Sunday, February 10, 2008 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Sunday Buzz

Why not rename the city Microsoft Office?

Rami Grunbaum, deputy business editor, and Seattle Times Business staff

Is Microsoft looking to rent even more office space in Bellevue?

The hottest rumor among local commercial real-estate brokers has the Redmond software giant leasing almost all of 26-story City Center Plaza, now under construction at Northeast Sixth Street and 110th Avenue Northeast.

That would be another 550,000 square feet or so for Microsoft in Bellevue, on top of the 317,000 it now occupies at Lincoln Square and the 1.3 million it has committed to lease at two projects under construction, The Bravern on Northeast Eighth and Advanta Office Commons in Eastgate.

A Microsoft spokesman declined to comment, and Greg Johnson, president of Wright Runstad, the tower's developer, wouldn't confirm or deny anything. A call to the listing agent for the tower wasn't returned.

But other brokers note that, while City Center Plaza is scheduled for completion later this year, so far it has announced just one modest-sized tenant, an Eastside branch of Seattle's El Gaucho steakhouse.

And the developers don't seem to be pursuing negotiations with other prospective tenants very aggressively, they add.

One broker says he has asked representatives of the principals point-blank about the rumor, and they have denied it.

"But if I was working on it, I'd deny it, too," he said.

The company's leasing activity is an important indicator of its plans to keep hiring in the region.

But such a deal might also push vacancy rates lower — and lease rates even higher — in the already tight Bellevue office market.

— Eric Pryne

Alaska Air's virtual helper

The digital concierge "Jenn" just introduced on Alaska Airlines' Web site was built by the same firm that created Sgt. Star for the U.S. Army's online recruiting site.

But pose similar questions to the two talking-head avatars, and you get very different results.

When asked "Are you related to Jenn of Alaska Airlines?", the Army's camouflage-clad virtual recruiter responds single-mindedly, offering a list of 18 jobs involving aircraft, maintenance or military intelligence.

Jenn's coy answer to the flip side of that question isn't exactly relevant either, but it reflects a tad more emotional intelligence.

"I am not married, but you never know what my inventors are working on now."

Jenn's developer, CEO Fred Brown of Spokane's NextIT, is probably going too far when he talks of customers "actually building a relationship with this virtual entity."

On routine subjects, though, Jenn gives direct and useful guidance (even if the answers are prerecorded and her lips don't move).

Queried about the best flight from Seattle to Burbank, Calif., on Feb. 14, she will open the reservations form and fill in the information you've supplied, leaving just a few details to complete.

Ask "What will I be fed?" and Jenn directs you to the page that describes the free beverages and the sandwiches for sale. (Ask if there's a kosher option, though, and she simply repeats her previous guidance.)

Sometimes, says Alaska spokeswoman Amanda Tobin Bielawski, Jenn will ask follow-up questions before sending the user to a Web page.

Alaska says this is the first such digital assistant on an airline Web site. The company has a tradition of pioneering the use of computer technology with its customers — in December 1995 it became one of the first airlines to sell tickets online.

NextIT's Brown says humans will be reviewing the questions posed to Jenn in order to improve her responses so that, in theory at least, "she's perpetually getting smarter."

— Rami Grunbaum

Can I get you another coffee shop?

Amid the raft of statistics in the Downtown Seattle Association's latest annual report on the "state of downtown" is this key economic indicator:

The number of coffee shops down there grew last year to 256, up 2.9 percent from the previous year. That's one coffee shop for every 900 downtown workers, DSA President Kate Joncas said.

Some mornings, it seems like all 900 of them are ahead of you in line.

— Eric Pryne

Comments? Send them to Rami Grunbaum: rgrunbaum@- or 206-464-8541

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company


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