This month marks a dramatic change in the format of this column. Instead of focusing on one or two major topics, I'll be taking a broader view of what's going on in the industry, with an eye towards those technologies that will impact individuals as well as organizations. I suspect we'll tweak things, so let me know what you think by emailing me at email@example.com. My goal, as always, is to provide you with timely information you can actually use.
With Windows 7 in the can and racking up some impressive sales numbers—Microsoft will have sold well over 100 million units by the time you read this and expects to ship over 300 million units in calendar year 2010—the Windows Division is turning its attention to various updates that will keep the momentum going this year.
First up is Windows 7 SP1. Microsoft still plans to deliver this update in Q4 2010, or roughly one year after the General Availability (GA) date of the initial Windows 7 release. My understanding is that SP1 will aggregate all of the software updates from that first year, and it might include driver support for new technologies (think USB3). But for Windows Server 2008 R2, SP1 is going to be a big, big deal from a functional perspective. More on that when I'm at liberty to reveal what's going on.
Internet Explorer 9
Equally important, perhaps, is Internet Explorer (IE) 9, though I don't expect to see the final version of this browser in 2010. Microsoft delivered a bare-looking IE 9 Platform Preview at its MIX'10 developer show in Las Vegas (and I think the public beta will ship by the end of the summer). But don't be fooled by the lack of interesting new UI in the IE 9 Platform Preview. IE 9 is essentially a brand new browser, the most radically remade version of the browser that the company has ever shipped. There are three key themes to this release: performance, real-world compatibility with actual web standards like HTLM 5, CSS3, and SVG vector graphics, and hardware-accelerated graphics. Keep your eyes on this one.
Microsoft will also provide massive updates to its Windows Live Essentials application suite, which "lights up" or "completes" Windows 7, and to Hotmail, which is, by far, the most popular web-mail service on Earth. Both of these are important and will ship this year.
Hotmail and Windows Live Wave 4
Taking a public communications cue from Windows 7, the Windows Live team--which is indeed now part of the wider Windows division that's run by Steven Sinofsky--Windows Live has been quiet for the past year. In fact, it's been too quiet. But that's by design, and we can expect a set of Windows Live Wave 4 releases this year that will encompass major updates to online services (like Hotmail) as well as the client-side applications that form Windows Live Essentials.
Why is this important? Microsoft has repeatedly stated that Windows Live "completes" Windows 7 and "lights up" underlying technologies and capabilities in its latest OS. That's a cute way of saying that Windows Live--especially Windows Live Essentials--"completes" Windows 7. That's because applications that used to be part of Windows--like Mail, Messenger, Movie Maker, Photo Gallery and others--have been stripped from the OS and are now only available as add-ons. This strategy is a mistake, I think. But it's the way it is.
Because of the cone of silence, all we have to go on right now are various leaks of Windows Live Essentials Wave 4. What we see is a ribbonization of the client-side applications--like Windows Live Mail and Photo Gallery--that previously sported traditional menus and toolbars. Windows Live Photo Gallery will support facial recognition via "face detection" and "face recognition" features, allowing you to tag faces and have the software auto-find other pictures of the same people. Photo Gallery will also sport a Photo Fuse feature that creates a single good photo from a set of pictures that all have flaws. (So you could, for example, remove people from a set of shots of a landscape.)
Microsoft's instant messaging application, Windows Live Messenger, is being expanded dramatically as a hub for the various Windows Live services, as well as third party social networks. There's a browser add-on called Messenger Companion that provides IM and sharing capabilities from any web site, and a full web client called, of course, Web Messenger.
There's even less information about the next Hotmail. Microsoft has begun previewing its plans with a small promotion on the Hotmail web site called "The New Busy." There's no real information per se, but it seems to point to the fact that the next Hotmail will focus on email overload and other productivity issues. Stay tuned.
Office 2010 Ship Date
Speaking of products that will ship in 2010, Microsoft plans to ship Office 2010 (and SharePoint 2010, Visio 2010, and Project 2010) to businesses worldwide on May 12. That's public info as I write this, but my sources tell me that the consumer launch (or GA) date is June 15. If you're waiting to buy Office 2010 for yourself, don't: Instead, buy Office 2007 now and take advantage of Microsoft's Tech Guarantee—if you purchase Office 2007, or a new PC with Office 2007, and activate it between March 5, 2010 and September 30, 2010, you can download the corresponding Office 2010 version for free. The only caveat: You must redeem this offer by October 31, 2010.
