Microsoft CEO Bill Gates enlisted help from a US Marine Corps major, the owner of a small business and former basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to explain how technology works for all of us and to promote the advent of "the Web lifestyle" in his keynote speech opening Fall Comdex.
"Eventually, we'll think about the Web the same way we think about our telephone or our television today," Gates said.
The Marine Corps already is embracing the Web lifestyle, it seems, using machines that can be hurled and stomped upon without breaking and applications that enable commanding officers to pinpoint enemy lines and send out US troops. Marines also are using handheld Windows CE-based devices for greater mobility, according to Major Jim Cummiskey who shared the stage with Gates for a demonstration.
Besides promoting the Web lifestyle for all, Gates also predicted that hot emerging technologies in the next two years will be speech recognition, digital television, wallet-sized PC devices and scaleable servers. And he gave a demonstration of IntelliMirror, a technology that is part of Windows NT 5.0, which will be released in beta early next year. The product enables LAN administrators to set up and alter workstation applications by replicating data on the network server.
"The greatest ally we have to simplify computing is to use the network," he said.
Gates and another Microsoft employee demonstrated the much-touted Windows NT 5.0 on a NetPC, to the delight of many in the crowd. However, not everyone was impressed.
"It was very disappointing," said Stephane Grand-Chavin, of Montparnasse, a Parisian company that makes CD-ROMs. On a previous occasion, Grand-Chavin had heard Gates speak more about his vision of computer technology.
Others, though, enjoyed the talk.
"He was great as usual," said Lee Vaughan, owner of L & S Software Engineer in Bay City, Texas, who was impressed with the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar demonstration.
Abdul-Jabbar's demonstration was intended to show that big operations like Marines, small businesses and even individuals with limited understanding of technology can make use of computers and the Web - but it also showed the limits of Gates's patience.
Abdul-Jabbar admitted his neophyte status and then demonstrated it when he tried to click on icons in his Web page. He couldn't get the mouse to work properly; he couldn't get the page to scroll. At first, Gates gave pointers loudly enough for the crowd to hear, then he resorted to whispering instructions to the basketball legend and eventually he simply nudged Abdul-Jabbar aside and took control of the mouse himself.
Gates asked Abdul-Jabbar what he finds the most difficult as a new user and seemed a bit taken aback by this answer: "For me, the only frustrating thing is that I can't get the information fast enough."
Abdul-Jabbar said that he finds what he wants on the Web, but can't download quickly enough to suit him.
"We have a lot of work to do to make it faster and to make it simpler," Gates said, adding that issues of connectivity and speed are changing rapidly as new technologies are introduced.
Gates poked fun at himself, the IT industry and the foes of Microsoft in an hour-long talk that was much more humorous and homespun than his usual speeches. He appeared on stage dressed in khaki trousers and a navy-blue sweater, looking like Everyman, and kept a casual demeanor throughout the presentation which a company official said afterward took two months to assemble.
"I think they are really crafting a new image," said Sam Albert, an independent industry consultant in Scarsdale, New York, after the talk. "Gates is getting looser and funnier."
But the talk also made fun of all that's new. In a video clip featuring actor Wayne Knight from the TV comedy Seinfeld as an obnoxious cable repairman who shows up four hours late, various U.S. cultural references - and icons - were featured.
One scene was a take off of a TV commercial and showed Gates in the passenger seat of a VW Golf driven by Steve Ballmer, Microsoft executive vice president. The real commercial shows two young men, said to have no lives, stopping to pick up a discarded chair which they soon notice is odorous.
In the Microsoft version, Gates and Ballmer stop when they see a Sun Microsystems Ultra SPARC 2 workstation abandoned on the roadside. It soon begins to stink and they stop again to ditch it.
Sun has sued Microsoft over licensing of the Java programming language and operating system.
The speech also poked fun at the US Department of Justice investigation into Microsoft, which alleges that the Redmond, Washington-based company violated terms of a previous antitrust settlement.
The opening of the speech included Gates' Top 10 List for why he loves his PC. Number five said: "In just one weekend, I can sit at my PC, collaborate with attorneys all over the world, comment on a 48-page legal brief and email to the Justice Department."
Gates confessed that he delights in the irony that he's using the Windows operating system and other Microsoft applications to write to respond to the lawsuit over those same applications.