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Spaced Paragraphs in Word · The Internet is fierce with polemics about one-space-or-two-after-the-period. Bah, lightweight stuff. What about all those poor people you see making MS Word docs look a little more spacious by inserting an extra empty line between paragraphs? There is a better way! But the Office UI (on Mac at least) is heinous, so here’s a step-by-step ...
Good Writing, Twice · I almost never use this space any more just for links but damn it this is my blog and I can if I want to. Here are two exceptional pieces of writing and you should go read them both: First, John Gruber’s Microsoft, Past and Future is by a huge margin the best thing I’ve read on that transition, and Microsoft still matters, really a lot. Second, William Burroughs’ Doing Easy is unlike anything I’ve read this year or last year either, will make you smile and is full of big important life lessons.
Web3S · Well, well, we now have two freshly-baked HTTP-based Web Resource CRUD protocols which advertise themselves as being RESTful. Microsoft’s new Web3S is designed to support remote update of Live Contacts, which is, and I quote: “the central data store in Windows Live for address book information. All Hotmail contacts, Messenger buddies and Spaces’ friends are recorded in Live Contacts. There are currently approximately 500,000,000 active address books in Live Contacts.” See Yaron Goland’s intro APP and Dare, the sitting duck (read the comments too), then the draft spec Web Structured, Schema’d & Searchable (Web3S) and its FAQ. There’s a reaction from David Ing, Not Your Father’s MData; the comments below might be a good place to aggregate more links. [Update: Yaron Goland has addressed the issues I raised here, FAQ-style, in a comment below.] ...
WCF-REST · It’s like this: The WS-* project’s attempt to re-invent RPC and pretend that you can successfully take an object-model view of networked applications looks increasingly fanciful, in the general case. On the other hand, Microsoft’s Merry Men slaved away on Indigo, worked around the horrors of XSD and WSDL, built some pretty good Visual Studio tooling, and shipped DCOM, the Next Generation WCF; now it’s the way Windows wants to be talked to over the net. Which is why the Java ecosystem has things like WSIT, built into JAX-WS; you may not like Windows but everyone has to talk to it ...
Microsoft · Last week I spent time talking to a lot of different technology people, from all over the world geographically and organizationally and culturally. The conversation kept looping back to Microsoft, and to the same sentiment: They’ve lost their mojo. Lots of people will end up using Vista, but does anyone care? The Microsoft execs look haggard and joyless, and half the interviews feel phoned-in. There’s real innovation in the Office UI, and everyone says “But it’s OK, the old keyboard shortcuts still work”. The advertising campaign is vapid and lame, but then that’s nothing new; they haven’t run an effective one in years. I’m sure that Microsoft can come back, the way IBM did after their bad patch last century; maybe the energy is building in a building in Redmond where nobody’s looking. I’ve never liked Microsoft, but now I realize how much energy they used to inject into the ecosystem, because it’s not there any more and I miss it.
Microsoft XML, the Mac Angle · There’s been a lot of noise these last few days about the Microsoft Office XML file formats; the world doesn’t need my opinion again. I’d vaguely noted that Mac Office would be a little behind on the new XML, then Simon Phipps shot me links to a couple of closer looks, which shed an instructive light ...
Kill Switch Nightmare ·  Mary Jo Foley (who has been excellent recently, a must-read) reports that both Windows Vista and Office 2007 have a “Kill Switch”; if you can’t prove you’re properly licensed, the software turns itself off. Maybe I’m missing something, but this seems like complete batshit-looney territory. Let’s see, suppose I’m a black-hat profiteer sitting beyond the reach of Western law but with control over a few botnets. If I can get my hands on your Kill Switch, I’ll have a nice little extortion business, as in “Pay up or all your desktops will decide they’re unlicensed and turn off.” It’d work best in a sales-centric business near end-of-quarter. Another potential victim would be any government (or company even) that has a lot of enemies; they don’t want your money, they just want to take you down. So, without thinking too hard, here are some attack vectors I’d consider: If I can subvert your network routing, gotcha! If I can subvert the registry on your desktop machines, gotcha! If I can subvert the NTP protocol (how most computers learn what time it is), gotcha! I’m sure that an actual seasoned network engineer could think up a half-dozen more attack scenarios over a cup of coffee. Finally, never ascribe to malice that which can be explained by incompetence; WGA is software and software has bugs and if one of those bugs flipped the Kill Switch on your sales infrastructure offline during the Christmas rush, well, there wouldn’t be any malice involved, but it’d sure be a pity. What prudent businessperson, I wonder, is going to install critical infrastructure that can be turned off remotely, trusting the claims that only the good guys will be able to find the key to the “off” switch?
