The computer industry is heading into an era of "unconstrained innovation" as old models fall away and applications based on XML (Extensible Markup Language) take over, Microsoft chairman and chief software architect Bill Gates said at Comdex in Las Vegas last week.
His talk included a preview of the next versions of the Windows operating system, the Office suite of applications and the first public glimpse of the Tablet PC prototype, which Gates described as "one of the most amazing projects we've ever been involved in". The colourful computer is the size of a pad of paper and is 2.5cm thick. It can be used with peripherals like a mouse and keyboard or users can write on it with a pen that duplicates their writing on the screen, like a child's sketch toy. The demonstration showed how Microsoft's software will allow users to enter handwritten text on the Web Tablet, and then edit that text as if it were a Microsoft Word document, by highlighting words and pasting them, for example.
The machine runs on a 500MHz or 600MHz processor, has 128Mbytes of RAM, a 10Gbyte-hard drive, and operates on the next version of Windows 2000, codenamed "Whistler". The Tablet PC is expected to be released in the second half of 2002.
Although the Tablet PC had centre stage, the keynote devoted time to showing off the latest version of Office - Office 10 - due out next year, and its XML capabilities.
"Microsoft and the industry should really build their future around XML," said Gates, who traditionally gives the opening Comdex speech, offering his view of the state of the industry and its future.
Office 10 will feature native support for XML in the Excel spreadsheet and the Access database.
The XML features can be used to tie words or data in Office applications to information on the Internet.
One example is a new feature in Office 10, now in beta test, called Smart Tags, which can automatically link certain words to local or Internet-based information.
Smart Tags can be used to create vertical industry versions of Office applications, according to a Microsoft official who demonstrated Office 10 during the keynote. For example, Microsoft has been working with a legal services company to provide Smart Tags that will allow documents in Office to include legal citations culled from the Web and to access Black's Law Dictionary.
Microsoft competitors are certain to quibble with Gates' future view, which is a "software-to-software" approach in which the applications enable the machines to work more effectively together in whatever model the user needs - server-to-server, server-to-client, client-to-client. He did take one small swipe at rival Sun Microsystems, which Gates said promotes the idea of "get rid of the PCs - if you lose your privacy, get over it", with servers playing the dominant hardware role.
"But you can't do speech, you can't do video" using that model, which further limits users to seeing one thing at a time, akin to the single portal approach in which all of the data wanted at a particular time is shown on the computer screen, Gates said.
Users want to access data from different sites that they can reach from one point, Gates said, but they don't necessarily want to stay at just one site. Their needs also mean that the emerging industry model "can't just be pure client-to-client" because servers are necessary to provide "huge repositories" of data and for other functions that client machines can't handle.
The new interface also will be different "because there's no doubt that this year you could really say that the browser model . . . showing its age", Gates said.