Fear and loathing in Las Vegas

Last week's Comdex show should have been Microsoft's chance to regain lost momentum. But Redmond's rivals managed to steal the spotlight
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The Independent Online

Microsoft must be reeling after this year's massive Comdexshow. With some 200,000 capitalists, geeks and marketeers converging on thefantasy-land in the desert that is Las Vegas, one thing was obvious. Even if BillGates is not paranoid, the world does seem to be out to get him.

Microsoft must be reeling after this year's massive Comdexshow. With some 200,000 capitalists, geeks and marketeers converging on thefantasy-land in the desert that is Las Vegas, one thing was obvious. Even if BillGates is not paranoid, the world does seem to be out to get him.

"Anyoneknow any good lawyer jokes," quipped the Microsoft chairman as he strode on thestage to address the 8,000 people who had packed into a massive Las Vegas hall tohear him. They laughed appreciatively. In the US, Gates is still very muchadmired and they knew the US government is on the verge of clipping Microsoft'swings - possibly by breaking the company up. They were very supportive.

In fact, Gates was on surprisingly good form but he will need all the optimismhe can muster because one thing was startlingly clear at Comdex: Microsoft isunder threat as never before.

Around Gates swirl trends set to knock himoff his perch. The challenges came in three main arenas - from Linux camethe inevitable onslaught on Microsoft's operating systems, then there are avariety of approaches nibbling into its "PC anywhere" approach and finally thereare half a dozen factors picking at its hugely profitable applicationsmarket.

This should have been Microsoft's show. Its Windows 2000 operatingsystem was supposed to be released months ago and, into this vacuum, trouble ispouring. Linux is moving forward with speed. The only major gripe users have withLinux is that it is a bit of a pig to install. Step forward venerable Canadiansoftware giant Corel. It's release of Linux, christened "Linux for the Rest ofUs", is apparently as easy or easier to instal than Windows. Others are alsomoving into this space.

At Comdex the Linux revolution was really in fullspate. While Gates gave the main keynote for the umpteenth year running, LinusTorvalds, the creator of Linux, was also invited to give a keynote. While Gates'presentation was well received, Torvalds' was rapturous. It was more like areligious revival meeting. In comparison, Gates' glossy performance oozed withsmarketing hype.

During Torvalds' presentation, John "Maddog" Hall toldthe audience that he thought of young Linus as his son. It says something thatmost found this touchingly honest and not pap. More than one hard bitten hack wasseen wiping a tear from their eye.

But the Linux revolution is not allabout emotion, it is about an emerging new world - a world free ofMicrosoft. Corel was also showing off its Linux versions of WordPerfect Office 8,a fully functioned suite of programs that is every bit as good as the latestversion of the Microsoft Office suite.

If that was not bad enough forMicrosoft, the topic of downloadable applications reared it head. SunMicrosystems, whose CEO, Scot McNealy, launched a blistering attack on Microsoftonce again at Comdex, is whipping up support for it StarOffice product. StarOffice is a free application suite that is stored on Sun's website and users onlyneed to download the components they really want. So if you need to do some wordprocessing but don't need graphics you just download the word processingpart.

StarOffice runs on both Windows and Linux but to worry Microsofteven more, Sun announced at Comdex that it will launch a Web version of theproduct next year. This means that if you want to write a letter you would accesthe word processor on Sun's system and only download the document, not theapplication, to your system. This works less well in the UK where we pay toaccess the Internet, but it still offers some intriguing possibilities. And Sunshould not be seen as a bit player in this market. Two million people havealready downloaded StarOffice from its website in just two months.

Finallythe challenge for Microsoft is to escape from the PC. For as many Comdex shows asthis reporter can remember Microsoft has been showing its vision of how it willhelp deliver processing power on devices other than PCs. In recent years it hasfocussed efforts on a cutdown version of the Windows operating system calledWindows CE. This has significantly failed to take off.

Windows CE facesfights from the Palm operating system and from Symbian, a grouping includingBritain's Psion along with Ericsson, Motorola and others. Palm and Symbian signedan agreement last month ensuring compatibility between the two platforms fordevelopers.

While the Symbian camp had a successful show, Palm had amassive announcement - a cross-licensing deal with Sony. Sony will use thePalm operating system on upcoming wireless personal assistant devices andpossibly on video recorders and the like while Palm's owners, 3Com, will gainaccess to Sony's memory technology (one of the stars of the show was Sony'sDigital Walkman, which uses a 64Mb memory stick to store up to 80 minutes ofmusic).

But Bill Gates will be fighting back. Comdex was rife with rumourthat Microsoft will join the all important Bluetooth wireless consortium (asystem for connecting all sorts of electronic devices together) and he is likelyto use this technology in his new strategy - the Personal Web. This will seecompanies such as Philips manufacture "Web Companions" that will link directlyinto Microsoft's MSN site. There will be companions for your car, your kitchen,your pocket -- everywhere. It's a very neat idea. What the US Justice Departmentwill have to say about that we will have to wait and see.

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