An often irreverent look at some of the week's other news, including a new Windows Weekly, some new Windows Live services, a slew of Ballmer quotes and comments about Google, Linspire's controversial proprietary approach, TiVo and Rhapsody, and much more...
After a two week layoff, Leo and I recorded a new episode of the Windows Weekly podcast this week, and I'm sure you'll see it hit the Web by the weekend as usual. As you might expect after a layoff, it was a marathon session and is likely the longest episode yet.
Windows Live Events Goes Live
I've been itching to write about this one for a few weeks now, but Microsoft's new Windows Live Events service has finally gone live. Essentially a stripped down versions of Windows Live Spaces that's designed specifically for event planning, Live Events is taking on existing services like Evite.com by adding additional functionality and a familiar Windows Live look, feel, and experience. Live Events lets users create and send fully customizable invitations using over 100 attractive templates, using their contacts from Windows Live and/or manually typing in email addresses. What's really interesting about this service, however, is that it's interactive: In addition to allowing invitees to come to the site and post comments, everyone is able to come back after the event concludes and post photos and other information so that they can share their memories. That way, anyone who's part of the event can easily download others' photos, print them, or view slideshows. It looks like a really near service.
Windows Live SkyDrive Gets a Minor Boost
And speaking of Windows Live services, Microsoft also launched another change I've been waiting to discuss, a doubling of the storage space on the Windows Live SkyDrive beta service from 512 MB to 1 GB. SkyDrive is Microsoft's cloud-based storage service, sort of a virtual USB drive that you can access from any Web browser. More is always better, of course, but what I'm really interested in seeing is how this service adapts in the future for paying customers--so that users can pay annually for more than 1 GB of storage--and interacts with other Windows Live services that involve online storage, such as Live Spaces and Live Hotmail. Additionally, Microsoft added a way for Windows Live users to share SkyDrive-based stored items with others, whether they're in their Hotmail or Messenger contacts list or not. Nice.
Universal Taking on iTunes
The cabal of anti-Apple content providers is moving full force against iTunes with a variety of deals with Apple competitors such as Amazon.com, Microsoft, Wal-Mart, and others, but apparently that's not enough for Universal Music, which was this week revealed to be secretly working on a music service of its own. The company is seeking the cooperation of the other major music labels to create a new music subscription service that will break iTunes's grip on the market and push the highly desirable subscription model on consumers. Sony BMG has already signed on for the new service and talks are underway with other companies, according to sources. At issue, apparently, is Apple's Draconian restrictions on the ways in which the company's can market their content to consumers via iTunes: Apple, among other things, refuses to let the companies sell older music for less than newer music, though Apple does of course arbitrarily change the prices of songs and albums sold via iTunes apparently at whim. According to reports, the new service will charge consumers just $5 a month, essentially providing them with the music industry's entire catalog for next to nothing. To get this pricing, however, users would need to purchase new portable devices, like the Microsoft Zune, which I'm guessing won't prove too onerous. If this works out, it could spell the end of the iTunes Store, which would be just fine with me. I really enjoy iPods, and even like using iTunes to organize music, but the iTunes Store is a mess.
Ballmer: S+S Competitors are "Pretenders"
During a discussion at Gartner's Symposium ITxpo this week, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer described his competitors in the 'software + services' space as "pretenders" because they lack the experience necessary to build viable platforms that can coexist on either side of that little plus sign. "I think when it comes to really building platforms, we have a lot of experience," he said. "It's taken us 17 years, but people think we finally get it a little bit in the enterprise. Some of the pretenders have no enterprise expertise." Ballmer says that while cloud-based computing is all the rage these days, the real value to end users always comes from the desktop-based applications, which are far richer than anything that can be done up in the Internet cloud. "People don't want to go backward when it comes to presentation or word processing capabilities," he said, referencing Google's Docs service. "I feel very well differentiated versus Google on the productivity, business infrastructure space." It's a good point, but I'd caution against being too sure that cloud-based computing can't almost completely replace the desktop over time. Yes, right now, many desktop solutions are vastly superior to cloud-based solutions, but those differences will fade over time. Never say never.
