Review: The Road Ahead by Bill Gates

Written by Adok

Twice a year, I have to write a book report for my English class at school. This year, one of the books I have chosen is "The Road Ahead", written by Bill Gates in cooperation with Nathan Myhrvold and Peter Rinearson. Since the topic may be of interest to our readers, I decided to publish my report in this magazine, too.


In 1996, Bill Gates, then Chairman and Chief Executive Officier of Microsoft Corporation, the world's largest software company, published the second edition of his first book called "The Road Ahead". This book deals with visions of how technological developments and the "Internet Revolution" can change our lives during a decade.

In the first three chapters, Gates talks about the Computer Revolution of the last few decades. He describes how he became familiar with computers, how technology developed, how he founded Microsoft and finally almost realized 'his' vision of bringing a Personal Computer (PC) into almost every home (at least in developed countries). That was the past. Now, after the Computer Revolution, the next step is the Internet Revolution. At the time Gates worked on the second edition of his book, the Internet gained a lot of popularity among the masses. But in his opinion, today's Internet is just the beginning of the "Information Age", which will lead to an "interactive, broadband network", available to everyone.

This network will introduce us to new ways of communicating with other people from all over the world, via electronic mail (e-mail), bulletin boards where masses of people can discuss every possible topic, video-conferences and virtual reality. Virtual reality will allow people on the network to meet in artificial, but realistic-looking worlds on their computers.

Bill Gates describes interesting new opportunities for education, business, and entertainment. It will be easier to find relevant information in the huge data pool of the interactive network. Using search engines with sophisticated filtering techniques, you will be able to retrieve the information you need fast. You will also be able to create customized newspapers by telling a personal software agent, a computer program on the network, what your interests are. Then the agent will select the appropriate news and articles. Biographies, for instance, will not only come along with text and some pictures, but also speeches or other audio data, and even films. There will be video on demand, so that you can watch the news programme and movies that interest you at any time.

Communication in businesses will be easier and decentralized through the global interactive network as well as local, smaller company networks. The management hierarchies will become flatter, and the contact to customers closer. In many cases, you will not have to be present at your work-place anymore. Instead, you will be able to work anywhere you want and communicate with the rest of the company through the interactive network.

This way, you will have more freedom to choose where you live. Problems like overpopulation in certain cities and areas, which result in crime and pollution, will be rectified in this way. Likewise, you will be less bound to do certain activities at certain times, and have more freedom to plan your spare time. Gates thinks that in this way people will spend more time with their families.

The interactive network will also have a positive influence on education, as Gates describes in chapter 9. Not only will students be able to ask the computer questions, which it will answer using information from the interactive network coming along with charts, tables, and animations. But they will also be able to have the computer test them, as often and as long as they want. The author is of the opinion that this will prevent the negative attitude many students have towards tests and exams. E-mail will simplify the communication between the parents, teachers, and pupils. The teachers will always be able to inform the parents about their children's performance as well as behaviour and assign the students individual exercises. As Bill Gates writes, "computers will fine-tune educational materials so that students can follow their own paths in their own learning styles at their own rates. Regardless of his or her ability or disability, each learner will work at an individual pace - inside or outside the classroom." (p. 218)

Furthermore, the interactive network will allow what Bill Gates calls "friction-free capitalism": direct contact with the customers without high advertising costs. Apart from putting up a site on the interactive network, like many bigger and smaller companies have already done, and installing paid advertisements on popular sites, Gates also considers advertising via e-mail. He thinks advertising will become more efficient if the advertisements focus on selected groups of people who might really be interested in the respective products and services. A solution for this can be the personal software agents, which store information of individual people such as age or preferences - not accessible to the public, of course. Companies that offer certain services then just have to write an electronic mail about them, and the letter will be sent to the software agents, which will distribute them to the individual people. In this way the people's identities will not be revealed to the companies at once, unless they buy a product. However, since advertisements via e-mail will probably be so prolific that many individual advertisements will be deleted by the recipients unread, Gates also proposes the following idea: Companies shall offer the potential customers a small amount of money for reading the advertisements. Even then, profit will be much higher than with the usual advertising methods.

