Storm clouds parted, and the sun shone over San Francisco today for the first time in several days as Bill Gates once again demonstrated that he and Microsoft are the most powerful entity in the universe. Overly dramatic? Perhaps. But for all his billions, Bill Gates couldn’t stop the potshots in the week leading up to the unveiling of the much-anticipated Windows 2000 platform.

The big day
Microsoft, which headed south from the rainy Northwest only to get pelted by rain earlier in the week in the Golden Gate City, invited some impressive guests to this latest debutante ball. Michael Dell, an honored guest who helped kick off the three-day Windows 2000 Conference & Expo here, praised the upstart rival Linux operating system a week earlier and, along with GartnerGroup analysts, mused that enterprise users would be slow to adopt the new system. Dell’s remarks helped send Microsoft stocks down about $6.50 a share, a jab that cost Gates nearly $1 billion, give or take $100 million. Talk about spoiling the party. By comparison, Gates said Microsoft spent about $2 billion in engineering costs to develop Windows 2000.

Yet despite all the carping leading up to yesterday’s gala at the Bill Graham Civic Center, Bill Gates proved that money may not buy a bulletproof operating system—but it can buy some time with cool people.

The big people
Patrick Stewart, best known for his role as a Star Trek captain, helped the Microsoft stage show along with the requisite Star Trek allusions. “It’s clear that Windows 2000 is the platform that will take us into the future, and I’ll be waiting for you there,” Stewart told Gates.

John O’Hurley, the actor who played J. (Jacopo) Peterman on Seinfeld, did a funny turn as the egomaniacal venture capitalist William W. Wentworth, head of Wentworth Worldwide. Microsoft went all out for the stage show—including building a laptop the size of a small house. In order to show off the ease of transferring files wirelessly from one laptop to another using infrared eyes and Windows 2000, Microsoft put a cutaway section of a jetliner fuselage with first class seating on stage and re-enacted the fantasy placement of millions in venture capital funding.

It’s the Internet, stupid
The central theme throughout the gala could be summed up as: “It’s the Internet, stupid.” From hand-held devices driven by Windows 2000-compliant CE software, to chains of enterprise servers, the show was an attempt to quell criticism that this version of Windows will prove to be as irritating and crash-prone as Windows 95 and 98. When a Microsoft product manager showed that new servers could be added to a Windows 2000-based network with three clicks, a password, and a few minutes’ wait, there was scattered applause among the 4,000 or so people in the audience. It did seem easy and impressive. Not all members of the audience bought the illusion, however. “That was a demo,” laughed Ralph Eger, an IT consultant based in Vienna, Austria, who traveled out to view the product for a major Austrian bank. “I do the same thing all day long and I can tell you it’s not that easy. I was a beta tester for Windows 2000 in Austria, so I know this product.”

Eger pointed out that although Microsoft took a few liberties with the demo, the product is still much quicker to install than previous versions of the NT platform. Eger compared the new Windows platform favorably with Tandem’s NonStop computer system, which runs on UNIX, but said Tandem’s system costs 15 times more than the newest Windows OS. Eger is recommending that his client adopt Windows 2000 during the next year to run its mission-critical processing applications.

Would you nod off at 227,000 transactions per minute?
While Gates and his minions put the assembled servers through their paces—including an impressive display of a 12-node system processing 227,000 transactions per minute—Eger’s wife, Sabine, started to nod off. This was, after all, still a PowerPoint presentation by a “chief architect” and his staff showing off the latest “gee-whiz” program.

Linux may be putting a little pressure on Microsoft, and enterprise customers will probably hold off for several months while the Windows platform is further debugged, but in the end, Gates will still be the man.

This reporter was reminded just how far computing has come in the last 20 years when Gates waved his hand and Carlos Santana and his band ended the event with a live rendition of “Smooth.” The last time Santana spent significant time on the music charts, Bill Gates was some skinny guy who probably couldn’t get a date, much less hang out with movie stars and rockers, back when the big excitement in network computing was the choice of a computer screen with letters in green or amber. Now Gates can buy good weather and Carlos Santana while the rest of us will inevitably buy a copy of Windows 2000 and maintain the Microsoft hegemony.

Scott Hildula is an industry scribe based on the West Coast.

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