Embarcadero RAD Studio 2009 is done

Embarcadero / CodeGear has released RAD Studio 2009, which includes Delphi 2009, C++ Builder 2009 and Delphi Prism. Note that Prism has its own IDE, which is actually the Visual Studio shell; this is the new take on Delphi for .NET that targets Mono as well as Microsoft .NET. You can also install Prism into an existing Visual Studio installation.

Looking at the UK prices, RAD Studio starts at £979.00, whereas Delphi starts at £549.00. Upgrades are much cheaper – less than half the price in some cases. The message seems to be: get RAD Studio if you think you might need more than one of these three products.

I’ve been asked whether the upgrade to Delphi 2009 is worth it. I have no idea, of course, since it depends what you need it for – though if you need Unicode I’d have thought it was worth it for that alone. I do think it is the best so far in the post-Delphi 7 series. Personally I prefer it to Delphi 7 as well; though check Mason Wheeler’s comments to a previous post for a contrary view. Vista compatibility is another advantage, though you can hack this in any version of Delphi. I doubt that Windows 7 will be much problem here; it is close to enough to Vista that the same stuff should work fine.

From the archives: Mark Anders and Scott Guthrie on ASP+

My editor at The Register asked me if I had any interviews that would be fun to dig out for a retrospective piece. This one is from September 2000, shortly after the announcement of the .NET Framework, where Microsoft’s Mark Anders and Scott Guthrie talk to me about ASP+, the name for ASP.NET when it was in preview.

Listening to the whole interview was a little frustrating, because most of the time I asked questions that were interesting at the time, like the relationship between ASP.NET and COM, but not so much now. I was reminded though that Guthrie gave an impressive demo of what we now call AJAX, where updates to a web page are processed on the client, and described to me how it worked.

The pair also enthused about hosting Windows Forms controls in the browser, one of the .NET ideas that did not really become practical until the release of Silverlight. The full WPF (Windows Presentation Foundation) also works well in the browser, but most web developers rule it out because it is Windows only.

As it turned out, AJAX might never have taken off without the work of Google, while Silverlight now looks like a reaction to Flash. I suspect that Microsoft found it difficult to evolve these ideas into full products because it clung to the idea of a Windows-centric Internet, where Windows rather than the browser is the rich client.

Guthrie is now Corporate VP, .NET Developer Division at Microsoft, while Anders is at Adobe where he has been working on a tool for the Flash platform called Catalyst, previously known as Thermo.

Service triggers: an attempt to reduce bloat in Windows 7

I’ve been reading through the Windows 7 Developer Guide. I like this document; it is tilted more towards information than hype, and is readable even for non-developers. There are things mentioned which I had not spotted before.

One example is triggers in the service control manager. There was actually a PDC session which covered this, among other things, under the unexciting title Designing Efficient Background Processes (PowerPoint). If you check out the slides, you’ll see that this is actually something significant for Windows users. It is an attempt to reduce all that stuff that runs whether or not you need it, increasing boot time and slowing performance. Apparently some people are so upset with the time it takes Windows to boot that they are threatening to sue; so yes, this does matter.

Services are applications that run in the background, usually without any visible interface. They consume system resources, so it makes sense to run them only when needed. Unfortunately, many services run on a “just in case” basis. For example, if I check the services on this machine I see I have one running called Apple Mobile Device, just in case I might connect one. It is using 4MB of RAM. However, I never connect an Apple device to this machine. I’m sure it was installed by iTunes, which I rarely use, though I like to keep up-to-date with what Apple is doing. So every time I start Windows this thing also starts, running uselessly in the background.

According to Vikram Singh, who took the PDC session, adding 10 typical 3rd party services to a clean Vista install has a dramatic effect on performance:

  • Boot time: up by 87% (24.7 to 46.1 seconds)
  • CPU time when idle: up by six times (to 6.04%)
  • Disk Read Count: up by three times (from 10,192 to 31,401 in 15 seconds)

Service triggers are an attempt to address this, by making it possible to install services that start in response to specific events, instead of always running “just in case”. Four trigger types are mentioned:

  • On connection of a certain class of device
  • On connection to a Windows domain
  • On group policy refresh
  • On connection to a network (based on IP address change)

In theory then, Apple can rewrite iTunes for Windows 7, so that the Apple Mobile Device service only starts when an Apple device is connected. A good plan.

Now, I can think of three reasons why this might not happen. First, inertia. Second, compatibility. This means coding specifically for Windows 7, whereas it will be easier just to do it the old, compatible way. Third, I imagine this would mean faster boot, but slower response when connecting the device. Apple (or any third party) might think: the user will just blame Windows for slow boot, but a slow response when connecting the device will impact the perceived performance of our product. So the service will still run at start-up, just in case.

