Ruminations on the Digital Realm

Jan Stedehouder

Archive for the category “Experiencing Vista”

Alienising my laptop

I used my laptop to write the annual report for the organisation I work for. And -since I had to be online constantly- I had to write it under Windows. See, I can not get the wifi running, not even with the Feisty beta. No problem, I checked online and my laptop is on the not-supported list. It’s not a Linux problem, it’s a hardware problem.

But when you work with Windows XP and use the default desktop you just get the urge to want to change it, to make it look more snappy. In my case, that also means not spending any money on it. The guys from Alienware came the rescue. On their website you can dowload a nice package with a few Alien themes, the AlienGUIse Theme Manager. That was an improvement, but not enough. My desktop was littered with icons and shortcuts. Most went to /dev/null and for the others I made a new taskbar at the top of the screen. Add a snazzy wall paper and a nice theme for Firefox and XP started to look nice.

One big problem! When I went back to my default Ubuntu desktop, the decent Human theme, it was a bit…. How do I put it nicely? Boring. But to work with Linux is to customize, right? It was time for a visit to the Gnome Look website. Searching for dark themes and alien-like themes was easy enough and I downloaded a number of candidates. I think the biggest package was about 800 Kb, but the others hovered around 100 Kb. Way smaller than the multimegabyte AlienGUIse package.

Installing the packages was as simple as opening the Gnome Theme Manager and dropping them there. After that I tinkered with the settings, found myself another snappy wallpaper and enabled the desktop effects that come with Feisty.

Is this practical? Of course not. It is way too dark and you don’t want to spend hours and hours working on these desktops. Besides, I need the default Human Theme for all the screenshots in the book. The Windows XP desktop is not practical because it becomes too bloated, taking up precious resources. Adding AlienGUIse didn’t make my previous XP boxes any more stable now that I recall. For Ubuntu it didn’t change a thing performance wise. It’s still fast.

Now let’s see what else I can find on the Gnome Look pages.

Tags: Ubuntu, Windows, Gnome

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Beta testing Microsoft

I don’t mind using Microsoft software. Really, I don’t. I prefer Linux nowadays and I am looking forward to adding Ubuntu Linux to my toolkit at work (using the free VMware server and the good working relationship with the sysadmin to provide the necessary administrator password 😉 ). But you can’t blame Microsoft for being a succesful software company that actually creates/makes/copies software that people can and will use. Like their Accounting software. I have a friend with a small company who is looking for software toolkit with which he can write quotes, workorders, send bills etc, all in the same workflow. We tried several packages on the market, but most are too cumbersome for someone with his level of IT skills and specific needs. In the end we only found Microsoft Accounting and Accounting Express to be up to that task. It is still not an easy program but each main function has it’s own workflow diagram you can click on and it helps you to create all the necessary documents. You can tailor all those documents to your needs. One problem: it is not available for the Netherlands.

Yes, the people in Redmond know how to create a good user experience. Okay, now I will be blasted by the Mac OS X crowd, but I have nothing against Mac OS X. Microsoft is doing fine, even if they have to copy it from other sources. Or buy it. Or steal it. Whatever. Anyway, for this reason I keep a close eye on the new developments by participating in beta programs and pick up all the goodies I can get my hands on. For one, this resulted in a two month free trial of Technet Plus with complete and unlimited download access. I have Vista, Office 2007, Small Business Suite R2, Sharepoint and Longhorn. Test driving this whole set and writing about it will take up most of the year. A few days ago I found another good. The Microsoft Connect site. Technet was already nice, but with Connect you have the chance to get access to beta’s in various stages. I applied and was approved for the new Home Server.

There is one program that piqued my interest immediately: Grava.

What is “Grava”?

“Grava” is the code name for a new set of tools from Microsoft’s Education Products Group that is designed to allow the education community to create and assemble materials that will increase discovery and allow learners to go at their own pace and learning style. “Grava” tools are scheduled for release in fall 2007.

“Grava” Player—The “Grava” player enables users to view the rich interactive content created in “Grava” Authoring.

Developer Tools—The “Grava” SDK is built on Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF) and provides a programming model and tools for building rich educational experiences.

