Posts Tagged ‘Microsoft’

Microsoft BUILD 2011 Video (sans Silverlight)

Microsoft’s BUILD 2011 conference is currently underway, and with its focus on what’s shaping up to be the most revolutionary update to Windows since 95 eclipsed 3.1 over 15 years ago there’s big news coming thick and fast out of Anaheim. Just like Apple has in the past required the OS X version of Quicktime to stream coverage from developer events, the video content on the official BUILD website is presented using Silverlight, precluding a great many from enjoying the available footage.

Luckily, MSDN’s ‘Channel 9’ video repository has streams in raw MP4, with a high quality option for ‘iPad, WP7’ and standard, for ‘iPod, Zune HD’.

The streams are located here, so get ready to make a tear in the fabric of time and space by watching Steve Ballmer pump up the developers, developers, developers on your Android or iOS devices.

Day 1 keynote embedded after the break. (more…)

Privacy & Security Should Be Optional

Having recently upgraded to Mac OS X Lion, I’ve spent a good deal of time in the past couple of weeks reinstalling software on and as-needed basis. One package I’ve been reluctant to reload is Adobe’s Flash player, the de facto media delivery mechanism for the desktop web and a program which knows how to eat CPU and burn up your machine like no other.

While I’ve railed against Flash for its processor greed and propensity for cooking chips in the past (mainly with workarounds and avoidance techniques), I’ve grown so used to these shortcomings and working around them that they are no longer my primary concern when loading my machine with Adobe’s player.

With the release of version 10.3 back in May 2011, Flash gained for the first time a pane in the Mac OS’ System Preferences application. It seems almost incredible that it wasn’t until earlier this year that a piece of software present on 99% of all internet connected computers, 8.1% of which are Macs, didn’t have an OS-conventional approach to settings alteration. Finally setting Flash preferences falls in line with convention. But the addition of the Flash Player preference pane has actually drawn my attention to what I view as an industry-wide problem with ensuring user privacy and security.

You see, with 2.1 billion people connected to the web and more than 1 in 3 using Facebook, privacy and security have become quite the hot topic of late. More people are sharing more information and are, rightly, more concerned about where it’s going and what it’s being used for; as the network becomes the computer (many buy a laptop ‘just to get on Facebook’ and have little interest in how they get there), makers of local and remote software platforms need to have a clear focus on keeping that data safe.

My concern was raised while browsing through the new preference pane that installs with Flash, and the default settings chosen by Adobe. There are four key areas where the user is given the option to dictate the behaviour of the Flash player: offline storage, camera, media playback and updating. Automatic updates for a software platform with as dubious a security history as Flash is an absolutely welcome and necessarily enabled by default. Similarly, the player will request access to the camera and microphone on a case-by-case basis, a good choice given the proliferation of webcam-equipped laptops.

Offline storage and peer-assisted networking, however, are enabled by default. Given the zeal with which Flash consumes my CPU cycles, I’m not sure I would want it to have free reign over my network connection, and given its chequered security record I’m not convinced that allowing it offline storage by default is such a bright idea either.

The main problem I have with these default settings, though, is that they will probably never be changed, which is why companies like Adobe need to take steps further than just chucking in a preference pane with their app – my mother hasn’t ever and likely will never open System Preferences, and I’m sure she’s not alone. There are necessary changes which need to be made by any company responsible for data handling, even if they are merely providing the conduit (as Adobe does with Flash player).

Firstly, the default security and privacy setting must be ‘lockdown’. Flash shouldn’t be assuming control of a user’s bandwidth or storing files on their machine by default any more than it should be automatically serving up a webcam feed without prompting. The effect of a default feature lockout is that user is introduced to the preference pane and forced to actively make decisions about their privacy and security rather than relying on the stock settings. They needn’t feel bothered – after all, they only have to set it up once and forget about it – but they can now browse with confidence in the knowledge that their information is protected to their very own specifications, and just like everybody has different data, everybody values that data differently.

