Defining the Digital Decade

Bill Gates has been chatting up the concepts of 'digital lifestyle' and 'digital work style.' But what do these terms really mean -- especially for partners?

"Every computer will be connected up to a single network and every activity, whether it's TV watching or telephony, will likewise be connected to the logical Internet, which will be made up of both wired and wireless pieces. Really, the only difference between computers will be the size of their screen[s]. You'll have a wristwatch that will be like Dick Tracy's that will just give you glanceable information. You'll have your pocket-sized device, which will be the successor to the phone but far more capable." -- Bill Gates, describing his vision for a "digital decade" in a presentation at Columbia University, Oct. 13, 2005

If his recent public speeches are any indication, Bill Gates is on a mission, promoting a vision of the future that falls under the dual headings of "digital lifestyle" and "digital work style."

Whether addressing college students throughout North America last fall or dazzling the packed Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas in January, Gates returned to those phrases again and again to describe his view of a coming transformation in computing.

At CES, Gates dubbed the next 10 years the "Digital Decade" and demonstrated a blended home/work life scenario that he called achievable by 2010. At home, a user would see an on-screen map showing the real-time locations of all family members and their schedules for the day. That same screen would link to news clips on a user's pre-selected list of topics: for example, warnings about bad weather that could disrupt his company's supply chain. Once in the office, he could view that same screen on any PC, staying up-to-date on home and work information.

In fact, we're in the early stages of that transformation, Gates said during last fall's college-campus speaking tour: "We're already seeing [a digital lifestyle] in terms of moving from film to digital photography. We're seeing it with music, where there won't be a future physical format after the CD. ... It will all be purely digital."

Gates has also provided some examples of the digital lifestyle's potential capabilities: Enabling seamless connection among colleagues, friends and family members or reducing the constraints of physical location by making more and richer information available in formats ranging from PC to tablet to cell phone to PDA.

But beyond that, precisely what the concepts might mean is anyone's guess. So while Gates has made it clear that he expects Microsoft technology -- including the forthcoming Windows Vista release, Microsoft Office 12 and the Xbox 360 -- to drive that change, channel partners could be forgiven for wondering what their role in all of this might be.

Microsoft Everywhere
Most observers (whether in the analyst community, the technology press or the blogosphere) seem to agree that Gates' "digital lifestyle" vision involves leveraging Microsoft's reach across PCs, hand-held computers, cell phones, gaming consoles and the Internet. Says Mary Jo Foley, editor of the independent Microsoft Watch newsletter and Web site: "This is about Microsoft's goal of making consumer experiences seamless and ubiquitous."

Exhibits A through D, from Gates' speech at Columbia, described how an individual's cell-phone camera might provide a constant link to information and functionality from moment to moment: "If you're shopping, you take a picture of a product or a bar code that can be recognized, and your phone can tell you where you might get a better price or [whether] you should buy a different product," he said. Or, he continued, if you're traveling and run into a sign in a foreign language, you can use your phone to take a digital photo and transmit the image to a server that, in turn, displays the language translation on the phone. In addition, you might use the phone to photograph the restaurant receipt for a business meal; the associated software will compare the transaction with your schedule and automatically fill out an expense- reimbursement form, routing it to the appropriate person at work. Finally, you can use the technology to get automatic traffic updates and routing information.

Mary Jo Foley
"This is about Microsoft's goal of making consumer experiences seamless and ubiquitous."
-- Mary Jo Foley, Editor, Microsoft Watch Newsletter and Web Site

In his fall college speeches, Gates identified several devices that he said will form the backbone of the digital lifestyle. The list starts with handheld PDAs and cell phones (with built-in cameras, MP3 players and location-based services). "That phone will replace everything you think about in your wallet -- your photos, your cash, your credentials, all put together on that device," he told students and faculty at Columbia University. Next comes the tablet computer, which will include some cell phone or PDA-like functionality. "This is something where you can read large documents, where you can annotate, where you can author them. You'll sometimes have a keyboard connection, you'll sometime just use the pen, sometimes you'll use the voice and pen together," he said. At the top of the hierarchy in Gates' vision, desktop machines will take up a user's entire desk, combining several display areas onto which multiple applications will be projected.

The "digital work style" covers similar ground, Foley says: "This is the flip side of the 'digital lifestyle' coin. It simply means seamlessly connected work experiences." Microsoft's ultimate goal is to bridge the two concepts, providing users capabilities such as being able to share personal and work calendars electronically or monitor office meetings from their cars or homes.

As Gates described the digital work style in his CES speech, the concept relates to handheld devices and PCs working together so that users can effortlessly access desired information -- from weather reports to market updates to messages -- all in one place.

Also key to Gates' vision of the digital work style is providing businesspeople with easy access to their companies' most important information. He described it this way: "knowing what customers are thinking, being able to really track numerically what's going on with quality, [being able to] dive down into sales data, and to have that information at their fingertips."

"This isn't just Bill Gates winging it. There are hundreds of people at Microsoft thinking about how people use their technology and planning for future uses."
-- Mark Stahlman, Technology Strategist, Caris & Co.
Mark Stahlman

Central to both aspects of digital life is the notion of experiences. "Consumers are getting more and more connected. They're getting richer experiences, and software is really at the center of that," Gates said at CES. On the lifestyle side, Foley says, "you aren't simply sharing photos, you're involved in a photo creation/editing/storage/ sharing experience." And on the work style side, she continues, "you aren't entering a record into a CRM database, you're immersed in the customer-relationship experience," including knowing which customers drive the most profit and which metrics you should use to measure satisfaction.

