Twenty years on from his first address at Comdex, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates this year used his keynote speech to reminisce and found that some software challenges from the 1980s still exist. He also announced new technologies to solve some of today's problems.

Slides from his presentation in 1983, when Gates' father operated the projector, showed that software should have no surprises, be trustworthy, follow a consistent model, be easy to understand and have an undo command. Back then, Gates said software defined the information age, but suffered from hardware limitations. Today, software defines the 'digital decade' and, introducing a concept called 'seamless computing', Gates said the challenge is to take advantage of all that hardware offers in a seamless way.

"My belief is that the constraints that we have to get rid of now, the seams that hold us back, are much more about software challenges," Gates said. "The successes of the 1980s were pretty phenomenal, but brought us really only halfway in terms of the dreams about what software can do."

Microsoft is heavily involved in the seamless computing concept — Gates presented the company's smartphone software, Xbox Music Mixer, Windows XP Media Center Edition and MSN Direct for the forthcoming Spot (smart personal objects technology) watches as examples.

Gates also hit on several familiar themes. He repeated Microsoft's security promises, offered a demonstration of Microsoft Research search technology and celebrated the first birthday of the tablet PC. As expected, Gates also announced email filtering technology called SmartScreen.

Developed by Microsoft Research, SmartScreen will be delivered as 'intelligent message filter' for Microsoft's Exchange email server product in the first half of next year and already is part of Hotmail, MSN and Outlook 2003.

Another demonstration was reserved for 'Stuff I've Seen', a search functionality developed by Microsoft Research that may one day be part of Windows. It captures information that users view on their PC and makes that searchable. It can also pop up and suggest information from that index — for example, while the user is typing an email.

To celebrate the first birthday of the tablet PC Gates talked about the upgrade to Windows XP Pro Tablet PC Edition, codenamed Lonestar. The update promises to offer better handwriting recognition support, among other features, and is due out mid-2004 as a free update to current customers.

In a lighter moment, which has become a traditional part of Gates' keynote speech at Comdex, he showed a spoof of The Matrix with Microsoft Chief Executive Officer Steve Ballmer cast as Neo and himself as Morpheus. Some might think The Matrix is an odd choice for Microsoft to parody since the movie is about the human race being enslaved by malevolent cyberintelligence. Neo, a hacker, joins Morpheus and his group to destroy The Matrix.

In Microsoft's version, The Matrix is a world filled with IT consultants working for IBM selling Linux, while the world outside The Matrix is Windows, which "frees the IT masses", Gates says in the parody.