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

Google Responds to MSN Search Beta
   Internet search giant Google responded to this week's release of a much-improved MSN Search beta release with an announcement of its own about the number of Web pages that Google's search engine indexes. Google says it now indexes 8.1 billion pages, more than 3 million more pages than Microsoft claims for MSN Search and almost twice as many pages as Google indexed in February. "Comprehensiveness is not the only important factor in evaluating a search engine, but it's invaluable for queries that only return a few results," Google Vice President Bill Coughran said. "These are not just copies of the same pages, but truly diverse results that give more information. The same is true for obscure topics, where you're now significantly more likely to find relevant and diverse information about the subjects."

Halo 2: Impressive Sales Figures, Not Overly Impressive Game
   I know that criticizing Halo 2, Microsoft's eagerly awaited Xbox game title, is heresy. But after spending a few days actually playing the game (and I completed the first version on both the Xbox and the PC) I have to say I'm underwhelmed. It's not a horrible game by any stretch. But describing Halo 2 as a huge improvement over Halo: Combat Evolved betrays a not-so-subtle lack of being in touch with reality. Halo 2 is basically just more of the same, which is fine because the original Halo was a good time. But if Halo 2 is what passes for plot and technological development in gaming these days--and as an avid gamer, I can assure you that it isn't--we're all in a lot of trouble. But at least Halo 2 lets you step away from the boringly familiar single-player stuff and compete with other players online via Xbox Live, assuming you're a subscriber. Regardless of my opinion of the game, Halo 2 is off to a record start. The title sold 2.4 million copies and earned more than $125 million in just its first 24 hours of availability in North America. Microsoft, ever desperate for quotable hyperbole, noted this week that Halo 2 generated more cash in its first day than any of the biggest movies in box office history, including Spider-Man 2 and The Matrix Reloaded. Take that, Hollywood.

Security Researchers: Windows XP SP2 Is Full of Holes
   Security experts at Finjan Software alleged this week that Windows XP Service Pack 2 (SP2) is riddled with 10 unpatched security vulnerabilities, casting doubts on Microsoft's latest attempt to release a security-oriented software update. To bolster its claims, Finjan says it gave Microsoft technical details of the flaws and proof-of-concept code samples that show how attackers can exploit the flaws. However, after stories about the flaws appeared in several publications this week, Microsoft went on the defensive and contacted journalists to explain that the threat is overblown. "Our early analysis indicates that Finjan's claims are potentially misleading and possibly erroneous regarding the breadth and severity of the alleged vulnerabilities in Windows XP SP2," a Microsoft spokesperson told me yesterday. "Microsoft ... at this time cannot confirm Finjan's claims of '10 new vulnerabilities' in Windows XP SP2. Moreover, Microsoft is currently unaware of active attacks against customers attempting to utilize the alleged vulnerabilities as reported by Finjan." Most egregious to Microsoft, however, is that Finjan sought to publicize the potential vulnerabilities before they were fully investigated or, if found to be valid, fixed.

Questions Surround Microsoft's Pursuit of Company Using Excel Name
   This week, Microsoft threatened to sue a small software company that markets a product called TurboExcel because the product name infringes on Microsoft's trademark for Microsoft Office Excel. There's just one little problem: Microsoft doesn't actually own a trademark for Excel. Indeed, despite the fact that the first version of Excel shipped way back in 1985, Microsoft didn't apply for a trademark on the name until early this year. Representatives of Savvysoft, which makes TurboExcel, say that Microsoft is unhappy about the product's name not because of any potential trademark questions but because TurboExcel lets customers convert Excel spreadsheets into formats they can use on Linux, a rival OS. Poppycock, says Microsoft (or something to that effect), because it's also suing other companies that use Excel in their names. And after the successful defeat of the evil Mike Rowe and his once-mighty mikerowesoft domain, I can see how Microsoft would feel justified going after a third-party developer. Or something.

Microsoft Reportedly to Release Three Xbox Next Devices
   According to a report in "The Inquirer," a questionable Web technology tabloid, Microsoft will ship three versions of its next Xbox video game system, which is currently (and logically) code-named Xbox Next. The British online publication, which inexplicably refers to Microsoft as "the Vole" (no, I don't get it, either), says that Xbox Next will ship in three versions: Xbox Next, a basic console with no hard disk; Xbox Next HD, which will include a hard disk; and Xbox Next PC, which will be a fully functional PC with Media Center and Xbox gaming capabilities. The first two models will ship in 2005, the site says, and the Xbox Next PC will ship in 2006, possibly alongside Longhorn. Is the report true? I have no idea, but it sounds cool at the very least. Microsoft is expected to announce its plans for Xbox Next at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January 2005, so we'll know soon.