Still, I’m encouraged that Microsoft is at least thinking about the problem and providing a possible solution. We may also benefit if Microsoft tweaks some of its own Windows services to start on-demand.

Live at Kilburn a must for Who fans – but for the Coliseum concert, not Kilburn

The recent DVD / Blu-ray release of The Who at Kilburn 1977 is a must-have if you have any spark of interest in The Who. I found it utterly compelling. I got the DVD, because I can play it anywhere, and I’m not convinced Blu-ray has much advantage for something like this.

What gripped me was not the Kilburn concert though. It’s OK, but this is among Keith Moon’s last performances and he is far from his best.

No, the gem here is the 1969 London Coliseum concert, from the best years of The Who. The Coliseum is an opera house, and was booked in order to perform the rock opera, Tommy. The band members realise how pretentious this is and joke about it; yet at the same time there was a genuine desire to push rock music to a new place.

That’s exactly what they do, not because Tommy is an opera, but through sheer energy and virtuosity. The quality varies from reasonable to bootleg, especially the picture which is very dark at times, but it matters little; this is The Who from when they could reasonably claim to be the best live band in the world.

Sparks indeed. You’ll love it.

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Google search wiki: user reviews for web sites

Google has announced its search wiki.

Do I want to customize my search results? No; or at least, only by refining the search, not by forcing sites to the top or inserting my own urls.

Do I want to comment my search results, just for myself? No. I can’t see myself using this, particularly as I deliberately avoid being permanently logged into Google.

What about public comments and ratings? This is the big deal. I wonder how Google will handle this – will the comments apply to web sites? To web pages? Or only to web pages when shown as results for specific searches? In other words, if I get the same site showing up for a different search, will I see the same comments?

Think Amazon, and how the ratings and reviews influence buying decisions (they certainly influence mine). The impact if people see such feedback every time they search on Google could be remarkable. I would love to see the SEO (Search Engine Optimization) folk advising customers, “Look, you actually have to make your site worth visiting, in order to get good reviews on Google.” Though I guess some of them will just offer to write the reviews.

If this sticks, I will be interested to see how it will affect Google’s relationship with its advertisers. Let’s say you do a product search, and Google displays ads inviting you to buy the product, alongside reader comments saying it is garbage. This tension has always existed in independent press that carries advertisements, but it is new to search. On the other hand, as currently described the SearchWiki comments are not displayed by default, but only if you click a SearchWiki link.

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eBay reinvents English language, punishes good sellers

The world’s biggest auction site has implemented a ratings system designed to promote high selling standards. Unfortunately, its effect is to punish good sellers as well as bad.

Here’s how it works. Buyers are invited to leave seller feedback after a transaction ends. They rate the transaction positive, negative or neutral, and then offer “Detailed seller ratings”. Buyers are asked to rate the transaction in four categories: description, communication, speed of dispatch, and fairness of p&p charges:

The difference between a four and five star rating is that for five stars the word “very” is added. For example, for communication you could be “satisfied” or “very satisfied”.

What the buyer does not know is that if the seller gets an average rating below 4.1, they can no longer list items for sale. If they are below 4.3, their listings may be “demoted” in search results. Here is the announcement from ebay.com:

What happens to sellers who do not meet the DSR requirements by November 3, 2008?
Sellers with a DSR below 4.1 will be blocked from listing on eBay.com. Sellers with a DSR below 4.3 but higher than 4.1 may have their listings further demoted in search results.

Sellers caught out by this are furious, partly because a buyer who awards 4 stars in all four categories is likely under the impression that they gave positive feedback. After all, what is the difference between “Accurate” and “Very accurate”? I am likely to do this myself, giving four stars if generally satisfied, and five for exceptional service.

The possibility of a seller getting banned from listing with an average four-star rating would not occur to me.

eBay’s intention seems to be to tilt the balance of its policies away from sellers and towards buyers. Another example of this is that sellers cannot give a fraudulent or unreasonable buyer negative feedback. However, it is the sellers who pay eBay’s fees, not the buyers, and it risks losing the goodwill of its customers.

In eBay-speak then, “satisfied” means “unsatisfied”.

Microsoft plans free anti-malware

Microsoft will be offering a free anti-malware suite codenamed “Morro”, from the second half of 2009, according to a press release:

This streamlined solution will … provide comprehensive protection from malware including viruses, spyware, rootkits and trojans. This new solution, to be offered at no charge to consumers, will be architected for a smaller footprint that will use fewer computing resources, making it ideal for low-bandwidth scenarios or less powerful PCs.

