Category Archives: software


Legal implications of Microsoft’s Office 2007 ribbons

Microsoft is generously allowing developers to use its ribbon UI, as seen in Office 2007, in their own software. But is this really so generous? Here’s the key proviso:

The license is available for applications on any platform, except for applications that compete directly with the five Office applications that currently have the new UI (Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook and Access).

It raises the interesting question: to what extent is the new UI in Office 2007 a ploy to counter Open Office? The truth is that many users cannot easily tell the difference between Microsoft Office and Open Office. They look similar. The new ribbon UI has two advantages for Microsoft:

  • It looks distinctively different from other Office applications out there.
  • Microsoft believes it has legally enforceable copyright in the new UI, extending to “both design and functionality.”

Why no menus in Word and Excel?

This may be the reason for another issue I’ve been puzzling over. Why is there no option to display a traditional menu in Office 2007? The reason is not technical. All the old keyboard shortcuts in Word and Excel still work, even the Alt combinations that access the menu. It is as if the menu is a ghostly presence.

I recall asking about this at the last PDC, when Office 2007 was unveiled. Microsoft said that providing a menu would stand in the way of users adopting the new UI. In other words, they would use the menu out of habit and never properly migrate to the new and presumed better way of doing things. But I wonder if this is also part of the legal strategy. With the menu in place, Word and Excel would look less distinctive; the ribbon would come over more like a fat toolbar, rather than a major new UI innovation.

Let me add that I would undoubtedly enable menus in Word and Excel, if they were available, as I have done in IE7. To me, toolbars are primarily shortcuts to commonly used features (I make an exception for the palettes in drawing and design applications). Menus on the other hand offer in-depth access to the full functionality of the product. Menus are efficient because they drop down when you need them, and collapse to a single line of screen space when not in use.

Would Microsoft have provided menus, at least as a compatibility option, if it were not so keen to look different from Open Office and enforce its IP?

A risky strategy

Removing the Office menus is a risky strategy. I’ve been using the new Office since the final code was made available, and it is disorientating. I’m intrigued and want to persevere to see if the ribbons really are more productive; but I’m not sure that the average Word or Excel user will take to it easily. Some at least will react against it and want their old Office back. If Microsoft is really unlucky, it could even serve to drive Open Office adoption, rather than preventing it.

On one level, I applaud Microsoft for taking some risks with Office 2007, after years of conservative upgrades. I’m keeping an open mind about the productivity benefits of the new UI. However, I doubt anyone would welcome the idea of the ribbon UI becoming an industry standard owned by Microsoft, and used specifically to prevent competition in office applications. It also strikes me that there are risks for developers who sign up for the “free” UI license. What if at some future point Microsoft said you are competing directly with Office?

Outlook 2007 is slow, RSS broken

Users are reporting that Outlook 2007 is slow – much slower than Outlook 2003, which it is meant to replace.

Experiences vary, but the worst affected are those with large mailboxes. Large in this context means thousands of messages and several GB size. Looking at the newsgroups there may be a particular problem with Outlook on 64-bit Windows. I’m not impressed; though it’s not yet clear how widespread the problem is. I’d be interested in comments.

Confession time: I have a huge mailbox. That means I can easily find old email correspondence, and that’s a feature I value. Furthermore, I lack the time or patience to sift through and delete what is no longer required. Unfortunately, the most effective advice for those suffering from slow Outlook 2007 installations seems to be: reduce the size of your mailbox.

While there may be good organizational reasons for doing this, it seems odd that it is needed on today’s machines, with vast amounts of RAM and disk space, and unspeakably fast CPUs. And if you use Exchange, be sure that you archive to a server location, otherwise you can end up with several little archives littered over every machine you use, and they likely will not be backed up.

Why should users have to prune their mailbox because the very latest Outlook cannot cope with it as well as the older version? Surely it is not that difficult to query and display emails from a local database?

