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WinInfo Short Takes: Week of August 4

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

Homeland Security Issues Microsoft Warning
Does this rate as ironic? Just weeks after the US Department of Homeland Security signed a 6-year enterprise contract for Microsoft software, the department released a warning to Internet users about a flaw in the company's products that could render 75 percent of the nation's computers vulnerable to attack. The unprecedented warning followed by 2 weeks the release of Microsoft's fix for the vulnerability, but if the past is any indication, the release of a fix has little to do with administrators actually installing the fix, and millions of computers are undoubtedly still vulnerable to the security hole. (Yeah, I'm looking at you, Gustav.) The fix, in case you're desperately eyeing the exits, concerns the remote procedure call (RPC) vulnerability I highlighted in this newsletter about 2 weeks ago. Fix it now, please, or when the Internet collapses, you have only yourself to blame.

Tablet PC Sales Nonexistent
Heck, some Macintosh models sell better than this. A recent Canalys report sharply contradicts Microsoft's overly positive Tablet PC sales figures, noting that the nascent notebooks are barely selling. The Tablet PC market is so small, in fact, that the "beleaguered" and "desperate" market for Mac computers dwarfs it. Canalys says Tablet PC sales barely eke out 1 percent of the overall market for notebook sales and have sold less than 100,000 units since several PC makers began selling the devices last fall. The market leader, HP, sold just 7550 Tablet PCs in the most recent quarter, whereas second-ranked Fujitsu sold just 3460--both sharp drops from previous quarters. Having used half a dozen Tablet PCs, I can tell you what the problem is: They're too underpowered, have disappointing battery life, and have absolutely no value outside of select niche markets. Let's face it, handwriting is "cool" until you start getting ink email messages, and virtually anyone can take notes faster on a keyboard than he or she can with a stylus. Still, Microsoft being Microsoft, expect the company to keep at it with ever-improving versions of Windows XP Tablet PC Edition--which, by the way, is excellent and underappreciated. Also expect new Tablet PC models with Intel Centrino chips to finally overcome the performance and battery life problems. Even then, the Tablet PC will probably continue as a niche product for quite some time.

Toshiba Financials Bite the Dust
And speaking of problems selling notebook computers, Toshiba's most recent financials report a disappointing, wider-than-expected loss for the most recent quarter. To be fair, many of the company's problems are unrelated to computers--Toshiba also sells power equipment, air conditioners, refrigerators, and other products--but steadily lowering PC prices also dramatically affected the company, forcing it to cut prices, thus lowering profits. Toshiba's computer sales fell 12 percent year over year. Does the word beleaguered apply?

PC Sales Edge Up
Meanwhile, overall PC sales were up dramatically for the first time in a while. After several quarters of stagnant or slow growth, PCs rebounded with a bang in the most recent quarter, growing more than 11 percent in the United States alone. This event marks the first time since late 1999 that PC growth has hit double digits. Price cuts at major PC makers such as Dell, which naturally led the pack, largely drove sales. PC makers that aren't as price-flexible (e.g., Apple Computer, Gateway, Toshiba) posted lower numbers year over year. Will this sales trend continue? Probably--for Dell, anyway.

Microsoft vs. Linux: How Redmond Will Compete
Microsoft's reaction to Linux over the years has, shall we say, evolved. Various Microsoft executives have referred to the open-source phenomena as a "cancer," "un-American," and "intellectually bankrupt," depending on when they were asked. But in recent months the company has turned to hard, cold numbers by comparing, for example, the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) for deploying Windows versus Linux or openly discussing the fact that Linux has more security vulnerabilities than Windows and is often left unpatched longer than Windows when problems do arise. These facts--which the open-source community naturally hotly debates--are interesting because they can be backed up with evidence that isn't, by nature, "religious opinion." Thus, the debate moves away from the fanciful opinions of the past to information that observers can probe and confirm intellectually. This plan makes sense, even if Windows does occasionally come up short. After all, don't you want to know how these two systems compare without the rantings of religious zealots from either side coloring the argument?

