Guest column: Getting the big picture around Lake Bill

I am so excited. Close your eyes. Now feel this. Keep feeling. Feel it all over. Can you tell what it is? That's right! It's a slide projector! It's time for another slide show!

Ah, that's the response I was waiting for! Want to hear something really funny? I used to think you were all saying "Oh no", until my colleagues here on the editorial team assured me that "ono" is a local colloquialism meaning "hallelujah" or "yippee". It just warms my heart.

And let me tell you, you're in for a real treat. I took this batch of slides during my recent trip to Microsoft's headquarters in Redmond, Washington, which was followed by a jaunt down the coast to San Francisco for the glitzy Office 2000 launch. So what are we waiting for? If somebody will get the lights, we'll get started! Somebody just hit that switch right over there. Anybody. Um, no problem, I'll get them.

(Click.) Okie dokie, we begin at the welcoming briefing for our group of Asian journalists in Building 9 on Microsoft's expansive, tree-adorned campus. That's right next to Building 8, where Bill Gates' office is, only we're not supposed to know that. Anyway, this lovely lady is Kay Morita, our primary hostess and Microsoft's international PR manager. Kay couldn't stop talking about the fact that the sun was actually visible that day. In fact, throughout the day she made 13 (yes, I actually counted -- I'm such a stinker) references to the fact that it wasn't raining. Gotta love Seattle.

(Click.) Is this cool or what? This was taken deep inside Building 11, which houses Microsoft's Global Network Operations Centre -- the corporate data centre. We were supposed to leave our cameras at reception, but what the heck. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity, since even most Microsoft employees aren't allowed in here. Check out the rows of Compaq servers as far as the eye can see. You'll be delighted to know Microsoft is a 100 per cent Windows NT shop now that they've gotten rid of the Digital Equipment VAX and IBM AS/400 boxes that were running the SAP applications. This jovial fellow is Mike Carlson, Microsoft's regional data centre manager. In case you were feeling bad about your organisation being behind in its Y2K work, cheer up -- even Microsoft is behind. Mike said the hardware is 100 per cent compliant, but while they were aiming to get all their software fixed by the end of June, it looks like they'll only be 80 per cent finished. There are some undisclosed "internal applications" that still need work, Mike said.

(Click.) This is a shot of our group heading over to the cafeteria in Building 4 for lunch. See that scummy little pond on the left? Believe it or not, they actually call that thing "Lake Bill". I asked Lori Heaney, Microsoft's international PR coordinator, what butt kisser named it that. She said she didn't know.

(Click.) Here we are back in Building 9, and this, of course, is the Big Guy himself -- Microsoft president Steve Ballmer. Steve was kind enough to spend an hour with us to answer whatever questions we might have. I decided it would be fun to find out what his answer would be to any goofy Americans who might question Microsoft's substantial investments in China, and who might suggest that Microsoft is somehow aiding and abetting a country that stands accused of stealing US nuclear technology. "I have nothing to say. The world is a big world. Our job is to build software and sell software," Steve said.

"We try to build and sell software everywhere in which it's legal to do so in the world. It is legal under the laws of the country in which we're headquartered to sell to China. . . . Until the US government says we can't sell to China, then we're absolutely excited about it, and I would not expect the US government to ever say that. I have no other comment." You go, Big Guy!

(Click.) Let's see . . . ah, right, this was taken in Building 17, in one of Microsoft's many usability labs -- those rooms with one-way mirrors that have a Microsoft testing engineer observing on one side and a typical user on the other side who's recruited to try out software that's under development to see if he or she can use the software without totally losing it. Turns out all the typical users are recruited from right around Redmond because it costs too much to bring in people from outside the area, our usability lab testing person told us. And the only thing the users get as compensation for their hard work is a piece of Microsoft software (presumably one that has passed all the tests). I guess the thrill of helping to test a Microsoft product is supposed to be payment enough. As an aside, I asked her which usability lab person oversaw the testing of Microsoft Bob. "A guy named Bob," she responded. I kid you not.

(Click.) Wow, that was fast . . . we're already down to the last couple of slides, which were taken at the Office 2000 launch in San Francisco, where our buddy Steve Ballmer gave the keynote. The first person on the stage was the guy you see here -- none other than Willie Brown, the mayor of San Francisco, who opened the festivities and introduced Steve. In doing so, Willie officially proclaimed that week as "Microsoft Office 2000 Week" in San Francisco. "I'm licensed to do that," Willie told Steve as he handed him the plaque. "I'm the Bill Gates of San Francisco." What a suck-up. If Microsoft can just get the US federal government to fall in line the way the San Francisco municipal government apparently has, it'll be all set.

(Click.) Great final shot of Ballmer, huh? He was fielding a question from the audience after his keynote, about whether Microsoft was making any contingency plans to come out with a version of Office 2000 for Linux. "No," Steve responded. "We have not seen any real demand for a Linux version of Office." The demand for Linux is being seen in the server space, not on the desktop, he said. Makes you wonder what the spin will be at the launch of Windows 2000, doesn't it?

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