View of Seattle skyline from the ferry from Bainbridge.

It’s starting to look like this is becoming a letter from America, but there are two good reasons! Firstly our scheduled return from Seattle to the UK has been delayed as my wife, Lindsay has needed to recover from a broken femur after a fall on some stairs. Secondly the last week has brought technology news from Seattle and the west coast, which has sent out much wider ripples. What’s the relevance for adult learners?

On Wednesday the New York Times (14 June) led with a front page story “Hiding in plain sight”, on Google’s new secret weapon, a complex being built beside the River Columbia on the Oregon-Washington border. Why? To add muscle size to its already existing stock of 450.000 servers, which make up the “Googleplex” network around the world. Success depends on the fastest possible response to search enquiries from anyone using its flotilla of websites. As it increases its web services – the source of its huge revenues – so the need for computing power and data centres expands.

But in a fercely competitive world, they’re not the only ones. Microsoft too is moving in the same direction. This can be seen in its fledgling web-based platform, Windows Live. Its plan announced in April to invest $1.5 billion in infrastructure surprised many and caused a one day plunge of $32 billion in its stock value, but the decision to sacrifice short term profits for long term benefits made sense. That decision is reflected in their similar complex being built in Quincy across in Washington State; and as I learnt from a Microsoft executive over the weekend, siting these plant close to cheap hydro-electric power can reduce the high energy costs of cooling the computers by up to 75%.

Which brings me to the other news, which has hogged headlines across the world: the announcement by Bill Gates, the world’s richest man and Head of Microsoft, that he intends to stand down as Chief Software Architect by 2008. His plan is to concentrate on the work of the Gates Foundation, which he and his wife Melinda have used to distribute $10.5 billion to support major library, education, health and disease eradication programmes across the globe.

Morgan Stanley analyst Mary Meeker’s comment that “Bill’s step is good for Bill, good for Microsoft and good for the world” seems to have had wide echoes, although some have seen it as a sign of his difficulty in facing up to the challenge from Google. For some comments and pictures about a meeting of Microsoft employees immediately after the announcement, see Alex Barnett’s blog posting.

Bill Gates’ impact over 31 years at Microsoft has been huge; more than any one else he can claim to have been responsible for bringing the desktop computer into the lives of ordinary people and bringing into existence the millions of IT classes held for adult learners around the world. But the world is moving on fast and web based services and ‘always-on connectivity’ will be the future.

Adult educators need to keep up and see how they can best use this new web enabled world for the benefit of learners. Companies like Google and Yahoo are developing new services at a furious pace and social networking sites are offering compelling new opportunities for the young and the IT proficent to engage and participate. But for many adults these represent foreign lands, from which they feel barred. The problem of the digital divide remains a current issue, as I indicate in Digital Nations in the making.  It will be interesting to see whether Gates in his new role will see this as a priority which needs tackling.