Microsoft unbundles Internet Explorer from Windows 7 – in Europe, that is

Microsoft is to offer a special version of Windows in Europe. Called Windows 7 E, it will be identical to Windows 7 elsewhere except for one thing:

The E versions of Windows 7 will include all the features and functionality of Windows 7 in the rest of the world, other than browsing with Internet Explorer.  Computer manufacturers will be able to add any browser they want to their Windows 7 machines, including Internet Explorer, so European consumers who purchase new PCs will be able to access the Internet without any problem.  Consumers will also be able to add any Web browser to their PCs, to supplement or replace the browsers preinstalled by their computer manufacturer.

There’s only one reason for this. It’s an effort to comply with EU competition law:

We believe that this new approach, while not our first choice, is the best path forward given the ongoing legal case in Europe.  It will address the “bundling” claim while providing European consumers with access to the full range of Windows 7 benefits that will be available in the rest of the world.

The post linked above is from Microsoft’s VP and Deputy General Counsel Dave Heiner, who notes that Microsoft is keen to avoid a delay in shipping Windows 7 in Europe. In other words, it would rather give up whatever advantage it gets from shipping with IE included, than risk some sort of sales injunction and/or fine which would be hugely costly. It has more pressing problems than its share of the browser market, including competition from Apple and Vista’s poor reputation.

It may be fined anyway, of course, for past misdemeanours in the EU’s eyes.

Personally I have mixed feelings about the EU’s legal efforts in relation to Microsoft. Last time around we got the absurd Windows N, to address a Windows Media monopoly that hardly existed – Apple and Adobe are winning in media, and that’s nothing to do with Windows N, which nobody bought. That said, the EU may have made life better for the Samba folk by forcing the publication of Windows protocols, which is an interoperability benefit. It’s unfortunate that fines go, apparently, straight into EU coffers; the anonymous Mini Microsoft blogger says:

EU: you say "ee-you", I say, "ewwww!" As long as the Microsoft ATM continues shooting out cash fines the EU is going to keep mashing our buttons.

and I see his point.

What are the implications this time around? It’s worth bearing in mind that OEM vendors can already make other browsers the default in Windows. Still, on the face of it this is good for competing browser vendors, though they may find themselves having to pay for prime position in OEM installs. It could be annoying though for users installing or re-installing Windows from shrink-wrap editions, who find they have no browser; presumably Microsoft will include some sort of download utility other than a web browser to get them started.

More interesting questions: how much will this affect the market share for IE, which is already declining, and how much does that matter? Believe it or not, there are reasons to use IE, particularly in a business context where its integration with group policy and the fact that security updates flow through Microsoft update mechanisms are an advantage. Most web sites work well with IE, because they still have to. I expect IE to remain popular in Windows 7; and I expect change to be driven more by a move to web applications which require fast JavaScript or other such features found in rival browsers, rather than by OEM defaults.

There is a war being fought for the next generation of the client, and whether it runs on Flash (Adobe), on Silverlight (Microsoft), on Java (Sun/Oracle), on HTML 5 (Google), on native Windows (Microsoft again), or on OS X (Apple). Unbundling IE from Windows 7 removes a small advantage from Microsoft, but I doubt it will be decisive.

Incidentally, I expect this unbundling to be mostly cosmetic. The IE executable, iexplore.exe, is a wrapper round other components in Windows that pretty much have to remain, otherwise lots of applications which rely on them would break. The presence of these components does no harm to other browser vendors though, so gives them no reason to complain.

Local SQL support in Safari vs Google Gears: what is happening?

Today I installed Safari 4.0, and one of the features which caught my eye is its local database support. No, it’s not new, but perhaps has not received the attention it deserves. The feature lets you use a local SQLite database from JavaScript, both online and offline, and works on the iPhone 2.0 and higher (2.1 for offline support) and in Safari 3.1 and higher. The API is rather simple. windows.openDatabase returns a database object, and you then work with methods like transaction.executeSql, reading the results in a callback function. Security restrictions mean that access to the database is restricted to pages served by the domain from which it was created. Apple has more information in its Safari Client-Side Storage and Offline Applications Programming Guide. Safari’s local database features implement the HTML 5 W3C Web Storage API.

It’s a great feature, and strengthens Safari on the iPhone as an application runtime that avoids the hassles of the App Store. Does it have wider value? A problem is inconsistent support across other browses. Microsoft’s IE8 supports DOM Storage (key-value pairs), which is also part of the HTML 5 standard, but not SQL. FireFox also supports DOM Storage, but its SQLite support is restricted to components and extensions only.

