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The PC Era Is Just Beginning

By William H. Gates III Editor's note: In this column, the chairman and chief software architect of Microsoft (MSFT) responds to "Requiem for the Corporate PC", the Jan. 19, 2005, Viewpoint by author Nicholas G. Carr

Back when IBM (IBM) launched its first personal computer in 1981, business computing was a scarce resource. If a company was large enough even to afford computers, they were mostly so-called dumb terminals hooked up to large mainframe computers. Precious computing power was carefully rationed out for back-office tasks that needed a lot of number-crunching, such as accounting or inventory control.

Thanks to the PC, what once was a scarce and costly resource is now economical and ubiquitous. For a few hundred dollars per employee, companies can now empower their workers with raw processing power that would have been unfathomable just a few years ago.

But the value companies get out of these investments isn't measured in megahertz -- it's measured by the quantum leaps in productivity, communication, and collaboration that PC technology has made possible. What we can do with the power and flexibility of the personal computer today is far from trivial, and we're still a long way from exhausting its potential.

MORE THAN A "COG." Personal computing today is a rich ecosystem encompassing massive PC-based data centers, notebook and Tablet PCs, handheld devices, and smart cell phones. It has expanded from the desktop and the data center to wherever people need it -- at their desks, in a meeting, on the road or even in the air.

Single-purpose applications like word processors and spreadsheets have evolved into rich collaborative tools that help teams share information and work together efficiently. Web services are enabling companies to unlock the knowledge of an organization, empowering individual workers to make more strategic decisions, and turning a company's most valuable asset into a strategic tool that drives competitive advantage.

The result is that the personal computer has become far more than a "cog" in the machine of corporate computing -- it's an essential tool for every individual in the organization. Take the personal out of computing, and most companies would grind to a halt.

OUT TO THE EDGE. From the perspective of an info-tech manager in the 1970s, many of the things people now routinely do with computers, such as writing a memo or creating slides for a presentation, might seem like a frivolous waste of valuable computer time. But the abundance of technology made possible by Moore's Law has forever changed this mentality, and companies are always finding new ways to get even greater value out of ever-increasing processing power, storage, and network bandwidth.

This abundance has enabled the software industry to create innovative new ways to leverage the power of computing at every scale. Centralized servers manage large amounts of information and make it available to a diverse array of devices, while the power and flexibility of connected PCs, mobile phones, and handheld devices give users a rich, powerful way to visualize, understand, and act on that information. The Web-services revolution blurs the distinction between information, applications, and services on PCs and mobile devices, on a company's intranet, or on the Internet -- offering customers seamless computing and communications wherever they are.

In technological terms, a lot of intelligence is moving to the edge of the network.

OPPORTUNITIES TO COME. This shift in how we organize our computing power brings with it new challenges. Managing a diverse ecosystem of connected servers, PCs, and mobile devices is a vastly different task than managing the relatively static and disconnected networks of the past, and software tools are evolving in turn to enable systems that increasingly manage themselves. The threats of cybercrime, viruses, and malware have sparked a new wave of innovation that's helping to make the computing ecosystem more secure. Each new advance in computing creates similar challenges, but the potential benefits far outweigh the effort it takes to solve them.

As processing power, network bandwidth, storage capacity, and advanced software continue to evolve at rates that meet or beat Moore's Law, there will be even more opportunities to empower workers and transform their productivity. In fact, I believe that computing will change our lives more in the next 10 years than it has in the past quarter-century -- and that the PC, in all its forms, will be the centerpiece of this new wave of innovation. Gates is Microsoft's chairman and chief software architect

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