Category Archives: microsoft


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 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.


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?


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:

    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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