Windows trackpad annoyances: disappearing pointer, auto clicking

Today the mouse pointer disappeared on my Toshiba laptop running Windows 7 disappeared. I could see that the trackpad or mouse (it made no difference if I plugged in a USB mouse) was working, because I could see mouseover effects as I moved round the screen, but the actual pointer was not visible.

The immediate workaround is to go to Control Panel, search for Mouse, and click Make it easier to see the mouse pointer. Tab to Display Pointer Trails and press the spacebar. This lets you see the mouse at least while it is moving. It disappears again when stationary.


It’s definitely an improvement; but not a complete fix. What is? Well, rebooting; but the problem may recur. Things that might help: tweaking display settings, updating the video driver, avoiding hibernation. If anyone has a definitive fix, I’d love to hear.

While I’m on the subject, here’s another constant annoyance. Every new laptop install of Windows 7 that I’ve seen has a feature called tapping enabled. This converts taps on your touchpad into mouse clicks. It is the first thing I turn off. The reason it drives me crazy is that it always detects unintended taps. The consequences are severe: buttons appear to click themselves, dialogs close unexpectedly, work can even be lost.

Worse still, it is not an easy setting to find. First, you must have the proper driver installed – usually its a Synaptics driver, though downloaded from your laptop vendor’s site. Second, you have to go to Control Panel, Mouse, Change Mouse Settings, Advanced tab, click Advanced Feature Settings, then click Settings under Detailed Settings for Touch Pad operations, then uncheck Enable Tapping. At least, that’s how it is on mine; the path may vary slightly on others.


This is a setting that should be off by default; and a setting that should be easy to find, not buried under obscure labels like “Advanced”.

I have lost count of the number of people who have been delighted when I’ve showed them how to disable this feature. “Thank you; I wondered why it kept clicking by itself.”

Fragmentation and the RIA wars: Flash is the least bad solution

The latest salvo in the Adobe Flash wars comes from the Free Software Foundation, in an open letter to Google:

Just think what you can achieve by releasing the VP8 codec under an irrevocable royalty-free license and pushing it out to users on YouTube? You can end the web’s dependence on patent-encumbered video formats and proprietary software (Flash) … Apple has had the mettle to ditch Flash on the iPhone and the iPad – albeit for suspect reasons and using abhorrent methods (DRM) – and this has pushed web developers to make Flash-free alternatives of their pages. You could do the same with YouTube, for better reasons, and it would be a death-blow to Flash’s dominance in web video.

Fair point; but one thing the FSF misses is that Apple’s stance has not only “pushed web developers to make Flash-free alternatives of their pages”. It has also pushed developers into making Apple-specific apps as an alternative to web pages – which to my mind is unfortunate.

The problem goes beyond web pages. If you have an application that goes beyond HTML and JavaScript, maybe for offline use or to integrate with other local applications or hardware, there is no cross-platform solution for the iPhone, iTouch or forthcoming iPad.

While I understand that non-proprietary platforms are preferable to proprietary platforms, it seems to me that a free cross-platform runtime is less evil than a vendor-controlled platform where I have to seek approval and share income with the vendor just to get my app installed.

More broadly, it is obvious that the days of Windows on the desktop, Web for everything else are over. We are seeing a proliferation of devices, each with their own SDK: alongside Apple there is Palm WebOS, Nokia/Intel Meego, Google Android, and when Windows Phone 7 comes along, Microsoft Silverlight.

The question: if you have an application and want to reach all these platforms, what do you do? A web app if possible; but otherwise?

It is the new fragmentation; and frankly, Adobe Flash is the closest thing we have to a solution, particularly with the native compilation option for iPhone that is coming in Creative Suite 5.

I don’t like the idea of a single company owning the runtime that unifies all these platforms. That’s not healthy. Still, at least Adobe is currently independent of the obvious industry giants: Google, Apple, Microsoft, IBM and so on.

