Sunday, November 11, 2001

Welcome from Comdex… not!


Hello! At this time in any other year, you’d be expecting to receive my first dispatch from Comdex. As you all know, however, this is no ordinary year. Instead of dealing with the traffic, noise, crowds, and unbounded educational opportunities available in Las Vegas this week, I’ll be home in Massachusetts, watching winter approach and looking for a job (one of the other reasons this isn’t an ordinary year), and experiencing a year without Comdex, my first since 1995.


At least that was the plan. Then Comdex sent me a gift in the mail: a free guest ticket giving access to the exhibit floor and keynote addresses. For the past few years, any ticket to Comdex included access to a personalized attendee Web site, the show’s daily newspaper online, and the Comdex TV channel that broadcasts live from the show floor. And I thought: in this day of desktop video and broadband Internet connections, with so much material available online, is it possible to attend Comdex without leaving home?


So, for at least a couple of days, I’ll be attempting to follow the show from Massachusetts, viewing the keynote addresses, reading the papers, watching the interviews and product demos. Call it an experiment in virtual travel, or a sign of how conferences might be held in the future. It certainly won’t be the same conference, but it probably won’t be wasted time, either.


So, for the time being, I’ll try to report daily on a conference that’s going on 2500 miles away. The news will be filtered through the eyes of others. But the reporting is usually complete, the press releases are numerous, and many leads can be followed up through email and the Web. Maybe I can pull enough nuggets of information through the wire to form some useful opinions. At the least, it’s an interesting experiment. At best, it may be a way for organizations like Comdex to keep a channel open to many of the people they’ve served in the past.


The first ticket is pretty easy: Bill Gates’ Sunday night keynote, often a highlight of Comdex, is being Webcast. Between the recent release of Windows XP, Office XP and PocketPC 2002, the Justice Department settlement, the continued pursuit of Microsoft by the states, the rollout of services like .NET and Passport, and the company’s response to the terrorist attacks and ongoing war, Bill shouldn’t have much trouble finding an hour’s worth of material. I’ll try to bring you there. After that, it’s a few hours reading Monday’s show daily and watching Comdex TV. We’ll see how much news leaks out of Las Vegas.


As always, send me questions if there are leads you’d like me to pursue. Maybe I’ll meet you on the virtual floor.


Bill Gates Keynote, Sunday, November 11, 2001

As expected, Bill Gates’ keynote speech was the easiest part of Comdex to attend online. While the experience wasn’t exactly the same as it would have been live – the charm of the four hour wait in line and the quarter-mile sprint from the ticket table to the showroom were missing – there were compensations, like the ability to pause on the PowerPoint slides and rewind to catch those “did he really say that?” moments. And if you want to see something really funny, watch the rebroadcast using Windows Media and pick “fast forward” from the right-click menu. You’ll be treated to a series of random still images of Gates from the presentation, taken at five second intervals. Try it yourself – click to, and watch the Gates keynote. It’s the most laughs you’ll ever get from Bill Gates.


While you’re there, you might want to actually watch the keynote, which is almost 90 minutes long, or at least read some of the commentary. Gates, in his traditional annual speech to the tech world, generally alternates between outlining vision and shamelessly hawking Microsoft products. Tonight’s speech was mostly about vision, although it did have a fair amount of product flogging thrown in.


The central purpose of Gates’ speech was to set an optimistic tone for the year ahead, following the September 11th terrorist attacks and their economic impact. His closing thought captured his upbeat theme: Technology has more opportunity to improve the world than any other business. The rest of his talk simply laid out, with occasional illustrations, his idea of how it could be done.


One of the most interesting points he made, and a possible explanation for the hype curve that dogs almost all technology companies, is that people overestimate the short-term, two to three year impact of a new technology or product while underestimating the long-term effect, which he defined as a decade or more. Given Microsoft’s position and deep pockets, this opinion from their chief strategist and visionary explains a great deal about Microsoft’s approach to competitors, the Justice Department, and other distractions. He’s in it for the long run, and has confidence that he can outlast them all.

At the office: Productivity soars, servers improve, devices get cooler

In the office, Gates’ ten-year goal is simple: doubling the productivity of knowledge workers. He expects to do this through improving worker tools, making servers faster and more reliable, and creating richer pathways to connect both workers and businesses to each other. On the server side he plans faster servers, better clustering, automatic updates for security and other maintenance, and most importantly, pervasive use of .NET technology to provide a common language for business data. He backed this up with two demonstrations: one, showing how an cells in an Excel expense report spreadsheet could be filled in by an application that visits the traveler’s online credit card account, and another that showed how a search using UDDI could find a parts supplier and complete a transaction, again from within an Excel spreadsheet. One phrase of Gates’ was telling: the new technology would enable “rich and free capitalism, connecting buyers and sellers with no middleman”. Gates’ persistence could make this happen – and allow Microsoft to collect a small fee from every transaction that passes through every company’s Passport account. Stay tuned on this one.


Communications figured highly in Gates’ vision for workers as well. Gates stressed the need to merge platforms for communications, so email, instant messages, faxes and voice weren’t treated differently. He also talked about the need to put people back in charge of their own time by giving them the tools to manage interruptions like ringing phones. The theme here was putting the user back in charge for both real-time and asynchronous communication. His slide on this topic listed the following principles: One address. Notification. Voice/video/screen integration. Putting the user in control of message flow. (Some of you who have worked with me may find these concepts familiar.) He did not get into specifics about how this part of his vision would be accomplished, but clearly he will need to look at the providers of voice services, voice switching equipment and voicemail as key partners in this evolution.


