Bill Gates' CD-ROM abounds with surprisingly strange effects

HOW WILL STUDENTS be effected (sic) by the new technologies?" asks a recent CD-ROM concerned with the future of computers and communications. The answer given, unfortunately, is "Every student will have more opportunity than the most privileged student had just a decade ago," not "They will rely too heavily on spelling checkers."

Welcome to The Road Ahead, a CD-ROM bound into the back of the new book of the same name written by Bill Gates, chairman of the Microsoft Corp., with Nathan Myhrvold, a Microsoft executive, and Peter Rinearson, a journalist and software entrepreneur. The disk will not run on Macintoshes. On my machine, running it with Windows 95 sometimes produced error messages and program crashes. When it did run properly, it started with the friendly message "Installing temporary files," followed by "Opening C:(backslash)book.sym" and "Installing global filters." This is all information of a sort, but it is not exactly what you would expect from an industry titan hawking the glories of a computer on every desk and in every home.


The disk's "Future" section, described in the manual as "the world of tomorrow, today," briefly explains coming technologies. also offers video clips of the future as seen in Mr. Gates' 1994 fall Comdex keynote presentation.

There is also a brief computer-generated walk-through of part of Mr. Gates' 50,000-square-foot home, still under construction on Lake Washington outside Seattle. The views through its expanses of glass seem far more inviting than his high-tech television screens, which automatically change what is on them depending on who is in the room.


VTC "Ask Bill" poses 10 questions, three of which misuse the word "effect," perhaps a single-screen record for a published work. Here as elsewhere, the medium's vaunted interactivity is almost nonexistent. If you want to revisit a pearl of Gatesian wisdom, you cannot rewind the video clip to the interesting part but must rerun it from the start.

If you have Windows 95, the "Connect" section should let you install version 1.0 of Microsoft's Internet Explorer. Unfortunately, Microsoft released version 2.0 precisely one week after the book arrived. You could, of course, install the old browser and then use it to retrieve the new one; you could, that is, if you could endure the installation process, which on two different machines quit precisely 17 percent of the way through and then responded to random pounding on the keyboard by surreptitiously finishing the job.

Finally, the disk includes the text of the book itself. The disk's index, however, reports only the first instance of an entry. To find others, you must perform a separate full-text search, which does not always work. "Moore's law," for example, has five entries in the hardcover index, one in the disk's and none in the search engine's.

But the on-disk book does have lots of hypertext links to what passes in these times for information, much of it fresh from the files of public relations departments, none of it indexed. Click on "me" on the first page of the text and you are treated to a brief biography of Mr. Gates that says, "The company is committed to the long term by investing in new technology, state-of-the-art projects and new products for" something we are left to guess at, since that is where the entry ends.

Click on "Craig McCaw" and you get a photo and biography courtesy of AT&T; Wireless Communications. Click on "NEC" and you see the corporate headquarters of an American division and a mention of its "high-quality" products, but get no inkling that the company is a Japanese-based power in semiconductors, computers and communications.

This CD-ROM unwittingly exemplifies what many people fear the "information highway" is likely to become: a mass of regurgitated material, much of it corporate propaganda, with slick but largely irrelevant production values, like the rays that shoot out to vaporize the planet when you click on an item in the main menu.

The book itself is far better than the CD-ROM and far easier to use. People in the industry will find little new here, but it is a decent if bland introduction to what Mr. Gates, admittedly against his own better judgment, insists on calling "the information highway."

Mr. Gates is best, and only slightly self-serving, in his examination of the commercial aspects of the communications revolution. He is far less convincing when he tries to explain putative social benefits, particularly in education. Although he does point out technological dangers like the tremendous potential decrease in privacy, "perfect enforcement of speeding laws" is the only one that evokes a strong opinion. "I would vote against that," Mr. Gates says, but he is not quite willing to condemn universal video surveillance of public places.


The book includes neither footnotes nor reading list. It does include plenty of blue-sky "You will " predictions about as likely as the ones in a recent AT&T; ad campaign. One telling anecdote gives the game away. Mr. Gates describes some handwriting recognition software that its development team was particularly proud of. When he tried it, it failed dismally; it was the first time a left-hander had used it.

Stephen Manes is a columnist for the New York Times.