Readers on Windows 8 and Microsoft's Quest for Cool

Yes, we still do this. People still e-mail your editor, and he still runs their e-mails in newsletter entries and blog posts. Oh, sure, folks can post comments directly on the blog site (which is great) or Tweet with abandon (if they must), but old-school e-mail and traditional reader feedback live on.

We start this edition with thoughts on Windows 8, which we at RPCU think looks great for tablets but not so appropriate for PCs. To our great surprise, several readers wrote to...agree! Writes Glen:

"I'm with you! I certainly don't want to have to bathe my laptop screen several times a day to get the food particles and fingerprints off. I stayed with XP until last year when I bought a new laptop with [Windows] 7 64 installed by Toshiba. I still have to deal with XP on my other two machines that are too old for W7, but that's not often. I doubt that I'll even consider W8; I'll wait for W9 or whatever. I don't need to be the first tester for MS!"

Glen, we're still on XP here at RCPU, but it does what we need it to do. It might for a while to come. And the whole idea of touchscreen computing on a non-mobile device (specifically on a PC) is, well, just kind of weird.

Michael chimes in:

"You are on point. Let us digest Win 7 on the PC while Microsoft captures tablet and phone market share with Windows 8. This would be a great strategic move without blurring the parameters of PC computing."

Yes, blurring the parameters -- that seems to be what Microsoft is doing, and while we kind of get the idea behind that, the execution is poor thus far. Plus, we're not sure we want our parameters blurred. Let tablets be tablets and PCs be PCs. And we do think that Windows 8 has chance to capture a chunk of the tablet market.

And then there's Thomas, who wraps up this whole issue with such gusto that we don't really feel the need to add a comment to what he has to say:

"To those who think the same interface will work with both mouse-keyboard and finger tips: Look at your fingers. Now look at your mouse pointer. THEY AREN'T THE SAME. And a user interface designed for one will NOT work well with the other. (Try doing an 'expand' with your mouse, or clicking a checkbox [or inserting a cursor between two letters] with your finger). 

"Furthermore, the last thing I want on my PC is a 'desktop' that I have to use like the one on my Windows Phone -- I almost never even look at my XP desktop -- not to mention the god-awful Windows Phone 7 emphasis on things like requiring on-line syncing to get anything done. 

"I want a PC OS able to run multiple large apps simultaneously, using a mouse and full-size keyboard, optimized for use with multiple multi-terabyte HDs, a graphics card with several hundred processors and a GB or so of RAM on-board, dual or triple 10-bit-per-color monitors, etc. -- not something that a typical iPad-style tablet will have. And I want the user interface to support that, too. Conversely, I need my tablet OS to be optimized for that smaller single-monitor, smaller-SSD, longer-battery-life hardware, and with a user interface to match -- e.g., with touchscreen support. This one-OS-fits-all idea, like all those previous 'write once, run everywhere' marketing-gimmick ideas, just never works. Hope someone bursts this Microsoft bubble before it gets foisted on us users and pops in our faces."

Of course, we're going to add to this comment, anyway, but only by saying that we're right with you, Thomas. You said in a couple hundred words what we tried to say in closer to 1,000. Well done.

Also recently, we explored the notion of Microsoft becoming cool, which we believe to be a possibility if Redmond plays its underdog cards correctly. Richard writes to remind us that if Microsoft does manage to achieve coolness, it won't be for the first time:

"In the fuzzy rush of technology chasing itself pell mell to nobody knows where, it is sometimes hard to dredge up those old memories from the world before the World Wide Web changed everything. There was a time, way back there sometime around 1980 or thereabouts, when Microsoft WAS cool, the little scrappy company taking on the kings of computing technology and winning. Remember DOS? That little company invented it out of a purchased piece of code and delivered a product to the giant of the computing world, upstaging Digital Research (where is CPM when you really need it?) and leapfrogging Apple and Radio Shack and Osborne Computer and, well, everybody. And what is Windows, anyway? As I recall, it was a shot across the bow of the IBM supertanker when the Big Blue folks wanted to forge ahead on their own with (we strain to remember it) a new operating system for their personal computer. So where is OS-2 now?

"Yeah, those were the good old days before Microsoft almost missed the boat completely on the World Wide Web, and then crashed the party by actually giving away Internet Explorer in order to compete with that other darling of a company who basically stole the Web browser idea from the University of Chicago and had the temerity to sell Web browsers to unsuspecting corporate users. Speaking of giving away product, wasn't it Apple that essentially gave away computers to schools across the country, knowing that if they got the kids they would have the adults?

"Way back there, AOL was king of the connected world (well, at least after they purchased Compuserve) and made money by -- get this -- selling ad space on their network that barely let users out of the box to visit the Web. So how did Google come up with that idea to finance their search portal, anyway?

"Is Apple cool today because they were so good, or because Microsoft kept them afloat with a massive infusion of cash when they were about to go belly-up? Is Google cool today because they are straining mightily to convince us all the world really does belong in the cloud, or is that just a reflection of their revenue stream? I wonder."

Richard, we like this comment a lot for a lot of reasons. First of all, we're history buffs here at RCPU. Beyond that, though, you bring up a lot of good points about who should and shouldn't be cool. There's only one problem, though: Cool makes no sense. It never has. It's easy to identify but very difficult to define. And it often defies rational thinking. Unfortunately, it matters in the consumer world.

