Microsoft Corp. yesterday laid out a simple but sweeping strategy for its Windows operating systems: They belong everywhere, on every type of computer, from tiny hand-held models to airport kiosks to the nerve centers of major corporations.

At a briefing for news reporters and financial analysts in Seattle, Microsoft said it intends to maintain its king-of-the-hill position in the software industry through a strategy of "continuous reinvention," steadily improving its Windows programs and adapting them to an ever broader range of devices.

"We have hardly begun to tap the market," said Paul Maritz, group vice president of platforms and applications.

Executives of the Redmond software behemoth also promised to make its operating systems simpler to use and the computers they run on cheaper to own and operate - acknowledging that there is room for improvement in both areas.

"We haven't done as good a job as we should have" at keeping our products simple to use, said Jon DeVaan, vice president of the desktop applications division.

He outlined a variety of improvements planned for the next version of Office,a software suite that includes a word processor, spreadsheet, scheduler and other programs.

The next version will be easier to use, administer and maintain, and will cut ownership costs in half, he predicted. The promise aims to rebut a frequent criticism of Windows PCs, that they are relatively cheap to buy but expensive to maintain and upgrade.

Also yesterday, Microsoft gave an official name to the Windows 95 upgrade long code-named Memphis, surprising no one by designating it Windows 98.

It recently released a beta, or test version, of the software and has said it will have a final version by the end of 1997. But it probably won't be available to consumers until early next year.

Windows 98 will include several new features, such as a user interface that attempts to unify or integrate the computer and the Internet. The concept is soon to be introduced in Internet Explorer 4.0, the latest version of Microsoft's Internet browser.

Maritz recommended that businesses switch to Windows 98 if they have older 16-bit applications or hardware that isn't compatible with Windows NT, Microsoft's more powerful operating system.

If they have the requisite hardware and software, he said, corporations should adopt Windows NT to get the greatest reduction in ownership costs.

Jim Allchin, senior vice president of the personal and business systems group, described several enhancements planned for the next version of Windows NT, the key weapon in Microsoft's strategic push into computing territory formerly held by minicomputers and mainframes.

He stressed simplicity, the goal to make systems as well- integrated as they are powerful so a user doesn't have to fumble with multiple log-ons and passwords or configuration hassles.

The Microsoft executives took a few shots at competitors, dismissing such concepts as "dumb" terminals that can't function unless plugged into a network and pointing out that the popular Java programming language, while useful, is far from the universal "write once, run anywhere" tool its proponents claim.

They also touted some of the research under way at Microsoft into "natural language processing," or endowing computers with enough intelligence to cut through the ambiguities and uncertainties of spoken and written language.

One result is the grammar checker included in Word 97, the latest version of Microsoft's word processor. Another use will be better tools for searching the World Wide Web.

To truly be useful, researchers said, Web search tools should do more than find documents in which two words appear near each other; they should know enough about linguistics to retrieve only those documents with the desired meaning.

Natural language processing can also help sort and summarize documents, for example, 200 e-mail messages stacked up after a couple of days off.

DeVaan demonstrated a tool that can automatically read e-mail messages and sort them into categories. The tool can also prepare a report including a short written summary, a list of relevant people and a schedule of events mentioned in the messages.

"Understanding meaning is going to be a very important part of modern software," DeVaan said.

P-I reporter Warren Wilson can be reached at 206-448-8032 or [email protected]

(Copyright 1997)

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