Tag Archives: Application software

Is Microsoft Censoring Windows 7 Tweets?

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Intrigued to see that Microsoft has turned a page of its website over to “What people are saying about Windows 7”:

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The page is designed a bit like twittefall: a cascade of seeminlgy “live” tweets (their dates and times of posting cleverly removed from the cascade.)

Amazingly, 99% of the comments are positive, or at least neutral:

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So I thought I would check to see whether the feed has some filtering. The feed seems to include comments going back several days (the one above is six days old), so I thought it fair to search over that same period. A more nuanced picture emerges. “Windows7 sucks,” for example, throws up at least 20 tweets in the past week, none of them visible in the cascade.

So clearly some sort of filtering is going on. To check I sent out this faux tweet from an unused account and haven’t, 30 minutes on, seen anything:

#windows7 win7 is a disaster. uninstalling it right now

As Lydia Pintscher points out at Amarok Blog, this filtering and pseudo-conversation is all quite unnecessary. It’s clear the majority of people actually quite like Windows 7 (though I’d be interested in their reactions in a few months; my experience down the track has been less impressive.)

The point is that Microsoft would be foolish to allow an unfettered feed—people would quickly cotton on and put all sorts of rubbish in there.

But if it tries to pretend that the page is somehow live, and that it’s a conversation, then they also need to be smarter about reflecting the full range of views out there.

They also need to understand the organic nature of hashtags. The Microsoft website asks users to “join the conversation” by including hashtags #win7 or #windows7 in their tweets—which many were already doing, it’s an obvious step to make—but they also asked those who had bought Windows 7 to include the hashtag #igotwin7.

So far, the number of people who have is, er, two; one of them is Microsoft itself:

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Social media lesson #4: You can start a conversation but you can’t control it. Try and you look silly. 

User Generated Discontent

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I know in my previous post it sounded like user-generated content isn’t the be-all and end-all, but it has its place. Like this one, from iTunes Store, where Ricky Gervais’ new show is available as an audiobook for 10 quid. The description is the usual blurb-like drivel written by an intern and proof-read by someone on their toilet break:

Ricky delivers hilarious and insightful observations on the nature of fame, and in the process displays his talent as Britain’s foremost comedian to the fullest extent yet.

I’ll leave copywriters and editors to paw over that particular bit of prose. But what I love is the Customer Review below:

Ricky Gervais seems to have convinced the majority of the British and American public he is some sort of genius. Take away that stupid dance [and] the inane grin and what are you left with? An average …. More

I know the More … bit is just part of the way the web page truncates the review, but it seems somehow apt.

I’m not knocking Gervais, who did exhibit some genius with The Office (the UK version), but I find it amusing that the iTunes store, such prime real estate and so carefully designed, allows such prominently displayed counteropinion.

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That’s the true power of user generated content, in my view: A counterblast, a breath of fresh air, a guy standing at the counter when you’re about to part with your cash who nods towards the DVD clutched in your hand and murmurs in your ear, “load of crap, that. Waste of money, frankly.”

Everyone Wants To Be a Player

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Still the big players don’t get it. Still they drive people like me nuts, and confuse ordinary users, with their sly tactics that confound and bewilder.

Above, for example, Microsoft’s Windows Media Player provides a list of files that it will play by default. All are checked automatically, including DVD video, midi files, WAV files and MP3 files. Nowhere is there a button for deselecting all of them. Weirdly, at the top is a message that says

Window Media Player 9 Series will be the default player for the file types that are selected in the following list. You must be logged on as administrator or a member of the Administrators group to change these settings.

Microsoft’s way of confusing users who think this is something that they can’t control, and intimidating them into not trying. Nowhere does it say “You can uncheck these boxes if you like; of course you’ll have to do it one by one, which we’re hoping you won’t have time to do.” (I timed it; it took about 10 seconds. That’s ten seconds of my life I’m not going to get back.)

RealPlayer is notorious for this kind of thing. I installed it the other day. The Media Types window, steers the unsuspecting user to signing away all their rights with a big obvious option and one lesser option:

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If you are stupid enough to ignore that, you can try figuring out which files you want RealPlayer to deal with, which of course, has everything checked by default:

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There is, however, an “Deselect all” button. And alongside each format is a helpful note about what software that file type is currently assigned to. Their sneaky trick, however, is to hide the important one, the reason you presumably installed the player, so that you have to scroll down below the visible list to find the Real file types. There’s no button marked “Just let the Player handle the things it’s supposed to handle, and leave me alone, OK?”