I’m also disappointed that, for all the talk of user experience, the new Outlook does not slow down gracefully. You know the kind of thing: you start the application and an unresponsive, semi-painted window appears for a while. You click to change folders and the application appears to hang. You click to drop-down a menu and the application freezes for several seconds. Isn’t this the kind of thing that background threads are meant to help with?

As for RSS, I can’t make sense of what Outlook 2007’s designers were aiming at here. Note that I think the RSS central store, installed with IE7, is a great idea. However, “central store” in this context means central to the local machine. What Outlook seems to do is to copy the contents of this store to your mailbox and then keep it synchronized. I think that’s a mistake: mailboxes are big enough already, and Outlook would do better to query the central store dynamically.

The real problem comes when you use Outlook with Exchange. Many users take advantage of the server-side mailboxes in Exchange by using Outlook on several different machines, all pointing to the same Exchange mailbox. For me, this is the primary advantage of Exchange and Outlook. But what if those several different machines have different RSS feeds in their central store, or even the same ones?

So far, it appears that Outlook cannot cope. I end up with duplicate feeds, I end up with feeds showing in the RSS feeds folder that are not listed in Tools – Account Settings – RSS Feeds; in fact this list is empty on my desktop machine, Sync is turned off, but I still have a ton of feeds in the Outlook RSS feeds folder.

It seems simple to me. Either Outlook’s RSS integration should be 100% local, in which case you just see what is in the central store on your current machine. Or it should be 100% server-based, in which case Exchange should handle the RSS updates. Mixing the two is just silly.

Tip for improving Outlook performance: if you are happy to do this, go into Tools – Account settings – Microsoft Exchange Server – Change – More settings – Security, and remove the checkbox from “Encrypt data between Outlook and Exchange”. Other factors may be search engine integration (Microsoft’s or other), A/V integration, or other add-ins.

Bottom line: I suggest caution before rolling this out over a network.

Update: other tips you can try

A few other things that have helped people:

  1. Exchange users: Remove Outlook 2003 and do a clean install of Outlook 2007, making sure that a new offline store is created from scratch.
  2. Run on Vista.
  3. Turn off indexing. Tools – Options – Search options – uncheck all folders. It’s a shame to do this as the indexed search is useful.
  4. Let indexing complete. Might be worth leaving the machine running overnight.
  5. Reduce the size of your mailbox (of course).

The above will not solve all the problems, but can mitigate performance issues.

Further update

Microsoft has posted some official workarounds. See here for comment and link

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Vista on a Tablet

I tested Vista RTM on a Toshiba Portege M400. This is a great though expensive Tablet PC: Intel Core 2 Duo T7200 CPU, fingerprint reader (handy for logging onto a table without tapping in a password), FireWire, Bluetooth, etc etc. Perhaps its most notable feature is the “slim select bay”, which comes as standard with a DVD rewriter, but can be replaced with a 2nd hard drive or a 2nd battery. Hence this is one of few laptops with an integrated RAID controller. The 2nd drive is also handy for testing multiple operating systems.

I had this running reasonably well with Vista RC2, and rather optimistically tried an in-place upgrade to Vista RTM. It failed badly. I left it chugging away and came back a couple of hours later to find it in a blue-screen, reboot cycle. I suspect the problem was with one of the beta drivers I’d installed in an attempt to get all the integrated devices working. Who knows what would happen if you tried the in-place upgrade from XP: probably bad things.

Anyway, I zapped RC2 and did a clean install instead. That was straightforward, although you still need to download Toshiba’s SATA RAID driver in order to get Vista to see the drive. Contrary to some reports, you don’t actually have to enable the RAID controller.

The laptop was immediately usable, though I did have to install Intel’s wireless driver to get the wireless network working. I’ve not reinstalled all the other beta drivers, since Toshiba will likely come up with better versions shortly. This laptop is promoted as “Vista Capable”. For the time being, some devices are disabled.

The Tablet side of things works very well indeed. My main use of Tablet mode is for meetings and conferences. Taking notes is easier and more natural when writing on a screen.

