Windows 2000, Michaels Nothing

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Maybe you live a dreary life. Maybe your rent's overdue, your TV's on the fritz, and that lingering odor emanating from the sofa just won't fade away. Maybe it takes all of your self-restraint and composure each morning to keep from just scrapping it all, and starting life anew in some place like Saskatoon.

Cheer up. You could have spent a crisp February morning standing on a San Francisco street corner, packed together with thousands of other people waiting to see Bill Gates unveil Windows 2000, as Microsoft employees skated by you on roller-blades, exhorting you to chant "Microsoft Rocks!"

Because then your life would be demonstrably worse.

Microsoft pulled back the curtain Thursday to show off its Next Big Thing: the long-awaited Windows 2000 operating system. Normally, such an event -- the thrice-damned Gates gleefully unleashing his latest OS with a tap of his cloven hoof and a twirl of his pitchfork -- would send the Mac faithful into fits of howling rage and mainstream media gasbags into another round of doom-and-gloom predictions for Apple. But from a Mac standpoint, at least, the Windows 2000 launch looks like a non-event. In fact, Microsoft's stepped-up focus on the high-end business market could be an opportunity for the Boys From Cupertino to shore up the Mac's standing among consumers and the small-office/home-office segment.

But first, we have to survive the Microsoft cheerleaders.

Skate Punks

They all wore blue denim shirts with the Windows logo. And they wore Rollerblades -- all the better to skate around the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, whipping the bleary-eyed crowd into a high frenzy. Only this crowd didn't seem willing to be whipped.

"Microsoft rocks!" It was a voice just a few feet away from me -- a short-haired, pixie-like girl, not entirely unattractive save for her apparent lack of a soul. For the next few minutes, at 20-second intervals, she would shout the same mantra -- "Microsoft rocks!" -- in the same tone of voice with the same lack of irony. Guess how long it takes for that to become annoying?

Instantaneously, as it turns out. As the old Microsoft campaign says, where do you want to go today? Me, I want to go down Hayes Street to a bar called Absinthe for a stiff belt. But duty calls.

Soon, another denim-clad Windows groupie skated up to us. She had evidently decided it was not enough for Microsoft drones to chant about their employer's rock-ability. No, the growing crowd waiting to get into the auditorium must be compelled to cheer, too.

"When I say, 'Microsoft,' you say, 'Rocks!'" she told us. "OK?"

The crowd collectively mumbled and looked at its shoes. That's what I was doing at least.

"Microsoft!" she shouted. The birds and crickets chirped their response.

"Microsoft!" she shouted again. A few people in the crowd coughed.

"Microsoft!" she shouted, a little bit louder than before. Somewhere, off in the distance, a dog yelped.

And really, who could honestly expect people to respond? Cheering for Microsoft is like rooting for the cable company. They already have your business. They need your affirmation now, too?

Still, you could see the mounting, gnawing desperation on the faces of the Microsoft employees. Our yell leader, in particular, seemed to be gripped by the Fear when no one joined in on her quaint "Microsoft Rocks!" chant. Maybe somewhere, outside of Redmond, Steve Ballmer has her family holed up in an abandoned warehouse. And, if nobody cheers, then one by one, each relative gets greased. Or they're sent to work for the Slate subscriptions department.

Either way, it's a bad, bad scene.

Before things could get more uncomfortable -- and that would only require a few spikes and thumbscrews -- the audience began to file in to the auditorium. As the line snaked its way around the building, we passed a homeless man. His clothes torn and tattered, his face caked with grime, the man stared at the crowd with deadened eyes and held out a cup as folks shuffled by, oblivious to his plight.

Yes, life has taken a downward turn for Gil Amelio.

Belly of the Beast

Inside the auditorium, there's none of the uneasiness that hung over the roller-skating cheerleaders. No more plaintive cries from Windows partisans, no more awkward interactions with Microsoft employees, save for the section of Windows 2000 engineers who tried to start the Wave. All of them wore blue denim.

Say what you will about Apple employees, but at least they're able to exercise free will when it comes to dressing themselves.

No, the only discomfort inside was adjusting your eyes to the auditorium stage, designed in the same spartan and understated tones of "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" Purple light bathed the futuristic podiums that dotted the stage. In the middle sat a giant laptop -- The Laptop of the Gods! -- just to remind attendees that this was the Windows 2000 unveiling and that Regis wouldn't be out later to ask for their final answer.

But don't think for a second that the Windows 2000 launch lacked star power. After a series of videos touting the operating system -- "No Longer Business As Usual!" "A New Paradigm!" "The Business Internet Starts Here!" "Wheat Production, Up 46 Percent! Troops in Berlin by the Fall of the First Snow!" -- the curtain parted, and out stepped Patrick Stewart to introduce Microsoft Chairman, Chief Software Architect and Department of Justice Whipping Boy Bill Gates. At least, I guess it was Bill Gates. From my nosebleed seat in the auditorium, Microsoft could have trotted out Anthony Michael Hall, and I would have been none the wiser.

Then Gates began his spiel. And that's when the vapors overpowered my brain.

