Question - What is your opinion about computer games? Kari Pvnkkv, Finland (caspar@2a141.suitsi.ratol.fi)

Answer - I like games, off and on the screen.

My family played board games together when I was a kid, and I'm a fairly avid bridge, poker, go and chess player.

In my college dorm we had Breakout, which was the cool video game of its time. I wasted a lot of time on it. Of course, I wasted a lot of time playing poker, too.

When the PC came out in 1981, my company offered several software products for it in addition to the operating system, MS-DOS. Some of the applications we marketed, such as Adventure and Typing Tutor, are now obscure. But we also released Flight Simulator, which is still selling very well after 17 years and numerous updates.

In recent years, Microsoft has offered a whole line of computer games and encouraged other companies to invest in games, too. Getting numerous companies to build good games will help build the market for PCs at home - PCs that will be used for games as well as other applications.

I used to be embarrassed by how hard it was to install games on PCs. It was terrible! In the days of Windows 3.1, conflicts between games and productivity applications were commonplace. People often had to find an expert to help them install a game. The frustration really held back the market.

The situation is much improved now. It's a lot easier for publishers to write games that install easily and run well on a wide variety of hardware. Game publishers have seen the cost of providing telephone support decline.

Because hardware and software are improving, publishers are able to concentrate more on being creative and less on figuring out how to coax performance from PCs. Many action games still are fine-tuned for high performance, however, because many consumers have proven their interest in games that push the state-of-the-art.

The boundary between what's a game and what's not is less clear every day. If you're using software that simulates an interactive fantasy space that you can seem to walk around in, is that a game? If you or your children use educational software that offers challenges, rewards and feedback, is that a game?

The Internet often has noticeable "latency," or delay, particularly when accessed through telephone modems that don't use a recent software protocol, called V90. Latency usually isn't an issue for people using the Internet to play bridge or chess, but it can be a big problem for multiplayer action games where instantaneous response time is important.

One solution is to design the software so it connects only people who happen to have fast connections to each other. Another approach is for players of fast-paced games to use private servers and networks.

As technology improves, latency will be less of an issue and you'll play games that accommodate a large number of simultaneous players. It will become common for people from around a nation or the world to use the Internet to compete with each other.

In some circles, it's common already. At any given moment, my company typically has as many customers playing our games online (at www.zone.com) as it has people using our online service. We don't know how to make money with online games yet, but we'll figure it out someday.

Question - In a speech, you spoke of bringing citizens and the government into closer contact via a "digital nervous system." Don't you think that this concept is contrary to what people want: distance from the government? (jthomp@po-box.mcgill.ca)

Answer - Government is pervasive, and most interactions people have with it are positive. Governments create order and provide services, including school and health systems and roads.

Even if you don't personally reach out to the representatives of government, certain infrastructures and issues related to the rule of law are important to you. Nobody challenges the right of governments to issue a parking ticket or to ask you to get a business license or a passport or to pay your real-estate taxes.

Since we agree these are legitimate functions of government, why not use technology to make government more efficient, for the benefit of the people it serves - you and me? Why should dealing with the government mean filling out paperwork or standing in line?

As we make governments more efficient by equipping them with digital nervous systems, they'll have new potential to gather and consolidate information about individuals and groups. This will give rise in many societies to explicit rules about what governments can or can't do with the information they accumulate.

Question - Do you think that you will ever venture into the field of manufacturing computers? (sanjay@shaw.wave.ca)

Answer - No. Microsoft has always been a software company. We want to be a major supplier to hardware companies, not a competitor to them.

We do design and manufacture certain peripherals, notably input devices such as the mouse and ergonomic keyboards.

We also produce reference designs of hardware that work with our software. For example, we designed initial versions of the palm-size PCs that run Windows CE, and our WebTV unit designed the set-top box that many people now use to browse the Web from their television sets. But we turn these designs over to manufacturers rather than making them ourselves.