Tag Archives | Microsoft

The Start of the End of Shrinkwrapped Software?

Microsoft’s venerable Money personal finance application is going away–from retail stores, at least. Over at ZDNet’s All About Microsoft, Mary Jo Foley reports on the fate of the application, which used to get a yearly update. There will be no 2009 version this Fall–Microsoft says it just doesn’t need a new version that often–and the program will be sold only via electronic distribution from now on.

There’s no way to interpret this as good news for Money (which looks like it’s officially known as Money Plus these days). If it were fabulously successful as a program that received annual updates and was sold in a box, Microsoft would just go on selling it that way for as long as it could. But I think that what’s happening to Money will happen to an awful lot of applications over the next few years–and that it will be a good thing for software consumers and software companies.

Even if desktop applications themselves stick around, selling them at retail stores is an awfully inefficient way to get them into the hands of customers. Anyone with a broadband connection can snag a current copy of nearly any major application reasonably quickly by downloading it–and in most cases can start with a free trial version and then pay only after confirming that the app is worth the dough. It’s a lot more efficient, and nobody has to kill any trees or put gas in any delivery trucks. And the software publisher doesn’t have to cut a retail store or distributor in on its profits.

In the old days, boxes of software filled aisle after aisle at stores such as CompUSA. These days, CompUSA is no longer a national chain, and the software sections in Best Buy and Circuit City are small, archaic, and not particularly crowded with shoppers. Come to think of it, I can’t remember the last time I bought an application in boxed form anywhere…

As for Money not receiving a 2009 update, that seems a little odd–especially since Microsoft is releasing that news in August, presumably long after development work for Money 20009 would have begun. But the frequent updates for Money and arch-rival Intuit Quicken haven’t necessarily been good things for consumers. Both applications have been around for so long that they’ve had all the key features for eons; both have added features that haven’t been a big whoop–or, in some cases, which some customers have actively disliked. And Microsoft and Intuit have both tried to nudge consumers to upgrade by disabling the online banking features in older versions, a strategy which–no surprise!–tends to drive people bonkers.

When you think about it, annual upgrades are both too frequent and not frequent enough. The need to release a Money 2005 and Money 2006 and Money 2007 and Money 2008 forced Microsoft to introduce new features whether it had anything especially compelling to offer or not. But when Microsoft did have something new and worthwhile to offer, it had to wait for the annual upgrade to add it.

One of the many virtues of online applications is that they can add features in a more logical fashion: frequently and instantly when there’s new stuff worth adding, and not at all when there isn’t. That’s Google’s strategy with its services, and it seems to work for everyone involved.

My guess is that the end of retail distribution and annual updates for Money means that the program is headed into limbo, and may never receive another significant upgrade. If I used it–and Money has millions of customers, even if it never succeeded in crushing Quicken–I’d keep that in mind and would at least consider moving to Quicken, which will surely be around for a long time in its current form.

But if Microsoft did keep Money around as a download-only application, updating it only when it could make clear improvements, that would be kind of cool. It wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing for current Money users, and it might be a sign of things to come for application distribution in general.

That’s assuming that it doesn’t want to make Money into a Web-based application, though–and it won’t be long before the days are numbered for almost any desktop application that doesn’t have some sort of online version.If you’re reading this, you’re part of the last generation for whom software was primarily something that was stored on a local drive rather than on the Internet.

And here’s a prediction I feel utterly comfortable making: The day just isn’t all that far off when BestBuy will quietly decide to stop selling computer software, period. If it has anything more than a small, perfunctory shelf of the stuff in 2012, I’d be startled…


An Open Letter to Windows Vista

Dear Windows Vista,

First of all, I’m sorry it took me so long to sit down and write this letter. You’ve been an unusually busy operating system lately, starting with the official (if less than utterly final) demise of your predecessor Windows XP at the end of June. Then you spent some time helping with a Microsoft marketing experiment by pretending to be a new version Windows code-named “Mojave.” This week, however, seems to be a relatively quiet one for you–and so I wanted to take the opportunity to bend your ear.

