Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Much Ado About Yahoo

I have to start out this post with a couple of random thoughts. First of all, this blog is awesome. I heard about it from a fellow UT alum on Thursday and it's apparently written by a girl who moved to NYC from Texas but missed the food so much (like we do here in Seattle) that she experimented to replicated some Southern staples in his kitchen. I checked out a couple of recipes and they looked pretty legit. I'm going to be combing the site later this week to add to my personal stash of recipes (none of which I take credit for, I just make them). The blog is just fun to read overall, so much so that I'm recommending it to anyone who likes cooking (my regulars know that I don't recommend blogs very often, but this is a gem).

The other thing I have to get off my chest is that it was fun watching OU whoop Texas Tech on Saturday. I never thought I'd ever support the Sooner, but for those 3+ hours I declared a personal, temporary truce with OU for the duration of the game since they played against us so respectfully, unlikely Tech. I felt like Tech played dirty against UT and Harrell was really arrogant coming out of the game. I always thought that Bradford was a much better QB than Harrell, as much as I dislike him, and I can't believe that so many pundits picked Tech over OU. It shows how terribly wrong the rankings are when the #2 team simply gives up in the second half when they're down 45-7. God forbid they'd learn from the first half or make some effort defending against OU's second string (yes, they did score on Tech). I'm satisfied with their loss, and implore the pollsters to please show some love for Texas because we had a stronger schedule than OU and beat them in a glorious game (for both teams). So please, don't let them jump us in the rankings!

Jerry Yang Steps Down

Trust me, I did not want to center another post around Yahoo. Unfortunately, when I looked at my long list of articles, the Yahoo ones bubbled up to the top. It's just a truly interesting story for the industry given that Yahoo is literally one of the first successful massive Internet companies ever. It garners them a soft spot in our nerdy little hearts, because I think a lot of people honestly want them to succeed.

I don't think it was a secret that neither Terry Semel nor co-founder Jerry Yang were in any position to effectively lead the company since the middle of last year, and now they're finally both out of the hot seat. Jerry Yang formally resigned early last week citing what I think a lot of tech journalists had already figured out: he was letting his emotional ties to the company keep him from making smart business decisions for it. It's ironic that he's going to be Chief Yahoo again in order to focus on "technology innovation" (among other things) because had he been doing that all this time Yahoo would not be the position it's in today. The company is not in ruin, but it's definitely not heading down a positive path though it is not beyond saving. They went down a path of unfocused products and a lack of competitive edge against Google. They've managed to hang on to being a far second place to Google as a search engine, but their revenues are not seeing real growth.

How did they get here though? Forbes has a surprisingly concise list of Yahoo's 5 biggest mistakes. It's amazing how many products Yahoo comes out with that people don't know about. I think that their terrible marketing strategy has led to projects being aborted that took a significant amount of investment and were not necessarily bad ideas. I was a beta tester for a service that allowed you to send mass text messages, and it really wasn't bad. It needed some work, but they could've made it work and instead chose to get rid of it. I have no idea why they did this and I'm sure they had good reason, but if you figure something like that after a product is developed then how much time did you spend in the design and planning stages? The next big mistake was not buying Google because it was too expensive, which is kind of funny since they didn't sell to Microsoft this year because they were offered too little money. That's irony for you. Hiring Terry Semel is not a surprise entry in the list either, he just did not drive vision for the company very well. One of the reasons I joined Amazon is because I had, and still have, faith in Jeff Bezos's vision. The next item is probably the least important on the list: they didn't beat Google to the punch to buy DoubleClick. Not that it wasn't dumb, but it's not like buying DoubleClick would make them a huge rival for Google. The last item is not accepting Microsoft's buyout offer earlier this year.

What do they do now? Get a competent leader who can inspire confidence in the company's employees and drive development for killer products. Figure out how to steal people from Google by any (legal and ethical) means necessary. Don't scoff at offers from better companies without a clear plan. Go back to simple UI designs. It's really the simple things that will bring Yahoo back on track to being an Internet superpower, and they have enough bright minds to make it happen. Good luck, Yahoo.

Amazon OLPC and CloudFront

I promise, this isn't an ad for Amazon. I just think it's great that Amazon is participating in the One Laptop Per Child program's "Give 1 Get 1" project where you buy a cheap OLPC for $400 and another one gets sent to a child in a developing country (they cost roughly $200 apiece). I've talked about OLPC before and why I think it's great in the face of people saying that giving computers to hungry kids is dumb, so I don't want to talk too much about that. However, to say something about it: it's a great inspirational and learning tool for these kids to help their communities and achieve better things in their lives than they probably had ever thought possible.

