Paul Thorrott’s All Worked Up Over Win 7 RTM

I frequent Paul Thorrott’s SuperSite for Windows for juicy tidbits on unreleased or recently released Microsoft software products. The other day, I was browsing around the Office 2010 pages, looking over the features I should be paying attention to in the 2010 Technical Preview (in which this post is authored). I came across something of a rant by Mr. Thorrott on the matter of Windows 7 RTM. A rant which I found to be quite confusing.

Paul’s main point of contention is Microsoft’s apparent purpose muddying of the waters surrounding Windows 7 RTM.

Instead, Brandon lashes out at the “rumors surrounding RTM,” repeating the Steven Sinofksy claim that …

“RTM isn’t a single point in time.”

Um, what? Releasing a product to manufacturing is very much a single point in time. If it’s not, you’re not doing it right. Life isn’t a giant flowchart for crying out loud.

RTM (Release to Manufacturing) is actually a code-branch. It also refers (obviously) to the act of releasing the finished codebase to manufacturing, for stamping and packaging. However, Brandon LeBlanc’s comment holds water – RTM development isn’t a single point in time. Perhaps this point was misinterpreted. The intended RTM build may go through several candidates. Once again, the wrap up of the RTM branch is slated for the latter half of July. If August rolls around and it hasn’t wrapped up, then start preparing for the flaming torches and pitchfork procession up Microsoft Way.

But Paul isn’t done:

But that’s not my real issue. It’s this little diatribe about leaked builds (bolded emphasis mine):

Beware of what you download. There are many bogus copies of Windows 7 floating around the Internet. More often than not, they contain a rather nice malware payload. And don’t believe everything you read on the Internet. When Windows 7 hits RTM, it will be announced here. Until that happens, any builds you are likely to see on the web are either not the final bits or are laced with malicious code.

Wow.

So how will you announce RTM if it’s not a single point in time?

And how is it, exactly, that we should trust what you write if, a) we can’t trust everything on the Internet, and, b) you get so much wrong?

There are bogus copies of Windows 7, indeed packed with a nice malware payload. It’s irresponsible for Paul to intimate, with the emphasis (his, not mine) and a comment that none of the builds he’s downloaded have malware, that no build on the vast Internet has malware. The comments to his article point out that plenty of users have downloaded compromised versions.

And once again, the RTM process ends with the official RTM. So yes, it’s both a “giant flowchart” and a point in time. Jumping all over LeBlanc isn’t going to change that misinterpretation.

Recall that the technical press who attended the Windows 7 Reviewers Workshop in October was promised, explicitly by Microsoft, regular interim Windows 7 builds. We got exactly zero of those builds. So, given the veil of secrecy, we’ve been forced to download “bogus copies of Windows 7” to see how things have progressed over time.

Why did we “have” to do this? Some of us had books to complete, thank you very much. Some are press who simply believe in the whole Fourth Estate thing. I fall into both categories–ultimately, my job is to communicate what Microsoft is doing, after all–and I have personally downloaded every single leaked build that’s popped up. I have also, in fact, had access to several builds that were never leaked widely. I have never, ever–not once–gotten malware as part of any of these downloads. Not once. I’m not saying its not possible. I’m just saying it never happened. Unlike Brandon, I downloaded the builds. Because I had to. Who should you trust on this?

It’s unfortunate that Microsoft did not release interim builds for reviewers, outside of the Beta and then RC1. Whether these were the builds Microsoft was referencing or other ones that were never released, it’s quite comical to see Paul’s indignant reaction to it. Beta 1 was released January 9, RC1 on May 5, and the final RTM build will be available to MSDN and TechNet subscribers a couple weeks after the RTM announcement. That seems decently ‘regular’ to me. In fact, if the intention is to complete a book on Windows 7, it seems to me, downloading leaked, interim builds would only hurt, not help the cause. What is to say feature changes don’t make it into those builds, only to be undone or changed further in the officially released builds? While the Beta 1 and RC1 builds didn’t come with any sort of guarantee, the leaked builds were even less certain. ‘Forced’ to download leaked copies is like saying you were ‘forced’ to park in the disabled spot because there were no other spots. You just find another way.

Further, Paul says the following:

Regarding RTM, I have been told privately on more than one occasion that we can expect a few weeks of dicking around (not the official term, but, I think, more accurate) while Microsoft takes build 7600 and basically revs it based on last-minute fixes. This happens with each Windows release, of course.

