Microsoft Gives Hardware Partners Some Hard Knocks

Microsoft’s slow crawl to the tablet market is nearly at an end. It’s designed the interface of its next operating system, Windows 8, to be easy to use on tablets as well as desktops. It’s created a special version, Windows 8 RT, especially for mobile ARM-based devices. It’s even shoved out multiple free preview versions of the upcoming OS.

All that needs to happen now is an official release for Windows 8, which is supposed to happen this fall.

And I suppose it’ll also need some hardware. That would be helpful.

Normally this would be a job left entirely to Microsoft’s hardware partners. HP, Dell, Acer, Asus, Lenovo and just about any other major PC maker you care to name has at least a bar-napkin sketch of a Windows tablet somewhere, if not advanced blueprints, prototypes and millions of parts on order. Their success rides on the fate of Windows 8 tablets as much as Microsoft’s does.

Only Apple makes iPads, and Android tablet sales haven’t exactly been explosive. A well-made Windows tablet, however, could be a huge seller for enterprises, road warriors, or anyone who wants a tablet and prefers Windows above all else.

But this is not a normal situation. Microsoft apparently isn’t willing to let its tablet vision be completely altered by the lens of outside hardware makers. Under Microsoft’s typical practice of selling licenses, outside companies still get to have their way with the final product. It doesn’t matter how many restrictions or design edicts or technical minimums and maximums Redmond places on third-party hardware makers. Even though the arrangement makes for a nicely diverse world of devices, it’s not a method that allows Microsoft to realize whatever it thinks the “perfect” implementation of its software ought to be.

So Microsoft is going to make its own tablet. The Microsoft Surface line consists of two slates — a light and thin one running Windows 8 RT and a fat and heavy one running a full version of Windows 8. Both will feature 10.6-inch screens. Pricing isn’t known yet, but the thin version should come out about the time Windows 8 lands this fall, with the fat one coming about three months later.

The devices themselves seem to look a lot like just about every other tablet on the market. But they also feature a sort of built-in kickstand in the back for propping themselves up on a table. And instead of making the screen cover a simple piece of folding plastic, Microsoft has built a keyboard into it. You can still use the typical onscreen touch keyboard interface, but if you’d rather kick out the stand and unfurl the cover, you can use a Surface almost as though it’s a notebook computer.

Building a device itself is a highly unusual move for Microsoft, but it’s not unprecedented. It makes the Xbox 360 itself, and that’s one of its hottest sellers. But quality was an issue for the Xbox 360, especially in the early years when it was frequently haunted by the Red Ring of Death. Other Microsoft hardware endeavors include the Zune — the less said about that the better.

But in those two examples, Microsoft’s rivals are clearly outside its own camp. In video games, Sony and Nintendo have their own platforms — nobody else makes hardware running Xbox software. And in the personal media player market, Apple’s iPod was really the only opponent worth mentioning.

In tablets, though, Microsoft’s own partners are going to be competing against the company itself for sales. Many of those companies were reportedly blindsided by the news of the Surface. But maybe Microsoft had a good reason for doing what it did. Lots of those same hardware makers have been dabbling in Android tablets, with varying degrees of success, and perhaps Microsoft took that as a sign that when it comes to tablets, there are going to be a lot of open relationships.

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A New Beginning Again

Microsoft chased that shot of Surface news with a big glass of Windows Phone announcements. It detailed what’s in store for Windows Phone 8, its upcoming OS for smartphones.

First and foremost, Windows Phone 8 will be a major foundational break from Windows Phone 7. I know, WinPho 7 was supposed to be a major foundational break itself, marking a clean getaway from rotten old Windows Mobile. But this time Windows Phone is severing its roots and pulling away from its Windows CE underpinnings. Instead, Windows Phone 8 will truly be Windows 8 on a phone. The innermost core of code will be the same across Microsoft’s desktop and smartphone operating systems, making it easier for developers to create apps that could span across the entire range of devices.

Multi-core processing will also be supported — dual-core, quad-core, all the way up to 64-core, if humanity survives long enough to see that kind of processor in a common smartphone.

NFC will also be a major push in Windows Phone 8. WinPho 8 Wallet Hub will support credit and debit cards, loyalty and membership cards, and access to saved deals. Right now several different platforms are vying for control of the future of mobile payment options. Meanwhile, the bulk of the retail-shopping public happily goes on paying for stuff with ordinary credit cards. But the future is wild, and maybe someday whipping out a plastic card at the cash register will be as hopelessly old-fashioned as writing a personal check. If that day comes, WinPho’s NFC support will be ready.

Gaming is also a big target for WinPho 8. It’ll support DirectX-based game development and middleware like Havoc Vision Engine and Autodesk Scaleform, technologies used in some big-league console games. Investing in the platform’s gaming chops could be a big financial boost for Windows Phone’s app store — games are often one of the biggest money-makers on any given mobile platform.

Unfortunately for eager Windows Phone adopters, WinPho 8 will not be coming to the phone you hold in your hand right now. Apparently the new software is so different from the previous version that no Windows Phone device currently on the shelves will support it. That’s probably not good news for device makers either. Their new phones have already been made to look a little old, thanks to this news. Sure, they’ll be getting a WinPho 7.8 update, which includes a few of the features touted in version 8, but that sounds like sort of a consolation prize. Not a great week for Microsoft hardware partners overall, it seems. But rejoice — it’s a great leap forward. A clean break. A new start. This time for real.

