Monday, June 01, 2009

Microsoft Takes on Google...For Real This Time


Before I start, does "Bing" really give you that positive a connotation? Yeah, it was the last name of a character on "Friends", but that doesn't amount to much. Anyway, Microsoft has had a hell of a time trying to compete with Google's chokehold on search with Live Search and MSN, so they decided to try out something new in Bing. They're investing $80 to $100 million in advertising on it to try to make people aware that the search experience they have right now could be so much better with Bing. It actually isn't too bad of an idea since people really use Google for the brand name - it's not like they compared it to many competitors.

The reviews of Bing so far aren't that bad. It's a clean interface and it gives you a sidebar with smart spinoff searches that try to get at what you want (for example, type in a TV show and one of the things on the left sidebar will be "Theme Song"). The results aren't always on par or better than Google, but the search experience is definitely decidedly different. It tries to encourage you to help it refine down to what you're really looking for and has customized ways to do this for different subjects. Try a type of food and it'll have a Local tab that will let you filter by atmosphere, price range, etc. Try videos and you can play videos on rollover rather than having to open them in new tabs or hit "play" and wait for them to load. The little things like that are kind of neat.

The reason I decided to highlight Bing today, besides the fact that it was a slow news week, is that it's just funny that Google has been a big deal for over 10 years now and Microsoft still hasn't been able to put a sizable enough dent in its market share. To be fair, neither has Yahoo. I think search is a fascinating market because people are so complacent - they like Google only because it's familiar and simple. I don't know whether or not Bing stands a chance or not, but I think that a lot of advertising is definitely going to be necessary for it to get off the ground. If Microsoft were really smart though, they'd be going after mobile phones. Put out strong search applications and appliances for major cell phone releases soon after they come out and try pushing that. Mobile search is the one place people are going to be more picky because time is important to them. If you're searching for a restaurant nearby and your friend is driving, time is super important. Google has some great mobile applications, but I think it's somewhere that Bing can get their foot in the door and make a name for themselves if they can really answer users' mobile needs.

Microsoft's Netbook Limitation

This is another quirky Microsoft story: there are rumors that they're planning on limiting the cheap version of Windows 7 to laptops no bigger than 10.2 inches. This could, in effect, limit the largest netbook you'll see to 10.2 inches since any bigger and the manufacturer will not be able to keep a competitive price due to the Windows 7 licensing fees. Of course, they could sell Linux netbooks in any size, but people are going to be more interested in a familiar OS, and Apple hasn't shown an interest in netbooks because they think it's beneath them (seriously, they think they're too high-end to sell netbooks, I don't have the time to hunt for the article but they've said something to this effect), so that just leaves Windows machines.

Is this fair? To be honest, I think so. The fact that they're selling a cheaper version of Windows 7 to netbooks is already sort of a concession, and they have to protect themselves against the slippery slope of normal laptops being called netbooks and manufacturers shaking them down for lower prices. Also, any bigger than 10.2" seriously is a laptop. I have co-workers with 13" laptops and they don't call them netbooks because they're not designed for people with child-like hands (I kid, I kid - netbook keyboards aren't that bad).

Zune HD Announced

Here's a story I'm excited about: Microsoft finally validated all the rumors about the Zune HD by just coming clean about it. It looks pretty sexy, in my opinion:

It's a full-on touch screen mp3 player (like the iPod Touch) with a few important additions. It has an OLED screen, and I can tell you from first-hand experience that OLED screens are beyond gorgeous. It's shocking how great they look even in small forms. It allows you to output via HDMI, which is a very forward-thinking step with digital distribution growing in the HD realm since you can't otherwise carry digital copies of movies easily to friends' places. Playing on the HD name, it will also broadcast HD radio, which usually carries more artist and track information than you can get from terrestrial radio and is, supposedly, much better quality. I don't think it ever really caught on, but it's a neat little feature to throw in there. It's also WiFi enabled with a full web browser.

As you can tell, it's definitely a direct competitor with the iPod Touch much like the previous Zune was to the scroll wheel iPods. I really want this device to not fail miserably, because I like seeing companies try to innovate and compete with Apple. I don't think this is the most innovative thing Microsoft could've come up with, but it does look slick, and I'm really interested to see how it'll integrate with Xbox Live. If they handle it well, it could be a killer app feature. Microsoft has no handheld gaming system, so maybe they want this to be it? They'll be revealing more on the Xbox Live integration this week at E3, so I'm sure I'll have more to talk about next Sunday.

