My friends in the newspaper business have been coming back from trips to Microsoft in Redmond, Washington, in terror. There is no hope for us, my pals say. Already Bill Gates has sent out advance teams to hover like those spaceships in Independence Day over 10 major U.S. cities. In each, Microsoft Network (MSN) employees are setting up regional Websites that will publish local listings of movies, concerts, restaurant reviews and so forth, draining readers and ads from the local newspapers and eventually turning them into dust. Two dozen other glitzy programs, some suspiciously magazine-like, will finish off the rest of us. Not satisfied to dominate the software industry, Microsoft is spending $100 million a year to blitz the media business. My business. Know your enemy, I figure. So I fly out there for a look.
Microsoft retainers take me to a sprawling campus called Red West. It resembles a modern state university. Five low-lying, heavily fenestrated buildings squat expectantly around a man-made waterfall. Two years ago, this was nothing but a chicken farm. "Microsoft is huge," I mumble numbly. Sensing my confusion, my guides point out that this is just a suburb of the main Microsoft headquarters, which is 25 times as large and looks, when I finally see it, about the size of Minneapolis. Around 20,000 Microserfs work there. Some people call it the Hive. I yawn, feigning a lack of interest. The yawn might have sounded like a moan. I don't know.
We walk into one of the Red West buildings, past innumerable, indistinguishable offices that honeycomb the place. Everyone gets an office with a window, so you can't tell the bosses from the people who do the real work. In one of them I meet a man who wears glasses so splattered with color they look like Jackson Pollock's safety goggles. This is Bob Bejan, executive producer of MSN, who began his career as a hoofer on Broadway in A Chorus Line. Later he produced interactive movies in which the audience dictated the course of action. Now he's the guy who "green-lights" MSN's "shows." That's what they call Websites here. Shows.
"We aspire to be the poster child of all that's possible on the Internet," Bejan says, noting that while 30 million people now have access to the Web, "we want to bring the next 10 million online." For the next six hours, I get a glimpse of how. Hundreds of people are involved in creating MSN's shows, from the typographers who choose the fonts to the musicians--"the MSN orchestra!" someone jokes--who write the theme songs. Teams of market researchers measure what's working and what's not. Shows that don't make the cut will be replaced by others already in the works. It's as inevitable as software engineering. Sooner or later, something will stick.
But engineering isn't art, and I think my friends may be overreacting. Too much of MSN's stuff is slick but unexciting. The best thing I saw was a little Gumby-like character that a kid on the tech side had built out of clay at home for fun and then modeled in his workstation, making it do amazing tricks. The day Microsoft figures out how to get that thing out of the kid's computer and onto the Net is the day my friends should start looking for a new line of work.
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