We haven’t talked, but I’ve been watching you from afar and feeling your pain as you’ve dealt with more than your fair share of challenges. Eighteen months after your debut, you simply don’t have an aura of success about you. Worse, your aging predecessor, Windows XP, has unexpectedly gained armies of devotees who refuse to give it up. It’s a pretty sad state of affairs–your original marketing tagline may have been “The Wow Starts Now,” but many people remain steadfastly unwowed.

The idea behind Microsoft’s Mojave Experiment was to suggest that those who spurn you do so out of ignorance. It’s true that some Vista doubters base their distaste on what they’ve heard about you rather than hands-on experience. But I don’t know of anyone outside of Redmond who’d maintain that long-term exposure to you turns the average computer user into a raving fan. Sure, you’re better than you were when you first showed up, thanks to Service Pack 1 and improved compatibility with applications and peripherals. But I’ve talked to lots of people who have used you for many months, and while some of them are pleased with you there are plenty whose feelings range from ennui to anger.

Even Microsoft admits that you have a reputation as being a disappointment. The Mojave campaign sure implies that, as does the Vista site’s references to “confusion and lingering misunderstandings” about you. How often does any manufacturer of anything acknowledge unhappy customers at all?

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Microsoft’s Post-Windows “Midori”–It Must Exist

It’s always dangerous to get too excited about far-off Microsoft products with code names–especially when Microsoft has barely acknowledged they exist. But SD Times has published a story by David Worthington on “Midori,” which Worthington says is the operating system that Microsoft is building from scratch for the post-Windows world, and even if you read it with a very skeptical eye, it’s a significant piece.

Worthington’s piece is at a site aimed at developers, is pretty technical, and is about pie-in-the-sky goals rather than specific features. I’ll do my best to summarize, interpret, and translate into plain English:

–Microsoft says that Midori is a research project; nobody knows when it might become a shipping one;

–Microsoft is working on a migration path to help folks move from Windows to Midori, as well as some means of running Windows apps in the Midori environment;

–Rather than being a desktop operating system, Midori will be distributed–that is, it’ll consist a bunch of components that can run locally on a traditional PC or remotely across the Net, and which can access data here, there, and everywhere;

–It’ll be designed to be more reliable, with a better understanding of what applications are doing and greater ability to prevent misbehaving apps from causing trouble;

–It will also put more constraints on software developers designed to prevent them from writing problematic applications in the first place;

–It’ll be designed for a world in which multi-core CPUs and other technologies enable massively parallel processing–computing jobs getting divvied up into smaller jobs that all happen at the same time;

–it will be designed to run on PC hardware or in virtualized environments;

–it will have sophisticated means of managing tasks and processes, some of which will relate to doing things in a power-efficient way, thereby making it an attractive mobile OS.

Again, Microsoft hasn’t confirmed the details of Worthington’s piece, and some of my interpretation may be off; the above items are likely more possibilities than confirmed details, and could be just plain wrong. Don’t start lining up at Best Buy just yet–and even if Worthington has his facts right, be prepared for Midori to evolve into something radically different, or to die the ignominious death that many intriguing-sounding Microsoft research projects have died.

Robert Scoble, whose opinion I respect, says that anyone who thinks that Microsoft will have a brand-new OS ready in the next few decades is–Robert’s word–an idiot. (He puts it another way: Bill Gates won’t be with us by the time an all-new Microsoft OS debuts.) I’m not so sure about that.

I don’t know how solid the details of Worthington’s report is. But I’ve got to believe that the broad strokes are correct, and that Microsoft is working on something which it hopes to turn into a product in years, not decades. It’s so utterly clear that the Internet is the computing platform of the future and that basic aspects of Windows are profoundly archaic that Microsoft would be crazy if it didn’t have people starting with a blank slate and working on figuring out what’s next. And the world is changing around Microsoft at such a fast clip that it doesn’t have decades to get its act together. The scenario Midori describes is gonna happen, whether it’s Microsoft, Google, the open-source community, or some company that doesn’t exist yet that makes it happen.

Of course, “brand-new” is a tricky thing to define. I don’t know if there’s any actual code from MS-DOS in Windows Vista–in theory there shouldn’t be, since Vista descends from Windows NT, which was allegedly the first version of Windows written from scratch rather than bolted onto DOS. But there’s no question that Vista carries a fair amount of legacy that dates back to DOS. In the 27 years that Microsoft has dominated operating systems, there have been no true big bangs.

