He may not have explicitly stated his intent, but Microsoft CEO Bill Gates' main mission at his Comdex Fall '98 keynote tonight was to prove Microsoft's oft-stated contention that it is an innovator.
Gates took the covers off ClearType, a Microsoft Research Group-developed technology designed to make fonts easier to read on LCD, and to some extent, CRT displays. One of the primary applications for ClearType -- which Microsoft expects to integrate into its operating systems at some point -- are electronic books, or eBooks. One of the major stumbling blocks to rapid ebook acceptance is the lack of display resolutions that will lead to widespread consumer acceptance.
Gates claimed during his presentation that he gets to see major breakthoughs at Microsoft "about once or twice a month".
Only months away
While ClearType is a research technology and not a product, it is "many months, not many years away from introduction," in the words of Dick Brass, vice president for technology, development at Microsoft, who heads the company's eBook efforts. Microsoft officials say the company came up with the ClearType "breakthrough" within six months of beginning to work on the display resolution problem.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has come up with one potential solution to the eBook screen resolution challenge. Researchers there have demonstrated electronic "ink" that can be spread over a plastic sheet, allowing ink to be turned on and off like a PC monitor.
But Microsoft is using a software-only approach to tackle the problem. Officials declined to provide details of how ClearType works, claiming the company has several patents pending on the technology. But company officials did say ClearType is a software-only technology that works by "splitting pixels".
"They say they've split the atom. We've split the pixel. We're not bound by pixel jumps," said Brass, who was demonstrating ClearType in a Microsoft hotel suite here in the Las Vegas Hilton, where the keynote was held.
"This is strictly a Microsoft-only innovation that builds on our True Type font technology," Brass added.
A claim that Microsoft officials have repeatedly relied on in the company's antitrust case against the U.S. government is that Microsoft is an innovator. A number of its competitors claim Microsoft has "borrowed" more than its fair share of technologies from software and hardware vendors which have shown up in Microsoft products.
Tweaking the DOJ
Several times during the keynote, Gates showed video clips meant to poke fun at the current DOJ proceedings against the company.
Gates spent most of his hour-long address touting his main areas of focus going forward, including simplicity, privacy and increasing power of PCs.
He demonstrated Microsoft's next-generation desktop suite, Office 2000, due to be commercially available in the channel in the second quarter of 1999, as well as its SQL Server 7.0 product, which the company will launch formally on Monday. Gates also staged a demo of new, souped up versions of Microsoft's MotoCross and Flight Simulator products. And he shared the stage, at one point, with Silicon Graphics Inc. senior vice president Tom Furlong, who provided a "sneak peak" of SGI's NT-powered Visual Workstation, which SGI said it will announce after the first of the new year for under $4,000.
But ClearType clearly was meant to be the major highlight of Gates' presentation. Microsoft recently went public with some of its plans to address the eBook space. Last month, Microsoft joined a number of leading publishers and ebook vendors to begin formulating standards that ultimately may be adopted by the National Institute of Standards and Technology. EBooks can be read on specialized devices, PCs or laptops.