Windows Live: why doesn’t SkyDrive integrate with Office?

Dare Obasanjo blogs about Windows Live, and refers us to where you can sign up for a number of free services.

I think Spaces is great, except that performance seems sluggish (though it’s getting better), and Live Writer is my blogging tool of choice. So there’s stuff here I like, but what is of most interest to me is Sky Drive. I’m a big fan of web storage, because it means you can work from several machines and everything stays up-to-date. It is also an effective off-site backup. Currently I use a subversion repository on my own site for this. I also use Amazon S3. Both are excellent, but saving and loading documents is not quite a seamless process. To see what I mean, consider the steps you would have to explain to a non-expert user. Then compare this to what most of us do every day: open a document, work on it, then hit save.

The puzzle is why Microsoft has not built this feature into Office. This is meant to be an advantage of the Microsoft platform: a single vendor stack in which everything plays nicely together (Apple does this better, of course).

One of the first things I did with SkyDrive was to copy an Excel file into it. That works fine, either through browser upload, or by drag-and-drop if you install the upload ActiveX control. Just for fun, I then went back to SkyDrive and “opened” the Excel document from it. What this really does is to download the file to a temporary location, and opens it from there. Everything seems fine until you hit save. Then you get:

Your changes could not be saved to ‘somesheet[1].xls’ because of a sharing violation. Try saving to a different file.

Click OK, and then I get a weird message about a file with a meaningless name having the wrong extension – because apparently Excel automatically saved to another temporary file without an extension. Bizarre behaviour.

Ok, I admit, I knew this would not work. But isn’t this how it ought to work? I think this would be a killer feature for Office and Windows Live: foolproof open and save from/to web storage.

I also think Office should cope better with what is, from the user’s perspective, a rather obvious sequence of steps.

Zoho has a plug-in that nearly works right, though it has two major flaws. One, it did not work properly for me at all, but just threw errors on saving. Two, it converts Office into Zoho’s online format. I understand why this is the correct thing for a Zoho plug-in to do, but I’d rather keep documents in their native format and forego true online editing.

ODF vs OOXML: A plague on both your houses

I’ve been writing a piece on Linux/Windows interoperability, and broached the tricky matter of file formats.

It struck me forcibly how much the situation has changed for the worse, for the average user who could not care one jot about XML or ISO for that matter.

Prior to Office 2007, at least a Microsoft Office user could email documents to a Linux Open Office user and they would most likely open OK. Now that’s no longer the case.

I guess Open Office users have always had to make allowance for Microsoft users by doing Save As or setting their defaults to compatible formats, when emailing documents the other way or sharing them on a network. That’s no better today. Open Office defaults to ODF which a default install of Microsoft Office will not open.

Both sides would probably say that this is the problem they are trying to solve. Nevertheless, from the user’s perspective we have gone backwards.

What a shame that Microsoft, IBM, Sun and so on were not willing to engage with each other to adopt a common standard acceptable to all parties, instead of treating document formats as a competitive weapon, never mind how much users suffer.

Silverlight is released for Windows, promised for Linux

Microsoft’s Silverlight is now fully released. Scott Guthrie’s blog has all the details, including what to me is the biggest news: an official partnership with Novell and Mono to support Moonlight, an implementation of Silverlight for Linux. Microsoft will supply the media codecs, while Novell/Mono will do the rest.

This is a major step forward for Microsoft. I have been blogging for years about how Microsoft would benefit by giving official support to Mono, and therefore promoting the .NET platform. Of course it is a two-edged sword. Mono is a competitor, and helps companies switch from Windows to Linux. On the other hand, Silverlight has no chance of broad adoption unless it is taken seriously as a cross-platform runtime, and supporting Linux will help a great deal with that.

Silverlight 1.0 does video, multimedia and vector graphics, but does not include the .NET runtime. This is to follow in Silverlight 1.1, which will therefore be of more interest to developers.

I see quite a bit of misunderstanding of how Silverlight relates to the full version of .NET. As I understand it, even Silverlight 1.1 makes no use whatsoever of the full .NET runtime or WPF (Windows Presentation Foundation). It is entirely self-sufficient, so you can run Silverlight 1.0  or 1.1 on a Windows box which does not have .NET installed.

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Will Adobe’s tools ever run on Linux?

At an Adobe briefing last week I mainly ran Ubuntu Linux on my laptop. It seemed a good opportunity to ask Software Architect Kevin Lynch whether Adobe’s tools like Dreamweaver or the Flash IDE will ever support Linux:

We’re constantly looking at Linux as a platform for our applications. Our runtimes work on Linux; Flash Player runs on Linux; AIR will run on Linux. It may make sense to bring our tools there. There’s a relatively inexpensive way to bring tools to Linux called Wine. It’s not the best way to do it, but it kinda works. We’ve done that a couple of times with tools to see what the response is. Will people adopt them, do they care? We haven’t yet seen that momentum happen. But we’ll keep trying things occasionally, and if we start to see momentum, we’ll start investing more. Until then, we’ll stay at the runtime level.

Kevin Lynch

Kevin Lynch, Adobe Senior Vice President, Platform Business Unit and Chief Software Architect

My comment: considering the limited adoption of desktop Linux, and the free software culture among many Linux users, I doubt Adobe is losing many sales because of its Mac/Windows tools policy. That could change, and the answer I got from Lynch was more positive than I had expected – though don’t expect a CS3 Linux release any time soon.

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Adobe AIR: 10 reasons to love it, 10 reasons to hate it.