Eventually, Gates talks about some of the critical issues that will come along with the Information Age. Some old jobs may become obsolete, but on the other hand new professions will be created. That will encourage life-long learning, which is very positive in Gates' opinion. A more serious problem is that pornography, libel, copyright violations, and illegal political propaganda can be spread using the interactive network more easily. The author is opposed to regulations by governments, but he supports rating systems which tell people what web-sites they and their children respectively should or should not visit. Too much dependance on the new medium would not be good, either, because then it would cause a total desaster if a complete failure of the network happened. Fortunately this is unlikely to happen because of the network's decentralized structure, and when an individual server fails, it will be replaced and its data restored. Technologies like software agents might also lead to a "documented life". This might even be positive in some cases, e.g. in order to prove your innocence after an accusation. Still, privacy and security are very important issues. If a computer program tracks your whereabouts, you must be the one to decide who is allowed to have insight in this information. Finally, every advanced technology can also be abused by criminals.

To conclude this part of the book report, I want to quote the author (p. 284):

"It should be obvious by now that I'm an optimist about the impact of the new technology. It will enhance our leisure time and enrich our culture by expanding the distribution of information. It will help relieve pressures on urban areas by enabling people to work from home or remote-site offices. It will relieve pressures on natural ressources because increasing numbers of products will take the form of bits rather than manufactured goods. It will give us more control over our lives, enabling us to tailor our experiences and the products we use to our interests. Citizens of the information society will enjoy new opportunities for productivity, learning, and entertainment. Countries that move boldly and in concert with each other will enjoy economic rewards. Whole new markets will emerge, and a myriad new opportunities for employment will be created."


This book is written in a clear, easily readable language and makes use of only a few technical terms, which are all explained. The author introduces a lot of variety into the serious content by examples and funny anecdotes. It is obvious that this book has been designed to reach as many people as possible. Bill Gates wants to take the people's general fears of new technologies by explaining the new possibilities the interactive network offers. He answers fundamental questions such as how the Internet Revolution will change our lives and what general impact it will have on society, and encourages discussion in the public. However, of course it is not possible to make accurate predictions of the future. As he admits in his foreword and the afterword, he announced in several speeches that certain technologies would become ubiquitous within two years, while it turned out in the end that it took them ten years to become popular.

But it would not be Bill Gates if that were the only desire of the book. As a smart businessman, he also wants to advertise his company and its products. Therefore it is no wonder that some English-language editions of this book come along with a CD-ROM containing Microsoft's computer programs for Internet access. Besides, he wants to establish himself as a visionary. But actually he is not that visionary. Many of the concepts and technologies Gates describes in "The Road Ahead" have already been under development by other companies. He even admits that Microsoft has often used the strategy of "embracing and extending" existing technologies. In the first edition of this book, which was published short after the start of the exploding popularity of the Internet (the so-called 'Internet hype'), he paid very little attention to the Internet. Instead, he focused on his own commercial on-line service called 'Microsoft Network'. In contrast to the Internet, this service was central, cost a lot of money and offered much less information. At first Microsoft ignored this now so important trend, and when it finally began to pay attention to the Internet, the company had to change its whole strategy. In order not to ruin his reputation, Bill Gates had to revise and change his book, including a total overhaul of the main chapters. The Microsoft Network is now mentioned at best in marginal notes.

