recognizable.

He was right, of course. More than four decades later, the concept of the personal computer has evolved so far beyond the 16-bit beige box made primarily for hobbyists that it’s barely recognizable. The world around it has changed, too. PCs are just one tiny slice of the technology that has changed not only the way we work, but the way we exist. 

In 40 years here at PCMag, we haven’t strayed far from our namesake (though with time we did shorten the “magazine” part). But the world of what we cover has become much more vast. Phones, smartwatches, VR headsets, digital health and fitness gear, smart home devices, and electric cars, just to name a few categories, are now a large part of our reporting and reviews. (Still, we do test and rate more than 200 PCs each year to help you find the right one for your particular existence.)

Four packed decades of technology evolution, 550+ magazine issues, more articles and reviews than you could ever count, and I’m the newly minted editor-in-chief of PCMag, so I thought it would be fun to catch up with Bill Gates to get some fresh takes on where we’ve been, where we’re going, and what lies ahead. Here’s what he had to say.

Wendy Sheehan Donnell: When the IBM PC with the software you created was born more than 40 years ago, did you have any idea what you’d done?

Bill Gates: The revolutionary concept of software as an amazing tool was the whole idea that Paul Allen and I built our company around. When Microsoft got started in 1975, our dream was a computer on every desk and in every home. We knew that the miracle advances in chips and the software that could be built because of those magic chips would make everyone want to use a computer. Later, we talked about information at your fingertips. Of course, it’s gone beyond that original dream with cell phones and sensors. But it still comes back to so much early important work driven by chips and great software.

You considered buying PC Magazine(Opens in a new window) back in the day, and regretted not going for it. How were early computing magazines like ours integral to the birth of the PC industry?

Computers are so mainstream now and so integral to our lives that a lot of people forget that the early users and the people who really believed in personal computers back in the day were a relatively small group of dedicated, nerdy hobbyists. There were various clubs like the Home Brew Computer Club where groups would get together and talk about the latest advances. PC Magazine really helped bridge the gap between the hobbyists and a much larger audience of people looking for more usable and accessible computers. PC Magazine’s reviews and feedback were a key element that helped push the industry to go from niche to changing the world.

PC Magazine really helped bridge the gap between the hobbyists and a much larger audience. PC Magazine’s reviews and feedback were a key element that helped push the industry to go from niche to changing the world.

What do you think we will be reading PCMag.com on in 2062? When do you think we shift to the Post-PC Age?

The combination of chips and software show up in a lot of form factors nowadays. The most popular are mobile devices that fit in our pockets. But we’ve also got that combination powering our TV sets. We’ve got it in our cars. It’s pretty pervasive at this point. Eventually, we’ll get glasses with augmented reality that are adopted broadly, and we’ll get robots that are more than simple task-repeaters on production lines.

The sky is really the limit as these chips get more powerful and as the AI software algorithms eventually figure out how to create personal agents that help us get a variety of tasks done like reading and providing advice on scientific discovery. The field still has a long way to go–it’s really exciting.

What will be the greatest technology challenge of the next 40 years and how will we overcome it?

There are a lot of challenges ahead of us that require technology and innovation. Climate change is a big one. Political polarization is another big one–how can we work in a common way across humanity and minimize wars and violence. There’s not a tech tool that can solve that, but the way we’re interconnected and interact with each other is so tied to how information flows around the world.

With AI, there’s huge potential to do good in the world, but it’s also important to be cautious and make sure it’s being developed in the right way. Microsoft and OpenAI have a smart approach to that. The younger generation is more educated and more aware of societal problems, and I’m optimistic that they can contribute to solutions. It will take a lot of brilliant minds and ideas. 

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You’ve made the full move to philanthropy; how hard was it to leave Microsoft and a lifetime career in technology?

While my day-to-day focus has shifted toward philanthropy, I’m still very much involved in technology as I meet regularly with groups at Microsoft and talk about their product plans. That’s something I really enjoy. And my work at the foundation, where we’re exploring things like digital currency or empowering health workers with digital tools, challenges me to understand the latest advances and think about how we put them into usable forms to save lives.

In my philanthropy work, I’ve had to learn a lot of new areas like biology and climate science. Learning is one of the things I love the most, and I’m lucky that my job requires it. When the digital advances and biological advances come together, we have a real chance to do things like cure HIV or ensure that health workers have the tools they need to care for people no matter where they are in the world.

What’s your everyday PC these days? How does it compare with the OG IBM PC? 

I use a mix of devices depending on where I am and what I need. I have a cell phone with a big screen, the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold3. When I’m traveling, I use a Surface Laptop 4, one of Microsoft’s products. And then on my home office desk, I have a Surface Studio 2 All-in-One PC.

I tend to use the big PC screen more than most people because I like sending long emails and reading long documents and research papers. I’m not quite as phone-centric as the younger generation, but the mix works well. I can stay on top of all my work at the foundation, even as I’m traveling. The tools just keep getting better, but there’s still a long way to go and a lot of potential.

I had to fit the very first program I wrote into 8k bytes of code, not 8 million or 8 billion.

The original IBM PC wasn’t connected up to a network, and its processing power and storage capacity was quite limited. It was capable of doing basic word processing, basic spreadsheets, some games, and things like that. It was quite a good tool, but the fact that it wasn’t connected to a network and you couldn’t access large databases means that if somebody were forced to go back in time and use it, they’d be pretty disappointed. I had to fit the very first program I wrote into 8k bytes of code, not 8 million or 8 billion. Our devices now are thousands of times more powerful than what the original IBM PC was capable of. We are spoiled nowadays–our computers are so unbelievable.