So perhaps Midori, in whatever form it does take, will owe a lot more to today’s Windows than Worthington suggests. Every time Microsoft has said it was working on a radical shift in the past, the end product has proven to be less than radical; if Midori follows that pattern, bits and pieces of it will end up being integrated into an OS that’s evolutionary, not revolutionary.

But to think that Midori or something like it doesn’t exist is to believe that Microsoft is unimaginably dense and complacent…


Microsoft’s Whacko But Entertaining New Live Search Feature

It’s tough being Microsoft’s search engine. Life is great for Google; Yahoo, for all its problems, is very popular and has fantastic name recognition; Ask.com is a little guy (comparatively!) with some neat features. But Microsoft’s search offering’s woes begin with the fact that it’s hard to remember what it’s called. It began its life as part of MSN, morphed into Windows Live Search, and is now known as just Live Search. I think–the logo still has the Windows window graphic in it, and it lives at Live.com, not LiveSearch.com. (Quick, name me another major Web site whose name and URL aren’t the same.)

It’s hard, in fact, to think of any distinguishing characteristic that Live Search sports, with the exception of its odd and cheesy Cashback pay-to-search feature, which smacks of desperation as much as it does innovation.

Which is probably one reason why Live Search launched a very, very unusual home page redesign¬† today. The Live Search page used to be a spare, faux Google one. Today? It’s dominated by an attractive photo of some people in a canoe in Botswana:

The image has a bunch of hotspots; hover over one, and a bit of text pops up:

Each text snippet has a link to information on Live Search, such as Web results, videos, or images.

The idea is a trifle bizarre, but the basic goal as outlined at Microsoft’s Live Search blog is clear enough: They’d like to show folks who show up to search some of the diversity of the stuff that’s there: “We want the page to be a great place to start a search and also to intrigue and inform as well.”

My first impulse was to dislike all this. In theory, it should be a distraction that gets in the way you finding whatever you showed up at Live Search to look for–unless you arrived looking for information about Botswana. It’s probably annoying if you’re on a slow dial-up line (the blog post says that dial-uppers may notice the image and hotspots popping into place; on my fast cable line, they were zippy enough). The whole idea flies in the face of umpteen theories of good Web design.

But…I kind of like it. At the very least, you gotta give Microsoft credit for trying something so idiosyncratic and utterly un-Google-esque.

The big question is: How often will the images and hotspots change? (If I see the Botswana scene more than a couple more times, I hereby retract the nice things I just said.) The blog post says that the images will change “regularly.” Whether that means a few times a day, a few times a week, or a few times a month I can’t say. I do know that this feature would be a lot cooler if I could cycle through images and hotspots at will–but as far as I can tell, there’s no way to do that…

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Microsoft’s Mojave Experiment: Fooled Ya, PC Users!

People who don’t like Windows Vista? They’re just ignorant! That would seem to be the message of The Mojave Experiment, a new Microsoft marketing site for Windows Vista. Earlier this month, the company gave 120 users of various versions of Windows, OS X, and Linux demos of “Project Mojave,” an upcoming new version of Windows. The videos at the Mojave site show them being dazzled by its features and performance.

But then Microsoft told them that Mojave was a ruse: What they were being dazzled by was Vista. Apparently Their previous distaste for the operating system was borne of misinformation; once they were educated, they became converts.

Which reminded me of another ad campaign I hadn’t seen in awhile:

Mojave is a very clever conceit, and for some Vista skeptics, it’s probably effective. But…

The folks in Microsoft’s clips must be, by definition, casual computer users–more advanced types. even if they weren’t Vista users, would have been able to tell that “Mojave” was Vista. (Microsoft doesn’t say how it screened its Mojave subjects or whether its trickery was effective in every case–I wonder if any of the test subjects politely asked, “Why are you showing me Windows Vista and saying it’s something else?”) You can see in some of the clips that these people are not deeply into PCs: When one guy is told that Windows Media Center lets him watch TV for free, he looks dumbstruck.

