WinInfo Short Takes: Week of November 23, 2009

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

WinInfo Blog

I spent Thursday flying home from Los Angeles after spending four days at the Professional Developers Conference (PDC) 2009. It was a long week and also the end of a lot of travel: I've been to Colorado, San Francisco, Amsterdam/The Hague, Paris, New York, Seattle, and Los Angeles—all since the end of August. But now my travel schedule is clear until at least January, and I'm looking forward to some rest. The fact that it's raining here today—you know, absolutely nothing like LA—will get me into the right frame of mind.

PDC was sort of a bust. One thing I don't appreciate is hearing back from others that Microsoft President Steven Sinofsky wasn't happy with the live blogging that I and other journalist/bloggers did about the PDC keynotes—likely because much of it was humorous and irreverent and not particularly on-topic. I have some thoughts about the situation, but what makes me nervous is how this little communiqué represents Microsoft's further slide into an Apple-like theocracy, in which absolutely no one is allowed to question the man at the top. I respect everything Mr. Sinofsky has done with Windows 7, of course, but I don't work for him or report to him, and I feel no need to change my ways for him, except for the very real and scary possibility that he can simply cut me off from Microsoft because it seems like he's turning into that Steve Jobs-like autocrat. Furthermore—and again, no offense to Mr. Sinofsky—I spend thousands of dollars on a trip like this one, and although he shouldn't feel the need to entertain me like a trained monkey, this show was a bit of a letdown. (Microsoft actually pays the way for much of the international press, by the way. This is a benefit that isn't afforded to me.) Microsoft seemed very proud that their Windows 7 message this year was identical to last year's show. I think I speak for the majority of PDC reporters when I tell you that this wasn't actually a positive. Again, no offense. We can't cross the big guy. But this was a great opportunity to address the future—which is the point of PDC, by the way. Microsoft seems a bit too excited about the one thing it did right this year.

When you combine Sinofsky's apparent micromanagement attempts with the lackluster news from PDC and Microsoft's general business malaise these days, my feelings that we could be entering the post-Microsoft era only grow stronger. I know Microsoft will be a huge and powerful company for years to come, but then IBM is huge and powerful today. The concern is that IBM and its products and solutions aren't particularly interesting. I approach technology from the perspective of an enthusiast, of course, but also as a pragmatist. I think PC users—which today can more specifically be called "Windows users"—should take advantage of the best technologies out there, no matter which companies make them. If that means Apple or Google smart phones, Apple digital media solutions, Google online services, or whatever—so be it. This isn't about the companies or cultures around those companies; it's about the technologies that make most sense for individuals. And although solutions such as Windows Azure and SQL Azure could drive billions of dollars of revenues into Redmond over the years ahead, they're not fundamentally exciting or interesting. I'll write about them, of course. But there was nothing exciting this year like Windows 7 from last year's PDC. And you know, I need that injection every once in a while. If I don't get it from Microsoft, I'll get it from some other company that's doing interesting and innovative work. My fear is that, increasingly, those companies are not Microsoft.

Let me be more specific. Although I understand the need for the cloud computing services stuff—heck, I've argued that Microsoft can't move quickly enough into this market—PDC was the obvious avenue for Microsoft to show off its next-generation Windows Mobile 7 system, as well as the interim versions that will ship between now (version 6.5) and then. It was also the obvious time to advance the Windows Live platform, which—aside from a Windows Live Movie Maker release this summer—has been stagnant all year and never fulfilled the integration and rapid innovation promises of the past. (For example, why can I still not connect to my Windows Live SkyDrive storage from Windows 7 Explorer? Or from Live Mesh? Or from Windows Live Sync? Or from Windows Live Photo Gallery?) Instead, Microsoft will show off Windows Mobile 7 at a web developer show in March, which makes no sense at all. And as for Windows Live ... I hear crickets. Except that, for some reason, Microsoft will deliver Office Web Apps to consumers through Windows Live. And not Office Live. Right.

Long story short, I'm feeling a crisis of confidence here. I feel like we're on a precipice. Microsoft is in no danger of failing; that's ludicrous. And anyone who senses that this is somehow a plea for the Mac doesn't get it; Apple already lost that fight. But it doesn't matter, because the world is moving on. I'm thinking more of the future of computing, which is both mobile and connected, with post-PC devices like smart phones and cloud services connecting it all together. And though Microsoft is clearly making plays here, much of it reeks of too little, too late. The weird thing is this: Microsoft could totally make this happen. I'd just like to see a sign that it's actually taking steps. Constantly repeating the mantra "three screens and the cloud" doesn't cut it—especially when no one is using your stuff on two of those screens, and no one seems particularly interested in your cloud stuff. Please. Help.

Anyway, Leo and I managed to squeeze a new episode of the Windows Weekly podcast in this week despite the busy schedule at PDC. It should be available by the end of the weekend, as always.

But wait, there's more. Don't forget to follow me on Twitter, Friendfeed, and the SuperSite Blog.

