Goodbye Gutenberg, hello Gatesburg

The future for art, books and education, as seen through the eyes of computer wizard Bill Gates, who last month bought the Leonardo Codex



This is probably the best educated audience that I’ve ever spoken to. I myself am a high school graduate and that’s probably why I like Seattle, this is the only place that ever gave me a legitimate diploma, and it is where I became addicted to playing with computers. At the time when I left Seattle, I had no idea it was an addiction I’d be allowed to continue into adulthood. In fact, I thought I’d have to go become a lawyer, or a doctor, or something more serious, like a mathematician. Instead, the vision of what computing could do became so dramatic, and, I believe, over the next decade will be so pervasive that it will affect every type of endeavour. The opportunity to take what you all do, in terms of preserving the cultural and artistic history of this country and many others, is something that can benefit immensely from the computer. I hope you get a sense that I’m an optimist about what technology can do. I want to give you a glimpse of where I think we are today, how it happened, and then zoom forward to a time about ten years from now and talk about what has been dubbed the “Information Highway Age” and the potential that’s going to open up for all of us.

The way this all happened so rapidly is through a miracle of technology. Chip technology is really quite incredible. On a single chip, they are able, every two years, to provide us with about double the capabilities that were available before: double the speed; double the storage. That’s exponential growth. It’s not something that is easy to get familiar with because it goes so much faster than anything else we encounter. The easiest way to think of it is to think of having as much computer power as you want, and think, OK, what could you do with that? What possible use could you put it to?

With advances that are taking place right now, you can say the same thing about communications capability. That is, this optic-fibre high-speed capability that will be wired, not only to schools and museums and businesses, but also to every home over the next decade, will allow us to send high-quality video images and databases. Everything we can possibly imagine we’ll be able to reach out to. One way of thinking of this is to think of it as a new form of communication, one that lets us find people with common interests and find information far more effectively than anything we have today. The last advances in communications were the telephone, in terms of an interactive two-way device and, essentially, the TV, in terms of broadcasting. This new medium that I’m talking about combines all the power of both of those, but it’s so much more advanced that it’s not just quantitatively different; in terms of how much information can go over it, it’s qualitatively different. In fact, a lot of my success has come from seeing that the first computers we had twenty years ago needed to make computing faster and that we’d be using them in different ways. If all that had happened was that computers got cheap, who would have cared?There were only a few thousand of them in big organisations like banks and hospitals and airline reservation systems. If we’d just make computers small and cheap, we still wouldn’t have sold any more. We would just have had the industry get smaller, sort of like inventing radial tyres. That was an industry where, when they came up with these great tyres, people didn’t decide to drive their cars around a lot more, and so the industry shrank. Well, computing is quite different from that. As we get more and more power, not only do we make up for the improvement we have made; in fact, the total demand is far greater.

Now, seeing the chip that would make this happen, and seeing that the main thing which might prevent people from getting any benefit out of all that power, would be software, was the key insight that Paul Allen and I had in 1975 in starting the company. We had a slogan that we used at the time which was, “A Computer on Every Desk and in Every Home”.

The PC started out being used in business. Most new technology starts there because it’s expensive, and the provable benfits can be justified in terms of those budgets. The really dramatic growth over the last few years is coming in education and home use of these devices. They keep getting better and better. People say that prices of PCs are coming down. In fact, that’s not the case. The average price that people pay to buy a PC is about the same today as it has been for many years. What’s happening is that the power of that PC, what you get for $1500, is going up very, very dramatically. Original PCs were black and white. Then, we had an ability to show a total of sixteen colours. Now there’s a generation we have that can show almost enough colours to do pictures well. Then, the new machines will be able to do, basically, sixteen million colours, which is far more than the eye can detect. We’re also beginning to add things that allow us essentially to publish on the PC.

