I've been itching to write this piece since the MIX conference in the spring when I talked to Miguel de Icaza about the way Mono was developing and the headline sprung into my mind; I detoured into the chintzy little phone booths they have in the corridors in Vegas conference hotels to write it down before I could forget, Plus Miguel gives fantastic quote: "It's like when your girlfriend is in denial about her friends. Microsoft is in denial that the Mac OS exists and the iPad exists and the iPhone exists and Android exists and Chrome OS exists and all of those things." Interviews like that are a joy to write up.

And then Novell sold itself to Attachmate and the Mono team were gone and the product was in limbo and I was almost sorrier to lose my wonderful headline (I'll admit it; when we writers have a phrase that sings to us, we love it deeply) than to think that Mono was in trouble. I was delighted to have Xamarin set up and take over Mono: it plays to my native versus Web development prejudice, I'm a big fan of C# and I loathe JavaScript with a passion I once reserved only for Java itself, and while .NET is a lumpy beast, many of the lumps are powerful muscles rather than just excrescences... And I could catch up with Miguel, get the skinny on the future direction and finally get to write this piece up.

http://www.zdnet.co.uk/news/application-development/2011/08/11/mono-a-cure-for-microsoft-monotheism-40093649/

I resemble this book

I was fascinated and frustrated by Being Geek in almost equal measures. It was very interesting to check off the geek attitudes I have - and the ones I don't have. It was fascinating to see him deconstruct 'system thinking' (the world is a system with rules one can deduce and use to predict and understand situations) and frustrating to see him point out that it's a fallacy and then act as if it was true for much of the rest of the book. What's it about? Go read my review over on ZDNet...

Apart from the price. And the battery life (although Dan Dodge told me today "you shouldn't worry about it"; he can't say, but he knows what it is and he's happy. As the head of the QNX team at RIM, Dodge knows a lot more about the PlayBook and he told us quite a bit about it, from some details about the graphics processing to broad hints that there will be a 10" model at some point.

I have to say, I was prepared to be very underimpressed with the idea of a companion tablet and I'm still unsure - but I can't see carrrying a tablet and not having my phone with me, and I don't want to pay for two data plans. And the more I learn about QNX and what they're putting in the PlayBook, the more excited I get about it; I love tablet PC and OneNote, but I think I kind of want one...

Also: BlackBerry goes social with 'super apps'

The newer your BlackBerry, the more apps you use. 75% of App World downlaods are for BlackBerry 5 and 6. Now apps can get really social by hooking into BlackBerry Messenger - and they can be written in HTML 5 and still get all the BlackBerry features...

I've been noticing that Facebook, particularly Facebook Lite, is struggling under the load these days. At least for me, Facebook often doesn't load (it will be the only one of my home page tabs that's missing in action). Now I don't know if that's going to get fixed by what might be an update to the PHP runtime or (more likely) a compiler, but if more than one in three of the Americans who are online start updating their status at least once a week (the latest stat I saw) I wonder if Facebook will need more fundamental architectural changes to cope...
There's only one section of my Web site that needs updating by hand; easy to spot, it's the bit that is out of date. To automate it, what I'd like to do is have a blog that I can update by email generating an RSS feed I can scrape into the page. I tried www.tumblr.com but it posts hyperlinks as naked HTML even though I told it to parse HTML. BlogMailr puts an ad for BlogMailr on every post. I don't want to put these posts into my main LJ and I don't want to pay for a second LJ just for this. Anyone know a service that does what I'm after?

IBM Identity Mixer

I like the idea of disclosing just as much about myself as I want and no more; of proving membership of a class rather than having my personal membership of the class validated, of proving I'm over 21 rather than giving my exact age. I'm certainly getting enough experience of providing identity claims as part of dealing with my mother's estate. I'm already very interested in the various Identity 2.0 systems that are coming through and the Identity Mixer is the first thing IBM has contributed to the new wave. Higgins and CardSpace are often perceived as competition and there are tensions between IBM and Microsoft that make them different directions, but for the developer and for the end user they're going to be pieces that sit side by side and get mixed up. Roll on the abstraction of identity functionality for the Internet.

Age, shoe size: IBM thinks you should only disclose as much of your identity as you want; read the rest of my piece on Developer Register

Nothing new in Vista? Try the kernel

I will go back and do that list of 'things I use in Vista every day that make a big difference to me' but for personal reasons (I've been ill, my mum is ill, we've been travelling, there's a lot of work to do and other irregular verbs) I haven't got to it yet. But if you want the deep technical differences, the first two articles by Mark Russinovich on the Vista kernel are online at http://www.microsoft.com/technet/technetmag/issues/2007/02/VistaKernel/default.aspx. That includes things like not switching to a new thread if the current thread hasn't had a full execution cycle (which is like taking away my plate when you clear the rest of the table even if I only just sat down and everyone else has had half an hour to eat, just because you clear the table every half hour) or giving different priorities to different memory allocations (so indexing has to back away from the memory and put its hands in the air when you want memory for running an application). Every time you Boot Vista it takes a look at what was slow and makes notes for how to try to be faster next time.