I attended two days of briefings on Adobe’s developer-focused products, especially the forthcoming AIR (Adobe Integrated Runtime).

In essence, AIR is the Flash player supplemented by additional features to enable applications that are not browser-hosted, but installed as desktop applications. AIR is great for some scenarios, weak for others. Here’s 10 reasons to love it:

1. Fast execution. ActionScript 3.0 has a JIT (just-in-time) compiler, putting it on a par with Java or .NET for raw performance.

2. Cross-platform. AIR apps will run on Windows XP and Vista, Mac OS X (PowerPC and Intel), Linux (though not in the beta).

3. Easy conversion of existing Flex or HTML applications. It’s the same basic runtime. In the case of HTML, AIR apps rely on WebKit, the core component in Apple’s Safari web browser.

4. Easy installation. Provided the runtime has installed successfully, installing AIR applications is likely to be be trouble-free, since all the files go into the application directory.

5. SQLite. AIR applications have use of a fast local database.

6. Synchronization services provided you use LiveCycle. Synchronization is the difficult part of enabling offline support in occasionally connected applications.

7. Rich design and multimedia. This is Flash, so ideal for highly customized UIs, animation, sound and video. Adobe is proving the point by creating a media player built with AIR. Existing Flash developers can easily use their skills to build AIR applications.

8. Great for web vendors who want a desktop presence. For example, one of the demo applications is for buying on eBay. If eBay persuades you to install it, then it is no longer dependent on you firing up a web browser and navigating to its site. It is also a good way to disintermediate Google.

9. Declarative programming via FLEX. Declarative programming is the best way to code a GUI and consume components.

10. ActionScript 3.0 combines the flexibility of JavaScript with grown-up object orientation. Option for dynamic or strict typing according to developer preference.

So is AIR your next development platform? Maybe, but there are some downsides:

1. Limited extensibility. AIR apps have file access, clipboard access, support multiple windows, support drag and drop, and can trigger notifications (“toast” in Windows). If you app needs to interact with the desktop in other ways, the chances are that AIR is not suitable. For example, there’s no access to COM automation, and no way to execute external applications. The reason is to maintain cross-platform compatibility. That’s a worthy goal, but it would be good to have a way out of the sandbox. Unlike Java or .NET, you cannot extend AIR with custom native code libraries. Nor can you call operating system APIs.

2. Database access limited to SQLite or web services.

3. Enterprises need to roll out applications over the network in a controlled manner. AIR has no specific support for enterprise deployment. On Windows, AIR does not use the Windows Installer service. Either Adobe or 3rd parties will need to create deployment wrappers to overcome this.

4. Proprietary technology. AIR applications depend on Adobe’s runtime.

5. No threading support. Architect Kevin Lynch says this is a strong candidate for a future release.

6. No model for commercial components. It is not clear to me how a component vendor could sell an AIR component while protecting it from unlicensed deployment. This may limit the availability of 3rd party components, with a corresponding impact on productivity.

7. Schizophrenic development model. AIR supports either Flex development, or HTML applications which run in WebKit. The ugly side of this flexibility is that there are two SDKs, even two JavaScript virtual machines with different capabilities and characteristics. While it is nice to have a way to render HTML, I am not convinced that the web application model is worth it, given the complications it causes. After all, web applications run perfectly well in the browser.

8. Security concerns. AIR is close to the worst of both worlds, being tightly sandboxed from a developer perspective, but not particularly safe from the user’s perspective. Adobe says it will allow unsigned applications, which I think is a mistake.* AIR has the same access to the file system as the user, which in the case of users running on Windows XP with full admin rights is very extensive. Example bad scenarios would include downloading malware and placing it your startup folder, or searching your file system for bank details and uploading them to some internet location. That said, Adobe says there will be more security features, so conclusions are premature.

9. Synchronization service depends on LiveCycle, the server-side piece which runs on J2E application servers. This is one of the ways Adobe makes money out of AIR, with the other obvious one being design and development tools. A consequence of point 4 above.

10. Lack of UI standards may lead to annoying inconsistencies between AIR applications. We are used to this on the Web; now it is coming to the desktop as well.

*I was told that application signing is not required, but Daniel Dura comments below that this is not the case; however he says self-signed applications will be allowed. Perhaps this is one of the things under discussion. Personally I think the default should be to require applications signed by a trusted certificate, but to provide a way for developers to switch this off.

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Hands on with the iPhone

I am in San Francisco this week and got to play with an iPhone for the first time.

Very cool device, but I am not sure I could live with the keyboard (or lack of it). I typed a short message and found it painful; you simply cannot see which key you are pressing until the result appears, often not the one you wanted. It is fine for numbers, since the virtual keys are larger.

In mitigation, the iPhone has text recognition algorithms that take this into account. If you have faith, then quite often the word you wanted does appear, even though you mis-typed it. Fair enough, but I prefer a real keyboard which gives you tactile feedback. That said, I agree with the decision not to resort to a stylus, which is always a nuisance on a handheld device.

Omitting a physical keypad does mean the iPhone has a larger screen than most devices of its size, and as you would expect the multimedia is nicely done. Unfortunately I am a text-oriented user, so I would rather have a real keyboard and a smaller screen. And yes, I am a QWERTY user.

Could I learn to love the soft keyboard? Possibly, but there is also the price to consider. The iPhone seems extraordinarily expensive for a locked-down device. I’ll be interested to see what the UK pricing is like when it appears there in due course.

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