Microsoft actually has tried something akin this approach twice in the past, first with the variable ‘privacy level’ control in the Internet Options control panel, and more recently with the UAC layer introduced with Windows Vista. Between these two approaches, the company has actually got all of the right ideas. The user needs to be jolted into taking a more active role in their security through dialogs such as UAC, and the variable security level controls provide a useful abstract for casual users with the option for fine control for those who require it. Unfortunately, these concepts have both failed in their execution. UAC is widely derided and often disabled because of its irritating frequency, and the user security variables, like most good ideas from Microsoft, are buried under layers of dialogs and menus, effectively rendering them invisible to the casual user.

By switching the defaults to ‘off’ and gently, but firmly, prompting the user to engage with their online security and privacy, responsible companies can educate their (massive) user base and improve the quality of their experience by placing the decision making process in the hands of the user. While the industry aspires to give an experience which ‘just works’, this is one area where the user should definitely be involved – these are choices which people make every day when they shield their PIN at the ATM, don’t give out their phone number to strangers and ask to see ID from the guy at the door claiming he’s from the gas company. When the data involved is personal, it should be the person, not Adobe or Apple or Google or Microsoft, making the call on how it is protected.





On Software Patents, Oracle & VisiCalc

The web is aflutter at the moment with discussion of the patent system and its relationship with the software industry in particular (the most thought-provoking piece on the subject so far comes from Nilay Patel and is fully worth the requisite time investment). Should we let people patent software? At what point does math become a patentable invention?

Like most people, I’m unversed on patent law, but I am a sometime software developer. Personally, my gut feeling is that if a piece of software is developed for an explicitly commercial application then it absolutely should be protected under law, particularly if the software effectively IS the business (Google, for example). Surely it isn’t right that I invent something, someone else brings an identical product or service to market and my company is forced out of business? But gut feeling seems to be what most pundits are running on, and is not necessarily the best way to approach the issue.

Current hysterics calling the system ineffective or broken should consider two software cases from near the dawn of our industry, over three decades ago. The first case is Software Arts’ VisiCalc, the first electronic spreadsheet program for personal computers. Although a new invention, the fundamental concept – an electronic spreadsheet – of VisiCalc was not patented, and within a couple of years of its release the market was populated with alternatives, most notably from Lotus and Microsoft. If the core idea behind VisiCalc had been patented, 1-2-3, Multiplan and later Excel would not have existed, or would have needed to invent a totally new spreadsheet metaphor to be permitted under law. But Software Arts did not patent the electronic spreadsheet, and consequently the only time they or VisiCalc are mentioned these days are as points in patent discussions.

Dan Bricklin, one of the co-creators of VisiCalc doesn’t argue for specific change, but does intimate that the patent system is not best suited to the software industry. However, in the same post he actually states that the lack of a VisiCalc monopoly (which would have been enabled by a patent of Software Arts’ take on the electronic spreadsheet) encouraged competition and improvement in quality of all the available software packages (Multiplan correcting the mistakes of 1-2-3, which improved on the shortcomings of VisiCalc etc…). If the core concept behind Archie had been protected by law at the beginning of the ’90s, Yahoo!, Google et al. perhaps wouldn’t exist. Because the overarching concept of a web search engine isn’t itself patented, but the effective and novel technical innovations that make a great search engine can be, we have multi-billion-dollar companies built on the foundations of innovation, protected by the patent system. Bricklin is correct to assert that the broad metaphor of an electronic spreadsheet doesn’t benefit from being patented, much as the fundamental idea of an internet search engine wasn’t. But the current patent system has demonstrably fostered protectable innovation in the case of Google – not so broken in that case, apparently.

One company famous, perhaps more so than any other, for developing, patenting and licensing high technology is IBM. In the 1970s, researchers at IBM developed the relational database model, a vastly superior means of storing and operating on data to the existing database paradigms on the market at the time. To protect the revenue streams provided by their existing database systems however, they chose not to immediately market products based on the new technique. Instead, one Lawrence J. Ellison and colleagues formed a company of their own to being a product to market based on an implementation of the SQL concept outlined in IBM’s research – the Oracle Database.

Oracle, the company, was started to market a software concept developed but not exploited by another organisation, and just like Microsoft with Multiplan and Lotus’ 1-2-3 they may not have invented the central idea but they have innovated on it and created a technologically progressive sector of the industry where there would instead have been a monopoly.

