Category Archives: Uncategorized

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Fixing iPhone 4 not detected on a Mac

Today I noticed, while checking to see if iOS 4.3 was avaialble yet, that the iPhone was not detected by the Mac. No detection, no updates.

I checked in About this Mac -> More info -> USB and the iPhone was listed. So what went wrong?

I do not know the full answer, but it may well be caused by installing the iPhone SDK, which I updated recently. Fortunately the fix is simple. Download and install the iPhone Configuration Utility. You do not even have to run it; it fixes up whatever outdated or corrupt files caused the problem.

Fixing a slow Windows XP PC

Yesterday I investigated a Windows XP machine that had become so slow it was unusable. It was a Dell Dimension 2350 with 1GB RAM and a 2.00 Ghz Celeron CPU – not too bad a spec for XP – that had been out of use for a while and was being brought back into service for a specific and undemanding task. At first it had performed fine, but after applying Service Pack 3 and installing Microsoft Security Essentials it had ground almost to a halt. The machine performed so badly that trying to troubleshoot it was like wading through glue. You could get task manager up and see plenty of RAM free, but the CPU was stuck on 100%.

After trying a few futile things like updating the BIOS, I installed Process Explorer and Process Monitor from Sysinternals. Looking at the activity summary in Proccess Monitor it was obvious which process was to blame: an instance of svchost.exe started with the command line: c:\windows\system32\svchost.exe –k netsvcs

However, netsvcs is responsible for many different services. I did a bit more poking around with Process Explorer and found the culprit: Windows Automatic Updates. Typing:

net stop wuauserv

at a command prompt fixed the problem temporarily.

It appears that the Windows Update database, which you can find in %windir%\Software Distribution\DataStore, can get corrupted. The Windows Update service goes into a spin and consumes all your computing resources. You can turn Automatic Updates off by right-clicking My Computer, Properties, and Automatic Updates tab; or you can fix it the brute-force way by deleting the DataStore folder and letting Windows recreate it, though you lose your update history; or you can try to repair the database.

Of course there are many reasons why Windows XP might run slowly, and often it is not easy to troubleshoot. There is abundant well-meaning advice on the internet, much of it based on the assumption that malware is involved, but finding the right answer to a particular problem is a matter of luck. In a professional context, it is hardly worth the time and corporates will just re-image the machine.

I do find it interesting that when Windows XP first appeared in 2001 it specified a minimum of 64MB RAM and ran OK in 128MB. Once fully patched with Service Pack 3, automatic updates, Internet Explorer 8 and anti-virus, it needs at least 512MB and in my experience 1GB to be comfortable. Unfortunately you have little choice; if you want to connect to the Internet or run recent applications, you have to update it. Automatic updates is a also a near-essential security feature.

Finally, kudos to the Sysinternals team whose tools are invaluable for solving this kind of problem.

HTML 5 Canvas: the only plugin you need?

The answer is no, of course. And Canvas is not a plugin. That said, here is an interesting proof of concept blog and video from Alexander Larsson: a GTK3 application running in Firefox without any plugin.

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GTK is an open source cross-platform GUI framework written in C but with bindings to other languages including Python and C#.

So how does C native code run the browser without a plugin? The answer is that the HTML 5 Canvas element, already widely implemented and coming to Internet Explorer in version 9, has a rich drawing API that goes right down to pixel manipulation if you need it. In Larsson’s example, the native code is actually running on a remote server. His code receives the latest image of the application from the server and transmits mouse and keyboard operations back, creating the illusion that the application is running in the browser. The client only needs to know what is different in the image as it changes, so although sending screen images sounds heavyweight, it is amenable to optimisation and compression.

It is the same concept as Windows remote desktop and terminal services, or remote access using vnc, but translated to a browser application that requires no additional client or setup.

There are downsides to this approach. First, it puts a heavy burden on the server, which is executing the application code as well as supplying the images, especially when there are many simultaneous users. Second, there are tricky issues when the user expects the application to interact with the local machine, such as playing sounds, copying to the clipboard or printing. Everything is an image, and not character-by-character text, for example. Third, it is not well suited to graphics that change rapidly, as in a game with fast-paced action.