Dealing a death-blow to Flash is all very well, but the end result could be something worse.

VMWare: the cloud is private

I attended this morning’s VMWare roundtable, debating the rather silly proposition that IT should be removed from the boardroom agenda. To be fair, even VMWare does not really believe this, but is arguing that its virtualisation technology makes IT service provision so trouble-free that the board can focus on IT as it advances their business, rather than just keeping the show on the road. I don’t believe that either, though no doubt it can help. It was nevertheless interesting to hear Jim Fennell, Information Systems Manager for the Lagan Group, explain how his virtual infrastructure allowed him to run up servers or applications such as SharePoint on demand, with internal charges based on usage.

The very definition of a private cloud, in fact; and this chimed nicely with some other research I’ve been doing on cloud security. Current cloud computing models are flawed, for the following reason among others.

So-called private clouds do not relieve organisations of the IT burden, though they may simplify it, and do not fully yield the benefits of multi-tenancy, elasticity and economies of scale except perhaps in the case of the largest enterprises, or governments.

On the other hand, public clouds are also flawed, because the customer retains legal responsibility for their data but loses operational responsibility. That split surfaces in debates about SLAs, legal liability and consequential loss, compliance with regulations concerning data location and segregation, and conflicts over whether customers should have the right to audit their cloud provider’s technology and security practices. The public cloud is not yet mature; it lacks the standards and regulatory frameworks that it needs, though work is being done.

VMWare may not mind about this, because it has positioned itself as the first choice for technology to drive private clouds. I talked to Chief Operating Office Tod Nielsen (formerly of Microsoft) after the event, and he told me that the majority of enquiries from potential customers relate to setting up private cloud infrastructures.

Another big growth area is desktop virtualisation, where customers with thousands of aging PCs running Windows XP want their next desktop upgrade to be their last, and see virtual desktops as a route to that goal.

I am intrigued by the desktop issue, since maintaining desktop PCs remains a significant maintenance challenge. The rise of non-PC devices is also relevant here. Isn’t the future more in pure web applications – perhaps enhanced with RIA technologies like Flash and Silverlight – rather than in virtual desktops? Nielsen said that the huge numbers of legacy applications out there made this impossible in the near future.

Nevertheless, you can see how VMWare is planning for more of a pure web play longer term, with acquisitions such as the Java application framework Springsource. One idea that was mentioned during the roundtable was a sort of server app market, where you can plug in pre-built applications into VMWare’s ESX platform.

Finally, one side-effect of increasing desktop virtualisation, in Nielsen’s view, is that more users will choose to run Apple Macs as the host. He also says that the number one customer request, in the weeks since Apple’s announcement, is for iPad support for their virtual clients. Make of that what you will.

What’s on at Mix 2010 – some surprises as Microsoft talks standards

Microsoft’s Mix conference is on next month – probably the company’s second most interesting conference after PDC, though this Mix looks rather better than last year’s relatively drab PDC (free laptops aside). The company has plenty to talk about, primarily around Windows Phone development – twelve sessions! – Internet Explorer 9, and Silverlight 4. Mix is meant to be a web design conference – though it has always strayed extensively into Windows-only territory – and the inclusion of Windows Phone is a bit of a stretch, but I doubt attendees will care.

It’s notable that Microsoft is making more than a nod to web standards and open source. There is a full day workshop from Molly Holzschlag on HTML5 Now: The Future of Web Markup Today, John Resig on How jQuery Makes Hard Things Simple, and Doug Schepers from the W3C with Microsoft’s Patrick Dengler on SVG: The Past, Present and Future of Vector Graphics for the Web; Christian Heilmann on Participating in the Web of Data with Open Standards; and not forgetting Miguel de Icaza on The Mono Project.

