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BY ANDREW LEONARD | My wife and I stared at the computer screen, mouths agape. We were testing Microsoft's NetMeeting videoconferencing software and had just logged on to a directory server hosted by Microsoft. I had heard that the Microsoft servers were a hotbed of videosex chat, but the juxtaposition seemed incongruous, to put it mildly. Microsoft? Sex? This I had to see for myself.

I won't lie to you. I used my wife as bait. And within seconds, our software videophone rang off the hook. My wife answered one of the first calls, and -- after exchanging a few pleasantries with a man via the text-chat window -- watched astounded as he pointed his camera at his naked crotch and delivered unto her the full force of male exhibitionism.

We cut the connection.

For years, videoconferencing has been hyped as the next breakthrough "killer app" for the computing world. But it has consistently failed to live up to its sci-fi, Jetsons-future promise. It was too geeky, too hard to configure and required too much hardware, bandwidth and computer processing power. It just wasn't easy. But over the past year and a half, the tide has begun to shift -- due in no small part to a decision by Microsoft to give away millions of free copies of NetMeeting.

Microsoft, as always, has ambitious plans. The company considers the videoconferencing software to be an "integral" part of the Windows operating system, just like Internet Explorer. The stakes are huge. If Microsoft can succeed in seeding the entire universe with NetMeeting, it will not only help Bill Gates further lock customers into the Microsoft software orbit, but could also goose the entire computing industry into another hugely profitable sales cycle, as consumers rush to buy new computers that can handle the videoconferencing load.

But Microsoft's encouragement has resulted in some very un-Microsoftish behavior. For Microsoft is not only giving away NetMeeting with every copy of Internet Explorer 4.0 and every new installation of the Windows operating system, it is also providing the default gathering place for NetMeeting users anxious to fire up their software and gain entree into the world of Internet videoconferencing. In essence, the company is hosting a set of virtual singles bars -- mix-and-match points for people with cams who want to learn how to use them. Microsoft has imposed no rules at these "Internet Locator Servers." And the hands-off, laissez-faire approach has led to a hands on, anything goes atmosphere.

Or, as one amazed NetMeeting experimenter discovered, "a 24-hour international sex orgy is being hosted by Microsoft." If you're looking for a cybersex "show," Microsoft is where you want to go today.

N E X T _ P A G E .|. Microsoft's plans did not include explicit greeting cards from "HORNY4U"

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