But Gates is definitely a good manager and businessman. He was the one who made computing available to virtually everyone by defeating IBM's dominance at the PC market. When IBM originally created the PC, it was designed as an open technology. Many hardware companies built computers that were compatible with the original PC. Several software companies produced operating systems, the most essential software of every computer, for which all other software companies and developers could program applications. Microsoft was the most important operating system producer, as its operating system MS-DOS, and later on Windows, was most widely spread. In the course of the time IBM gradually lost its market dominance, because as the PCs of the other producers became cheaper, they sold better. Therefore IBM created sophisticated new PCs whose technology was hardly documented, so that it would not be possible for others to rebuild them. In this way IBM wanted to regain its leadership. But since these expensive machines did not have any superior computer applications that the old PCs did not already have, they were not successful on the mass market. Therefore IBM asked Microsoft to concentrate on developing a special operating system only for these PCs, which would be incompatible with MS-DOS and Windows. However, Microsoft, having already started on the operating system project together with IBM a while before, insisted on providing compatibility with Windows, as IBM's notions did not correspond to their aim to make PCs available to everyone. As a result of this, IBM broke off its cooperation with Microsoft and continued working on its operating system alone. However, it did not succeed; instead, Microsoft's ideas were realized. So we can say that although Bill Gates is not the visionary he pretends to be, he has contributed a lot to making the Information Age possible by making computing available to many people.

Subjective Point of View

I am an Internet user myself, and I cannot think of living without it more than a few weeks any more. I have found many friends on the net from many different countries with whom I meet there every evening and also communicate by e-mail. So I strongly appreciate efforts to reduce the prejudices against the Internet in the society and increase its popularity. On the other hand, I am sceptical about some of the things Gates writes in his book. Regarding 'electronic commerce', lately also called 'e-commerce', I do not think that I will buy anything over the Internet in the near future. The security standards are simply too low yet. I know a lot of smart people who, in theory, are able to read data that is sent on the net without permission. It is also proven that secret services like CIA or BND intercept as many e-mails as possible all over Europe and North America, have their computers scan them for critical words such as 'bomb' or 'Clinton' and, if a document seems to have dangerous content, read and possibly store it. That does not matter so much to me, though, as the content of my mails is nothing special. And if they were, one could still use cryptographic algorithms which would make letters hard to decipher. But I would certainly never submit my credit card code to a company on the Internet to purchase a product in the near future. Neither am I fond of giving away personal data, even if it is only to access a free service.

I think that I personally will rarely use video-on-demand and games on the interactive network. But to my mind the network is certainly great for education, and I am of the opinion that the schools should extend their computer equipments. Especially schools are still far behind the current development.

As soon as the 'broadband network' Gates describes will be available to the masses, access to the network will hopefully be very fast and cheap. The slow speed when accessing the Internet using a phone line and the relatively high phone costs are still hindrances to a wide usage of the network.

Some people fear that the Internet Revolution might split society into two new classes, the 'technological haves' and the 'technological have-nots'. To my mind, this is a serious concern. In order to prohibit this dangerous development, at least all children and young people of today should learn how to handle the computer and the Internet. It will be a cultural technique just like reading, writing, and basic mathematics. In general, however, I do not think we have to worry that much about society splitting up into two 'technological' classes than into two 'genetical' classes. Once the human DNA code has been deciphered and genetical manipulation works, it will probably cost so much that only wealthy persons can afford it. They will immediately be superior to the less fortunate. By contrast, access to the interactive network will be rather inexpensive, and you can learn how to handle computers and the Internet. The handling of electronic equipment will rather become easier than harder in the future. Gates also compares the Internet with media like the telephone or the TV: At first many people were reluctant and saw no use in these technologies, but now almost everyone in the developed countries has them. And if someone happens not to own a phone or a TV set, there are public places like libraries or schools where you can use them. As for the developing countries, Gates even thinks that the Information Age might help them catch up, as they will be able to skip large parts of the process of industrialization. He may be right. For instance, I recently read in a computer magazine that Tuvalu, a small island-country in the Pacific Ocean whose main income used to be fishing, has become one of the richest countries in the world by lending its so-called "Internet domain name" '.tv' to TV companies from various countries for millions of dollars per year.

For me personally, "The Road Ahead" did not contain much new information. But I would suggest it to everyone who has not had much experience with the new technologies, no matter if it interests you or not. It is a matter we all have to deal with in the next years.

- adok^hugi

"if i were as rich as gates, i'd send everyone on earth a free copy of hugi"