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Brier Dudley's Blog

Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

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April 28, 2006 3:34 PM

Wall Street sees blue screen of death

Posted by Brier Dudley

TheStreet and Motley Fool headline writers had a field day after Microsoft's stock plunged today:

Tech Painted Redmond Red (TheStreet)

Mr. Market Sticks it to Mr. Softy (The Motley Fool)

Microsoft Lost in Space (TheStreet)

Microsoft Gets Stung by MSN Butterfly (TheStreet)

Comments | Category: Microsoft |Permalink | Digg Digg | Newsvine Newsvine

April 28, 2006 3:31 PM

Joke of the day, at Bill Gates' expense

Posted by Brier Dudley

At the American Society of Newspaper Editors conference in Seattle today, Bill Gates asked how much an annual subscription to the New York Times costs.

Publisher Arthur Sulzberger's response: "If you have to ask, you can't afford it."

Comments | Category: Microsoft |Permalink | Digg Digg | Newsvine Newsvine

April 27, 2006 2:32 PM

Microsoft forecast disappoints

Posted by Brier Dudley

Microsoft's sales were up 13 percent in its third quarter, but the big news in its earnings report today was the company's 2007 forecast.

The company said it may break $50 billion in sales, but with new versions of Windows and Office on tap, Wall Street was apparently expecting more -- the stock fell 6 percent in after-hours trading after the numbers were released.

UPDATE: Analysts peppered the company with questions about dramatic spending increases planned in 2007; Microsoft said details will be provided at its July analyst meeting in Redmond. How much of the new investment is going to Quincy?

Comments | Category: Microsoft |Permalink | Digg Digg | Newsvine Newsvine

April 27, 2006 2:16 PM

AttachmateWRQ bulking up

Posted by Brier Dudley

In a deal valued about $495 million, AttachmateWRQ today is acquiring NetIQ, a publicly traded IT management systems company based in San Jose, Calif.

The deal comes just a year after Attachmate and WRQ merged, and a year and half after privately held WRQ sold itself to a group of Bay Area investment firms.

NetIQ produces security management technology, tools that companies use to be sure they're following safe IT practices and managing service levels and risk. It gives AttachmateWRQ a broader lineup of enterprise software.

But the real motivation may be to give AttachmateWRQ the heft it needs to attract additional investors and perhaps go public. The announcement didn't say this, but it pointed out the size of the combined company:

"Together, AttachmateWRQ and NetIQ comprise a $400 million company, serving over 40,000 customers in over 60 countries, with near complete market penetration of the Global 10,000,'' it said. "AttachmateWRQ, with NetIQ, is uniquely prepared to provide mission-critical enterprise software that enables customers to extend, manage and secure their IT infrastructures."

Comments | Category: Enterprise |Permalink | Digg Digg | Newsvine Newsvine

April 26, 2006 3:12 PM

Microsoft's China swap

Posted by Brier Dudley

No wonder Microsoft didn't report any material gain from the $1.4 billion worth of contracts it signed recently with Chinese PC makers -- it was a wash for the company.

Microsoft was simultaneously pledging to spend $900 million on Chinese hardware and software ventures, bringing its investment there to $1.65 billion since 2002. The company and the Chinese government announced the spending today, capping last week's visit from China President Hu Jintao.

It's a long-term investment for Microsoft in China's tech industry. But for now, the place seems a bit like Las Vegas: Money that happens in China, stays in China.

UPDATE: This item was based on an erroneous Bloomberg news report. It turns out Microsoft pledged to spend $700 million per year on hardware for five years and $200 million total on ventures, bringing the total to $3.7 billion over five years.

The Vegas analogy still holds, but Microsoft is placing an even bigger bet on China.

Or maybe it's not a bet. Could it be a $3.7 billion carrot that Microsoft is dangling to get China to follow through on its promise to crack down on software piracy? If the crackdown doesn't happen, will Microsoft turn off the spigot? Perhaps that's the deal that Hu and Bill Gates hashed out on their walk around the Gates compound.

Comments | Category: Asia , Microsoft |Permalink | Digg Digg | Newsvine Newsvine

April 26, 2006 2:01 PM

Internet ads: Who gets the cream?

Posted by Brier Dudley

A new survey purports to offer insights into the demographics of blog readers. It's kind of interesting, pretty obvious and really self-serving. It's also not very reliable; even its sponsor says "the results are anything but scientific."