Short Takes

Google Aims Squarely at the Heart of Windows with Chrome OS

On Thursday, Google formally introduced its forthcoming Chrome OS to the world at a special event in Silicon Valley. The stripped-down, browser-based OS will ship a year from now on netbook computers and, as previously promised, will be based on the Chrome web browser. What's most interesting about Chrome OS is that it's a direct attack on Windows. The only healthy segment of the PC market right now is netbooks, and Microsoft had raised prices on its netbook offering, Windows 7 Starter, in an effort to squeeze a bit more cash out of what has historically been something of a financial wash. But Chrome OS will be free. It will replace—not work alongside—Windows. It's completely cloud-based, boots in under 7 seconds, and uses encryption to ensure the safety of user data. I think this just might be the future. And although I'll be writing more about this over the weekend, the important thing to remember is that Google isn't pussyfooting around its desire to remove Microsoft from the picture. When you combine this offering with the company's web-based applications and services, business-oriented email and PIM offerings, and smart phone solution, you see the complete picture: Google intends to replace Microsoft. It has the smarts and the cash to do it. This is a wake-up call. Microsoft, please answer the phone.

Microsoft and Others Slam Google Chrome OS
As you might expect, Microsoft's official stance on Chrome OS is one of mockery, but I have to believe that engineers in Redmond are scrambling to craft a better response. Microsoft's PR firm was a lot more professional than what I've heard privately. "From what was shared, \[Chrome OS\] appears to be in the early stages of development," a Microsoft spokesperson said. "However, our customers are already voicing their approval of the way Windows 7 just works—across the web and on the desktop, and on all sizes and types of PCs." That's nice. But I have a better idea. Just give Windows 7 Starter away for free. Yes, keep it as a PC-only offering. When you consider that the Windows 7 Starter-to-Home Premium is just $80, that's both a decent price for the consumer to pay and a decent upsell for Microsoft. In other words, it's a win-win, and from the user's standpoint, Windows 7 Starter can do everything Google Chrome OS can ... plus a whole lot more. Problem solved. Assuming Microsoft is smart enough to do it.

Windows 7 Off to a Strong Start ... I Guess
But how strong? Here we are, weeks after the Windows 7 launch, and Microsoft hasn't provided a single concrete sales number. In fact, when you think about it, when the company was touting Windows 7 to developers during that PDC keynote, that would have been the obvious time to say, "Hey, we just sold this many million copies of Windows 7 in only two weeks: You'd be crazy not to target this audience in your own apps!" But the company didn't. Instead, this week, we get yet another vague claim, this time from Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, that Windows 7 has "already sold twice as many units" as any previous Windows versions in the same time frame. You know, that's great. But when you consider that the PC market now has more than 1 billion users, and is thus much, much bigger than it was at any other time in history, maybe that's not actually an accomplishment. (By comparison, the company sold 20 million copies of Windows Vista in its first month of availability. But despite being installed on several hundred million PCs worldwide right now, Vista is somehow considered one of Microsoft's most serious failures.) So what are the sales figures for Windows 7? What is Microsoft so afraid of?

The Jonas Brothers Will Promote Xbox 360
Or, put another way, this is the scariest Xbox 360 news I've heard since that $1 billion warranty fiasco from last year. Disney's too-clean-to-be-true boy-band act, the Jonas Brothers, are apparently such big fans of the Xbox 360—they keep one on their too-lame-to-be-true tour bus—that they've agreed to promote the video game console in a multi-million-dollar ad campaign. I have to smile at the thought of Hanna Montana types showing up in multiplayer Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 death match events online, but there are other, more humorous aspects to this story. For example, despite getting numerous endorsement offers every week, the Jonas Brothers have accepted only those that come from products they really like. So they endorse Verizon Wireless and—get this—Burger King apple fries. Not Burger King generally. Just the apple fries. "We make healthy choices, or represent healthy choices," Nick Jonas says.

Palm Gives Up on iTunes
After attempting to fool Apple's iTunes software into thinking that its Pre smart phones are iPods so that users could more easily sync their music collections with the devices, but being rebuffed by Apple several times, Palm has finally given up. The company said this week it would no longer offer the workaround—which is great for Pre owners, since the company doesn't offer any seamless way for them to utilize digital media on the devices. (You can, of course, still manually copy data over to the device.) With Palm falling further behind in the wake of more recent Android and Research in Motion (RIM) releases, maybe it's time to go in a different direction. I recommend calling Nokia first.

Google Adds Automatic Captioning to YouTube Video
As the father of a deaf child, I stand up and applaud Google for this development. Utilizing technology from its Google Voice voicemail transcription service, Google will automatically caption YouTube videos so that the deaf and hard of hearing can enjoy any video on the service. (Less altruistically, this feature also makes it easier to search for videos and thus allow Google to sell better ads against them.) The auto-captioning is imperfect, of course, but about a million times better than nothing. And Google is also offering video authors a simple solution for real captions: Simply upload a text file that contains the speech from the video, and Google will add the captions to the video, correctly matching the text to the moments of speech in the videos.

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