Loud CDs get played more quietly

Here’s something odd. After my efforts researching the loudness wars, I’ve become more aware of which CDs are mastered for loudness at the expense of dynamic range, and sometimes sought out older masterings of favourite recordings. Yesterday I received a copy of Bowie’s Let’s Dance in its earliest CD release (made in Japan for Europe, often a sign of an early CD). It is far less compressed than the nineties issue I had before. Comparing the two I noticed an odd effect. When playing them, I used the volume control to find a comfortable level. That level was actually quieter, in an absolute sense, on the CD that was mastered louder.

I am not just saying that I turned down the louder mastering to match the volume output by the quieter mastering. Rather, I went beyond that and played it more quietly, because otherwise it did not sound good.

It’s ironic that, for me, the loudness wars have the opposite of their intended effect.

Flash gets hardware-accelerated H.264 video

Adobe’s Ryan Stewart reports on H.264 video support in Flash, including hardware acceleration. Another report suggests that Flash will get DRM, but not quickly. Part of the interest of these two reports is that superior video quality and DRM support are key features of Microsoft’s Silverlight, so this represents Adobe’s determination not to get left behind.

Silverlight’s video story is not just about quality. I reported earlier on how Microsoft is wooing media providers with cheap or free hosting, encoding and streaming software. Another facet is that Silverlight allows video content to be used as just another graphics brush, giving programmers great freedom over how it is presented.

Either way, it looks like high quality web video is getting easier to show in the near future. I only wish the BBC would use either Flash or Silverlight for its troublesome iPlayer – I suspect either one would offer a much better user experience.

Playing with a new Smartphone has reminded me of the downside of Flash and other proprietary web content. Its web browser does not support Flash, and in fact even visiting Adobe’s site makes the browser seize up temporarily with a Javascript error. This is the tension between richness and reach. Looks like we are heading for richness.

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Security errors when developing for Windows Mobile

One of the first things I tried with my Samsung i600 was to start up Visual Studio 2005, start a new Windows Mobile 6.0 application (I upgraded my i600 to WM6), and attempt to debug it on the device. Note that before you do this you have to install the appropriate SDK.

If you do this, you will likely get an error beginning “The device security configuration disallowed the connection.” The reason is that even unlocked devices like mine are somewhat locked down. This is a good thing for security, but inconvenient when you want to test and debug custom apps.

How do you fix this? The answer is to install two SDK certificates on your device. On my system, the installer for these is here:

C:\Program Files\Windows Mobile 6 SDK\Tools\Security\SDK Development Certificates

I copied certs.cab to the i600, clicked on it in File Explorer, confirmed the installation, and after that everything worked. This blog by Scott Yost has the details. He suggests downloading a great tool called Security Configuration Manager in order to inspect the configuration of your device.

This is not so easy with a locked device. If the security tool tells you that Grant Manager Role does not include UserAuth, you will not be able to install the CABs.

That said, there seems to be a way round this. Conchango’s Stuart Preston has the details. In essence, to lower the security settings, you need to edit the registry, so all you need is a registry editor that is already signed with a fully privileged certificate.

All good news if you want to develop apps for your Windows Mobile device.

The Samsung i600 and Windows Mobile

I’ve been looking for a new Smartphone for a while, and decided to try the Samsung i600, a Windows Mobile device with strong connectivity (GPRS,Bluetooth,UMTS,HSDPA,wi-fi) and a tiny QWERTY keyboard. It is not a touch screen, which to me is a good thing in a mobile phone. I’ve not tried the finger-driven iPhone yet, but I did use a Palm Treo for a while and found the stylus a nuisance. For me, email and web access are just as important as voice, and I’ve already found the keyboard useful. You can find the specs of the i600 elsewhere; but here are my observations so far.


I like the feel of the device. The central button and joystick is a pleasure to use, and the backlit keyboard is pretty good considering its size. The 320 x 240 screen is excellent (dust aside, see below), and browsing the web is a realistic proposition provided that you are not paying something ludicrous like £4.00 per MB (yes, that’s what some operators charge in the UK). I’ve not tried all the features yet, but I’ve had success with IMAP email, wi-fi, Bluetooth, and playing MP3 music.

