I went to New York this week for a Microsoft reviewers workshop. That's not notable per se, but for some reason I hadn't been to the Big Apple in over a year, which is unprecedented. I used to go there quite frequently. Actually, I had to go to Brooklyn, and because of the schedule--early morning train to the event Thursday and then a late train home tonight--I'm not actually going to get to see anyone while I'm here. Sort of a bummer.
In my absence from New York, I really missed using the Acela Express, which is the northeast corridor's high-speed train. It gets you from Boston to New York in less than three and a half hours and it's pretty comfortable. That said, the ride was bumpier than I remember. I was trying to use a mouse with the laptop, but it was jumping all over the place.
A bit of advice, which should be obvious but wasn't to me for some reason: Putting contact lenses in while a train is moving is foolish.
Ballmer: Follow the Money
In the week or so following Microsoft's mysterious revelation about billions of dollars of additional spending in the coming fiscal year, there have been a lot of conspiracy theories about a war with Google, aliens, and Eliot Spitzer. (Actually, Mr. Spitzer never came up.) On Thursday, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer finally shed some light on where the money is going. He said the company will invest $1.1 billion in MSN and $6.2 billion in research and development, and that the company will push adoption of its MSN adCenter and Windows Live services. "A global infrastructure is not inexpensive," Ballmer said, noting the obvious. But here's the kicker: "Our number one priority is software as a service." Interesting.
Fool Me Once, Shame on You; Fool Me Twice, You're MSN
Speaking of MSN, Microsoft's erstwhile Google competitor has gone through several iterations. First, it was a traditional (pre-Internet) online service designed to compete with CompuServe. Then, it was a hip online destination and service, with a darker-than-Johnny Cash UI and Windows 98 integration. In its third and most reviled guise, however, MSN briefly became a content creator, with Microsoft foisting such ill-advised Web experiences as "Mungo Park" on its users. Those days are largely laughed about today, in the same way that we might make fun of such other ill-advised products as Microsoft Bob or the Halo 2 Soundtrack (the latter of which, inexplicably, includes little actual music from the game). Anyway, history has repeated itself, and not in a good way: This week, Microsoft revealed that it's once again making MSN a Web content creator. Seriously, I'd be happier with a return to the Johnny Cash MSN interface, which I actually kind of miss.
Ballmer: Microsoft's Search Engine Makes Big Gains
And speaking of Steve Ballmer, Microsoft's CEO also had some positive spin for MSN Search, which will soon give way to Windows Live Search and probably about 17 other services that combine the words "MSN," "Windows," "Live," and "Search" in a variety of ways. Speaking at an annual MSN conference, Ballmer said that inhouse search technology had made huge gains over the past two years (from a technical standpoint, presumably: MSN Search has actually lost ground to Google in the past year from a usage standpoint). It's pretty clear that MSN and Microsoft Research have come up with some compelling technology. It's not as clear whether anyone will ever notice, however.
"The New York Times" Picks Microsoft Software for Electronic Newspaper
"The New York Times" will use a feature in Windows Vista to deliver an electronic version of its newspaper that duplicates the look of the paper-based publication. Although readers can already access the contents of the paper online in a Web browser, Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., said that Vista's XML Paper Specification (XPS) software would let the company publish the paper electronically in a version that duplicates the paper experience. The effect is actually kind of interesting: The upcoming eTimes, as I call it, looks exactly like the paper, with the same typefaces and columnar layout. It's not clear whether customers will have to pay for the eTimes, though the company will charge advertisers to appear within its virtual pages. The eTimes will debut around the same time as Vista.
Microsoft to Support 1394b "After" Vista
An upcoming version of the IEEE 1394 specification--which everyone except Microsoft refers to as FireWire--will provide increased transfer rates between PCs and devices at speeds of up to 3.2GB per second, far faster than the current speeds of 400 and 800Mbps that today's FireWire devices attain. Although Microsoft plans to support the new spec, dubbed 1394b, it won't do so until after Vista ships. Microsoft says it might add 1394b support to Windows in a Vista service pack or in a future version of Windows.