Why would Microsoft talk about such things? Arguably it is a kind of smokescreen, talking standards while busily promoting proprietary stuff like SharePoint and Silverlight. I think there is some of that; but that this new focus also reflects power shifts in the industry. In the new cloud-based era Microsoft has to compete with Google, Mozilla and others; and to make sure that its stuff works in some measure on a diversity of clients, from Android to iPhone. Note the session on Practical Strategies for Debugging Cross-Browser Display Issues.

I would not call this a conversion. I would say this is more about “Windows if we can, standards if we must”. That necessity is increasing though, and the sessions at Mix reflect that.

Mono Tools for Visual Studio: code on Windows, run on Linux

I have just com across Mono Tools, a Novell add-in for Visual Studio that lets you test Mono compatibility. It adds a Mono menu which has options to run locally or remotely in Mono, analyze for compatibility issues, and create deployment packages. No sign of Mac support, which is a missed opportunity, but understandable given that Novell owns SUSE Linux.

For those few still unfamiliar with Mono, it is an open source implementation of Microsoft’s .NET Framework, enabling your .NET applications to run on other platforms. One compelling use is to have your ASP.NET web applications run on the free Apache web server, rather than Microsoft’s IIS.


Mono Tools works with both Windows Forms and web projects.


This is just the sort of thing Mono needs to move it further into the mainstream, though another less welcome sign of business acceptance is that this is a commercial product, currently costing $99.00 for an individual or $249.00 per seat in an organization. There is also an Ultimate edition at $2,499, which comes with a commercial non-LGPL license to redistribute Mono.

The Mono Tools team is now looking for testers for its 1.1 edition, which supports Visual Studio 2010.

Microsoft rolls out its browser choice update – but which is really the best?

Microsoft is rolling out its EU-required Browser Choice update. File under industry madness; but one thing I found interesting was the choice of words used by each vendor to market their browser.


I only saw the top five in Microsoft’s post; but here are the words:

Google Chrome: A fast new browser. Made for everyone.

Mozilla Firefox: Your online security is Firefox’s top priority. Firefox is free, and made to help you get the most out of the web.

Safari: Safari for Windows from Apple, the world’s most innovative browser.

Internet Explorer 8: The world’s most widely used browser. IE8 makes your web experience safer and easier than ever.

Opera: The powerful and easy-to-use web browser. Try the only browser with Opera Turbo technology, and speed up your internet connection.

Needless to say, there is little here that would really guide a user’s choice, though there is a “tell me more” link for each. It’s also worth bearing in mind that the target readership is the subset of computer users who did not realise until now that they could install a web browser other than IE.

Still, Google is right to emphasise speed; that is the main reason I use it. It is also my first choice for sites that do not render properly in IE. Firefox plays the security card, trading on recent public fretting over IE insecurities, but doesn’t mention its real strength: rich add-on availability. Microsoft is bland as usual; Apple says nothing of note; and Opera talks about some strange feature called Turbo.

But which browser should a user choose? Personally I leave IE as default and run up one of the others as I want to; this fits with my instinct to keep Windows running as closely as possible to how its designers intended. My most-used browsers after that are Chrome and Firefox; I rarely touch Safari or Opera, though both are installed.

Windows Phone 7 development rumours abound

News about the Windows Phone 7 development platform is leaking out, ahead of its official unveiling at the Mix conference next month. Rumour has it that both Silverlight and the XNA gaming framework will be supported, for creating consumer-focused applications, together with limited access to native APIs subject to Microsoft’s specific approval.

The controversial aspect, if these ideas prove to be accurate, is lack of compatibility with existing applications. It seems possible that C++ applications written for previous versions of Windows Mobile will not run, while those written for the Compact Framework will need porting to the Silverlight UI.

While there is little love for Windows Mobile, it is used for business applications where it integrates well with the rest of Microsoft’s platform. Since Windows Phone 7 seems to target the consumer, Microsoft may argue that this does not matter, since businesses can continue to use Windows Mobile. You would imagine, though, that enthusiasm for continuing with Windows Mobile will be limited given the superior usability of Windows Phone 7. Maybe a professional edition to follow in 2011?