On the other hand, it solves an immense problem: getting your application running on platforms which do not support the runtime you are using. Native applications, Flash and Silverlight on Apple’s iPad and iPhone, for example. I recall seeing a proof of concept for Flash at an Adobe MAX conference (not the most recent one) as part of the company’s research on how to break into Apple’s walled garden.

It is not as good as a true local application in most cases, but it is better than nothing.

Now, if Microsoft were to do something like this for Silverlight, enabling users to run Silverlight apps on their Apple and Linux devices, I suspect attitudes to the viability of Silverlight in the browser would change considerably.

25 years of Windows: triumph and tragedy

I wrote a (very) short history of Windows for the Register, focusing on the launch of Windows 1.0 25 years ago.

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I used Oracle VirtualBox to run Windows 1.0 under emulation since it more or less works. I found an old floppy with DOS 3.3 since Windows 1.0 does not run on DOS 6.2, the only version offered by MSDN. In the course of my experimentation I discovered that Virtual PC still supports floppy drives but no longer surfaces this in the UI. You have to use a script. Program Manager Ben Armstrong says:

Most users of Windows Virtual PC do not need to use floppy disks with their virtual machines, as general usage of floppy disks has become rarer and rarer.

An odd remark in the context of an application designed for legacy software.

What of Windows itself? Its huge success is a matter of record, but it is hard to review its history without thinking how much better it could have been. Even in version 1.0 you can see the intermingling of applications, data and system files that proved so costly later on. It is also depressing to see how mistakes in the DOS/Windows era went on to infect the NT range.

Another observation. It took Microsoft 8 years to release a replacement for DOS/Windows – Windows NT in 1993 – and another 8 years to bring Windows NT to the mainstream on desktop and server with Windows XP in 2001. It is now 9 years later; will there ever be another ground-up rewrite, or do just get gradual improvements/bloat from now on?

I don’t count 64-bit Windows as a ground-up rewrite since it is really a port of the 32-bit version.

Finally, lest I be accused of being overly negative, it is also amazing to look at Windows 1.0, implemented in fewer than 100 files in a single directory, and Windows 7/Server 2008 R2, a platform on which you can run your entire business.

First impressions of Microsoft Kinect – great hardware waiting for great software

The moment of magic comes when someone walks through the gaming area and Xbox flashes up the message that they have signed in. No button was pressed; this was face recognition working in the background during gameplay.

So Kinect is amazing. And it is amazing: it is controller-less video gaming that works well enough to have a lot of fun. That said, I also have reservations about the device, though these are first impressions only, and feel it is let down in a big way by the games currently available.

My device arrived on the UK launch day, November 10th. It is a relatively compact affair, around 28 cm wide on a stubby stand. The first task is positioning it, which can be a challenge. You are meant to place it above or below your TV screen, at a height of between 0.6m to 1.8m. I was lucky, in that our TV is on a stand that has space for it; the height is fractionally below 0.6m but it seems to be happy. Alternatively, you can purchase a free-standing support or a bracket that clips to the top of a TV. I imagine there are some frustrated first-day purchasers who received a device but cannot satisfactorily position it.

You also need free space in front of the set. Our coffee table got moved when the Nintendo Wii arrived, so the 6ft required for one-player play is not a problem.  Two-player is more difficult; we can do it but it means moving furniture, which is a nuisance. Overall it is more intrusive than the Wii, but less than Rock Band or Guitar Hero with the drum kit, so not a deal-breaker.

Microsoft takes full advantage of over-the-wire updates with Kinect. After connecting, the Xbox, the device firmware, and the bundled Kinect Adventures game all received patches; but the procedure went smoothly.

Kinect is a sophisticated device, a lot more than just a camera. There are three major subsystems in Kinect: optical, audio and motor.

