As is so often the case in the waning days of any year, it's been a slow news week, and a short one at that, thanks to the New Year's holiday. So instead of dredging up a tired press release from a third rate PC maker or hardware vendor, I thought it might be more fitting to reflect a bit on the year that's now coming to a close. I primarily cover Microsoft, of course, so I will focus on what I consider to be the top 10 most important Microsoft product releases of the year.

Live Mesh
Microsoft is often criticized for milking its traditionally packaged software products in an era when the rest of the industry is moving as quickly as possible to cloud (i.e. Web-based) computing. And while there's some truth to that opinion, the first two Microsoft products I'd like to highlight refute the notion that Microsoft is ignoring the cloud. Indeed, the first of these products, Live Mesh, is arguably one of the most innovative and useful cloud computing services available from any company.

Live Mesh is hard to categorize at this early point because it's evolving rapidly and continuously, but the simplest way to describe it is as a new synchronization platform that bridges the gap between PCs, the Web, and mobile devices. You can use Live Mesh to synchronize documents and other files between your PCs, and between your PCs and a special Web-based desktop. It also works with Macs and Windows Mobile devices. PC users also get a special additional bit of functionality: The ability to remotely access their PC desktop from any Web-enabled PC. These capabilities are all aimed at providing anywhere/anytime access to your data. So even if you're in an Internet café in, say, Istanbul, you can still touch up that résumé, find a password, or do any other number of things that might otherwise have been impossible.

What makes Live Mesh most exciting, however, is that it's evolving into a platform that will include applications that, like those documents, can be synchronized between all of the computing end points that access the service. So it will be theoretically possible to sync a word processor or image editor, or any other kind of application between the various devices on your Mesh and then access them from anywhere in the world as well. If Live Mesh is as successful as I think it will be, it could prove to be the breakthrough technology that enables Microsoft to bridge the gap between the floppies of the past and the cloud of the future.

Live Mesh is free.
http://www.winsupersite.com/article/live/live-mesh-beta.aspx

Microsoft Online Services (MOS)
In the same vein as Live Mesh, Microsoft Online Services (MOS) bucks the software giant's traditions and bundles its most popular server applications--Exchange Server 2007, SharePoint, and a few others--as hosted online services that businesses of all sizes can subscribe to in various ways. This is a major change that has many industry ramifications. First, Microsoft's partners--many of whom were already offering hosted services themselves--will have to either compete with Microsoft's pricing model or find new businesses to exploit. And second, Microsoft's customers now have a far less expensive and complex way to utilize the software giant's most popular servers.

MOS is perhaps Microsoft's purest cloud computing offering at this time, and I fully expect that most Exchange users worldwide, especially, will soon be accessing the server via hosted services and not locally installed servers.

Exchange access via MOS starts at $10 per user per month.
http://www.winsupersite.com/article/showcase/software--services-microsoft-online-services-expands-to-small-businesses.aspx

Response Point with Service Pack 1 (SP1)
Microsoft's most underappreciated product of 2008 is also the one that most obviously delivers on the software giant's promise to make software solutions simpler , less inexpensive, and more accessible for its customers. Response Point is essentially a small business PBX replacement in a box. It consists of an XP Embedded-based base station and five or more satellite phones, connects to one or two traditional phone lines, and uses Ethernet-based network cabling internally for connecting it all together. The product targets businesses with 50 or fewer users and assumes that those users don't include a single IT pro among them.

There are a number of exciting aspects to Response Point. First, it's simple enough that any small business can be up and running very quickly. Second, it's not based on any expansive and complicated Microsoft platform, so it's not bogged down by the need to be an enterprise product that's been shoehorned for a different market.

But the most obvious reason to love Response Point is that the functionality is incredible. You can easily set up automatic forwarding to cell phones and other numbers, auto forward to others in the office under certain conditions, and use an incredible voice recognition system that's accessible both from within the local system (i.e., at the office) and when calling in from the road. That way, any phone number that's in your corporate directory is available to you at all times, even when you're not at the office. There's an impressive e automated receptionist that provides a professional front-end to your business and ensuring that the phone is always answered, no matter what the time is.

