Just how difficult can Microsoft make the giving away of a freebie?

Prior to the start of ReMix this year, Microsoft made a big thing of how attendees would get a year’s Microsoft Expression Professional Subscription free (normal price £670). So just how difficult do you think Microsoft can make giving away that freebie? This difficult:

  • Just before the event, they announce that we won’t actually get anything at the event, instead we’ll have to fill out a form and it’ll be posted to us.
  • Day 1 of the event and I ask about the form. “That’ll be available tomorrow sir”. Lucky I’m attending both days then…
  • Day 2 of the event: AM. On arrival, I’m presented with a flimsy piece of paper that I have to fill out with my details. I head upstairs, grab a coffee, find a seat and fill out the form. I then head back down to hand it in. “Oh no sir; the forms cannot be handed in until this afternoon”.
  • Day 2 of the event PM. Head back down after lunch and hand in my now somewhat scrumpled form. How long will it take to send the subscription through? “Up to 28 days sir”. Well clearly Microsoft are just covering themselves. A data entry clerk will be able to process the forms in a few days and I should have the software within a week…
  • One week later: nothing.
  • Two weeks later: nothing.
  • One month later: Wednesday : I get an email with instructions on how to access my subscription online. So I guess I don’t get any DVDs then. I dutifully visit the website, enter the details and get told the details are invalid. I try a few more times. Still invalid.
  • I wait until after lunch, and it still doesn’t work. So I track down a customer help number, phone up and explain the problem. The polite lady on the other end – Annette Schulz – taps away on her system, sounds a little puzzled, but assures me it ought to be sorted that afternoon and that she’ll email me when it is.
  • The next day I hear nothing.
  • Friday: I receive an email from Annette apologising as apparently my subscription hasn’t been put on the system still and so it won’t be fixed until the next week.
  • Monday: nothing. I take a look on the ReMix “back network”. Other folk have complained that their subscriptions haven’t arrived yet or that they too have experienced the same glitch as me. So a week of our year’s subscription has expired and we haven’t been able to use it yet. Perhaps tomorrow…

The classic phrase “cannot organise a piss up in a brewery” comes to mind here. Given the millions of licences and subscriptions Microsoft process, just how difficult can this be? Those Adobe Flash and Flex tools sure do look tempting at this point!

UPDATE: Well it took a further week, but Microsoft did finally manage to fix my subscription (along with those  of many others that attended ReMix, who also had the same problem). Of course that wasn’t the end of the saga. The download links on the Expression site do not work with Firefox. They also do not work with IE tab on Firefox. They also do not work with IE, until you have installed a download application. Oh dear. Oh well, I guess that if one is to mess something up, one might as well make a thorough job of it…

How to remove Windows (Desktop) Search … revisited

In October last year, I posted an article on how to remove Windows Desktop Search from an XP machine after it had been unhelpfully installed as a mandatory upgrade. The world has moved on since then and version 3 of Windows Desktop Search has been replaced by version 4, which is now called Windows Search. This means the name of the uninstall folder has changed and the information in that post is becoming ever more out of date. As it still accounts for 80% of the traffic to my site, I figured it was time for an update.

If you have version 3 of Windows Desktop Search and want to remove it, please refer to the old post. If you have version 4, read on. If you are unsure which one you have, press the windows key and F together to start up the application and look at the image that appears toward the top right of the window. If it says “Windows Desktop Search”, then you have version 3. If it says “Windows Search”, then you have version 4.

Windows Desktop Search (version 3)
Windows Desktop Search (version 3)
Windows Search (version 4)
Windows Search (version 4)

To remove Windows Search version 4 from XP, try the following steps:

  1. Start by running up Add & Remove Programs from the control panel and look for Windows Desktop Search in the list. Unlike with version 3, Windows Search v4 should be there.
  2. If not, open a cmd window (click on Start, then “Run..” and type cmd in the Run dialogue that then appears). Then copy and paste the following line into the cmd window:
  3. If that also fails and you get a “The system cannot find the path specified.” error, then I have zipped up a copy that you can download from here. To work out where to extract it to, type:

    into your cmd window and note the location it points to (it is likely to be C:\Windows, but may not be if you upgraded to XP for Windows 2000 for example). Open the zip file, and extract the $NtUninstallKB940157$ to this location. Now repeat step 2.

