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    Not much under Microsoft’s tree for Christmas this year

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2007

    First published in Business in Vancouver 
    September 25-October 1, 2007; issue 935
    High Tech Office

    You might think it’s a bit early to start thinking about Christmas gift giving. Nevertheless, Microsoft Canada’s annual holiday caravan passed through Vancouver the first week of September, inviting local technology journalists to see what Microsoft hopes readers will put under their trees this year.

    I was happy to be invited – for the splendid view from the penthouse of a downtown hotel, for the better-than-average snacks and for a chance to chat with four Microsoft product specialists and see where they think the home market is going.

    Whatever your opinion of the company, Microsoft has played a leadership role in expanding the use of computers by home (and home business) users. It was an early promoter of the use of educational and multimedia CD-ROMs, offered innovative and ergonomic keyboards and mice, championed easy-to-secure WiFi networking and more. Last year’s Christmas junket promoted hand-held media players and home media centre computers from various manufacturers, new versions of the company’s Encarta Encyclopedia, Streets & Trips (with laptop-usable GPS adapters – very cool) and lots more neat stuff.

    This time around, though, there seemed to me to be a change in emphasis. I got a preview of upcoming home network server software, which promises to allow home users to keep documents, photos, music and other media on a centralized, easily managed server, accessible from multiple computers at home and (securely) across the Internet.

    Automated backups could prove invaluable, and this, along with promised ease of installation and management might make it a valuable addition for home-based businesses (even though Microsoft doesn’t seem to be aiming it at that market).

    Another product specialist showed off the company’s MSN Live online services, reworking existing Hotmail and MSN Messenger services for better integration, and expanding the range of free services offered. With arguably better integration than similar online services from Google or Yahoo, these could prove useful and popular.

    Another product specialist demonstrated security options built into Microsoft’s Windows Vista operating system with a focus on parental control features. These let parents have power over where their children can go online, what games they can play and even when they’re allowed to use the computer. Parents can view a detailed log of their child’s computer activities. Most parents – including those who bought new computers with Vista pre-installed this year – are probably unaware of these well-implemented features.

    The last of the four stations I visited featured Scene It! And Viva Pinata Party Animal – nice looking family-oriented games for the company’s popular Xbox 360 game console and updates to Zoo Tycoon and Age of Empire PC games (along with the company’s new high-performance Sidewinder Mouse, aimed at gamers). I appreciate the efforts the company is making to broaden the range of games for its popular Xbox console beyond shooters. But overall, there wasn’t much to go under the Christmas tree.

    Microsoft offers other software and gadgets for home and small business users. The CD-based press kit they handed out had images of computer mice, keyboards, web cams, updated home software and games and accessories for PCs and Xbox 360s.

    But compared with years past, Microsoft seemed to be downplaying this part of its product line. Nobody was demoing next year’s versions of educational products like Microsoft Encarta or Microsoft Student or home-oriented products like Microsoft Money or Streets and Trips. And not one word was mentioned about the company’s Zune MP3 player, which so far has failed to be an iPod-killer.

    I appreciated learning more about Microsoft’s Home Server and MSN Live products and seeing Vista’s parental controls in action. These might prove useful to many BIV readers. But if Microsoft’s holiday tour is anything to go on, there may not be much from the High Tech Office under this year’s tree. Hopefully the competition will have more to offer. •

Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan

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