When Microsoft started giving away free videoconferencing software, it didn't plan on hosting a global sex party.

Published June 30, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

My wife and I stared at the computer screen, mouths agape. We were testing Microsoft's NetMeeting videoconferencing software and had just logged on to a directory server hosted by Microsoft. I had heard that the Microsoft servers were a hotbed of videosex chat, but the juxtaposition seemed incongruous, to put it mildly. Microsoft? Sex? This I had to see for myself.

I won't lie to you. I used my wife as bait. And within seconds, our software videophone rang off the hook. My wife answered one of the first calls, and -- after exchanging a few pleasantries with a man via the text-chat window -- watched astounded as he pointed his camera at his naked crotch and delivered unto her the full force of male exhibitionism.

We cut the connection.

For years, videoconferencing has been hyped as the next breakthrough "killer app" for the computing world. But it has consistently failed to live up to its sci-fi, Jetsons-future promise. It was too geeky, too hard to configure and required too much hardware, bandwidth and computer processing power. It just wasn't easy. But over the past year and a half, the tide has begun to shift -- due in no small part to a decision by Microsoft to give away millions of free copies of NetMeeting.

Microsoft, as always, has ambitious plans. The company considers the videoconferencing software to be an "integral" part of the Windows operating system, just like Internet Explorer. The stakes are huge. If Microsoft can succeed in seeding the entire universe with NetMeeting, it will not only help Bill Gates further lock customers into the Microsoft software orbit, but could also goose the entire computing industry into another hugely profitable sales cycle, as consumers rush to buy new computers that can handle the videoconferencing load.

But Microsoft's encouragement has resulted in some very un-Microsoftish behavior. For Microsoft is not only giving away NetMeeting with every copy of Internet Explorer 4.0 and every new installation of the Windows operating system, it is also providing the default gathering place for NetMeeting users anxious to fire up their software and gain entree into the world of Internet videoconferencing. In essence, the company is hosting a set of virtual singles bars -- mix-and-match points for people with cams who want to learn how to use them. Microsoft has imposed no rules at these "Internet Locator Servers." And the hands-off, laissez-faire approach has led to a hands on, anything goes atmosphere.

Or, as one amazed NetMeeting experimenter discovered, "a 24-hour international sex orgy is being hosted by Microsoft." If you're looking for a cybersex "show," Microsoft is where you want to go today.

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This is not exactly how Microsoft planned it. While some critics of the Internet might argue that all of cyberspace is one vast red-light district, it's hard to imagine that Microsoft is pleased with its unlikely role of X-rated matchmaker. Even if the company is reluctant to talk about it publicly, Microsoft, like most other vendors of videoconferencing software, is all too aware that technological obstacles aren't the only roadblocks preventing videoconferencing software from going mainstream. The chance of unexpectedly running into a graphic greeting card from "HORNY4U" from Amsterdam is equally intimidating.

Microsoft gives NetMeeting away free because it wants to "make Windows the preferred platform for Internet conferencing," says NetMeeting product manager Tom Laemmel. But by no means did Microsoft intend to launch an orgiastic free-for-all, he says.

"It is a problem," concedes Laemmel. "We're not comfortable with it, and we're not happy with it."

Laemmel is also quick to assert that the majority of NetMeeting users are not sex-crazed exhibitionists. He says NetMeeting receives high marks from business users for its "application sharing" abilities -- features that allow geographically separated colleagues to work on the same Excel spreadsheet or Word file. And he notes that anyone can set up his or her own NetMeeting server (technically referred to as an "ILS" or "Internet Locator Server") and institute whatever rules for behavior they want. No one is forced to go to Microsoft's home servers.

But for the first-time user, the Microsoft NetMeeting servers are likely to be the first stop. That's the default setting of the software, and so that's where the crowds are. And while horny adventurers from as far afield as Taiwan or Denmark are having a field day cruising the NetMeeting servers looking for "netsex" action, other would-be videoconferencers are shying away from the technology. As one NetMeeting user puts it, "I'm tired of making a call to someone who seems innocuous and having them drop their pants."

He went on to note that it was not helpful to his business to attempt to demonstrate NetMeeting's advantages to an interested corporate exec and be constantly interrupted by videophone calls from people identifying themselves with such comments as "let's jack off" or "want to see naked woman."

"The filth one has to endure just logging on to the servers is enough to discourage our family's use of the product," says former NetMeeting user Lee Sanders. "The comments and names with their suggestive connotations are not for families."

"From what I've heard even Bill Gates has complained to the [NetMeeting] team about it," says Robert Scoble, webmaster for a site devoted to NetMeeting. "One of the more humorous things about it that I've heard directly from the team is that whenever they wanted to test NetMeeting's ability to receive calls, they'd set NetMeeting to join the ILS servers with a female name."

"The challenge we are facing is that many of the most enthusiastic early adopters of this type of technology are primarily interested in sexual content," says Tim Dorcey, one of the original creators of Cu-SeeMe, the Internet's first publicly available videoconferencing software program. "This lopsided interest, relative to the general population, creates an environment that is unappealing to the general population and serves to maintain the dominance of this kind of behavior within the community."

As science fiction author William Gibson pointed out back in 1984, "The street finds its own uses for things." Certainly, Microsoft's experience is nothing new. Sex fiends have always been the first to take advantage of new technological breakthroughs, and videoconferencing software for the Internet has been available since at least 1993.

Dorcey, who is currently working on iVisit, another videoconferencing software program, remembers being surprised by how quickly Cu-SeeMe began being swamped by sexual content. John Becker, a student at Cornell University, where Cu-SeeMe was invented, still remembers the momentous night in 1994 when a Japanese couple logged on to the Cornell Cu-SeeMe "reflector" -- and engaged in a passionate bout of love-making right in front of a stunned (but appreciative) audience.

Consensual videophone sex has been popular ever since. As one outgoing netsex devotee, Michael Stewart, notes on his Web page, "Finding fun is easy when you're living in New York, but when you're under three feet of snow, the roads are closed and you've worn out all your porno tapes, yanking the crank with an e-buddy is a perfect solution."

But because of technological limitations, Cu-SeeMe was never the perfect solution for cybersex devotees. Cu-SeeMe requires would-be videoconferencers to log on to a "reflector" capable of hosting multiple Cu-SeeMe users. At these reflector sites, every user can see everyone else who's simultaneously logged in. Such reflectors, if they become popular (as those that feature a high percentage of nudity tend to do), place a huge load on the computer hosting the reflector. For years, Cu-SeeMe cybersex addicts have been forced to migrate from one reflector to another, moving on after each new host crashes or is shut down by administrators.

The reflector approach solved the fundamental problem facing Internet videoconferencing enthusiasts: Their lack of a permanent videophone number for people to call. To conference with someone over the Internet, you must know their "IP number" -- their numerical Internet address. Unfortunately, most Internet users who log on from home don't have a permanent IP number; instead, they are given a new one by their Internet service provider each time they dial in.

Microsoft has addressed the server load issue by setting up directories for people to find each other, rather than actually hosting the video stream itself. That's what the Internet Locator Server is: an online phone book listing the current address of each NetMeeting user. You find who you are looking for, click and create a direct one-to-one connection. The load is on your computer, not Microsoft's.

Microsoft's unintended support for the Internet's bizarre mating rituals is widely appreciated, particularly by the online gay community. As Michael Stewart observes, "Microsoft's contribution to queer cyberspace is already enormously popular in Europe, and a few hours online can garner you friends from all sorts of exotic places."

"Microsoft has done a good job -- it's free, it works well and it loads really easily," says Matt Skallerud, owner of "Folks have a hard time with software. NetMeeting just kind of works."

Indeed, NetMeeting is working so well for the gay community that, quite frequently, NetMeeting users listing themselves at the Microsoft NetMeeting servers specifically designate themselves as "not gay" in the "comments" section of their listing. Or, as one user wrote, "not naked, not gay, not interested."

The question is, if Microsoft is indeed "not happy" with the situation, why hasn't it taken steps to segregate the sexual hubbub? Two of NetMeeting's competitors, ICUII and iVisit, both avoid the problem of users encountering undesirable sexual content by setting up separate rooms.

Bernie Hoffman, president of Cybration, which sells ICUII, says that his company has a "G-rated room," an "adult room" and a "gay/lesbian/bisexual room." Hoffman says the policy works fine -- people seem generally willing to head to the appropriate room. If they're sexually explicit in the G-rated space, they receive a warning. And if they ignore the warning, they are blocked from further server access.

"If you don't give them a place to go and do what they want to do, they'll go anywhere," says Hoffman. "The problem is it is not 100 percent infallible. It's like trying to stop obscene phone calls."

So why doesn't Microsoft try to rope off separate directories? Microsoft observers suggest that doing so would put Microsoft in the potentially uncomfortable legal and moral position of appearing to "condone" the behavior that occurs on X-rated servers.

NetMeeting product manager Laemmel says most of the queries he hears about sexual content on the Microsoft NetMeeting servers come from reporters rather than actual users. But he also says that Microsoft put together the entire Internet Locator Server system as an "afterthought" -- once it realized that NetMeeting users would need some help locating one another's IP addresses.

But ultimately, Microsoft would rather not host servers at all, says Laemmel. "Microsoft is not in the business of trying to host servers and directories," says Laemmel. "It's not what we want to do, and it's not what we want to do well."

That's fairly clear from the NetMeeting documentation. Nowhere on the NetMeeting Web pages or in the help system for NetMeeting itself is there any acknowledgment of the potential problem of encountering sexual content on the Microsoft NetMeeting servers. The only hint comes from a configuration feature that allows a NetMeeting user to voluntarily specify whether their information is "personal," "business" or "adult-only."

"There is a feature in NetMeeting that allows a person to identify themselves as an adult-oriented person ... but it didn't seem to work," says Bob Summers, author of the official Microsoft book on NetMeeting. "The people who want to expose themselves aren't necessarily following the rules as a programmer might want them to."

The best advice to those who are offended by what they find on the Microsoft NetMeeting servers, says Summers and Scoble, is to go elsewhere. Scoble recommends using other tools, such as the Internet-based chat system ICQ, to find the people one might want to chat with.

Regardless, despite the incongruity of a virtual meat market operating under the Microsoft logo, Microsoft's efforts to make NetMeeting the industry standard appear to be succeeding. NetMeeting has quickly established itself as a major force in this software market. The ubiquity of the program has encouraged most other makers of videoconferencing software to ensure that their products work with NetMeeting. Even White Pine Software, which makes the commercial version of Cu-SeeMe, is selling a videoconferencing server solution called MeetingPoint -- designed to enable NetMeeting users to go beyond NetMeeting's current limitation of one-to-one video contact.

Microsoft's competitors respond to Microsoft's NetMeeting giveaway with resigned acceptance and some grumbling. It is hard to fight against 50 million free copies -- the number Laemmel cites for total NetMeeting distributions. White Pine's vice president of marketing, Brian Lichorowic, says that Cu-SeeMe's growth has dramatically slowed since NetMeeting's introduction.

But iVisit's Dorcey sees a silver lining.

"Microsoft has a nasty habit of scaring other people out of any market they dabble in," says Dorcey. "That is a major impediment to innovation, but perhaps to our advantage if it scares away our competition as well."

Everyone in the Internet videoconferencing business will gain if the overall visibility of videoconferencing is raised, even if such visibility includes naked genitalia here and there. To some videoconferencing fans, the social benefits could be enormous -- and are crucial to why the Internet has been so successful in the first place.

"It's great that you can get information on various topics," says Gaywired's Skallerud, "but people want to meet, and they want to communicate. That's the fundamental reason why the Net has exploded."

Sex is a big part of that explosion -- as just about anyone who has ever hung out in a private America Online chat room could tell you. The giant companies that are building the Net today often yearn to deny this -- to try to disentangle sex from the business of cyberspace. But that's an impossible task. Microsoft is just the latest corporation to face these facts of life.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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