Update: Thanks to “Derek” for pointing out to me that I’d missed the “bleedin’ obvious”, ie that v4 can be removed via “Add Remove Programs”. I’ve added this as step 1 as a consequence. Steps 2 and 3 are likely redundant, but I’ve left them in for completeness.

Windows Search 4.0 released. Shame it STILL doesn’t work

Microsoft released V4 of its Windows Search tool on Windows Update a few days ago. As I’ve criticised this tool in the past (it is one of my five pet Vista hates), I thought I’d give it a thorough test drive in case it was now a useful and usable product. Sadly my time was wasted: it’s still as crap as ever.

First of all, the truly inane “Did you find what you wanted” message is still displayed when nothing matched the search:

Inane message asking did you find what you wanted, when no results were found

Of course that is just a minor irritation compared with another  – show-stopping – feature. I’d reported before that the search tool seemed to struggle to find things at times. This new version still had that problem, so I decided to investigate. I created a new file – called xxx.wibble – in my documents folder, added some content and tried to search on that content. No matter what settings I selected, Windows Search would not find it. It turns out this is for a very simple reason. “wibble” is not a registered file extension on my machine and Windows Search only searches files with known file types. As soon as I renamed the file xxx.txt, the search found the content straight away. As far as I can find out, this is a hard-coded “feature” of  Windows Search; there is no way to override it.

As a developer, I have a mass of files on my machine that have unusual, and non-registered, extensions. Some (think README files) have no extension. The fact that I cannot search these files with Windows Search means that Windows Search is not fit for purpose. So sadly V4 gets binned just like V3 did. Oh well, here’s waiting for version 5 (which might actiually be usable.)

Don’t like Windows Vista? Try Windows Mojave instead

Microsoft last week traveled to San Francisco, rounding up Windows XP users who had negative impressions of Vista. The subjects were put on video, asked about their Vista impressions, and then shown a “new” operating system, code-named Mojave. More than 90 percent gave positive feedback on what they saw. Then they were told that “Mojave” was actually Windows Vista. “Oh wow,” said one user, eliciting exactly the exclamation that Microsoft had hoped to garner when it first released the operating system more than 18 months ago.

This sad little story tells us one thing loud and clear: Microsoft need to ditch Vista. Whether the negativity toward Vista is founded or not has become a mute point. The name itself is tainted. Microsoft could spend millions trying to change people’s perceptions, but why bother when the name itself has become the biggest stumbling block. So perhaps Windows 7 should be re-thought. Rather than being some major new version, just spruce up Vista a bit, get rid of the idiotic UAC feature and release the next version of Windows this year.

UPDATE: You can now see the experiment results for yourself at its own flashy (literally! One day Microsoft might use their own Silverlight product for such things, rather than Flash) website.

Five Vista annoyances and how to work around them

MicrosoftI have been using Vista for development work for a number of months now, which has given me time to experience many of its oddities. With XP no longer available pre-installed on new equipment, more people are now likely to start experiencing Vista. I therefore feel it an appropriate time to share what I consider to be the five biggest annoyances of Vista from a developer’s perspective. As I’m not interested in just moaning about then though, I’ll also suggest work-arounds to those annoyances.

1. User Account Control

User Account Control (UAC) is easily the most annoying feature of Vista. Most developers. Even if they have never used Vista, you will likely have heard of it. The most infamous aspect of it is a set of annoying pop-ups that appear every time you do just about anything on the system (allegedly including changing font sizes!). There is more to it though, as even if one if logged in as a local administrator, they do not get administrator rights by default. Processes must be launched via the “run as administrator” option and one must jump through hoops to delete files and the like.

