Microsoft's Week Involved Haiti Earthquake, Mobile 7, China Cyber-Attacks

Microsoft found itself dealing with questions over whether Windows Mobile 7, its rumored operating system for smartphones, would indeed make an appearance at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in February. At the same time, Microsoft found itself donating money and employee skill sets to the Jan. 12 earthquake in Haiti, and faced the prospect that a zero-day vulnerability in Internet Explorer was exploited by Chinese hackers to cyber-attack Google and a number of other U.S. companies.

Microsoft's week involved a fresh spate of rumors involving Windows Mobile 7, widely regarded as the company's best hope to either retard or reverse its market share erosion in the smartphone space, where it faces competition from the likes of Apple's iPhone, RIM's BlackBerry and other determined players.

At the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer failed to mention Mobile 7 during his Jan. 6 keynote address, setting off a mini-surge of speculation over whether Microsoft would debut the operating system at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

A little more than a week later, the consensus among various bloggers and pundits online seems to be that Microsoft will roll out something Mobile-related during that event, but it may be Mobile 6.6 or some other variant on the current Mobile 6.5, which made its debut in October 2009.

Other rumors circulation online seemed to suggest that Mobile 7 would be delayed until 2011. Many of these originated courtesy of the site Bright Side of News, which said, "We spoke with representatives from Microsoft, Lenovo, Qualcomm, TI, Nokia, nVidia, HTC and many more, and they all had just one message-Windows Mobile 7 is delayed until 2011 and the focus is shifting to Google Android and even Chrome OS."

That would contradict reports from 2009 that suggested Mobile 7 would make an appearance sometime in 2010. When contacted by eWEEK, Microsoft and HTC both declined to comment directly on Mobile 7.

"We are strongly committed to both Windows Mobile and Android as part of our overall product lineup," Keith Nowak, a spokesperson for HTC, said in a Jan. 14 e-mail, "and HTC will continue to build a robust portfolio of devices on both of these operating systems going forward."

Microsoft has repeatedly responded to eWEEK's queries regarding Mobile 7 with a standard-issue: "We're always working on future versions and have nothing new to announce."

However, indications remain strong that Microsoft will announce something soon with regard to Mobile. During a news conference at CES, Robbie Bach, president of Microsoft's entertainment and devices division, was quoted in a Microsoft-generated transcript as saying:

"We are going to have some new things that we'll talk about at Mobile World Congress. ... When you look at the product, I'm sort of like, I have the luxury of having seen it, to be able to look at it and played with it a little bit but I'm certainly confident people are going to see it as something that's differentiated."

Bach added further that the product was something "that feels, looks, acts and performs completely different."

But whether that "product" is Mobile 7 or some variant on Mobile 6.5 remains to be seen.

In the meantime, Microsoft found itself embroiled in larger issues.

On Jan. 12, a massive earthquake struck Haiti, wreaking untold devastation and killing tens of thousands of people. Along with a number of other tech companies, Microsoft offered aid: an initial commitment of $1.25 million toward relief efforts and asking its employees to support relief organizations dealing with the disaster. The Bing homepage includes a Haiti disaster-relief link, and Microsoft said in a Jan. 13 posting on the Microsoft on the Issues blog that the company was activating its Disaster Response team.

That team is "a dedicated group that plans how our company, people and partners can be mobilized during issues such as this," Akhtar Badshah, senior director of Microsoft's Global Community Affairs, wrote, "through outreach to lead government, intergovernment and nongovernment agencies involved in leading local and global response efforts.", Google and other companies have also set up pages-or in the case of Apple, a space on the iTunes storefront-for people to contribute to disaster relief.

Speaking of Google, Microsoft found itself somewhat enmeshed in the search engine giant's current fight with the mainland Chinese government, following a series of sophisticated cyber-attacks targeting the Gmail accounts of several Chinese human rights activists in addition to the IT infrastructure of a number of U.S. companies.

"We have no indication that any of our mail properties have been compromised," a Microsoft spokesperson told eWEEK on Jan. 14.

But a Jan. 14 analysis by McAfee Labs found that one of the malware samples involved in the attack utilized a zero-day vulnerability present in Microsoft Internet Explorer. Microsoft pinpointed that vulnerability as an invalid pointer reference affecting Internet Explorer versions 6, 7 and 8.

"Once the malware is downloaded and installed, it opens a back door that allows the attacker to perform reconnaissance and gain complete control over the compromised system," wrote McAfee CTO George Kurtz. "The attacker can now identify high-value targets and start to siphon off valuable data from the company."

Steve Ballmer suggested that such cyber-attacks are the cost of doing business on the Web.

"Every large institution is being hacked," Ballmer told the Financial Times, in quotes reported on Jan. 14 and later confirmed by eWEEK. "I don't think it's a fundamental change in the security environment on the Internet." Unlike Google, which is reportedly mulling whether to pull its business from mainland China, Microsoft plans to continue doing business in the country.