Canadians celebrate new Xbox 360 dashboard, long for Netflix-like partnership

xbox 360Xbox 360 owners should be excited about the announcements Microsoft made today at E3! A number of new games were shown, including Fable 2, Gears of War 2, Fallout 3, and Resident Evil 5 (interesting that the most anticipated games are all sequels). They announced a bunch of new downloadable games, and will finally make community-designed games available in the next update. They’re enabling “play from hard drive” functionality, and have added a few new display support options.

Other new features include the ability to browse Xbox Live Marketplace content on the web, and the Xbox Live Party System which enables up to eight friends to connect to watch a movie, play a game, or share photos. Related to that feature are the new avatars, an extension to gamertags akin to Nintendo’s Mii.

And then there’s the two biggest announcements of all: the dashboard is getting a makeover, and Live Gold members will soon have access to Netflix streaming. When I heard about the dashboard update I thought, “finally”:

“When people turn on their Xbox 360s this fall, they’ll get an entirely new interface and Dashboard, an entirely new Xbox through the magic of software,” said John Schappert, head of Live services.

Microsoft is a software company after all, it’s about time they take advantage of that to do some cool new things with the console.

When I heard about the Netflix streaming feature, I thought “cool”. I agreed right away with MG Siegler:

With one fell swoop, Microsoft may have dealt its strongest blow in the consumer market to Apple in years.

Then I realized I live in Canada.

Netflix only serves U.S. customers at the moment, and as far as I know plans to expand to Canada and the UK were shelved a long time ago. The amount of content on Xbox Live for Canadians is already far behind our American counterparts, and this announcement just means we’re even further behind. As Mathew Ingram says:

If what you like is anything made by the CBC and the occasional CTV show like Little Mosque on the Prairie, then you are probably going to be in heaven. Otherwise, you are out of luck.

Sad, but true. I’m excited for the new dashboard and other features, but once again disappointed that as a Canadian my access to media via the Internet is severely limited.

Something to keep an eye on: Microsoft Velocity

Last week I heard about a new project from Microsoft code-named Velocity. You can think of Velocity as Microsoft’s version of the very popular memcached:

“Velocity” is a distributed in-memory cache that provides .NET applications with high-speed access, scale, and high availability to application data.

Basically it’s a backend technology that helps to make websites perform better. Instead of accessing the database every time a page is requested, the website can often get the data it needs from the cache which is much faster than accessing the database.

ASP.NET has had caching built-in for years, but it doesn’t work in a server farm. That is, if you have more than one web server, there’s no way for all of them to share the same cache. Velocity makes that possible. For a good technical overview of Velocity, check out this post from Dare Obasanjo. Also check out Scott Hanselman’s podcast interview with two of Velocity’s architects.

We use memcached in Podcast Spot, and we’ve been very happy with it. It’s simple, efficient, and does just what we need it to do. Of course, our memcached installation is no where near the size of Facebook’s. I’ve read in a few places in the past that they run a 200 server cluster with 3 TB of memory solely for memcached. I’m sure it has grown since then too.

I have no idea how well Velocity will perform compared to memcached, or even if it’s full of bugs or not! I am eager to play around with it though, and it’s a project I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on. Velocity is a project from Microsoft that is long overdue, in my opinion.

Let Microsoft run Exchange for you

microsoft exchange Live Mesh and other consumer facing initiatives tend to garner the majority of the headlines related to Microsoft’s cloud computing initiatives, but it’s the simple, more boring things like hosted Exchange services that will probably have a bigger direct impact on the bottom line. I’ve run my own servers for a long time now, and while it isn’t incredibly difficult it is time consuming. I’d definitely welcome a switch to having Microsoft run them for me. They seem think it’s going to happen very quickly:

In an interview ahead of the Reuters Global Technology, Media and Telecoms Summit, Chris Capossela, who manages Microsoft’s Office products, said the company will see more and more companies abandon their own in-house computer systems and shift to “cloud computing,” a less expensive alternative.

“In five years, 50 percent of our Exchange mailboxes will be Exchange Online,” said Capossela, who expects a portion of Exchange Online customers to come from customers switching from International Business Machines’ (IBM.N) Lotus Domino system.

When you run your own Exchange server, there’s a lot of things you need to worry about. You need to ensure it is patched with the latest updates, that the junk mail filters are configured correctly, that data is being backed up properly, etc. It would be much better if Microsoft just did all of that for me.

I know there are already companies that do this sort of thing, but there’s something about having Microsoft behind the service that appeals to me. They should be the experts on their own software, after all. And I’m sure they’ll eventually offer a suite of these services that’ll just be a no-brainer for small businesses.

