Media Circus - Microsoft bites the Big Apple

Redmond's new Sidewalk New York is off to a decent start. But do New Yorkers really need Bill Gates to tell them where to get Chinese food?

Published June 3, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

less than a week after the launch of New York Sidewalk, the Internet was rife with rumors (later confirmed) that Microsoft had shut down its Montreal Sidewalk offices -- and sent its editorial team packing -- before the Montreal site was even up. The dissemination of unflattering rumors about anything Microsoft is, of course, a cottage industry unto itself, and feelings about the company's Web ventures have always been less than generous. The general reaction to Microsoft's feud with Ticketmaster, for example, could best be summed up by evoking Henry Kissinger's response to the Iran-Iraq war: "It is a pity both sides cannot lose."

And though the reaction to the launch of the Seattle iteration of Sidewalk has been somewhat muted even there (truth to tell, the reaction to just about everything in Seattle seems somewhat muted), critics have had their knives out in New York. After all, Bill Gates and his plan to dominate the world through city-based entertainment sites poses a direct challenge to print media and their ad revenue. Presumably, Sidewalk's New York launch rattled few nerves at the New York Times, since Sidewalk has no ambition to cover the news. But Time Out and the once venerable Village Voice are directly threatened: Sidewalk clearly means to eat their lunch, and quaff their lattes, too.

For the countless Web site producers in Silicon Alley, fear of Sidewalk is quite palpable -- and not entirely unreasonable. Many have been approached by Microsoft and offered a spot on the Dark Side's bench; most did not find the terms of the partnerships to their liking, and declined. There is also the matter of city pride: Though Sidewalk has already recruited good N.Y. people from print (Eric Etheridge, late of George and the New York Observer, as executive producer) and new media (Jamie Pallot, formerly of Murdoch's iGuide and TVGuide Online, as senior producer), there is a sense that the Redmond, Wash., corporation was coming in to tell us about New York, that they had made a beanie and one size was going to fit all whether we liked it or not (there are Sidewalks in the works for a number of other cities, including San Francisco, Boston -- even Sydney, Australia).

Keen was the disappointment in some quarters, then, when people got their first gander at New York Sidewalk and found it ... pretty good. It has the same sparse, functional design as its Seattle sister (though less of the avocado and sienna tones that make Seattle's site look so mental ward-y), a good interface, a quick and reliable search function, personalization features that highlight items of interest to readers and allow Sidewalk to e-mail you when, say, a new Chinese restaurant opens in your neighborhood or Fugazi's coming to town, and a remarkable database of listings: restaurants, theaters, galleries, cafes, bars, etc., all interconnected.

Say you want to see "The Lost World" (I don't care, you have to: It's the law). Simply click on the ubiquitous picture of the screaming Julianne Moore for a capsule review (by L.A.'s Sheila Benson, for Cinemania -- though why in a film town like New York, Sidewalk couldn't have come up with its own critic beats me) and a list of theaters and show times. Click on one of the theaters (the American Quad) and you get a map of its location (good, since it's in the Bronx) as well as a list of local restaurants -- everything from Burger King (reviewed) to Burt Young's Il Boschetto (not). Sidewalk wants to plan your evening for you, and if "The Lost World" and Burger King are not what you had in mind, try "Chasing Amy" and Col Legno: Sidey don't mind. It's got maps and show times for those options, too.

"We've designed Sidewalk to make your life easier when it comes to choosing among the thousands of entertainment options New York has to offer," Etheridge said in the site's initial press release. "It's like having a team of entertainment advisors on the streets every day, matching your tastes and interests with the best the city has to offer," is how general manager Cella Irvine put it.

The question is: Do we need it? It is not an academic one for me. I've been working for Digital City, an AOL company, which has similar dreams of city-based Web sites, as do CitySearch, Yahoo! and a host of up-and-comers. You could say that this is just the latest fad to hit the Web, and a search of any city's sites reveals the graves of fads past: menus online, weather, sports ...

Every six months someone claims to have discovered the Web's true calling, and such city sites may prove to be another dead end. It is my personal belief that those of us toiling in the production (and criticism) of Web sites are like creatures scuttling at the bottom of the ocean; the future, i.e. the ultimate use of the Internet, is literally beyond our imagining and, for the time being, your guess about what is going to work is as good as anybody's. Including Bill Gates'.

But New York may be a special case. No one here likes to be told what to do (which is not to say that free advice is not offered, often loudly and accompanied with rough language and explicit hand gestures), and they especially don't like outsiders telling them. Though Sidewalk has hired some good local critics (Bryan Miller, formerly of the Times, is reviewing restaurants, and Steve Futterman is writing about jazz) and partnered with the exhaustive Manhattan Users Guide, there is still a sense that some bunch from Redmond is here to tell you about your borough. Clicking on an image of the Cyclone, I learned that when visiting Coney Island I should try the dogs at Nathan's. For this I need Sidewalk?

Then there is the insider's syndrome. The ultimate New York moment on film may be the scene in "Annie Hall" when Woody Allen, to settle an argument he's having about Marshall McLuhan with a stranger in line at the movies, pulls the real McLuhan in from out of nowhere. "I heard what you were saying," McLuhan tells the stranger. "You know nothing of my work." People here don't want authority: They've got their own authorities, the guy behind the guy, the cousin who can get it for you wholesale.

Sidewalk claims that half of the people they polled pre-launch say they missed some crucial entertainment event because they didn't hear about it in time, conjuring an image of hapless couples sitting around eating takeout and watching "ER," like the rest of America, because they couldn't get their act together. The truth is that most New Yorkers sitting around eating takeout and watching "ER" are doing so because they're overwhelmed by their hectic schedules -- not to mention the wealth of information and entertainment news already out there -- and are happy for a moment's respite.

Also, maybe they figure hanging at home with some good shu mai beats watching "The Lost World" in the Bronx.

By Sean Elder

Sean Elder is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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