Essential Business Server Axed
Microsoft discontinued Essential Business Server (EBS). Let’s ponder two interesting bits of information around that. First, customers who bought into this complicated mess of a product can get the individual component software (i.e., Windows 2008, Exchange Server 2007) from the EBS 2008 suite for free (minus local taxes, shipping and handling charges). This offer runs from June 30, 2010 through December 31, 2010, and if you’re an EBS customer, you'd be crazy not to take advantage of it.
Second, Microsoft's sudden and unexpected EBS cancellation is, I think, an indication that its customers are turning to cloud-based solutions like Microsoft Online Services (MOS) and Business Productivity Online Suite (BPOS) even faster than expected. And this, I also think, will have huge implications for Windows Small Business Server (SBS). I thought it was a big mistake for Microsoft not to provide some sort of cloud-based SKU for SBS 2008 (where Exchange, at least, was a hosted service instead of on-premises). Mark my words: They won't make that mistake in the next version. The death of EBS proves this, as hosted solutions make even more sense for smaller environments. (Microsoft has issued a "no comment" on SBS 2008 R2, though the company tells me it is actively working on "the next version of SBS 2008.")
One potentially troubling bit here is that Microsoft's arch enemy, Google, already has the Google Apps product, which combines Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Docs, and other services into a free or very cheap online service that any small business can afford. And Google recently augmented this offering with the Google App Marketplace. Yeah, I know that "app store" is just this year's fun tech keyword (like "Linux" or "XML" from years past), but there's a simple truism here, too: Platforms matter. And when you're building a platform, the more apps the better. Google's marketplace is pretty slim as I write this. But Microsoft doesn't even have one for its own hosted services. Not yet anyway.
Network Access Control for the Internet
Microsoft raised a curiously controversial topic at the RSA Conference 2010, and I think it bears investigating. Why, asked Microsoft Corporate Vice President Scott Charney, can't we implement technology like Network Access Control (NAC) for the public Internet? It makes sense: NAC prevents PCs that don't meet an organization's security policies from joining the corporate network; instead, they are shunted off to a separate network where they are updated until compliant. If we could implement this on the Internet, it would prevent people with no common sense from infecting others with viruses and malware. The catch is that such a scheme is complicated and expensive. I think it's a great idea: Security should be job-one online.
Windows Phone 7 VS. Apple
Windows Phone 7 is set for a September 2010 launch—and I think Microsoft has a winner on its hands. Windows Mobile was a decent solution for businesses until Apple showed how innovative design and a rapid set of improvements could make a big difference. Starting over fresh with Windows Phone was the right thing to do. There wasn't any way that Windows Mobile was going to evolve into something competitive. Give Microsoft credit for simply killing off Windows Mobile 7.0. The company bet the bank on a relatively unknown UI evolution that was quietly happening elsewhere in the company.
That UI, code-named Metro in its Windows Phone 7 incarnation, started way back in 2001 as Freestyle, the UI that became the first version of Windows Media Center. It's been improved dramatically over the years, and subsequent versions appeared in Portable Media Center (also forgotten), various generations of Windows Media Center, and, most recently, in the Zune PC software and Zune HD portable media player. So while few people have actually used Metro's predecessors, the truth is, it’s battle tested and mature, and ready to take on the media-rich needs of the mobile-using public. I'm excited about it. And I think it has a chance to make a dent in other markets, including the living room (Xbox, Zune, Media Center, Mediaroom) and even the desktop PC. Windows is getting pretty long in the tooth now anyway, isn't it?
Metro is far more innovative than anything Apple is doing this year. Sure, Apple fooled customers into thinking that its iPad tablet is "magical and revolutionary" when it's really just a large iPod touch. But providing another way to access the same applications and online content as all its other devices isn't revolutionary. In fact, Apple is milking the iTunes ecosystem in a rather shameless way here. It's the type of thing Microsoft has done in the past, and what one might expect from a company that's too busy protecting its lead to do something that makes sense for customers. This is an opening, not just for Windows Phone, but for any other smartphone and device platforms that seek to challenge the Apple hegemony. Someone needs to do it.