You can argue many things about Bill Gates -- his business savvy, his strategic decisions, his place in the pantheon of high-tech innovators. And you could probably come up with dozens of different views of the man, all equally sound and supported by logic. But one fact about Gates cannot be disputed: The man's speeches could one day replace general anesthesia.

Go to a Steve Jobs keynote, and you'll be wowed. The crowd hangs on his every word. Bursts of applause interrupt the speech. You walk away impressed even though there's a good chance that, hours later, you'll realize you've been snowed. A Gates keynote is a less dynamic affair. There's applause, yes, but it's polite and restrained. You listen to what he says, and it registers, but that doesn't mean you won't be checking your watch every 10 minutes or so.

Not that the Microsoft crowd didn't try to interject some show-biz savvy into the Windows presentation. To lighten the mood, Patrick Stewart would come out every so often to mug for the crowd. Gates mentions enterprise platforms? Stewart thinks he's talking about the Starship Enterprise . Gates talks about the next generation of operating systems? Stewart starts babbling about "Star Trek: The Next Generation."

And so the clever wordplay continued on into the night.

"It's clear that Windows 2000 is the platform that's going to take us into the future!" Stewart declared in that stentorian way of his. "And I'll be waiting for you there!"

Oh, Patrick. You are this close to becoming Shatner. A couple more "Star Trek" riffs like this, and in a few years, you'll be guesting at shopping mall openings.

OS For The Rest of Them

Microsoft's message goes like this: Windows 2000 marks the next generation in business operating systems, whether its running workstation computers or managing the servers that house networks and Web sites. It promises reliability, scalability and simplified systems management. And Microsoft hopes to establish Windows as the standard for managing your corporate back office or handling the demands of an e-commerce operation.

You'll notice that consumers aren't a part of that equation. That's because Windows 2000 is not an upgrade of Windows 98, the operating system aimed at home users. Instead, Windows 2000 replaces the crash-prone Windows NT. While some home PC users may opt for Windows 2000, most will just make do until Windows Millennium Edition comes out later this year.

Compare that approach to Microsoft's Windows 95 launch. There were massive ad campaigns, Rolling Stones songs, balloons for the kiddies -- all to convince you that the Microsoft operating system was something other than else. And now? Apart from the star power lent by Patrick Stewart and the guy who played J. Peterman on "Seinfeld," the Windows 2000 rollout focused on arcane mumblings about servers and routers and IT infrastructure. Luring consumers was not the idea here.

In fact, you'd have to try pretty hard to overhear a peep about the Macintosh during the Windows launch. Microsoft saved most of its vitriol for mainframes and Unix systems. Partisans of Linux and Sun Solaris can feel a mixture of satisfaction and fear that the 800-pound Microsoft gorilla has decided that you're cramping its style.

The Boys From Cupertino don't need me to tell them this could be very good news for Apple. Microsoft isn't about to cede Windows' role as the dominant operating system for computers -- not by a long shot -- but to get Windows 2000 off the ground, the company will have to devote significant energy to wooing the high-end computer server market. Consumers and small businesses need operating systems, too. With Microsoft otherwise preoccupied -- and possibly on the verge of being smashed into pieces by the Hammer Of Reno -- the time is right for Apple to step up to the plate.

Apple certainly has momentum on its side. It sold nearly 1.4 million computers last quarter. It's now shipping a new PowerBook, beefed-up iBooks and a faster G4 desktop. A new operating system is the on the way which, by many accounts, could be kick-ass. All Apple has to do to keep up that momentum is convince home users that the revitalized Mac line and the new OS X will give them the easiest set-up and most compelling computing experience.

As for the small-office/home-office market, if I ran a small business, the sight of Bill Gates showing Windows 2000 running on an army of servers to process requests from 500 desktops would give me the night tremors. I don't think I'd need too much prodding from Apple about the Mac's ease of use to make a beeline for the nearest CompUSA and grab as many G4s and OS X servers as my arms could carry.

Smooth Send-Off

My reverie about all things Mac was interrupted by the unmistakable sound of Bill Gates wrapping things up. Perhaps that cocktail over at the Absinthe wasn't that far off after all.

But no. Gates explained he had one more Windows 2000 feature to demonstrate to us -- the SantanaCam. And with the press of a button, Carlos Santana walked out on stage, the Laptop Of The Gods began to rise, revealing Santana's band hiding underneath, and the music legend launched into a rocking version of "Supernatural."

This entire sequence of events should have come off as a lot less horrifying than it did. You figure when blistering Santana guitar licks fill the air, most people will leap to their feet, seized by a sudden outbreak of the rockin' pneumonia or, at least, a mild case of the boogie-woogie blues. Not here. Oh, some Microsoft employees tried to dance, no doubt relieved that one of Windows 2000's reported 63,000 bugs didn't make an appearance at the demo. But most people just sat there passively, as if they were still being told how much faster Windows 2000 was than Unix. On stage, Bill Gates stood there motionless, too, occasionally swaying his head to the rhythm.

I guess those roller-blading cheerleaders were right. Microsoft does rock. Just not very well.

Associate Editor PHILIP MICHAELS ( ) has been known to write for several Web humor Web sites when he's not covering the Mac world.
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