Authoring—“Grava” Authoring allows users to create interactive and stimulating non-linear projects to view in the “Grava” player.

Services—“Grava” provides an array of services which complement the authoring, SDK and player components. These services include the ability to do assessments, log results, and create intelligent learning solutions.

Having worked in education for a long time and still wishing to fire up the OpenSource eLearning project I am definitely curious about how Microsoft will help to create rich content elearning materials. I know there are already some fine tools on the market and I can only hope that the open source community can develop the same quality tools, but those tools require a certain level of IT experience that most teachers and educators don’t have. The more open beta of Grava is planned for Spring 2007 and needless to say I applied for it.

And, since it can not all be work without play, I also enlisted as a beta tester for Microsoft Games ;-).

Why Linux will never beat Windows, According to The Inquirer

I don’t mind seeing opposing arguments and The Inquirer seems to be on a roll in the Linux versus Windows debate. First an INQ writer explained why Vista would help him to make the transition to Linux. He is thinkering with his hardware all the time, each thinkering running the risk of needing a new activation of Vista. To quote:

Vista forces you to re-activate, or so I am told, if you look at it in the right way. Microsoft, in possibly the most shortsighted move in the company’s history, decided to lock Vista down to the first PC it is installed to and not allow you to move it legally. If you call it up, whine and lie, you can socially engineeer a few reactivations, but technically this is a licence violation. I won’t do that.

So, when I change the mobo on my box, or an unspecified other bit of hardware or three, Microsoft decides that my box is a new computer and my $399 copy of Vista is a doorstop – I must spend another $399 to continue working. Bill Gates does need the money, he gives away a lot of it on trips to cities thinking of moving to Linux.

For me, hardly a week goes by when I do not change the mobo on my machine, I keep getting new ones in the mail. Hard drives get swapped in and out, and video cards change on an almost daily basis. CPUs change slightly less often. If a week goes by when by Microsoft’s standards I do not get a ‘new’ computer, it generally is a sign that I have not been home for a week.

Well, that was easy enough, but the discussion continues with the following article entitled Linux is not an option. The key argument here is that most people won’t ever open their box and leave it happily running without any hardware upgrades untill they buy a new box.

The vast majority of PCs spend their entire lives unopened and most of them – the home boxes, anyway – still run the operating system and apps that were installed when it was new. Normal people don’t swap motherboards, processors and graphics cards. Normal people don’t add extra RAM. Normal people don’t upgrade hard disks. For them, a PC is a consumer item like a TV or DVD player – they use it until it breaks then throw it away and replace it with a new one.

While for businesses, prepared to fund a basement full of geeks to keep their IT running, Linux is an option. For home users, it isn’t. Home users rely on a bloke in the pub to pop round to kick their PC if it misbehaves and reward him with a couple of pints or, if he’s lucky, a bottle of Scotch. Monetary remuneration simply doesn’t enter into the equation – home users simply aren’t prepared to pay for support.

I have been one of those blokes in the pub for years  and I can assure you that trying to talk an ordinary person through an impenetrable command line interface over the phone isn’t something I’m prepared to even contemplate. By comparison, giving telephone advice to someone running Windows is a piece of cake – it requires zero technical aptitude at the far end.

I wouldn’t go that far. I tried to help some computer illiterates over the phone and it is a challenge to keep them clicking on the right icons and not veer of with a “hey, this is interesting”.

The next contribution by the last writer deals with the question what it would take for Linux to become as viable for the desktop as Windows. The Why Microsoft will offer an Open Source OS article takes the viewpoint that this is not going to happen. Support, marketing and advertising all cost money and -according to the author- you can only make money if your distribution has something other don’t (and keep it that way).

But, in order for a company to market a product successfully, ensure it is properly supported and isn’t stolen, you also need to differentiate it from all the other flavours of Linux. This means including features that aren’t available on other people’s versions of Linux. Programmers, designers and consultants will have to be hired to develop these features and drivers. These people aren’t cheap. Even games cost $50-60 a copy mainly because they need to include all this stuff, and an OS is far more complex. Pretty soon, you’ll be looking at Linux price tags that are just a few dollars behind basic Windows products. Whoops.

