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Bill Gates predicted the future in January 2000

Celebrate the tech innovator’s 60th birthday with a look back at his EW interview.

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Jeff Christensen/Getty Images

Fifteen years ago, when he was a man of just 45 years old, Bill Gates predicted the future. From the state of the record industry to viewers’ television habits to the evolution of advertising, the Microsoft co-founder had an amazing idea of what was to come. In honor of Gates’ 60th birthday Wednesday, read on below to see just how close he got.

The following article by Noah Robischon originally appeared in the January 7, 2000 issue of Entertainment Weekly.

Like E-Elvis leaving the building, Bill Gates swiftly moves past a backstage throng of awestruck digit-heads. One balding, middle-aged hopeful gathers up the courage to break from the pack and nervously hand him a glossy folder–a business proposal? a resume? a subpoena?–before the world’s wealthiest man is ushered into a nearby meeting room. It’s Dec. 7, and, unbowed by a federal judge’s finding that Microsoft has monopoly power in the computer industry, Gates has just unveiled the possible future of entertainment: In an hour-long speech at the Streaming Media West ’99 conference here in San Jose, Calif., he has laid out his company’s plans to dominate not just your PC but your house. The key announcements: Microsoft’s creation of a secure network for delivering entertainment on demand via Internet-connected set-top boxes, and a guide to content for high-speed users that will offer full-length movies, TV shows, and thousands of music videos. As Gates presents it, Windows software will unchain computing from the desktop and turn a slew of devices–like portable music players and cell phones–into mini-PCs.

Yet in spite of his Olympian celebrity, Gates still, and somewhat endearingly, exudes geekitude. He seems at pains to present himself as just another small businessman: “Providing tools to everybody, the business we’re in, it’s not such a bad business,” he says, sounding for all the world like an Orville Redenbacher popcorn ad. It’s almost easy to forget that this is a guy who lives in a $50 million-plus superhome with flat-panel wall screens that cycle through millions of images owned by one of his many companies.

When Gates began building software 25 years ago, those digital photos, and the mere idea of watching video on a computer, seemed impractical at best. Now he envisions Microsoft software as the underlying juice that makes 21st-century entertainment–video editing, interactive television, digital music, and even smart car radios–possible. And no matter what the government says or plans, Gates has the bucks and the infrastructure to make it happen. We quizzed him on his vision of the future.

EW: Where will the entertainment of the early 21st century come from?

BG: It will be quite a mix of start-ups and traditional players. You don’t have to own a TV network to go out and do a cool show. People use The Blair Witch Project as a sort of prototypical example. Every year there will be a couple of fantastic examples like that, of some new approach where somebody, with at most $100,000 of capital, went out and did something that millions of people fell in love with.

EW: Where does the PC fit in?

BG: In the past if you wanted to edit a video, or do special effects, that was like, oh my God, get out the $5 million budget. All those kinds of neat special-effects-type things will become standard features of PCs over the next five years. Our whole thing has been to take technology and not have it be a barrier. So anybody who has got the creativity doesn’t have to learn the bits and bytes.

EW: Where do you see this evolution occurring first?

BG: It’s only in music–and it’s only in the cutting-edge audience–that you’ve really started to see this change in behavior where people are saying, “Why should I have this physical thing [a CD] that I have to carry around? Why shouldn’t I have just a small device?” I think if you went to certain campuses and said to [students], “How do you get music?” they would view physical storage of music as kind of outdated and very inconvenient. Will it go so extreme that you won’t have much physical media at all? There are people like myself who believe that it may well do that. Yet two years ago I remember there was a panel at this Sun Valley media conference where the question came up. And some music executive–who will remain unnamed–said, “Oh, no way would it go digital. People love having that CD.” It just reminds me of the people who said that the encyclopedia would never go digital because it’s so prestigious to have that big leather-bound set up on your shelf. It’s one of those things you look back on and say, “How could there have been a debate?” C’mon, it’s just better.

EW: And what happens to record companies if there are no CDs to distribute?

BG: The fact of just moving those discs around and which ones are sold and how much–a lot of those areas that have been complicated go away. But then you get these new opportunities to essentially author and experience more than just the music itself. Not every group should have to build their own website, so there’s an area of expertise here, there are companies that are going to make sure that the content is out there, and that it’s authored in a very, very creative way.

EW: When will the PC start affecting the way we watch movies and television with the same impact?

BG: If you look at any time line for digital music, it’s probably about two or three years more rapid than video. Music, even with these dial-up connections you have to the Internet, is very practical to download. Whereas for video, if you just have a dial-up connection, the kind of quality we can offer is suggestive rather than the full experience. But every PC you buy in 2001 will have the ability to tape shows that you’re watching. This new generation of set-top boxes that connects up to the Internet is very much part of that. The potential impact is pretty phenomenal in terms of being able to watch a TV show whenever you want to. There will be so many choices out there. You’ve got to imagine that a software agent will help you find things that you might be interested in.

