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Monday, April 24, 2006 - Page updated at 09:29 AM

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Brier Dudley

Microsoft is farming in Quincy?

Seattle Times staff columnist

It's finally clear why Microsoft is building huge, windowless buildings in farm country east of the Cascades.

They have a lot to do with Google, and that growing pile of CDs, videotapes and snapshots taking over your closet. They're also a monument to Microsoft's 10-year odyssey to become a leading Internet company. It's been a game of catch-up, but the company seems energized by new executives, a new online strategy and big investments such as the mysterious buildings in Quincy, not far from the Columbia River in Grant County.

A few weeks ago, Microsoft paid $1.08 million for 75 acres, where it's building three structures totaling 1.4 million square feet. That's about the size of 10 Costcos.

Inside they'll hold thousands of data-serving computers. The industry calls them server farms, and Microsoft's will be huge, taking advantage of cheap hydroelectricity and fiber-optic connections to an Internet arterial crossing the state.

They'll power an array of new online services, including free Web pages for small businesses and photo and file sharing for consumers.

Microsoft also hopes consumers will pay a few dollars a month to store backup copies of files in Quincy and in similar facilities it may develop around the world.

"We're investing a lot at being able to store massive amounts of storage in the cloud, as cheaply as possible," said Brian Arbogast, vice president of the Windows Live communication platform. "We want to give customers the choice of what they put up in the cloud and what they keep on their PC."

It may seem ridiculous if you have a new PC or an iPod with a mostly empty hard drive. But storage is becoming a huge issue as more people take pictures with multimegapixel cameras, record high-definition videos and buy more digital music. The Diffusion Group in Dallas estimates the average home will generate 1,933 gigabytes of data a year by 2010, up from 322 gigs last year.

Microsoft and other companies are betting people will pay to store files in a way that they're safe and accessible from any computer, phone or Web-connected device.

Amazon.com is the first to offer such a service, but so far it's aimed mostly at software developers. Called S3 — simple storage service — it offers unlimited storage for 15 cents a gigabyte per month. It also charges a transfer fee of 20 cents per gigabyte.

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Google has even more ambitious plans. Last month, it accidentally showed analysts a slide outlining plans for Gdrive, a service to store "100 percent of user data" on its servers. That would weaken Microsoft's position because people would have less need for powerful PCs to store and manage their data.

Microsoft has been saying for months that online storage is likely to complement new services, such as the OneCare PC maintenance. Then last week, Chief Technology Officer Ray Ozzie told Fortune magazine about a storage service code-named Live Drive.

If it doesn't pan out, Microsoft's all set to enter the fruit-warehousing business in Quincy.

P.S. Last week, I promised to let you know if Bill Gates responded to a question about whether he's accelerating plans to spend more time on philanthropy and change his role at Microsoft. At his foundation, "Melinda and I have the same role we have always had," he said via e-mail, but he didn't say anything about his company role.

Brier Dudley's column appears Mondays. Through the week, read his blog at seattletimes.com/brierdudleysblog. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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