Amazon CloudFront is not so charitable, but is really cool. It's based in S3 and is an Amazon Web Service for efficiently distributing content to customers. They basically store your content (media or video games or what-have-you) in various spots geographically so that they can serve it to people near these endpoints faster and is designed to be extremely easy for you so that Amazon does all the hard work. It's still in beta, but an excellent idea. Everyone is saying that digital distribution is the future of music, movies, and games, so it only makes sense to make it easy to serve this stuff up at high speeds without increased infrastructural costs.

Windows 7 Media Center

Last week, Gizmodo posted a very brief video demo of Windows 7 Media Center, and it was pretty sweet. Please in the comments if you have found it re-posted somewhere else because Microsoft made Gizmodo take it down. It's basically Windows Media Center meets an iPhone in that it features intuitive touchscreen functionality through fluid motions that seem cool even though they can appear to be gimmicky at first. Some of the cool features are the fancy slideshows with music, well-integrated Internet channels, one-click access to TV (if you have a TV tuner card, that is), a thumbnail preview for seeking through an HD video, and other bells and whistles. The idea here is to have this OS on a small computer replace your DVR, and having attractive mainstream software for home media PCs could help spread adoption past just TV geeks (especially if sold in nice bundles).

Security Scoop

There were a couple of really interesting security stories last week. I was particularly impressed that Microsoft decided to give away their own home brew anti-virus software, Morro, aimed at developing nations. Are they being charitable? That may be a secondary goal, but that's not the primary motive here. The real goal is to provide a safe online environment for other PC users. These weakly protected machines are often early targets for viruses and worms and, as such, unknowingly become pivotal pieces of botnets. A botnet is a network of machines that can be controlled remotely and are often surreptitiously formed to bring down websites (for extortion, usually) or send out spam under the radar of most spam filters' first line of defense: blocking IPs. Anyway, Morro will replace Windows OneCare (which you probably have but don't know about) and takes a brute force stab at cleaning up the Internet. Security is an arms race and it's not like Microsoft is a security firm so don't expect this to fix everything overnight, but it's an interesting strategy and a great start to what will hopefully eventually replace Norton and McAfee, which I don't use because I don't think that they're better than free alternatives like ClamFree or AVG. You would think that Microsoft would know best how to quickly vaccinate computers for holes in Windows before they could release a patch, so if they play their cards right they can finally have a smack in the face to Apple's ads antagonize PC security by stating that Macs have security issues (they do, that's a fact) but Apple doesn't provide any free anti-virus software.

Europe recently got a new Visa card with a keypad to generate random security codes. At first, I thought it was dumb, but I actually kind of like it. It basically has a keypad on it where you enter your PIN, and it generates the 3 digit (maybe more, but on current cards it's 3 digits) security code usually found on the back of your card so you can use your card online more safely. Even if someone eavesdrop and steals your credit card number and security code, it'll be useless to them without your card's specific random number generator. There are a couple of issues with this though to keep in mind. It doesn't help in non-virtual scenarios. Your card will still swipe, from what I can tell, just fine. So if someone steals your card, they just can't shop online. It won't stop over-the-shoulder attacks, so someone can install a camera in a cyber cafe and spy on your PIN. What does this get them? If they can steal your card then they can use it online as much as they want (or until you cancel it). More importantly though, it's likely that the algorithm will be tied to your PIN so they can probably then create their own security codes as they'd probably have already spied your credit card number. I do not know how the security code is generated so maybe they'll be smart and not tie it to your PIN but rather just your account in a non-deterministic way. The biggest danger here, in my opinion, is the false sense of security it could create for people who shop in real life more than online or are still susceptible to social engineering attacks (like getting called by a charity for a donation, for example). Still, it's a noble cause so I give them props for creativity. It really isn't a bad stop-gap at all.

The last bit of security news is that those crafty Chinese pirates have cracked Blu-ray's far-from-ideal DRM to sell their own lower-resolution copies on the streets. They are ripping the content, re-encoding it as AVCHD (a compressed, 720p format), and then selling it. This is a threat to Blu-ray, but not sure if it's more of a thread to their sales than rampant DVD piracy. DRM will never keep pirates back, only slow them down a bit initially. The MPAA really should pour their efforts into stopping these syndicates rather than worrying about online piracy stateside, because I can almost guarantee that it's not nearly as detrimental as this kind of piracy is.

How Hulu is Surpassing YouTube

CrunchGear put up a very short post about Hulu's revenues being only 30% less than YouTube's this year and expected to at least match YouTube's revenues with less than a tenth of the viewership. It's worth talking about it though now that online advertising has become so important.

There's no question that the past decade has seen a complete transformation in advertising. It's no longer dominated by TV, radio, and magazines, but moving the the Web and, though somewhat in its infancy, to video games. When PC Magazine, probably the foremost print technology magazine in the world, decides that printing a magazine is no longer as profitable as its online articles, you know that the tides are changing. People's day-to-day habits are changing, and advertising is just trying to keep up. Even ad watchdog NAD (National Advertising Division) acknowledges viral marketing to be advertising that follows the same rules as other forms of marketing it that it cannot spread falsified information, like that cellphones emit enough radiation to pop popcorn. Another reason that online advertising is big is that it's measurable. When the economy is down like it is now, you want to see real results with your marketing budget, and TV don't cut it. They're expensive and cast a wide net without any accurate measurement of how many people see it or what they do with that information. With a banner ad, you can see a click. You can attach what are knowns as reftags (referrer tags) to links so that traffic can be attributed to a successful advertising campaign.

