Las Vegas, Tuesday, November 16


Today's Topics:

Bill Gates returns to the future

Booth news:

New hardware from Compaq

Plug and Play

Classroom Screen sharing

Remote software installation: So far, no good

Lotus Notes and Organizer hit the big time

Universal mail translation?

Comdex observations


This morning, in true Comdex style, I tripped over a solution to one of the questions I came to answer in the hotel coffee shop. I met a reseller for a product called Mail-it, which connects and translates between different mail servers. He'll be sending an evaluation copy after the conference. How did I find him? I read the advertising on his sweatshirt and stopped him on his way out of the restaurant.


Gates outlines the future (again)


Bill Gates may be controversial, but he is also popular. His CEO perspective talk today outdrew Michael Spindler's keynote by a good margin, filling both the 7500 seat Aladdin theater and the overflow room in the LVCC. Gates has settled into a comfortable routine. He gives the same basic stump speech at each appearance, talking about the explosive growth of Microsoft products, describing his vision of the future, and demonstrating both raw technology and real customer solutions.


Gates outlined what he considered the major enabling factors in the improvement of PCs. They were the movement toward making quality sound standard, the spread of CD ROMs, the PCI local bus standard, Plug and Play for automatic system configuration (more later), and the increase in system power, which allows more powerful applications. He downplayed the size of Microsoft, saying that it is at the bottom of Datamation's top 20 companies in the industry, and pointing out that its strength was in its working relationships with 18 of the other 19 (Sun was the sole exception). He went out of his way to talk about joint projects with IBM and their efforts to develop for the Macintosh environment, which he called "the second most powerful platform" and then corrected himself to say "popular" instead.


The majority of Microsoft's revenues come from application, not system, software, and Gates drew applause for some of the new product features he demonstrated. He demonstrated a real-world workgroup application, which was really just a mix of several custom Word and Excel applications integrated with Microsoft Mail's routing feature. Microsoft's workgroup application is still a while off.


After several other demonstrations of software running in corporations, Gates started pulling out the new wizardry. He demonstrated Windows NT running on a PowerPC, which was not even an acknowledged direction before last Wednesday. It ran but Gates didn't push his luck by trying to do anything with the week-old alpha version. The implementation, by the way, was done by IBM and not Microsoft to run on IBM's version of the PowerPC - perhaps hedging their bets or just wanting to offer the widest possible selection of operating systems on the new hardware. He showed a prototype of Chicago running on a Plug and Play laptop, and drew applause when he was able to install a CD ROM drive without shutting down or rebooting the system. Chicago looks like a hybrid of Windows and the Mac OS, with a desktop paradigm and an integrated Program Manager/File Manager. An interesting feature of Chicago is that its trash can is called a "recycle bin", making it the first green operating system. Curious that operating systems can be distinguished by what they call their deletion icons. Gates all but promised that Chicago would be released by next fall's Comdex.


Users waiting for the object oriented version of NT, called Cairo, will have to make do with NT for a while longer. Gates revealed plans to release interim versions of NT until Cairo is ready for release in 1995. By then the NT user interface will be three years old, and will look its age next to almost everyone else's object oriented, graphical or post-graphical interfaces. Whether this will be a marketing problem for Gates and NT remains to be seen.


At the Booths


Compaq is showing their newest systems, the Concerto pen/keyboard convertible and the XE line of desktops. The Concerto is a nice design. Since the keyboard detaches, it is far less bulky than IBM's pen-based 750 laptop, on which the screen folds over the keyboard and the unit stays in one piece. Still, at over five pounds it's a pretty heavy tablet, and it's big too. My impression of pen-based systems, after scanning the ones on the floor (and just about every major vendor offers one): wait till next year.


The Deskpro XE is a very different story. This system was announced on November 1 and will replace the Deskpro I series after stocks are depleted. The system has several major improvements over the I. LocalBus Qvision has been moved down the line from the M series machines. Audio has been upgraded from "business" to Soundblaster compatibility, a big quality improvement. The system supports PCI local bus and Plug and Play.


This is a good time to explain plug and play. This standard has been developed by Compaq and other companies to allow ISA systems the same flexibility in configuring for hardware changes as EISA and Microchannel systems. In fact, Plug and Play goes farther. When a hardware change is made, the system detects it, configures the board to avoid interrupt or memory conflicts, and automatically loads the board's driver software into memory. Plug and Play does require special ISA adapter cards - it can't see or modify old style boards that don't conform to the standard. But in theory, once the technique is perfected, systems will be upgradeable by just plugging in a board with no configuration or software work required In fact, this can be taken one step further. A vendor is developing a Plug and Play card that will accept PCMCIA adapters. Since PCMCIA cards can be plugged into a system without powering down or rebooting, this will allow any peripheral with a PCMCIA adapter to be plugged into the system and auto-configured while the system is running. Need to access a CD-ROM? Just unplug your flash disk or modem card, plug in the CD-ROM adapter and the CD will appear magically on your desktop.


