WinInfo Short Takes: Week of November 24: COMDEX 2003 Special Edition

An often irreverent look at some of the week's other news...

Expect Multiple Longhorn Beta Releases
   I've heard from several sources that Microsoft will issue "multiple" Longhorn beta releases, which, in my mind, casts more doubt on a late 2005 release date than any of the other claptrap I've read online. Multiple Longhorn beta releases would be a departure from earlier Windows versions, which tended to have several alpha milestone releases, two or three beta releases, and a small number of release candidate (RC) builds. John Montgomery, director of Microsoft's Developer Division, told me that although Longhorn beta 1, due in summer 2004, will concentrate on developers, the beta will be huge, with tens of thousands of managed testers and millions of external testers. Beta 2 (ETA unknown, but I'm expecting it in the first half of 2005) will concentrate on consumers and provide better fit and finish and a near-final user experience (which I take to mean that this beta release will finally include the Aero UI). As for the people who are testing build 4051, Microsoft is considering a postalpha Longhorn software development kit (SDK) drop, based on feedback, which would necessitate a new alpha build release before beta 1. I'd like to see that happen; summer 2004 is far away.

Gates vs. COMDEX: What's the Point?
   Sadly, the closest thing our industry has to a rock star is Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates, who--if not for his wealth and fame--would pass by unnoticed in any social situation. As I've noted several times, Gates isn't exactly a dynamic speaker, and although I understand his 20-year history of giving keynote addresses at COMDEX is a tradition of sorts and his company still dominates the IT landscape to which COMDEX still speaks, COMDEX should move on. Gates's COMDEX 2003 keynote address amounted to nothing more than a 75-minute product push and company retrospective, and I'd be surprised if anyone came away from the speech impressed. COMDEX needs a shot in the arm, and it needs to attract more companies to the show floor next year. One of the best ways to accomplish those two goals would be to alert the rest of the industry that Microsoft won't so obviously dominate the show any more.

Microsoft Claims Antispam Technology in the Works Since 1997
   I wasn't surprised to hear that Microsoft has been working on antispam technology for some time now; after all, the company's MSN Hotmail, MSN, Microsoft Exchange Server, Microsoft Outlook, and Outlook Express products are some of the most popular email services, servers, and applications on the planet. But in a meeting this week at COMDEX, I was surprised to hear that Microsoft Research first began actively looking at antispam technology as far back as 1997 and has numerous antispam patents. Microsoft's antispam technology is based on a concept called machine learning, in which you feed a known set of bad email messages to a database, run the database through the antispam technology's filters, and configure the database to continually learn what is and isn't legitimate email, letting it become more accurate over time to keep up with spam makers' changing strategies. And if you're wondering how effective this technology is, consider Microsoft's test cases: Hotmail email servers process millions of spam messages every day.

Tablet PC: Up-and-Comer or Dead in the Water?
   One of the big debates this fall is the status of the Tablet PC, which garnered just 500,000 sales in the past year, a far cry from the 50+ million PCs that the industry likely sold in the same time frame. Microsoft launched the Tablet PC with much fanfare last fall after 2 years of hype, and Gates took on the project as his personal response to the many people in the industry who don't believe Microsoft is capable of innovation. But the question remains: Is the Tablet PC viable, and will it be successful in the long run? Despite huge reservations about the first-generation Tablet PC hardware, which--let's face it--was underpowered at best, Microsoft has clearly nailed the software. Windows XP Tablet PC Edition 2004 is even better than the original. Best of all, the current-generation Tablet PC hardware is finally catching up with other mainstream notebooks, lending some credence to the notion that the Tablet PC platform will eventually be the future of all notebook computers. But the best news I've seen so far is pricing: First-generation devices were too expensive, and if all Tablet PC makers follow Gateway, which is offering a Tablet PC for just $100 more than a comparable "typical" notebook, Tablet PCs will take off. Mark down the Tablet PC as one bet Microsoft got right.

