WinInfo Short Takes: Week of September 18 - 15 Sep 2006

An often irreverent look at some of the week's other news, including a busy month, EU silliness, Windows Vista RC1, Microsoft Zune, Apple iTunes, new Microsoft hardware, Microsoft Max Dell and AMD, a bad IE patch returns, and much, much more...

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An uneventful week for once, and now that a pleasant coolness has returned to New England and the kids are back in school, things are settling down.

Not that anyone would realize this per se, but I've spent much of the past several months killing myself over a Windows Vista book. It's gotten worse since we've returned from France: I've spent much of every day, all day most weekends, and most nights doing nothing but working on and finishing up this book, and it's gotten in the way of both work and home life. It's gotten so bad, in fact, that I think I can confidently declare that I'll never do such a thing again. What's odd is that there are artificial deadlines imposed by the publishing company that bear no relation at all to both our original contract and the Vista schedule itself. So while I've fought to push back completion of the project as much as I can--to the expense, it seems, of my relationships with both my coauthor and the truly good if nerve-wracked people at the publishing company, this book, like Vista itself, is apparently a train tunneling down the track, and it can't be stopped. It's too bad, because Microsoft changes so much in each release. It's hard to keep on top of it all. And I want the book to be as good as it can be.

So why mention this at all? I've got lots of things I'd like to focus on, like the Vista content and some Zune/digital media stuff on the SuperSite, that will likely end up being both more satisfying personally and financially than this book. And I've worked hard to strike a balance between uptime and downtime, so to speak, and this book has thrown the whole thing out of whack. I need that balance again.

So I'll get there. In the meantime, one of my two basketball leagues has finally started up again, and of course the NFL is in full swing. I still go to the gym four of five days a week, depending on how busy it is. And since I don't commute to work, I try to listen to music or radio podcasts on the elliptical trainer, and I read two newspapers every day so I can keep up with the world. Maybe it's just the usual autumn after all.

But hey, thank God for the EU. Those guys manage to keep things interesting.

Short Takes

US Warns Other Governments to Leave Vista, iTunes Alone
A top official in the US Department of Justice (DOJ) yesterday warned foreign governments about interfering with popular technologies like Windows Vista and Apple's iTunes. DOJ antitrust chief Thomas Barnett said that attempts overseas to shackle these technologies--what he called "regulatory second-guessing"--would discourage innovation and "threaten to harm the very consumers \[they\] claim to help." Barrett said that Apple, in particular, should be "applauded" not "attacked" for creating a viable market for digital music. He also pointed out that European Union (EU) complaints about Windows Vista's security features were odd. He's requested a meeting with EU antitrust commissioner Neelie Kroes to discuss the issues. I'd like to see a nice cage match happen there. The EU is out of control. (See below).

Windows Vista RC1 Open to One and All
If you're interested in the well-regarded Release Candidate 1 (RC1) version of Windows Vista, I've got good news: It's now available to anyone that wants it. Even people who did not sign on for the Beta 2 release are now able to download RC1 via the Windows Vista Customer Preview Program (CPP). Users can request a $5 DVD or download a 3 GB ISO file, which they can then burn to DVD themselves. Microsoft now says it expects about 5 million people to test RC1 via the CPP and other distribution methods, and it hopes that feedback from this version will make the final release--due in late October--the highest quality version of Windows yet. http://www.microsoft.com/windowsvista/getready/preview.mspx

Microsoft Debuts iPod Killer. It's Brown. And Stuff
Microsoft revealed details about its upcoming iPod killer, the Zune. From the initial public unveiling, all we can tell is that the Zune is quite iPod-like, with a 3-inch color screen, 30 GB hard drive, and similar size, weight and form factor to the Apple device. A few things do set the Zune apart, however, and it will be interesting to see whether any of these features excite consumers. First, the Zune will be offered in multiple colors, though only white, black, and, curiously, brown will be available in time for the holiday selling season. The Zune features wireless networking functionality so that Zune users can share music and photos. And it includes a FM radio tuner. Oh, and it's completely incompatible with the number one online service in the world, iTunes, making it a complete non-starter. Anyway, the Zune will be backed by yet another online service, called Zune Marketplace, which no doubt will be modeled after the Xbox 360's Xbox Marketplace. No word yet on pricing, though Microsoft says it will be competitive. No word, too, on the exact release date. Or why they're even bothering.

Zune Thoughts
So, is the Zune competitive? Is it... exciting? More to the point, does it offer anything that a slew of uninteresting iPod competitors don't offer? The answer to all of these questions is a vague "sort of." Without having one in my hands yet, it's hard to get excited about the Zune. But see, that's the problem. Without having a second generation iPod nano or iPod shuffle yet, earlier this week, I was pretty much blown away by those devices. And now that I do at least have the former of those devices, I'm even more impressed. Zune will have to "wow" a lot more in person than it does in the promotional materials I've seen so far. That said, I'll be giving Zune--and, tellingly, its competitors--first class treatment on the SuperSite for Windows beginning next week with a new Zune Activity Center where I'll feature all the MP3 player and digital audio, video, and photo reviews I've written over the years and augment that with new reviews of current players and software. This is a long-overdue addition to the site, since I've been working with digital media for over a decade--two, if you care to include the Amiga--but the Zune introduction seems like a logical time to start it up.