To Joe Wilcox, senior analyst at JupiterResearch, the keystone to Gates' vision is the continued blurring of the lines between work and home. "The technology used in both places is the same. It's the context that changes," says Wilcox, who edits Jupiter's Microsoft Monitor blog.

Already, more and more people work full-time at home, a throwback to the pre-Industrial Revolution days of cottage industry, Wilcox points out. That's possible, of course, because technology has made geography and physical presence irrelevant for many jobs. Gates' speeches are a signal that Microsoft intends to continue leading the way in the continuing merger between home and work life.

Memo to Microsoft Partners
Gates hasn't yet drawn an explicit road map for how channel partners fit into the digital life- and work style vision, although he did mention at CES that "partners of all kinds ... [are] now coming in and seeing the opportunity for interactivity" (go to and use FindIT code: DigLife to read speech excerpts). But analysts say that it's possible to extrapolate a few possibilities.

Wilcox sees an untapped opportunity for partners to assist that growing market of companies with employees who work at home full time. "Companies often leave it to the workers to buy the goodies and tools they need," Wilcox says. "The employees buy things like computers, PDAs, phones, Internet service and then get reimbursed." Microsoft channel partners might help both parties by creating bundled product and service offerings specifically to serve telecommuters, he says.

To Mark Stahlman, technology strategist at New York investment bank Caris & Co., "digital lifestyle" and "digital work style" are little more than vague marketing terms. But, he adds, the fact that Gates is talking up his digital vision is another sign of Microsoft's intense, if recent, focus on how both enterprises and consumers are using its technology.

"Microsoft has become very methodical in conducting usage scenarios for its technology. This is a new and important phenomenon," says Stahlman. "This isn't just Bill Gates winging it. There are hundreds of people at Microsoft thinking about how people use their technology and planning for future uses."

The newfound focus on real-world usage scenarios is significant to Microsoft partners, as the tech giant will continue uncovering areas where it needs partners to serve users' needs. For example, Stahlman says, Microsoft continues to aggressively court partners in the mobile embedded space: "Even if [Microsoft] someday builds a Microsoft cell phone or handheld video machine, there are going to be dozens of other companies they have to work with."

Obviously, much about the digital lifestyle remains to be defined. But this much is clear: Whether you believe the concept is a realistic vision or just fodder for Microsoft's next big marketing campaign, it's likely to generate partnering opportunities in the digital decade and beyond.

More Information

Digital Directions
Following are excerpts from Bill Gates' presentations on digital lifestyle and work styles:

"Now, we talk about this as the decade of digital lifestyles, the decade of digital work styles. That means that all these tools are becoming mainstream. And it's not just one application that makes it happen. It's not just banking or advertising, or filling out your tax return or even instant messaging -- it's the fact that as you adopt those things they really go together, and it becomes more and more familiar to work in that fashion. Five or six years ago, if you'd said to people that software would be incredible in terms of making photos better, music better, TV better, phone calls very different, they would have been quite skeptical, they would have thought, ‘How can software do that?' Well, now particularly in music, to some degree in TV, they've seen that it makes a huge difference. It allows them to pick the things that they're interested in; it allows them to see it when they want to, to share with friends what they've seen and what they like. And so this really is the symptom of the great progress we have here in the digital decade." -- Bill Gates, keynote speech, Consumer Electronics Show, Las Vegas, Jan. 4, 2006

"2006 is going to be a big year for digital lifestyle … [P]artners of all kinds, partners who build the amazing hardware you saw here tonight, the partners who do traditional content [are] now coming in and seeing the opportunity for interactivity, even people who think about advertising are now partners because this platform will let them do new and different things. The software industry is stepping up and doing software that uses the Internet in new ways, reaches out to users, create communities, works across devices and [we are] building a platform to make that easy for those people to do. Another theme is that this all has to work across these devices. … It's got to be user-centric. … Software is providing power, but software has got to provide simplicity. And that's why our investment levels are going up, investments in the toughest problems: security, privacy, speech recognition, video recognition, and all of those things will fold into this platform." -- Bill Gates, keynote speech at Consumer Electronics Show, Las Vegas, Jan. 4, 2006

"The whole fabric of the work experience, from meeting with people at a distance, [to] getting rid of paper-based approaches, [to] being able to dive into information about customer attitudes or sales results will be very different. The home environment will be quite radically different as well. TV as we know it today will change. We won't have channels where you have a sequence of shows that are somehow associated with each other; [instead,] you'll just pick the things that are interesting to you. And the content will be personalized. If you want the news, [the] sports that you care about will get more depth, those that you don't care about will be eliminated from the broadcast. … Even the ads will be more relevant because they'll be targeted to you in terms of your behavior … and the things that you're interested in. It's a very dramatic change both at home and at work." -- Bill Gates, presentation at Princeton University, Princeton, N.J., Oct. 14, 2005

"It's a period of dramatic change -- not in the overnight sense [that happened] during the dot-com craziness, where people had said banking would change overnight, retailing would change overnight -- but in a more gradual way. The dreams that existed then were valid; it was just the timeframe was a little wrong, because it takes time to get people to change behavior, it takes time to get these software systems to be simple enough, secure enough, rich enough, connecting together so that all the information is there. … And yet every one of those dreams we'll be able to pull together within the next 10 years … so the digital work style, digital lifestyle are moving ahead are moving ahead at full bore. And the one thing that will determine how quickly this happens is the software, the software presenting these capabilities in a fairly straightforward way." -- Bill Gates, presentation at Waterloo University, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, Oct. 13, 2005.