Remember how the Fonz from "Happy Days" was cool in the '70s? A '50s do-gooder in a leather jacket with over-coiffed hair (played by a guy who was about 60 at the time, or so it now seems) was cool during the "me decade," when experimentation and rebellion were the hallmarks of the post-Vietnam era. How on earth did that happen? Was there some sort of reverse irony there? It makes no sense at all. The Fonz and David Bowie were cool during the same decade, maybe even among some of the same people. Weird.

Anyway, we digress, but the point is this: Cool makes no sense. Apple is a big, powerful corporation with a not-so-great record for being "green" (or so we've heard) and a CEO who might be a genius but is also, we think, a bit of a megalomaniac. It's kind of like GE with a neat logo. Yet, among the hipsters and the arbiters of tech taste, Apple is cool.

Then there's Microsoft, which, as you mentioned, toppled the power structure of computing in the '80s and steamrolled everybody in its path. That would make a great character in a video game (probably -- we don't play video games), but Microsoft is roundly uncool. Go figure. And, no, we haven't forgotten that Microsoft saved Apple's bacon (now we're getting hungry) back in the '90s. We at RCPU are still fans of Pirates of Silicon Valley (yet another reason why we're uncool, too).

Have anything to add to the discussion? Send it to [email protected].

Posted by Lee Pender on June 08, 20111 comments

Could an Underdog Microsoft Become Cool?

Apple is cool. Do we have to try and quantify that? Nah. You don't have to be cool to know who's cool. Were you one of the cool kids in high school? If not, did you know who was? Well, that's our point. We at RCPU are not cool, but we know that Apple is cool, and maybe Google is, too.

Microsoft is not. Never has been, really. One reason is that Microsoft has long been a bully, a company perceived (and probably not inaccurately) to have ripped off a lot of other vendors in its quest to dominate the technology industry. People still love to read about this stuff. The bitterness toward Microsoft is still strong. Doug Barney's recent story on the "10 Technologies Microsoft 'Borrowed'" has racked up an enormous number of hits (not to give away our trade secrets or anything).

Bullies are feared, maybe even respected -- but they're not cool. And cool matters in the consumer-heavy world of smartphones and tablets Microsoft so desperately wants to crack. Logos and labels are critical in that world, and Microsoft's is more likely to elicit a roll of the eyes from the in-crowd than it is a nod of respect. Apple's apple, on the other hand, is the gold standard of techie smugness and self-satisfaction.

Things might be changing, though, slowly, bit by bit. While digging around for articles to link to for another entry, we ran across this post from TechCrunch and couldn't help but notice what one of the user commenters had to say: "I strangely find myself rooting for Microsoft. They are the good guys now. Go Microsoft! You can do it!"

That sentiment got 99 "likes" on Facebook (at last count) and a couple of comments in support. It offers a tiny glimpse into how the least-cool vendor since IBM in the '80s (also a victim of Apple's swagger -- partially) can reposition itself in the consumer mind. Microsoft is the underdog now, at least in the kingdom of tablets and phones over which Apple and Google are currently fighting for control. And underdogs are almost always cool.

Think about it. Apple isn't the scrappy little guy anymore. It's not Avis or the pre-2004 Boston Red Sox. It is, in fact, more like the post-2004 Boston Red Sox, just another wealthy franchise that crushes competitors under its cleats and elicits relatively little sympathy from neutrals. Steve Jobs is brilliant but as a public figure is pretty difficult to like. Apple's hipster image can be overbearing, to say the least.

Plus (and this is very important), Apple is bigger than Microsoft now. Steve (Jobs) got the loot after all, and it doesn't really matter how much market share Mac has compared to Windows when the world has moved on to obsessing over smaller devices -- markets in which Apple is either the clear leader (tablets) or a major contender (smartphone operating systems). Those brilliant Mac Guy ads from a few years ago would seem awkward and incongruous now. The tables have turned.

Then there's Google, which is kind of mysterious and creepy. Is Google cool? Well, Android-based phones certainly sell well, but that might have something to do with their broad-based availability and the ability of carriers to offer them with reasonably priced plans. (Full disclosure: Your editor has an Android phone and really likes it.) Other than that, though, Google is kind of utilitarian, synonymous with search and big in the cloud but not necessarily cool.

IBM is the antithesis of cool, but it was briefly bigger that Microsoft recently (and might be again), which only helps the case for cool in Redmond. Sure, Microsoft has been a bully over the years. Yeah, Windows was and probably still is the cheese quesadilla appetizer to Mac's foie gras on toast points. But in this new world of little devices and touchscreens, Microsoft is the underdog. In fact, it's way, way behind its competitors. And in the technology industry, Microsoft isn't the alpha dog anymore. It's the beta, or maybe even the, um, third (our Greek is bad -- gamma?) dog. Microsoft should remind people of that every chance it gets.

Yes, that's right. Microsoft should go against every instinct its executives seem to have and every impression it has ever tried to deliver and make itself into the blue-collar, hard-working scrapper just trying to get a foothold among the evil giants of the handheld game. It has happened before. Let's stick with sports here: The Dallas Cowboys in the early '90s, the Boston Celtics a few years ago, even the hated (and evil) New York Yankees back in the mid-'90s reinvented themselves not so much as empires reborn but as interlopers into games somebody else was dominating at the time. They all came to dominate eventually (and once again engender tons of hatred, but that's the price of being on top, where everybody wants to be). Can Microsoft do the same? Maybe not, but it can and should try.

The message is this: If you're sitting in a coffee shop with a Microsoft Windows Phone 7 phone or Windows 8 tablet (as soon as there's a Windows 8 tablet to sit with), you're not a bandwagon fan surrendering to a nasty corporate force and falling in with the broad swath of sheep-like consumers. Oh, no. You're a rebel, part of the resistance, a game changer and a trendsetter. You're daring to shun Steve Jobs and Google for something new, something really different, something not everybody has the guts to buy.

