Amid the half-naked women gyrating onstage at a Lords of Acid rock concert, the heart and soul of Microsoft's multibillion-dollar gamble for the future is dragged from the audience, strapped to an S&M; bondage wall and repeatedly struck on the backside with a whip.


And he loves it.

While Bill Gates' khakis and oversized glasses made the nerd look de rigueur for the '90s, today's cool marker is James "J" Allard, whip marks and all.

As general manager of the Xbox project for Microsoft, Allard doesn't sit atop the organizational chart. But in the Xbox offices and Gates' own mind, Allard is The Man.

His job within the often-insufferably smug and insular world of Microsoft is to rattle cages, break the company's Wonder-bread stereotype and conquer the $20-billion worldwide video-game market. His chief nemesis in that battle is Sony Corp., which dominates the video-game market and has essentially built a computer for the living room--one that doesn't use Microsoft software.

The pudgy Allard is no dashing leader in the mold of Oracle's Larry Ellison. His face is wrinkled, his hairline receding into bare eddies on his forehead. Yet he oozes a confidence that comes from being a child of the Internet, someone who grew up in an age of virtual sex, smart drugs and synthetic rock 'n' roll. Microsoft officially refers to him as the "minister of soul" for the Xbox.

A 32-year-old who races Porsches and crashes skateboards with equal glee, Allard is intense, wild and egotistical enough to believe the Xbox will transform Microsoft's lumbering giant into a sexy, cool player in the sphere of global entertainment.

"Lord help him, everything is riding on his shoulders," says Alex St. John, a former Microsoft executive and current chief executive of the Redmond, Wash.-based software firm WildTangent. "People inside Microsoft respect Allard, and you don't normally see that. He's really the only one who could pull this off."

If Microsoft culture is about winning, J's culture is about winning with style.

He avoids the typical Microsoft look of bad haircuts and V-neck sweaters; instead, the 5-foot-10 computer scientist is known for his near-fetishist obsession with art-rock T-shirts, neon-green Xbox tennis shoes and hair dye. Allard has walked into meetings with top software executives sporting hair the color of warm eggplant.

"Mmm, yeah, that wasn't a great shade," he says, rubbing a hand through his thinning locks, which now are shorn and Marilyn Monroe-white.

The hair, the customized shoes, even the stark artwork Allard commissioned for the Xbox offices, all this is meant to project a hip new persona that will help the company take over the video-game world.

When friends talk about Allard, they usually bring up a story that is near-legend among the Internet underground: the time he led a group of Microsoft techies on a real-world scavenger hunt, inadvertently clearing out the 14th floor of the World Trade Center Marriott Hotel and triggering the ire of the New York Police Department.

Allard and his teammates had won the annual scavenger hunt for techies in 1998, allowing them the honor of staging the 1999 event. The secret, invitation-only competition is designed to test puzzle-solving skills--and credit card limits--of the tech community. The setting is an entire town. It's a no-holds-barred battle, where tracking down an easy clue can mean wading through a city sewer system.

In 1999, Allard and his team members each kicked in several thousand dollars and set the stage in Manhattan. One of the props was green dish soap, labeled "Caution: Radioactive Material," a remnant left behind by mock terrorists. A hotel custodian found the bottles and called security. Within minutes, police had evacuated the 14th floor and called Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to tell him that there was a "situation" in his city.

Clueless to the trouble, Allard and his team had set up their headquarters in a suite atop the Waldorf=Astoria Hotel. Suddenly, there was a loud pounding at the door.

"NYPD. Open up."

"The cops were not amused," says James Gwertzman, president of the game company Escape Factory and a friend of Allard's. "They grilled J and, I swear, we were convinced that we all were going to get arrested. J just sweet-talked his way out of it. He's amazing that way."

All this chutzpah from a kid raised in Glens Falls, N.Y., a cozy hamlet where most people--including Allard's father, Edward, an engineer--worked for the local paper mill. As a child, Allard was mesmerized by the images flickering across cathode-ray tubes. He spent hours tinkering with--and breaking--the video-game machines that his father gave him in the 1970s. The first was a Magnavox Odyssey, a beast of circuits and wires that transformed his TV into a light show. Slide a card into the slot, and suddenly Allard could slay monsters or throw passes in a digital football game. If the machine didn't let him play the way he wanted to, he'd hack it. "I started sticking paper clips in, and shorted the thing out . . . and was writing my own program," Allard recalls. "You know, they go for like $600 on EBay now."