The second article also explains:
where your memory is going and why you don't need to worry that it's not showing up as 'free'
why you don't have BOOT.INI any more
how to see startup process connection in Process Explorer so you know whose program is whose

This isn't tweaking information unless you're a developer, but you can see the extra levers and knobs Vista gives developers to twiddle. Plus, understanding some of these changes might give you the confidence to sit back and let Vista manage memory and schedule cpu priorities without trying any of those idiotic tweaking utilities that mess around in the registry ;-)

Just how do they write Photoshop?

I can't take much of the credit for writing Adobe edits the development cycle - what I did was think that what Russell told me about the switch in development style (to an incremental, bug-delimited method) was worth writing about, persuade my editor of the same thing, ask Russell about what I thought was interesting and then see where it went. I find it fascinating to see behind the scenes, to understand the process of how people having ideas turns into features thousands of people use everyday. This one is particularly interesting because Russell has joined in the reader discussion too... Now that's my favourite kind of interview subject ;-)

Users or trousers?

My piece for the Developer Register on the Windows Sideshow kits from Eleksen (put a Windows Sideshow module on your own bags, clothes and so on) very nearly went up as 'Put the button on your trousers'. One editor promised me the pearls of his wisdom as long as I left him the plums...

Mark Anders likes Eclipse

He really likes Eclipse. He really really really likes Eclipse. But then, they did use Eclipse to build Flex from scratch in 18 months on his team at Macromedia. We had a chance to chat with Mark the other week and you can tell he used to work at Microsoft; even with both of us nattering away as well, my notes from what he said come out at nearly 4,000 words. The part of the conversation that concentrated on development is now over at the Developer Register... written down it doesn't quite convey his energy and enthusiasm or the very shrewd look on his face or the rants we shared about the pain of installing a new version of Windows. Put three geeks in a room...

Holmes to assist Watson

In a charming reversal, Holmes will be making life easier for Watson. Microsoft will be calling the next version of the tool that lets you report bugs in beta software Holmes. This will mean by the time the software is released that Homes will have found some of the things Watson (ther error reporting tool in Windows) would have tripped over. I wonder if the codename for the Recovery Centre tools in Vista used to be Mrs Hudson?

Embedding a feed

I'm driving sbisson round the bend ranting about CSS (I want to be able to use an externally defined style inside a section that's using inline style links so I can use my preferred formatting for an element inside a badge supplied by a site without writing another definition and I can't find what I consider to be a clean way of doing this that doesn't multply at least one entity in a way I consider unnecessary). I'm so annoyed with CSS I'm even starting to prefer JavaScript, which is saying something. I want point and click, documented mashup tools that don't require someone who wants neat things on their website to become a programmer; that's what I'd call Web 2.0.

Admidst all the ranting I have found some useful tools, especially Feed2JS which interactively writes JavaScript for embedding an RSS feed on a Web page, letting you pick and choose the obvious settings, and then helps you interactively style it. Don't like the style? It not only documents the CSS classes it creates, it also shows you what the CSS classes look like laid out on the page so you can see where to change borders, margins, padding etc. You can choose spoon feeding or a recipe or the tools for writing your own recipe; that's what I call interactive.

I don't want my whole LiveJournal on my website; I want to use tags to generate multiple feeds and pull in a feed of posts about my writing, a feed of posts about my travels and so on. Rummaging in lj_nifty produced this service for producing an RSS feed for one of your LJ tags which does almost exactly what I want. (It would be very nice if the service went into the LJ code proper, because kind as it is of avatraxiom to host it, LJ will have better availability long term.) The LJ RSS only delivers recent posts and if there aren't any posts with your tag in the most recent batch you won't get any posts for that tag. RSS isn't all about what's new and shiny, LJ!
A roundup of some recent writing, not counting pieces for print that will take it a while to make it online (PC Plus) or may not be available online (Windows XP).

