Microsoft Not Vista-Ready

I have a theory about going to school to become a writer: Schools don't teach you how to write. They teach you how not to write. Or rather, they teach you how to write in the most bland, forgettable, unimaginative way possible. Those who can master mediocrity are given high marks. Those who buck the norm are graded down, shunted aside, and even insulted. Thus, in a very real sense, the school system can act as a sort of twisted boot camp. If you can survive all those years of pointless symbolism, smarmy term papers, and pitiful self-psychoanalysis masquerading as short fiction and poetry—if you can get through eight or more years of that with your self-respect, motivation, and innate talent still intact—then you must be a real writer, and you'll do just fine. The system serves not to assist and enlighten the wanna-bes but to screen them out.

What does this have to do with Microsoft? To understand the answer, you have to know that Microsoft contracts a company called Waggener Edstrom commonly called WaggEd, to handle its "Rapid Response" PR department. After nearly a decade of covering Microsoft-related subjects, I can say with absolute assurance that WaggEd must exist to serve the same function for journalists as schools often do for writers. The group is a screen, a filter, a roadblock that exists to minimize the traffic burden on Microsoft's internal PR and marketing groups. I can't count the number of times over the years I've gone to WaggEd in search of an interview or some information I could use to glorify Microsoft with positive, nationwide press. I can count (on one hand) the number of times in which WaggEd has delivered meaningful results back to me that met or exceeded my expectations beyond the act of sticking a disc in the mail.

Feeling Unfocused?
If you've been feeling a bit sketchy about whether your systems are Vista-ready, you're not alone. Microsoft has withheld final code from the channel for system validation and continues to keep a tight leash on review copies even after launch.

Perhaps an example would help.

In mid-November, I called WaggEd to say I was working on a cover story for the next issue of RAM called "Beyond Vista Readiness," and I wanted some info about how channel resellers would be able to go beyond basic Vista requirements to design value-add Vista systems. I wanted some Microsoft insight on this point as well as some interview feedback on how resellers could leverage Vista to help increase their sales. My first query by phone yielded nothing. A second query finally came back with this via email:

"Thanks for your e-mail and phone call. I connected with my colleagues and learned, unfortunately, we do not have any information to share at this time. I apologize for any inconvenience this may cause. Please feel free to contact me, if I can be of any further assistance."

I know that this is a form letter because I've received the same message many, many times before.

This note arrived on November 20th, a mere 10 days before availability of Vista's business versions was announced in New York City. Now, call me crazy, but you'd think that Microsoft would have some information about how resellers—especially those catering to SMB accounts— can profit from Vista 10 frickin' days before the product launch.

Desperately Seeking Vista.
So officially Microsoft delivered on a 2006 Vista launch date. But no launch event, no media blitz, no nothing...and especially no holiday sales. If an OS drops in the wilderness and no one hears it, does it really count?

Well, Microsoft obviously has reams of collateral about Vista. That's not the point. The point is that Microsoft clearly doesn't care about outside help in messaging the Vista launch. That's my issue—boo hoo, poor me, it'll be harder to write my story (which it was). In fact, as of December 5th, upon asking for a reviewer's copy of the OS, which has never been an issue in the past, I was told that I'd be placed on a list for consideration "with other reviewers. Microsoft's not looking for as much feedback as with the release candidates."

"I should point out," I said, "that I don't want to critique the software. I want to teach resellers why and how to sell more copies of it."

"Right, I get that," the WaggEd rep said, "but we're not receiving a ton of copies. My hands are kind of tied."

Yeah. I can see how a company with over $49 billion in assets starting its most critical launch since 2001 might have trouble circulating some extra DVDs to those working to publicize it. Not surprisingly, in the process of writing this Vista article, I also learned that Microsoft has shown the same lack of consideration to the channel. Not one distributor I spoke with as of late November had received final code with which to validate Vista systems. Everyone was still using release candidates.

