Microsoft chairman and CEO Bill Gates has assured the Comdex crowds that PCs won't become obsolete anytime soon, although a range of Internet- and network-focused devices will emerge soon.
The devices of the future -- as depicted in vendor promotional videos and re-played by Gates -- feature "fantastic bandwidth" for video conferencing applications, voice recognition and intelligent agent technology. Some have large screens, while others are small machines for paging and cash transactions.
"The Internet will have new devices," he says, but the devices will require a subset PC functionality. One will be a handheld device with a scaled-down operating system and application software. Other devices will connect users to the Internet either through a TV set, a set-top box, a dedicated Internet box, or a video game with a modem.
Microsoft has invested in WebTV and is "taking the browser technology and putting it into a TV device. All that is still very complementary to the PC," Gates says.
The network computer, however, is "tricky", Gates warns. "Eliminating the disk can save a couple of hundred dollars. We will have more people taking advantage of diskless PCs," but they run the risk of overloading the network and users will wind up spending more to upgrade the server, he says.
"If you're going to use a state-of-the-art browser, you need all the things in a PC," such as storage, he says. "Our view is to give more power out to these machines, but hide the complexity."
Microsoft also is addressing customer frustrations by adding a feature to the help menu in its applications that will send a complaint about a program directly to Microsoft through the Internet. "We're tightening the feedback loop."
Windows users also will benefit from auto-install features, a unified user interface and directories that have public-key capabilities, such as the one planned for Windows NT Server in 1997. Single-button sign-on for Internet access will arrive in Windows machines this month, he says, and software distribution will eventually take place over the network.
"Instead of buying a box every two years, you will have a constant connection" for upgrades, Gates says. "The Internet has really allowed us to take a step back and do things in a better way. Personally I'm using the Internet to buy books," read about pregnancy and stay up-to-date on biotechnology, he says.
However, online information won't replace printed texts, Gates says. He still reads the print versions (as well as online versions) of The Economist, The Wall Street Journal and the computer trade journals.
Gates also says that Microsoft will work to increase the adoption rates of networking technologies such as ADSL (asymmetric digital subscriber line), ISDN (integrated services digital network) and PC-cable modems.
At a news conference at the show, Gates indicated he is not threatened by the possibility of a Java-based operating system competing with Windows. Although Windows didn't "deliver on the Internet" in the past, future versions will offer greater compatibility between the Internet and desktop applications, he says.