Category Archives: Microsoft

Steve Ballmer is crazy!

I can’t believe Microsoft lets this guy out in public. That would be bad enough, but to purposely put him in front of reporters?

Ballmer’s latest fiasco is to claim that Open Source projects violate “over 235 patents,” and to then threaten lawsuits for any company using Linux or other open source software. Turns out, Steve was quoting a study produced by the Open Source Risk Management Group. However, the author of the study has claimed that Microsoft has it all wrong — the study’s conclusions were that those were only “potential” infringements, and that not a single one of those patents had ever been held up in court. In addition, not all of those patents were even held by Microsoft!

Further, Microsoft has refused to specify which patents they are even referring to, or specifically where they think the infringement has occurred. Starting to sound familiar? *Cough*, SCO, *cough*, *cough*. It should. Microsoft quietly provided $86 million to support SCO in it’s legal battle against Linux, under which they have not won a single count in 3 years. It seems that Steve Ballmer has decided to come out and play in the open, now that his proxy SCO has nearly completely self-destructed. Oh, and if this sounds like a hypocritical claim on Microsoft’s part, that’s only because they had to pay out $1.53 BILLION last week for violating Lucent patents.

Microsoft’s goal, like SCO’s, is to provide FUD — Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt about their competitors. Unfortunately, this tactic tends to work against them. Its surprising that they haven’t learned this lesson from what happened to SCO — since they began their lawsuit tactics, SCO’s market share has dropped exponentially. Like SCO, however, Microsoft is finding itself in a position where its competitors are out pacing it. Apple is growing far quicker than Microsoft, and is able to deliver bother hardware and software products at profit. Linux is advancing quickly, and the press is starting to tout it as a “Vista alternate.” It doesn’t help that Vista has virtually no new features for users, unless you count being more expensive. It appears that Steve Ballmer has lead Microsoft down the path of other companies which can’t deal with change: SCO, RAMBUS, the RIAA, the MPAA. All these companies probably know that customers will not purchase their product just because they threaten to beat them with a stick. But they don’t know what else to do (hint: build *good* products, and you won’t have this problem. Microsoft knew how to do this at some point).

It seems as if ever since Bill Gates left the helm, Microsoft hasn’t been able to steer itself in the right direction. Take a look at Steve Ballmer, the guy he left in charge, and draw your own conclusions why:

  • Steve Ballmer — high on himself and screaming like an idiot. Video.
  • Steve Ballmer — issuing death threats. Article.
  • Steve Ballmer — brainwashes his kids. Article.
  • Steve Ballmer — stuttering? Video.
  • Steve Ballmer — cheap car salesman. Video.
  • Steve Ballmer — out of touch with reality. Video.

Fighting Spyware for the Average Man (part 3)

A few months ago I installed a dual-boot machine with both Linux and Windows for some friends of mine who were having perpetual spyware issues. I spoke with them recently, and it appears that the Windows install has started to s.l.o.w. down, which is pretty much what happened last time. Unfortunately, they seem to be a little more intimidated that I had thought, and I don’t think they’ve even tried using Linux yet.

The next time I visit at their house, I’ll take a look and see what the problem is with Windows, and if they’re actually using Linux or not.

Fighting Spyware for the Average Man (part 2)

Previously, I had tried to install Linux on my friends’ computer because even after 2 reinstalls, their Windows PC had gotten so loaded down with viruses and spyware that it was unusable. This had lead me to wonder how many people out there have the same problem, and what can be done about it. (Also, it sort of annoys me that a computer can have so much spyware and viruses on it that it just isn’t fast enough to do anything useful anymore.)

As it turns out, this particular computer happened to be slow and old to start with, although it is definitely fast enough that it should be able to do the basics of web browsing, word processing, and playing mp3’s without any problems. In reality, it would literally take around 15 minutes to completely boot up, and then another 5-10 minutes from when you click on Internet Explorer to when it actually comes up (along with about 3 billion popups). I’m not exaggerating, and I didn’t believe it either until I took a look and timed it.

My first idea was to simply install Linux on their computer, and switch them over. Unfortunately, I ran into some problems with that: Ubuntu didn’t seem to have the right drivers for their PC. I could have worked around this by booting to a prompt instead of X Windows and installing it that way, if it weren’t for another issue. Being as their computer was fairly ancient, it only had 128 MB or RAM. Here’s a tip: running off a Live CD with only 128 MB of RAM is a bad idea! Every thing you do takes it forever, and it wasn’t really practical to spend 6-8 hours just to install Linux.

