More and more software will be developed in Asia in the coming years, with China and India far outpacing the number of computer science graduates the U.S. produces each year, Microsoft's chief executive officer said Wednesday.
The U.S. is a "distant third" to China and India in annual computer science graduates, said Steve Ballmer, repeating concerns he and other Microsoft executives have made in recent years. Ballmer didn't give specific numbers while speaking to a group of about 500 technology company executives in Washington, D.C., but varying estimates have China and India producing tens of thousands more computer science graduates each year than about 25,000 annually in the U.S.
"A lot of the software that gets written in the world is going to get written in Asia," Ballmer said. "It's going to getting written in Asia, because that's where the people are with the skills. We'd love to see more people graduate in computer science here in the United States, but the trend is not a good one."
The U.S. graduated about 50,000 computer science students in 1986, according to U.S. government statistics.
But Ballmer, responding to an audience question, predicted relatively few software startups in India and China, at least in the new future. The U.S. still has an advantage in its "climate for entrepreneurship," he said.
"Most of the people who want to sell software want to start their business someplace where somebody's going to buy something," he said. "People tend to start those businesses, by and large, in the United States. Someday, somebody might wake up and tell the Chinese government the Chinese people ought to start paying for software because they also want to compete in this market."
Ballmer's speech focused on Microsoft's upcoming products and its goals, including efforts to integrate its software packages as a way to provide convenience to customers. The goal to provide greater interoperability among Microsoft products doesn't need to clash with efforts to support open standards, he said.
He also talked about a continued IT industry move away from software being sold as a product to it being sold as a network-based service. U.S. military leaders he has talked to want to create military-wide portals that defense workers worldwide can access, he said. "The basic nature of software will change."
One audience member questioned him about Microsoft's 4-year-old security focus, asking how Microsoft has improved its cybersecurity reputation in a short time. Ballmer noted that cybersecurity as a whole has improved with fewer virus attacks reported in recent months. "The bad guys are still out there, " he said. "I know we have a ways to go -- we really do."
Asked what the U.S. government's role in cybersecurity should be, Ballmer said it can continue to remind technology users of the dangers of letting their guard down.
"You've just got to be relentless," he said of Microsoft's internal efforts. "My top concern is we all get lulled to sleep when there's a big gap between bad things happening."
One audience member complained about U.S. government regulations such as Sarbanes-Oxley, the financial disclosure law in that took effect in 2002. While compliance was expensive for Microsoft, the company didn't protest Sarbanes-Oxley, he said. "Most of it was, I think, valuable for us to do at least the first time," he said.
Smaller businesses facing the same compliance processes as Microsoft may have legitimate complaints, he acknowledged. Ballmer had joked early in his speech that his children did not yet have the new Xbox 360 gaming console because of Sarbanes-Oxley. Microsoft decided to end giving small gifts to executives because Sarbanes-Oxley requires that those be disclosed, and the gifts weren't worth the additional effort, he explained later.
As for hot new future technologies, Ballmer identified voice and video over Internet Protocol, "smart" mobile devices that run software programs, and natural-language computer interfaces. Internet voice calls will turn telephones into programmable devices that can prioritize calls and find workers at the office or at home, he said.
Ballmer suggested natural-language computer interfaces could change computing in the next four to six years. Computers "know where information is" often better than humans do but the current search and navigation functions need to be improved, he said.
"I can't tell my computer, 'get ready for my trip to D.C.,'" he said. "I can tell my secretary that, but I can't tell my computer that."