Microsoft PDC postponed due to lack of content

Microsoft’s Professional Developers Conference, which was to take place in October, has been postponed.

The stated reason is that the conference, which is meant to be focused on futures, would have been too late for the current round of developer releases:

By this fall, however, upcoming platform technologies including Windows Server 2008, SQL Server codenamed “Katmai,” Visual Studio codenamed “Orcas” and Silverlight will already be in developers’ hands and approaching launch.

The implication is that PDC would also have been too early for the next round of platform updates.

There are other conferences you can attend for a Microsoft fix. There’s another problem though: Tech-Ed developer in Europe conflicts with DevConnections in Las Vegas – and key speakers like Scott Guthrie and Tom Rizzo are already announced for DevConnections.

I tend to agree about PDC. Talking futures is not what Microsoft needs at the moment. Getting developers to engage with the current crop (WPF, Silverlight) is more to the point.

As for me, my next dev conferences are in London: Google Developer Day followed by Adobe Live/Adobe Developer Day. If you’re going to either and would like to chat, let me know.


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Microsoft: .doc and .xls are dangerous

A common phenomenon in the tech world is when vendors trash their own past products in an effort to convince you of the value of shiny new ones.

Here is an example. Microsoft’s security advisory 937696 and the related KB 935865 tells us of the dangers posed by Office binary formats including .doc, .xls and .ppt:

MOICE uses the 2007 Microsoft Office system converters to convert the Office binary format files into the Office Open XML format. This process helps remove the potential threat that may exist if the document is opened in the binary format. Additionally, MOICE converts incoming files in an isolated environment. This helps protect the computer from a potential threat.

What’s MOICE? It’s the Microsoft Office Isolated Conversion Environment, proving that even after Silverlight, the department of verbose and meaningless names is alive and well in Redmond. It is an add-on to Office 2003 or 2007 that automatically converts Office binary formats to Office Open XML (OOXML). Further, administrators can now choose to implement File Block, which prevents users from opening specified binary document types without first converting them.

The presumption here is that OOXML documents are safer. Probably true, especially since documents containing macros now require a different extension (.docm, .xlm) to flag the fact that they contain macros.

A side effect is that MOICE spreads the adoption of OOXML. Like Joe Wilcox, I can’t help wondering whether it was this, rather than security, which has prompted this release.

OOXML has real advantages, yet it can also be tiresome. Users install Office 2007, email a Word document to someone, then get a perplexed reply saying that the document won’t open. I’ve been known to show people how to set the default back to the old binary formats to avoid this problem – I would love to know how many Office 2007 rollouts do this as a matter of course.

After all, it is late in the day for Microsoft to consider blocking these formats. The Sophos web site has a Top Ten Viruses page with a neat feature: you can see stats for the last 10 years. These confirm my hunch. Back in 1999, there were 9 office macro viruses in the top 10 (Sophos prefixes these with WM or XM). Today? None. Further, note that the top 10, according to Sophos, account for 94.6% of all viruses in the wild.

The reason is that in the intervening years Microsoft has built reasonably good macro protection into Office. A factor here is that emailed documents rarely need to contain macros, so if you double-click an attachment and it wants to run a macro, that’s a big clue that something is awry.

That said, there is clearly still some risk from macro viruses, or from documents with crafted corruptions that infect a PC. Recently, Open Office has also been shown to be vulnerable. So MOICE has a value, but is it enough to compensate for the cost in terms of inconvenience? After all, while Office binary formats are almost universally readable, that’s not the case for OOXML. If you run Windows, and have Office 2000 or higher, and broadband Internet, and sufficient rights to install the converter, then the process is reasonably smooth; but that is a long way from universal.

MOICE strikes me as low priority in security terms, but nevertheless an intriguing development in the battle for XML office format adoption.


Sorry Ryan, this can’t be done

I enjoy Ryan Stewart’s Universal Desktop blog on Rich Internet Applications. It’s changing though. Stewart now works for Adobe, though he says:

I’m joining Adobe as a Rich Internet Application Evangelist on the Platform Team. One of the things I get a lot of feedback on is that everyone appreciates me being “neutral” and covering all angles of the rich internet application space. None of that is going to change.

Can’t be done unfortunately. He will have to get used to being Adobe’s Ryan Stewart.


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Why Rich Internet Applications Matter

Anne Zelenka is sceptical about RIAs:

The idea is that we need more rich interactivity from our browser apps than they give us. But is this just developer fantasy, or does it represent a real end user need?