Why buy, install, and support an increasingly expensive Small Business Server, when you can just pay Microsoft a monthly fee to do it all for you? That’s where cloud computing will have the biggest impact on businesses.

Read: Yahoo! News

comingzune in Edmonton on May 16th

The iPod still has a lock on the market for portable media players, but at least Microsoft is doing some interesting marketing. Over the weekend I was notified about the comingzune parties happening in seven Canadian cities (it seems Montreal was a late addition).

comingzune

The Edmonton event takes place on Friday night at 9pm at The Artery, which Sharon tells me is an up and coming venue in our city. Here’s the map of the location.

I love the band name – The Wicked Awesomes! Never heard of them before though. They are five local guys, apparently influenced by devo. Take from that, what you will.

Microsoft's Live Mesh

live mesh One of the big tech stories today was the launch of Live Mesh, Microsoft’s new platform for synchronizing files, applications, and other stuff across different devices. I read quite a few articles about Live Mesh, and I have to admit I find it daunting to comprehend. Here’s the definition from Mary Jo Foley:

“Live Mesh is a ’software-plus-services’ platform and experience from Microsoft that enables PCs and other devices to ‘come alive’ by making them aware of each other through the Internet, enabling individuals and organizations to manage, access, and share their files and applications seamlessly on the Web and across their world of devices.” If I were in charge of defining Live Mesh, I think I’d go with “a Software + Services platform for synchronization and collaboration.”

Complex, exciting, and confusing all at once. Scoble says synchronization is just the beginning too.

Here’s what Live Mesh means to me: Microsoft is serious about cloud computing, and they’re prepared to be an important player in the space.

That’s really all I care about at this point. I’m sure Live Mesh will look vastly different in two years than it does today. I’m just glad Ray Ozzie is behind it. I absolutely love Groove and expect that Live Mesh will be like Groove on major steroids!

Some observations:

Developers, you can get started here. It’s not live yet, but they’ll have a technology preview program soon. For everyone else, check out the pretty pictures here.

Read: Ten things to know about Microsoft’s Live Mesh

Windows XP Service Pack 3 (SP3) RTM

windows It’s official, Windows XP SP3 has finally been released to manufacturing. An announcement was quietly made today on the TechNet XP forum:

Today we are happy to announce that Windows XP Service Pack 3 (SP3) has released to manufacturing (RTM). Windows XP SP3 bits are now working their way through our manufacturing channels to be available to OEM and Enterprise customers.

The update will be available at Windows Update and on the Microsoft Download site on April 29th. It will be pushed out via Automatic Updates starting June 10th. MSDN and TechNet subscribers should have access to the download later today.

There isn’t a lot of new functionality in SP3, but it’ll definitely be nice to avoid having to download dozens of updates after a fresh install of XP with SP2. Here’s a list of some of the included improvements.

Keep an eye on the Windows XP site for updates. There’s more commentary at Techmeme.

Windows is not doomed

windows For the last few days, articles about a recent Gartner report have been unavoidable in the tech blogosphere. The report suggests that Microsoft’s Windows operating system is going to collapse under its own weight, and that it needs major changes in order to stay relevant. You know, the usual anti-Microsoft FUD.

Finally, today, I came across Mary Jo Foley’s post on the topic over at her All about Microsoft blog:

It’s not news that Windows is huge and unwieldy. Many (probably most) of Microsoft’s own Windows developers would agree with that premise. But to suggest that Microsoft is burying its head in the sand and hoping its problems just go away is ridiculous. And to pretend that online advertising revenues will be Redmond’s bail-out money for its Windows/Office franchises any time soon is a joke.

Finally someone who tells it like it is. Like it or not, if you think Windows is going to disappear anytime soon, you’re seriously delusional. She finishes with:

Microsoft’s continued unwillingness to talk Windows 7 and Windows futures shouldn’t be confused with a lack of plans for how to keep Windows and its successor(s) alive. I think there’s still a lot more fight left in Microsoft than folks seem to realize. And Windows is going to be a key part of Microsoft’s future arsenal, not just a remnant of its monopolistic past.

Maybe we’ll look back on Vista in a negative light, but that doesn’t mean Windows in general is doomed.

Read: All about Microsoft

U of A forces students to use ancient software

frontpage I’ve written many times before about my disappointment with the state of technology education at the University of Alberta, most recently here. My biggest complaint has usually been that they teach outdated or otherwise useless concepts in Computing Sciences and other fields, but the tools and technologies they choose and use are often just as bad (and these influence the concepts).

