Microsoft fixes Xbox 360 license transfer

Microsoft has finally fixed a long-standing irritation with the Xbox 360: the inability to transfer licenses for purchased games from one console to another. The new license transfer tool lets you consolidate all your download purchases to a specific Xbox 360, even if some were downloaded onto a console that no longer works or was sold on.

I’m personally grateful as I ran into exactly this problem and had an argument with support about it.

There’s a wider point here. If I buy virtual property, like software, music or an ebook, it makes sense to record that ownership in the cloud so that there is no need to keep backups and it cannot really be stolen (other than by hacking the online account, I guess).

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Canon’s bad dialog, weak Linux support

While installing Canon’s MX700 all-in-one printer on Windows, I spotted this for my collection of bad dialogs:

do you want to restart the system now?

Hint: if you ask the user a question, it’s good to allow for more than one answer. Even if you close the dialog by clicking the x at top right, it still reboots the system.

I was also interested to see whether the printer works with Linux. Canon doesn’t offer Linux drivers. Nor does it seem keen to hear from customers about this:

Linux printing for other printers

The CAPTCHA test always presents 8 zeroes, which it then rejects as invalid.

I haven’t quite given up.  There are Linux drivers for the Pixma MP520 which are rumoured to work somewhat. When I have a moment I’ll give it a try.

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Bowie on Bowie in the Mail on Sunday

Today’s Mail on Sunday has a giveaway CD with “David Bowie’s own choice of the 12 greatest tracks of his career.”

I couldn’t resist this even though I have pretty much everything already. It turned out to be worth it, if only for the two pages of new notes by the man himself within the paper. Completists will also want the CD for the reworked “Time will crawl”:

I’ve replaced the drum machine with true drums and added some crickety strings and remixed.

Any revelations here? Not really, though there are some touches of detail. Like how Life on Mars came together. He was sitting on the steps of a bandstand in a park in South London when the riff came to him “Sailors bap-bap-bap-bap-baaa-bap”, couldn’t get it out of his head and rushed to work it up into a song at Haddon Hall in Southend Road.

Of the song Bewlay Brothers, which sounds autobiographical, Bowie says:

…this wasn’t just a song about brotherhood, so I didn’t want to misrepresent it by using my true name. Having said that, I wouldn’t know how to interpret the lyric other than suggesting that there are layers of ghosts within it.

Bowie says that the aforementioned Time will Crawl was inspired by the Chernobyl, when a nuclear power station exploded:

A complicated crucible of impressions collected in my head, prompted by this insanity, any one of which could have become a song. I stuck them all in Time Will Crawl.

This echoes what Dylan said about his (incomparably greater) song A Hard Rain’s a-gonna fall, which is also associated with nuclear threat. In the sleeve notes to The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, Nat Hentoff recalls Dylan saying that Hard Rain was written during the Cuban missile crisis, and adding:

Every line in it is actually the start of a while song. But when I wrote it, I thought I wouldn’t have enough time alive to write all those songs so I put all I could into this one.

Bowie says he chose “songs that I don’t seem to tire of”. There’s nothing from his iconic album Ziggy Stardust (unless you count the live Hang on to yourself); draw your own conclusions. Here is what he chose:

  1. Life on Mars
  2. Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (reprise)
  3. The Bewlay Brothers
  4. Lady Grinning Soul
  5. Win
  6. Some Are
  7. Teenage Wildlife
  8. Repetition
  9. Fantastic Voyage
  10. Loving the Alien
  11. Time will crawl (MM Remix)
  12. Hang on to yourself (Live Santa Monica ‘72)

The full article is here.

Zavvi Direct saga highlights fake domain risks

A couple of weeks ago a fake UK web site called Zavvi Direct garnered thousands of orders for the elusive Wii Fit. Its success was based on several factors:

  • Ads on eBay and Google made it easy for potential customers to find
  • The Wii Fit shortage meant that customers were looking beyond their usual suppliers – hence eBay and Google – and perhaps taking less care than usual
  • Anyone selling Wii Fit at normal retail price is guaranteed a ready market, since it sells on eBay and Amazon marketplace at a premium of around 80%
  • Crucially, customers thought the site was run by Zavvi, formerly Virgin Megastores.