And if that’s the case, will users be prepared to throw away decades of familiarity, know-how and training and learn something new just to save $20, or will they stick with something familiar? In order for Linux to rival Windows, it will have to become the very thing it set out to destroy.

Well, if money were the only argument to yes or no switch to Linux he might have a point. It’s just that money isn’t the whole side of the equation. With more and more consumer items running on Linux already (hello, TiVo anyone, routers, new Nokia cell phone) and having more and more servers in the basements running our favorite distro, the presence of Linux continues to grow.

True, support needs to get a lot better but we are working on that.

Office 2007: time consuming installations

I did not feel like writing today. There were still a few Technet disks I wanted to install and this was as good a time as any. On the list were: the Dutch language pack for Office 2007, Business Contact Manager 2007, Small Business Accounting 2006, Accounting Express 2007, Visio Pro 2007 and Professional Pro 2007. All together about 3Gb of install (give or take). Well, it took me about 2,5 hours to finish it all. That’s a lot. I can have a complete net-based install of Debian on the old iMac in that time. Or finish five consecutive installs of the Ubuntu DVD.

So, Microsoft will not win any prices with speedy installs. Besides that, my laptop is definitely way slower at booting up, which is -I think- partly due to the SQL server that is needed for the accounting software. A quick look at Small Business Accounting and the Business Contact Manager made me go “wow” nonetheless. Too bad SBA isn’t available outside the US, because I know at least one friend who is looking for this. The BCM has really turned into a center for keeping an eye on your sales. Well, a closer look will have to wait.

Office 2007: First Impressions: Word 2007

The Office2007 Ultimate edition makes sure you have a wide range of Microsoft software available. I have been using Word and Excel since Windows 3.1, which makes for a lot of hours of experience. And I guess that is true for a lot of people. For that reason alone it is interesting to see whether the transition to 2007 is easy enough to make. Up to 2003 the interface did not change that much. The Menu was mostly the same and -though maybe not easy to use- it was familiar. With 2007 that has changed. The default menu is replaced by The Ribbon, a menu bar that changes according to what you want are doing at the moment.

What do you get with Office 2007 Ultimate? Word, Excel, Powerpoint and Outlook to mention the usual suspects. Access, Infopath, OneNote, Groove and Publisher make up the rest of the package. Expression Web (the package previously known as Frontpage) appears to be missing. I went for the upgrade option to make the transition from 2003 to 2007, which went smooth enough as far as I can see. Let’s have a first look at Word 2007:

 

You have to hand it to Microsoft. They know how to make things shine. The first impression should make you go “Wow”, at least for a bit, and Word 2007 did that for me. The new default font, Calibri, is pleasant for the eyes. The ribbon takes up about one fifth of the screen horizon. The big Office logo in the top left corner is where you open and close your documents. I did not like that in the beta and I still don’t like it. The ribbon was meant to make functions more accessible and more intuitive to use, but without any explanation you would have no idea what the logo is about (other than being a logo of course). I like the ribbon, I really do. The color palet could have been better. The various shades of blue are okay, but to use letters in other shades of blue (besides black) on top of that…. The moment you start working on your documents and start editing them you can see the ribbon change and offer you the various functions that were previously hidden for instance under the right mouse button.

The new Word was supposed to come with PDF export ability, but Adobe isn’t playing along. Where open source software has that function for years (with Adobe’s approval), Microsoft is not allowed to add that by default. Even the new XPS format –meant as a competitor for PDF- is not added to Word 2007. When you try to save a document, Word tells you these two options are not available but it is wiling to guide you to the website where you can download the package that adds them. Seems fair enough. Microsoft wants to check whether you have a genuine version of Office 2007 and you have to download the OGA plugin first. This works fine with Firefox and kudo’s to Microsoft for that. The OGA check also opens the way to the Office Online option, where you can find an interesting collection of templates.

Blogging from Word is very well implemented. It is as simple as opening “New blogpost” and set up your blog url. Like with Windows Live Writer this works very smooth. The categories are recognized and you can add them to the blog post with a pull down menu. I tried the blog extension under OpenOffice.org, but that required way more fiddling. GTKBlog wouldn’t recognize the categories. Again I find it strange that Microsoft is better to implement this open source feature into it’s flagship software than true open source projects.