Is this some kind of purposeful tactic? Is Microsoft intentionally crippling the channel to favor the tier-ones? With all of the new activation and licensing restrictions built into the OS, why wouldn't you let the channel gear up for a better-informed, more prepared launch? It's asinine.

I was primarily raised by my grandparents, and I spent a lot of time in my first 30 years sitting in ERs and hospital waiting rooms, particularly at the Veteran's Hospital, which makes Kaiser look like an In-N-Out Burger drive-thru. There's nothing quite like supporting your grandfather, who's clutching his chest in pain, and being told to take a seat—for 40 minutes. That's the sense I'm getting from Microsoft these days. Resellers need immediate help if they're going to compete and survive, and all we've heard in this launch is, "Take a seat. We'll put you on the list."

We Care...Why?
If you still think Microsoft might be cozy with the channel on media convergence through platforms like PlaysForSure, meet the Xbox 360 and Zune, two devices that have virtually nothing to do with resellers and everything to do with future content consumption.

Talking with resellers, I can hear that familiar tone in some voices, the tone that says, "I trusted the system and worked for it, and this is what I get." I hear you. I've been an ardent Microsoft supporter since abandoning the Commodore 64. But come on. Look at this Vista launch. Look at that bullet to the cerebellum of PlaysForSure called Zune. (If you don't think that whole DRM scene matters to you, go use an Xbox 360 as a media extender for a day, then ask yourself what your long-term prospects are for selling home theater PCs.) Companies like Intel, AMD, Adaptec, Seagate, NVIDIA, and many others practically bend over backwards to help resellers, and I see a high level of touch and cooperation with the channel from these companies. Last year, when I should have been observing a lot of channel messaging from Microsoft on how to promote new XP sales, I was seeing rampant campaigns about preventing piracy. I cannot think of another company in the industry that comes off as being more self-serving.

I'm less concerned about blows to my or resellers' egos than I am about the message this sends to other channel vendors. Microsoft is a leader in the industry. If one of the titans of our field turns its back on helping to elevate system builders, what message does that send to other vendors who might be tempted to follow suit? Training classes in the Microsoft Partner Program for those who decide to give their lives over to selling Microsoft is not sufficient. The channel needs more, and the time to demand it is now.

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1080 - 720 = Zero Difference?

Less than three years ago, I bought a Fujitsu 50" plasma television monitor. At the time, I didn't think I was being an early adopter. Plasmas had been out for a while, after all. Sure, image quality had been going up. My unit was one of the first to integrate new technology that helped thwart the burn-in problems found in earlier years. At the time, the unit retailed for $10,000. I fancied myself quite lucky to bag the unit after substantial wrangling for $7,000. Today, I could buy a unit with the same specs for well under $3,000.

Buyer's Remorse.
I could tell you how little my 50" Fujitsu costs now versus when I bought it. But the good news is that my buyer's remorse might have been a lot worse.

The price drop doesn't bother me. (Well, not very much.) As a PC reseller, I spent years advising people not to look over their shoulders at pricing changes, and I'm prepared to swallow the same bitter medicine. No, what really bugs me is that I was one to two years shy of the HDMI port adoption—my monitor only has DVI, component, and S-Video—and the change-up to 1080p HD resolution. This last point particularly irks me. Three years ago, 720p was considered HD and 1080 was some exorbitant spec on the distant horizon. Now, 1080i/1080p is the standard in HD. That's just great. Seven grand sitting on my wall, an Xbox 360 and Comcast Digital pumping high-def content to the screen, some blue laser format inevitably headed for my home theater in the next 12 months, and I'm stuck with trailing-edge 720p. I imagine there are plenty of customers out there who look at this and swear off getting involved in the HD madness, which is bad news for the channel as convergence technologies continue to gain steam.

