IT is about to undergo another revolution, this time allowing us to interact with it in more natural ways, Steve Ballmer predicted at the opening ceremony of the CeBIT trade show in Germany.
Ballmer recounted seeing the IT industry undergo four revolutions since he joined Microsoft 28 years ago: the arrival of affordable personal computers, the development of graphical user interfaces, the rise of the Internet and "the Web 2.0 revolution," which was just beginning when he last visited CeBIT in 2002, he said.
At that rate, one revolution every seven years or so, we're due for another, he calculated.
Contributing to this nascent revolution, he said, are increases in available processing power and storage space, and the spread of wireless broadband Internet access. Developments in natural interfaces and display technologies will also play a role, he said.
"The computer is still unnatural: you have to learn mouse, and menus, keyboard," he said.
To get around those limitations, he said, "We're pioneering technologies that can identify spoken and written words. Interacting with computers will be just like interacting with people: We may still use keyboards and mice when it's more efficient, or you may use a wave of your hand to instruct the computer what you intend," he said.
Ballmer promised that paper will one day be obsolete. "Maybe not in this revolution but in the next," he said.
Meanwhile, "Instead of devices being tied to screens, we'll simply link our devices to a nearby display, or project information onto whatever surface is handy," he said.
He outlined three areas in which the effects of the coming revolution will be apparent by 2015: personal empowerment, social interaction and global social issues.
Three innovations will mark this era, he said: We will each have a single digital identity; software will learn our habits; and personal information will be instantly and ubiquitously accessible.
Personal empowerment, for Ballmer, means access to his calendar, contacts, photos, driving directions and email wherever he goes. "You'll just log on, click and instantly get access," he said.
Software and services will be likewise instantly accessible, as will communications.
"Tomorrow all you'll need is a name, and software will automatically know how to reach you, the best way to reach you and the context," he said.
When it comes to social interactions, the coming revolution won't necessarily be good news for everyone, perhaps costing some their jobs.
"My computer wasn't really very helpful" when it came to organising this trip to Hanover, Ballmer said. That forced him to ask his executive assistant to arrange everything.
"It would have been great if I could have just asked my computer, but we don't yet have that much intelligence in these devices."
"In the fifth revolution, software will begin to learn your habits," he said.
Another effect of expanding bandwidth and increases in processing power will be that using communication technology to interact with people will be more and more like meeting them in person, he said.
Ballmer predicted that the fifth revolution will have an impact on global social issues, such as education, where technology will bring increased access to information for those who can't attend school today.
It can also help protect the environment, by allowing us to better manage the energy we consume, he said.
Finally, as Microsoft chairman Bill Gates prepares to step down from the company, Ballmer hinted at the timing of his own departure.
"I've got about nine more good years in this business, enough for about one more revolution and a half," he concluded.