Microsoft Year-End Report Card: B-S

Well, Redmond, it's been a funny year, hasn't it? Even if you ignore those Apple commercials, it's hard to ignore the fact that Vista was probably one of the main reasons people switched to the Mac OS, or to third-party Linux-based systems. We'll get to the big V—and that other mighty stain Windows Mobile—in a bit, but first you deserve much credit for some impressive feats in gaming, entertainment and home networking.

Xbox 360: A-
Microsoft, you have to be happy as hell that you pushed Xbox 360 out of the gate a year before the PS3 and the Wii. Console sales have been great, staying ahead of Sony and only recently challenged by Nintendo. This is fueled by two factors: a better selection of hot games like Halo 3 and BioShock and the only real implementation of live online gaming in the console world. The Xbox Live community has even allowed you to pilot programs for HD video downloading and all sorts of other media treats that make Sony (and Apple) nervous. Sadly for HD DVD buffs, compatibility with that format is not one of the selling points, or you would have included it in your recently revamped HDMI-equipped 1080p Xbox 360 Elite.

Performance aside, I would say that the only mark against you on this front is the hardware itself. I personally would like some kind of Xbox 360 Ultimate with integrated with HD DVD, but even if that doesn't happen, it's still pretty noisy, and the Red Rings of Death are getting to be more than just a clever punchline.

Zune 2: B+
The Zune is one of those products that gets shat on just for being what it is, but the first one really was a weak contender. Why start with an HDD player when, in 2006, flash-memory giant SanDisk shook Apple to the core with an affordable low-frills nano challenger? Apple owned the higher-end hard-drive based media-player market, but could be challenged more easily in flash memory. Still, I'll admit that as of June, the Zune share was something around a respectable 11%.

Fast forward to October, and you get it much closer to the bull's-eye, with a flash player in four non-brown colors, plus wireless syncing and a slightly more lenient over-the-air sharing policy. Missing were two key customer demands: the ability to purchase songs over Wi-Fi, and the availability of movies and TV shows in the online Zune Marketplace.

The absence of those features wouldn't have been such a trauma if it weren't for the fact that Apple's iPod touch, which lets users buy songs over the air, had just arrived in stores, while the iPhone got an upgrade to do the same. Ironically, sales of your thin new 80GB player may be boosted by some frustrations with the iPod classic, which was introduced at the same time.

We're still a long way from seeing many Zunes in subways, and even longer off from that great social day when strangers are sharing Zune tracks on those same subways. My own personal opinion is "yawn" but I'm not going to begrudge you your successful attempt to jump well into the middle of the non-iPod pack.

Windows Home Server: A-
When I first peeped the WHS this past summer, I was impressed by the wealth of features it presented, such as smooth network file sharing, centralized daily backups and web-based remote access. The "media furnace" concept has always appealed to me, and it was nice to see Microsoft's server division creating a home product that didn't seem to have all of the emotional and technical baggage of the Windows franchise. Beta response was overwhelmingly positive, and it appeared a slam dunk was in order. Though I had my minor troubles in testing it, the platform itself is getting rave reviews. Lately, I've heard talk from both inside Microsoft and just outside of it that the next WHS might even offer full support to Macs as well, just thing thing for hybrid homes like mine.

Windows Vista: D
Let's cut the blather about new functionality and early-adoption growing pains and all that: New operating systems are supposed to run smoother than older ones. In my own life, three Vista machines proved unable to meet the mobile rigors of blogging in the field. I had used both Macs and PCs for years, but my primary devices had been PCs. Unable to find a Windows laptop that could hold up, I turned to a certain machine with the initials MBP, and can report zero regrets to date, even with the impulsive day-of update to Leopard.

Let me repeat that, so any people who accuse me of fanboyism can wrap their heads around it: I was trying hard to find a Windows machine that I could work on. I tested a handful of them, all without satisfactory results. Then, and only then, did I switch to a Mac for full-time use. Incidentally, my dad switched, too, and is enjoying his new iMac.

You can blame the OEMs for the troubles, but they blame you: In recent my conversations with execs from big PC makers, one said that the good news about Apple gaining market share is that maybe, just maybe, Microsoft would "get the picture" and work harder to build a better product. Just yesterday, another exec told me that customers were "crying like schoolgirls" to get XP put back onto shipped Vista machines.

Windows Mobile: D
My feelings about Windows Mobile were best expressed in a sentence from my hastily written Motorola Q9m mini-review: "Seriously, if you buy this phone, you are dumb." Frustrated as I've become with the platform, I turned to the coolest head I know—Jason Chen—for a reality check, but his thorough, non-biased evaluation of Windows Mobile proved almost all of my gut instincts correct. WM6 is not the improvement that was needed to fix what's broken, and it doesn't look like that will come now until at least WM8. Thanks for the heads-up, Microsoft, but telling us to wait that long for something that has the features commonly found in Treos, BlackBerrys and yes, iPhones, is not very alluring.

Like I said, this has not been the easiest year for you, but then again, out of some unexpected places came some against-all-odds victories, and you should be proud. Just please, for the love of all things holy, get crackin' on an OS that might convince the switchers that you haven't just given up. By the by, I'm really looking forward to the new Office... for Mac.

Final Grade: B-