WinInfo Short Takes: Week of February 2

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

What's New in Symphony?
   In February, Microsoft will quietly roll out the first beta release of its next-generation Windows XP Media Center Edition (MCE) software (code-named Symphony), which will be a minor release, even more so than the current release, XP MCE 2004 (code-named Harmony). I met with a representative of Microsoft's eHome Division last week, and although the company isn't going to deviate from its low-key approach to promoting MCE updates, we can safely bet that Microsoft will address some key customer requests in the new version. These requests--which might or might not make it into the next version--include High-Definition Television (HDTV) support (complicated by divergent standards in different international markets), multiple-tuner support (for recording two shows at once), support for different video formats, and radio recording. So what won't you see in the next release? The software won't be available as a standalone product (i.e., you can get it only as part of a Media Center PC), as before, and won't be available to new international markets. I'll post more information about XP MCE Symphony soon on the SuperSite for Windows.

Gateway Buys eMachines
   In a surprising move, struggling PC-maker Gateway announced this morning that it's purchasing bargain-basement PC-maker eMachines for about $235 million in cash and stock. Wayne Inouye, eMachines' CEO, will become Gateway's CEO, and Gateway founder Ted Waitt will relinquish the CEO title but remain as chairman. The combined company will be the third-largest PC maker in the world, after Dell and HP, and gives Gateway a larger presence in the ever-expanding market for low-end computers as well as a much stronger retail presence.

Microsoft Cancels Plans to Change IE Over Eolas Patent Concerns
   Thanks to questions about the legality of the Eolas Technologies patent for Web browser add-ons, Microsoft announced last night that it won't (at least temporarily) make any changes to Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) that the Eolas patent would have necessitated. Earlier, because of its legal battles with Eolas, which won a court decision against Microsoft earlier this month, Microsoft announced that it would have to make minor changes to the way IE handles add-on applications (typically called plugins). However, the US Patent and Trademark Office announced recently that it's investigating the Eolas patent because of verifiable prior-use cases, leading to the possibility that Eolas's patent is invalid. Microsoft originally planned to include the revised IE version in XP Service Pack 2 (SP2), which is due midyear. Whether this decision will affect other IE changes planned for SP2 (e.g., pop-up ad blocking, add-on management) is unclear.

Microsoft Announces Plans to Change IE in Other Ways
   Regardless of the confusion over the IE changes noted previously, Microsoft will soon make another important IE update. The company announced this week that it will fix an IE flaw that lets unscrupulous attackers spoof valid Web addresses and appear to be legitimate Web sites. The update will make it impossible for intruders to construct URLs that use the at (@) symbol to obfuscate the location of a URL (e.g., http://[email protected] , which seemingly takes you to Microsoft's Web site but instead redirects you to the bogus site identified by Scam artists have used this method to trick PayPal and eBay customers and other Web users into revealing their credit card information to fake Web sites.

Some Thoughts About IE, the Competition, and What Microsoft Should Do
   While I was at the Microsoft campus last week, I had an interesting discussion with an old acquaintance, and we spent some time debating whether the company should continue to enhance and improve IE. I've been a Mozilla user for a long time, primarily because it offers features, such as pop-up ad blocking and tabs, that IE doesn't. Mozilla is also far more compliant with Web standards than IE is, and that's the rub. "What would Microsoft ever get out of spending $500 million to improve IE so that it's more compliant with Web standards?" was the somewhat rhetorical question. Putting a dollar figure on the goodwill the company would get from customers, the Web community, and even its competitors for doing so is difficult; Microsoft's competitors would have to, at least begrudgingly, somewhat admire the effort. But I believe that Microsoft needs to put some time and effort into improving IE rather than continuing with its current strategy, which apparently boils down to ignoring a product that's suddenly not the "Next Big Thing". Microsoft's habit of instantly downplaying once-important products is both bad and unwise, especially when, as in this case, the market for Web browsers is still fluctuating. Competitors such as Mozilla and Apple Computer's Safari are superior, and consumers could turn to these easy-to-acquire products in increasing numbers. What happens then? Microsoft "rights the ship" and makes yet another huge investment in Web browsers? Why not just continuously make small improvements to IE? Doing so would be less expensive, better for customers, and, ultimately, better for Microsoft. Duh.

Dutch Judge Sides with Microsoft in Fight Over Lindows Name
   Although how the Lindows trademark fight will work out in the United States in unclear, a Dutch judge ruled this week that can't market its Linux distribution under the Lindows name in the Netherlands because Lindows is too similar to Windows, which Microsoft has trademarked. The judge noted that was unfairly "profiting from the success of Windows" by using the name, and he ordered that and be made inaccessible from that country. For Microsoft, which recently launched a similar trademark-based attack on a 17-year-old high school student who was brazen enough to use the MikeRoweSoft domain, the Dutch ruling is good news. But I have to wonder: Does anyone really confuse Lindows with Windows?

