Show report: Spring Comdex, day two

Bill Gates opened the second day of Spring Comdex with a staged "Q & A" session where he explained that the future was all Windows NT and that the letters NC stand for "Not Compatible: not with PCs, not with each other." Java was another target for Gates, who suggested it was not something to "get religious over."

Not that I was there, of course. I was in bed.

After a late start, I headed to the show with Joel and Howard and met up with Larry McJunkin, also of Wugnet. Larry was helping out in the CompuServe booth this week and we all noted that Comdex show crowds had improved dramatically. At the Microsoft demos, crowds gathered four deep behind the provided seating and speakers started placing people on the floor in front of, and behind, the seats. A normal Comdex after all.

The first order of business was a preview of Memphis, provided by program manager Bernard Wong. He demoed Memphis builds 4.10.1434 and 1511 to a packed house, although the 1511 build crashed almost immediately. He correctly explained that Memphis was still in pre-beta, and that the first beta was expected "in July." New features shown by Wong include USB support (with hot docking and daisy chain capabilities), DVD support (with a new file format called "UDF": there was no explanation of the acronym), and "enhanced" TV. Between Wong's demo and a separate demo by Microsoft's David Ursino, I was able to piece together the following details about Memphis (and NT 5.0) features:

  • Universal Serial Bus (USB) support: USB looks like an incredible expansion device. A small rectangular port (or two) on the back of your computer connects USB devices (digital camera, keyboard, mouse, joystick, speakers, literally anything) to the machine, which are then automatically recognized by the system (Memphis or NT 5). Both demos used a digital camera to show off this feature and David Ursino even showed the Device Manager instantly add a device when the camera was plugged in. Very cool. Multiple USB devices can be daisy-chained without any loss in functionality.
  • DVD support: DVD is typical Microsoft: it will be incredible someday but currently there is little available. DVD promises massive storage capabilities, multiple views of the same scenes in specially-created DVD movies, and more. One thing I hadn't thought of: computers have higher resolutions that TV sets, so DVD movies will look better on the computer. This was demonstrated with a clip from "Batman Forever." Interesting.
  • Enhanced TV: this one required a reboot into a different build of Memphis (1511), which instantly crashed, causing more than a few chuckles from the audience. The USB digital camera refused to work with 1511 and I noticed that Ursino used 1434 later when he showed it off. In any event, the Enhanced TV features in Memphis are the hardest to explain although many people probably imagined these features for TV long ago. Basically, Memphis gives you an ActiveX control that takes over the full screen, allowing you to watch a TV signal. Additionally, this signal can be accompanied by additional information on the screen, including a flower-shaped menu (with options for program information, chat, send email to actors, and more) and an area on the left for additional information about the show and/or actors, or a chat area for the serious coach potatoes. A separate part of Enhanced TV includes a menuing system that will be familiar to digital satellite users, but the Memphis version includes a small window that will show the currently selected show along with some synopsis information. You can search for related shows, or the same show being shown at a different time, and there is even a "Favorites" option so you can bookmark your favorite shows. Wong mentioned parental passwords and lockout controls, as well as an online pay-per-view ordering system. Unsurprisingly, most of these Enhanced TV displays included an advertisement near the bottom of the screen, causing it to look like the MSN homepage.
Wong mentioned that Memphis should be shipping by the end of the year, while NT 5.0 would be ready for primetime in early 1998. The Windows NT 5.0 beta should begin in a "August-September" timeframe, although some select developers are said to already have a pre-beta.

In addition to the Memphis previews, Microsoft was running half-hour demonstrations of numerous products, including Site Server, MSN, Zero Administration for Windows, Visual Studio 97, Visual Basic, Visual J++, Visual InterDev, Office 97 Intranet Starter Kit, IE 4, and Front Page 97. I hung around for several of these today and started nodding off immediately.

One interesting note for Internet Explorer 4.0: Microsoft's banners and literature subtitle the product as "The Web PC." This seems like an interesting attempt to distance IE 4 from mere browsers and explain away the incredible amount of features and complexity this release promises.

An excellent, but ultimately improbable rumor: Microsoft will abandon MSN, their Internet access service. According to the LA Times, Microsoft will try to sell off the service later this year, based on a poorly quoted MSN program manager. The rumor was denied by Microsoft, who said they "probably" wouldn't shut down the service.

Before I knew it, I had wasted a good part of the day in the Microsoft booth, so I headed out to see some more of the show. One correction, by the way: MetaTools is now called "MetaCreations." They make Kai's Power Goo (not "Tools"), now at version 2.0, and a new product called "Kai's Power Soap." They recently purchased Fractal Design as well, makers of the excellent Painter.

Product of the show has to go to AnySoft's Any97: it's a component management system, which basically means you can copy and paste from almost any source format into almost any other destination format. This is very useful for legacy programs, since most of today's applications work well together, but it will even let you select a range of text from a Web site, past it into WordPad, and have it retain the formatting. Very cool. One demo copied a text table in a DOS window and pasted it correctly into an Excel spreadsheet which then automatically created a chart. Email and Web support is excellent as well. Basically, it's harder to explain Any97 than it is to show it off: check out for details.

They started turning the lights out in the convention center before we got out of there, but Larry, Joel, Howard, and I eventually headed out sometime around 6:00 p.m., about an hour after the show officially closed. We headed to the Silicon Northwest party, which is basically a way to get a bunch of software companies from the Pacific Northwest together with the press. I saw a couple of interesting programs, most notably V Communications' excellent System Commander. I cannot recommend this program enough: this and PowerQuest's Partition Magic are an unbeatable combination. I also ate the biggest oyster I've ever seen. It was that type of event.

We skipped out on an invite-only "Digital Media Showcase" party hosted by MetaCreations, because it was too loud and packed with too many industry press types, hanging out to scarf the free food. We had done enough standing for one day, so the four of us headed to Ruth's Cris steak house to relax. Larry had left his pager in a bathroom and lost it (an endless source of jokes for the rest of the day) and we found at least six roads named "Peachtree" in Atlanta, including places where two of them actually intersected (the corner of Peachtree and Peachtree). Everything here is named Peachtree, actually. This is clearly a trick to fool outsiders and we responded appropriately by getting lost every five minutes.

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