Unfortunately the user of Vista has two choices:

  1. Live with the annoyance of UAC.
  2. Turn off UAC.

I chose the second route. I did so in the full knowledge that if I then had a subsequent problem with malware, it was my own fault. Please therefore note that if you are the sort of person that seeks to blame others when you screw up, you are expressly forbidden from using the following information to disable UAC for yourself. If you are happy to accept that disabling UAC carries some risks, and that that if anything goes wrong, it is your fault, then you can disable UAC thus:

  1. Open the control panel
  2. Select “User Accounts”! (green title)
  3. Select “User Accounts” again on the next screen
  4. Select “Turn User Account Control on or off”
  5. Click “Continue” on the UAC warning
  6. Untick the “Use User Account Control (UAC) to help proect your computer” checkbox.
  7. Click “OK” and then “Restart Now” on the dialogue.

When your machine restarts, you will be UAC (and UAC protection) free.

2. Automatic Scrolling

Vista introduced a concept called “dynamic multi-dimensional scrolling”. Rather than me try to describe it, I suggest you watch the animation on this page. It’s a feature that divides opinion: some love it, some hate it. One thing is for sure though: there is no way of disabling it.

Another thing for sure is that if you use the Eclipse IDE, it will drive you mad. The same automatic scrolling occurs in tree views in that application. So the debug tree randomly scrolls about when you try to use it. Thankfully there is a solution: simply run Eclipse in compatibility mode. Right click on the executable (or a shortcut if you’ll use that all the time.) Select properties and go to the Compatibility tab. Then tick the”Run this program in compatibility mode for:” checkbox and make sure “Windows XP (service Pack 2)” is selected as the compatibility mode.

Eclipse properties

When you next run Eclipse, the only change you should notice is that the trees now behave.

3. Search

Vista’s search is, in my opinion at least, useless. I could rant on about it, I could use a string of expletives to describe it. There is no point though: “useless” describes it succinctly. It simply cannot be made to perform “proper” searches. By proper, I mean giving it a string to match and a location to search and having it search every file and find every occurrence of that string. The solution I came up with was to install a third-party search product. I picked Effective File Search, a $30 shareware product that took about 1 minute to download, install and perform a successful search on a mixture of source and binary files. I’d previously spent around three hours trying to get Vista’s built-in search joke to do the same job, and it failed. That’s £15 very well spent in my view, though there may be better and/ or cheaper options available.

4. Windows Sidebar

Windows SidebarVista’s Windows Sidebar is a good idea that is poorly executed. The idea of having a bunch of user-selectable gadgets is a good one, but the sidebar is irritatingly rigid in appearance (it cannot be resized or reskinned) and there is a distinct lack of useful gadgets for it. It can be turned off though, and other sidebar solutions are available.

The obvious replacement choice is the Google Desktop Sidebar. It suffers from the same problems as the Vista one though in my view: lack of reconfigurability, lots of useless gadgets and too few useful ones. Obviously “useful” and “useless” are very subjective terms. To my mind, useful gadgets are a RSS reader that can handle multiple feeds, a memory & CPU meter, support for shortcuts and outlook integration.

The only sidebar I’ve found that offers all these features is  Desktop Sidebar (shown on the right). It is a highly skinnable, configurable sidebar that has some great features. The downside is that it is a “dead development”, as it has not been updated since just after Vista was released. As a result, it must be run with full administrator rights. If you can live with this though, it is a great product. It’s RSS reader is the best I’ve seen, as it supports multiple feeds, each shown on a separate “page”, rather than jumbled together as most multi-feed readers do. The sidebar is worth running for that feature alone in my view.

5. Insufficient access rights

Even if you switch off UAC, it is still possible to get weird errors from Vista informing you that you have insufficient access rights to delete a file. A check of the properties reveals you have full access rights and you own the file, yet this weird “you are not worthy” message will greet your every attempt at deleting the file. The reason turns out to be mundane and frustrating: what the message is trying to tell you is that a process has the file locked and so it cannot be deleted. Shut the process down, and the file can be deleted with ease.