EW: Like a personalized TV Guide?

BG: The “TV guide” will almost be like a search portal where you’ll customize and say, “I’m never interested in this, but I am particularly interested in that.” It’s already getting a little unwieldy. When you turn on DirecTV and you step through every channel–well, there’s three minutes of your life.

When you walk into your living room six years from now, you’ll be able to just say what you’re interested in, and have the screen help you pick out a video that you care about. It’s not going to be “Let’s look at channels 4, 5, and 7.” It’s going to be something that has pretty incredible graphics and it’s got an Internet connection to it.

EW: In the current worst-case scenario, the federal government could order Microsoft to be split into several units. If that happened, would one of the so-called Baby Bills be spun off as an entertainment company?

BG: The whole talk about breaking up is really inappropriate and premature. In terms of our overall strategy, one thing I just can’t be clear enough about is that we are not an entertainment company. We are in partnership with entertainment companies. We do websites where we put our partners up, and we do these great tools.

[Disney CEO Michael] Eisner has said Microsoft is one competitor he’s concerned about. That just blew me away. Because we’re not in this business. What he does, and all of those companies do, I have great admiration for. Picking scripts, picking story lines, all that. It’s wonderful. That is not the skill set of Microsoft. That’s not the direction strategy of Microsoft. We’re enabling neat things and we want to see other companies do the entertainment using our technology.

EW: Thomas Edison held the patent on the movie projector, but the filmmakers were the ones who ended up building and running Hollywood. Microsoft has experimented with entertainment on the Microsoft Network (MSN), but has been unsuccessful thus far. How will you avoid Edison’s fate?

BG: There’s more total profit in the long run in actually building the entertainment experiences. But there’s no one company that is going to dominate that. The range of tastes that people have just guarantees that there will be thousands and thousands of companies out there. If our technology does anything, it allows for there to be more variety.

EW: And how will companies make money?

BG: One of the things you have to put into this equation is what’s the future of advertising…since that’s the funding mechanism for all of this stuff, the opportunity to have very targeted ads. If you see something you’re interested in, you literally say, “Yeah, give me more information, or call me.” The value of that marketing is much higher. You don’t have this funny envelope in the mail that you tend to throw away.

EW: How will that affect online commerce? What will be different about Christmas shopping 10 years from now?

BG: I like the idea of putting your Christmas wish list up and letting people share it. [That way] if somebody’s going to take something off your list, other people know and you don’t get three or four of the same thing. We’ll just wonder how people did that in the past. Did you have to take the things back?

TECHNO-BAUBLES

Microsoft is no more interested in building hardware now than it was before. But Gates would still like to see his software running inside every possible device on earth–as you can see from the array of gewgaws he’s using to tout Microsoft’s move into the home electronosphere. Some of these items are so new we haven’t been able to test-drive them, so consider this Gates’ beta vision of the future of entertainment. Still, that home-radio-station thingie looks cool.

SET-TOP BOX: Gates’ opening shot in the cable-modem and digital TV wars. Along with improving the quality of audio and video for regular cable, these digital boxes will include blazingly fast Net access that, with the help of Microsoft software, will allow you to use sites like Intertainer to buy and download feature-length movies onto your TV. They will also offer commercials that are targeted to your interests–which is supposedly a good thing.

CLARION AUTOPC: One pitfall of the Sonicbox is that you can’t take it on the road. Solution: This next-gen car stereo uses Windows software to let you load digital music files from your PC onto a memory card and then listen to them in rush-hour traffic. Along with the standard radio/CD player combo, the AutoPC responds to voice commands and acts as your navigator. But for the whopping price of $1,669, it could have at least included a radar detector.

SONICBOX: Now that your Windows computer has a jukebox inside, this under-$50 remote controller will turn it into a micro-radio station. Start by cuing up a playlist on your PC or connecting to a netcasting radio station. The Sonicbox’s tuner software–which works only on Windows PCs–transmits the audio from your computer to, say, 93.1 FM. After that, any radio in the house becomes your personal NPR/classic rock/Top 40 jam session.

WINDOWS MOVIE MAKER: This software, a standard feature in the new Windows 2000 OS, runs the video feed from any camcorder through a converter box and loads it onto your PC in digital form. Using a palette of drag-and-drop editing tools, you can rearrange shots and mix in background music, then send your masterpiece to Grandma via e-mail or put it onto the Web for viewing through the digital set-top box.

CASIO COLOR CASSIOPEIA: Tired of showing off those wallet-crumpled photos of the kids? This handheld organizer, which runs on Microsoft software, can play a short segment of that home movie you made using Windows Movie Maker. Your coworkers will be impressed by the gadget, but just as bored by the pics.

PORTABLE MUSIC PLAYERS: Once you’re at work, there’s no need to leave all your music in the AutoPC. Just remove that memory card full of songs and plug it into a digital music player like the I-JAM. Microsoft’s audio format runs on other players as well, including the Rio 500.