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Gates comes up short on substance

Microsoft's chairman opens Comdex with a speech long on optimism and short on news of his company's business or legal issues.

LAS VEGAS--Microsoft chairman Bill Gates officially opened Comdex tonight with a keynote speech long on blue-sky optimism for the computing industry and short on details about his company's business strategies or legal battles.

In his first major address since the start of the landmark antitrust trial examining Microsoft's business practices, Gates presented both the promise and the pitfalls facing the computer industry in the next several years.

Speaking before at a packed Las Vegas Hilton conference room, Gates said the future for PCs was clouded by concerns about security and privacy on the Internet, as well as ease-of-use issues. He even painted Microsoft's own system of naming important system files as convoluted and unclear for most users, including many Microsoft employees.

Joining him at various points were Microsoft product managers, including members of the Office 2000 and SQL Server 7.0 teams. Bill Hill, a Microsoft researcher, demonstrated the company's new ClearType technology, a new way of improving the resolution of fonts to improve the legibility of words on the screen.

ClearType, which reduces the tendency of words to become bolder as they grow in size, will be integrated into Microsoft's operating systems, including Windows 95, 98, and the upcoming Windows 2000 family. ClearType will also drive the emerging e-book market, Gates predicted.

However, he barely touched on the topic that has dominated far more headlines than have any of his company's products, the antitrust case filed by the Justice Department (DOJ) and 20 states. The only references to the trial were found in satirical videos, including a spoof on the less-than-classic film A Night at the Roxbury and the stage phenomenon Lord of the Dance, starring Gates and Microsoft president Steve Ballmer.

Instead, Gates focused on such decidedly unlegal topics as mobile devices, multiprocessor computing, and enhanced LCD screens in his presentation.

Joined onstage by Silicon Graphics senior vice president Tom Furlong, the pair drew a positive response--even some audible gasps--during a demonstration of SGI's NT Visual Workstation with LCD monitor, scheduled for release in January.

"For most companies, this would be very taxing on system resources," Furlong said during the display of high-end graphics and video rendering using the Windows NT platform. "For us, it's a screensaver."

But generally the nation's richest man steered clear of any controversial subjects, choosing to entertain the enthusiastic crowd with his videos and self-deprecating remarks.

At one point, moto-cross daredevil Rusty Crank roared his bike onstage to demo a new gaming peripheral he claimed to have helped design, as well as a new flight-simulation gaming technology. Crank drew laughs as he coaxed "Big G" to give him a high five.