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The D Conference: "The Upfronts for Techies"

Bill Gates grabbed my attention when he started talking about his "reality acquisition device". Our first thought: "Send a box to the White House!"
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I'm here in Carlsbad at the Wall Street Journal's fourth annual "D: All Things Digital" conference (aka D4). John Cusack, my D4 guest, compares it to an annual show biz ritual: "Basically, these are the upfronts for Techies."

And, indeed, the place is gadget central -- everyone brandishing the latest, cutting-edge digital devices. At dinner last night, I ran into Sky Dayton, founder of EarthLink, and now CEO of Helio. Seconds after exchanging "Hellos," he was showing me the coolest features of his company's latest broadband phone, a look of pure rapture on his face. As I cooed with admiration, he pulled out a second phone, demonstrating that it comes in a variety of colors.

The conference kicked off last night with a Q & A session with Bill Gates, moderated by D4's hosts, Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher of the WSJ.

The first question was about his future, and whether he might give up his title -- "Chief Software Architect" -- to Ray Ozzie, the creator of IBM's Lotus Notes, who became Microsoft's Chief Technical Officer after joining the company last year.

"My title is a weird thing," he replied. "People should think of me as the chairman."

This answer (more like a non-answer, really) did little to dampen the speculation around the conference -- particularly among those gathered at the hotel bar after midnight -- that within a year Gates will likely relinquish both his "CSA" title and his active involvement in software development at Microsoft to devote more time to his philanthropy.

When Gates was asked about his charitable work his face lit up and his already enthusiastic manner grew downright evangelical. It's clear from the way he talks about his philanthropy, that he brings to it the same famously competitive spirit that he's brought to software creation. As much as taking on Google and Apple lights his fire, his zeal for doing battle with the problems plaguing the urban slums of the third world seemed even greater. "I know it may be hard to share my enthusiasm for cholera," he said. But, in fact, it wasn't. His passion for "going after these top diseases" (as he put it) was, if you'll pardon the expression, infectious.

Gates completely grabbed my attention when he started talking about his "Reality Acquisition Device". Before he could elaborate on what that meant, Cusack scribbled a note on my steno pad: "Send a box to the White House!"

Gates then explained that "reality acquisition devices" are what he sees the mobile phones and PDAs of the future becoming. Basically, we'll carry them with us and they'll provide us with all kinds of information about wherever we are -- everything from the history of the location, to what movies are playing nearby, to property values, to which of our friends have been there (and what things they liked), to what restaurants we might want to visit in the area (based on our food preferences), to what stores to shop at (based on our taste in clothes). Apparently, in the future, our phones will know us very, very well.

Another note from Cusack: "If you download the right software, will your R.A.D. tell you how you're feeling at that moment? You know, like, "do I love my wife"?

My note back: "With the box we're sending to the White House, they'll probably rewire it so it blocks out what they're really feeling."

Cusack: "Right. Only those who deal in reality will want to acquire it."

Back on stage, Gates is discussing -- and dissecting -- the social networking phenomenon. He was surprised by how big it's become, but doesn't think we've even scratched the surface. "E-mail, instant messaging, and social networking are all too limited," he explained. "We haven't seen a final model that pulls all those things together." He then made a subtle pitch for MSM Spaces, saying that it's a step in that direction since it alerts you whenever one of your friends updates his or her page. "We're finding new ways to make relationships work online... The question then becomes, Who do I want to share my presence with?"

My note to Cusack: "Did he say 'presents'? Sign me up!"

Cusack's response: "Social Network = superstar hotline so Bill Gates can instantly figure out who else is in Singapore. Terry Semel? Barry Diller? David Hasselhoff?"

Me: "Just the people you don't mind sharing your presence with."

Some final quickies from the Gates conversation:

YouTube: He's a fan, but if Microsoft was doing it they'd be facing endless copyright and licensing problems.

Clippy (Microsoft Word's much-reviled paperclip assistant): Dead.

The Traditional Broadcast Model: Dead. "There is a difference between what technology enables and what historical business practices are used to."

Later, talking to Gates after dinner, I ask him more about those reality acquisition devices. He waxes lyrical about "layering" and how I'll be able to get the crime statistics for the neighborhood I'm in, and even updates on local issues that might be of interest to me (based on the device's awareness of my political leanings). "And on this we are way ahead of Google," he says, as the same spark that was there when he talked about cholera returns.

Reality (however you acquire it) can be very subjective.