Category Archives: software

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WPF/E preview is out – but no cross-platform .NET for now

Microsoft has posted a CTP (Community Tech Preview) of Windows Presentation Foundation Everywhere, a cross-platform browser-hosted runtime for XAML, its XML GUI language. There’s a download for Mac as well as Windows, but sadly one of the most intriguing aspects of WPF/E is not yet included. You can code the CTP with JavaScript, but the promised cross-platform .NET runtime is not in this release. It is still planned though:

After the December 2006 CTP, we will also enable a managed code programming model using a subset of full CLR that will enhance the programmability side of the browsers to enable more performant and more scalable Web applications.

The quote is from the WPF/E Architecture Overview, which is a great place to start if you want to know what’s in WPF/E.

See also this interview with Forest Key from back in March, if you have not read it already.

I’ve downloaded but not tried the samples yet.

Postscript: Mike Harsh has some more info and a sample WPF/E video on his blog. The humour in the video is somehow typically Microsoft…

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Conquering the Office Ribbon

Rick Strahl was struggling to apply a template to an open document:

My quest today: Apply a template to an open document in Word. Where the hell is that option buried?

My generic solution to this kind of problem is the Quick Access Toolbar. Here’s how it works in this case:

Click the little down arrow at the right of the Quick Access Toolbar

  1. Choose More Commands…
  2. Choose All Commands
  3. Scroll down the list to Templates, select it and click Add
  4. Close the the dialog

Now you can click the Templates icon on the Quick Access Toolbar and it works just like Office 2003.

Of course I still don’t know how you are meant to find it in the ribbon. This technique subverts the ribbon by providing a long, simple list of everything in Word; a kind of super-menu. But it’s actually a fair solution, since the icon stays there giving one-click access to your favourite obscurities. Further, should you happen to find it elsewhere on the ribbon, you can easily remove it.

PS: the Templates dialog is also available on the Developer ribbon, which you can display through Word options

A simple blog reader for the IE7 common feed list

Readers of this blog will know of my dissatisfaction with both the IE7 feed reader and the RSS integration in Outlook 2007.

I’ve now posted the (VB.NET) code for my quick-and-dirty solution, the Hands On Common Feed List Reader.

 

What problems does this solve? Mainly:

  • It allows me to browse through blogs by item and not by feed
  • It reads the feed list directly instead of Outlook’s misguided synchronization efforts
  • It gives me a quick view of all unread items

Just to be clear, this is a reader for the IE7 common feed list. You still need to subscribe and unsubscribe using IE7. Lots of features could be added, but for now this works for me; however fixes and improvements are welcome.

Download the code here.

More on how this is put together in the February 2007 issue of Personal Computer World.

If anyone would like just the executable, let me know and I’ll make a quick setup. Requires .NET 2.0.

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What happened to Smart Tags in Office 2007 – and is the ribbon next?

Lem Bingley asks if the SmartTags feature has been quietly removed from Office. It’s an interesting point, especially as the Smart Tags feature was sold to us journos as a major new feature of Office when it was introduced in Office XP – in fact, it was said to be the biggest feature of that release.

The short answer is that Smart Tags are still there, just turned off by default. To get them back, just click the Office button, then Word Options (button at the bottom of the flyout), then Proofing, then AutoCorrect options, then Smart Tags, and check the options you want. But I doubt you miss them.

Come to that, the Adaptive Menus introduced in Office 2000 and touted as a major usability benefit have gone in the new release – see this fascinating blog post by Jensen Harris for why. And even the Task Pane, another Office XP breakthrough, has reduced prominence in 2007. Open up Excel 2003 and what’s the first thing you see? The Getting Started Task Pane, with numerous other Task Panes available from a drop-down list. Some of those Task Panes still exist (Research, for example), but they are now more discreet.

Is there a pattern here? Features introduced with fanfare in one release, developed a little in the next, and then silently dropped two or three versions later? It does look like it, though let’s not forget that Office has still seen off all comers when it comes to market share, so the team must be doing something right.