Bill also said that reading these rich messages would require a mobile device with great software. He was referring to the upcoming tablet computers, but the statement could suggest any highly portable device with a rich user interface. At least that’s my opinion.


A good deal of time, and another product demo, was spent on Microsoft’s collaboration with Groove. Gates demonstrated how Groove’s collaboration features enhanced Word’s markup capability at the same time Word documents fit into Groove’s workspace architecture. The synergies were impressive, enhancing the capabilities of two already impressive products. Gates took pains to point out the difference between Groove and NetMeeting: NetMeeting is hard to use and was never widely adopted, while Groove is more intuitive and more likely to be incorporated into the way people work.


Product reliability was also on Bill’s mind. The convergence of all versions of Windows onto the NT kernel is a big story, both for business and home users, since it boosts the reliability of the computers most people have on their desks and in their laptop bags. Automatic crash reporting and streamed software updates also contribute to the higher reliability of Windows, something I can vouch for since switching from Windows 98 to 2000 (don’t even get me started on Windows ME). In an interesting aside, Gates seemed to blame much of the instability of Windows on third-party device drivers and said things will be much better now that Microsoft can point out their errors and help them write better code. It seemed like an interesting way to pass blame for what is considered one of Microsoft’s worst faults, the production of buggy code.


A final product development aimed at end-users of all types is the widespread adoption of handwriting. Windows XP Tablet Edition, which was announced tonight but apparently won’t ship until sometime around next Comdex, focuses on keyboard-free, tablet computers. Some of these are hybrids like Acer’s demo unit, whose screen cleverly spins 180 degrees on its hinge, then folds flat against the keyboard to create a tablet. (The screen also switches from portrait to landscape mode to complete the tablet transition.) Some are pure tablets, with no built-in keyboard, but even these have the capability to communicate with a keyboard through a cable or a wireless connection. None of these units is scheduled to ship until the second half of 2002, so don’t get out your checkbook.


One thing interested me about the tablet demonstration: almost all the writing shown was stored and processed as digital ink, not as text. Only once did the demonstrator attempt handwriting recognition, and that was on text that had been written on the screen, and on which recognition had presumably been tested, before the demo started. While handwriting was used in demos of document markup, text entry and instant messaging, it was always treated as an unprocessed graphic. Gates mentioned the ability to search handwritten notes, but did not demonstrate it. My guess is that handwriting recognition, which has always been a difficult problem, is still not ready for production.


According to my old Comdex notes, the last “year of the pen” was 1991, when giants like Momenta and Tusk roamed the show floor. Pen Windows was going to dominate, and we’d all be carrying around our computers like steno pads within a couple of years. In case you haven’t noticed, we still aren’t, and it’s interesting to think that the same problems that sunk the technology ten years ago might undermine it this time around.


Finally, if you’re a PocketPC user and/or interested in Microsoft’s idea of how XML can integrate into your personal world, Microsoft has made a free app available for download. The Pocket PC Expense Power Toy tracks expenses on the road, offers some nifty calculators, and produces an XML file that can be imported into an Excel expense report template by using a tool that’s included with the package. Download it at .

Microsoft in the home: Everything’s connected

“The last frontier”, that’s what Bill Gates called the home. To work there, technology has to be cheap, easy to install, easy to use (or invisible), and unbreakable. The enablers in the home, according to Gates, are universal plug-and-play and wireless networking – specifically 802.11b, or WiFi. Using wireless networking, for example, a screen hung on the refrigerator can be automatically detected and easily configured to show the family’s schedule, phone messages, news, or photos. Computers can easily be networked to play games. TVs, through their set-top boxes, can connect to the Internet and serve networked, multi-player games and interactive TV. In fact, the TV looms large in the Gates view, once it’s upgraded with PC-quality graphics and connected to the home network. Putting the user in control, a theme sounded during the knowledge worker presentation, becomes even more important in the home where the user has a low threshold for pain.


The centerpiece of the Gates strategy for the home is the XBox, and the roar of the crowd at the start of this demo showed that many of them came to get a sneak preview of the device, which is scheduled to ship this Thursday. This is a device to warm a gamer’s heart, and the demonstrations of “NFL Fever 2002”, “Wreckless” and “Dead or Alive 3” got the biggest applause of the night – an indication of the changing Comdex demographic as much as the quality of the product. The video itself is impressive, with tremendous 3D rendering, the ability to change point of view on any object – circling the football in mid-air was a crowd favorite – and almost photorealistic graphics. The product manager took pains to point out the parental control features, which allow the box to lock out both games and movies – it’s also a DVD player – that exceed a specified rating. This is apparently not a feature of other game boxes, and may be a selling point for families with young children looking to buy a player.


So, after giving away four XBoxes, Gates closed with his final, uplifting note. In an uncertain future, technology has the a better chance of improving the world than any other industry. The unspoken message of the entire presentation, of course, was that Microsoft has the best chance of improving technology. More than any Gates keynote of the past five years, this one was designed to sell the overall Microsoft vision of the future. Whether or not you buy is a personal choice, but remember: if your answer’s no, Bill, and Microsoft, are willing to wait a long time for you to change your mind.


Some final words

Experiencing Comdex from my home office chair was a pretty good experience, at least on the first day. From now, though, things get harder. Keynotes from Cisco and Sony come tomorrow, but so does my search for truth on the virtual show floor. You’ll see, along with me, how well that works out.


Things I’ll miss about being at Comdex:


Things I won’t miss about being at Comdex: