The Microsoft Life

On a sweltering afternoon, a security person with walkie-talkie in hand
ushers me deeper inside a vast white tent, to a small screening room with
neat rows of black chairs. Blues plays over the speakers to mellow out the
audience, and a Magritte sky with puff clouds covers the screen.
Eventually, Microsoft marketing guru Brad Chase comes up to the podium,
says hello, makes a couple of dumb jokes about New York City and braces us
for the rest of the program, which relentlessly spotlights the wonders of
Windows 95: a lecture (with slide show), an abridged infomercial featuring
“real people,” and a theatrical production in five parts.

This epic trade show is, in fact, only one component of Microsoft’s $150
million marketing campaign to introduce its overdue operating system
upgrade — an odd little factoid when you consider that Windows accounts
for 91% of operating systems in new PCs. The campaign is really a makeover
for Microsoft and the super-nerd at the love-hate crossroads of the
American psyche: Bill Gates. These days, Microsoft is both the American
dream come true and a software Goliath feeding on small developers and
content providers. Gates is either a wily Harvard dropout or Satan himself,
incarnate. (Somebody actually did some high-tech numerology, converting
Gates’ name into ASCII code then tallying up the figures. The total? You
guessed it — 666.)

The first salvos of the Windows 95 assault seemed designed to make
Microsoft look hip: TV spots with grainy, black-and-white footage of
Prague, a print ad featuring a leather-clad biker talking Schubert. Then
Justice nixed Microsoft’s slated purchase of Intuit and started firing off
subpoenas to find out more about the bundling of Microsoft Network in
Windows 95. As the August 24 release date nears, Microsoft spin doctors
have replaced the hipster appeal with feel-good chumminess. And so the
Windows 95 press carnival marshaled literally truckloads of cultural matter
to sweeten up the message crouched behind Gates’ owl frames: Microsoft will
insinuate its faceless products into all aspects of your life — office,
home, home-office, leisure time, family time, party time. Of course, this
sort of strategy wouldn’t be complete without lifestyle prescriptions, and
these were supplied under the Windows big top on that sweaty afternoon.

The infomercial, memorable for its generous use of gender stereotypes (a
woman gushes about Windows 95 in her kitchen, a man sings its praises in
his office) injects a bit of Hallmark poetry into the Microsoft image. In
the opening and closing scene, a woman with flowing tresses sits on the
beach at sunset, typing into her laptop, concertedly pensive. But the
round stage, divided pie-like into five separate scenes, packs the biggest
didactic punch. In ten minute vignettes, Microsoft Project Managers,
playing regular folks, show the wilting crowd how Windows 95 will help you
run a small business (their example: Volcano Coffee Company), improve
twenty-something bachelors’ free time, and transform your kids’ games into
extra-curricular education. Shifting from foot to foot as one Project
Manager enacts a skit about telecommuting, I can see, shimmering beyond the
white tent, a happy family snug in their house, Windows 95 aglow on the PC
in the den, the office and the bedrooms. Maybe it’s the elaborate set —
with its Ikea furniture and its plane seats pulled out of a real 747 —
that catapults me into the Microsoft family. There, the kids do their
homework, not drugs, mom buys those jumbo boxes of Cheerios at the Super
Food Shop, and no one bothers investigating what lies beyond her cozy scrap
of suburb.

This summer the darker side of the Internet has sent a few Senators into
paroxysms of indignation. Amidst all of the panicky speeches and sloppy
studies about porn on the Internet, the already ubiquitous Microsoft now
distinguishes itself by appealing to Americans’ blandest instincts. While
multimedia applications, some highly publicized hacker successes, and an
aesthetic that’s the visual equivalent of a Guns N’ Roses concert (loud,
cheesy, distorted, speaks mainly to teen age boys), have given computer
culture a certain frisson — an adolescent sexiness — Microsoft bucks the
trend with its mashed-potatoes-and-gravy lift and tuck. In the venerable
tradition of Sears, McDonalds and Wonderbread, Microsoft presents Windows
95 as 32-bit mediocrity .

Microsoft is so anxious to disavow the techno-culture that Brad delivers
this statistic from the trade show podium: Only a fraction of computer
users read computer magazines. Translation: computer users are not nerds!
Funny, but I thought real propeller-heads got all of their information
online. Microsoft’s lingering paranoia that their software will be tainted
by any association with the pocket protector set leads to some expensive
cultural contortions (including a Windows 95 tutorial video featuring
Friends’ co-stars, Jennifer Aniston and Matthew Perry). But in its broader
strategy to avoid the “for nerds only” pigeon hole, Microsoft associates
its code with a world devoid of interest. As the Windows code grows ever
more complex (11 million lines to the earlier version’s 3 million),
Microsoft slaps simplicity onto both the interface and the corporate image.

The ads for Bob — depicting a chubby middle aged, white guy, slippers on,
pipe screwed into the side of his mouth, dog at his feet on the shag
carpet, fire blazing or two squeaky clean white boys holding hands with a
policeman on a shady, tree-lined street — unapologetically steal the
iconography of 1950s magazines. In its total romanticization of Ozzie and
Harriet’s version of Americana, Microsoft displays a weird brand of irony.
It’s hard to tell if Microsoft mocks this sanitized version of American
life or if they really believe that dad brings home the bacon while mom
tends house. Other PR material brought me to the uneasy conclusion that
Microsoft really does embrace this long lost world and a lifestyle that’s
attainable only if you’re willing to forsake about forty years of history
and cultural turmoil. Even worse, Microsoft is winking at the reader,
making you complicit in their suburban wet dream. Such images speak to an
American “every man” derived not from “real people” as in Levis ads (a
campaign with grit and style) but from some retro fantasy of everyman (not
person, MAN). Indeed, the selling of Microsoft perfectly complements those
Tide commercials (somehow untouched by successive waves of feminism) in
which some attractive, but not too sexy, woman talks about grass stains.

The Microsoft tag line — “Where do you want to go today?” — reiterates
this anachronistic optimism and belief in life’s infinite possibilities.
It also begs for some sort of sarcastic response: outer space, 16th
century Scotland. Yet Microsoft has a comeback for even the most absurd
answers: you can fire up that Macbeth CD Rom, or download Hubble
pictures of Jupiter with Microsoft Network. Microsoft presents itself as some
magic carpet ready to whisk you away to the farthest reaches of your
imagination. In real life Microsoft’s near total market dominance
translates into lax programming and hyper marketing. It’s a confusion of
best and most (and here, my elitism shines through, the Christian Dior
lingerie beneath my worn-out 501s.) Microsoft doesn’t want to be the Grey
Poupon of software, an affordable gourmet item that taps into a
snobbish-elitism; Gates and Co. prefer instead a drugstore sentimentality.
Microsoft trades quality for quantity and gets away with it, and its
publicity’s corny, middle of the road tone is no accident. A more
sophisticated pitch might demand better software.

Microsoft will undoubtedly continue to profit by embedding its operating
system and online software into every new PC, infiltrating more and more
facets of Americans’ daily lives. Whether or not Windows 95 will uplift PC
users in the hundreds of ways the advance publicity suggests, the early
1990s will be remembered as the era in which Gap, Starbucks, and Microsoft
replaced Levis, Chevrolet and Tupperware as the middlebrow triumvirate.

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