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WinInfo Short Takes: Week of May 16

An often irreverent look at some of the week's other news, including Windows Media Center "Emerald" and "Diamond," Microsoft's antivirus plans, the Xbox 360 MTV event, and so much more!

Ah Friday. Spring has finally arrived in this frigid place we call New England. The trees are budding, the flowers are blooming, and the allergies are raging. It's a good time to be alive, although I'm now eagerly anticipating another summer of afternoons at the beach. There's still a month and a half before that will be a reality, however, so in the meantime, there's mulch to be carted around and grass to be mowed. That doesn't mean Short Takes will be brief. There's much to discuss.

The Future of MediaCenter...

You may have heard that the next rendition of Windows XP Media Center Edition is codenamed Emerald and will ship later this year. I recently obtained some exclusive information about the future of MediaCenter, however: First, Emerald is set for an August 2005 launch and will be available in DVD format, not on multiple CDs like previous versions. Emerald will support 19 new locales, providing more of the world with a chance to experience MediaCenter. It will also natively support Intel's dual core technologies. After Emerald, Microsoft will ship a MediaCenter release codenamed Diamond that will include, among other things, a native x64 version for you 64-bit PC fans. And after that, the Longhorn version of MediaCenterwill ship to every single locale that the overall Longhorn project will support: That's about 150 different language-specific versions of the product. Nifty.

As for specific Emerald/Diamond features, we'll see. The eHome folks responsible for MediaCenter are maintaining their usual veil of secrecy around upcoming products, which I think is a mistake, especially when Windows XP Media Center Edition 2006--as Emerald will likely be called--is a simple upgrade over the current version. It's unlikely that revelations about Emerald will do much to halt XP Media Center Edition 2005 sales, which by all accounts are off to a torrid start, at least compared to previous versions.

Microsoft Goes AV All Over Your PC...

As we've long suspected, Microsoft will directly compete with companies such as Symantec and McAfee by offering a comprehensive suite of consumer-oriented PC health care products. Dubbed Windows One Care, the offering will include antivirus, firewall, spyware, and other software tune-ups as part of a monthly or yearly subscription. Windows One Care is currently in beta within Microsoft and will be rolled out as an external beta later this year. Microsoft hopes to ship the product in late 2005 or early 2006.

The big question about Windows One Care, of course, is why Microsoft chose to offer it separately from Windows. There is, after all, an argument to be made about bundling these sorts of technologies directly in the OS. For example, most of the things Windows One Care fixes are, ahem, caused by Windows. Microsoft says that the service is aimed at those users who don't mind paying a small fee for convenience and that the heart of Windows One Care will be its automatic functionality: It will even defrag your hard drive if it notices that it's necessary. One report even compared it to a Jiffy-Lube, which is cute. But I don't know of anyone that wants to change their own oil. This should be part of Windows.

MTV Event for Xbox 360 Fizzles...

Last night's MTV infomercial, er ah, event for the Xbox 360 was just about as lame as you might expect. For someone my age--i.e. not a teenager--MTV has become an annoying and loud bling-fest, with pulsating pseudo-music and quick-flash transitions from image to image. Couple that with the inherent lameness of the Xbox folks at Microsoft, and you've got a recipe for disaster. So the MTV event delivered in spades, and I shouldn't have been surprised. It's hard to be indignant when something so totally fulfills all your expectations.

OK, enough bashing. Two things were notable about the MTV event last night. First, it revealed very little new information about the Xbox 360. Second, "The Killers" are apparently living in a time capsule where 80's college radio bands like "The Cure" still roam the earth. Hey, at least they play real instruments. Anyway, back to the Xbox 360: It is indeed white, like an iPod, and uses wireless controllers. It features a fast 3.2 GHz PowerPC processor with 3 processor cores, a feature Apple should be feeling pretty jealous about, since its fastest PowerPC chips are single core and quite a bit slower. It will output in HD resolution natively, and downgrade the signal for standard definition sets. You can replace the front of the Xbox 360 with custom faceplates. Etc.