This is why I was immensely relieved to read that the Imaging Science Foundation, the industry's top name in digital video testing, qualification, and certification, recently proclaimed that the difference between 720p and 1080p is much less than one would suspect. In fact, resolution ranks fourth on an image quality priority list behind contrast ratio, color saturation, and color accuracy. Outside testing done at CNET similarly confirms that professional evaluators could find only minor difference between the two resolutions and then only under certain circumstances. "Today's high-def broadcasts are done in either 1080i or 720p, and there's little or no chance they'll jump to 1080p any time soon because of bandwidth issues," notes one CNET page.

Look Closely.
There are still times when you can see the difference between 720p and 1080p.
Here's one example of some screen grabs. (Hint: The lizard on the left shows more pixelated edges.)

My temper is further soothed by ongoing visits to Costco and other electronics stores, in which I'm greeted by phalanxes of 1080p flat panels, nearly all of which look inferior to my trusty Fujitsu 720p. The point is twofold: 1) Don't let customers get sucked into the whirlpool of spec concerns. The numbers people worry about most may not matter much in the end. 2) You have an opportunity to help guide customers into the displays that will reward them the most for their investment. Clearly, people should not be focusing on resolution and price.

We're seeing ever-increasing ways to get PC-based multimedia into the living room, so your role as technology counselor, provider, and/or installer is going to become increasingly valuable. No, you're not going to want to recommend a 720p screen to anyone, especially not with blue laser on the verge of going mainstream. But if you can find one or two models that are available through distribution and deliver exceptional results with PC and disc-based HD content, then you're in a better position to be an authority during the HD transition and not an idle bystander.

MS Office: More Burger Than Bloat

As with everything else I write, I'm composing this document in WordPerfect. You scoff, yes. Join the club. I don't know anyone else who uses WordPerfect. But I've been a user since the 1980s, even before the jump to Windows, and I maintain that the program is still a far superior, more user-friendly word processor than Microsoft Word. I have Word, of course. I have to use it when swapping documents with the outside world. But I can't stand the way it tries to read my mind, automatically format this and that, and restricts my ability to granularly control the document creation and editing process.

This is part of why I still use Office XP. There simply was no compelling reason for me to upgrade to Office 2003. Everything I disliked about Office XP was still there, and there were too few if any feature upgrades in the newer edition that mattered to my workflow.

Good Enough?
For me and probably millions of others, Office XP may not have been perfection, but it was good enough for the jobs at hand—and has remained so through today.?

No, this isn't going to be another anti-Microsoft rant. I've said my peace. Quite the opposite, in fact. Market research aside, I know just from wandering around in public that there are millions of people out there like me who never upgraded from Office XP (or earlier) and who may still use Windows 2000 or 98 to boot. These are the "if it ain't broke, why pay to fix it?" people. Good for them. We should manage our money wisely and only pay for something new if it delivers real value. But I'm going to go out on a ledge and say that this time is different. If I could get WaggEd to do something besides put me on a list, I would be able to verify this first-hand, but instead I'm going to predict that there are at least five reasons why home and small business users just like me would be foolish not to upgrade to Office 2007.

1. The Ribbon. This is the name for a panel that replaces what we normally think of as the toolbar region. At first glance, the Ribbon might seem like a cosmetic reshuffling of elements already present in prior office versions, and it is in a sense. But I really dislike toolbars, the way you only want some of them some of the time, the way they pile up as you incorporate plug-ins, and all the extra clicking they entail just to access a feature you use constantly.

Meet the New Toolbar.
Better than the old toolbar. Office's new Ribbon feature makes quicker work of finding the functions you want most.

Each Office app has its own Ribbon, and each of these begins with a series of tabs grouping certain sets of tools and functions. You might see this as a sort of uber-toolbar, which it is. What makes the Ribbon idea cool is that it's context-sensitive. The Ribbon changes depending on what the user is doing. For instance, if you select a block of text, formatting features become prevalent. Select a picture and a Pictures tab will appear. This way you don't have to waste UI space keeping all those toolbars present all the time, and you're more likely to use the program's capabilities because they'll be emphasized when needed.