The survey was done by Blogads, an advertising agency that -- surprise! -- has a business selling ads that target segments of blog readers. Its survey found things like gossip blogs are read by 27-year-old female gossip enthusiasts in homes with incomes of $60,000 who buy stuff online.

It's a bit like a press release from Coke saying demand for soda is soaring, especially among the really cool people.

Yet it's getting attention online with headlines like "Survey Shows the Blogosphere is Breaking Out."

Blogads founder Henry Copeland disclosed the caveats upfront, before pouring on his sales pitch:

As I've noted in past years, the results of these surveys are anything but scientific. For one thing, we are surveying the choir. For another, the results are skewed by the blogs that choose to participate. For example, this year, the Republican share of the blogosphere seems to have dropped; this is simply because three big Republican blogs, Andrew Sullivan, Michelle Malkin and Little Green Footballs, who participated in prior years didn't jump in this year.

But, even without our white labcoats on, the results are important and fascinating. The blogs that participated -- ranging from DailyKos to Hugh Hewitt to PerezHilton to Perez Hilton -- are leaders in their fields. So this is, in a sense, a survey of the creme de la creme, the uniquely influential info-meisters who are increasingly unreachable via traditional publishing, whether because of skepticism about media biases or loyalty to their new tribes or to the distinct unfiltered brew of personality and attitude served by bloggers.

Blogads may pooh-pooh the "traditional media" but -- surprise again! -- it's a subsidiary of a bigger company that runs the dinosaurs' Web sites and advises them on how to sell ads. But perhaps not to the creme de la creme.

Comments | Category: Web |Permalink | Digg Digg | Newsvine Newsvine

April 25, 2006 5:42 PM

Newspapers' future in search?

Posted by Brier Dudley

As part of its transition into the digital media era, the newspaper industry should either start its own search engine or partner with companies such as Microsoft, Google and Yahoo!, newspaper magnate William Dean Singleton said during a panel discussion today at the American Society of Newspaper Editors conference in Seattle.

"I see our industry coming together ... and putting together a national search engine that we own and dominate and run, or partnering with Yahoo! or Microsoft or even Google and letting them monetize our news and split the revenue with us,'' said Singleton, chief executive of the privately held MediaNews Group.

Despite gloomy talk about the industry, newspapers have a strong future because of their content and positions in local markets, said Singleton and fellow panelists Gary Pruitt, chief executive of The McClatchy Co., and Credit Suisse publishing analyst William Drewry.

"There's new economic opportunity for the industry to be had," Drewry said. "The tough part is going to be managing the transition from physical to digital."

Bill Gates speaks at the conference Friday. Perhaps we'll learn whether he's thinking like Singleton.

Comments | Category: Digital media , Digital media |Permalink | Digg Digg | Newsvine Newsvine

April 25, 2006 1:16 PM

Tough numbers from

Posted by Brier Dudley

Q1: Sales up 20 percent to $2.28 billion. Net profit $51 million, including $26 million gain from accounting change; down from $78 million a year ago. Company said operating income took an $8 million hit from foreign exchange rates, contributing to 2 percent decline in operating income.

Q2 forecast: Sales expected to grow 16 percent to 24 percent. Operating income expected to fall between 69 percent and 36 percent, to $32 million to $67 million, after taking into account $38 million for stock-based compensation costs and amortization of intangible assets.

FY06 forecast: Net sales expected to be up 17 percent to 24 percent, or $9.95 billion to $10.5 billion. Operating income expected to range from a 10 percent decline to 20 percent growth, or $390 million to $520 million.

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April 24, 2006 5:29 PM

Scott "Hairball" McNealy steps down

Posted by Brier Dudley

It's a sad day for tech journalists who could always count on Scott McNealy for zingy quotes, but Sun Microsystems investors seem ready for a change after watching the stock idle under $6 for four years. McNealy is giving up the chief executive position to Jonathan Schwartz, the company president.

McNealy was Microsoft's most vocal antagonist in the late 1990s, notably referring to Windows as a "giant hairball," but the rhetoric cooled off after Sun settled its Microsoft antitrust claims for $2 billion in 2004. He's also part of an amazing generation of tech entrepreneurs (others include Steve Ballmer and Bill Gates) now entering their 50s.

Just last week McNealy brushed off rumors that he'd step down, but he apparently changed his mind. He told me in 2002 that he'd never work with Microsoft, but a few years later he was on stage with Steve Ballmer announcing the settlement and plans for their two companies to cooperate, so you never know.

