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Gates meets the masses

Microsoft chief Bill Gates tackles Java, encryption, and customer service before an overflow crowd of Comdex attendees.

ATLANTA--Microsoft (MSFT) CEO Bill Gates scoffed at Java and touted Windows NT at Spring Comdex today as part of a wide-ranging keynote that covered everything from browser security to federal encryption policies.

Gates didn't actually make a speech; instead, he responded to a list of prepared questions posed by Computerworld executive Gary Beach. The principal auditorium at the Georgia World Congress Center quickly filled up, and lines for overflow rooms equipped with video screens were so long that show officials finally closed the rooms to latecomers.

The format allowed Gates to touch on a long list of subjects, including two of his favorite topics: why Java isn't the end-all and be-all of PC computing and why Windows NT pretty much is.

Gates' Java comments were delivered one day after a Comdex keynote by Lotus Development president Jeff Papows, during which the groupware exec pointed to Java as the "last and best hope" for cross-platform interoperability in the industry.

But Gates reiterated Microsoft's position that Java is simply another programming language, criticizing those who are using Java to turn existing applications into Java-based programs. See related story

"I think it's a little strange to get religious about this," Gates said. The comments were a partly veiled stab at competing software vendors such as Netscape Communications and Sun Microsystems in particular, which is promoting a campaign for "100 percent pure Java" that Microsoft has not endorsed.

But Gates skepticism about Java today was matched by his enthusiasm for Windows NT. He said the company would spend about $1 billion for NT-related research and development this year. That's half of the company's total R&D budget, he added.

Gates continued to promote Windows NT as a platform for businesses, rehashing themes discussed at the company's recent Scalability Day held in New York, such as the company's transaction server and emerging clustering capabilities. "We have no limits on where we want to take it as far as richness and performance," he said.

Gates also stressed the company's focus on Net security and announced a series of security enhancements to be included in the company's Internet Explorer 4.0 Web browser. (See related story)

In anticipation of a visit to Washington, D.C., tomorrow with several high-technology executives, Gates also used his Comdex platform to publicly criticize current encryption export requirements, saying the regulations are "not serving any purpose."

U.S. software companies can currently use only 40-bit encryption methods in software they want to export without a license, which Gates said made it "almost trivial" for someone to break into software programs. He champions the use of 128-bit encryption in all software, whether for domestic or international distribution.

Other issues broached during the discussion included Microsoft's service role with enterprise customers. Gates said the company would continue to rely on partners such as Hewlett-Packard and Digital Equipment to handle the requirements of large customers. "We are not in the systems integration business; we are not broadly in the consulting business."

The company will expand its direct sales force and consulting services over the next year to better serve customers, Gates added.

Internet editor Jeff Pelline contributed to this story