Smartphone 2003: Nothing to Get Excited About
   Microsoft is in a strange place with its Windows Mobile-based Smartphone devices; the company just recently shipped its Windows Mobile 2003-based Smartphone software to cell-phone makers, but all the devices that are hitting the market now are based on Smartphone 2002, which shipped last year. The manufacturers have reasons for the delay in getting Smartphone 2003 to customers, and we'll finally see some Smartphone 2003 devices in early 2004. But my big question concerns the difference between Smartphone 2003 and Smartphone 2002. Are consumers losing anything by getting a Smartphone 2002 device today? The difference appears to be insignificant, unless you're a corporate buyer who's interested in rolling Microsoft .NET-enabled applications across a range of phones. Smartphone 2003 adds the Windows .NET Compact Framework and an integrated Bluetooth stack, which might or might not ever be useful, according to my experience. In other words, the Smartphone 2003 and Smartphone 2002 feature sets are virtually identical from an end-user standpoint. You don't need to wait for Smartphone 2003.

IBM ThinkPad G Series: Best-Selling PC in Japan
   Although I can't discuss most of the products IBM revealed during my meeting with the company this week at COMDEX, one bit of public information stood out from our talks: IBM's largest and heaviest IBM ThinkPad, the behemoth ThinkPad G Series, is in fact the best-selling PC in Japan, a country known for its tiny portable devices and connected society. But the ThinkPad G Series, which can hardly be called a svelte traveling companion, isn't used as a portable device in Japan. Instead, the Japanese use it as a desktop PC because its form factor is actually quite small when you consider the amount of space a typical desktop PC and display use. The Japanese scenario makes sense when you think about it, and given the machine's inexpensive pricing, PC users everywhere should consider the option.

Compaq X Gaming System Rocks
   One of the most incredible new PCs I saw at COMDEX this week was HP's new limited-edition Compaq X Gaming System, an aluminum-clad monster that competes directly with Dell's equally impressive Dimension XPS system. The Compaq X features a 3.2GHz or 3.0GHz Pentium 4 processor, 512MB to 1GB of RAM, serial ATA hard disks, and multiple optical drives. The gaming crowd should be sure to check out the system's neat internal lighting effects. HP uses the aluminum case for practical purposes, too: The case aides in heat dissipation, along with four strategically placed fans. The Compaq X will be available in limited quantities at certain Best Buy and CompUSA locations.

HP Moves from Athens to Troy
   HP's Athens PC prototype, which the company first unveiled at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) 2003 trade show, was a big hit and an intriguing glimpse into the future of computing. At COMDEX, however, HP delivered a working version of the Athens concept, code-named Troy, which uses actual PC components that are shipping today and a temporary breakout box to implement the various buttons and displays that future systems will somehow implement. The Troy prototype includes HP's new wide-screen display mounted on the front of the company's current small-form-factor PC, a wireless keyboard and mouse, a WebCam and cell phone, and various other Athens-like features. I was heartened to see the Athens concept taken out of the lab and put in near-usable form because so often these far-reaching concepts seem more dream than reality. Have no doubt: By the time Longhorn rolls out in a few years, the PCs we'll be using will be incredible.

Voice Command Makes Pocket PC Interaction Easier
   A few weeks ago, I inadvertently and foolishly ignored the release of Voice Command for Windows Mobile 2003-based Pocket PC and Pocket PC Phone Edition, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover at COMDEX what a valuable piece of software Voice Command is. Voice Command lets you use your voice (naturally) to interact with your Inbox, calendar, and contacts and with Windows Media Player (WMP); it speaks back to you by using a natural form of communication. For example, you can ask the device, "What's my next appointment?" and it will tell you. The software costs $39.99 at Handango and is worth the cost if you're one of those idiotic, er ah, busy people who feels the need to access your PDA and drive a car at the same time. Just don't try to use it on the plane next to me.

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