Ballmer: Google Reads Your Email
And speaking of Steve-O and his feelings about Google, Mr. Ballmer this week also hurled a nice little accusation at the Internet search giant and its popular Gmail Web-based email service. "The traffic around Hotmail \[Microsoft's even more popular Web-based email service\] is very valuable but it's not very easily monetized in the context of mail," Ballmer said during a speech in the UK. "Google's had the same experience \[with Gmail\], even though they read your mail and we don't." The comment set off a bunch of stuttering retorts from the anti-Microsoft crowd which, for some reason, seems to trust Google explicitly while not offering Microsoft the same benefit of the doubt. But Ballmer defended his statement, which he found non-controversial because, he said, it's true. "That's just a factual statement," he said. "The theory was if we read your mail, if somebody read your mail, they would know what \[advertisements to place in the email service\]. It's not working out as brilliantly as the concept was laid out." For the record, Google says that no humans are involved in serving ads to Gmail users. So it's only the Google robots that reading your email, apparently.
Google Now Number One in US
And speaking of Google (will this madness never end?), the company this week surpassed Microsoft to become the most visited Web site in the United States. Visitors to Google.com rose 17 percent year-over-year to 118 million in September, surpassing Microsoft's 117.7 million figure (which was up just 1 percent). Yahoo, meanwhile, rose 2.7 percent to 109.1 million users, so they're all pretty close, actually. The bigger issue, of course, is how the companies are monetizing those visitors, since it's pretty clear that only a very tiny percentage of them are actually paying anything for the online services they're using. And this is where Google shines: Though the company is known for its Internet search service, the reality is that Google is an online advertiser. Even the aforementioned Ballmer, who is known for being quite bullish on Microsoft, admits that his company has a ways to go. "Google is the leader, and we're an aspirant," he said this week. "We have a lot of work to do in search and advertising." Maybe they should just put ads in Windows: I mean, that's a captive audience, right? Kidding, kidding.
Linspire Launches Latest Linux Version, with a Twist
Linux distribution maker Linspire this week released the latest version of its Linux offering, Linspire 6.0. This wouldn't normally garner a lot of news, necessarily, but this version is quite a bit different than previously Linspire products. Thanks to a new indemnity agreement with Microsoft, Linspire 6.0 includes a vast array of proprietary software, a fact the company is openly promoting because they feel that it will make Linspire 6.0 far more compelling to average consumers than other more restrictive (and anti-proprietary) Linux versions. It includes software like Java, Adobe Flash, and Parallels, as well as Microsoft-oriented digital media codecs so that users can watch DVDs, enjoy Windows Media and Apple QuickTime content, and do other things that are technically illegal on fully open source Linux versions. There are also a wide range of proprietary hardware drivers in there, which Linspire says makes the product the most compatible version of Linux yet. These additions will no doubt rankle the open source weenies, but then maybe that's the point: It will be interesting to see how Linux can compete in the real world when the open source shackles are removed.
TiVo Adds Rhapsody Support
Digital Video Recording (DVR) pioneer TiVo and RealNetworks this week announced an alliance that will bring the latter company's Rhapsody subscription music service to the popular TiVo devices. Now, TiVo owners can browse and search for music on the Rhapsody service directly from these devices, gaining access to a catalog of over 4 million tracks. It's not free of course: Rhapsody on TiVo will cost $12.99 a month on top of whatever monthly fee customers are already paying to TiVo. Still, it's an interesting expansion of what's possible on the TiVo, which has evolved over time from a pure DVR device to one that works with a variety of content types and services.
The Orange Box: Dumbest Game Name Ever, But...
OK, "The Orange Box" might just be the dumbest name ever for a video game, but Valve's latest offering combines such an amazing collection of titles in one package that I'm going to forgive them. The Orange Box is available now for Windows PCs, the Xbox 360, and the PlayStation 3, and it includes Half-Life 2 (yes, it's still the greatest single player game ever made), Half-Life 2 Episode One, the newly-released Half-Life 2 Episode Two, Portal, and Team Fortress 2. Some of these games are brand new, like Episode Two, and some, like Half-Life 2, are a bit old, but this marks the first time any of these games have shipped on a console, and that's a wonderful, wonderful thing. There's something here for almost everybody, from atmospheric, dystopian future thrillers to puzzle games to online deathmatching. At a time when lackluster games like "Bioshock" and "Halo 3" are getting all the hype, I advise gamers to turn their attention to this vastly superior product. It might just be the single greatest gaming release ever.