But what wasn't said? Numerous Xbox 360 features were not highlighted during the show at all, which spent way too much of its 30 minute time slot on non-Xbox content. First, the Xbox 360 will include Media Center-like functionality and can rip CD music to its hard disk. A Web camera, code-named Cyclops, and a MediaCenter remote will be optional accessories. But there were no comments about backwards compatibility with current generation Xbox titles. There was nothing about the price. No one said a word about the exact date it will be made available, though the unit is clearly shipping in time for the Holiday selling season. And so on. I guess we'll have to wait for E3 for more info.

I do have a theory about backwards compatibility. When you consider the numbers, it becomes clear that Microsoft is targeting the wider world of gaming with Xbox 360 and not just its existing Xbox 1 users. For example, there are 80 million Sony PlayStation 2 users worldwide, compared to just 20 million Xbox users. If Microsoft is serious about luring the other 80 percent of the gaming world to the Xbox 2, it has to worry about a lot more than just backwards compatibility. In fact, one could make a compelling argument that Microsoft should skip out on the compatibility all together and simply make the next Xbox as powerful and exciting as it can be. After all, PlayStation 2 users are still going to need their old console when they upgrade, potentially, to an Xbox 360. Why spend a lot of time and effort trying to support the original Xbox functionality in the 360, when that market is so much smaller than that of the PS2? Just a thought.

What about the games? Here are some of the 25 to 30 Xbox 360 titles that will ship by the end of 2005: "Call of Duty 2" (Activision), "The Darkness" (Majesco), "Gears of War" (Microsoft), "Ghost Recon 3" (Ubisoft), "Kameo: Elements of Power" (Microsoft), "Madden NFL 06" (Electronic Arts), "NBA 2K6" (2K Sports), "Need for Speed: Most Wanted" (Electronic Arts), "Perfect Dark: Zero" (Microsoft), "PGR 3" (Microsoft), "Quake 4" (id Software), "Saint's Row" (THQ), "Tiger Woods PGA Tour 06" (Electronic Arts), and "Tony Hawk's American Wasteland" (Activision).

And in Other News...

There's a certain poetic justice in the news that Apple's new Dashboard feature in Mac OS X 10.4 "Tiger"--which was completely ripped off from the cool Konfabulator folks--is responsible for one of the worst security failures to ever grip the Mac. Dashboard, if you're not familiar, is a secondary desktop in Tiger that hosts a bunch of Javascript-based widgets that can perform various tasks, like a calculator, a weather display, or a flight tracker. There's just one problem: Apple somehow forgot to implement even the most basic of security for these widgets, making them the perfect conduit for malicious software. Hackers have already created widgets that auto-install on Tiger systems without any user interaction, and directly copy Apple's bundled widgets so you'll think nothing's wrong, for example. And thanks to a design flaw, widgets are almost impossible to remove: A user would have to understand the file structure of Mac OS X to do so. Eek.

And speaking of a previously smug group of users, everyone's favorite Internet Explorer (IE) alternative is under fire this week as well. Two new vulnerabilities in Mozilla Firefox 1.0.3 have emerged, and have been rated as "extremely critical," which, if I'm not mistaken is somewhere between "orange" and "wicked critical." The reason these vulnerabilities are rated so high is that there is already exploit code in the wild that can take advantage of the flaws. Not surprisingly, The Mozilla Foundation has already provided a new Firefox version, 1.0.4, which addresses these issues. My advice is to download it.

We had a new babysitter watch the kids last weekend, and when we got home she asked me if I worked for a computer company. My home office is right off of the den, so I sort of looked over there, thinking of a way to explain my bizarre collection of electronics, PCs, and other related parts. "Well, it's a computer magazine, actually. What tipped you off?" "I've never known anyone that owned five iPods before," she said. Ah.


