Tag Archives: Windows Live Messenger

Encarta’s Passing: Harbinger of Redmond Doom?

Microsoft has announced that Encarta, its digital encyclopedia, will be dead by year’s end. First off, hands up who thought it had died long ago?

Secondly, and before we get on to the whole Wikipedia thing, I’d like to make a more general comment about Microsoft: its online stuff is awful, and Encarta is no different. There are already plenty of people musing on why Encarta died, but I’d say one good reason is that it’s hard to access and get your mind around as pretty much every Microsoft online property.

What worries me is that this isn’t a small problem anymore. It seems indicative of Microsoft’s’s online strategy, or lack of it, and seems to suggest they’re having bigger problems than we thought.

First, you visit its webpage. Well you don’t actually. The highest result in Google is the online version, parked at MSN.com: encarta.msn.com. Before we go there, you may notice that lower down the search results, past an MSN dictionary—which may or may not be Encarta—and the Wikipedia entry on Encarta (already updated to include Encarta’s announcement) lies another Microsoft site: Encarta the product. (Interestingly, its immediately followed by articles discussing its demise, giving you a pretty good idea of how little Encarta has been discussed or linked to up until now. That such articles could rise so quickly on Google is a surprise.)

The latter website is for the downloadable software. Interestingly, no mention there that it’s a product that is dead. (By contrast, there’s mention of “web encyclopedias”, which it contrasts itself to:

Editorially approved content you can trust. In contrast to many web encyclopedias, the authors of the 60,000 plus detailed articles in Microsoft Encarta Premium 2008 are experts in their field. Your kids get relevant age-appropriate information from reliable sources.

(Many? How many web encyclopedias are there?)

Maybe it’s a glitch but try clicking on any of the links to buy said software and you get an error from DigitalRiver, the online store:

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Another example, for me, of how Microsoft online is a shambles.

Indeed, visit the first Encarta-branded link you see a different kind of logo:

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versus

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and a page that hums with mediocrity: a slice of Flash that cycles between several nothing teasers about nothing articles, tabs above that, confusingly, have one for encyclopedia—so is online Encarta not just an encyclopedia?—and some more pretty lame teasers “Beware dihydrogen monoxide! Relax, it’s just water. What other scientific pranks have people pulled?” better suited to some magazine website.

Clicking on the encyclopedia tab takes you a page that is a travesty of design and revealing about the state of the problem Microsoft faces:

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Two big MSN ads tell you they’re not pushing much ad inventory.The blank middle bit, filled only by the less than heplful instruction “Select a type of article to see a list of categories.” suggests someone there hasn’t done Design 101.

Click on the first link, to Encyclopedia Articles and you’re still hunting: “Select a category to see a list of subcategories.” By then I’m guessing you’ve probably lost interest, both in Encarta and this blog post, so I’ll leave it there. But I suspect that this poor branding, presentation, navigation and lack of non-inhouse ads has as much to do with Encarta’s demise as anything else.

My point: Is this just Microsoft scrambling around to find its way online (still) or is it a symptom of a deeper malaise at Redmond that is going to usher in a slew of announcements like Encarta’s? If so, what is next for the chop?

I’d submit a couple of candidates off the top of my head:  played with Microsoft Office’s Live plugin the other day, that supposedly lets me save and collaborate on documents online. Boy did that one suck! Then there’s FolderShare, which used to be a great product—sharing folders and files online between users and computers—which is now called Windows Live Sync, and which doesn’t seem to work. At all. (I’ve tried it on a few computers, and despite installing the software, you’re still prompted to install it even when it’s running.)

So disappointing. I’d imagined Microsoft eventually embracing and extending online but all I see is a congealed mess of half-products that can’t decide what they’re called, and where they belong. Critical though though I’ve been of Microsoft in the past, I hate to see this.

Shoot The Messenger

Every time I start to feel warm and fuzzy about Microsoft something jumps up and slaps me back to reality. Here’s my latest slap:

For some reason my Trillian messenger wasn’t connecting to MSN because of some weirdness with my ISP so I had to download and install the 9 MB behemoth that is MSN Messenger. As usual it tried to change my homepage (at least it asked first, which I don’t remember the MSN Search bar doing so) but it worked ok. But try closing it down and you get an error message:

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Which says:

There are other applications currently using features provided by MSN Messenger.  You must close these other applications before you can exit MSN Messenger.  These applications may include Outlook, Outlook Express, MSN, MSN Explorer, Internet Explorer, and Three Degrees.