Story of the Decade: Microsoft Is Testing Linux
Speaking of which, I read a report this week touting the fact that Microsoft is--get this--testing Linux at its Redmond campus, proof that the software giant is ... is ... is ... well ... competitive, I guess. Or something. Are we to believe that Microsoft compares its products to Linux but has no actual experience with the system on which to base its comparisons? Does anyone believe that Windows isn't running in labs in Apple's Cupertino offices, specifically so that Apple can get ideas for new versions of Mac OS X? Does anyone believe that the Ximian Evolution developers didn't have second PCs next to their developmental workstations that ran Microsoft Outlook on Windows so that they could carefully handcraft an application that not only duplicated the functionality of Outlook but also as good as stole its UI? Is this report a story or some kind of joke? You can't compare apples and oranges until you've eaten both. That's why I run Mac OS X and Linux workstations alongside my Windows-based PCs. Doing so is just common sense.

Scott McNealy Takes One Giant Leap into Farceland
I love Scott McNealy. I really do. The Sun Microsystems CEO isn't just a historical figure in the context of the computer industry, he's also a technology leader, a smart--even brilliant--man in his own, down-home style. He's also quite funny, and his anti-Microsoft rants over the years have never ceased to amuse. But recently, McNealy, whose company is increasingly--dare I say it--beleaguered, thanks to competition from Linux and other open-source projects, has ventured off the deep end. In the UK this week for a technology forum, McNealy claimed that his company's approach to software development and its Solaris OS give Sun a distinct advantage over Microsoft, a company that could--and does--squash Sun like a bug. Here's what McNealy said, in his own words: "Our interfaces are open, so when there is a system problem we get help from the industry, but Microsoft flunked Sharing 101. I think that was a third year Harvard course." The idea is that Sun's software interoperates with everything, whereas Microsoft's software, in McNealy's opinion, interoperates only with Microsoft software. Open your eyes, McNealy. You might discover the world you live in is starkly different from the one you imagine.

Florida Consumers Get Microsoft Forms
Thanks to for this news item: Florida consumers who took part in a class-action lawsuit against Microsoft in the wake of the company's antitrust debacle received forms this week from the state that will let them get a refund according to which overpriced Microsoft software product they purchased. Who said the court system isn't working in this country?

Apple Promises Windows iTunes Users "Similar" Rights to Mac Users
Apple executives promised this week that users of the Windows version of the iTunes Music Store--due late this year--will receive "similar" rights to those Mac users enjoy. The problem is that Apple was able to obtain highly favorable music copying and usage rights from the five major recording labels when Apple launched the iTunes Music Store for Mac users earlier this year. But, a wider service aimed at the other 99 percent of the market (read: Windows users), couldn't offer the same rights, largely because of recording industry fears that the unwashed masses would abuse its content. Whether Apple will be able to offer Windows users the same broad usage rights Mac users now enjoy is unclear: When the iTunes Music Store launched, the record companies clearly stated that the project was just an experiment that the tiny Mac OS X market made possible.

How Bad Is Spam?
If you're not sure whether spam is an ever-escalating problem, consider this statistic: Spam filters captured more spam in July 2003 than in all of the year 2002. Can we put an end to this problem--like yesterday?

AOL 9.0 Optimized to Beat MSN
Today, beleaguered online service AOL released AOL 9.0 Optimized, a special version of its software aimed at broadband users. AOL 9.0 Optimized includes advanced spam filters, a new blogging tool, shared calendars, a new email application for advanced users, a customizable front page that finally does away with all that AOL promotional dreck, and other features. AOL 9.0 Optimized has everything that Microsoft is promising in MSN 9 and more, but is available today. Could AOL be on the rebound? The company did a great job with CompuServe, Netscape, and that whole Time Warner merger thing, so I don't see why not.

Less Expensive SQL Server Developer Edition Debuts
Let's hope open-source software (OSS) has the same effect on all Microsoft products. Several readers have asked when the company will release the special new low-cost version of Microsoft SQL Server Developer Edition, which the company said would be cost-reduced from $499 to $49. Wait no more; the product is now available. Targeted to developers, naturally, SQL Server Developer Edition has all the functionality of SQL Server 2000 Enterprise Edition but is license-restricted from use in a live server environment and runs on client OSs such as XP and Windows 2000 Professional Edition.

Visual Studio Whidbey in Alpha Only, Beta 1 Due in October
I contacted Microsoft about getting the Visual Studio .NET Whidbey beta that the company announced this week, only to be told that the release is currently in alpha only, contrary to comments that Microsoft made previously. The alpha release is available only to select partners, but Microsoft told me that a beta version will be available publicly at the Microsoft Professional Developers Conference 2003 in October and that a wider beta will ship in early 2004. So there you go. Do I feel beleaguered yet? You know I do.

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