Friday, August 17, 2007

O Brave New World That Has Such Gamers in It

This week it's likely that thousands of people cut school, called in sick and otherwise turned away from the real world so they could be among the first adventurers to traverse the Dark Portal and battle the demons of the Burning Legion in the broken world of Outland.

Call it the World of Warcraft effect. This is what happens when Blizzard Entertainment, the maker of World of Warcraft, the top online computer game with more than eight million paying subscribers, releases the game's first retail expansion set.

The Burning Crusade, as the set is titled, went on sale at midnight Tuesday. For people who don't play online games, it can be a little difficult to describe the freakout many gamers experience as they try to explore and conquer the new content. Imagine the convergence of rabid fans if, say, Luciano Pavarotti were to star in a long-hyped live remake of "Star Trek" at Carnegie Hall, with special appearances by Tom Cruise and Kiefer Sutherland.

It's a bit like that, except for people who mostly don't read People, care about Jack Bauer or subscribe to the Met.

I'm one of them, which is why I spent 24 almost consecutive hours at my computer playing and why I will be playing the game for most of the next couple of weeks as I write an online serial review and travelogue through the most successful virtual world in, well, the world.

The reason World of Warcraft has become such a cash factory (the game has attracted more than eight million subscribers, most of whom pay about $15 a month to play) is that it delivers an overall entertainment experience that goes far beyond what one might expect from a mere game.

For example, in the new addition, as soon as you cross through the mystical Dark Portal and into the new continent Outland, you are immediately confronted with an epic battle taking place on the gate's steps between the grotesque Burning Legion and the heroic defenders of peace and justice.

It is an effect meant to impress that the player is merely part of a much larger, more important story. It is the same device used in the opening scenes of war films like "Saving Private Ryan" to viscerally establish the broader context before narrowing to focus on a much smaller-scale human drama.

Of course in an online role-playing game like World of Warcraft the biggest and most central draw for most players is in exploring that virtual world and making one's character more powerful.

The two concepts — exploration and growth — go together. In W.O.W., as in most such games, characters begin life as a weakling at what is called Level 1. And since W.O.W.'s debut in late 2004, characters have been capped at Level 60.

After two years of players champing at the bit to advance, Burning Crusade has raised the cap to Level 70 and opened seven new high-level zones for players to explore, complete quests and defeat monsters.

The fun part is that on each server, or copy of the game world, thousands of other players — humans and orcs, wizards and rogues, druids and warlocks — are trying to do the same thing. What naturally emerges, at least among some players, is a race, or land-rush, mentality. There is a whole new continent to explore, all this new power to attain; who will see and experience it first?

And so at midnight Tuesday the starter's gun went off. Around 5:45 a.m., after completing most of the available quests in the first zone, called Hellfire Peninsula, I became the second player on my server to reach Level 61, around 20 minutes after another gamer in my guild. I moved west to the moody, slightly creepy bogland zone called Zangarmarsh and became my server's first Level 62er just before noon.

By then I was receiving dozens of private messages in the game every hour from players I had never met who could see that my guildmate and I were out front: "OMG how did you level so fast?," "Hey you must have a lot of gold, can I have some?" and of course "You guys are huge nerds." (Yes, and proud ones, I might add.) The chatter only increased after I became the first on my server to reach Level 65 early yesterday morning.

In addition to bragging rights there is a very practical reason for wanting to stay in front of the pack in a situation like this. Only by maintaining a lead does one gets to experience the world in an almost pristine state. As I moved into lush Terokkar Forest Wednesday, there was almost no one else there, creating a blissful sense of exploration akin to hiking into Yosemite well before the tourists arrive. In a week Terokkar will be packed full of the equivalent of tour buses and noisy R.V.'s.

As I continue to explore I will share my impressions and progress. After I reach Level 70 I hope to loop back and explore some of Burning Crusade's other new features, like the new alternate starting areas for low-level characters.


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Thursday, August 16, 2007

Websense: Skype worm on the loose

Skype is best known for allowing subscribers to make free telephone calls over the Internet. The company has more than 7 million subscribers and was acquired just over a year ago by online auction firm eBay for $2.6 billion.

Early reports indicate that the worm sends messages via Skype Chat, an instant-messenging tool. The messages ask recipients to download and run a file called sp.exe.

Once the file is executed, it installs spyware that can steal passwords and other personal information. It also connects to a remote server to download additional code.

According to Websense, the worm seems to have come from the Asia-Pacific region, possibly Korea.

The number of people affected is still unclear.


Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Wait for Microsoft Vista And The Marketing Barrage


Microsoft's power in the technology industry, some analysts insist, is waning. It faces a host of rivals from a reinvigorated Apple on the desktop to Web-based challengers like Google, delivering services and software online.

But yesterday, on the eve of the arrival of new models of Microsoft's flagship products, the Windows operating system and the Office programs, the skeptics were overshadowed and drowned out by the opening salvos in the software giant's marketing campaign.

Windows Vista and Office 2007 start appearing today, available in retail stores as a shrink-wrapped package and shipped on new machines sold by personal computer makers. The new Microsoft offerings were available to large corporate customers at the end of November.