These people had existing impressions of Vista–most likely derived from reading about it or talking to other people who’d used it. Those impressions were negative. They were swayed by a ten-minute demo by someone working for Microsoft. The bottom line is that A) the experiment was incredibly superficial and any subject who changed his or her mind about Vista based on a brief demo is pretty darn impressionable; and B) it seems to say that ten minutes of marketing by Microsoft provides a better portrait of the OS than talking to friends and family who have spent hands-on time with it in the real world.

The whole idea is of a piece with other Microsoft marketing campaigns that have a subtext that its customers aren’t all that bright. The company’s slogan is the patronizing “Your Potential. Our Passion.” It’s compared users of non-current versions of Office to dinosaurs. It just caught flack for saying that being dubious about Vista is akin to thinking the world is flat. In short, it keeps on drawing some sort of vaguely insulting connection between being an unsuccessful schlub and not buying the current versions of Microsoft products.

Telling the Mojave subjects that Vista was a new version of Windows was as harmless as little white lies get, but it sorta makes me uncomfortable. Who wants the companies they do business with to tell them fibs of any sort? Why couldn’t Microsoft have done something similar that involved giving people a fresh look at Vista without deceiving them? A truly interesting experiment of this sort would involve Microsoft lending Vista machines to real people for a month of hands-on experience. The results would undeniably tell you more about Vista than how people respond to a demo.

The Mojave site has a page of “facts” about Vista, and while some are significant, such as the number of third-party products that work with the OS today, there’s a section that refers to “actual Windows Vista users,” and says that 89% are satisfied–but then brings up the ten-minute demo again. Looks like the facts intermingle information about Vista users and Mojave subjects in a way that’s confusing at best and misleading at worst.

The thing is, Vista’s problem is much deeper than one of perception among people who don’t know much about it. A lot of home and business users have made entirely rational decisions to avoid it. I’ve talked to countless people who have bought Vista and were either very unhappy with the experience or found it to be something less than the life-changing experience that Microsoft has promised in advertising. It’s possible to know what you’re talking about and not like Vista.

I don’t wanna come off as sounding like I’m saying that the people in the Mojave videos are dummies. Some of the smartest people I know know very little about computer operating systems; some people who are operating-system experts need to get a life. But the Mojave site really doesn’t address the millions of smart, well-informed people who Microsoft is having a tough time turning into Vista fans.

Over at CNET’s News.com, Ina Fried, who broke the Mojave story, says that Mojave isn’t part of the big, pricey ad campaign that Microsoft is planning to help turn the Vista tide. I’m very curious to see those ads. And I hope for everybody’s sake that unlike much Microsoft advertising, they feel like they’re addressing intelligent adults…


Microsoft’s Vista Mea-Sorta-Culpa

Over at ZDNet, Ed Bott has posted an intriguing item on Microsoft’s attempt to reintroduce Windows Vista to a world that seems to have its fair share of Vista skeptics. Ed noticed the image at left, comparing Vista doubters to flat-earth believers, on the Microsoft.com home page. (It wasn’t there when I just checked, so I’ve swiped Ed’s copy.)

Ed’s wondering if the image is a precursor of the message that Microsoft plans to spend $300 million hammering home in a new Vista ad campaign. If it is, he seems guardedly optimistic that it’s a smart move by the behemoth of Redmond. I’m not so sure.

For one thing, comparing people who aren’t so sure about Windows Vista to ignoramuses from a millennium or two ago doesn’t seem like the smartest strategy for initiating a conversation with said people about why they should give Vista a second look. (It is, however, consistent with the spirit of past Microsoft ad campaigns that did things like tell folks who hadn’t upgraded to the latest version of Office that they were dinosaurs. Me, I’m more likely to respond well to ads that compliment me than ones that mock me…)

And when Ed clicked on the flat-earth teaser, he arrived at a page headlined “Windows Vista: Look how far we’ve come” that’s as much apologetic as accusatory. The page doesn’t seem to be brand new–it refers to the June 30th cutoff for Windows XP sales as if it hasn’t happened yet–but I hadn’t seen it until Ed pointed it out.

After the jump. a quick summary of the gist of the page and more thoughts…

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