net.wars: Microsoft dezhurnaya 2.0

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 22 April 2005

 She smiles and looks up at you. "Hi," you say. "My name is Wendy Grossman, and I'm here to see the Smart Home?"

Wendy M Grossman

 She nods, smiles again, checks her computer, and dials a number to leave a message. Later, she will call the shuttle bus for you to get to your next appointment. She answers every question with unfailing politeness and cheer. Kind of a Stepford receptionist.

She works for Microsoft.

This is the ironic secret behind Microsoft's high-tech image: its headquarters relies on a widespread and pervasive network of receptionists who even more ironically remind you of nothing more than the dezhurnaya who used to monitor every floor of every hotel and apartment building in the Soviet Union and notify more sinister forces of any unusual behaviour.

Two previous net.wars events have led me here. One was Microsoft's October 2004 London demonstration of its near-term automated home ideas and its unfavourable comparison to Dilbert's Ultimate House. The other was a visit, in August 2003, to IBM's Smart House in Austin Texas. Microsoft's Smart Home project in Redmond is intended to show us a vision of how we might live five to ten years from now; it does not, my host tells me, represent actual Microsoft products, present or future.

 Inside the Smart Home, a smart closet lets you know whether garments you've chosen look good on you (it might make more sense to take the closet shopping). Projections grace screens around the Home, making you wonder whether Microsoft couldn't save money by giving tours of Gates's own house instead. ("The trouble with that," said my host, "is that there's a real family living there.")

 Shades close and lights dim on command. They need to if you're to see the projected appointments on the conductive family bulletin board, the science homework on the dining room wall, the entertainment system, or the recipes menu that appears on the kitchen counter when you get out a bag of flour. If there is one really questionable assumption the Microsoft Home designers make, it's people's willingness to live in semi-darkness.

Outside, the receptionist smiles and nods and, in response to a request from your host, walks you to the next building but one and uses her key card to let you into the cafeteria so you can get a sandwich for lunch.

 "They really run the company," says one employee.

 He tells a story. The receptionists have a lot of down time, and to keep them occupied there is a program called "Recep Projects". You can, in other words, give them stuff to do. In his case, he had a thousand unscanned business cards, for which he was told he could have four admins for two. Within 24 hours, the cards were scanned and sent back to him as an Excel spreadsheet.

 The cohort to whom he relates this says, "I didn't know you could do that. I've got a few things…"

 In and around Redmond, Microsoft has some 91 buildings. Each of those buildings has at least one receptionist out front. Within the buildings, there are often specific areas that have their own receptionist as well. While I was there, I visited two such. In one case, the receptionist guarded a door that required an access code and was so inconveniently placed that it was more or less permanently held open with a whiteboard eraser.

Microsoft's receptionist network is generally agreed to be unique. "I don't know any other company that has anything like it," says one friend who writes computer books. He thinks the receptionists have become more pervasive since 9/11.

The comparison with Soviet Russia,was already in my mind when I asked the last front desk receptionist of my day how to get the bus back into Seattle. She didn't know.

"You don't know?" I said incredulously.

She pointed at a small array of bus schedules. "That's all we have." None seemed to cover downtown Seattle.

"There is this Web site," I said.

"We're not allowed to access external Web sites."

 The science fiction writer Eileen Gunn, who made an appearance at last week's  CFP, says simply "They're permies." In other words, temporary employees under long-term contract, not full-timers.

 "They're not authorised to let anybody do anything," Gunn concludes. "They're nice people, but they're underpaid, and if they do something wrong they're gone."

Gunn worked at Microsoft for a few years so early in the company's history that workers had no identification badges, These days there is, I am given to understand, an exquisite hierarchy of badges at Microsoft. My friend who writes the computer books was issued with a vendor badge to give him the access he needed to do a book on a Microsoft product. He was carefully told his vendor badge would give him access to the buildings, the cafeterias, and the library - but not the soccer field. Permies are very low on the caste list.

The Home has a bare front door, with no handle. The door opens when you identify yourself to the Home - perhaps by speaking or placing your palm on a touch plate. The receptionist who in real life guards the walkway to the Home's front door is not part of the vision.

Wonder if they accept laundry? - You can discuss this article on our discussion board.

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).