OpenDocument comes to Microsoft Word and Excel

After the intense interest in OOXML vs ODF during last year’s ISO document standardisation wars, I’m surprised that the inclusion of OpenDocument support in the newly-released Office 2007 SP2 has attracted so little attention. Well, not really surprised. The general public doesn’t care much about document formats as such, just that the documents they send and receive open OK. The anti-OOXML fervour was about exploiting a chink in the armour of Microsoft’s de facto near-monopoly in Office suites.

Well, Microsoft has ticked the box now. I haven’t done exhaustive tests; but I did some sanity checks. I opened a .docx (OOXML) in Word, saved it as OpenDocument Text; opened in, saved it out to a new .odt document, opened that in Word, saved it out as docx. And you know what? It looks the same. Even the styles are still there. What’s more the conversion was fast and convenient, just a Save As. All in all, a contrast with the wretched experience I had with the earlier Microsoft-sponsored converter.

Next, I tried a small stress-test; a .doc bidding card for Contract Bridge that has some tricky tables. This document crashed WordPerfect’s .odt converter. Word could happily save it as .odt and reopen. Opening the exported .odt in OpenOffice showed some minor differences – part of the table went slightly out of alignment, as the illustration shows (Word is on the left, OpenOffice 3.0 on the right), but nothing drastic.

Is this the end of the format wars? Not quite; there is still a long list of features not supported by the conversion, and if you want an easy life it still pays to stay with one vendor’s Office suite. My impression though is that Microsoft has done a decent job, and that for everyday documents the conversion will work as expected.

For the OpenDocument crowd, getting the format incorporated into Microsoft Office is a victory of sorts, but not the real goal, which is to establish it as the universal document format. Microsoft is betting that its inclusion will help it sell Office, but that customers will still mostly use .doc or .docx (and the Excel equivalents). If enough institutions mandate OpenDocument, that bet could yet fail, but right now that looks unlikely.


Ivan Zlatev reports on a less successful import here.

Update 2

While word processing import and export is reasonable in some circumstances, there is a deal-breaking problem with spreadsheet import and export: all formulae are either ignored or broken. That is, you can save from Excel to .ods, open in Calc, and get cells like msoxl:=SUM(C6:C8) (in plain text). You can save from Calc, open in Excel, and find formulae converted to plain text. If you save and open sheets from Excel, but in .ods format, it works; the clue why is in the rendering. It appears Microsoft has stuck by the letter of the standard, which does not specify how formulae work, but broken any kind of meaningful interoperability.

Microsoft’s Outlook 2007 SP2 speed report

The poor performance of Outlook 2007 has driven many users to Google for solutions, and a good proportion arrive at this blog, which is why there are nearly 200 comments to this post.

Microsoft says it has fixed the problems with Office 2007 Service Pack 2 – though this comment disagrees. Personally I’ve not installed SP2 yet, but I did apply a February update which as I understand it has most of the performance fixes, and I’ve found noticeable improvement.

On my 64-bit desktop, with Outlook 2007 set with cached mode turned off (not the default) I’m enjoying excellent performance despite a huge mailbox.

Microsoft has sponsored a benchtest [pdf] that shows (as you would expect) substantial speed gains in SP2, and claims that the number of disk writes the latest Outlook makes is much reduced. There’s also a performance tip buried in there: turn the To-Do bar off if you want best responsiveness.

I’m sceptical about tests like this which often don’t match real-world experience. I wonder if the testers had anti-virus software running, as highly recommended by Microsoft, but which slows down performance a lot particularly where there is intensive disk activity.

Still, it’s encouraging that Microsoft has taken the problem seriously.


I installed SP2 shortly after writing this post. So far, no noticeable impact on Outlook vs the February update.

Windows 7: on sale pre-installed from October 2009

Windows 7 will be on sale pre-installed from 23rd October 2009, according to plausible leaks. So much for “when it’s ready.” You heard it from me first though: on 29th October 2008 I posted that Windows 7 may be less than a year away.

The OEM vendors need at least a couple of months to prepare and distribute their machines with the release build. Vista was done on November 8th 2006, even though it was not “launched” until January. RTM July for Windows 7?

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Bob Dylan in Birmingham, April 2009

I made my pilgrimage to see Dylan last night, at the National Indoor Arena in Birmingham.

