Need to Know: July 2010

Microsoft has an interesting mix of consumer and business technologies on tap for the middle of 2010, including its long-awaited Windows Live wave 4 release, which will encompass new online services like a revamped Hotmail and Windows applications, Office 2010--which will ship in traditional PC applications as well as new web-only offerings and mobile applications, and of course the upcoming release of Windows Phone 7 which is previewed, sort of, by a surprising new line of KIN phones. Here's what you need to know.

Windows Live Wave 4

This year, Microsoft will provide massive updates to its Windows Live Essentials 2011 application suite, which "lights up" or "completes" Windows 7, and to Hotmail, which is, by far, the most popular web-mail service on earth. Both of these are important because the existing versions are getting long in the tooth and are overdue for major overhauls.

Hotmail is being rearchitected to be much more efficient for users, and Microsoft is deemphasizing the Windows Live name to focus on its more popular Hotmail brand. Microsoft doesn't get enough credit for this, but Hotmail automatically derails far more spam every day than any other email service, and the software giant's experience with this has had an interesting and useful side-effect: Microsoft now does a much better job removing spam than any other service. In fact, it's not even close. With the 2010 update to Hotmail, the company is turning its attention to "gray mail" clutter--things like newsletters, promotional offers, and so on--which represents about 66 percent of all legitimate email sent through the service. And it's integrating more seamlessly with Office Web Applications--the web-based versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote that shipped to businesses in May and to consumer in June, making email-based document sharing better than ever.

And if that's not exciting enough for you, check this out: Microsoft is adding Exchange ActiveSync support to Hotmail so that you can seamlessly synchronize this service's email, contacts, and calendar data with virtually any smart phone on earth. We're talking Apple iPhone and iPad. Google Android (Nexus One, Droid). Palm WebOS (Pre, Pixi). And Windows Phone 7, of course. Why not just add IMAP support, I asked? Because IMAP works only with email, and Microsoft wanted to make sure its online contacts and calendaring services were equally accessible. This is a brilliant if overdue move.

As for Windows Live Essentials, you can expect to see ribbon support across the many apps and a new emphasis for Windows Live Messenger, Microsoft's consumer oriented instant messaging (IM) application. Messenger is expanding to become the center of Microsoft's social networking strategy--it is running all the time, after all--so it will integrate with Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, and whatever else it is that the kids are doing these days, giving you a single control panel for those activities. The sharing possibilities here are impressive, but I'm most excited by the news that Microsoft is going to deliver a native Windows Live Messenger application for Apple's popular iPhone. We're entering a new era here, folks.

Office Web Apps: A Cloud Too Far

Speaking of the Office Web Apps, while I've reviewed Microsoft's first-ever web-based Office suite elsewhere, I wanted to reiterate my main point here. That is, Office Web Apps doesn't offer the performance or functionality required to replace any desktop-based version of Office, and this reality will likely lead to some soul-searching at corporations around the world. I do feel that offering an Office 2010-like experience on the web is important, and that document fidelity, while not perfect, is certainly far better than anything Google offers. But Google's free Google Docs offering is, well, free, and it is certainly full-featured and getting more so all the time.

So you'll want some Office, and whether that means the version you already have or a new Office 2010 install is, of course, open to debate. My recommendation, broadly speaking, is that those still on Office 2003 or older should upgrade: Office 2010 offers tremendous usability advances, many tied to the excellent ribbon user interface. (And really, get over it, haters. The ribbon is indeed superior.) Those on Office 2007 have a tougher choice to make, but the advances in Outlook 2010 could prove to be the deciding point for those who rely on Microsoft's heavy email and PIM product.

I have advice for Microsoft as well. Office Web Apps is not good enough in its current state. And if you're going to compete in this market, you must do as Google does and update this offering early and often. If you wait until the next Office suite upgrade to rev Office Web Apps--and I have to think you want to do just that--then you have already lost the battle. Those who use Office unwaveringly prefer it to Google Docs, because it's better. But for a coming generation of younger users, Google Docs is what they know, and the superiority of Microsoft's offerings is both an unknown and of no consequence. Office Web Apps needs to be good enough to make the Google generation consider a change. Otherwise, it's only a matter of time.

