Gates Highlights R&D at CES08, Unveils Microsoft Touch Wall

Microsoft's Chairman Bill Gates spent a lot of time today talking about "empowering the workers" at the Microsoft's 12th annual CEO Summit 2008 in Redmond, Wash., where he gave a keynote speech. However, Gates wasn't talking about political revolutions or even pay raises for office workers before the CEO crowd. Instead, he was referring to new software technologies that can better enable collaboration, social networking and decision-making on the job.

Much of Gates' talk focused on Microsoft's current research and development efforts, which amount to a $7 billion investment just for this year.

The glitzy background to Gates' talk was a demonstration of the Microsoft Touch Wall, also described in the talk as an "intelligent whiteboard." This device provides a graphical display of information and uses a camera beneath the surface that can sense human touch. Gates said that the Touch Wall won't be expensive and is currently being developed by Microsoft's R&D labs. In addition, Microsoft's Office and Windows division are building capabilities to work with the technology.

Touch Wall appears to the vertical cousin to the table-like Microsoft Surface device that the company unveiled in May of 2007. Gates described AT&T's current use of Microsoft Surface in AT&T phone stores. Customers set their phones on Surface, and the software in the table recognizes the phone and displays various calling plans and phone models that customers might choose.

The Touch Wall device was demonstrated by Jeff Teper, Microsoft's corporate vice president of the Office SharePoint Server Group. In the demo, which highlighted a way to drill down and find relevant company information, he described Microsoft's approach as a break from the past. Currently, silos of information reside in most companies, but that information is often decentralized or inaccessible. Instead, Microsoft is proposing its SharePoint Server software as a way to tie together people and information.

Teper also described the use of search technology to find that information. The demo used enterprise search technology from Fast Search & Transfer to filter information. Microsoft finalized its acquisition of Fast last month.

In the demo, Teper tracked customer satisfaction as a performance metric. He said that Microsoft uses workspaces or Web sites to collaborate with its customers and partners to resolve issues, such as in the case of dissatisfied customers. He added that Microsoft has about 15,000 of such sites enabling collaboration on the Internet.

Touch is but one "natural user interface" that Microsoft has been working to develop in its R&D labs. Gates described voice as another such interface.

"It's speech, talking into your phone and just saying who you want to call or the stock price you want, the information," Gates said. "That's coming along, and it will be very mainstream."

Gates also said that devices to enable communications are also getting smaller.

"Even the gap between what's a portable PC and what's a high-end phone, there's almost no gap there," he said.

Other technology highlights noted by Gates included the movement of TV into the Internet and the idea that office PBX devices will disappear to be replaced by "a rich integrated software experience."

Gates' full keynote talk and a transcript can be accessed by going here.

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is senior news producer for 1105 Media's Converge360 group.