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Microsoft goes low-tech

"I may not know a bug from a feature, but I know a corporate pissing match when I see one!" shrilled my dear old grandmother, who was referring to the latest news that WebTV has canned plans to support Java and has aborted support for RealAudio.

    It appears that I'm at risk of losing my last personal tie to WebTV. Grandma DuBaud has had it up to here.

    "I may not know a bug from a feature, but I know a corporate pissing match when I see one!" shrilled my dear old grandmother, who was referring to the latest news that WebTV has canned plans to support Java and has aborted support for RealAudio.

    According to Grandma DuBaud's theory, which is playing as well in Peoria as it is in Quebec, WebTV parent Microsoft is hamstringing its own WebTV technology in order to score against Java and Real, its mortal enemies on the OS and multimedia fronts.

    But rather than a decree from on high, insiders suggests a conspiracy between corporate parent and child to waylay Real and Java. WebTV and Microsoft take a rather dim view of people like my grandmother, thinking, contrary to their own internal market research, that they're a) too technologically inept to want full functionality and b) they're too cheap to pay for it.

    Another reason WebTV is likely to stay low tech: The headaches caused by the Microsoft acquisition advanced quickly to brain-drain, as ex-Apple programmers fled the prospect of working for Mr. Big. This, on top of the coding mess caused by morphing from a Navigator-oriented browser to an IE-oriented browser, has left the WebTV programming team disoriented and understaffed. The view from the inside is that they're likely to remain that way.

    Low technology is likely to characterize the future of another Microsoft effort. As my able colleagues found out yesterday, Microsoft is bailing on its Chromeffects multimedia technology--indefinitely.

    "It's not clear that it will ever be delivered as Chromeffects," said a knowledgeable Skinformant. He views the demise of Chromeffects as symptomatic of disarray in Microsoft's multimedia wing, which has found itself in the crossfire between the loose cannons who developed the cutting-edge technology and the "stodgy academicians" trying to ram compliance with the Talisman multimedia architecture down their throats. This Skinsider muses that Chromeffects may get refined and ultimately folded into its more cumbersome predecessor, DirectX--but that new multimedia technology coming out of Microsoft will slow to a trickle.

    "We won't see Microsoft having any new multimedia ideas any time soon," he remarked.

    Meanwhile, Microsoft watchers are advised not to make too much of the transfer of Eric Engstrom from multimedia to MSN. Turns out that Engstrom, neck deep in Microsoft's antitrust merde, also has a bad back. Engstrom has told superiors that he can manage DOJ pain, and back pain, and multimedia reorganization pain--but not all three at once.

    For future reading: Random House has advanced journalist Mike Drummond for a book focusing on Microsoft's multimedia mess and the creative crazies who fueled it. Tentative title: Renegades at Microsoft.

    A few of you have written in to inquire how my 12-year-old son Vermel's school musical with 100 synchronized-swimming CEOs is doing. Unfortunately, rehearsals have been marred by a few drowning deaths. Simply a case of art imitating life, as Keng Lim could attest. The founder and CEO of Kiva has left Netscape, according to a Skinside source. "I believe that they are calling it a 'leave of absence,'" he reports. "But we know better." Survivors are still hard at work on the next version of Netscape's Applications Server.

    Some executives don't drown, they merely flounder. Eckhard Pfeiffer, Compaq's chairman and COO, was supposed to deliver a keynote yesterday at Oracle OpenWorld here in the land of tech and money. Perhaps taking a page from the playbooks of Bill Gates and Bill Clinton, though, he only showed up on videotape and offered only bland remarks, leaving the real work to VP John Nicholson.

    Oracle chief Larry Ellison, one of Playboy's 10 Best Dressed Men, hosted a cozy afternoon chat last week with a crowd of journalist types (how I got invited I still haven't figured out...) at Ellison's seldom-used digs in San Francisco's hoity-toity Pacific Heights. Larry's done a nice job fixing up the joint: the minimalist furnishings avoid spoiling spectacular views of the San Francisco Bay through ceiling-to-floor windows on the third and fourth floors.

    Mercury Center columnist Dan Gillmour asked the question no one else dared to: "Can we have a tour of the house?" Larry's retort: "It won't take as long as touring Bill's."

    His Gates obsession in tow, Larry described the beautiful paneling in the masculine billiards room as Bebinga, a red rosewood with a nicer grain. He lamented how the tree has been nearly wiped out by loggers supplying CEOs to panel their dens. "It's a pity," he opined, without a trace of irony.

    Iconocast's JacoByte had a nice item about another San Francisco CEO, which read:

    "There's a really vague rumor doing the Jaco rounds about CNET CEO Halsey Minor swapping places with NBC Entertainment head Warren Littlefield. Or is that the other way around?"

    Here at Skinny labs, we have the singular advantage of being able to phone Mr. Minor by pressing only four keys on our touch-tone pad.

    "Actually, I will be replacing Leno, not Littlefield," replied the CNET chief. "It will be a phased thing where I will start appearing just as Leno did with Carson before getting the full gig. All I have to do is just learn to be funny."

    Personally, I think he's off to a pretty good start, but whether he'll ever break out of Vermel's chorus line remains to be seen.

    Finally, some notes on our redesign. You may have noticed that you've all been fired: Chewin' the Fat is no more. But don't despair--we intend to make your letters a regular part of the weekly column. What, after all, would I do without notes like:

    "It's hard to fathom how Jaleh Bisharat or Doug Boake qualify as 'founders' of PointCast. Consider the following: PED Software was founded in 1992 and changed its name to PointCast in December of 1994...Jim Reilly joined PED in 1994 as the first VP of Marketing...Jaleh Bisharat replaced Jim Reilly as VP of Marketing in late 1995 or early 1996...Doug Boake joined PointCast in mid-1996...Seems to me your article is a little 'skinny' on facts, but is certainly 'fat' with fancy."

    So I'm bad with dates. Another correction a number of you sent in had to do with the Haiku "spam" we supped on last week. It appears I'm a little behind on back issues of Salon--those poems were penned for the online magazine's haiku error messages contest; winning entries (with appropriate credits) are posted.

    And a few final crumbs from the 2.0 launch. At least a few of you noticed some brutal goofs, the first during the change-over advising readers to "Please check back in the afternoon for all the lastest in tech news," the second inviting readers to read a story in the Net section headlined, "Hilf says Choy is a doofus." senior producer Susan Choy declined to comment on the charge, which was levied by CNET Web site engineer Bill Hilf. But the two were all smiles at last night's post-launch festivities; apparently they have patched things up.

    Everyone makes mistakes, what else is knew? Tell me something I don't know.