Microsoft Offers Reward for MyDoom Virus Writer
   Microsoft announced yesterday that it will pay a bounty of $250,000 for information that leads to the capture of the attacker who wrote the MyDoom virus, which security experts recently declared the most devastating email-based virus ever written. "This worm is a criminal attack," Microsoft Senior Vice President and General Counsel Brad Smith said. "Its intent is to disrupt computer users but also to keep them from getting to anti-virus locations and other sites that could help them. Microsoft wants to help the authorities catch this criminal." Go get him, Microsoft.

Ctrl+Alt+Del Inventor Retires Today
   The engineer who invented the Ctrl+Alt+Del keystroke combination is retiring today from IBM, leaving behind his legacy as an inexorable part of the PC experience. David Bradley developed the key combination while working on prototypes of IBM's first PC. He needed a way to quickly reboot the buggy machine because a hard reset--which involved flicking off the power switch and waiting a few moments before retoggling it--took too much time. "The intention was to be cryptic," he said. "It was a key combination that was the moral equivalent of turning the power off and back on again, so it was not an action to be taken lightly. It wasn't something you wanted to happen accidentally." Today, many people use the keystroke combination on a regular basis and not always because the machine has become unresponsive. Microsoft adopted the keystroke combination for use in Windows; today's Windows versions use the combination to let people log on to the system and to bring up a diagnostic screen. "I might have invented Ctrl+Alt+Del but, as I like to say, Bill Gates made it famous," Bradley joked.

EU Hasn't Ruled Out a Microsoft Settlement
   The European Union (EU) might have decided that Microsoft is violating European antitrust laws, but that decision isn't stopping the EU from considering a settlement with the recalcitrant company. "We are not against a settlement if that is clearly in the consumer's interest," EU Competition Commissioner Mario Monti said Wednesday. "But time is running short." Ah yes, a settlement. Now that sounds familiar.

United States Unveils Cyber Warning System
   The alert system has worked well for terrorism threats, so why not? The US government announced this week that it's instituting a new cyber alert system that's based on the federal terrorism threat alert system that uses colors to denote threat levels. And thanks to the MyDoom virus that made the rounds this week, the system issued its first alert, warning users about the fast-moving attack. The next thing we know, the US government will no doubt institute Patriot Act-like laws that will let federal regulators silently investigate our Inboxes without a search warrant so that they can more easily search for email viruses and worms.

Microsoft Admits It Will Never Make Money on First Xbox Generation
   Speaking to financial analysts on Wednesday, Microsoft Chief Financial Officer (CFO) John Connors admitted that the company still loses money on every Xbox it sells and will likely never make money on the first-generation video game console. However, he has high hopes for Xbox 2, which could arrive as early as next year. "The real crossover, though, in terms of profitability delta, is when we get to the next generation of the Xbox console," he said. "With the current cost of goods, which we have taken down fairly dramatically, there's no way to make money on the console in this first generation. So the key is, how do we do the hardware design, the chipset design, and the supply-chain design with version 2? If we do as expected, we have a good crossover point where that big negative number is no longer a negative number, and because of the size of the revenue and the size of the percentage that is negative, when you have a crossover, that's a good contribution in terms of bottom line." This statement almost makes sense if you read it enough times.

Possible Xbox Live Update Coming Soon
   And speaking of the Xbox, various Xbox enthusiast sites are reporting that Microsoft will soon ship an update to the Xbox Live online game service that adds key communications features, such as the ability to send and receive voice and text messages to foes and teammates during games. And later, the company will reportedly add a voicemail feature. To foster a better community around Xbox Live, Microsoft will also improve support for clans--teams of gamers who compete together--by adding clan-tracking statistics. Xbox Live 3.0 will reportedly debut this spring.

Gates Snipes at Linux, Mac OS X Security. He Has a Point
   Speaking at London's Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre on Monday, Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates said Windows is a more secure system than rival offerings based on Linux or UNIX, specifically because Windows has been under such strenuous attack for the past several years. Linux and Mac OS X backers refuse to hear this argument, but it makes sense: As the most popular system by far, Windows is constantly attacked and has borne a brunt of attacks that's simply unknown on other platforms. As a result, Windows has emerged as the most secure platform, Gates said. "A high-volume system like \[Windows\] that has been thoroughly tested will be by far the most secure," he noted. "To say a system is secure because no one is attacking it is very dangerous."

That's Sir Gates to You, Buddy
   And speaking of Gates, his Gateness is literally Sir Gateness now, thanks to the honorary knighthood that the UK bequeathed to him this week for his "services to global enterprise." Gates has given billions of dollars to aid charities worldwide, and Microsoft, the company he cofounded, has created numerous jobs in the UK and elsewhere. The knighthood is somewhat controversial, however, given the fact that the EU is now preparing antitrust charges against the company. Buckingham Palace representatives said this week, however, that Gates deserved the knighthood strictly for his philanthropy and contributions to the UK's economy.

Goodbye, Gary
   On a more somber note, I'm saddened to report the passing of my friend and mentor Gary Brent, previously a professor at Scottsdale Community College near Phoenix, where this newsletter and its associated Web site got their start 8 years ago. Gary single-handedly started me on my writing career, and he taught me how to program computers long after I thought I'd already figured it out (but hadn't). Both the smartest and saddest man I've ever met, Gary was just 44 years old.

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