I realize that the Tablet has not been a big commercial win for Microsoft, and has probably proved a costly experiment for some hardware partners like Acer. Nevertheless, it’s an important advance in mobile computing. Tablets are a vast improvement on touch-sensitive screens such as those found on a Pocket PC. The electromagnetic digitizer means you can lean your hand on the screen as you write (just like paper), and finer drawing is possible.

Here’s what impressed me most. I opened up Word 2007 and started text input using the handwriting tool. I have poor handwriting, but my first sentence or two came out letter-perfect.

Overall Vista RTM does seem a little snappier than the RC2 release. It’s just those pesky drivers – which is no doubt why the laptop has problems resuming sometimes after sleep or hibernation.

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Vista is on MSDN. Now for the tricky decisions.

MSDN subscribers can now download the final build of Vista, which means it is available to a large number of people outside Microsoft for the first time.

If you are one of them, you will have one or maybe two tricky decisions to make.

I take it for granted that you will install it, for test and development of course.

First, do you upgrade the release candidate? Or clean install? Daniel Moth says the upgrade is OK, but I plan to do a clean install eventually, despite the hassle. Otherwise there is always the nagging worry that something which doesn’t work right is broken because you upgraded.

Second, do you enable or disable UAC? This is a hot potato. If UAC is widely disabled, then Microsoft’s best effort yet to secure Windows will have been wasted. On the other hand, it is undoubtedly annoying, and in the worst case some app you depend on might not work at all.

I’m keeping it on. With RC2, I’ve found ways to run all the apps that I need to have working, even including Borland Developer Studio 2006 (a very problematic install, though it may be better in the final release build).

As I said to Dan Fernandez:

My view is that Windows security is a huge issue both for Microsoft and actually for every internet user. UAC looks like a pretty good effort to improve it, so to my mind it is in all our interests to try and make it work.

That said, I’m not optimistic. I think lots of people will disable it; I’m also waiting for the first support notes from third-parties that give users the steps to do this – like the little leaflets that come with video cards and other hardware, explaining that you must ignore the warnings in XP about unsigned drivers.

By the way, although Vista is now final, there is still going to be a lot of pain around drivers as well as application compatibility. For example, the Vista drivers for my Toshiba Portege M400 are still in various states of beta, and no doubt the fingerprint reader still does not work. It’s going to be a while before the situation improves and users get anything like a smooth upgrade on this kind of hardware.


See Ed Bott’s post and the linked article for an illustration of the extent and impact of the Windows security problem. The article analyzes a recent pump-and-dump spam attack. Apparently 99.95 of the botnet machines used were Windows, 47.23% XP with SP2.

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Borland keeps its developer tools after all

Nine months ago, Borland said it would “seek a buyer” for its developer tools, including Delphi and JBuilder. I blogged about it here. But it’s not happening. Instead, the company announced today the formation of CodeGear, a wholly-owned subsidiary. Why no sale? Here’s the official version (PDF):

The challenge came when we went about separating two operations that have been interlinked for over 23 years. We found we were not able to adequately separate the financials in a way that could demonstrate what we believe to be the true value of this business.

Not what I would call clear, but I think it translates to two things. First, nobody wanted to pay what Borland was asking. Second, there is actually some synergy between the IDE business and the ALM business, a benefit that would have disappeared had the sale gone ahead.

My hunch is that the former is a bigger factor than the latter. Embarrassing for Borland.

Still, a wholly-owned subsidiary is a significant separation. It may be sufficient to deal with the key problem which seemed to be expressed by those on the IDE side of the business: that the company had under-invested in the development tools, using the profits to invest in building up the ALM business.

Then again, IDE sales have been declining for some time, which would suggest that the cash-cow years had come to a natural end. It is not surprising that finding a buyer was hard.

Can CodeGear succeed? Delphi is a wonderful product, but wounded by the rise of Microsoft .NET versus native Win32 code in Enterprise development. On the Java side, CodeGear has “Peloton”, a new version of JBuilder built on Eclipse. I hope to report on Peloton next week. It is up against the free unadorned Eclipse, and Sun’s free NetBeans, both of which are formidable competition. Even so, there are opportunities. JetBrains has proved that an independent, commercial Java IDE can still find a market if there is high quality combined with distinctive features.

