21st: Popcorn with your operating system?

Microsoft beams its vision of computing's future into dark movie theaters across the continent.

By Scott Rosenberg
Published April 7, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

"Live! From Redmond, Washington. Starring Microsoft Publisher 98, Microsoft Money 98 Financial Suite, Microsoft Outlook 98 and Microsoft Windows 98!"

Not exactly an Oscar-winning cast -- but then Microsoft Extreme is hardly a typical movie show. In this now biannual event, Microsoft rents out a bunch of movie houses to hype its new products. The Microsoft Extreme event held last Saturday reached 38,000 people in 45 theaters across the United States and Canada, according to the company.

The show opened with a clip of Bill Gates, forcing a smile as he intoned: "We built Microsoft by listening to you. What you tell us really shapes the products we create."

That may be true -- but the Extreme format, in which slickly packaged product demos are satellite-broadcast from Microsoft Central to passive crowds huddled in dark theaters, is the antithesis of "interactive." It hardly mattered that prizes were awarded for answers to trivia questions (stuff like, "In what year did Bill Gates first outline his vision of so-and-so?") or that the Microsoft experts deigned to answer a small handful of questions taken from forms submitted by audience members. The event reeked of top-down mass marketing: Hey, Joe computer user, here are your free popcorn and soda (one per customer), and here are your Microsoft marching orders!

The Extreme event is aimed at "preferred customers" and presented in collaboration with local users' groups, and its name suggests that Microsoft's most loyal and ardent followers are being targeted. If there is a cult of Microsoft of any kind, surely you'd find it here.

But inside the UA Pavilion Theater in San Jose, Calif., where I gathered with hundreds of other people Saturday morning, there was little evidence of fanaticism. Instead, the mood was perfunctory, disengaged. The crowd -- more middle-aged managers than teen geeks -- was there simply to see and hear what twists and turns of the personal-computing road the central planners at Microsoft have planned for us.

Windows 98 ought to have been the headliner here. But the features of the new operating system, due for release "at the end of the second quarter," are difficult to excite people with. How much enthusiasm can you whip up with useful but humdrum innovations like an Update Wizard to track service-pack releases and device-driver updates, or the new FAT-32 file system? Multiple-monitor support, the Universal Serial Bus, DVD, Web-browser-style file management -- these additions and improvements will each have their fans, but even when you put them all together, they hardly herald a major advance in computing ease or power.

The most appealing promise of Win98 is that your applications will load 36 percent faster. It turns out Microsoft has accomplished this not by fine-tuning or streamlining its operating system code but via a neat trick of hard-disk optimization. The new Windows monitors which programs you use most -- then reorganizes where their files sit on your disk so the computer can load them more quickly. Pretty cool. But is this all Microsoft has been up to for three years?

As if anticipating Windows 98's limited ability to whip up the crowd, Extreme's creators front-loaded the event with demos of ostensibly nifty new products. Money 98 Financial Suite automates long-term financial planning and plugs into Microsoft Web sites for investment updates. Publisher 98 provides improved task-automation "wizards" that will practically write your newsletter for you. Outlook, Microsoft's updated e-mail, address-book and calendar program, has new anti-spam tools and can filter incoming e-mail (just as popular e-mailers like Eudora have long been able to do). The new PalmPC, Microsoft's answer to the PalmPilot, will take dictation and allow you to read Web pages offline.

Extreme's host -- a perky Microsoft product manager named Suzi LeVine, who had plastered a stray lock of dark hair to her forehead -- greeted the unveiling of each new product feature with little grunts of pleasure and cheerleading exhortations: "Wow!" "That rules! "That's awesome!" "Excellent!" "Way to go!"

During the PalmPC demo by product manager Pamela Goldschmidt, LeVine asked, "There's one word you use to describe passing information to these devices. What do you call that?"

"We call that squirting," Goldschmidt replied.

"That's exciting!" LeVine cooed, with an utterly straight face -- and for just a moment we might have been eavesdropping on some late-night talk show, with a shopper's guide to sex toys in progress. But a quick cut to a video clip of Microsoft research guru Nathan Myhrvold, droning about "making the computer a better partner for human beings," put an end to the double entendres.

Theoretically, the Extreme audience was there not only to hear sales pitches and walk away with free prizes, but to preview "cutting-edge technologies" straight from Microsoft's labs. "Here's a chance to see what great things are coming in the future," Gates promised.

The only remotely "cutting edge" technology on display turned out to be Microsoft's AutoPC. Soon, you can be the first on your block to turn your car radio into a computer based on Windows CE (Microsoft's consumer-appliance operating system). AutoPC promises a total transformation of your driving life: It will perform essential tasks like reciting directions and dialing your cell phone based on voice commands. Assuming, that is, it doesn't crash.

As LeVine put it, "Windows in your car. Wow!"

Or maybe not. The AutoPC demo was the only part of Microsoft Extreme to elicit an audience response -- and it consisted of a couple of people muttering, "Puh-leeze!"

There were, it seemed, still a few working bullshit detectors in the house. But it's getting harder for that skeptical spirit to survive in the antiseptic world of technology marketing. As ever-increasing sums are spent on impersonal spectacles like Microsoft Extreme, the personal computer market -- once a haven for eccentric individualists and dedicated hobbyists -- is beginning to look a lot like morning TV.

Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of MediaBugs.org. He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at Wordyard.com.

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