An often irreverent look at some of the week's other news...
WMP 9, Windows Movie Maker 2, Plus! Digital Media Edition on Tap for Next Week
On January 7, Microsoft will release several important products and technologies, many of which will be available as free downloads. The free products include Windows Media Player (WMP) 9 and the Windows Media 9 Series technologies: new Windows Media Audio and Video 9 Series codecs, Windows Media Encoder 9 Series, Windows Media Format software development kit (SDK) 9, and Windows Media Services 9 Series (which will ship as part of Windows .NET Server--Win.NET Server--2003 in April). Another free download--Windows Movie Maker 2 for Windows XP, an amazing update to the Windows Movie Maker version that now ships with XP--will also be available on January 7. In addition, Microsoft will ship Plus! Digital Media Edition for XP, a $20 XP add-on pack that includes a suite of amazing digital-media applications; if you preorder Plus! Digital Media Edition before January 7, the cost is only $15. I reviewed all these products on the SuperSite for Windows and strongly recommend them to readers interested in digital media. On January 7, I'll update my reviews with any new information about the final releases, including Plus! Digital Media Edition's Plus! Sync & Go feature.
CES 2003, Macworld Rumors Abound
Next week, two major industry trade shows promise to rejuvenate interest in using PCs (and Macintoshes) as digital lifestyle devices. You might recall that Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates and Apple Computer's CEO Steve Jobs unveiled their companies' digital-media-oriented strategies during their keynote addresses 2 years ago at the Computer Electronics Show (CES) 2001 and Macworld San Francisco 2001, respectively. Gates was first with his "Digital Lifestyle" speech, in which he talked about the future of the set-top box, the future of TV, new ways to use music, and how the PC can connect all these technologies, support creativity, and project itself to new peripherals. A few days later, Jobs unveiled Apple's "Digital Hub" marketing plan and several exciting iApps. Since then, both companies have released numerous digital-media and home-networking-oriented products, and next week I expect them to offer proof that their companies are continuing to innovate in these areas. No matter how you see this battle, both XP and Mac OS X offer consumers an incredible range of functionality out of the box, and working with digital photos, music, and video has never been easier. We really are spoiled.
Apple: No Evidence That Switch Campaign Has Worked
And speaking of Apple, 6 months into the company's Switch campaign, Apple is admitting that no evidence exists that the campaign has stimulated Mac sales. The only substantive proof will come during Jobs's Macworld keynote address next week, but the Apple marketing machine has been curiously silent for a long time about the effects of the Switch campaign. Chief financial officer (CFO) Fred Anderson offered the only statistic from the company when he noted in October that 40 percent of the customers who bought "something" from the company's retail stores weren't previous Mac owners. However, in the same time period, Mac sales stagnated or fell, depending on the market, and the company's market share also fell. During the crucial long Thanksgiving weekend, typically a high watermark for retail sales, Apple discussed only foot traffic in its store, not actual sales. In any event, Macworld will be even more fateful for the company this year, especially if its efforts in 2002 turn out to have been in vain. Stay tuned.
Nebraska Pressed to Reopen Microsoft Lawsuit
Plaintiffs in one of the many aborted class-action lawsuits that arose in the wake of the guilty verdict in Microsoft's antitrust trial are asking the Nebraska Supreme Court to reopen the case. The Nebraska case started in 2001, when two people sued Microsoft for overcharging them for Windows 98. However, like many states, Nebraska has laws that prevent individuals from suing a company over products they didn't purchase directly; like most Windows users, the plaintiffs received Win98 bundled with a new PC. However, Nebraska lawyers say that the state's Consumer Protection Act supercedes the legal precedent cited in the original case, and they want the state to hold Microsoft liable. The Nebraska Supreme Court will hear the case next week.
Internet Turns 20
The Internet turned 20 on January 1, according to the most reliable way of measuring such a milestone. On January 1, 1983, government scientists upgraded about 400 computers linked to ARPAnet to support a then-new communications protocol called TCP/IP, effectively launching the modern Internet. Some people, however, consider the Internet to be more than 30 years old, citing the first linking of two computers in 1969 as the real birth date. Bah, says Vint Cerf, a coinventor of TCP/IP. "This is a major milestone," he says. "I consider the January 1983 date to be the real rollout of the Internet." However you measure it, one thing is clear: I'm older than the Internet.
