Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Introducing the CryptoKids

I was listening to a radio story on the other day about the NSA so I went to their website out of curiosity, only to find they have a section for kids. Clicking on the link takes you to CryptoKids with characters such as Crypto Cat™, Decipher Dog™, Rosetta Stone and fun topics like "How Can I Work for the NSA?"

Too bizarre for words.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Uninterruptable Power Supplies: The Good, the Bad, and the Loud

The Redmond area is notorious for frequent power outages. The combination of above-ground power lines, tall trees and frequent wind storms is just a recipe for problems. Actually, the power doesn't completely fail very often but it often flickers just enough to make computers reboot.

I've had a couple different UPS models and although they work great at keeping the computer running, they all seem to have one really annoying feature: they beep loudly when they are running on battery.

Now tell me, if I'm sitting in a dark house, do I really need something beeping to tell me the power is out?

It's particularly annoying when it happens in the middle of the night and rather than just sleep through the outage, I have to trudge downstairs to turn off the UPS so I can get some sleep.

At work it's even worse. Every office has a UPS and the server room has several. The computers will all automatically turn off after a few minutes running on the battery but we still have to go around and turn off UPS to avoid the unbelievable racket the beeping makes.

The other problem with the beeping comes from my Golden Retriever. Years ago we trained her with an invisible fence system. Those systems work with a collar that gives the dog a little zap if they cross the boundary. But first, they beep if the dog gets close. So when the UPS beeps, our dog suddenly thinks she's about to get zapped and just goes crazy trying to figure out where the "safe" place is.

Does anybody make a UPS that just silently switches to battery as necessary without the need to remind me of the bloody obvious fact that the power is out and that won't freak out my Golden Retriever?

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Apple news and incrementalism

The thing I found most interesting in the Apple announcement yesterday is Apple's incremental approach--something more often associated with Microsoft.

The conventional wisdom on Microsoft is that 1.0 products are very rough, 2.0 starts to be usable, and 3.0 is great. Well, yesterday Apple effectively announced Front Row 2.0. Of course, it doesn't even try to do everything that Microsoft's Media Center Edition does. But that's a difference in tactics and strategy, not in the goal they are pursuing.

There are many problems to solve to make the HD home media vision a reality. We need wireless networks with usable bandwidths at least twice as high as the current 802.11g. We need CableCARD 2.0 (and it's equivalent for satellite TV) so consumers can plug a cable or satellite line directly in to a PC without having to go through a separate tuner box. We need the movie studios, cable operators, and networks to come to grips that some people are going to want to skip commercials and stop trying to hobble technologies to protect their current business models. And Apple seems content to let Microsoft slog through those issues with Windows Media Center Edition while it slowly adds capabilities to the Mac as the infrastructure falls in to place.

On the business side, there are glimmers of hope. I've been surprised with the degree of experimentation by TV networks on the iTunes store. What started out as one model--sell TV episodes the day after they air--has turned in to many. NBC, in particular, deserves credit for trying new things. The one that leaps out to me is NBC's putting the pilot episode of its new Law and Order spinoff on iTunes before it airs on TV. This is so much smarter than the music industry approach of trying to stop the technology.

What approach will the movie studios take? Will they side with the TV networks and begin to experiment or will they stick their collective heads in the sand and hope the whole thing goes away? As someone who loves movies, I hope they follow the TV networks' lead.

Monday, February 27, 2006

at Apple event tomorrow

I'll be at an Apple event in Cupertino tomorrow. In my 9 years at Microsoft and the 5 years afterwards, I've been to many Bill Gates keynotes--backstage, on stage, and in the audience--but this is the first Apple event I've attended.

I look forward to comparing how the two companies approach events like this and I'll post my thoughts tomorrow or Wednesday, depending on how the day works out.

On a related note, my colleague Matt Rosoff is putting the finishing touches on a major report that covers Microsoft's Home Entertainment strategy and will help Microsoft partners and competitors understand the strengths and weaknesses of the company's approach. Directions online clients will be able to access it through the client site.

Vista SKUs: losing the forest for the trees

Microsoft’s SKU plans for Vista are out and I’m disappointed with the complexity. It’s an example of the importance of keeping an eye on the big picture. The SKU plan is the result of a series of decisions--each looks rational and reasonable when viewed in isolation but when you add them together, you get a mess.

First: Microsoft wants to promote Media Center features to all consumers but many large corporate buyers don’t want those features on their desktops. Result: Microsoft breaks the traditional superset-subset relationship between the business and home products by removing media center features from the business line.

