Google flexes page rank muscles, hits Daily Express?

It’s been reported that the Daily Express newspaper is selling paid links, in other words links that look to Google’s web crawler like links from independent editorial, but in fact are paid for by advertisers.

The consequence of doing this, according to Google:

However, some SEOs and webmasters engage in the practice of buying and selling links that pass PageRank, disregarding the quality of the links, the sources, and the long-term impact it will have on their sites. Buying or selling links that pass PageRank is in violation of Google’s webmaster guidelines and can negatively impact a site’s ranking in search results.

I then saw a report saying that Google has indeed penalised the Daily Express. I checked the page rank of the Daily Express home page here and found that it is indeed lower than could be expected.


While it is difficult to say what the page rank should be, Alexa shows the Express site as among the top 15,000 worldwide and in the top 1000 in the UK, with over 4,000 incoming links.

Although the Daily Express is not to my taste, I have misgivings about this process. A significant proportion of web traffic comes via Google, and lower search rankings have a direct effect on traffic and therefore business. Exactly how Google determines search rankings is a commercial secret, even though the gist of how it works is well known. There is not much you can do if mistakes are made, other than to complain to Google and hope someone pays attention to you.

There is nothing illegal about selling paid links, and the article highlighted in the Express is marked as “Sponsored”. While it is right for Google not to count these links as genuine recommendations, I am less sure about whether there should be additional punishment for running them. It puts too much power to make and break other companies into the hands of Google.

Of course we don’t know if the low ranking is a result of the paid links or not; that is speculation. Nor do we know how closely the published page rank corresponds which how Google actually determines the order of search results. Looking at Alexa’s report, there’s no conclusive evidence of declining traffic, though Alexa’s figures are based on a relatively small sample.

Still, I get a ton of these paid link requests and this kind of story makes me glad that I always turn them down.

First look Outlook 2010 RTM – speed good, conversation view bad

I’ve been trying Office 2010. I use Outlook with Exchange 2007 and was interested to see how it compares to Outlook 2007.

In terms of things I care about, not much has changed. That said, it took me a long time to wrest good performance out of Outlook 2007 – which is why this blog is a top Google hit on “slow outlook 2007” – whereas the speed of Outlook 2010 seems fine right out of the box. I haven’t tried all the permutations though: cached and non-cached, 32 or 64 bit, and so on, so consider this only a preliminary impression.

One of the reasons is that the Outlook team has abandoned integration with Windows Desktop Search for online mailboxes:

The Search Toolbar add-in setup code is removed in Outlook 2010. The Search Toolbar add-in enables local indexing of online mode Exchange Server mailbox stores by using Windows Desktop Search. As a result of this change, e-mail in online Exchange mailboxes will not appear in the results of Windows Explorer searches. The online indexing add-in is a legacy component that adversely affects performance of Outlook during startup and shutdown. With this removed in Outlook 2010, users will experience improved Outlook reliability and significantly lower Exchange bandwidth usage. For fast search, use Cached Exchange Mode or for online mode, use Exchange Search in Exchange 2007 and later versions.

So what else is new? You can see a technical summary here. Outlook has now had the full Ribbon treatment, which I suppose is good for consistency, though plenty of annoyances remain. For example, let’s say you’re trying to figure out whether an email is genuine or not. I had one that gave me pause for thought, supposedly from The first thing I check is the message header – no, not the thing Outlook still calls the “message header”, which adds a couple of fields to the top bar. What I need to see is the email header, showing the origin of the message and its path across the Internet. I clicked around hopefully. Eventually I found it – you have to click the down arrow at bottom right of the Tags (huh?) section of the ribbon:


This opens what Outlook calls Properties, including the “Internet headers” which are what I want to see. The message was spam, by the way – it came from a domain that has nothing to do with Amazon:


Fortunately you can add this dialog to the Quick Access Toolbar. Simply go to Customize Quick Access Toolbar –> More commands, and add the Properties command. Except it’s not called Properties. The dialog is called Properties, but the command is called Message Options…


I am so used to this sort of thing with Outlook that I expect it; Outlook 2010 is no worse than its predecessor.

