WinInfo Short Takes: Week of September 9

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

Windows XP Media Center: Control Freak Technology or Just a Commonsense Approach?
One of my pet peeves is watching the way media outlets mishandle certain industry news stories. This week's example is coverage of Microsoft's new Windows XP Media Center Edition, which will ship only on new Media Center PCs from Hewlett-Packard (HP) and Samsung this year. Media Center includes Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology that is designed to prevent users who digitally record TV shows from copying the resulting movie files to CD-Rs and giving them to friends (although you can back up the recordings and watch them again and again on the same PC). Clearly, Microsoft included DRM to prevent intellectual property theft and to quell Hollywood's concerns about digital-recording technology. But the reaction to this limitation has been stunning, and numerous stories have accused Microsoft of caring more about Hollywood than Joe User. Come on, people. The movie studios would sue Microsoft for all eternity if the company made it easy to digitally copy copyrighted content in Windows. This week, I even read an article that compared Microsoft and Apple Computer's digital-hub strategies and noted that Apple is about "empowerment, not control." Right. That's why Apple makes it difficult to copy songs from an iPod to another Mac, right? Microsoft is doing the same thing. But when Apple does the right thing, it gets positive press, and when Microsoft does anything, it gets negative press. For what it's worth, TiVo has similar DRM technology in its digital video recorder (DVR) products; competitor SonicBLUE RePlay doesn't. Various entertainment-related companies are suing SonicBLUE because of this. WinInfo Daily UPDATE readers know I'm not a Microsoft cheerleader, but in this instance the company isn't doing anything wrong, so back off and find some real news to write about.

Brian Valentine Disses Windows Security
Microsoft Senior Vice President Brian Valentine has made a career of outrageous pranks and comments, so when he took the stage this week at a Windows .NET Server (Win.NET Server) 2003 developers conference and said he wasn't proud of Microsoft's security record, people who didn't know any better came away impressed with his candor. Maybe it's time to put his comments in the correct context. "We really haven't done everything we could to protect our customers," he said. "Our products just aren't engineered for security." Sounds sincere, doesn't it? But Valentine's role has always been motivation through self-effacing humor. Whether the Valentine schtick will work outside the Windows development team is unclear, but it will take more than words to fix the deep architectural problems at Microsoft. Microsoft originally developed Windows, Office, and most of its other best-selling products at a time when "adding features" was number one on the to-do list and "security" didn't even make the cut. Transmogrifying those products into locked-down security wonders won't be easy; it might not even be possible. And although Valentine noted that Linux and UNIX have "about an equal number of vulnerabilities" as Windows does, I don't think that matters. Windows is the market leader, and Microsoft needs to take a leadership role. And having one of its senior vice presidents show up at a developer event to make apologies doesn't help or display leadership. If the company would just fix the problems once and for all, half the planet wouldn't be asking questions about a little OS called Linux.

IE 6 SP1 Set for Release
Microsoft will release Internet Explorer (IE) 6 Service Pack 1 (SP1) for non-Windows XP users any day now, although XP users will get the collection of bug fixes as part of XP SP1 on September 9. IE 6 SP1 doesn't appear to include anything very exciting, per se, but if you have news to the contrary, please let me know. As always, a major security patch like this is a must-have. And what's up with IE 7? I've heard nothing about future IE releases.

Microsoft Hardware on Tap
A story in the "East Side Journal" this week briefly mentioned Microsoft's upcoming broadband networking products, which should be released soon, and other hardware products that are due this fall. But Microsoft's thinking on the color choices for its new hardware is the interesting part of the story (you'll recall that last week I railed against the use of blue in non-Bluetooth hardware). Microsoft does have a certain rationale for its color choices, although that rationale is pretty silly. Blue hardware is "fun," just like Microsoft's corporate logo (yes, that's what the company says). Red hardware is "serious," designed for business users who want to get work done. And gray hardware and black hardware is "sophisticated," aimed at users who will pay more for better industrial design. I could recommend other colors, such as white for slobs who don't care that everything they touch is eventually covered in a fine brown film (like my keyboard). On second thought, maybe that's a bad idea.

