System impact of Outlook 2007

Back in November I blogged about the slow performance of Outlook 2007 (the comments are worth reading too), following up with another post about how it seemed to slow down the whole system.

I’ve now got more evidence of this:

Note that this is on Vista, which has proved substantially better for Outlook 2007 than XP. You might think there is nothing very exceptional about Outlook.exe grabbing nearly 40% of the CPU time, but consider the context:

I took this screenshot while troubleshooting another problem. Interesting point: I had not opened Outlook since the last reboot. Msconfig does not show it as a startup app either. Maybe this is some Office pre-loading trickery; or more likely it has been started by Vista’s desktop search engine. Yet this is meant not to interfere with your work.

RSS sync in Outlook is turned off.

Outlook isn’t grabbing this CPU all the time, but in regular brief bursts.

I’d like to know what it is doing.

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What you’re reading

The new year beckons, so here’s a quick look back at my web stats.

I’m surprised by the most popular search phrase. Believe it or not, it’s database. I wrote a short article on getting started with a database app. This was in .NET 1.1 days. My presumption was that when you fire up VB.NET with the intention of writing a simple database application, it is not particularly obvious how to go about it. I wasn’t altogether happy with the piece; yet the number of hits suggests that this is indeed a common source of puzzlement.

Next up is dreamweaver 9. Back in June I picked up some information about the next version of Adobe’s web design tool. There’s clearly keen interest out there.

Other bit hits are .net mac (are you listening Microsoft?), htmleditor (looking for this) and wpfe, attracting more interest now that the CTP is out (here’s the interview on the subject).

The list in full:

  1. database
  2. dreamweaver 9
  3. jbuilder
  4. htmleditor
  5. .net mac
  6. private bytes
  7. tablet pc
  8. wpfe
  9. sqlite delphi
  10. msi editor

What about pages retrieved? At the top is the blog, of course, with twice as many hits to the blog home page than there are RSS retrievals. When you consider that each RSS subscriber typically creates several hits per day, that’s surprising.

Here are the other most read articles:

  1. The htmleditor phorum, now a useful archive of information on mshtml, and the c# htmleditor download page.
  2. Why does my dot net app use so much memory? – lot of people shocked to see what Task Manager is telling them 
  3. Wrestling with the Windows installer – reflecting your frustrations with MSI
  4. Notes on Sqlite – out of date now
  5. ipodphoto.php – also out of date, though I gather these older iPods are sought-after for things like the firewire port and according to some, superior audio quality
  6. wpfe.php – as mentioned above 
  7. Sqlite wrapper for Delphi
  8. Running .NET on a Mac – very out of date, but reflects the interest in this subject 
  9. VB.NET Database sample as mentioned above 
  10. Why Microsoft froze VB 6.0 – a subject of enduring interest

Other points of interest:

Browsers: 79% Windows but only 60% Internet Explorer, 14% Firefox. I reckon the figures are distorted somewhat by bots that awstats is failing to detect.

Search engines: 93% Google. 2.1% MSN, 1.6% Yahoo. This is not only an indicator of Google’s market dominance. For some reason Google tends to rank pages on this site higher than the other search engines. This makes a big difference to the hits.

How many visits? Around 1 million, from 250,000 unique visitors.

Finally, tons of spambots, mostly trying to post comments, but some just trying to get into referral stats (as far as I can tell). It is a huge and offensive problem. Very little muck actually gets posted, but some of it gets into the stats, so don’t take the figures above too seriously.

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The backward march of iPod/MP3 devices

I was astonished to read of how the iLink dock brings digital output to iPod – at a price of $2000 or so. Nearly three years ago I purchased an iRiver H140 for around the same cost as an iPod, but with additional features including built-in digital i/o, mic input with adjustable gain, and direct recording to either MP3 or lossless WAV. I still use the device today – it’s ideal for recording interviews as well as portable music – but when it wears out it may not be easy to replace. Even today, most devices lack these audiophile features or provide them only through expensive and inconvenient add-ons. Lossless recording and digital i/o are hard to find anywhere. Even iRiver’s own range has gone backwards, with nothing comparable currently available.

