September 10, 2005

This Weekend’s Unanswered Questions (091005): Special “What’s Up with Microsoft?” Edition

Another installment in a nearly-regular series of mysteries and pseudo-mysteries (usually 3-4) this inquiring mind would like to have answers for (some links included may require free registration):

Four questions that make you wonder whether the big guys at Microsoft have a handle on their business

QUESTION 1: What makes Microsoft think this will work?

There’s a bit of rumor in this, despite the headline:

Microsoft Looks To Duplicate Apple’s Retail Stores

When Microsoft looks at the road ahead, it sees Apple. According to a report in the New York Post (registration required unless you go here first), Microsoft is considering One Times Square as a possible location for a flagship retail store.

The Post story goes on to speculate that the move might be a first step toward mimicking Apple’s highly successful retail outlets.

Residents of San Francisco might well recall that Microsoft has already dabbled in retail. The company used to have a store called microsoftSF at Sony’s Metreon mall. It closed in late 2001.

Wags at AppleInsider.com ask, “What do they have to sell?” Another poster answers, “Virus protection.”

Less biased observers suggest the Xbox and boxed Microsoft software will be taking up shelf space. If you ask me, the company would be more than happy to have a place to sell digital-music devices that work with its much-anticipated answer to iTunes.

Microsoft needs something to jump-start its digital-music strategy. Apple has 82% of the online digital-music market, a monopoly roughly comparable to Microsoft’s Windows empire.

Apple stores have Apple hardware. Microsoft stores couldn’t sell hardware (e.g., Dell) without seriously alienating other hardware vendors (HP, etc.) and computer retailers like Comp USA, Best Buy and Circuit City. I believe the company would face the same problem if it tried to sell digital-music players as the author suggested. Plus, I’m starting to think that it’s too late in the game for Microsoft to meaningfully compete with iTunes, Roxio, and other smaller players in the digital-music market.

Apple’s retail stores serve two primary purposes: selling Apple hardware, and demonstrating to skeptics what it believes is a superior operating system, user interface, etc. Unless Microsoft thinks it’s going to have a hard time convincing people to migrate to Longhorn the newly-named Vista, I don’t see how a retail strategy makes sense for them.

QUESTION 2: Is Microsoft rattled, and is Steve Ballmer losing it?

Wearing full body armor is apparently a wise choice when going to a Ballmer exit interview:

Court docs: Ballmer vowed to ‘kill’ Google

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer vowed to “kill” Google in an expletive-laced, chair-throwing tirade when a senior engineer told him he was leaving the company to go work for Google, the engineer claimed in court documents made public on Friday. (Sept. 2–Ed.)

The allegation, filed in Washington state court, is the latest salvo in an increasingly nasty court fight triggered when Microsoft executive Kai-Fu Lee jumped to Google in July in what Microsoft claims is a violation of a one-year, non-compete agreement.

In a sworn statement made public Friday, Mark Lucovsky, another Microsoft senior engineer who left for Google in November 2004, recounted Ballmer’s angry reaction when Lucovsky told Ballmer he was going to work for the search engine company.

“At some point in the conversation, Mr. Ballmer said: ‘Just tell me it’s not Google,’” Lucovosky said in his statement. Lucovosky replied that he was joining Google.

“At that point, Mr. Ballmer picked up a chair and threw it across the room hitting a table in his office,” Lucovosky recounted, adding that Ballmer then launched into a tirade about Google CEO Eric Schmidt. “I’m going to f***ing bury that guy, I have done it before, and I will do it again. I’m going to f***ing kill Google.” Schmidt previously worked for Sun Microsystems and was the CEO of Novell.

Late Friday, Ballmer issued a statement disputing Lucovsky’s declaration. “Mark Lucovsky’s account of our conversation last November is a gross exaggeration of what actually took place,” Ballmer said. “Mark’s decision to leave was disappointing and I urged him strongly to change his mind. But his characterization of that meeting is not accurate.”

The Lukovsky declaration is the latest salvo in the heated battle between Google and Microsoft over Google’s hiring of Lee. Google has said Microsoft is attempting to scare its employees away from Google.

While this clash of the titans has its entertaining moments, the above may also be a sign that Microsoft is not keeping up with Google, Yahoo, and other Net-centric companies.

QUESTION 3: Vista will be released more than four years after XP, the last major Windows release. With all the talent in Redmond, why does it appear that the ultimate result will be mediocre?

This reviewer, for one, is only mildly impressed, and doesn’t mask his disappointment well:

So, what are my impressions? Not to be overly critical here, but I was honestly expecting something a little more… revolutionary.

…. I’ve read many opinions so far of people who feel that the GUI looks strikingly similar to Mac OS X. Well, I’m neither going to defend Microsoft nor agree with any opinions. However, all I will say is that Microsoft has been accused of many things, and originality is not one of them.

QUESTION 4: Okay, maybe Vista has been slow in coming because they have to fight XP security fires. If that’s the case, how did the company allow things to get this bad?

Computer security watchers like eEye are not impressed with Microsoft’s timeliness (bolds are mine):

Next Tuesday, when Microsoft ships the Windows update, one of the eEye-discovered flaws will be 108 days overdue.

eEye starts counting overdue days a full 60 days after a vulnerability has been “validated” by a software vendor, which means that Microsoft has been aware of the security hole for more than five and a half months.

In all, eEye has reported nine vulnerabilities that have been validated by officials at the MSRC (Microsoft Security Response Center). Three of the nine flaws are more than two months overdue and all carry a “high severity” risk rating.

Customers at risk include users of the widely deployed Internet Explorer browser, the Microsoft Outlook and Outlook Express mail clients, and various versions of Windows.

“It’s safe to assume that once we find a flaw, someone else will probably find it. The problem here is that someone malicious might find it and exploit it before Microsoft can provide full protection,” said Steve Manzuik, product manager in eEye’s research group.

“There are some extremely smart hackers out there using and sharing the tools that find these vulnerabilities. When Microsoft takes a long time to issue fixes, it sets up a dangerous situation,” Manzuik said in an interview with Ziff Davis Internet News.

“This month, Microsoft is only issuing one patch and we already know it’s not one of ours. That means that our overdue list will keep getting longer and longer,” Manzuik added.

eEye is not the only private research outfit finding and reporting vulnerabilities to Microsoft. Most companies do not keep a running tally of the flaws they report, and some keep the information under wraps until Microsoft ships the required update.

After all this time, it appears that Microsoft is still not paying enough attention to Windows, IE, and Outlook security. Or, could it be that the Windows OS is so incurably insecure and not really fixable? Regardless, computer crooks and snoops must be very pleased with the status quo. Combat-weary Windows users and network adminstrators should not be.

Just to be clear: I am a 20-year Mac user (most certainly not a fanatic), but am reasonable enough to know that the as long as 90%-plus of all computer users and probably 98% of business users are on Windows machines (or at least using Windows-based programs like Office if they are using UNIX or Linux as their OS), Microsoft needs to keep improving its operating system and programs to keep overall productivity in the economy on an upward trajectory. I’m concerned that the items I have brought up are indications that the people in Redmond are really blowing it. If that is indeed the case, overall economic growth could take a hit. Such is the danger of depending on a company with near-monopolies in several critical areas.

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