[Update: Ed Bott points out in the comments that you can also get to the Properties dialog through the File tab.]

Other new features include Quick Step macros – could be handy though I can’t think of a reason I will use it; connection to multiple Exchange accounts which will be excellent for those who need it, especially if you can use cached mode with all of them (I’ve not checked); and a bunch of stuff that only lights up if you have Exchange Server 2010, such as (at last) server-based archiving – no more archive.pst files littered around every machine you ever use.

I do want to mention one persistent disappointment though. Conversation view. Why can’t Outlook behave like a discussion forum, where each thread is grouped? In theory it can: just switch on Conversation View. In practice it is useless, because instead of using the In-Reply-To field that identifies a message which is a reply to another message, Outlook 2010 uses the subject line.

The subject line is hopeless as a means of defining conversations. Worse, it’s dangerous. Let’s say you’ve got an unimportant “conversation” with the subject “June 20th” – it’s about a meeting you don’t need to attend. Then you get an email also entitled “June 20th” from someone else; this one is critically important. By grouping it into the existing “conversation”, Outlook disguises its importance.

I recall being told at Microsoft’s PDC last November that the Outlook team was aware of this problem in the preview and it would be fixed somehow. However, when I switched Conversation View on briefly in Outlook 2010 RTM I saw exactly the same problem. I suppose there is a chance that upgrading to Exchange 2010 magically fixes it; this on the to-do list for me. For now, the solution is not to use Conversation View at all.

Office 2010 offers choice of Open Document or Microsoft XML formats

I was surprised to see the following dialog after an in-place upgrade of Office 2007 to Office 2010:


Admittedly there is a strong steer towards the Microsoft formats which, we are told, are “designed to support all the features of Microsoft Office”.

On the other hand, this was an in-place upgrade and default save options were already present in Office 2007. Given that most in-place upgrades preserve settings – which is part of the point of an in-place upgrade – you would expect it just to keep the old defaults.

I’m guessing therefore that this is aimed at appeasing/convincing regulators and governments that Microsoft Office plays nice with standards.

That said, there is little reason to choose the ODF format unless it is required. It will cause problems with formatting and content, and is especially risky with Excel spreadsheets.

If you want to use ODF, save money and get more complete support by using OpenOffice.

Update: Neowin has some background here.

Microsoft warns against installing 64-bit Office 2010 unless you really need it

Microsoft has released 64-bit Office 2010, at least to MSDN and Technet subscribers, with general availability to follow shortly. Now that 64-bit Windows is commonplace, you would think that 64-bit Office is the obvious choice.

Apparently not. Take a read of this technical note before installing 64-bit Office 2010. In essence, it recommends installing 32-bit Office, even on 64-bit systems, except in the following case:

If some users in your organization are Excel expert users who work with Excel spreadsheets that are larger than 2 gigabytes (GB), they can install the 64-bit edition of Office 2010. In addition, if you have in-house solution developers, we recommend that those developers have access to the 64-bit edition of Office 2010 so that they can test and update your in-house solutions on the 64-bit edition of Office 2010.

That’s a small niche. So what can go wrong if you decide to go 64-bit? First, it might not install:

If 32-bit Office applications are installed on a computer, a 64-bit Office 2010 installation is blocked by default.

says the tech note. In addition, if you manage to install it, you will have problems with 32-bit Access applications, 32-bit ActiveX controls and COM add-ins, in-place activation of documents where the OLE server is 32-bit, and VBA code that calls the Windows API. VBA deliberately disables API calls defined with the Declare statement; they must the updated with a PtrSafe attribute before they will run.

The Office install DVD includes both 32-bit and 64-bit versions, and the 32-bit version installs by default irrespective of the version of Windows.

Of course I will be trying 64-bit Office on a spare machine. I’m interested to know, for example, whether Outlook benefits from all that extra RAM, since it is notoriously slow. But overall, 64-bit Office 2010 looks more like a release to prepare the ground for the future, than one for normal use.

