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WinInfo Short Takes: Week of November 7

An often irreverent look at some of the week's other news, including a nostalgic look back at Commodore, Microsoft vs. Google, Dell warnings, Case vs. AOL, Google Desktop and print service, Sun Word doc conversions, ThinkPads in retail, and so much more...

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When geeks get together, talk invariably turns to a "first computer" contest , in which the contestants try to out-geek each other by demonstrating how lame their first computer was. I win this game quite often because my first computer was the ECS (Entertainment Computer System), the computer add-on for the Mattel Electronics Intellivision game system (circa 1982-3 or so). You could create BASIC games on the ECS using sprite characters from various Intellivision games, which I assure you was quite cool. However, the text characters were humongous, and tape-based systems were quite clearly dinosaurs, even in the early 1980's.

My first "real" computer was a Commodore 64, and I owned various Commodore machines for the next decade or more, including a C64C (with 1541-II disk drive), an Amiga 500, and an Amiga 600 (I know, I know). Having just finished reading a great book about Commodore ("On the Edge"), I'm struck, again, with a nostalgia for that era and the realization that things could have turned out quite differently in this industry had Commodore not been run by utter idiots. This company was so far ahead of the game technologically, it's hard to understand how they could have bobbled it so quickly. We often talk about AT&T in this light (and the book "Fumbling the Future") but the reality is, we could (and maybe should) all be running Commodore systems today, and not these MS-DOS throwbacks. Ah well.

My Commodore background greatly affected my computing choices as I moved to PCs in the mid-1990's. At first, I resisted Windows like the plague, because, frankly, it was the plague, and I went through various versions of OS/2 (2.11 and 3.0 Warp primarily) before I realized I was simply treading water and repeating the mistakes of the past (i.e. using a system for a vague moral reason and not because it was what I actually needed). Fortunately, the Windows 95 beta changed things dramatically on the Windows side, and by late 1994, I honestly thought that was the better system. Involved with the Windows 95 beta beginning with the M4 release in late 1994, I began warming to Microsoft and, more specifically, started what would become WinInfo. By then Commodore had gone belly-up and the writing was on the wall for OS/2. My involvement with early Slackware versions of Linux was still about a year away.

I think that my fascination with computing alternatives --especially with the Macintosh and Linux--was affected largely by my Amiga and OS/2 experiences and, believe it or, a two year period where I was the proud owner of a totally decked-out Apple IIGS, a system that was of course abandoned by Apple in a decisive fashion in short order. As a result, I've always discussed the alternatives in WinInfo, and likely always will. There are only two outcomes here, when you think about it. Windows will continue its dominance and, at the very least, be immeasurably influenced by the competition. Or, the competition will overtake or at least better compete with Windows, leveling the playing field. Either way, I don't need to jump on some bandwagon at a later date because I've been writing about these systems for a decade now. But I'm always looking for the best technology. I have to think the Amiga was responsible for this need. Today, Windows isn't always the best. It often is, but not always. I'm not sure if this is a problem with Microsoft, or the responsibility of its competitors, which have improved dramatically in recent years. But there's a nice diversity in the PC industry once again, even though Windows is the clear sales leader.

Video games have offered a similar diversity. Over the years, I went through various systems, including the aforementioned Intellivision, as well as Atari 7800, Coleco ColecoVision, Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), Nintendo 64, Sega Genesis, Sega Dreamcast, Xbox, and PlayStation 2 systems, and soon there will be a few Xbox 360 systems kicking around Thurrott Central as well. Believe it or not, I've always found Amiga- and PC-based gaming to be superior to the consoles of the day. Halo 2 is great, and I play it regularly, but I prefer PC-based shooters like Quake 4 and Serious Sam 2 today, both of which offer wicked high resolution and more comfortable keyboard/mouse play. I know opinions differ, but it's nice to have choice.

So what's the point of all this? Really, there's no point other than life isn't black and white and there are a lot of things out there, most of which aren't made by Microsoft. It's not heretical to suggest that Microsoft can't do it all and often doesn't do it best. More important, diversity is healthier than monoculture . And that's true whether you're a corporate suit busy deploying every Microsoft server product on the planet, or an Apple flunky busy buying every single Apple-branded iPod and accessory that comes down the pike. I guess I sit somewhere in the middle of that range of users, and geek out on either side of it as needed. Sometimes the middle is the right place to be. Just keep your options open.