You're not a PC. You're a Windows handheld device. You're a little out there, a little mysterious without being creepy. The iPad minions and Android lemmings are the sheeple. You' People want to be like you. You know it, and they know it. Will Microsoft ever know it? We kind of doubt it, but we also kind of hope so.

Can Microsoft be cool? Does it matter? Send your thoughts to [email protected] or leave a comment below.

Posted by Lee Pender on June 06, 20115 comments

Windows 8: Put It on Tablets, Keep It Off PCs

There's a dog pile, and I'm about to jump on top of it. (Yes, I'm also dropping RCPU's trademark obnoxious royal "we" for this entry, as I'm going to be dishing some opinions that are more personal than usual. Be ready.)

Remember dog piles, by the way? How much fun was that, as a kid, to be playing football on the playground or in the backyard and have some kid yell "dog pile!" at which time all the kids would jump on each other until somebody suffered a collapsed lung? Good times. It's no wonder I enjoyed playing rugby so much when I lived in Europe (as an adult).

But back to today's dog pile. It's a collapsed scrum of tech pundits this time, all pretty much saying the same thing about Windows 8, which Microsoft showed off at D9 yesterday: It looks great, but should it be a PC operating system as well as an OS for tablets? Probably not. (As always, some have taken this opportunity to tear into Microsoft, but we're not on that dog pile.)

The interface of Windows 8 -- as does that of Windows Phone 7, frankly -- looks elegant, easy to use and downright pretty. In the link posted above (here it is again), there's a short video demo from Microsoft of the new OS. (Note to Microsoft, by the way: A little sound editing goes a long way. We don't want to hear Windows 8 demoed in a fish bowl.)

[Click on image for larger view.]
The Windows 8 start screen. Courtesy: Microsoft
The sliding, touchscreen tiles are attractive, the colors vibrant; the whole setup looks perfect for a tablet. It's a clean break from both iOS and Android, which are actually pretty similar in look and feel. There's only one problem. The demonstrator is using Windows 8 on a PC with a monitor. Here's where we turn into Lumbergh from Office Space: Ahh, yeah, Microsoft. So, I guess we should go ahead and have a little talk, hmm?

No, it's not about putting cover sheets on TPS reports. It's about touching my computer screen: I don't want to. Yes, I love the touchscreen on my phone. I'd love one if I had a tablet. Those are tactile devices, small and physically approachable. But personally, I use a netbook connected to a pretty large monitor in my home office and an ancient laptop at work (thanks, 1105 Media). I don't want to lean over my desk and touch my monitor. I don't want to touch my laptop screen and get it all greasy from the residue a Whole Foods burrito left on my fingers. I'm fine using keyboard and mouse the way I have for I don't know how many years now. Heck, as other members of the dog pile point out, even Mac users, as cool as they are, use keyboard and mouse. I don't need a revolution in PC computing interfaces.

In fact, I don't need anything from Windows 8 at all on the PC. I don't even need Windows 8. Like many PC users, I'm still on XP. Why? Because it does what I need it to do -- boot, run with acceptable speed and not crash too often -- and nothing more. I don't want my PC OS to be gorgeous. I don't want it to be elegant. I don't even want to know it's there. (That's one reason I've never bought another Mac, although I loved the old bubble-back iMac I had years ago.)

Sure, IT administrators and other pros love Windows 7. That's cool. I get that. But as a consumer and a low-level office (and Office) user, all I want from an OS is pretty much what I want from other people's kids: to be seen and not heard, and preferably to not be seen all that much, either. Just leave me alone. I have a feeling that most consumers -- and, really, we're all consumers on some level -- feel the way I do.

Now, on my tablet (if I had one) and on my phone, I want to goof around with sliding apps here and there and finding contacts and such with my fingers. I can hold those little computers in my hand; it feels right and makes sense for me to let my fingers do the walking on them. When they get a little smeared, I rub them on my shirt or on the sofa and clean off the glass a bit. Windows 8 looks great for all that -- maybe great enough that if I ever did buy a tablet, I'd consider a Windows 8 device as opposed to the iPad (as long as the Windows device had enough apps; tablet and smartphone computing are all about apps).

But on a laptop or on a monitor, I just want the same simplicity I've had for a couple of decades now. There's no reason to go changing that. I don't want to have to use glass cleaner on my screen every few hours. (Hey, I like the occasional finger food, OK?) Windows 8, unfortunately, is designed to be everything for everybody -- touchscreen tablet interface and full-fledged PC OS with all the trimmings. It needs to be just the former. Let XP or Windows 7 or some forthcoming version of the OS handle the PC stuff. Windows 8 is great, Microsoft, for what it needs to be: your weapon against the iPad juggernaut. That's the word from the top of the dog pile.

What do you want out of Windows 8? Are you interested in having a touch-screen interface for your PC? Sound off at [email protected].


Posted by Lee Pender on June 02, 201112 comments

Microsoft Needs an Apocalypse

Microsoft is in a funk, a rut, a down period with no real end in sight. Heck, even IBM blew past Microsoft in value last week.

IBM! IBM rising to the No. 2 spot in the industry, behind Apple, feels kind of like Grand Funk Railroad or Air Supply racing up the pop charts in 2011, if pop charts still exist. (OK, so here's your obligatory Grand Funk YouTube link. Beware of considerable '70s shirtlessness. We'll spare you the Air Supply link.)

