Category Archives: microsoft

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Fixing the Xbox 360

Microsoft says it will give a retrospective 3 year warranty to all owners of Xbox 360 consoles. Here’s a snippet from the press release:

As a result of what Microsoft views as an unacceptable number of repairs to Xbox 360 consoles, the company conducted extensive investigations into potential sources of general hardware failures.  Having identified a number of factors which can cause general hardware failures indicated by three red flashing lights on the console, Microsoft has made improvements to the console and is enhancing its Xbox 360 warranty policy for existing and new customers.

While the whole world knows that the 360 is unreliable, this perhaps Microsoft’s first public confession. An extended warranty is good; but prospective purchasers may be even more interested in the “improvements to the console” mentioned above. Has Microsoft really found a fix to the design fault(s) which cause the problem?

Another unanswered question concerns the DRM which causes problems for users who return consoles for repair and get back a refurbished unit that used to belong to someone else. This is a common practice in the IT industry, and normally it makes good sense, because you get a replacement quicker. Unfortunately it is a flawed plan with respect to the 360, because purchased downloads are tied to the machine on which they were downloaded. See this thread for the gory details, lots of unhappy customers, and Microsoft’s inconsistent response.

You would think that someone at Microsoft would have realised even before the launch that this was a likely scenario. Of course it is made worse by the high number of returned machines. Surely Microsoft can work out some way to allow customers to re-download the games they own, fully unlocked, to a new machine. Currently the mechanism seems to be: argue with customer service until you get your Microsoft Points refunded, then re-purchase the games. That is a disappointingly crude mechanism. 

Here’s another thing that puzzles me. Let’s presume that the Xbox 360 has a design fault, to do with overheating, that makes premature failure likely. Reasonable, I think. So how long ago was this fact apparent to Microsoft? I’d have thought it would be well over a year ago. I recall users complaining about repeated red light incidents in early 2006. Why then did Microsoft continue turning the handle and manufacturing machines with the same flaw for so long?

Still, users will be grateful that Microsoft has had the decency and the resources to admit to the problem and fix at least the hardware side of it for free.

Sun’s ODF converter

I had a quick look at Sun’s Open Document Format (ODF) converter for Microsoft Office.

This is aimed at users of Microsoft Office who want to open and save documents in ODF, an XML document format also used by Open Office and standardised by ISO. Why would you want to do this? The main reasons would be if you worked in an organization that mandates ODF as a standard, or if you need to send and receive documents from other organizations which use ODF as standard.

There is a curious twist here. On the face of it, one of the reasons you would send documents in ODF rather than, say, DOC or XLS, is to make it easier for users of Open Office to read your documents. However, this doesn’t necessarily apply, since this ODF converter actually is the same code used in Open Office to convert to and from Microsoft Office formats, so the recipient is really no better off. The new Open Office XML formats are a different matter but … the converter does not yet support Office 2007 (find out why here), or even Vista, according to the readme.

How good is the converter? On my quick test, pretty good, which I’d expect, given that Open Office is also pretty good in respect of Microsoft Office compatibility. It does not convert macros, but that’s not usually a problem since you rarely want to distribute documents containing macros. I managed to trip it up on one feature – there are probably others, but this is one that I found quickly. I tested the converter on my old Tablet notebook, since this still has Office 2003 installed. I created a new document and added an ink comment – a handwitten annotation written with a Tablet pen. Saved the document to ODT, reopened it, no comment. Not exactly a showstopper, but it illustrates the point that there are compromises if you choose to standardise on a non-native format.

Using the ODF converter in Word is more pleasant than with Microsoft’s ODF converter. It installs as an import/export filter, so that you can simply use Save As. You can even set Word to use it as default. There are also converters for Excel and PowerPoint, but these are not so deeply integrated.

Now for a few gripes. First, why is the download not digitally signed? This looks unprofessional these days, from a major software vendor.

Second, the converter installs itself in the system tray. What is a document converter doing in the system tray? I think this is ridiculous clutter. The only reason I can think of is to enable automatic or semi-automatic update; but I’d have thought this could be done on starting the add-in.

Third, the dialogs. Here’s what you get when you save a document as ODT:

The readme says of this dialog:

This warning unfortunately cannot be disabled and should be ignored.

