Need to Know: October 2010

A year after Windows 7's release, Microsoft is starting to update its other product lines, including two new Small Business Server offerings, a Windows Home Server upgrade, Windows Phone 7, and Internet Explorer 9. This month, I'll examine each of these coming releases, as well as Windows 7's deployment record with businesses and the return, probably unnecessarily, of the Slate PC. Here's what you need to know.

Small Business Server "Aurora" update

With Microsoft finally shipping a near-final, public release of its upcoming Windows Small Business Server "Aurora" product in late August, it appears that this intriguing "cross-premise" server offering will ship in final form by the end of the year. With the caveat that I sometimes feel like the patron saint of small business computing, Aurora could be a game changer: This amazing product offers all of the Active Directory-based identity, security, and computer management that businesses need, but without the complexity. And, I expect, the cost: Though Microsoft hasn't yet revealed Aurora pricing, it's going to have to come in well under regular Small Business Server pricing. This could be a mainstream, high volume product.

Of course, the success of Aurora won't hinge on pricing alone. What makes this product really work is its logical targeting of the real needs of small businesses. There's no expectation of a true admin or even an IT pro; instead, the simplified system administration can be easily delegated to different people in the office. New users can add their own PCs to the domain and Aurora will automatically copy all their data and settings over to a new domain account. And Aurora, like the Windows Home Server (WHS) products on which it is based, offers excellent, centralized image and file backup of all connected PCs.

Where Aurora really shines, however, is storage: Using WHS's Drive Extender solution, newly added internal and external hard drives can be added to a bottomless pool of storage that doesn't need drive letters and offers data duplication functionality at the share level. Everything a small business really needs is available onsite.

The "cross-premise" promise of Aurora means that additional services--email, calendaring, communications, document collaboration, and more--can be added either via traditional on-premise servers (Exchange, SQL Server, and so on) or via cloud-based services like Exchange Online and SharePoint Online. And, of course, you can mix and match as your needs---and checkbook--allows.

After the misguided disaster of Windows Essential Business Server, Aurora is a breath of fresh air, and proof that Microsoft really does understand its different business market segments.

Windows Home Server "Vail" update

In tandem with the near-final "Aurora" code release, Microsoft also issued a second preview release of its upcoming Windows Home Server version, codenamed "Vail." This product looks and works much like Aurora, but with two important distinctions: It utilizes workgroups and Windows 7-based homegroups instead of a true domain, and its storage features are oriented around media sharing, as you might expect of a consumer solution.

But don't write off Vail so quickly: In many ways, Vail is an ideal solution for truly small businesses as well as individuals, and if even vastly simplified domain management seems like overkill, this could be an interesting solution. But the real advantage of Vail over Aurora is interoperability: An Aurora server must be the first server in a new domain, so you can't add Aurora to existing domain environments. But if all you're looking for is the amazing storage functionality in Aurora, Vail features Drive Extender too. So it's an ideal storage solution for any smaller environment.

The great Windows Phone 7 debate

Microsoft and its partners will launch Windows Phone 7 this October, and while we've discussed the software giant's innovative new smart phone platform here in the past, there's an interesting debate emerging in the days leading up to the launch. That's because Windows Phone, unlike its predecessor, Windows Mobile, and unlike leading competitors such as Google Android and Apple iPhone, does not support much in the way of PC-based sync. That is, while you can--in fact, have to--use the Zune PC software to sync media with the devices, Microsoft is providing no interfaces for syncing with Outlook or other desktop-based productivity solutions. And this is causing some predictably painful reactions in certain quarters.

The solutions Microsoft does support, of course, are cloud-based in the sense that they connect with Windows Phone over the air. These include Exchange and Exchange Online, Gmail/Google Calendar, Windows Live/Hotmail, and to a lesser extent Facebook and Yahoo! Mail; Microsoft is also supporting any IMAP- or POP3-based email accounts as well. By supporting only direct connectivity between the phone and online accounts, Microsoft is of course shutting out PC-based middlemen, and not just Outlook, but also previous generation sync solutions like ActiveSync or Windows Mobile Device Center.

This is a bit forward-looking. But it is also the right decision, arguably, given recent industry trends and the dangers associated with relying on a single PC as your central data store. Still, there will always be those who prefer to do things a different way. And in this sense, Windows Phone isn't going to be particularly adaptable.

Windows Phone is also going to be less than ideal for those businesses that require the full set of Active Directory and Group Policy device management features. That's because unlike Windows Mobile, Windows Phone will only support a subset of those features at launch, meaning that Microsoft's previous gen mobile platform will stick around for an additional year or two.