OOXML Hoo-Hah · Bob Sutor and Rob Weir (both of IBM) have been been whacking away at the standards lipstick being painted on the Microsoft Office Internal Data Structure XML Dump pig. Oops, officially, that’s “ECMA Office Open XML”. In A Leap Back Rob describes Excel’s well-known date-representation bug being encoded in an alleged International Standard. Then again in A bit about the bit with the bits, he talks about bitmasks and offal (really). But it’s Bob’s point, in Is Open XML a one way specification for most people?, that’s central: this is just a six-thousand-page data dump describing a particular XML serialization of a particular commercial application’s object model, completely oblivious to the universe of publishing-related standards that have been hammered out and put to work while MSOffice was being tended in Redmond. You can write “STANDARD” on it in letters as big as you want, but there will only ever be one full implementation, and if you standardize on this standard you’ve locked yourself in. Shame, shame on the other companies on the committee, helping Microsoft perpetuate this travesty. There’s just no excuse.
Microsoft & ODF · I’ve been wondering how to react to this Microsoft ODF Announcement. Andy Updegrove points out that the news isn’t that new, but still I see this as significant. From a glass-half-empty point of view, I could object, as Bob Sutor does, to the misdirection and outright lies in the Microsoft spin. Or I could echo Mark Pilgrim in pointing out that this is currently largely vaporware (more details here). But I think that on balance the big story is that Redmond has moved from a “There’s no demand for ODF” stance to admitting that, in fact, there is. Currently, it’s largely a public-sector thing; and reading between the mellifluous lines of Chris Capossela’s A Foundation for the New World of Documents, I sense a tone of barely-suppressed fear: “We encourage public sector organizations to move to XML file formats but not to mandate a particular format or implementation.” We can all agree on implementation—that’s the point, after all—but to refuse to bless a format seems to me to ignore the lesson of the Web, written in letters of fire 500 feet high: agree on the smallest-possible number of data formats, and compete on what you do with them.
WinFS · Wow, it’s dead. You have to be sad when anything goes south that so many people have worked on so hard for so long. Still, I remember being told in the early Nineties, when I was talking up Unix servers, that I was silly and wrong because the Cairo object filesystem would make everything else irrelevant. And then years later, when I was selling search and content management for a living, being told once again that we’d all be casualties of the WinFS bandwagon. I wonder if, in other professions as in ours, the conventional wisdom is so often so wrong? [Update: Lots of thoughtful coverage: The OS Review, Developing on the Edge, The Fishbowl, Dare Obasanjo, Simon Phipps.]
Goddess · That would be my wife Lauren. After I b0rked our Win2K gamebox, I tried re-installing the OS and eventually reduced it to complete brick-ness, it recognized neither the video adapter nor the network card. So Lauren brushed me aside and started wrestling with the problem, and to make a long story short, it almost completely works again. At one point she seemed nearly infinite in her capabilities, sitting in front of the computer wrangling software updates while knitting baby stuff and looking up words in a German dictionary for the kid’s homework. Some of the German nouns and muttered curses at the Windows install sounded remarkably like each other. Why would anyone not marry a geek? The only problem is that Win2K won’t auto-switch resolutions to play games any more, it gets the frequency wrong and the LCD goes pear-shaped, you have to hand-select the frequency and switch into the right resolution first. LazyWeb?
Mad at Microsoft · We have a 2002-vintage Athlon 1800 whitebox running Win2K in the living area that’s used for slide scanning and games; the kid plays Tonka construction games, and he and I both occasionally dip into the Need For Speed series. Nelson Minar wrote a piece on Eve Online that made it sound interesting and different, so I thought I’d take a look. Eve would load but not run, looked like a video driver problem, so I went and got what looked like the latest for the old GeForce 2 Ti from the NVidia site, and by following the instructions precisely, reduced it to 640x480 pure-VGA mode. Lauren (designated Windows hack around here) was able to get it more or less working again but now it runs neither Eve nor Need for Speed. (Yes, we have the latest DirectX and all the Windows updates and all the obvious things). Well... could get a nice new Mac and dual-boot it as a games box. Or could update it to WinXP which would probably come with the right driver-ware by default. Of course, both of these mean buying XP. Off the shelf, the Home upgrade is C$150, but we can’t use that because it only upgrades from 9x and ME. The XP Pro upgrade is C$250. Which is totally, completely, insanely, exorbitant. And I ain’t gonna pay. Goodbye, Need for Speed.
