By Jay Greene When Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates released his first book, The Road Ahead, in 1996, he predicted technical wonders we take for granted now. He saw that, in the future, music would be kept as digital bits of information, rather than on CDs and cassettes. He foresaw the workforce displacement that the Web enables. And he predicted a dramatic rise in shopping on the Net, changing consumer habits forever.
Now Gates is ready to look into his crystal ball again. BusinessWeek Online has learned that the Microsoft (MSFT) founder is in the preliminary stages of writing a new book, looking once again at the future of technology.
ANOTHER BEST SELLER? Microsoft is in the final stages of closing a deal with a co-author, whom the company declined to name. And Gates's representatives have begun meeting with book industry execs to gauge their interest. The software giant won't say yet when it hopes to see a book in print.
There's little question, though, that the book will spark quite a bit of interest. The Road Ahead was a best seller, selling 2.5 million copies to date, according to Microsoft. Gates followed that book up with one written specifically for executives, called Business @ the Speed of Thought, which targeted a much smaller, elite audience. But Gates's latest look into the crystal ball will likely once again attract a wide audience.
So what's he going to write about this time? The company is reluctant to call it The Road Ahead 2, since the original was very much a primer on technology at a time when the Web was in short pants and PCs weren't yet a common device in most homes.
TECH'S DO-GOOD POWER. The new book will assume a certain amount of technical knowledge, then go on to explore how Gates thinks technology will transform the way people communicate, entertain themselves, and work, according to the company.
It will also talk about the ability of technology to address issues that are central to Gates's philanthropy -- world health and education. "The book is going to be a compilation of what he's thinking about," says spokesman John Pinette. "It's going to talk about where the next big technical breakthroughs are going to come from, and the impact they're going to have."
As prescient as Gates was in The Road Ahead, he had plenty of company in some of his predictions at the time. The first edition of the book barely mentioned the Internet -- something he fixed in a subsequent edition a year later.
MISSED SOME. Even then, some of Gates's predictions haven't materialized. For example, he envisioned a wireless wallet that could shoot digital currency to a nearby cash register to purchase goods. And he forecast that students would be able to ask computer programs out loud about the cause of the American Civil War, and get a detailed response in reply.
Didn't happen. At least, not yet. But like so many predictions, Gates might not actually have been wrong, just early. And in his new book, he'll get one more chance to forecast the future. Greene is Seattle bureau chief for BusinessWeek