Microsoft's Next IE: Ninth Time's the Charm?
With ever-increasing heat coming from up-and-comers Firefox and Chrome, Microsoft has its work cut out for it when it comes to IE9, the next version of its Web browser. Users got a sneak peek this week courtesy of an open beta. Meanwhile, Twitter redesigned its interface, Craigslist reconsidered Adult Services, and Nokia rearranged the C-Suite.
09/18/10 5:00 AM PT
Microsoft's Internet Explorer has had a lead in the Web browser battle for years, and that lead is still alive, but it's not well. IE has been losing some serious market share over the last few years, mostly because of young Turks like Firefox and Chrome. Not helping matters is the fact that the ancient IE6 browser is still tottering around like a sick old dog that won't die on its own, and it seems nobody has the heart to put it to sleep.
So Microsoft's pressing on with a public beta release of its next-generation browser, IE9. The goal is lighter and faster. Faster because that's just what every browser is after these days - life is short, gotta shave those nanoseconds off rendering time. Lighter because this time around, Microsoft has emphasized that the webpage is the star of the show. The browser should give you as much window space as possible, sorta like Chrome, and then fade into the background once you're there.
IE9 has support for HTML 5, as well as a download manager and a panel for overseeing add-ons, which can sometimes be a drain on system resources if they're not managed properly. The new browser can also be tightly integrated with Windows 7 functions. You can pin sites to the taskbar and move tabs around with that Aero Snap split-screen feature you get in Windows 7.
Keep in mind, though, that it's still a work in progress. Nobody's committed to a date on the final version, but you have my personal permission to start getting impatient in about a year.
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Never Leave the Nest
Biz Stone and Jack Dorsey are the patron saints of short attention spans. They founded Twitter, they made it work, and we all learned to take our conversational meals in bite-sized, 140-character packets.
But by serving intellectual snack food, Twitter's found that a lot of users graze and go. They poke around in the candy dish for a minute, then fly off somewhere else. They'll be back in 15, no doubt, but Twitter's goal now seems to be to get them to sit down and stay a while. Make it more like tappas than a cookie jar.
That's the idea behind Twitter's redesign. It takes a few notes from the site's latest stab at an iPad app, which made a few reviewers' heads explode because it threw way too much info at them at once. With the actual website redesign, though, Twitter's gone with the tried-and-true splitscreen approach. The left side shows your feed. Click on a link, and the content is displayed on the right. If it links to something compatible with Twitter, you won't have to jump to a totally different page.
To help with the rollout, Twitter is partnering up with several other Web services, with the main goal of not forcing users to flip back and forth between third-party programs in order to see content. Officially linking arms with Twitter is a long who's-who list of social media knicknack sites with names so damn webby it sounds like something Michael Arrington mumbled in the middle of a sleep deprivation experiment: Etsy, Kiva, Photozou, Plixi, yfrog, TwitPic, TwitVid, Twitgoo. Goes on and on. Need more? I can do more. No thanks? Very well.
Keeping users sitting at the Twitter table gives the site more opportunities to serve up some ads, though the site's still reluctant to jump head-first into just any ad strategy that comes its way. It's still doing the promoted tweet thing, but don't expect it to plaster pre-roll commercials onto every video it serves up. Not right away, anyway.
The New Nokia?
If statistics weren't such horrible liars all the time, it would be easy to think Nokia's on fire right now. It sells the most cellphones of any company in the world, and it's not like they're sitting on top by selling a billion and a half cheap dumbphones and only a handful of smartphones. Its Symbian platform also happens to be the most popular mobile OS in the world.
The only trouble for Nokia is that it has everything to lose, which is exactly what it's been doing ever since the most recent wave of smartphone platforms hit the scene. iPhone and Android are the up-and-comers now. Those two are doing well in Europe, Nokia's traditional stronghold, but they're really exploding in the U.S., which is where Nokia is weakest.
U.S. buyers are used to cheap, carrier-subsidized prices, and Nokia doesn't play that game very often when it comes to smartphones. The result is that its stuff is about three times more expensive than competing products (up front, anyway) -- and the only substantial benefit is that its phones are usually unlocked. Some Americans know what that means, and of those, a few actually care. But if you can find one that cares enough to pay $800 for a phone, you've found a member of a very small minority.
So Nokia's shaking things up with some major changes to its executive team. First up: CEO Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo is out as of next week, and the person taking his place will bring a great deal of North American flavor to the table. Stephen Elop is a Canadian-born executive most recently with Microsoft, and his appointment as Nokia's next point man hints that the company might be getting serious about its stateside performance.
However, Elop won't turn the ship around just by sitting there and radiating North American-ness. There are some serious issues in front of him. First, there's the platform question: Are we doing Symbian, are we doing Meego, or are we doing both? Or are we going to do something really crazy and bring Android in too? Or is WinPho7 on the table now?