I agree it is annoying; but should it be ignored given that, in fact, it might be true? If I’d been foolish enough to add lots of ink comments to a document, saved it as ODT, and ignored the dialog as Sun advises, I would be upset to have lost my work.

On the other hand, the real irritation of this dialog is that you do not know. Everything might be fine, or it might not.

Next, you get another dialog:

Sun’s readme says that this can be disabled, provided you have Word 2003 or XP, by setting a registry key. We are referred to KB 837011. But what does this KB say?

Word 2003 prompts you with the error messages that are mentioned in the “Symptoms” section when it is using file converters that have not been digitally signed. The prompt is expected and it is typical.

Right, so the real problem here is that Sun, again, hasn’t digitally signed its converter. If you read the KB article carefully, Microsoft does not recommend that you disable the warning. It is only intended for use if you have compatibility issues with legacy filters. Not, surely, something just released by Sun Microsystems.

Nevertheless, this is a decent converter. Would I use it? It will be handy for occasional import and export, but I would be most reluctant to use it by default on all my documents. If you are using Microsoft Office, it makes sense to use the Office native formats. If I’m sending a document and need the widest possible compatibility, RTF is good. At this point even .DOC and .XLS are probably more widely compatible than ODF, since they have been de facto standards for so long.

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Microsoft on Visual Studio 2008 and beyond

I spoke to Prashant Sridharan, group product manager for Visual Studio. He told me that Visual Studio 2008, formerly codenamed Orcas, is set to ship by the end of the year, which probably means November or December. Among many new features, he highlighed LINQ (Language Integrated Query), which he classified as a productivity feature, new optimization and analysis tools, and scalability and performance improvements in Team System. SQL Server 2008 will be supported. We will also get designers for WPF (Windows Presentation Foundation), and in due course for Silverlight as well. Shridharan said that the final Silverlight designer might not make the initial release, but will be available shortly after at worst.

I am still puzzled as to why it has taken Microsoft a year from the release of .NET Framework 3.0, which was released with Vista, to come up with non-beta designers for WPF. Shridharan did not really explain the delay, but commented that .NET Framework 3.0 was really an interim release; Visual Studio 2008 will ship more or less simultaneously with .NET Framework 3.5.

I asked whether the direction established with the free Express tools is likely to continue. Shridharan says that it will, but that he feels the current Express line is too complex and confusing for its target novice users. The 2008 range will be similar, but it may be further simplified in subsequent releases. I am not sure how to decode this message. Is it really that the tools are confusing for novices, or is Microsoft giving too much away and wants to draw back a little? The complexity problem is real, but chopping out a few features will not improve it much; it would take radical re-thinking of the whole development approach – think PopFly, which I’ve just noticed also uses the Express word in its slogan, “Express yourself.” See also the note on commoditization below.

I also touched on the question of software factories, about which Jack Greenfield enthused at the architecture conference I attended in March. Will this be surfaced at all in Visual Studio 2008? Well, one thing which was apparent from my chat to Greenfield was that Microsoft’s software architecture strategy is vulnerable to the musical chairs of internal reorganization. Shridharan did say that the Patterns and Practices team is now integrated with the Visual Studio team, which should mean that more of its (most interesting) work is surfaced in Visual Studio itself. That sounds good; but what of Greenfield’s vision for how software factories can transform software development? It doesn’t seem to be one shared by Shridharan, who observed that all the Visual Studio designers are software factories and was vague about future developments in this area. That may mean he is the wrong person to talk to about this, or it might suggest a more conservative approach than Greenfield hopes for. In any event, it seems that it won’t be this release which delivers radical changes in the modeling or software factories area.

Finally, I asked Sridharan about the commoditization of development tools, and whether Microsoft might one day give away Visual Studio in order to promote its platform. He prevaricated a bit. “We’re not a profit centre in the same way as Office. We do make a sizeable chunk of revenue of out Visual Studio … you can have co-existence of free tools with a high-end product on which you drive revenue.”

All true, but the free tools are improving and the trend is in that direction. “We are I think close to an infexion point , but I don’t think we’re quite there yet, in terms of the commoditization around tools,” says Sridharan. “We’re very close. Within Microsoft that gets a lot of debate, and we’re investigating actively. You’re certainly not going to see anything happen in Visual Studio 2008, but over time, who knows?”