Response Point systems start at about $1500.
http://www.winsupersite.com/article/office/response-point-with-service-pack-1-microsofts-most-underappreciated-product-of-2008.

Windows 7 Beta
OK, Windows 7 isn't publicly available yet, and even the official Beta version won't ship to customers until early 2009. But this currently-in-limbo product still deserves a place on the 2008 list because of the profound way it has impacted the Microsoft ecosystem this past year. Windows 7 is the culmination of a year-long attempt by the software giant to reverse the fortunes of Windows, which, senseless or not, has been tarnished ever since the release of Windows Vista in 2006. But unlike its predecessor, Windows 7 is widely viewed as a hugely positive release, one that many Windows users are--get this--eagerly waiting to install.

That fact alone makes Windows 7 notable. But what's most impressive here, to me at least, is that Windows 7 really is just a shinier, slightly-better version of Windows Vista. That Microsoft is able to generate this much excitement for a product that is essentially Windows Vista 1.5 is both humorous and telling, and it demonstrates what I've always thought: Windows Vista isn't as bad as the pundits would have you believe. And by calling it something different--be it "Mojave" or Windows 7--Microsoft has removed the stigma from the previous version.

Brilliant.

The Windows 7 Beta will be publicly available in January.
http://www.winsupersite.com/article/win7/windows-7-beta-review.aspx

Windows Home Server (WHS) Power Pack 1 (PP1)
I've been using Windows Home Server (WHS) since late last year, and this wonderful product has revolutionized the way I backup, share media, and remotely access my entire data store from the road. But there were a few minor problems with the initial release, and they were all fixed with the free Power Pack 1 (PP1) upgrade. This nifty update added x64 client support, server backup functionality, remote access improvements, and a number of other changes. It also fixed a data corruption bug that didn't actually appear to affect many customers (it certainly didn't affect me) but was widely reported.

WHS is one of those stealth products that I think will have a profound impact on networked homes going forward. Microsoft likes to compare it to PCs and home networking, which were niche products in the 1980's and 1990's, respectively. And like those products, it believes, WHS will one day be a common and accepted part of our everyday computing environments. That's already true in my household.

Windows Home Server starts at $99 for an OEM software install, but it's typically purchased with new server hardware for about $500 and up.
http://www.winsupersite.com/article/reviews/windows-home-server-power-pack-1-review.aspx

Windows Live Essentials 2009
Over the past three years, Microsoft has quietly evolved its Messenger instant messaging product into a suite of applications that now spans quite a gamut of functionality. Now called Windows Live Essentials, the suite includes Windows Live Mail (calendar, contacts, and email management), Windows Live Messenger (IM), Windows Live Movie Maker Beta (video and photo slideshow editing and publishing), Windows Live Photo Gallery (photo and home movie management), Windows Live Toolbar (for IE), Windows Live Writer (blog posting and management), Windows Live Family Safety (multi-PC parental controls), Office Outlook Connector (for access Windows Live calendar, contacts, and email from Outlook), and some other tools.

It's an impressive suite of applications, but the cherry on top of all this is the way in which these tools integrate with each other, with numerous Windows Live Wave 3 services (see below), and with various third party services. Windows Live Essentials is the first thing I install after installing Windows, and I suspect it will be a must-have install for hundreds of millions of Windows users going forward as well.

Windows Live Essentials is free.
http://www.winsupersite.com/article/live/making-sense-of-windows-live-wave-3-part-3-windows-live-essentials.aspx

Windows Live Wave 3
In tandem with the release of Windows Live Essentials, Microsoft also unveiled a sweeping set of new Windows Live services, which it has dubbed its Wave 3 release. Windows Live Wave 3 is a huge and impressive set of services, so much so that it's actually hard to keep track of it all.

