Antitrust case? What antitrust case?
That seemed to be the general attitude as the computer world gathered here for the massive annual Computer Dealer Expo, better known as Comdex. Barely a week after a federal judge announced that Microsoft Corp. was a monopoly that abused its power and harmed consumers, it was high-tech as usual for the 200,000 geeks in attendance.
"Washington is a million miles away," said PC Week Editor John Dodge. "People here aren't thinking about regulation and fairness. They come to do business, and 99 percent of the people here would do business with Microsoft."
Bob Frankston, a co-developer of the influential spreadsheet Visicalc, said that the undiluted respect for Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates reminded him of people's nostalgia for the old phone company.
"Phones are so complicated now," Frankston said. "The fact that they're cheaper and better is a side issue. It's a form of 'the devil you know.' People want the better version of what they had rather than something completely different. And if Microsoft loses this case, they will get something completely different."
The first 24 hours of the convention, which lasts through Friday, traditionally belong to Microsoft. Gates kicked things off Sunday night by outlining his vision of the future, which featured the ability to interact with the Internet in an increasingly personalized way, naturally with Microsoft products.
Gates's only references to the Department of Justice's lawsuit were in his opening comments. "Has anybody here heard any good lawyer jokes recently?" he asked.
He then went on to riff about how "all over America there are entrepreneurs working in their garages. Also, there are lawyers working in their 20th-floor offices. Both groups are working to do what they do best."
Microsoft may have $20 billion in annual revenue and so many lawyers that they're becoming a drag on the company's earnings, but in Gates's vision it's still close to the tinkerer in the garage.
Much of his speech was focused on how "the personal Web" will be a boon to consumers. In one demo, Gates used various Microsoft products to customize a new Ford car over the Web, find out the closest dealer, get a suggested route back to Seattle and even learn where to buy gas along the way.
"We've updated the Microsoft vision for the first time in 25 years," Gates said. Gone is the notion of the only computer in the home being a desktop, with software loaded onto the hard drive. Instead, what's been termed "network computing" will allow users to store applications, starting with spreadsheets and basic word processing, on the Internet.
Meanwhile, all sorts of smaller devices will invade the home. In this group, Gates introduced the MSN-Based Web Companion, a terminal that will allow users to browse the Web and send e-mail. This offers several revenue streams for Microsoft: Its Windows CE operating system would run the device, while the company would both provide an Internet connection as well as directly deposit users onto the MSN Web service--which would offer rich opportunities for selling these new customers goods and services.
At least four companies are building prototypes of these machines for Microsoft: Acer Inc., Philips Electronics, Thomson Multimedia and Vestel USA. "It's a new business model for Microsoft, and a dramatic shift," said Douglas Gold, a vice president of the online media company Ziff-Davis Inc.
Fred Oh, director of product marketing for Acer, said his company expects to make its device for other companies as well. "We're looking at US West or AT&T to enter the same market space," he said. If Microsoft's operating system is used by these other companies and becomes the standard, so much the better for Microsoft.
The experts here--there are more than 4,000 press, the vast majority from specialized computer publications--reacted to Microsoft's plans with yawns.
Syndicated computer columnist Larry Magid said the real point is that "Microsoft has gotten religion. What Gates is saying to the computer industry is that network computing is real."
Everybody else thinks it's real, too, of course--even though this is a hardware convention, the word "Internet" comes up in every second breath--but Microsoft built its fortune on the stand-alone PC. It had to come the farthest to reach this point.
Many conventioneers didn't care much what Gates said. They just wanted to see him say it. It was a choice that required a certain level of commitment. The weather was lovely, casinos beckoned with the promise of instant riches, and fabulous hotels offered all manner of treats, but Jeff Ingalls and Jason Buszta chose to spend the day in a vast windowless holding pen in the basement of the Venetian Hotel.
They arrived at 10:30 a.m. Sunday, which put them first in line for the Gates speech. There were no chairs, and a latecomer was reprimanded for sleeping on the floor.
It sounds like a rather grim way to spend eight hours, but Ingalls and Buszta, network engineers from Auburn Hills, Mich., were practically merry. They, along with 12,998 others, were going to see their hero. "Bill is someone larger than life--his ambition, his motivation, his drive, his foresight," Ingalls said.
And Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson's declarations that Microsoft is a monopoly and a bully? "A bunch of crap," Ingalls said.
Gates and his second-in-command, Steve Ballmer, couldn't have said it better themselves. Actually, Ballmer did say it himself, as he exited a Microsoft reception for the media after Gates's keynote. "We know we're early in the legal process. . . . We certainly respectfully disagree with the judge's findings. . . . I'm sure we will remain one company very focused on the consumer's interest," he said, all the while walking briskly.
While Ballmer left early, Gates came late. Surrounded by a ring of reporters six deep, he offered a brief tutorial on trends in information technology. No questions about the antitrust case were entertained. Few if any reporters were taking notes. A number of them had cameras, however, and spent their time jockeying for shots of themselves with Gates.
"It's fascinating to watch the deification process," said Frankston, who met Gates at the first Comdex in 1979 and later worked for Microsoft for a few years. "People assume that if you're rich you must be special."
CAPTION: Carly Fiorina, chief executive ofHewlett-Packard Co.,delivered the keynote address.
CAPTION: Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, displaying a hand-held computer that uses Microsoft Windows, said smaller devices will become commonplace.