Back to Hulu and YouTube, why would advertisers favor a site with 7 million hits in a month over one with over 80 million hits? For the same reason that you won't see hardcore porn on MTV ripe with commercials: they have brand image to worry about. Do you want your detergent associated with a guy getting hit in the crotch? Or how about a Hoover vacuum ad rolling right after a cat riding a Roomba? Granted, that would be a great opportunity for Roomba, but how many of these are there and how easy are they to exploit? That's going to be the true test for YouTube. Conversely, advertisers know exactly what they're getting with Hulu because it's held to the same standards as normal television and they know what series appeal to what audiences. Yes, you could theoretically know that about a YouTube channel as well, but the content producer isn't under YouTube's thumb so they could deviate one day and post something detrimental to the advertisers or even mildly offensive (like curse words). Hulu is a much easier leap to make though since you know what you're getting and the improvement over television is that not only can people click on your ads to give you direct knowledge of how well your campaign is working, but you have accurate ratings of these programs and can get a much better picture of your audience than Nielsen can reliably offer.

YouTube can still be monetized well if Google can effectively filter out content for advertisers and reliably link tags for this content to advertisers, or even have more moderation control over certain YouTube channels to ensure the quality of its content (with a cut of the profit going to the channel owner, of course), but they have to be careful with it and they have to make sure that they don't alienate their audience. Since Hulu has had ads since it publicly launched, they had the luxury of not having to deal with this problem, but YouTube isn't so lucky.

The Remainder

To be honest, I'm a little tired from writing this post. I've spent my spare time for the past 3 nights working on it, and I think it's time for me to stop. Here's a quick wrap-up for the other article I had tagged to talk about:

Gmail now has themes! I don't think you can create your own themes yet, but I'm sure you will be able to soon enough as it appears to be powered by XML files setting variables for various images and colors. The mountains one though is especially cool though as it is dependent on your geographic location for the time so that it can show you an appropriate setting. Check out my current one:

Strangely enough, a Linux website posted a screenshot tour and little preview of Internet Explorer 8 Beta 2. Its features include privacy mode (aka porn mode), web slices (to store away pieces of web pages for easy offline reference), Google Gears integration (for offline usage of certain web applications), and actual stability. IE8 was originally slated to be out before the end of this year but has since been delayed to sometime next year (before summer, I believe).

Intel has launched their Core i7 processors, which are purported to be 4-6 times faster than their current Core architecture, cheaper to manufacture thanks to smaller circuitry, re-introduce Hyper Threading for better parallelization of processes, and integrate a memory controller to increase processor bandwidth (the amount of stuff it can get done at once since it has this new venue for accessing memory).

Zune subscriptions can now keep 10 songs each month DRM-free. I actually never thought of this and I think it's a pretty clever way to try to save subscription-based mp3 sales.

Engadget has posted a review of the Blackberry Storm (formerly known as Thunder), including a video comparison with the Bold, and they weren't terribly impressed. Unlike the G1, it has to be compared with the iPhone and it never seemed to have a real edge over the iPhone with the list of complaints including that it's sluggish, there's a dearth of third-party applications, and that the on-screen keyboard's simulated tactile response doesn't improve it at all.

Wired put up a well-reasoned article that the reason the iPhone lacks Flash support is that it removes too much control from Apple. For example, a tethering application written for Flash could not really be held back by Apple because they can't block sites. Plus, Flash could always introduce security holes.

Gizmodo has a really great explanation of common video codecs and the difference between a codec and a container, and it's really useful for technical and non-technical users to read through. It will help explain why you may sometimes have problems playing videos you've downloaded online, or why not all videos can be played on your favorite mobile device.

Lastly, Network World's rundown of the top 12 myths about how the Internet works is a very interesting read and will likely provide useful tidbits to all but networking experts.

Alright, I'm on call this week so it's time to go to bed. I hope you all have a great holiday weekend! I'm a bit sad that I'll be unable to spend Thanksgiving with family, but Christmas is right around the corner so I definitely am looking forward to the vacation.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Is There a Tech Slump?

The Economy and Technology

I was kind of dreading addressing this topic because I'm not sure what to make of it. The New York Times put out an article that the slump in the national economy has finally hit technology, so I think it warrants some discussion.

