Short Takes: May 16, 2014

Short Takes: May 16, 2014

An often irreverent look at this week's other news

An often irreverent look at this week's other news, including lingering questions about Surface, a Microsoft/Nokia keepsake book, which cloud services providers are the most trustworthy, Google preps "right to be forgotten" tools, Microsoft's retail store silliness, video game market spirals drain, Microsoft finds good news amidst the drop, "Halo 5" coming in 2015, Xbox Live Gold subscribers can get a refund, Pinterest is a thing, and FCC keeps screwing over Net Neutrality.

Microsoft set to launch two new Surface devices next week

The issue: Does anyone even care anymore? Although I'm a huge fan of the build quality of Microsoft's Surface tablets in particular, it's pretty clear these devices have found a limited audience thus far. So with CEO Satya Nadella reportedly heading to New York City to launch some Surface 2.5 devices next week—a Surface mini tablet with an 8-inch screen and a larger Surface Pro device—one has to wonder whether the clock is ticking.

Corporate mantras such as "devices and services" and "mobile first, cloud first" both put hardware at the forefront of the conversation, but it's in hardware where Microsoft has seen its least success thus far. So how will it turn things around? Nadella's start power will help, but only for about 15 minutes. After that, people are going to have to show up and starting handing out their credit cards. And I'm not sure that's going to happen.

Microsoft welcomes employees from Nokia ... with a book

Like, a paper book. Microsoft has sent a 128-page keepsake book to former Nokia employees who joined the software giant this week. Created by a firm called TCOLondon, the book "celebrates the two companies' shared history of innovation" and "history of firsts." Maybe it's just me, but this thing looks like a commemorative version of The Hobbit, one of those things that comes in a slipcase and sells for triple its actual worth. You know, like Nokia.

But, I kid.

When it comes to the cloud, who can you trust?

According to a recent EFF study called "Who has your back?" only a handful of big tech companies—Apple, Dropbox, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter and Yahoo—are truly trustworthy cloud services providers. That's because they meet all of the security and privacy requirements in this "post-Snowden" age. The least trustworthy among the big tech companies, unsurprisingly, include wireless carriers like AT&T and Comcast.

But SnapChat, the messaging service that was recently slapped down by the Federal Trade Commission for lying to consumers about its data retention policies, received the lowest score of all surveyed services. "Too often, technology companies are the weak link, providing the government with a honeypot of rich data," the EFF notes. "We must strengthen their ability to resist overbroad data demands and bring light to the flow of data from corporate servers to the government."

Google promises "right to be forgotten" tools within two weeks

In the wake of an EU legal defeat, Google told a German deputy commissioner that it will provide a mechanism for users in that country—and presumably elsewhere in the EU—to request the removal of Google Search results that they feel are inappropriate. Ulrich Kühn, a deputy commissioner for data-protection authority in Hamburg, said that the tools would most likely work like Google's other information take-down mechanisms, where users or content owners can complain to the firm about copyright, privacy, or other legal violations that are published through its services. Google already deals with several million of these requests every week, so what's a few million more?

Microsoft will soon open retail stores in both Maine and Iowa

Fun fact: Microsoft still doesn't have a single retail store in New York City, nor has it announced any plans for one.

Video game market continues downward spiral despite spike in hardware sales

NPD reported this week that the video game market continued its freefall in the United States in April, with software sales dropping 10 percent, year-over-year, to $240.8 million. But new-generation video game console sales remain strong: hardware sales roared 76 percent to $192.8 million, thanks to the Sony PS4 and Microsoft's Xbox One, as well as accessories. The problem, of course, is that this temporary hardware sales bump isn't offsetting losses from software. The firm says that the video game market, overall, has been falling about $15 million per month since last year, and has been dropping for years overall. The reason? People just aren't buying as many games per console as they used to.

Microsoft is again making lemonade

Sony's PlayStation 4 once again outsold the Xbox One in April, forcing Microsoft to parse the data NPD provided it with to find the good news. This includes that the number one selling game of the month was the Xbox exclusive Titanfall, which runs on both Xbox One and Xbox 360, and that the combined Xbox market held 8 of the 10 ten spots on the game bestsellers list.

Beyond that, Microsoft says it sold 115,000 Xbox One consoles into the US retail market in April, and 71,000 Xbox 360s. Given the state of the software part of the video game business, it is perhaps notable that the firm also has a nice statistic around hardware sales to tout: Xbox One sales are up 76 percent over sales of the Xbox 360 at a similar time after its launch.

But wait, here's some Halo news

Microsoft also revealed some details about the next Halo title this week. Sadly, it won't ship until next year, however: Dubbed Halo 5: Guardians, the next Halo game will be an Xbox One exclusive that runs at 60 frame per second (FPS). It will launch in fall 2015 alongside a new Halo television series in which Microsoft will collaborate with Steven Spielberg.

Vaguely, Microsoft also promised some Halo news at this year's E3 show in June, and while I don't know anything about this, my guess is that we'll see previous Halo titles ported to Xbox One and Windows, and perhaps a new Halo: Spartan Assault-type game or game series for all of Microsoft's platforms, Windows Phone. Frankly, it's not clear to me why Microsoft doesn't push Halo harder than it does. Maybe that's about to change.

Yes, you can get an Xbox Live Gold refund

OK, one more Xbox note. In the wake of Microsoft's decision to finally remove the Xbox Live Gold subscription requirement from most entertainment (and Microsoft) apps on Xbox One and Xbox 360, the firm has confirmed that it will be providing refunds to subscribers.

"If you purchased a Gold membership before the changes to Gold are available in June you have until 31 August 2014 to cancel, and receive a pro-rata refund of any unused days remaining between the day that you cancel and the day that your paid Gold membership ends," Microsoft notes in an Xbox Live FAQ. You can request a refund when the June System Updates for Xbox One and/or Xbox 360 appear. To do so, visit the Xbox Live Gold Refund site. So I'm glad for this. But I think the refund should be retroactive: This requirement was always an atrocity.

Pinterest is apparently worth $5 billion

I don't know a single person who uses this service.

FCC keeps trying, but failing, to do the right thing about net neutrality

It's interesting watching the Federal Communications Commission flounder around, trying to salvage both net neutrality and its dignity. But I just don't get why this is difficult: All it has to do is ensure that Internet service providers can't create a faster access line for those who can pay. Period. What it's doing, however—at least this week—is pretending to establish rules that will preserve Net Neutrality while in fact giving ISPs the ability to create for-pay Internet "fast lanes." And that just sucks.

But Wait, There's More

Don't forget to follow me on Twitter and the Paul Thurrott's SuperSite for Windows.

I'm trying to change the book publishing model, and would appreciate your support: Windows 8.1 Field Guide is now complete and available for only $2 in PDF, MOBI and EPUB formats, and it will be in the Kindle and Nook e-book stores soon. But I have other free e-books available too, including Windows Phone 8 Field Guide (also now heading to Kindle/Nook) and the in-progress Xbox Music Field Guide. Coming soon: Windows Phone 8.1 Field Guide.

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