Looking ahead in 2011, I like what I see so far: The industry is moving inexorably to a cloud computing future that I think makes plenty of sense for Microsoft and its customers; users are craving a new generation of highly mobile and pervasively connected devices; and, best of all, we have another Windows beta on the way. Ah, bliss.

 

Windows 8 Beta on Horizon

To understand the current schedule for Windows 8, all you need are some elementary math skills. Microsoft has told me that it now plans to ship new versions of Windows every three years, foregoing the previous major-minor release cadence; now, all Windows releases are new versions of Windows, with no major or minor version designation. Windows 7 shipped in October 2009, of course, a bit late for the holiday season and quite late for back-to-school sales, so adjusting for that issue, we can assume that Windows 8 is on the docket for mid-to-late 2012. And this is indeed what my sources have told me is the expected release date.

Backtracking from that date, we can look at how Microsoft released pre-release code for Windows 7 to predict how it will do so for Windows 8. With Windows 7, Microsoft shipped the first and only beta release of the system to a limited technical audience in October 2008, one year before RTM; it then released a broader public beta three months later. With that in mind, I think we can expect a limited beta of Windows 8 by mid-2011 at the latest and a public beta by September 2011.

What this means is that our first hands-on experience with Windows 8 is just months away. There's even a small chance that Microsoft will show off a very early preview of the OS at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES). If so, you can expect a Windows 8 update a month after. I'm very curious to see what Microsoft comes up with.

 

Hand-Wringing Over the iPad

We don't yet have the final tally on Apple iPad sales for 2010, but my estimate is that Apple will sell around 12 to 15 million units for the year—and, had the device been available for the full year, would have sold about 15 to 18 million units. (The iPad became broadly available in April 2010.)

That number, wherever it falls, is nowhere close to the 350+ million PCs that hardware makers will deliver in the same time frame. But it's still important for two reasons. First, Apple has indeed created a new product category, one that Microsoft, Google, RIM, and many others are eager for a share of. And second, if you were to combine Apple's iPad sales with its Mac sales something stunning happens: Apple, suddenly, becomes one of the biggest PC makers in the world.

 For Microsoft, this cannot stand, and although the software giant and its hardware partners squandered most of 2010 by not releasing anything that even closely resembles an iPad competitor, 2011 should be quite different. There are those who believe—and I include myself among them—that the real solution to this problem isn't a Windows PC, per se, but rather a more device-like tablet based on Windows Phone OS or even the Windows Embedded 7 OS.

But that's not where Microsoft seems to be heading, and Windows 7, combined perhaps with a simpler front end and some new, battery-efficient Intel hardware, appears to be the plan for the next year. Whatever happens, it should be interesting.

 

Internet Explorer 9 Anti-Tracking Technologies

Internet Explorer (IE) 9 has been in beta for a long, long time. Microsoft showed off the first pre-release version of the browser in October 2010, released the first platform preview in March 2010, and then the first (and only) beta in September 2010.

For the release candidate (RC) version of IE 9, due in early 2011, Microsoft is adding a feature to the product called Tracking Protection that answers a US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) proposal called "Do Not Track." The idea is that web browser users need some way to prevent sites—malicious or otherwise—from tracking their movements online. It would resemble the "Do Not Call" database, but be implemented in a completely different way.

IE 9’s Do Not Track functionality will be opt-in technology that requires users to find, download, and install tracking lists that will block certain websites from following users online. The company expects various third parties to construct these tracking lists, which is perhaps the weak link in the plan. That said, this facility will be controllable via policy and therefore could become an interesting new layer of defense.

I suspect that competing browser makers will provide their own implementations of Do Not Track, and it's likely that those companies without ties to online advertising—like Mozilla, maker of Firefox—will be more aggressive about protecting their users from site tracking. The final version of IE 9 is due in 2011. I have my money on April, since that’s when the company's annual web developer show, MIX, occurs.

 

 

Debates on the Future of Windows Home Server...

In my article last month "Microsoft Brings SBS into the Cloud,” InstantDoc ID 129147, I touched briefly on Microsoft's decision to remove a critical data storage technology called Drive Extender from its upcoming products, Windows Home Server "Vail," Windows Small Business Server 2011 Essentials, and Windows Storage Server 2011 Essentials.

Drive Extender debuted in the original version of WHS and provides two key pieces of functionality. First, it lets users easily ensure that all data stored on the server is duplicated across two physical disks, helping to prevent data loss in the event of a hardware failure. Second, it removes the need for drive letters and exposes any attached hard drives (internal or external) as part of a single pool of storage.