Of course, Microsoft isn't, we're having trouble coming up with a pop star here to complete our metaphor...would Beyonce work? Let's just go with her. Microsoft isn't exactly Beyonce, or whoever is on top of the pop charts these days.

In fact, it's starting to feel like a '90s band that's been around too long and is just trying to hang on to a shred of popularity. Can we think of an example? No, we cannot. (Our pop-culture references are getting a bit moldy, as you might have noticed. You might say that we've become the Microsoft of pop-culture knowledge.) But you get the point -- we hope.

While Apple is unquestionably cool and Google is kind of enterprise cool these days, Microsoft, while still plenty big and powerful, seems to lag behind its competitors in hot technology categories such as tablets and mobile operating systems. (And we do mean way behind.)

And now even IBM, the company Microsoft crushed in the enterprise as well as in the American home office a couple of decades ago, has emerged to take its long-sought revenge -- at least for a while, depending on how the market plays out in the days to come. Microsoft, meanwhile, remains stagnant, stuck in neutral.

So, what does Microsoft need to get itself going again? The end of the world. Or at least something like it. (Yes, we have the REM video, too.)

You know those people who said the apocalypse was going to hit last Saturday? Their prediction might have been a bit off (or maybe not -- take a look around and see who's not in the office today), but could you possibly ignore them over the last week or so? We couldn't. We only wish the earthquake had arrived before the Boston Bruins blew a three-goal lead in their playoff game Saturday against Tampa Bay. Alas.

We weren't seeking out news on this tiny group of unconventional folks, but they were everywhere, unavoidable, literally making news all over the world with a few billboards, some vans, a collection of way-up-the-dial radio stations...and a claim that they knew exactly when the world was going to end.

They're not exactly the first people to make that claim, of course, which makes their staggering publicity all the more remarkable. Lots of major corporations would have killed for press coverage like that, no matter how mocking most of it was.

It there's no such thing as bad publicity -- and we believe that to almost always be true, major oil spills and nuclear meltdowns being the possible exceptions -- then this Harold Camping fellow really did do something exceptional in what he apparently thought would be his final days on this planet. He captured the world's attention. He got people talking. So, they made fun of him. So what? We all know who he is now and what his message is, or was. Again, that's the kind of attention companies crave.

Maybe that's what Microsoft needs -- some sort of apocalypse. Oh, it doesn't have to be an actual one (only Steve Jobs has the power to pull that off, as far as we know...just kidding, God), but some sort of shocking prediction might give Microsoft the perception jolt (and maybe the actual jolt) it needs.

Just what that would be, we're not sure. Predicting the end of the world is so last week. That's not going to work. And it has to be something weird, something Microsoft couldn't actually control or do on its own.

Maybe a company spokesperson could say this week that at the Worldwide Partner Conference in July, Steve Ballmer will explode into 10,000 tiny Steve Ballmers who will then infiltrate Apple's headquarters armed only with electric-blue shirts and boundless enthusiasm. It could be a kind of Apple-calypse prediction.

Or maybe Microsoft could play off of Camping's prediction and say that on some particular date, maybe July 1 to kick off the company's fiscal year, Planet Earth and all of its physical properties will suddenly blue screen and require a massive celestial reboot. Those still running IE 6 on XP will be left behind.

If none of that works, maybe Microsoft could put a firm date on when it'll have a tablet device capable of competing with the iPad. Nah, never mind -- the crazy proclamation has to be at least somewhat plausible.

The whole point is to get lots of people thinking about Microsoft again, even if folks are just making fun of the company. Get back in the news in some remarkable way, and maybe Microsoft can then follow up with, "While you're mocking our outrageous predictions, how about having a look at Windows Phone 7?" (The Mango update really does look pretty good.)

Harold Camping's failed rapture has left the door wide open for the creative marketing minds in Redmond. They need to jump on the apocalyptic bandwagon before it empties out and get people talking about Microsoft again. Of course, if that doesn't happen, it won't be the end of the world...or will it?

What kind of apocalyptic prediction would you have Microsoft come up with? Send your best suggestions to [email protected], or leave a comment below.

Posted by Lee Pender on May 23, 201112 comments

Tech-Ed: Microsoft's Next Generation of Datacenters To Be Leaner, Greener

Just a few years ago, Microsoft was building massive datacenters, complete with water-powered cooling systems and enormous generators. Those days are gone.

Wednesday at Tech-Ed in Atlanta, Rick Bakken, senior director of datacenter evangelism at Microsoft, revealed during a breakout session that the next generation of Microsoft datacenters will be smaller, air-cooled facilities that will use less power and cost less to operate.

Microsoft's Chicago datacenter, now about 4 years old, is a staggeringly large facility, with two separate power supplies for redundancy and a massive water-based cooling system. The colossus is one of a group of large datacenters Microsoft has built around the world in recent years. But the next generation of Microsoft datacenters will look very different, Bakken said.

"We're not doing this again," Bakken said, noting that much of the cost of building the facility went into "cement, copper and steel," rather than into actual technology, such as servers. Microsoft won't close its big datacenters, Bakken said, but it will begin building what he called "edge nodes" -- smaller, cheaper datacenters that will use less power and can even be relocated if necessary.

"We're still going to have our large datacenters," Bakken said. But he explained that edge nodes "are not billion-dollar datacenters. I can build these a lot faster and a lot cheaper. If you make a mistake, you can pick it up and move it," Bakken said.

