Short Takes: February 7, 2014

Short Takes: February 7, 2014

An often irreverent look at this week's other news

An often irreverent look at this week's other news, including the non-drama of Microsoft's new CEO appointment, Bill Gates' real role at Microsoft will be minimal, Xbox and Bing need to be set free, Firefox gets touchy, Google releases another pointless product with the word "Chrome" in the name, NBC News invents story about device hacking in Russia, and a California kill switch law should be the start of something even bigger.

For all the drama....

So a special team from Microsoft's board of directors just spent six months finding a new CEO and the man they selected is such a patently obvious choice one has to wonder what took so long. From my perspective in the fog right after Steve Ballmer's announcement that he'd step down as CEO last summer, there were only two possible choices, one external (Alan Mulally) and one internal (Satya Nadella). That it took so long is in some ways the most interesting bit, and I suspect it really did have a lot to do with some months-long waffling on Mulally's part. And since we're speculating, I'd further guess that the board would have required him to use Gates as a technology advisor as well, and that Mulally, understandably, had zero interest in that. The good news? Satya Nadella is a fantastic choice, a proven leader and technologist, and exactly the kind of engineer who should be running Microsoft.

And let's be serious about Bill Gates for a moment, shall we?

News that Bill Gates would be "returning" to Microsoft and spending more of his time ("one third" of his time vs. "one fifth," his previous allotment; you do the math) was in many ways more exciting to certain people this week than was the central announcement of Microsoft's new CEO. And that, folks, is by design. But I think we need to be honest about what this really means, which is ... nothing. Now years removed from the day-to-day at Microsoft, Gates is no longer the aggressive young technologist looking for new businesses to conquer. He's the upper-middle-aged philanthropist who has spent the better part of this decade trying to solve problems like education, disease and basic health in third world countries. In imagining what a typical meeting at Microsoft would be like for this guy, try to put it in perspective: Engineers will be arguing over whether something inconsequential like right-click context menus in Windows 8.1 Update 1 are consistent with the overall user experience, while Gates is sitting there trying to rid the world of malaria. He's already checked out, folks. This is just for the dummies who think he still matters in tech, and still has a voice. In both cases, he does not.

Xbox and Bing: Should they stay or should they go?

I'm always happy to see the discussion turn to whether Microsoft should shed its money-losing Xbox and Bing businesses because the answer is so obvious—yes—and the decision to do so is so overdue. But those who disagree with that assessment need to understand that spinning off Xbox and Bing doesn't mean they go away: Microsoft can of course ensure that they have lengthy access to the technologies and brands and can continue using them, and improving on them, in future products. The notion that Xbox branding or obscure Bing "integration" in Windows is somehow valuable or even desirable is misguided at best, but whatever: Spinning off these businesses would leave them unencumbered by the debt of the past (good for them) and would leave Microsoft unencumbered by future losses that it can no longer sustain. As smaller, independent firms (which Microsoft could of course still own a part of), both Xbox and Bing could flourish. And seriously, isn't Bing the type of thing that Microsoft should be investing in (like Facebook, Twitter or Foursquare) and not something it should own? Of course it is.

Firefox gets touchy

Mozilla this week announced its Firefox for Windows 8 Touch Beta, which provides a Modern app-like version of the browser to Windows 8.x (but not Windows RT) users. According to Mozilla, Firefox for Windows 8 Touch Beta is optimized for touch-based Windows PCs and devices, like tablets, and provides a full-screen, tiles-based user experience, and integrates with Modern experiences like the Share charm. I'll be testing this today and doing a write-up for the SuperSite for Windows, but if you're curious and don't mind living on the edge a bit—and of course have a compatible Windows device—you can find out more at the Mozilla Future Releases blog.

Is Chromebox the stupidest tech product ever made, or just the stupidest Google product ever made?

Actually, it's neither. And for the same reasons: Google also made Google TV, Pixel, and the Nexus Q. (You thought I forgot about that last one, didn't you?) But it's still in the top five. More to the point, I'm getting a bit tired of Google's never-ending capacity for just tossing out new and unnecessary products which seem aimed more at hurting entrenched solutions than at solving a particular problem. So here's another one of 'em: The Google Chromebox for Meetings, which costs $999 sans display per seat, and provides a small PC-like box running ChromeOS and a video camera. And then you're expected to use Google Hangouts for meetings. I know, I know. You're thinking, but Paul. When I think enterprise meeting solutions, Google, ChromeOS and Google Hangouts are the three things that come into my mind first. And I get that. But back here in reality, this thing isn't just a non-starter. It's patently ludicrous, and it should make any thinking person wonder about this company's goals.

NBC News fabricates story about smart phones being hacked when they get to Russia

In a curiously histrionic report, NBC News reported this week that anyone who travels to the Sochi Olympics will find their smart phone or laptop immediately hacked. There's just one problem: This report is completely and utterly bogus. As noted by Errata Security (and, I'm sure, countless others), all the NBC report demonstrates is that manually navigating to a malicious Russian web site and then manually downloading malicious software to your device is, well, dangerous. You're not automatically hacked just by being in Russia, you have to work on it. That NBC News would do such a thing is sort of surprising, frankly. It’s the type of baloney I typically attribute to childish tech blogs.

California considering a smart phone kill switch law

The state of California is considering adopting a so-called "kill switch" law for smart phones in order to deter theft. The theory is that if we could "kill" our smart phones remotely and make them useless to thieves, no one would ever steal them. This is a wonderful idea, actually, but let's take it to the next level and create kill switches for smart phones in cars (where you couldn't text while driving, for example) and movie theaters (where you couldn't even turn on the screen). People are so caught up in their stupid little electronic devices these days that they're either clueless to the people around them or, in the case of drivers, outright dangerous to those around them. It's time to start thinking about this stuff. Seriously.

But Wait, There's More

Don't forget to follow me on Twitter and the Paul Thurrott's SuperSite for Windows. And check out my free e-books, Paul Thurrott's Windows Phone 8, Paul Thurrott's Xbox Music, and the currently in-progress "Windows 8.1 Book," which I'm now writing—and publishing as we go—with Rafael Rivera.

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