Microsoft Sends Up Trial Balloons for Windows 7

Windows Vista hasn't fared so well since its debut. Its generally low reputation among customers has led one Forrester analyst to dub Microsoft's latest OS "the New Coke of tech," while some studies have suggested that nearly a third of customers who buy a PC with Vista pre-installed may actually be downgrading those machines to XP.

Still other customers seem to wish the whole thing will just go away. They don't want to hear about Vista at all -- they'd rather hear about Windows 7, the upcoming OS from Microsoft that will be Vista's successor. And given the dismal consumer reaction to its latest attempts to market Vista, Microsoft seems willing to oblige. The sketchy early reports of Windows 7 have lately grown into a steady trickle of hints and rumors. The catch is, not all of it sounds particularly encouraging.

Perhaps because of the beatings it so often receives from the press, Microsoft seems to want you to get your Windows 7 news from the horse's mouth as much as possible. To that end, the Windows team has launched a new blog to chronicle the Windows 7 engineering efforts in detail. Senior Windows 7 product managers Jon DeVaan and Steven Sinofsky promise to "post, comment, and participate" regularly.

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Microsoft's OOXML Wins ISO Approval

It looks as if Microsoft's OOXML office document file format will be published as an open standard after all. The International Standards Organization (ISO) today rejected four appeals from subsidiary national standards bodies that claimed ballot irregularities during the standardization process. Had these appeals been upheld, an OOXML standard could have been delayed indefinitely, despite Microsoft's best efforts to fast-track the process.

Barring any further hold-ups, ISO is expected to publish the full text of the standard within the next few weeks. But as the dust clears, many IT managers and office software users will likely be left scratching their heads: What does an open standard office file format from Microsoft actually get us?

A competing set of file formats, called ODF (Open Document Format), was accepted as an ISO standard more than two years ago. ODF is already in use in a number of competing office software products, including OpenOffice.org, AbiWord, and IBM's Lotus Symphony. Its success in the face of Microsoft's protracted effort to produce its own standard even recently prompted Microsoft employee Stuart McKee to remark, "ODF has clearly won [the standards battle]."

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VMware ESX Bug Causes Outage

Users are rightfully annoyed when services like Gmail experience unexpected outages. We've come to expect that our e-mail should be available whenever we need it -- even when the service is provided for free. Imagine your frustration, then, if you found out that software you had bought and paid for had suddenly stopped functioning on a certain date.

This is exactly the problem faced by customers of VMware ESX, VMware's enterprise-class virtualization engine. As of today, due to a bug in VMware's license management software, no new virtual machine instances will launch for customers running VMware ESX 3.5 U2. And so far, there's no fix.

Virtualization software allows customers to split their PCs and servers into separate virtual machines. Each of these artificial partitions acts as if it were a separate computer, complete with its own set of hardware, peripherals, and OS. Because it offers ease of use and increased security, virtualization has become an increasingly popular method of provisioning and managing systems in business datacenters.

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IBM Challenges Microsoft for the SMB Desktop

For most small to midsized businesses, software means Microsoft. For almost any category of business software -- from word processing to spreadsheets, presentations to communication and collaboration -- Microsoft is the de facto vendor of choice. Alternatives do exist, but who wants to be the first one to rock the boat? Microsoft has grown so cocky about its position that it even bragged that it would soon steal five million users away from IBM's Lotus Notus, a competitor to its own Outlook and Exchange.

That's not the kind of threat that IBM takes lying down. On the contrary; it's digging in. Big Blue claims that it is redoubling its efforts to win customers away from Microsoft, beginning with a big win in Asia and new partnerships with major Linux vendors.

First, says IBM, just because Microsoft enjoys seemingly unshakeable dominance of the U.S. business software market doesn't mean that has to be the case everywhere. Big Blue sees a big opportunity for its own software in Asia and other emerging markets, and it's backing up that speculation with real numbers. Just last week it announced a single deal with an as-yet-unnamed Asian company that it says will add 300,000 new seats to its Lotus Notes business.

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Cucku Backup Invites You to Partner Up

Just as it's a good idea to store important documents in a safe deposit box to protect against fire, storing a copy of your data offsite is a smart move for any business. But for many individuals and small businesses, regular backups are enough of a chore, let alone regularly moving those backed-up files to offsite storage. It's easy to fall out of the habit.

A new startup called Cucku thinks the answer is something it calls "social backup software." Cucku Backup makes regular backups of your important files to a local hard disk and then automatically sends a copy of the latest changes to an offsite "backup partner" -- whether it's a dedicated server or just a friend with a PC. You don't need any special hardware to make it happen. So how does it work? I'll give you a hint: Your backup partner can't be more than a phone call away (but Cucku doesn't use a modem).

Give up? The answer is that Cucku is a novel use of the Skype voice-over-IP network. Both you and your backup partner need to have the Skype client installed in addition to the Cucku Backup software. But rather than placing voice calls, Cucku uses Skype to locate your partner on the Internet and initiate file transfers. It just sends backup data instead of voice data. The big advantage of this method is that, thanks to the Skype engineers' know-how, it makes it easy for less technically inclined users to connect to each other, without worrying about the vagaries of routers, firewalls, or IP networking.

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Exploit Reveals the Darker Side of Automatic Updates

A recent study of Web browser installations showed that far too few are up to date with the latest security patches. And browsers aren't alone; as my dear old mum can attest, it can be hard to keep up with OS and application patches when all you want to do is use your computer for work. It should come as no surprise that many PCs are vulnerable to security exploits that could otherwise be prevented.

Firefox got top marks in the browser study because of its automatic update feature, which notifies users of the latest patches as soon as they're available. A growing number of vendors are using a similar approach, automatically checking for updates whenever you use their software. But now it turns out that automatic updates aren't always all they're cracked up to be. A new exploit called Evilgrade can take advantage of automatic updaters to install malicious code on unsuspecting systems, and your computers could be more vulnerable than you think.

Evilgrade is designed as a modular framework that accepts plug-ins capable of mounting attacks on a variety of software packages that employ their own auto-update procedures. Currently-supported targets include the Java browser plug-in, WinZip, Winamp, OpenOffice.org, the LinkedIn Toolbar, iTunes, and Mac OS X, among others. Still more plug-ins are liable to be developed in coming months.

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SourceForge Award Winners Announced

Earlier I mentioned SourceForge.net's annual Community Choice Awards, designed to honor open source software projects in a variety of categories. This year's awards were open to any open source projects, not just ones that were hosted on SourceForge.net, so they promised to be an accurate representation of the entire field.

Now it's done. Your input was received and the votes were tallied. The winners were announced on Thursday during a ceremony at the O'Reilly Group's OSCON open source convention. And in the end -- though it was a worthwhile exercise -- the roster of honorees offered few surprises.

OpenOffice.org was the big winner. The open source office productivity suite captured the award for best project overall, as well as being voted in as best project for the enterprise and education markets.

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