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Gates puts Comdex focus on image

LAS VEGAS — Call it the fuzzying of Bill.

Many had hoped Microsoft Corp. chairman-CEO Bill Gates’ annual opening keynote address at the Comdex trade show would be a clarion call for laissez faire in the information age. Instead, it turned out to be a radical attempt to refocus image.

Sunday night was the debut of the New Bill: Gone was the tight-voiced condemner of the Dept. of Justice, the cutthroat marketer of Windows and Windows-based software.

Instead, the assembled 7,000 digerati at the Aladdin Hotel Theater here saw a smallish, bespectacled guy who wore a sweater (no dull grey suit here) and who referred to the Justice Dept. in the context of a Letterman-esque Top 10 list.

Nerdism triumphant

There was no small muttering in the hall at the new image. Although the throng roared when Gates helped basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar access the latter’s new Web site — nerdism triumphant over the jocks! — people wondered what exactly Gates, and by extension Microsoft, was trying to say with this soft sell.

“There’s no there there,” remarked one software marketer. “Instead of telling us he’s going to fight for our freedom to create, he shows us a bunch of TV commercial parodies. What are we supposed to think?”

Gates’ presentation — though thick with slick audiovisuals and guest spots from the likes of Jabbar, a U.S. Marine and “Seinfeld’s” Newman (Wayne Knight) — made one wonder what business Gates is in. There was much saluting the PC, which Gates and Intel Corp. CEO Andrew Grove virtually control these days, and there was much trumpeting the steady march forward of technology in general.

The missing Gates

But nowhere to be seen was the Bill Gates who, as the guardian of the future, wrote in the Wall Street Journal about how the federal government should get out of the business of computers. And for an industry that, to hear its practitioners tell it, is in dire need of a flag to rally around, that was the Bill Gates that 7,000 nervous computer executives turned up in Sin City to see.

Another thing on everyone’s mind here is how the digital can celebrate the analog. In spite of the flourishing of DVD-ROMs (which will be under the microscope this week) and the mind-bending speed of computing in general, there’s a hunger for it all to mean something to the world outside technology.

One way this desire is manifesting itself is the intense attention being paid here to digital imaging technology — all the gear that contributes to making the fantastic become real, as in “Starship Troopers,” “Alien Resurrection” and “The Fifth Element.”

Few CG houses

There aren’t many Hollywood CG houses represented here — they tend to attend Siggraph more religiously than they do Comdex — but the companies that provide those houses with their computing and rendering horsepower are the early stars of the show.

Avid, Digital, Samsung and (of course) Microsoft were besieged at their Las Vegas Convention Center booths with requests for imaging hardware and software, something quite different from the normal run of propeller-beanie requests.

A bewildered executive at Jazz Multimedia’s booth mused, “It’s like they’re looking for soul or something.”

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