The Peeping Planes

When you’re on private property, you aren’t necessarily entitled to privacy from onlookers, at least as far as the law is concerned. It depends a lot on the circumstances and where you’re standing.

Thick blinds, fully down and blocking the windows? That’s very private. Standing on your driveway in full view from a public road? No, that’s not private — if someone snaps your picture there, you can’t do a whole lot about it. Windows obscured by bushes and partially blocked by a low fence? Ask a lawyer.

But what if you’re sitting out in a yard or on a rooftop deck, with a fence or barrier around you so that you’re really only exposed to the sky? Nobody can see you from the street or any nearby windows. Are you in a private place?

A hundred years ago your only viewers would be birds and the sun god Ra. Now, though, we have eyes in the sky — imaging satellites that are used by both military agencies and private businesses to provide online mapping services. Generally the stuff published by commercial sites like Google Maps isn’t very detailed. You can pick out your house and where you park your car, but if you’re trying to peep in on someone’s sunbathing routine, all you’ll really see is a tanned blur.

However, the technology used to gather these images is getting sharper, and it’s raised the concern of New York Sen. Charles Schumer. In particular, Schumer is worried about new programs conducted by Apple and Google that send aircraft over cities to give users a sort of 3D flyover vantage. The so-called military-grade spy planes can capture images through windows and see things as small as 4 inches, he says. He’s asking businesses to notify affected communities before mapping activities take place, to blur images of individual people, and to let property owners opt out if they don’t want their land photographed in such a way.

He might not have very much legal ground to build an argument on, though. Basically, if someone can see you without trespassing, it’s not against the law to snap a picture. Some states do have peeping Tom laws that forbid specific and targeted acts of voyeurism, but that’s nothing like the high-res panoramic views Apple and Google are going for with their mapping services. Also, snooping prohibitions are tougher for government entities like police agencies. But as far as private companies go, public roads, sidewalks and the sky above are all fair game for photography.

That doesn’t mean Schumer and privacy advocates on his side simply won’t get their way, though. If too much imagery that people think is sensitive ends up published, Google and Apple could face a larger public backlash. If it’s big enough, it could compel them and other companies to set some voluntary ground rules.

A Port of a Different Sort

In the evolution of Apple’s line of iDevices, the 30-pin port is a very ancient feature. It’s been around for nearly a decade, first arriving on the third-generation iPod and then appearing on all iPhones since the original model. The dock has evolved a little since then — you may not be able to get an accessory from 2005 to interact with a brand-new iPhone, for instance. But the basic design has remained intact.

That may change with the next iPhone, though. TechCrunch has reported that an upcoming version of the Apple handset will feature a smaller dock with 19 pins. Old wires and accessories won’t work for charging, data transfer or anything else. The end that plugs into the phone will need to be a completely different shape. Of course you’ll probably only get one wire out of the box with a new iPhone, and a second one will cost, I don’t know, $25, at least for nine months or so.

Why the change? Real estate. Just like every other phone maker, Apple is desperate to shave every nanometer it can off the design of its devices, packing its guts into the absolute smallest and lightest form factor it can manage. Smaller dock means marginally skinnier phones, and skinnier phones fit into skinnier jeans. Nobody can afford to lose the skinny-jeans crowd.

The shape of a phone’s dock may not be its most compelling feature at first glance, but if Apple changes its shape, it could prove irksome to longtime iPhone fans. Some of them have a lot of money invested in various iPhone accessories — car kits, battery packs, speaker sets, and a million and a half little chargers lying around the house, each built with a dock that may not work with the upcoming phone. There will probably be an adapter somewhere, though that won’t always be a good solution.

Accessory makers could also be in for a big pinch. If a new iPhone arrives with a revised port, suddenly their entire product line could be rendered obsolete to anyone looking to buy the new model. If Apple is kind, maybe it’ll give some of the more trusted third parties a sneak preview.

As usual, Apple itself wouldn’t confirm anything about this, but the next iPhone is highly expected to arrive this fall.

Crawling Out of the Hole?

Facebook’s massive Wall Street pratfall from a month ago bloodied up institutions and individuals across the board: Morgan Stanley, the Nasdaq, investors, market analysts, executives from several involved companies, not to mention the social network as a whole. Even CNBC has been taking heat for being altogether too excited about the IPO — and that criticism is coming from Facebook’s own underwriters.

Watching FB value sink deeper and deeper beneath its $38 starting price quickly became a source of morbid fascination, as well as fodder for talk about yet another busted up tech bubble. I think I even read something that claimed it was going to pull the entire world economy down with it.

But is it possible that after 30 days or so, Facebook has finally washed off the stink from that gruesome opening week? Shares seem to be on a rebound, or at least a steady climb. At Thursday’s close, they were at $31.84, up three quarters of a point after a down day for the general market. That’s after bottoming out at $25.52 a few weeks ago.

So what’s behind this recent ascent? It may not be only matter of early investors healing from their massive burns. Maybe Facebook really is doing something right and addressing concerns regarding its revenue stream. It’s introduced a bidding platform that could help better target its ads. It’s ditched those Facebook Credits for a system based on real-world currencies. It’s offered subscription services to app makers. And it seems to be directing some much-needed attention to mobile advertising, which has been a huge blind spot.

Whatever the case, Facebook still doesn’t have its head above water, if you consider the water line its debut price of $38. By that standard, it’s still submerged, though at least it’s doing a sub-surface doggy paddle.

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