Short Takes: May 23, 2014

Short Takes: May 23, 2014

An often irreverent look at this week's other news

An often irreverent look at this week's other news, including a Microsoft victory against an unlawful FBI data request, the real reason China banned Windows 8, the Microsoft security controversy of the week, a weird ban on competitors at the Partner Conference, Microsoft fixes an Office 365 billing glitch, Facebook belatedly figures out privacy, Apple belatedly agrees to fix iMessage lock-in, and the real reason Apple is buying Beats.

Microsoft fought the law and the ... Wait, Microsoft won?!

Microsoft this week trumpeted its success in defeating an FBI secret data request called a National Security Letter (NSL), which it says contained a nondisclosure requirement that was unlawful and violated the firm's Constitutional right to free expression. Once Microsoft challenged the request in a federal court, the FBI withdrew its request.

"The FBI's letter in this case sought information about an account belonging to one of our enterprise customers," Microsoft general counsel and executive vice president Brad Smith explained. "Enterprise customers at Microsoft include legitimate businesses, governments, and non-governmental organizations. Like all National Security Letters, this one sought only basic subscriber information ... [but] the nondisclosure provision hindered our practice of notifying enterprise customers when we receive legal orders related to their data."

So it's nice watching Microsoft sticking up for the, um, little guy. But the conclusion to this story isn't necessarily a win-win: As it turns out, the FBI ultimately did obtain the information it had sought by simply approaching the company in question directly. But then, maybe that was always the way this should have went down.

The real reason China banned Windows 8?

The Motley Fool has an interesting report claiming that the real reason China is banning Windows 8 from governmental PC purchases is that it believes Microsoft has the ability and resources to continue supporting Windows XP—which is heavily used in China—and is in fact doing so ... but only for those companies—and governments—that pay for the privilege. The theory here—and, honestly, it's pretty sound—is that China feels like it's being blackmailed so that it can continue to safely use millions of PCs that all around the country, and that it will face the change of annual increases or other issues. And given the rate in which it upgrades, it is further worried that it will simply start the cycle all over again when it does upgrade to Windows 8 ... because Microsoft will simply stop supporting that OS at some point as well. Ultimately, what China really wants is to replace XP with an operating system of its own. And while its internal efforts to create a Red Flag distribution of Linux have failed mightily, the country is now working with Canonical (makers of Ubuntu Linux) on a replacement. I can say this. China deserves Linux.

Microsoft security controversy of the week

In the wake of Microsoft's decision to fix an exploited security vulnerability in all versions of Internet Explorer from IE 6 on up for the unsupported Windows XP, we've been eagerly awaiting the next vulnerability, if only to see how Microsoft responded. We didn't need to wait long: A newly-revealed security flaw that impacts IE 8 on Windows XP will not be fixed, which should be surprising. But Microsoft apparently knew about this flaw since last October, which of course adds an interesting new wrinkle. After all, the theory goes, Microsoft found out about the flaw as Window XP was still supported.

We often discuss how hundreds of millions of people still use Windows XP, but here's another chilling and related thing to consider: Guess which browser version is the most used overall right now? Did you guess IE 8? Then you guessed right: Fully 21 percent of all web usage worldwide occurs on IE 8, compared to 16.6 percent for IE 11, 12.3 percent for Firefox 28, and 9 percent for IE 9. (This, according to Netmarketshare, which has the most reliable usage statistics.) Interesting.

Microsoft competitors stilled banned from attending Partner Conference

Last year, Microsoft found itself in a weird controversy when Amazon complained that it was among a handful of competitors whose employees were not allowed to attend Microsoft's Worldwide Partner Conference (WPC). With WPC 2014 less than two months away, conference registration is now open, but Microsoft is again not allowing employees from Amazon, and Google, and VMware, from attending. But the funny thing is that the firm briefly identified these companies' names on the registration site, warning that employees of those firms would not be admitted. It has since, however, removed that reference. So why even have such a ban? After all, the WPC is widely covered in the press and much of it is broadcasted on the web. Maybe it's time for a little perestroika.

"Microsoft fixes Office 365 billing glitch"

This is not the kind of bug you want to see in the subscription services world of the future, especially since the glitch in question was "everyone gets billed double." It's speeding in a construction zone.

Facebook finally gets the privacy bug

If you were to create a list of the issues that people have with Facebook, the service's lack of transparent privacy controls would surely be in the pole position. So the good news is that Facebook is finally waking up to this issue and will soon offer a "new and expanded privacy checkup tool [that will] take people through a few steps to review things like who they're posting to, which apps they use, and the privacy of key pieces of information on their profile."

The bad news? Facebook is only doing this now because it has determined that it is losing users to emerging social networks and services that have been privacy (and in some cases actually anonymity). Whatever, Facebook. We'll take it. Going forward, new Facebook members will have their posts be set to be viewable by friends only, and not publicly as before. And it looks like that coming tool will appear regularly. You know, like an annual checkup. At the proctologist.

Apple finally owns up to long-standing iMessage lock-in issue

Here's the dark side to Apple's lock-in strategy in action: People have been complaining for years about an issue with iMessage, Apple's iOS-based messaging app, which makes it impossible for users to switch to a competing smart phone platform without losing text messages. iMessage is hilarious because it's not cross-platform, and what it does on iPhone is silently switch iPhone-to-iPhone messages from SMS/MMS to its own system. So when you switch—poof!—all those messages are gone. Those in the tech industry have known about this issue for a while now, but Apple had never really acknowledged it. But the good news? They're actually going to fix it. All it took was ... wait for it... a class-action lawsuit. Sometimes even the world's best companies need a little prompting.

Is this why Apple is buying Beats?

When it was revealed that Apple was purchasing Beats for a rumored $3.2 billion, a lot of people wondered about the logic of the deal, and many surmised that it was centered on the Beats music subscription more than the company's headset business. But according to more recent reports, the on-again, off-again Beats acquisition has absolutely nothing to do with Beats' technologies or products. It's about acquiring the firm's top talent, entrepreneurs Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre.

Apparently, Apple has figured out that being a middle-aged white guys club has its limits when it comes to popular culture, and that these guys could give it some much-needed cachet with the younger customer set who are increasingly looking elsewhere these days. I do agree that Apple needs a jumpstart of some kind, but I'm honestly not sure that Beats—or Iovine and Dre—are necessarily a good fit.

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 and inexpensive e-books available too, including Windows Phone 8 Field Guide (free from that site, or available from both Kindle and Nook too) and the in-progress Xbox Music Field Guide. Coming soon: Windows Phone 8.1 Field Guide.

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