Those are the two cases which spring immediately to my mind when I meditate on this subject (again, not one which I am educated to consider from a legal standpoint). It’s difficult to separate my feelings as a developer – if I invented the RDBMS and Larry Ellison ate my lunch, I wouldn’t be very happy – from my thoughts as an observer – had IBM patented the RDBMS concept or SQL as an implementation thereof, this site wouldn’t be running (and the LAMP stack wouldn’t exist). It seems to me that if any changes need to be made, and again, I’m not a lawyer, they need to be made to what kind of patents you can be granted rather than whether you can patent software at all. Larry Page’s patent on PageRank doesn’t preclude anyone else from creating a search engine, but it isn’t allowed to work just like his does, which is what forms the core of his competitive advantage. And in Oracle’s ongoing complaint against Google and Android, Oracle shouldn’t be allowed to own the idea of a VM with JIT compilation, but they should be able to protect the innovations which they own to do with its operational techniques. The legal system would be best improved by stipulating the breadth and application of concepts eligible for patent protection, as well as those who are permitted to action upon them (no trolls, please).

Nerds 2.0.1 – Archive Google Video

Way back in February, I posted some shows from yesteryear which, thanks to the internet, are still available for geek historians to learn and gain perspective from. My favourite of these shows is probably Robert X. Cringely’s Triumph of the Nerds series, first broadcast on PBS in 1996.

I’ve been watching the (similarly excellent) followup to that show – Nerds 2.0.1 – on Google Video today and it struck me that shows like this one, which are common on GV, probably won’t be transferred to YouTube when Google finally pulls the plug on its first foray into online video.

It’s really important that these programs stay online and available to all, so if you do find anything on Google Video that you enjoy, download it (using my tutorial) before it’s gone.

Nerds 2.0.1 is embedded below – it really is must-watch stuff.


Vintage & Rare Part II – Windows Me Beta 1 (Georgia)

No, you read that title correctly – there actually was a beta version of Windows Me. Contrary to popular belief, Microsoft did test Me before shipping it, under the beta code name of Georgia. I loaded up Georgia 4.90.2380 on VirtualBox this week to take a look at a prerelease version of a product who’s negative reception could give Vista or Kin a run for its money any day of the week.

I decided to set my VBox ostype to ‘Windows98’ for this installation rather than ‘WindowsMe’…this is a beta version which definitely still has more in common with 98 than the final product. This VBox is equipped with a generous 128MB of RAM and a 2GB hard drive.

The Georgia CD is bootable, and immediately asks if I’d like to install Windows 98. The mislabeling of the OS on the CD is a pretty good indicator of the completeness of the CD installer – my copy didn’t even have the facility to partition and format the hard drive. Instead, I had to boot to a Windows 95  installation disk to prepare the disk. Further to this, the installer wouldn’t load automatically from the CD: even if you select ‘Start Windows Setup’ at the main menu, you are sent to a command prompt with an error message declaring that the Windows setup files cannot be found. Luckily, switching the prompt to the CD drive and typing ‘SETUP’ kicks things back into life. (more…)

MS-DOS 5.0 -> Windows 7

Via YouTube

Very nice experiment…I’m pretty sure that, as a Windows user, I would be happy to do away with some of the backwards compatibility for DOS 5.0 (!) in exchange for a smaller footprint and faster operation. But hey, kudos for a near quarter century of legacy support!

Vintage & Rare Part I: Microsoft Xenix

Xenix was a Unix variant produced by Microsoft, and distributed by the Santa Cruz Operation (SCO). It first appeared in 1980, and there’s a pretty decent short history here.

A Microsoft version of Unix? How interesting!

Well, ordinarily this sort of curious old OS is deeply awesome. Unfortunately, Xenix is Unix at its most classic – and that happens to be dead boring. No funky 80s experimental feature set or crazy GUI…just CLI Unix. The story of a Microsoft Unix operating system, which had ports to the Apple Lisa (of all platforms) is, sadly, much more interesting than the OS itself – check out the gallery below for a trip back in time to the exciting world of Xenix.