A possible reason for the lack of wider SQL support is that Google has its own implementation in Gears, which works in Safari and FireFox on the Mac, in IE and Firefox on Windows, and in Firefox on Linux. One place you cannot install Gears though is on the iPhone. A possible solution is to create a wrapper API that uses HTML 5 on Safari and Gears elsewhere; Malte Ubl has done some work on this, for example.

Personally I’d like to see the HTML 5.0 specification more widely supported, since along with the iPhone issue, not everyone wants to install Gears. I would have thought it could be added to both Chrome and FireFox relatively easily; but would be interested to know what is planned.

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Bing’s disappearing search share gain in the US

Web stats site StatCounter caused some excitement last week when it announced that Bing had overtaken Yahoo in search market share, as tracked by its site analysis tools.

I took a look at the figures today, and they make depressing reading for Microsoft:

I’ve annotated the image to show Live Search share on 29 May, compared to Bing share now. They are nearly the same; within the normal daily variation. Yahoo is actually slightly ahead of where it was. Note that all Live Search hits automatically became Bing hits on the day of transition (1st June). As for Google, it is back a little above where it was before.

One odd thing about the StatCounter figures is that at the beginning of this period there was around 5% share for “other”, which has now almost disappeared. Gone to Google? Who knows; and I don’t particularly trust these figures.

There are two organizations with more reliable numbers, one of them Google, because of the number of sites signed up for its Web Analytics, and the other Microsoft, which can count actual hits, but these numbers are not published.

Well, Ballmer said it was a long haul. I’m actually impressed with Bing; the results seem decent, there are some good UI features, and the re-branding is sensible. If StatCounter accurately reflects the market though, the immediate affect of the launch is vanishingly small.

Update: Things look a little better today – Bing is up to 8.52% (note that the figure changes dynamically during each day). A long haul; I’ll be tracking the figures with interest.

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BBC seeks web response from unconnected users

This really needs a cartoonist. I thought I should grab it before it gets changed.

“The BBC was surprised by the lack of response to its latest Internet survey”

The serious point: now you have another reason not to trust web surveys.

Update: The BBC’s form is not completely daft: it says “at home” and you might be on the Internet at work or in a café. Still, that’s going to be unrepresentative of the 30% – it is exactly the sub-set which is already proven to be Internet users, whereas we most want to hear from those who are not and need to be “persuaded to go online”. Thanks to @rupertg and @putsimply on Twitter for the correction.

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Will Microsoft respond to the JavaScript speed challenge?

While people argue about JavaScript performance in Chrome vs Safari vs FireFox, there’s one fact that is beyond dispute. Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 8 is hilariously slow in comparison. On Apple’s figures, IE8 is 5.9 times slower on its i-Bench JavaScript test and 7.7 times slower on the SunSpider test.

You may hardly notice this in normal browsing. It most likely takes longer to download the JavaScript than to execute it. In fact, download speed is still the most significant factor in browser performance, and changing your browser will do nothing to change that (though different approaches to caching might).

This could change though, if more web applications appear that make heavy use of JavaScript. Google Wave could be an example. In fact, this seems to be Google’s game plan: make the browser (backed of course by the Internet) the operating system. The larger these web applications become, the more difference that JavaScript performance will make.

Offline is another interesting case, enabled in Chrome by the Gears add-on. In this scenario, content is served locally so browser performance has a better chance to shine.

The big question: will Microsoft step up to the challenge and fix JavaScript performance in IE? The company could do so relatively easily, either by using one of the open-source engines (unlikely) or by applying its existing knowledge of just-in-time compilation, used to good effect in .NET and Silverlight, to JavaScript in the browser.

The horns of Microsoft’s dilemma: improve JavaScript and undermine the advantage of Silverlight, which runs code much faster. Don’t improve it, and see market share continue to decline in favour of faster browsers.

The right thing to do, of course, is to fix the JavaScript engine; but companies do not always do the right thing – and Microsoft may still be comforted by its 65% market share for IE. That’s false comfort; the share is in long-term decline.

Incidentally, I’ve noticed that Google, while not exactly taking the gloves off, is stepping up its promotion of Chrome. When I go to youtube, which is the 3rd most popular web site in the world according to Alexa, I now see this on every page, if not using Chrome:

I don’t always see an ad on the Google home page itself – Alexa’s number one site – though occasionally I do see this on the right:

All very low-key; but I reckon we’ll see Google step-up its campaign as Chrome itself gets better and the Mac version appears. With Apple, Google, Mozilla and of course Opera all gunning for Microsoft, it would take extraordinary complacency not to respond.

