Ballmer predicts fifth and sixth computer revolution
At the opening ceremony of this year's CeBIT on Monday evening in Hanover, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer immediately won over the crowd by calling the computer fair one of the most important IT events in the world. In his speech, he then played the role of a visionary, just as his companion Bill Gates used to do. As though reading off bullet points, he presented the outlook for the next few years. He promised fundamental changes in the use of computers in all respects, just as Gates would have: presenting software as the ultimate solution for global problems. Ballmer did not talk about daily business, such as Microsoft's attempts to take over Yahoo or the fine recently imposed by the EU Commission.
Ballmer described his vision of the future, saying that the "fifth computer revolution" will be characterized by an enormous computing capacity and an almost endless amount of memory. "High-speed connections are everywhere, and systems can be operated with voice and gesture input," . He said the changes would help the world react to global climate change in addition to improving health care and education for billions of people. "They will change human, social interaction and make computers much more useful and personal."
Ballmer says that the effects of new technology on social interaction are already being felt. He pointed out that a recent MTV study found that teenagers and young adults said they had 53 friends on the average. "They have never even met twenty of them in person, but only know them from e-mails, chat rooms, or such social web sites as MySpace or Facebook." In the future, it will be possible to meet these friends as three-dimensional holograms in a virtual room that will almost seem like a real room.
"I have witnessed four computer revolutions in my 28 years in the computer industry", Ballmer said. In the first revolution, PCs became products for the general public. The next milestones were the development of graphical user interfaces, the rise of the Internet, and most recently the interactive Web 2.0. Ballmer said that the fourth revolution, Web 2.0, began in 2002, the last time he was in Hanover for the opening of CeBIT.
"If this seven-year rhythm continues, then we are now at the end of the fourth revolution and at the beginning of the fifth." Keeping the crowd in good humour, Ballmer claimed that intelligent displays, that would make paper a thing of the past, would certainly break through in the sixth revolution and perhaps even in the fifth.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy was on hand representing France, this year's CeBIT partner country, as was José Manuel Barroso, president of the EU Commission. While Barroso naturally emphasised how important information technology is for the EU, Sarkozy stressed how important relations between France and Germany are. He pointed out that some 2700 German firms employ 300,000 people in France. He added that German capital is welcome in France – and that more Germans should live in France, and vice versa. "We await you." In the development of new technology products, Sarkozy called for greater Franco-German cooperation, especially for new high-performance computers. "We will not succeed alone", the French president said. "Rather, Germany and France must join forces and work together."
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who found the decorations on the CeBIT opening stage not as red as last years, thanked the French president for coming. She said his attendance was proof that France's relations with Germany are crucial for him. And she agreed with Sarkozy that Europe is becoming increasingly complex. As she put it, if Germany and France cannot agree, then there can be no agreement in the rest of the EU.
In a reaction to Ballmer's visions, Merkel said she had the impression that the fifth of revolution would have to last longer than the previous ones -- at least more than seven years. She also posed the tongue-in-cheek question of how she can win over undecided voters with her policies now that people can use computers to scrutinise political issues.
Merkel said that the German government has made a conscious decision to do more for information and communication technology, which she called an important component of her high-tech strategy. Merkel said that Germany's federal system is not as flexible as the centralized structures in France when it comes to implementing plans. But she promised to work on that. She also said that progress was being made with electronic healthcare cards, which would be launched next year.
Merkel also said that Germany's world leadership would come from developing new products for specific requirements both within the information technology sector and in other sectors, such as the chemicals industry and the automotive sector. She called for a level playing field in a world of free trade, which requires common standards and the protection of copyrights. Merkel said that information technology can help spread liberty throughout the world, for example through undermining dictatorships.
But she also wondered how a mature cultural society should react to technological development. After all, the need for society will not disappear just because computers continue to make our lives easier. "Be excited about technology, provided it serves people", Merkel reasoned just before declaring the trade fair open. For the actual opening, no red ribbon was cut; instead, honorary guests pressed Microsoft's new development: Surface, a virtual start button that Ballmer somewhat nervously demonstrated to the crowd as though he were a marketing man -- which indeed he is.
Bitkom President August Wilhelm Scheer thanked Merkel for the IT Summit, announced two years ago at CeBIT, which he called an important aspect of cooperation between politics and the IT sector. He called for greater bundling of economic and research policy, for instance in technology parks that could be established as "excellence clusters". While they need not necessarily be as big as the ones in Silicon Valley or Bangalore, he said that a small number of large clusters would nonetheless be better than a large number of unimportant ones. He also argued that financial support should focus on making young visionaries into international successes, a process that would have to start by focusing on reducing the number of college dropouts in related fields of study.