  • Motor is the simplest – the stubby stand also contains a motor assembly that swivels the device up and down, enabling it to allow for different positions and to find the optimal angle for players of different heights.
  • The optical subsystem includes two cameras and an infra-red projector. The projector overlays a pattern on the field of view. This allows the first camera, a depth sensor, to map the position of the players in three dimensions. This lets the system detect hand movements, for example, which are usually closer to the camera than the rest of the body. The second camera is a colour device more like the one in your webcam, and enables Kinect to take pictures of your gaming antics which you can share with the world if you feel so inclined, as well as presumably feeding into the positioning system.
  • The audio subsystem includes no less than four microphones. The reason is that Kinect does voice recognition at a distance, so needs to be able to compensate for both the sounds of the video game and other background noise. Using multiple microphones enables the audio processor to calculate the position of sounds, since each microphone will receive a sound at a fractionally different time.

These sensors systems are backed by considerable processing power – necessary because the Xbox itself devotes most of its processing to the game being played. The trade-off in systems like this is that the more processing means more accurate interpretation of voice and gestures, but taking too much time introduces lag. As I saw at the NVIDIA GPU conference in September – see here and here for posts – very rapid processing enables magic like robotic pinhole surgery on a beating heart – and like Kinect, that magic is based on real-time interpretation of physical movement. Kinect is not at that level, but has audio and image processor chips and 512MB RAM, along with other components including for some reason an accelerometer, mounted on three circuit boards squashed into the slim plastic container. See for yourself in the ifixit teardown.

But how is it in practice? It certainly works, and we had a good and energetic time playing Kinect Adventures and a little bit of Joy Ride. Playing without a controller is a liberating experience. That said, there were some annoyances:

  • Kinect play is more vulnerable to interference than controller gaming. If someone walks across the play area, for example, it will interfere.
  • In the Kinect system, there is no such thing as a click. Therefore, to activate an option you have to hover over it for a short period while a progress circle fills; when the circle is filled, the system decides that you have “clicked”. It is slower and less reliable than clicking a button.
  • The audio system enables voice control which seems to work well when available, but most of the time it seems not to be available. Considering the amount of hardware dedicated to this, it seems rather a waste; but presumably more is to come. Controlling Sky player by voice, for example, would be great; no more hunting for the remote.
  • The Kinect seems to work best when you are standing. For something like a driving game, that is not what you want. Apparently seated gameplay is supported, but does not work properly with the launch games; so watch this space.

Launching stuff before it is really ready seems to be ingrained in Microsoft’s culture. Is Kinect another example? To some extent I suspect it is. I recall the early days with the Nintendo Wii as exciting moments of discovery: the system worked well from the get-go, and the bundled Wii Sports game is a masterpiece. The Kinect games so far are less impressive.

In fact, my overwhelming impression so far is that this is great hardware waiting for software to show what it can do. The 20,000 Leaks mini-game in Adventures is not very good – you are in a glass cage underwater and have to cover leaks to stem them – but it is interesting because you have to use head, hands and feet to play it. It could not be duplicated with a conventional controller, because a conventional controller does not allow you to move one thing this way, and another thing that way, at the same time.

It follows that Kinect should enable some brilliant new gaming concepts. I’d love to see a stealth adventure done for Kinect, for example; there are new possibilities for realism and excitement.

As it is, the Kinect launch games show little imagination and seem to be heavily Wii-influenced – and if you compare Kinect with Wii on that basis, you might well conclude that the Wii is better in some ways, worse in others, but cheaper and with better games, and without the friction of Kinect’s somewhat fussy requirements.

Such a comparison is not fair to Kinect, which in concept and hardware is a generation ahead of Wii or PlayStation Move. It now awaits software to take advantage.

What chance for MeeGo in the age of the iPad?

Today is Apple iPad day in the UK; but the portable device I’ve been playing with is not from Apple. Rather, I downloaded the first release build of MeeGo, proudly labelled 1.0, and installed it on my Toshiba NB 300 netbook, which normally runs Windows. You can choose between the evil edition with Google Chrome; or the free edition with Chromium – I picked the Chrome version. I did not burn any bridges: I simply copied the image to a 2GB USB memory stick and booted from that. There was one oddity: the USB boot only worked when using the USB port on the right by the power socket, and not from the one on the left edge of the netbook. It is a common problem with USB, that not all ports are equal.

