Twenty-five years ago, Bill Gates foresaw that videoconferencing would come to replace many face-to-face meetings. Now, he predicts, videoconferencing will get much, much better. At-home screens will get much, much bigger. And we'll never return to pre-Covid levels of business travel.
"Small video devices using cameras attached to personal computers or television sets will allow us to meet readily across the information highway with much higher quality pictures and sound for lower prices." Gates, then CEO of Microsoft, wrote that in his 1995 book The Road Ahead.
Last week, GeekWire editor-in-chief Todd Bishop read the prediction back to Gates at a fireside chat during the virtual GeekWire Summit, saying, "You were on the mark with this quote." In fact, Bishop noted, he and Gates were using that very technology to present the session. Then he asked, "How do you expect the pandemic and the circumstances around it to impact the future of work?"
For one thing, Gates said, business travel will never return to its pre-Covid levels. "In two or three years, will business travel be down 50 percent? It might well be," he said. "When you're a salesperson calling on customers, it used to be that unless you're there physically, you're not showing your seriousness. Now, for both parties, connecting digitally for many of those meetings is going to be simpler and more effective."
12 years of progress in one year
It's going to be a better experience, too, he said: "We've opened up maybe 12 years of progress just in this past year. And, of course, the collaboration software, Teams or Zoom, is going to get dramatically better." Gates said he delivers weekly feedback and suggestions to the engineers working on Teams, and that the software is constantly improving with things like Together mode (in which meeting participants appear to be sitting side by side in auditorium seats rather than in individual screens) and better noise cancellation. All this will change how often people physically go to the office, or to doctor appointments, and it will allow for big improvements in online learning, at least at the college level, he said.
And when people go online from home, they'll be doing it on much bigger screens, he predicted. "If you're planning a trip, if you're looking at sales results, if you're looking at performance over time, the bigger the screen the better," he said. "You know, our visual field is quite impressive. So the idea that everything is good on a small screen -- that was never going to happen for these different scenarios." Over time, he added, personal computer screens have gotten bigger and bigger -- you can anticipate that they might take up an entire wall one day. Or, using virtual reality glasses, your screen could take up your entire field of vision.
"So the idea of using that size to make you more effective I think was inevitable," he said. "We're just at the beginning. What does fun shopping look like? What does cloud collaboration around designs look like? You're seeing some of it with the virtual reality pilots going on. But people will be reminded that big screens are good."
Will this prediction be as accurate as Gates's foreseeing the rise of videoconferencing? Or as off base as his prediction that people would only rarely watch video on wireless devices? We'll have to check back in another 25 years to find out.