Linux Gains a Step at Comdex

Comdex Fall in Las Vegas was an amusing exercise for those of us in the business of watching Microsoft Corp. for a living.

Early Comdex literature promised that the twentieth-annual conference would be the launching pad for Windows 2000. While Microsoft never publicly promised it would hit the conference date, Redmond’s quiet vow to get the operating system out before the end of the year indicated that Comdex was the company’s last window.

It’s been clear for several months that Microsoft wouldn’t have gold code to show in Las Vegas this year. Lacking a comfort level with the current release candidate version, Microsoft has been correct to hold off on the release until February.

So, what’s a software giant at the year’s biggest IT party to do without its flagship product?

Microsoft president Steve Ballmer started with a pre-emptive strike. Ballmer made a surprising-from-Microsoft, obvious-to-everyone-else admission at a Comdex news conference: "The product is later to deliver than we had hoped." Despite the obvious tardiness of the OS, Microsoft up until now had been in hyperspin mode, with its public relations squad advancing the lawyerly interpretation that since the company never publicly confirmed a launch schedule, nothing is late.

The company did manage to get Release Candidate 3 to technical beta testers during Comdex. Official word is Release to Manufacturing will happen before the end of 1999.

Microsoft had to rely on other announcements to maintain some momentum through Comdex. Bill Gates, giving a Comdex keynote for the sixth straight year -- and ninth overall -- talked about a "Personal Web" involving XML and took a very long time to get around to Windows 2000 in his speech. Gates drew a capacity crowd, and showed he still knows how to entertain.

Microsoft also relied on its partners to pull it through the conference. Unisys Corp. orchestrated an 11-vendor demo of a massive e-business site based on Windows 2000 Advanced Server beta software that over the five days of Comdex generated 30 times the online transaction volume of last year’s 44-day holiday shopping season. Unisys, which has built a business on bulletproofing Windows-based systems that bedevil many users, performed the integration on a system that included 52 servers and 43 terabytes of storage.

In this W2K vacuum, Linux flourished. With its own dedicated area in the Hilton hotel next to the Las Vegas Convention Center, the momentum behind the open source OS was obvious.

Linux founder Linus Torvalds delivered his first Comdex keynote and showed that he, too, knew how to play to the crowd. The Linux team also had the support of its vendors. Corel Corp. ( made a significant Linux announcement, unveiling a desktop version of Linux that Corel hopes will spur sales of its business productivity suite -- a competitor to Microsoft Office. Sun Microsystems Inc. flooded attendees with copies of its newly acquired freeware office suite, StarOffice, which runs on Linux, Windows, and other desktops. Both releases are targeting Microsoft’s hegemony on the desktop, which -- more than its developmental engineering prowess -- is the main source of Microsoft’s ability to influence the server market.

To be sure, foot traffic was heavy in Microsoft’s large area of the show floor and congestion reigned in the narrow aisles of the Microsoft Partner Pavilion. But the race for supremacy among server operating systems is long and there are many more runners than Microsoft and Linux. In the areas where the two compete, however, Microsoft lost a step to Linux last month.