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

Gut Check Time for the Microsoft Fan

It's been a tough couple of weeks in Microsoftland, and it's not surprising that people invested in any way in the software giant's products and technologies are experiencing a moment of doubt. First, Apple surpassed Microsoft from a market-cap perspective, and although that measurement is somewhat arbitrary—it doesn't measure all of a company's worth, as it turns out, just select parts of it—the meaning behind this milestone is no less monumental. Second, Microsoft summarily fired the two senior executives most responsible for responding to competitive threats from Apple and other consumer electronics companies. And let there be no doubt about this: They were fired, and they did an absolutely horrible job of responding to Apple and others over the past decade, setting up what could eventually be the most disastrous corporate downfall in decades. It seems like we're on the edge of something potentially horrible here, doesn't it?

Now, there are those who would preach caution and calm. Microsoft is still printing money, essentially, thanks to its legacy Windows, Office, and Windows Server products. It earns more revenues each quarter than Apple, and far more in profits—so much so that you have to wonder why Apple has such a great reputation for margins. And if you want to be really cute about it, you might even argue that Microsoft and Apple don't really compete directly in any markets. Windows has killed the Mac—still stuck under 4 percent market share worldwide, by the way—while Apple has killed off Microsoft's digital media and mobile products. What, me worry?

What, me worry, indeed. The concern is that the world is changing. And Microsoft, despite years of warning, has yet to successfully enter a market in which it cannot simply duplicate the Windows model. Office and Windows Server are, of course, complementary to Windows, so it's not surprising that the company was able to make a run there. And hopefully, going forward, it can make the transition to cloud computing services—which, when you think about it, is really the same model yet again, where just the distribution of software is handled differently. But Microsoft has failed almost completely in every single market, especially those for consumer products, where it is unable to take advantage of its PC OS dominance. (The one possible exception is the Xbox 360, though I still feel a third-place finish is a potential outcome for the company in this generation of consoles. Should that happen, the Xbox 360 is an absolute disaster as well, instead of just a partial disaster. After all, millions of people do love the console, even though it has betrayed virtually all of them from a reliability perspective.)

I'm not a defeatist, and as I look around at what's happening in 2010, I see many signs of not just health but truly interesting and exciting software products and technologies coming out of Redmond. Some are even consumer-friendly. Windows 7 is amazing, and a real turnaround. The new Windows Live Essentials, full of best-of-breed (and free) applications. The new Hotmail. The upcoming release of Windows Phone 7, which is much better than you may yet understand, though it's unclear how it well it will compete with less-capable but better marketed Android and iPhone devices. Internet Explorer 9. Office 2010. There's a lot of good stuff there.

But it's all pretty traditional Microsoft stuff, too, isn't it? And as good as it all is, the one thing I think Apple is latching onto—in spectacular fashion—is the future. As Apple CEO Steve Jobs said this week, his company is looking for technologies that are in ascendancy, not ones that are on the way down. It's why Apple is basically ignoring the Mac to focus on its iProducts. It's why the company is ignoring Flash in lieu of HTML 5. What's interesting about this, to me, is that this is how Steve Jobs' Apple has always behaved: It is very aggressive in getting rid of the old and moving to the new. Microsoft, by comparison, isn't aggressive about anything. The company simply protects the markets it already owns—using the mantra of protecting its customers' investments as the reason/excuse—and doesn't move forward into new markets and technologies as aggressively as it should (or at all).

Do I have answers? No, I'm a critic, which conveniently allows me to level charges without having to fix problems. But this really is gut check time for Microsoft. If something doesn't change, the next 10 years could be a lot uglier than the past 10 years.

Tech Ed 2010: Should Be Good News ... If Anyone Even Hears About It

Speaking of which, Microsoft will hold its annual IT conference, Tech Ed, next week in New Orleans. When you think about business computing—on the server, on the desktop, or increasingly via hosted cloud services—there's pretty much Microsoft and then there's everyone else. So, next week should be a little blip of good news for Microsoft, and I expect the company to continue performing very well in this market. Unfortunately, Tech Ed 2010 is happening at the same time as Apple's WWDC, where that company will unveil its next iPhone. Guess which one of these shows is going to get the most coverage? I'll do my part to not let Apple drown out what's happening in New Orleans. But it's going to be an uphill struggle.