Whatever Three Degrees is. (Why hasn’t Diana Ross sued yet?) Why should I have to close all these programs just to close this clunky jalopy of a program? I thought Microsoft was past all this nonsense? I didn’t have to close those programs to install the messenger, so I can’t imagine they have somehow become seamlessly integrated with Messenger inbetween whiles. Or could they? And if they could, why wasn’t I asked? And is this a good thing? No wonder my mail box is full of plaintive complaints from folk who feel their computer’s been taking over by aliens. Or zombies. Whatever.

Advice for today: Until further notice, don’t install anything that, well, has Microsoft on it.

How To Get Infected

What does it take to create a chain of infection? Perhaps just one credible link.

Last night I came back to my computer to see a an IM message from Josh Rowe, an Australian contact who is active in the anti-spam world Down Under. You couldn’t find a more diligent, experienced and responsible person, so when I saw his message —  http://home.earthlink.net/~gallery10/omg.pif lol! see it! u’ll like it — I didn’t think too hard before I clicked on it.

Of course, you know the rest of the story — it was a copy of the WORM_KELVIR.B which propagates via MSN messenger. According to Trend Micro, it attempts to send that message to all online MSN messenger contacts of an affected user:

When the user clicks the given URL, this worm downloads a copy of itself, named OMG.PIF, from the given URL. When this downloaded copy is executed, it downloads another malware file from the Internet, which Trend Micro detects as WORM_SDBOT.AUI.

Luckily the file had been removed by the time I clicked on the link. What intrigued me — and perhaps lulled me — was that I figured that by using Trillian I was immune to these kind of infections.

The other factor: It came from Josh, chairman of the Coalition Against Unsolicited Bulk Mail in Australia and a pillar of Australian tech society (and a very nice guy.) So why shouldn’t I trust the link? Indeed Josh, who was very apologetic, said that he had become infected because he had received the link from someone else he regarded as having impeccable tech credentials.

So, perhaps this is the secret of good viral infection: Get one credible figure infected, and then you’re on the way to getting everyone else infected. A sort of LinkedIn for viruses.

Goodbye To The Browser?

Here’s some more interesting end-of-year stuff from Nielsen//NetRatings: a report issued today (PDF file) says that three out of every four home and work Internet users access the Internet using a non-browser based Internet application, particularly media players, instant messengers and file sharing applications. “With 76 percent of Web surfers using Internet applications, functionality has grown beyond the browser to become a fundamental piece of the overall desktop,” said Abha Bhagat, senior analyst Nielsen//NetRatings. “It’s become harder to distinguish when you’re on the Internet, blurring the lines between what’s sitting on the desktop and what’s coming from the World Wide Web.”

According to the report, the top five applications are Windows Media Player, AOL Instant Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger, MSN Messenger Service and Real Player. Of these top five applications, Windows Media has the largest active user reach at 34 percent. AOL Instant Messenger was next at 20 percent, followed by Real Player also at 20 percent, MSN Messenger Service at 19 percent and Yahoo! Messenger Service, which reaches 12 percent of the active user base.

Interesting. But what does it actually tell us? First off, we shouldn’t get confused by the data. This doesn’t mean that folks are eschewing the browser, just that a lot of other programs are also connecting to the Internet (where is e-mail in all this?). Second, if Real Networks and MSN Messenger are anything to go by, a lot of these programs access the Internet without the user doing anything (or even knowing about it) so does this actually count? Lastly, there’s been plenty written already about how Microsoft is moving past the browser to incorporate similar functionality into its Office and other products — say Microsoft Word 2003’s Research Pane, for example — so it’s clear the big boys would have us move to more proprietary, locked-in environments, which all of the top five applications have in common. We’re not so much witnessing a demographic change as a deliberate shove by the main players.

My wish list? I’d like to see all of these players stop hoodwinking the end-user by loading their programs into the start-up queue automatically (you know who you are). It’s deliberately misleading (read: sleazy), it hogs resources and it skews data like Nielsen’s. I’d also like to see AOL, MSN and Yahoo all agree to share their instant messaging lists so folk like me don’t have to use great alternatives like Trillian to pull together our disparate buddy networks (Trillian will lump all your different Instant Messaging accounts into one easy to view window, minus all the ads and annoying pop-ups).

I see no danger in the browser gradually being phased out for plenty of web-related tasks. But, if the Internet has really become ‘part of the desktop’ let’s try to make it a place where ordinary folk can hang out without too much hassle.

News: Microsoft Takes on Google’s Customisable News

 Microsoft is taking on Google, at least in its news. The New Scientist says Microsoft is testing a a news-gathering web site that tailors the stories selected to individual users. Once MSN Newsbot is fully functional, Microsoft says the site will personalise results within 10 minutes of a user starting to browse.
 
