The date is February 20, 2013, it’s 3am and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer is sleeping furiously, rhythmically squeezing a stress ball in each hand. The nocturnal quiet is rudely broken by the ringing of a Windows Phone 8 handset on the nightstand. Bolting awake with a howl, Ballmer paws at the chirping device, trying to accept the call. But instead his 360 boots up with a mighty roar, all the overhead lights blaze on, and down in the garage, his car doors pop open. “Stupid SmartGlass!” he growls, staring at the phone with unnerving intensity, shoulders heaving. It rings again, but this time he manages to answer it.
“Hello!” he shouts cheerfully over the hurricane-force winds required to cool the advanced alien technology in the console. “Lunch? Why is a subordinate calling me about lunch in the middle of the night?” Sweat springs forth on his brow and soaks the front of his nightshirt, possibly because he’s now doing one-armed press-ups. “Or are you saying launch? Hold on.” He somersaults to the entertainment centre and powers down his 360. The room grows quiet again, but he continues to shout. “Now,” he says fiercely. There is a long, strange pause. The subordinate waits patiently. Finally, Ballmer continues, “What’s this about? Uh-huh. And why do we need to speed up the launch?”
As the subordinate on the other end of the line speaks, Ballmer casually gnaws off a good-sized chunk of the wooden bedpost and serenely chews it to a pulp. A spasm of fury creases his face as the crucial bit strikes home. “Those bastards are revealing?” he yells, spitting splinters. “Tonight?” Ballmer does what he thinks of as his judo spin kick, rips down a strip of wallpaper and ties it around his head like Rambo. “I’ve got work to do!” He jogs down the hall, clapping his hands and pumping his fists, and fires out of his front door. An anxious voice – “Sir? Sir? Oh God, get me the board!” – can be heard coming from Ballmer’s now-discarded phone.
It’s 7pm on February 23, 2013, and Microsoft is rather abruptly revealing Xbox 720 to the world. The event is being held in the gymnasium of a public school in Steve Ballmer’s district, because no major venues had been available on such short notice. A bed sheet hanging over the door says “Xbox 720 reveal, 7:00” in black marker and “Pep Rally, 7:15” in puffy paint. Agreeing to share the space with the pep rally had been the only way to secure it. In the hot gymnasium, the bleachers fill up with families, students and the few local press who had caught wind of Ballmer’s hand-leafleting campaign. Baton twirlers, a lone tuba player, cheerleaders and a colour guard warm up in the wings.
Ballmer stomps to a podium, startling the chattering audience into silence, and begins the presentation with one of his charged silences. Stalking to and fro like a panther, he shiftily eyes the wary spectators as if sizing up something essential in their characters. He leaps onto the front bleacher, stage-whispers “I love”, and then screams “this gymnasium!” at shocking volume. A school librarian gasps and spills a box of popcorn; someone’s little brother starts weeping in terror. After kissing the librarian and karate chopping a lacrosse coach in the neck, Ballmer backflips off the bleachers and lands at the podium. Suddenly composed, he briskly explains that unlike his competitors, he’s actually going to show us Xbox 720. He whisks a sheet off a folding Formica table with a wild cry of passion.
As far as the eye can tell, this 720 is two 360s Ballmer roped together with Christmas lights. Various seashells and a little macaroni art are glued all over the casings. The CEO is visibly moved as he gazes on it. Tears stream down his cheeks. He tremulously lists some of the advances in the system: it has twice the processing power, an artisanal new look, several different colours of rings of death, out-of-box backwards compatibility, and a new controller with an LED light bar, which looks a lot like a glow stick taped, inexplicably, to a Dreamcast controller. He doesn’t blink when an errant baton whizzes past his eyes, though it causes him not to notice Microsoft’s board of directors shuffling in. He switches the 720 on.
Ballmer shows a gameplay demo of what he claims to be a new Halo featuring a female protagonist, though it appears to be Halo 4 with cleavage drawn on the bottom of the monitor. He’s already getting drowned out by the marching band and the din of the system itself when the football team comes crashing through a banner, trampling the prototype, table and all. The Halo footage keeps right on streaming. The bleachers are in mayhem. “The twin cooling fans and disc engines are loud enough to kill household pests!” is the last thing the CEO can be heard to say in the hubbub. “Ballmer’s gone rogue,” one of the board members barks into a mouthpiece. Another frantically waves his arms and yells, “Shut it down!” Two space marines with butterfly nets creep up behind Ballmer and catch him. A third activates the Xbox’s secret built-in consumer mind-wipe function, expunging this incredible snafu from viral memory – until now.
Illustration: Marsh Davies