Microsoft chairman William Gates envisions a future in which the personal computer will incorporate an increasing number of functions now thought of as separate.
The PC, Mr. Gates predicts, will be a virtual one-machine business center with built-in telephone for voice, data, and videoconferencing. Similarly, paper-based activity such as faxing, copying, and printing will be rolled into one paper-output device.
Also, the PC will become much easier to use as more of its capability is embedded in the operating system software itself, rather than in add-on applications.
The ability to recognize human voices and handwriting should be built in to the system, Gates told members of the Boston Computer Society, the nation's largest computer users group, this week.
"We'd like to see individuals empowered" to have the information they need "at their fingertips," whether it comes from a database across the country or from a file in their own computer, he says. "They shouldn't [have to] think about applications. They shouldn't think about networks."
"It's going to take a lot of companies," not just Microsoft, to make this happen, he says.
Still, this vision meshes nicely with the fact that the company Gates founded is the leading provider of the operating systems, or ground-level software, for PCs.
Though Gates's vision is captivating and in many ways convincing, some observers say it may be at least partly wrong. George Colony, president of Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass., foresees a proliferation of computing devices far beyond the current repertoire. "This paradigm of desktop computing is tired. It's running out of gas."
He does not mean the PC will go away or stop developing, but that numerous other options are becoming available as the price of computing power continues to fall. "We will all have hundreds of computers" dedicated to specific tasks, Mr. Colony predicts.
Though Colony allows that his own view is "contrarian," Gates acknowledged this trend as well, talking of two areas of innovation beyond the desktop: portable computers, including hand-held "personal digital assistants," and interactive television.