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RealTime IT News

All The Trees in Microsoft's Forest

Reporter's Notebook: Big, rich and smart. That's Microsoft.

In fact, Microsoft may be too big, rich and smart for its own good. With a wealth of ideas and inventions constantly being churned out by its talented engineers, it seems to have difficulty identifying the projects that will wow users.

Microsoft isn't cool.

Case in point: Sidebar. The desktop tool, expected -- at this point -- to ship with Windows Vista, lets users insert Web-enabled mini-applications called gadgets. Gadgets are easy to program using JavaScript, and Vista users will be able to select from a gallery of gadgets from Microsoft or third parties.

It's a great idea -- and one already used by Yahoo for its Widgets.

It's also an idea that had been kicking around Microsoft in demo form for five or six years before being added to Windows Vista.

But by April 2005, Sidebar had been cut. It used up too much real estate, some thought. Besides, it depended on WinFS, another big Microsoft idea that had to be severed from the new OS in the rush to ship Longhorn.

As one member of Channel 9, Microsoft's developer blog community, asked rhetorically, "Who wants a massive clock, picture slideshow, media player controls, and 'extensible' modules wide-open to abuse from unscrupulous OEMs and device-driver writers?"

By July, just two months before the PDC, an internal debate raged on whether Sidebar should return.

Said a person at Microsoft familiar with the process, "Going into the PDC, it was, 'How do we get services integrated into the operating system?' 'Oh, we had the Sidebar, but we killed it.' 'Oh, we need to bring it back.'"

Meanwhile, in August, Google , the avatar of Webbiness, released its own Sidebar as part of its Desktop 2 search tool. Although the Desktop 2 sidebar aped Microsoft's, Google got the cool kudos. Evidently, lots of people wanted to cede screen real estate to an assortment of odd little apps.

Sidebar was reinstated, and Gates showed it off at the Professional Developers Conference on September 15. But the decision was made too late to include the feature in the Vista technology preview handed out at the show.

This shows both the strength and weakness of Microsoft, with its hordes of developers, independently operating business units and Microsoft Research skunk works.

"The problem with Microsoft is that we have a lot of technology that's just lying around," the Microsoft source said. "The researchers have amazing things that probably won't be products for years. But someone smart can go over there and say, 'Hmm you have this lying around, and this… Can you come and work with me?' That's how things are built here."

But such a process is haphazard at best, leaving one to wonder whether how many "cool" opportunities the software giant's missed.

Opening up the APIs to Windows Live and Office Live, the new online services announced last week, is a good step. Setting developers free to play with the technology will open Microsoft up to the spaghetti-against-wall approach to identifying the next cool thing.

And that would be cool.



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