Adventures of a 1,6000 Pound Gorilla, Part 1

If you weren’t already enamored with Bill Gates (a.k.a. Microsoft), you had to be impressed by the fact that he was recently on the front cover of not one, but two major magazines – Time and Fortune. What makes this especially remarkable is the fact that the two cover stories, which came out at virtually the same time, focused on totally different aspects of Microsoft’s business. I can’t recall this ever happening before.

Imagine having such a great impact on the world that two major publications believe, simultaneously, that two totally unrelated divisions of your company are worthy of front-cover stories. This truly makes Microsoft the world’s first 1,600-pound gorilla.

In today’s article, I’m going to weigh in on the essence of the Time piece on Gates/Microsoft. The Time cover story wasn’t about the ongoing saga of the next version of Windows or some sexy new Microsoft acquisition. Rather, it was focused on the Microsoft monster that plans to devour not only your kids, but you.

What I am referring to is the dreaded Xbox 360, due to be released in late November.

Dreaded by who? By Sony, maker of PlayStation 2, which presently controls 68 percent of the worldwide video-game market. And by Nintendo, maker of GameCube, which has dropped to third place with 15 percent of the global market. (Microsoft has already managed to grab a 17 percent share of this $25 billion global pie.)

But, most of all, the Xbox 360 should be dreaded by every parent who isn’t on crystal meth or brain dead from watching too many episodes of The Apprentice or Desperate Housewives. The Xbox 360 is the worst nightmare of every person who yearns for the good old days when people read serious books, engaged in meaningful dialog with informed individuals, and grew up playing outdoors all summer long.

The Xbox 360 is not a mere video-game machine, though it takes that world to a whole new level with high definition and Dolby 5.1 surround-sound. Microsoft is thinking way beyond video games. Xbox is a “multitalented, multitasking, multimedia machine.”

Among other things, Time points out, Xbox will allow you to display pictures from your digital camera, cellphone, or computer. It’s also a CD player and can play tunes from your iPod. (No doubt everyone reading this article has an iPod.)

You can also watch DVD movies on Xbox 360. And, through Microsoft’s video-gaming service, you can play games against other users via the Internet, talk to them using a headset, share music and photographs, send text and video messages, and video-conference with others.

Gates & Co.’s aim is not at all subtle. It is to take electronic control of the family room of every home in the civilized world. It doesn’t want to eat your lunch. As Time puts it, it wants to eat your CD player, your DVD player, and your telephone. It wants to talk to your iPod, your digital camera, your TV, your stereo, your PC, your credit card, and the Internet.

This strange new world that millions of people are about to enter is what Microsoft euphemistically refers to as “Digital Entertainment Lifestyle” (DEL). It’s the new millennium version of the “somas” that Aldous Huxley described so vividly in his classic novel Brave  New World. Huxley’s somas were the perfect drug, used by the carload not only to keep people in line, but to make them docile and happy in the process.

I can imagine the lure of the DEL, because I’m one of those people who are very much imprisoned by that now mundane piece of equipment known as a computer. Thankfully, I use mine primarily for business purposes. I’ve never played a game on my computer, never entered a chat room, and wouldn’t think of downloading free gimmick software that brings along with it two terminal diseases, spyware and adware.

But even if you yourself can avoid the temptation of the DEL, a bigger challenge is how to keep your kids from becoming addicted to it. Preventing them from overdosing on this insidious designer soma is a battle you’re going to have to fight day in and day out lest your children lose all touch with reality.

I have a friend named Bert, a scientist/businessman who has secured about 60 patents or patents pending in the field of radio frequency. He is one of the most brilliant, hi-tech people I have ever known.

A few years ago, Bert started a company that specializes in automated meter reading (AMR). AMR involves a science known as telemetry, which allows a utility company to read and manipulate a customer’s meter. (By “manipulate,” I mean doing such things as turning it off if the customer doesn’t pay his bill.)

Right now, only about 17 percent of the 280 million water, gas, and electric meters in the U.S. are read offsite by some kind of automated device. However, having done quite a bit of consulting in this field, there is no doubt in my mind that it’s only a matter of time until every meter in the country is hooked up to an AMR system.

The reason I mention Bert here is that, notwithstanding all of his wireless expertise, he considers it to be a colossal waste of time to surrender his energy to fiddling around with electronic gadgets. He’s not into DVD players or video games, he uses a small notebook and pen in lieu of a Palm-type toy to keep track of names and addresses, and he spends as little time as possible talking on his cellphone.

Keep in mind that this is a man who makes his living in the world of wireless technology. So why does Bert avoid the endless wireless gadgets available on the market? Because he sees them as nuisances – distractions from the more important things in life. He also believes that, contrary to popular belief, most electronic gadgetry tends not only to make one’s life more complicated, but also less efficient.

The temptation of the DEL soma can become irresistible once you enter its lair, so think long and hard before doing so. You can manually control a television set, a DVD player, and a digital camera. But once you allow a video-game console to take control of such space-age devices, it’s only a matter of time until that same console takes control of you and your family as well.

If you’re like most people, your computer gotcha, your cellphone gotcha, your Palm-type device gotcha, and your television set gotcha a long, long time ago. Can you really afford the time to be captive to an entire digital entertainment lifestyle? I doubt it. My advice is to tread lightly as the Xbox 360, along with its eat-all machine rivals soon to be released by Sony and Nintendo, becomes a way of life for most people.

The way I see it, every minute spent imprisoned in your DEL room is a minute not being spent on improving your mind, your body, your spirit, or your financial well-being. Digital gadgetry will never replace a good book, good conversation, or even a good physical workout. And it certainly will never replace a good, stable family life.

So much for the dangers to your family posed by DEL. But what about what this space-age vision might do to that poor, downtrodden company, Microsoft? As you might suspect, I have some thoughts on that as well. And, in that vein, in Part II of this article I’m going to do something audacious: give Bill Gates advice.

I normally charge $10,000 for a half-day consultation, but this one is going to be on the house. There’s just something about Bill that brings out the charity in me.

Stay tuned … and, in the meantime, stay away from those video-game stores.