The obvious question is whether the new ribbon UI will be a buried option and off by default in Office 2010 or thereabouts. If the past is any guide to the future, it might well. On the other hand, I respect the amount of effort Microsoft has put into this one. It is a more convincing effort at UI innovation than Smart Tags or adaptive menus. Personally I’m not having much trouble with it, having discovered the Quick Access Toolbar and how to customize it, though why this is hidden by default mystifies me*. Further, I do see how it exposes features that could easily have been missed before. I am watching with interest to see what how the non-technical world out there reacts.

*Correction: It is not hidden – it appears by default in the top left title bar. I prefer to move it below the ribbon. In my experience, customizing the Quick Access Toolbar is the key to being productive with the new Office. 

Vista hyperbole and reality – and what happened to the pillars of Longhorn?

At the official Vista launch yesterday (UK version) Microsoft’s UK Managing Director Gordon Frazer called the launch of Vista, Office 2007 and Exchange 2007 Microsoft’s “biggest launch to business ever,” following up with further extravagances such as “a new era in business computing.”

Clearly these launches are exceedingly important to Microsoft, but I doubt they will prove the most significant in its history. Maybe that honour should go to Windows 95, which saw off the threat from OS/2, or maybe Excel 5.0 and Word 6.0 in 1994, which as I recall was the end of serious competition in spreadsheets and word processors until the Sun-sponsored Open Office in 2002. Or maybe the arrival of Microsoft .NET in late 2001, which has proved a remarkably successful answer to Java for server-side computing.

Success for Vista will be more about maintenance than breaking new ground. Success will be persuading businesses to upgrade from XP, or dissuading those with Windows fatigue from switching to the Mac. Office is the same. I mostly like the bold new user interface in Office 2007, though I’m suspicious of Microsoft’s motives, but where can you go when you already dominate the market? Staying still will be a big achievement.

That said, I am impressed with what Microsoft is doing with SharePoint, its portal technology. At the launch we were shown how this can aggregate diverse sources of information. I consider business mashups behind the firewall to be a big growth area, and SharePoint is well-placed to benefit.

What about Vista? It’s a decent product, but I’m anticipating much anguish in the first months after its launch. Two reasons: drivers, and UAC. Many drivers for Vista are not yet done, many will never be done. Users will try to upgrade and find stuff does not work, or even worse their systems will not be stable. They will blame Microsoft, and Vista will have to live down a bad reputation. Then after a year or so the drivers will be there, the OS will have had a few fixes, and the world will realise that it is actually pretty good.

The second reason is UAC (User Account Control), the new security feature which means users run with reduced privileges most of the time. UAC is a genuine step forward in security, but breaks many applications. Some will turn it off and lose the security benefit, others will suffer the compatibility issues. In a year or two maybe software vendors will have fixed their applications to play nicely with UAC.

I’ve been using mostly Vista for several weeks. It is more enjoyable to use than XP, but there are still annoyances which leave you wondering what its creators were thinking. For example, Vista Media Center is excellent – though I had to switch off Aero to stop it flashing – but why does the music library apparently forget its index from time to time, so all your albums disappear for a while?

Other things are just not done yet. I plugged in a SmartPhone and couldn’t figure out why Vista could only see it as a storage device. Answer: Windows Mobile Device Center is still in beta, and has to be downloaded separately.  

Little things perhaps, and your annoyances will be different from mine, but they spoil the overall effect. And if I were running a business network, I would leave it at least six months before rolling it out.

Overall I still think .NET Framework 3.0 is more significant than Vista or Office 2007, though it was hardly mentioned yesterday. It includes, after all, the two remaining “pillars of Longhorn”: Windows Communication Foundation and Windows Presentation Foundation. It is these that may support Microsoft’s platform through to the next generation of applications, even though they were invisible at yesterday’s event.