I call it a pilgrimage because first, I am in awe of the man, and second, my expectations in terms of entertainment are modest. He does gruff these days – very gruff. That’s how it is, and you have to get over it or not go.

I started my evening with a drink at the Prince of Wales, a traditional pub in the middle of Birmingham’s urban desert. It felt very much as it did a couple of years ago when I last saw Dylan. Mostly older fans, and many of the ones I spoke to had not seen Dylan for years; 1978 in one case. I did meet a hard core fan though, who had already seen Dylan at Sheffield and at the Roundhouse in London. Sheffield was better, he said.

Dylan’s new CD is just out. I asked the tour veteran if he would play anything from it. “No chance.” Why not? “Because he’s crackers. He really is”.

I turn down a programme at £12 and a poster at £7. I still want a souvenir, so I pick up a free flyer instead. My ticket is an eticket, which lacks soul; I found myself picking up someone else’s discarded ticket at the end as a memento (I still have my Earls Court ticket from 27th June 1981; great memories).

I am seated in the middle of the stalls, just in front of the soundboard. It is a good spot for sound, but my advice if you go to see Dylan is to get as close to the front as possible. Otherwise, you will be surrounded by chatterers, as I was. Pleasant people I am sure; but I did not spend my money to hear them. One woman tried to engage me in conversation during Stuck inside of Mobile. She saw me taking notes and said, “Are you putting all this on Facebook?”

All this highlights the problem with this kind of concert: Dylan is out of sorts with his audience. He plays keyboard most of the night and faces sideways across the stage, maybe signifying lack of engagement. I enjoyed the concert, mostly, and at times it was outstanding. Gruff Bob works best on songs like Workingman’s Blues and Ain’t Talkin’. Mystical and powerful. But many of those present do not know these songs and do not respond. Unfortunately, the songs they do respond to, like Mobile, or Highway 61 are all too often performed as throwaways; enjoyable, but much less than Dylan is capable of.

Dylan’s fairground keyboard conveys a cheery mood – almost too cheery for my taste. I prefer my It’ Ain’t Me Babe or Man in the Long Black Coat dark and intense. His voice is still powerful though. I am convinced that at the right moment Dylan can be as utterly transcendent in 2009 as ever in his career.

Desolation Row – not a great performance, but I love to hear this song. The lyrics are endlessly fascinating. The big acoustic bass works well.

Towards the end we get Watchtower, a favourite of mine. “Nobody knows what any of it is worth”, sings Dylan. The point is reinforced when I pass a couple of fans on my way back to the station. “I’m sorry it wasn’t very good”, one says to his friend. I say nothing of course, but I am surprised by my internal reaction. What do you mean? YOU JUST SAW BOB DYLAN.

The set list:

The Wicked Messenger
It Ain’t Me, Babe
High Water
Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again
Man In The Long Black Coat
Desolation Row
Honest With Me
Workingman’s Blues
Highway 61 Revisited
Ballad Of A Thin Man
Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)
Ain’t Talkin’
Thunder On The Mountain
Like A Rolling Stone

All Along The Watchtower
Spirit On The Water  
Blowin’ In The Wind

Signing into Windows Live with CardSpace

Roger Jennings shares his frustration that after nearly two years in beta, Information Card management for Windows Live still does not work reliably.

I’ve tried this before, but since switching to 64-bit Vista I’ve not used CardSpace. I had another look.

My first experience was poor. I headed to the card management page, entered the details of a Live ID, and clicked Change. Internet Explorer appeared to hang. I then tried to open CardSpace in Control Panel, but it gave me an error message. I looked in the event log and found a series of event 269 errors, with the message:

The Windows CardSpace service is too busy to process this request.  User has too many outstanding requests.

along with a .NET stack trace.

Undeterred, I rebooted and tried again. I took the precaution of adding a card to CardSpace before visting the sign-up page. Everything worked, and I associated a new card with my Live ID.