In fact it was nothing to do with Zavvi; as far as I’m aware nobody has received their goods and it is under investigation by police.

the fake Zavvi web site

I wrote this up for today’s Guardian. It was interesting to me because of the number of customers – known to be in the thousands – and as an example of Internet insecurity. As far as I know, none of the phishing filters built into browsers like IE7 or Firefox picked this one up – it’s not exactly a phishing site of course, but nevertheless was not what it appeared to be.

Now put this together with ICANN’s decision to expand the number of top-level domains – the bit after the last dot or couple of dots. It is already near-impossible to register all the possible, plausible variations of a domain name. In the Zavvi Direct case, the fakers got, and They could have used hyphens; they could have used .net or .org; they could have combined zavvi with other words such as games, gadgets, electronics, fast, quick, online, web. Now companies like Zavvi face the possibility of zavvi.gadgets,, zavvi.electronics, zavvi.directsales, or even shop.zavvi.

I am not sure that ICANN’s decision is wise. Currently its possible at least to pre-register the most obvious names; now even that will be harder to achieve.

Still, it’s arguably not that much worse than the current situation. Further, the key players in this are not the domain registrars but the search engines. Nobody would have typed into their address bar; they all went to Google or eBay. If these companies made more stringent checks, fewer people would be caught out. Note that all the customers I spoke clicked on paid ads, not pure search results.

In mitigation, while the Internet has caused this kind of problem, it also helps to solve it. Zavvi Direct customers soon found help on online forums – again through Google – such as Rpoints and MoneySavingExpert. These communities quickly waved red flags, their users received good advice about the best way to attempt to recover their money, and banks will be under pressure to act consistently.

In this particular case, it looks likely that most or all customers will get their money returned. Too late for the Guardian article, a spokesperson for Royal Bank of Scotland, which also owns NatWest, told me this:

In this specific case we can confirm that all RBS group card holders who are affected will be receiving refunds and that’s going to show on their accounts in a matter of days from now.

I was told that this will be automatic; so if you were a would-be Zavvi Direct customer and paid with an RBS card, sit tight for a week or so before complaining further.

Update: there’s more background on Zavvi Direct in this ComputerActive article.

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Microsoft accused of reinventing EJB – ouch!

There is a lot of discussion around Microsoft’s object-relational efforts right now. There are a couple of key issues:

  • Is Microsoft really committed to Linq to SQL, or is it shifting its attention to Entity Framework?
  • Is Entity Framework being pushed out before it is ready? A “vote of no confidence” open letter along those lines has been signed by over 300  including more than a dozen MVPs (Most Valued Professionals), experts in Microsoft data technologies.

Now a post from MVP Ian Cooper makes the frightening suggestion that Microsoft is ignoring the lessons of Java’s problems with EJB:

The .NET community had a huge amount to gain from this experience. Ports of Hibernate and Spring offered the community the chance to avoid the mistakes of the past. However, seemingly unaware of the lessons of history the EF team embarked on a project to produce a complex framework, of which persistence is just one aspect, reminiscent of the EJB initiative. So the reaction against the EF comes from its failure to learn lessons that another community has struggled with around complexity and ambition.

Microsoft’s success with .NET has been partly enabled by over-complexity in the Java world. Microsoft’s secret sauce is enabling developers to build stuff that works quickly and easily – which, incidentally, is why I am really disappointed that Visual Studio 2008 is still such a mess for quick database applications.

My own knowledge of the Entity Framework is rather thin. I’ve treated it as a layer that you have to generate in order to use ADO.NET Data Services, a REST API that I really like. It has to be said though – Microsoft’s data story is getting confusing. Roger Jennings is doing a great job of tracking developments.

