LAS VEGAS -- The cavernous hall looks like a Microsoft love-fest: Hundreds of smaller software companies exhibit under the Microsoft banner, "Where do you want to go today?" Attendees stare at images on overhead video screens touting its software.
But outside on a street corner, two Microsoft lampooners who had been kicked off the show floor cried, "What does he want to own today?" and waved boxes of software parodying the popular Windows program.
The jab at Microsoft Corp. chairman Bill Gates this week at the massive Comdex computer show here was hardly the first in an industry that regularly spoofs the dominant maker of PC software.
But the contrast illuminated the divide between Microsoft's inside circle of friends and detractors who risk getting kicked into the street. More broadly, it showed how little the controversy surrounding the company has affected business with its partners or consumers.
There was nary a word about a current Justice Department probe into Microsoft on the sprawling show floor, where an estimated 215,000 technology buyers crammed the exhibits of Microsoft and 2,200 other companies.
Likewise, no one mentioned lawsuits against Microsoft by state law enforcers and rival Sun Microsystems Inc., or the anti-Microsoft rally held by consumer activist Ralph Nader two weeks ago.
Instead, attendees on Thursday were consumed by the need to report back to their employers about which technology to buy.
"We don't look at the political battles of other companies as to what's best for us," said Scott Marks, a technology buyer for NationsBanc Montgomery Securities Inc., based in San Francisco.
Marks was cruising the floor at the Microsoft Partner Pavilion, where nearly 300 software companies shared 11,000 feet of the most heavily traveled section of the Comdex show. He explained that his company's computers run on Microsoft Windows and Windows NT operating programs, making it important to look at software that was compatible.
In a nearby 5-foot booth, Riza Chui of MCI's outsourcing unit, a Microsoft partner, said Microsoft's ubiquitous image helped sales. Besides, the Canadian subsidiary received prime real estate for less than what displaying elsewhere would cost. The MCI unit develops software that helps business customers figure out which computer systems are best for them.
Was she concerned about bad publicity?
"You're the first person to ask," said Chui, a marketing coordinator.
Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft, which arranges five pavilions a year to nurture software sales, wasn't worried either, at least officially. It signed up nearly 50 percent more business partners at its Comdex pavilion than last year, and the space drew an estimated 80 percent of all Comdex attendees during the five-day event.
"It looked like a bunch of deer caught in front of headlights," said Patty LaRocco, an attendee who owns Romantics Inc., a New York-based maker of soft-core pornography software. "It was very very bizarre."
The Microsoft spoofers, who work for Palladium Interactive software, didn't let the feel-good fest rain on their parade. They said their tiny Larkspur, Calif. company drew lots of interest in their parody of Microsoft's upcoming Windows 98 operating program, which goes by a name that can't be mentioned here because of its sexual connotations.
Calls to Microsoft seeking comment were not immediately returned.
The program includes games such as Billagotchi, an on-screen "cyber pet" that people need to feed money and tend to his needs or else he throws a tantrum.
It also includes plenty of jabs at Microsoft's Internet Explorer, which the Justice Department contends is used by Microsoft to illegally shut out competitor Netscape.
For example, the parody includes an icon for "MS Exploiter" that links to a Palladium Web site. And in a skit based on Star Trek, cartoon characters from the Star Ship Explorer blow up the SS Netscape.
On Wednesday, the company's five staffers were "bodily removed" from the Comdex hotel where a keynote speaker was addressing attendees.
"The party line is if you don't have a booth, you can't hand out literature," said Rebecca Murphy, director of product marketing for the firm.
"We're just trying to have some fun."
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