A Look Back At MSNBC's Heady Early Days

Jul 18, 2012
Originally published on July 18, 2012 7:30 pm
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On Monday, Microsoft unveiled the latest version of its office suite. CEO Steve Ballmer called it the most vibrant, exciting new version of Windows in years. He said it feels to us a lot like 1995, which happens to be when our commentator Andrei Codrescu got a close-up look at the company.

ANDREI CODRESCU, BYLINE: In the mid '90s, I went to Microsoft's campus in Seattle. The employee van, full of candy dishes, took me from cheery building to cheery building where a number of futures were being designed. One was the authentic house of the future where your favorite cocktail was handed to you as soon as you walked in, a robot with a pick-your-own voice handed you your slippers and turned on the TV to your favorite show. I stopped in front of a room with a typewriter in front of it. Inside, two 20-something girls were writing an interactive novel, and they pay you for this, I asked. They nodded enthusiastically a lot.

And in another room, a bunch of bald older guys smoked cigarettes, violating no doubt the smoking policy. These are Russians, my guide explained. We buy them by the gross. They used to work in the USSR with little machine memory. They are brilliant with shortcuts. We will use them for something. Meanwhile, we pay them a lot. One hundred young engineers in another building had been plucked out of Cal Tech and MIT to develop virtual-reality environments under the watch of my friend Linda Stone who studied behavior in cyberspace and guessed the shape of reality in the future needed to be both pleasant and profitable.

In another building, a sound stage, concert hall and theater sets took up vast space. This was where Microsoft was planning to produce all of America's entertainment needs: music, television, radio, live concerts. This was where eventually Lincoln Center and Japanese Noh theater and Engelbert Humperdinck and Steve Martin would come to perform. It was the palace of culture high and low. Many millions were spent here. This beautiful empire was worthy of the name Gates because it was intended to open the gates of heaven with cash, and that was before Google got big and Facebook got born.

The house of the future malfunctioned, and the mortgage tanked. The interactive novel was interrupted by the firing of its authors. The Russian guys died of heart attacks or were bought by Google. The virtual future didn't imitate reality, and the Microsoft entertainment empire left behind only two letters: M and S, which brought in a steady revenue stream when they were paired with NBC and became MSNBC that just got divorced now, a quarter of a century later.

Who would have thought to write a prenup in the mid-'90s when Microsoft was bigger than IBM and Julius Caesar's Rome? Bill Gates wisely decided to save humanity instead.


CORNISH: Commentator Andrei Codrescu, he lives in New York and (unintelligible) Ozarks.



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