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Honoring J Allard

From BU to the Xbox, and back again

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J Allard (CAS’91), the mastermind behind Microsoft’s Xbox game console and Zune media player, will receive an honorary Doctor of Letters at Commencement. Photo courtesy of Microsoft

Sometimes it pays to scream at your boss. Maybe not every day, but there are those rare moments, as J Allard discovered in the early 1990s, shortly after joining Microsoft.

As a teenager, Allard (CAS’91) had dialed into computer message boards and as a computer science major at BU, he was an early convert to the Internet (such as it was back then). At Microsoft, he wrote a memo in 1994 arguing for a new corporate focus on the Internet. Bill Gates thought otherwise. After all, Microsoft (and Gates) was already making piles of money by specializing in proprietary desktop software.

“That was in interesting conversation,” muses Allard, who calls it his “Jerry Maguire moment.” “But I didn’t go to Microsoft to put a computer on every desk in every home. By 1994 that was inevitable. So why stop there?”

Once his temper cooled, Gates put Allard in charge of bringing Microsoft into the Internet age. His team developed Internet Explorer for Windows, along with other Web initiatives.

“Moving Microsoft from the desktop to the Internet can be attributed to Allard’s willingness to make a very bold and not obvious move,” says N. Venkatraman, the David J. McGrath, Jr., Professor of Management at the School of Management.

Today, as the chief experience officer and chief technology officer of Microsoft’s Entertainment and Devices Division, Allard is again pushing the company into uncharted territory, leading the development of two entertainment devices — the Xbox game console and the Zune media player. On Sunday, May 17, BU will honor Allard’s boldness and ingenuity with an honorary Doctor of Letters.

It will not be the first time Allard and his wife, Rebecca Norlander (CAS’91), a fellow computer science alum and now Microsoft’s general manager of advertising, have returned to their alma mater. Allard has visited to advise faculty and administrators about growing and restructuring the computer science department. The College of Arts & Sciences awarded him a Distinguished Alumni Award in 2003. Last year Norlander received the computer science department’s first Distinguished Alumni Award.

“They’ve had such successful careers at a top company,” says Azer Bestavros, a CAS professor of computer science, who joined the BU faculty the year Allard and Norlander graduated. “They are examples of what you can do just a few years out of college, and they serve our students well as role models.”

Allard’s interest in programming and computers was sparked when his grandfather, who worked for IBM and was something of a gadget-head, would show Allard how various electronic equipment worked and take frequent fieldtrips — to Radio Shack. He got hooked and spent hours after class programming rudimentary video games on his high school’s only computer.

“My parents pushed all the kids to follow our dreams and pursue our interests with passion and integrity,” says Allard. “There was nothing off limits, no guardrails to our explorations.”

Allard still loves video games (his all-time favorite is “Robotron”). And even his name (legally changed from James) is an homage to computers. In the late 1980s, he explains, “it was my log-in on all of the computer systems at school, and it stuck.”

Still, he and Norlander are religious about breaking away from the bits, bytes, and pixels, whether barreling down steep hillsides on a mountain bike (Allard), competing in triathlons (Norlander), or carving up mountains on snowboards (both).

Allard has spent the last decade or so leading Microsoft into the world of entertainment devices, working on hardware that will underpin what he calls the “digital entertainment revolution.”

“Technology has already reshaped the way entertainment is produced and distributed,” he says. Next up will be blending the distinction between performer and audience, to make entertainment options both more personal and increase social interaction.

In 2003, Allard’s group launched Xbox Live subscription service, which allows gamers around the world to play against each other in high-octane video games. While competition from Nintendo and Sony remains fierce, the Xbox console has made Microsoft a major player in the gaming world, says Venkatraman: “We can attribute its success to Allard, because it’s clearly about the user experience and making those games as realistic as possible, which you could not do on a PC.”

Allard’s other major venture, the Zune media player, is meant to challenge Apple’s iPod. So far, Zune hasn’t made a big dent in Apple’s market domination, although it contains a lot of unique features that serve the personal and social entertainment experience Allard believes is the future. The Wifi-enabled Zune allows users to download tunes on the fly, get recommendations based on musical tastes, broadcast favorites, and freely (at least temporarily) listen to friends’ playlists.

Bestavros says that while Allard may appear to be losing against iPod, it still makes sense for Microsoft to develop a device like the Zune because of the increasing convergence of hardware and software. “The hardware form becomes so entwined with the software that it’s hard to separate them,” he says. “Microsoft may come up with a revolutionary new music and media distribution system. But how can they develop that software unless they have a device?”

Finding that revolutionary entertainment system is Allard’s charge. “It will be interesting to see what his creativity and foresight bring,” Venkatraman says.

Bestavros agrees: “J and Rebecca weren’t A-plus students, and they are actually proud of that. Their message has always been to break loose, imagine — and go out and change the world.”

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Chris Berdik can be reached at cberdik@bu.edu.

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