I’ve been involved in many projects in my 13 years at Microsoft, pretty much all of them to do with improving reading on the screen. I’m a “man with a mission”, and not ashamed to admit it. Oh, I know idealism might be regarded as old-fashioned and sneered at; but I’ve never been able to regard work as just a way to make a living. If I can’t feel I’m making a difference, it’s not worth doing.
Here’s my mission. I believe that reading has to transition from paper to the screen. It’s not just about getting rid of paper. It’s about improving access to information to billions more people in the world.
It was access to information, in books and libraries, that changed my own life. I could easily be doing some menial job and still living in a depressed housing project in the East End of Glasgow. Instead, more than a billion people are using technology I helped to invent, and Bill Gates uses me as an advisor to answer his detailed questions about reading and what Microsoft needs to do to improve reading on the screen.
I’m not trying to impress you with those statements. They’re really just to illustrate the difference reading made in my life. And that’s why I believe every child (and adult) in the world should have the right of access to the same wealth of information, so they can use it to improve their lives. See my Digital Declaration of Independence.
Anyway, if you wanted to produce a printed science textbook in, say, Swahili, you’d have to convince some publisher that you’d sell about 10,000 copies – because that’s the point at which sales break even with costs of printing, production, distribution etc.
However, if you wanted to produce the same book in an electronic version, all you’d have to do is find someone to translate the text, and replace the original language strings with the new ones.
That means the cost of books should come down dramatically, and access should go up just as dramatically.
Of course devices have to get cheaper too, and that is happening – maybe not as fast as we would like, but it is happening.
To make this really work, text on a screen has to become just as readable as paper. There’s no doubt in my mind it can be. There are screens which produce better text than print (I have a couple). It’s really just a matter of developing the right technology, and getting it out there. And that’s why I’m at Microsoft. With more than 600 million users of Windows and about 400 million users of Office, you can deploy that technology on an incredible scale. There’s nowhere else you can make such a dramatic impact.
If you want to change the world, change Windows and Office. That’s my mantra.