WinInfo Short Takes: Week of February 25, 2008

An often irreverent look at some of the week's other news, including more travel, a massive Microsoft interoperability announcement, Vista SP1 concerns, an XP SP3 RC2 public release, no Blu-Ray for Xbox 360, a new WHS warning, SkyDrive, and much more...

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So, London was excellent as expected. We hadn't been there in 15 long years, so it was interesting to see what had changed (London Eye, South Bank, lack of pigeons in Trafalgar Square, etc.) as well as revisit some old favorites, this time with the kids. What was surprising, actually, was the kids' enthusiasm for London: They absolutely loved it there, which was nice. Anyway, back to the grind.

By the way, the weather in London was curiously good: It was cooler than promised, but it was outright sunny for four of the five days we were there. To put this in perspective, my father lived in London for several years a while back, and my wife and I spent over 5 weeks in the city visiting him between 1991 and 1993. During that time, it was sunny exactly one day. To see as much sun as we did during this short trip was nicely surprising, and obviously the pictures we took benefitted as a result.

While it's always good to get away for a few days, the next two weeks involve back to back business trips, first to Los Angeles for the Windows Server 2008, and then the following week to Las Vegas for MIX '08, where Microsoft is expected to show off Internet Explorer 8 for the first time. I'm actually looking forward to both in a way, though I'm likewise looking forward to the rest of March, when I'm hoping to stay home for a while.

Big doings this week in Microsoft-land, and of course it had to happen the day I was flying home. (Actually, that may have been good timing, come to think of it.) More on this news below, but it looks like Microsoft is willing to open up its software--somewhat--in order to head off any antitrust concerns over the pending Yahoo! deal. That's my quickie take on the rationale behind this decision, not to mention the timing.

Leo and I will record a new episode of the Windows Weekly podcast today because I spent most of yesterday traveling. Obviously, there are some interesting things to talk about this week. Hopefully, I won't slip into a travel-related coma in the middle of it. Regardless, I'm sure it will be up by the end of the weekend.

Short Takes

Blockbuster: Microsoft to Open Key Software to Developers
Depending on your perspective, Microsoft yesterday unveiled a monumental strategy shift that will have long-lasting repercussions for its customers, or the software giant simply engaged in yet another tired exercise in pretending to open up its software when, in fact, all it's doing is trying to appease antitrust regulators and defuse any burgeoning interest in truly open software. Well, this may or may not surprise you, but I think this is more of the former than the latter, and though I agree that Microsoft should simply bite the bullet and really open up its software, this week's announcement is, indeed, a major step.

Here's what they're doing. Microsoft is taking a partially step away from its proprietary approach to software development, an approach that was key to its current dominance but is increasingly untenable in the nascent world of cloud computing and open systems. To this end, the company is publishing all of the application programming interfaces (APIs) and communications protocols for its "high volume products," including such things as Windows Vista and Office 2007. There's no licensing or royalty fee for this information, and Microsoft says that the API publication should allow partners and competitors to interoperate with its most important products as well as do Microsoft's own products. However, companies that distribute commercial products based on this information will need to obtain "reasonable and non-discriminatory" patent license from Microsoft at "low royalty rates." Put simply, anyone can see it. To use it commercially, it's open, but at a cost.

There are other changes that I consider ancillary to the main announcement. Microsoft will document how it uses and, intriguingly, extends industry standards, again in its high volume products. It will "enhance" Office 2007 so that competitors can more easily graft compatibility for competing document formats (like ODF) to Microsoft's suite. And a few even less interesting things.

So what's the takeaway here? Well, yes, it's true that Microsoft has been baby-stepping towards opening up its products for some time. (On the flip side, give the company some credit for being almost totally transparent from a policy perspective: Microsoft is a rich source of open insider blogs, unlike, say, such beloved companies as Apple, which maintains a Soviet-style lock on all internal developments.) This is a much bigger step than the company has taken in the past. It might not go far enough. And it is clearly designed to appease the very antitrust officials (I'm looking specifically at you, EU) who are probably already drafting their rejection of Microsoft's purchase of Yahoo, you know, just in case it ever comes to that.

I'll spend more time examining this announcement over the weekend. My suspicion is that there's a lot more to say about it, but for now I'm cautiously optimistic.

Not So Surprising: EU Skeptical of Microsoft Announcement
This is a tough one for me, because in a vague way I sort of agree with the EU's decision to pursue its original antitrust complaint against Microsoft, and certainly the software giant has done everything in its power to make the EU miserable over the past several years, missing deadlines repeatedly and under-delivering on what it's promised. On the other hand, I feel like the EU is also over-stepping its bounds: It will investigate Microsoft at the drop of a hat, as most recently evidenced by the flare-up over Opera's obviously bogus Microsoft complaint. In any event, EU antitrust regulators weren't too impressed with Microsoft's big announcement this week, mostly because they've heard a lot of interoperability talk from Microsoft over the past five years but have seen precious little interoperability walk. OK, I get it. But let's try to suck it up and at least be professional about it, shall we?

