COMDEX 2003: SmartScreen Antispam, Tablet PC 2004, and Windows Mobile 2003

As I write this, COMDEX 2003 is just barely under way, with preregistration, preconferences, and Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates's keynote address behind us. And although some of this show's most interesting revelations might still be in the future, we've already discovered some interesting Microsoft platform-related news that I want to tell you about.

SmartScreen Antispam Technology
During his keynote address Sunday night, Gates announced the Microsoft SmartScreen antispam technologies, which will debut in an add-on for Microsoft Exchange Server 2003 Software Assurance customers. The add-on, called Microsoft Exchange Intelligent Message Filter, will ship in early 2004. Early versions of the technology debuted in MSN 8, MSN Hotmail, and Microsoft Office Outlook 2003. Microsoft Research developed SmartScreen's patented technology, which appears to be similar to the Bayesian antispam technologies I've discussed previously in Windows & .NET Magazine UPDATE. SmartScreen uses a heuristic-based email analysis to determine whether a message is junk email. And as with Bayesian approaches, SmartScreen adapts over time, making it more intelligent the longer you use it.
Interestingly, Microsoft first tested its SmartScreen technology on Hotmail, which provided the company with millions of real-world spam messages to evaluate and thousands of real users who agreed to test the technology and rate each of their messages as spam or legitimate email. This real-world evaluation gives the technology a fairly unprecedented level of battle readiness, given the massive amounts of spam that flow through Hotmail's networks.
Here's how SmartScreen works: When an email message arrives on the Exchange server, the software determines the recipient; checks to see whether the sending address is on the recipient's Safe Sender, Safe Recipient, or Blocked Sender lists; then applies the appropriate rules and bypasses SmartScreen. If the sender isn't on one of these lists, the server scans the message for characteristics in the text and arrives at a probability of whether the message is spam. According to the settings the administrator has configured, Exchange delivers the message to the recipient's Inbox or Junk Mail folder.

Windows XP Tablet PC Edition 2004
Gates noted that various hardware makers have sold 500,000 Tablet PCs in the past year, which isn't a huge number, frankly. But two factors are colluding to make Tablet PCs more viable in the year ahead. First, PC makers are moving away from the performance-challenged Pentium III Processor - M and Transmeta Crusoe platforms that previous devices were based on, and moving to the more powerful Pentium M/Centrino platform. As a result, second-generation Tablet PC devices, some of which are available now, will perform better, while getting dramatically better battery life than their predecessors. Rarely do we see such an obvious win-win for users.
Second, Microsoft is improving the Tablet PC software and will release a free upgrade for all Tablet PC users called Windows XP Tablet PC Edition 2004 in the first half of 2004. This release, code-named Lonestar, adds several features that make the Tablet PC platform more viable, especially in the crucial data-entry category. Gates demonstrated improvements to the Tablet PC OS's Info Panel, the pop-up window that appears when you need to input Digital Ink into a Windows control, such as a text box. In previous versions, the software had to contextually determine whether you were writing letters or numbers, which was processor- and time-intensive. (For example, did you write a "5" or an "S"?) In the new version, developers can restrict the types of input each control can accept. So if an input box is designed for a phone number, it will accept only numbers and be better able to determine what you're writing. And Microsoft redesigned the Info Panel to resize on the fly so that you can write more at one time, which is a nice feature.

Windows Mobile 2003
The Windows Mobile folks are here at COMDEX, and while Gates didn't say much about the Pocket PC, he did briefly discuss new Smartphone devices. My concern here is with Microsoft's syncing software, ActiveSync, which appears to dramatically lag behind similar third-party software. Here's the primary problem: Because they're digital devices, you need to occasionally reboot or reset Pocket PCs and, presumably, Windows Mobile Smartphones. Although rebooting doesn't usually wipe out the data on the device, such as your Contacts or Calendar information, it does wipe out such things as the owner information and all your customization settings. Some OEMs, such as HP, have written software programs to overcome this limitation, but Microsoft needs to build this functionality into ActiveSync.
Another feature lacking from ActiveSync is the ability to fine-tune the ways in which information is synced between your PC and your device. With the Palm OS, you can easily set up the device to do one-way sync, in which information on the PC always overwrites information on the device (or vice versa). For some reason, this basic functionality is still unavailable on the Pocket PC and Smartphone. Furthermore, when syncing between two PCs and one device, I often get double entries, which is unacceptable.
Not coincidentally, I'll be meeting with each of the product teams for the technologies mentioned above during COMDEX, as well as with a host of other Microsoft teams and third-party companies later in the week, so I might have more information soon. See you next week.

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