One thing we know for sure is that Adobe Flash is not supported in the first release, though Microsoft says it is not opposed to it appearing on the platform in future. That in itself is interesting, since Adobe is hardly likely or able to rewrite Flash in Silverlight or XNA. Will certain important developers have privileged access to a wider range of native APIs? Despite rumours, there is still plenty to speculate about.

Why I don’t want to view through an app

The BBC has announced mobile apps for BBC content, the first being for the iPhone. There is a demo posted by David Madden here:

Our aim is to develop core public service apps that bring some of the BBC’s most popular and distinctive content to mobile in a genuinely user-friendly and accessible way.

In another post Erik Huggers explains our mobile future.

I have reservations about this approach, and wonder if the BBC has been unduly influenced by Apple’s iPhone marketing – “there’s an app for that.” The iPlayer desktop application makes perfect sense for downloading and viewing video offline; but why make an app to view a web site? I can think of several objections:

1. It introduces inequality between devices. So iPhone is first. Blackberry and Android are mentioned. What about Palm WebOS? What about Windows Phone 7? Maybe Flash can help with that as a common runtime; but Flash won’t be on Windows Phone in its first release. Older devices will be left behind, even where they have decent web browsers.

2. It breaks the web. Well, one app does not break the web. But if every major web site decides it has to deliver its content through an app, what happens to hyperlinks? You can go from app to Web, I imagine, but if the target site also delivers its best mobile content through an app, what then? Imagine what the web would be like if, instead of browsing, you were constantly app-switching.

3. It moves mobile to a separate world. The truth is, there isn’t a hard and fast distinction between a mobile device and a desktop device. A laptop is mobile, but more like a desktop in terms of web browsing. What about the iPad? What about all the new form factors coming down the line? There isn’t any more reason to have apps for mobile devices than there is for desktop devices.

4. It distracts investment away from what the BBC should be doing: optimising its web site for mobile, and degrading gracefully for less powerful web browsers.

Are there cases where a BBC app might make sense? Maybe a special for the 2012 olympics, that delivers the latest results, for example? Quite possibly; but what concerns me is the idea that apps become the main way to view BBC content on a phone, rather than the web browser. It is a bad precedent, and one that I hope is not imitated by others.

Google’s strategy unveiled: a little bit of everything you do

Google CEO Eric Schmidt gave a keynote address at the Mobile World Congress yesterday, which is worth watching if you have an interest in the future of technology or, well, human life.


The talk was an informative and open insight into Google’s future direction. It was centred on mobile; but since Google now regards the mobile phone as the primary device for how we interact with the world, that was no limitation. Google is putting mobile first, said Schmidt, because it is the meeting point for the three things that matter: computing, connectivity and the cloud. He believes that phones will replace credit cards, for example, as they are smarter and more secure for financial transactions.

Google’s strategy is to combine the near-unlimited power of server-side computing with its database of human behaviour, to create devices that are “like magic. All of a sudden there are things you can do that were not previously possible.”

He gave an illuminating example: Google voice search. You speak into your phone, and Google transcribes your voice and performs a search. Voice recognition is nothing new, but the difference in the Google demo is that it works. Here’s how. The problem with voice recognition is that one word sounds very like another, especially since we do not speak with precision and every voice varies. Computers cannot understand exactly what we say, but they can use dictionaries to come up with a set of possibilities for what we said, one of which is likely to be correct.


The next step is the brilliant one. Google takes this set of possible phrases and compares it to recent Google searches. If one of them matches a popular search, then it is likely to be what you said. Bingo. Google now does this in four languages, with German demonstrated for the first time yesterday.

It works on the assumption that humans are not very original. We tend to do similar things, and to be interested in similar things. Therefore, as Schmidt noted, if you are a tourist walking around a city with your location-aware phone, Google does not only know where you are; it also has a good idea of where you will go next.