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April 24, 2006 12:50 PM

Stat of the day

Posted by Brier Dudley

Windows XP N sales in Europe: 0.005 percent of XP sales there, Microsoft told the European Court of First Instance today.

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April 24, 2006 11:50 AM

Inspiration for Microsoft storage column

Posted by Brier Dudley

Today's column about Microsoft's plans for the storage business has drawn some interesting feedback, including comments from people who are thinking a lot about online vs. local storage, and real estate development issues.

One reader noted that the cost to backup 300 gigabytes of data using's S3 service costs more than a 300 gig hard drive at Fry's, not counting S3's transfer fees.

Another suggested that King County land-use rules may have restricted Microsoft from building a massive server farm closer to its headquarters. Microsoft does have a similar but much smaller facility in Tukwila that powers its Xbox Live service, but it was put into an existing building and not built on bare ground like the Quincy project. It's an interesting question, but with or without King County's policies, land and power are cheaper in Quincy.

One inspiration for the column was a blog posting by Joe Beda, a former Microsoft developer now working for Google in Kirkland. Beda explained how he couldn't find the ideal solution to store precious documents, including photos of his daughter, so he built a Linux-based network with servers at home and a datacenter in Seattle.

Beda also looked at different software used to synchronize and back up his servers and ended up using a program written by a friend at Google with a similar network setup.

"I don't think my solution is perfect for everyone but it sort of shows what, if you're really paranoid, you can do,'' Beda told me last week.

I intended to include details of Beda's setup in the column but faced a storage crisis of my own - my new column template limits me to 18.5 column inches on Monday, and I had to leave some things out to make it fit. There's clearly a lot of interest in storage options and Microsoft's moves in this direction, so I'll have to revisit the topic again soon.

Comments | Category: Microsoft |Permalink | Digg Digg | Newsvine Newsvine

April 21, 2006 11:49 AM

eBay playing the field

Posted by Brier Dudley

The approach worked great for America Online, so now eBay appears to be leaking details of its search provider negotiations.

Last fall, AOL was mulling whether to renew its contract with Google or partner with Microsoft or Yahoo! When negotiations got sticky, details began appearing in New York newspapers. AOL finally decided to stick with Google, after Google threw in $1 billion to sweeten its offer.

Today's Wall Street Journal says eBay is trying to decide whether to use Google, Yahoo! or Microsoft search and ad placement services. Is eBay holding out for Googlebucks? Is Microsoft willing to pony up after losing the AOL deal? Will Meg go with Steve, Eric or Terry?

Comments | Category: E-commerce , Google , Microsoft |Permalink | Digg Digg | Newsvine Newsvine

April 20, 2006 3:23 PM

Tech hiring up, but not at Safeco

Posted by Brier Dudley

As our Tech Tracks blog noted Wednesday, high-tech employment began increasing again last year, according to the AeA's annual Cyberstates report.

But the news was little consolation to the roughly 100 people laid off from Safeco's IT department, as part of the Seattle insurer's new cost-cutting regime.

Comments | Category: Tech work |Permalink | Digg Digg | Newsvine Newsvine

April 20, 2006 1:59 PM

Netgear's Skype phone: An update

Posted by Brier Dudley

The Netgear phone for Skype service.

Netgear today said it's taking orders for its Skype Wi-Fi phone, one of the cooler products introduced at the Consumer Electronics Show in January. The phones are scheduled to ship on May 31.

This Skype experience isn't close to free -- the Netgear SPH101 lists for $299.99, but is taking pre-orders for $249.99.

I'm waiting for Panasonic's Skype phone, which is supposed to let you switch back and forth from a landline.

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April 20, 2006 1:27 PM

Google revenue up 79 percent

Posted by Brier Dudley

In case you haven't heard already, Google reported a modest 79 percent sales increase during the first quarter.

Sales were $2.25 billion, up 79 percent from the same period last year and 17 percent from the fourth quarter of 2005. Traffic acquisition costs totaled $723 million, or 32 percent of ad sales in Q1.

Google's net was $743 million, compared with $369 million in Q1 2005. Strangely, text of the company's press release mentioned only the sequential increase in profit -- up from $372 million -- and not the year over year.

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April 19, 2006 3:59 PM

Live Drive: Microsoft's storage service plans

Posted by Brier Dudley

Microsoft's plans to sell online storage have trickled out for months, but Chief Technical Officer Ray Ozzie opened the floodgates in an interview published today in Fortune magazine. Ozzie confirmed that the service will be called Live Drive, and that it's one reason Microsoft is spending a fortune to develop data warehouses around the world.