2. SmartArt. This is essentially Microsoft Vizio for dummies. SmartArt assists in the creation of organizational charts/graphics when dealing with about 30 or fewer shapes. The feature shows up in Word, PowerPoint, Excel, and Outlook, but it's at its best in PowerPoint. As a usage example, you could highlight a bullet point list, select Convert to SmartArt, and then walk along with Office's assistance in adapting the text into any of over 100 graphical layout templates. You can then customize with color schemes, 3D accents, and so on. This is going to be a hot point for anyone who gets tired of the labor involved in making professional-looking slide presentations that all somehow seem to look flat and generic.

3. Smarter Outlook data sharing. I don't know if the 2GB .PST file size limit that presently plagues my life is finally gone. I don't know why my newly made Calendar appointments usually don't pop up reminders unless I close and reopen Outlook. Hopefully, these things are remedied in Office 2007. But one thing that I know has been fixed is the lobotomized way in which Outlook used to manage its various functions. With Outlook 2007, you can apply a date to an email message and turn it into a task. You can drag-and-drop a task onto the calendar and turn it into an appointment. This sort of cross-functionality will help overcome the long-standing aversion I've cultivated to retyping the same material in different areas of Outlook and thus (I hope) help increase my overall efficiency. While I don't know if it'll revolutionize my life, I also like that Outlook calendars can now be shared in HTML format, so anyone using any program can view them.

4. Groovy collaboration. Microsoft's 2005 acquisition of Groove Networks finally reaches fruition under 2007 as Office Groove, a peer-to-peer package that enables communication and collaboration between small groups. Any user can create a workspace then send that workspace to other people for multiple parties to work within. Groove monitors each of these workspaces across the network and keeps them synchronized. Changes can be made in realtime or offline, and the tools used to manage that workspace (browser support, calendar, discussion forum, etc.) can be changed as necessary over time. My head is swimming with the ways this could help me collaborate with other RAM writers on stories as well as with layout staff when adapting stories for print or online publication. Anything that helps mitigate that endless series of draft versions and editing markups has to be good.

Come Together.
Office Groove makes it almost ridiculously easy to create and share workspaces and then collaborate within them in realtime or asynchronously.

5. Spreading the Word. OK, I already know that Word 2007 still refuses to adopt the Reveal Codes functionality of WordPerfect, and without that I have a very hard time imagining myself making the jump between products. As an on-again, off-again blog author, I chafe under the rudimentary tools of most in-browser blog post authoring packages. While I'm no fan of Word's aggressive formatting tendencies, I'd rather write posts in Word than a browser any day. Well, with Word 2007, I'll get my wish. The program now offers a blogging module able to upload documents directly into Windows Live Spaces, SharePoint, Blogger, and other popular blogging sites.

Of course, I know that a lot of Word users don't care about blogging. How about translation? With the translation tool enabled, you can mouse-over an English word to see its translation into French or Spanish. Not feeling multilingual? Try the new Document Inspector, which pores through documents and helps to strip any sort of metadata, such as comments and the author's name. I can't tell you how many times I've had to re-edit files after finding such data show up in documents headed for publication.

Word to Your Blog.
If your customer is one of the countless denizens of the blogosphere, Word 2007 has some handy surprises in store.

On its own, Word 2007 isn't overflowing with major revamps that make me swoon with anticipation. But, as with Office 2007 as a whole, there are enough minor to moderate changes to make the whole package actually compelling. Office 2003 was a toss, which was unfortunate for resellers hoping to make revenue on an upgrade cycle. This time around, it's different. Office 2007 is worth exploring because there's real opportunity and value. And I'm guessing that if you can sell businesses on its worth, you'll bag some desktop and notebook upgrades in the process so that Office 2007 can perform at its best.

Bombshell: HTPCs May Not Prevail

I know AMD's favorite mantra is "we're all about choice," but come on. Living room convergence is starting to feel like the war in Iraq: There's simply no good solution. Here at the end of 2006, you sure can't just walk away and abandon it. But if you stay, you really have no idea what's going to work because everything that everyone has tried so far has gone nowhere and frustrated everybody.

