Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates was the main attraction at the Consumer Electronics Association's "Digital Patriots" awards dinner on Wednesday night in Washington, which also recognized House Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton of Texas for his work on DTV legislation and Senator John Ensign of Nevada for his support of the U.S. technology industry.
Rep. Barton credited his fellow House members and staffers for helping him push through the DTV bill that guarantees a "hard date" of February 2009 for the end of analog TV broadcasts.
"I get the award a lot of people worked for," said Barton.
Barton added: "Mr. Gates and I had a very spirited conversation five minutes ago on net neutrality." Noting that he only had $512 in his checking account and that Gates probably had $5 billion, he said exchanging such views on equal footing was something that could happen "only in America."
Sen. Ensign also referred to Gates in his remarks, saying that his 13-year old son had just received a Microsoft Xbox game console and that "he thinks it's the coolest thing that I'm getting an award with Bill Gates."
On a more serious note, Ensign talked about returning overseas profits from U.S. high-tech companies and investing them domestically due to more favorable tax legislation, and reminisced over his role in the Satellite Home Viewers' Act.
"It was the first time the broadcasters were taken on and beaten," said Ensign, who added that that Congressional victory gave momentum to recent efforts to set a hard date for the DTV transition. He said that reclaiming the analog TV spectrum was important for the U.S. economy.
"That spectrum is so valuable...and you have no idea who is the next Bill Gates out there who could come up with a disruptive technology that could change America."
For his part, Gates exhibited a dry wit in his remarks.
He recalled that his technology prowess in high school allowed him and friend Paul Allen
to teach computer classes to upperclassmen and set up a computerized schedule for classes, which had the advantage of "deciding what girls would be in your class."
He talked about the early days of Microsoft and building a company during the Eighties, when there was a "sense that our economic model had been trumped by the Japanese model," something Microsoft and other U.S. high-tech firms aimed to prove wrong.
Gates also contended that the success of the 90s was based on work done in the 80s, when companies like Intel, HP, and Apple started laying the foundation for the Internet.
Gates noted that a unique aspect of American entrepreneurship is that for the first 14 years of Microsoft, he never met with legislators or other members of the Beltway community. He allowed that maybe he should have started doing that after 10 years, not 14.
"Now we are very engaged in discussions over net neutrality, worker visas and investing in education technology," said Gates.
Turning back to the television industry, Gates said the "future is very bright" as the idea of TV over the Internet takes shape. He predicts that IPTV technology will create "a completely different television experience, with no limitations on channels."
Gates concluded his remarks by discussing his philanthropic efforts in global health and U.S. education initiatives, which he says are vital for this country to keep its "very strong" leadership position. But he made it clear that his work at Microsoft is far from done.
"I look forward to more great inventions we can participate in."