In any case, Gates was the featured luminary after dinner tonight. Furthering previous announcements about cleaning up MSN’s search practices and clearly biting his tongue (or sitting on his hands, take your pick), Bill Gates tonight parried Walt and Kara’s spirited questions regarding MSFT’s search strategies with a bit of guile, some well chosen words, and a dash of humor, in particular as it related to Google (“Oh, there’s nothing they can’t do!” he joked in a mock fawning voice), a company he recently acknowledged had kicked Microsoft’s collective butt when it comes to search.
Tonight he was not as charitable – at one point saying MSFT’s goal was to be the best in search. He jokingly advised the crowd to buy Google stock and coyly refused comment as to whether he thought Google’s advantage lay mostly in marketing. He did note that the Google and MSFT culture were pretty similar (is he reading my blog!?). Some tantalizing hints came as Walt asked him about paid inclusion and the like. He repeated that Microsoft will clean up its search practices, but he seemed to hint things would go a bit further than that.
“They have a way of formatting things that has had some appeal,” Gates said. “It will be matched.”
“Web search is a incredible business,” he continued. “(But) If you want to find things that are local…it’s terrible today. If you want to find things that are of particular interest to you, it is quite terrible today.”
Gates blamed search’s shortcomings on its keyword-based approach, and argued that natural language and contextual semantic approaches will be the next leap forward.
Gates also reviewed the Longhorn strategy, at one point saying that the oft-delayed OS would be the most significant shift in Microsoft’s computing environment since the jump from DOS to Windows (the core shift being in data structures – the file system – Gates long-standing dream of having a more robust file system, which of course is a truly searchable and transportable file system.) He also mentioned that RSS and blogging was an area of particular interest within Microsoft.
UPDATE: Walt emailed me to take issue, in a nice way, with my statement about his view of blogging. He doesn’t want a blog or keyboard free ballroom, he reminds me, he wants a Wifi free ballroom, as he wants his audience to focus on the program as opposed to surfing the web or checking email. And he’s all for blogging, just not during the sessions.