For most consumers (and businesses), the most important piece of news coming out of Microsoft's week was the March 14 release of Internet Explorer 9, the latest version of the company's browser.
The IE9 final version is available at www.BeautyOfTheWeb.com. While the Internet Explorer franchise continues to hold the majority of the browser market, it faces some aggressive rivalry from the likes of Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome and other rivals. Thanks at least in part to that competition, Internet Explorer's market share has fallen roughly 12 percentage points over the past two years, from 68.46 percent in March 2009 to the current 56.77 percent.
In addition, the company built IE9 to leverage Windows 7 for some eye-popping features, including the ability to drag-and-drop a Website tab to the Windows 7 taskbar-transforming it into an icon that can, when right-clicked, open up a "jump list" full of one-click links to that Website's most vital content. Windows 7 users can also "Aero Snap" their browser windows to the left or right of the screen, which comes in handy when comparing two Web pages side-by-side.
Despite that interoperability with Windows 7, IE9 remains incompatible with Windows XP, which continues to run on 55.09 percent of PCs. That shuts off IE9 from a substantial portion of PCs nonetheless still capable of running Firefox and Chrome-and basically leaves Microsoft hoping that people will continue to migrate to the newer operating system at a steady rate. That's not necessarily a bad assumption, given Windows' lock on the operating-system market, but nonetheless a complication given IE9's need to hold back its rivals from gaining any more market share.
In any case, IE9 attracted a lot of attention during its initial release, with more than 2.35 million downloads in the first 24 hours. "That is over 27 downloads every second," Ryan Gavin, senior director for Internet Explorer, wrote in a March 16 posting on The Windows Blog, "or over 240 downloads every nine seconds." The number of IE9 downloads, apparently, is double that of the IE9 Beta and "four times that of the IE9 RC" on their respective first days of release.
Longer term, Microsoft will shift its attention toward a mobile version of Internet Explorer 9, in order to seize a piece of the burgeoning smartphone and tablet markets.
Speaking of mobility, Research In Motion announced March 17 that it would partner with Microsoft on a variety of cloud offerings for both BlackBerry devices and the upcoming PlayBook tablet.
"Cloud has always been core to our business," Alec Taylor, vice president of Software, Services and Enterprise Marketing for RIM, told analysts and reporters listening to a March 17 presentation. "It's how we do real-time push; it's how we developed our world-class security, our integration with carrier systems."
The agreement with Microsoft centers on RIM providing cloud-based BlackBerry service in support of Office 365, whose subscription-based model allows organizations to stay up-to-date with the latest versions of Microsoft Office, SharePoint Online, Exchange Online and Lync Online. RIM's BlackBerry Enterprise Servers will apparently connect "cloud to cloud" with Microsoft's data centers to host Office 365 data on users' BlackBerries.
RIM's PlayBook will be able to port and display Office 365 data from any user's BlackBerry, via a tethering service called BlackBerry Bridge. RIM executives continue to play coy with the 7-inch tablet's eventual release date, although rumors suggest it will hit store shelves sometime in April.
Microsoft's RIM agreement is just the latest in a series of partnerships Redmond signed with other tech giants. In the summer of 2009, Microsoft inked an agreement with Yahoo to power the latter's back-end search. In February, Microsoft announced it would partner with Nokia to deliver Windows Phone 7 onto the Finnish manufacturer's smartphones. Alliances in the cloud and mobile space could help Microsoft greatly as it seeks to take on Google, Oracle, Salesforce.com and other companies determined to take their own piece of that brave new world.
On the darker side of the cloud equation, Microsoft and a handful of partners helped eliminate Rustock, a botnet with roughly a million infected computers reportedly under its control. "This operation, known as Operation b107, is the second high-profile takedown in Microsoft's joint effort between [its Digital Crimes Unit], Microsoft Malware Protection Center and Trustworthy Computing-known as Project MARS (Microsoft Active Response for Security)," Richard Boscovich, senior attorney for Microsoft's Digital Crimes Unit, wrote in a March 17 corporate blog posting.
Project MARS' ultimate mission, Boscovich continued, is to "disrupt botnets and begin to undo the damage the botnets have caused by helping victims regain control of their infected systems." Microsoft has apparently filed suit against the Rustock botnet's anonymous operators, following a procedure pioneered when the company helped take down the Waledac botnet.
Those who suspect Rustock or other types of malware have infected their computers can apparently visit support.microsoft.com/botnets for information and resources.
On a side note, reports this week suggested that Microsoft may have killed its Zune portable-media player, which includes the touch-screen Zune HD.
Responding to a March 14 Bloomberg report on the matter, a Microsoft spokesperson e-mailed to eWEEK: "We have nothing to announce about another Zune device ... our long-term strategy focuses on the strength of the entire Zune ecosystem across Microsoft platforms."
Although the Zune HD earned strong reviews in the wake of its September 2009 release, the device failed to break the Apple iPod's tight grip on the portable-media market. Whether or not the hardware is dead, though, Microsoft will almost certainly continue to support Zune as a software platform (and online store) in Windows Phone 7 and other devices.