Bill Gates this week outlined what he sees as the future of computing. According to the Microsoft chairman the computing systems of the future will be more natural, responsive and capable of easily recognising objects and people. They will also be completely customisable, he said.

Television, for instance, will be based on the internet and it "will be an utterly different thing", that's customisable and interactive, Gates said during a talk before the Northern Virginia Technology Council, an industry group gathered at a hotel located just steps from the White House, in Washington DC.

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Gates talked about building technology based on a concept he calls natural user interface. Building these interfaces is one of the "biggest challenges" ahead, Gates said, and one that is also "greatly underestimated". But it will deliver "new ways of interacting with these computing devices", he said.

This mode of interaction goes well beyond the mouse and keyboard. One example is the tablet computer, which Gates said is beginning to move into the mainstream.

Gates said his daughter goes to school where she has a tablet PC, "no textbooks at all".

Tablet devices, with video and collaboration capabilities, are "far superior then what use to be done in print", Gates said.

Natural user interfaces will include voice-recognition software so advanced that recorded content will be easily searchable. Gates also sees cameras giving computers vision.

"In the future, instead of having the computer on your desk, you will have the computer in your desk," Gates said, and that desktop will have the ability to recognise what the user is doing, as well as the objects and papers placed on it.

In the home, "intelligent surfaces" will be pervasive, he said, to help organise a trip, photos or just about anything. "It can be done without the hardware being significantly more expensive," he said.

Data centres will be lights out, and software development will use a model-type form, allowing a succinct form of development, the Microsoft chairman said. Software is "much larger than the simple English description of what that business is up to". Software is expensive and hard to fix, and "we want there to be less [fewer] lines of code", he said.

"These kinds of big breakthroughs are coming because the industry is investing in research and development," said Gates, who noted that R&D has become the most important part of his company.

In the audience were people from companies that are heavily involved in the government market, where they sell services that use Microsoft products. It was a friendly audience, but there were still tough questions.

Pointing out that security is "essentially an afterthought", in technology, Mark Boltz, a senior solutions architect at Stonesoft, a network security provider, said Gates had spent "maybe 10, 20 seconds" of his talk on security.

Referring to new technologies, such as Microsoft's Surface, which uses tabletop-like surfaces to interact with people, Boltz wanted to know how they would be secured. Pointing to one consumer product, a digital photo frame that came preloaded with a Trojan program, he asked how something placed on an interactive coffee table would spread to his refrigerator. The audience laughed at that last point.

Gates said security has been a top priority for Microsoft and has been getting "pretty phenomenal" investment, although challenges remain. He cited as an example the problem of how to determine what privileges a piece of code should get when it's run. He said there is no "sound bite" that provides an answer.

After the talk, Boltz said he thought Gates' response was "a little vague".

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