Windows 7 continues to rack up impressive numbers, business deployments

The more time that goes by, the better Windows 7 looks. By the end of July, Microsoft had sold over 175 million copies of the OS, at a rate approaching 10 units per second. Amazingly, sales are actually accelerating, in part because of generally improved PC sales. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said recently that PC makers will sell over 400 million PCs in calendar year 2011, up from the 360-370 million they'll sell this year.

But the best news for Microsoft, perhaps, is that businesses are biting: Over 65 percent of enterprises are already migrating to Windows 7, and many of them are jumping on board with Office 2010 as well. In an admittedly unscientific poll of my own readers, I was swamped with positive stories about Windows 7 migration experiences, with only a few that had to hold off with specific users groups for compatibility reasons. There are lots of factors at play here, of course, including an improving economy, a near-decade on an increasingly creaky Windows XP, and a general consensus that Windows 7 really is better than previous Windows versions, with important productivity gains. But regardless of the reasons, it's pretty clear Microsoft is looking at its biggest success story in a long, long time.

The Slate PC returns from the dead

With Apple's iPad selling well despite some frustrating problems, Microsoft and its PC maker partners are racing to provide suitable alternatives. Well, maybe "racing" isn't the right word. While some solutions will be in the market by the end of 2010, we're looking at early 2011 before the real iPad killers arrive. And by then, of course, it may be too late.

So why the 2011 requirement? That's when Intel will release its Oak Trail "system on a chip," which will apparently offer much better power management and performance than the company's current Atom and i-series chips. This is amazingly bad timing for Microsoft, as all of its partners appeared to be caught by surprise by the iPad despite months of warning.

Since we're looking at 2011 anyway, Microsoft should forget about Windows on a slate PC--that ship sailed several years ago, when virtually no one bought any of the first generation Tablet PCs--and think about porting its well-executed Windows Phone 7 OS to a tablet-type device. Unlike the iOS behind the iPad, Windows Phone OS would actually make sense on a tablet, and in fact seems like it was designed from the get-go for that kind of form factor. Sadly, Microsoft continues to insist it has no plans for such a thing.

Internet Explorer might actually be a contender, again

Maybe I'm preaching to the choir here--after all, Internet Explorer remains the de facto choice in corporate environments thanks to its unparalleled central management and deployment capabilities--but it appears as if Microsoft's much-maligned web browser might be poised for a comeback. Usage in IE had been on a near linear free fall for a few years there, thanks first to Mozilla Firefox and then, more recently, because of a surge in interest in Google's Chrome browser.

But that all changed in 2010. First, IE's overall market share decline evened out and then stopped all together, and since May 2010, the browser has actually gained market share, while both Firefox and Chrome have stalled. Meanwhile, the latest IE version at the time of this writing--IE 8--has consistently outgrown the competition, and is the number one most frequently used web browser overall.

Critics will point out that IE 8 is bundled with Windows 7, and that Microsoft's OS popularity must be helping the browser. Fair enough, but IE 8 growth has also come during a period in which EU-based Windows installs have trigged a browser ballot screen anytime a user has picked IE as their default browser. Combined with the heightened competition, then, IE's recent successes have in fact come during a time in which the browser has faced unparalleled opposition.

And now IE 9 is on the way. Through much of 2010, Microsoft's next browser was almost a science experiment, with Microsoft focusing solely on the developer-oriented underpinnings of the product via a series of several platform preview releases. The effort paid off: Not only has Microsoft embraced the standards-based web in a big way, it's also found a way to leverage unique Windows integration features like hardware acceleration to make its next browser even more desirable.

By the time you read this, Microsoft should have debuted the first IE 9 public beta, which will be the first broad peek at the user interface the company will provide to this next browser. My sources tell me that IE 9 will be lean and mean in ways that the bloated IE 8 just isn't, and I hope that's true: One of the primary selling points of Google Chrome, in particular, is its stripped down UI that gets out of the way and lets the content you're viewing online take center stage. If Microsoft can duplicate that experience and combine it with its amazing standards effort and hardware accelerated rendering, IE 9 could be a much bigger deal than previously expected. And that's an amazing turnaround for a product that many of us had written off less than a year ago.

PDC 2010

Microsoft sporadically holds a developer-oriented event called the Professional Developers Conference, or PDC. Each PDC has a theme: There was a Windows 7 PDC in 2008, and before that a few Windows Vista/Longhorn PDCs. And this year, it's happening again, on October 28 and 29, 2010, when Microsoft will hold PDC 2010 in Redmond for the first time. It's a smaller (and shorter) than usual show, and one that will focus on cloud services, mobile development, tools, browser strategy, and gaming. I'll be going, so if you're going to be in Redmond in late October, drop me a note.

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