There is a bit of a problem here though. How do you know which process has a lock on the file? Easy: install Process Explorer, run it, go to the menu option

Find -> Find handle or DLL…

enter the file’s path into the search box and it will tell you exactly which processes are using it. Process Explorer is a really powerful Windows tool that is:

  1. Written by Microsoft
  2. Free
  3. Useful

(Mac and Linux fan-boys take note: a useful, free, Microsoft product really does exist!)

So there you have it: five tips on making the transition from XP to Vista a less painful, more enjoyable, experience.

IETester: Testing on IE5.5 through IE8 made easy

IETesterIf you have ever developed a website, you’ll know that one of the golden rules is “test on as many browsers as possible”. This doesn’t just mean testing on IE, Firefox, Opera and the funny looking Apple one. It means testing on different versions of those browsers on different operating systems. Testing against multiple versions of Firefox and Opera is easy: just install multiple versions. IE is a whole different story though. Because IE integrates so deeply into the operating system, it isn’t possible (without severe amounts of effort) to run multiple copies of IE at once on the one machine, until IETester came along. In their own words:

IETester is a free WebBrowser that allows you to have the rendering and javascript engines of IE8 beta 1, IE7 IE 6 and IE5.5 on Vista and XP, as well as the installed IE in the same process

I’ve installed it and it seems to work well on my Vista box, despite it being an alpha release. As an added bonus for the future, the developers would like to get it working on Linux using Wine and Macs using Parallels. Offers of assistance in these areas will be gratefully received.

I tried out this website on IE5.5 by the way. It looks a mess and fails to render correctly. Oops!

Website is IE5.5

(Click on image to see full-size version)

MIX:UK is dead! Long live ReMix UK!

ReMix UK

Last year, Microsoft hosted the first ever MIX:UK event, a two day conference on all things Microsoft, of interest to developers and designers alike. I was beginning to think that the first MIX conference in the UK would be the last as there was no word anywhere that another was on its way. However never fear, MIX:UK is back, just re-badged as ReMix UK. As a bonus (for me at least; it’ll be a pain for many), the venue has moved from London to glorious Brighton this year.

Despite being an Eclipse, Java & Flex man these days, the new technologies – such as Silverlight – that Microsoft are pushing are still likely to be hugely influential to anyone involved with web or RIA development. So the event is well worth attending in my view. Even my MS hating, Mac weilding boss agreed (once he has stopped laughing at my “may I go to a Microsoft conference please?” request and realised I was being serious for once).

If you are thinking of going, don’t delay. The sneaky folk that are organising the event are only offering the £239 “Early Bird” price to the first 300 registrants. After that, the price jumps to £349. So get registering and I’ll see you there…

.NET is NOT to blame!

World Wide TelescopeI have been following the World Wide Telescope project with interest ever since Robert Scoble made a bit of an arse of himself over the subject. Since I was really impressed with the ease of install and the beauty of the product, I gushed in near fanboy-style about it when it went into beta release (I didn’t woop; so it wasn’t real fanboy stuff ;)). It was thus a bit of a shock to see that Mike Dillamore was casting the install in a bad light.

Mike was my boss at my last place of work. I have a great deal of respect for him as he is the man that got me into TDD, Scrum, podcasts and of course blogging. An area where he and eye do not see eye to eye though is over .NET. I am a big fan; he has, for reasons I’ve never properly understood, a keen dislike of it.

The instructions for installing the World Wide Telescope are long and complex (and remind me of installing anything on Linux for example), but people seem to be forgetting that this is just a beta release of the product and thus it will be rough and ready. As for the comment that .NET is to blame, what nonsense! The real “blame”, if one must call it that, lies with Microsoft’s business model of supporting what ought to be long-dead products. They could take the Apple route and simply refuse to install the software on any machine that isn’t Vista SP1, but since they are a multi-billion dollar operation that dwarfs Apple, perhaps their business model makes sense. Of course the blame also lies at the feet of the inherent security weaknesses in Microsoft’s desktop operation systems, but that’s a whole different topic.

