Scaring me

Trip back with me for a moment, dear reader, to a simpler time—a time of magazines such as Virtual City (that long-dead mag that illustrated the idea of "celebrities online" by putting a picture of long-dead artist Andy Warhol on its cover)—when high-speed home access entailed pleading with your telco for an ISDN hookup, Java meant cute little mascot "Duke," and interactive online entertainment meant The Spot, not Shockwave.

Welcome to 1995. Damn I feel old, and don't you look silly with that body glitter makeup.

One of the biggest events of '95 was the Rolling Stone-soundtracked launch of—come on, say it with me—Windows '95, a Microsoft rollout so thoroughly hyped that even those hypemeisters at Apple sat up, took notice, and put forth a snotty "congratulatory" ad (C:\NGRTLNS.W95, a jibe at lurking DOS code and the old 8x3 naming convention—remember 8x3?). There was absolutely no way you could have missed this; it was front-page news in all the papers and the actual front page in a couple, since Microsoft could actually buy things like that in those days with no fear of Janet Reno or, in the case of those papers, journalistic ethics. The lines snaking out the door at the CompUSAs and Frye's of the world were (if my failing and ancient memory serves, and it's rude to contradict your elders so just don't even bother with the letters to the editor) visible from the space shuttle. A big honkin' deal.

Back to the future, to 2000. You still look silly with the body glitter, but you're blending in pretty well at Northgate Mall, where we are stalking the elusive newborn Windows Me (Millennium Edition). If Win95 will always be remembered as the "Rolling Stone launch," this is the Tiffany launch—and I mean not the fancy jeweler but the cheesy '80s girl singer who built her career by endlessly touring the nation's malls.

The mighty have seemingly fallen, fallen as if ejected from Geek Heaven, their Comdex-like exhibit cast from the firmament by a vengeful God and plummeting to earth to settle next to the Mrs. Fields kiosk in a mall in north Seattle. The civilians wandering through this multipartite exhibit—elderly mall-walkers, teenage boys hanging out after school, women with strollers—look as perplexed by its presence and by the booth bunnies handing out literature and gimme pens as I am by the metaphor in the first half of this paragraph. Strange days indeed, friends.

Strange days indeed. Microsoft in its MSN incarnation has made for lively reading in my mailbox this week, as the sorry saga of the New Billing Software unfolded. It seems that the online service was trying out some new billing software. Being a newborn creature, the software was, like any infant, ravenous, and dang if it didn't start eating chunks out of subscribers' bank accounts. When contacted by livid overdrawn customers, Microsoft (displaying a Seattleish laissez-faire attitude toward child-rearing) responded gosh, that's pesky, we'll have to get that taken care of one of these days. The ensuing firestorm was also visible from the space shuttle, prompting orbiting astronauts to ask, "Hey, shouldn't we be able to see the Me launch right about now?" They weren't the only ones. At least one civilian wandering the booth the other day was wondering when Me would launch, presumably confused by the lack of hoopla—25 cities in eight weeks is impressive, but it ain't Mick Jagger whoring his music out in front of God and everybody.

The Northgate scene ultimately called for a Tom Green-level of attitude I just couldn't muster. I made a few half-hearted attempts to annoy the booth bunnies— asking questions about the software seemed to do the trick—and went on my merry way. The image that will stay with me from the Me launch is not Win95-style piles of software and hype, but the faces of people photographed as they walked through the booth in order to demonstrate Me's digital-media capabilities. Young and old, they all look vaguely perplexed, as if wondering what Microsoft is doing in their mall.

And who can blame them? Here is Microsoft acting warm and fuzzy, when in fact Microsoft needs to be warm and fuzzy about as bad as I need another Mrs. Fields cookie: Love 'em or hate 'em, they're on your next PC. Me is a low-key "consumer" launch because Microsoft wants to move folks along to the Big Upgrade next time, the one that'll make most of users' older (DOS-based) apps unusable. WinMe is warm and fuzzy all right. Pay no attention to the lurking beastie slouching behind.

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