The relentless branding of the Internet

For me, it started with Amazon affiliates. Before that, you mostly saw the Amazon brand on the Amazon site. After that, seemingly every web page you went to had Amazon somewhere on it.

Now we are into mash-ups and widgets; but inevitably it seems to be the big brands that dominate. Instead of going to the site, the site comes to you. It’s even worse if you install one of their toolbars: Google, Yahoo, MSN, eBay.

At the IE8 briefing the other day, we were shown the Accelerator – Smart Tags revisited – and Web Slices. The Accelerator is especially intrusive, because it behaves as if it is embedded in the site you are visiting. You go to an ad-free site (in the UK) like the BBC, select some text or right-click, and suddenly your screen is festooned with links to all the usual suspects: Microsoft, eBay, Google, Amazon.

It feels claustrophobic; an oppressive encirclement by brands.

The Web’s poor security makes this worse. After a couple of bad experiences, users are more inclined to stick with what is tried, trusted and well-known.

In the early days of the Internet, it was possible to think that the inherently low technical barriers to entry would benefit small players and make it hard for a few entities to dominate. It is hard to believe that now.

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Internet Explorer 8, FireFox 3 pop-under failure

I attended a UK briefing for Internet Explorer 8 last night. An interesting product which I’ll be writing plenty more about – you can get it here. Installed smoothly on my Virtual Box Vista.

At the event I mentioned to someone from the IE team that it is annoying how pop-ups still somehow get round the pop-up blocker. The guy seemed mildly surprised and asked me to send him any urls I found. I didn’t have to wait long. If you want obsessive detail on the recordings of Elvis Presley, a great site to visit is [warning: pop-ups and pop-unders]. I can’t recommend it though, because there are some annoying scripts there. I thought this would make a good test for IE8 Beta 2. The home page has some stuff that gets blocked, and it has some Java which doesn’t run because I haven’t installed it yet, but if I click the link for the Sun recordings (arguably the best of Elvis) I get this:

The only extra step I took to get this screen was to click the pop-under in the task bar so it came to the front. Lucky me, I’m a “possible Audi A3 winner”.

Just to be fair, I tried it in FireFox 3. Same result:

Maybe it is just too difficult to block this stuff successfully without breaking pages.

The other question: why do otherwise useful sites pollute themselves with this junk? Is the money really that good? For what it’s worth, the culprit seems to be a “free” web stats provider called Motigo. Avoid.

I’ll forward the url to my contact.

Apple rapped by ad standards body for not supporting Flash and Java

The UK’s Advertising Standards Authority has upheld a complaint (from all of two viewers) against an Apple ad which stated that “all the parts of the internet are on the iPhone”.

In its adjudication, the ASA stated:

The ASA noted that Java and Flash proprietary software was not enabled on the iPhone and understood that users would therefore be unable to access certain features on some websites or websites that relied solely on Flash or Java.  We noted Apples argument that the ad was about site availability rather than technical detail, but considered that the claims "You’ll never know which part of the internet you’ll need" and "all parts of the internet are on the iPhone" implied users would be able to access all websites and see them in their entirety.  We considered that, because the ad had not explained the limitations, viewers were likely to expect to be able to see all the content on a website normally accessible through a PC rather than just having the ability to reach the website.  We concluded that the ad gave a misleading impression of the internet capabilities of the iPhone.

Nobody comes out of this with any credit. Apple’s point, when challenged, was this:

Apple said the aim of the ad was to highlight the benefit of the iPhone in being able to offer availability to all internet websites, in contrast to other handsets which offered access to WAP versions or sites selected by service providers.

Somewhat misleading I’d say. All the smartphones I’ve seen recently support HTML as well as WAP. Still, Safari on the iPhone has a larger screen and more complete standards support than other mobile browsers, and on these points Apple is on firmer ground.

What about Flash and Java? Apple apparently said:

They said they could not ensure compatibility with every third party technology in the marketplace and, in order to create the best customer experience, had created their platform on open standards.  They said Java and Flash were examples of proprietary software they had chosen not to enable on the iPhone.

A reasonable point, surely. But the ASA says:

…viewers were likely to expect to be able to see all the content on a website normally accessible through a PC…

Naive viewers, perhaps. Most would figure out at least that a much smaller screen will introduce limitations. And why stop at Flash and Java? What about ActiveX, Silverlight, Real Player, or any site that needs a plug-in to operate correctly? Of course the ASA doesn’t say that Apple should enable all that stuff. It merely says that the ad implies it. That strikes me as a fragile argument. I’d back Apple here.

Nevertheless, it is interesting to see this pressure on Apple to support proprietary plug-ins. I wonder who complained?

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Delphi and C++ Builder 2009 are available to order

I’m choosing my words carefully, because although the CodeGear/Embarcadero site is now showing Delphi 2009 as the current version, if you click through to the order page it only offers a pre-order. Still, it must be done or thereabouts. US prices are as follows:

Delphi 2009: Pro $874.00;  Enterprise $1974.00; Architect $3474.00

C++ Builder 2009 costs the same; or you can get a bundle with both for a relatively small extra cost, eg. $1074.00 for Delphi and C++Builder Professional.

