Bill Gates comes to town

Another item for me to catch up on: Last week Wednesday (Oct. 12), Bill Gates, the Chief Software Architect of Microsoft (who, I think, needs no further introduction) paid a visit to the UW-Madison campus. He was scheduled to give a talk to about 200 students in the afternoon, and also dropped in on an introductory level Computer Science class as a guest speaker. That “Stand In” lecture was filmed by mtvU, and will be broadcast on October 25, for any who are interested.

I’m no longer at the right level of Computer Science courses to have been in the class that got to meet Mr. Gates, though the person in the front row of this picture looks quite a bit like me… enough that two different people called to ask if it actually was. Too bad I don’t own a red sweater, then I could claim I sat 3 feet from Bill Gates. As it was, he actually passed me in the aisle, which was 2 seats farther to my right. That was as close as I got to meeting him.

The afternoon presentation was very interesting. Gates talked about the origins of Microsoft, the vision that he had then, and has now for the company and for computing in the world, and about the importance of developing future Computer Scientists to continue that work. Briefly, he founded Microsoft on the vision that computing hardware would become cheap enough and pervasive enough for the masses to benefit. The company today is still driven by the goal of pervasive computing, and “creating software that enables people to meet their full potential”, as their mission statement says. As long as they stay true to that mission statement, I think Microsoft has some very good ideas in mind and can take computing to even higher heights.

Gates also demoed some new Microsoft products, including the upcoming XBox 360. Very impressive demos; I hope that the released product will live up to the hype. One of the cool features of the new Xbox 360 is that it will allow you to connect an MP3 player or camera directly to it via USB, and let you browse the devices to play songs and/or view photo slideshows with a minimum of hassle. Seeing that in action during Gates’s demo was very cool.

The final part of the presentation, Gates answered questions from the audience. I didn’t, unfortunately, get to ask him anything, but some of the questions raised were pretty interesting. I was very impressed by how quickly Gates came up with answers to the questions asked of him, as well as how easily he was able to steer his answers toward a point that he, personally, wanted to make. One of the interesting questions raised was how Gates perceived the commercial software market shifting as Free and Open Source Software came to the forefront, and I thought Gates gave a solid answer, both from his company’s perspective, and from the end user’s perspective. Gates’s answer was that Microsoft’s solutions are not at risk in the software market, because of two key factors. Firstly, Microsoft provides, I believe Gates said, 24/7 support for their products. By this, I am assuming that he refers to business customers, as I don’t recall ever having received any free support with my copies of Windows or Office. Secondly, Microsoft’s products, being all developed “under one roof”, so to speak, provide the advantage of tight integration that many open source programs/suites lack, due to their development by different groups of programmers. I think that both of these points are very valid, and should be considered when making software purchasing decisions. This is not to say that there aren’t downsides to Microsoft’s solutions, and significant positives to alternatives. As you probably know, I am a strong supporter of the alternatives as well.

All in all, it was an excellent experience, made more so by the opportunity to meet the Campus Recruiter for UW-Madison, as well as our area’s Academic Developer Evangelist, at dinner on State Street. We ate at Chautara, and if anyone is looking for a new cuisine to try, I highly recommend them. The food is Nepali, and the salmon, chicken dishes, lamb, goat, and beef that I sampled were all delicious. The restaurant is more formal than most college-oriented State Street dives, however, so expect entrees at $16+ and wear something nice.

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