Pc In Your Pocket: Bill Gates Previews Wallet That Knows You Well

The personal computer has made once-common items such as typewriters, ledger books, ticker tape and adding machines pretty much obsolete.

But the good old billfold?

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates last night showed a University of Washington audience what he dubbed the "wallet PC" of the future: An electronic card capable of replacing cash, charge plates, key cards, ID, driver's license, even photos of the kids.

"All these things are essentially means of proving who you are," Gates told a Kane Hall audience gathered last night to mark the 25th anniversary of the university's Department of Computer Science & Engineering. "For instance, you want to tell your car, `I am Bill,' so it starts," said Gates, who drives a Lexus with a digital key.

"There's no reason why you can't just carry a single little PC about the size of a wallet - a little flat-screen device that has all your authentication credentials."

The wallet will carry personal codes to open locked doors, do banking transactions at automated tellers, provide passport or driver's ID. It will also hold daily schedules, phone numbers and addresses, and electronic messages. Gates' comments came as he described his and Microsoft's vision of computing in the 21st century. Often called the "Digital World," it is envisioned as a place where paper, pen and even cowhide are supplanted by electronic versions.

In such a world, long-play records, turntables, wired and cellular telephones, clipboards, file cabinets, fax machines and overhead projectors are artifacts, Gates said, placing them on his "endangered devices" list.

Their replacements - the digital wallet as well as portable and desktop devices using compact discs capable of holding vast amounts of data - will simply be handier, more versatile and secure.

The costs of miniaturizing computers, laying fiber-optic cable to homes, businesses and schools, and converting paper-based or tape-based information to digital form are sobering, Gates admitted.

"The vision really requires critical mass," he said. "It's not like if one person is walking around with a wallet PC it will be meaningful."

It will also have to address growing privacy concerns, he admitted.

With compact-disc directories "You can type in the phone number and get the name of a person," Gates said. "Is that an invasion of privacy? It's hard to say."

Gates, who said the new technology will require software and hardware makers to work together, acknowledged that Microsoft's current domination of the software industry could hamper collaborative efforts.

"Are we Apple's greatest supporter, or are we their greatest competitor? Well, we're both," he said, adding IBM to the list as well.

"We are getting down to an extremely competitive phase where just in the next two or three years I worry that we may see the level of cooperation drop a little below what would be ideal."

But cooperation will eventually happen, he said, because "in order for these products to succeed you have to have standards."