Comdex: Gates stresses reliability

Microsoft chairman and CEO Bill Gates again kicked off Fall Comdex with the opening keynote speech, this year trumpeting the reliability and scalability offered by the forthcoming Windows 2000 operating system, and emphasising the role that XML (extensible markup language) will play on the Web and in electronic commerce.

But Gates began his speech with a reference to something no doubt on the mind of many in the audience: the recent ruling in the US Government's antitrust case that Microsoft is a monopolist.

"Anyone here hear any good lawyer jokes lately?" Gates quipped. All over the US, he said, entrepreneurs are working at innovation in their garages, while in their 20th floor offices lawyers are working equally hard. Both groups are working hard to do what they do best, he added, to laughter from an appreciative audience of approximately 6000.

One attendee, the film maker George Lucas, here to join Sony president and co-CEO Nobuyuki Idei at a keynote speech today, laughed and shrugged when asked what he thought about Gates' lawyer joke. "That's how business is done here in the United States," he said. "It's business as usual -- you sue someone, then you negotiate."

Stressing the principle of innovation -- Microsoft has argued that the antitrust lawsuit threatens its ability to innovate with its software -- Gates also said that he appreciated the letters and e-mail the company has received from people who say that Microsoft and the PC have benefited customers enormously. What's needed is more innovation, not less, he said to hearty applause from the audience.

Gates talked up the concept of the "personal Web", which enables people to personalise the World Wide Web with a universal inbox putting the user in control of which method third parties could contact them by.

"The personal Web is a tool that brings together all the good things we're used to in a new world of communications," Gates said. "It will make us think differently about the PC and the Internet."

Microsoft's next major emphasis is XML, according to Gates, who called XML "very central . . . it speaks to interoperability at the semantic level". The language, which adds tags to Web content that describes information, will help connect buyers and sellers over the Web, he said. The beauty of XML is that it will enable users to "pick and mix and match" information from different Web sites, Gates added. "People will never have to re-enter the same information again and again and they won't have to move their bookmarks and contacts. There will be personalisation everywhere."

There will be new language extensions and new languages based on XML, Gates said, adding that Microsoft's initiative is called BizTalk.

Gates also took on the issue of "big boxes" versus PCs when it comes to reliability, maintaining that with Windows 2000, PCs will be as reliable as large systems.

"Most people think of hardware in terms of scalability" when it's really a software problem, he said, coining a new phrase "software scale". He lauded the foresight of Tandem Computers for recognising early that scalability is indeed a software issue.

Microsoft's foundation for delivering scalability is Windows 2000 and Windows 2000 add-ons, he said, adding that the company has been working on the operating system for the past three years.

"Reliability is top of the list [of Windows 2000 features] . . . People don't want to reboot their systems ever," Gates said. He also argued that PCs give users much more choice in terms of hardware, applications and languages than big boxes afford. Gates stressed that both Microsoft and the PC industry afford users a good deal of choice -- again, countering the Government's argument in the antitrust trial that the software giant by its actions has severely limited consumers' options.

Other key Windows 2000 features are manageability of software and the ability to let users share documents in a secure way across the Internet, Gates said.

However, attendees gave the upcoming operating system a mixed reception.

"I won't go to Windows 2000 right away -- I don't want to be on the bleeding edge," said Andrew Grovo, vice president of information services for Homesteaders Life Insurance Company in Iowa. What's more, Grovo said, he wanted to see what alternatives to Windows 2000 there are at Comdex. "I want to see what else is out there; I'm not sure, but I want to check out alternatives."

One obvious alternative to Windows 2000 for Web servers, and increasingly, intranets and in-house networks, is Linux, according to Bruce Wagner, CEO of IT Proactive, a networking consulting company based in Ohio. "Windows 2000 is slow and it's a [memory] hog; I'm not recommending my clients to move to it, at least not right away -- it's common wisdom that you always wait for Service Pack 2." Wagner, a Windows 2000 beta tester, recently received the release candidate of the software.

While Windows will continue to be a mainstay of many corporate networks, Wagner said, Linux use is on the rise. "Linux along with KDE [the Windowing interface for Linux] is a real alternative to Windows. Linux has been popular on Web servers because it's reliable and the price is right -- but there's nothing wrong with reliability on a corporate network," he said. "Windows has market share and developer support -- but because of the Internet, Linux is getting more and more developer support around the world."

Gates compared the forthcoming launch of Windows 2000 in February as a "major milestone" for Microsoft, comparable to the launch of Windows 95.

A Microsoft staffer demonstrated the MSN-based Web Companion, a device that will be pre-configured to make accessing the Net simple. Gates also showed off a variety of Windows CE-based devices from hardware vendors as well as the first machines to be based on Windows 2000 -- a new Sony Vaio notebook and Compaq's i-Paq, the latter priced as low as $US499, Gates said.