Microsoft and online travel – Opening Gates to a new world

Bill Gates is a multi-billionaire, loves the Xbox 360 and is still only 50 years old. Kevin May looks at what the grandfather of the digital world has in mind for travel.

Bill Gates, like perhaps a handful of A-list film stars and musicians, has the rare ability to command an audience pretty much anywhere he decides to go.

His attendance at an online advertising industry conference in London late last year saw him upstage Sir Martin Sorrell, boss of WPP, one of the world’s biggest ad companies and by no means a slouch when it comes to creating a buzz at public events.

The reason the 50-year-old techie from Seattle is such a draw to the business community, and why the Internet Advertising Bureau booked him to speak, is that he and his company have played a pivotal role in the transformation of the communications industry. These changes have radically overhauled the way most businesses speak to their customers and how, in turn, consumers look for products.

Indeed, the influence of Gates – who operates under the rather grand title of chairman and chief software architect of the Microsoft Corporation – on the travel industry cannot be overestimated.

For starters, Microsoft launched the now global Expedia travel brand back in 1996, before selling it to USA Networks. But, more importantly, Microsoft has spearheaded the effort to push consumers into the digital world, a place where more travel is being bought.

But aside from pushing people toward the Internet, there are now highly advanced plans ahead for online businesses and consumers, with travel a significant area that could benefit from Gates’ vision of an electronic world.

For the past 30 years Gates has been dreaming of a digital-only future for homes and businesses, pledging to hit a goal of six billion PCs around the world in the not too distant future.

“Over the next decade we will achieve everything that we had in mind at that time,” he says of Microsoft’s unofficial mission statement of the mid-1970s.

But Gates is currently motivated more than anything else – apart from perhaps his widely publicised philanthropic work with his wife, Melinda – by three areas of development in the online world: mobility, empowerment and community. Growth in all three is expected to accelerate dramatically in the next few years as bandwidth levels improve to increase download rates and as more consumers and businesses familiarise themselves with the hardware and software, and public enthusiasm continues to grow.

In the travel market, consumers are already turning to the Internet in droves to research a holiday, look for a flight or a hotel, and then subsequently make a booking. But in the next stage of Gates’ vision the traveller could find the digital “experience”, as he likes to call the simple task of using a computer, very different indeed.

Researching a trip will be completely interactive and tailored to the user’s interests. Essentially, online tour operators and travel agents could have a field day in terms of what they are able to provide the customer.

High-quality TV screens dotted anywhere around the ‘digital home’, for example, will show a virtual tour of a holiday location, including the sights and sounds, the accommodation on offer, the type of transport needed to get there, coupled with the ability to ask local people questions, live via two-way links.

Consumers unsure as to where to go will be offered a variety of locations, depending on the user – using traditional search terms such as age, marital status and budget, but also including more tangible information such as previous holiday ‘experiences’, where friends and similar users have been, or what a user likes watching on television.

With the Internet set to become the main form of media in the home, the viewing, listening and browsing habits of consumers will help online travel companies refine their products for each individual consumer, as well as tailoring their marketing strategies depending on who is watching their advertising.

“A digital lifestyle isn’t just in the home, it’s in the car, it’s also the phone,” Gates says of the consumer power and choice that will literally be in the hands of everyone, wherever they are.

“This will take a user-centric approach. For example, if you have certain stocks or sports scores in any device then it will show them up for you on all of your digital devices.”

On the face of it, it seems the future for online travel is concentrated on enhancing the customer experience, which is by no means something consumers or online operators should be frightened of.

But there is more. Booking a holiday will certainly take place in the home, whether it is face-to-face with an agent on a big screen or via the click of a button. Search engines will be more efficient and faster, using the user’s personal information – rather than what is essentially a cold start every time – to find flights, entertainment, hotels, car hire, restaurants and attractions, all tailored to the user’s profile.

Gates says: “Search is going to improve very dramatically so that instead of a treasure hunt where you have links and it takes five minutes to find anything, it will just bring you back the answer more than 90% of the time.”

Meanwhile, all the information, images and video clips downloaded during the research stage of a holiday will be transferred to the mobile phone, laptop or the tablet, a device Gates hails as better than the invention of e-mail and which is set to become the must-have gadget in the next few years.

Gates has a habit of wowing audiences when he gets on a roll. He speaks of soon being able to use a mobile when on holiday to take pictures of road signs or venues so that the user can download directions, opening times, make a booking or check out a menu.

Virtual Earth – which was recently renamed Microsoft Local Live and is looking to break into, among other things, territory grabbed by Google’s groundbreaking GoogleEarth product – will eventually allow users to travel to any location in the world, check out products and services in shops and restaurants, before zooming out to get the satellite view of a local attraction.

Gates – probably because he makes so few official public appearances in the UK – slips into promotion mode now and again, most recently for products such as Hotmail, MSN Messenger, Spaces and the new Xbox 360.

He makes the odd reference to Microsoft’s enormous research and development budget, and he waves his arms when describing how aircraft and satellites are photographing the entire planet for Local Live. But even cynical advertising types are forgiving of Gates.

For the commercial world, and for travel in particular, Gates has been instrumental in transforming how they operate as businesses. Many of his predictions have come to fruition, while his forecast for the future is equally mind-blowing.

This is why he manages to upstage some of the biggest names in the world of business, every time he walks into a room. Like him or not – the world probably has to listen.

Microsoft, Bill Gates and Expedia

It seems like an eternity, in terms of the comparatively short history of online travel, since Microsoft launched Expedia on rather unassuming and traditional travellers in 1996.

Originally rolled out as the travel area of MSN, where users could buy airline tickets, rent cars or book rooms from a inventory of 30,000 hotels in the US, Microsoft prided itself on the extras it provided such as travel information, photographs, e-mail alerts and maps.

Gates on …

…why Microsoft launched Expedia: “Being able to tap into and book the latest, lowest air fares right from your PC with Expedia is very compelling. We think it will reshape the way consumers plan and purchase travel.”

…the benefits of being a major player early on: “Our greatest success is not so much our own site, but taking that technology and licensing it to the airlines and to the travel agency companies so they can use it in terms of what they want to do.

…and why Expedia was sold off: “This is not a business that belongs in the same management structure as state-of-the-art software. It has a happy ending in terms of how it became part of USA Networks.”


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