Far from being a yolk about Micrososft’s neck. .NET is their money-spinning future. ASP.NET single-handedly saved their dying web server business for example. The awesomely powerful shell – PowerShell – that is built into the Server 2008 operating system is .NET based and let’s not forget that SIlverlight is .NET based too. Ten years ago, Borland offered a superb IDE, which people sadly turned their backs on by adopting the awful Visual Studio 6 instead. Those days have long gone though. Now, when one can get Eclipse or the Visual Studio 2008 Express editions for free, the IDEs from Borland (or Code Gear as they now are) make no business sense.

Microsoft release World Wide Telescope Beta

World Wide TelescopeYesterday, Microsoft released a public beta of its World Wide Telescope project.

According to the press release,

“The WorldWide Telescope is a powerful tool for science and education that makes it possible for everyone to explore the universe,” said Bill Gates, chairman of Microsoft. “By combining terabytes of incredible imagery and data with easy-to-use software for viewing and moving through all that information, the WorldWide Telescope opens the door to new ways to see and experience the wonders of space. Our hope is that it will inspire young people to explore astronomy and science, and help researchers in their quest to better understand the universe.”

Bizarrely, the website is a nasty 100% Flash affair (presumably no one told Microsoft Research about Silverlight?!??), but the download is small and easy to install. Of course the disadvantage of that is that you have to be online to use the thing as it uses web services to fetch the image data as required.

Once installed and running, it is a really nice program to use. One can pan around the sky and it shows the constellations and objects of interest in those constellations. Alternatively, you can flip it around and point at the Earth and zoom right in. Below are three screen shots (scaled down to fit on my blog) of some constellations, Mercury and a satellite image centred on my home town of Lewes. I was a bit disappointed that this seemed to be the extent to which I could zoom in. The satellite view on Google Maps lets me zoom in close enough to see cars parked on the streets for example and I was hoping this program could do the same.

World Wide Telescope: constellations
Constellation view

World Wide Telescope: mercury

World Wide Telescope: sussex

In addition to letting you explore by yourself, the program also has a nice set of guided tours that include a commentary. These include lots of extra details that aren’t available when you explore by yourself (as far as I could tell), such as this image showing how the size of the assumed black hole a the centre of our galaxy:

World Wide Telescope: Black hole at the centre of our galaxy

Black hole at the centre of our galaxy

All in all, a very impressive beta. As it is free, I’d recommend everyone download it and take it for a spin…

Vista UAC isn’t just annoying and stupid; it’s insecure too!

One of the more annoying features of Vista is User Access/ Account Control (UAC). In theory, it’s a great idea: make the user aware of changes to the system to prevent malware taking hold. In practice it’s hideous. Even if your user account has local machine administrator rights, you still get the prompts and must select “Run as Administrator” (despite being so already) when you want want to do things like change the desktop font size (I kid you not!)

Vista needs your permission

As a consequence of being so annoying and difficult to work with, I – like many Vista users – just turn it off in frustration. This leaves us open to the charge of being irresponsible, due to making our machines insecure. A little utility – iReboot – looks set to rebuff that charge by showing that bypassing UAC is a very easy and so any protection it claims to offer is likely just smoke and mirrors. The makers of iReboot state that

…Windows Vista’s newly-implemented security limitations are artificial at best, easy to code around, and only there to give the impression of security. Any program that UAC blocks from starting up “for good security reasons” can be coded to work around these limitations with (relative) ease. The “architectural redesign” of Vista’s security framework isn’t so much a rebuilt system as much as it is a makeover, intended to give the false impression of a more secure OS…

They split their application in half. One half runs as a service (with full admin privileges), the other as a GUI with normal user privileges. The GUI talks to the service – bypassing UAC – and does what it wants with full, unrestricted access to the machine. And the whole lot installs and runs at start-up without a single UAC prompt (just the same request for an admin password as XP had). Nice one Microsoft!

Read the full details of how NeoSmart bypassed UCA to get their iRebbot product working with Vista.