Time to stop using non-generic collections

This is one for .NET programmers. Do you use collection classes like ArrayList or HashTable? These are useful in .NET 1.0 and 1.1, but .NET 2.0 and higher has generic collections like List<T> and Dictionary<K,V> which are safer and more efficient. It’s time to tidy up your code, because in Silverlight’s implementation of .NET these non-generic collection types have been removed completely. The BCL Team Blog has the details, together with a handy guide on how to convert your non-generic collections. Of course you can simulate non-generic collections by declaring collections of type Object, so there’s no reason to continue using the old collection types.

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Will Windows DRM spoil the BBC iPlayer party?

I am intensely interested in the BBC iPlayer, set to launch on 27 July. It’s a landmark in the convergence of the internet and broadcasting.

This is a convergence I welcome. I missed most of the Glastonbury 2007 broadcasts, but I’ve enjoyed the BBC’s watch and listen page which gives you immediate access to most of the sets*, despite the relatively low quality (225 kbps video, 64 kbps audio, according to the player). Just click a set and it plays, no chit-chat, no messing around with programme schedules or having to decide in advance what to record. The iPlayer promises bitrates of perhaps 750kbps to 1Mbps – effectively full broadcast quality. The immediate advantage is time-shifting, but longer term there are other interesting possibilities in internet broadcasting, such as greater interactivity and the ability to customize what you view. We saw some great demonstrations of this (using Silverlight) at Microsoft’s Mix07 earlier this year.

The iPlayer is also an important example of commercial use of peer-to-peer technology, using kontiki.  

The problem is that the BBC needs to restrict playback to seven days after first broadcast, otherwise it runs into copyright difficulties. I am sure people will put their energy into trying to bypass these restrictions, and may well succeed, but the BBC has to at least make a serious attempt to enforce it. It is this that pushed the BBC into the arms of Microsoft’s DRM, to the understandable upset of Mac users and Microsoft haters, although a Mac iPlayer is promised at some future time.

This aspect bothers me as well, not only because of cross-platform issues, but because I question whether Microsoft is able to deliver DRM that just works. See here for an amusing account of how a tech-savvy Windows user struggled to purchase and play an audio file using this system. The iPlayer appears to be based on Windows Media Player, which is notorious for its cryptic error messages and intricate, hard-to-solve problems. Here’s an example plucked from the windows.media.player newsgroup:

I just tried playing both some new songs I had just downloaded, and when those wouldn’t play, some older ones that have been on my computer awhile, but each time I try to open the songs, I get the following:  “…cannot play the file because a security upgrade is required.  Do you want to download the upgrade?”.  I click “upgrade”, but absolutely nothing happens.

I took a look at the iPlayer beta message boards, and there’s no shortage of folk with similar problems. I realise that that you must expect problem reports on internet forums, but my impression is that problems with Windows Media Player and Microsoft DRM are more prolific than they should be.

I can readily believe this, because Microsoft has woven so many dependencies into the fabric of Windows. This is what makes patching a Windows system so frustrating. You start off trying to fix a problem with, say, Microsoft Office, and end up having to install updates to seemingly unrelated components like Internet Explorer, “Genuine Advantage” ActiveX controls, or Windows Installer, some of which inevitably require restarting the system. It’s bad enough when it all works as expected, but when something fails it is truly a challenge to recover.

I’ve not yet had an opportunity to try iPlayer myself. Nor do I know if the BBC intends to move from WMP to Silverlight, though I believe it may do since this would bring Intel Mac compatibility. I suspect it would also be more trouble-free, since Silverlight does not have as many dependencies – I was told at Mix07 that it has its own media player and does not try to embed WMP.

What chance is that that BBC iPlayer will have a smooth and untroubled launch when it goes public on 27th July 2007?

*PS on Glastonbury 2007: If you have time on your hands, watch the Iggy and the Stooges performance. It has amazing energy, particularly considering the man’s age, and you also get a hilarious stage invasion which has even the Ig pleading with the audience to back off and give him some space.

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How Microsoft changed its mind about Office XML standardization

My interview with Microsoft’s XML Architect Jean Paoli back in April was not the first time I had spoken to him. I also talked to him in February 2005. At that time Microsoft had no intention of submitting its Office XML specification to a standards body. I thought it should do so, and asked Paoli why not:

Backward compatibility. We have today 400 million users of Office, which means billions of documents. So we went and did a huge job of documenting electronically all these features and we put that into this WordML format. Well we need to maintain this damn thing, and we need to maintain this big format, we have like 1500 tags. Who is going to maintain that? A standard body? It doesn’t know what is inside of Word. That’s the problem. So we said we are going to give you a license, open and free… [Jean Paoli, February 2005].