MobileMe steals Live Mesh thunder

Yesterday I viewed Apple’s presentation for MobileMe. Here’s my quick take. Live Mesh is a true platform, whose scope extends well beyond MobileMe. Yet Apple’s marketing message is so close to Microsoft’s that most users will not see that difference. Here’s Apple:

Wherever you are, your iPhone, iPod touch, Mac, and PC are always current and always in sync. And with a suite of elegant new web applications, you can access your data from anywhere.

and here’s Microsoft:

No more e-mailing attachments to yourself. Instead, synchronize the information you need across all your devices. The most up-to-date versions will be at hand when you need them—at home, at the office, and on the go.

Apple calls MobileMe “Exchange for the rest of us”. This is spot on. I got onto the Internet in the early nineties. I opened a CIX account in 1991. I remember copying CIX scratchpads – all the downloaded messages – from one PC to another in an effort to keep them in synch. I moved on to POP3 email and still had problems. POP3 usually means deleting messages from the server when you download them; there is an option to leave messages on the server but it tends to be inefficient – I remember having clients that would simply create more and more duplicate messages if you did this. I tried Microsoft Outlook when it came out as part of Office 97, and copied the .PST file from PC to laptop to keep up to date. It was all horrible. Then I realised that Outlook only works properly as an Exchange client. I installed Exchange and loved it; it solved all my email synch problems.

Exchange is fine for corporates and the occasional geek, but Microsoft has done little to help individuals with their mail and contact synch problems. It acquired Hotmail in 1997, and came up with a series of half-baked connectors that synchronize Hotmail with Outlook or Outlook Express. After years of trying, these still do not work well; and I guess that IzyMail does good business enabling standard mail clients to work properly with accounts.

With MobileMe Apple is promising seamless Outlook integration, push email on the iPhone, synch across all devices, and an alternative web interface like Gmail combined with Google Calendar combined with online file storage up to 20GB. If it works well, it will be attractive even to PC users – though unlike Google’s services, you will have to pay a subscription. It will be $99.00 per annum for an individual, or $149.00 for a family pack.

Now, Live Mesh is great for file synch, but how do I synch email with it? Where is the Live Mesh calendar? Ah no, for that you need Live Mail. So does this work with Windows Mobile? A thread like this is all too familiar:

Using my T-Mobile Shadow with Windows Mobile 6.0, I tried to log on to my Windows Live Calendar. I receive the following message:
JavaScript required to sign in. Windows Live ID requires JavaScript to sign in. This web browser either does not support JavaScript or scripts are being blocked.

Maybe you are meant to use ActiveSync; but that won’t deliver push synchronization. And and how about integrating your Windows Live Calendar with Outlook? There’s a connector but it’s for paid subscribers only. In fairness, Apple’s service costs as well. But Microsoft’s solutions to these problems are fragmented, inconsistent and frustrating. An it-just-works solution to PIM synchronization across all devices and on the web will be a winner. Exchange is nearly there already for corporate users (though if it were fully there, there would be no market for Blackberry); but for individuals, MobileMe may come as a huge relief.

I still like Live Mesh, especially its promise as an application platform in conjunction with Silverlight. MobileMe is a lesser thing in concept, but if it works as promised, it will deliver more value sooner for individuals. The main thing against it is that it will work best with the expensive, locked-in iPhone; plus you have to suffer the embarrassment of a email address, or continue to advertise Apple with .mac. Now, how about MobileMe for domains?

Windows server compromised by PHP application

Susan Bradley has posted her analysis of how her Windows server was hacked.

This is interesting to me, as Bradley is an expert on server administration and patching; I’m glad she has had the courage to post all these details, thus benefiting the community, rather than pretending the server was down for emergency maintenance or the like.

She thinks it was a security bug in IceWarp Web Mail. This appears to be a PHP application. Although the bug has been fixed, she was running an old version because the new one broke some important features.

The explanation sounds plausible to me. So is it applications rather than operating systems that form the most critical security weaknesses today? Yes, but both are involved. I would be interested to know whether the same bug in a Linux installation of IcwWarp would have been equally easy to escalate to the entire OS.