A possible screen sharing solution from Intel


My queries on Compuserve in the last few weeks about classroom screen sharing pointed me to a product from Intel called Lanskool. It was not being shown at the Intel booth, but I found an engineer who knew the product well. It apparently works as it had been described. Systems running IPX can be networked, and the instructor can take over all the other screens in the classroom and broadcast his or her screen to the class. The instructor can also "peep" at any other screen, and can take over another system's keyboard to assist the student in solving a problem. The two features can be cascaded, so any screen can be "peeped" to the instructor's screen, which can then be shared with the rest of the class. Lanskool doesn't require a server, only the IPX protocol running on all systems. No Mac support is available as of now, although it's being discussed.


I talked to DCA about whether Crosstalk Remote could be used for this purpose. Nobody could answer yes or no, but the question intrigued them. They will be in touch next week to discuss it.


Remote Software installation: not much to say


I'm still coming up blank on remote software installation services for DOS systems. Hermes from Microsoft is still the best prospect, but it's still unannounced. Intel's Lan Desk Manager does just about everything Hermes does except remote installations. I'll just keep looking.


Lotus Notes is a hit


It's hard to overstate the crowds at the Lotus booth looking at Lotus' two workgroup applications: Notes and Organizer 2. It appears people are finally deciding they understand Notes, and now they're curious about what it will do for them. Organizer is a new version, released in September, which has calendar sharing capabilities similar to Meeting Maker. A Mac version is expected RSN (that's Real Soon Now). Organizer also does calendar reconciliation with some pocket organizers, particularly Newton. I couldn't find out what other PDAs are supported because I couldn't get near the booth. More power to them.


Modems get faster, again


The next standard in modem speed is being shown. It's called V.Fast Class, and it doubles modem throughput yet again, to 28.8 Kbaud. The standard was written by Rockwell, but many vendors were showing prototypes. First units should ship in the early first quarter.  Prices should be roughly comparable to what 14.4 modems cost when they were released, about $600. Likely form factors are expansion card, external modem box, and pocket modem. It's unlikely that the chipset will be miniaturized enough for PCMCIA for quite a while.


I can remember (boy does this date me) seeing early 300 baud modems, which looked like the speed of light compared to the standard 110 baud units. This was around 1973, and people said 300 was the ultimate because higher speeds just couldn't be carried over the poor quality of voice grade lines. At this point it looks like the only thing that will stop modem speeds from doubling every couple of years is the eventual obsolescence of the analog telephone.


Universal mail translation?


It's amazing where you can run into technology - I found this one in Ralph's Diner.  Mail-It is a mail translator based on Internet standards that serves as a gateway among a large number of incompatible mail systems. It accepts messages, including binary attachments if the originating mail system supports them, and sends them using SMTP. It receives them on the other end using POP and translates them into the receiving system's mail format. The product supposedly supports all the mail systems we use- Quickmail, Vaxmail, Notes mail and CC-Mail. We will be receiving an evaluation copy shortly after Comdex.


Quarterdeck shows new DOS configuration tools


Quarterdeck, one of the great survivors in the PC systems software business, is showing a line of memory management tools that are a vast improvement over the ones that ship with DOS 6. I highly recommend that we look at these to optimize the configuration of the new Windows machines we are buying.


Toshiba plays copycat with mouse


I happened by the Toshiba booth to look at their portable systems. There, stuck between the G and H keys, was something that looked remarkably like an IBM trackpoint mouse. I asked if it was licensed from IBM. "No", they said. In fact, it felt very different, with lots of dead space in the middle of the control. It's good that vendors are recognizing the importance of putting a mouse on the home row of the keyboard. Zenith is also introducing a mouse substitute based on pushing the J key from side to side. But Toshiba needs to work on the quality of their version before it's really practical.



Comdex observations


Nobody here uses laptops. That is, everybody's got one in their room, but nobody carries them in sessions or on the floor. Cellular phones, on the other hand, are everywhere.


Sun's president, Scott McNealy, spoke about Sun's application software policy in his CEO Perspectives talk on Monday. If a user wants a piece of software, the company's purchasing agent negotiates a site license and the software goes up on the company server for anyone to install. Unfortunately the rest of McNealy's talk seems to have gone negative, with attacks on  Microsoft, Apple and just about everybody else in the industry.


Gobs of workgroup software, from Microsoft, IBM and many others - mostly unreleased.