Is Safari the world’s fastest browser? You need to test more than just JavaScript

Apple says its new Safari 4 is the world’s fastest browser:

Still the world’s fastest web browser, Safari outraces Firefox, Internet Explorer, and Chrome. On even the most demanding Web 2.0 applications, Safari delivers blazingly fast performance thanks to the industry’s most advanced rendering technologies.

Using the new Nitro Engine, for example, Safari executes JavaScript nearly 8 times faster than Internet Explorer 8 and more than 4 times faster than Firefox 3 based on performance in leading industry benchmark tests: iBench and SunSpider.

In addition to superior JavaScript performance, Safari offers top-flight HTML performance — the best on any platform — loading pages 3 times faster than Internet Explorer 8 and Firefox 3.

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes at zdnet has tested Safari vs Chrome and IE8, and says Apple’s claims do not stand up to scrutiny. In his tests, Chrome is faster. Unfortunately, he used a different build of Chrome than Apple – vs In addition, he is using a quad core processor, Intel’s QX9770, whereas Apple is using an iMac with a Core 2 Duo processor. Chrome is still work in progress on the Mac, so the results for this are on Vista.

ZDNet’s results certainly cast doubt on Apple’s figures. On the SunSpider JavaScript test, used by both, Apple quotes 609.07ms for Safari vs 870.00ms for Chrome, whereas zdnet has 808.8ms for Chrome and 846.2ms for Safari.

That said, JavaScript performance is not the same as browser performance. If you read Apple’s claim carefully, it talks about rendering technologies and HTML performance as well as the JavaScript engine. Focusing exclusively on JavaScript would be like assessing the performance of Windows vs Mac, for example, simply by timing some number-crunching operations.

In practice, what users care about is the time it takes to load a page and its responsiveness thereafter. Apple claims its best advantage over Chrome in i-Bench HTML, claiming that Chrome takes 40% longer. Unfortunately I cannot currently find the test which Apple used, but I’m presuming it tests DOM rendering speed rather than just non-visual JavaScript performance; an earlier i-Bench HTML used actual web sites.

Bottom line: I don’t trust Apple’s figures either, but I’m retaining an open mind. You need to compare like with like, and not focus exclusively on JavaScript, to test browser performance.

Update: Blogger Luca Filigheddu backs up Apple’s claims with some real-world tests.

Farewell to Personal Computer World: 30 years of personal computing

Today I learned that Personal Computer World is to cease publication. This is a long-established UK magazine to which I have been a contributor since May 1993. For PCW, that counts as its latter days. Today you might think that the PC in the title means “PC rather than Mac”, and perhaps in a way it does, but that was not the case when the first issue appeared in 1978, for obvious reasons (the first IBM PC did not appear until 1981). No, the computer on the cover of the first PCW was the self-assembly and long forgotten NASCOM 1.

Although the cover stated “Europe’s first magazine for personal computers for home and business use”, PCW was really an enthusiast’s publication; and in those days being a computer enthusiast meant being relatively technical and willing to do your own programming.

The story of personal computing is about how these devices evolved from a geeky hobby into a tool and plaything for everyone; and the magazine morphed accordingly, becoming steadily more mainstream as time went by.

The early years were particularly engaging, thanks to the variety of new devices that appeared and disappeared with bewildering speed. Some had more staying power than others, like the 1981 BBC micro, for example:


One of my favourite PCW covers was that for Windows 3.0 in 1990. Sub-titled Child’s Play, it was prophetic in identifying how Microsoft’s OS would bring personal computing to the masses.

It was Windows which inspired my first piece for PCW, a massive survey of 17 Windows database managers in May 1993. Not long after I reviewed Visual Basic 3.0, correctly predicting that its built-in data access would make it popular in businesses. I went on to do a series of Visual Basic tutorials, and then a programming column that evolved from Visual Basic to all things related to software development.

Last year PCW celebrated its 30th anniversary.


So why has it ended? According to this Press Gazette post:

Managing director of Incisive’s professional services division Graham Harman said … "Sadly, no amount of hard work or innovation was going to turn around the structural decline in advertising and newsstand sales. The depth of this recession and the ease of access to information online has only served to accelerate the long term downward trend within this particular sector.”

PCW’s last published circulation figure (Jan-Dec 2008) was 54,000, which is respectable, and more than double that of some rivals, like Future’s PC Plus which recorded just over 22,000 for the same period. The bigger problem, as you will see if you browse through a recent issue, is the decline in advertising. Before the days of the world wide web, magazines like PCW were critically important to computer manufacturers and retailers, but that is no longer the case.

