An often irreverent look at some of the week's other news...
After a surprising number of readers asked me to review Windows XP Starter Edition, I asked Microsoft's PR firm for a review copy of the product. Apparently, however, Microsoft isn't providing review copies because the product won't ship in the United States. That decision doesn't make much sense to me. We live in a global economy, and many readers don't come from the United States. But I'll get a copy eventually, methinks. In the meantime, I'll try to at least sit down with someone who's working on the product and find out what's up.
MSN Messenger 7.0 Heads to Public Beta
I haven't received many questions about MSN Messenger 7.0, the upcoming release of Microsoft's consumer-oriented Instant Messaging (IM) application, but someone has to write about it. According to various sources, Microsoft will soon start a private beta of MSN Messenger 7.0 and release a public preview by the end of the year. MSN Messenger 7.0 adds the light blue MSN 9.x look to the MSN Messenger main window (for some reason, MSN Messenger 6.x uses that look only in chat windows) and integration with various MSN services, such as MSN Search. The new product will also include new "wink" and "nudge" features that visually vibrate the window and play a unique sound when someone is trying to get your attention. (I think it'll be annoying, but then I'm old.)
EU: Microsoft Previously Agreed to Sanctions in Settlement Bid
This type of news brings a smile to my face because I simply love--no, embrace--hypocrisy. You might recall that Microsoft argued this week that the sanctions that the European Union (EU) wants to impose on it should be stayed until the company's appeal can be heard. And Microsoft's argument rests on the notion that the company would be irreparably harmed if its competitors gained access to the "secret technologies" (Microsoft's term) that the EU wants it to cough up. Hold on there, tiger. According to the EU, Microsoft previously agreed to those very sanctions when the company attempted to settle the case. Cecilio Madero, a staff director with the European Commission's Competition Bureau, testified Friday that during settlement negotiations Microsoft lawyers said that the company would agree to "license technical data to rivals," a condition that the antitrust ruling now requires. Furthermore, according to EU lawyer Walter Moells, Microsoft's recent technology licensing agreement with former archrival Sun Microsystems renders Microsoft's "irreparable harm" argument supercilious.
Judge in EU Case Wants Compromise
And while we're on the topic of Microsoft's EU hearings, I should also mention that Judge Bo Vesterdorf, president of the European Court of First Instance, is looking for a compromise that will prevent a years-long legal battle. Vesterdorf has asked EU regulators to consider punishing the software giant in a way that wouldn't violate Microsoft's intellectual property rights. But he then forced Microsoft Senior Vice President, General Counsel, and Corporate Secretary Brad Smith to acknowledge that, back when his company was trying to settle the case, Microsoft was willing to accept all the sanctions that the company is now fighting. Smith would admit only to "some aspects \[of the negotiations\] where we \[were\] prepared to go farther" than the EU eventually demanded. But fear not, Microsoft fans. Vesterdorf seemed to save his harshest criticisms for the EU. I guess we'll see what happens.
New JPEG Flaw-Based Virus Spreads Via IM
That lovely new JPEG vulnerability that appears to grace about 1100 Microsoft applications went from theory to reality this week as attackers began foisting a virus on unsuspecting AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) users. (Isn't the phrase "unsuspecting AIM users" redundant?) Victims' IM chat windows display the message "Check out my profile, click GET INFO!" Clicking the link launches a Web page that includes a malicious JPEG and, potentially, infects the system. Once infected, the computer sends an instant message to everyone on the AIM Buddy List. And the virus also includes a backdoor that could let attackers remotely control the PC. The good news? Only AOL users are at risk. Just kidding. The good news is that only a handful of PCs have been infected so far, and no damage has been reported.
USPTO Set to Reject Microsoft's FAT File System Patent
The US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) indicated this week that it might revoke Microsoft's patent for the File Allocation Table (FAT) file system. In a preliminary ruling, the agency noted that it shouldn't have awarded Microsoft the 1996 patent for the technology, which most PCs formerly used but is more common today in camera storage devices, portable media players, and USB flash disks. Why shouldn't the USPTO have awarded the patent, you ask? Because the technology is "obvious" and would have occurred to any programmer with "ordinary skill," the USPTO now says. Microsoft has 90 days to respond to the ruling, and the company says it will do just that. "Now is our opportunity to tell our side of the story," Microsoft Director of Business Development, Intellectual Property, and Licensing David Kaefer said. Critics argue that Microsoft filed the FAT patent to hobble open-source competitor Linux. "\[The patent is\] a way of undercutting its number-one competitor," said Daniel B. Ravicher, president and executive director of the Public Patent Foundation, the nonprofit organization that launched the patent dispute. So was the FAT technology "new and innovative" at the time, as Microsoft describes it, or "obvious" and "ordinary," as the USPTO claims? I think we need to mull over Microsoft's many other software milestones to find the answer. But my favorite comment about this case came from Gregory Aharonian, a patent expert who runs the Internet Patent News Service. "It's like getting a patent on cheesecake," he told "USA Today." Good stuff.