No KIN Do

Microsoft surprised tech industry onlookers by delivering its first Windows Phone 7-based devices, the KIN One and KIN Two, to consumers in May via Verizon Wireless. (A European launch is expected later this year.) But if you were hoping for a true Windows Phone 7 experience, you'll need to wait for September: Yes, the KIN phones--which were previously codenamed Pink--do offer Exchange support, but the phones are targeted at the texting- and social networking-happy youngster crowd, not on-the-go business users. And the devices don't even include a calendar, let alone an apps store, both of which seem like odd limitations in this day and age. My advice is to skip the KIN--except, perhaps for your kids--and either wait for Windows Phone 7 or evaluate the Apple iPhone or Google Android phones now. Both platforms are excellent.

UPDATE: Apparently, Microsoft agrees. Since this article was written, the software giant has killed KIN to focus on Windows Phone 7.

Web Standards and the Future

Microsoft has been beating the drum for more meaningful web standards around such technologies as HTML 5 and Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), and plans to implement these things much more elegantly in Internet Explorer 9, its next browser. Now, if you've been around for a while and are even slightly attuned to the web development space, you understand that the "web standards" and "IE" are not exactly two great tastes that go together. But if you can get over past prejudices and consider what's really happening here, I think you'll agree not only that Microsoft is right (this time at least) but that its plan for "fixing" web standards is both meaningful and necessary.

Microsoft is planning some competitive advantages for IE 9, of course, and these fall neatly into categories like hardware acceleration (of video, graphics, and text) and display fidelity. And while I suspect that the company's efforts along these lines will be successful and widely copied by the competition, that's not really my concern right now. What I feel far more strongly about is that the current set of web standards tests--ACID3, SunSpider, and so on--are bogus and in fact contradictory to progress on the web--and that Microsoft's idea of "same markup" is the way to go.

Here's what I mean. Right now, browser makers adhere to different parts of various specs--HTML and CSS, for example--but there are no rules about how those specs should be implemented. What Microsoft is suggesting is that when a browser supports a specification that it should do so in a standardized way. That is, every browser should render the same HTML or CSS code identically. Right now, this is not the case, even between browsers based on the same rendering engine, and it's causing major headaches for web developers.

Imagine if a PC made by Dell rendered Windows applications differently than a PC made by HP, or Gateway. That is exactly what's happening on the web right, and the advent of popular mobile browsers is exacerbating the situation.

Convincing other browser makers to back this plan will be difficult. But Microsoft does have a voice with the W3C standards body, and it has submitted thousands of sample tests for evaluating. Hopefully, this idea will catch on, and by the time IE 9 hits the streets--I'm thinking early 2011--some of the other browser makers will have signed on as well.

HP and Palm

Computer giant HP surprised virtually everyone with its $1.2 billion purchase of ailing smart phone maker Palm in early May. But with the dust settling, it's starting to look like HP has a plan, and it goes well beyond a desire to own part of the $100 billion smart phones market.

First, the obvious bit. Yes, HP sort of competed in the smart phone space before the Palm purchase via a small line of iPaq devices, which ran an older version of Windows Mobile and presumably targeted a business audience. By buying Palm, HP gets a much stronger footing in this market, as well as ownership of a technically excellent smart phone platform called WebOS.

But I think HP's strategy is more far-reaching than that. Given the success of Apple's iPad--which sold 1 million units in its first month on the market and basically established a new computing category all by itself--I believe that HP wants to establish itself as an Apple-like player that offers the full meal deal, with its own hardware, software, and online services. And this means competing in the iPad/tablet space as well as the smart phone market, sure. But I also think that HP plans to make a PC play as well.

Imagine a Mac-like offering from HP, running on traditional desktop and portable computers, with an apps store and other cloud services. It would be completely HP from top to bottom, and the company wouldn't need to pay licensing fees to Microsoft or any other company. And these PCs would be complemented by similarly designed smart phones and tablets, all running the same core OS.

Yes, it's a bit far-fetched, and yes, I do expect HP to move a bit tentatively into a market in which Microsoft will be both its bigger partner and its biggest competitor. But if the computing market is changing as dramatically as some believe, HP could actually be uniquely qualified to give Apple a run for its money in ways that few others--Google Android, perhaps--are prepared to do.

It's a theory, anyway.

An edited version of this article appeared in the July 2010 issue of Windows IT Pro Magazine. --Paul