The original applications for the PC, and still the most popular, are things like word processing. You know, Microsoft sells $800 million a year of word processors around the world. Number two would be spreadsheets. When you turn on the word processor it’s a completely blank screen. It’s up to you to decide what to put in there. That is a tool. The same thing for the spreadsheet or a database. Well, as we’re putting educational software–encyclopaedias, catalogues, history, and art–onto these computers, it now is a type of publishing.

The advance that’s been key to this is the move up to the CD, the compact disc. The music industry ten years ago, in particular Philips and Sony, decided that the way to deliver high-quality audio would be, instead of using an analog technique where you had magnetic tape or grooves in a vinyl disk, to use numbers to represent the sound levels for any type of music. So, they used optical technology, actually a tiny little laser shining into a little piece of plastic, seeing if there’s little pits or no pits in this plastic. They perfected that as the first digital consumer technology. Of course, that product went on to sell millions and millions and millions. Well, the beauty of that is that the same disc that stores information for music can be used to store, not only music, but images and text. Basically, anything you’re interested in can be put onto CD. It’s very inexpensive to create a CD. It’s about a dollar per disk that gets pressed. If you compare that to, say, printing a nice art book, or printing an encyclopaedia, it’s dramatically different.

In fact, the encylopaedia business is a good illustration of what I think is going to come. The enclylopaedia business has been dominated by companies like Britannica and World Book. Today my company, Microsoft, is the largest enclyclopaedia company—not by dollars sold (those other guys still have the title in that sense), but in terms of units. A CD that we sell called Microsoft Encarta far outsells those other products. It sells for $99, and every year, for an additional $25, you can get everything completely updated So, our whole way of doing text creation is geared to yearly publishing. On CD, it only costs a dollar. You take the old encyclopaedia, and you throw it away, or you recycle it, or whatever one does with the unused CD. All the information you have is the latest information. It’s not just text. It’s not just pictures. It’s sound. It’s animation. The information is mult-dimensional. The ability to move around between related topics is very dramatic.

Now, I’m not saying that electronic information will take over for all types of information. If we go to the extreme, which is say, a fiction book, where you just turn it page by page, being in electronic form brings very minimal lasting value. The cost of the machine, and the complexity of carrying it with you when you go to bed is not that much of a benefit. In fact, the day will come when you’ll do that, but that day will be when we have a flat-screen technology where the thickness of the screen is about the same as a tablet of paper-maybe a little bit thinner-and you can ge that flat screen in any size. So, you would have one of those flat screens to cover most of your desk. You could choose what is displayed on your flat screen, maybe the latest donations, or your schedule, or your budgets. That would be a fairly large screen.

For when you walk around, you might have a screen that is tablet sized, to take it toa meeting, to talk to, to write on—new input techniques that will be very common. You’ll also have a very small flat screen that fits in you pocket. That’s the one we call the wallet PC. We call it that because it replaces a wide variety of things that you use you wallet for today. Instaead of having ickets, or keys, or credit cared, or maps, you’ll just have it on that screen—your messages. It’s a portable device that connects through the wireless medium. When we get to that level where those screens are cheap and flexible, we won’t even really think of computers at all.

In the near term what we have is publishing on CD, and for the first time taking educational material and trying to bring it to life; taking the text book budget and moving that over to this type of information. This is happening fairly rapidly, whether it’s a sales catalogue or physics. This is going to be somehting that is a standard feature of all these PCs, even the ones that you carry around.

The two first things that I encourage people to learn about and play around with to help them see what the Information Highway is about are first, the CD, and second, electronic mail. Now, electronic mail is kind of a wild thing. Believe me, when your electronic mail address is published in The New Yorker as mine was, you get a lot of mail. I was getting hundreds and hundreds of messages a day: people who wanted me to help them with their homework assignment or wanted donations of some type or who were just curious. One of the amazing things is what a high percentage of the people I get mail from is young people. I think all of us sometimes wish that we’d grown up when these tools were already around because if you have them as second nature, you never worry, “Am I going to look stupid using this thing?”. Certainly, the generation that’s coming up will have that capability and have it in spades.