Curiously, an upgrade to Delphi 2009 Pro only costs $374.00 (57% discount), but an upgrade to Enterprise is $1274.00 (35% discount). I can’t make sense of this except on the basis that any product labelled “Enterprise” is presumed not price sensitive.

So what’s not in the Pro version? The Enterprise edition adds drivers for server databases in the dbExpress database framework, the DataSnap multi-tier application framework, and a full range of modeling diagrams. Architect bundles ER/Studio Developer Edition, Embarcadero’s database modeling tool, with support for a wide range of database servers.

In other words, the majority of Delphi’s features are in the Pro edition, which is really much the best value, though if you need DataSnap or client-server dbExpress then I guess you have no choice.

The big features here strike me as Unicode in the Visual Component Library; and the new language features, generics and anonymous methods. I’ve not yet looked at the product though, so watch this space.

Vista shell annoyances

CodeGear’s Barry Kelly has a well-explained list of Vista shell annoyances. I don’t dislike Vista as much as Kelly but these things annoy me too, with the exception of the Start menu which I prefer in its Vista guise. Kelly doesn’t like the way Vista constrains it to a scrolling panel, but I find the search box more than compensates, and I dislike the way the XP Start menu expands all over the screen and gives up when it runs out of room.

He includes a handy tip about how to get a direct shortcut to the Network Connections control panel applet.

There’s an interesting point about menus in Vista applets:

It has become fashionable for applications designed for Vista to hide menu bars. Unfortunately, they usually haven’t been replaced by a viable alternative.

In every case I can think of – for example, Internet Explorer, Explorer, Media Player – I’ve enabled the traditional menus, even though they are hidden by default.

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Parts of EcmaScript 4 deemed unsound for the Web

This was the conclusion of an EcmaScript meeting in Oslo last month. Specifically, as Brendan Eich explains, three features – packages, namespaces and early binding – were considered too heavyweight unsuitable for a browser scripting language. Here is Eich’s “Executive summary”:

The committee has resolved in favor of these tasks and conclusions:

1. Focus work on ES3.1 with full collaboration of all parties, and target two interoperable implementations by early next year.

2. Collaborate on the next step beyond ES3.1, which will include syntactic extensions but which will be more modest than ES4 in both semantic and syntactic innovation.

3. Some ES4 proposals have been deemed unsound for the Web, and are off the table for good: packages, namespaces and early binding. This conclusion is key to Harmony.

4. Other goals and ideas from ES4 are being rephrased to keep consensus in the committee; these include a notion of classes based on existing ES3 concepts combined with proposed ES3.1 extensions.

This means that the evolution of JavaScript is now on a new path, focused for now on a more modest enhancement to the language called EcmaScript 3.1.

Given how loudly Eich protested about EcmaScript 3.1 last October, it is a surprising turn of events. Was Eich convinced by the arguments of Microsoft and Yahoo in support of a more lightweight JavaScript?

What this means is that JavaScript 2.0 won’t happen as previously envisaged. John Resig:

… you can forget a lot of what you learned about ECMAScript 4, previously. Many of the complicated concepts contained in the language have been tossed. Instead there is a considerable amount of effort going in to making sure that new features will be easily duplicable through other means.

Eich and Resig are keen to stress that JavaScript will still be a highly capable language. Still, the obvious conclusion is that this will be good for plug-ins which support more powerful languages: Adobe Flash, Microsoft Silverlight, Sun Java or Java/FX. Personally I’m disappointed.

It is also presenting Adobe with a tricky problem, as it implemented much of an earlier specification for EcmaScript 4 in ActionScript 3. Rather than being a standard language, as Adobe had planned, it looks like this will now be more of an Adobe language. I doubt this will have much practical impact on developers.

PS Brendan Eich has commented below.

Detailed article on Microsoft’s Midori published

The Software Development Times has an in-depth look at Midori by David Worthington, based on “internal Microsoft documents”:

SD Times has viewed internal Microsoft documents that outline Midori’s proposed design, which is Internet centric and predicated on the prevalence of connected systems.

Recommended if you are interested in what Microsoft is contemplating for a future OS. Note that there’s no official word on whether this is more than just another research project.

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Silverlight 2 threading issues, Quickstarts not working

I’ve been working on a Silverlight tutorial involving reading an RSS feed. Silverlight has a SyndicationFeed class which is meant to make this easy – as Microsoft’s Scott Barnes enthuses here.

It is handy, but I discovered that the Quickstart Barnes refers to does not work in Silverlight 2 Beta 2. The Quickstart section on needs some work. Even if you get to this Quickstart via the link for Silverlight 2 Beta 2 examples on this page, it is soon apparent that it is actually for Silverlight 2 Beta 1. Click the Run It button and you’ll see that it asks for the older runtime.