Pre Syncs with iTunes, and More Randomness

Yep, Jon Rubinstein announced last week at All Things D (a conference put on by the Wall Street Journal) that the Pre can sync with iTunes. I wonder how many rules they broke by doing that. There's no way that's sanctioned by Apple, and Rubinstein was SVP of the iPod division until he left in 2006 (and subsequently joined Palm's Board in 2007), so am I crazy or can't Apple just sue him for sharing trade secrets? I'm sure his NDA only lasted for like 18 months (which makes me wonder how he was allowed to work for Palm since he definitely knew about the iPhone before he left Apple), but it's still secret information as far as being able to have a third party device identifies as an iPod by iTunes. In any case, you can sync your Pre to iTunes until Tim Cook leads Apple's legal team to Palm's doorstep with pitchforks and torches.

The real shocker (for some, at least) is that Verizon claims they'll be getting the Pre in January. They are a CDMA network so it's not a huge technological leap. I think we already heard that Sprint's exclusivity would be short-lived, but I wonder how much of a boost the Pre will give them if people on competing carriers will be getting webOS phones (AT&T and Verizon, at least) before this time next year. Anyway, Verizon will also be getting the Storm 2 in January, which is supposed to be a huge improvement over the Storm, but I don't think improving over a terrible phone is a huge challenge. I've messed with a Storm and the haptic feedback thing doesn't help at all with typing.

Lastly, Gizmodo has a pretty comprehensive guide to everything you could want to know about the Pre if you know nothing about it right now (or not enough, in your own opinion). If you want to learn even more though, the manual and some other documents from the upcoming launch were leaked in the middle of last week.

H-1Bs Outnumber the Unemployed

The issue of immigrant workers is a very sensitive subject for a number of reasons. Adding fuel to the fire though is the recent revelation that there are more H-1B workers in the U.S. tech industry than unemployed Americans in tech. Apparently, the government has been going after companies with fraudulent visas. While I agree that it's unfair for subpar foreign talent to displace great domestic talent, but I don't think that's happening. I don't think there's anything wrong with highly qualified and motivated foreigners displacing lazy, stupid programmers. It's going to hurt us in the long-run to protect employees who suck at their job and would be better off in another industry. It's a delicate balance though because there has to be a cap, especially in education if talented Americans are getting sidled out of top programs by foreign workers. We have to give the people here who want to excel a fair shake, and doing that is really hard. It's not fair to read a headline that there are more H-1Bs than unemployed techies and become outraged, because companies shouldn't fire good employees because they're from abroad.

Identity Theft and Spam

I don't want to go too in depth on this because I could easily put together a entire post on identity theft, but I definitely wanted to plug New Scientist's story on the subject because it's a really well-written and exhaustive explanation of the dire situation we find ourselves in. "Identities", which are really just someone's credit card numbers, social security number, date of birth, and mother's maiden name (to name a few) are traded readily online at fairly affordable prices. What really sucks is that even if you avoid phishing and social engineering attacks and all that stuff, the people you trust when you do business could be incompetent and lose your data. Thinking that you're going to go cash only and abandon plastic is not the safety net people think it is, it only is likely to make you less careful in situations where a credit card may make you more paranoid (in a good way).

What can you do about it? To start with, here are some Firefox extensions that would really help your cause. If you're not using Firefox 3, then that's your first problem. Those extensions are seriously awesome though and cover some of the most common attacks you could run into, like forms that go to malicious third parties, hidden Javascript code that could re-configure your router, password sniffing and cracking, and hidden trackers.

Semantic revealed last week that 90% of all e-mail sent over corporate networks is spam. 58% of this spam is coming from botnets, which means that there are a lot of people sending spam who don't even know it. It's a dismal statistic, but it's pretty rare to see good news in security, to be perfectly honest.

Hulu on Your Desktop

Hulu has released a desktop application to better jive with home media PCs and laptops with remote controls in the side of them. In other words, it's what Joost should've been if it had better content and was less CPU and memory intensive.

I've been so busy with work that I didn't get a chance to test drive it, but Ars Technica has some great thoughts on it and I always trust their reviews. It's interesting that they don't want to be a part of Boxee and yet the content providers are ok with Hulu's own homegrown desktop application. This is a big step towards putting a nail in the coffin of cable television as we know it (i.e. watching shows at a pre-determined time) and helping coax Hulu into the mainstream.

Final Notes

Ok, I've really got to get a good night's rest tonight so it's time to wrap up with some quickies.

Google Chrome now has extensions! It's long overdue and small in selection, but Google is aiming to make them easy to develop to help ramp up in comparison to Firefox's expansive add-on library.

Google also announced a new online collaboration tool called Wave (in beta, as always) at their I/O conference, and it seems like the next evolution of Google Docs.

Dell's earnings dropped 63% last quarter, but they're expecting a solid rise this winter due to Windows 7. It looks like until then they'll have to try to dial down their cost structure.

If your computer has become considerably sluggish, then this article has your name written all over it. It's a pretty solid article of easy tweaks to make your computer perform better (analogous to a tune-up for your car).

Have a great week everyone! I know it's going to be very long for me as I await the Palm Pre, and hopefully I'll be able to actually get one.

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