By Maria Saporta
At breakfast this morning at the Commerce Club, the Georgia Chamber of Commerce rolled out the red carpet for Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft.
And Ballmer responded by saying Atlanta actually is the 10th largest high tech center in the country. He remembered coming to Atlanta five years ago to attend a breakfast sponsored by the Technology Association of Georgia, and he was impressed that it attracted 700 people that early in the morning.
Although Microsoft doesn’t have its headquarters here, Ballmer said Atlanta is an important base for the information technology company. It has 350 employees in the state and has partners that employ another 5,000.
Ballmer was in Atlanta to announce a job training partnership between Microsoft and the state of Georgia.
But in his talk to the Georgia Chamber, Ballmer’s message was fairly straight-forward.
“At the end of the day, there’s only one thing that’s going to drive economic growth, and that’s innovation,” Ballmer said. “In a sense, I feel particularly fortunate to work in an industry where you either innovate or you die. We have to keep pushing forward on the frontier.”
Ballmer said Microsoft will invest $9 billion this year on research and development, which he believes is more than any other company will spend on R&D. Unlike other firms, Ballmer added that his company did not cut its research and development budget during these tough economic times.
Then he told the breakfast group of about 200 people that a gathering “like this will be viewed as primitive” in the future. He then held up a sheet of paper, and called it part of the Gutenberg era (after the press invented in the 1430s).
“I want to have a screen that’s as thin as this,” Ballmer said waving the sheet of paper. “We really will have screens that are this thin and this light.”
In preparing our country for the ever-changing information age, Ballmer said it will require more computer literacy than exists today. A big priority also should be in bridging the “digital divide” that separates those who are skilled in computers and information technology and those who are not.
“It doesn’t do a lot of good to have all this new technology if you can’t use it,” Ballmer said.
During the question and answer portion, one of the most interesting exchanges came when talking about have a technological platform for health industry so that medical records could be available to better serve patients.
Ballmer explained the complications of have such a standardized platform because medical practices may use one kind of technology, hospitals another kind, labs yet another and insurance companies using another one.
Former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young told Ballmer that when he was in Congress in 1974, all his information was on one card.
“The only way you could impose standards is through government,” Ballmer said, adding that government already pays for more than half of all medical costs through Medicare and Medicaid. He then went on to say that the organization that is leading the standardized system for health records is the Veterans Administration.
“You aren’t saying government provides the best health system, are you?” Young, a longtime Democrat, asked.
To that Ballmer said: “The VA is one of the highest-performing medical systems in the country.”