I’m not sure of all reasons for this, but a big factor is Apple. The dominant iPod may be great on usability and small size, but rich features don’t fit with Apple’s minimalist philosophy. You might think that would give an opportunity to other vendors, but in many cases they seem content to follow rather than innovate.

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The best and worst of Vista multimedia

A friend called on Christmas day. She was away from home and had forgotten to set the video to record a couple of TV programmes. We’re testing Vista media center, so it was a matter of going to Vista’s TV guide, scrolling to the programmes she wanted, and selecting Record. What about the transfer to DVD? Next day, I selected Recorded TV, and scrolled through the recordings, each of which has a preview image. When I found the right one, I clicked on it and noticed that Burn CD/DVD was one of the menu choices. So I stuck a blank DVD -R in the drive, clicked Burn CD/DVD, and a while later (quite a long while) it was done. Tested the DVD in a standalone DVD player and it worked fine. I don’t miss VHS one bit.

Now have a read of Peter Gutmann’s Cost Analysis of Windows Vista Content Protection. Gutmann is a security specialist who describes himself as a professional paranoid, which perhaps explains the tone of the piece – he calls Vista’s content protection a “suicide note”. I doubt he is correct in all his conclusions, but nevertheless it shines a fascinating spotlight on this aspect of Windows Vista.

It has always been possible to make unlicensed copies of media such as music and film, but in the pre-digital world it was inconvenient and always involved some loss of quality. Personal computers changed all that, particularly when combined with the cheap storage which we now have in abundance. This is bad news for industries that depend on selling this content rather than giving it away. Hence Vista tries to put media back into its uncopyable box, so that once again you have to purchase the official item.

A single pinprick is enough to burst a balloon, no matter how airtight the rest of it is. Similarly, to protect media you have to protect every link in the chain, from digital source to final output. Vista calls this the Protected Media Path; read the MSDN article here. The system is intricate and complex, and as Gutmann notes there are undesirable implications. The Protected Environment (PE) relies on “trusted components” such as drivers, codecs and content processors. Each component must therefore be signed by Microsoft after a verification process. But what if a bug or design flaw has slipped through, allowing content to be pirated (a pinprick)? Then the component can be “revoked”, which means some hardware or feature in your system will no longer work properly. Content publishers can even specify that their content will not play if a component known to be unsafe is present, by checking against a revocation list.

Ideally, a revoked component will be replaced by an automatically downloaded update. However, Microsoft’s document on the subject acknowledges that this may not always be the case:

In rare cases, an updated version of the component may not be available, for example, the company that implemented the component has gone out of business. If the component is not essential, the PE can work around the issue by not loading the component. If the component is essential, the application is provided with a URL that directs the user to a Web page that has information on the issue.

That might mean no more protected content for you unless you actually replaced the hardware with something else for which trusted components exist. I presume however that you would still be able to play unprotected content. Still, this would be a severe outcome if, for example, you had a large collection of HD-DVD movies that you played on the system.

It is understandable if hardware vendors such as ATI are unenthusiastic about all this. They have to do the work of creating suitable hardware and drivers, but the beneficiaries are the owners of the protected content.

Several obvious questions come to mind:

  • Will this really work? Such a complex system must be vulnerable to the efforts of determined hackers, as other DRM schemes have been in the past.
  • When playing protected content, what are the performance implications?
  • How about when playing unprotected content ? What, if any, is the performance impact of all this content protection then? Perhaps there is none. It strikes me though that there could be unwanted side-effects.

The existence of this DRM edifice also impacts all of us as consumers. When we purchase content, we’d like to be able to play it on as many devices as possible: home stereo, wireless streaming around the house, computers, portable devices. Technology is at last enabling this freedom, but now technology is also taking it away.