Internet Users: Outlaw Junk Mail
A recent Harris Interactive poll suggests that more than 75 percent of online users favor making junk email illegal, with only 12 percent opposed to the idea. Nearly all the respondents found unsolicited email "annoying;" more than 80 percent rated it "very annoying"--a big jump from the previous year when less than 50 percent said they found spam "very annoying." Pornographic spam is the most troublesome type of spam, according to the poll, followed by spam about mortgages and loans, investment opportunities, and real estate. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), spam continues to grow; it now accounts for more than 40 percent of all email, up from just 13 percent a year earlier. Is any relief in sight? Apparently not. Despite the fact that several US states passed laws outlawing spam email, federal legislation has gone absolutely nowhere. Meanwhile, I'm drowning in a sea of spam, and virtually every antispam tool I've tried has proven ineffectual. We have to do something about this problem.
US Supreme Court Intervenes in DVD-Copying Case
US Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor has issued a stay in a California case involving a man who posted to the Web software that can be used to illegally copy DVD movies. Justice O'Connor issued the stay in response to a California Supreme Court ruling that threw out the case, which the DVD Copy Control Association (DVD CCA) originally brought. During this period, the DVD CCA can draft a response to Supreme Court, after which time the high court will determine whether to hear the case. So what's this case all about? In 1999, the DVD CCA charged that a then-college student violated California's trade-secrets laws when he posted De-Content Scramble System (DeCSS) software on his Web site. The DeCSS software lets Linux users play back DVD movies or copy them to the PC. However, the California Supreme Court ruled that the DVD CCA couldn't sue the man in California because "the mere posting of information on a passive Internet Web site, which is accessible from anywhere but is directed at no particular audience, cannot be an action targeted at a particular \[state\]." By issuing a stay, O'Connor can ensure that the man won't repost the software while the US Supreme Court considers the case. Stay tuned.
Sun Hands Out Free Staroffice Software to Danish Teachers and Students
In Sun Microsystems' efforts to overcome the dominance of Microsoft Office, Sun continues to provide free StarOffice copies to teachers and students. This week, the company announced an agreement with the Denmark Ministry of Education to provide free downloadable copies of the office productivity suite to the country's 1.1 million primary and secondary students, higher-education students, and teachers and staff. Or, for just $1.40, participants can choose to get the CD-ROM version. "They can use it at school and at home," a Sun product marketing manager said. "It is a complete package with no limitations regarding to copying the program." The agreement follows similar deals in Chile, China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan; Sun says these agreements will provide software to more than 200 million students worldwide. The company is also working to strike similar agreements with France, Germany, and Sweden, and with various countries in Africa.
Music Sales Nosedive for Second Straight Year
The recording industry recently reported that music sales fell for the second straight year, with a 9.3 percent decline in 2002. Meanwhile, various high-profile online music services are starting up; these services should benefit from next week's WMP 9 release. Will the music industry recover? As with any other product-based industry, quality and price are the key differentiators. The faster these companies can embrace the online world, the better.
Rumors, Predictions, and Nostalgia, Oh My
On the Web, everyone with a keyboard is offering predictions for 2003, but what's the point? If I had predicted a year ago that, in 2002, Microsoft would be completely left off the hook for its sweeping antitrust violations, I'd have been laughed off my soapbox. So instead of creating an all-too-easy list of generalities (er, "predictions") for the coming year, I'll just offer one general statement that describes the ongoing paradox that is Microsoft: In 2003, Microsoft will continue to dominate the industry, while making boneheaded business decisions and, inexplicably, some excellent products as well. I guess if figuring out the software giant were any easier, I would have walked away from this job a long time ago, but Microsoft continues to amaze me. Every time things get boring, every time I start to question why I flounder trying to understand this industry, Microsoft either a) makes some incredibly humorous, newsworthy blunder, or b) shows up with a product or technology that reenergizes me all over again. The cycle is vicious, but I wouldn't miss it for the world. So thanks for joining me for the ride, and happy New Year, everybody!