Strange New World: Tech Picks of the Week

Let's got to the ... Microsoft store?

Yup, it looks like Redmond, like blood-competitor Apple, has had enough of the racket that is U.S. retailing.

The software giant is going to open its own stores. And overseas, at the fancy Mobile World Congress show in Barcelona, Microsoft showed even more Apple flattery with a direct iPhone-inspired mobile software: Windows Mobile 6.5.

Also this week, the Depression 2.0 we are fighting through looks to have chosen an early winner: video conferencing seems to have finally stepped beyond its tech Zombie phase.

These days everyone's grandmother is chatting on the video camera. Could we be looking at a worldwide Web fireside chat soon?

Here are our picks for the top tech stories of the week:

The MicroStore?

If imitation is the ultimate form of flattery, then Microsoft just laid a big, fat, wet kiss on longtime rival Apple.

Redmond is following in the Apple Store model with plans to open its own chain of retail stores.

The software giant went out and hired David Porter, a 25-year veteran of retailer Wal-Mart, to get the effort off the ground. Hopefully, that means things will go better than they did for such flops as Microsoft Groove or OneNote.

At first blush, the idea seems a little ridiculous. What exactly does the nerdiest place on earth look like? Clutter? Cold pizza?

And then there is the question of what will be for sale at the store: Operating systems? Exchange Server software? Bill Gates T-Shirts? But hey, we scoffed at the Apple Store back in the day. And look how wrong we were. Now there are 200 of them.

And they are the place to buy technology.

Windows Mobile Turns Six-and-a-Half

You know things technological are flat here in the good old U S of A when a cell phone show in Barcelona is one of our picks of the week. But it is.

The GSMA Mobile World Congress over in the land of Flamenco had some choice Microsoft news: The company introduced a new riff on its mobile phone software: Windows Mobile 6.5.

Easier to Use Windows Mobile Phone

It is designed to make the Windows Mobile phone easier to use -- that is more like the iPhone -- with a nice big touch screen and with lots of neat applications.

And at least at first blush it looks pretty darn cool. With Microsoft's core office products under attack (Google Apps is killing the company in its core business of selling word processors and spreadsheets) mobile devices have become critical to the company. So stay tuned. Expect more mobile news from Microsoft.

Take That Video Call

We've all heard before that video conferencing is the wave of the future but, until now, video chat software for the consumer market was clunky.

The cameras were a pain to deal with, picture quality was strictly PlaySchool quality, and one's voice sounded lackluster, at best. But that has changed. Better networking pipes in the Web have improved quality.

And many new companies, like the Oprah Winfrey-sanctioned Skype, have made Web video basically free. And, as the economy cools, suddenly making a video call rather than buying a plane ticket to stay in touch seems like a smart bet.

The sleeper here is there is so much video out there for cheap. Good old Apple has led the way here. Its built-in cams and microphones are standard. And quality is excellent. And then there are free ICQ chat accounts that can communicate pretty easily over say, iChat at no cost, save the monthly Internet service bill.

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