Microsoft Finally Admits Users Need Help with the Ribbon

It's still amazing how improvements designed to make software easier to use actually do the opposite.

Microsoft has crowed about how the Ribbon interface in Office 2007 makes that product easier to use by surfacing up its capabilities through its contextual menuing system. Even when journalists reported over the past year-and-a-half that users say it just makes features harder to find in production environments, company executives just gave quizzical looks.

Well, Microsoft finally appears to be showing some concession on this issue. Yesterday, Microsoft shipped something called "search commands" that lets confused users actually type the function they want to perform. Redmond has been testing this in its own shop for months now, and believes it's ready for others outside of the Big House to take it for a spin.

However, an interesting twist here is that the new technology won't be available as a download from one of Microsoft's typical Web sites. Instead, a new group established inside the company called Office Labs will be making it available over its Web site.

This group's charter is to serve as a channel that puts out new productivity software -- or even just a piece of a software program -- that may not be ready to get some early help in further refining it. This is a nice idea; Microsoft won't waste time and money pursuing something users have no interest in, and so can more smartly invest its money in things users do care about.

Would've been nice to have had something like this for Vista, wouldn't it?

HP Breakthrough Promises More Dense, Greener Memory Chips
It sounds like a technology that should be available in 2050, but it could be commercially available in PCs and servers a heck of a lot sooner.

Hewlett-Packard scientists yesterday said that they've successfully designed what they described as a "circuit element" that could in turn activate almost-microscopic computers capable of imitating biological functions. They claimed that the Memristor paves the way for building dense memory chips that require only a miniscule amount of power compared to today's chips.

The HP propeller-heads describe the device as a sort of "electrical resistor with memory properties." The real appeal of this technology is its potential to store a very wide array of what scientists referred to as "intermediate data" -- in laymen's terms, not just the binary 0s and 1s that today's chips commonly do. This technology functions more like "biological synapses" and so it seems would be perfect for a whole boatload of applications involving artificial intelligence.

The good news for our industry is that some researchers believe the Memristor can be fast-tracked and will likely be applied sooner rather than later to memory products for computers. While HP declined to give a specific timeframe, it would be much, much closer to 2010 than 2050.

A nice built-in benefit here is the green aspect of the device; it needs only a smidge of power compared to what today's chips need. This is because the Memristor only needs power to switch and hold its state and doesn't need to be constantly refreshed. But like all promising technologies, the Memristor has what would be a major drawback -- namely, it operates approximately 10 times slower than today's memory products.

Big Blue Still Big in Small Companies
Since the mid-1990s, IBM has been making a steady push into the small and medium-sized business (SMB) market with increasing fervor. While Big Blue has made a healthy living selling to the Fortune 1000-class IT shops, over the last dozen years or so the company has placed a big bet that with the arrival of the Internet, the SMB market would explode -- and it was right.

Most reputable analyst firms now put the total worth of that market at some $253 billion and growing markedly faster than the enterprise market. In fact, IBM's SMB sales are hovering around 20 percent of its total sales.

What makes IBM's growth rate impressive among smaller companies is that the SMB market's natural habitat is archrival Microsoft. While Redmond still holds the market share lead there, Armonk has made some significant inroads with no signs of backing off.

This week, IBM continued its push into the SMB space by announcing a raft of new products and solutions as part of its Express Advantage series, which it claims will help SMBs better compete not just in their local markets but globally.

One area the new offerings focus on is security, something often overlooked by smaller shops that have maybe one or no dedicated IT professionals. In writing a number of stories over the past few years, it was almost shocking to discover how many small and even medium-sized shops had no security. That's right, none -- as in none-point-none security. And with no dedicated IT pros in-house, these companies also had no best-practices policies for employees to follow. Underscoring this need for security is a recent Gartner report that stated 90 percent of infrastructure protection for companies with under 500 employees will go to security by 2010.

A couple of the new products and services include the Express Penetration Testing Service, designed to show smaller companies where their hidden security weak spots are by simulating various attacks; and the Express Multi-Function Security Bundle, a service that provides a do-it-yourself method for fending off all sorts of nasty bugs, worms and other malicious insects. The latter solution is all tied together under the company's Unified Threat Management product.

Another practical offering is the Express Remote Data Protection Express. This one, too, is laced with security features and also provides offsite backup and recovery capabilities -- something understaffed, under-resourced SMBs can always use.

To read more about IBM's SMB push -- and about any of the other topics in this column -- visit our news site RedmondReport.com.

Mailbag: Spammer Gets Canned
Yesterday, Lafe wrote about Eddie Davidson, who has been sentenced to nearly two years in prison for spamming the heck out of people. Readers share their thoughts:

He may be getting free room and board for those 21 months but there is still the big cost of no freedom, though most correctional facilities have access to computers. Is he a hacker, too? If so, he may still do spam if he is allowed to use a computer. Hmm. Kind of defeats the purpose of his incarceration, doesn't it?

But as an individual, I'm going to use the best-of-breed tools I can find. Because I have yet to find any integrated systems that are totally infallible.
-Robbi

Davidson is getting off easy. He should be billed for the government's expenses to convict and imprison him. He likely has a boatload of cash from his nefarious ways. I say leave him penniless...and tack on a few more years, to boot!
-George

I know for a fact that in county jail, an inmate pays for each day of his sentence. I am not sure about prison, but I doubt it is free.
-David

According to the article, "Davidson made at least $3.5 million sending e-mails for nearly 20 companies." Here's the solution: Prosecute the ones who paid him and seize their assets. The quasi-legit businesses that pay spammers are the real problem -- nobody sends out spam just for fun.
-Peter

Tell us what you think! Send your thoughts to escannell@redmondmag.com or leave a comment below.

About the Author

Ed Scannell is the editor of Redmond magazine.

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