Another identity piece for the Developer Register, this time on an interesting project that combines Novell's directory experience with open source and the identity metasystem that Kim Cameron has been championing. I had some fun with the name too (Bandit).
Unmasking Novell's identity plans

Last week's Digital Business section of the FT had three of my pieces, all on the same page:
Finding room for photos and songs
Digital photos, MP3 and iTunes music, video clips, e-mail, downloaded bank statements. You might already have a terabyte (1,024 gigabytes) of data at home, scattered across different hard drives, DVD backups and memory cards – and you’ll have more soon.
Read more about 1TB NAS
A little (robotic) help from your friend
Ageing populations, rising healthcare costs, an increasing number of people who refuse to retire – and the robot vacuum cleaner that might help.
Read more about iRobot
Audio files: no longer too big to store nor too hard to search
We talk far more than we type. Podcasts, online video, internet radio, recordings of meetings and phone conversations – so much information today is contained in audio files. But how to index it, search it and access it?
Read more about audio searching

I expected my first piece for Tom's Hardware to be for the new UK site, where I'll be writing about home entertainment, MP3 players, media centres and other fun topics. As it happened, it was a review of the Nokia 770 Internet tablet with the new version of the OS that I collaborated on with sbisson, commissioned by the US parent site, though it's appearing on both so I'm boosting the local traffic in my link!
PDAs and smartphones can browse the Web, but small screens and poor support for JavaScript and plug-ins can make browsing a cramped and unsatisfying experience. UMPCs give you a standard browser but they're still too big (and expensive) to carry all the time. Nokia's 770 Internet tablet fits - not necessarily neatly - in the middle, in terms of size, price and features.
Read the rest.


Rather sadly, PC Advisor will not be having an Office Advisor column for me to write any more, due to some changes in the title. I shall miss writing these pieces as I've found such a lot of useful tips and tools myself, but I count Office (both Microsoft and more generally office software) as one of my key areas so I'm sure I'll carry on covering similar topics elsewher, including possibly some more specific tutorials in PC Advisor's workshop section.

Outlook 2007: time zones tamed

Or how to get a feature into Office.

Beta 2 of Outlook adds a feature to appointments; you can pick the timezone to create the meeting in and you can have a different timezone for the start and end of the meeting. It's very simple, it's very easy to use and it will save travellers a huge amount of grief (and anyone phoning the US from the UK or vice versa). Yes, there was a timezone strip before, but it only did two timezones and it still meant doing sums.

I wasn't expecting to get the timezone feature because it wasn't in the build I saw at the Office Reviewer's Workshop at the beginning of May. So when I started working with beta 2 of Outlook the day before my accident in Seattle and saw it, I did actually sit with my mouth open gaping like a fish for nearly a minute so I took a minute to mail the whole list of thank you’s to everyone who helped me be there that day, clicking the Timezone button in an appointment and setting the start time in Pacific time and the end time in East coast time without a calculator, a headache and a 24-hour miscalculation.

I'll say it again. Thank you! Whether you pointed me at the right person to beg for the feature, put up with me begging for the feature, went back to Redmond and had someone code the feature or actually sat down and did the coding – I thank you! Everyone who doesn’t have to hear me rant thanks you! And probably more importantly, everyone who travels in more than two timezones thanks you too, though you might have to wait until they wake up to hear them ;-)

Now I can"t take credit for this feature.Collapse )

Hacking your vacuum cleaner: illustrated

I did a piece for DevReg on the iRobot Roomba interface that you can use to turn your vacuum into a frog(ger) or something a little more useful (new inventions are always used for military, adult entertainment or gaming - as iRobot has the military covered already, let's be thankful the hackers chose gaming rather than anything else to do with sucking). In the piece I mentioned what iRobot CEO Colin Angle thinks a dishwasher robot should do that a robot dishwasher can't. And someone at the Reg has come up with a rather fabulous illustration of the robot, washing away.

But Colin Angle is used to robots that are form-follows-function; he built Ghengis, the 6-legged walking 'cockroach' robot and the 'behavior-controlled rovers' that became Sojourner.

Hacking your vacuum cleaner

PDF support in 2007 Office; at least some

PDF is one of those formats that I like in principle (fixed presentation), loathe in practice (try signing a PDF document and adding the date to it without printing the whole thing out and scanning it in; way too hard) and just can't avoid. I updated my test laptop with the 2007 Office technical refresh and as I needed to get dates and purchase order numbers out of files attached to seven different emails I thought the attachment preview would save me a lot of time. It would if the files were anything but PDF. All I get is the error message saying there's no previewer installed for PDF. Nor for ZIP. That means the previewer can't pick up IE plugins and use those to preview files, nor does the native XP ZIP support work; developers are going to have to code up more plugins for 2007 Outlook. Attachment preview is a lovely idea; I can't wait till it gets out of beta.

