The annual kick-off speech by Bill Gates was delivered on Sunday at the Aladdin complex, two times smaller than its usual venue, the MGM Grand Hotel.

And although Comdex 2003 is vastly scaled back from the glitzy galas of recent years, Microsoft's founder waxed poetic about the future of computing.

"We're entering an era when software is no longer as constrained by the capabilities of hardware," he said, predicting "a new wave of software breakthroughs."

"The changes users will see in the technology they use will be gradual, but the difference between the computing experience of today and the experiences that will be possible a few years from now will be like night and day."

Comdex 2003 opens its doors on Monday at 18:00 GMT.

Many expected to attend

Some 50,000 visitors are expected to peruse 550 exhibits, according to organiser MediaLive International, versus twice that many visitors and 1,100 exhibits last year.

"They are trying to redefine the show" as a serious marketplace for technology buyers and sellers, said Leslie Fiering, an analyst at the technology research firm Gartner.

After years of corporate belt-tightening and delayed investments, computer firms would like to see a "serious refresh in older PC and older servers," said Tim Bajarin, president of the consulting firm Creative Strategies.

In his speech, Gates said Microsoft had doubled its research and development budget in five years, to $6.8 billion in the current fiscal year.

Gates delivered the key note
address at Comdex

New products spawned with that cash infusion will be on display at the show. Gates himself offered a few glimpses on Sunday night.

'Sneak peak'

They include new spam-filtering software, called SmartScreen, already in use in Outlook 2003 and Hotmail, Microsoft's free email service on the MSN portal. SmartScreen evaluates each incoming email based on the habits of the user, and blocks those deemed undesirable, Gates explained.

He also introduced Microsoft's new Systems Management Server 2003 for professional information technology administrators, launched last week.

Another new product, the ISA Server 2004, will be available next year - an improved firewall to protect networks from unwanted Internet connections.

Spam filters and cyber security in general are prominent themes at this year's Comdex.

Recent virus attacks against Microsoft put a spotlight on "the hacking community that exploits the security hole," Bajarin said.

Security concerns have grown more acute with the rapid development of Wi-Fi, or wireless, access to the Internet in the United States and more recently in Europe.

"What keeps every company from adopting Wi-Fi is the fear that their data being stolen and going in the clouds," Bajarin said.