Actually, this whole thing is a kind of battle, a bit like the default browser battle. Everybody seems to play the same game, with varying degrees of sneakiness/sleaziness. Back in the Preferences window of RealPlayer is a checkbox that lets RealPlayer fight back, in case you’ve decided against allowing it to play everything. Although in its defence, the first time it notices you’ve left the reservation, you get a warning, which says “RealPlayer is no longer the default player for some audio and video files:

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Still, the wording is sufficiently cheeky to confuse the more casual user: “Do you want to keep RealPlayer,” it asks, as the default player for these file types?”

I like the word “keep” instead of “revert” or “return”. Most users are conservative. They don’t want to change things. RealPlayer execs probably sat in an office all afternoon thinking about the wording to that little message. This message will keep popping up, by the way, each time you change one of these file types until you tell it to stop.

Window Media Player, meanwhile, is a bit weirder. Windows’ file system will acknowledge that control of the file type has passed hands, but WMP won’t. Instead, in the file types options window, the checkbox will be ticked but “dimmed”:

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The help file helpfully says:

If a selected check box is dimmed, Windows Media Player has only partial ownership of the file type. Multiple file extensions are assigned to the file type, but the Player only plays some of those extensions by default. To give the Player full ownership of a file type, double-click the dimmed check box.

I’ve read that second sentence a couple of times, and still don’t know what it means. But to me the implication is clear: It’s virtually impossible for Windows Media Player to surrender all rights to a file type unless you actually uncheck the right box in the options window. And you may notice that the only way into the options window is through a menu that can only be accessed on the default Windows Media Player skin by a little arrow in the left hand corner:

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The bottom line: I can understand that control of media is valuable real estate for these guys, but I really feel for the poor folk who are trying to just play music, or videos or whatever. There must be a better way of doing this.

The Holy Grail of Software

I was chatting with someone in the comments section of one of my blog posts and we realised tha we’re both looking for the same kind of software we haven’t found yet. One that, in my words at least, fulfil the following: to be able to store stuff in a way that is
– easy to input
– easy to organise
– easy to access
– easy to retrieve
– easy to search
– easy to view
– easy to order in different ways
– easy to visualize
– easy to export

There are outliners, mind mappers, search programs and database programs, but none of them quite does all this the way we’d like. So we thought we’d start a Google Group and try to see if we could either

a) hone the requirement. What is it, exactly, we’re looking for, and are other people looking for it too?

b) find the perfect software that does all this?

c) define what we’re looking for so well that maybe someone else comes along and develops it for us?

Anyway, if any of you are interested, please do join us at personalknowldgebase. The discussion could be an interesting one. I’d particularly love to hear from people who are developing software that they feel already does this. As regular readers know, I’m a big fan of stuff like PersonalBrain, Topicscape, MindManager, outliners like MyInfo and more Wiki-based stuff like TiddlyWiki and ConnectedText, but without wanting to offend any of you, I don’t think that any so far represent the holy grail of a program that captures what you want it to capture and gives it back to you in the way, and ways, you want it. But maybe that could form the start of the discussion.

Anyway, hope you’ll join us in this discussion. And, if this discussion already exists outside a very program-specific forum, I’d love to hear of that too.

The Slow Death of the iPod

Jupiter Research has come up with figures [BBC] suggesting that only 20% of the tracks found on an iPod will have been bought from iTunes. The conclusion: “Digital music purchasing has not yet fundamentally changed the way in which digital music customers buy music.”

Paul Thurrot reckons that for Apple things are the other way around to what was expected (where the iPod was the razor, iTunes was the blades they made their money off): Apple has to sell more hardware for its business to thrive. He also reckons that Apple has got to come up with something neat to keep the circus rolling: “As iPod moves from gotta-have-it fashion accessory to all-too-common electronics device, it will be interesting to see if Apple can keep the momentum going.”

There are plenty of folk heralding the doom of the iPod. The Observer last week: “Sales are declining at an unprecedented rate. Industry experts talk of a ‘backlash’ and of the iPod ‘wilting away before our eyes’. Most disastrously, Apple’s signature pocket device with white earphones may simply have become too common to be cool.” One of its main sources: Tomi Ahonen, author of Communities Dominate Brands. (Check out these two posts for more discussion of this.)

