Friday, May 13, 2005

Start me up

I watched the infomercial MTV aired last night about the Xbox 360, the Microsoft video game console due out next year. It was a weird program, part pep rally, part music video. Hosted by actor Elijah Wood, it looked a little like the old "Club MTV" show, with throngs of youths who screamed on cue at the sight of the sleek new game unit.

But the infomercial reminded me even more strongly of "Triumph of the Nerds," a 1996 PBS documentary series I recently watched, all about the growth of the personal computer industry. The last episode of the series begins with a giant Microsoft rally to hype the release of the Windows 95 operating system, and the event is eerily similar to the Xbox infomercial: Microsoft product, cheering minions, loud pop music, a celebrity host (Jay Leno, for Windows 95). After Windows 95 is unveiled, Microsoft founder Bill Gates--who in the Xbox infomercial appears for only a nanosecond--addresses the crowd, and he talks about Windows 95 in the same way people in the infomercial talk about the Xbox: Windows 95 is revolutionary, it builds communities, it's hip, it's now. (At one point, someone in the Xbox infomercial screams something like, "It's the holy grail of gaming!")

Taken together, the two events are evidence that on some level, Microsoft still doesn't get the consumer market, which is why it is trying sell entertainment to teenagers with marketing techniques it perfected on operating systems--which, granted, are in part about entertainment, but are as much about using word processors and spreadsheets. Perhaps Gates and company are right to keep employing these techniques; certainly there's no disputing the staggering, near-monopolistic commercial success of their products so far, though that has less to do with Jay Leno endorsements than with the sheer luck of Gates, beneficiary of the greatest business giveaway in history. In video games, though, Microsoft is up against Sony, the Microsoft of gaming. So it may not bode well for the Xbox that its MTV infomercial was, like almost all Microsoft advertising, hokey and feeble--dare I say nerdy, and not nerdy in a good way, like those cute kids on the G4 cable network.

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