Microsoft's construction of massive datacenters might have gotten a bit out of control, Bakken said. "The amount of usage of the failover systems in most of our datacenters is .001 percent of the time, and the majority of that is testing," he said. "The fact that we have 12 diesel generators running behind that is probably overkill."

Edge nodes, on the other hand, will reside in what Bakken called IT-preassembled components, or ITPACs. Modular buildings much smaller than Microsoft's current enormous datacenters will house Microsoft's servers, which the company will cool not exclusively with pumped water but with a system called adiabatic cooling. Essentially, outside air will cool the facilities, and hot or cold water will regulate the indoor temperature only when the temperature outside becomes unacceptably hot or cold.

Microsoft used the adiabatic model for its recently completed Dublin datacenter, Bakken said. Letting in outside air rather than exclusively using water to cool datacenters can reduce operating expenses for the facilities significantly, he said.

"We built a fully redundant datacenter in Dublin," Bakken said. "We run 365 days a year on outside air. [We're] not pumping water through for cooling. If you can take advantage of outside air, you don't have to put massive infrastructure in place. If you're not playing around with a bunch of environments, your operating expenses go down 60 percent."

Also during his talk, Bakken rattled off a couple of startling facts about Microsoft's datacenter infrastructure: "We buy between 2 and 5 percent of the servers manufactured in the world every quarter," he said. "If we were an ISP, we'd be the fifth-largest provider in the world."

More Tech-Ed Analysis:

Posted by Lee Pender on May 19, 20110 comments

Tech-Ed: Idera Keeps Things Simple in Competition with Microsoft

Microsoft's System Center Operations Manager (SCOM) is a popular component of a very popular management suite, and it would take a brave third-party vendor to try to compete with it.

Idera is that vendor. In announcing this week at Tech-Ed SharePoint diagnostic manager v2.5, Idera is ramping up its battle with Microsoft in the market for SharePoint administration tools. But while SCOM and Idera's diagnostic manager are competitive products, they're not necessarily aimed at the same audience.

"SCOM tends to go to larger IT groups," said Marcus Erickson, director of engineering at Idera, this week at Tech-Ed in Atlanta. "They have the CIO saying, 'I want the solution for everything.' We're selling mainly to SharePoint administrators." Erickson adds that SCOM can be "intimidating" for SharePoint admins but that Idera's product is designed to be targeted and easy to use.

For instance, Erickson said, SCOM offers a large number of options for SQL database best practices to users, but Idera's tool identifies just the top 10 settings admins should set up in their SQL databases for running SharePoint. "We show the 10 you need to care about," Erickson said.

Priced at $995 per server, SharePoint diagnostic manager is also considerably cheaper than SCOM. It's not always a competitor, either. Erickson says that Idera often sells the product as a complement to Microsoft's management tool. And while the company targets customers in a broad range of sizes, small and medium-sized businesses tend to be particular fans of diagnostic manager.

"The small and medium [businesses] are just looking for tools that are reasonably priced that they can buy," Erickson said.

Also this week, Idera released SQL doctor 2.0, which helps database administrators tune SQL server performance.

More Tech-Ed Analysis:

Posted by Lee Pender on May 18, 20110 comments

Tech-Ed: Windows 7 Migration Masters Are Ready When You Are

The old-fashioned operating system doesn't get the hype it used to. Here at Tech-Ed in Atlanta, all the talk is about mobile operating systems, virtualization and the cloud. And Windows XP continues to cling stubbornly to a ridiculous level of market share for a decade-old OS.

But many, probably most, companies are going to move to Windows 7 eventually, and when they do they'll have plenty of help if they want it. Aaron Suzuki's company, Prowess, makes applications that deploy what some might consider more old-school OSes, from Windows 7 to Windows Server 2008 R2 SP1. And ChangeBASE tests for application compatibility and remedies potential app problems with OS migrations. The companies' products might not be the sexiest stuff at Tech-Ed, but they're still the bread and butter of corporate IT infrastructures (and they actually seem pretty darn useful).

Here for the Long Haul
It's neither unusual nor misguided now to ask how long the fat-client, desktop OS as we know it has to live. Virtualization and cloud computing, along with the appearance of lightweight OSes such as Google's Chrome OS, seem to have Windows down for the count. Chances are, though, it'll be a long count.

It's true that Suzuki doesn't see clients lining up to move to Windows 7. Many will stick with XP, he says, and just pay extra for support when Microsoft finally kills XP support for good in 2014. "I don't think it makes Microsoft very happy or comfortable," Suzuki said at Tech-Ed this week, "but that's the client mentality. People don't have a reason not to deploy [Windows 7], but there are also some barriers. It's not about the software costs. It's about running their business. You don't buy Windows just to be able to have Windows."

The next question is whether companies will buy Windows again at all, but Suzuki suspects that they will -- in time. And, he figures, they'll keep buying it for a while to come. Even hypervisors still rest on a traditional OS, he opines.

"We are very bullish on desktop virtualization," Suzuki told RCP. But he added, "Something has to get a hypervisor there. It's like a key. It has to fit properly for the operating environment to land on whatever it's landing on. The ability to move operating systems from environment to environment [is critical]. I don't know anyone who is in a homogenous environment."

The desktop OS, he figures, isn't going away anytime soon. "That no-operating-system thing is a 30- to 50-year proposition," he said. "Even in that picture of a highly virtualized desktop, that virtual machine has to get from place to place and the hypervisor on the workstation is probably not going to be identical to the hypervisor in your datacenter."

Prowess this week announced enhancements to its flagship SmartDeploy product.