MIX 06 and surviving conference schedules

Charge early, charge often. The Lenovo tablet still isn't giving me good battery life so I'm keeping the screen dim, setting processor speeds low and plugging in where I can.
Use a discreet recorder. When casino security fusses about photography and recordings, a tablet PC or a memory stick recorder that looks like a phone is less likely to attract attention.
Water. You need more than you think.
Locate the restrooms. Due to Water and the coffee you need to stay attentive from 9am to 9pm.
Wear comfortable shoes. The Venetian was too pricey so we're at the Imperial Palace - only two casinos away but add in the size of the casinos and the fact that the conference space is behind the casino floor and it's a half hour walk from the room.
Put your camera, business cards and the other things you want to grab often in a pocket. Put them in the same pocket each time.
If the schedule is available in advance try to prepick sessions but expect them to change. Add the sessions you're interested in to your calendar and synch that to your phone. My Vario has the conference sessions in because I used the iCal links on the MIX site to put them in Outlook. I had to update the times by hand - RSS simple list updates now please! - but I have the descriptions to hand, and I get alarms for sessions.
Go party. I grab people at the end of sessions when I can but I also look for them at the party and in the labs and chat slots. And now - I shall go party
Out here in the real world, I want the address, a map and directions as well, ideally from a GPS because I'd rather do my serendipitous exploring without the stress of getting lost and being late. In the digital world, I don't want directions: I want the address for the content I'm after. Show me, don't tell me. If there's a two-minute section in a video that covers what I want, I don't want all 93 minutes and the instruction to fast-forward 47 minutes and 15 seconds. I want the computer to do the scut work. If there's an event, I don't want to get sent to your calendar with instructions to scroll forward to March 20th, I want to go straight to the page. Don't point me at three weeks worth of discussions about the next project, link straight to the message where everyone agrees on the project spec. If I find what I want quickly then I'll have time to browse around and enjoy serendipity, but don't make me go through a maze if I don't want to.

To be able to give a user the address of the exact information they want means breaking down monolithic content like video streams and calendars and forum threads. And that means thinking about how things are indexed, and they they're presented. When Blinkx finds a video that matches what you're searching for it could send an offset to start the video playing at the right point - but content owners don't like that because they've put the ads that pay for their service at the beginning of the video. Too many groupware systems give you a link for the calendar, not a link for individual days or events in the calendar. And if a link to a forum comes up in a search you'll usually find yourself at the first post in the thread rather than the relevant post - the whole thread has been indexed rather than the individual posts.

What's the logical addressable unit of content? It's going to vary depending on the content type, but as a consumer I'm going to want more granularity than the producer expects. Often, there's a fragment of information that's exciting or interesting that I want to share rather than pointing someone at a whole work; I'm hoping they'll find the whole thing interesting, but it's the snippet I think will catch them. The smart content provider will see value in letting me push people to the interesting bit in the hope they'll want to see more rather than forcing people to sit through all of it. Addressability might look like losing control - actually it's giving both publisher and visitor finer grained control.

Details matter: Web credibility

"It must be true - it was in the paper/on the TV/on the Web..."
We tend to assume that if something's been published, it's got some validity, when all it means is that it's been published. The recent spat over who appropriated what CSS from whom shows that citizen editing only works if people put in more effort than just reading and reacting to a story. Credibility online longterm needs a reputation system of some kind - what Dave Sifry called 'PageRank for people' when he was at Technorati. In the short term, the Stanford Credibility Guidelines are fairly simplistic and maybe more use as an indicator of what naive mainstream visitors are influenced by, but it's a handy list.
In an otherwise interesting article on Ray Ozzie and the direction of Microsoft, the NY Times says "At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the early 1970's, Mr. Ozzie wandered into the building that housed Plato, a computer system with terminals linked to a mainframe in a network that, remarkably for its time, had instant messaging, e-mail and online discussions." Remarkable for the time? Well kind of.

Chat programs and talkers and local messaging go back to the 1960s. We had floppy disks in 1970 (the VCR wasn't until 1971 and the Walkman was 1979) - and the @ was chosen for addresses by Ray Tomlinson writing email software in 1971. What Plato did have - which is probably what made an impact on Ray Ozzie that we can see in Lotus Notes and Groove - was the original Notes, which started as a bug reporting system and turned into a conferencing system, along with Talkomatic, which was different because it didn't wait for a whole line of text before it sent your message, and an online community built around them. I saw another descendant - DEC Notes - in the late 1980s, so discovering Usenet felt like coming home.

What's really remarkable is how new we think all this is. The PC world's failure to learn the lessons of the mainframe and workstation world about basic concepts like multi-threading, multiple user accounts, security and communications - let alone the more sophisticated tools that were developed long before desktop computers had to earn their living - have meant that our industry repeatedly re-invents the wheel without seeming to have any idea that there was a wheel before. At least Linux reprises an OS first coded up in 1969. It might have been clunky but I was doing mobile email in 1993 with an HP OmniBook 300, a Motorola CELLect mobile phone and CiX. What other industries routinely ignore the knowledge gained in previous developments? Never mind code re-use, we don't seem to have much interest in re-using successful designs and building on them. The ground behind most development teams is streaming with bathwater and covered with babies. 

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