The i600 has a neat “card wheel” UI on its home screen, which provides quick access to most of the features. Using the joystick or scroll wheel, you first find the card you want, and then scroll within the card to find what you want. For example, the Profile card lets you select a profile such as Normal, Silent, or Vibrate. The Now Playing card is particularly good, letting you pause, play and skip songs without leaving the home screen.

The camera is decent for a mobile, but still nowhere near good enough to replace a separate camera even for my limited use. You can also capture a jerky little video. There are actually two cameras, one on the back for taking pictures, and one on the front for video calls.

Others have found battery life a problem, but Samsung has solved it by bundling an extended battery and external charger in the box. Fitting the extended battery makes the phone a little thicker, but not excessively so. You also get a standard battery, which you can use as an emergency backup. I’ve found this more than sufficient. Apparently not all bundles include the extra battery, so it’s worth checking this point if you are considering the phone.

This is also a good device for developers, provided you are happy with Visual Studio. I was up and running quickly once I’d worked out the security issue (separate post coming soon). I did purchase an unlocked device, as I hate the whole contract circus. A Micro SD storage card is also essential.


Windows Mobile is still not as easy as it should be. I really think Microsoft should have ActiveSync sorted by now, but apparently not. When I first connected to my Vista desktop PC, Windows Installer started up, thrashed around for a bit, then declared it was quitting because a newer version was installed. After that, nothing. I connected the device with USB, there was no error, but the Mobile Device Center could not see the phone. I fixed this by downloading Mobile Device Center 6.1. That mostly works, but I still have strange problems syncing with Exchange. This works through wi-fi provided I set the connection to “work” rather than “internet”, but not through USB. Perhaps I’ll work out why, but this sort of thing is frustrating and difficult, and online help is a masterpiece of polite unhelpfulness. Try a search for “cannot connect with current connection” (with the quotes) if you really want to know more.

More generally, I find navigation with Windows Mobile unpredictable at times. Example: I click Start, then Organizer, then Calendar. This fires up the Calendar, which defaults to the monthly view. I select a day, and click OK to view an appointment. Then I click the Back button. I should be back at the monthly view, but I’m not: I’ve exited Calendar and I’m back on the Organizer group in the Start menu.

I find the email client similarly confusing. No matter how hard I try, I seem to end up switching out of the app completely when I don’t mean to.

A crazy omission in Windows Mobile for Smartphone is cut, copy and paste. I couldn’t believe this at first, on a device with a keyboard, but it is true. I believe there are third-party solutions. I’ve also installed the trial of Documents To Go, which does support the clipboard, though this won’t fix Mobile Outlook.

No Flash support in Pocket IE.

I have a few complaints about the i600 itself. No socket for a standard headphone jack, so you have to use the supplied ear buds. Dangly plastic covers for the data cable and Micro SD ports, which are bound to break off in time. No support for Micro SDHC, which means a 2GB limit on the storage card. I’ve also applied the official Windows Mobile 6.0 upgrade (pretending to be from the Netherlands) and was disappointed to find no Mobile Office – having said which, Documents To Go is probably better in any case.

Most seriously, I can already see dust behind the screen. It’s not yet a big problem, but how much worse will it get in prolonged use? There appears to be no fix other than returning the unit for service or replacement. 


Despite the cons, this is easily the best mobile I’ve used.

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Word 2007 bug: ask for RTF, get DOCX

I’ve twice encountered what appears to be an intermittent bug in Word 2007. When I submit articles for publication, I usually choose RTF format, because it is universally readable. It is not perfect for exchanging formatted documents, since there are many variations of RTF and new tags appear with each new version of Word, but for simple formatting in everyday documents it is fine. That said, with Word 2007 I’ve had some problems. I’ve exported as RTF in the normal way, but later had an email to say that they do not open. On investigation, I’ve found that although the document has an RTF extension, it is actually .docx, a part of Office Open XML and the default format of Word 2007.

How can you tell? Docx is an XML format, but it is also zipped, so if you try opening it as plain text it is mostly unreadable. However, it appears that the path names are left intact. If you open a file that begins PK and contains bits of text like:


then the chances are that it is docx.

