Clearly worried by Microsoft's legal troubles, a defensive chief Bill Gates used his keynote at the Comdex Spring show in Chicago to plead his case. Gates also presented the clearest outline so far of future directions for the Windows platform.
For the past few years, the Microsoft mogul?s public speeches have been dominated by diatribes against the network computer ? remember the 'Not Compatible' gag? No more. At Comdex, Bill Gates spent about five seconds on NCs - ?They came and they went ? all without ever selling much units," he said.
This evaluation may be a tad premature, though it is true that Windows Based Terminals - the thin client architecture pushed by Microsoft - have been stealing the limelight from Java-oriented NCs recently. But it is clear that Gates no longer considers the NC to be the main threat to the dominance of Windows.
The big threat today is the US Government. And Bill Gates appears to be focusing on this more than anything else. At last year?s Comdex/Fall, attendees of the Gates keynote received a free 'I love my PC' T-shirt, part of a campaign to counter the anti-PC atmosphere created by the defenders of the NC. This year?s freebie was a highly serious 13-page white paper called 'Integration, innovation and the PC', outlining Microsoft?s point of view on its ongoing legal dispute with the US Department of Justice (DOJ).
In fact, most of Gates? speech might have been a rehearsal for Microsoft?s appeal hearing, scheduled for Tuesday.
Gates summed up the principles that, according to him, underlie Microsoft and Windows. One, maximising customer benefit by offering the widest choice of software - through third party software developers - and hardware, through collaboration with manufacturers. And two, maximising customer benefit by offering the most comprehensive choice of third party solutions and services and by investing in innovation and in making PCs simpler to use.
He went on to paint a picture of where the PC industry would be today if Microsoft had been prohibited from integrating new features into the operating system back in 1990. Dos and Windows would still need to be installed separately, and users would still encounter the 'C:\' Dos prompt. There would be no multitasking or memory management, he added.
The white paper makes the point that, when Microsoft adds a certain function (for instance toolbars) to the operating system, all software developers benefit because they can build on it ? rather than have to reproduce the same functionality.
Gates then sketched the company?s plans to further enhance Windows in the future. The Microsoft CEO gave more specifics about the operating system?s future than in previous speeches, and at the same time managed to slip in additional arguments that bear upon the DOJ case.
In fact, Gates was more convincing than in previous speeches on the need to integrate the Web browser with operating system. He claimed that, in the future, almost all documents will be formatted according to the Internet standards HTML and XML. He added that, in Windows 98, Microsoft uses one consistent, Web based interface for what used to be three different user actions - browsing the file system, browsing the Web and browsing the help system.
While this already simplifies the operation of a PC, Gates claimed Microsoft intends to go even further. Error messages must no longer be isolated and cryptic messages, he said, but must be integrated with the PC's diagnostics system (to help identify the cause of the problem) and the help system (to allow the user to solve it).
Gates said that in the future, users must be able to browse files, Web pages, messages, and even the Windows registry, in one consistent way. The difference between file and directory names and Internet URL addresses will disappear. ?We have the prototypes already running," Gates claimed.
Gates said this technology will ship in the next major release of Windows after NT 5.0 ? an NT based successor to Windows 98.
In all, Gates outlined six key components of the Windows roadmap: * Further unification of the user interface.
* Support for natural language.
* Using video cameras to equip PCs with vision ? a use of cameras that Gates said will become more important than videoconferencing. Gates said video cameras will become standard on PCs over the next three years.
* Support for speech, what Gates referred to as ?the Holy Grail?. He repeated a statement made at last month?s Winhec conference that speech recognition will be built into Windows.
* Handwriting recognition.
* Automatic learning, the area that Gates believes will be ?the most difficult?.
Gates' manifest concern with his company?s legal woes even caused him to forgo an opportunity to plug the soon-to-be-launched Windows 98 to the Comdex audience. There was only a brief demonstration of the operating system?s improved performance and its support for the Universal Serial Bus architecture.
This last demonstration caused the PC to crash, before an audience of 4,000. A scanner was connected to the USB, and the operating system went down while it attempted to install the device. ?That must be why we?re not shipping Windows 98 yet," Gates was quick to respond.
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