Of course it happens with each Windows release, because it’s the RTM branch process. Just like there were months of ‘dicking around’ before RC1 was released. And the same before Beta 1. You get the picture. Programmers don’t individually build their pieces of code, slap it together in integration, and ship it as the final RTM build. At least, I’d hope not. I think you’d end up with something along the lines of Vista, if that were the case. Zing.

But the best part of Tom’s post, the point of it really, is that LeBlanc isn’t alone in misleading the public. Yesterday, during the WPC keynote, Microsoft senior vice president Bill Veghte neatly tap-danced around when Microsoft would RTM Windows 7. In fact, it was disappointing because he was so vague. Here’s what he said about RTM, and you can see it for yourself at 56:41 in the video (again, emphasis mine):

It is such an exciting time. This month we will release Windows 7 to manufacturing, and we write that next chapter, we go after that opportunity.

There’s just one problem. The official transcript of the speech, clearly written off the script ahead of time (or just a simple mistake, I guess; either way, it’s wrong), reads as follows:

It is such an exciting time. This morning we will release Windows 7 to manufacturing, and we write that next chapter, we go after that opportunity.

So again, I have to ask? Why are you, Microsoft, railing against bloggers when you don’t even get it right?

Because plans can’t change, right, Paul? Sure maybe the intention was to have the final RTM build ready that morning, but the likely reasoning behind the last minute change, was well, a last minute change in the code. It’ll be done this month, so don’t get your panties in a bunch yet, simply because Bill was informed of a slight change in plans. Hardly worthy of the conspiracy you’re drumming up, Paul.

Why doesn’t Ultimate get a temporary low-cost Upgrade? You screwed those customers, plain and simple. Now you’re screwing them again.

It’s a money game. Sorry, but people get screwed every day. Is it right? Probably not. But even if Microsoft were to release a cheap upgrade for Ultimate, it would still be more expensive than Professional. Perhaps they don’t see the demand for it? Who knows? As always, no good deed goes unpunished. Cheap upgrades are fantastic, yet the focus is on the one party that gets screwed. I wonder if we’d still be having this conversation if there were no cheap upgrades, period.

Why don’t you support in-place upgrades from your single biggest customer group (XP users)? You could upgrade from XP to Vista. Why are you punishing the biggest group of Windows users by making the Windows 7 “upgrade” more difficult for them? Don’t you care about your customers? You used to: You supposedly delayed Windows 98 to support in-place upgrades from Windows 3.1 over a decade ago. Remember that?

Part of the issue was probably the rash issues of upgrading XP to Vista. Drivers and applications broke left, right, and center. That was part of the issue with Vista, when drivers weren’t complete or just plain buggy. Applications from XP weren’t compatible with Vista. Upgrading to Windows 7 would be little different. Microsoft is promoting a new start with Win 7. Think of the horror stories that would pop up if XP to Win7 was allowed. Then it really would be a rehash of Vista again.

Why is Windows 7 so freaking expensive in some parts of the world, especially Europe? And don’t say VAT. That’s not it.

Why are camera lenses so expensive in Canada?!? Why is broadband so expensive in Australia? Here’s a thought – perhaps the EU’s been banging the Microsoft monopoly drum for so long, Microsoft feels it can price Windows 7 to drive some users to something else. Hey, 80% market share would still be pretty good, if it meant not getting dinged with a few billion every couple years. Please, I hope you noted the sarcasm. Come on, Paul, you don’t seriously expect us all to get on Microsoft’s case for Europe’s traditionally inflated prices for just about everything (education excluded)?

Promotional copies of Windows 7 are sold out? How can you “sell out” of a product that hasn’t been manufactured yet? Sorry, I’m calling BS on that one.

Microsoft placed a limit on the number of pre-sale copies at the promotional price. In fact, it happens quite often. Video games often have pre-sale discounts for a limited number of copies. The product isn’t sold out. By all means, buy the upgrade at the full price. In fact, buy 100. I bet they still won’t be sold out of those. Don’t sound as if you are so entitled.

Microsoft has done a much better job than Vista in opening up its development process and design methodology with Windows 7. That’s not to say they haven’t made mistakes. Oh, they have. But Paul’s diatribe seems more like someone trying to make a story of an issue that doesn’t exist. Perhaps everything’s going a bit too smoothly. There’s no controversy like with Vista to generate legitimate news these days, it seems.