Windows Live Essentials Beta Coming in Late June

Microsoft will issue a public beta version of the next Windows Live Essentials suite for Windows 7 and Windows Vista in late June, then follow that up with the final release in late summer. But if you're wondering what's up with this product, which includes new versions of Windows Live Messenger, Mail, Photo Gallery, Movie Maker, Sync, Writer, and more, head over to the SuperSite for Windows. There, you'll find an exhaustive, eight-part review, telling you everything you need to know about this interesting update.

Microsoft Previews Windows Embedded Compact 7

Microsoft's strategy for competing with the iPad is about as convoluted as you might expect. Although the company has an incredible smartphone OS in the making in Windows Phone 7, Microsoft claims that it won't be using that in slate PCs or tablets, but only in phones. Instead, it will offer several different OSs to device makers and PC makers. The first two—based on its Embedded offerings—will provide a Windows 7-like experience that can run (in some cases) on alternative architectures, such as ARM. The third is Windows 7 itself, and it can run on true Tablet PCs or mini-slate designs that look like the iPad but are real PCs. Windows 7 is straightforward, as we've had Tablet PCs and Ultra-Mobile PCs for years. But the embedded stuff is a bit confusing. First, there's an Embedded version of Windows 7 that runs only on traditional, PC-like, x86 hardware. Then there's Windows Embedded Compact 7, which is really based on Windows CE and is designed for non-PC hardware. Embedded Compact 7 won't ship in final form until the end of the year, but it's out now in a technical preview so that developers can see what's new. Will any of this stuff take off and offer a credible iPad challenge? A lot of it rides on timing and on Microsoft's hardware partners. So, no.

Zune Takes to the Skies

United Airlines announced this week that it will provide a Zune-branded streaming music service on its in-flight entertainment systems, both in the United Sates and internationally. It's unclear what the Zune connection is per se, though my guess is that the content is coming from the Zune Marketplace. Plus, it's another great way to get the Zune brand out in front of people who—let's face it—by and large have never even heard of it before. Microsoft will provide United with 21 separate, custom-programmed playlists that span familiar categories such as classic rock, pop, classical, and so on. This is a neat start. But an even bigger win would be getting the Zune UI in those seat-back entertainment systems. That would be a real wake-up call for the iPod-using zombies.

Ballmer: iPad Is Just a PC

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer this week declared that the iPad is simply a PC in a new form factor and not a new category of device. I actually disagree with this opinion. See my commentary, Understanding iPad, for details. But I do agree with one thing he said: When confronted by Apple CEO Steve Jobs' enthusiasm for the iPad, Ballmer noted, "To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail." Exactly so. Even Jobs himself said this week that the Mac "lost" the PC war, but that that war was over. But the iPad, really, is just an attempt to redefine the terms of the fight, this time using an architecture that, for Apple, has proven quite popular indeed. But this is why I think it's a new kind of device, frankly. Apple did lose the PC war. But it might win the war for portable devices. So far, it certainly is, though there are signs that Android will soon surpass Apple's stuff. Wouldn't it be interesting if Android was to this coming generation of devices as Windows was to the PC? Interesting for Google—not so much for Microsoft.

This Week on the Windows Weekly Podcast

After a week off in Lisbon last week for my 20th anniversary, I was back on Windows Weekly this week with Leo, and we recorded a nearly two-hour edition of the podcast. As always, it should be available by the weekend on iTunes and the Zune Marketplace, in both audio and video formats.

But Wait, There's More

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Next week: New Orleans

If you're going to be in New Orleans for Tech Ed 2010 next week, be sure to swing by the Windows IT Pro booth on the show floor and say hi. I'll be pretty busy all day Monday but should be there for much of Tuesday and Wednesday. See you in New Orleans!