Gates casts a spell at Comdex opener

There is no better technique to win over an audience than an in-joke that appeals to their collective sense of superiority, and Bill Gates made sure he had one ready.

“You know, I try really hard not to talk about Microsoft and its products in my keynote speeches,” he said Sunday night at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. “And so I’d just like to welcome you to ComdeXP.”

Everyone laughed, but then, we were on his side from the very beginning. This will probably be remembered as one of the poorest-attended Comdex Fall conferences in the show’s history, the climax of a year in IT littered with bankruptcies and set against a backdrop of terrorism. More than ever before, the people who decided to risk the trip came looking for some insight — some hope — from the most financially successful man in the business. And he gave it to us.

If you’ve never seen Bill Gates in this, his annual gig in Comdex’s opening slot, it is not dissimilar to a late-night talk show format. There is the opening monologue, followed by a video skit featuring a buffoonish sidekick (this is where Steve Ballmer earns his paycheque). The rest of the evening has Bill introducing a variety of guests who demonstrate new technologies. Here, Gates recalls Johnny Carson entangling himself with Jane Goodall and her monkeys, trying out the various devices and software as though he has never seen them, marveling at the innovation.

This year, the video skit featured Bill as Harry Potter, facing off against a Ballmer dressed as Luke Skywalker. It was genuinely funny, partly because the imagery is so fitting — “I’ve always looked like this,” Gates said, and indeed the costume wasn’t far removed from his usual attire. The whole thing was a lot different than the video montage during the keynote speech in 1998, which showed some highlights (or lowlights, depending on how you looked at it) of Gates during the antitrust investigation. On Sunday night, the U.S. Justice Department was never mentioned, nor were the various states opposing the recent remedies. Instead, Gates used the various demonstrations of current and forthcoming Microsoft technologies to underscore the points he made regarding the future directions the industry might take.

The most compelling parts of the show featured a close-up look at tablet PCs, which Microsoft has been mentioning at Comdex for at least the last three years. This time we got a progress report where Jeff Raikes, vice-president of business productivity, showed off solutions from some of Microsoft’s favourite OEM partners. Acer, for example, has created a notebook design wherein the LCD display flips around to the front of the notebook, turning it into a pen tablet and changing the display’s perspective from horizontal to vertical. Raikes also previewed Journal, which makes use of a Microsoft “ink” application to allow users to hand-write notes and translate them into text with fingerprint recognition software. Some of this looked a little embryonic — the handwriting was still neater than that of most doctors, who are the natural candidates for the solution — but the potential benefits for instant messaging were intriguing.

Robyn Pierce, a vice-president with Microsoft’s .Net division, was given the thankless task of trying to explain what kind of Web services we might see from the platform. Other than some glorified spreadsheet stunts that showed how expense reports might be easier to fill out, the most useful application was a tip calculator that can be downloaded from the myPalm Web site.

Things picked up a great deal when Seamus Blackley emerged with an Xbox, showing off the forthcoming NHL Fever 2002 and a racing game that sent a car careering through the streets of Hong Kong. As he installed the console himself, Gates even managed to deviate from the script a little. “We should make PCs this easy,” he ad-libbed, then played Santa as five Xboxes were given out to random people in the audience. This wasn’t Wayne Newton, but it was showmanship nonetheless.

There was also some real substance to the presentation. Gates talked at length about the need for more scaleabilty and reliable servers in order for users to trust and exploit emerging applications. He advocated the concept of self-healing systems, not unlike what IBM has been working on with project eLiza. He acknowledged the bottlenecks Windows users face in the reporting of driver errors, and Microsoft’s need to improve it. His best observations, however, were those which touched upon everyday applications like word processing and scheduling. “Business productivity software is something that a lot of people see as having reached its limit,” he said. “They can’t imagine anything beyond what we have today.” But he brought some of that imagination to the stage, conjuring the idea of a more distributed computing environment where the exchange of documents is not held back by corporate boundaries of security and privacy.

“No other industry has the potential to improve the lives of human beings,” he said as the lights faded. “Let’s go do it.” It might have been hyperbolic, but it was the sort of inspiration we expect of an industry leader. This was a bravura performance, where Microsoft’s chief software architect set the tone for an industry that is struggling to renew its sense of purpose. In a role he seems born to play, Bill Gates proved himself more than a grown-up Harry Potter Sunday night and transformed himself, ever briefly, into our very own Wizard of Awe.

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Shane Schick
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