I think it's no secret that every aspect of the economy was going to be affected by the housing marketing crisis and the bank failures and the stock market faltering and all that stuff. If you have low investor confidence then it leads to low consumer confidence and people don't spend as much when they hear about layoffs in the news and, perhaps without a valid reason, fear for their own jobs. I feel like we shouldn't look at this as damaging technology companies and causing layoffs so much as a time for growth and evolution in the industry. It's a time for everyone to take another look at their products and their operations and optimize them. This is a very good thing. Just because there are some short term casualties does not mean that these jobs won't come back in the very near future, hopefully better than before and with greater value for consumers. Times like these force real innovation because you can't re-package something and expect people to buy them. It's actually a really great time to start a company because you can pioneer an industry with little to no competition as long as your idea rests on solid foundations.

Anyway, the point is that I think that the tech sector will be ok. If you're really concerned and work in the industry, Infoworld has a neat little survival guide that features the skills that are hot right now so that you know what to read in your spare time. I'm going to start reading Effective Java next month (I'm trying to finish up The Namesake
right now) myself. I wouldn't get too depressed reading all these articles and hearing about layoffs and all that stuff, just play it smart. Keep putting $15,500 a year into your 401(k), put away at least 25% of your take-home salary into savings, and keep reading books about technologies and concepts that interest you. Don't let the learning stop at college because the people who are the most passionate are more likely to weather better in times like these, so just don't panic.

Google Talk Does Video

Google has finally added video chat to Google Talk from right within your Gmail if you just install their plug-in. I've personally been looking for a good alternative to Skype and this is definitely a cool competitor since it doesn't require the installation of an actual software application, just a browser plug-in. Plus, I know barely anyone on Skype vs. Google Talk. Since it isn't run on Flash (though it apparently uses Flash in some form) or Silverlight, some think that this is the start of Google's own homegrown competitor to the two platforms, and that's definitely a possibility. Could this new plug-in allow you to start a video blog on Blogger? Might it provide for video chat straight from your Android-enabled phone? Is it loaded with functionality to make it easier for future Google Labs applications run without making you close your browser to install something? Details are still scarce, but I'm game to find out more. I'm not sure that it'll be anything revolutionary per se, but I'm more interested to see if, since this is already cross-platform between Mac and PC, it could be the start of applications that are cross-compatible between your phone and your PC from within your browser.

First TDK Review and Blu-ray Ripper

There were a couple of firsts for blu-ray last week! Well, the first one is kind of cheating I guess: it's what I believe to be the first review of The Dark Knight on Blu-ray, which stands to be the best-selling release for Blu-ray to date on launch. When you think about it, it took a few solid releases for DVD to be a desirable format, could a smattering of Iron Man, Hellboy II, The Dark Knight, and Wall-E being available this holiday season boost Blu-ray as people see what it's capable of doing for visually astounding movies? Anyway, the review is very positive, but the only special feature that seems to be unique to Blu-ray as opposed to DVD is that rather than audio commentary you have "seamless" branches into behind-the-scenes features. They don't know what the BD Live feature(s) will be, but probably just updated trailers and being able to watch the movie in sync with someone else and text chatting during the movie. Still, the picture and sound quality are probably enough to sell it, and they both sound quite impressive from this early review. Plus, the price is very close to DVD, so I think that Blu-ray definitely has a chance to get a boost this holiday season, but price drops for the 2009 holiday season on old Blu-ray releases would really help seal the deal for the format.

You can't have a successful new format without an illegal ripper, and we finally have that for Blu-ray. Well, we technically had it before but a recent update unlocks data that seems to be necessary to access BD Live content, which really makes it a fully-functional ripper for the format. I personally do believe that rippers are important for the purpose of backing up your content. It's nice to have a hard drive dedicated to your media so that you can access your movies when you're on the road or just in case you scratch a disc (though I've heard that Blu-ray discs are harder to get accidentally scratched up, can anyone confirm that?).

WPA Gets Cracked

Hacking news is usually pretty standard, but when you manage to compromise a widely used WiFi security protocol, it's kind of a big deal. A couple of researchers have essentially figured out how to spoof data going to your computer as if it came securely from your router and read the data going from your router to your computer in under 15 minutes. The details will be revealed very soon, but sounds intense since it comes out of a "mathematical breakthrough' WPA2 is supposedly safe from the attack, but WPA2 routers support WPA so I wonder if your computer told the router that you only supported WPA if it would then be susceptible to the attack. That was a flaw in one of the older standards, and maybe it's a standing issue. This is going to affect a lot of people because I doubt that everyone on WPA2 given how new it is, but I think that having a pretty long passkey will help. It is a scary thing to have your router compromised though because if it looks like data from your bank is coming from your bank, how would you know if it was a fake site? Fortunately, without them setting up such a site they can't get to your sensitive data, but until we have details it's hard to say what you can do to protect yourself other than WPA2. Unfortunately, that's just the insecure world we live in.

