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Gates rehashes book, Dell thumps the Web tub

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Michael Dell and Bill Gates cuddled up yesterday at Dell's DirectConnect customer conference in Austin, Texas, but it was a lacklustre performance by both of them. In his speech, Dell introduced a new fat Internet PC, pinched in the middle, and code-named the Webster. Dell has not been known for the sexiness of its boxes, but the hourglass-shaped Webster will run Windows, have an Intel processor and a hard disk. Pricing was not announced, nor was the release date. It will have what Dell calls a relationship button: press it and you get a form to report a problem via the Internet. This service will not be free, however: you have to pay for your relationship. Dell is not saying if the Webster will be the first of a new line. Dell vp Carl Everett said that "For many buyers, megahertz doesn't really matter. What counts is what the machine does for you on the Internet." Dell said with great gravity that "We believe that the Internet will be your business", but he was really talking about Dell, which is making $30 million/day or $11 billion/year from Internet sales. That's not as much as IBM's Internet sales, by the way. Dell noted that 80 per cent of Dell's technical support problems (he actually said "issues") are solved without dispatching a technician, whereas the industry average for this was 27 per cent. Dell will be offering a new online support service it calls OpenManage Resolution Assistant, which will be initially available on its PowerEdge servers and across its range by the end of next year. The idea is to use the Internet to diagnose problems and to offer corrections. Dell calls this "self-healing". Dell said he was not about to retire, and likes his job as the number two PC maker. He also liked seeing Dell "grow and bring change to society". Of course the money is good too: he was paid $109 million last year, and has about $15 billion stashed away. A recently released Dell white paper on wireless technologies pointed out that Dell was participating in the review of the Bluetooth standard, and that Dell "plans to work closely with Microsoft and other software vendors to ensure that operating systems and applications programs include support for wireless applications". Now Bluetooth devices do not work with Windows since they are incompatible with the Network Driver Interface Specification (NDIS), but the Symbian EPOC operating system is optimised for wireless devices. Could it be that Dell is thinking the unthinkable? Will we see a Dell EPOC hand-held? (No - Ed.) Mostly Gates' talk was a boring rehash of the his new book, but he did say about Windows 2000 that "We are very close to the final shipment. We're pretty sure the builds will go final by the end of the year." His caveat for slipping the shipping date was that "Quality is key". There was a hint that Windows 2000 may not support as many clients as expected, because "you are always going to have a lot of servers". Gates said that Microsoft R&D would increase 25 per cent to $3.8 billion, so it sounds as though he is expecting some considerable bug fixing costs for Windows 2000. In addition, he said that new interfaces would be developed for voice-recognition and handwriting-recognition software. Presumably Microsoft's effort at speech recognition has failed, since about a year ago, Nathan Myhrvold, then head of Research, had said that Microsoft had completed the development for this. It sounds as though Microsoft has made no progress in persuading L&H, Dragon and Palm to let Microsoft have their technology. Gates was clearly upset that the new Turner Network TV movie "Pirates of Silicon Valley" cast him in an adverse light: "They didn't get the facts quite right," said the man who has reserved the right to rewrite history. The way he saw it was: "This business was fun and exciting and full of great people and it's been a great privilege to be part of its being created. I hope that someday somebody can capture that in a truthful way." In response to a question about future threats (excluding legal actions), Gates said Microsoft's problem was its success and making sure people maintain that innovation, stifling bureaucracy and moving fast. He then added the curious remark that "You don't let somebody come along like we did and change the rules of the game". What could he mean? ®

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