WinInfo Short Takes: Week of December 5

An often irreverent look at some of the week's other news, including December, Xbox 360 games, Windows Vista build 5259, a critical IE flaw, Google vs. Microsoft, RIM vs. NTP, Linux's failure on the desktop, Firefox 1.5, and so much more...

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December, already? I'm sure I mentioned how short November seemed last week, and now the year is almost over. As is always the case, I've got way too much to accomplish before Christmas hits, including, obvious, buying some Christmas presents. I hate that the year always ends with this kind of frantic race of purchasing.

And speaking of frantic, I need to do some thinking about Xbox 360. I have all of the launch games and had originally planned to review each of them over time. There's just one problem: Some of them are outright stinkers. For every "Call of Duty 2," which I finished over a few days in a marathon of gotta-keep-going love, there's an "Amped" or "Perfect Dark Zero," which don't live up to expectations and offer pretty shoddy game experiences. I may end up just lumping the stinkers into a single review or something. I'm not sure yet. But at this early date, there are only a very few standout titles among the Xbox 360 launch lineup. I hope this situation gets better quickly as new games are released in the coming weeks. But I don't see anything coming before the end of the year to get me particularly excited.

I'm still woefully behind on email since my last trip, sorry about that. I had a couple of very interesting home swap requests in particular that I don't mean to ignore. My wife and I are trying to figure out a couple of two-week forays to Francenext year via home swaps, but we're a bit overwhelmed by the options. If you did write in about this, we're going to get back to you soon, promise.

Short Takes

A Look at Windows Vista Build 5259

Despite claims of "exclusive" Windows Vista build 5259 screenshots elsewhere, I've had a big collection of build 5259 shots up on the SuperSite for Windows since early yesterday afternoon. The new build reveals a few interesting changes. First, the fit and finish (but not the performance) of the OS is dramatically better in this build, and a number of new features, like DVD Maker, the new Movie Maker, Windows Calendar, and Windows Mail, are all starting to come together. Most interesting, build 5259 includes a pretty nifty way to customize the Aero Glass user interface, allowing you to change the color scheme in an almost infinite way, and to change windows transparency levels. This feature alone should put a stop to a lot of the complaints about the UI, and I wish Microsoft had mentioned they were doing this a long time ago. I doubt that I'll be reviewing 5259 because of scheduling--I have a lot of unfinished SuperSite content that needs to be completed, and other work to do--but I'll examine these and other new Vista features in-depth in a future December CTP review. Stay tuned.

Xbox 360 Hits Europe, Sells Out Within Hours

Microsoft's next-generation Xbox 360 video game console went on sale in Europe at midnight this morning and, as with the USlaunch two weeks ago, it was sold out within hours. Part of the problem is demand, of course, but Microsoft earmarked just 500,000 consoles for the continent, far less than it could have sold. Duplicating the midnight madness events that occurred earlier in the US, Xbox 360 fans lined up outside retail stores hours before they opened in order to be among the first to get the hot new console. Many of them were happy to get the console, but some were no doubt trying to turn a profit: Thousands of Xbox 360 consoles turned up immediately on online auction site eBay, selling for two to three times the retail price. But fear not video game fanatics, as Microsoft says more Xbox 360's are on the way before Christmas. I'm sure there's still time to profit. Plus, we have the December 10 launch of Xbox 360 in Japanto look forward to as well.

Console Sales Fall at Nintendo

And speaking of video games, gaming giant Nintendo announced last week that its second half 2005 profits fell 21 percent year over year due largely to lagging demand for its GameCube video game console. GameCube sales in North America during the six months ending September 30, 2005 fell 36 percent to 630,000 units, or approximately the number of Xbox 360 units Microsoft can sell in half a day. Indeed, analysts credit Microsoft's next-generation console with causing much of Nintendo's woes. Because the GameCube is widely seen as the least technically capable console sold today, it is likely to see demand drop off first as next generation consoles appear. Nintendo's next console, the Revolution, is expected in 2006, or about two years too late to make a difference.