Steven A. Ballmer, the company's chief executive, called today "the biggest product launch in Microsoft's history," and the rollout will be backed by a first-year marketing budget of hundreds of millions of dollars.

New versions of Windows and Office move across the technology industry like a powerful weather system, driving sales of personal computers and other hardware, software and services. The pace is typically gradual but steady, yet the impact on the rest of the industry is significant.

Over 5,000 software and hardware products are ready to run on Vista, and Microsoft has more than 500,000 industry partners worldwide, including resellers, retailers and consultants as well as hardware and software companies. Millions of developers write programs that run on Windows.

For every dollar Microsoft makes on Windows Vista, the rest of the industry will collect $18 of revenue, estimates IDC, a technology research firm. Indeed, those that build products and services on top of and around Microsoft's technology constitute an industry ecosystem that business professors have studied. And Microsoft's long investment in nurturing that network of mutual support, they say, is a major reason that Windows holds more than 90 percent of the market for PC operating systems.

In the United States, the IDC report concluded, "this ecosystem should sell about $70 billion in products and services revolving around Windows Vista" in 2007. The introduction of Windows Vista, IDC projected, is expected to generate 157,000 jobs in the United States. The IDC study was paid for by Microsoft, but the research firm said it used its own methodology.

Because the universe of Windows users has grown, Mr. Ballmer predicted that sales of Windows Vista in the first three months would be five times the early sales of Windows 95, introduced in 1995, and double the sales of Windows XP, shipped in 2001.

Mr. Ballmer spoke at a news conference in New York, along with executives from large computer manufacturers and chip makers. "I hope your forecasts are right," said Todd Bradley, executive vice president for personal computers at Hewlett-Packard. "We'd all be thrilled."

The industry has certainly been patient. Vista suffered repeated delays, coming five years after Windows XP. Microsoft has vowed that there will never again be so lengthy a gap between versions of its operating system. Industry analysts expect that Microsoft will more regularly update Windows with new features and bug fixes delivered over the Internet — and that the line between the desktop software and Internet software will increasingly blur.

"Today will go down in computing history as the last big operating system launch for Microsoft," said Gary Beach, publisher of CIO Magazine, a publication for professional technology managers.

For those upgrading from previous versions of Windows, there are three versions of Vista, from $100 to $260. The new operating system has striking three-dimensional graphics, an easier-to-use interface and improved security, and it handles games, music, video and pictures far better than previous generations of Windows, most product reviewers have agreed. But many reviewers have also pointed out that most of the new features in Vista are already in Apple's Macintosh computers.

Mr. Ballmer and Bill Gates, the chairman, presided over a gathering in a Times Square theater to celebrate Vista's arrival, along with industry partners, analysts, and early Vista users, or beta testers. One was Farage Yusupov, a lawyer at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison. Some Vista features, he said, did not run on his two-year-old laptop.

But Mr. Yusupov said he planned to get a new computer with Vista soon. "In a year or two, every computer is going to have it," he said. "Since I'm going to get it sooner or later, I want it sooner."

Microsoft's industry partners described Vista as a watershed. Hector Ruiz, the chairman of Advanced Micro Devices, a microprocessor maker, said the new Microsoft operating system would usher in "the visualization age of computing" with rich 3-D graphics entering the mainstream. "And stunning visual experiences require outstanding hardware," Mr. Ruiz added.

Kevin B. Rollins, Dell's chief executive, said his company began taking orders online over the weekend for Vista-equipped machines. Traffic on the company's Web site increased 20 percent because of demand for PC's running Vista, and tens of thousands of them have been sold in the last couple of days, Mr. Rollins said.

Sean Maloney, executive vice president of Intel, said that Vista's abilities combined with rapidly advancing technology in microchips would lead to a "golden age for PCs," allowing them to serve as a central hub for storing, managing and sending digital media like movies and music to television sets and music players in the home.

In an interview, Mr. Bradley of Hewlett-Packard pointed to his company's TouchSmart PC, being released to coincide with Vista's debut, to show that manufacturers are increasingly able to use Microsoft's operating system as "a platform we can build around instead of just embed on our machines."

The $1,699 model, with a 20-inch touch screen and television tuner built in, has a user interface that has been tailored by Hewlett-Packard engineers so that it looks different from a standard Windows machine. Microsoft's antitrust settlement with the federal government required the software maker to give PC makers more freedom to modify Windows.

Most of Microsoft's vast marketing budget will be on print, television, radio and Web advertisements. But some will go for so-called viral marketing events like an online puzzle contest called Vanishing Point, sponsored by Microsoft and A.M.D. The winner will get a ride into space from a private space travel company.

The strategy, said Michael Sievert, vice president for Windows marketing, "is really about getting people to come in and have a look."


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Sunday, August 12, 2007

Microsoft-Novell: Who Wins, Who Loses?

Many observers believe that the deal between Microsoft and Novell will benefit Microsoft in its case with the European Union over antitrust penalties imposed by the European Commission, with the fact that Novell is a prominent antagonist in the case not lost on critics.