Moving Apps Forward
If the old-school OS is going to continue to exist, then applications are going to have to move in the migration from one version to another. ChangeBASE has users covered there. The U.K. vendor has developed a system for identifying and remedying potential problems with applications in OS migrations.

ChangeBASE's software looks not so much at what applications do as at how they behave with an OS and with each other. Using a knowledge base developed through years of experience, ChangeBASE can reduce the process of testing for and fixing application-compatibility issues from days or weeks to minutes, said Greg Lambert, the company's chief technical architect, at Tech-Ed this week.

"We deal with classes of problems," Lambert said. "We don't deal with applications. [We] ignore the application and look at behaviors. Is this application trying to install to this directory, yes or no? It's like an anti-virus model. There are new updates available."

Solving problems with application compatibility could be a critical step in helping companies move from XP to Windows 7. Lambert says he's seeing movement already, primarily from the companies with the most money and the most risk inherent in their businesses, such as banks. He says he's also seeing a geographical track for Windows 7, starting in the U.K. financial sector and moving to the financial sector on the U.S. east coast, then to the U.S. west coast, Asia and Europe.

"I'm actually seeing the dawn of Windows 7 move across the world," Lambert said.

ChangeBASE announced this week enhancements to its free AOKLite v2.0 product.

More Tech-Ed Analysis:

Posted by Lee Pender on May 18, 20110 comments

Tech-Ed: Thin Clients Doing Well in Lean Times for HP

Tuesday wasn't the best day for HP, which took a stock-price hit after a profit warning. But there was a little bit of good news from Tech-Ed in Atlanta.

HP's thin-client business, long a steady grower, is gaining interest among customers thanks to enhanced virtualization technologies from Microsoft, Citrix and VMware, as well as the current cloud computing craze.

Allen Tiffany, thin client manager at HP, said Tuesday that the long-trusted thin-client model is getting a boost -- at least in terms of mindshare -- as a result of companies' willingness to look at what have, until now, been nontraditional computing models.

Thin-client computing has long offered cost savings and increased efficiency, and it no longer seems as risky or unusual as it once might have now that companies are embracing the idea of lighter computing. At Tech-Ed this week, HP announced performance enhancements to its thin-client offerings. So there has been some good news from the venerable vendor recently.

More Tech-Ed Analysis:

Posted by Lee Pender on May 17, 20110 comments

Tech-Ed: Looking for Azure? It's Everywhere

Pretty much everybody attending Tech-Ed this week was expecting Microsoft to drape the show in Azure and heavily tout its cloud platform. That didn't happen -- at least not the way most observers expected that it would.

Windows Phone 7 and Visual Studio got most of the stage time at this morning's keynote, and Azure didn't get anything like a starring role. But that's not to say that the nascent platform was absent. In fact, it was everywhere -- but always as a component of something else.

A demo during this morning's keynote involving the forthcoming System Center 2012, due in the second half of this year, showed how IT pros can use the suite to manage both public and private clouds and move applications from one cloud to the other. That capability includes managing Azure components, and System Center 2012 gives users a single, consolidated view for managing all cloud elements. It's the "single pane of glass," as Microsoft folks like to say.

"We saw cloud all morning [at the Tech-Ed keynote] if you think about it in that lens," said Ryan O'Hara, senior director of the Management and Security Division at Microsoft, in an interview. "Once we had control of those [cloud] resources, it became management as usual. Here's a familiar context, but you have completely unfamiliar capabilities."

Microsoft also talked today about an Azure toolkit for Windows Phone 7 and about cloud application development using Visual Studio and Azure. O'Hara says that Azure won't necessarily garner a lot of attention by itself anymore, but it'll be a key component of just about everything Microsoft does for the enterprise.

"We went through a definitional phase as an industry, and now we are in an embrace or integration phase where the cloud style of computing is now intertwined with our application development experiences, our virtualization experiences, our application management experiences, and even our productivity experiences," O'Hara said.

In other words, Azure might not make headlines anymore, but it'll be part of just about every story Microsoft tells. Of course, not everything with Azure is going smoothly. Many observers expected Microsoft to discuss at Tech-Ed long-awaited and still forthcoming Azure appliances, but company officials have not said a word about them thus far. Still, although it's hard to notice Azure here at Tech-Ed, it's even harder to escape it.

More Tech-Ed Analysis:

Posted by Lee Pender on May 16, 20110 comments

Tech-Ed Analysis: Low-Key But Not Uninteresting

Something or someone called the Glitch Mob opened for the Microsoft keynote at Tech-Ed this morning. Aside from having what seems like a very unfortunate name for a group performing at a tech conference, the Glitch Mob wasn't Microsoft's typical pre-keynote fare.

In the past, Microsoft has blasted early-morning attendees with musicians banging on drums and dancers descending from the ceiling on wires. But today, the Glitch Mob just kind of grooved, offering some sort of dance music and generally hanging in the background.

That set the tone for a keynote that featured a couple of relatively unknown Redmondians, Robert Wahbe and Jason Zander, both corporate vice presidents and neither with the energy of Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer who, if he's here, didn't show up to say a few words this morning.

Robert Wahbe, corporate vice president, Server and Tools Marketing Group at Microsoft Corp., delivers the keynote speech at Tech-Ed North America 2011. May 16, Redmond, Wash. Source: Microsoft Corp.

Wahbe and Zander gave over to lots of demos -- more than we usually see at a Microsoft event, it seemed -- and didn't offer too much in the way of long-term vision. Zander's explanation of Visual Studio vNext, which is supposed to bring non-developer types into the Visual Studio mix, was worth hearing but seemed to lose much of the audience about halfway though.