ETech — Good Pitches · This is just a potpourri of pitches, specifically the ones that were good and memorable. Includes rare complimentary remarks about Microsoft technology ...
Swiss Bank Account · I’ve been casting around trying to find something to write about the ECMA rubber-stamp Microsoft is buying for their Office file formats but have been unable to rise much above “blecch”. Simon Phipps, in saluting IBM’s wise refusal to play the game, manages to bring some grace and even a little humor to bear.
Microsoft XML News · The newswires are buzzing today with Microsoft XML action. So, what do you want from an XML-based standard, whether it’s about synchronization or spreadsheets? First, you want it to be stable. Second, you want it to be legally unencumbered, so anyone can use it in their software. These things are really essential. Less essential, but important: you’d like it to have community involvement, some sort of open process; and finally, you’d like it to be, you know, technically good. So let’s look at today’s headliners, SSE and MSFT Office XML. Stable? SSE at the moment is just something Ozzie and Winer are kicking around, but who knows? As for OfficeXML, yup, this move to ECMA/ISO will make it stable. Unencumbered? SSE’s Creative-Commons license looks pretty good to me. Today, Jean Paoli told Scoble that they’d be doing some sort of “covenant not to sue” over OfficeXML. This would be great news, and we hope that, unlike the current license, it’s GPL-friendly. This is real important, because neither ECMA nor ISO have problems with standardizing heavily-encumbered technology. Open, transparent processes? Well, er, not exactly a Microsoft strength. I honestly don’t know whether ECMA will provide for meaningful input, or whether the process’ outcome, as for example OASIS allows, is completely predetermined. You have to admire the chutzpah in pre-announcing that the ECMA and ISO processes will finish before Office 12 ships, if only by minutes, especially since one assumes that the idea is that Office 12 is going to comply with those standards. Remarkable process-management and software development skills are evidently involved. Finally, are these technologies actually any good? As for SSE, I don’t know a thing about synchronization and Ray Ozzie knows lots, so I’ll hold my peace. On the OfficeXML side I have lots of opinions, but the opinion that’ll matter is that of ISO JTC1 (I’d guess more specifically SC34), which will soon be dealing with two attempts to standardize a solution to the same problem. Should be fun to watch. Oh yes, and since we’re talking about standards, would MSDN please get a clue!?!?.
Check out Lauren · Dr. Lauren Wood [Disclosure: my wife] has a few recent things worth checking out. Item: An Okanagan wine-tour narrative (think Napa or Sonoma, only cheaper and prettier). Item: A guest-blog by Sally Faulkner on the The Perfect G&T, a subject that matters. And finally, a LazyWeb cri-de-coeur, Why Does Windows/XP hate us?.
Check out Jon  · Jon Udell is an existence proof of the need for technology writers who are technically competent but don’t have a non-writing day job; in an ideal world this is how all tech journalists would be. First this great big honkin’ survey piece on Web Services; I’ve been feeling guilty about not covering that territory more, but now I don’t have to because Jon is. Summary: There is hope. Then, his excellent interview with Bill Gates, in which Gates is informal, informative and intelligent, as opposed to Ballmer’s party-line bloviation.
Out of Memory · There’s this old saying “You shouldn’t kick a man when he’s down”, but I’ve always thought it unsound. Obviously, normally you oughtn’t kick a man, but let us consider a hypothetical situation in which kicking is called for. There’s no better time than when he’s already down: less work to achieve foot contact, easy access to whichever part needs kicking, and the man will have real difficulty in kicking you back. What has this to do with “out of memory”? Well, in this case I felt like kicking some software, and the same principle applies ...
Longhorn + RSS & Atom · Hey, I see Microsoft announced RSS Support in Longhorn; good stuff! The services they plan to provide (subscription list, data store, sync engine) sound pretty plausible. As for their list-control extensions, it’s up to the implementors and the market to decide if they’re useful; they look like they won’t break anything, so the experiment is free. I’m somewhat amused by the last paragraph’s “We will support Atom 1.0 when it’s released.” That will be in the next few weeks, which is to say at least a year before Longhorn is.