The code doesn’t work in Beta 2 either; and as so often with thread-y stuff, it’s not immediately clear what’s going wrong. I got a blank page and the following message in the Debug output window in Visual Studio:

A first chance exception of type ‘System.UnauthorizedAccessException’ occurred in mscorlib.dll

In situations like this I recommend breaking on all CLR exceptions (Debug – Exceptions – check the Thrown box for Common Language Runtime exceptions in Visual Studio). Run again; and this time Visual Studio stops on the line which updates a Silverlight TextBlock:

feedcontent.Text += "* " + item.Title.Text + Environment.NewLine

with the message “Invalid cross-thread access”:

Rooting about a bit, I found this post from Karen Corby on changes in Silverlight 2 Beta 2:

HttpWebRequest’s delegates are called on a new non-UI thread.

  • Delegates were previously always called on the UI thread.
  • You must invoke back on to the UI thread if the data you’re retrieving will be consumed by a UI element.
  • For an example, see the updated networking post series (part one).

What this means is that you have two doses of asynchronous coding to think about if you use HttpWebRequest. First, the request itself; and second, in the code you write for the response handler if it needs to update the UI – which in most cases it will.

The example referenced by Corby shows a neat solution using a SynchronizationContext object, or you can use the Dispatcher class as explained by Wilco Bauwer here – he also draws attention to locking issues. See also Shawn Wildermuth’s post though note that CheckAccess is available despite what is said here.

This adds a significant dose of complexity to Silverlight coding. I’m not sure if any of this will change again in the final release.

I also noticed that VB coders are not well served by the Silverlight examples out there, which are overwhelmingly C#. Looks like this is the language of choice if you want an easy life.

What’s new in Delphi 2009

Today I viewed David Intersimone’s Live Webinar on what’s new in Delphi 2009, code-named Tiburon.

This is a Win32-only release. I think you will want it (if you use Delphi), if only for the new language-level features: generics, anonymous methods, and unicode strings. I grabbed a few screens from the presentation. Generics:

Unicode – here’s the TEncoding class:

and Unicode in action:

There are also some new components, such as a neat collapsible panel called TCategoryPanelGroup, TBalloonHints, and Office-2007 style ribbon controls.

The ribbon controls interested me because I am wary of Microsoft’s Office ribbon patent. CodeGear/Embarcadero seems to be wrapping Microsoft’s controls*, as used by the CMFCRibbon* classes, which as I understand it are not the actual controls used in Office 2007 but share their look and feel. You therefore have to agree to Microsoft’s license for the Fluent UI in order to use the controls.

There are also major changes to the DataSnap middleware but DavidI didn’t go into this much in the presentation.

During the Q&A at the end there were the inevitable questions: what about 64-bit (coming in a later version); what about Mac/Linux (nothing to announce); what about the dreadful online help (errrmmm we’re working on it); what about .NET (coming in a later version). Some of the language changes seem to be making ready for .NET 2.0 compatibility.

No announced release date; but the roadmap shows this as a 2008 release; and if it’s being webinared now that suggests it won’t be too long a wait.

Delphi is still absolutely my favourite Win32 development tool and this should be a strong release. At the same time, it is all rather old-school: win32, native code, fat client. You can do web applications in Delphi, and there is an updated “VCL for the Web” in this release, but why would you?

Nevertheless, if there are any Delphi developers still hanging on to Delphi 7 (the last version with the old IDE), perhaps these important language changes along with what is now a mature new-generation IDE will be sufficient to persuade them to migrate.

*Update: Although DavidI said that Delphi’s ribbon controls wrap Microsoft controls, Nick Hodges says here that this is not the case. He is probably right as I’m not sure what controls Delphi could wrap. If the MFC team could not use the actual Office controls, but had to create its own implementation, then I should think a third party would be in the same position. I wondered if the VCL was actually using the MFC code but I doubt that would be straightforward either. This may be a confusion caused by the licensing requirement.

BBC iPlayer supporting H.264 in Flash – what’s the point of downloading now?

The BBC’s streamed catch-up broadcasting, iPlayer, is about to be upgraded to the high-definition H.264 standard, according to this post, from the BBC’s Head of Digital Media Anthony Rose.

He says that the “Play high quality” option will be available “from this week”, though I couldn’t see any sign of it on a brief sampling of available content.

The question: where does this leave the download service, based on peer-to-peer file sharing? This is the thing that caused me considerable hassle this time last year, and which also drew criticism because it is Windows-only.

By contrast, the Flash-based embedded video seems to have performed as smoothly as Flash usually does.

When Flash streaming was introduced, the BBC said that the download option would remain for higher-quality viewing, but with H.264 Flash that argument has little force. It is still comforting to have a downloaded file, in case your Net connection fails or becomes congested, but other than that there is little advantage. My guess is that it will wither. Supporting both must be expensive.

It is unfortunate for Microsoft, whose technology is losing out to Adobe’s at the BBC, particularly since Silverlight would probably have worked nicely in this context. Unfortunately the old iPlayer is not Silverlight, but based on Windows Media Player, known to be hassle-prone as well as being single platform.

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