updated 04:00 am EDT, Wed July 4, 2012
Believes tablets have little role to play in education
Microsoft Founder Bill Gates was interviewed on the Charlie Rose program in an hour-long talk that aired on PBS stations on Monday, and which touched on a wide range of topics. Overshadowing much of the discussion, however, was the invisible presence of Apple's iPad -- the success that was born out of Microsoft's failure to create a market for such technology a decade ago.
Gates praised his rival and friend Steve Jobs' success with the iPad by saying that part of its success was due to "the package [of hardware and software innovations] he had put together" and dismissed his own company's failure to find success by saying he had the idea of a tablet PC "way too early." He also admitted that "there were a few things that could have been done differently" to make the early Windows tablets more successful.
With the recent unveiling of the Surface tablet (the name taken from another unsuccessful MS product), comparisons to the market-leading iPad were inevitable. Though Gates was unable to share any new information about the product (a disappointment to those hoping he would use the interview to discuss specific details, explain the lack of 3G or the ability to change orientation, or reveal the price and shipping dates), he said that the Surface may force Apple to rethink its own approach to the iPad, a reference to the latter's separate iOS operating system.
In addition to claiming that the Surface was "a completely new form factor" (but not elaborating on this notion), he suggested that the device -- which will be available in both a thin "Windows RT" mobile edition and a thicker, heavier "Windows 8 Pro" version -- will establish that companies don't have to (as Apple and Google have both done) create a tablet-specific OS that makes "compromises" for touch use and certain kinds of "heavy lifting" computing. "You can have everything you like about a tablet and everything you like about a PC all in one device. And so that should change the way people look at things," Gates said.
He was once again notably deferential and respectful of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs when the subject inevitably came up, admitting frankly that Jobs "did some things better than I did" on the tablet concept. Later, when discussing author Malcolm Gladwell's prediction that Gates would eventually be remembered more fondly than Jobs (mostly for the highly-regarded charity work Gates has done since retiring from day-to-day involvement with Microsoft), Gates largely brushed the notion aside.
He told Rose that Jobs had done "phenomenal" work "both when I partnered with him and when Microsoft competed with him, and that deserves to be remembered." He added that "I don't think anyone does the work they do based on how they think they'll be remembered" and mentioning that "the world's best companies are built by fanatics ... and when you're in your 20s and 30s, being fanatical comes easy."
He was clearly enthused about the possibility of Microsoft having a breakthrough product in the Surface tablet, and attempted to downplay reports of vendor hostility, which has resulted in some companies saying they won't use Windows RT on their tablets. He even -- hesitantly -- agreed that Apple may see enough pressure from the Surface's eventual success to have to build a direct competitor, though he tempered the idea by noting that the market had not made any decisions about the Surface tablet yet.
Gates also, in an earlier interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education, made the risky prediction that tablets would not ultimately be seen as a good tool for the classroom compared to low-cost PCs. He cited a "terrible track record" with "just giving people devices." Seemingly unaware of the numerous studies that contradict his position, Gates -- who has long had a strong interest in improving education -- said that tablets like the iPad (and presumably his own Surface) will never work well in classrooms "where you don't have keyboard-type input."
"I mean, students aren't there just to read things," he added. "They're supposed to actually be able to write and communicate, and so this is a lot more in the PC realm." One of Gates' own suggestions is that technology like tablets could instead be used to reduce the amount of time students need to spend actually at school, though he was quick to mention the importance of at least occasional interaction with other students and "face-to-face time" with instructors.