It is time to learn to trust your computer

Computers are already ubiquitous, but we have not yet developed an unquestioning instinct to rely on them as we do other 20th...

Computers are already ubiquitous, but we have not yet developed an unquestioning instinct to rely on them as we do other 20th century technologies

Every day, we put our trust in computing technology - in the financial networks that drive the global economy, the flight control systems that guide thousands of aircraft safely to their destinations, the computers that store our documents at work and at home.

Yet most people still don't count on computing the way they rely on electricity or the telephone. Individuals and businesses alike are concerned about the privacy, security and availability of their data, about upgrading their hardware, about how new applications might affect their systems. Until these concerns are addressed, computing's potential to enrich our lives will not be fully realised.

Right now, we are only scratching the surface of what computing technology can do. Already, networks of smart, connected devices make it possible for us to do business, communicate, learn and be entertained using everything from fully-featured PCs to smart, handheld devices. In the years ahead a combination of inexpensive microchips and smart software will weave computing into almost every part of our lives.

The advance of computing technology has, in many ways, mirrored the growth of electric power more than a century ago. Manufacturing companies were among the first to use electricity, mostly to improve their productivity. But in the home it remained a novel luxury. Many people were reluctant to use the new electrical appliances, unsure of their safety and reliability.

By the 1930s, however, technology advances, industry safety initiatives and gradual public acceptance led to a rapid increase in electricity use in many countries - the technology was still not fully trustworthy, but it was safe and reliable enough. Today, the developed world takes electricity for granted.

For computers to be taken for granted, they must always be available wherever and whenever people need them, they must reliably protect personal information from misuse and give people control over how their data is used, and they must be unfailingly secure. We call this concept "trustworthy computing".

Making trustworthy computing a reality is both an immediate challenge and a long-term research goal. Computing technology is far more advanced - and used in vastly different ways - than it was in the mid-20th century yet the way we build computers, and the way we largely design software and services around those computers, has not really changed much. It now needs to do so.

Trustworthy computing requires not only that the industry place a far higher priority on security and privacy than it has in the past, but also that computer companies focus on the long-term research needed to build trust into computers from the ground up, in every part of the computing ecosystem - from individual chips to global Web services.

At Microsoft, trustworthy computing involves every part of the company.

We are training more than 9,000 developers in the principles of writing secure software, and are making security everyone's number one priority - even if that means shipping a product late. Our Windows XP and Office XP software includes error-reporting features that give us real-time feedback on reliability issues. And we are working with industry leaders and policymakers to make trustworthy computing a mission for the entire technology industry.

Total trustworthiness has yet to be achieved in any pervasive technology - electrical systems still sometimes surge or fail, telephone lines still drop the occasional call. Yet they have largely won our trust: for the most part they do what we want when we want them to. Achieving the same level of trust in computers is a complex challenge, but it's one that Microsoft and the industry must meet in order to realise the full potential of this amazing technology.

Bill Gates is chairman and chief software architect, Microsoft Corporation

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