Short Takes

How Microsoft's Insane Pursuit of Google will Ruin Us All
Anyone still remember when Netscape was Microsoft's big boogeyman about ten years ago? When Microsoft completely rearchitected Internet Explorer 4.0 to meet some crazy Netscape desktop replacement solution that never even appeared? The results of that work continue to haunt Microsoft's users today: Windows was melded with IE, the IE shell replaced Explorer, and HTML was suddenly everywhere in the OS; all of these moves provided hackers with countless new ways to surreptitiously enter our PCs and compromise them to their own evil ends. And these attacks continue today: Every month, it seems, a new patch is released for a critical IE security vulnerability. Well, good news, Windows users. Microsoft is at it again. And this time, the supposed competitor is Google, a company that dabbles in Windows software but is really best known for Web-based services. As with Netscape, Microsoft wants to stop Google at all costs, and it's already taken a page from its original Netscape competition playbook by starting to copy every single feature Google offers. And now, it's killing MSN to meld all those services into Windows. You can sort of see where this is headed. Unless Microsoft realizes the insanity of what it's doing, the software giant is heading toward a downward spiral that can only result in products and services no one is asking for, all seamless integrated with its dominant PC-based products. Please, Microsoft. Take a step back and think about what you're doing here. Your history speaks for itself. It's not a pretty story for you or your customers.

Unexpectedly, Dell Warns of Lowered Sales, Profits
Computing giant Dell this week warned that it would miss its third quarter earnings and sales forecasts, setting of alarms with analysts who had previously declared 2005 to be a major comeback year for the PC industry. Dell blamed the shortfall on weakness in its US consumer and UK businesses. It seems that when big PC makers offer unbelievably cheap PCs, that's what consumers buy, and Dell has historically relied on system upgrades to make money. But that's not happening, so even though the overall sales growth in the industry is a healthy 17 percent, most of those sales are low-end PCs which carry little if any profit margin. As a result, Dell will layoff a small percentage of its 61,000 employees. It's not all bad news, however (unless you're one of those employees, I guess). Dell still predicts it will see revenues of $13.9 billion in the previous quarter (compared to previous estimates of $14.4 to $14.5 billion), which isn't too shabby.

Case Closed at AOL
Former Microsoft nemesis Steve Case, who pulled off one of the best magic tricks of all time when he convinced Time Warner to buy the doomed America Online (AOL) and then place AOL execs in charge of the combined company, will finally step down from the Time Warner board. Case was widely criticized for almost driving Time Warner into the ground in the wake of the AOL merger, and you have to think he doesn't have a lot of friends left at the company these days. Case was an early employee at Quantum Computer Services, which because Quantum Link, and the America Online, and he eventually ran the entire company. (In a nod to my Commodore comments in the blog, Quantum Link started as a dial-up service for the Commodore 64 in 1985.) Anyway, Case is moving on to form a new investment company. Sounds exciting.

Google Finalizes Desktop 2
Google this week shipped the "final" (or "non-beta") version of Google Desktop 2, its integrated Windows and Web search tool. As with the beta version, Google Desktop 2 includes the Sidebar, which provides HTML-like content panes that users can customize as desired, plus various entry points for local and Web searching. I haven't grabbed the new version yet, but the beta was surprisingly good.

Microsoft Buys Folder Sharing Company
Microsoft announced yesterday that it had purchased FolderShare, a file sharing service that specializes in letting users transfer large files over the Internet. The technology is intended for the new Windows Live services, some of which are in beta now. It's pretty clear that peer-to-peer file sharing, despite its negative connotations, is a feature that belongs in the OS, and not as an add-on. The key at this point is just giving it a name that won't get people all riled up.

Samsung Seeks to Help iTunes Competitors
This one is pretty curious. Samsung, which like other portable device makers has watched Apple's iPod march away with the lion's share of the market, this week announced that it would help music partners like Napster compete more effectively with Apple's music colossus. According to the company's Samsung's music players are the equal of Apple's iPod (a debatable claim) but the services aren't up to speed with iTunes. And since Samsung understandably has no desire to start its own music service, the company is reaching out to existing services. It's unclear what help Samsung can offer, since it's an also-ran by definition. But Apple's biggest strength, arguably, is that it controls every piece of the digital music solution. A closer working relationship between competing device makers and services can only help.