This kind of talk infuriates fans of the iPod, Apple and Jobs. A piece on Arstechnica’s Infinite Loop points out that given CDs have been around for 20 years, and iTunes for only three, the idea that there are more CD tracks on iPods than from the Apple store isn’t overly surprising. (The article and the comments below, however, convey some intriguing vitriol against iPod-doom merchants specifically, and technology journalists more generally.)

A lot of this, I suspect, is down to the differing experiences across the globe. U.S. cellphones have long been woeful, but online commerce cheap and highly efficient, so it’s not surprising the iPod/iTunes model would work well. Europe is a little trickier: great cellphones, but at least in the case of the UK, overpriced iTunes content is apparently driving users legally dubious music download sites like AllofMP3.com (which overtook Napster.com in traffic about a year ago, according to Alexa). Asia is a different kettle of fish: cheap, small, generic MP3 players are so ubiquitous here, as are cellphones, it’s a tough call. But most people are going to prefer one device to two, so as music on phones gets better and easier, expect to see music shift.

That said, Apple are now so much more visible in Asia because of the iPod and there’s no reason they can’t be a part of that although if the iPod becomes commoditized, it’s hard to imagine Apple keeping pace with the already commoditized cellphone. I guess the final point here is the shift from music as a product to a service: It makes a lot of sense to listen to music on your phone if your collection is somehow fed to you by your cellphone operator. Subscribe to songs and they are on your music phone when and where you need them, and the whole ripping/syncing thing is going to seem pretty antiquated. Think ringtones, a market 12 times the size of iTunes.

Confessions of a PDF Hater

There’s a lot of discussion about the ongoing spat between Microsoft and Adobe over whether Microsoft will be able to install PDF/Acrobat support in its next version of Office. This should be as straightforward as PDF support in OpenOffice — where you can choose to save (well, print, technically speaking) a file as an Acrobat PDF. But it’s not. Allowing a niche, free, office suite like OpenOffice to add this for free is one thing, but for the market giant Microsoft — who are preparing a PDF rival, XPS — to do it is another. So as things stand at the moment, Office users will be abe to have PDF support, but not out-of-the-box: They’ll have to install it as a download plug-in. Not too arduous, but as comments on the blog of Brian Jones, Microsoft’s Program Manager, suggest, a lot of folk won’t do that.

Everyone’s talking about this issue, blaming Microsoft, blaming Adobe, but no one seems to be asking a question I’ve been mulling for years: Why are Adobe Acrobat files so hard to use, and the Adobe programs to make and maniuplate them so darned user unfriendly? I’ve been using Acrobat reader and Acrobat for years, and each version I hope is going to be a little more intuitive and easier to understand. And yet every time I try to do something a little bit different or more complicated than simply saving a file or extracting a line of text I run into problems.

I’ve found no straightforward, wizard-type way to tweak a saved file to balance reduced file size with reduced quality of images. This means that I — and I’m sure lots of other folk, including a friend of mine who yesterday received a PDF file from a major international organisation that was 7 MB in size, had Chinese characters that appeared as gibberish on her screen — can’t easily use what should be the most powerful features in what should be a great program.

And don’t get me started on the naff way that the Adobe Reader includes a promo for the Yahoo! Toolbar — how low do you have to stoop? — and, next to it, a helpful search box. How many people have entered text in that box thinking it’s to search the active PDF document, only to find that it’s actually a Yahoo! search box?

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Perhaps it’s something to do with the fact that it looks remarkably similar to the Adobe “find” box that appears if you hit Control+f:

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It’s telling that most of the best PDF tools are not actually Adobe’s at all, but simple PDF makers that bypass the whole Acrobat maker process. (My list of these programs is here, although it needs some updating. Here’s a free PDFCreator which will allow you to print to PDF from any Windows program.)

Sure, PDFs are great for the security measures they build in, and they have definitely changed the way people exchange and collaborate over documents. But usability has not improved. So if Microsoft or anyone can come up with a better format that’s easier to work with, I’m all for it.

An Outliner That Tags

One of my favorite and most used programs, the MyInfo outliner, is now out in a new version that wraps in tagging, fast searching and other tweaks that put it ahead of the opposition. If you use outliners, check it out, and if you don’t, you might want to consider it. (Outliners are simple free-text databases, organised in a familiar tree format. Great for storing more or less anything you want to keep in one place.)

