21st: Windows on their world

To understand why Microsoft has been misbehaving lately, try a visit to the Microsoft Museum and the Microsoft Shop.

By Karlin Lillington
Published February 10, 1998 1:00AM (UTC)
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While in Redmond, Wash. -- a town known for not much besides a certain software company that now occupies the site of a former chicken ranch -- I visited the Microsoft Company Store and the Microsoft Museum. Not just anybody can stroll into these inner sanctums: You have to be either a Microsoft employee or an invited guest, which means a family member or a "business visitor."

As press-trip pilgrims from Asia and Europe, we were under the mistaken impression that someone at Microsoft had brought us there to actually talk to us, to proselytize on behalf of the Mother Church, which has lately been besieged by a run of legal troubles and bad PR. I was hoping to find some explanation for the puzzling nature of Microsoft's recent strategies in its battle with the U.S. Justice Department -- the "crippled software" defense, the arrogant rhetoric.

But no: Instead, they sent us to the store and the museum. Yet how enlightening that proved to be! Where before I merely saw through a glass darkly when I tried to understand the mysteries of the Microsoft mind-set, I now saw the light -- and it bore a startling resemblance to the Start button on the Windows 95 taskbar.

At the heart of Microsoftian thinking are two words: "vision" and "products" -- and they are essentially interchangeable. Microsoft's vision is a world blanketed in Microsoft's products. And Microsoft believes that its products offer the world a vision of peace, love and understanding.

You doubt this? Then come on in to the Microsoft Museum. Drive down the ever-so-appropriately named Microsoft Way, park and enter. Make your way past the tempting exhibits of computing's embryonic products -- an Altair, the first IBM PC, an Apple II, a boxy little Mac -- go around a bend and come to the wall dedicated to "The Meaning of Brand Microsoft." The scripture begins, "In these times of rapid innovation and technological change, Microsoft can be a stabilizing force -- the brand that makes sense of all that is happening, and offers personally relevant benefits to people around the world."

Microsoft as corporate religion! This attitude permeates the small museum -- which is a shame, as there are wonderful exhibits on the history of computing, complete with relevant "Tid-byte" factoids, computers to play with, videos to watch. You can also take a Microsoft trivia quiz and discover that Microsoft's 302 acres in Redmond contain 35 buildings and 14,000 employees who consume 3,500 pieces of pizza and 48,000 beverages every day. In 1996, they produced 1,100 offspring -- thus proving that they do other things at night besides write code.

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But the museum also relentlessly pushes Microsoft's vision and Microsoft's products. If you make your way to the very end -- past the final exhibit of Microsoft's newest platform, the talking Barney doll -- and fill out the on-screen survey, you'll be asked if you came away with a good understanding of (surprise) Microsoft's vision and Microsoft's products. (Never mind about the history of computing, the significance of key digital events or the role of technology in our daily lives.)

The store sells Microsoft geekware, Dorling-Kindersley books and software at cost to employees (Encarta for $20, Cinemania and "Age of Empires" for $10). You can buy a portable version of the corporate vision -- in the form of a hacky sack painted like a globe and plastered over with the Microsoft logo. There's a "Where do you want to go today" Swatch, and for the brave, an Internet Explorer 4.0 shirt. The inventory is endless: baby overalls with the little Start logo on the front; Microsoft clocks; steel Microsoft-logo picture frames; coffee mugs, of course. And an Internet Explorer Golf Ball Pack with two IE logo Top Flight golf balls and nine light-blue tees with "The Web the way you want it" printed in tiny lettering down their length.

At a dollar each, the official Microsoft postcards (credited to the Microsoft Corporate Photographer) aren't exactly a steal. Their montage of aerial shots of endless gray, blocky buildings looks, appropriately enough, like the Pentagon -- or, as an Irish friend pointed out, eerily like overhead shots of the Maze prison outside Belfast.

More frighteningly, for $15 you can pick up an "Employee Volunteer Kit" with "the tools you need to get your local school excited about technology." In other words, Microsoft charges its own employees to go out and sell the company in the education sector. Contents include "a brochure and video that describe the Microsoft vision for K-12 education" and "information on Microsoft products for education." Oh, there's Microsoft pencils and note pads for the kids as well.

Surrounded by this numbing array of Microsoft junk, immersed among the promotional gewgaws, I finally got a glimmer of insight into why the company has been behaving so perversely in its high-profile legal battles. Products and vision are everything to Microsoft -- and when Microsoft senses that its products and vision are threatened, it reacts with what the British and Irish call whinging.

Whinge, which rolls off the tongue so much more satisfyingly than its pale cousin "whine," is not a portmanteau word but a relic of the English language's meatier past. It incorporates whine, but with added duration, volume and pitch -- and usefully encompasses pigheadedness as well. Behind every whinge lies a stubborn insistence on only seeing the world your way. When others don't share that view, when the rest of the world lacks their true vision, then children -- and even companies of a certain mind-set -- will whinge.

The Microsoft Store and Museum are built on the assumption that the rest of the world will embrace Microsoft's vision and products as fully as the most faithful Microsoft employee. When the company encounters others who simply don't share that fervor (visitors, say, or Justice Department lawyers), the result can be a spectacle of arrogance, stubbornness and whinging -- something like what we've seen in court lately.

Karlin Lillington

Karlin Lillington is a technology writer in Dublin whose work appears regularly in the Guardian, the Irish Times and other publications.

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