Now, for museums, even the current technology offers some incredible opportunities. I think it is immensely valuable for every museum to have a plan to take its most important works and have , not only a database that catalogues all of that information, but also the image itself, scanned in at very high resolution. I think that the broad number of uses a database can be applied to, even today, justifies that kind of investment—whether it’s researchers using it; whether it’s your own internal adminsitration, or whether it’s taking it and doing displays that you use inside your museum. Deciding how to set up a database like that, what kind of terminolgy to use is a real challenge. These are the kinds of areas on which groups like the Getty and The Association of Art Museum Directors can get a lot of people together and share ideas. There’s no reason why any one institution should have to go off on its own and invent these things.

Furthermore, as you bring these databases together into one master database, if you’ve all done it different ways, then you’re simply not going to get the benefit, or the researchers or people browsing through these things aren’t going to be able to find things in a very rich way. So, it’s an area that’s crying our for standards. That’s not to say that over the next year all the right answers can be found. There’ll probably be some standards established over the next two or three years.

I’ve also started another company besides Microsoft, Continuum, that has a vision of facilitating a digital database, very well catalogued, of a wide range of images, including art. This is something that will take quite some time to happen, but already these databases consist of hundreds of thousands of images.

I’m sure all of you are constantly contacted by people from the technology world wanting to sell you things. Sorting through all that is challenging. Of course with any investment you make in technology buying computers, there’s no doubt that three or four years after you make that investment, you’ll say, “Gee, maybe we should have waited and bought something else”. The generations do change quite rapidly. If you can’t get enough value out of a device over, let’s say, a four year period to justify buying it, then you ought to think twice about whether that’s valuable. If you have to say, “OK, I’ll be using this for twelve years”, then maybe you ought to save up for a while because in terms of how the software is written, the way the tools are written, and in terms of the device—how long it’s going to last-we’re not set up that way.

There’s no need, as you license out your material, to do any type of exclusive license. You should retain control of your material in terms of being able to license it to whomever you want. As you license it, you can get back enough rights to have the scanned images to see yourself if you don’t want to do that yourself. There’s a lot offlexibility. The publishing opportunity that’s out there to have images included in the CD ROMs is an emerging opportunity. A year ago this phenomenon just didn’t exist, there were a few hundred thousand machines with this capability. Because the home computer market last year was five million machines, and about 40% of those have a CD, there are now several million of those machines. This year the home PC market will be 6.5 million. This is just in the US and probably 70% of those machines will have a CD capability. So, we can see what the opporunity is there.

The title that Microsoft got involved in doing is the National Gallery [London]. This was one we did about six months ago, and we’ve sold about 60,000 copies worldwide. Our ability to do these interfaces, make them fast and engaging, has advanced so much in the last six months that I think, “Oh, gee, we have to redo this one”. And, we will. Every year we sit down and apply our latest technology.

One of the things that’s coming in more and more when doing these titles is how to make them interactive so that it’s fun. If you buy one of these CDs and you only use it once, you probably didn’t get your money’s worth. Unless it’s something that you go back to, you find engaging; unless it’s set up so that different members of the family can interact with the title at different levels—even kids coming in and using it—then it’s probably not something that’s going to have a very broad appeal. Some of the really hot titles now are also including lots of motion video.The first CD that really did a good job of illustrating this is on which a professor at the University at Berkeley did about Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. It wasn’t just the people who think, “Hey, I like Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony,” (that’s a very small group) who said, “I want to go and buy that CD”. We’ve now sold over 60,000 of this Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony .We came out with Stravinsky, and we sold 50,000 of that. It brings people in who never would have apporoached the subject.

Who is Bill Gates?

london. In a public relations coup which put Bill Gates’s direct, rather adolescent gaze onto the pages of much of the international press last month, the thirty-nine year-old American computing and marketing wizard paid $28 million for the scientific manuscript

by Leonardo da Vinci known as the Codex Hammer (shortly to be the Codex Microsoft).