Another problem, as one of the editors explained to me a few years back, is that PCW found itself caught between the demands of an aging readership which had grown up with the magazine, and that of a new generation.

It still has a considerable reputation and I’m surprised that the publishers have not found a way to make it work for a little longer, though the long-term trends have been against it for years.

Still, it has had a good run, and no doubt future researchers will have a lot of fun going though its archives as they explore the days when computing became personal for the first time.

Bing, Blind Search and electoral fraud

It’s election fever in the UK: in dramatic results, the incumbent party is being pummelled at the polls. So too for search engines? Microsoft employee Michael Kordahi set up a blind search test. Perform a search, select your favourite from three columns of results. It started well for Bing, but market leader Google soon asserted a lead:

Blind search engine test at Right now: "Google: 45%, Bing: 33%, Yahoo: 21% | 8,518 votes"

said Mr Google Matt Cutts.

Still, that’s not bad for Bing, considering that its market share is tiny in comparison to Google. 5.5% vs 81.5% according to stats I dug up for this Register piece. The real loser is Yahoo, whose second place in search is now under threat from the Microsoft juggernaut.

But can you trust the results? At some point last night Yahoo started an unlikely surge:

Internet search blind test: Google: 34%, Bing: 26%, Yahoo: 40% Try it out!

tweeted Bill Hamilton a few hours after Cutts. Someone was gaming the system:

not surprisingly, #blindsearch has been compromised you can still play, but i’m not currently showing results

said Kordahi, as Yahoo hit 57%.

Will Kordahi be able to insulate his test from fraudsters? Who knows; but it is still an interesting experiment.

I tried the test and found the results generally close, with a small edge to Google in my searches. Still, it would be interesting to measure not only which results are best, but also the margin of difference. In the past I’ve found Live Search almost useless, so Bing has made a substantial improvement from my perspective. The UI changes are important too. I’m a minimalist at heart, which again favours Google, but I like some of Bing’s features, especially the site and video previews.

Google’s Wave is of course more interesting from a technical perspective; but it would be a mistake to downplay the business significance of Microsoft improving its search market share. Search drives advertising income.

It’s also worth noting that in search, quantity drives quality. Program Manager Nathan Buggia explained to me how Bing’s categorisation feature works:

For the categorised results those are driven more off the search behaviour we see on our web site, not actually the semantic information that we infer from their web site. What we’ve done is to take all the queries that come into live search and analysed them to see what user intent those queries have. We take a look at the other search terms that they use to figure out where they go, we aggregate that information and use that to define categories, and we are able to draw on that.

Currently Bing only displays category tabs for around the top 10-20% of searches. The reason it is limited to that, according to Buggia, is insufficient volume of data. Using the Xbox as an example, he told me:

If we have a high enough volume of XBox data and we’ve seen that there are a specific set of intents that people are looking for, then we feel confident enough to show the quick tabs.

In other words, Bing could improve its results simply by more people using it.

What happens next? The easy prediction is that Bing will make at least small gains in market share, and that Yahoo will likely decline, perhaps to third place. For Microsoft, that would be no small achievement, but would do little to dislodge the big G. Further, if it sees significant traffic moving to Bing, Google will be quick to counter it with its own improvements. Personally I would like to see more competition in search, which for many users forms a portal that controls which sites they see and which they do not see, but a good launch for Bing is not enough to effect real change.

It could be the beginning of a change though, and that possibility makes Bing worth watching.

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On Quadrophenia, rock classics, tribute shows, and aging

The Who’s Quadrophenia is currently on tour in the UK – but it is not performed by The Who. No, this is the Quadrophenia Rock Show, Music Lyrics & Concept by Pete Townshed – stage adaption by Jeff Young, John O’Hara and Tom Critchley.

Quadrophenia is among my favourite albums – not for the daft story, but because the music and lyrics speak to me of the frustration and glory of being human, or something. But do I want to see it performed by musicians other than The Who? At one time I’d have said, no way. Why settle for an imitation when you can have the real thing?

The trouble is, you can’t any more. Keith Moon died in 1978; John Entwistle in 2002. Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend still tour and no doubt put on a good show from time to time – I saw The Who in January 2002, at which time Entwistle was still around, and enjoyed it tremendously. Still, at best with these aging bands there is always an element of “it’s amazing how good they are considering”, and at worst it can be embarrassing. I saw Jethro Tull in Derby in 2007, and while the musicianship was generally impressive, my memory is dominated by the failings of Ian Anderson’s voice, which spoilt most of the songs through no fault of his.

