Monday

One thing I learned at last year's Software Architecture Forum (SAF) was that, in Plenary sessions, if you're not pounding away on your laptop you're not so much nerdy as undressed, so I was fully prepared, this year!

A highlight of SAF over the past 4 years has been a question and answer session with Bill Gates. This year was to be his last, as he retires fully to pursue his philanthropic interests next July. Eric Rudder (senior vice-president, technology) took the stage with Gates for 90 minutes' discussion.

As ever, Bill's grasp on the minutiae of his business empire and the environment it operates in were impressive. I don't have time to report the conference in detail, here, but some of the topics from the Bill & Eric session give a good flavour of its content. With apologies if I have misinterpreted or incorrectly recorded anything – I've spent most of my working life in IT, but never learned to type properly, so struggled to keep-up!

Asked about hardware developments and Moore's Law, Gates said it's significant that clock speeds won't increase at anything like past rates. Instead of doubling clock-speeds, engineers were now doubling transistors for parallel processing. Disc seek times won't keep-up with capacity improvements, but for the most part we can hide that in the software.

Asked about integration of fixed and mobile technologies, Gates said that, as well as form factor, limitations in technology such as battery life drove divergence. At your desk, the IT environment becomes ever more immersive – with video walls etc – things that you cannot do in the portable environment, but integration between environments becomes a lot less black and white. For example, with your mobile 'phone, if you're near a big screen, it's automatically used for enhanced experience.

Microsoft is two years into a five year effort to get SharePoint to be "obvious" – something I was relieved to hear, as its collaboration environment is so clearly the way to go, but also so clearly not intuitive or "obvious".

Terminal Services current desk-top market share of around 4 % will grow to 10-15% of clients.

Speaking about the transition to Software and Services, Gates said we are creating the ability to run the same way in a mega Data Centre as in one's own Data Centre. We are taking the scale and low cost/ demand of consumer type applications, and the feature richness and security of thick client experiences to create the best of both worlds through rich service architectures.

When asked about Microsoft's stance on social networking, Gates said lots of customers created pretty much the same things as Face Book with SharePoint. There's nothing really new about social networks, but we need to think about how they are deployed and what purposes they serve.

"If you're hip, how can you have your parents on and talk about what you got up to at the party last night?" Bill doesn't have the time to manage all the 1000s of outstanding friend requests he has in Face Book. (I've got pretty fed-up with all the silly applications, too, but then I know I'm not hip!) Social networking doesn't necessarily enhance business, but if done right can be incredibly beneficial.

Steve Parker, from the John Lewis Partnership asked a question similar to the one I had my hand up for around environmental stewardship. Actually, in summary, his was "how can software licensing support the environmental stewardship agenda?" (When chatting with him, at the evening drinks reception, I found he is quite passionate about licensing related to virtualisation.)

Gates responded that there is an imperative for software to not use much power in play through mobility – maximising battery life. We are looking at new approaches to Data Centre structure. An idling machine is using some power, so aim to turn down/ off. Through virtualisation technology we can improve utilisation of hardware (by a factor of 2).

We need sources of energy with no negative side effects – that need to be invented and IT can help.

IT can minimise travel and the energy intensity of the economy. Live meetings use "way less power than flying to meet with someone". So far as licensing, "I don't know", but am open to ideas. Eric has just created a new office responsible for the green agenda – we are interested in all ideas/ feedback.

Asked about Web 2.0 & Microsoft engagement - "You need pervasive technology that's low cost for everyone in the organisation. That's SharePoint. Also, it provides the basis of loads of analysis – 'Which of our engineers did not comment on our latest proposals?' Web 2.0 is two different things.

Java Script code is better than you thought, even 'though as ugly as heck. Browser User Interfaces don't have to be crummy. On the other hand, how do you use it? People aren't paid to spend all their time searching – that's where this collaboration thing comes in; building-up richness in the server/ collaboration/ development environment."

What will Microsoft look like in 10-15 years?

"Natural interfaces; screens, ink, cameras are everywhere – super cheap. Products like Nintendo Wii, i-Phone, Microsoft Surface (launched next year) with speech recognition finally becoming important. For example, with cell 'phones, it will be quicker to ask the question than search through typing into browser."

"Robots for Medicare and household tasks etc will be quite amazing. I expect biological advances – understanding how the brain works and learning from that. Microsoft assumed the hardware guys would give us infinite power so software could work-out the answers – the ultimate holy grail!"

Gates was asked about when industry would be coming together on testing integration and inter-operability etc. "There has been a bias for services to be very simple. As you get into services that are data oriented, with authentication and audit logged, that's where all the work around web services (WS) comes in.

As you have a powerful run-time environment that makes it easy to make integration happen, that will become second nature." Eric commented – "industry has done quite a good job on browser independence – moving to standards/ schemas – Microsoft works within standards bodies especially verticals. Some standards take far too long to agree. The second track is on getting commercial vendors together. Customers have a very important role."