Microsoft: No New IE Versions Before Longhorn Launch
   The Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) team has been making the rounds this week, doing a bit of damage control in the wake of the recent release of browser alternative Mozilla Firefox 1.0, and I got to speak with IE Product Manager Gary Schare yesterday. Schare made a lot of good points, which I'll summarize in a Windows IT Pro UPDATE commentary on Tuesday, but I want to discuss one point now. Several other publications have misreported Schare's comments about future IE versions, so let me clarify. The IE 6 security features that Microsoft released in XP SP2 won't be back-ported to other Windows versions, he said, although Microsoft will continue to issue security patches and fixes for IE 6 on all supported Windows versions. As for future versions, the next IE release will ship as part of Longhorn, not earlier, and will include many of the features users have been requesting, such as (likely) tabbed browsing. The company has no plans to ship any IE upgrades or add-ons before then. However, considering the success that MSN and third-party developers have had shipping IE add-ons, the IE team is leaving open the possibility that it could theoretically ship an add-on of some sort for IE 6 users between now and the Longhorn release. Again, the company has no plans to actually do so at this time.

Four Ex-Microsoft Employees Arrested for Theft
   Four former Microsoft employees were arrested this week and charged with stealing more than $32 million worth of software from the company and selling it. According to the charges, the ex-employees used the company's internal ordering system to order software such as Microsoft SQL Server--including versions that cost as much as $30,000 on the street--and sell it publicly. Two of the former employees were also accused of money laundering and face up to 15 years in prison and $500,000 in fines. The other two face up to 5 years in prison and $250,000 in fines.

Dell Posts Record Earnings as Profits Soar 25 Percent in Quarter
   Dell, the world's largest PC company, announced record earnings and a 25 percent jump in profits for its most recent quarter. The company logged a net income of $846 million on sales of $12.5 billion and noted that demand for its PCs, especially from businesses, has risen dramatically. Indeed, Dell's sales to businesses increased 20 percent in the quarter, well ahead of the 12 percent industry average, and Dell's sales in the United States are growing 3.7 times faster than any of the competition. The company also made market share gains and now owns 18.1 percent of the worldwide PC market, up from 16.9 percent in the same quarter a year ago. Dell also announced that it expects sales for the current quarter to improve 20 percent over the same quarter a year ago.

VMware Slashes Prices for Entry-Level Virtualization Server
   Virtualization leader VMware slashed prices this week on its entry-level virtualization server product, VMware GSX Server, making it easier for small and midsized businesses to adopt the product. This week, VMware Vice President of Marketing Michael Mullany told me that the company reduced the price for two reasons. First, the company experienced dramatic sales growth when it slashed prices on its VMware Workstation product earlier this year. Second, with Microsoft entering the low end of the market this year with Microsoft Virtual Server 2005 (assuming it's finally happening; Mullany noted that this is the fourth time Microsoft has announced the release of Virtual Server 2005), the company felt that it needed to be as price-competitive as it is feature-superior (my words). In any event, the GSX Server pricing is dramatically simplified. The product used to cost $2500 per CPU; it now costs a flat fee of $1400 for a 2-CPU license and $2800 for a 32-CPU (or less) license. That's Crazy Eddie pricing, and a bargain if you want to get into virtualization.

Name Games: Windows Server Edition Gets New Moniker
   This news isn't a huge deal, but this week Microsoft changed the name of the once-awkward Windows Server 2003, High Performance Computing Edition to Windows Server 2003, Compute Cluster Edition. Actually, the new name is pretty awkward, too, I guess. In any event, the Compute Cluster Edition is due in late 2005 and will be based on standard 32-bit chips, not Intel's suddenly orphaned Itanium family of processors.

Microsoft Issues New x64 Windows Betas
   I received several email messages from beta testers this morning stating that Microsoft has issued new beta versions of the x64-based Windows 2003 SP1 and XP versions that run on AMD64- and Intel Extended Memory 64 Technology (EM64T)-based systems. Interim release build 1260 is now available to testers, according to the email announcement readers forwarded to me. The Windows 2003 version is particularly interesting because it includes the long-awaited Security Configuration Wizard, which uses the roles-based administration features in Windows 2003 to lock down unnecessary server ports and services.