Need to Know: May 2010

This month marks what I hope will be a dramatic change in the format of this column. Instead of focusing on one or two major topics, I'll be taking a broader view at what's going on in the industry, with an eye towards those technologies that will impact individuals as well as organizations. I suspect we'll need to tweak things as we move forward, so let me know what you think.

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With Windows 7 in the can and racking up some impressive sales numbers--Microsoft will have sold well over 100 million units by the time you read this and expects to ship over 300 million units in calendar year 2010--the Windows Division is turning its attention to various updates that will hit throughout this year and keep the momentum going. There are a number of initiatives under way.

First up is Windows 7 Service Pack 1 (SP1). Microsoft still plans to deliver this update in Q4 2010, or roughly one year after the General Availability (GA) date of the initial Windows 7 release. My understanding is that SP1 will mostly be about aggregating all of the software updates that appeared over that first year, and it may include driver support for new technologies (think USB3). But I don't expect any major new features, at least not in the client version: For Windows Server 2008 R2, SP1 is going to be a big, big deal from a functional perspective. More on that when I'm at liberty to reveal what's going on.

Equally important, perhaps, is Internet Explorer 9, though I don't expect to see the final version of this browser appear anytime in 2010. Microsoft delivered a bare-looking IE 9 Platform Preview at its MIX'10 developer show in Las Vegas (and I think the public beta will ship by the end of the summer). But don't be fooled by the lack of interesting new UI in the IE 9 Platform Preview. IE 9 is essentially a brand new browser under the hood, and this is the most radically remade version of the browser that the company has ever shipped. There are three key themes to this release: Performance, real-world compatibility with actual web standards like HTLM 5, CSS3, and SVG vector graphics, and hardware accelerated graphics. This is exciting stuff, and a complete break from the IE past. You're going to want to keep your eyes on this one.

Microsoft will also provide massive updates to its Windows Live Essentials application suite, which "lights up" or "completes" Windows 7, and with Hotmail, which is, by far, the most popular web-mail service on earth. Both of these are important, and will ship this year.

Hotmail is being rearchitected around making it much more efficient for users, and it's 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 will ship by mid-2010, 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 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.

Speaking of products that will ship in 2010, Microsoft plans to ship Office 2010 (and SharePoint 2010, Visio 2010, and Project 2010) to businesses worldwide on May 12. That's public info as I write this, but my sources tell me that the consumer launch (or, general availability) date is June 15. But if you're waiting to buy Office 2010 for yourself, don't: Instead, buy Office 2007 now and take advantage of Microsoft's Tech Guarantee; if you purchase Office 2007, or a new PC with Office 2007, and activate it between March 5, 2010 and September 30, 2010, you can download the corresponding Office 2010 version for free. The only caveat: You must redeem this offer by October 31, 2010.

Microsoft discontinued Essential Business Server and there are two interesting bits of information to ponder around that. First, customers that actually did buy into this complicated mess of a product can get the individual component software (i.e. Windows Server 2008, Exchange Server 2007, and so on) from the EBS 2008 suite for free (minus local taxes, shipping and handling charges). This offer runs from June 30, 2010 through December 31, 2010 only, and if you are an EBS customer, you'd be crazy not to take advantage of it.

Second, Microsoft's sudden and unexpected EBS cancellation is, I think, an indication that its customers are turning to cloud-based solutions like Microsoft Online Services (MOS) and Business Productivity Online Suite (BPOS) even faster than expected. And this, I also think, will have huge implications for Windows Small Business Server. I thought it was a big mistake for Microsoft not to provide some sort of cloud-based SKU for SBS 2008 (where Exchange, at least, was a hosted service instead of an on-premise server install). They won't make that mistake in the next version. The death of EBS proves this, as hosted solutions make even more sense for smaller environments. This is "mark my words" territory.

One potentially troubling bit here is that Microsoft's arch-enemy, Google, already has a pretty decent story for small businesses especially. I'm speaking almost exclusively about the Google Apps product, which combines Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Docs, and other services into a free or very cheap online service that any small business can afford. And Google recently augmented this offering with the Google App Marketplace. Yeah, I know that "app store" is just this year's fun tech keyword (like "Linux" or "XML" from years-past), but there's a simple truism here, too: Platforms matter. And when you're building a platform, the more apps the better. Google's marketplace is pretty slim as I write this. But you know what? Microsoft doesn't even have one for its own hosted services. Not yet anyway. They will.

Microsoft foisted an interesting and curiously controversial topic at the RSA Conference 2010 back in early March, and I think it bears investigating. Why, Microsoft Corporate Vice President Scott Charney asked, can't we implement technology like Network Access Control (NAC) for the public Internet? The idea makes sense: NAC works by preventing PCs that don't meet an organization's security policies from joining the corporate network; instead, they are shunted off to a separate network where they will be updated until compliant. If we could implement this on the Internet, it would prevent people with no common sense from infecting others with the viruses and malware they picked up along the way. The catch, of course, is that such a scheme is complicated and expensive, and could require a tax or other public funding. I think it's a great idea. And I don't understand why some people think it's controversial. Security should be job one online.

Windows Phone 7 is set for a September 2010 launch--much earlier than is widely expected--and I think Microsoft has a winner on its hands. Windows Mobile was a decent solution for businesses, or at least it was until Apple showed the industry how innovative design and a rapid set of improvements could make such a big difference. There just wasn't any way that Windows Mobile was going to evolve into something competitive, and let's give Microsoft credit for simply killing off Windows Mobile 7.0, which was codenamed Photon, even though there were some ideas there. No, starting over fresh with Windows Phone was the right thing to do. And that's especially true because the company bet the bank on a relatively unknown user interface evolution that was quietly happening elsewhere in the company.

That UI, which was codenamed Metro in its Windows Phone 7 incarnation, started way back in 2001 as Freestyle, the UI that became the first version of Windows Media Center. It's been improved dramatically over the years, and subsequent versions appeared in Portable Media Center (also forgotten), various generations of Windows Media Center and, most recently, in the Zune PC software and Zune HD portable media player. So while few people have actually used Metro's predecessors, the truth is, its battle tested and mature, and ready to take on the media-rich needs of the mobile using public. I'm excited about it. And I think it has a chance to make a dent in other markets, including the living room (Xbox, Zune, Media Center, Mediaroom) and even the desktop PC. Windows is getting pretty long in the tooth now anyway, isn't it?

What makes Metro particularly interesting is that it's far more innovative than anything Apple is doing this year. Sure, Apple was able to fool customers into thinking that its iPad tablet is "magical and revolutionary" when it's really just a large iPod touch. But providing another way to access the same applications and online content as all its other device isn't revolutionary or innovative. Far from it. In fact, Apple's milking the iTunes ecosystem in a rather shameless way here. It's the type of thing Microsoft has done a lot in the past, and what one might expect from a company that's too busy protecting its lead to worry about doing something that makes sense for customers. This, of course is an opening, not just for Windows Phone, but for any other smart phone and device platforms that seek to challenge the Apple hegemony.

Someone needs to do it.

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