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The Xbox Evangelist

May 13, 2001|P.J. HUFFSTUTTER

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.

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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."

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