Mary Jo Foley picked up on the Fortune story and added more details, noting that the subscription storage service was supposed to start last year.

Microsoft actually began selling premium, online storage to Hotmail users in 2002.

Its more recent plans to offer online storage as a subscription service were disclosed last fall when the company presented its services strategy to analysts and reporters in San Francisco. Further details came out when the Office Live service -- which includes limited free service and the option to pay for more -- began testing in February.

Google's also expected to start a similar service called Gdrive, which presumably won't be free.

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April 19, 2006 10:59 AM

Who to blame for Origami PC prices?

Posted by Brier Dudley

A DigiTimes correspondent in Taipei is reporting that Intel is to blame for the high price of the first "Origami" Ultra-Mobile PCs coming next month from Samsung, but it doesn't seem to capture the whole story. The only thing that's clear is that, at $1,200, Samsung's Q1 is way too expensive to become the widely used, lifestyle device that Microsoft envisioned.

The DigiTimes report is bouncing around the gadget blogs -- I first saw it on Engadget, which found the news at TG Daily, which pulled the story from DigiTimes.

There's undoubtedly a backstage tussle between Intel and Via over Origami, but the DigiTimes report should be read cautiously. It's based on unnamed sources who said the devices would have been cheaper if Samsung used processors from Via instead of Intel. Via happens to be based in Taipei.

DigiTimes was following up on an earlier, unconfirmed report in Taiwan's Commercial Times about Samsung ordering Via chips for an upcoming $700 Ultra-Mobile PC, so maybe it's a tempest in a teapot.

Comments | Category: Gadgets & products , Microsoft |Permalink | Digg Digg | Newsvine Newsvine

April 19, 2006 10:14 AM

Mobile sales approach a billion

Posted by Brier Dudley

ABI Research: More than 900 million mobile phones will be sold during 2006. One factor is new subscribers in developing countries. Another is the emergence of new market segments, such as the high-style slim phone category spurred by Motorola's Razr, a phone that's now so last year.

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April 19, 2006 10:13 AM

Sherlund: Despite Xbox delays, MSFT Q3 "in-line"

Posted by Brier Dudley

Goldman Sachs analyst Rick Sherlund expects Microsoft to report third-quarter earnings "in-line" with Wall Street's expectations on April 27. In a research note, Sherlund estimated quarterly sales of $10.96 billion, up 14 percent, and earnings per share of 33 cents, up 16 percent.

Sherlund said he cut his Xbox sales estimate a bit because around 200,000 consoles were "stuck in the distribution pipeline (they began shipping by boat versus air freight during the quarter) and production constraints were still a damper in meeting demand, but this should be alleviated in the June quarter."

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April 19, 2006 10:01 AM

It's a DSL world, after all

Posted by Brier Dudley

In-Stat: Broadband subscriptions worldwide will more than double over the next four years. Subscribers passed 200 million in February, and the research firm predicts they'll reach 413 million by 2010. Not 412 million, not 414 million, but 413 million.

It said DSL is still the leading technology, accounting for 69 percent of broadband subscribers, and that in the U.S., 670,000 new subscribers a month are signing up for broadband. Hopefully they'll also keep subscribing to their local newspaper.

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April 18, 2006 2:15 PM

Ballmer: Go Vikings

Posted by Brier Dudley

Microsoft Senior Vice President David Cole is apparently in pretty good standing at Microsoft, despite his online business division's struggles to catch up with Google and Yahoo! and his plans to take a leave of absence this month.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer at the Western Washington University Business Forum.

After Cole asked Chief Executive Steve Ballmer to speak at a forum being held by Cole's alma mater, Western Washington University, Ballmer jumped at the chance to help out an employee who worked on some of Microsoft's most important products over the past 21 years.

Ballmer recounted the meeting with Cole today, during his speech at Western's Business Forum at the Washington State Convention & Trade Center:

"I have no affiliation but I love you, baby, so I love Western Washington,'' Ballmer said he told Cole.

Later in the speech Ballmer talked up the need for the state to continue investing in higher education. He also touched on immigration reform, saying Microsoft needs to be able to recruit smart people all over the world and bring them to work in Redmond.

Even though Microsoft is hiring people in India and China, "the lion's share" of its employees will remain here, Ballmer said, pointing to a factoid the company dug up for China President Hu Jintao's visit: Microsoft currently has 2,000 Chinese-speaking employees in the Puget Sound area.