Another cool demo is for image recognition. We saw this in two guises. In one, you hold up your phone and do an image search using the camera as input. Result: information about the building you are looking at. [Or maybe the person? Hmm.]

In another demo, you point the camera at your foreign-language menu as you ponder which incomprehensible dish might be one you could eat. Back comes the translation in your own language.

Note that these demonstrations are not really about super-powerful phones, but rather about the other two factors mentioned above, the power of cloud computing combined with a vast database of knowledge.

Schmidt’s blind spot is that he does not really see privacy as an issue. He mentions it from time to time; but he is clear that he regards the trade-off, that we give our personal data to Google in return for these cool services, as worth it. I posted a remarkable quote yesterday. Here’s another one, from late on in the address:

Google will know more about the customer because it benefits the customer if we know more about them.

What Schmidt fails to do is to extrapolate the implications for stuff other than cool services. One is what happens if that huge database is used dishonourably. Another is the huge competitive advantage it gives to Google versus everyone else; Google has this data, but rest of us do not. A third is how that data could be used in ways that disadvantage us. An example is in insurance. Insurance is about pooling risk. The more data insurance companies have about you, the more accurately they can assess the risk, which means a wider range of premiums. If by some mechanism insurance companies are able to analyse Google’s data to assess risk, they can refuse to insure, or charge high penalties, for the higher risks. We won’t necessarily enjoy that, because it means more us may find it impossible to get the insurance we want at a price we can afford.

Google’s business strategy

That’s the technical side. What are Google’s business plans? Schmidt made some interesting comments here as well, many of them in the question and answer session.

Google does not plan to become a mobile operator. Schmidt received some fairly hostile questions on this topic. Since Google positions operators as dumb pipes, stealing their talk minutes and insisting on an open web for services, who will invest in infrastructure? Schmidt denies positioning operators as dumb pipes, but does not leave them room for much other than infrastructure; he says they might have a role in financial transactions.

How do we (both Google and the rest of us) make money? Two main areas, according to Schmidt. One is advertising. He says that online advertising spend is currently one tenth of the total, and that this proportion must grow since “consumers are moving from offline to online.” In addition, mobile advertising will be huge since you can target location as well as using other data to personalise ads. “The local opportunity is much larger, and largely unexplored,” he says.

The other big opportunity is apps. The number of apps that need to be installed locally is constantly diminishing, he says, leaving great potential for new cloud-based applications and services.

As for Google, Schmidt says it wants to be part of everything you do:

We want to have a little bit of Google in every transaction on the internet

Thought-provoking stuff, and a force that will be hard to resist.

So who can compete with Google? Making equally capable phones is easy; building an equally good database of human intentions not so much, particularly since it is self-perpetuating: the more we all use Google, the better it gets.

No wonder Microsoft is piling money into Bing, with limited success so far. No wonder Apple’s Steve Jobs is concerned:

On Google: We did not enter the search business, Jobs said. They entered the phone business. Make no mistake, they want to kill the iPhone. We won’t let them, he says. Someone else asks something on a different topic, but there’s no getting Jobs off this rant. I want to go back to that other question first and say one more thing, he says. This don’t be evil mantra: "It’s bullshit." Audience roars.

Eric Schmidt: we can literally know everything

I am watching Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s keynote at the Mobile World Congress today. I am only 10 minutes in, but I was struck by these comments, as he talks about improving connectivity across the internet:

Think of it as an opportunity to instrument the world. These networks are now so pervasive that we can literally know everything if we want to. What people are doing, what people care about, information that’s monitored, we can literally know it if we want to, [pauses, lowers voice] and if people want us to know it.

A comment full of resonance. Who is “we”? You and I? or Google? The enthusiasm for knowing everything about everything, the reluctant-sounding concession to privacy at the end. The sheer bravado of it; the word “literally”, which means in actual fact, without hyperbole; and yet which is obvious hyperbole.

For another view on this, see The Onion’s piece on Google’s opt-out village.