A painful upgrade to Ubuntu Intrepid Ibex

I’m writing a piece on Ubuntu – makes a change from all that Windows at Microsoft’s PDC. I wanted to be up-to-date, so I upgraded my laptop from Hardy Heron (8.4) to Intrepid Ibex (8.10), released just yesterday. I followed the officially recommended procedure. Currently I only have a wi-fi connection, which is not ideal, but I reckoned it might work. Before upgrading, I applied all available updates to the existing 8.04 installation.

The update manager started off confidently enough, though it sat for a long time on ldconfig deferred processing. Then it asked for a restart, and things started going wrong. Ubuntu could only boot to a terminal prompt, since it was missing packages needed for X, the graphical server, to start. I tried to fix this with apt-get; but I had another problem: the wifi connection was down. I managed to get this working with ifconfig and iwconfig, and repaired my system with apt-get update and apt-get dist-upgrade. This downloaded and installed some 340MB of packages, after which I could boot to the desktop.

I was not done yet. On startup, Ubuntu was pausing when configuring the network. When the desktop appeared, I had the problem usually expressed as nm-applet not appearing in the panel. This actually meant that the network manager had crashed. If I tried to restart it, it said “no connections defined” and hung with some other errors. Once again, I could only restore wifi by fidding with console commands. I discovered I was not alone with the nm-applet problem. The fix that worked for me was to remove all references to network devices other than loopback in /etc/network/interfaces, as described here. Restarted, the network applet returned, and I could finally connect conveniently.

I got a surprise when I tried to browse the web. The upgrade had removed most of my applications, including FireFox and OpenOffice. I had to reinstall these using Add/Remove applications. I did find that FireFox had remembered my settings, once reinstalled, for which I was grateful.

Now that Intrepid Ibex is up and running, it will probably be as stable, fast and capable as Hardy Heron before it – really, it was. Linux is great, honest.

WordPad in Windows 7 supports Open XML, OpenDocument

Interesting twist in the document format wars. Early builds of Windows 7 have extended document support in WordPad, the word-processing applet in Windows. WordPad will now read and write both Microsoft’s Open XML (docx) and OpenDocument (odt). The latter is the native format of the open source OpenOffice.org. I was sceptical about this since the support is not in the Milestone 3 build given to journalists here; but the builds running on stands in the Pavilion area do have this support, so it is real. I’m guessing that it is based on the the OpenDocument support coming in Office 14. Of course, this is pre-beta, so subject to change.

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Windows 7 media: AAC yes, FLAC no

Microsoft’s Larry Osterman is here at PDC 2008 and I took the opportunity to ask a couple of questions about media in Windows 7. Windows Media Player is getting built-in support for AAC (as used in iTunes – but not when DRM-protected) and H.264 – but not ALAC (Apple lossless) or FLAC (open-source lossless). What about DRM in Windows 7, any change to the Protected Media Path? No, he told me; adding how frustrated he was by the common supposition that DRM somehow slows everything down in Vista. His line is that Microsoft supports DRM content, but does not in any way impose it.

Windows 7 unveiled; hands on report

Here at PDC in Los Angeles, Microsoft’s Chief Architect Ray Ozzie and Windows VP Steven Sinofsky are introducing Windows 7.  A couple of days ago, journalists were loaned Windows 7 laptops to try and I’ve been using this over the last day or so. Generally it’s been a pleasure; performance is great and it works well, aside from Internet Explorer 8 going into an occasional sulk.

A question though: does it merit a new major version number, or is this really a big Vista service pack? It’s a bit of both. Under the hood Windows 7 reports itself as version 6.1 (Vista is 6), and that’s about right.

I see Windows 7 as a reaction to Vista’s problems. Vista was too different from XP; Windows 7 makes small, generally pleasant but evolutionary changes. Vista was too incompatible; Windows 7 uses the same core architecture and pretty much everything that worked on Vista will also work here. Vista was too demanding on hardware; Windows 7 is said to perform better on the same hardware, and while I haven’t had a chance to make the comparison, I can well believe it. Vista won a reputation for prompting the user too much with User Access Control security dialogs and others; Windows 7 is designed to be “quieter” and UAC has been tamed.

The build I have been trying is not feature-complete, and I am sure it will look, cosmetically, more different from Vista in its final release. Nevertheless, the points above are stated goals. The business world will greet Windows 7 with relief, and consumers will, I suspect, enjoy this release – but don’t expect anything revolutionary.

My reflection: if Vista had not been disrupted by the false WPF-based trail shown at PDC 2003 but later abandoned, and also disrupted by Microsoft’s security push which saw the Windows team focusing for a period on XP SP2 rather than Vista, then Vista itself might have most of what is now coming in Windows 7.

That said, if you are a Windows user you are going to like this release.

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C# 4.0 goes dynamic

Anders Hejlsberg is explaining new features in C# 4.0, a future version, at Microsoft’s PDC. The big new feature, he says, is support for dynamic typing. Currently C# uses static typing, which means that when you call object members like methods and properties, the compiler checks that they exist or raises an error if they do not. By contrast, with dynamic typing you can call any old method or property, and they are not checked until runtime.

C# 4.0 will support dynamic typing through a new static type called “dynamic” (this raised a laugh at PDC). In other words, if you declare a variable as dynamic:

dynamic obj;

then you can call what you like as if it were a member of obj, and it will be resolved at runtime.

Hejsberg showed in his demonstration how this simplifies interop with other dynamic languages like JavaScript or Python.

Other new features are named parameters and optional parameters. This is a big win for COM interop – automating Microsoft Office, for example, from C# has always been painful because COM was designed to support optional parameters. C# got round this with an ugly hack “ref.missing”. All gone in C# 4.0.

