When Bill Gates takes to the MGM Grand stage in Las Vegas on Sunday night to kick off this year's Comdex Fall tradeshow, thousands of attendees are expected to listen to his take on the current state of the computer industry, hear about Microsoft's latest technology and possibly learn his predictions for the future.

The vision of Microsoft supreme, delivered by Gates and other top executives in their keynote talks, has become a standard part of such speeches and is awaited each year. While attendees will soon form their own opinions on whether these are insightful views of the future or just hot air, only the passage of time can reveal how forward-looking they really are.

Looking back at Comdex Fall keynotes past, speakers will see that making predictions can be a dangerous thing and perhaps no one knows this better than Gates who has delivered more keynote speeches at more Comdex Fall shows than anyone else.

Back in 1994, Gates stood in front of about 7,000 people and looked 10 years into the future to life in 2004. The home of the future, he predicted, would have a single flat-panel display from which the security and environmental controls could be accessed. Mum would wear a business jacket with a pair of old jeans, because her video-conferencing colleagues would only see her from the waist up, and son would do his homework by accessing museums over the internet.

So far, pretty close. It's not quite what life is like today, but the technology to make it possible is all on the market. Unfortunately, Gates' vision stumbled with the art gallery, where he envisioned works shown on high-definition flat-panel displays and coffee paid for with wallet PCs that replaced cash, credit cards and chequebooks sometime before 2004. Well you can't get it right all of the time.

Five years later Scott McNealy, chairman and chief executive officer of Sun Microsystems, played the visionary. He laid out a future where applications would be delivered over the network and paid for like water and other utilities. "The new model says there is no operating system industry and there is no application industry — it's all going to be free," he said. "You all got a free copy of StarOffice — who said there's no free lunch?"

He went on to predict that the network-centric computing model would render personal computers obsolete. "Comdex should not exist," he said. "I hope I'm not raining on the PC show here but this is how I see it; it's inevitable." Oops. Not only is Sun now charging for its once free StarOffice, but Comdex is still going strong and McNealy will be back this year to deliver another keynote speech.

While their predictions may have been off the mark, few have seen their futures crash and burn in quite the same way as John Sidgmore who, as vice chairman and chief operating officer of WorldCom, took to the stage at Comdex Fall 1998 and predicted a bright future ahead for his company and the telecommunications industry.

"Everyone will have an average of five IP (internet protocol) objects on their body by 2000," he boldly proclaimed as the internet bubble was still approaching its peak. "Industry explosions like this are exceedingly rare. I think 40, 50 years from today people will look back and say this was the golden age of communications."

Looking back on such predictions, perhaps the best advice for speakers is to aim to impress their audience and then exceed their goals. That way, they'll not only have the satisfaction of looking good at the time, but their companies will look good in the future.

In 1996, when Intel chairman Andrew Grove, then-president and CEO, spoke, he predicted the company would be building processors with one billion transistors capable of speeds of 10GHz by 2011. With Pentium Pro processors running at about 200MHz at the time, the talk impressed show attendees. However, Intel's most recent target is a 15GHz processor by 2010.

So, how did the class of 2001 do?
The later-than-anticipated arrival of Microsoft's Tablet PC means that Gates' prediction during his keynote — "Next year a lot of people in the audience will be taking notes with those Tablet PCs" — is likely to be off the mark. But the jury is still out on two other predictions he made: that Tablet PCs will become the most popular form of PC within five years and that, "In the decade ahead I can predict we will provide over twice the productivity improvements that we did during the 90s."

Jeff Hawkins, chairman and chief product officer at handheld maker Handspring, is also waiting to see if one of his predictions comes true: "I'm the guy who invented Graffiti, and I don't think it's going to be around for much longer." The latest PDA (personal digital assistant) market data suggests a second attempt at crystal ball gazing is likely to be wrong: "I don't believe Pocket PC is a long-term player."

EBay president and CEO Meg Whitman could hardly go wrong with her prediction that "In my view, the e-commerce revolution is just beginning." Sony president and COO Kunitake Ando, while not making any predictions, did announce partnerships with AOL Time Warner and Nokia that have yet to bear any significant fruit.

But only time will tell who is left looking the fool and who has backed the winning vision of the future. If we could pick one from the other, we'd be up on that stage rather than writing about it from the auditorium.

PC Advisor will be bringing you all the latest from this year's show from our correspondents out in Las Vegas over the coming week.

Comdex Fall runs from 18-22 November at the Las Vegas Convention Centre.