NEW YORK (AP) _ Launching his company's biggest product in six years, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates on Thursday touted the Windows XP operating system as the harbinger of a new era in more Internet-centric computing.
Critics say, however, that many of the features built into XP seek to make computing more Microsoft-centric than ever.
Appearing onstage at a Times Square hotel, Gates saluted New Yorkers for their ``courage, determination and resilience'' and predicted the tech industry, in its worst slump ever, would once again ``re-energize'' the U.S. economy. With him was Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who Gates said persuaded him to hold the announcement in New York despite the terror attacks.
``Today it really is actually the end of the MS-DOS era,'' Gates told the audience of about 1,500, a reference to Microsoft's original operating system, the underpinning of all the company's consumer-oriented Windows products until XP.
The idea behind Windows XP is to get consumers more connected _ with better Internet tools and features including built-in wireless networking support.
For users, the $99 upgrade to XP Home is Microsoft's best-yet stab at a user-friendly operating system, with plug-and-play support for digital gadgets, an emphasis on multimedia and an underlying code base far more stable than predecessors.
``It's got a lot of nice new features. But the most important thing is that it really is a stable operating system. It doesn't crash,'' said Michael Miller, editor-in-chief of PC Magazine.
Struggling manufacturers of PCs and related equipment _ wallowing in their first-ever year without sales growth _ pray that consumers and businesses may have delayed purchases of their products until the onset of XP.
The new version contains more new features than Windows 98, including programs for listening to and recording music, playing videos and editing and organizing digital photographs. A new feature called Windows Messenger lets users communicate instantly with others using text, voice and video.
After logging on, the software repeatedly beseeches users to sign up for Microsoft's identity authentication program, Passport. For now, Passport-enabled programs _ including e-mail, travel and instant messaging tools _ are free. Later, as new services are added, Microsoft plans to charge subscription fees.
Critics say that by bundling into XP many features previously provided by competitors _ and by trying to steer users to its Internet services _ Microsoft is acting a lot like it did in the late 1990s when it got into trouble with the U.S. Justice Department over business practices federal courts have deemed monopolistic.
Miller warned potential buyers to heed Microsoft's minimum hardware requirements: 1.5 gigabytes of hard drive space, 128 megabytes of RAM and a 233 MHz processor.
``If you have an older computer, don't bother,'' he said.
No one believes the release of Windows XP will lure crowds outside software retail stores, or spark the kind of boost in hardware sales that occurred with the start of sales of Windows 95 six years ago.
``That will not happen,'' said Bruce Kasrel, an analyst with market research firm Forrester Research. ``In 1995, people were lining up because they wanted Windows 95. This year, if they're lining up, it's for the chance to win a new PC or a trip to Hawaii.''