In the Kremlin, a Computer Czar


To the thump of computer-generated rock music and the piercing light of lasers, 4,000 Russian techno-nerds invaded the Kremlin on Friday in what looked more like a video game come to life than a pondering of the future in the inner sanctum of the old "Evil Empire."

The young and the geeky came to hear Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates' hopeful vision of the world just ahead as Russia explodes out of the information vacuum that characterized the Communist era.

The packed State Kremlin Palace--where dour Communist bureaucrats once gathered to chart the future--and the live broadcast of the seminar to tens of millions of television viewers testified to the soaring interest among Russians in learning about the tools and toys available on the World Wide Web.

And thanks to a different kind of light being shined into long-dark corners of Russia by another American magnate, financier-philanthropist George Soros, access to the Internet is expanding, narrowing the gap between this country and the technologically revolutionized West.

"I think in a decade from now, most people will use the Web many times each day. They will take it for granted, like we use the telephone today," Gates told his rapt audience from nascent computer industries and university technology centers.

His message to the predominantly youthful audience, mostly bespectacled males in turtlenecks and running shoes, was that software programming offers a mother lode of new jobs for Russia's well-educated population.

And in Russia, still scared by its long isolation from Western contemporaries, people can contribute their knowledge and expertise and tap into that of others throughout the global community without leaving home, Gates noted.

"People don't have to move. They don't have to change where they are in order to make their skills available to customers on a global basis," the 41-year-old software czar told reporters earlier in the day. "This is the opposite of brain drain. This is 'brain retention,' along with incredible opportunity for people with strong educational backgrounds, which you know this country has a great deal of."

Business is the first user of advanced technology, and with Russia on the verge of transforming everything from banking to public transportation in the electronic era, Gates said he foresees "phenomenal growth" in computer and software development.

Skilled programmers are especially in demand, he said, noting that 600,000 programming jobs have been created in the United States.

The main stumbling block to rapid development of information technologies in Russia, he said, is the country's notorious predilection for pirating software.

"Software companies are very dependent on people paying to license their software," Gates said. "It's the key to developing local industries. Developers can't fund their work, governments lose taxes, retailers can't stay in business, and there is no incentive to provide high-quality support."

Russia is reputed to be the world leader in software piracy, with 91% of the programs in operation here today believed to have been illegally copied and distributed, said Olga Dergunova, Microsoft's general manager for Russia and other former Soviet republics.

With 1.5 million personal computers sold in Russia last year alone and sales rising sharply this year, drawing Russians into the global business and information channels linked by the Web is just a matter of time and pace, Gates said.

Extending Internet access to Russians throughout the country is the priority project of Soros, whose inspection tour of his projects aimed at developing democratic institutions coincided with Gates' lightning visit.

The Open Society Foundation, through which the Hungarian-born philanthropist has funneled more than $100 million into Russia, has embarked on an ambitious plan to set up 30 Internet training centers across the far-flung regions of Russia over the next year.

"The future of Russia lies in the provinces," Soros told a news conference in St. Petersburg, complaining that development has been too concentrated in the glitzy, go-go capital of Moscow. But he said he is observing a fundamental change in direction in Russia, from "robber capitalism" to the roots of a more equitable and stable society.

Gates used his two days here to stump for clients and stroke partners producing the hardware needed to use his Microsoft products. He visited the Vist company that assembles personal computers and controls about 15% of the Russian market, expecting to turn out 350,000 units this year.

At Gates' meeting with Vagit Alekperov, president of the powerful Lukoil company, Microsoft entered into an agreement to jointly develop software for prospecting and developing oil fields. And his talks with the chairmen of Russia's Central Bank and its biggest network of savings institutions, Sberbank, produced a $1.65-million contract to resolve a licensing issue for use of Microsoft tools in the automation of banking in Russia.

The fortunate 4,000 who visited a high-tech trade fair set up at the Kremlin conference before Gates' presentation also got a glimpse of the considerable inroads technology has already made in their lives. One local software producer partnered with Microsoft displayed the sleek new computerized pass system for Moscow's Metro subway system, and locally produced automatic teller machines were also on show.

Russian-language copies of Gates' "The Road Ahead" sold out as fast as vendors could pass them over to buyers wearing "Ya (Heart) Internet" buttons and proffering 52,000 rubles, or $8.87, for the hard-bound editions specially stamped for the occasion.

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