The first few hours with the new Word 2007 left me with a good impression. The logo menu (for lack of a better term) has various interesting options that are explained for new users or users that didn’t know the options existed. For instance, the Document Inspector which you can use to check out whether personal information is hidden in your document. Use it whenever you need it. When I saw the beta I was wondering whether power users would not have problems with the transition to 2007. Well, the right mouse button options are still there and you can modify the quick access bar in the title bar ad hide the ribbon. The final implementation of the ribbon is nicely done, so I wouldn’t recommend that option.

P.S. After uploading the post to my blog I noticed that the image was not uploaded as well. Tsk, tsk… No can do. Now I have to find a way to report this.

Bringing Windows and Office to 2007

I have been using Ubuntu Linux since a few months now and I have no plans to move back to Windows any time soon. But I do like to keep a close eye on what 2007 will bring for the average desktop user. Fortunately Microsoft is giving me all the opportunity I need to do that. No, I wasn’t one of the lucky bloggers who got a completely loaded new laptop (but, Bill, Steve, Ray, anyone, feel free to contact me). Nope, since I also have a small IT business and am registered at Microsoft I recently got the offer for a two month free subscription of Technet Plus without any obligation to continue the subscription after that (or being dragged in automatically). With the Technet Plus access comes timebomb free downloads of all the Microsoft goodies.

I am not greedy and wouldn’t know any sensible purpose for all the packages in the Microsoft Dynamics series, but I am interested in Windows Vista and the whole Office 2007 system. Download heaven. I am now the owner of Vista, Office 2007, Project Professional, Visio Professional, Acounting Express and Small Business Accounting. This blog post is written with the new Word 2007 blogging feature. Vista will come in handy when I write about setting up a multiboot system.

Finally I can get the “Experiencing Vista” thread under way as well. I am curious as to how everything will work. My laptop is supposed to be Vista Capable, but I will test it out on a separate harddisk first. Office 2007 has replaced Office 2003 and I am trying to get used to the ribbon. Stay tuned and keep reading. Oh, and… thank you Microsoft.

To the defense of Vista

Microsoft and the EU are at each other’s throat again. This time over Vista and it’s enhanced security and added security applications. ‘Community heroes’ Adobe and Symantec are supporting the EU with complaints against the ‘evil monopolist’. I can imagine Microsoft being annoyed or surprised at all this.
For years people have complained about the security holes in Windows. The Microsoft started to take it seriously, starting with Service Pack 2. And you have to be impressed with what has been done. Besides plugging holes, which were a cash maker for the likes of Symantec, the company started to educate endusers about secure computing and bought companies to add the needed security knowledge. Windows XP is still under constant siege, but with some good user practices it can be secure. Vista is taking this one step further, adding security features well-known to Mac OSX and Linux users.
And adding XPS and PDF export capabilities to Office 2007 is not really ground breaking either. I am using this feature in OpenOffice.org for years now, since it makes for great portability. So, Microsoft is actually listening to the complaints, is fixing them and they get slammed as a result. Yes. I am ‘really’ looking forward to Vista Unplugged, completely stripped of all security features so that you, as a free agent can spend some extra money on the lackluster and buggy McAfee Suite, or the hodgepodge Norton Suite, or try the latest ZoneAlarm Suite that breaks your internet connection by default.
Vista will not create a new and monopolistic ecosystem. It will have to compete with XP for years to come. Halting a secure Vista will not help a migration to Linux on the desktop. A huge economic crisis would be better suited to stimulate that. Vista requires new hardware, and Linux can deliver the same on older hardware.
ln essence, I don’t think this is about creating or keeping a level playing field, protecting European companies against unfair competition. As before, it is the US companies, that fail to convince their own courts and use the European arena to push their own bottom line up and their expensive and/or buggy software through European throats.

Vista, I am not an idiot!

