To kick off the official launch of Windows XP here Thursday, Microsoft Corp. marshalled some of the biggest names in computing to participate in an industry executive panel and extoll the ability of the operating system to push the convergence of commerce, communications and entertainment for businesses and consumers alike.
Seven industry leaders -- including chief executives of Hewlett-Packard Co., Dell Computer Corp., Compaq Computer Corp., Intel Corp., Gateway Inc., Toshiba Corp. and Sony Corp. -- joined Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates on stage at a Times Square hotel, to discuss the OS' features and field questions on how the software may have an impact on the IT industry as a whole. Thomas Stemberg, chairman and chief executive officer (CEO) of Staples Inc., also participated.
Questions from the audience about the economy, and an introduction by New York Governor George Pataki, was a not-so-tacit reminder of the impact that the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have had on the city, and the faltering economy.
Though Pataki's remarks were generally upbeat, his thanks to the executives for gathering here, and his remark that "New York is still the place to be," underscored the somber business environment into which XP is being introduced.
Though panelists, as expected, uniformly sang the praises of the new operating system, there were some differences of opinion on how quickly XP would affect related IT sales.
"We're not forecasting a significant uplift due to Windows XP," said Ted Waitt, CEO and chairman of Gateway. He did add, however, that Gateway has already shipped 100,000 XP-based machines to consumers, and that computers with the OS installed now comprise half of its consumer business. "It's a strong product," he said, adding that "it's a question of when" users realize that its benefits are attractive enough to induce them to buy it.
Dell founder and CEO Michael Dell was more positive about the immediate effects of XP. In response to a question about the impact that XP will have on sales, he said "We expect to increase sales in the fourth quarter." He did not specify how much of that increase would be due to XP.
But, he added, "There have been a lot of buyers who have been waiting for Windows XP."
Because of the range of Internet services and peripheral device drivers incorporated into XP, the OS has the potential to attract corporate and consumer buyers of a whole host of devices and applications -- not just PCs -- pointed out a number of the panelists.
"XP gets over the barriers" to using new digital, Web-connected technology such as digital cameras, noted HP CEO Carly Fiorina, who pointed out that in a recent trial to help launch XP, "6 year olds and 60 year olds" were given cameras, XP-based machines and printers -- and produced "amazing" results.
"Even I can produce digital prints with cameras now," quipped Staples CEO Stemberg.
And that, according to Fiorina and other panelists, is the point -- multimedia applications for business and consumer purposes are being made easier by the ability of XP to connect a variety of devices such as music players and cameras, and in turn, send and receive rich text, video, graphics and audio to and from the Internet.
"It's about the whole set of converged applications -- not just personal computer applications," Fiorina said.
The word "convergence" passed through the lips of each panelist at least once during the panel, which preceded the main keynote of the day, delivered by Gates later in the morning.
XP has "the ability to make the love affair between computing and entertainment converge," said Compaq CEO Michael Capellas. "You can organize your music, integrate it with video and photography, all from a single point of entry," he said.
Several panelists pointed out that device drivers for music devices and camera equipment, coupled with the new Windows Media Player and Windows Messenger communication Internet communication features, make it easy for corporate users as well as consumers to communicate and collaborate from a single point of control -- the personal computer.
"Commerce, information, entertainment, and communication -- these four things can be integrated ... through the desktop as a single point of access," said Intel CEO Craig Barrett.
The ability to pass information in audio, video, and rich-text form over the Internet is key to the business PC user, added Dell.
"What the business customer is looking for is the ability to collaborate ... (with PCs) in an easy-to-own, easy-to-buy, easy-to-use way," Dell said.
Gates noted that the technical underpinnings of both the home and professional versions of XP based on the Windows NT kernel -- with its more robust multitasking abilities than earlier versions of Windows -- allows much of this to happen. The fact that for the first time both home and professional versions of Windows use the more robust kernel is a watershed for Microsoft and its software customers, he said.
However, the big uphill battle for widespread use of multimedia Web collaboration and communication services is the fight to get broadband Internet access to more people, virtually all the panelists agreed.
The bottom line is pricing, Gates said. "At $50 dollars (per month) for a broadband connection you get what we have in the U.S., but at $20 per month, you get what you have in (South) Korea, which is 40 percent penetration of broadband." Japan is heading toward 40 percent as well, while in the U.S., the percentage of users who have broadband connections is about half of what it is in South Korea, he noted.
Also key to broadband connectivity is XP's support of the 802.11 wireless connection specification. "This lets you get a broadband connection in the home and then connect several devices without installing more wires," Gates said.
In terms of pushing broadband out to more PC users, "The government has a role to play," Barrett said.
"Regulatory relief for the incumbent carriers who can make investments in broadband" is necessary, he said.
One analyst who was on hand at the launch was "puzzled" by the consumer focus of the presentations.
"Given the state of the economy, apparently they think there will be more action in the consumer market, and certainly a lot of features, such as digital media are not that appealing to most businesses," said Amy Wohl, editor of A Opinions newsletter in Narberth, Pennsylvania.
Of more interest to companies will be that Windows XP is supposed to be much more stable and less crash-prone than previous versions of the operating system. That improved stability led Stemberg to comment about the "blue screen fatal error," probably better known as "the blue screen of death."
The "death of the blue screen of death" will be appealing to companies, Wohl said, and so will the possibility to use the Smart Tags feature to improve online help for end users. Although panelists mentioned the potential of XML (Extensible Markup Language) and Web services in Windows XP, Wohl said Windows XP is really just a platform for new Web services applications.
"Web services are a compelling issue, but I'm not certain how much Web services in XP is an issue, as much as it is an application development issue in .NET and Microsoft hasn't made that any clearer," she said.
The necessary hardware upgrade requirements and the complexity of the upgrade process, particularly in a time of cost-cutting, makes adopting Windows XP in corporations a "tough decision to make," Wohl said.
(Martin LaMonica of InfoWorld, an IDG News Service affiliate, contributed to this report.)