I had thought the story would end there. However, I recently was able to help them get their hands on a slightly used E-Machine. While not top of the line, this 512mb Celeron was 3-4 times better than what they had before. Before they used it, I set it up as a dual-boot machine.

They have an install of Windows XP Home Edition, with all the free protection money can buy; AVG Anti-Virus Free Edition, Microsoft Windows Defender, Firefox is the default browser, and Windows Firewall is activated. This is about as good as you can get with Windows, without spending extra money. And let’s face it: you really shouldn’t have to spend lots of money on “protection” just to be able to use your [already very expensive] computer.

They also have an install of Ubuntu Linux 6.10. I installed Automatix2, which will set it up with everything from DVD players to file sharing. All of Ubuntu’s nifty software is present too, like Firefox and OpenOffice. I also set up Ubuntu to auto-login, and changed the /etc/sudoers file so that it doesn’t ask them for a password for admin stuff. While lowering physical security a bit, this makes the end-user experience similar to what they would expect from Windows XP Home. Basically, the Linux install can do everything that the Windows one can, and about as hassle-free. Readers unfamiliar with linux would also be interested to know that this Linux install is completely free. You can download everything you need from the links in this article.

While I’m a huge fan of Linux myself, I hadn’t thought it was really ready for the average person until recently. Ubuntu Linux 5.04 was the one that changes my mind, and 5.10 is an even better release. Still, I don’t realistically expect them to use it …. at first. Human nature includes a certain resistance to change, and as long as their Windows installation remains usable, I don’t think they’ll do anything differently. However, it is reasonable to assume at this point that whatever it is they are doing that gets their computer infected with spyware will happen again. And when it does, they’ll have the option of either booting into a defunct Windows session, or a functional Linux one.

Now, here is the real meat of this experiment:

1. How long can a Windows machine, configured relatively securely and with full antivirus software last when connected to the Internet (there is no router or firewall, their computer goes right to the cable modem)?
2. Once that happens, and they try out Linux because it won’t be spyware-encumbered, will they be able to use it, or even switch to it as their preferred OS?

This is a fairly good experimental setup. There are plenty of people out there looking for answers to both of these questions (myself included). Can you really survive without paying for an anti-virus or spyware software? If you don’t have a Linksys router, or other firewall type of device to protect you? Can average people use Linux? Would they choose to use it? Is it viable to set it up for people who’s computers constantly get infected?

I’ll be checking in with my friends every now and then. I’ll post follow ups every few weeks to track the experiment.

Amateur XBox 360

In an unprecedented move for Microsoft, they appear to be encouraging amateur developers to produce games for the XBOX 360 and Windows XP / Vista. While Microsoft has talked about encouraging amateur developers in the past, it has taken little action to do so until now.

Microsoft calls their new program “XNA” (which doesn’t stand for anything). Using Microsoft’s C Sharp programming language, developers can write games that will run on either Windows or the XBox 360. Once written, anyone who purchases the XNA developer package from their 360 (about $100 / year) can then upload those games to their 360.

This program is great for independent developers – from small game studios to individual college students. The XNA environment is actually pretty well thought out. Aside from the cross-platform nature of the environment, they also provide what they call a “content pipeline,” which makes it much easier for developers to get 3d models and artwork into their projects.

The community nature of XNA is also a very welcome change for Microsoft. Already, many user-created tutorials and message boards are popping up on the Internet. If this is any indication, there will be a healthy community of amateur game developers for XNA. Microsoft has also indicated that they will talk with the better game developers for publishing their projects on Xbox Live.

The XNA program is also good for game-players. Where else can you get unlimited games for $100 / year, or less than the cost of 2 regular Xbox 360 games. There already about half a dozen games available.

There Are Some Things Money Can’t Buy: Innovation

Something too prevalent in the marketplace today is the complete lack of innovation which seems to plague some companies. On the one hand, you have companies like Apple and Nintendo which truly bring something new to the table; from product packaging to human-electronic interfaces. On the other hand, you have companies like Dell and Sony who just keep pushing out more of the same. Yet, the latter seem more likely to hold big press events and tout their “next big thing.” It seems as if they don’t even know that their products are “me too’s” instead of market leaders.

