As the neon monuments of Las Vegas glittered in the night, and slot machines rang and clanged, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates stood on stage for his Comdex keynote address and gave the world ... the Xbox game machine.
The game console actually isn't due to be formally released until Thursday in the US (and March in the UK), but Gates and Seamus Blackley, who's headed up Microsoft's Xbox effort, did all but start taking orders. Blackley appeared onstage brandishing the black box, about the size of a thick laptop, branded with a big bright green X on the top, and roared "Xbox." The crowd roared back.
It was the most exciting part of the entire speech.
Gates made only a passing reference to the events of September 11, and no reference at all to either the terrorist conflict that has spread across the globe since then or the federal anti-trust case that seems to be drawing to its close. But he welcomed a near capacity crowd at the MGM Garden Arena to, as he termed it, "Comdex XP," a joking reference to the newest Microsoft operating system, released just two weeks ago and already racking up record sales.
"Is technology played out?" he asked, in what was clearly a rhetorical question. "Was the [technological] hype very justified? Where does it go from here?" he continued.
But he reassured his flock. "We're very excited about this next decade," he said. "People profoundly underestimate the impact of long-term [technology] changes," he said.
Gates used the theme of the "digital decade" ahead to focus on three main areas of change: the impending arrival of the tablet PCs running a special version of Windows XP; enterprise computing challenges that demand the creation of what he called "trustworthy systems" and Web services; and the home "entertainment revolution," of which Xbox is the harbinger.
Microsoft executives gave technology demonstrations in all three areas.
Nearly a dozen prototype "tablets" were shown, manufactured by hardware partners such as Compaq Computer, Acer, Intel, NEC and others. The Acer device looked exactly like a laptop, until the screen was twisted and then refolded down, covering the keyboard. Using a stylus, the demonstrator showed off the power of Microsoft's "digital ink" - in effect, a new data type that lets users use a stylus to make handwritten notes or drawings on Microsoft Word and other documents, including email. A note written on the screen was edited with some stylus touches and then, with a few more touches, incorporated into a Microsoft Outlook task, which could then be scheduled and shared.
When the tablet PCs finally hit the market, in the latter part of 2002, Microsoft will have a version of its Office suite, called Office XP, that will incorporate these and many other features. One result is that users of Microsoft Instant Messenger will be able to scrawl notes, directions and drawings, rather than typing them, and then mark them up and exchange them. "Within 5 years, the tablet PC will be the most popular form of PC sold in America," Gates said.
Gates talked about the need for "trustworthy systems" - operating system software that works reliably and predictably, scales to support increased traffic and is smart enough to diagnose a problem, report it to a Microsoft Web site for review, and in the future, correct itself. Again, he cited Windows XP as the first step in this process. Already, he told his audience, the testing program for XP uncovered a large number of problems with third-party software drivers and Microsoft is working with these vendors to correct these problems.
Gates cited Web services as part of this same trend. Web services are application components that can be accessed and manipulated using a set of emerging Internet standards such as XML, the Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP) and others. Microsoft's Web services software is labeled Microsoft .Net. Building XML, other standards and workflow features into Microsoft applications and server products will let "people work with data in a very profound way," he said.
".Net bets on XML as [becoming] the standard," Gates said, for a moment his voice registering a hint of passion. "We can treat the Internet as a programmable environment for the first time. In the past, we've treated it as a terminal environment [displayed via a Web browser]."