|Bill Gates wanted newspaper publishers to know he came to join them as a product vendor, not a content competitor.
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"We are not at heart a content company," said Mr. Gates, after referring o Microsoft's few remaining editorial-side properties, among them MSNBC.com and online magazine Slate. "We are a software company."
Aided by three other Microsoft staffers, Mr. Gates then trotted out new product demonstrations neatly tailored to the newspaper crowd.
It was not always so between the world's largest software company and the newspaper world. In the mid-'90s, Microsoft's Sidewalk project, which envisioned a national network of local city guides, prompted fear and loathing in newspaper circles. The fear was that Microsoft would somehow leverage its enormous heft to drain away entertainment and restaurant ad dollars, and possibly even use Sidewalk as a means to launch electronic newspapers. These fears proved unfounded, and Microsoft's city guides were ultimately sold to citysearch.com. But Mr. Gates underwent contentious questioning in at least one newspaper conference -- including the NAA's 1997 annual conference in Chicago.
Mr. Gates grounded his hour-plus presentation today around a familiar theme, that the first decade of the 21st century would be a "digital decade."
"At this point people underestimate technological advances," he said. Among the advances he cited were the rise of smart devices, continued computer chip improvements and significant progress in software's voice and handwriting recognition capabilities. He contrasted this to the dizzy days leading up to the boom of 1999-2000, during which, he contended, tech advances were "overhyped."
What all this meant for newspapers, Mr. Gates said, equaled a "new way of relating to readers, and new processes of how news is gathered and processed."
These new ways were implicitly tied into the products Microsoft was demonstrating. In discussing tablet PC's readability, Mr. Gates said on-screen resolution would continue to improve over the next three to five years through the application something called ClearType. Moments later, a senior product manager at Microsoft demonstrated the Tablet PC's onscreen version of The New Yorker. Among the capabilities he showed of were one that embedded an Audi TV commercial in the Tablet PC version of the print ad.
The presentation displayed the ability of Mr. Gates and his company to focus on a market, absorb an immense amount of information about its needs and behaviors and then almost immediately regurgitate that information into marketable products. Perhaps the best example of this came when another of Mr. Gates' product managers onstage began a demonstration of the note-taking software OneNote by describing, in considerable detail, different types of note-takers and the kinds of notes they took.
After the presentation, one Microsoft representative was overheard prodding a newspaper executive for more insights into how journalists might use such software.