Microsoft Wins Office Patent-Infringement Lawsuit
And speaking of the exciting world of patents, this week, Microsoft won a patent-infringement case involving the Smart Tags feature in Microsoft Office. Norwegian inventor Alte Hedloy of Arendi Holding sued the software giant 2 years ago, alleging that Microsoft's Smart Tags technology infringed on his patent for retrieving information such as names and addresses with one click. A jury in Providence, Rhode Island, disagreed this week, however, deciding that Microsoft didn't violate Hedloy's patent. However, the jury also ruled that Hedloy's patent is valid. This case is the second Smart Tags patent-infringement case Microsoft has won. The first case was filed against the company last year by, yep, you guessed it, Frank Stallone.
Gartner: 4 Out of 5 Linux Desktops End Up Running Windows
Everyone's favorite analysts group is back this week with another pronouncement from on high. According to Gartner (which is starting to sound increasingly like the paranoid Millennium Group from Fox's long-canceled and under-heralded "Millennium" TV series), most Linux PCs end up running Windows. But most of those copies of Windows are a special version of Windows many of us have never heard of--Windows XP Free Edition (i.e., a pirated copy of Windows). "About 80 percent of systems preloaded with Linux in 2004 will end up running a pirated copy of Windows," a Gartner analyst said. "System integrators put Linux on as a way of staying legal and avoiding Microsoft \[and then they or the buyer installs a pirated version Windows\]. Few will admit this outright, but that's what they're doing." I'm sure XP Starter Edition will solve this problem.
Sun Offers New Java Version
This week, Sun finalized its long-coming Java update, which is called Java 2 Standard Edition 5.0 (code-named Tiger). I have two observations about the name. First, you can't use two different version numbers in the same product version. Second, you can't use the same code name that another high-profile software project uses (Apple Computer's next OS X release is also code-named Tiger). Anyway, J2SE5, as I like to call it, includes a new software development kit (SDK) and Java runtime environment, as you might expect, but also has a feature that Java has never been famous for--performance. With this release, applications, applets, and services running in the Java environment actually approach something close to what I call "Transmeta speed," which is roughly equivalent to 50 percent of your computer's native processing speed. It's a big step up for Java and, likely, a big step up for you. I'm kidding, of course.
Intel Preps Faster Pentium 4 Extreme Edition Bus
I must be more out of it than usual because I thought that Intel had canceled the Pentium 4 Processor with HT Technology Extreme Edition. This week, however, the processor giant said it will soon ship a new front-side system bus for the high-end chip that will dramatically increase its performance. Currently, the systems are somewhat hobbled by the 800MHz system buses that today's motherboards use, but Intel will soon ship a new bus that's capable of 1066MHz, removing a key performance bottleneck. Of course, you need to be wealthy to afford one of these things. The new processor, which is essentially a Xeon chip (wolf) in Pentium 4 (sheep) clothing, commands an impressive price compared with similarly equipped Pentium 4 chips. For example, at Dell.com, replacing a 3.4GHz Pentium 4 processor with a 3.4GHz version of the new chip in the company's Dimension XPS system adds almost $650 to the machine's price.
New Microsoft Money Doesn't Add Up
The most recent release of Microsoft Money--Money 2005--seems to have a few problems that have users up in arms. The product apparently can't access Microsoft's online bill-paying service, MSN Bill Pay. The last time I checked, that feature was pretty important. However, Microsoft says that the problem affects only the small number of people who upgraded to this version from Money 2004 and that the company has a workaround that seems to fix the problem (disable Bill Pay, then reenable it). And, to be fair, Money 2005 isn't the only financial package that's having problems these days. Diehard Quicken fans recently began complaining that Intuit's most recent release, Quicken 2005, is a dog because it drops support for the popular Quicken Interchange Format (QIF) that the product has used for years. Customers can no longer use a large number of financial services companies because most of the companies either still use the old format or charge extra for the new format that Quicken 2005 now supports. Pick your poison, people.