Short Takes: March 14, 2014

Short Takes: March 14, 2014

An often irreverent look at this week's other news

An often irreverent look at this week's other news ...

Punxsutawney Gates Emerges From His Hibernation and Declares 6 More Weeks of Tech

We haven't heard a lot from Microsoft Cofounder Bill Gates in recent years, as he's been off solving malaria, feeding the hungry, educating the ignorant, and generally saving the world. But now he's back, the Grima Wormtongue to Satya Nadella's King Théoden. And I can't help but think that maybe he's a bit past his due date. In a Rolling Stone interview of all places, Gates continues to be optimistic—neat!—but also surprisingly disconnected. He claims that "Microsoft would have been willing to buy" WhatsApp, which Facebook snagged for a crazy $19 billion, but would never pay that much money. He thinks one of Mark Zuckerberg's biggest accomplishments is "shaping the Facebook user interface," which as anyone who uses Facebook will tell you is laughable. And he says that Edward Snowden "broke the law" and is not a hero. "You won't find much admiration from me," he says.

That Said ...

Punxsutawney Gates does touch on some issues that I think are important. He says that the success of Microsoft Office dates back to the 1990s and that the product "needs more than a tune-up." It's "pretty exciting for the people inside who say, 'We need to take a little risk and do some new stuff'," he adds. And as for Google, he's right about that company, too: Its search business is the only reason it can do the other stuff it does, almost none of which makes money. "When you have a lot of money, it allows you to go down a lot of dead ends. We had that luxury at Microsoft in the '90s." From there, the conversation sort of drifts off into Gates' charitable work, which is of course very important, just not to those of us in the tech sphere. So I guess the verdict is still out on Gates and his ability to help Nadella "review the product plans and come in and help make some quick decisions and pick some new directions." But I have to think someone like Mark Zuckerberg might have had a slightly more relevant take on that stuff.

Microsoft and Google Form Sweeping Partnership ...

Sort of. According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, ASUS has cancelled plans for a new lineup of mobile devices that could dual-boot between Android and Windows. Why? Because of pressure from both Google and Microsoft, neither of which are particularly interested in seeing that kind of hybrid device come to market. Oddly, the scuttling of these ASUS devices is a big blow to Intel, which had hoped to see a new breed of hybrid Android/Windows devices make up for the falloff in PC sales. And since "Intel Inside" isn't exactly a mainstay of the Android/device world, this effort was obviously a big deal. "Microsoft will continue to invest with [PC makers] to promote best-in-class [PC maker] and Microsoft experiences to our joint customers," a Microsoft statement notes. In other words: No Android for you!

Microsoft's Investments in Nook Are Finally Paying Off

Oh wait, no they're not. You might recall that Microsoft has invested over $600 million in Barnes & Noble's struggling Nook ebook platform and that the firm briefly considered buying Nook and adding it to its stable of largely ignored consumer offerings. Well, the two firms have established a new agreement. The good news is that Microsoft will no longer prop up Nook financially and flush more money down the toilet. The bad news is that Nook will cease development of its Nook app for Windows—which I just highlighted as a software pick of the week, by the way—and will no longer release a planned (but quite overdue) Windows Phone app either. Apparently, Microsoft will instead release its own Reader app for Windows 8 and Windows Phone—possibly an update to the Reader app it already makes—that will include Nook compatibility so that Windows users can still access their content. (Mary Jo Foley tells me the new app is a massive overhaul, however, so maybe not.) What I'd really like to see is a single reader that also works with Amazon's Kindle format: That app is a joke on Windows and Windows Phone. We deserve better.

Signs of Life in Europe

With regulators in Europe bending over backward to appease Google and get this prickly antitrust issue behind them, I had kind of given up and was looking forward to some future case—maybe that pending Android product-dumping investigation—where the firm would finally be made to change its ways. But wait, there's a light on the horizon. The cabal of companies that complained about Google's anticompetitive behavior—which, yes, includes Microsoft—has been putting pressure on European Commission (EC) antitrust chief Joaquín Almunia, demanding that he not let Google off so lightly. And now they're threatening to appeal if he does settle with Google under the current terms. So the EC is doing what Europe does best: holding endless meetings. "The case is not yet closed," an EC spokesperson said this week. Cross your fingers.