Still, vNext could be a huge product for Microsoft if it really can tie "application stakeholders," as the company calls them, along with a broad base of IT professionals, into the development circle. vNext could take Visual Studio from a popular development tool to something closer to an application design and execution platform. That's a broad vision for an application that still resides mostly in the hard-core dev realm at this point.

Likewise, the improvements coming in Mango, the next version of Windows Phone 7, looked impressive on the big screen at Tech-Ed and could make the mobile OS a much more serious player in the market. Integration with Lync Server, which is clearly a big corporate priority at Microsoft (see the Skype acquisition), will be huge for Mango's usefulness in the enterprise.

Could Mango, and by extension Windows Phone 7, be the next BlackBerry, the mobile OS for the serious businessperson? It looks as though Microsoft might be setting it up to be just that. Windows Phone 7 might never have the hipster appeal of the iPhone or the wide-open charm of Android, but it has a clean interface and looks pretty useful, and native integration with much-used Microsoft technologies can only help its prospects.

So Tech-Ed didn't blow the roof off the cavernous Georgia World Conference Center here in Atlanta, but its highlights represent important steps forward for major Microsoft properties. There has been other news, too -- enhanced virtualization capabilities for Exchange, for instance -- which has fit into the same category, not headline-grabbing but certainly of interest to the audience that has made the trip to the American South and probably to a lot of other partners and Microsoft IT professionals, as well.

More Tech-Ed Analysis:

Posted by Lee Pender on May 16, 20110 comments

Why We'll Never See Anything Like the Microsoft Antitrust Case Again

Back in 1987, SMU lost its football program for a season after the NCAA -- the governing body of collegiate athletics here in the United States, for those who might not know -- handed the school the infamous "death penalty" for repeated rules violations.

The school chose to cancel the 1988 season and therefore went two years without football, which in Texas is kind of like going without air or water for two years. Needless to say, the scandal rocked the state and, among college football fans, the nation. (One of ESPN's "30 for 30" documentaries, Pony Excess, did a mostly marvelous job last year of recounting the whole sordid episode.)

In the early 1980s, when the payroll was huge and talents such as Eric Dickerson and Craig James were sporting the famous Mustang logo (yes, Ford named the car after the SMU Mustangs -- true story), SMU, a relatively small school with a mixed history in football, was good. Really good -- arguably the best team in college football in the early 1980s. But SMU cheated (a lot) and the NCAA finally put a stop to it. Never mind that other schools, which we won't name, cheated rampantly for years and never got any punishment that even approached the severity of the death penalty. That's another rant for another blog.

The point here is that the death penalty -- administered only once -- was harsh. So harsh, in fact, that it did effectively kill SMU's program for more than two decades. Only in the last couple of years and after considerable turmoil have the Mustangs begun to pull themselves out of the mire and become competitive again. Pretty much any observer of college football who knows the SMU story will say that the NCAA will never hand down the death penalty again -- and, in fact, it could have by now to several other schools but hasn't. It was just too much, too harsh, too severe. And it certainly didn't curtail cheating in college football as a whole, which remains common, if a little more stealth these days (although the program at Rose Bowl champion TCU is, of course, completely clean -- seriously). 

Anyway, the parallels between SMU's death penalty and the U.S. government's antitrust oversight of Microsoft, which ends this week after a decade, aren't especially strong, except for one thing: It's doubtful that we'll ever see anything like either one of them again. Back in the late-'90s, the panic about Microsoft's dominance in the operating system market and its supposed execution-style killing of the Netscape browser were such that a U.S. District Court judge -- Thomas Penfield Jackson, you remember him -- ordered the software giant broken in two. Microsoft appealed and stayed intact, but the government watched it like a hawk for the following decade. And many industry firms lined up to make to make Microsoft look only slightly more dominant and suffocating with power than Genghis Khan. 

Your editor was a teenager in Texas during the SMU scandal and was a reporter for a fairly well-known trade magazine during the original Microsoft lawsuit; he remembers them both well and actually covered the lawsuit in some depth. With the benefit of hindsight, the prevailing feeling now is that both episodes were a little ridiculous. The death penalty and its excessiveness we've already discussed, but the Microsoft "remedy" now looks pretty silly as well. Microsoft, after all, remained one company, but it didn't continue to crush the rest of the industry.

In fact, these days, despite still owning a huge portion of the market share for PC operating systems, Microsoft finds itself well behind some of its competitors in other key -- arguably much more important -- areas. Some observers posit that open source is what made the Microsoft antitrust scare -- and for those who don't remember, there was very real panic and hand-wringing about it on all sides -- ultimately irrelevant. And we think there's a lot of credence to that.

But we look at the withering of Microsoft from terrifying titan to mere giant from a broader perspective. The reason Microsoft isn't an antitrust threat anymore is because other companies have out-innovated the folks in Redmond, and the 'Softies, by contrast, have under-innovated in recent years. We haven't forgotten, as many seem to have, that Microsoft bailed out Apple financially in 1997 when the hipster company was on the brink of extinction. But Apple made the most of the lifeline, eventually creating the iEverything line of products that now dominates consumer electronics and is rapidly moving into the enterprise with the iPhone and iPad.