Microsoft is not revealing exactly how its site will work. But experts say there are several possible types of algorithm that could be used. One is similar to those Amazon.com uses to recommend additional books a buyer might like. This algorithm analyses the other choices of people who have already bought the first book. A news site would instead group articles according to the reading patterns of previous users.

News: FTC Gets Tough On PopUps. Well, Some Of Them

 The Federal Trade Commission has accused a California pop-up advertising company of digital-age extortion. MSNBC reports that D Squared Solutions allegedly hijacked Internet users’ computers by bombarding them with Windows Messenger pop-up ads — as frequently as every 10 minutes. The ads hawked $30 software that promised only to stop future pop-ups from the company.
 
Windows Messenger is a different beast to Microsoft’s Messenger: it’s supposed to be used for system administrators to send out bulletins to users. Instead D Squared used it to blast annoying messages. The FTC is accusing them of extortion, and with websites like Blockmessenger.com, Endads.com, SaveYourPrivacy.com. and Fightmessenger.com under their control I suspect they have a case.

News: Where Online Chat Is Going

 It’s now pretty clear where this Instant Messaging thing is going, and why Yahoo and Microsoft have suddenly started blocking third parties from piggybacking their services. Microsoft have announced a hook-up with news agency and financial data transporter Reuters allowing users of the Messenger network to chat with the 50,000 members of Reuters own internal network (used mainly by traders).
 
The idea, of course, is that the (alleged; probably much smaller) 100 million MSN users can go straight to their broker through a secure chat window. Or, as ENTnews puts it: “In theory, the combination could allow logged, real-time communications among traders and their clients. What better medium than IM for messages like “Buy!” or “Sell!” that can be immediately acknowledged by a broker?”
 
Expect to see more of this among the big boys. Yahoo are probably next up. This is not going to help ICQ users, for example, to chat with Yahoo Messenger users, but it is likely to make IM software more secure. Companies like Reuters are not going to allow instant messaging near their networks if it also brings viruses, hacking or can be easily eavesdropped.

Update From The IM Wars Front

 Seems like the IM wars aren’t over yet. Further to my postings about Yahoo and Microsoft Messenger apparently blocking third party chat aggregators like Trillian, seems the latter’s patches don’t seem to be enough to keep folk connected. CNET reports that Yahoo has begun blocking Cerulean Studios’ Trillian software from communicating with its own instant messaging software as part of its plan to limit third parties from piggybacking on its service.
 
On Thursday, some Trillian users began reporting an inability to communicate with their Yahoo Messenger contacts. A Yahoo spokeswoman on Friday morning confirmed that Trillian users’ inability to access Yahoo Messenger was the result of recent policies put in place by the Web giant. A day after last week’s Yahoo announcement, Trillian released software patches that were aimed at allowing it to continue accessing Yahoo and MSN buddy lists. But as of this week, CNET says, those patches do not appear to be working.

News: Worming Its Way Into Korea

 Warning of a new computer worm, this time from South Korea. Yonhap reports Friday that W32/Smess.worm, BadTrans, appears attached to an instant message in MSN’s instant messenger service. The worm is a mutant version of another worm called Sinmsn, which was detected last July.
 
MSN’s messenger service, which gives pairs or groups of users the capability to send instantaneous text messages to each other via the Internet, is one of the most popular communication tools in South Korea, where more than 10 million customers are connected to the broadband Internet.

News: More Bad News For Chat

 Bad news for those of us who use third party programs to collect all our instant messaging accounts. I use Trillian, which does a great job of allowing me to access ICQ, Yahoo, AOL and MSN from one window. Not for long, though: CNET reports that Yahoo is planning an upgrade to its instant messaging software that will block access via such third-party IM applications. The reason: to protect IM users from unwanted spamming from advertisers.
 
Yahoo’s announcement, CNET reports, comes on the heels of similar news from rival IM software maker Microsoft that it plans to bar third-party client software from gaining access to its MSN Messenger IM applications. On Oct. 15 Trillian users will also lose access to the Microsoft IM client.
 
I think the spam argument is specious. I can well understand Yahoo and co not liking folk such as Trillian piggybacking their (free) chat services but to blame spam is just silly. To do in the same breath as suggesting they’re in favour of some general standard that would allow folk from, say, ICQ, to chat with someone from MSN is also pretty pathetic. These services have been around for more than five years now, and that no such standard exists is absurd. That’s why I’ve used Trillian and I’ll continue to do so.