In a poll conducted by Parade magazine, teenagers voted him the third most admired man in the US, which is not surprising because his entire life is passionately dedicated to the same computer world in which young people play and work today. Personally worth over £5 billion, he owns 36% of Microsoft, the company he founded in 1975 when he was only nineteen years old. The average age of his 16,000 employees is still only thirty-one.

He dropped out of Harvard to devise the first ever simple computer software (together with Paul Allen), which he called Micro-Soft (later Microsoft) on which his success is based. His genius lay in realising that the huge area of expansion for computers lay in the field of software rather that of the computers themselves.

Today 90% of the 150 million personal computers in the world use software from his company. He created MS-DOS (Microsoft Disc Operating System) which he sold to IBM with a contract which limited them to using that software only, and then followed it with the more user-friendly Windows system.

Bill Gates has not done much in his life until now except work on his inventions and their marketing, but there are signs that he is beginning to share some conventional human interests. He married at the beginning of this year and is building a sumptuous house in Seattle with the help of designer John Stephanides. The house is full of high-definition screens on which images, including works of art (for his company Continuum, which is a huge archive of images, see Supplement p.I), can be called up. So far as one knows, the Leonardo manuscript is his first foray into collecting, and given that it is more history of science than art, it by no means proves that he is about to become a collector in the conventional sense. In any case, he has said that he will vest 95% of his money in a foundation before his fiftieth birthday.

How well will computer screens be able to reproduce works

of art?

Whenever we talk about screen quality, I never know if people want the quality to be bad, or if they want it to be good. It will improve substantially in the years ahead, but the new generation of screen technology, which is very, very expensive today, won’t be at reasonable prices for, probably three or four years.

How will the Information Highway come into our homes?

Some people ask, “Is it a TV or a PC?” Well, I hope it’s a lot nicer and easier to use than either of those. The last thing I want to suggest is that we’re going to apply all that stuff you have for a computer, particularly a PC, to your TV set. We want ease of use that’s far better than a VCR.

Underneath the technology is the technology of a PC. There will be two form factors. In your living room there will be a screen that you use at a distance and you’ll just have a remote infra-red controller to make choices. In your den you’ll have a device a little bit more like a PC where you can do your home banking, look at your investments, fill out your tax forms, send messages, have your kids’ teacher post what their assignments are, see what the Canoe Club is up to. In a certain sense that one in the living room will appear to be more of a descendant of the TV, whereas the one in the den will appear to be more of a descendant of the PC. In fact, they are a hundred times the power of a PC. It’s one wire that comes into your home and feeds all those devices. In fact, your speakers, your phone, all the different things in the home are fed off this one device.

Then we get to the point where we can take all these CDs that we’ve invested in, and get rid of them. We just put that information up on the central server, so instead of having to go buy the CD, which is a pain, and stick it in the drive, you just have your own personal bookshelf of all the things you like, and you just click on it and immediately you get the information. We can even cross reference across the boundaries. If there’s this CD on the National Gallery and another CD on another museum, you can have cross references between those as well. It’s evolutionary from the investments that we’re making today, but far, far, better.

Will the high-tech experience tend to replace the real life act of going to look at art?

Visiting the real object, is a unique experience. I think people like to get out. That fundamental desire won’t change. Why do people still go the movie theatre?

You will only go out of the house to do things that are really interesting. You won’t go out for those utilitarian things I talked about where you stand in line, fill out forms, that kind of thing. You’ll be looking for places to go that are unique and interesting.

I think art is one of those things that, as people have more leisure time, as society gets richer and richer and as we make it more approachable and interesting, will rise in popularity. To some degree, it’s in your hands to decide how you rise to that challenge.

Frankly, the US is at the front of the technological revolution and it is such a benefit to education, and that’s the great leveler. I see it as largely positive. It’s a matter of taking advantage of it in the best way.