For Delphi and JBuilder developers, at least the formation of CodeGear is a better outcome than a sale to the wrong company would have been. So welcome to CodeGear.

Microsoft’s deeply-ingrained local admin culture

If you go along to the Microsoft Office Developer Center you are currently offered a “Developer Map for the 2007 Microsoft Office System”. It’s described as a poster, but is delivered as an executable. I’m normally suspicious of documents that come as executables, but this is a Microsoft site so I downloaded and ran.

You know what? This thing installs by default into a new folder on the C drive, which means it requires local admin rights. And what does it install? Just a PDF.

Personally I think delivering a PDF as an executable is crazy. Perhaps the author wanted to be sure it wouldn’t open within the browser; a zip would have been fine for this.

You can avoid the admin rights requirement by manually changing the target directory. Few people will do this, because we have learned that changing default directories is often a mistake.

This small incident demonstrates something big, which is the deeply ingrained culture of local admin rights on Windows. I presume that whoever tested this little executable was running as admin, otherwise this unnecessary and annoying requirement would have been spotted and removed.

It chimes with a remark made to me informally at last week’s Tech-Ed, that Microsoft staff running Vista commonly disable UAC (User Account Control), thus removing the most significant security feature in the new Windows.

It is a vicious circle. Microsoft runs with local admin rights, so it issues resources that require local admin rights without even noticing. That means users with lesser permissions or UAC get annoying problems, making them inclined to run with local admin rights as well.

The outcome: Windows stays insecure. Windows botnets proliferate. Malware flourishes.

If Microsoft is serious about security – which I believe it is in some quarters, it must get its own house in order. For the vast majority of computer users, including developers, running as local admin should not be necessary. That means a change of culture and will be hard to achieve; but if Microsoft itself does not make the effort, the world at large has no chance.

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First encounter with Office 2007 document compatibility

I’ve was living the Vista/Office 2007 life while out of the office last week, still on the last public betas though the RTM Office is downloading as I type.

I created several Word documents while out and about, and when I got back I copied them to a desktop PC for further editing. I noticed that they were .docx – proving that Office 2007 really does default to the new XML file format. I decided to try opening them in Word 2003, which is what I run on the desktop.

Word announced that the document was created by a newer version of itself. Would I like to download an update that would import it? I clicked OK, and downloaded a 27 MB file called FileFormatConverters.exe. At this point I was on my own. I figured that I should close Word and then run the file. It seemed to be installing, then said I needed administrator rights and quit.

This illustrates why Vista’s approach offers a better user experience. In Vista, you can run with a user account that has local admin rights, but runs with standard user privileges. An executable that requires admin rights can request elevation, so that instead of appearing to run and then giving up, it requests permission upfront.

This was XP though, so I right-clicked the file and tried again with Run As – Administrator. This time it worked, though there is a buglet. At the end of the install, it asked to restart now; I clicked Cancel as I wanted to defer the restart. A further dialog then said that the install had failed. Not true – the installation had succeeded and I was able to open the .docx in Word 2003.

When I did so, I got this dialog:

I find this perplexing. I understand about features that do not exist; but what does the comment about layout actually mean? Which features cannot be edited? A link to a document describing these limitations in detail would be valuable. It is tempting to Save As – Word document to return to what is familiar. However, in my simple document I couldn’t see any evidence of things not working.

It appears that you get this dialog whenever you open a .docx saved from Word 2007, but not once the document has been saved from Word 2003, even if you keep the .docx format.

When people start using Office 2007, they will be emailing .docx documents back and forth so this experience will be common. Has Microsoft done enough? My initial impression is that the technical work is there, but the user experience is not so good.

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More significant than Vista or Office: .NET Framework 3.0 is released

Microsoft’s .NET Framework is now fully released. There is a handy page of links to the various downloads you might want. Of all Microsoft’s releases in this busy November, this is the most significant.

