The fact that Bill Gates says he's been dressing like Harry Potter for years seems to come as no surprise to most in the auditorium. The fact that this should mean that Gates has been parading around his office in a long black cloak, a pointy hat and a supercharged broomstick barely registers on Comdex attendees' humour meter.
Here's what really happened behind Gates' speech at Comdex this year. The IT industry is desperate to chivvy itself along, walking around with fake smiles while no one can deny that numbers are way down this year.
Gates 'announced' some Microsoft developments, such as the availability of the third beta version of the firm's Windows .Net Server, successor to Windows 2000, and gave the audience a peek at an XP-running notebook with swivelling screen that can turn quickly into a tablet PC. The fact that companies were shipping units such as these over a year ago seems to have passed Microsoft by.
Hotter announcements were about .Net and the Tablet PC concept. Gates gave a look at Tablet PC prototypes by Compaq and Acer and said that within five years such devices would be commonplace. But it's applications that matter – after all, the Tablet PC was marked up as most promising show product at Comdex 2000, but Microsoft has only recently started releasing more than a few software development kits.
One development was a combination handwriting recognition/WP software called Journal, based on Word. A lot of people in the industry seem to be pushing the return to using pen-like devices as pens in a virtual world, but whether this will really happen is crystal ball-gazing.
But underneath all this was a tackiness, a too-geeky backslapping gee-up that was impossible to miss. Things are not good right now. People are not coming to Comdex. One eyewitness PC Advisor spoke to reported booing from a small section of the crowd when Gates came on stage. And Gates' speech was essentially a rerun of last year's — only the 'comedy' was updated.
And no matter what medium you see Gates' speech on, be it a webcast or on CNN or ABC, it's going to be exactly the same footage. Comdex was allegedly selling footage taken by its own crews and cut by its own people to those media organisations that turned up with video cameras.
PC Advisor, after weeks of arguing over whether members of the press could turn up to events with cameras and voice recorders, was harangued from the off about taking pictures and video and voice recording, even though we were accredited press. Eventually we were called away and had our cameras taken off us, and were told in no uncertain terms to switch off voice recorders. So we left — control-freakery such as this betrayed the vapidity of the event.
The future of Tablet PC might well look bright to the industry and to Gates, but one IT systems manager told PC Advisor that, while he'd love to get lawyers in his law firm to use PDAs and other devices, he hadn't yet found anything they could really use. And tablet units have been around for years. Gates and Microsoft's partners have an uphill struggle to make sure tablet systems are secure, easy to use and really offer those promised productivity increases.
At one point Gates showed a premade video clip of him dressed as Harry Potter, linking a set of future-looking scenarios of technology. Whether Gates sees himself as a Potteresque character or not, it's an odd analogy because Potter fights an evil wizard called Voldemort who tried to kill him once, failed, tries to steal the Philosopher's Stone which would allow immortality and the free creation of gold from base metal, tries to kill Potter again and eventually is vanquished.
Does Gates see the DoJ, the US government department that tried several times unsuccessfully to smash Microsoft for anticompetitive behaviour, as Voldemort? Or can we see another analogy, a wizard who realised that there isn't a good and bad in magic, just power and its application, who tries to create the fountain of youth and endless cash? If Gates is Potter, we're a whole busload of monkeys' uncles.