Here’s an example from my friend Eric, who is nearly finished his MIS degree at the School of Business:

Our latest project requires us to develop a single web page using Microsoft FrontPage that includes an Access database we created last week. This is worth 10% of our course mark.

Microsoft discontinued FrontPage in 2006, two years ago.

Technically the product was discontinued in 2006, but the last release was actually back in 2003. Yes, nearly five years ago.

I remember FrontPage with a very tiny amount of fondness. It was the first web page building tool I ever used, back when I was in junior high. It was so fun! Then I got a little older, a little smarter, and realized that FrontPage was absolute crap. Microsoft did too, and decided they’d give up on the application that they had originally purchased for about $130 million. It has since been replaced with SharePoint Designer and Expression Web.

Eric asked his professors why they are being forced to use FrontPage, and was told that the university has a contract for support until the end of the semester.

This is completely unacceptable. Students are being taught to use a tool they’ll never use in the real world. A tool that hinders development more than it helps (due to some very strange functionality, such as not keeping code and design views in sync). A tool that generates such terrible, invalid HTML that Microsoft felt it was better to start over.

That point about standards is particularly important, IMHO. By using FrontPage, the U of A is essentially teaching students that generating crappy code is okay. The garbage that FrontPage generates (and that IE used to support) is part of the reason for this mess. Microsoft has decided recently that IE8 will interpret pages in the most standards compliant way it can, a welcome change (even if it doesn’t completely pan out).

Eric finishes with:

You wouldn’t pay $468.60 for a math course using slide rules, so why should we pay to use outdated software?

It’s a good point, but more important than the tool is the concept. You wouldn’t pay $468.60 for an accounting course that taught you how to create non-standard balance sheets, so why should you pay for a technology course that teaches you to create non-standard web pages?

Read: Soliciting Fame

Microsoft's WorldWide Telescope

wwtelescope If you spend any time in the blogosphere, you probably heard about Robert Scoble’s sob session on Valentine’s Day. He said that he was shown a project at Microsoft Research that was so world-changing it brought tears to his eyes. Scoble said he couldn’t tell anyone what it was until February 27th, and he kept that promise. Today he explained:

Lots of people are asking me questions about what made me cry at Microsoft a few weeks ago.

If I told you “a telescope” you’d make fun of me, right? Tell me I’m lame and that I don’t deserve to be a geek and that I should run away and join the circus, right?

Well, that’s what I saw.

The project is called the WorldWide Telescope. Here’s how it is described on the official website:

The WorldWide Telescope (WWT) is a rich visualization environment that functions as a virtual telescope, bringing together imagery from the best ground- and space telescopes to enable seamless, guided explorations of the universe. WorldWide Telescope, created with Microsoft®’s high-performance Visual Experience Engine™, enables seamless panning and zooming across the night sky blending terabytes of images, data, and stories from multiple sources over the Internet into a media-rich, immersive experience.

It does sound like a pretty cool project for astronomy, and like Scoble says, it could have a really huge impact on education and the way we view and understand our place in the universe. Scoble will have a video up on Monday showing it off, and it should be officially available sometime this spring.

Read: Scobleizer

DreamSpark: Free developer tools for students from Microsoft

software DreamSpark is an awesome new program for students that Microsoft announced today. I wish they offered something like this while I was still a student. Heck, this might even be enough to sway some folks into going back to school for a semester or two! Here’s the description from Channel 8:

For once, something that sounds too good to be true really is this good and really is true. Starting today (or soon in some areas), students worldwide will be able to download our professional development and design tools for free! It’s called DreamSpark and it is upon us.

Nathan Weinberg sums it up nicely:

We’re talking over $2,000 in free software, just for being a college student. We’re talking a huge gift to students, letting classes teach this stuff without software costs, lettings students develop software without these costs, and letting any student pick up some stuff to play around with without a monetary commitment.

It’s important to stress that these are the professional versions of the software. You get Visual Studio 2008 Professional Edition and Windows Server 2003 Standard Edition, for instance. You could quite conceivably start a company while in school using Microsoft technologies and not pay a cent.

Pretty darn cool!

The program is currently available in eleven countries: Belgium, China, Finland, France, Germany, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States. I suspect the only reason China is on that list is because so many people there get pirated versions anyway.

Microsoft has always been really proactive about courting students. Other programs include Academic Alliance, Microsoft Student Partners, and the Imagine Cup.

Read: Channel 8 (includes a video introduction with Bill Gates)