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Gates' address accentuates the positive

As has become standard in recently, Microsoft's chairman uses his Comdex keynote address to offer a rebuttal to the notion that the tech industry's best days are behind it.

LAS VEGAS--As has become standard in recent years, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates used his Comdex keynote address to offer a rebuttal to the notion that the tech industry's best days are over.

Gates kicked off his speech at Comdex Fall 2002 here by talking about the coming age in which all manner of human activities will become digitized, from note taking to bill paying.

"It's not just sitting in front of that desktop PC," said Gates, Microsoft's chief software architect, in a speech at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. "That's very important, but that's just a piece of what we are trying to do. The magic of software is spreading out to all different devices--and those devices are connecting in different ways."

But Gates acknowledged that it is rough times for the technology industry amid an overall sluggish economy and the resulting resistance toward investing in new equipment.

"On the more sober side, there are a number of things that have made this a tough year. The attitude toward capital expenditures, the overall economic climate," he said.

Gates' address comes against the backdrop of one of the steepest downturns since the PC revolution began more than 20 years ago. The Comdex show itself, now in its 23rd year, is set to be a smaller affair as companies are less willing to shell out for big trade shows. In a sign of the times, show organizer Key3Media said last week that it may seek bankruptcy protection.

Always one to bet on technology winning the day, Gates continued to paint a picture of a digital home increasingly crowded with digital devices. He pointed, as always, to the natural progression of economics that makes digital gear ever cheaper, more powerful and more portable.

Microsoft's latest example is Dell Computer's Axim X5 Pocket PC which, at $199, represents a new low price for a color device running Microsoft's handheld operating system.

Such decreases in cost will finally make it possible for all kinds of objects to get digital "smarts," Microsoft says. The company's latest effort is designed to give things as mundane as keychains and refrigerator magnets some measure of intelligence.

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Gates' mantra: Good times ahead
Bill Gates, chairman, Microsoft
"At the end of the decade, a terabyte will be the typical storage on a personal computer," Gates said. Hundreds of gigabytes of data will be able to be stored on portable devices, he said.

Gates also introduced a new program, OneNote, to its Office software that allows a user to better organize meeting notes, preserve URLs from the Web as well as find information easily from a hard drive.

"Meetings are still a huge time sink," said Gates, noting that technology already allows employees to record and playback meetings they may have missed. The software provides a "nice incentive not to go to meetings," Gates joked.

The new program emphasizes note taking, but the functions are much broader, Gates said. "It hasn't been that easy, in a really free-form way, to organize your thoughts (in Office)."

Get smart
Gates also presented a prototype smart object during the keynote address--a travel alarm clock that wakes its owner up based on the owner's first calendar appointment, data that's stored on a central PC.

"The first thing most of us think about when the alarm goes off is, how much more time do I have to sleep?" said a Microsoft representative. Consequently, the "smart alarm clock" offers flight and traffic information, to let an owner decide if he can snooze some more, or make a mad dash for the airport.

These devices will communicate wirelessly, company representatives said. Yet little more is known about the rest of the technology behind the "smart" products. Microsoft representatives promised more information will be divulged at the Consumer Electronics Show in January 2003.

Microsoft, which has been working on smart objects for three years, aims to have the first crop of devices on the market by the end of next year. The company has been working with chipmaker National Semiconductor to develop low-cost chips that can make the devices affordable.

On the drawing board
Microsoft also announced a new shipping date for the delayed server version of the Windows XP operating system. Renamed Windows .Net Server 2003, the operating system is now expected to ship in April 2003. A new version of Microsoft's Visual Studio.Net development tools will ship concurrently. Microsoft also said it will ship a new test version of Windows. Net Server 2003, release candidate two, sometime in the next two weeks.

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Setting the alarm for "smart" objects
Bill Gates, chairman, Microsoft
Microsoft released desktop and server versions of Windows 2000 simultaneously, but Windows XP for desktop computers will have been out for more than a year by the time the server version of the operating system, Windows .Net Server 2003, is released. Also, a server version of the next-generation "Longhorn" product has been scrapped.

Gates said .Net Server 2003 will bolster Microsoft's assault on Unix servers and mainframes, the stalwart high-end systems that have proven more powerful and reliable than Windows servers thus far. Coming features will let customers better use storage improvements to work with special-purpose storage area networks; pair up geographically distant systems to sidestep problems such as floods or power outages; build servers with as many as 64 processors; and address as much as 512GB of memory for very large databases.

Separately, Microsoft announced that Gateway and Alienware, among others, will be creating living room PCs that use Microsoft's Windows XP Media Center edition.

The company also announced that the first smart displays--portable monitors that can remotely access a PC from throughout the home--will go on sale Jan. 8, 2003.

Microsoft had originally planned to bring the devices out earlier and at a lower price. The first machines will come from ViewSonic and cost anywhere from $1,000 for the cheapest model to nearly $1,500 for a 15-inch screen with a docking station.

Aiming to show a practical application of Web services, Microsoft gave a demonstration of a program that will allow Microsoft Windows computers to easily print a document at a neighborhood Kinko's, a nationwide copy chain. The "File-Print-Kinko's" service will be available next year.

Gates also touched on other themes during his speech, including the 11-month-old "trustworthy computing" effort to make Microsoft's software more secure. In Windows .Net Server, for example, the company has poured some $100 million into security enhancements.

Video star?
As he has done in the past, Gates made an appearance in a humorous video, this time a parody of VH1's "Behind The Music." Billionaire investor Warren Buffett, former President Bill Clinton, Netscape Communications co-founder Marc Andreessen and rapper Sean "P Diddy" Combs all made cameos in the video along with Gates.

The video traced the personal computer from the pre-Microsoft MITS Altair through DOS. Gates in the video makes fun of himself being late to discover the Internet, while Andreessen jokes of his "peak" with the Mosaic browser.

Gates, described in the video as an "Internet pioneer--NOT," said it was clear to him that everybody was jumping on the Internet bandwagon.

"It was especially clear to me, after everyone had gone there," he said.

Gates' address began a few minutes late, though the waiting crowd was entertained as Windows Media Player software cranked out tunes and displayed colorful patterns on two giant video screens.