Still, AMD's LIVE! platform, about which we've heard nary a peep since May, registered a spike on the cardiograph last month upon circulating the tiny prototype image shown below along with really vague comments from corporate vice president of consumer business Joe Menard about how living room PCs won't look like living room PCs and will probably follow many shapes and models of deployment.

Even Set-tops Aren't This Small.
This is the biggest photo now in circulation of AMD's just-announced home theater PC prototype—a bit odd considering that AMD execs are making hints toward non-PC living rooms.

Menard followed up this month at the Digital Living Room 2006 summit. "There is going to be no one usage model," says Menard as quoted in the EE Times. "There will be models where PCs end up in the living room. There will be models where PCs do not end up in the living room."

Eh? A CPU manufacturer talking about living room convergence without a PC? Pinch me.

Check your 2006 calendar and you might surmise that shortly after the May announcements about LIVE! was when the merger talks between AMD and ATI would have cranked into high gear. (That would also be the time when forward-looking statements from ATI slowed from a trickle to a sporadic drip.) You might recall that LIVE! was originally going to blend PC data with set-top broadcast feeds in realtime. This numbingly ambitious plan went nowhere all year, and AMD was in no hurry to open its mouth while Intel's Viiv 1.x platform ran in circles.

Now, though, with ATI in the fold, AMD has a whole new range of options. ATI is the leading supplier of digital television system-on-a-chip products. Xilleon processors incorporate a CPU, graphics engine, high-def decoder, audio decoder, and much more. Last time I looked, ATI owned 80% of this market. What if AMD could devise a way to create hooks between next-gen Xilleon chips and AMD-centric PC chipsets with firmware connecting the two over a LAN connection? Why, you could do all sorts of nifty tricks and not require a set-top box in the middle. AMD would own both ends of the connection, and the user wouldn't be burdened with the complexity or expense of a living room PC. Windows Vista and CableCARD should let users incorporate all of the channel content to which they're accustomed plus a whole new set of online channels. With Xilleon chips doing the decoding, the PC can send out highly compressed HD content to the TV even over a wireless connection without fears of bandwidth bottlenecks. All that's missing is LAN-enabled TV sets. Great—one more thing my Fujitsu plasma will have missed.

Smart Screens.
This Philips widescreen television panel not only displays in high-def, it sports one VGA port, two HDMI ports, one Ethernet connection, and can even decode DivX streams. This is the sort of set of which convergence dreams are made.

I suspect AMD is on the right track here. Much as I love Viiv and the things it has accomplished, especially in the 1.5 iteration, the future seems increasingly to be one about central media servers feeding various types of playback clients rather than PCs in every space. The nature of TCP/IP, increasing network bandwidth, and continuing component integration seem inevitably to point toward this conclusion. AMD's November prototype may pay lip service to the conventional convergence model, but I suspect multi-function gaming consoles and Apple's iTV point toward a more feasible multimedia future. And even set-top devices like the iTV are merely Band-Aids waiting for obsolescence when smart TVs become the norm.

There. I said it. I don't think living room PCs will ever go mainstream. Some high-end users, particularly those who favor PC gaming on huge screens, will continue to favor them and live with peripherals cluttering up their high-traffic spaces, but the usual solution is going to be the remote media server. And I just don't see a need for more than one serving device in the house once the right components are in place. That's the simplest, most cost-effective way. Media storage will dangle off the router. Remote controls and smarter UIs will continue to evolve the functionality available from a couch, especially if speech-to-text technology takes off. The "winner" in this world is going to be whoever comes up with the best way to facilitate that smart media network infrastructure, and the Xilleon wild card may give us a whole different picture in 18 months than the scene we see today.

In any case, the immediate message to system builders and consumers is to get used to a server/client relationship for home media enjoyment. Put the high-speed infrastructure in place. Make friends with network storage. Master the arts of content conversion and image enhancement with technologies like Avivo and PureVideo. These are the building blocks that will pay dividends as user needs and consumer products evolve.

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