And then there's Google, which wasn't even on the radar screen in 1997 (remember using search engines like HotBot and Lycos?) but has emerged as the locked-in No. 1 firm in consumer search and has also taken over, with Apple, the ever-expanding market for mobile operating systems. Google was born out of an era in which the government was watching supposedly dangerous and competition-quashing Microsoft, and yet Google managed to grow right under Microsoft's nose and steal from the folks in Redmond markets they would love to dominate but now likely never will. Let's also not forget Amazon, which went from quaint online bookseller to major enterprise technology provider during the big, bad Microsoft era, and companies like, which used the cloud and SaaS to get a jump on bigger competitors, including Microsoft.

Did the government help Apple, Google and the others by "watching" Microsoft and making sure it didn't step out of line? Probably not (although Microsoft's investment in Apple was a move to fend off the feds). Those companies succeeded because they either forged or beat the competition (namely Microsoft) to new markets and out-smarted and out-innovated a company in Redmond that had become a bit complacent. Your editor said in 1997 -- and we've always said in this space -- that the "remedy" for "monopolies" isn't the government coming down hard on one big, dominant company but instead other players in the market figuring out how to slay the beast. That's exactly why the notion of Microsoft as dangerous monopolist is laughable these days -- because competitors have beaten it to the punch in market after market and turned it into a desperate also-ran in lots of key areas. That was the market's doing, not the government's.

And that's why, we're saying here, we'll never see another government crackdown in the technology industry like the one we saw with Microsoft for the last decade-and-a-half -- and we shouldn't. Technology is not a commodity industry. Microsoft was never Standard Oil. Technology is an innovation industry, and innovation can come from anywhere and out of nowhere. Just when one player looks unbeatable, another can come along with a new product or even a whole new concept and knock it off its perch. Apple's reign as undisputed king of the mobile phone OS didn't last long once Google got Android rolling. Will Google always be the No. 1 search provider? Maybe, but we can't know for sure. Somebody out there might have a better idea and might find a way to get it implemented.

If there's any lesson we've learned from the U.S. government's ultimately pointless hounding of Microsoft, it's that nothing is a sure thing in the technology industry. Nobody stays on top forever -- not IBM, not Microsoft, probably not even Apple or Google. So it seems kind of ridiculous for the government and industry players to freak out and call for penalties and oversight for dominant or "monopolist" companies in the tech industry. The Microsoft case has proven that sort of excessive oversight to be silly and unnecessary (and even a bit embarrassing), and like SMU's death penalty, we think and hope that we'll never see anything like it again.

How much of a role should the government play in regulating the technology industry? How much of a monopolist does Microsoft look like to you these days? Leave a comment below or send your answers to [email protected].

Posted by Lee Pender on May 12, 20110 comments

Microsoft's Skype Buy Might Just Make Sense

In a flurry of late-night bill paying, your editor happened to notice that the Wall Street Journal reported Monday night that Microsoft would announce the acquisition of Skype this morning. Microsoft is splashing out somewhere in the neighborhood of $8.5 billion for the video chat service, which makes this buy the biggest in Microsoft's history.

It's probably a good one. After all, more than 600 million users know that Skype works -- it almost has Kleenex status in terms of brand recognition -- and the technology Microsoft is buying should fit in very well with the software giant's significant push into unified communications. This buy also snatches Skype away from Google, which had been sniffing around, as had Facebook, although, the WSJ says, maybe not to the extent that some pundits suggested.

Of course, this isn't Skype's first rodeo in terms of being acquired. eBay (the other reason your editor was online late last night) wrangled the company six years ago and ended up having to dump it at a loss, so Skype's history as an acquisition target is a bit speckled. Plus, $8 billion-plus is a big outlay. Last time Microsoft spent that kind of money, it bought advertising firm aQuantive in 2007 and did what, exactly, with it? Worked it into Bing or something? We're really not sure, but we're thinking that the accountants in Redmond would be hard-pressed to quantify the value of that purchase.

Still, this is the type of purchase that should be right in Microsoft's wheelhouse, whatever a wheelhouse is. What was eBay ever going to do with Skype, anyway? Were eBay users supposed to video chat with the person behind bostonsportsjerseys2003 (not a real eBay name, as far as we know) when purchasing a New England Patriots throwback jersey? Your editor will settle for decent photos and good user reviews, thanks.

On the other hand, the enterprise usefulness of Skype is obvious, and it should serve as a major component in Microsoft's ambitious (and potentially very lucrative) attempt to connect everybody all the time in every way possible, otherwise known as its unified communications effort. There are probably many more uses for Skype than just UC, but that's the one that jumps out immediately as the real dealmaker.

And as for that $8.5 billion, well, it's a lot of money, but that's about what Oracle spends on acquisitions in any given quarter (just kidding...we think -- but Oracle does buy a lot of companies). Microsoft might be smaller than Apple these days and less of a titan than it used to be, but it's still a massive company with huge sums of cash in the bank. Spending $8 billion-plus isn't even all that big of a risk for a company the size of Microsoft.

Besides, it's about time Microsoft became proactive again, fending off competitors for a prize catch and acting like the king of the software jungle it once was and really should still be. Even if this acquisition doesn't work -- and we at RCPU believe that it will -- it's at least a welcome sign of life from a company that had begun to look like the clich├ęd deer in the headlights. Plus, we love the angle that this is a purchase that could translate directly into profits for Microsoft's enterprise partners, who might feel a bit left out these days with the company chasing its tail trying to catch its rivals in more consumer-oriented spaces. This is good news, then, and a strong move for a company that needed a boost and went out and got it the old-fashioned way, by spending a huge sum of money to get it.

What's your take on Microsoft buying Skype? Send it to [email protected]

Posted by Lee Pender on May 10, 20113 comments