Microsoft Releases Works Suite 2003, Addresses Non-Office Suite Concerns
Microsoft used its press release announcing the arrival of Microsoft Works Suite 2003 to counter some of the current stories about Corel WordPerfect and other office-productivity suite competitors that are making headway with PC makers. Works Suite 2003 is a low-cost alternative to Microsoft Office, and although it includes the full version of Word 2002, the rest of the package is aimed at consumers, not business users. The suite also includes Microsoft Works, Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia Standard, Microsoft Money Standard, Microsoft Picture It! Photo, and Microsoft Streets & Trips. But as the company notes, "According to an independent survey of more than 3000 households, 70 percent of consumers looking to purchase a computer in the next 12 months would prefer a PC that comes with Microsoft Works, Money, and Encarta over that same PC with Corel WordPerfect Office or Sun \[Microsystems\] StarOffice. The survey, conducted by TeleNation, a national market-facts research company, concluded that 90 percent of consumers want productivity software to be included in their PC package, and 79 percent specifically prefer Microsoft-branded productivity suite products. Major PC manufacturers preinstall Microsoft Works as a part of their consumer PC solutions." I'm curious whether this survey included information about consumers' preferences for Office and whether they would pay a lofty premium to get such a product. But Works is good stuff and is priced right. Check it out if you're in the market for Word.

Xbox Live Goes After Hackers
Microsoft might use its upcoming Xbox Live online gaming service to crack down on Xbox mods--hardware add-ons that let Xbox game consoles run pirated games. Although modding an Xbox requires soldering skills and, apparently, an electrical engineering degree, it's a popular pastime with Xbox digirati, thanks to the widespread availability of pirated game titles on the Internet. Microsoft hasn't made a final decision, but the company is now leaving open the possibility that it will scan Xboxes attached to Xbox Live and revoke online privileges to anyone who has a mod chip. Like Windows Product Activation (WPA), this feature probably won't win the company any friends, but can we really blame Microsoft for wanting to stop piracy?

Best Buy to Get Back-to-School Apples
Despite an often tumultuous relationship, Apple and Best Buy are back together this week with an agreement for the US retailer to stock three models of Apple's popular iPod in its stores. Best Buy will sell the 10GB and 20GB iPod for Windows models and the 20GB iPod for Macintosh model in its 500 brick-and-mortar stores and will also offer other models in its online store. This is good news for Apple, which has been making a big push lately for wider acceptance of its excellent iPod portable audio player. Apple hopes that when users get a little experience with the iPod, they might consider a bigger Apple box, like an iMac. For that purchase, however, they'll need to look beyond Best Buy, which has no plans to stock Mac systems again.

Microsoft Unveils New Storage Software
Microsoft has released a new storage technology called Multipath I/O that gives Windows 2000 Server and Windows.NET Server the ability to interact with storage devices far more efficiently using Fibre Channel, FireWire, IDE, SCSI, and other storage schemes. The problem is Microsoft's partners; EMC makes a similar product called PowerPath. Is Microsoft adding needed functionality to the base OS or is the company yanking the rug out from under yet another partner? I'll leave that call to the conspiracy theorists, but I do give the company credit for not making the product a Win.NET Server-only item.

64-Bit Products Lag in Redmond
Intel has been shipping 64-bit Itanium hardware for more than a year, but the only Redmond products we've seen that support the platform are limited-availability Windows releases and an early beta of Microsoft SQL Server 2000. Microsoft hopes to address this problem soon with a 64-bit version of SQL Server 2000 Beta 2 (seriously) and the release version of Win.NET Server, due late this year, but what's taking so long? Shouldn't these products have been in the pipeline during the Itanium and Itanium 2 development? This far into the Itanium's life, the 64-bit world is still nothing but promise. It shouldn't have happened this way.

Of Mice, Keyboards, and Men
I should know better. I should really know better. As a long-time user of Microsoft's Natural Keyboard line (I still pine for the original version, which was perfect), I've upgraded to each new model as it appeared (I wanted an Office Keyboard, but Microsoft never made an ergonomic version). Until this week, the Microsoft Natural Keyboard Pro was my daily keyboard; it features the perfect, ergonomically split layout my ready-to-carpal hands require. When I saw the new, recently released Microsoft keyboards, however, I immediately ordered a Natural Multimedia Keyboard, which seemed like the perfect upgrade. It isn't. The keyboard layout is different than previous models (which should never be the case, as the negative response to the ill-fated Natural Keyboard Elite a few years ago demonstrated), with a huge gap between the right CTRL key and the arrow keys and a completely redesigned HOME-END-DELETE area, which throws me off horribly. I write for a living, and this stuff is important: I keep hitting the dead area between the CTRL and left arrow keys when I intend to hit CTRL, and as for the HOME and END keys ... I'm sorry, but that's just wrong. Add the fact that the Natural Multimedia Keyboard lacks the two-port USB hub its predecessor offered and--ta da!--we have a loser (me) for buying this thing. So I'm going back to the good ol' Natural Keyboard Pro, as soon as the thorough washing I gave it dries. Heck, it even looks new again. Shame on you, Microsoft, for changing the layout, and shame on me for not considering this possibility before I bought the darned thing. And shame on me again for considering one of the new Microsoft mice ... I might never learn.

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