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Salesforce.com: WS-* is dead

Today I spoke to Adam Gross, Vice President, Developer Marketing at Salesforce.com. His company has recently announced that during its third quarter, API transactions (driven by web services) surpassed CRM page views on its service for the first time. I asked Gross whether Salesforce.com would move towards the WS-* standards as its evolves its API.

“We’re very big advocates of SOAP and WSDL,” he told me.  “We’re probably the largest users of SOAP and WSDL in any business anywhere in the world. That said, my sense is that WS-* is dead. There is not a lot happening in WS-* that is being driven by customers and use cases, and there is not a lot that is being informed by what we’ve learned from “Web 2.0″. I question its relevance.”

How then will Salesforce.com solve problems like those which WS-* addresses, such as as reliable messaging? “If any part of WS-* has promise it’s reliable messaging, but I’ve been part of the web services technical community since late 2000. We’ve been talking about reliable messaging standards since then. That’s close to seven years. You have to wonder if the WS-* process is going to reach a meaningful conclusion.

“Instead, we’re going to see more organic innovation and best practices. There is no standard for AJAX. There is no standards body. It’s community-driven rather than vendor-driven, and that’s been very successful. I keep an open mind, but I think that WS-* and the people who are working on it need to start showing their relevance.”

Mysterious Windows Vista hang explained

Depressing post from Windows tech guru Mark Russinovich on The Case of the Delayed Windows Vista File Open Dialogs. In Windows Vista, whenever you use the File – Open dialog to browse your documents folder, the system attempts to display your full user name in a breadcrumb trail. In certain cases, this causes a delay of “between 5 to 15 seconds”, during which time your app will hang. The bad scenario is this:

  • Your computer is joined to a Windows domain
  • Your computer is attached to a network
  • The attached network does not provide a route to your domain controller

Example: your laptop is connected to a hotel wi-fi access point, and you don’t have a VPN open. Not uncommon.

Why depressing?

It’s depressing because this kind of thing is a poor user experience. It’s not only the hang; it’s that Windows provides no clue as to why you are waiting. If you are tech-savvy, you can even go into Task Manager, view the processes, and observe that nothing is busy; System Idle Process has 90% + of the CPU time. If you are really tech-savvy, you do what Russinovich did, but it’s not trivial to do so.

It’s depressing because Windows is trading the user’s time for the sake of prettification. Do you care whether the File – Open dialog has your full name in its address bar? No, you just want to open a document. But you do care that the app you are working with has hung, especially if the boss is looking over your shoulder and asking to see the figures in that Excel spreadsheet you are trying to open.

It’s depressing because it’s not a new problem. The detail is new, but I’ve noticed similar hangs in Windows before, in cases such as when you have a mapped drive letter to a location that is not available, or a share that no longer exists. Perhaps some of these are sorted in Vista, but this is just a new twist on an old issue.

The good news: maybe with Russinovich on board things like this will get fixed. But as he notes, not until Vista SP1 at the earliest.

Running Vista with dodgy drivers? Try turning off Aero

Vista may be RTM, but it’s early days for the drivers. This will cause confusion, and will damage Vista’s reputation. For example, a letter in today’s IT Week describes what happened when you upgrade a “Vista Ready” Sony Media Center PC with the MSDN Vista RTM:

It was a disaster. The Nvidia GeForce Go 7400 video card was not supported so the machine reverted to VGA. The audio chipset also failed to have a driver so no longer works. The TV system completely fails to work, and Media Centre blue-screens when started.

This kind of thing is no surprise. Third-parties like Sony have not had the final Vista any longer than the rest of us. While Microsoft includes drivers for common hardware on the Vista CDs, there are many devices for which drivers just are not ready, and consumer systems such as Media Center PCs with lots of extras will suffer more than most. If you have a “Vista ready” PC, and are not the adventurous sort, then the best advice is to wait until the vendor comes up with properly supported drivers specifically for your machine.