USB 3.0

The final spec for USB 3.0 has finally arrived with blazing speeds. It can transfer 27 GB in 70 seconds, which is about a tenth as long as USB 2.0. It'll also have greater power efficiency and power output, but I don't see how those are complementary. Anyway, rather than having the computer constantly poll the device as it does right now in 2.0, 3.0 will be interrupt-based so that it'll just tell the computer when it's going to do something. I know it may seem dumb that they didn't do that in the first place, but my understanding of interrupts is that they're a lot more complicated than polling, so it makes sense that it would be an evolutionary step. The article points out that it's the death knoll for Firewire, but it's amazing that anyone is still using Firewire nowadays because it's so hard to find a computer with Firewire ports. Anyway, I just like seeing cables standardized and simple like USB and HDMI. They really do make life easier than in the days of serial cables and component cables and the like.

The Remainder

I really don't have a lot to say about a number of items from last week. I think they're noteworthy, but there's simply not a whole lot to add to them. You'll see what I mean here.

Amazon has announced the finalists for their contest for the best startup using AWS technologies, for which the grand prize is $100,000. Almost all of them are pretty cool products, especially MedCommons, which will need boat loads of security and privacy but I think is a good idea.

Windows 7 will have 3 stickers from readiness down from 4 for Vista: Windows 7 Capable, Windows 7 Touch-Capable, and Windows 7 Media Center Capable. 3 is better than 4, but what's the point of the last one except to confuse people?

This is a funny article on how to waste time at work secretly. It may be a bit disingenuous, but they get points for creativity.

Intel demoed their wireless power technology which, I kid you not, I predicted about 6 years ago in a dumb short story I wrote that took place in like 2010. It uses magnetic fields, creepily just as I predicted, but I wonder how it'll affect pacemakers and stuff?

Programmers should take note in this rundown of free text editors. If you're like me and do most of your development on Linux, it's nice to have something on the side on your Windows/Mac machine, or even something else for your Linux box outside of your primary IDE just to quickly browse source code.

Lastly, I found this article with over 30 re-brands fun to browse, maybe you will, too. This was one of my favorites:

Oh, and I pre-ordered Prince of Persia so it looks like I'll have thoughts on that in early December. I'll try to get a review of LittleBigPlanet out before then though. Enjoy your week, everyone!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Yahoo's Struggle Continues

On MGS4 and Zach & Miri

Before I get to the news, there were a couple of things I wanted to talk about. I beat Metal Gear Solid 4 last week, and a part of me wants to write a review for it but I think that it's past the point that it needs reviews. Still, I wanted to say a few words. I felt like it I may have enjoyed the first game best just because it was so revolutionary to me, but this was by far the the best game in the series. The gameplay took the concept of a cinematic experience (especially with the score) where you always feel connected to the main character to an entirely new level. There was never a cutscene where I didn't think I could be dropped in any second, and yet I was invariably excited with terror at what I had to do next. It was not very predictable and once the game had convinced me that basically anything could happen (that didn't take long), I was convinced that this was one of the best games I'd ever played. The story I think suffered at some points, especially with cutscenes that focused too much on unimportant details leaving vital details ambiguous, but the animation throughout the game was incredible with very little glitchiness or hints of aliasing. The presentation was impeccable and even though I felt like the gameplay elements I had come to love in the first half of the game started to degrade as I got closer to the end, I thought it was great how it incorporated elements from multiple action games (including past entries in the series) to the point that it had something for everyone. Speaking of which, the boss battles were always enjoyable and cute in how they were homages to the past games. Anyway, if you have a PS3 then you should at least rent this game but I think it's worth buying. It's really a hallmark of the system's capabilities and how to do espionage action right.

All I want to say about it though I went to Austin over the weekend and had a blast. The first thought I had when I entered Texas was that I was home, but I really do feel at home right here in my Seattle apartment. Maybe there's just a difference between home and comfort though. Or does that sound crazy? It was nice to enjoy Tex-mex and visit 6th Street and see friends and watch a movie at the Alamo Drafthouse. Speaking of which, I saw Zach and Miri Make a Porno.

I have mixed feelings about this movie. I kind of went in with high expectations because I'm a fan of some of his other recent movies (Clerks II, Clerks, Dogma, Mallrats), but I was let down overall. The premise of the movie is that Zach and Miri are best friends that live together and when they need money to pay the rent they decide to make a porno, and hilarity, theoretically, ensues. I didn't have a problem with this plot, but I feel like they could've done a lot more with it. For 80% of the jokes I felt like I just chuckled rather than laughed. Even though it's a romantic comedy, I kind of expected more on the comedy part of that equation. More than the friends I went to see it with, I thought that it was kind of sweet in the end, which reminded me of The Girl Next Door, a movie that I admit to really enjoying and even owning. However, unlike that movie I felt like this one was wholly unmemorable other than a couple of moments and didn't feel as real or as fun. Despite all these gripes, this is still really good for a romantic comedy, and half decent as just a comedy, but I'd say that it's really more of a rental. I give it a C+ because I liked the cast, it had some good jokes and sweet moments, and the movie was happy overall, I just wish it was more of a Kevin Smith movie.

