Friday, November 04, 2005

Microsoft Live Battalion

I have been avoiding discussing Microsoft Live for as long as possible, but today I will have to start. Bill Gates has launched Microsoft into the “Live era” as the company likes to say. The company has finally gotten around to copying some established products and establishing its own front in the war between Google, Yahoo and other internet giants. Some experts believe that Microsoft will not get anywhere with its efforts:
And while Microsoft has talked about accelerating its business by offering services, some analysts worry that its race to compete with Google and others could leave Microsoft’s very profitable business model in the dust. (source)

I am however not as optimistic and I am very much afraid that if a behemoth like Microsoft is given a chance to rear its ugly head, the fate of other companies might be very grim.
While the "live" software push is seen mainly as an effort to compete with rivals such as Google and Yahoo, there are a number of smaller companies that suddenly find themselves in Redmond’s competitive crosshairs. (source)

The unveiling of Microsoft’s Live software brings up three major questions: possible damage to Google, possible damage to Microsoft and possible damage to third parties. An internet war is starting to take shape between the giants of the web and the giants of software. Everyone has their own agenda and much collateral damage will be taken among third parties. Hopefully the conflict makes the web a better place for the users and is not destructive. But as we know from experience, wars rarely leave their battle zones unscarred.
In the past several months, some insiders and former employees have said that Microsoft has become too bureaucratic and process-driven to compete with nimbler competitors such as Google. (source)

To get ready for the competition Microsoft has reorganized itself to streamline decision making. The company has been split into three independent branches that answer to Steve Ballmer, the company’s CEO. In my mind this is Microsoft’s mobilization for the oncoming wars. In the words of an insider email sent to Microsoft employees by Steve Ballmer:
Our goal in making these changes is to enable Microsoft to achieve greater agility in managing the incredible growth ahead and executing our software-based services strategy

Possible Damage to Google
For Google the damage comes from direct clash. Windows Live Mail Beta is very much like GMail Beta. Both services are providing around 2GB of storage with similar interfaces and a Java based programming (so you don’t have to wait for every site to load). For Google the treat comes from that Microsoft has a whole lot more people in its Hotmail accounts that Google has in their GMail accounts. For now Google has been able to win over users from Hotmail but mounting competition may stop that trend. Google is already being challenged by increases from Yahoo and providers such as 30Gigs.
Google might carry a good brand name and be very popular with users that spend a good chunk of their lives on the internet and around computers. For the average user though, Microsoft is a better known and more trustable name for software. Over 37% of people might know Google’s great search engine, but Google software’s user base is much smaller. Services such as Blogger are in a fit to compete with “convenience” providers like MSN My Space. Google has a jump start on Microsoft and its worth is soaring, but Microsoft has a lot of weight to throw around. Google has to now play keep-away from Microsoft and try to knock the competitor down from their feet before they get started.

Possible Damage to Microsoft
Analysts say the move is probably necessary to help the company compete with rivals that threaten to offer online equivalents to some of Microsoft's cash cows, like Office. However, depending on how far Microsoft takes the strategy, it could also put the company in competition with its existing--and already lucrative--way of doing business.(source)

The biggest damage to Microsoft is the mishmash between its current model and the model needed to succeed in the internet market. Microsoft has been fueled by high-volume, high-margin software. The web business model requires the company to be fueled by low-margin advertising. Sadly (or maybe Happily), Microsoft can not provide its software at the same rate and make effective internet products. Making advertisement fueled products is bound to cannibalize Microsoft from the inside.
Bittman thinks Microsoft could eventually outflank Google but, ironically, find itself worse off. "I think Microsoft can win, but in the end it means Microsoft loses, unless there is some other magic there we don't see." (source)

Possible Damage to Third Parties
Microsoft’s offers of free calling, free virus scanning and free contact management are putting some companies in a jam. Most small companies are downplaying the risk and saying that Microsoft will never catch up to them. However, everyone knows the speed of Microsoft from experience. Google has no need to stop Microsoft in some of its markets and neither do any other big companies. VoIP providers might get some “help” from Google if it tries to stop Microsoft’s moves into VoIP communication, but Google Talk is not proficient enough as of yet to battle it out with MSN. On the security front, there are some big companies like MacAfee and Symantec to hold their ground against Microsoft, but the have enough quarrels between each other as is. Some markets though, (like the contacts market) have no big companies in place and are Microsoft’s for the taking. I think the companies in those fields are watching a very fine line by downplaying the importance of Microsoft’s infringement into their markets. For their sake, I hope the downplay is on a public one and not present inside the companies.

As of now, the future of Microsoft and Google is still too far away to predict. Google has the agility behind it, but Microsoft is trying to become more agile, again. Google has a wonderful capital value, but Microsoft’s capital value can not be compared to. I think that Google and Microsoft are very much on par right now in the internet software market. Google has a lead and better agility but Microsoft has a lot more money and is know to be quick to catch up. The best strategy for Google I think is to try to undermine Microsoft by cutting off the company’s shrink wrapped, high-margin OS and Office sales. Google has already taken a step forward by allying with Sun Microsystems, but Microsoft is trying to counter that with Office Live. The trick left in Google’s sleeve (if they want to undermine Microsoft) is to release a Google OS. I can not predict exactly what the two internet giants will do and will be watching their activities closely.

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Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Dynamic Keyboard

Art Lebedev, a Russian design firm, has recently created a concept keyboard intent on changing the way we type. No, it’s not super ergonomically correct or specially designed for your figures. From first glance it just looks like your average everyday keyboard with an extra mini-keypad on the left.

On closure examination, they keyboard reveals its true secrets. Each key has an OLED covering which can change dynamically. The development is obvious, yet genius. Imagine a keyboard that can change its keys depending on what program you are using, or what language you are in. The “Optimus Keyboard” plans to make that dream become reality.