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Adobe’s REST API

I wrote a piece for IT Week on Adobe Acrobat 9. One aspect of the new collaboration site that has not received much attention (by way of evidence, the developer forum is currently quiescent) is the document services API. This is a REST API which lets you integrate services into an application. You can use pretty much any programming language that can talk HTTP. There are some similarities with Amazon’s Simple Storage Service: file upload and download, and management of access control lists based on Adobe IDs (email addresses registered with Adobe). The API reference is here; there are also some wrapper libraries for Java, ActionScript, Ruby, Python and Cold Fusion. No C# yet.

It strikes me as a useful API. For example, imagine you have an application that creates a sales report. The application could upload the report to and email a group of colleagues with the link.

Another obvious application is a utility to synchronize local and online files. While there are no specific synchronization APIs, you can get the last modified date of a file which would be enough for something simple.

The service will get more useful as other pieces emerge. Flash 10 has a rich text editor with some useful features such as multi-columns with text flow, multi-language and bi-directional support. Put this together with AIR and the Acrobat API and you have all you need to make your own cross-platform offline word processor with online storage. Adobe itself intends to provide this in a future offline version of Buzzword.

Native code client coming for CardSpace as .NET runtime too demanding

I spoke this morning to Paul Mackinnon and Steve Plank at Microsoft, about Information Cards and CardSpace. CardSpace is part of .NET Framework 3.0 and higher. It enables uses to authenticate on web sites by presenting a virtual card, instead of typing in a username and password.

The CardSpace concepts strike me as sound, but as far as I can tell adoption has been minimal. I expressed my frustration; why is it that 18 months after the 1.0 release even Microsoft is not using it to any noticeable extent? I still see username/password dialogs whenever I need to sign into a Microsoft property like MSDN subscriptions or Live Mesh. Actually there is a beta service which lets you sign in with CardSpace – but I believe my point is still valid – how many people even know about this?

I was told that it is still early days and that we will hear more about the Live ID service when it comes out of beta. Mackinnon also mentioned that Microsoft is working on a native code client for CardSpace. Currently users need at least .NET Framework 3.0 which is a huge download and can be problematic. A native code client will be a small download with few dependencies. There is no firm date for release, though it is at least a year away (maybe previews before then).

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“ODF has clearly won” – Microsoft plays with fire

I was surprised to read that Stuart McKee, Microsoft’s US National Technology Officer, declared that “ODF has clearly won” at a Red Hat summit in Boston.

Open Document Format is an XML standard for office documents. Microsoft has its own XML format, called [Office] Open XML, and fought a bitter fight to get it standardised through ISO.

What’s a National Technology Officer? The role seems to involve promoting Microsoft products to government organizations. It is in the public sector that pressure towards standards adoption has been most intense. Presumably McKee is constantly having to defend Microsoft’s position. In May Microsoft announced that it will support ODF natively in Office, and will join OASIS to work on the standard.

Can Microsoft successfully promote its own OOXML standard, while simultaneously playing nicely with OASIS and ODF? The messaging, as PR people say, is tricky. Microsoft has told us that ODF cannot capture all Office documents with true fidelity, and that OOXML is more complete and better tuned for high performance. Can it now say convincingly that Office will be a great ODF editor? And if it can, surely Microsoft is undermining its own arguments for why OOXML was necessary in the first place.

Although Microsoft is fighting to maintain market share in the public sector by introducing ODF support, it still has a problem. ODF is closely associated with Open Office, and Microsoft Office is likely to lag its rival in this respect.

The real value of XML documents comes when you start manipulating them programmatically and on the server; I would have thought it would be difficult for Microsoft to make products like future versions of SharePoint work equally well with both formats. IBM’s server products will use ODF, which I presume is why the company fought brutally to oppose the standardization of OOXML.

In other words, a lot of future business hangs on this ODF vs OOXML argument. It is remarkable that a senior Microsoft person has said publicly, albeit in a small session at an open source conference, that “ODF has clearly won.”

Businesses and developers planning their future document management strategy can reasonably ask: is Microsoft still committed to OOXML? Does the format have a future?

I asked the company for comment and clarification, but as yet none has been forthcoming.

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