Speaking of my office, I'm trying to find some office furniture to replace the aging Denmarket stuff I'm now using. The problem is size: I bought these super-deep desks at a time when I was using a humongous 20" CRT monitor, so I needed the space. Now, with LCDs all around, that depth is unused and is just taking up valuable office real estate. I need something a lot less deep, I guess. Any thoughts?

Erstwhile PDA maker PalmONE is branching out into smart phones, as you know, but the company may have an interesting product that would put it in competition with Apple's iPod and an emerging group of video-enabled handheld devices that includes the Sony PSP and various PortableMediaCenters. Dubbed the LifeDrive Mobile Manager, this new device is built on the Palm OS and features a 320 x 480 color screen, a 416 MHz Intel XScale processor, a 4GB mico hard drive, and Bluetooth and Wi-Fi wireless networking. The LifeDrive is all about multimedia: It will play digital music, and display photo slideshows and videos, and will cost $500. And like newer PalmONE devices, it will act like an external hard drive when plugged into a PC. Does the LifeDrive stand a chance in a suddenly crowded market? Probably not.

Microprocessor maker AMD picked up a bit of market share from industry leader Intel in the first quarter, grabbing 16.9 percent of the market, up from 15 percent in the same quarter a year ago. Intel fell to "just" 81.7 percent of the market, down from 83.5 percent. Other microprocessor makers, such as Transmeta and Via, account for less than 2 percent of the market. AMD's strong showing comes thanks to the success of its 64-bit x64 chips, the Opteron and Athlon-64. However, Intel has now shipped a wide range of x64 chips of its own, so the battle moves forward to dual-core chips for the rest of 2005. For power-hungry PC fans, it's a good time to be in the market. For AMD, it may just be the

Acknowledging that its software licensing terms are about as easy to read as the US tax code, Microsoft this week revealed that it will be making its licensing terms easier to understand. To simplify things, Microsoft will group its 70 enterprise products into 9 different categories, which will dramatically reduce the amount of redundant text in each product's license agreement. In layman's terms, that will reduce the length of a typical Microsoft End User License Agreement (EULA) from, say, that of the complete works of William Shakespeare to, say, that of the complete works of Stephen King. "We \[still\] have a lot of work to do," says Sunny Charlebois, a Microsoft worldwide licensing and pricing unit product manager. Obviously.

Here's one for conspiracy fans: Microsoft Dell, er ah, Michael Dell this week invested $100 million in Linux maker Red Hat, an interesting development given that Dell runs the biggest PC company in the world and is Microsoft's biggest partner. However, the Dell investment was a private one, and doesn't necessarily represent any sort of policy change at the PC maker. Or something. We don't really know. However, in a related development, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer allegedly had a secret meeting with Red Hat CEO Matthew Szulik in late March. I wonder Mr. Dell is going to pull a Fredo Corleone on Szulik? Someone has to ask.

I was almost reduced to tears the first time I tried to install a CD drive in my PC, but remember this was back in 1994, when CD drives were rare, CD-based software was expensive, and writeable CD drives were just a distant promise. The pain, of course, came thanks to MS-DOS, and its arcane way of interacting with the device. Anyway, I remember looking at the few bundled CDs I received with the drive and thinking how rare and wonderful they are. Flash forward ten years, and I've probably thrown out at least 1000 CDs of various types, which would probably qualify my home as a Super Fund site if they were buried in my yard. DVDs are getting there too: Once rare and expensive, even rewriteable DVDs are common and cheap, and readily thrown away when needed. Looking at the pile of flash RAM-type devices--Memory Stick and SD cards, USB key chain devices of various sizes, and other similar gadgets--piled up under my monitor, I'm starting to get a sneaky suspicion about where this is all going. When did technology start becoming so disposable?

But wait, there's more...

As you can see, I'm still tweaking the format for Short Takes, and thanks to everyone that's written in with feedback. One of the biggest problems with changing the format is that it's impossible to provide the email newsletter readers with the same experience we provide on the Web site. I really like the way it looks on the Web, but have been unhappy with the newsletter version. We'll keep working on it.

Have a great weekend! --Paul

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