Week in review: Microsoft in the crosshairs

Microsoft feels heat from the European community and software companies, and Intel makes a power play. Also: Space fight takes flight.

Microsoft found itself the popular target this week, with antitrust woes returning and new software battles emerging.

A European court dealt a severe blow to Microsoft's competitive ambitions in Europe Monday by siding with regulators in an antitrust case against the company. In its ruling, the Court of First Instance upheld European Commission claims that Microsoft abused its dominant position in the operating system market. Microsoft's allies and competitors have been closely following the case since the Commission imposed antitrust sanctions against the company in early 2004.

The court's decision is expected to have far-reaching implications for consumers, computer makers, Microsoft competitors and, perhaps most pointedly, the Commission's ability to regulate technology companies on antitrust matters, legal experts and industry observers say.

Neelie Kroes, the EC's Competition Commissioner, said that should Microsoft comply with the Commission's order, she expects to see a "significant drop" in Microsoft's overwhelming market share.

And while she gave no estimate as to how steep she expects that drop to be, Kroes noted that it would likely be more than a few percentage points as more competitors enter the market.

"These court findings are just the justification EU has now to protect its local technology companies against any international competition through law, instead of quality and innovation, the same way they do with agricultural products, chemicals, etc.," wrote one reader the CNET News.com TalkBack forum. "The US companies that sided with EU this time for greed will soon realize that you sometimes should think twice before making your wish..."

On the software competition front, Microsoft was on the receiving end of a couple of Office salvos.

After years of watching Microsoft rake in billions of dollars from its desktop software franchise, its competitors are pouncing.

IBM on Tuesday announced the release of Lotus Symphony, a suite of free desktop applications based on the OpenOffice.org open-source product.

Separately, Yahoo said that it paid $350 million to acquire Zimbra, a start-up that developed a Web-based e-mail and collaboration package comparable with Microsoft Exchange and Outlook.

Meanwhile, Google introduced Google Presentations, an online version of Microsoft's PowerPoint presentation application that complements Google's Web-hosted document editor and spreadsheet.

The flurry of investment in productivity software points to technology and business changes in the IT industry that are making Microsoft's cash cow vulnerable to alternatives, particularly among small businesses and consumers.

Intel's power play
With the next two generations of Intel's chips set in place, the company is looking forward to a low-power future, Intel CEO Paul Otellini said in his keynote address kicking off the Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco. Intel will launch the server and high-end desktop versions of its Penryn generation of chips on November 12, in line with previous reports expecting those chips before the Thanksgiving holiday. And Intel has also completed the design for Nehalem, a more radical overhaul of the company's chip blueprints.

Pat Gelsinger, general manager of Intel's Digital Enterprise Group, demonstrated a Nehalem-based system at the Intel Developer Forum here that he said will bring major performance improvements for the company's x86 processor line. The processor family itself is due to arrive in 2008.

The Nehalem demonstration featured a system with two quad-core processors; each processing core can handle two independent instruction sequences called threads, and the demo showed all 16 threads at work on various tasks. The processor was the very first incarnation of Nehalem--the "A0" version--built for the first time three weeks ago, Gelsinger said.

Intel also detailed an effort called LessWatts.org, a combination of open-source software and helpful hints to reduce power consumption of Linux servers, PCs and gadgets. Renee James, vice president and general manager of Intel's Software and Solutions Group, said the effort is geared toward technically sophisticated folks from programmers to system administrators. It gathers together a number of Intel projects, such as the PowerTop utility for finding which software is pestering the processor and preventing it from dozing in low-power states.

Taking Intel's advice and fixes can trim about 10 watts of power consumption off a modern dual-processor server, said Dirk Hohndel, chief technologist of Intel open-source technology center. That's not a gargantuan amount--until you consider that if done correctly it's free power savings, that each watt of server energy saved cuts another 1.3 watts from air conditioning (according to Intel figures), and of course that 10 watts per server is a lot when multiplied by the thousands of servers that populate larger data centers.

Perhaps, the most interesting news was Otellini's goals for Intel over the rest of the decade. The company plans to ship a generation of processors on its 45-nanometer manufacturing technology by 2009 that come with graphics integrated right onto the processor, similar to what rival Advanced Micro Devices has planned for its Fusion chips. Intel will be investing in a joint venture with KDDI, a Japanese telecom company, with plans to build a WiMax network in Japan. And as expected, Intel talked up its low-power chips for MIDs (Mobile Internet Devices), with plans to reduce the power consumption of its handheld computer chips by a factor of 10 compared with the Silverthorne processor, expected next year.

Meanwhile, Intel and others plan to release a new version of the ubiquitous Universal Serial Bus technology in the first half of 2008, a revamp the chipmaker said will make data transfer rates more than 10 times as fast by adding fiber-optic links alongside the traditional copper wires. Intel is working with fellow USB 3.0 Promoters Group members Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, Texas Instruments, NEC and NXP Semiconductors to release the USB 3.0 specification in the first half of 2008, Gelsinger said.

Moon shot
Weeks away from the 50th anniversary of space flight, a group of aerospace engineers, space entrepreneurs and astronauts met at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif., to reflect on the past and discuss the coming 50 years of space exploration. The two-day conference, called 50 Years in Space, is marked by the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik on October 4, 1957. Harrison "Jack" Schmitt, astronaut and former U.S. senator, called that event an "intellectual earthquake" for science and the first trigger of interest in space.

More than that milestone, early space flight paved the way for decades of technological innovation and scientific discovery and brought about a multibillion-dollar space industry. Scientists believe that new technology and knowledge about the universe will easily push us further in the years to come.

However, a fight was inadvertently launched over NASA's role in the space program. If it were up to Burt Rutan, the aerospace engineer known for building a suborbital rocket plane that won the Ansari X Prize, NASA wouldn't be developing a spacecraft to return man to the moon by 2020. That government mission has already been accomplished and a repeat performance is "silly," Rutan said.

"Taxpayer-funded NASA should only fund research and not development," Rutan said. "I think it's absurd they're doing Orion development at all. It should be done commercially," he said, referring to the name of the lunar spacecraft. Of course, Rutan has a big stake in commercial development of spacecraft. As founder and president of Scaled Composites, he develops rockets for future commercial space tourism.

But for those still planning to go to the moon and win $20 million in the Google Lunar X Prize, NASA has added new lunar imagery to Google's Moon Web site, a photographic display of the moon with information graphics about the Apollo landings.

The updated moon site includes higher-resolution lunar maps and additional content from the Apollo missions, including panoramic images, audio and video clips, and descriptions of the astronauts' activities, according to NASA. The site also features detailed charts of different regions of the moon "suitable for use by anyone simulating a lunar mission," the space agency said.

Also of note
The New York Times has finally given up on the Web-subscription model , announcing Monday that the newspaper's online site will no longer charge for any content...President Bush's nominee to replace departing Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has a history of sticking up for the electronic-surveillance powers expanded by the controversial USA Patriot Act...Mozilla Foundation is creating a subsidiary for its e-mail client Thunderbird with $3 million and beginning plans to significantly expand its programming staff.

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