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MeeGo is a joint project from Intel and Nokia, formed by the merging of Intel Moblin and Nokie Maemo. It is a version of Linux designed for mobile devices, from smartphones to netbooks, though this first release is only for netbooks. Further releases are planned on a "six-month cadence", and a wider range of devices including handsets and touch-screen tables is promised for October.

First impressions are mixed. Starting with the good news: performance is great, the user interface is smooth and polished, and less child-like and cutesy than the last Moblin I looked at. The designers have really thought about how to make the OS netbook-friendly. Applications run full-screen, making the best use of the limited screen size. Navigation is via a toolbar which slides into view if you move the mouse to the top of the screen. From here, you can switch between "Zones" – in effect, each zone is a running  applications. Not difficult but laborious; I found myself using Alt-Tab for switching between applications. I also miss the Windows taskbar, despite the screen space it occupies, since it helps to have a visual reminder of the other apps you have running.

There is also a home page which is a kind of local portal, showing showing current Twitter status (once I had added my Twitter account), application shortcuts, current appointments, recent web history, and other handy shortcuts.

Getting started was relatively quick. I soon figured out that the Network icon in the toolbar would let me configure wireless networking. It look me a little longer to find the system preferences, which are found by clicking the All Settings button in the Devices menu. Here I was able to change the keyboard layout from US to GB, though since it does not take effect until you logout, and I was using the live image which does not save changes, I was still stuck with the wrong layout.

A terminal – essential for serious Linux users – can be found in the System Tools section of the Application menu. I needed a password to obtain root access, which I discovered is set by default to "meego" in the live image. I presume this is a feature of the live image only, as this would otherwise be a serious security risk.

I soon found annoyances. This may be version 1.0, but it is described as a "core" release and seems mainly intended for software developers and I presume device manufacturers who are getting started. The selection of pre-installed applications is very limited, and does not include a word processor or spreadsheet.  There is a "Garage" utility for installing new apps, but although it seems to offer Abiword and Gnumeric, I could not get the links to resolve. I cannot find an image editor either. Without basic apps like this, MeeGo is not something I could rely on while out and about.

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I was surprised to find no link to the Intel AppUp store, which will offer applications for MeeGo, and when I tried to install the AppUp beta I got failed dependencies. I optimistically tried to install Adobe AIR; no go there either.

There must be other ways of getting apps installed – this is Linux after all – but I was looking for a quick and easy route.

Adobe Flash 10.1 is installed and works, though not on my first attempt. Trying to play a Youtube video made Chrome unresponsive, and I could not get Flash content to play on any site. Rebooted and all was well.

A big irritation for me is that you cannot disable tapping on the touchpad. There is a checkbox for it in settings, but it is both ticked and grayed so you cannot change it. I detest tapping since you inevitably tap by accident sometimes, on occasion losing work or just wasting time. No doubt there is some setting you can change though the terminal but I haven’t had time to investigate. It  is also possible that doing a full install to hard drive would fix it, as the live image does not save changes.

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Nevertheless, the progress is encouraging and if development continues at this pace I can see MeeGo becoming a strong alternative to Windows on netbooks: faster, cheaper, and better optimized for this kind of device. Even against the Apple iPad, I can see the attraction of something like a MeeGo netbook: freedom, Flash, value for money, and a keyboard.

The big question though: what chance has MeeGo got in the face of competition from Apple, Google with Android, and Microsoft with Windows? It seems to me that all these three are safe bets, in that they are not going away and already have momentum behind them. Will the public also make room for MeeGo? I like it well enough to hope it succeeds, but fear it may be crowded out by the competition, other than for Nokia Smartphones.