I’ll come back to where I started. Whether Vista content protection stands or falls will depend on the user experience. If it is good, as with my DVD burning from media center, then consumers will forgive a lot, to the frustration of anti-DRM advocates. That’s why Apple gets away with the iTunes store/iPod lock-in. If it is bad, this will damage Vista and Microsoft.


Interesting thread here on audio processing in Vista. Here’s what Amir Majidimehr, digital media VP at Microsoft, has to say about DRM in Vista audio (and referring specifically to Gutmann’s piece):

The writer unfortunately, is misinformed about the Vista content protection capabilities. Yes, it is true that Vista has a substantially upgraded *infrastructure* for content protection. However, its usage is optional and no application is forced to use it. To wit, current HD DVD/BD players do not use any of it and as such, are only subject to provisions of copy protection for those formats (namely, AACS). Ditto for any third-party application that you may run on Vista. As long as they don’t call the new facilities, they run as they did always.

So for all practial purposes, Vista and XP behave the same wrt to playback of digital media.

Vista does allow new applications to provide a new level of robustness against attacks should they wish to provide this level of content protection. That may enable them to get access to content that would not be available otherwise (think HD downloads near Theater release window). As this feature required core operating system changes, we incorporated them into Vista. As with all new facilities, it may be years before they are taken advantage of.

That’s reassuring with respect to my third question above.

Amazon S3 sample update

When I added background threading to my Delphi S3 sample, I inadvertently broke the ability to connect with SSL. I’ve fixed the problem, and included the necessary openssl DLLs in the download, so you can run this even if you don’t have Delphi. I use it to backup my own files.

Amazon S3 is a web service for storing files on the internet. It works well and is good value compared to most online storage services.

The distinctive features of this sample are first, that it is Delphi, and second, that it is native Win32. Most of the samples out there are for Java, .NET or scripting languages.

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Farewell to consistent UI on Windows

Dare Obesanjo says 2006 is the year Microsoft gave up on consistent UI. It’s a follow-up to a post by Mike Torres in which he identifies inconsistencies in various new apps from Microsoft this year. One thing they all have in common is that traditional menus are deprecated, either hidden by default (IE7, Windows Media Player 11) or not available at all (Office 2007).

The reason this is happening is the influence of the Web. The Web gives designers a lot of freedom over how applications are designed, especially in conjunction with Flash. The Web also forces app developers to find some alternative to the traditional menu bar, since it has a page model rather than a window model. Standard desktop apps with File and Edit menus now look dated.

Microsoft has embraced the new designer religion, with the innovative Office 2007 UI, the Expression range of designer-oriented tools, and the Windows Presentation Foundation which gives far more freedom to UI designers.

Nevertheless, Microsoft has slipped up here. The differences that Torres identifies are bewildering to users. I predict that the company will settle on some specific approach (probably the Office ribbon) and try to enforce it throughout. Visual Studio with a ribbon UI?

It means developers have a tricky choice to make with new applications. Broadly:

  1. Stick with tried and tested menus and toolbars until things settle down.
  2. Adopt the ribbon, facing the sign-or-don’t-sign dilemma.
  3. Do your own thing, after all everyone else does.

For an in-house app I’d suggest (1). Menus and toolbars work pretty well, everyone knows how to use them, and most important, it is a lot less work. Further, when non-designers try to take a design-centric approach, the results are invariably ugly.

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Why does Vista think my documents are music?

One especially memorable Microsoft bug was in Word 97. You would be typing away, and then Clippy popped up with a balloon saying “It looks like you’re writing a letter.” Invariably you were not. The phrase is referenced over 9,000 times on the Internet according to Google, proving that this blunder has indeed passed into tech folklore.

I guess some team put considerable effort into Clippy and thought it was making life easier for non-technical users.

