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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, April 4, 2001

Gates outlines Microsoft products

By Erin Van Bronkhorst
Associated Press

SEATTLE — Researchers are working on software that can rank e-mail by priority and deliver messages — on a desktop unit or cellphone — that are important enough to interrupt whatever you're doing, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates says.

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"You want to be in control," he told about 2,000 high-tech industry researchers, developers and observers yesterday at the Computer-Human Interaction Conference, sponsored by the Association for Computing Machinery.

"Sometimes you might be interested in when a check clears or a bill comes in," said Gates, the company's co-founder and now its chief software architect. "The most valuable resource is the user's time."

Outlining some of Microsoft's planned products, Gates said company researchers have long been discussing "the idea of an agent that knows things, that can deal with the uncertainty and can deal with the context."

The "e-mail rater" learns by observing who you communicate with most often and which e-mails you read first, among other things.

"The system actually comes to understand a user's sense of urgency," senior researcher Eric Horvitz told the crowd, showing them on an overhead projector his own e-mail ratings from his desktop computer.

"I typically don't share my urgency scores with my colleagues," he said.

But Jennifer's e-mail about a scheduled lunch scored a 92, "coming up very strongly there," and a coworker's announcement about free shirts available in her office got an 87 score. Down at the bottom with a score of 01 were junk e-mails.

A test version of e-mail ranking is available as part of the "Priorities/Notification" add-on to Outlook Mobile Manager. The product is expected to be available later this year and will be in future versions of Microsoft Office software, the company said.

There's an "intelligent agent" — still under development — that figures out when and where to interrupt you with messages you want to receive, Gates said.

The system recognizes seven "attentional states" ranging from High Focus Solo down to Sleeping. Using a plug-in camera, it could gauge your activities.