Choosing the right Virtual OS: Windows XP vs. Windows FLP

One of my favourite things about the ubiquity of multi core CPUs, broadband and gigabytes of RAM in modern computers is that virtual operating systems are finally viable. When I was growing up, trying out another OS meant multiple hard drives, partitions and the struggle of actually tracking down discs for these exotic digital curios. (I learned the hard way about making sure you’d partitioned a drive properly when I overwrote Windows 3.1 with a copy of BeOS I got with a computer magazine sometime in the mid-90s.) Thankfully, broadband can hook you up with pretty much any *nix OS in 10 minutes flat these days, and it’s one of my favourite modern software toys which gives you a no-risk sandbox in which to experience the object of your curiosity: the virtual machine.

I wrote a post at the beginning of this year detailing how to set up a remotely accessible cloud-y virtual machine using VirtualBox 4. Covered in that tutorial were the technical instructions for actually setting up the virtual machine itself, however I didn’t go into any detail about choosing an operating system to run on your brand new VBox (mainly because I specifically needed an XP machine at the time).

To serve as an interesting comparison, and also to segue nicely into my forthcoming (I promise!) series on the ‘OS less travelled’, this post will cover the differences in functionality and performance between ‘full fat’ Windows XP Professional and ‘semi-skimmed’ Windows FLP.

Windows FLP stands for ‘Fundamentals for Legacy PCs’, and is a slimmed down install of XP specifically designed for low-spec machines. You can read up on the OS itself at Wikipedia – but is it a viable candidate for a general purpose VM?

Test Conditions

Time to get (relatively) scientific. The two machines will be set up as per my guide with identical specs: 512MB RAM, single CPU, 12GB hard drive and 8MB VRAM.

(Handy aside: to get the specs of a VirtualBox VM, type ‘VBoxManage showvminfo XP’, where XP is the name of the VM in question, at the command line)


The installer for FLP is very different from XP. At the time of its release in 2006, Vista was about to ‘replace’ XP as the computing world’s de facto operating environment. Ironically, the design language of Vista, derided for its over-emphasis on power-sucking visual trinketry, has infiltrated this ‘low power’ Microsoft OS – you can see the modern Windows flag in figure 1, for example. The installer also has a full GUI, a pioneering feature for a Microsoft OS.

fig. 1

Figure 2 shows the installation type selection – I’m going for ‘typical’ in this case. The fully-GUI installation procedure allows very easy access to advanced installation options such as unattended installations and manual TCP/IP configuration. (more…)

Work in Progress

Loads on at the moment work-wise, but I am currently preparing a series of articles on beta and unusual operating systems which will go into deeper detail than the usual couple-of-screenshots-of-the-desktop which seem to populate the web. These will be written when the ‘proper work’ load has been reduced to my satisfaction.

After writing the OPENSTEP VMWare tutorial, I’m going to focus particularly on the roots of the operating system which powers my computing life – Mac OS X, but Windows and others will be covered also.

A selection of the subject matter:

  • Mac OS X Public Beta
  • Mac OS X Server 1.0
  • Mac OS 8, 9 & X (10.0 -> 10.6)
  • Apple/NeXT Rhapsody OS
  • Windows Neptune (2000/XP)
  • Windows Cairo/Chicago/Memphis (NT4/95/98)
  • Windows Longhorn (Vista)
  • Windows Janus (b3.1, I believe)
  • A/UX 3.0

Should be fun! I’ve been amassing a few different systems to work with – 68k, PowerPC and x86…it won’t all be VMs – so there’ll be some *real* hardware mixed in there as well.

Mac in a Windows World Part MMIXCV: .CHM

I was just sent some files in a format I’ve never seen before – .chm.

CHM has, I’m reliably informed, been around since the mid-90s, so really I should have seen it before. The format is a proprietary Microsoft HTML help file, basically what comes up when you press F1 anywhere in Windows.

Obviously there’s no native support for this file type outside of Windows, so I had to grab a very useful (and very tiny) application called Chmox – presumably this means CHM on X.

The CHMs are now happily displayed  just like they would be on Windows, just without having to, y’know, use Windows. Useful.