The billionaire executive touted the software giant's main consumer platform for the next three years and asserted the modern computer industry is a lot like the auto industry of the 1920s, marked by rapid technological improvement and integration.
Starting at about 5 p.m., Gates and Microsoft senior vice president Brad Chase welcomed a crowd of Microsoft partners, users, and journalists to a gathering at San Francisco's Fort Mason, the same place where the company unveiled Internet Explorer 4.0 last October.
The now-familiar launch theme, Route 98, was much in evidence, from the highway decorations and the diner-style refreshments of hot dogs and pretzels to the "open road" focus of Gates's keynote speech. Approximately 200 software and hardware vendors showed off their Windows 98 compatible products.
"The auto gave people freedom to go new places," he said. "The PC is doing the same thing, but it is doing it far faster."
The Microsoft chairman even posited that information technology will have greater impact. The spread of the home computer among consumers has been far quicker than that of the automobile, and by the year 2001, 60 percent of homes will have PCs and 85 percent of those homes will be connected to the Internet, Gates said.
Gates further predicted that Windows 98 will play a large part in the next wave of consumers turning to computers. "[When Windows 95 came out], computers weren't as powerful or as inexpensive. They didn't exploit the idea of tying the Internet to other parts of the system," he added.
"This is just the beginning," Gates exclaimed. "The majority of what we're going to do is in front of us. This is just an early milestone."
Alluding later in his address to an ongoing antitrust suit, he returned again to the auto industry, describing a General Motors executive who believed the car had to integrate more and more functionalities and saying the PC must go the same way.
For his part, Chase claimed that Windows 98 will provide consumers with easier access to the Internet. The operating system upgrade also offers support for new hardware devices like DVD drives and TV tuners, as well as dual-monitor viewing. Upgrades are selling for $89.90, while nearly all PC vendors have switched over to the new OS for its consumer boxes.
Chase punctuated his comments with video clips depicting Windows 98 users. One such clip focused on a disabled former Chicago policeman taking advantage of Windows 98 accessibility features for the handicapped.
Aside from the official launch here, Microsoft estimated that 65,000 people participated in regional launch events.
Also today, Microsoft revealed that advance orders for Windows 98 at computer retailers had led Microsoft application sales for the spring time period. Additionally, the company now estimates that as of July 25, 90 percent of consumer computers will be shipping with Windows 98.