Don't Bet on Gates' Keynote Predictions

For the 10th time, Bill Gates will inaugurate the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas by touting new Microsoft Corp. products and describing his view of the future of computing.

Before you rush to the edge of your seat Sunday, consider this: Gates is a mediocre prognosticator.

In fairness, as the old joke goes, predictions are very hard, especially ones about the future. Scouting a technology on the horizon is one thing; it's another to foresee the business-execution problems and competitive troubles that might waylay it.

But hey, this is Bill Gates. That savvy guy who has spent more than 30 years atop what remains (for now, at least) the dominant entity in personal computing, a company that pours $7 billion a year into research and development. His drawing power is so strong that CES organizers always give Gates top billing at the industry's premier extravaganza.

And so, since this is Gates' last keynote before he leaves his day-to-day Microsoft duties to focus on philanthropy, it's as good a time as any to scour his track record.

Let's confine the examination to Gates' speeches at CES and Comdex, a now-defunct show that once rivaled CES. Because if we went beyond Gates' Las Vegas addresses, we'd have to mention his 2004 pledge to the World Economic Forum that spam would be "solved" by 2006. And that wouldn't look good.

First, the highlights.

They include Gates' debut of the Xbox video game console at CES in 2001. The Xbox became Microsoft's most successful piece of hardware.

In 2000, Gates correctly explained the rising importance of networked mobile devices, even as PCs were still becoming more prevalent. Indeed, the following year he predicted that the percentage of American homes with PCs would grow from just over 50 percent at the time to 75 percent by 2010.

Depending on where you get your market research, Gates more or less nailed it. Analyst firms IDC and Forrester Research Inc. say the figure has already hit 75 percent, while Gartner Inc. says we're almost there.

And if you were paying attention to Gates in 1999, you would have had early word about the importance of XML, a programming system that has made it easier for computers to share information.

As for his lesser moments ...

  • At CES in 1995, Gates described a way to make "the computing experience better." Its name was Bob. Bob was a $100 Microsoft program that tried to make word processing, accounting and e-mail more intuitive. Featuring images of rooms in a house and characters such as Java, a caffeine-crazed dragon, Bob let users click on say, a piece of paper on a desk to launch a letter-writing program. The idea was very much of its time: Some analysts gasped that Bob put Microsoft way ahead of Apple Inc. in a crucial race to incorporate cartoon characters in PC use. But Bob required twice as much memory as most home computers had back then, found few buyers, and became an infamous bomb.

  • In 2002, Gates told CES that "entertainment will never be the same." Why not? Because of a wireless device code-named Mira. It was a portable, touch-screen monitor that could display Internet content and music files streamed from a home PC into more relaxed settings like the couch or the kitchen. But it didn't work with the Home Edition of Windows XP; it required the pro version. And it couldn't show video. Microsoft licensed Mira's technology to hardware companies for "smart displays," yielding more hype at the 2003 CES. But at laptop-like prices north of $1,000, smart-display sales were rare, and Microsoft said in 2004 it was moving on.

  • At Comdex in 2002, Gates said the next computing revolution would include SPOT -- Microsoft's "smart personal objects technology." The idea was that pens, watches and other everyday things could tap into the Internet and show real-time tidbits of information, like news headlines, weather updates or sports scores. Well, first Microsoft and partner companies had to design a new operating system and low-power chips for objects, plus a wireless transmission network for SPOT data. The initial output -- some watches, a weather gizmo and a coffee maker -- was far from revolutionary. Only now is SPOT beginning to show real value, in navigation devices.

  • Even when Gates has been right, he's been wrong. Take that 2001 speech in which Gates prophesied PCs in 75 percent of American homes. He also said that within five years, the most popular form of the computer would be the Tablet, a sleek device that responds to handwritten commands from a pen-like stylus. Gates didn't come close. IDC counted 3.3 million Tablet sales worldwide in 2007, just 1.2 percent of all PCs.

To his credit, Gates has been known to display a sense of humor about himself, so he probably is a good sport about his weakness as an oracle. But a Microsoft spokeswoman said he was unavailable to comment.

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