Mad or brilliant? Google Chrome OS will print via the cloud

Google Chrome OS, the operating system that is essentially a browser on a netbook, does not support printer drivers. Given the problems these things still cause, you might think that is a good thing. At least, until you want to print a Google map to give to a friend. Or an invoice to stick in the post. Or any of those other innumerable reasons for printing that we somehow find, even in the age of electronic documents.

The solution Google has come up with is called Cloud Print. You register your printer or printers with Google, then print over the internet. The printer might be a “cloud-aware printer”, none of which yet exist, which sits with its internet connection waiting for print jobs; or a “legacy printer” which works via a proxy running on a PC. Google will distribute this proxy with Google Chrome. The proxy gets the print job from Google, then prints using the local printer driver. Since Chrome OS does not have any printer drivers, the proxy cannot run on Chrome OS itself.

This is mad, of course, because it means that in order to print a document from Chrome OS to the printer sitting on the same local network, you have to send it to Google and back. If your internet connection goes down, you cannot print from Chrome OS at all.

Still, given that printers still have a habit of grinding and whirring a bit before actually printing, a little delay while a document travels to Google and back probably won’t upset you.

The brilliance of the idea is that cloud-aware printers will just work, and you can print to them from anywhere. If it’s your boarding pass, you are in New York and the printer is in London, that won’t help you much; but there are other scenarios where it might. Printing a receipt while away can be handy, for example; it won’t be needed until you do your accounts.

I like the way Google is thinking creatively about what it means to have a computer that is wholly cloud-centric. If it can make such a device usable, it will be revolutionary.

I don’t like the idea of having to sign into Google to print a document. Google says:

We expect other entities to provide their own cloud print services as well. Users associate printers with their Google Account via the service.

It’s another of these, “you are welcome to our standard” offers. In practice, signing permanently into Google will be the deal with Chrome OS, as it is to a large extent with Android. The whole thing revolves around your Google identity, which is why it pays Google to make the investment.

Adobe no longer investing in Flash compiler for iPhone, sings Android praises

Adobe’s Mike Chambers has posted about Apple’s new restriction on how applications are built for the iPhone or iPad. He says Adobe is ceasing development work on this feature:

We will still be shipping the ability to target the iPhone and iPad in Flash CS5. However, we are not currently planning any additional investments in that feature.

Of course he says “currently” so development could be resumed, presumably if the restriction is lifted.

He also suggests that Apple may be specifically targeting Flash despite the general wording of its notorious clause 3.3.1:

While it appears that Apple may selectively enforce the terms, it is our belief that Apple will enforce those terms as they apply to content created with Flash CS5.

Chambers spends much of his post saying how well Flash runs on Android – though Flash Player 10.1 and AIR 2.0 for Android are still in beta – and suggesting that Flash developers target Android instead.

The problem is that developers will go where their customers are. If Apple continues to increase its market share, its platform will continue to attract developers.

This is another instance of something I blogged about two years ago: the risk of building your business on a third-party platform. My post then was about Amazon, eBay and Facebook. Now the focus is on Apple. Other platforms like and Google have the same inherent problem.

I think this problem will get worse rather than better, as people migrate from general-purpose open platforms to more locked-down appliances.

Microsoft Expression Blend is too hard to learn

Expression Blend is the design tool for Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF) and Silverlight, and thus a key tool for building applications for the current generation of Microsoft’s platform. How good is it? There is a shortage of in-depth reviews, if my quick Google search is anything to go by, though there are plenty of quick write-ups saying that it is not as good as Adobe Flash. Blend got a bit of attention following the 2009 Mix conference thanks to SketchFlow, the prototyping feature built into Blend 3, and which has been well received.