Yahoo! Launches Tech Site
Online giant Yahoo! this week launched a new technology site--creatively titled Yahoo! Tech--that provides information about "personal technology" or what we might simply call gadgets. It's unclear why we need yet another gadget site--it seems like the identical Engadget and Gizmodo blogs pretty much sewed up that market years ago--but Yahoo! does offer some unique features, including top picks from "Consumer Reports," content from "PC World" and "PC Magazine," and links to other Yahoo! Web services. Gosh, it all sounds so exciting. Apparently, there's a gadget thing happening out there. I was just waiting for a conglomerate like Yahoo! to tell me all about it.
ABC Launches Free Web-Based TV Shows
ABC this week launched a Web site that provides free streaming versions of its hit TV shows "Alias" and "Lost" online. The site provides only the latest episode of each show and is designed so hard-core fans can see a show they might have missed earlier in the week. Visually, the streaming versions are decent, offering more than twice the resolution of the $1.99 iTunes TV show downloads offered by Apple. On the flipside, you must watch the shows in a browser, online, and you have to sit through occasional advertisements. I applaud ABC for at least trying out Web-based TV shows, but I'd like to see the offerings expanded to include a fuller catalog of shows and previous episodes. Also, the option to download for offline viewing would be nice.
Amazon Jumps Ship from Google to Microsoft
In a somewhat surprising move, Amazon, one of the leading online retailers, this week canceled its contract with Google and moved to Microsoft's search technology. That means that Amazon users who search at its Web site will now be treated to search results provided by Windows Live Search. Technically, the searches are served by A9.com, Amazon's in-house search service. But A9 uses Windows Live Search behind the scenes, so this is a big (and rare) win for Microsoft in this arena. Amazon wouldn't criticize Google, but it's certainly telling when one of the Internet's most visited sites jumps ship like this.
Apple Renews Contract with Record Labels
I keep waiting for Apple Computer CEO Steve Jobs to issue a press release that consists solely of him laughing, but so far, Apple has been pretty quiet about its most recent news. After several months of negotiations with the four largest record companies, Apple has renewed its contracts with them, allowing its iTunes Music Store service to continue selling digital songs for 99 cents apiece. The record companies had lobbied for variable pricing, in which newer songs could cost more than older tracks, but Apple--or, more specifically, Steve Jobs--argued that such a move was "greedy" and would make services like iTunes less viable for consumers. Right or wrong, Jobs won, and although we might debate the decision, few could argue what this development really means: Apple is a powerful force in music today.
RIM Sued for Patent Infringement ... Again
Hot on the heels of a patent infringement lawsuit settlement, BlackBerry maker Research in Motion (RIM) finds itself, once again, facing another patent infringement lawsuit. Visto (which is partially owned by NTP, the company that previously sued RIM and won a $612.5 million settlement) sued RIM this week, alleging that RIM is infringing on four of its patents. Visto previously sued another company for similar reasons and won a $3.6 million verdict. RIM's in a bit of trouble here, because it will be difficult to change the BlackBerry online service to bypass Visto's patents. The word "settlement" comes to mind.
Napster Goes Free Again ... Sort Of
Napster this week returned to its roots, sort of, offering a limited free version of its online music service through its Web site. Typically, customers pay $9.95 to $14.95 a month for Napster's subscription services, or 99 cents a song for a la carte downloads. But now, anyone can stream full-quality songs from Napster's 2 million-plus track catalog for free via the Napster Web site. The catch? You can stream the same song only five times; after that, you'll have to pay for it or subscribe to one of the company's subscription services. As a way to discover new music, however, it's hard to beat. Napster might just be on to something. Interestingly, Napster offered the new Web-based feature only after reaching an agreement with record companies, which will be paid a small amount for each Web-based song stream.
Open Document Format Gets Standardized
While Microsoft is only beginning the process of getting its OpenXML document format standardized, OpenXML's chief rival, the Open Document Format (ODF), was standardized this week by the ISO. Supported by IBM and Sun Microsystems, ODF seeks to usurp the pervasive Microsoft Office document formats with an open-source alternative. But by opening OpenXML and offering it to the ISO as well, Microsoft has pretty much blunted previous criticism. Microsoft will support OpenXML, but not ODF, in its upcoming Office 2007 products. But I think we can expect enterprising developers to offer various translation solutions. After all, both of the formats will be wide open and freely licensable.