Here’s how it works now. Let’s say I’m not logged in and I try to visit a Live property such as SkyDrive, my favourite:

I get redirected to the Live sign-in page, where I can choose between password and information card in a drop-down menu:

I still have to type my email address. I’m not sure why that’s necessary, since the email address is also on the card. Still, I go ahead and then get to select a card. The dialog appears on the secure desktop, always a slightly jarring experience. I choose the one associated with Windows Live, which happens to be the only card I have:

Shortly after, I’m in:

Did I gain anything over typing the password? In terms of user experience, not really. Still, I never typed my password, which means it could not be phished. Even if I attempted to send my self-issued card to a fake site, it still would not be any use to the phishing site. If I could use the same card for multiple sites, and had cards from trusted third-party identity providers, then I would begin to benefit further. This paper from 2006 – three years ago – has more information.

Whenever I’ve researched CardSpace or talked to its champion Kim Cameron I’ve been impressed. It’s tough for journalists though, since the system is hard to explain in a few words, and few people understand it. It is even harder because Microsoft has done so little to promote it. Further, if both Jennings and myself had problems using it, that does not say much for the reliability of the client. Since rebooting my PC fixed it, it suggests the problems may not be at the end, but it is hard to tell. Overall, an opportunity squandered.

Faking synchronous web service calls in Silverlight

I ran into a small but thought-provoking problem in my sample Silverlight database application. I wanted to call a web service, and only call a second web service if the first was successful. The problem is that all web service calls are asynchronous, so you cannot do this with a simple if statement. The quick fix I used was to store my intended operation in a PendingOperation variable. When the first web service completes, it checks for a pending operation. If the first call succeeds and finds a pending operation, it calls the second web service to complete it.

My workaround is OK, but it got me thinking about the best way of doing this. What if you had a sequence of web services to call, and wanted to check for the success of each one before proceeding to the next? I discussed this on the Silverlight forums and was directed to this article by Daniel Vaughan which describes how to do this in a background thread. I haven’t tried his code yet; but it strikes me that this could be useful; I’d like to see Microsoft build something like it into the core framework. Since all the calls take place on a background thread, there is no danger of locking up the user interface.

If RIA programming is as important as some suggest we will have to get used to this kind of problem.

A Silverlight database application with image upload

I’ve been amusing myself creating a simple online database application using Silverlight. I had this mostly working a while back, but needed to finish off some pieces in order to get it fully functional.

This is created using Silverlight 2.0 and demonstrates the following:

  • A bound DataGrid (as you can see, work is still needed to get the dates formatted sensibly).
  • Integration with ASP.NET authentication. You have to log in to see the data, and you have to log in with admin rights to be able to update it.
  • Create,Retrieve,Update,Delete using ASP.NET web services.
  • Image upload using Silverlight and an ASP.NET handler.
  • Filter a DataGrid (idea taken from here).
  • Written in Visual Studio 2008, and hosted on this site, which runs Debian Linux, hence Mono and MySQL. Would you have known if I had not told you?

You can try it here. I’ll post the code eventually, but it will be a couple of months as it links in with another article.

MVP Ken Cox notes in a comment to Jesse Liberty’s blog:

Hundreds of us are scouring the Internet for a realistic (but manageable and not over-engineered) sample of manipulating data (CRUD operations) in a Silverlight 2 application. There are promising pieces of the puzzle scattered all over the place. Unfortunately, after investing time in a sample, we discover it lacks a key element – like actually saving changed data back to the database.

I can safely say that mine is not over-engineered, and that yes, it does write data.

Microsoft disabling USB AutoRun in Windows 7 RC

It’s so easy. Install your virus or worm on a USB memory stick, set it to run automatically via AutoRun. An obvious security risk, and I’m surprised that Microsoft hasn’t already disabled the feature by default in a security update or service pack for XP or Vista.

The company is finally paying attention:

AutoRun entries on non-optical removable storage devices have been disabled to ensure that you are able to make a considered decision before running software from removable media such as USB drives. Worms sometimes attempt to use AutoRun as a vehicle to install malicious software onto your computer. CDs and DVDs, which are not subject to worm injection after manufacturing, will continue to expose the AutoRun choice to enable you to launch the specified software.

says the press release for Windows 7 RC. Personally I think it should apply the same logic at least to writable CDs and DVDs. I’ve disabled AutoRun on my PCs and don’t miss it. I agree though that USB sticks are the biggest risk today – though a little bit of social engineering will probably persuade many users to run a setup file on a USB stick anyway.

