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Supersized Challenge

The most powerful lessons in life sometimes draw from long-ago experiences. So it may have been when Bill Gates reminisced last week about bypassing Harvard's computer-science classes 30 years ago. "I was taking physiological psychology and economics," the school's most famous nongraduate recalled. "If you look at my course sign-up, you wouldn't think I was a software person at all."

Now, like its founder back then, Microsoft is taking a more-interdisciplinary approach. Broad changes in computing, science, and education are compelling the company to look beyond personal and business computing for its next advances. One of the most important is the rarified stratum of supercomputing, where its Windows operating system is a nonfactor today. Gates predicts the kind of supercomputing server clusters used by a small but growing number of companies will become a foundation of business computing, helping drive the next breakthroughs in science, medicine, product design, and finance.

To even get its foot in the door, however, Microsoft needs better products to unseat a well-entrenched Linux operating system. And perhaps more difficult, it needs new talent. The explosion of fields like genomics and nanotechnology is interwoven with leaps in software, which means many of today's most-computer-savvy graduates major in biology, physics, or chemistry--fields where Microsoft isn't seen as a prestige employer. Those realities will put Gates' interdisciplinary approach to the test.

Gates and conference chair William Kramer, of the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, answer questions at the supercomputing conference.-- Photo by John Froschauer/Bloomberg News

Gates and conference chair William Kramer, of the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, answer questions at the supercomputing conference.

In a keynote at the SC05 supercomputing conference and a subsequent interview in Seattle last week, Gates laid out his plan for entering the scientific-computing market. Microsoft will release a special version of Windows; launch a multimillion-dollar outreach program to harness the high-performance computing IQ of professors at 10 universities in the United States, Germany, China, and elsewhere; and increase the degree to which its 600-plus researchers collaborate with scientists in fields such as AIDS research, astronomy, and oceanography. Given the expanded use of scientific computing in industries such as aerospace, auto engineering, pharmaceuticals, medical imaging--even consumer-product design--the effects could be widespread.

"When we say science, think about people designing cars, think about people designing planes, think about people thinking through the design of a Web site," Gates said. "It's not just new medicines, although that alone would justify all this work. It's not just modeling the environment, although that alone is a supercritical thing that we absolutely need to do."

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