Hunter S. Thompson could never have written Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in these times. He needed drugs and strong drink to stomach the depraved scene he found in the city’s casinos, strip bars, drag-racing contests, and law enforcement conventions. Today’s hucksters, gamblers, and snake-oil salesmen are into consumer electronics, and Las Vegas is their Mecca. Today’s gonzo journalist approaches the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in early January in Vegas with a Playstation Portable game machine in one hand, a Blackberry email device in other, a Bluetooth-enabled cell phone on the belt that plays videos, and a video iPod in the shirt pocket always connected directly to the ears.
The Gizmo Journalist. You have to insulate yourself from the hype and Disneyland-like aspects of the depraved spectacle with information, phone calls to real people, games you can play while waiting in line, videos to keep you awake during conferences, and music, always music…
First, the Loathing. Bill Gates used CES to provide yet another glimpse of Vista, Microsoft’s new version of Windows to be released sometime late this year (2006). As expected, the features in tomorrow’s Vista mimic today’s version of Mac OS X — and I don’t have to be the only one to call Vista an outright ripoff of the Mac, because David Pogue calls it one in The New York Times; here’s an excerpt:
If I seem to be laying on the ‘stolen from Apple’ language a bit thick, you’re darned right… most of the features Microsoft demonstrated last night were pure, unadulterated ripoffs from Mac OS X… Anyway, all of this will be nice to have, if it works and doesn’t require us all to buy new computers to run it. But I think that what most people want from the next Windows isn’t more stuff added, but rather stuff to be taken away — like crashes, lockups, viruses, error messages and security holes.
Nice point, but Microsoft is not likely to fix anything more than its own image. And this is why the company is chasing after the Mac OS X in a features race, rather than making Windows more secure. It’s really all about getting people to upgrade to new hardware and breathe more life into the desktop PC market. As Bill Gates pointed out in an interview with Ina Fried and Michael Kanellos of CNET News.com, “You know, we’ve always had a mix of new Windows OSes, of people who get it when they buy a new machine. Because if we do our job right, we get manufacturers to shift over and have that very quickly on all the new machines, and we get people upgrading into the existing machines.”
Vista has a powerful global search feature that works the same way as the Spotlight feature of OS X. Vista also has transparent window edges (like OS X) to make it easier to see the active window — something Windows sorely needed. Vista has a Dashboard-like Widgets feature that seems less flexible than Dashboard, which lets you put your widgets anywhere you like on the desktop. The Vista 3-D application switcher is a lot like the Expose feature in OS X, and the photo organizer is a dead ringer for Apple’s iPhoto.
For a hilarious take on the features of Vista, as compared to Mac OS X, see this video clip that superimposes some of the audio portions of Microsoft’s keynote speech at the 2006 CES including the Vista demo onto footage of Mac OS X’s equivalent features. If you like the first episode, check out episode 2. Both play as QuickTime movies.
Gates used to give this kind of keynote address at the Fall Comdex in Vegas, but that show was too bloated and ugly to survive the Internet age. Unfortunately the same bloated and ugly keynoters have migrated to CES, stealing the thunder of consumer giants like Sony and Toshiba. It was a software show, as far as cool announcements; but CES wouldn’t exist without all the cool gadgets and the gadget freaks that love them.
Some of these cool gadgets include a 3D visor that uses two micro displays to create a stereo vision of a game (works with any PC or Xbox 360 game), and the Sanyo high-definition video camera that fits in a pocket and shoots both still photos and video.
And now, the Fear. Google chose CES to introduce its online video service, which scares many of the folks who believe that digital rights management (DRM) should be put to sleep. Google uses its own DRM and player (which is directly competitive with Windows Media Player). Google’s DRM doesn’t work with either Apple’s or Microsoft’s. Meanwhile, Onkyo (the Japanese stereo company) will soon offer a PC based on the Intel ViiV platform for video delivery that includes Microsoft’s Media Center OS and other components that have been tested to work together. The first Viiv-labeled PCs are expected later this quarter.
It remains to be seen (after Apple drops another shoe next week at Macworld Expo) whether any of these video delivery options will make sense to consumers.
The only interesting part of Google’s announcement for people looking to get off Microsoft is the Google Pack, a collection of free software for Windows XP that includes the magnificent Google Earth (3D Earth browser), Mozilla Firefox with the Google Toolbar, Norton Antivirus, Ad-Aware antispyware, Google Desktop, Adobe Reader, and a photo organizer called Picasso. While portions of the Pack compete with Microsoft applications, the entire Pack can easily ride along with Microsoft software and with alternatives, such as OpenOffice.org, or with services such as Writely.com (for word processing).
The Google Pack is free. That’s something you can bet on.