MyInfo is developed by Milenix, a small software company in Bulgaria. It sells for $50. I’ve been playing with this version, 3.5, and it’s impressive. The tagging is simple but well thought through — a classic example of how tagging can be wrapped into standalone applications to improve organising and finding stuff. Search now works across as many files as you have open, so you can find stuff quickly and efficiently. Gripes? There have been some bugs but Petko, the guy behind it, has been pretty quick to fix them.

Indonesia’s Slice of the Long Tail

It’ll be interesting to see how this kind of thing pans out: An Indonesian publishing company run by an expat American has launched a catalogue of Indonesian pop music on iTunes (declaration of interest: the guy, Mark Hanusz, is a friend of mine). Could this kind of thing change the way this kind of music is distributed, and, perhaps more interestingly, define a musician’s fan base and therefore their definition of success?

There are plenty of examples of music already crossing boundaries. But moves like Equinox Publishing, which claims its “catalog forms Southeast Asia’s largest selection of music to arrive on the digital music landscape”, represent a significant step forward. Until now it would have been nigh impossible for Indonesians living outside Indonesia, or anyone else for that matter, to get their hands on anything other than a CD of gamelan music. Now they can zip their way through 30–second previews of dozens of Indonesian artists on iTunes. Perhaps more significantly, it levels the playing field a bit: Now anyone browsing iTunes is as likely to stumble on an Indonesian band as they are to find a U.S. or European act.

Already Western bands make their way to a place like Indonesia — from Deep Purple and Procul Harem to more, er, contemporary acts like Foo Fighters, Mariah Carey, Alanis Morissette. With a potential audience of 200 million people, it pays for itself. But maybe the tide could change. Mark likes to see himself as slicing off a thin wedge of the Long Tail, catering to a small but significant market. But what may prove just as intriguing is the possibility that an Indonesian band, via something like iTunes, could become just popular enough in certain places overseas to justify a tour or two. Could we be seeing the likes of Homogenic, Netral and Dewi Lestari playing Boston or Bristol?

Restoring Corrupted MyInfo Files

Here’s a tip for a piece of software I love, but which I know is not exactly mainstream. It’s an outliner called MyInfo, and it’s a great example of how versatile outliners can be. However, files can get corrupted, and, despite a good backup mechanism, it’s not impossible both the backup and the main file is rendered irretrievable. This is what happened to me, and despite the best efforts of the software’s inventor, Petko Georgiev, things looked hopeless.  But actually there is something you can do if your MyInfo file (MIO) and the back up (MIB) won’t open:

  • Open the directory or folder in which you keep the MyInfo file (using a program like ExplorerPlus which lets you preview the contents of the file helps here);
  • Look for the most recent TMP file that containts RVF files (these should appear in ExplorerPlus’ preview window as a directory tree). Many of the TMP files may appear to be a decent size (i.e. not empty) but in fact contain no usable data. So this will only work if the TMP file contains those RVF files.
  • Rename the file with an MIO extension.
  • Open the file. Your MyInfo file should now be restored.

iTunes and Your Vulnerable MP3 collection

My friend and fellow columnist Phil Baker writes about Apple’s new iPod in his San Diego column, but he also points out a serious problem with the company’s new iTunes software, something I have experienced myself. Phil points out that it’s not just a minor glitch but something affecting lots of users:

Apple also introduced a new version of iTunes 5.0 that offers a number of new features including faster searching, Outlook syncing and parental control. However, when I tried upgrading my iTunes running on a PC, the installation failed and I cannot access my iTunes. Based on Apple discussion groups, many are experiencing the same problem. (Of course, I checked only after I had the problem!) So hold off for now before upgrading, at least on PCs. Apple needs to come up with a fix and fast.

This kind of thing scares me. It scares me because we don’t yet grasp how fragile our music collection has become. Before we had a pile of CDs we could always go back to if our tapes, MP3s or burned CDs gave up the ghost. Nowadays our music collection may be just in the form of MP3 files, and what happens to them if something goes wrong? What happens if MP3 software (or a system crash, a hard drive error, or a stray catheter) corrupts your files, your tags, or your authorisation and proof of purchase? At what point do we say, “forget this, I’m not going to pay for anything that doesn’t come in some physical form I can stash on a shelf”?