It is also rather strange to see bands whose music is laden with the sexual tension of youth performing the same songs at a later stage of life. What is “Hope I die before I get old” meant to mean, sung by a 65-year old Daltrey?

The bottom line is that I have mixed feelings about seeing performances like these. I still go to see Bob Dylan, who is even older, but that’s partly because I see it as a pilgrimage to see one of the greats, and partly because Dylan is more able to be his age, thanks to the songs he writes and continues to write, and the fact the he’s been fixin’ to die since his very first album in 1962.

So when I saw that the Quadrophenia show is on locally, I thought twice about it. Is it possible that tribute show of younger performers could put more energy into it than the current Who? Well, yes, it is possible. And once old rockers like The Who and The Rolling Stones hang up their touring boots for the last time, it will be this or nothing.

I’m also encouraged by knowing that Pete Townshend is involved to some degree in the show. He talks about it – or actually writes, since it’s an email interview, in an illuminating piece in The Times. He includes a comment pertinent to this post:

Have you ever been to see a rock musical based on a back-catalogue?

I live inside one. Musicals based on back-catalogues are becoming a saturated market. How can rock musicals avoid being watered-down exercises in asset-stripping?

Let me ask another question. When all those nostalgic for the music of their youth have moved on, will today’s revered rock classics ever be performed live? In most cases, I’m guessing the answer is no. In a few cases though, maybe an evening out to hear a performance of Blonde on Blonde or The Dark Side of the Moon or Quadrophenia will be accepted in the same way as we treat other music from composers long gone, who knows?

I’m booking to see Quadrophenia.

Cloud Computing survey: more fog than cloud

Yesterday I attended a presentation from NTT Communications, a managed hosting provider, on the plans of 200 CFOs and CIOs from larger UK organizations (500+ employees) with respect to cloud computing. Since NTT would presumably like more companies to stick more stuff on its hosted servers, I presume it was hoping for a strong endorsement of the idea. Unfortunately for NTT, that was not the case. Fewer than 20% of those surveyed think they are using cloud computing now, a bit more than 20% think they will adopt some of it in the next two years, but – and here’s the real killer – cloud computing is way down the list of investment priorities, at around 5%. I’m not clear 5% of what exactly; but the report says it is the lowest priority.

What are companies spending money on instead? Servers and storage, network infrastructure, security, company web sites, backup and disaster recovery, unified communications, desktops and laptops, software, almost anything else in other words.

What’s wrong with the cloud? The three top issues, for those surveyed, are security, immaturity, and reliability.

These are valid concerns, though each one is open to debate; but the entire survey was undermined by the fact that most of those surveyed admitted to not knowing what cloud computing is. The reason is not ignorance, but the many and various ways the term is used. The common strand is that it is something to do with the internet, but even that is undermined if we describe virtual on-premise servers as a “private cloud”.

What are the varieties of cloud? Almost infinite, but here are a few:

  • Multi-tenanted applications such as Salesforce CRM, Google Docs, NetSuite. This is the model that has the biggest inherent economic advantage.
  • Hosted application platforms including Google App Engine, Microsoft Azure, These are hosted application servers, where you write the code, taking advantage of integrated hosted services for storage, identity, transactions and so on.
  • Utility services such as Amazon S3. It’s a great example: S3 offers nothing but storage, though you can use it in conjunction with other Amazon web services.
  • On-demand infrastructure such as Amazon EC2. You get virtual servers to do what you like with. NTT’s services are mainly in this broad category. It’s cloud but you are mostly not getting the benefits of multi-tenancy.
  • Anything on the internet. Running a web application? Hey, you’re in the cloud.

If we are going to have a sane discussion about these things, we need to know what we are talking about. Maybe rather than asking companies whether or not they are doing that cool cloud stuff, it would be better to enquire how they see their use of the internet evolving.

Another big question is the extent to which companies are willing to buy in their IT infrastructure as a third-party service. Although it makes obvious financial sense in most cases, it is a big ask given how business-critical it is, hence the concerns about security, immaturity, reliability.

Smaller companies with ad-hoc IT systems are likely to be more amenable to the idea, but this group was not covered by NTTs survey.

Conclusions? The main one is “watch this space”. In the end I reckon sheer economics will drive cloud computing adoption – in all the areas described above – but the one thing NTT’s survey proves is that larger organisations are in no hurry to make that jump.

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