HP 2133 Mini-Note – So Close, Yet So Far Away

Now that HP has officially announced the 2133 Mini-Note PC, I’d like to discuss why I don’t believe it will succeed like the ASUS Eee PC has. Note that since I don’t have a unit in my possession, I can only base my analysis on what the initial reviews have observed. (By all means, if HP wants to send me a sample to review, I’d be more than happy to do so…) For reference, the Notebook Review article is what I’ll be speaking to mostly.

HP 2133 Mini-Note

I previously wrote about the HP 2133 mini-notebook back when it was but a rumor in the blogosphere. I touched on some key points it aimed to address, namely screen size, keyboard usability, and battery life. By combining these three improvements with what the Eee PC does well, I reckoned it could be a very compelling choice in the sub-notebook space, assuming appropriate pricing. It looks like HP’s nailed two of the problems, completely missed the third and added a few issues of its own along the way.

Screen and Keyboard

Let’s talk about the good things first – the screen and the keyboard. There will be people who dislike the WXGA resolution display (1280×800) on a relatively small 8.9″ display, but I think it’s great. That’s a ton of real estate – the same as most mainstream widescreen laptops these days, which means you’re really not sacrificing much, despite having a much smaller chassis and display. The keyboard is also significantly larger than what the Eee PC has, advertised as 92% of the regular size (although there’s some weirdness going on with the number keys). These two key improvements over the 7″ Eee PC could make the 2133 a significantly more useful productivity tool. That is until you reach the next couple points.

The Steve Ballmer

Battery life, battery life, battery life. Battery life, battery life, battery life. (Imagine me saying that while dancing on a stage if you like.) You cannot make a small, portable, mini-laptop, touting it as the mobile internet browsing, email writing machine and then give it about 2 hours of battery life. That’s what the reviewers are getting on the 3 cell default battery (productivity work gives anywhere between 2 and 2.5 hours). Granted the review samples are running Vista, which isn’t exactly the most efficient system, but if you’re selling them in that configuration, make sure it works well. Upping the battery to the 6 cell (55Whr) makes it awkwardly thick towards the rear and brings the weight up to over 3.2lbs, making the whole ‘just toss it into your bag‘ proposition go out the window. And even then, the 4-4.5 hours of battery life isn’t anything to brag about. The Dell XPS M1330 I’m typing this on gets close to 4 hours of productivity battery life on the standard 6 cell (56Whr). How does a 8.9″ display, an ULV VIA C7-M processor, and integrated graphics consume almost as much power as a standard voltage Core 2 Duo, a discrete 8400M GS video card, and a 13.3″ LED backlit panel?

VIA As a Scapegoat

Many people are blaming the CPU, a VIA C7-M ULV ranging from 1.0GHz to 1.6GHz, for almost all of the machine’s problems. I don’t believe this to be the case. However, it may very well be the cause of one problem – performance. Typically performance would be a non-issue for laptops in this category. The ASUS Eee PC wasn’t designed for number crunching, but at least internet performance was fluid. Based on Notebook Review, the tasks the HP 2133 was designed for, internet usage and productivity, are somewhat hindered by sluggish performance.

On paper the 1.6GHz VIA C7-M processor should provide excellent speed for general computing tasks. In reality, web pages rendered slower than expected, multi-tasking was painfully slow, and most processor-hungry applications like Photoshop or video encoding software just didn’t like the VIA processor. – NBR

I’m not worried about Photoshop or encoding performance, but web page rendering and multitasking issues? With the reviewed system being the absolute top-of-line 2133 (1.6GHz CPU, 2GB RAM, 160GB 7200RPM hard drive), it should eat up multitasking with ease. Slower than expected web page rendering is appalling. Whether these issues can be chalked up to Vista remains to be seen (hopefully some testing with the SuSE Linux version will show a different outcome), but regardless, as I mentioned above, the out-of-box experience is what most people will end up having and it’s not looking good. In addition, heat dissipation seems to be a problem, and for a laptop that’s very portable, having the fan constantly running and the bottom of the chassis heating up to close to 50C are not conducive to classroom use or use on one’s lap.

HP 2133 temperatures
Temperatures in Fahrenheit. Courtesy of Notebook Review.