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Hello Windows Azure

Ozzie has made his big announcement here at PDC 2008. Windows Azure is, he says, Windows for the cloud; a “web tier” offering that runs on Microsoft’s own datacenters. The basics: develop a web service in Visual Studio, deploy it to Azure. You can test and debug using a local Azure server. The client for Azure apps can be anything that can call a service – web app, Silverlight app, Windows app. Your Azure apps can call upon a set of other services many of which are already familiar. For example, the database is SQL Services, formerly called SQL Data Services. Workflow can be managed with Workflow Foundation (WF). For identity and access control, there will be an Active Directory connector, or other options (more on this later).

Note that Azure is a platform for hosted applications, written in .NET but eventually with an option for native code, rather than a VM running Windows in the manner of Amazon’s EC2 service. Thus, Azure has more in common with Google App Engine than with what Amazon is offering. Microsoft’s slides also show Sharepoint, Live Services, and Dynamics CRM as part of the Azure platform.

Microsoft will compete on things like the scope and ease of use of its platform. Integration with Visual Studio and Active Directory should make it relatively easy for Microsoft platform developers to start experimenting with enterprise apps hosted on Azure. Business model not spelt out yet, but the assumption is that Azure apps will scale seamlessly and on-demand.

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PDC 2008: Microsoft attempts to remake its image

There are two big themes at Microsoft’s Professional Developer’s Conference, just getting under way here in Los Angeles.

One is cloud computing. At this morning’s keynote, Ray Ozzie and others will present Microsoft’s cloud computing strategy. If it’s right that IT is moving inexorably into the cloud, this could be make-or-break for the company. Truth is, despite huge number of users for things like Hotmail and Live Messenger, Microsoft is not perceived as a web or on-demand computing company. That space belongs to others, like Google or Salesforce.com. Further, Microsoft has a problem that those companies do not have: how to keep its partners happy while embracing a computing model that may severely reduce their role.

The other is Windows itself. Vista’s image is tarnished: the wow started badly, and although the OS itself now works better than it did at the launch, its negative perception is beyond rescue. Windows 7 is Microsoft’s next opportunity to generate some consumer and user enthusiasm for Windows, and to stem the flow towards Apple. Tomorrow is Windows 7 day.

We’re also going to get insight into the future of key technologies like .NET, the next version of C# and Visual Studio, the Oslo modeling platform, Microsoft’s plans for identity management, and plenty more.

I’ll be blogging and tweeting as I can during PDC. I’m also keen to know what you think, whether or not you happen to be here in LA (the keynotes are being streamed over the Internet).

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UK job stats show Java decline

Long-time readers of this blog may recall that I occasionally track IT job vacancies at Jobserve. There may be better sites to track; but it carries a lot of vacancies, and I need to be consistent. I started in early 2002 with the goal of seeing how much adoption Microsoft was winning for its .NET technology. In March 2002, there were 153 vacancies which mentioned C#, versus 2092 for Java.

Since then, C# has grown steadily. Today it overtook Java for the first time (in my random and infrequent visits). There are 2206 C# vacancies, 2066 Java.

I also noticed that the absolute number of vacancies has declined substantially since my last visit, but Java by more than C#. The economy, I guess.

Is Microsoft really sweeping all before it? Well, no. Vista has disappointed; Apple sales grow ever higher; Netcraft’s web server survey shows a decline in the percentage of IIS sites on the Internet in September 2008 and observes that 75% of new web sites coming online use Apache. So it is a matter of what statistic you want to pick. Nevertheless, there is clearly still a lot of C# development out there.

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Amazon’s cloud services growing up, sending out spam

Amazon made multiple cloud announcements yesterday, just ahead of anything Microsoft might be pitching at PDC next week. The Elastic Compute Cloud is out of beta; there’s beta support for Windows 32-bit or 64-bit at $0.125 per hour; there’s a new web-based management console; and new automatic load balancing and scaling.

The last points may be the most significant. Smooth scaling is one of the toughest problems for any enterprise or busy web site. On demand scaling is totally compelling.

There’s still something missing. What if the service goes down? SLAs, sure, but saying to the boss “we’ve got an SLA” is little help if your business is losing thousands every hour through unavailability. I’d like to see something about failover to a non-Amazon service, or some convincing reason why we won’t see repeats of the downtime that has afflicted Amazon a couple of times already this year.

Here’s another sign the service is growing up. WordPress comment moderation shows me some basic info about the source IP of comment posters, and I noticed an item of spam yesterday that was sourced from an Amazon EC2 server:

No, it wasn’t one of the new Windows VMs! I traced it to a Swedish site running Plone, emailed the company to point out the problem but haven’t yet had a response. The spam itself makes no sense; probably a test.

Update: I received an explanation from the site:

We have been running a proxy on EC2 that rewrites certain websites for demo purposes. It has just been up for a few days, but it seems that someone thought it was a nice way to relay spam (we only proxy port 80, so just the message board kind).

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Mobile phone wastage

According to a release today from Moneysupermarket.com, promoting its recycling service, two-thirds of us (in the UK) don’t recycle old handsets. The worrying aspect of this is that handsets include some nasty chemicals (mostly in batteries) which should be disposed of safely. Many people either don’t know or don’t care about the regulations and throw old phones in the bin, whereupon they end up in landfill. Of course you could say the same about laptops, iPods, shavers, and no end of other electronic devices with rechargeable batteries. Moneysupermarket.com made a model out of old phones to make the point (that’s London’s Post Office Tower in the background):

I am not sure about the recycling service – you might do better on eBay, except for worthless old devices. Still, I do think this is a problem that should be addressed. I hate the casual manner in which we chuck poison into landfill, risking it finding its way into the foodchain. A good start would be to regulate against the business model of the major telecom providers, which subsidises the hardware thus encouraging users to change their devices long before they are really worn out.

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