The computer industry is heading into an era of "unconstrained innovation" as old models fall away and applications based on Extensible Markup Language (XML) take over, Microsoft chairman and chief software architect Bill Gates said at Comdex last week.
His talk included a preview of the next versions of the Windows operating system, the Office suite of applications and the first public glimpse of the Tablet PC prototype Gates described as "one of the most amazing projects we've ever been involved in". The colourful computer is the size of a pad of paper and is an inch thick. It can be used with peripherals like a mouse and keyboard or users can write on it with a pen that duplicates their writing on the screen, sort of like a child's Etch-A-Sketch toy. The demonstration showed how Microsoft's software will allow users to enter handwritten text on the Web Tablet, and then edit that text as if it were a Microsoft Word document, by highlighting words and pasting them, for example.
The machines run on a 500MHz or 600MHz processor, have 128MB of RAM, a 10GB hard drive and operate on the next version of Windows 2000, code-named "Whistler". The Tablet PC is expected to be released in the second half of 2002.
Although the Tablet PC had centre stage, the keynote devoted time to showing off the latest version of Office (Office 10) due out next year, and its XML capabilities. "Microsoft and the industry should really build their future around XML," said Gates, who traditionally gives the opening Comdex speech, offering his view of the state of the industry and its future.
Office 10 will feature native support for XML in the Excel spreadsheet and the Access database. The XML features can be used to tie words or data in Office applications to information on the Internet. One example is a new feature in Office 10, now in beta test, called Smart Tags, which can automatically link certain words to local or Internet-based information.
Smart Tags can be used to create vertical industry versions of Office applications, according to a Microsoft official who demonstrated Office 10 during the keynote. For example, Microsoft has been working with a legal services company to provide Smart Tags that will allow documents in Office to include legal citations culled from the Web and to access Black's Law Dictionary.
Microsoft competitors are certain to quibble with Gates' future view, which is a "software-to-software" approach in which the applications enable the machines to work more effectively together in whatever model the user needs - server-to-server, server-to-client, client-to-client. He did take one small swipe at rival Sun, which Gates said promotes the idea of "getting rid of the PCs - if you lose your privacy, get over it", with servers playing the dominant hardware role.
"But you can't do speech, you can't do video" using that model, which further limits users from seeing one thing at a time, akin to the single portal approach in which all of the data wanted at a particular time is shown on the computer screen, Gates said.
Users want to access data from different sites they can reach from one point, Gates said, but they don't necessarily want to stay at just one site. Their needs also mean that the emerging industry model "can't just be pure client-to-client" because servers are necessary to provide "huge repositories" of data and for other functions that client machines can't handle.
The new interface will also be different "because there's no doubt that this year you could say the browser model is showing its age", Gates said.
Gates and Microsoft officials who came on stage touted the feature-rich software to come from the company, but that aspect of the applications could prove troublesome for some users, suggested Sanjay Talwar, an IT assistant director with US-based Era Aircraft.
"I think Microsoft is becoming another Sony. It has telephones, smart PCs - it even has televisions," he said, referring to TV set-top boxes and Microsoft's WebTV Networks products, which integrate the Internet and broadcast television.
"They were nice, cool products," Talwar said, though he added that some of the applications were so feature rich that only "intelligent people" will be able to take full advantage of them.
Whatever the overall sentiment, "cool" apparently is a descriptive that the demonstrations brought to mind. James Schwinghammer, a systems administrator with US-based Lawson Software, was wowed by the "thinking ink" technology used in the Tablet PC.
"I thought the thinking with ink' demonstration was very cool, that was definitely worth listening to," said Schwinghammer, who also thought it was "interesting" that Gates brought out representatives of companies that Microsoft has joint projects with, indicating the company is "working with the whole industry and not trying to stomp on people".