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Week in review: Vista on the horizon

Operating-system debut might not spark "midnight madness," but Microsoft has a couple of things going for it.

As Microsoft readies for the launch on Tuesday of its first new operating system in more than five years, questions remain over how big of a splash the event will be.

While retailers are indeed gearing up for the Windows Vista consumer debut, it appears that "midnight madness" will be kept to a minimum. CompUSA plans to keep its stores open past midnight on Tuesday so shoppers can get the new operating system as soon as it goes on sale. Best Buy and Circuit City each plan to keep a handful of stores open late, but most of their stores and those of other retailers are planning normal hours.

Releases of new operating systems may not draw quite the crowds they did in years past, but Microsoft has a couple of things going for it this time around. First of all, a new version of Office--Office 2007--is being released at the same time. Vista is also hitting store shelves at the same time it lands on new PCs.

As Vista begins its mainstream launch, much of the attention will be on what users can expect out of the box. But perhaps more important to its ultimate success are new technologies built into Vista but that come alive only once applications are written that take advantage of them.

Included in this camp are a new peer-to-peer file-sharing service, a new graphics technology, and a built-in system for searching and tagging information. Some early programs offer a hint of these abilities, but many applications that really will harness Vista are still in the early development stages or have yet to be written.

Among the first programs to get a full Vista makeover is one of the oldest consumer titles, The Print Shop. Its developer, Riverdeep Interactive Learning, has spent the last year completely rewriting the more than 20-year-old program to be based on Vista's new graphics engine.

As CNET News.com readers debated the value of the forthcoming operating system, some wondered if it is worth switching to Vista.

"You can be dead certain that many businesses, faced with the prospect of a major rewrite of their applications for .Net and Vista, will consider moving to another platform altogether," one reader wrote in News.com's TalkBack forum.

Before Vista is fully out the door, Redmond is laying the groundwork for its first service pack release of bug fixes and other enhancements for the operating system. The software maker has put out a call for businesses that want to be early testers of the software.

"Interested customers should contact their technical-account manager at Microsoft to get nominated," a company representative said in an e-mail. The company has not finalized what it will deliver in the first service pack, though it outlined an update that is more similar to Windows XP Service Pack 1 and other minor updates than to Windows XP Service Pack 2.

The great server shift
The Sun also rises for Intel--and Google follows suit.

Sun Microsystems announced that it will resume selling servers with Intel's Xeon processor, restoring a hardware partnership and extending it to software collaboration. Sun plans to begin selling dual-processor Xeon servers in the first half of the year, and Intel plans to provide engineering resources to optimize Sun's Solaris operating system. With the move, Sun becomes the last of the four top-tier server sellers to jointly use x86 processors from Intel and Advanced Micro Devices.

The alliance means that AMD no longer enjoys its exclusive status as the supplier that Sun relies on to back its relatively recent foray into the x86 server market. Sun stepped away from Xeon in late 2004, but now there's reason to come back: "Woodcrest and Clovertown are substantially improved technology," John Fowler, Sun's executive vice president for servers, said in reference to the dual-core and quad-core Xeon processors geared for dual-processor servers.

So how to bury a hatchet? A bottle of wine helps. Specifically, a bottle of Barolo at the swanky Delfina restaurant in San Francisco, where Sun Chief Executive Jonathan Schwartz met Intel CEO Paul Otellini.

It was Schwartz who asked his opposite number on the first date. When he took over from Scott McNealy as Sun's CEO last April, the call to Otellini was the first Schwartz made, he said. "Surely, there's more we can do together," he said in his pitch to the chipmaker chief, who had taken over the Intel reins from Craig Barrett less than a year earlier himself.

Intel also reclaimed Google as a server customer after a year watching the search powerhouse give its business to Advanced Micro Devices. Google has begun buying Intel server components in high volume, said Pat Gelsinger, a co-general manager of Intel's Digital Enterprise Group, speaking about the Google relationship on an internal Intel blog.

The Google change is emblematic of Intel's rising fortunes. Beginning in 2003, AMD capitalized on performance and power efficiency advantages of its Opteron processors to make its way into the server lines of the four top-tier server companies: IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Dell and Sun Microsystems. But in late 2006, Intel's dual-core Xeon 5100 "Woodcrest" and quad-core Xeon 5300 "Clovertown" processors helped Intel reclaim some server chip market share and put major price pressure on AMD.

Tech goes to the movies
In addition to showcasing independent films, the Sundance Film Festival, held this week in Park City, Utah, also pans on emerging and converging technologies, as well as on their implications for the filmmaking world.

Marking a first for both Sundance and cyberspace, a group of movie viewers were avatars watching a feature-length festival film from a screening room in the virtual world Second Life. The avatars were joined by real-life festivalgoers in a wired theater, enabling both worlds to participate in a question-and-answer forum after the screening.

The film, Strange Culture, is director Lynn Hershman Leeson's unconventional documentary of an ordeal still plaguing Massachusetts artist and professor Steve Kurtz, who was there for the screening and Q&A session.

Some at the festival envisioned a day when there would be a similar event that would showcase new work from some of the world's best independent game makers. Such an idea is not a stretch to video game makers, who view themselves much like the independent filmmaking pioneers of decades ago--innovators whose work led to the creation of Sundance.

The young but fast-growing independent video game industry--which has been offering new genres, including documentary, casual and serious games--was the focus of a panel discussion on Saturday for filmmakers interested in exploring the evolving video game medium.

The enthusiastic panelists, including both indie game community members and those observing them, concluded that the movement is not only radically changing the game industry, it's changing the way in which people perceive the world.

On the Oscar front, Industrial Light & Magic appears poised to win its first Academy Award in the category it pioneered 13 years ago. And for the two ILM animation specialists nominated for their work on Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, the nods look likely to reward animation work that their peers are applauding as groundbreaking.

In particular, the kudos for visual-effects supervisor John Knoll and animation supervisor Hal Hickel are mostly for the work they did animating the Davy Jones character. Knoll and Hickel gave CNET News.com an exclusive behind-the-scenes tour of how they created the entirely computer-animated character--a feat that has left some in the industry awestruck.

Also of note
A former Hewlett-Packard executive accused by the company of stealing trade secrets is now saying he was instructed by the company's management to spy on rival Dell...A popular computer security Web site was abruptly yanked offline this week by MySpace.com and GoDaddy, the world's largest domain name registrar...Microsoft is offering buyers of Windows XP Home Edition and Windows XP Media Center Edition an extra five years of customer support, marking the first time such extended service has been offered with a Microsoft consumer product.