Yahoo Gets Desperate

Yahoo's situation this year has been under much discussion this year, and if you look back in my archives from this spring then you'll find plenty of information about what happened. In a nutshell, they played hardball with Microsoft in their bid to acquire Yahoo, and Microsoft backed out from the deal once they were eyeball to eyeball.

Things haven't gotten much better for them since. They tried to cut costs and ultimately had to layoff over a thousand people, and rumors sprouted up last month (which ended up being true) that more layoffs would be on the way. This is definitely not the happiest pf times for Yahoo employees. Talks were in motion that Google would partner with Yahoo to offer their ads on Yahoo's searches, but Google decided against it last week in fear of possible ensuing litigation. Some people believe that this was always the intention since it seems a little out of character for Google, but I don't think that this is the case and there's probably more afoot here than any of us are aware of. Maybe Google believed previously that it was a legal case they could win and later came to the conclusion that it wasn't as likely to be a worthwhile thing to fight for.

Part of the reason why I don't believe in that theory is that Yahoo clearly was not prepared for it. In a seemingly desperate move, CEO Jerry Yang has stated that they would be willing to re-consider another offer from Microsoft. He says now that they would've been willing to make a deal with Microsoft this spring, which is very different from the image that the media seemed to have that Yahoo was trying to stick it out for the long haul and didn't want to be acquired by them. I'm pretty disappointed in Yahoo's leadership. While I didn't think it made sense for them to ask for money from Microsoft and it seemed to me like this implied that they really didn't want to go to the boys in Redmond, it makes much less sense for them to come out when they're most vulnerable and signal that they don't feel they're competent enough to steer this company (#2 in online search, mind you) to a bright future. Instead, they want Ballmer to raid Yahoo's resources.

Yahoo is a profitable, billion dollar company despite what their ridiculous stock price may hint at, so this move is disappointing. I was hoping that they'd come up with a plan to focus on what has made the company successful in the past, but instead it's like they're throwing in the towel, or at least that's the public perception of things. That's not quite the image you want to give to investors, especially with Microsoft being coy about the possibility of making another offer to buy Yahoo. I feel that it's less likely to concern regulators than Google partnering with Yahoo, and I still think that it would be better for Yahoo than letting its current management deteriorate what made Yahoo the top search engine and one of the best Internet companies in the world once upon a time.

More on Windows 7

I found a few more articles that kind of supplement what I went over last time about Windows 7, though I'm still unclear about what lives in the clouds vs. what's on your desktop. Anyway, Neowin posted an excellent video from PDC going over what makes the new taskbar special, and it blew me away just a little. I won't be fully convinced that it's better than the current taskbar without using it for a week, but it really does seem like a lot of time was invested in making it something that really enriches the user experience.

It's also slightly faster at booting than Vista and much faster than XP, which may help build the case in weening Vista haters off of XP.

I mentioned last week that a public beta could be ready before the end of this year (though more likely will be available early next year), and it looks like they're looking to release the whole thing next holiday season. They're being smart to not commit to such a timeframe yet, and I think that it could be a possibility given the positive feedback as far as stability goes from the PDC build that was distrbuted. It'd be smart for them to have it out before summer 2010, which gives Vista a healthy 3 years as the Windows OS as opposed to the 5 years granted to XP. I think this would not only help save the Windows brand but help compete with Mac OS X, which has a more frequent (and regular) release schedule.

Meanwhile, I think we should all pay our respects to Windows 3, for which Microsoft will no longer issue licenses. I think that Windows 3.1 is one of those software releases that will be in a book of computing history that our children will read, and with good reason. The fact that it's still used in embedded systems today is either impressive or depressing (because it implies that nothing better is widely used and/or available, but I don't know a whole lot about embedded systems so I can't speak to this).

Spotlight on YouTube

It's no secret that one thing no one has really figure about YouTube is how to properly monetize it. Adding in advertisements without alienating your user base is not as easy as it sounds. and YouTube has been wrestling with it ever since Google acquired them. After all, you can't provide contextual ads for all user-submitted content in case they're contrary to the brand advertised or inappropriate or infringe a copyright.

They're now in negotiation with multiple movie studios to stream full-length movies or sanctioned clips from them, with royalties provided by ad revenues. Not only that, but they've started testing the waters with full-length TV shows. The main gripes about these shows are that the quality still isn't that great, there's quite a bit of advertising tacked on (pre-, mid-, and post-rolls, in some cases), and they're not in a centralized location. The combination of these two deals means that they stand to be in direct competition with the likes of Hulu and Joost, and while these two companies came after YouTube it definitely seems like they have a better handle on how to properly deliver this content. Still, they don't have the user base that YouTube has so it's not improbably for YouTube to end up on top, but selection is important so this is all pending more finality on these deals.