One reason HP may have decided to go with the VIA platform is the upcoming Isaiah processor. It looks like it could be very well suited for the mini-laptop design, and being pin compatible, it should be a simple switch over for HP when it becomes available. In the meantime, the top-end 2133 will be stuck with a processor that performs similarly or worse than the 900MHz Celeron M in the Eee PC. I don’t even want to think about what the user experience would be like with the 1.0GHz C7-M for the $499 version.

Pricing is out-of-line

Add that all up and we come down the price. The starting $499 price isn’t bad, until you consider the $399 Eee PC will vastly outperform it and weight half a pound less. If you can wait for the 8.9″ version of the Eee PC, you’ll get a similar sized display as well (albeit at a lower resolution). When you start moving up the 2133 price chain, things get expensive awfully fast, with $50 more giving you a 1.2GHz, 1GB RAM, and a 120GB HDD. the $749 model gets you a 1.6GHz CPU, 2GB RAM, and a 120GB 7200RPM drive. The samples reviewed by most sites included a 160GB 7200RPM drive, which will add even more to the price. When you consider the laptop from a performance point of view, it’s an abysmal price proposition. At the top end of its price range, I’d imagine even something like the $999CAD XPS M1330 would start to enter into the equation, with similar battery life to the 6-cell 2133 and about a pound heavier, but sporting a full Core 2 Duo, 2GB RAM, and a 160GB hard drive, not to mention other features.

The Best Case Scenario

The best case scenario for the HP 2133 Mini-Note currently being reviewed would be that the power management system isn’t functional. That would explain things like the heat dissipation and poor battery life. I’ve asked the reviewer at Notebook Review to confirm that the expected power saving features (such as downclocking the CPU and/or voltage) are working, but I haven’t heard back yet. The nicely designed shell and gorgeous screen and keyboard are more than offset by failing at the one the thing it’s designed to be, a mobile, internet browsing and productivity machine. Without some serious changes, it’ll be but a pretty face.

ASUS Eee PC at Best Buy

The Windows XP version of the ASUS Eee PC has made its way to Best Buy and, as far as I know, it is the first major technology retailer that is offering the system. I’d imagine having Windows XP was one of the critical requirements laid out by Best Buy. Most of the customers there will be most familiar with a Windows-based system. It’ll be interesting to see if ASUS can keep up with demand, which is certain to grow quickly, given the new market.

New Venues for ‘Desktop’ Computers

There’s a lot of talk of desktops dying out and laptops taking over. The trend is in place, with crossover between notebook and desktop sales either having already taken place, or will take place sometime this year, depending on who you talk to. I can easily see why this is the case – a laptop can be useful in many more situations, and with computing power at where it is, laptops are hardly the overweight, underpowered machines they were 10 years ago. Many of the existing desktops, or even the desktops you can buy for $400 today are more than adequate for the vast majority of users, who browse the internet, write emails and edit word documents.

So is a laptop with a dock the answer for the future? I don’t think so, but I also don’t think the existing desktop market is viable. Dell’s recent announcement of the closure of its Austin, Texas desktop manufacturing plant is just another sign that desktops are no longer the dominant computing product they once were (and of course, that the operating expenses just can’t compete with outsourced operations in Asia). I believe there is still potential growth in the desktop computer market, just not in its current state; vendors are simply not approaching it in a way that attracts consumers. Very few people need to upgrade from a Core Duo to a Core 2 Quad. The incremental benefit isn’t justifiable.

Computer Upgrades
How many people are making the jump?

I’ve mentioned this a few times in the past: computers are quickly becoming a status symbol and decoration in the home. Beige-boxes and boring designs were acceptable in the past, but with desktop internals being the commodities they are now, differentiation has to occur, literally, outside the box. If anything, Apple has shown everyone the power of branding and aesthetics. Performance doesn’t sell the vast majority of computers anymore – it’s price, ease-of-use, style, etc. Have you walked down the desktop aisle of your local big-box technology retailer? Despite some gloss here and a rounded corner there, the vast majority of desktops are still just big boxes users try to hide under a desk.

ASUS’ success in the Eee PC shows that consumers are willing to overlook performance as a trade-off for the ‘cute-factor’ and portability, especially in a machine that is designed to do trivial tasks. And let’s be honest here, most of the tasks performed by the vast majority of the computer-using population are trivial. Why not move desktops in the same direction?