The cancellation of Drive Extender is felt most keenly in the WHS community. Rabid and enthusiastic users complained bitterly online and started an online petition to see whether the software giant would relent and bring back what was absolutely a key part of an under-used but stunning software solution.

That's not going to happen. I've spoken with Microsoft several times about this feature removal, and although I reacted much like any other WHS enthusiast when I heard about this plan, I do understand the larger strategic needs around application compatibility.

The problem is that, for WHS at least, there's no obvious software solution that can step in and fill the needs that were met by Drive Extender. RAID is too complex and too limiting for home solutions, and while products like the Drobo devices somewhat resemble Drive Extender as well, they're proprietary and also somewhat expensive.

Microsoft has told me that it will try to address user concerns in an early 2011 beta refresh of WHS "Vail," though it stressed that Drive Extender is absolutely not coming back. I'm curious what Microsoft will come up with, and whether I can recommend a Drive Extender-less WHS. Previous to this disappointment, I thought WHS was a no-brainer. But now I'm not so sure.

The final version of WHS "Vail" should ship sometime in the second quarter of 2011. Some believe Microsoft may simply cancel the product. Honestly, I could see that happening as well. Stay tuned.

 

...And How This Impacts Small Business Server

On the Small Business Server side of the fence, the Drive Extender removal is less of a problem because Microsoft's hardware partners, which sell SBS products with low-end server hardware already, have their own solutions for data redundancy and file protection. But I'm still curious to see whether these concerns are really met, or whether users will be expected to roll their own solutions as required or rely on external backups.

I'm guessing this functionality will be ignored. And that's a shame, because the very small businesses that will be drawn to SBS Essentials are exactly the types of companies that don't establish a backup plan.

 

Microsoft Security Essentials 2 and the Future of Windows Security

I've spent much of the past decade complaining that Microsoft needs to integrate full security controls into client versions of Windows, but although the company has made strides in that direction, the most recent Windows versions—Windows 7 and Vista—have basically included everything a user could need except for antivirus and anti-malware. A few years back, Microsoft's security solution for consumers was a low-cost subscription product called Windows Live OneCare. But in 2009, that morphed into an excellent, free download called Microsoft Security Essentials. This product was updated recently, and in late 2010, Microsoft opened the licensing to include very small businesses (i.e. those with 10 or fewer desktops) as well.

Come on, Microsoft. You're so close.

One concern is that Microsoft currently sells an MSE-based product to businesses, called Microsoft Forefront. This isn't so much a product as it is a suite, and much of the functionality of the paid version is in centralized management and specialized protection capabilities for various Microsoft servers as well.

I suspect that the bigger concern here is antitrust related, and certainly McAfee, Symantec, and other security firms would waste no time complaining to regulators in the US and Europe should Microsoft ever finally wake up to this need and just bundle the darn thing in Windows. But looking at this logically, it seems that this protection is needed because of the flaws in Microsoft's software, and that Microsoft's customers could make a similar argument that the software giant should be required to protect them from those threats.

That's why I'm calling on Microsoft, again, to put its customers first and protect them as a perk for using Windows.  Microsoft Security Essentials is excellent software, and it should be part of Windows.

 

Office 2010 Security Technologies Coming to Office 2003, 2007

Microsoft Office 2010 includes many enhancements over its predecessors, and although some are obvious, some are hidden in the product and rarely noticed by end users. One of these hidden features, called Office File Validation, helps protects against electronic attacks that are hidden inside of legacy (i.e., non-XML-based) Word, Excel, Publisher, and PowerPoint documents.

So what does that mean exactly? You might recall that Microsoft switched from the legacy document formats— *.doc, *.xls, *.pub, and *.ppt, respectively—when it released Office 2007. The new Office file formats offer improvements over the legacy binary formats, including better reliability, data portability, and security. Office 2007 and Office 2010 (and Office 2003 with the correct add-on) are automatically protected against threats that target newer Office document types.

In Office 2010, Microsoft extended a form of protection to the legacy file formats as well. "If \\[Office File Validation\\] detects an issue, it opens the file in Protected View," Microsoft Senior Response Communications Manager Carlene Chmaj said. "This helps prevent unknown binary file-format attacks for Word, Excel, Publisher, and PowerPoint."

Office File Validation is great for the minority of users on the latest Office version. But it won't help most users, who are still using the older Office 2003 and Office 2007 version. So in early 2011, Microsoft is going to release an add-on with Office File Validation functionality for these older versions. This is an update you're going to want to evaluate, especially if you have no plans to upgrade to Office 2010.

 

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