As I write these words, I'm listening to a RealAudio broadcast of Bill Gates testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee. In his querulous power-nerd tenor, he's insisting that Microsoft is not, in fact, going to herd us like so many mindless, Web-browsing cattle into digital corrals fashioned in Redmond, Wash. ''It is preposterous to think that any one company could ever control access to the Internet,'' he's saying.
You know what? I believe him. Not because I'm a Windows booster (please) or a die-hard free-marketeer, but because any company that can fumble as badly as Microsoft has with its proprietary online service may turn out to be somewhat less scary than it seems.
You remember the Microsoft Network (www.msn.com), don't you? The service that was going to show Hollywood how to really do interactive entertainment? Recently, Microsoft announced that as of April 1, it was pulling the plug on its remaining MSN entertainment ''shows'' and concentrating instead on more valuable (read: profitable) services that attract both advertisers and browsers with specific informational or buying needs. Goodbye, personal-health site Satori, women's area UnderWire, new-music outpost CMJ Music Now, and four other sites deemed useless; get back to work, travel resource Expedia, city guide Sidewalk, auto-buying service CarPoint (and Slate, better start earning your keep). Even the much-vaunted reference sites Cinemania Online and Music Central will go dark come the end of this year.
Of course, the surviving sites continue to be available for free over the Web; the only thing a $19.95 MSN Premiere subscription buys you these days is an E-mail account, bulletin boards, and live chat (including the utterly daft comic-strip chat mode), and Uncle Bill as your Internet provider. No wonder the service stalled out at 2.3 million subscribers before the company stopped reporting numbers last May. (AOL, meanwhile, is at 11 million and counting.)
Also being buried is MSN's inane copying of TV-network metaphors (including all those ''shows'' that were ''canceled'' last year, before the start of MSN's ''second season''). Likewise, Microsoft's cozy relationship with Hollywood content providers is history: Paramount moved its Star Trek and Entertainment Tonight sites from MSN exclusivity to the greater Web last January.
More important, Microsoft's retreat suggests that it may be time to deep-six the notion that the Web can even do entertainment as Hollywood understands it -- and as the high-tech companies filter that understanding through their own widget-oriented bias. It's no coincidence that about a month before Microsoft's announcement, AOL laid off half of its Entertainment Asylum staff, or that Gates seems to be discreetly transferring his online eggs from MSN to Microsoft Internet Start (home.microsoft.com), a customizable one-stop-resource window on the Web that wants dearly to be John Q. Browser's ground-zero home page.
That aggregating of useful, profit-oriented content -- aimed straight at the billfolds of the online-shopping crowd -- is clearly the Web wave of the moment: Internet Start has competition from C|Net's Snap!, Scott Kurnit's The Mining Company, and other sites. A year from now, though, the Internet will very probably be an entirely different beast, and the industry will again be painfully morphing to keep up. That's why Microsoft is looking less than omnipotent. Whenever the company thinks it owns the Net, it ends up grasping at cyberspace.