Throw out the word ‘Desktop’

Let’s throw the word ‘desktop’ out the window. That’s the first step to expanding the market. ‘Desktop’ implies, well, deskbound. We want a computer that we’re not ashamed of putting out in a public place. Is the computer something you place in your living room as a piece of art? Let’s put a low-power, small form factor machine in the study. Let’s also put one in the home theatre, and let’s put one in the kitchen. These machines would be cheap, very cheap. If a full-sized, dual core PC with a big hard drive can be purchased for far less than $400 (at Dell Canada, $309 buys you a dual core Pentium E2160-based desktop), something with a dual-core Atom (or similar) in a small form factor design should be priced even lower.

To ride the multimedia (especially the high-def craze), use the concept of the Windows Home Server. Tuck a box of hard drives in a closet somewhere and stream all the content you want to the small client boxes around the home. It keeps the media content centralized and at the same time, keeps the size of the computing devices small, possibly equipped with nothing more than a 2.5″ hard drive for the operating system and applications.

Windows Home Server
Microsoft’s onto something here; just replace all the connected devices with thinner clients.

Of course, there will still be a market for powerful, full-sized desktops. Computer enthusiasts, gamers, and content-creationists will require more computing performance than the average user – but that’s exactly the point – the average user doesn’t need that sort of power.

Potential solutions on the horizon

I’m interested to see what ASUS ends up doing for its already-announced Eee desktop PC. HotHardware recently published a supposed image of the device and it looks very sleek, certainly very different from most traditional ‘desktops’. If it’s priced appropriately, I think it will be very successful. People will buy it to replace their existing machines, not because it’s more powerful (in fact, it’ll probably be less powerful, if anything) but because it’s something they can place in the living room and use as a conversation piece the next time the neighbors visit.

Alleged ASUS Eee Desktop PC
Could this be the ASUS Eee desktop PC?

The Apple Mac Mini and Apple TV are similar to what I’m proposing here, but each has a fatal flaw. The Mac Mini is far too expensive (relative) and the Apple TV is too functionally limited (I’m not counting the hacks that 99% of the population wouldn’t even consider), not to mention the fact that, despite rapid growth, OS X is still a niche and unfamiliar platform for most.

Wrap Up

Give me some nicely styled, $250 (or less) computers around the size of the Wii, and I’ll show you a heck of a lot of interested customers.

No, this is no April Fool’s joke. 🙂

Vista Hosed Thanks to Linksys WMP300N

A wireless card should never do this to a computer.

Vista hosed due to Linksys WMP300N

Furthermore, it shouldn’t mess a computer up so badly that even Windows repair or System Restore can’t fix it. But that’s exactly what a recently-purchased Linksys WMP300N wireless card did. In fact my desktop’s Vista installation is so far gone, I have no other choice than to perform a complete re-install. I’m using my laptop currently – I’ll get around to reinstalling Vista when the new computer parts I ordered get here, but that’s another story. (Remember the downsizing post a while ago?)

Following Linksys’ recommendation, I downloaded and installed the Windows Vista driver from their website and proceeded to install it before plugging in the wireless card. At the appropriate prompt, I shut down my desktop and installed the card. Attaching the three-wire antenna was painful enough – the plugs are the screw-type and are placed so closely together that only child fingers could easily screw them on easily. That was the easy part.

Booting the computer back up, I was greeted with the Windows is installing new hardware dialog, which I assumed was the correct behavior. A few moments later, the device drivers were correctly installed. Unfortunately, at this point, explorer.exe locked up. Furthermore, attempts to ctrl+alt+del led to the entire desktop background to fade, in Vista’s “I’m no longer responding to your actions” manner. With a completely frozen system, I had no choice but to push the reset button.  What a bad idea that was.

Long story short, my registry is corrupt and System Restore wasn’t able to complete. Meanwhile, I have a non-bootable machine, thanks to this Linksys WMP300N wireless card. Reading around on the web, I can see that I’m not the only one running into problems with this card on Windows Vista. Linksys, don’t plaster a Windows Vista compatible sticker on the box if it has this many problems! I don’t know how you even managed to get those Vista drivers approved. Where is your QA department? Seriously, I was happy I got a good deal on the card, but it was definitely not worth the pain I’ll have to go through to fix my computer.

Recommendation? Don’t buy the WMP300N if you’re running Windows Vista. Not until Linksys gets its act together in any case.