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Gates ‘kicks off’ Comdex 2003

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Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer made light of the Linux threat on Sunday night, when the Microsoft boss kicked off Comdex with a keynote talk that spoofed everything from IBM to The Matrix. DUSTIN GOOT reports …

Steve Ballmer is seated at a table in an all-white room. Across from him, an evil, black-suited Agent Smith look-alike glares as he says, “We’ve had our eye on you for some time, Mr. Ballmer.””

Such was one of the highlights of Sunday night’s Bill Gates kick-off keynote address: a pre-recorded Matrix spoof in which Gates casts himself as Morpheus to Ballmer’s Neo, as the two men plot against villainous agents of IBM/Linux. Later in the opening scene, when the agent tries to call up Ballmer’s criminal history, his laptop reads, “”LINUX Kernel Error!”” as Ballmer rolls his eyes.

Soon Ballmer is rescued by the masterful Kung Fu skills of Gates, who offers him the choice between a blue pill – a fist-sized capsule emblazoned with the IBM logo and Linux penguin – and a red one – a small, glowing orb with a Windows decal. Ballmer naturally chooses the latter.

The moral of the story: In an era where information technology will be constrained only by what software allows, Microsoft will set us free.

Loosening constraints Before playing the video, Gates had talked excitedly about “”a very special decade,”” in which software could move forward without the hardware and connectivity constraints that had limited it in the past. He said that software would create greater productivity gains during this period than in the IT industry’s previous years put together.

The film then makes clear who will be driving these improvements. In his keynote Gates emphasized security, Web services, and managed code as areas where Microsoft plans to significantly upgrade what is possible. He also spoke of a proliferation of devices — watches, pocket computers, tablets, PCs — that will require software to run any application, and to integrate them with each other.

Interestingly, despite the cinematic jibes at IBM/open source, Gates hardly mentioned any rivals, and his speech reflected that of a man who is not concerned about the competition — of someone content to pursue his own agenda at his own pace. While discussing a new iteration of Windows, codenamed “”Longhorn,”” Gates said there was no timeframe for its release, and his tone suggested it did not need one.

Throughout the 90-minute keynote Gates had the air of a proud parent, happily showing off all the places where Microsoft software can be found and expressing confidence that it would improve over time.

This patriarchal effect was enhanced by Gates’ decision to turn over any new product introductions to eager, young Microsoft staffers, who boomed into the microphone with details of upgraded security servers and .NET-enabled Office programmability. The presentation was not so much about pitching new ideas or products, as it was about stressing steady, incremental improvements that build upon Microsoft’s already strong presence and expertise in different markets.

In this sense Gates’ talk reinforced the earlier sentiments of MediaLive International President and CEO Robert Priest-Heck, who stressed in his introductory remarks that this year’s COMDEX is less about “”glitz”” and more about “”doing business.”” The point was driven home even further when Zachary Gutt, a technology product manager in Microsoft’s security division, explained how the company’s Systems Management Server can make software patches easier for network administrators to deploy. It was clearly a demo aimed at a focused IT audience, not starry-eyed tech speculators.

One new tidbit was revealed, however, involving the somewhat mysterious Longhorn project. With Gates closely watching, Microsoft senior researcher Susan Dumais showed how the next version of Windows would allow searches for text within any type of file, including recently viewed Web pages. The goal is to prevent users from acting as glorified file clerks because they can’t remember exactly where they read about a particular topic.

The demo also covered an “”implicit query”” feature that proactively queued up a list of material on a particular topic based on what words a user was typing at that moment.

This glimpse at Longhorn aside, the theme of the night was not groundbreaking technology, but step-wise software improvements that lead to better productivity. Or, as Gates put it, “”Every layer needs to be pushed up.””

Dustin Goot is an associate editor of the Comdex newspaper, The Preview. Contact him at dustin.goot@medialiveintl.com.

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