One reason for Blend’s relatively low profile is that it is aimed at designers, whereas Microsoft’s community is more developer-focused. WPF developers can avoid Blend to a large extent, by using the designer built into Visual Studio, which is fine for laying out typical business applications. Now with Visual Studio 2010 the same is true for Silverlight. Another option is to write your own XAML code, which works for laying out controls though it is inconceivable for drawings. XAML is verbose

It is just as well you can avoid it, because although Blend is very capable, it is not easy to learn. I’m guessing there are quite a few developers who have opened it up, clicked around a bit, and retreated gratefully back to Visual Studio. This was a problem for Adobe Flash Professional as well, and one of the reasons for the creation of Flex and Flex Builder, a code-centric IDE for the Flash runtime.

You can argue that a design tool does not need to be easy for developers to use; it needs to be good enough for designers to create great designs. That’s true; but the developer/design divide is not a absolute one, and ideally Blend should be something a developer can dip into easily, to create or enhance a simple layout, without too much stress.

Maybe some developers can; but I have not found Blend particularly intuitive. The user interface is busy, and finding what you want or getting focus on the right object can be a challenge.

As evidence of this, take a look at Adam Kinney’s Through the Eyes of Expression Blend tutorial, which is among the best I have found. Try lesson 9, Styling and working with design-time data. Then ask yourself how easy it would be to discover the way to do this without the step-by-step instructions. Would you have known to right-click the StackPanel and choose Change Layout Type > Grid? What about step 8, right-clicking the ListBox, and selecting Edit Additional Templates > Edit Layout of Items (Items Panel) > Create Empty?


And notice how in step 9 you have to click the “small grey square next to the Source property”, that’s the one called Advanced Options:


Overall it is a nice tutorial, but you might need an evening or two with a couple of fat books, one on XAML and one on Blend itself (if you can find a good one), in order to understand the features you have have been using.

It is probably worth it, if you intend to work with Silverlight or WPF. Blend has one great advantage over Flash Professional: it authors XAML, and you can open it up in Visual Studio and continue working on it there. Microsoft has no need for something like Adobe Catalyst to bridge the XML/Designer divide.

Still, Microsoft had a clean slate with Blend, which is only a few years old, and it is a shame it could not come up with something a bit more user-friendly.

The other implication is that the new visual designer in Visual Studio 2010 makes Silverlight applications a great deal easier to create. You can Blend if you want to; but the Visual Studio effort is far more approachable.

How do you find Blend? I’d be interested in other perspectives.

Silverlight (and AIR) for MeeGo Linux coming in October?

Back in September 2009, Intel and Microsoft announced an official port of Silverlight for Linux, or at least for what was then Intel’s Moblin project, a Linux distribution tailored for netbooks. It was surprising to learn that this would be an official port using Microsoft’s code, as opposed to something based on Moonlight, the open source and also somewhat officially blessed version of Silverlight for Linux.

Since then I have been watching for more news about this Silverlight port, but heard nothing. Then in February Moblin merged with Nokia’s Maemo to become MeeGo. What next for the Silverlight port?

Earlier this week I met Intel’s Uli Dumschat at the company’s software conference in Barcelona. He spoke on Intel’s software development products for Atom-powered devices such as those running MeeGo. I asked him about Silverlight for MeeGo and he knew nothing about it.

It seems I was at the wrong conference. Today I spotted this post from Charlene Zvolanek at Intel’s Developer Forum in Beijing:

In May, the 1.0 version will be released, and with 1.1 coming out in October, there will be support for Silverlight, Java, and Air. Developers can write native or runtime apps that can be Java-based, Web-based, Silverlight-based, or Air-based. Even though it’s open source, Intel has been working closely with Microsoft to make sure that MeeGo and Windows are friends.

I also watched the keynote from Intel’s Renee James, who said that MeeGo devices are expected in the “second half of this year”, though I imagine they will be 1.0 devices – who knows, maybe 1.1 will be an upgrade option later.

So Silverlight on MeeGo now has a date. Is this Silverlight 4.0? Will it run out of browser? Access to local resources? Does this date apply to MeeGo Smartphones as well as netbooks? All good questions, about which I know nothing. Watch this space.

