NEW YORK - Bill Gates, Microsofts chairman and chief software architect, ceremoniously typed "exit" at the familiar DOS command-line prompt "for the last time," he said, ending the 20-year era of Microsofts original operating system as he set the stage for the launch of Windows XP.
The whimsical stunt - accompanied by the computerized voice of HAL from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey protesting Gates terminating its existence - prompted laughter from the standing-room-only audience at the theatre of the Marriott Marquis Hotel in Times Square, where Microsoft put on a lavish demonstration of its newest version of Windows.
Windows XP marks Microsofts most important product launch since Windows 95 six years ago, and the occasion of its formal introduction in New York drew the support of virtually the entire PC industry and attracted several hundred members of the international media. The event in New York was mirrored by more than 50 other events around the world.
Gates said XP is so important because it unifies the "code bases" of Microsofts OSes. "The industry focus is much clearer now," he said during a discussion panel with PC industry CEOs. "You have the reliability that comes from writing to one kernel."
Until now the company has maintained two lineages of Windows: One running on top of the DOS kernel - including Windows 95, 98 and ME - and Windows NT, based on a more reliable and stable kernel that is also the foundation of XP. Even as Gates pronounced the era of DOS, first introduced in 1981, to be over, he noted that 400 million PCs around the world still run DOS-based versions of Windows.
At the XP launch, there was a fair amount of flag-waving - and, as expected, security checkpoints were frequent. A gospel choir sang "God Bless America" before New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani took the stage with Gates. Giuliani, who received an extended standing ovation, thanked Microsoft and Gates for choosing the city as the venue for the launch. Gates returned the gratitude, telling Giuliani, "You are truly an American hero."
Gates, who noted that Microsoft worked to deliver XP in time for the important holiday shopping season, said Microsoft expects that XP and XP-related products and services will generate $100 billion in sales worldwide by the end of the year.
Nevertheless, there was an undercurrent among the PC company CEOs in attendance, the wisdom of which was that the economic malaise would hinder XPs ability to help revive the ailing sector. Gateway CEO Ted Waitt said he didnt expect to see a major boost in sales because of XP, although he later said there was a "strong potential for uplift."
Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, however, said the benefits of XP to the industry should be examined in a broader perspective. "Its not simply about new units, though it is that. But its also about exciting new applications like digital music and digital imaging," she said.
To demonstrate XPs new multimedia and ease-of-use features, Microsoft brought in TV personality Regis Philbin, who claimed he was so computer illiterate that he had trouble even turning a PC on. The point was supposed to be that XP is so simple to use that even someone without any computer experience can use it.
In addition to the Media Player and digital photo features, Microsoft highlighted XPs wireless networking features. The OS natively supports the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers 802.11b wireless networking standard, also known as Wi-Fi.
Microsoft showed off Windows Messenger, XPs real-time communications client by having Philbin conduct a wireless videoconference with Gates, who had exited the theatre - a la David Letterman - to walk around Times Square. Philbin also ran Gates through a mock round of questions in Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? format. Quipped Philbin to Gates, to the delight of the audience: "Yeah, if anybody needs a million dollars, its you."
Jim Allchin, group vice president in charge of Windows, highlighted the technical improvements in XP over its Windows predecessors, claiming that XP is more than ten times more reliable than Windows 98 and 20 percent more reliable than Windows 2000. Between the speed improvements and reliability - which, among other thing, means XP crashes less, and boots up and shuts down faster - Microsoft estimated the average user would save at least 40 hours per year.
Allchin also made a point of demonstrating a Windows XP PC running applications from AOL and RealPlayer. "XP is for all software and hardware developers," he said.