Why? Here’s what is in .NET Framework 3.0. There are four major pieces. Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF) is an alternative GUI API for Windows, based on a new XML language (XAML) and incorporating the code-behind concept first seen in ASP.NET. Although it is primarily for Windows, Microsoft is promising a cross-platform XAML runtime called Windows Presentation Foundation/Everywhere. On Windows, WPF apps are rendered using DirectX, giving it impressive multimedia capabilities. Summary: biggest change to the Windows API since its first release.

Windows Communication Foundation is a communication framework based on XML web services. If you are familiar with Windows development, the easiest way to define WCF is by what it replaces: ASP.NET web services, MSMQ (Microsoft Message Queue), COM+ (also known as Transaction Server) and Distributed COM, .NET Remoting.

I won’t say that WCF replaces all of COM, though perhaps it might do eventually. COM has many faces.

Windows Workflow Foundation is less important than WPF or WCF, but still interesting as a framework for workflow applications. It fits well with Sharepoint and Office 2007 as a way to program enterprise portals.

Windows CardSpace is an abstraction layer for identity management and authentication. Unlike Microsoft Passport, CardSpace is not itself an identity provider, but a rather a system that works with multiple identity providers. If widely adopted, it will help the Internet move on from the nightmare of usernames and passwords. IE7 is a CardSpace client.

When Microsoft first announted the above pieces, they were meant to be exclusive to “Longhorn”, now called Windows Vista. The company realised that this would stall adoption, possibly fatally, so it was decided to make it a free download for Windows XP as well as part of Vista. That makes .NET Framework 3.0 a viable development platform now, rather than in five year’s time (or never).

Like any new technology, this one could fall flat on its face. Time will tell whether it is really significant, or turns out to be a backwater in the latter days of Windows. Unlike Vista and Office, it is not an immediate profit centre for Microsoft, but in the longer term it is critically important to the company as an update to the Windows platform.

Outlook 2007: still famously obscure

I am using Office 2007 on Vista for next week’s Tech-Ed conference. That’s the plan, anyway. Both products are on the verge of being released to manufacturing; but for the moment I’m stuck with Office 2007 Beta 2 Technical Refresh, and Vista RC2 (build 5744).

I have a love-hate relationship with Outlook. I like the way it integrates PIM (Personal Information Manager) functions, and I especially like the way it keeps multiple machines in sync with a server-side mailbox. Of course you need Exchange for this to work.

On the other hand, there is plenty to hate. One major complaint is the obscurity of Outlook’s various option dialogs. I often meet people who have missed major pieces of functionality because they could not find them. One recent example was on the verge of purchasing an expensive third-party solution because Outlook cannot make public folders available offline.

It can of course. Non-obvious step one: add public folders you want to use offline into your favorites folder. Non-obvious step two: open Tools – Email Accounts – View or change – select Microsoft Exchange Server and click Change – then More Settings – Advanced – then check Cached Exchange Mode and Download Public Folder Favorites (this last one is not checked by default).

This might be a plot by system administrators to prevent users downloading huge public folders onto their laptops. It is certainly not something you would find by accident.

I’m happy to say (this is irony) that Outlook 2007 continues the tradition of obscurity. Today I was having trouble finding the option to read email in plain text. I know this is a cruel thing to do with beautifully formatted HTML emails, but I regard it as more secure. This option used to be in Tools – Preferences – Email options. No longer.

I looked in Email Options – Advanced Email options. I looked in Options – Mail setup. I looked in Options – Mail format. I looked in Options – Mail Format – Editor Options, though this was desperation: surely even Outlook’s UI designers could not consider reading email an editing function?

Could Microsoft have removed this widely-used preference from the product? Not at all. It is in Tools – Trust Center – Email Security. Silly me.

Here’s my suggestion for Outlook 2009. Throw away all the existing preferences dialogs in Outlook, or hide them in some compatibility mode for those who like a challenge. Then design a new set, with an emphasis on being usable, discoverable, and logical. Please.


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