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April 18, 2006 11:02 AM

Qcash for the Qpass guys

Posted by Brier Dudley

China and Microsoft are getting all the attention, but the Seattle tech story of the day so far is the $275 million sale of Qpass to Amdocs, a St. Louis-based customer service software company.

Qpass is a quiet success story. After reworking its business a few times, the company is now has deals with most major wireless carriers to provide services helping them sell content to subscribers. Tricia Duryee reported in Tech Tracks that rumors of a Qpass sale have been floating around recently.

Now the question is what will happen to the Seattle operation. Qpass lately has been putting a lot of effort into recruiting. Will it continue growing in Seattle, where there's more wireless talent but higher costs, or shift to Missouri?

I'm also wondering whether Chase Franklin, Qpass founder and chief executive, will change his QPASS vanity license plates. (That last link is to a 2002 story I did on tech license plates; it's still available if you've done the free registration at

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April 17, 2006 5:43 PM

Run for the door, Steve

Posted by Brier Dudley

After Microsoft and Lenovo signed their partnership agreement today, the roomful of reporters was told that executives from the two companies will stay to answer questions.

"Some of them,'' Bill Gates joked with Steve Ballmer, as the two Microsoft bosses hustled out a side door.

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April 17, 2006 5:08 PM

Microsoft's red carpet for Hu

Posted by Brier Dudley

Microsoft is rolling out the red carpet literally and figuratively for China President Hu Jintao.

The actual red carpet, along with a small forest of potted plants and huge bouquets, appeared at the executive briefing center on campus where Hu will visit Tuesday. Black limos were already piling up outside today, and a phalanx of state patrol motorcyclists were roaring down Highway 520 in formation, apparently practicing for Hu's motorcade.

The figurative red carpet was a press conference where PC maker Lenovo, a darling of China's tech industry, "reaffirmed" plans to buy $1.2 billion worth of Microsoft software over the next year. Lenovo is the world's third largest PC maker behind Dell and Hewlett-Packard, since it acquired IBM's PC division last year.

Lenovo Chairman Yang Yuanqing announced the agreement at a ceremony with a group of Chinese government officials and Microsoft executives, including Chairman Bill Gates, Chief Executive Steve Ballmer and Tim Chen, Microsoft's China chief executive.

The deal was characterized as an intellectual property agreement because the companies will work together to promote the use of legitimate, licensed software, as opposed to the freely pirated software widely used in China and other developing countries.

Microsoft has reached similar agreements with other PC makers, including deals recently announced with China's other major producers, but today's announcement means Hu will be greeted with headlines announcing that one of his country's highest profile companies is spending a fortune on U.S. software. It also gives him a retort in case someone brings up China's trade surplus.

Lenovo began working on its agreement to preinstall Windows on most of its computers last June, Yuanqing said, when he visited Gates and Ballmer. The deal was finalized in November, then "reaffirmed" in today's ceremony. Lenovo has since seen the percentage of its customers choosing machines preloaded with legitimate versions of Windows XP increase to more than 70 percent, up from 10 percent before the agreement, he said.

It's unclear how much of the $1.2 billion is new sales for Microsoft, which apparently didn't file any reports of material financial events related to the announcement.

Nor did the companies say exactly how much of the $1.2 billion represents China sales for Lenovo, which gets most of its sales from outside its home country. It's roughly proportional to Lenovo's overall sales, of which about $4 billion are in China and $10 billion are elsewhere, said William Amelio, Lenovo president and chief executive.

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April 17, 2006 1:19 PM

Microsoft blogger Scoble reins it in

Posted by Brier Dudley

Microsoft point-blogger Robert Scoble resurfaced over the weekend, midway through a vacation from blogging. Scoble had parked his keyboard after a few turbulent weeks when he was, among other things, thrashed by Amazon's chief technical officer.

Scoble announced Saturday that he's taking a new approach that could ruffle the feathers of blogging purists - he's moderating comments, ending the free for all aspect of his Scobleizer blog.

"This is a huge change for me," he wrote. "I wanted a free speech area, but after having a week off I realize that I need to make a change. That, I'm sure, will lead to attacks of "censorship" and all that hooey. Too bad. I'm instituting a "family room" rule here. If I don't like it, it gets deleted and deleted without warning -- just the same as if you said something abusive in my family room I'd kick you out of my house. If you don't like that new rule, there are plenty of other places on the Internet to write your thoughts."