IE Patch May Come Before Monthly Security Patches

Last week, news of an "extremely critical" security threat in Microsoft's market leading Internet Explorer (IE) Web browser hit, causing hackers to race to exploit the bug. Now, Microsoft says it may patch the flaw well in advanced of its previously scheduled December 13 monthly patch day. Actually, the flaw is several months old, but security researchers originally believed that exploits could only crash the browser, not cause widespread harm. Now that the magnitude of the flaw is better understood, Microsoft is finally getting around to fixing the problem. Microsoft is still investigating the issue and once that investigation is complete, will take the appropriate action to protect customers which may include a security update as part of the monthly release process or an out of cycle update," the company noted in a statement. In the meantime, you should make sure your antivirus definitions are up-to-date. And as always, don't use IE unless you're able to travel forward in time one year and use IE 7 running on Windows Vista.

Cray's Chief Scientist Joins Microsoft

A single hire at Microsoft this week probably raised the average IQ there by a measurable difference. Burton Smith, formerly the chief scientist at supercomputer maker Cray, has left the company to take a position at Microsoft. There's no word yet on Smith's position at Microsoft, but clearly he'll be working with Windows Compute Cluster Server, the x64-based supercomputer project at the software giant, which is trying to make inroads in a market typically dominated by UNIX and Linux clusters.

Google This: Microsoft Apes Google's Classified Services Too

And on the eighth day, God created Google, so that Microsoft might keep busy copying its every move. Microsoft this week announced that it would create an online classified service that will compete with the recently announced Google Base service. Codenamed Fremont, the Microsoft service will integrate with other Microsoft products, such as MSN Messenger, and allow individuals to buy and sell products online. While one might see this as a conspiracy to plant the final nail in the coffin of printed newspapers, I look at it more as another excuse to keep Microsoft busy on silly side projects while OS competitors such as Apple and Linux eat its lunch. Just a thought.

RIM Dealt Another Setback in NTP Case ... And Another Gain

In the topsy-turvy world of Research in Motion (RIM), this week was clearly the topsy- ... turviest. A federal judge on Wednesday ruled that RIM, which makes the popular Blackberry mobile devices, was in violation of a patent owned by a tiny Virginia company named NTP, and would therefore need to face up to NTP's pressing legal challenge. The ruling set the stage for the possibility that RIM would have to halt its Blackberry service in the US, which constitutes the bulk of its market, unless the company was able to reach a settlement with NTP or deploy alternative technology. However, on Thursday, the US Patent and Trademark Office came to RIM's rescue, sort of, rejecting one of the five patents that NTP claims to hold. What's interesting here is that the USPTO previously preliminarily rejected all five of NTP's relevant patents, setting the stage for the possibility that this entire case could be tossed aside. This whole thing is silly: If there is evidence of prior work for any patent, it should be a simple matter to research that and then void patents as required. Furthermore, why is it so damned easy to get a patent these days?


Is Email Really Desktop Linux's Problem?

A recent open source study has determined that the reason desktop Linux has never really taken off is that the system lacks a high-quality email application. The study, performed by the Open Source Development Labs (OSDL) Desktop Linux Working Group, states that email is the number one application used by PC users. Thus, the lack of a good email application is holding Linux back. I'm not sure it's that simple. For example, Microsoft Outlook and Outlook Express run just fine on Windows XP x64 Edition, but that system is never going to take off until Microsoft can figure out the hardware driver problem. It seems to me that Linux suffers from a variety of problems, all of which will crop up well before someone needs to set up an email application. First, the systems are often difficult to install, don't supply the same level of hardware support or functionality as does Windows, and are different enough from Windows as to be difficult for users to easily grasp. In the end, deployment difficulties and training costs due to unfamiliarity are likely much bigger issues for Linux then email. But hey, maybe that's just me.

Firefox 1.5 ... Get it While it's Hot

And speaking of open source software, don't forget that the Mozilla Foundation shipped Firefox 1.5 this week. Mozilla's latest Web browser is the best version yet, and with about 50 million users and 10 percent of the market, it's a viable alternative to IE. If you're still using Microsoft's security black hole, my advice is the same as ever: Switch to Firefox. It's safer, faster, more full-featured, and free.

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