Microsoft was forced to change its mind, because important customers (mostly governments) indicated their preference for standardised document formats. The quote remains relevant, because it says a lot about the goals of Office Open XML, which is an evolution of WordML and SpreadsheetML.

While on the subject, I also want to mention Simon Jones’ piece in the August 2007 PC Pro (article not online), perhaps a little one-sided but he does a good job of debunking some of the common objections to OOXML and exposing some of the politics in the standardisation process. He adds:

I’m not saying there aren’t any problems with the ECMA-376 standard. Nor am I saying ODF is bad. I do, however, believe OOXML is technically superior to ODF in many ways, and I want to see both as ISO standards so people can have the choice.

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Office Open XML vs COM automation

Looking at the new Open XML API, introduced by Kevin Boske here, makes you realise that old-style COM automation wasn’t so bad after all.

There are two distinct aspects to working programmatically with OOXML. First, there’s the Packaging API, which deals with how the various XML files which make up a document get stored in a ZIP archive. Second, there’s the XML specification itself, which defines the schema of elements and attributes that form the content of an OOXML document.

The new wrapper classes really only deal with the packaging aspect. You still have to work out how to parse and/or generate the correct XML content using your favourite XML parser. And it’s a lot more complex then HTML.

By contrast, the old COM automation API for Office presents a programmatic object model for the content, and you don’t have to worry much about how the document gets stored – you just tell Word or Excel to save it.

The (very big) downside of the COM object model is that it depends on the presence of Microsoft Office. High resource requirements, version problems, Windows-only, and inappropriate for server apps.

We seem to have traded one problem for another. What Microsoft needs to provide is wrapper classes for the content, rather than just its packaging.

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How to speed up Vista: disable the slow slow search

What’s the biggest problems with Vista? Not the buggy drivers, which are gradually getting sorted. Not the evil DRM, which I haven’t encountered directly, though it may be a factor in increasing the complexity and therefore the bugginess of video and audio drivers. Not User Account Control security, which I think is pretty good. Not the user interface, which I reckon improves on Windows XP though there are annoyances.

No, my biggest complaint is performance. This morning I noticed that if I clicked the Start button and then Documents, it took around 15 seconds for the explorer window to display, fully populated. Doing this with Task Manager monitoring performance, I could see CPU usage spike from below 10% to between 55% and 60% while Explorer did its stuff.

Explorer gets blamed for many things that are not really its fault. Applications which integrate with the desktop, such as file archive utilities, hook into Explorer and can cause problems. I tried to figure out what was slowing it down. I opened up Services (in Administrative Tools) and looked at what was running. It didn’t take long to find the main culprit – Windows Search:

Windows Search in Services

You will notice that the above dialog shows that the service is not running. That’s because I stopped it. The difference is amazing. The Documents folder now shows in less than a second. When I click the Start button, the menu displays immediately instead of pausing for thought. Everything seems faster.

Looking at the description above, it is not surprising that there is a performance impact. The indexer gets notified every time you change a file or receive an email (if you are using Outlook or Windows Mail). The same service creates virtual folder views in Explorer, a poor man’s WinFS that should make the real location of files less important. Notice that the explanatory text warns me that by stopping the service I lose these features and have to “fall back to item-by-item slow search”.

I think it should say, “If the service is started, Explorer will take fifteen times longer to open and your system will run more slowly.”

Desktop search is a great feature, but only if it is unobtrusive. In Vista, that’s not the case.

This kind of thing will vary substantially from one system to another. Another user may say that Windows Search causes no problems. I also believe that the system impact is much greater if the indexer has many outstanding tasks – such as indexing a large Outlook mailbox, for example. Further, disabling Windows search really does slow down the search function in Explorer.

Turning off Windows search is therefore not something to do lightly. It breaks an important part of Vista.

Still, sometimes you need to get your work done. That fifteen seconds delay soon adds up when repeated many times.

In truth, we should not be faced with this decision. Microsoft should know better – it has plenty of database expertise, after all. There’s no excuse for a system service that slows things down to this extent.

By the way, if you have understood all the caveats and still want to run without Windows Search, until Microsoft fix it, then you must set the service to disabled. Otherwise applications like Outlook will helpfully restart it for you.