None of this is particularly obvious to the recipient of the supposed RTF file. But what makes me think this is a bug in Word, as opposed to my own mis-click? Well, it is difficult to do by accident. If you open Word’s Save As dialog, which is what I normally do, name your document something.rtf, but forget to change the document type, you actually get a document called something.rtf.docx. In order to get a .docx with an .rtf extension, you have to type quote marks around the name, not something you would do unawares. To make matters worse, Word itself will actually open these wrongly typed documents without protest. It is only a recipient without Word 2007 that has a problem. A shame, because receiving an unreadable document can be very inconvenient. Let me emphasize: saving as RTF usually works fine. Just once in a while I get this unfortunate mix-up.

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Microsoft’s Vista update – SP1 by another name?

I’ve installed Microsoft’s two new Vista patches – one for reliability, and the other for performance. No ill-effects so far and in fact the OS does feel a bit snappier. The updates claim to fix some long-standing gripes, including this one:

  • When you copy or move a large file, the “estimated time remaining” takes a long time to be calculated and displayed.

It also fixes some nasty-sounding bugs that I haven’t encountered, like this one:

  • When you synchronize an offline file to a server, the offline file is corrupted.

and includes some vague but important-sounding issues like this:

  • Poor memory management performance occurs.

Another key fix is related to one that has received a lot of attention on this blog (over 160 comments):

  • The computer stops responding, and you receive a “Display driver stopped responding and has recovered” error message. You can restart the computer only by pressing the computer’s power button.

I fixed this with a driver update, but possibly the driver update was a workaround for a bug in Vista. That seems plausible since it occurs with drivers from different vendors – though note that I did not usually experience a complete hang when I encountered this problem. Here’s another goodie:

  • The computer stops responding or restarts unexpectedly when you play video games or perform desktop operations.

There are many more fixes listed, and overall, this looks like a must-have update; and indeed, it will be rolled out automatically through Windows update in due course, according to Mary Jo Foley.

Clearly this is not SP1, though it is larger than other Vista updates I’ve seen. Why the delay before the real SP1? The rumour is that this is because of changes being made in response to Google’s complaints about search integration. No doubt making these changes requires considerable work, but I can’t help thinking that it does no harm to Microsoft to delay the Google-friendly SP1, while wasting no time in rolling out the other updates that would have been in SP1. 

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PC Pro on its pointless cover CDs

You have to admire a magazine which runs an editorial dismissing its own cover-mounted CD  as “that wretched disc.”

So says Dick Pountain in the October 2007 issue of PC Pro. He says in his column that the only reason PC Pro continues to have a cover-mount CD or DVD is because its competitors do, and that none of these competing mags has the courage to be the first to stop.

Is it pointless? In these broadband Internet days, pretty much. It’s true that there is sometimes software included which cannot be downloaded. Software vendors use it for special promotions, or allow mags to distribute old versions as a taster for the latest and greatest. But why not just have subscriber-only downloads, or downloads protected by a key printed in the mag? Sure, someone might post the key to a newsgroup, but then again they might upload the binary from the CD, so there’s little difference.

I don’t altogether follow DP’s logic though. I can’t be the only one who rarely looks at what is on the cover disc. In fact, knowing that CDs are not exactly bio-degradable, I feel a twinge of guilt as they hit the black bin. So if DP is right and that the mags want to lose the disc, all it would take is 10 pence off the cover price and a flash saying “New lower-price environmentally-friendly CD-free issue”, and it’s done. I doubt this would cost sales; in fact, it might make the others look just a little behind the times.

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Netcraft: IIS gaining on Apache

Microsoft’s web server is grabbing market share from the open source Apache, according to Netcraft’s August 2007 survey.

In November 2005, Apache was found on 71 percent of web sites, putting it more than 50 percentage points ahead of Microsoft IIS (20.2 percent). At the time, Apache’s market share advantage seemed insurmountable. But less than two years later, Microsoft has narrowed that 50 percent gap to 16.7 percent. The margin is even tighter in active sites, where Apache leads Microsoft by just 12.2 percent.

Note that even this 12.2% figure equates to about a 33% lead for Apache, so you can spin the figures one way or another according to preference. In addition, Netcraft now reports Google as a separate web server, accounting for 4.4% of sites, yet Google is running an adapted version of Apache as I understand it (Google Front End). It’s perhaps better to look at IIS in isolation. In August 2006 it had around 30% share, whereas today it has 34.2%, which is a significant increase.