It's an interesting shift, since Scoble was put forward as a sign that Microsoft is hip to the freewheeling ways of the blogosphere.

Could Microsoft be reining Scoble in? The change came after he had dinner with an executive from one of Microsoft's blog-savvy PR firms. But the bigger issue seems to be that Scoble is reining himself in, after undergoing a system refresh during his break.

Moderating comments seems like a minor change compared to the rest of the new regimen he outlined Saturday: dropping coffee and soda, exercising, staying away from "unhappy people" and getting "balance back in my own life."

While Scoble's taking the rest of his break this week, Bubba Mararka, lead program manager at Windows Live search, is filling in at Scobelizer. With a name like Bubba Murarka, they had to give the guy a higher profile.

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April 17, 2006 11:22 AM

Bill's response

Posted by Brier Dudley

In today's column, I looked at whether Bill Gates is accelerating his plans to spend more time on philanthropy. I asked him about it directly, but his e-mail response didn't come until 11:41 p.m. last night -- too late to incorporate into the column.

Gates said last week's reorganization at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation doesn't reflect a change in his role. He also praised the efforts of Patty Stonesifer, the foundation's chief executive. But he didn't say anything about his transition plans.

Here's his response to my inquiry:

The evolution of the Foundation organization is something that makes sense for the foundation. Melinda and I have the same role we have always had.

Patty does a great job running the foundation and using the finite time she gets from us very effectively.

Patty has driven a number of organization changes as the foundation has grown and they have been critical to the ambitious goals the foundation has.

So this organization doesn't reflect anything about the co-founders role related to the foundation.

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April 17, 2006 7:46 AM

Here we go

Posted by Brier Dudley

I look at Bill Gates' balancing of work and philanthropy today in the first of regular Monday columns in the Business/Technology section of the newspaper. I'll be writing about technology companies, people and issues. I'd love to hear your feedback, either here on the blog, via e-mail or by phone.

Here's the top:

After five years on the Microsoft beat, I was reluctant to stop chasing Bill Gates and start writing a column.

Fortunately, Gates came through as I was trying to decide where to start.

I'm writing the column to help people better understand the technology business and how it affects them. I'll be taking a closer look at people, products and issues at Microsoft, its competitors and other Northwest tech companies.

I'll also weigh in on stories the industry tends to obsess over, like the pedigree of Google's cafeteria chef.

Or when Gates will start shifting more of his attention from software development to charity work, increasing his involvement with the $29 billion Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation he and his wife started in 2002.

An announcement from the foundation last week made me think that process is under way.

Nobody is saying that Gates is ready to give up his title as chief software architect at the company he and Paul Allen started 31 years ago, especially now, while it's trying to finish a line of major new products. But don't be surprised if his transition to philanthropist happens sooner than expected ...

The rest is posted here at

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April 14, 2006 4:48 PM

Ballmer alert

Posted by Brier Dudley

Steve Ballmer is venturing across Lake Washington Tuesday to address a Western Washington University forum.

The Microsoft chief executive dropped a newsy tidbit at a similar event held by Eastern Washington University three years ago in Seattle, when he mentioned that he plans to work at least until 2017.

Ballmer's speech at Western's Seattle Business Forum coincides with Microsoft's highest-ranking Western alum, Senior Vice President David Cole, taking a leave of absence at the end of April.

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April 14, 2006 4:07 PM

Microsoft's open-source desktop

Posted by Brier Dudley

Further evidence that Microsoft is warming up to freely shared software came this week on the blog of Charlie Owen, a program manager in the Windows eHome group.

Owen fired up after a Mac-loving blog called Windows Vista a "train wreck." He posted a point by point rebuttal illustrated with revealing Vista screen shots.

Some thought Owen had inadvertently provided a glimpse of the Vista desktop background -- a crisp image of green, raindrop spattered leaves on a dark background.

Vista desktop -- not!

It turns out the image was a photo that Owen took on a hike to Deception Falls near Stevens Pass, then loaded onto his Vista machine as his personal desktop background. Some people liked the image so much they asked for it on their desktop, so Owen is giving away copies for people to download from his blog.

"Just leave a comment here with your native resolution and I'll crop the image as appropriate and post for folks to download and use,'' he wrote, then posted six different versions.

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Gadgets and games | Fun stuff I've written about lately includes Apple's iPhone, Hewlett-Packard's HDX laptop and Microsoft's Halo3. Also on the radar are new digital video boxes such as the Tivo HD and the Vudu.