After high school Allard spent three quarters studying engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. He later moved to Boston University, graduated magna cum laude in 1991 with a degree in computer science and married Rebecca Norlander, a pixie-slender blond, "the woman I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life with." He met her when he accidentally ran over her with his skateboard while she waited in line at an ATM.

Looking for work, he and Rebecca crashed a minority job fair at nearby MIT, where they had made friends within the local artistic and computer science community. The couple ultimately landed offers from Microsoft and, days after the wedding ceremony, began work in Redmond.

There was only one hitch: No one really knew what J did.

That didn't stop Allard. It was fall, 1991. He was 22, a maverick, and confident that he could persuade people to buy his point of view. His vision was clear: Microsoft had to embrace the Internet.

At the time, Microsoft didn't understand why the Internet was important. Academics and researchers used the Net. Businesses and consumers did not.

They would, Allard insisted, if it were easy to use. One piece of the solution, Allard believed, was to build TCP/IP--a program that allows computers to speak the Internet's language--into the Windows operating system. Make everything seamless, nearly invisible.

"I wanted to make it so my mom could use e-mail," Allard says.

He worked on his Internet-related projects with laser-like focus, constantly lobbying for more resources and attention to the Net. In early 1994, Allard sat down and wrote an 11-page e-mail rant about the Internet and how Microsoft was poised to be run over by the coming revolution.

That memo--both its timing and its tone--was a key factor that ultimately convinced Gates that Microsoft needed to get serious about the Internet. As Microsoft launched its own Web browser, Internet Explorer, Allard joined a core group of leaders who helped shape the technology behind Microsoft's online products, including Microsoft Network, Internet Explorer and their online retail shops.

It was this determination and passion that ultimately swayed Gates and Steve Ballmer, chief executive of Microsoft, to call Allard five years later and ask him to join the Xbox team in 1999. "J knows how to turn big ideas into reality," Gates says in an e-mail interview. "[He] helped Microsoft do that with the Internet, and he's helping us do it again with Xbox."

At the time, Allard was on a three-month sabbatical, having stepped down from running the company's Internet group. His online battles had been won. "I came here to marry the PC to the Net, and I was now trapped in the routine of running a team of 700," he says. "I had lost my purpose at Microsoft. I needed a reset." Games were the future, Ballmer preached. All sorts of games, on all sorts of devices. The TV. The PC. The cell phone. We'll build the underlying road that ties it all together. This is as big at the Net, as big as Windows. Go big, or go home.

Allard wanted to go huge.

He joined Xbox and was soon followed by one of his closest friends. Cameron Ferroni, a 31-year-old longtime Microsoft employee and networking genius, also was searching for a new challenge. The pair squeezed into the only empty office, smack in the middle of Microsoft's team that develops the company's personal financial software, MS Money.

"We bought a 32-inch TV and spent about $1,600 on a Sega Dreamcast and every game we could grab," says Ferroni, general manager of Xbox's online services. "We spent a month straight playing games. All the Money people stared at us. The general feeling was, 'Who are these two freaks?' "


PART OF ALLARD'S JOB, AS BOTH evangelist and impresario, is to placate game-makers worldwide and get them on board.

During the past 22 months, Allard and other Xbox managers have held hundreds of secret meetings with top game programmers worldwide. Ed Fries, vice president of Microsoft's game software team, has structured a variety of business deals, from providing seed funding for software start-ups to acquiring game companies outright.

Those they couldn't buy, they wooed. The team has courted hundreds of game developers and publishers intensely, soliciting their opinions on what would make the best box.

"J [is] always the point man. When there was a big question, it was always him in the firing line," says Tim Sweeney, lead programmer at Epic MegaGames and a member of the Xbox advisory board. "I was just surprised they were open to criticism and took our feedback at all."

But winning this high-tech war comes at a price. Sixteen-hour days at the Xbox office are normal. So is working weekends and holidays.

And this is just the first step, "to get the product out at the end of this year with high-quality games, establish the partnerships and build that business machine," Allard says. "This is the hardest thing I've ever done, maybe the hardest thing I will ever do professionally."

At home at the end of another long day, Allard sets aside his public mask of confidence to voice his concerns. It's 11:30 p.m. He's just eating dinner. Rebecca has been traveling on business, and the couple haven't seen each other for several days.

"God, this could blow up," he says, nursing an empty coffee cup. "If this doesn't work . . . " He stops talking, and rubs his eyes. "Don't think that." They have to win. they have to beat Sony.

Slowly, Allard returns to his car and heads back to work. As he walks into his office, a photograph on the door reminds him of his mission: An Xbox machine sits perched atop a giant stone Sony corporate sign.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World