CNN Has Holograms?

Meanwhile, has anyone noticed that CNN started using holograms? I saw one last week when I tuned in during the election coverage and saw the words " via Hologram" at the bottom of the screen, but I wrote it off as an old technology that I hadn't seen before because I don't watch CNN generally. I was wrong though, it is new. It was the least of my concerns that night though as opposed to witnessing history (not because Obama won, but because someone other than an old, rich White guy won), but it piqued the interest of many people in the aftermath of the election. Is it really a Star Wars-esque hologram? Some people don't seem to think so. Apparently, they're really tomograms since they're just images that are recreated in 3-D for your television screen and were not projected live in studio. that would help explain why the interviewee always seemed shorter than the person who was actually in the studio. Still, I think that this is a stepping stone to having holograms, so it's still noteworthy.

Quick Notes

I'm pretty sleepy so, per normal, I'm going to run through the other stories I have tagged here rather quickly.

Amazon is started to use frustration-free packaging on certain products that are easier to open and more environmentally friendly. I thought that this was a pretty creative innovation and can't wait to see it on more products.

Firefox has hit a record 19.97% market share in the browser market, which means that it almost has a fifth of the market that used to largely belong to Internet explorer just a few years ago.

Comcast has been experimenting with P4P, which just optimizes P2P based on physical locality, and found an 80% performance boost in P2P file downloads. This was a small trial though and more have to be done to verify these findings, but it's refreshing that Comcast is doing something right.

For a trip down hacking memory lane, check out this list of the 10 worst computer viruses of all time.

Enjoy the rest of your week, everyone! Hopefully, it won't rain too much here in Seattle (yeah right).

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

The Promise of Windows 7

This is my first post in a while where you won't find any mention of Apple news. Instead, the spotlight turns to Microsoft, and it's about time. I'm by no means a Microsoft fanboy, but they have a lot of smart people there so I'm always interested to talk about what they're working on, especially since we don't get news like this from them very often. It's been a long weekend of on call work for me (I hate DST) so let's get right to it.

Windows Azure

Last week, at the Professional Developers' Conference, Microsoft unveiled a glimpse into Windows 7, which they have codenamed Windows Azure (I love that color, but Longhorn was a good codename, too). What's kind of funny is that I was just listening to a podcast a couple of weeks ago speculating that the next version of Windows would be in the clouds whereas I thought that it's more likely that consumers aren't ready and Windows 8 would be that OS. I was mostly wrong, it turns out.

I'm trying to put together the things I've read about Azure, so please correct me if I'm wrong. It sounds like it will be an OS that will live on Microsoft's servers, but I think that there will still be need to be installed on your computer, probably off of a download, or else it would be really slow. I think the point of it living in their data centers is that it makes it easier to distribute applications, and it gives rise to thin clients (computers with cheap hardware that are typically used as simple Internet machines or as workstations). They're really trying to grow the Live platform here and get into hosted computing, something that Amazon pioneered (at least on a large scale) with Amazon Web Services including the Simple Storage Service (S3) to easily, cheaply, and efficiently store/fetch data and Elastic Cloud Computing (EC2) for on-demand processing power. I think this is less of a jab at Amazon then you might think because it feels like it's really targeted at enterprise clients. It'd make it easier to maintain a secure network in your company and setup everyone with the same stuff. I have no idea if this means that you can't run Azure without the Internet (probably so, I imagine it would be slightly similar to Google Gears) or if you can even buy it on a CD. I haven't seen such details revealed yet. I think you can think of it less like a remote desktop like a VNC server or Meebo and more like a different way to distribute and store software. I wonder if they'd make it so that you could remotely shut down your laptop then in case it was stolen? Imagine how much easier it would be to change computers if your software lived in the clouds. Even cooler would be syncing across multiple machines. Also, they could handle security patches so you wouldn't have to be as concerned about security. I wonder if it would act as a sandbox environment?

I still have a lot of questions, but I found some answers as I dug around. ZDNet posted a rundown of the features they noticed in the pre-Alpha build given out at PDC: device stage to make it easier to interact with your devices, action center to actually help troubleshoot issues, multi-touch and gestures (probably similar to Surface stuff), some sort of streaming media application called StreamOn, an improved animation framework (I suppose this would be Aero v2.0), and the ribbon UI stuff we see in Office 2007 (affectionately known as Office 12). Apparently, we'll have a public beta this December, which is more ambitious that I was expecting and I'm concerned that they're opening themselves up to what happened with Vista where people expected too much and then were disappointed when features got cut.