Among the services are Windows Live Calendar (calendaring, to-do), Windows Live Events (online event invitation and sharing), Windows Live FrameIt (digital photo frame content delivery), Windows Live Groups (online group collaboration), Windows Live Home (Web portal), Windows Live Hotmail (email), Windows Live People (contacts), Windows Live Photos (photos), Windows Live Profile (online persona management), Windows Live SkyDrive (online storage), Windows Live Spaces (blog), and Windows Live Sync (peer-to-peer document sharing).

Aside from the sheer number of these services, what makes Windows Live so impressive is how the various bits and pieces integrate not just with each and with Windows Live Essentials applications, but also with third party services like Facebook, Twitter, Yelp, and many, many others.

Windows Live Wave 3 is free, and offers nearly unlimited storage capacity.
http://www.winsupersite.com/article/live/making-sense-of-windows-live-wave-3-part-2-windows-live-services.aspx

Windows Server 2008
The latest version of Microsoft's enterprise server is the best yet and with the completion of its Hyper-V virtualization platform, Windows Server 2008 is now prepared for the future as well. This release has so many new features it's hard to keep track of them all, but I'd highlight the new Server Manager dashboard, the stripped-down Server Core install type, BitLocker Full-Drive Encryption, Read-Only Doman Controller (RODC), IIS 7, Network Access Protection (NAP), PowerShell, and of course Hyper-V as being among the top reasons to upgrade.

There's even a free, standalone version of Hyper-V Server if you just want to dip your toes into the virtualization world for the first time.

Windows Server 2008 starts at $469 for the Web Server Edition and comes in both 32-bit and 64-bit variants. (For now; the R2 update due next year drops the 32-bit versions.)
http://www.winsupersite.com/article/reviews/windows-server-2008-review.aspx

Windows Vista Service Pack 1 (SP1)
While Windows 7 will be a godsend when it arrives in 2009, Windows Vista users got an early Christmas present in 2008 when Microsoft released the Service Pack 1 (SP1) update. This seemingly innocuous update basically fixed everything that was wrong with the initial release of Vista, and if you're still harboring a weird grudge against this OS for its compatibility or performance issues, it's time to take another look.

With SP1, Windows Vista picks up important device and software compatibility, bringing it up to par with Windows XP. You get important performance and reliability improvements, including much better battery life on portable computers. BitLocker has been enhanced to work with any fixed disk in the system, and not just the system drive. There are important changes to Windows Search, Disk Defragmenter, Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA) and other components.

Put simply, SP1 is like getting a brand new version of Vista, one that works much better than the original.

Windows Vista SP1 is free.
http://www.winsupersite.com/article/reviews/windows-vista-service-pack-1-review.aspx

Zune 3
Microsoft's widely derided Zune digital media platform got a major update a year ago but really came into its own with the Zune 3 release in late 2009. This time around, the hardware hasn't changed much--Microsoft still sells the same basic flash- and hard drive-based players it launched a year earlier--but the software and services are better than ever. Much better. In fact, they're so good, you should consider using them even if you don't have a Zune device and never plan to own one.

What you get here is a superior digital media player, the Zune PC software, and a set of interesting and useful online services. The Zune PC software is the real star, and it's only a million times nicer than rivals like Windows Media Player and Apple iTunes. The UI is simple and serene, and the Zune 3 update provides much-needed music discovery functionality.

On the services end, Microsoft provides an excellent online music store, the Zune Marketplace, that will soon be selling only 100 percent DRM-free MP3 files, as well as providing an inexpensive subscription service that lets you access the entire library of several million tracks, all while getting 10 free songs to keep each month. A Zune Social service lets you share musical preferences with your friends, and discover new music. Taken together, it's the best platform out there for music lovers especially.

The Zune PC software and Zune Social are free; the Zune Pass subscription is $15 a month, but comes with 10 free songs, a $10 value.
http://www.winsupersite.com/article/reviews/zune-3-review-part-1-overview.aspx

That's all for now. See you next year! --Paul