It’s a great question. I believe it’s fair to say that the all the interest in RIA, sparked by Flash and enflamed by Silverlight, is still more hype than real-world usage (especially Silverlight, still in Alpha for the .NET version).

There are multiple issues here. In particular:

  • Will we see HTML/CSS/JavaScript (call it AJAX if you like) gradually giving way to browser-hosted apps running in plug-ins (Flash, Silverlight, Java)?
  • Will we see a new breed of internet-delivered, zero-install desktop apps that will diminish our dependence on web browsers?  

I have few doubts about the first of these. Ease of development, flexibility and predictability of design, performance benefits of JIT compilers, convergence between internet and broadcasting, richer content enabled by ubiquitous broadband, to name some of them. 

The second is more contentious. But I think it will happen. There is room for debate about what constitutes a “real end user need”; but if you rephrase that as “real end user benefits” then it makes more sense. The main reasons are offline use and better integration with local OS services.

A while back a web app sceptic (I forget who) described the browser to me. “I call it Window”, he said. His point still holds. There is no need to do all your work within a browser box.


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Google bans essay ads

The BBC reports that Google will ban essay adverts. I knew this was a problem but hadn’t appreciated how severe it is:

Banning the ads strikes me as sensible, but won’t students simply perform a search instead? Google could also block the searches, but that’s censorship and has difficulties of its own.

The internet has made both paid and unpaid plagiarism too easy; but there has always been a fine line between plagiarism and research (a song by Tom Lehrer comes to mind). Perhaps it is time to change the way students are assessed.


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Adobe CS3 won’t install

Users are complaining that Adobe Creative Suite 3 simply won’t install. I’m one of them, running 32-bit Vista Professional. Pop the DVD in, click Install CS3 Web Premium, setup starts running, then silently closes. No error message, no install either.

Of course I have tried a few things. I’m not the only one struggling: the Adobe user forums are full of similar problems. Note: similar but not identical. There appear to be multiple issues, and not just on Vista but on XP as well. Here are some popular solutions:

I’ve tried the first two without success so far, on two different machines. Next stop tech support.

It looks to me as if Adobe is having Windows Installer issues. Perhaps nobody had time to read and observe the Tao of the Windows Installer. Still, I reckon Adobe could do a better job with the error logging and reporting. There are installer logs by default in \Program Files\Common Files\Adobe\Installers\, but mine have nothing helpful; no errors are reported. The Windows installer supports a detailed logging mode, but it seems difficult to enable with this particular installer. The calls to the installer itself are wrapped by some kind of Adobe package manager, and the .msi files are designed to prevent you from opening them directly.

Here’s what I get if I run setup from a command prompt:

Begin Adobe Setup
UI mode: Full GUI
End Adobe Setup. Exit code: 4

Hardly illuminating. If I do the silent mode, I get Exit code: 7 instead.

The bottom line is that I have no clue what is going wrong. Perhaps it is a campaign to promote the Mac version. I’ll keep you posted.


I fixed it. First, the logging was more helpful than I realised at first. In the Installers folder mentioned above, there is a file called:

Add or Remove Adobe Creative Suite 3 Web Premium 1.0.log.gz

I’d not looked at this because I also had a file called:

Adobe Creative Suite 3 Web Premium 1.0.log

It turns out that the former is more useful than the latter. Of course it is compressed in .gz format, which Vista does not understand, but the open source 7-zip archiver takes care of that. So I extracted the log and found this entry:

DEBUG: Error 2739: Could not access JavaScript runtime for custom action Internal Error 2739.

That gave me something to troubleshoot. I soon found this article which says to re-register JScript:

regsvr32 jscript.dll

from an administrator command prompt. I was away; the setup ran fine after that.

Incidentally I did call tech support, but the techie didn’t help directly; he asked me to email the log though, and it was looking at that which gave me the answer. Now I can get on with the review…

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Visual Programming is back: PopFly, Pipes, Scratch

The first true visual programming environment I used was IBM’s VisualAge Smalltalk. I liked it and thought it was a shame when IBM reverted to pure code-based development with Eclipse. Admittedly, complex applications got fairly confusing, with lines everywhere.

Now it seems visual programming is back. The other day Scratch hit the news, a cool visual programming environment for kids. I like the way that jigsaw-like shapes are used to indicate whether or not two blocks can be fitted together.

Yahoo has Pipes, drag-and-drop RSS feed combination and transformation.