Microsoft – make up your mind about Moonlight

I’ve been trying out Microsoft’s Office Web Apps, as provided for the release version of SharePoint 2010. The cross platform story is uneven, whether across Mac/Windows/Linux, or across different browsers, or even across different versions of Windows and Office. So far it does mostly work though, even if there are problems with certain tasks like printing or opening an online document in a desktop application.

The biggest problem I’ve had is on Linux. Supposedly Firefox 3.5 on Linux is supported. I ran up Ubuntu and Firefox 3.5, and went to look at a document in Word Web App. When I selected the document, Firefox quit. Every time.

After checking that Firefox was up-to-date it occurred to me that the problem might be related to Moonlight, the Linux implementation of Silverlight done by the Mono team. I disabled it. Suddenly, everything worked, even Edit in browser.

Moonlight is not just an open source project like the original Mono. It has a certain amount of official blessing from Microsoft. Here’s what VP Scott Guthrie said back in September 2007:

Over the last few months we’ve been working to enable Silverlight support on Linux, and today we are announcing a formal partnership with Novell to provide a great Silverlight implementation for Linux.  Microsoft will be delivering Silverlight Media Codecs for Linux, and Novell will be building a 100% compatible Silverlight runtime implementation called “Moonlight”.

Moonlight will run on all Linux distributions, and support FireFox, Konqueror, and Opera browsers.  Moonlight will support both the JavaScript programming model available in Silverlight 1.0, as well as the full .NET programming model we will enable in Silverlight 1.1.

You would think therefore that Microsoft would test the Firefox/Linux/Moonlight combination with its shiny new Office Web Apps. Apparently not. Here’s what the user experience is like for Office Word App. I figured that the solution might be to upgrade Moonlight to the latest version, so I did, installing what is now called Novell Moonlight 2.2. I went back to Word Web App. Firefox no longer crashes, but I now get a blank area where the Word document should be shown, and an error if I resize the browser window:

Now let’s see what happens if I disable Moonlight:

Everything is fine – except now there is a banner inviting me to “Improve my experience” by installing Silverlight. If I follow the link I eventually get back to the same Moonlight install that I have just enabled, which would actually break rather than improve Word Web App.

It is obvious that if users have to disable Moonlight to work with Office Web Apps, this will not help Moonlight adoption on Linux.

Office Web Apps are new and I’d hope this is something that Microsoft, Novell and the Mono team can soon fix between them. One reason for highlighting it now is the hope that something could be done before the full roll-out of Office and SharePoint 2010 on May 12th.

The real point though is what this says about the extent to which Microsoft cares about Moonlight and Linux users, and how much or little communication takes place between Microsoft and Novell. Silverlight isn’t required for Office Web Apps – as you can see from the above – but it is used to good effect where available, and this Office release is therefore an important release for Silverlight as well.

Microsoft should make up its mind. Is Novell really a trusted partner for Silverlight on Linux? Or a third-party product that has to take its chances?

Apple locks down its platform just a little bit more

How much money is enough? “Just a little bit more”, said J D Rockefeller; and Apple is taking a similar line with respect to control of its mobile platform. It is no longer enough that all apps are approved by Apple, sold by Apple, and that a slice of any sales goes to Apple. It now wants to control how you make that app as well, stipulating the tools you use and prohibiting use of others:

Applications must be originally written in Objective-C, C, C++, or JavaScript as executed by the iPhone OS WebKit engine.

On the face of it, bad news for third-party companies like Adobe, whose Flash to iPhone compiler is released tomorrow, Novell’s Monotouch, or Unity3D:

JavaScript and C# scripts are compiled to native ARM assembler code during the build process. This gives an average performance increase of 20-40 times over interpreted languages.

What is interesting is not only the issue itself, but the way debate is being conducted. I don’t know how Novell is getting on in “reaching out to Apple” concerning Monotouch, but as far as I can tell Apple introduced the restriction by revising a clause in a contract shown only to paid-up iPhone developers and possibly under NDA, then seeing if anyone would notice. Now that sparks are flying, CEO Steve Jobs is participating by one-line emails to a blogger referencing a post by another blogger, John Gruber.