The Xbox One Team Is At It Again

You've seen me use the term "making lemonade" with regards to Xbox before, but this is arguably the best example yet. This week, Microsoft is touting that its Xbox One is "continuing the most successful launch in Xbox history," while ignoring that this success is coming amidst the Xbox One getting thrashed, month after month, by the much-better-selling PlayStation 4. "Xbox One continues selling at a record-breaking pace, with 258,000 units sold in the United States in the month of February, surpassing Xbox 360 sales by over 61 percent at the same point in time," the firm notes (but doesn't tell you that it was outsold by the PlayStation 4 again). I understand the need to market this thing as successful, but how about communicating the real victory? That is, the Xbox One actually closed the gap with the PlayStation 4, at least in the United States, in February, with the PlayStation 4 only narrowly beating Xbox One with an estimated 287,000 units sold. Using the type of math favored by Apple fans, that means the Xbox One led hardware sales on a dollar basis. Of course, with both consoles losing money, that also means that Microsoft lost more on the Xbox One in February. Never mind.

Making News Out of Nothing at All

Speaking of Xbox One, this is kind of amusing. A New York Times blog post wonders aloud why there is a "sudden surge" in Xbox One sales. I sort of take exception to the entire point of the post, but I do enjoy a good conspiracy theory. So let's examine this. First of all, there's no "surge." What's happened is that the sales gap between the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One has narrowed. But only in the United States. The first theory about why is the release of Titanfall: Maybe consumers were buying more Xbox Ones (even though that's not what happened; remember, only the unit sales gap narrowed) in anticipation of the game. Or maybe—and this one is rich—"game shoppers may finally be getting fed up with the ongoing scarcity of the PlayStation 4." Since Xbox Ones are more plentiful, people are just buying what they can. Which makes sense, when you're talking about things like Coke versus Pepsi, or even one $240 Android tablet versus another. But $500 for an Xbox One? This isn't something you settle on. You're either in or you're not. Anyway ... that's literally all of it. In other words, nothing.

Xbox One Controller Is Coming to the PC

While we're on an Xbox One roll, here's some actual news: Posting on a video game forum, of all places, Microsoft Director of Xbox Product Planning Albert Penello wrote this week that "the Xbox One controller you have today will work" with the PC. "When the drivers become available, they will work with the existing controllers," he explained. "There is no plan to do a new, separate controller that only works on Windows. It will be the same as it is on Xbox 360 ... That's not to say that we may not ship also PC SKU of the Xbox One controller, much like we do on Xbox 360." This is news because reports have surfaced recently that the Xbox One controller would not work with the PC.

iPhone 5 Is Coming to Cricket

But what Apple should be doing is offering the iPhone 5C, because that's the sound you hear—a cricket chirping—when you ask a wireless customer if he or she wants to buy an iPhone 5C.

Amazon Raises Price of Prime Subscription, World Keeps On Turning

After testing customer reaction to a bigger price hike, Amazon this week alerted customers of its Prime subscription service that it would be raising the price much less, from $79 per year (in the United States) to $99. Originally offered as a way to pay for a year's worth of physical goods shipping (along with a two-day shipping guarantee on most products), Prime has emerged as a key advantage for the firm as it has added digital benefits to the service, including a Netflix competitor called Amazon Prime Video. And now, Amazon is expected to add a music service like Spotify to the mix too. In a completely scientific polling of my Twitter followers, most agreed with me that this price hike—the only one in nine years, by the way—is reasonable, and that Prime remains a great value.

But Wait, There's More

Don't forget to follow me on Twitter and Paul Thurrott's SuperSite for Windows. And check out my free ebooks, Paul Thurrott's Windows Phone 8, Paul Thurrott's Xbox Music, and the newly minted Windows 8.1 Field Guild, which I'm now copy-editing with Rafael Rivera on its way to publication.

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