New Office XML · The popular wisdom is that it takes Microsoft until Release 3 of anything to get it right; but the early word on the new Office XML format makes Release 2 look pretty good. Reading between the lines, the big news is, first, that the default file-save format is XML and, second, that the XML coverage is complete (In the current Office XML, PowerPoint is entirely absent and Excel has big holes). Assuming Microsoft pulls this off, it’s a major achievement. Along with patching those holes, working around the basic OLE-container-ness of everything has to be tricky; one of the nice things about MS Office is that you can jam pretty well anything that talks OLE into the middle of pretty well any Office doc and it just works. I have questions around the licensing: Brian Jones, linked above, says “royalty-free” but the current licensing language has some clauses that make lawyers nervous, so let’s wait and see on that one. At one level, it’s sad that while the rest of the world (including, lately, Adobe and IBM) has been hard at work on one wide-open, shareable, portable, standardized XML office document format, Microsoft put their energy into inventing another one. Still, this ought to be a step forward for Microsoft’s customers. The news coverage says “late 2006”; good luck to the team in the tough job of getting it shipped.
Best o’ the Season · A Prairie Christmas, with illustrated remarks on snow, cows, and why the Internet is such a dangerous place ...
Neo/J Patch3 Cowabunga! · Please come on inside and check out the screen shot. It shows OpenOffice, on the Macintosh, running with native Aqua menus. This is big news. [Update: Oops, I pointed to the wrong patch.] ...
Spolsky Drops the Big One · Joel Spolsky posted an astounding essay a few days ago that I somehow missed. I don’t agree with every paragraph, but every paragraph is worth reading. If I may pick one minor point out for a bit of special highlighting: We’ve had good full-text search technology since the Seventies, and in the last ten years more or less everybody has become a regular user of full-text search. Why isn’t there good built-in full-text desktop search available right now today on both OS X and Windows, out of the box? (Most of the article isn’t about search, most of it’s about why the Windows API is dying on the vine; don’t miss it.)
Co-operating With Microsoft · In the flurry of news last week about our big deal with Microsoft, there was quite a bit of talk about the possibilities for technical co-operation. I’ve been poking around a bit to try to figure out what that actually means ...
The New World of PR · Last Friday, Scoble relayed a denial by Microsoft exec Martin Taylor that they were behind the big venture investment in SCO. I’m surprised that nobody’s pointed at the meta-message here; this is the first time I know of that a big company has gone to one of their bloggers to get a critical piece of PR out. But I bet it won’t be the last. [Updated: Scoble clarifies. I had read his original post to say that Taylor had emailed Scoble saying “Blog this.” In fact, Scoble saw Taylor’s message on an an internal mailing list and did it on his own initiative; not quite as newsworthy as I’d thought. But read Scoble’s clarification for more on this.] [Updated again: Business Week says that Microsoft did lead the Venture Cap horse to the SCO trough. I tend to trust Business Week. Uh, would Martin Taylor like to clarify his statement that the allegations “are not accurate”?]
Fourteen Years of Pain · I’m busily editing a fairly complex tech spec written in Microsoft Word. (Word generally sucks for tech specs except for this one is being team-edited with little infrastructure, so we needed the revision-marking feature.) When I first ever used Word it was in 1989 on a Macintosh; this first brush with competent WYSIWYG changed my thinking about interfaces and documents. There was a problem: back then the handling of numbered lists in Word was buggy and fragile. Today, fourteen years later in a recent rev of Office, numbered lists are still buggy and fragile. Innocuous changes—simple cut/paste, joining paragraphs, applying the formatting palette—intermittently send Word into psychotic spasms, in one case renumbering the list starting at 65, in another mysteriously removing the colour-coding from all the text in the doc, in another re-indenting dozens of apparently randomly-selected paragraphs. I suppose if it hasn’t gotten fixed in a decade and a half my grandchildren will probably be stuck with it. But I have hopes that the world will learn the valuable lessons Word taught us all about the interfaces between humans and texts, and for God’s sake move on to something better.
Office Schemas · Jean Paoli called last week to tip me off about the release of the MS Office XML schema-ware. It turns out that the actual data won’t be on view till December 5, so I don’t have a lot to say about the technical details. I also haven’t gone very deep on the patent and licensing issues, but Jean’s description made it sound like they’re trying not to get in the way. However, there are a couple of points he emphasized on the phone that don’t seem to have made it into the press coverage. [Update: Jean sends some pointers.] ...
Picture Windows · Check out this remarkable picture of more or less all the pieces of the Windows puzzle. It’s nice that it’s a PNG, but a pity they can’t anti-alias the text. [Update: Peter Eschenbrenner writes in to say he’s temporarily mirroring a much higher-quality version.]
Great Rant from Ole Eichhorn · Check it out. There’s way too much here to summarize, and there are bits you could quibble with, but Ole is obviously a smart guy and every word is worth reading. For a real surprise, read the little sequence near the bottom about Don Box’s questions for the audience. Like Ole says “There is no magic bullet.”
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