That’s right: organic light-emitting diodes. The technology has been in development for sometime and is expected to replace standard LEDs and LCDs in due time. The technology behind the OLEDs is more than I want to go into, but it isi basically a thin strip of material that can emit light and does so with little power requisites because it is an organic compound at the core of the “fabric” or screen that emits the light. The biggest problem with the OLEDs is that they have a certain shelf-life because they are organic. The red and green have been made to work for 20,000 hours, but there are still troubles with the blue OLEDs. Kodak does allege to have made blue OLEDs with a life of 100,000 hours, but such are not easy accessible as of now.
The biggest advantage organic LEDs have over standard LEDs, LCDs and projection screens is that they do not need a backlight and thus are much more energy efficient. Also, the OLEDs can be made more flexible and thinner than other materials. The technology is not in complete infancy, and although I have not come across any spectacular commercial products that already harness the OLED technology many prototype products have been made. The Samsung TV seen above is an 40 inch OLED prototype from the company.
The new technology has a lot of potential and is a good tool to look into for developers.

Language Variations
With the new keyboard from Artemy Lebedev we will be able to switch quickly between different languages. If you are a person that is fluent (or needs to type) in more than one language then this would be a very effective tool for you. The different keyboard settings come in useful if your languages have a different alphabet (like Russian and English).
The ability to easily switch languages would not only be convineint but make a wonderful culture preservative. Now people from different cultures will not have to make up ways to write their tongue with English script, just because they do not remember the layout of their native keyboard.

Application Variations
Since the OLEDs are dynamic and quick to respond, the buttons on your keyboard could change from application to application and inside an application. The examples on the right show the layout for Photoshop and Quake. Such a dynamically changing tool would allow computer game developers some new creative grounds and would make gaming and application shortcuts somewhat more natural. You could click the control key and suddenly “s” would change into a little save disk and “c” into a pair of scissors. If you hit the windows key the letter “l” would now read “switch users”. I think such a tool would be a very good tool for making applications, operating systems and games more intuitive.

When it is all said and done
The keyboard is said to release in 2006, but I believe that is a very optimistic date of release. The company might manage to make an LED or LCD version of their keyboard, but a full OLED keyboard might be hard. The developing company claims:
It’s in the initial stage of production.
We hope it will be released in 2006.
It will cost less than a good mobile phone.
It will be real.
It will be OS-independent (at least it’s going to be able to work in some default state with any OS).
It will support any language or layout.

As of now, the patent is still pending on the keyboard and it is still in “initial stages of production.” I am afraid we will not see the keyboard come out in 2006, but the idea is out of the closet and I am sure we can see something like this tool on the market in the near future.
The biggest problem with the Optimus keyboard is if we really need it. The keyboard might just be too little too late. The market is moving towards smaller and smaller keyboards and searching for other input devices. I am afraid the new dynamically changing keyboard will not see the same sort of fame our current keyboard sees.

The idea might be an obvious one, the technology might not be complete and the company might not make the best mass producer. The main point of this product, however, is that it exists. The word is out there and hopefully one day we will see a dynamically changing keyboard.


Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Gomery's First Report

Today, the first report of the Gomery Inquiry was released. The inquiry overseen by Justice Gomery was commissioned to look into the alleged sponsorship scandal. The sponsorship scandal erupted from allegations that the Liberal government under John Chrétien was involved in under-the-table dealing in Quebec. Gomery decided that there is no clear evidence to point to Chrétien’s knowledge of the money transfers; however, Chrétien was found politically responsible for the bigger issue. Gomery found Chrétien responsible for the waste of millions of taxpayer dollars in promoting federalism and the liberal party in Quebec. The current Liberal Prime Minister, Paul Martin, was absolved of any misconduct. The biggest blows of the report came to John Chrétien, Alfonso Gagliano, and Jacques Corriveau. The latter two were given a permanent ban from the Liberal party of Canada.
The commission might not be placing blame on Paul Martin, but the Liberals are in jeopardy as is federalism in general. The scandal has reignited the flames of separation burning in the PQ and Bloc Quebecois. I am afraid the separatist might once again push for an independent Quebec. The inquiry will also put the Liberals (who are already clinging desperately to a minority government) out of power. The Conservatives will most likely win the next election and the Liberal party just has to hope it can cling to as many seats as possible so that they (with the help of the NDP) can tackle down the government.
The minority governments and scandals are making Canadian politics much more exciting and I am looking forward to the next months. Paul Martin is not going to call an election until the second report and if he plays his cards right with the NDP, he will stay in power until April (or later) of next year.
After the conservatives take a minority government I think the atmosphere will become very interesting. There will be a three way split in parliament between the Conservative government, the Liberal and NDP opposition and the Bloc Quebecois. The biggest turn of events will be that the Liberals will be able to hold more voting power as the opposition, since now it will be them and NDP against Conservatives and not the two of them against conservatives and the Bloc.
I will continue to loosely follow the reports in the near future and see where the scandal is taking Canada. I will update more if anything exciting happens.

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Monday, October 31, 2005

Trick or Treat 'till You Drop!

Is there really an age when you have to stop trick or treating? Today, two other grade 12 students and I went to find out. Dave, Yunjun and I were not turned down even once. Now, do not get me wrong… we defiantly did not look like little kids. Dave is a pretty big guy and you could see his beard through his make up. Yunjun is rather tall for a Chinese boy and was not dressed up at all. I was wearing my leather jacket and even though I am on the skinny side, I am not short. We only had time to do about two dozen houses (and even that is an optimistic estimate), but not even one turned us down. Yunjun and Dave came out with a good amount of candy. Several times through our escapade discussion of doing this in University came up. Hence, to repeat myself: “is there really an age when you have to stop trick or treating?”