Test driving Vista means you actually have to work with it. This morning i popped in the Vista harddrive and fired up the system. The boot appears faster, but looks are deceitful. It took a minute after the full screen appeared, before I could actually do something. The nice gadget showed 100% CPU use all the time. On the plus side: no teletubby screen colors. The default screen of XP was enough to keep me away from it for another year. However, XP made me feel like an idiot, whereas Vista treats you like one.
Experiment number 1: moving files from one partition to the other. This seems like a simple task. Not so under Vista. First you need administrator’s rights to do that. When it finally starts executing it, it tells me it will take 3 hours to transfer less than 500 Mb!!! Ridiculous, because it took less than 10 minutes under XP. Definitely a big let down. And why would I need admin rights to do that? As a windows power user I want to work with more rights than I currently get.
For instance, I run Firefox and Thunderbird from a USB harddrive. every time I start one of them, the screen freezes, the Windows firewall kicks in and I need to give it permission to run. Again and again. I gave permission the last time!
The almost continuous screen freezes, the pop ups asking you for permission or warning  that you need admin rights for that really has to go. Microsoft, why do you think we have popup stoppers in our browsers? Because it is really, really, really annoying.
Next issue: recognizing the network. something that you might expect to war flawlessly in the Ultimate edition. Not so! I admit that I did not dig very deep but used the wizard to change the workgroup name. Vista ain’t fast and after ten minutes it decided to tell me it couldn’t find the network. Duh!. But you are connecting to the net through it! Time to dig deeper, but that is for a later time. And I definitely dislike the new program panel. One last question: does anyone actually have a Groove account?

Enjoying Vista?

As a self-appointed geek and nerd I have no choice but to test out Vista beta 2 along with the new Office 2007 beta. I did not jump in line to download it, but chose to shell out a few euro’s to get the packages from Microsoft itself. I have done this a couple of times in the last couple of years and I can definitely recommend it. Microsoft is not going on the cheap with this. The Office 2007 beta 2 package comes with four DVD’s and provides all the new server editions of Groove, Sharepoint and Project along with the desktop applications. The Vista Beta 2 package brings both th 32- and 64 bits with it.

My system gets a mixed blessing by Vista. The AMD 2400 XP processor is considered weak, but the 1 Gb RAM and the Asus N6200 TD with 256 RAM on board are enough to allow the new Aero interface to run. Eye candy galore.

The install process is fairly simple, though some may be surprised when they come to the partitioning tool. When you are used to C:, D: etc. for your harddrive designations, seeing Disk0 Partition1 is a shocker. Especially when you find out that your primary master is designated Disk1 and not Disk0. I wonder how many people will loose data because of this. The external USB drive was perfectly recognized.

After the install comes the hardware recognition. Strange enough Vista is unable to recognise the regular gameport on the mother board (wasn’t Vista suppose to give you a new gaming experience?). The generic PCI card with two extra serial ports was also a no no. Trying the XP driver didn’t work as well.

One good thing about using the official beta is that you don’t have to worry about activation and that went smooth as well. The internet connection was setup perfectly. Well, it did not require any hassle..

Installing Office 2007 beta 2 brought out the benefits of the side bar. Every application set requires that you fill in the product key, which makes six times for the complete install. I typed the key on the notes gadget/widget and copy/pasted it afterwards. My box is now packed with Office 2007, Groove, Project Professional, Sharepoint Designer, Visio and Infopath. This complete set (Vista Ultimate plus Office 2007) swallows up a whole 14 Gb on your harddrive. Huge!

I have a whole stack of portable applications like Firefox and Thunderbird and they can be launched from within Vista. One big no no: every time I run one of these it asks permission to do so. Blah! Can’t it recognize it after the first time. Firefox freezes every few minutes, but comes alive after a minute again. It goes for every executable or admin oriented task. Request upon request. Let’s hope that will be less after the system starts to learn about who is working with it.

The interface looks shiny, but that is eye candy. The new panel to access your programs is not going to win my approval. It only holds Office 2007 and it looks cluttered already. No unfolding menus anymore, but infolding (for lack of a better word). Power users will not know where to find their tons of software applications and I am going to look for a different way to browse my applications soon. For the coming period I will work more intensively with the new applications to see whether they hold up to their promise.

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