Microsoft Max is.... What? What the heck is this silliness?
And speaking of digital media, honestly, is this some kind of joke? A few years ago, Microsoft started an internal project called Max that was about creating awesome Vista-specific applications. Over time, we've only seen one application come out of the group, called, go figure Max. The original version of Max was a simple if nice-looking photo sharing application. This past week, however, Microsoft released a new version. Here's the official description: "Microsoft Codename Max is your opportunity to try a new, exciting experience from Microsoft. Today Max lets you make beautiful photo slideshows to share with your family and friends. You can also use the newsreader to keep up with the latest news updates from around the world." That's right. It's now a photo sharing application ... and news reader. Eh? What's coming in the next release? The ability to process foods into various forms of paste? And why does it only run on Windows XP (and not on Windows Vista RC1)? Sorry, but this is just weird.

Microsoft Hardware Goes Vista
Microsoft this week unveiled some interesting new desktop and notebook PC peripherals, many of which are aimed at customers moving to Windows Vista in the months ahead. The new Wireless Entertainment Desktop 8000 features Bluetooth wireless technology and is aimed at Media Center users. However, there are Vista-specific buttons on the keyboard, like Gadgets, which triggers the Vista Sidebar. A non-rechargeable version without backlighting, the Wireless Entertainment Desktop 7000, is also available. These and other devices will be rolled out in the months ahead, Microsoft says.

EU Rules Out Happy Ending in Microsoft Case
EU trustbuster Neelie Kroes said this week that the EU will not reach a "friendly settlement" with Microsoft in regards to its drawn-out 2004 antitrust case because the software maker has never respected the EU decision. She said that this year's impositions of daily fines on Microsoft occurred because Microsoft refused to follow European law even after two years of legal defeats and stalling tactics. And I thought my family was screwed up.

EU Sets It's Godless Soul on Microsoft Office
And speaking of the EU, it's not enough that Europe's antitrust commission is punishing Microsoft for its Windows XP sins and looking into doing the same with Windows Vista. Now, the EU is looking into Microsoft Office as well. The aforementioned Neelie Kroes said this week that her European Commission (EC) is about to launch an investigation into Microsoft's upcoming Office 2007 System software because of unspecified complaints from competitors. Leading suspects include Adobe, which previously complained that Microsoft had been planning to add a free Save-As-PDF feature in Office 2007. Microsoft has since announced that it will drop the feature from Office 2007 and release it instead as a Web download. Geesh.

Microsoft vs. the EU: Who's Right about Windows Vista?
So the EU has been in the news a lot lately, from a Microsoft perspective. There's the ongoing 2004 antitrust case in which, quite frankly, the company hasn't behaved too well. There's a potential Microsoft Office case as well, which we don't know anything about. But then there's this Vista thing. I just don't get where the EU is coming from in the Vista case. Few people could argue that Vista needs to be more secure than its predecessors. But what about Windows Live OneCare, which is designed almost specifically to fix problems with Windows, another Microsoft product? Here's my thing: I love OneCare and use it myself. But isn't that product a bigger antitrust concern than Microsoft taking necessary and long overdue steps to improve Windows with Vista? It's like Enron buying up all the energy for California and then doubling the price. Isn't it? And another thing. Before anyone plays the bundling card, consider this: Putting a Web browser, media player, and instant messaging application into an OS is something anyone could debate. But improving the core security of the product is not negotiable. That has to happen first. Obviously. So if the EU is not going to investigate OneCare, than it needs to give up its Vista posturing. It's about time that the needs of consumers outweighed the needs of the security software makers that have been milking Windows' deficiencies for far too long as it is.

Dell Goes AMD on the Desktop ... About Two Years Too Late
After years of waffling, Dell this week unleashed a set of three new desktop PCs that are powered by AMD Athlon-64 X2 microprocessors. It's too bad the company waited so long: For the past two or three years, AMD's processors were faster, cheaper, and cooler than anything offered by Intel. But now that Intel has shipped its Core 2 Duo processors, the situation is reversed. So while PC companies like HP have been offering AMD alternatives for years, Dell is only now doing so, and it's waited so long that those processors no longer offer any benefit at all. I love Dell--in fact, I will likely buy my latest in a long string of Dell PCs this very week--but this move says a lot about the decision-making problems that have gripped the company for a while now. In this case, it doesn't make sense to be conservative. And for the record, yes, my next Dell PC will use an Intel Core 2 Duo processor.

Microsoft Goes to the Well Thrice for IE Patch
For its September batch of automatic security updates, Microsoft shipped a surprisingly low number of patches, given the volume of issues we've had to wade through for past few months. But the big security news this week involves an Internet Explorer (IE) patch that Microsoft first issued in August. Since then, Microsoft has shipped three versions of the patch, and hopefully third time's the charm. That's because the previous two renditions of the patch actually created new security problems that hackers were quick to exploit. They say Microsoft software gets its right on the third release. Let's hope that's true in this case.

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