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Windows everywhere, even Net PCs

video Bill Gates's right-hand man at Microsoft, Steve Ballmer, tries to sell an old vision to a standing-room only crowd at PC Expo: "Windows everywhere."

video NEW YORK--Bill Gates's right-hand man at Microsoft (MSFT), Steve Ballmer, tried to sell an old vision to a standing-room only crowd here at PC Expo: "Windows everywhere."

In a keynote speech today, Ballmer, the executive vice president in charge of sales and support at Microsoft, updated the company's familiar marketing message by discussing new technologies designed to spread Windows beyond PCs as well as simplify computing. He also demonstrated a new technology, code-named Darwin, that will be included in its Windows NT 5.0 operating system. Darwin is designed to simplify the installation of applications from a central server.

Microsoft's Steve Ballmer on bandwidth, Memphis, and browsers
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Gates, Microsoft's chairman, first floated the "Windows everywhere" concept in the early 90s, saying that the operating system would power all kinds of devices, including copy and fax machines and handheld computers. Microsoft has only partially succeeded in making that vision a reality with its slimmed-down Windows CE OS.

But today, Windows CE doesn't seem like much of a success. Jonathan Roberts, director of Windows marketing, was spurned in his attempts to demonstrate a Casio handheld computer based on Windows CE because of software glitches. "Screw it!" Roberts finally joked to Ballmer about the failed demo, but only after he cursed the device with another, unprintable expletive.

Other Microsoft software demonstrations fared better, but ironically did not involve shipping products. The company showed off Windows NT 5.0, a new version of Microsoft's high-end OS that will go into beta in the fall. Ballmer also discussed a feature of NT 5.0, known as Hydra, that will allow so-called dumb Windows terminals to run applications off a central server.

Hydra is based on technology licensed from Citrix and Prologue. It will go into beta testing by the end of 1997, Ballmer said.

The VP dedicated much of his speech to minimizing the threat posed to Windows by the network computer (NC), a class of low-cost devices promoted by Sun Microsystems, Oracle, and IBM that is heavily reliant on Java to run applications. Microsoft has argued that Windows computers can also offer the benefits of NCs--reducing the administrations costs of running PCs--and has proposed a number of alternatives, including Windows terminals and Net PCs.

"The NC is part of a whole theme to try to undo what the PC revolution has done," Ballmer said. "This NC thing smells a lot like Unix to me. NCs from Sun, Oracle, and IBM are 'not compatible.'

"A browser and Java run time are not a thin client. Java is one of largest applications being written today. A terminal-based approach gives you a much thinner client," he added.

Net PCs are "sealed-case" PCs that nix the floppy drive and other features on a computer that allow users to modify the configurations of their systems. Net PCs still have other basic PC features, such as a hard disk. In contrast, Windows terminals run all applications and store all files on a server.

The Net PC hardware specification was proposed last year by Intel; at the same time, Microsoft announced a closely related software specification for Windows known as the Zero Administration Initiative (ZAI).

Today, Ballmer said that the ZAI specs would be included in Windows NT 5.0. Some of the features of ZAI will be available by the end of June in an interim software package for Windows NT 4.0 called the Zero Administration Kit. A Windows 95 version of the kit will be available a couple weeks after that.

"We hope to create a world where administrators have no need to touch the clients."

Ballmer acknowledged that some PC manufacturers are not excited about the Windows terminals because they might reduce the demand for newer high-performance machines. When operating as a Windows terminal, an old 386 PC or even in a Macintosh or Unix computer can run modern Windows 95 or NT applications.

"There's the possibility that would have some impact on replacement rates," Ballmer said. "I won't say everybody is turning cartwheels, but certainly this technology is available today from Citrix and Prologue, and the PC market is doing fine."