Now here comes Microsoft PopFly, online visual programming for Silverlight. Is it programming? I think so:

Underneath the covers, blocks are just chunks of code that wrap complex operations, like retrieving data from a Web site or displaying an animated slideshow so that others can easily reuse that block.

PopFly looks interesting, easy to use and visually appealing, though I’ve not got an account yet. I’ve only watched the demo video.

Of course the visual bit only takes you so far. If you want to create your own blocks, or customize them, you have to write your own Javascript. I guess that will always be the case. It’s still good to see development being made more accessible for non-technical users.


Microsoft has “no plans to litigate”

According to Bill Hilf, general manager of platform strategy, Microsoft is not planning to litigate against open source after all. In an interview for Infoworld he says:

Our strategy from everyone in the company — from [Steve] Ballmer to Brad Smith to me and everyone in between — has always been to license and not litigate as it relates to our intellectual property. So we have no plans to litigate. You can never say we’ll never do anything in the future, but that’s not our strategy.

I am not surprised – for the reasons I stated earlier. Of course, the other side of the coin is that if Microsoft doesn’t intend to enforce its patents, then all this patent waving is little more than bluster. It is shadow-boxing. We will see plenty more of it on both sides.


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Eclipse, WebSphere winners in latest Java survey

BZ Research has released its latest survey of Java tools. Let’s start with the caveats:

  • The survey is based only on subscribers to SD Times.
  • Out of 19,623 subscribers invited to take part, only 758 (3.9%) completed the questionnaire.

I’m not surprised: I get bombarded with requests to take part in surveys, and rarely do so. Even so the results are interesting, and the year-on-year comparisons may be indicative of trends.

On to the results (note that percentages are non-exclusive so sum to more than 100):

  • Eclipse increased its usage slightly to 69.6%; NetBeans climbed to 2nd place with 23.3% (up from 17.9%).
  • Oracle’s JDeveloper is up from 15% to 19%.
  • IBM RAD has a decent showing, up from 10.8% to 19.5%, not far behind its WSAD at 22.1%.

The survey also covers app servers. Here, all the shares are down, implying more diverse usage than last year. WebSphere is first with 36.9%, then JBoss with 32 %, then BEA WebLogic at 23.7%. Oracle and Sun are 4th and 5th.

Overall, nothing dramatic to report, though the gain for NetBeans shows that Sun’s investment in this IDE is having some success.

CodeGear’s JBuilder doesn’t feature in the top 5, nor does the excellent IntelliJ IDEA.


A bad experience with Windows Live

The main problem I have with Windows Live is lack of confidence that it will actually work as advertised. There is a rational explanation for this kind of hunch. It is formed from previous experiences, and once formed, it hard to shake off.

Here’s what happened today. I wanted to contact a Microsoft blogger who hosts his blog on I couldn’t see an email address (understandably), so I clicked on the button that said Send a message. I was prompted to sign into Windows Live, which I did, and then after a bit of screen flashing and approving of ActiveX controls I had a form into which I could type.

I typed the message. Then I did something which reflects my lack of confidence: I copied the message to the clipboard, in case something went wrong and I had to type it again. Finally, I clicked Send. This is what I got:

Note that all my text was zapped. I closed the browser, restarted it, signed in again, returned to the message form, pasted in my text, and clicked Send again. Same result.

I’d noticed during the process that this messaging system has some relationship with Live Messenger. I figured therefore that upgrading Messenger to the latest version might help, especially since Messenger nags me on this subject whenever I start it up. So I fired up Messenger and allowed it to update itself. During the install I got this dialog:

Frankly, I will not take anything Microsoft says about user experience seriously until the company stops inflicting this kind of dialog on its users. Look at it. It recommends that I close some open programs, but does not say what the consequences will be if I do not. It is a vague threat that something might not work right. But that’s not all. Internet Explorer was not visibly open at the time. I had to go into Task Manager and end the process. Many users would not make it that far.

It gets worse. I’m being asked to close Windows Explorer. This is the application that forms the Windows desktop. If you close it, you lose the Start menu, taskbar, desktop icons, pretty much everything except the background.

Still, I didn’t want to risk a bad install. I went into Task Manager and ended the explorer.exe process. No more desktop. Then I continued the Messenger setup. It went through fine (except that no, I don’t want as my home page, but thanks for asking). Finally, I restarted Explorer. Task Manager – New Task – type Explorer – hit Enter. Yes, I’ve been here before. Zing! back comes my desktop.

Back to Live Spaces, paste in message, click send, and … you’ve guessed it.  “An error occurred loading this module”. Never mind.