Best Quote about the Microsoft Announcement
Looking over the news stories about this announcement, which usually relied very heavily on quotes from industry analysts because, you know, tech reporters are apparently too dumb to come up with their own analysis, one quote stood out. What's funny about this, however, is that the quote is great reasons even the quoter probably doesn't understand. "These announcements are like McDonald's releasing the recipe for its secret sauce," said AR Communications strategic consultant Carmi Levy. Actually, it's exactly like that, because McDonald's "secret sauce" was a big deal in the fast food market 30 years ago, when everyone in America knew the words to the Big Mac jingle the company used in commercials. That we now have Microsoft sort-of embracing open software today, a full decade after the open source movement went mainstream, kind of shows how far behind the company is when it comes to the hottest trends in computing today, including such movements as cloud computing and mashups. You know, the types of things that pretty much rely on interoperability. So let's hear it for Carmi Levy. My guess is you don't know how right you are.

Brin: Google Freaked Over Microsoft's Bid for Yahoo!
I guess they were hoping Microsoft would just roll over and play dead. Google cofounder Sergey Brin this week said that Microsoft's takeover bid for Yahoo! was "unnerving" because the company has a history of stifling innovation. "When you start to have companies that control the operating system, control the browsers, they really tie up the top websites, and can be used to manipulate stuff in various ways," he said, apparently in mock innocence. Sorry, but it's hard to imagine a legitimate complaint coming out of Google on this one. If anything, a combination of Microsoft and Yahoo! would be an important blocker to the really dominant player on the Web. Which is Google, by the way.

Microsoft Pulls Update Required to Install Vista SP1
Microsoft this week pulled one of the three updates that customers have to install before they can install Windows Vista Service Pack 1 (SP1), leading to fears that something is mysteriously wrong. (Cue foreboding music.) Here's the thing: SP1 won't be widely distributed to customers until mid-March at the earliest--a full month away--so I don't think this is a huge deal. Unless, of course, you're one of the few people who actually did install the update and then ran into the problem that caused Microsoft to pull it. Apparently, "a small number of customers in unique circumstances" who installed the update ran into an issue where their PCs would just reboot constantly or not boot at all. Microsoft is working to address that problem and says it will re-release the update "shortly." Hey, it's Microsoft. I mean, they get software. What could go wrong?

Microsoft Releases List of Vista SP1-Incompatible Apps
And speaking of Vista SP1, Microsoft this week released a tiny list of third party applications that are either blocked or lose some functionality when SP1 is installed on Vista. There are few important applications on this list, which I think is telling, but security applications seem to be the most widely affected. Fortunately, fixes are already available for all the big ones. Did I mention how short this list is? See for yourself...

Microsoft: No Blu-Ray Drive for Xbox 360
Apparently, the company is afraid that it will kill off yet another hi-def disk format if it, too, becomes associated with the Xbox 360. Microsoft this week said it has no plans to ship a Blu-Ray add-on drive for the Xbox 360 video game console, given its lack of success with the HD DVD drive add-on drive. Apparently, the HD DVD add-on had a lackluster 3 percent attach rate, which is pretty dismal. I'd also point out that it makes the Xbox 360 even louder than it already is, which isn't a good thing. If you're looking for a cheap Blu-Ray drive, just grab a PlayStation 3. They work great. And they're quiet.

Windows XP SP3 RC2 Goes Public
Less than three weeks after shipping a private version of what is widely regarded as the last pre-release version of Windows XP Service Pack 3 (SP3) to testers, Microsoft has made that release public, so that anyone can download and test it. XP SP3 Release Candidate 2 (RC2, and you gotta love names like XP SP3 RC2, by the way) is the second public pre-release version of XP SP3, which Microsoft says will ship in Q2 2008. My guess is that it will arrive a bit early.

Microsoft Issues New WHS Warning
Microsoft this week expanded on a December warning about Windows Home Server (WHS) in a way that I can't say I find reassuring. Now, the company is saying that the data corruption bug it previously discovered can be triggered by a much wider range of applications than previously expected, including such things as Microsoft Excel, Windows Media Player 11, and Zune, and Adobe Photoshop Elements, Adobe Lightroom, Apple iTunes, Mozilla Thunderbird, and WinAmp. The glitch requires a WHS server with more than one hard drive and, most importantly, you must be editing files directly on the server for the error to occur. My advice here is simple: Until Microsoft issues a fix (and it's been two long months, by the way), just don't edit files directly on the server. Edit them locally on your own PC and then copy them to the server. This happens to be the way I work, personally, but I could see this problem affecting others.

SkyDrive Goes Public, Adds Storage
Lot amidst all the craziness this week, Microsoft launched the final piece of its Windows Live suite, the Windows Live SkyDrive online storage service. SkyDrive is kind of interesting because it's one of the few online services that Microsoft both announced and delivered before its most dominant competitor, Google. (In fact, Google has yet to officially announce an online storage service, though the company is clearly moving in that direction.) The final shipping version of SkyDrive bumps up the storage to 5 GB and is available in 38 different countries. What's still missing, however, is a way to bump up the storage, perhaps by paying a yearly fee. I'm sure that's in the works.

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