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Tunnel of death interrupts Ballmer

But Microsoft's partner show must go on

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Seven thousand people sat in a Boston conference centre listening to a live band play soft rock while they waited for Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer to deliver his opening speech at the MS Worldwide Partner Conference this morning.

He was running half an hour late because a woman had sadly died in a Boston road tunnel last night when a three tonne slab of concrete fell from the roof and crushed her car. The morning-after, Boston traffic was snarled up along alternative routes, but Microsoft's evangelical delegates still made it to the church on time.

They had all convened to hear Ballmer's sermon. He's amazing, they say; inspirational. Might he lay on hands? Actually, he's more like a second rate stand-in on a television shopping channel. He would do well selling replacements to old age pensioners with rickety hearing aids. He shouts. When the crowd gives him applause, he starts to screech.

Rather than deliver a TV evangelist's sermon, Ballmer gave more of a tuppeny pep talk. Microsoft was the "winning choice", he said. Its partners had "the desire to win," he said.

Still, an "African children's" gospel choir sang the words of a new Microsoft catch phrase, "I am here". The idea was that everyone was here to partner. Only Microsoft doesn't call it partnering anymore. It's called "coopetition", which means it will compete for its partner's business even as it preaches to them about trust and responsibility.

Even in places like sceptical Britain and bolshy France, partners have to put up with this idea because so many people buy Microsoft software. One of the more devout British partners was complaining last night that when he talks with rivals about how they should be getting chummy as coopetitors instead of just fussing and fighting, they looked at him like he'd lost the plot.

As it happens, Ballmer said Microsoft had been trying to figure out what its customers liked about its software and the answers could be condensed mostly into a single religious motive, which was that everyone else used it.

But that customer power is not so great that Microsoft can merely impose coopetition on the minions who sell its software. It was setting up a "Partner Council", said Ballmer to discuss what form their new contracts of business would take under the new philosophy.

Much of this was necessary because of the "Live" suite of services Microsoft was delivering direct over the wire. So, for example, its resellers might get referral fees for scraps of business they sacrificed to its Live project.

Partners had aired concerns before the conference of Microsoft's dabblings in the direct selling of services. Not that they were too bothered. Ballmer appeared to placate them easily with the promise that Microsoft took its "trust and responsibility" toward their welfare seriously.

He reassured them that this was the "most amazing year of product innovation" that Microsoft has seen, possibly, "in all time."; told them how they should "work together", then reminded them how they'd always been complaining that Microsoft was eating their babies, but their whining would be unnecessary if they simply "embraced change", or put up with it and found something else to do with their time - or cooperate with Microsoft's competition.

The rest of Boston, meanwhile, is trying to figure out whether it's safe to travel in any of the road tunnels built in recent years as part of a $14bn disaster dubbed the "Big Dig". It's been in trouble before, with former employees of a cement firm being charged with allegedly supplying poorly mixed concrete to the Big Dig, while five cars were hit with rubble falling from a tunnel vent in April 2005.

Officials, according to the Boston Globe newspaper, have always insisted the new tunnels are safe. If only people believed them, the City could get back to business.®

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