I know it's kind of superficial, but I like the new taskbar they're showing off:

The UI improvements unveiled so far are subtle, but nifty. On the taskbar, rather than text they're just big icons, which can be re-arranged, and mousing over a program icon lets you view screencaps of the windows open for it so you can select on. I hope there's an option to disable that because I don't like my windows being grouped, but if they pull it off right maybe it'll be easy to get used to. The really sweet addition though is something called a jump list, found by right clicking a task bar program icon or an item on the start menu, and just provide quick access to common features for an application. Applications can add custom entries to this, so that's just another way that they're trying to make Windows 7 more accessible for developers. To top it off, they made radical improvements to window management that let you focus on letting you give your attention to just a couple of applications at a time (hopefully this will scale to multiple monitors).

There's also Windows Media Player 12, which has vastly improved library management (I don't think anyone voluntarily uses the clunky library management that WMP 11 has), lots of little UI improvements, more codecs included right, out of the box, and support for networked media. Windows Media Player hasn't seen anything that has actually made it better in a very long time, so I feel like this is definitely an overdue change. Finally, Microsoft is really implementing what users have been wanting.

(EDIT: I accidentally forgot to bring up this article that mentioned a couple of important points. Windows 7 will, allegedly, improve laptop battery life and will run faster on Vista machines than Vista currently does. So aside from all the visual touch-ups, you will feel the improvements they made at very low levels. Other improvements are better memory management, improved crash resilience (i.e. learning how to run applications such that they don't crash), a sandbox for device drivers to avoid some of the ugly issues from Vista's launch, and it will be more reliable from day 1 rather than requiring a service pack to make it usable. I've actually heard from TWiT that the PDC build feels more like a beta 2 than a pre-alpha, which is an excellent sign compared to the trainwreck Vista build from 2003. Oh, and they couldn't name the 6 prior Windows versions but I think I can: 3.1, 95, 98, 2000, XP, and Vista.)

The kinds of changes we're seeing here are reminiscent of the jump from Windows 3.1 to Windows 95 because they represent an entire paradigm shift in how you interact with Windows. This is really ballsy stuff from a company that I feel has become known for making safe bets on its core applications and simply hasn't been innovating enough unless you count what Microsoft Research is working on in a basement somewhere. I'm excited to see what Windows 7 will bring as we get closer to release candidates and my hopes are officially set high. Please, Microsoft, don't let us down.

Android Roadmap Out, but Sprint Not Impressed Yet

The good folks at Google have released an actual roadmap for their open-source, open mobile platform known as Android. It includes better support for localization, support for SIM cards, and an API for software-based keyboards and text completion (for on-screen typing). They don't have a time line for these features, but it's great that they're loosening the reigns on discussing Android and that they've been accepting patches from the community.

Sadly, the Sprint CEO sucks and feels like the platform isn't good enough for him to want to sell a phone that has the Sprint logo on it that runs Android. As a Sprint user, I can assure you that this is laughable. Sprint has the absolute worst selection of phones, and the Sprint brand is ok with the Palm OS, which I absolutely hate. This is clearly a ploy to play hard ball or some other such stupid tactic to earn leverage with Google. They're going to have to carry an Android phone next year if they don't want to lose customers (I will definitely leave Sprint if a good Android phone comes out on another carrier). I think he's bluffing, but it's still kind of funny that he's so bitter that T-Mobile was first to the punch.

Quick Notes

I'm really tired and need my beauty (yeah right) sleep, so I'm going to briefly go over the remaining news items I had tagged.

Google Labs has released more features for Gmail, this time in gadget form. They're actually pretty useful and include calendar integration and a to do list.

Netflix has allowed streaming movies to its PC subscribers for a while now, but it has now migrated this player to Silverlight from Flash and so it readily supports Macs (Intel-based, that is) and PCs. Now it just has to work on Linux and it's set!

Wal-mart took down its mp3 store, a DRM shop, a couple of weeks ago to the dismay of its customers because they said they'd be shutting down the servers that distribute the keys for you to be able to play this music on other computers. They later extended the lifetime of these servers and have now unveiled a DRM-free mp3 store, like Amazon's but with less content, lower prices, and a worse UI (which tends to crash my Firefox to the point that I'm afraid to visit it). Is that not a strange series of a events? What an excellent way to confuse your customers. At least it's DRM-free though.

If you want to see the Internet through the eyes of a Chinese citizen, there's now a Firefox plug-in that can get you as close as possible to the experience without the long flight. So check it out if you want to feel the sting of censorship.

I now have LittleBigPlanet and it's really really awesome - even better than the beta. Yes, I do plan on posting a review for it, but rather than doing what gaming magazines do and rush through playing it, I'm going to let it linger in my mind for a few weeks and see where I stand after all this hype has died down and it's just another game on my short shelf of PS3 games (see my beta review until then). I want to give a big picture of the game. Anyway, the developers are going to be supporting it with more levels in the near future, presumably free since you can copy the levels you play online to your moon (your planet for your creations)), and downloadable content, both free (but limited in time available for download) and paid, in the form of costumes and level editor tools.

See you all back here next week! Be good until then.