Can Microsoft Play with the Tech Giants?

Spoiler alert: I think Microsoft is one of the tech giants.

When characterizing the technology wars of our age, I suspect many of us come up with the right wars. We think PC vs. Mac for home computers, we think Google and Apple for smartphones (though Microsoft is coming up in this area rather nicely), we think Google and…Bing? Well, we think Google for search, at least. Google pits itself against Firefox (and Microsoft is trying so hard with Internet Explorer 10) in the realm of web browsers. Tablets are primarily a war between, again, Apple and Google, though others have tried to break in, some with outright failure (HP Touchpad, Blackberry Playbook) and others with some success, and a lot of hope (Microsoft Surface).

Once upon a time, Microsoft was a seemingly undisputed leader in almost everything related to computer software: everything ran Windows, even mobile operating systems. RIM broke in and stole the mobile field, at least for business-minded-consumers, and Apple has kept Microsoft on their toes in the desktop OS arena. The giant from Redmond is getting smaller year by year, or so it seems. Their latest move, which is to introduce a whole new design for everything they make (from Office to Windows, from Xbox to Windows Phone), at times feels desperate, but it also feels intelligent. There’s something here to win hearts over, and something quite powerful.

Why, then, are they left out of technology war articles?

Take this article, over at The Economist. After describing the technology war as a Game of Thrones-esque battlefield, they have this to say about Microsoft:

And there is an ancient empire to contend with, too: Microsoft, which recently launched its first tablet computer, is trying hard to get back into the game, having been profitably preoccupied with PC software. But it is the battle between the big four that will have the greatest impact in future on the way people find information, consume content and purchase all kinds of stuff, and on who takes their money in return.

The article talks primarily about Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon. While the focus is on content management and our intake of information, it still seems odd to include Amazon and Facebook. Don’t get me wrong: I use both of these services, and there are lots of things I love about each. Amazon single-handedly changed the way I shop online, and Facebook helps me keep in touch with people from all over the world. Amazon may have the power to strong-arm something in the future (they’ve got a market for a digital library rivaling Apple, and probably has a stronger movie catalog), but Facebook is a social media website, like Myspace or Google+. Granted, Facebook is doing extremely well; it’s so ubiquitous at this point, it’s shocking to find people who aren’t on it. My Grandma uses Facebook, for instance.

But Facebook is hardly a tech giant, any more than Tumblr or Twitter. Whether you’re posting pictures of your kids, reblogging an endless sea of memes, or microblogging just about anything you want, the web is a wide place with plenty of outlets for your information. Facebook is hardly unique on that front, even if it is the most populated. It does what it does well, and maybe even better than anyone else, but the main complaint with Google+ (as an example) is how empty it is.

So why does Facebook get included in the Great Tech Wars story, and Microsoft barely gets a mention? It’s an odd shift from the days of the Mac vs. PC commercials. Microsoft, in the eyes of many, was stagnating. No one really liked Windows Mobile, even if people are willing to admit that they love the new Windows Phone platform, save for a ‘lack of apps.’ Then there was that whole Vista debacle, which goes to show how much of an impact a poor launch can have on the long-standing value of a platform. Vista was actually a solid operating system, once it got through the first service pack. But, of course, Vista is one of the most hated editions of Windows.

But are Vista and Windows Mobile really enough to damage Microsoft as a contender in the world of tech? Is it now just an ancient empire, vying for years gone by?

In short, yes. Well, sort of.

Microsoft damaged itself, but it wowed the world with Windows 7. The shift from Vista to 7 was grand, in a lot of ways, and it really has paid off. But damage was done, and Apple worked their way in. Suddenly a stylish decision from Microsoft was surprising. Read any review of Windows Phone 7 when it was first released, or even the initial impressions of Windows 8, and you’ll find a tone of surprise: Microsoft did something cool. And this mentality has stuck: the iPhone is a symbol of ‘cool,’ an Android phone is a symbol of ‘not following the sheep who love Apple products,’ and Windows Phones are just ‘surprisingly cool,’ but mean little to many observers.

And so Microsoft has to fight an uphill battle that I’m not really sure they even should have to fight. They’re striving for perceptions, even though reality says they still hold the majority of desktop OSes, particularly in schools and businesses. The trick now is convincing users that they can run with the cool tech of today, with tablets and smartphones and peripherals. They’ve done that with Windows Phone, and most people who have used the platform agree on that front. The risk is on their home desktop, Windows 8. Time will tell if it will land Microsoft in a place of success or having to fight yet another battle.

But know this: the ancient empire is hardly squashed. It’s not even missing, it’s just not lit up quite as bright.

Image via Microsoft.

Grooveshark, Free Music, and the Future of the Music Industry

That title may be a bit much. More specifically, the title may sound like it is speaking to a lot of things, but I think it may actually all be one thing. With the recent lawsuits against Grooveshark by all of the major music labels, the folks over at Gizmodo sat down with the CEO of the little company, and came up with Six Reasons Why Recorded Music Should Be Free. And, actually, I think they may be right. Continue reading Grooveshark, Free Music, and the Future of the Music Industry

Re: Kindle-ing

Three years spent repairing old books in the basement of a university library can’t help but leave a girl like me with a definite bias.  I love books–and I don’t just love reading them.  I love the smell of leather, I love the texture of fine paper, and I love the way a well-bound volume falls open in my hands.

I was less than entranced when I first heard of’s electronic reader, the Kindle. No paper?  No binding?  No thanks.  Turns out, though, that 600 page hardbacks are a lot more difficult to carry when you’re not in college.  You can only wear a backpack for so long—pair that with the unfathomable number of toys, snacks, and other necessaries that inevitably accumulate in every mother’s purse, and I needed a change.

Or a bookmobile.  That might have worked, too.

Given the price of gas, it’s probably good that my friends and family didn’t go for the bookmobile idea.  They got me a Kindle instead.  And I love it.

The newest version of Amazon’s portable sales platform is slim, sleek, and satisfying to even an accomplished book snob aficionado like myself.  It will never replace the book’s traditional form, but it has some definite advantages that I’ve quickly come to rely on.

The Kindle is as easy to read as Amazon claims, and yes, you can read it in bright sunlight.  It’s easy to underline passages and to take notes, though unfortunately you can’t draw cartoon commentary in the margins.  (Come on, I know I’m not the only person who does that.)

The Kindle’s massive storage capabilities are an obvious advantage, and as I said it’s easy to read.  It’s not ideal for serious study of a complicated text, however.  Difficult books often require that you flip forward and backward in the text multiple times, and it’s much easier to do this in a book than on a Kindle.  The problem of flipping pages to find a specific passage is partially addressed by the fact that the Kindle stores all highlighted blocks in their own section which can be accessed from the main menu.  This does not solve the whole problem, however, because, if you read like I do, you must click through page upon page of these clips.  The clips are searchable, which helps, especially if you are comfortable bringing your google habits with you to your books—but if you prefer to treat google and great books separately, you’re out of luck.

I used to think the Kindle would change the way we read books in the way that changing the medium so often changes a message.  I’m not so concerned about that anymore, as I think the Kindle is basically a book with buttons instead of binding, pixels instead of pages.  My eyes do not tire from reading the Kindle in the same way that they do from staring at a computer screen, and the paperback-sized volume fits comfortably in either hand.   My comprehension of what I have read has always been lower when I’ve read from a computer screen instead of from a book, so I usually have to print online articles that I really care about reading.  I have no similar troubles with the Kindle.

There’s still something about the solid feel of a good book that simply cannot and should not be replaced—though the Kindle comes close.  Closer, at least, than most bookmobiles. ‘