It’s a good move. Here’s why:

  • The current situation is calamitous. Even users with fully paid-up anti-virus solutions installed get infected, as I recently saw for myself. PC security is ineffective.
  • The practice of shipping PCs with pre-installed anti-virus that has a trial subscription is counter-productive. There will always be a proportion of users who take the free trial and do not renew, ending up with out-of-date security software. A free solution is better – several are available now – if only because it does not expire.
  • Microsoft wants to compete more effectively with Apple. It is addressing an extra cost faced by PC users, as well as (possibly) the poor user experience inherent in pre-installed anti-virus trialware.
  • The performance issue is also important. Anti-malware software is a significant performance drag. Microsoft is the vendor best placed to implement anti-malware that minimizes the drag on the system.


  • Only specialist companies have the necessary expertise. I don’t believe this; Microsoft’s investment in security is genuine.
  • Single-supplier security gives malware a fixed target, easier to bypass. There’s some merit to this argument; but it is weakened by the fact that the current multi-vendor scenario is clearly failing. Further, the Mac is a fixed target that does not appear to be easy to bypass.

All of this is hot air compared to the real challenge, which is securing the operating system. Vista is progress, Windows 7 not much different according to my first impressions.

Why not just use another operating system? There’s a good case for it; ironically the theory that a large factor in Windows insecurity is its dominance can/will only be properly tested when an alternative OS is equally or more popular. If people continue switching to Macs perhaps it will happen some day. Windows is still hampered by its legacy, though my impression is that Vista’s UAC is having its intended effect: fewer applications now write to system areas in Windows, bringing us closer to the day when security can be tightened further.

What about business systems? This is one area that needs clarification. Microsoft says Morro is only for consumers. Why should businesses have to pay for a feature that consumers get for free? On the other hand, some equivalent initiative may be planned for business users.

Adobe Alchemy – compile C/C++ to ActionScript

I love the careful wording on Adobe’s Alchemy site:

The purpose of this preview is to assess the level of community interest in reusing existing C and C++ libraries in Web applications that run on Adobe® Flash® Player and Adobe AIR®.

It needs to be put cautiously, because Alchemy – unlike Google Web Toolkit, which handles Java to Javascript – is not intended to become a general-purpose alternative to ActionScript. Rather, the idea is to enable existing C/C++ libraries to work within Flash applications. Examples given include transcoders, cryptographic algorithms, and XML parsers. Performance is said to be 2-10x slower than native code. Alchemy was demoed today at Adobe’s MAX conference.

Possibly a Java to ActionScript compiler would be more useful to most of us; though for new code ActionScript 3.0 is close enough to Java that it should not be difficult for most developers to learn.

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Develop for Adobe Flex in Microsoft Visual Studio – or maybe not

News from the Adobe MAX conference this week in San Francisco: Ensemble has developed an add-in for Visual Studio for Flex development, code-name Tofino. It’s currently in beta and available for download. Flex is Adobe’s developer-focused SDK for Flash applications.

I installed it this morning, and so far it does not impress. There is zero documentation (just a few links to the standard Flex docs on Adobe’s site), and it lacks even MXML Intellisense, let alone a visual designer. When you go to project properties, there is nothing to configure. The toolbox is also empty. On the plus side, it successfully invoked the Flex compiler to build the project, and managed to open it as a static file in Internet Explorer when I clicked Debug. I’d prefer an option to use Visual Studio’s built-in web server for debugging. There must be more to it than this; then again it is advertised as a beta which is meant to mean well advanced (ha ha). I suggest sticking firmly with Flex Builder for the time being.

Adobe has largely ignored .NET in its Flex and AIR technology, though it does support SOAP. I am not sure whether this is caused by aversion to Microsoft, or an assumption that Microsoft developers will use Microsoft technologies like Silverlight or Windows Forms, or a bit of both. Integration with Visual Studio and server-side .NET could be significant for Flex adoption, though it would be better if Adobe itself were doing the add-in.

You can see the same thing happening on Microsoft’s side, with a half-hearted Silverlight project for Eclipse (which only works on Windows), or the well-regarded Teamprise which integrates Eclipse with Visual Studio Team System. In both cases Microsoft keeps itself at arms length, which does not have the same impact as in-house support.

There are always concerns about the quality of third-party applications. I am sure Adobe itself would not have put such an inadequate preview up for download, as Ensemble has done for Tofino.