Will our images get stolen?

The issue of protecting intellectual property is very, very important, and it’s one that both Microsoft and Continuum have, at the top of their priority list. Take software today. The amount of software theft that goes on in the U S is quite modest. Yes, there are some students who play around who never would have bought the software anyway. In a sense, that’s not lost revenue; that’s goofing around. But, how many businesses have it as a policy to tell their employees to commit felonies in stealing software? Very few in the US. What we have is a pretty high degree of honesty here.

As you get to the Information Highway, or even to the CD, you have all the advantage. The CD is not a read/write device, and so you can’t just go and copy it. Also, as you’re out there on the Highway, you can control how much somebody uses something; they don’t really get the bits to do with as they please.

Let’s move away from art just for a second. Take a software title, like the encyclopaedia. If somebody wants to pay a one-time fee to have that encylopaedia on their bookshelf and never pay ever again, that’s one option we’ll offer. If they want to pay twenty cents an hour to use it, that’s another option we’ll offer,. so, we can be very flexible. Whoever owns that content, whoever controls that copyright, can decide exactly what licensing regime makes sense for them, and so they retain control. In this digital world there are even some ways Continuum has invented whereby you can hide little signatures in the pictures and no amount of just moving them around or doing trivial things is going to take away that signature.

Most art, of course, is unique. I mean, you don’t wonder, “Is that my art? Is that being misused?”. If anybody was publishing, coming out with a CD on any widespread basis, you would be able to find that out and you could prevent it from being put into electronic mail. So, in fact, I don’t see this as a serious problem. Once you get outside the U S, the concept of intellectual property is, of course, in an earlier state. That’s why things like the NAFTA treaty that brought intellectual property protection to Mexico, and the GATT treaty that begins to bring copyright protection to the world at large, are important. The US government has done a great job of promoting this as the top priority in the US trade agenda.

I mean, we used to sell no software in Korea. We used to sell a hundredth as much per PC as we sell in the US. Today we sell a tenth as much, and I’m sure that three years from now we’ll sell a fifth as much. So, it’s constantly improving, and that’s all because of the pressure that was brought to bear there.

What uses can you predict for the databases of images?

The database of images is just the starting point. The next level up is the information about those images. At another level yet, you let people ask questions: “Who is in this time period? What art did this person own?” So, for the researcher, once you input those records, you can create exactly what he/she needs.

But when you’re talking about the general public, you probably need to create a very guided approach. At one extreme there’s the movie which you just watch passively, and at the other there’s a system where you have to type in some query to make something happen. What people want is the best of both worlds. When they walk up to it, you know, they’re a little intimidated. It’s starts telling them something pretty interesting, and then, maybe, gives them some choices of how to branch out and try different things as they go along, full of interesting facts and different pathways to go down. That requires a lot of authorship.

You can take the database and put it into an archive (the Continuum archive or what ever) and then have that available for art students, scholars, teachers of all types to build on and then get them to share whatever they build with each other to make it richer and richer. We’re democratising the idea of publishing in the same way that the word processor allowed an individual to have the power of a huge typesetting machine.

The art of storytelling is a non-trivial thing. Even once these tools are easy, you know, it’s still people who matter. Not everybody writes great books just because word processors are out there. There’ll be very few things that you just go and find in a raw fashion. You’ll have experts–call them editors, or reviewers, or whatever—that you rely on to tell you something’s worthwhile, because the amount of stuff out there is going to be incredible. Because such a high percentage of it will be junk and uninteresting, random navigation won’t really get you anywhere. We need a lot of authoring to bring this stuff to life. We need people like Professor Winter at Berkeley who brought Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to life. That was, for him, nine months of work. Now, that was very worthwhile. Find a lot more people who can do that in nine months; improve the tools so that you can do it in four or five months, and we’re going to have some really incredible ways of making art engage more people than ever before.