Gates and new CEO Steve Ballmer said it was a time of change for Microsoft just as dramatic as when graphical interfaces arrived or when the Internet exploded.
"There's more opportunity for software than there has ever been ... in a sense, you can say that you haven't seen anything yet," Gates said.
The cornerstone of Microsoft's new strategy will be a family of applications and tools dubbed Next Generation Windows Services, which Microsoft will deliver over the next two to three years, Gates said.
Without giving away many specifics, he said the new products will incorporate a new user interface and make use of emerging speech technologies. The company is also working on a fresh approach towards developing software applications, together with a new file system, Gates said.
"We need to deliver a breakthrough version of Windows that allows PCs and servers to support these next-generation services and host them out there on the Internet," Ballmer said.
Microsoft will spell out its road map in detail at a strategy briefing in the second quarter of this year, Gates said. The first Next Generation Windows Services products will be rolled out soon afterwards, he added.
The forthcoming Windows 2000 operating system as well as new versions of the company's SQL Server database and its Exchange groupware software due in the coming year are also integral components of the new strategy, he said.
What might Next Generation Windows Services support? One example is an online travel service that not only allows users to book flights online, but also notifies them of changes to their flight schedules via portable, Internet-enabled devices. Friends and relatives will have Internet-based calendars that will reflect the changes in schedule, Ballmer said.
In another example, a user's healthcare records, history and payments could be managed and stored online, once again tying in with an online calendar that notifies the user of upcoming doctor's appointments.
Microsoft will deliver a few of the services itself, Gates said, including services for mobile users, knowledge management workers, and consumers in the home; however, most of the services will be delivered by other companies, he stressed.
Microsoft will compete with IBM, AOL Time Warner, Oracle and Sun Microsystems, all of whom provide online services and the software that supports them, Gates noted.