Silverlight 4 vs Silverlight 3: a little bit faster?

Microsoft’s Scott Guthrie spoke of “twice as fast performance” in the newly-released Silverlight 4, thanks to a new just-in-time compiler.

Performance is a hard thing to nail down. Maybe he meant that compilation is twice as fast? I’m not sure; but I tried a couple of quick tests.

First, I looked at my Primes test. Version 3 running in Windows Vista took around 0.40 seconds (the exact figure varies on each run, thanks to background processes or other factors). I then upgraded to version 4.0. No significant difference, on average over several runs. I used Vista because I’d already upgraded my Windows 7 install.

Next I tried Bubblemark. I maxed it out at 128 bubbles. On Vista with Silverlight 3 I got about 240 fps; on the same machine with Silverlight 4 about 260fps; about 8%.


Next I tried on an Apple Mac. My Mac Mini is less powerful, though not that bad, an Intel 1.83 Ghz Core Duo. On the Prime test I got 0.54 secs before, and 0.50 secs after the upgrade to 4.0, about 7.5% improvement. On Bubblemark, it was only 24 fps before and after.

I guess the vast difference in graphics performance is also interesting. It is not just Mac vs Windows; the Nvidia GeForce 6800 on the PC is more powerful than whatever is in the Mac Mini.

If anyone can tell me in what respect version 4.0 is twice as fast, I’d be grateful.

Update: prompted by the comment from David Heffernan below, I also tried the Encog Silverlight Benchmark. I used an older core duo laptop, since I am running out of machines to upgrade. I ran the test twice before upgrading, and twice after. Lower is better:

Silverlight 3.0: 22.0

Silverlight 4.0: 12.7

That’s about 42% better, where “twice as fast” would be 50% better, much closer to Guthrie’s claim. I guess it depends what you measure.

Silverlight 4.0 released to the web; tools still not final

Microsoft released the Silverlight 4.0 runtime yesterday. Developers can also download the Silverlight 4 Tools; but they are not yet done:

Note that this is a second Release Candidate (RC2) for the tools; the final release will be announced in the coming weeks.

Although it is not stated explicitly, I assume it is fine to use these tools for production work.

Another product needed for Silverlight development but still not final is Expression Blend 4.0. This is the designer-focused IDE for Silverlight and Windows Presentation Foundation. Microsoft has made the release candidate available, but it looks as if the final version will be even later than that for Silverlight 4 Tools.

Disappointing in the context of the launch of Visual Studio 2010; but bear in mind that Silverlight has been developed remarkably fast overall. There are huge new features in version 4, which was first announced at the PDC last November; and that followed only a few months after the release of version 3 last summer.

Why all this energy behind Silverlight? It’s partly Adobe Flash catch-up, I guess, with Silverlight 4 competing more closely with Adobe AIR; and partly a realisation that Silverlight can be the unifying technology that brings together web and client, mobile and desktop for Microsoft. It’s a patchy story of course – not only is the appearance of Silverlight on Apple iPhone or iPad vanishingly unlikely, but more worrying for Microsoft, I hear few people even asking for it.

Even so, Silverlight 4.0 plus Visual Studio 2010 is a capable platform; it will be interesting to see how well it is taken up by developers. If version 4.0 is still not enough to drive mainstream adoption, then I doubt whether any version will do it.

That also raises the question: how can we measure Silverlight take-up? The riastats charts tell us about browser deployment, but while that is important, it only tells us how many have hit some Silverlight content and allowed the plug-in to install. I look at things like activity in the Silverlight forums:

Our forums have 217,426 threads and 247,562 posts, contributed by 77,034 members from around the world. In the past day, we had 108 new threads, 529 new posts, and 70 new users.

it says currently – substantial, but not yet indicative of a major platform shift. Or job stats – 309 UK vacancies right now, according to itjobswatch, putting it behind WPF at 662 vacancies and Adobe Flash at 740. C# on the other hand has 5349; Java 6023.