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New in Windows 7 RC: Windows XP Mode, Remote Media Streaming

A new feature in Windows 7 has been announced as part of the Release Candidate rollout. Called XP Mode (XPM), it lets users run applications in a virtual instance of Windows XP itself, for excellent compatibility. Although not part of the retail Windows 7, XPM will be a free download or may be installed at no extra cost by PC vendors.

The neat aspect of this is that XP applications don’t have to run within an XP desktop, but can be published to the host system. What this means is that users can start an XP application from the Windows 7 desktop, and only see the application window. This is more user-friendly than having to cope with two operating systems at once.

The main advantage is compatibility. Since this really is XP, pretty much anything that works on XP should run correctly. That said, since the hardware is virtualized there could be issues with some devices, or with applications that require accelerated graphics.

Another aspect is security. For example, if you have some applications that do not work properly with UAC (User Account Control) enabled, you can run them in XP Mode rather than compromising the security of the entire system.

It is a clever move from Microsoft, since it will remove most compatibility concerns that could otherwise impede adoption.

Another interesting new feature is Remote Media Streaming:

Windows 7 offers new functionality called Remote Media Streaming that enables you to access your home-based digital media libraries over the Internet from another Windows 7-based computer outside the home. Simply associate two or more computers running Windows 7 with your online ID provider credentials (such as your Windows Live™ email address and password) and allow Internet access to your media.

says the press release. This feature extends to any PC in your home network, so if you have a fast enough connection you need never be parted from your music. Then again, you could just run Spotify. There’s also support for MOV files in Windows Media Player.

There’s a few more detail changes in the UI; I’ll report further when I’ve had a look.

Windows 7 RC will be released to Technet and MSDN subscribers on April 30th, and made generally available on May 5th.

Microsoft’s quarterly results: will it ever make sense of the cloud?

Most comments on Microsoft’s quarterly results are understandably focused on the overall picture: a quarterly revenue decline for the first time ever.

Revenue decline can be forgiven during a recession, but it’s more interesting to look at the breakdown. I made a simple quarter-on-quarter table to look at the pattern:

Quarter ending Mar 31st 2009 vs quarter ending March 31st 2008, $millions

Client Revenue % change Profit % change
Client (Windows) 3404 -15.6 2514 -19.29
Server and Tools 3467 7.07 1344 24.44
Online 721 14.47 -575 -154.42
Business (Office) 4505 -4.78 2877 -7.99
Entertainment and devices 1567 -1.57 -31 -129.25%

The weak Windows client figures are unsurprising. The poorly-received Windows Vista is out in the market, and the highly-praised Windows 7 is being prepared for release. When anyone asks me, I suggest that they should wait for Windows 7 before buying a new PC or laptop, if they are in a position to delay.

The Business division (Office) remains massively profitable, even though it too has declined a little. Office may be ludicrously expensive, but there’s little evidence of a significant shift to cheaper or free alternatives.

It’s also notable that the server and tools business continues to perform well. Again, I’m not surprised: Server 2008 strikes me as a solid product, and there’s not much wrong with products like SQL Server 2008 and Visual Studio.

Not much to say about entertainment and devices. Xbox is doing so-so; Windows Mobile is rather a mess.

The real shocker here is the online business. Revenue is down and losses have grown. It is no use just blaming the recession: this is a sector that is growing in importance. Should Microsoft back out and leave it to Google? That would be as if Kodak had refused to invest in digital photography. But something is badly wrong here.

That said, I’m guessing that the figures mostly represent the failure of the various Windows Live properties to attract advertising income; the small market share of Live Search must be an important factor. The newer cloud computing business model, where Microsoft sells subscriptions to its online platform and services, is largely still in beta – I’m thinking of things like Windows Azure and Live Mesh. Further, I’m not sure where Microsoft puts revenue from things like hosted Exchange or hosted Dynamics CRM, which straddle server and online. There is still time for the company to get this right.

I’m not convinced though that Microsoft yet has the will or the direction to make sense of its online business. Evidence: the way the company blows hot and cold about Live Mesh; the way SQL Server Data Services was scrapped and replaced by full online SQL Server at short notice; and the ugly and confusing web site devoted to Windows Azure.

When I looked at Virtual Earth recently I was impressed by its high quality and ease of development. It illustrates the point that within Microsoft there are teams which are creating excellent online services. Others are less strong; but what is really lacking is the ability to meld everything together into a compelling online platform.

That could change at any time; but we’ve been waiting a long while already.