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Comdex coverage by CNN and

Is anyone listening to Bill Gates' theory on the PC's future?

November 18, 1998
Web posted at: 2:08 PM ET

by Network World and IDG News Service staff


(IDG) -- LAS VEGAS -- It's as if the vendors and attendees at Comdex this week really didn't listen to what Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates had to say. Or perhaps he didn't really listen, either.

At the opening keynote, last Sunday, Gates confidently predicted that the "PC model will prove itself once again." Paradoxically he added, "The PC is not standing still anyway. The PC will go far beyond what any systems have been able to do in the past."

Not far away an array of vendors were putting the final touches on booths designed to showcase a whole new generation of wireless "computers" that owe little to the Wintel model on which Microsoft is based.

Some of these devices -- intelligent pagers, Web phones, handheld and palm-sized computers and cable TV set top boxes-may run a version of Windows CE (which in fact isn't Windows but is a compact operating system that supports the Win32 APIs). However, they don't have to, as the success of 3Com's Palm Computing Palm Pilot has shown.
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Increasingly, these devices look less like Windows PCs than a new breed of network client- simple, special purpose devices that access the user's data, applications and services on networked servers.

Indeed, Gates spent much of his speech acknowledging a range of what he calls, PC "pitfalls". One pitfall is poor screen and font quality. "I don't even read long articles off the screen," he confessed.

This causes one to wonder about the future, not to mention the value, of Microsoft's online magazine "Slate". Other pesky problems are confusing file names, command and error messages, the PC's notorious and so far intractable complexity, and inadequate protection of privacy. He promised listeners that all of these things would be fixed.

He demonstrated one fix; a Microsoft technology called ClearType. It can raise the resolution of text displayed on the screen by 300%, making it significantly easier to read text on-line.

Gates and an assistant then demonstrated some new features of the upcoming Microsoft Office 2000, which will have a "self repairing" capability for applications. For instance, if Microsoft Word is deleted accidentally, the application will restore itself automatically when a user tries to launch a Word.

Several audience members, though impressed with the Office 2000 features, were wary that the new capabilities would make the operating system even tougher to use.

"It seems like you're going to have to put even more effort into learning how to use it. There's so many features in there now, I feel like I'll have to take a course to learn how to use it," said Will James, software application instructor from San Pedro, Calif.

"If we don't see significant breakthroughs in the next year and a half, I think people are just going to lose patience with the PC," said an attendee, who asked not be named, but said he was an entrepreneur in the health-care industry and a long-time Gates watcher.

A growing number of vendors seem to believe something similar.

Executives with Philips Electronics outlined strategy and gave advance demonstrations of new and upcoming peripherals, including a home networking system for consumers and thin-client products aimed at corporate users.

Persuading prospective U.S. customers that they can handle having new technologies in their homes will be key to the company's approach. Philips' surveys found that "people are scared to buy a lot of this technology" said Ed Volkwein, executive vice president of global brand management in the U.S.

Besides consumer products and technologies, Philips also showed products for corporate users, including the new NetDisplay line of thin-client devices, which include a 15.1-inch flat panel LCD color display with a built-in processor and video core.

NetDisplay uses the Windows CE operating system, but enables full Windows NT workspace functions on a thin client. NetDisplay 151N, the first product in the line, also supports standard Unix, Digital and IBM emulators.

The 151N has a MIPS R5000 core with a 166MHz processor. Minimum memory is 4M bytes of flash and 4M bytes of RAM. The network interface is compatible with 10/100Base T Ethernet networks.

The thin-client line will be out in North America and Europe in February of next year for $1,299. Philips officials said that they expect the line to be popular with financial institutions and other industries that have transaction-based applications.

Mobile turns hot

Mobile communications systems and home networking are among the hottest technologies at Comdex this year, practically turning the traditional IT show into a consumer event, a group of analysts said during a show preview panel.

However, the focus on mobile also shows that the line between consumer and business products is an increasingly fine one.

At first glance Comdex attendees will notice new flat panel technology, particularly in the Hitachi VisionDesk 1330, and the Sharp Actius notebook which features transflective technology giving it the best screen of any portable computer, said Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies Consulting in San Jose, Calif.

Other portable devices of note at the show were the Vadem Clio tablet, a full Windows CE-device selling for less than $1,000 that offers a keyboard or pen to navigate when connected to the Internet, and the Cyrix WebPad, a wireless Internet access appliance, Bajarin said.

Cheryl Currid, president of Currid & Co. in Houston, highlighted some small, wearable devices, such as a transceiver device from Hewlett-Packard that allows a user to scan in information and beam it into a PC, personal digital assistant or phone through an infrared port. At $699 it's a "little pricey, but if you've got the need, when you think of the steps you can save you can probably justify it," she said.

Nokia also showed some items of interest, including a device that enables a user to send scanned information as a fax or e-mail or log onto the Internet, Currid said.

Meanwhile, Motorola showed a phone with a two-way pager and a mini-phone that lets the user listen and talk through an "earphone," she said.

Loral Space & Communications is showing global positioning devices that hook onto regular computers or handheld devices, she added.

WebGear, a San Jose, Calif., wireless technology vendor unveiled one of the first wireless LANs for thin clients. WebGear also announced a merger with ClienTech to create a family of thin-client devices.

Project BlueTooth, by a consortium of larger companies including Toshiba, Intel and IBM, plans to introduce similar technology by late 1999 or early 2000, but WebGear's product will be available by next March.

At first, WebGear's product will use Citrix Systems Independent Computing Architecture protocol for access over a wireless or 10Base-T connection to a server. It will have a range of about 125 feet and a data-transfer rate of 1M bit/sec.

By next June, WebGear plans to release thin clients that use 2.4-GHz radio frequency, for a range of 300 feet to 600 feet and a data-transfer rate of 2M bit/sec to 5M bit/sec. The clients themselves will be either a keyboard device or a notebook-size device.

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