The one-two punch of CES and MacWorld Expo is a real balm to my soul. Even an optimistic fellow like yours truly can't help but feel a letdown after the holiday season—stores take the displays out of their windows, the glittering lights are shut off, and discarded trees line the street. But this new year's orgy of media plays and gizmos keeps the embers of out-of-control consumerism burning just that much longer for me.
Of course, it's also fascinating to see how the technology + media battle for the living room has really broken into two parts: the Mac World, and Everybody Else (Nominally Led By Microsoft). As is customary, Bill gets to address his troops first in Las Vegas.
I noticed, as others did, that Bill's speech seemed to be more grounded in reality than it has in the past—he talked more about what Microsoft could do today (or at least within the next few months) than Microsoft's vision for a distant, connected future. Given that the company has a whole lot of Vista to sell in the next 12 months (not to mention an inventory of Zunes lying around), that makes sense. What's frightening is the form in which that Microsoft vision takes shape.
Let's start with the idea of Windows Home Server. Now, I don't debate for a second the need for some way to hub all of the devices and data that are going to power the digital living room, but who, in god's name, thought a discrete "home server" component was the best way to address that issue? It's consumer electronics only a sysadmin would love! I don't see a real groundswell of desire out there among the masses for a wholesale replication of the enterprise data center experience in the home, but that's exactly what this name implies.
What's worse, there's good thinking buried in this box: the reference designs showed by HP, AMD, and others are small, and the version of Vista running underneath the thing is low-touch. It can back up any computer connected to your home network (including boxes running Mac OS X and Linux), and it'll let you remotely connect to your Windows boxen at home over Microsoft's Live services. What's more, it can stream music, movies, and pictures directly to any Windows Media Connect-compatible device on the home network (such as an Xbox 360).
The only problem is you have to explain stuff like "servers," or "backup and restore disk image," or, "Remote Desktop," or "Windows Media Connect" to people before they can really take advantage of everything there.
Even so, that's not as scary as when Bill talks about who Microsoft "loves." I think the reason I've always been partial to Apple is that I feel they're making technology that's supposed to work for me; that's on my side in the fight with, well, everything else. Tell me if you get that same sense from the following quote Bill Gates gave a bunch of reporters after his CES keynote:
We were at the (Wall Street Journal's) "D" conference where (Apple CEO Steve Jobs) talked about (the fact that) he doesn't go into markets where he has to go through somebody else's orifice, which is how he described the broadband companies and the cable companies and the phone companies and the things like that. We love those guys.
I believe Gates was telling the 100%, unvarnished, irony-free truth there. Microsoft understands companies. They understand how corporate customers like to buy and use technology. No matter where you work, chances are that you're using a box running Windows, and that box is connected to a lot of other boxes running Windows. I'm quite sure, in fact, that Microsoft's best bet to get control of your living room is to help corporations like your phone company or your cable company by selling them technology that serves their interests. Now, are the interests of your phone company the same as yours? If they're anything like my (erstwhile) telco, Verizon, probably not. As for my cable company, their interests were served by providing me with a DVR that's quite a bit less capable than a TiVo. I'm sure there's a good reason for that, but it probably wasn't to provide me with the best home media experience possible.
Microsoft, in it's soul, is a company that sells product in bulk to corporate customers. I think a lot of it is very good stuff, but I'd like to keep it at the office, thanks.