Hosting more than 160 business bosses from around the world, Microsoft chairman and chief software architect Bill Gates has painted a future of technology and the Internet that will emphasise personalisation and desktop-free computing.

Not surprisingly, Gates' vision of the future looked suspiciously like the future his software company is working to build.

Next week, Gates and other Microsoft officials will unveil their plans for "Next Generation Windows Services" at a Forum 2000 conference here.

The new Windows services will move Microsoft away from its desktop-computing focus to an environment in which personal information is stored on servers and can be accessed from any device, anywhere.

"That information essentially will be magically stored on the Internet itself," Gates told attendees.

"With any device, once you prove who you are with a pass-card or a smart card, the things you care about [such as] e-mail and bookmarks ... will appear on that device, but in the way that matters to you."

The two-day summit, Microsoft's fourth, gives Gates and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer a chance to outline the company's products and goals to a high-powered audience.

At last year's summit, Gates first unveiled the Digital Dashboard, personalised portal technology that found its way onto Microsoft's knowledge-management agenda.
During this year's session, Gates described the life of the Internet as having three phases.

The first phase Gates characterised as the "Do you have a Web site?" period, in which businesses had to "just get in the game, and people in this phase would talk about [Web site] hits." The second phase, going on now, emphasises Internet transactions and piling up revenues.

The third phase, which is right around the corner, according to Gates, will be a "rational phase when people will be saying, 'What does it have to do with profit?'"

That also is when the Internet will transform from "the ultimate library" into a service-oriented, two-way tool that relies on automation, voice, and handwriting recognition.

A more robust Internet will need more robust connections, and Gates acknowledged that both DSL and cable-modems aren't widely accepted yet, for a variety of reasons.

He predicted they would soon, along with smart cards, wireless devices, and other technologies that will be important in his envisioned third phase of the Internet.

"Three years from now, everyone will have a wireless PC device with them at this conference," Gates told the CEOs.

Of course, Microsoft ensured that prediction would come true by giving each attendee a new Hewlett-Packard Jornada, the first available Pocket PC running Microsoft's Windows CE 3.0 operating system.

Gates also pitched two hardware projects Microsoft is working on: the no-keyboard PC tablet and the eBook.