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Gates preaches PC's staying power

Microsoft CEO Bill Gates will continue to say it as long people keep listening: The PC is here to stay.

LAS VEGAS, Nevada--Microsoft (MSFT) CEO Bill Gates will continue to say it as long people keep listening: The PC is here to stay.

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Microsoft CEO Bill Gates during the opening of his Comdex keynote speech at the Aladdin Theater.
Gates used his keynote here at Comdex to recount the history and future of the PC, focusing on the fact that all the advances in the industry, including the Internet, require ever-more powerful desktops to run ever-more demanding applications. The speech reflects the increased pressure that Microsoft and its comrade-at-arms Intel (INTC) feel in the face of increased interest in network computers and other pared-down desktops that purportedly will be cheaper to run and easier to use but end up removing a lot of the "personal" in the PC.

Gates's argument for the PC boils down to two elements. First, PC software can scale up and down to run on handhelds, like the upcoming Windows CE devices announced Monday, as well as more powerful systems. Network computer interfaces are intentionally stripped down to support only the bare essentials of computing; everything else runs on the server. (See NEWS.COM special report)

Gates as he talks about the transformation the Net poses to PC technology and users.

Second, Gates argued, the PC is the only kind of client powerful enough to deliver the interface that will really make computers useful to the average Joe. Gates said he is looking forward to the development of a "personal" interactive user experience that is largely devoid of clicking, standard interfaces, and esoteric commands. For example, Gates foresees a day when a computer will be able to recognize a user's voice and respond to verbal commands and sense movements or problems using "whisper technology," an internal name for research and development efforts.

"People are doing more and more with the PC and users are still grappling with the complexity," Gates told the audience packed into the Aladdin Theater, and the overflow crowds which funneled into adjacent rooms equipped with video monitors.

Gates said that this is the year that Microsoft and its allies also prove that desktop applications, the operating system, and the Internet really do go together to deliver the "information at your fingertips" vision that he's been pushing at Comdex keynotes for several years now. "This is the year that productivity applications and the Internet really come together," Gates predicted.

One of the ways that Microsoft is proposing to do this through its Active Desktop concept, which relies on the new metaphor of "pushing" information towards the user instead of waiting for the user to come out on the Internet looking for it. The Active Desktop will be achieved through upgrades of the both the Windows operating system and the Explorer browser so that users can designate all the kinds of information they're interested in and then wait for the content to be delivered to the desktop.

Gates listens to the applause after finishing his speech.

Gates also said the Internet will help implement a new Microsoft idea of "zero-administration Windows." This will let a server store a PC environment so that the user can access it from anywhere. You don't hook up your desktop to the network; your desktop lives on the network and you log into your custom environment, he explained, assuring the trade show audience that these kinds of advances ensure a bright future for the PC.

But Gates also took a few minutes to calm the Internet fever that has overtaken the industry and this year's Comdex. The leisurely-attired CEO showed a video presentation where a school girl is concerned about her popularity because she only has a low-bandwidth modem. Later, a girl praises a friend's slumber parties because her friend's house as a T1 network hook-up. Gates also made a cameo during footage of his visit to an "Internet Users Anonymous" group, where he confessed to having spent more than six days online.

Don't get Gates wrong: He's sure that someone will buy some of these network computer things and they may even find them useful. But people will still want to buy PCs because they will be the coolest machines.

"The PC is the ultimate empowerment tool," he said.

Photography: Donald R. Winslow, CNET