I've seen Microsoft CEO Bill Gates live several times, and even walked with him at the IE 4.0 launch, as he surveyed new Channel demos, but his speech at the Windows 98 launch was probably the most boring he's given in a long time. While his comparison of the automobile industry to the computer industry worked amazingly well, the speech droned on and on, boring everyone in earshot. It was an oddly undramatic moment for the launch of a major operating system, and while the rest of the launch event was as goofy as expected, the Gates snoozer was a surprise.

Windows 98 was launched with a "Route 98" theme, and the talk was appropriate for the theme, as Windows 98 was described as the first major milestone on the road to total Internet integration. Gates likened our position today with computers to the automobile industry of the 1920's: Computers are getting there, but they are still too hard to use and understand.

"The auto gave people freedom to go new places," Gates said. "The PC is doing the same thing, but it is doing it far faster."

Before Gates came on and put the crowd to sleep, Microsoft VP Brad Chase showed off various aspects of the new operating system, even going so far as to perform the now-infamous USB scanner demo that crashed a Windows 98 beta in a demo months ago. Chase was goofy but likeable, and the video segments featuring real users such as a senior citizen home and a disabled ex-police officer were surprisingly touching. These video segments allowed real people to explain how Windows 98 enabled them in different ways to do what they wanted to do: Reba McEntire and a high school right here in the Phoenix, Arizona area were also featured.

Chase also took time to demonstrate two technologies for Windows 98 that aren't even available yet, Chrome and something called Task Update. Chrome is a multimedia add-on for the very latest PCs only that allows Web developers to create amazing 2D and 3D effects in low-bandwidth Web sites. The Task Center is a Web-based add-on to Windows Update that lets the user browse through a list of tasks such as "Change my desktop background" or "Change my screen resolution." Chase said this feature would be available this Fall.

In many ways, the Windows 98 launch was as low-key as the Internet Explorer 4.0 launch, which also took place in San Francisco. But maybe that's a good thing: The hype for Windows 95 was so over the top that many people were disappointed. This time around, perhaps they will be in for a pleasant surprise.

By the way, Microsoft has posted the Windows 98 launch video on its Web site, which is viewable by both Real Audio and Microsoft's Media Player