Gates defends PC at Comdex, unveils new tablet

With no major software debuts imminent, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates uses his state-of-the-computing-world address to show off some of the technologies that will lead the resurrection of the PC.

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LAS VEGAS--With no major software debuts imminent, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates used his state-of-the-computing-world address Sunday to call for a greater role for desktop PCs.

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Comdex opens with Gates keynote and Tablet PC demo
Bill Gates, chairman, Microsoft

In his Comdex address to about 12,000 attendees at the MGM Grand Hotel here, Gates also showcased new technology to help bring the PC back to its former leading role--including what he called a Tablet PC, a pen-driven but fully functional computer.

In defending the importance of the PC, Gates took aim at the approach of rivals such as Sun Microsystems by outlining future hardware and software that take advantage of the full power of today?s desktop computers. He argued that even sleek portables need the power of a desktop PC.

In essence, Gates painted a future of the Internet that does not bypass Microsoft?s franchise Windows operating system--which has made Microsoft one of the most powerful companies in the world and Gates its richest citizen.

Sun and other companies, however, envision a more varied future, with most of the Internet's complexity placed on central servers and everything from pagers to cell phones being used to access the Internet via these servers.

"Some people have had the mistaken notion that in order to make the server smarter, you need to make the client dumber," Gates said. He added that the browser-based Comdex 2000:
Back to the future era of the Internet, in which servers do heavy computational lifting and PCs merely display rudimentary Web pages, is in decline.

"The browser model, which has been the focus for the last five years, really is showing its age," he said.

Gates argued that while the computer world has historically been either centrally or locally based, the need now is for a more balanced approach. Vast amounts of data will reside on the server, while powerful desktops will be needed to sort and interpret the data.

While calling today's model inadequate, Gates nonetheless threw cold water on the notion that peer-to-peer computing will render the server obsolete.

"We just can?t swing back and be totally oriented to the client," Gates said, calling instead for a model he dubbed "software-to-software."

In his view, server software will enable "information agents" that can filter and prioritize all the different messages being sent to a person.

Gates favors a world filled with lots of medium-powered servers rather than a smaller number of very powerful ones. However, he acknowledged the importance of very powerful servers, saying that Windows will be able to run on servers with 64 central processing units (CPUs), double the number it can use today. Rival Unix servers already can use as many as 64 CPUs.

Phones, tablets and other toys
Gates pointed to a profusion of smart client devices that will be able to deliver a richer Internet experience. In addition to the tablet PC, Gates mentioned

Gartner analyst Kevin Knox says that while Bill Gates obviously favors a Windows world, Gartner agrees with his basic premise: Reports of the personal computer's death are greatly exaggerated.

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Microsoft's Xbox gaming console, the PCs in cars, handhelds and a combination handheld computer-cell phone code-named Stinger that uses Microsoft's PocketPC version of Windows.

The Tablet PC, which is not expected to be released commercially until spring or summer 2002, also features Microsoft's ClearType, a technology that makes text on LCD (liquid crystal display) screens more readable. Gates touted ClearType during his Comdex keynote two years ago.

The Tablet PC has a 500-MHz to 600-MHz CPU, 128MB of RAM, a 10GB hard disk, and universal serial bus (USB) ports for keyboard and mouse, said Microsoft software architect Bert Keeley, who demonstrated the tablet during Gates' keynote. It runs Whistler, the next version of Microsoft Windows 2000.

"It will cost more than the equivalent portable model when it comes out," Gates told reporters after the keynote. "I think it is an opportunity to both grow the portable PC market and become a significant part of the portable PC market," Gates added.

Among the technologies behind the Tablet PC is what Microsoft calls "rich ink," a feature that allows a person to take notes on the screen as if it were an infinite pad of paper, albeit a pricey one.

The Tablet PC can convert handwritten pen strokes into graphics that can be handled in ways similar to ordinary computer type. Although the computer doesn't recognize specific words, it distinguishes between words and pictures. It also lets people perform some word processing-like tasks, such as inserting space between lines, copying text or boldfacing pen strokes.

Gates also previewed Microsoft Office 10, the next version of the dominant PC office suite. The new version will allow people to control the program and edit text with their voices using speech-recognition technology. Another new feature known as smart tags allows Office users to dynamically include information from the Internet into Office documents.

Smart tags pop up after different actions, suggesting additional tasks, such as offering formatting options after pasting information into a document. For example, Microsoft is working with West Group, a legal information provider that's created smart tags that link to definitions of legal terms or previous legal cases.

A new version of Office also will include a Web-based collaboration program known as SharePoint.

In a pointed jab at archrival Sun, Microsoft said it has submitted C# (pronounced SEE-sharp) to an international standards body, ECMA, formerly known as the European Computer Manufacturers Association. C# is a rival to Sun's Java language and a key part of Microsoft's .Net vision.

Sun long tried to make Java a standard but ran into problems because the process would have given other companies too much control over the software. Sun has abandoned the effort.

In a lighter moment, Gates made reference to the election drama unfolding in Florida, saying it reminded him of his early years.

"It's very nostalgic to go back to those punch card days," he quipped.

As in past years, Gates showed a brief video in which he pretended to play hooky from his job as chief software architect, tooling around Seattle with CEO Steve Ballmer on scooters and on a motorcycle with Ballmer tucked into a side car. The two klutzes also failed at shooting some hoops but had more success playing catch with Velcro-augmented ball and glove. The video featured Edie McClurg as Gates' secretary.