By Bill Gates, Microsoft Corporation, Forbes ASAP October 4, 1999 Everyone, Anytime, Anywhere
The next step for technology is universal access.
By Bill Gates
October 4, 1999
Amazingly, it's been more than 20 years since the concept of "convergence" entered the high tech lexicon.
For most of that time, convergence has meant two things: the coming together of the computer, consumer electronics, and telecommunications industries and the merging of gadgets such as the PC, TV, and telephone.
But as the 21st century approaches, sophisticated digital technologies and the promise of exploding bandwidth are combining to create a third kind of convergence—one that will change our lives more dramatically than anything we've seen so far. It will deliver the power of the information age into the hands of everyone, anytime, anywhere.
We live in an age where voice, data, and video are just bits, ones and zeros to be pushed down the broadest pipe or around the most accommodating slice of spectrum. Bits are agnostic. They don't care how they get where they're going—only that they arrive in the right order and at the right moment. The ubiquity of bits is already empowering the kind of hybridization that most people have envisioned for consumer electronics these past two decades—multifunctional devices such as modern PCs, WebTV, cable modems, and smart phones.
But this is only the start. Combine digital technology with advanced software, smaller and more powerful microprocessors, and exponential growth in fiber and wireless bandwidth, and you get something far more useful—seamless, universal connectivity. This turns convergence on its head. It means that although computer, telecommunications, and consumer electronics technologies will come together, the next generation of smart devices mostly won't.
Universal connectivity will bring together all the information and services you need and make them available to you regardless of where you are, what you are doing, or the kind of device you are using. Call it "virtual" convergence—everything you want is in one place, but that place is wherever you want it to be, not just at home or in the office.
The result is that there'll be a proliferation of smart, connected devices, from palm-sized and tablet PCs to Web-enabled phones and AutoPCs. Your files, schedule, address book, and everything else you need will automatically be replicated onto each of these devices, because everything that can think will link.
Virtual convergence will take the power on your desktop and make it available wherever you want it. But to help avoid information overload, it will do this intelligently. If you're watching a game in the ballpark on a Saturday afternoon, the network will know that player profiles or an online form to order a hot dog are what you need on your palm-sized computer—not your tax return or tomorrow's travel itinerary.
A lot still needs to be done to make this a reality. First, in the same way that people must speak the same language if they are to understand each other and collaborate, smart devices also need to speak a common language to communicate effectively. The best way to achieve this is by using existing open Internet standards. The industry is starting down that route, but there's still a long way to go. Second, a massive amount of investment is still required if high-speed, broadband communications are to be widely available throughout the United States.
To make all this happen, we'll see more deals, alliances, and joint ventures involving computing, consumer electronics, telecommunications, Internet, and cable companies. And chances are that as everyone faces the challenge of developing a viable business model, some of those ventures will fail in the marketplace. But two things are certain: Ubiquitous wireless and high-bandwidth data networks are going to get built, and the various smart devices required to provide access to these networks will soon be on the market. Together, they will make the potential of virtual convergence a reality.
Bill Gates is the CEO and chairman of Microsoft. In 1975 he dropped out of Harvard to write software for a kit computer, the Altair 8800. That same year, he founded Microsoft, now a $430 billion market cap company.
© Copyright 1999, Forbes ASAP. Reprinted with permission.