I've attended Fall COMDEX in Las Vegas for 5 or 6 years now, and the sheer number of people who come to the gathering always amazes me. I'm not a "people person" (in that I can't stand crowds), so COMDEX is pretty much the last place on earth I'd normally want to be. Yet year after year, I go back. There's got to be a reason, and, of course, there is: COMDEX is the seminal event in the computer industry, and there's just nothing else like it.

This year, I approached COMDEX a little differently. I've been there often enough now to know how to get around efficiently, and I can skip the things that waste my time. This year, I attended a lot of meetings, predominantly with Microsoft, instead of slogging around the show floor with the multitudes. The time was well spent: I might not always agree with the broad strokes from a company the size of Microsoft, but the people I know at the company are bright, articulate, and genuinely nice. Good people, as my father would say. And I wouldn't miss a chance to talk about upcoming products such as Office 10, Visual Studio.NET 7.0, and Small Business Server (SBS) 2000 with the people who actually work on those products.

But first, consider the Bill Gates keynote, which sets the tone for COMDEX and provides a high-level public overview of Microsoft's product plans. This year was no different: Gates and a cadre of Microsoft product managers presented the upcoming Tablet PC, Office 10, and Visual Studio.NET 7.0. Gates also brought David Lauren, son of fashion designer Ralph Lauren, on stage to promote the launch of polo.com, which runs on Microsoft technology. Lauren was well-spoken, humorous, and lively—everything Gates is not. As an industry, we rally around Gates and other technologists, and we cut them a lot of slack. After 20-odd years of appearing in public, however, Gates can't touch David Lauren's casual demeanor, which created an interesting contrast. I generally couldn't care less about fashion (which is immediately obvious to anyone who has met me), but Lauren was a small wake-up call during an otherwise soporific presentation. Gates should take notes.

But Gates had some pretty exciting stuff to talk about, though that might have been lost on listeners. Reading the transcript of his speech, however, you find that some cool stuff is coming down the pipeline. Among the more interesting COMDEX news items are the following:

  • Microsoft is working with its PC-maker partners to create Tablet PC devices that dock into a keyboard/mouse setup at home but support full handwriting recognition on the road with a new "digital ink" feature. Folks, I played around with this device after the keynote, and it's for real: You can manipulate handwritten text in ways that are almost magical. This feature goes way beyond handwriting recognition; in fact, the company specifically ignored that feature during the demo.
  • Microsoft Office 10—which will probably be called Office 2002 when it ships next spring—will include a cool new feature called Smart Tags, a Task Pane that exposes functionality that's been hard to find in previous versions of the product, and new reliability and recovery features that will make Office 10 a must-have in any environment. For consumers, Office 10 will be available in a subscription version that lets individuals purchase the suite at a substantial discount.
  • Visual Studio.NET 7.0 Beta 1, which shipped this week, is amazing. Microsoft Developer Network (MSDN) Universal customers can download it for free right now from the Microsoft Web site, but anyone can order the Beta 1 on CD-ROM from Microsoft for about $13 in shipping. If you develop Web sites or distributed applications—or you're simply interested in .NET and the new C# programming language—this is a deal you can't turn down. The current Beta can create the Web services we've all heard so much about.

And there's more—a lot more—of course. You can read the transcript of Gates' keynote on the Microsoft Web site.

And be sure to look for my extensive coverage of the show, along with exclusive photographs, on the Windows SuperSite.