SEATTLE - Imagine walking up to your computer, taking a seat and hearing the machine greet you by name - all while you watch live video of your actions on the screen.
Bob Herbold, Microsoft's chief operating officer, gave a sneak preview of such a system last week.
But, he warned, don't expect to see such high-tech gizmos on store shelves soon. They are part of a long-range effort to make computers more fun and easier to use - one piece of the $2 billion Microsoft will spend this year on research and development.
Other efforts include the ability to translate spoken words into writing and the ability to show three-dimensional graphics from all perspectives, just as you see them when you turn your head from side to side.
If researchers succeed at all this, Herbold told a group of computer professionals, they'll develop a computer that can react to your spoken commands, track your eye movements, recognize who you are and help you get your work done.
Herbold, speaking at the Forbes Technology Symposium in Seattle, showed a film clip spoofing the arcane commands and "configuration" problems of today's computers.
When the audience of 150 stopped laughing, he said, "It may be funny, but it's funny in a pathetic way. We just have to make gigantic strides forward. What you will see from Microsoft in the next 12 months is the same kind of focus on ease-of-use that we've put on the Internet in the past 12 months."
The difficulty of that challenge was evident the last time Microsoft made such claims - just before it released Windows 95, the new version of its popular Windows operating system.
That program, released in August 1995, was expected to make computing much easier by advancing such features as "plug and play," the ability to add computer components by simply plugging them in the way you add a speaker to a stereo. While the system did improve things, it did not erase the problems.
In the near term, Herbold said, Microsoft will continue enhancing the ability of computers to understand plain English commands rather than relying on contrived programming languages. In the new version of the business software Office, for example, "help" functions will answer questions that are typed in the same syntax people use while speaking.
On other subjects, Herbold said:
- Computer sales, measured by units sold, are growing faster than expected this year: 16 percent to 17 percent vs. a projected 14 percent. That's still down from last year's 19.5 percent, but it's considered good news for the industry. Growth is especially strong in Japan; unit sales there are expected to grow 70 percent this year, roughly the same as in 1995.
- Commercial transactions conducted over the Internet are expected to multiply 100 times by 2000, from $100 million a year now to $10 billion then. Microsoft is testing software, called Merchant Server, that will help companies sell items over the Internet, and 200 companies have signed up for the trial.
- A new high-capacity phone hub has been installed in the Seattle area to handle Internet traffic and ease congestion to sites such as Microsoft and Starwave. The new system, Herbold said, can transmit in one second the same amount of information that would fit onto a 150-mile-high stack of single-spaced papers.
- Internet sites eventually will have to rely on advertising - not subscriptions - for revenue. "There are a lot of theories about whether subscription fees will be practical," he said. "I personally don't think (they) will ... because people are used to getting information services for free."