The business and technology partnership unveiled recently by Microsoft and Novell is a multi-dimensional union that reaches deep into the open-source community, slaps at rivals of both vendors and could potentially aid Microsoft in its European Union lawsuit.

Microsoft and Novell, whose dislike for each other is nearly as old as the industry, are striving to make it easier for customers to run, integrate and manage Linux and Windows environments and help open-source developers steer clear of patent and intellectual property concerns.

But the deal also tweaks rivals, including Red Hat, which dominates the Linux market, and VMware, which develops virtualization software that competes with offerings from both Microsoft and Novell. The timing is particularly poor for Red Hat, which is already stinging from a promise by Oracle two weeks ago to undercut Red Hat's lucrative support business. Red Hat's stock is down 17 percent since the announcement.

Microsoft and Novell say the need for the pact was driven by customers who run mixed Windows and Linux environments and need help solving interoperability issues. The companies say they will create a joint research facility staffed with Microsoft and Novell technical experts who can build and test software and work with customers.

"This is a win-win for customers," says Laura DiDio, a research fellow in the application infrastructure and software platforms division at the Yankee Group. "First, by pledging not to assert patent rights against SUSE Linux, Microsoft silences many of its critics in the open-source community. Secondly, by stating they will cooperatively build products that make SUSE Linux and Windows Server coexist, Microsoft and Novell are guaranteeing interoperability."

That promise hinges on an agreement by the vendors to focus on virtualization and to jointly develop a virtualization offering for both Linux and Windows that would allow either to be the host or guest operating system.

While few details were provided, Novell CEO Ron Hovsepian said the emphasis would be on para-virtualization technology, which ensures tight integration and better performance by requiring an operating system to be explicitly ported to run in the virtualized environment.

Although Hovsepian said the virtualization offering would allow either Linux or Windows to be the host operating system, he did not specify if it would apply to both desktops and server virtualization.

Users had a mixed reaction.

"It is great to see these leaders combining to solve key compatibility issues," says Randy Cowen, the CTO of Goldman Sachs, who appeared on stage with Hovsepian and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer during the press conference in San Francisco.

But some questioned the union and its effects on the open-source community.

Jim Klein, director of information services and technology for Saugus Union School District in Los Angeles, wrote on his blog: "The biggest benefactor of this deal is Novell, not the open-source community or the customer, as Novell's Hovsepian and the spin doctors would have us believe. And we as a community should stand against it."

Klein said he sees the Microsoft/Novell partnership as the greatest threat to open source that community has ever seen. "As long as Microsoft is promoting the use of SUSE Linux, Novell has a vested interest in supporting Microsoft's perspectives in the marketplace," Klein says.

Industry veterans say the deal also is a shot at common Microsoft/Novell foes such as VMware, an affiliate of EMC.

"Microsoft is now willing to partner with a provider of a Linux guest [operating system] to offer an X-platform guest solution for its Virtual Server, which previously was one of the strengths of VMware," says Tom Kemp, cofounder of Centrify, which develops software to integrate Windows with Linux distributions, including Novell's SUSE.

The other major portion of the agreement focused on patent infringement and intellectual property rights, which both companies sought to protect under a contract that took six months to hammer out.

Open source and Linux developers have feared that features of the Linux kernel and open-source applications may tread on the patents owned by major vendors and bring crippling reprisals.

Microsoft said it will provide a covenant not to assert its patent rights against customers who have purchased SUSE Linux Enterprise Server and other covered Novell products. Meanwhile, Novell will provide an identical covenant to customers who have a licensed version of Windows or other covered Microsoft products. The patent agreement runs until 2012.

Patent fears have given rise to such services as the Web site run by Open Source Development Labs, which is a group focused on promoting the use of Linux in corporate networks. Two years ago IBM tried to assuage fears about patent claims by giving the open-source community free use of 500 of its patents, putting additional pressure on Microsoft to play along.

Microsoft now says it will not assert its patents against individual noncommercial open-source developers, nor will it assert its patents against individual contributors to whose code is included in the SUSE Linux Enterprise platform, including both the server and desktop version.

But critics hammered the patent part of the agreement saying it covers only noncommercial developers and leaves out commercial developers whose work could pose a threat to Microsoft on the desktop and server.

Other parts of the overall agreement include integrating management wares that support hybrid Windows and SUSE Linux environments, including making it easier to federate Microsoft's Active Directory and Novell's eDirectory. Those platforms form the core of each vendor's identity management platforms.

While the pair did not go into specifics, it is clear the interoperability will include Novell's ZenWorks management platform and Microsoft's family of System Center products.

In the area of document format compatibility, the companies will focus on interoperability between Microsoft's Office and Novell's OpenOffice desktop productivity applications. The two also will focus on developing translators to improve interoperability between OpenXML from Microsoft and the Open Document Format, which is widely embraced in the open-source community.

In addition, Microsoft said it will work with Novell and contribute to several open-source software projects, including those focused on Office file formats.

Many observers believe that the deal will also benefit Microsoft in its case with the European Union over antitrust penalties imposed by the European Commission. The fact that Novell is a prominent antagonist in the case is not lost on critics.

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