Second: Vista has steep hardware requirements that many bargain PCs won’t meet. Plus, Microsoft wants to charge more for the new consumer features and cost-conscious PC buyers are likely to balk. Result: the home line splits in two with a Basic edition, likely to be priced the same as today's XP Home, and a Premium edition likely to carry a premium price.

Oh, and SA is controversial and Microsoft feels like it needs to add more value to it. Result: the BitLocker encryption features appear in an SA-only Enterprise edition.

Next: Having removed Media Center from the business line, Microsoft no longer has a product to offer to home users who want Media Center features but also need to access their corporate network or use the advanced security features. Result: add an Ultimate edition that has everything.

For the purposes of this discussion, I'm ignoring the "N" editions that the EU forces Microsoft to produce. OEMs don’t want to sell them so they really are just an exercise in pleasing the bureaucrats. I'm also ignoring the Starter edition because it has very little overlap with the other SKUs. Customers in emerging markets aren't likely to be able to afford any of the other SKUs and customers who can afford the regular SKUs aren't likely to choose Starter.

What’s the likely outcome? While some OEMs will opt for Home Basic in order to keep rock bottom prices, I think most OEMs will standardize on Premium. Many of them already offer a bewildering array of product lines that are hard for customers to understand. (Quick quiz: go to HP’s site and try to explain the differences in the zd, dv, ze, and zv lines of Pavilion notebooks. Now add on the Presario line they also sell. I don't mean to pick on HP, most OEMs have a similar problem.) There's just no way these OEMs can offer each of those models across this many SKUs. They are going to have to do some editing or they will risk turning off buyers.

And don’t forget that ISVs will likely have to test their applications against each of these editions, in addition to still testing on the XP variations. If I were a QA manager for an ISV, I’d order a Costco-sized bottle of Excedrin.

In the end, although I understand the rationale for each decision, Microsoft could have found other ways to solve some of these problems that didn’t introduce this complexity. Why not make Media Center features subject to group policy? Why not give SA customers a couple of add-ons instead of producing a whole new SKU? Those two moves would eliminate the need for Enterprise edition as well as Ultimate, leaving a much more manageable set of three: Home Basic, Home Premium and Business.

But simplicity wasn't the goal here. Rather, the goals were increasing Windows revenue by shifting customers to more expensive editions and shoring up the percieved value in the controversial SA program.

There's a lot to like about Windows Vista, but Microsoft's packaging isn't one of them.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Microsoft is the most trusted global company - just ask it's PR firm.

Scoble posts a link that says Microsoft is the most trusted global company.

Well, I might take this a tad more seriously if it weren't from Edelman -- which is one of Microsoft's PR agencies.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Apple event Feb 28

I just got an email invitation to a Feb. 28 Apple event in Cupertino. I don't think it's iPod related because previous invitations for iPod events have had a different look to them. Perhaps the Intel iBooks or the home media Mini?

Disclaimer: Apple may invite me but they don't prebrief anyone so I have absolutely nothing to go on but hunches and guesses. But hey, that's what makes it fun.

I guess I'll spend the next few days cruising MacRumors and Apple Insider.

Friday, February 17, 2006

New Office UI: better for some users, but not me

Jensen Harris has an interesting post defending the size of the ribbons in the Office 2007 UI. He makes some interesting points but his comparison is with the default Office 2003 toolbars, but the majority of users don't use those settings. They are probably sitting on Office 2000 which has a much smaller area devoted to toolbars.

On a related subject, at first I was very bullish on the new UI and although I still applaud the Office team for "swinging for the fences" and appreciate a lot of the improvements to things like tables, I'm coming to the conclusion that the new UI is less efficient for me and I'm going to have to change the way I work to accommodate it.

The biggest problem centers around the inability to combine elements of separate ribbons in to my own personal ribbon. At Directions on Microsoft, we do most of our work in outline view, from preparing a "scope" (which defines the scope of a report) through to writing the text, and on through the editorial review process. But in the new UI, outlining tasks are one ribbon, writing tasks are on another, and reviewing tasks are on a third. During a typical writing or editing session, I need to move between these areas many times and the new UI adds a significant number of clicks. So we, as an organization, either need to alter the way we work or take a significant productivity hit in order to upgrade.

I suspect there will be quite a few users who have developed their own particular combination of tasks and who will find they now have to switch between ribbons.