I was reminded of this when I noticed Vista had decided that my Documents folder contained music. I’ve fixed this folder now, but I found another one to illustrate this blog. I promise I did not configure this manually; Vista did it all on its own:

As you can see, Vista’s Explorer is presenting a folder which happens to contain some Java code as if it were a music folder. There are options to play the files, or burn them to a CD, though I don’t suggest you try. It is actually fairly annoying. When I first hit this problem, I wanted to see the file sizes and dates. I realized it was a View problem, so I hit the View dropdown. I set it to Details, no joy. I tried Organize – Folder and Search options. Lots of options, none any use. The solution is to right-click one of the files and choose Customize this folder. Then you get a dropdown where you can set the folder type. All Items works fine for me.

Just an annoyance, no big deal. It’s disappointing though. Two obvious questions:

  • Why is Vista automatically setting folders as Music when they don’t contain any playable files?
  • Why doesn’t the View menu help me to view the files differently?

It reminds me of Clippy because it is another example of software trying to be over-helpful, and ending up obstructing rather than improving the user experience.

In closing, let me say that I prefer Vista to XP for all sorts of reasons, and software compatibility is proving less of a problem than I’d expected. And good user interface design is very, very difficult. So take this in that context.

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Bugs in IE7 RSS platform?

I welcome the introduction of the RSS platform in IE7; I think a central repository for RSS feeds is a great idea, even though Outlook’s RSS integration strikes me as totally broken

But is it reliable? I was using it to browse Jensen Harris’s excellent blog and noticed that the entries were from somebody else. A look at the feed properties reveals all:

It appears that the RSS store had somehow zapped the blog, but kept its title attached to a different feed, Bruce Schneier’s security blog as it happens.

I don’t think I have much hope of discovering why this bug occurred, unless someone from the team would care to comment, but it does cast doubt on the RSS store’s reliablity. Or could it be a problem with my blogreader app? The only time this writes to the store is when it marks a feeditem as read, which it does by setting the IsRead property on a FeedItem reference. Strange.

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Free preview chapter of Adam Nathan’s WPF book

Some of you will know Microsoft’s Adam Nathan as the author of .NET and COM, still the best book available for drilling deep into the way .NET interops with native code. He’s now written a guide to the Windows Presentation Foundation, one of the key components of the new Windows API. I’ll be reviewing the book in due course, but in the meantime the publishers have kindly given permission for me to offer a free chapter to readers of this blog.

Download Chapter 3, Important New Concepts in WPF [PDF].

Chapter 3 covers WPF logical trees, dependency properties, routed events, commands, and the overall class hierarchy.

If you like the book, you can order it here:

Nathan: Windows Presentation Foundation (US customers)

Nathan: Windows Presentation Foundation (UK customers)

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Hey, Microsoft! What happened to XBox 360 backwards compatibility?

Christmas is coming and thoughts turn to games. A year after the release of XBox 360, can you retire the old black XBox and play your XBox games on the new console? Unlikely. Here’s the list of compatible games, which looks impressive, until you consider that only around half of the games released for XBox are covered. In other words, the list of games NOT compatible is just as long. Notable ones include:

  • Blinx and Blinx 2
  • Burnout and Burnout 2
  • Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball
  • Disney’s Extreme Skate Adventure
  • FIFA Soccer 2005
  • Galleon
  • Jet Set Radio Future
  • Midtown Madness 3
  • Oddworld: Munch’s Oddysee
  • Outrun 2
  • Panzer Dragoon ORTA
  • Pirates
  • Rallisport Challenge 2
  • Rayman 3
  • Rollercoaster Tycoon
  • SSX Tricky
  • The Chronicles of Riddick
  • The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind
  • Top Spin
  • Wallace and Gromit
  • Worms 3D

 I realize that any backward compatibility on the 360 is a technical miracle; but even so, this is disappointing on the year-old 360 and raises doubts that these games will ever be supported.


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