Having said that, I’ve tested Vista on several systems with reasonable success, including a self-assembled media center PC which is now working nicely with an XBox 360 as media extender. One tip: if you run into problems, try switching off Aero and using something like the Vista Basic display as an alternative. This fixed a problem with Media Center where it would flash uncontrollably after waking from sleep, and had a similar beneficial affect on a Toshiba tablet. Aero changes the way windows are displayed at a low level. See for example Kam Vedbrat’s blog on why some application disable Aero; there’s more good information on the shell: revealed site.

It’s a shame to disable Aero, but if that’s what it takes to get a stable machine then it must be worth it; I’ll be trying again on my test boxes when updated drivers emerge.

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Irony: Outlook Web Access more usable than Outlook

I’m serious. After upgrading to Outlook 2007, and being frustrated by its poor performance, I’ve taken to using Outlook Web Access instead. It is far more responsive than Outlook 2007 on my system. Furthermore, by keeping Outlook closed instead of hogging the CPU, everything else seems to run faster as well. Fortunately Outlook Web Access, or OWA as it is affectionately known, is excellent. It was after all one of the earliest AJAX applications, before the term had been invented. It has a familiar three-pane user interface, and features right-click menus and pop-up reminders; it has much of the look and feel of Outlook but mostly running on the server. The one thing that is not so good is search. Oh yes, and the fact that is has zero offline functionality, but on a desktop attached to an intranet, that’s not an issue.

The irony is that Microsoft is the company which insists (for obvious reasons) that we still need rich desktop applications. I agree, especially when it comes to apps like Word and Excel. But Outlook 2007 has made me shift in the other direction.

Incidentally, I don’t think the problems with Outlook are simply because of an underpowered machine. This desktop isn’t brand new, but it has a decent 2.75 GB of RAM and a 3.00 Ghz processor. I’ve been testing Vista on the same machine, and Outlook 2007 under a clean Vista install is somewhat improved but still not great. It also seems even more prone to those annoying messages saying a data file did not close properly; performance might be affected. Indeed.

I realise that I could likely solve the performance issues by having a much smaller mailbox. So it’s my choice: Outlook Web Access, or a small mailbox. I’m choosing OWA, though it means persevering with slow Outlook on a laptop when out and about.

Office ribbons more like a chain?

Fascinating post from Developer Express CTO Julian Bucknall about Microsoft’s new ribbon license scheme. Developer Express is a well-regarded vendor of components for .NET and Delphi developers. It’s an ambivalent post. Bucknall states that his company has signed the license, though he expresses some frustration at its restrictions:

Lurkers and active members of our newsgroups will have noticed that we’ve been downright evasive about our plans for enhancing our ribbon implementations. We’ve been asked for some very reasonable enhancements, such as docking the ribbon vertically or along the bottom edge of the application window. Well, now you understand our ambiguous replies: according to the license agreement we are prohibited from doing most of them.

He adds that:

…you, our customers, are not covered by our license agreement with Microsoft. The terms of the license are not transferable in that way: despite the fact that you are using our components, you will have to sign the Microsoft license yourselves for your own applications.

Should you sign? Although it is royalty-free, the agreement is not without obligations. As Bucknall notes, it includes “the Office UI Design Guidelines that describe, in almost excruciating detail, how the ribbon and its associated controls must work and must look in an application in order to satisfy the license.” Signing the document means agreeing that you are making use of Microsoft’s intellectual property, and also limits what you can do with the UI.

On the whole I’m in favour of UI standards, but this seems rather extreme.

I am not a lawyer but let’s recall that the matter of copyright in the look and feel of a user interface has been the subject of considerable debate and controversy. Some may dispute the necessity of signing an agreement with Microsoft in order to create a ribbon-like UI for your application.

This feels like part of a new and more aggressive IP strategy from Microsoft, tying in with other recent moves like the Novell agreement. It’s playing with fire.

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