Further, his responses do not altogether make sense. Gruber’s post is long – does Jobs agree with all of it? Gruber says that Apple wants the lock-in:

So what Apple does not want is for some other company to establish a de facto standard software platform on top of Cocoa Touch. Not Adobe’s Flash. Not .NET (through MonoTouch). If that were to happen, there’s no lock-in advantage.

Probably true, but not the usual PR message, as lock-in is bad for customers. How much are inkjet cartridges? I suspect Jobs was thinking more of this part:

Cross-platform software toolkits have never — ever — produced top-notch native apps for Apple platforms. Not for the classic Mac OS, not for Mac OS X, and not for iPhone OS. Such apps generally have been downright crummy.

As it happens, I think Gruber, and by extension Jobs, is wrong about this; though it all depends what you mean by the output of a cross-platform toolkit. Firefox? NeoOffice? WebKit, as found in Safari? Jobs says:

We’ve been there before, and intermediate layers between the platform and the developer ultimately produces sub-standard apps and hinders the progress of the platform.

Well, we know he does not like Java – “this big heavyweight ball and chain” – but there are many approaches to cross-platform. In fact, I’m not even sure whether Jobs means technical layers or political layers. As Gruber says:

Consider a world where some other company’s cross-platform toolkit proved wildly popular. Then Apple releases major new features to iPhone OS, and that other company’s toolkit is slow to adopt them. At that point, it’s the other company that controls when third-party apps can make use of these features.

The point is: we don’t know what Jobs means. We might not know until apps hit the app store and are approved or not approved. It is a poor way to treat third parties who are investing in your platform; and that was one part of the reason for my initial reaction: it stinks.

The other reason is that I enjoy the freedom a personal computer gives you, to install what you want, from whomever you want, and the creativity that this inspires. At the same time, I can see the problems this has caused, for security, for technical stability, and for user experience. Personal computing seems to be transitioning to a model that gives us less control over the devices we use, and which makes a few privileged intermediaries more powerful and wealthy than anything we have seen before.

In the end, it is Apple’s platform. Apple does not yet monopolise the market – though my local supermarket has iPods in all sorts of colours but no other portable music player on sale – and the short answer is that if you don’t like the terms, don’t buy (or develop for) the product.

As Apple’s market share grows, the acceptability of its terms will lessen, and protests will grow louder, just as they did for Microsoft – though I hesitate to make that comparison because of the many differences between the two companies and their business models. Having said which, looking at Zune and Windows Phone 7, Microsoft seems to like Apple’s business model enough to imitate it.

Why programmers should study Microsoft’s random failure and not trust Google search

The bizarre story of the EU-mandated Windows browser choice screen took an unexpected twist recently when it was noticed that the order of the browsers was not truly random.

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IBM’s Rob Weir was not the first to spot the problem, but did a great job in writing it up, both when initially observed and after it was fixed by Microsoft.

It was an algorithm error, a piece of code that did not return the results the programmer intended.

Unless Microsoft chooses to tell us, there is no way to tell how the error happened. However, as Weir and others observe, it may be significant that a Google search for something like Javascript random sort immediately gets you sample code that has the same error. Further, the error is not immediately obvious, making it particularly dangerous.

I am sure I am not the only person to turn to Google when confronted with some programming task that requires some research. In general, it is a great resource; and Google’s own algorithms help a little with filtering the results so that sites with better reputation or more inbound links come higher in the results.

Still, what this case illustrates – though accepting again that we do not know how the error occurred in this instance – is that pasting code from a Google search into your project without fully understanding and testing it does not always work. Subtle bugs like this one, which may go unnoticed for a long time, can have severe consequences. Randomisation is used in security code, for example.

As an aside, there also seems to be some randomness in the appearance of the browser choice screen. It turned up on my laptop, but not on my desktop, although both have IE as the default.

And who would have guessed that the EU would arrange for so many of us to get an ad for something like the GreenBrowser popping up on our desktop? Apparently it is the “best choice of flexible and powerful green web browser”, though since it is based on IE it is less radical a choice than it first seems.

