Four years ago, Bill Gates and Microsoft made a $2 billion
bet and became—perhaps for the first time ever—a heavy underdog in a technology
context. On Nov. 15, 2001, the Xbox gaming console debuted in North America, taking
aim at the undisputed console gaming heavyweight, the Sony Playstation 2.

On Nov. 22, 2005, Microsoft will double-down on that bet by
releasing the Xbox 360. However, in the past four years, the odds have
significantly shifted in Gates’ favor.

While Bill Gates may have a personal wealth that dwarfs the
gross national product of many third-world countries, and Microsoft boasts a
cash flow that would make some state revenue cabinets envious, jumping headlong
into the multibillion-dollar gaming hardware
market was still quite a daring leap for a software
company. The man who convinced Gates and, perhaps more important, Steve Ballmer
to get in the game, so to speak, was Xbox development chief J Allard.

Now, as you might imagine, not just any Microsoft employee
could get Gates and Ballmer to jump off the cliff into the hardware arena.
Allard earned his stripes early and often in the conventional software realms
at Microsoft. In 1993, a 25-year-old Allard wrote a memo titled “Windows:
The Next Killer Application on the Internet,” which laid out a product
strategy for deposing rival Web browsers such as Netscape and making Windows
the indispensable platform for surfing the Internet.

Bill Gates took notice, and he used Allard’s memo as the
basis for Microsoft’s “embrace and extend” Web software strategy,
which saw endless Web-friendly features bundled into the Windows OS and other
flagship Microsoft products. More than a decade later, Allard’s methods have
proven out, with Windows’ native Internet Explorer now the market-dominant
browser trying to fend off upstart rival Firefox.

Five years after architecting the downfall of Netscape,
Allard had another idea: Microsoft should depose Sony and Nintendo as the
Goliaths of home video game consoles. Gates and company bought into Allard’s
bold vision, and the original Xbox laid the foundation for Allard’s strategy.

Sony, however, still holds the lead in the console market,
particularly in Japan. If Microsoft is going to succeed as Allard expects, the Xbox
360 must represent a bold leap forward.

Perhaps that’s why Allard drew his inspiration for the Xbox
360 not just from more traditional sources of product development and market
research, but also from science fiction—including a noted sci-fi novel that
Allard made required reading for his entire Xbox 360 development team.


What noted science-fiction novel did Xbox development chief
J Allard use as his inspiration for the Xbox 360, a book he listed as required
reading for his entire project team?

The tome in question is none other than Neal Stephenson’s
1992 cyberpunk epic Snow Crash.
(Check out the
Trivia Geek’s blog review of the book

While the Xbox 360 won’t necessarily usher in a dystopian
future of franchised suburban nation-states, post-religious spoken-word mind
control, and mafia-owned military-grade pizza delivery vehicles (all major
fixtures in the book), Allard hopes that at least one plot device from Snow Crash—the persistent virtual world
known as the Metaverse—will take one
step closer to reality by way of Microsoft’s new game console.

The Metaverse encapsulated a world where users could create
persistent online avatars and personas, design and trade virtual goods and
services, and utterly blur the line between virtual and actual societies and
economies. All that plus Halo 3 is what
Allard has in mind.

If you think that sounds ambitious, it is. If you’re
wondering just how far down the rabbit hole Allard’s admiration for the
Metaverse goes, consider this: The Xbox 360’s project code-name was Xenon, and an expansive 147-page
Allard-authored primer called the “Book of Xenon,” based heavily on
the virtual world notions set out in Snow
, spells out the guidelines of that project. Moreover, the Xbox 360 is
just the first step in the Xenon timeline, which lays out much of Microsoft’s
games and entertainment strategy for the next 20 years.

Only time will tell whether Allard, Gates, and Microsoft’s
growing cadre of game developers and Xbox enthusiasts can actually realize the
dream of converting the Metaverse from science fiction to gaming fact. The
clock starts running on Nov. 22, 2005—and will run for the next two decades.
The outcome could very possibly make consumer electronics history, and it’s
almost certain to make for some incredible Geek Trivia.

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The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of
this week’s Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article.
Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and
discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia.

This week’s quibble comes once again from the October 5
edition of Geek Trivia, “Full (moon)
(Apparently I riddled this article with errors.) TechRepublic
member Keithc dinged me for using
the phrase dark side of the moon.

“Although popularly called the dark side of the moon,
it is actually the far side [that] you mean. All of the moon goes from dark to light
and back as its orientation toward the sun changes. But we on earth only see
one half—which is light at full moon and dark at new moon.”

From an astronomic perspective, Keithc had me dead to rights. Luckily, member Eilerjc had my back from a metaphoric standpoint.

Dark in this context refers to the unknown (i.e., our lack of
knowledge/understanding) about the far side of the moon. [It’s] similar to the
term Dark Continent.”

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The Trivia Geek, also
known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who’s
duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic
books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.