Web services will have a "catalytic effect" on software development; speech recognition will go mainstream in three to four years; search capabilities will feature richer, clearer interfaces; and security… well, Bill Gates is not about to let security get in the way of his digital vision.

Addressing about 7,000 developers during a recent visit to Singapore, Gates described software as "the fastest changing element" in the world of technology. It must be moving very fast indeed, since Gates said hardware improvements are occurring at an "exponential rate".

This he exemplified with marked increases in networking speeds and storage capacity, the imminence of 64bit technology going mainstream and a common architecture emerging from the laptop to the server.

Information will be available on portable devices, connected through wireless efforts in areas such as Wi-Fi and 3G, he went on. The phone will get richer, becoming an electronic wallet, connecting users to maps.

Even the elusive promise of speech recognition will be realised in three to four years, Gates said. He noted that in an artificial environment, the computer already comes close to humans in recognising speech. What it does not quite have yet is the human ability to distinguish background noise from significant signals. But, pointing to the reduction in error rates, Gates predicted that the problems facing speech recognition will be solved by this decade.

Breakthroughs in software will come very quickly, Gates said. Microsoft has doubled its research and development (R&D) budget in the last four years and now spends about $6bn a year on R&D. And this is complemented by research by partner companies.

The main obstacle to this progress is security. "We have to surprise people with our ability to tackle it," Gates said.

In its efforts to boost IT security, Microsoft is addressing three areas: the "who" piece, making sure users of a system are who they say they are by incorporating a higher degree of authentication; the "where" piece, whereby systems connect only when they need to, with the exception of the mail or web server; and the "how" piece, tools to write secure code and automate code quality assurance, identify code that is being written and keep it up to date.

Gates also highlighted the three key audiences to keep in mind when dealing with software -- the worker who deals with information, the developer who builds extensions of applications, and the IT department, which needs to maintain directories, manage the system, provide support and generally improve productivity. There is a need for one architecture that addresses all these needs, he said.

This is where web services comes into the picture. While the internet gave us the ability to send information with standards like TCP, advances in Web services and XML (extensible markup language) allow electronic records to be exchanged by systems of various types.

Web services will continue to have a catalytic effect on software developments, allowing software to connect at the component level, Gates said. The services oriented architecture implies software can be connected no matter what language it is written in.

Enter Office 12. Scheduled for rollout next year, Office 12 will feature XML at its core, in all the file formats. Even before that, XML support will make its way to development tools and the database to enable interoperability.

"More people will be writing specialised applications that connect to office," said Gates.

He also spoke about the need to tackle information overload: to prioritize data, organise email and eliminate spam.

Longhorn Beta 1, which will be released this summer, will feature built-in search capabilities which allow users to locate information and build an index using a richer and clearer interface. The new search feature will impact the way users navigate information, he said. The system will have a higher-level understanding of documents and not lead users on a "treasure hunt" that now takes 11 minutes, he said, in reference to existing search mechanisms.