How should we interpret these figures? It is difficult, and I would like to see a deeper analysis. I suspect that a significant factor is the move away from smaller ISPs which Netcraft identified in its June 2007 report:

This month’s data also yields some of the strongest evidence yet of the power shift in web hosting, with search portals and domain registrars experiencing enormous growth while paid hosting specialists lag behind. Microsoft (+532K) and Google (+521K) each gain more than half a million sites, while Go Daddy (+455K) and Demand Media (+245K) continue to amass huge numbers of users on their hosting platforms. This trend, along with the growth of social networks and image/video hosting services, is prompting deals in the hosting industry as providers seek the scale and breadth of services to compete.

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ThoughtWorks Mingle: is JRuby always this slow?

I’ve set up ThoughtWorks Mingle on Ubuntu 7.04.

No significant problems so far, though a couple of observations. The system requirements are substantial – 2GHz processor, 2GB RAM – which is OK for a new server, but rules out ideas like installing on a VM on the Internet.

It’s easy to see the reason for the high system requirements. Mingle feels slow, even with just a dummy project that has hardly any content. Maybe that’s the price of being first to market with a commercial product built in JRuby. Trouble is, performance is a feature, and exactly the kind of detail ThoughtWorks needs to get right in order to attain high usability.

Second disappointment: Mingle integrates with Subversion, but the repository needs to be on the same machine. Mine is out on the Internet, on one of those VMs that’s not up to running Mingle. Apparently this will be fixed in a later release. In the meantime, I guess I’ll have to set up a local Subversion for testing.

This is the first release, and no doubt ThoughtWorks will find ways to improve performance. I’m looking forward to trying it out.

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Amazon FPS – is this the micropayment revolution?

Amazon.com has announced the beta release of the Flexible Payment Service, an addition to the range of web services which already includes on-demand computing (Elastic Compute Cloud) and Simple Storage (Amazon S3).

At first glance, this looks like big news for the Internet. It bears all the Amazon hallmarks: low price, developer-friendly, and easy to adopt. Here’s the pricing:

For Transactions >= $10:

  • 1.5% + $0.01 for Amazon Payments balance transfers
  • 2.0% + $0.05 for bank account debits
  • 2.9% + $0.30 for credit card

For Transactions < $10:

  • 1.5% + $0.01 for Amazon Payments balance transfers
  • 2.0% + $0.05 for bank account debits
  • 5.0% + $0.05 for credit card

For Amazon Payments balance transfers < $0.05:

  • 20% of the transaction amount, with a minimum fee of $0.0025

There is no up-front fee. All these prices are reasonable, but the last one deserves particular scrutiny. If both buyer and seller have an Amazon Payments account, then you can receive a tiny payment at a realistic cost. You could even pay me a single cent, three-quarters of which I would get to keep.

Now look at PayPal’s fees. $0.30 fee plus a percentage for any transaction. Google Checkout? Complex, because Google wants to hook you into its AdWords advertising by giving free transactions up to a proportion of your AdWords spend, and because it is subsidizing the service to buy market share from PayPal. But the fees include $0.20 per transaction plus a percentage, which means you cannot do micropayments.

Amazon FPS is based on web services, so that developers can easily build it into their web applications.

FPS is interesting to me as a writer. It means I could self-publish and change a small amount per article – maybe just a few pennies. It is also interesting as a means of monetizing web services. A neat feature is that buyers can limit their risk by specifying both transaction limits and the total amount transferred over a period, for a particular recipient.

If Amazon FPS takes off, then Amazon becomes a major identify provider (because you will use your Amazon ID for payments to third-party sites) as well as becoming an Internet bank.

I think Amazon is a sufficiently well-trusted name that this could work. I should add, though, that nobody is sure of the significance of micropayments – we’ve just speculated that they might be a key enabler of (ugh) Business 2.0. See Wikipedia for a discussion and links. So far, it has been advertising rather than micropayments that has changed the game. But that was before Amazon FPS. What do you think?

PS – see Jeff Barr’s post for more information and early adopter examples.