Gates escapes the burning questions in Frankfurt

If you're Bill Gates, how do you turn up in public and still avoid answering any questions about either Sun Microsystsems' lawsuit over Microsoft's Java license, or the fact that four more US states have announced investigations into Microsoft's business practices? Easy. You go all the way to Frnakfurst, talk for 20 minutes and only accept questions in writing.

There's nothing like a few days in Europe to help a CEO escape questions about antitrust suits, breach of contract claims and other corporate unpleasantness cropping up on the other side of the Atlantic.

Microsoft chairman Bill Gates covered familiar themes and pushed products and the software giant's strategy in the keynote speech this week at the Frankfurt Comdex Internet and Object World show.

But he managed to get by without saying anything about Sun Microsystems' lawsuit filed the day before alleging Microsoft failed to comply with its Java licensing agreement. Gates also did not say anything about the news earlier this week that four states have joined an antitrust investigation into the possible monopolisation of markets.

Gates, whose appearance in Frankfurt came one day after attending EDventure Holding Inc.'s High-Tech Forum in Amsterdam, answered questions after his 20-minute speech. But all the questions were presented in writing from the audience of about 1,500 people and presumably screened for content.

"What's Microsoft's answer to Java?" was one of the first queries, to which Gates answered, "Java is a great deadline language and we think it is an important language." Microsoft has built Java tools that have become the most in use and will continue building them, he said.

"The only place you get disagreements is (when) people say that Java will become the only computer language, that people will throw away all their C code, COBOL code, Visual Basic code, and not only will they throw it all away, but when they rewrite it ... they won't take any advantage of a particular platform," Gates said.

An application for a wrist watch, for example, would not provide a suitable interface for a full screen. If Java wants to run everywhere it won't be able to take advantage of a full screen, security, multimedia or graphics that exist in any platform, Gates said.

Users so far have rejected applications that use none of the user interface conventions and unique operating system capabilities on their computers, he said, adding that Microsoft has "no religion about languages."

Gates also defended the new 4.0 version of Microsoft's Internet Explorer, released last week, after a question about why it provided no possibility to search with an intranet search engine.

He said the new version was targeted at both the intranet and Internet scenarios, but for anyone who wants to customise the Explorer in a corporate environment, Microsoft provides an administration kit, which lets users set up default addresses, home pages and other preferences.

Gates also touched on the company's development efforts, which he said were focused on making sure Windows NT will be able to scale up to high-end server needs and emphasising the manageability of network PCs.

He described his concept of a company's "digital nervous system," for which Microsoft's Windows operating system would be the core element in the exchange of information using a PC connected to the Internet. Companies will run more efficiently when they realize they have the opportunity to redesign their information flows by using PCs instead of paper printouts and by making electronic mail a primary communications system, he said.

He added that a key element of the "digital nervous system" will be the integration of line of business applications, such as SAP AG's R/3, so that the application will do things like automatically send a mail if a certain condition comes up.

"Businesses everywhere are looking to us not only to reduce costs but also to increase value to allow them to compete in this new information age," Gates said, adding that within 10 years computers will be advanced enough to recognise speech and handwriting.

"I think the years ahead will continue to be quite exciting and fun for all of us," he said.

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