Microsoft: Out of the X Box

How Bill Gates built his new game machine--and changed your living room forever

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So who is driving this thing? More than anybody else it's a manic, shaven-headed character named J Allard. (Yes, it's just the one letter.) In 1993, as a 25-year-old wunderkind Microsoftie, Allard wrote an 11-page memo that almost single-handedly persuaded Gates that maybe personal computers should be able to connect to something known as the Internet. Now a 36-year- old V.P., Allard is one of the few people who can get the Microsoft juggernaut to change direction; he's known as one of the "Baby Bills," the company's young up-and-comers, and Gates often talks about how much the two of them have in common. Allard is what technology people call an evangelist: a charismatic guy who's so hysterically excited about a product, he gets other people excited by the sheer force of his psychic mojo.

One of the first problems Allard had to solve was what the new Xbox would look like. It's not a trivial question. The old Xbox is large and forbidding, a matte black and poisonous green plastic crate the size of a VCR. Perfect for hard-core gamers, maybe, but if Microsoft wanted to grow its audience, Allard knew the new Xbox had to look kinder and gentler. The goal was a design that was welcoming but not wimpy, that snagged the soccer moms and NASCAR dads and Britney girls--without losing the Halo boys.

Allard's solution was a good example of un-Microsoft thinking. "Guess how you get great design?" he asks. "You don't try to do it with computer scientists from M.I.T. You don't try to do it the conventional way one would think about from a Microsoft point of view." Instead, Allard hired a sculptor from the Rhode Island School of Design and gave him a long leash. The sculptor turned around and hired a dozen extremely expensive boutique design firms to each come up with a design for the new Xbox. He then picked two winners, one from San Francisco and one from Osaka, Japan, and made them work together to build something cool yet approachable--"inviting" was the key concept. To make sure everything was absolutely as pretty as it could possibly be, he also hired a company that specializes entirely in color schemes. "Serious color meetings went down," Allard informs me.

The end result? A modest little pedestal just over 1 ft. high and 3 in. wide, with a gently convex front and slightly in-curving sides. It's sleeker and slimmer than the old Xbox. (One of the reasons the first one tanked in Japan is that Japanese consumers, having smaller apartments, are very space conscious.) It's also a little feminine--there's a hint of an hourglass figure. There are very few cables because the controllers are wireless. It has chrome accents, but it's mostly a creamy, calming off-white that the color geniuses call chill. And if you don't like chill, it has a snap-off faceplate, so you can customize it.

If the old Xbox looked like something recovered from a fallen asteroid--an angry, evil asteroid--this looked like something created on planet Earth, albeit a near future, slightly utopian planet Earth. It definitely wasn't from planet Microsoft. "We knew we had finalized it when the research came back from Japan," Moore says. "We asked people, Who do you think designed this? And they said, 'This has to be from either Sony or Apple.' That was the seminal moment."


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