Nokia's image in the U.S. might also need a makeover. Since very few people in the States buy or even see their high-end phones, we often associate the brand with the crappy little dumbphone you can get for free just by signing a contract.
But the CEO's office wasn't the only one getting cleaned out this week. Chairman Jorma Ollila has announced he'll ship off too, though he'll take a couple of years to do it. Departing much sooner will be Anssi Vanjoki; he'll step out within the next six months. Vanjoki was probably the least surprising departure of them all. He's the one in charge of Nokia's smartphone business - the part of the company feeling the most pain - and given that he wasn't tapped for the CEO gig, the message was probably clear enough.
The whole shakeup surely gave people plenty to talk about at Nokia World, the expo the company held this week in London. But amid all the talk about what Nokia's going to have to do to turn itself around in smartphones, it reinforced its old standby Symbian OS with three new models.
The E7 is portrayed as the trio's business-oriented device, with a full QWERTY keyboard and a four-inch AMOLED screen. The C7 is designed for social networking, with integrated Facebook and Twitter feeds, and the C6 is basically the 7's smaller cousin.
Keep in mind, none of these are expected to be an Android or iPhone killer. They're more or less presented as mid-market devices - cheaper than the headliners but offering more features and feeds than your standard dumbphone. Still, judging by the prices we saw, if Nokia's trying to crack the U.S. market, it really needs to learn how to hit it off with carriers and their price subsidies.
When Piracy Is OK
This much we know: Microsoft is generally not fond of pirates. Using an illicitly copied version of Windows or Word or any other Microsoft app is on par with stealing in their eyes, and they've built technologies that can pull the rug right out from under your operating system if it's found to be pirated.
But it seems that Microsoft also doesn't much care for governments using piracy as an excuse to shut down political opposition. That's apparently what the government of Russia did when it raided offices and carted off computers belonging to opposition activist groups and small newspapers, according to a recent article in The New York Times. The pretext was that they were running pirated software, but it's not hard to guess why, of all the computers running pirated software in all of Russia, officials decided to crack down on these in particular.
Microsoft has admitted that its lawyers in Russia actually supported the government's seizure, but it wasn't about to let the situation stand. Maybe it was a decision borne of actual conscience, maybe it was a desire to avoid bad PR now that the story's out, maybe a little of both. Whatever the reason, Microsoft happened to read that Times report, and it decided to do something about it.
The company has a history of donating software to nonprofit groups, but it decided to up the ante a bit by introducing a program that gives organizations like that a blanket right to use any Microsoft application on computers they purchase. It applies retroactively, and it should render meaningless whatever reason the Russian government had for taking the PCs.
Also, Microsoft wants to distance itself as much as it can from the notion that it's in any way helping a bunch of jackboots kick down doors to muzzle political discourse. It says it's going to make sure that nobody representing Redmond from halfway around the world has anything to do with helping officials swipe these organizations' computers for reasons of piracy.
Red Light District Clampdown
One of the ways Craigslist became the fabulous freak show that it is today was by carrying ads for pretty much anything. I suppose they probably have policies about stuff like selling babies and human organs, but overall it's a bizarre bazaar of job listings, roommates in need of roommates, baby snakes in need of homes, lonely people interested in adopting baby snakes, socks for rent, and any other possible transaction two or more human beings can conceivably undertake.
And nowhere on Craigslist did things get stranger and seedier than in the so-called Adult Services section, formerly known by an even more straightforward name: Erotic Services. To the best of my knowledge, Craigslist has never actively marketed its ad platform to known prostitutes, and there are plenty of things that could be considered erotic services that aren't illegal. But let's be honest: The place was hooker central.
Naturally, that section drew a lot of attention from law enforcement, which began pressuring Craigslist to nix it. Over time, Craigslist made a few concessions: It did undertake that name change, and it promised to start vetting ads for the more obviously illegal propositions. But beyond that, it cited the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which gives interactive computer service providers immunity against liability that might result from material posted by third parties. It wasn't just a matter of law or principle, either - according to the Advanced Interactive Media Group, Craigslist has made $30 million off its adult listings so far this year.
But that money came at the cost of the site's image, especially after a recent round of ads placed by an advocacy group that claimed Craigslist's Adult Services section wasn't just full of ads for prostitutes in general - there were also a fair number of ads placed by people selling child prostitutes. At the same time the ads ran, state AGs mounted a fresh offensive against Adult Services, and Craigslist closed the section while it decided what to do next. Now the decision's made: Adult Services will stay closed permanently, at least in the U.S. version of the site.
It may hurt Craigslist's pocket book, but at least it's a PR win. It no longer has to answer for profiting from this particular variety of criminal activity. Obviously, it doesn't solve the problem of child prostitution itself; the people running those operations will just slither to more obscure channels. As for non-underage prostitutes -- well, if you really need to find out where they went, just turn to the back pages of your local alternative weekly newspaper.