Update

See comments below – a couple of others have reported (as I expected) that search works fine for them. So what is the issue here? In my case I think it is related to Outlook 2007, known to have performance problems especially with large mailboxes like mine. But what’s the general conclusion? If you are suffering from performance problems with Vista, I recommend experimenting with Search – stop and disable it temporarily, to see what effect it has. If there’s no improvement, you can always enable it again.

It strikes me that there is some unfortunate interaction between Explorer, Search, and Outlook; it’s possible that there are other bad combinations as well.

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New Live Writer is out

Beta, of course. But since this is my favourite offline blog authoring tool, I’m taking a break from Google posts to mention it here. You can download it here – I’m using it to write this post. The official blog has a list of new features.

Do they amount to much? Inline spell checking (wiggly underlines) is great, except that it still seems to be hard-wired to US English. I like Paste Special, particularly as I’ve had problems pasting from Word in the past, with Writer inserting annoying font tags (something to do with using the embedded IE editor, no doubt). That said, I’ve just tried a paste from Word and it worked fine, so perhaps this is fixed too. Synch between local and online edits is neat – when you retrieve a post from Live Writer’s local cache, it updates it from the online version, so that it is now safe to edit in either location. Writer also exposes a richer set of properties, including Excerpt. There are a bunch of other changes that don’t matter much to me, such as Sharepoint support. Table editing? I don’t generally use tables in blog posts, but it could be useful.

On the minus side, Writer has sprouted an odd extra toolbar so that you now have three rows above the working area: menu, toolbar, and editing toolbar. That looks cluttered and unnecessary. There’s the spelling problem mentioned above. And as for this, words fail me:

 

Overall, a useful but low-key upgrade.

Update: Graham Chastney has a hack to fix the US spelling.

IE7 script madness

Ever seen this guy?

Stop running this script dialog in IE7

I’m writing a piece on Javascript. In the new world of AJAX, web applications may run large amounts of client-side code in the browser. I’m having a look at performance issues, so I wrote some code that does some processing in a tight loop and tested it in IE7, FireFox 2.0 and Flash 9.

Getting timings was difficult, because IE7 pops up this “Stop running this script” dialog when my code is running. Nor will it let go. You click “No”, and 1 second later the dialog pops up again. And again. And again.

I’ve trawled through the IE7 options looking for a way to switch this thing off, but cannot find one. I’m hoping I’ve missed it, or that there is a secret registry key I can change, because it is really annoying.

I don’t understand why there is no option for “don’t ask me again”, or “allow long-running scripts at this site”. After all, this scenario is going to get increasingly common. Neither FireFox nor Flash suffers from this problem.

I appreciate that IE7 is trying to be helpful here. There is though a fine line between helpful and annoying. Without any obvious way to prevent it, this falls in the latter category.

That said, I did find a way to get my timings, because of my experience with the htmleditor.  If you host Mshtml in an application, you can implement the COM interface IDocHostShowUI. This has a ShowMessage function which IE calls when it wants to show a dialog. This enables you to catch the over-helpful “stop this script” message and not show it.

Unfortunately this solution isn’t something users can easily apply. It requires creating your own customized version of IE. There must be some easier way and I look forward to learning what it is.

One last comment: why does Microsoft still come up with poorly thought-out UI elements like this? It is easy to think of better ways than a brutal modal dialog. How about a “stop script” toolbar button that appears only when scripts are taking too long or grabbing too much CPU?

Update

FireFox does exactly the same thing, also with a modal dialog, “A script on this page may be busy” …

Still, two benefits to FireFox. First, the timeout is set to a more reasonable 10 seconds. Second, you can easily amend it. Navigate to about:config. Find the entry dom.max_script_run_time. Change it from 10 to whatever you like. 

Further update

A comment has pointed me to this knowledgebase article.

Here’s the fix:

  1. Using a Registry Editor such as Regedt32.exe, open this key:
    HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft\InternetExplorer\Styles

    Note If the Styles key is not present, create a new key that is called Styles.

  2. Create a new DWORD value called “MaxScriptStatements” under this key and set the value to the desired number of script statements.

    By default the key doesn’t exist. If the key has not been added, Internet Explorer 4 defaults to 5,000,000 statements executed as the trigger for the time-out dialog box.

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