Bill Gates Takes on Keyboards and the Cloud

Like the rotary dial, the keyboard’s role as a technological interface will soon come to an end as more information — especially visual information such as photos and videos — is stored on computers. And Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates hopes to help put the nail in the keyboard’s coffin, according to his presentation at the 12th Annual CEO Summit. In his keynote Gates focused heavily on natural user interfaces that combine touch, pens and speech to navigate computers and phones and that he expects to be available within the next decade. The keyboard, he made clear, is on notice.

He also briefly prophesied the formation of mega data centers built by “Microsoft and others” for cloud computing, but stayed mostly on the topic of Microsoft’s Sharepoint product and new forms of navigation. As part of the changing user interface he showed off an “intelligent whiteboard” from the R&D labs, which is essentially a Surface table standing up.

The demo unit, which had cameras located inside to track Gates’ hand movements, took a few tries before it noticed Gates. That’s never a great sign, but once it worked, the navigation was similar to what one would do on an iPhone writ large. It was less of a whiteboard than a giant, touch-controlled monitor. I can’t see myself dropping my keyboard for this, ever.

But with Microsoft pushing it, I will likely get the chance to try it. The computing giant may not be behind the sexiest Web 2.0 technologies or originating great user interfaces such as tabbed browsing, but it is very good at taking those technology successes, integrating them, and pushing them into a broad market over time.

It’s kind of like the Banana Republic of tech firms, taking different pieces of cool and edgy clothing (technologies), and assembling them into watered-down, business- and consumer-friendly outfits (products). Not everyone wants to wear Banana clothes, much like not everyone wants to use Windows, and Microsoft doesn’t always succeed, but so far Gates’ visions still count for something.