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Comdex witnesses a more genial Gates

As the world now knows, Bill Gates' computer crashed spectacularly as he and an associate were demonstrating Microsoft's forthcoming Windows 98 at the Spring Comdex computer exposition last week in Chicago.

But that was not the real news. Very few executives in the technology industry have not suffered a similar embarrassment while demonstrating a pre-release or beta product in public. The demo gods are cruel.

The real news is that Bill Gates laughed it off. "I guess we still have some bugs to work out,'" he chuckled. "That must be why we're not shipping Windows 98 yet."

He had every reason to be cranky, with a federal antitrust hearing kicking off the next day in Washington. But it was a kinder, gentler Bill Gates who appeared before the Comdex crowds. Earlier, when the microphone failed as he was being introduced for his keynote speech, the software mogul chortled.

"In my house, I have 40 Windows machines I depend on to turn my lights on and off, and they work most of the time," he said. Modern technology, he added, "brings a certain thrill to simple tasks."

Gates began presenting his softer side to the public this year when he crooned "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" to his infant daughter on national television and started appearing in advertisements for golf clubs.

True, some people in the Justice Department and in Silicon Valley still think of him mainly as the World's Richest Man and as the Most Feared Competitor in the global marketplace. But in his Comdex speech, Gates wanted to convey that even he gets frustrated by the incomprehensible, unhelpful error messages that pop up on his Windows machines from time to time.

His company is spending "substantially more than $1-billion a year" on Windows research and development, in part to eliminate those error messages, he said.

Then an error message popped up and his computer crashed.

Tweaking the Justice Department, Gates emphasized the integration of the Internet Explorer Web browser with the operating system on Windows 98. But he said the "browser" interface for Windows is merely an interim phase, and eventually users will operate Windows using voice and gestures.

About 650 companies came to Spring Comdex to show off their new computer hardware and software products. Some of the larger companies spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to display their wares in elaborate booths.

But there were also many small companies that came to Chicago hoping for a big break, spending scarce cash to buy a 10-foot by 10-foot booth in the remote corners of the trade show, near the restrooms and concession stands.

Two of the more intriguing back-row companies with innovative products at this year's show were Ingenious Solutions Inc. of Lehi, Utah, and Neato LLC, of East Haven, Conn.

Ingenious was selling Wrist Gliders, little puck-like devices that slide across a desk while supporting the computer user's wrists. The company asserts that the $10 Wrist Gliders ($16.95 for a package of two) will reduce or even eliminate the risk of carpal tunnel syndrome, a painful repetitive stress injury that affects many keyboard and mouse users. More information can be had at www.wristgliders.com.

Neato was selling printing kits that allow people to create custom labels and jewel case inserts for audio or CD-ROM disks, using standard personal computer equipment. The equipment needed to record and copy digital compact disks is becoming affordable for consumers, but printing costs to make those disks attractive are still high.

With Neatos $80 CD Labeler Pro software and label kit, a garage band, for example, can add a professional look to its demo disks without spending hundreds of dollars on professional printing and duplicating. The kit also includes a gizmo that makes it easy to neatly center those round labels on the disks. More information is available at www.neato.com.

Each year, PC Week magazine selects what it considers the best new products of the Comdex shows. Most of the winners this year were aimed at the corporate market, but one, in the '"Best Desktop and Mobile Systems'" category, should be of interest to consumers.

The winner: The Everex FreeStyle Executive Palm-Size PC, a pocket computer that will go on sale this summer from Everex Systems Inc. of Fremont, Calif. (freestyle.everex.com/).

At first glance, the Everex FreeStyle resembles the Palm Pilot (now Palm III) computer made by the US Robotics division of the 3Com Corp., the most popular pocket computer for managing personal information like calendars and contact lists. But unlike the Palm Pilot device, the Everex FreeStyle is powered by Microsoft Windows CE. According to the PC Week judges, the FreeStyle "raises the bar for personal organizers by allowing users to work more efficiently."

The FreeStyle, which will range in price from $330 to $500, beat out a number of desktop and laptop computers in a rather dull and limited Comdex field.

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