Keep in mind that there are some items for which a large number of similar products is okay. A perfect example is in USB flash storage. There are dozens of products available, and they’re all basically the same — about the same size, the same range of storage, roughly the same speed, and even the same price, give or take. Just about the only thing you can really choose with a USB flash drive today is the color. This sort of market is generally known as a “commodity.” If you think about it, you can buy [and sell] USB flash storage about as easily as you can buy and sell just about anything. The individual products are completely interchangeable (and undifferentiated).

Then there are near-commodity products. These are items which are commodities, but don’t necessarily have to be. The only thing preventing one product from “breaking out” of the pack is a lack of innovation. Look at USB hard drives. They’re nearly identical, except for capacity. One brand is as good as another. But what if one company decided to put a headphone jack on theirs, and let you listen to any MP3’s you had stored without needing a computer? What if one came with bluetooth support, or wi-fi? For an extra $30 or so, that would be a pretty cool product, and I’d be likely to buy it instead of a “plain” one. Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be many companies who make USB hard drives with any imagination. I’m not sure what their executive management meetings are like — probably something along the lines of “Hey, these things seem to sell well, let’s sell some.”

There will always be commodity items, and near-commodity items, and that’s a good thing. Its what drives prices down. But let’s talk about the breakaway hits. Like, say, the Apple iPod. The iPod is really good for a bunch of reasons. It plays your existing music and movies. It provides a store where you can buy movies, music, and tv shows easily. You don’t feel like the iTunes store is trying to trick you or deceive you in any way — if you buy something there, you can watch/listen to it on your devices. The iPod itself is nice — good quality, small, and light.

There are certainly a lot of other personal music players out there, but the iPod sells better than its competitors because it is a better product — it was the definition of innovation when it was first released, and it continued to add new features as it went along (like video). Now, along comes Microsoft looking to compete with the iPod. So, they decide to develop a product now known as the Zune. Up until its launch, Steve Balmer has touted the Zune as an iPod-killer. In other words, “better than an iPod.” In fact, Matt Jubelirer , the Microsoft project lead for Zune development, talked at length about how innovative the Zune was. Microsoft spend millions upon millions of dollars in advertizing, got retail stores to feature it, and raved about their online store, and how the face of personal music players will be changed forever.

Then the Zune was released. Without making any judgments on how good the Zune is or whether you should get one, it only had one feature that was new: wi-fi support. OK, that sounds innovative. I can imagine lots of cool things I might be able to do with my music player over wifi! Yet, the only thing you can actually do is share a “preview” of your music files to people in the area, which expires after 3 days or 3 plays. And, even though the Zune sports this single, although crippled innovation, there are a multitude of things which it doesn’t do, many of which even “me too” music players can: It won’t play your existing music, even if you bought it from Microsoft (!). It won’t let you subscribe to podcasts. It attaches DRM to your existing music. It’s bigger and heavier than most compareable music players. They have an online store which is difficult and confusing to use, with DRM rules which are not straightforward, and leave the user with the clear impression that they do not control the items they buy.

The strange part? After the Zune was released, Microsoft’s tune suddenly changed. Instead of touting how revolutionary and outstanding their new product was, Bill Gates was calling it a “modest competitor” to the iPod. So, did management really have no idea that their product wasn’t really anything special? Most probably, of course they did, but they were hoping that if they pushed it hard enough, they would be able to sell anyway. And probably, it did sell better than it would have if they didn’t push it so hard. However, the thing that really starts hurting the manufacturer is that the next time they release a product (like, Zune 2.0), no one is going to pay attention to their marketing, even if it really can do what it advertises.

Even though Microsoft seems to be aware of the problem, at least in theory, it hasn’t stopped them from releasing a long line of unremarkable products (any version of office or Windows, or the MSN search site, for example). So, why do things like this happen? Why do companies release “me too” products, when they themselves want to bring innovation as much (or probably more) than consumers want them to?

The real answer, of course, is complicated. Internal politics (Manager A wants Wi-Fi, but Manager B doesn’t. The compromise — Wi-fi goes in, but is limitted in scope). Counter-intuitive interests from business partners (Warner Music/RIAA, anyone?). Adversity to taking risks (“what if they don’t like it?”). Senior management who doesn’t understand the product or the target audience (cough, Steve Balmer).

The reality is that there are all some of the ungainly aspects of how big companies work — including at the “innovative” companies like Apple and Nintendo. The successful ones, however, are able to move past these issues, and focus on the one thing that differentiates them from their competition: What is it that the consumers want?