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SharePoint Explorer View hassles show benefits of cloud storage

Many of us want access to our documents from anywhere these days, and if you are still storing documents on a Windows server then remote access to documents usually means either VPN or SharePoint. VPN is heavy on bandwidth and not great for security, so SharePoint seems the obvious solution.

SharePoint is a mixed bag of course, but once it is up and running the browser user interface seems reliable as a means of getting at your documents over the internet. That said, it is inconvenient to run up the browser and navigate to a web site whenever you want a document. A user recently highlighted another issue. Their company uses a web application that frequently requires documents to be uploaded. This is straightforward if the document is on a local hard drive or network share, but not if it is in SharePoint. The workaround is to save the document out of SharePoint to the local drive, then upload it.

Fortunately there is another option. SharePoint Explorer View lets you access documents through Windows Explorer; you can even map SharePoint as a network drive. Now you can browse documents without a web browser, and upload directly to a web application.

Sounds great; and when it works, it is great. Troubleshooting though is a world of pain. If you have looked into this, you will know that there are really two Explorer Views, one using Internet Explorer and ancient FrontPage protocols, and the other using WebDav and Explorer. It’s the second of these that you most likely want. However, achieving this is notoriously troublesome, raising uninformative messages such as “Your client does not support opening this list with Windows Explorer", or from the command line System Error 67, or System Error 53 “The network path was not found”.

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Another common complaint is incessant login dialogs.

I discovered a few useful resources.

This white paper on Understanding and Troubleshooting the SharePoint Explorer View is essential reading.

From this you will discover that if you are using Windows XP, the WebDav SharePoint Explorer view will not work over SSL or on any port other than 80. You are stuck with the FrontPage view, which is less useful. Apparently Microsoft has no intention of fixing this. Upgrade to Vista or Windows 7.

In addition, many XP and even Vista users find this update essential before anything starts working. It is necessary on Windows 2003 since the web client is not installed by default. It does not apply to Windows 7 though.

A good resource on the repeated login issue is here. It can be tamed.

Windows 7 is better, though I experienced an odd issue. One Windows 7 machine cheerfully opened the Explorer view to a remote site on port 444. I could engage Explorer View from the SharePoint web site, or from Network in Explorer, and it just worked.

On another machine, same network, also Windows 7, same web client settings, I could not get it working. I was on the point of giving up when I happened on the right incantation from a command prompt:

net use s: https://your.domain.name:444\shared%20documents /user:domain\username password

In this example S is the drive letter for a mapped drive, your.domain.name is the URL for SharePoint, 444 is the port number, shared documents is the folder name. For some reason this worked instantly.

Well, SharePoint is an option. Before leaving this subject though, I would like to mention Gladinet, a third-party utility which is able to mount a variety of cloud storage providers as network drives, including Amazon S3, Google Docs, Windows Live SkyDrive, and in the latest version Windows Azure.  It works on XP, Vista, Windows 7 and Windows 2003, comes in 32-bit and 64-bit editions, and worked immediately in my quick test. The ability to mount drives in Explorer itself, as opposed to an Explorer-like application, makes a big difference in usability.

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Gladinet does not support SharePoint, sadly. Still, before you roll out SharePoint it is worth considering that something like an Amazon S3 account requires no CALs (though third-party clients like Gladinet may do), is maintained by a cloud provider rather than on your premises, is not hooked in any way to Windows clients, and might be a lot less hassle to deploy.

I do also understand the attraction of SharePoint, if you don’t or can’t trust the cloud, and like the way it integrates with Active Directory or its other clever features such as versioning or workflow management. What I don’t get is why Microsoft makes basic features like Explorer View so hard to get working.

Finally, this aspect of SharePoint should get better in Office 2010 and SharePoint 2010, which includes SharePoint Workspace 2010. This will synchronize with SharePoint 2010 document lists, giving you an offline copy you can access in Explorer. Agnes Molnar has a summary with screenshots.