Google Posts Public Domain Books Online
Google this week began posting the first fruits of its effort to digitize books and other publications by making content from thousands of public domain books available online through its search engine. You can't download the entire books, per se, but can rather search their content. The results are displayed using graphics that appear to represent scanned images of the actual book pages, which is pretty odd. However, you can cut and paste content from the books, which should prove useful to researchers and students on a tight deadline. Google, of course, has gotten a lot of heat for this effort from publishers, which don't want to see content from their books available free online. Most of the initial titles Google is providing, however, are already available in their entirety elsewhere on the Web. For more info, check out the new Web site.

Sun Offers Service to Convert Word Documents to OpenDocument Format
Sun Microsystems will soon offer a service that will help users convert standard document formats such as those used by Microsoft Word into the new open source OpenDocument format. Sun customers will be able to upload Word documents and other documents to a Web site that will convert the documents to OpenDocument for a small per-document fee. OpenDocument, of course, is suddenly important because various governments and other agencies around the world are switching to this format and away from proprietary and closed formats such as those used by Microsoft Office. To date, Microsoft has refused to support OpenDocument.

ThinkPad Heads Back to Retail
Here's some great news, especially if you've been interested in high-quality ThinkPad products, but wanted to see them in person before buying: Lenovo, the Chinese computing giant that purchased ThinkPad from IBM last year, will soon start offering ThinkPad products for sale in various retail stores. This marks the first time in six years that potential customers will be able to evaluate ThinkPad products at retail in the US. Lenovo's first retail partner is Office Depot, which will start selling ThinkPad machines in mid-November. There are no plans yet for other retailers, but I have to think that's in the making. Lenovo's ThinkPads are arguably the highest-quality laptops on the market today--sorry, Apple--and now, people outside of huge corporations will get to see why.

.NET Developer Recreates Apple Front Row on Windows
Thanks Joni! An aspiring .NET developer named Casey Chesnut duplicated Apple's Front Row on Windows using the Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF) and the Media Player SDK, and he describes the process in a lengthy blog posting. There are actually a few missing features when compared to Front Row (the photo and video previews aren't skewed, for example, though they do offer a nice bottom reflection) but this is a pretty faithful port. I had heard that Front Row was the product of a very small team working very quickly, and this sort of bears that out. Check it out.

EU Pushes for a Spring 2006 Ruling
The Court of First Instance in the European Union (EU) hopes to rule on the Microsoft antitrust case by early spring 2006, according to court president Bo "Duke" Vesterdorf. "Hopefully we will have a ruling in early spring," he said, "hopefully before April." Microsoft is challenging the EU's 2004 decision, which found that the software giant illegally abused its market power. If that sounds familiar, you're paying attention: Microsoft has gotten in similar trouble in the US, and regularly faces antitrust probes around the world. The price of success, I guess.

Amazon Takes Google Craziness, Raises the Bet
You know, it's almost comical. First, Google starts offering users a way to search through the content of books its scanned. Then, Microsoft announces that it will do the same thing. Now, online retailer (or, as I like to call them, e-tailer) is announcing that it will begin letting customers purchase individual pages of books, and entire books, in digital format. That's right, folks. If you were really hoping to own just page 283 of "The Fellowship of the Ring," and not the entire book, that might soon be possible. Dubbed Amazon Pages, the new offering appears to be a bone for the publishing industry, which has been up in arms over Google's book scanning scheme. Pricing will be up to the copyright holders, according to Amazon.

Office 12 Screenshot Galleries on the SuperSite
A pre-beta version of Office 12 leaked to the Web last week, and while I've been a little slow getting going with it, I've begun publishing Office 12 screenshot galleries to the Web on the SuperSite for Windows, in anticipation of a longer write-up about the product. The first three galleries are up now, and I'll publish a bunch more over the weekend. Speaking of which, I've got a lot of other updates in the works, including Visual Studio 2005 and SQL Server 2005 overviews, continuations of my R2 review and Longhorn Server preview, and, yes, part 2 of my comparison of Mac OS X Tiger and the Windows Vista beta.

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