Tag Archives: Classes of computers

Still Sneaky After All These Years

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I still retain the capacity to get bummed out by the intrusiveness of software from companies you’d think would be trying to make us happy these days, not make us madder.

My friend Scotty, the Winpatrol watchdog, has been doing a great job of keeping an eye on these things. The culprits either try to change file associations or add a program to the boot sequence, without telling us. Some recent examples:

Windows Live Mail, without me doing anything at all, suddenly tried to wrest control of my emails by grabbing the extension EML from Thunderbird:

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This was unconnected to anything I was doing, or had asked. I didn’t even know I still had Live Mail installed. Shocking. Imagine if I hadn’t been asking Scotty to keep guard? Or that I didn’t have much of a clue what I was doing? (OK, don’t answer that one.)

(Just out of interest, launching Outlook Express will do the same thing:)

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Still, I suppose the Microsoft defence is that everyone else is doing it. I installed WordPerfect Office the other day and found that, without asking, it tried to take over handling DOC files without asking first. Luckily, Scotty woofed a warning:

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No wonder users are baffled about what is going on with their computer and end up heading off to the Apple Store for some TLC. Software companies have got to stop doing this kind of thing. (And no, I’m not saying that Apple are any better at this. It’s just they reduce the choices so people feel their computers behave more predictably. This, after all, is what people yearn for.)

Likewise with starting programs. Once again it’s about predictability: If software starts loading without the user being asked first, then a) the computer is going to slow down and b) the user will have a bunch of new icons and activities to figure out. A couple of examples:

Windows Live forces its Family Safety Client to boot without asking:

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as does eFax, the online faxing service:

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These companies need to stop this. They need to stop it now. Consumer confidence is low, but so is user confidence. I am inundated with letters from readers of the columns who talk about their bafflement and sense of alienation from their computer. (Meanwhile, I read love stories from those who switch to Macs.) The point is this: Not that people believe Macs are better computers—although they may well be—but they are simpler to use, more predictable, more understandable, more, well, user-friendly.

What’s user-friendly about changing the settings on someone’s computer without asking them? Would a company try that with someone’s car, fridge, or dishwasher?

Lame PR Responses #34,223(b)

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When independent blogger Mary Jo Foley, who knows more about Microsoft than Microsoft does, interviewed the company’s new Corporate VP of its Searching and Advertising Group recently, she was told that Microsoft had recently launched an ad-funded version of Microsoft Works, the application suite you think will be a cheap alternative to Office but turns out not to be.

She couldn’t find it online anywhere so, she asked Microsoft PR. Which is always a mistake:

I’ve asked Microsoft for more information on the new ad-funded Works suite. No word back yet. Update: Even though Microsoft’s own vice president discussed the product, no one will talk. The official comment, via a Microsoft spokeswoman: “We’re always looking at innovative ways to provide the best productivity tools to our customers, but have nothing to announce at this time.”

Agh. These kinds of mealy-mouthed, knee-jerk-and-yet-probably-took-all-day-to-form, smug, self-promoting-and-yet-information-free responses drive me nuts. How many people had input on that particular phrase?  Thirty? How many emails had to exchange hands in the crafting? Forty? And how, exactly, does this help the journalist? Or, for that matter, the reader?

And don’t get me started on how a VP statement (“Microsoft Works has already been released as an ad-funded product”) is then throttled into submission as a slab of slippery PR perch, flailing on the floor of the meaningless drivel wet-market. How dysfunctional is that?

Poor Ms. Foley. Spare a thought for someone who has dedicated themselves to trying to make some sense of Redmond’s utterances. I only have to sit through the occasional PowerPoint barrage of buzzwords, cliches and tautologies spewing from the mouths of identikit Microsoft promoters wearing Joe 90 glasses. She has to do it on a regular basis.

» Microsoft Works to become a free, ad-funded product | All about Microsoft | ZDNet.com

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Vista: Preloaded With Gunk

My colleague Walt Mossberg writes a scathing piece about preloaded Vista machines; definitely worth a read. I’m trying installing Vista on a virgin machine, and the experience isn’t much better so far.

clipped from ptech.wsj.com

I have set up many computers over the years, so I wasn’t shocked that the out-of-box experience was less than ideal. Still, I was struck by just how irritating it was to get going with the new Sony Vaio SZ laptop I bought about 10 days ago. It was the first new Windows machine I’d bought in a few years, because I had been waiting for Microsoft’s new Windows Vista operating system. I was amazed that the initial experience is still a big hassle.

Loose Bits, Nov 28 2006

From my PR intray, some surprisingly interesting little odds and ends:

LocalCooling is a 100% Free power management tool from Uniblue Labs that allows users to optimize their energy savings in minutes and as a result reduce Greenhouse Gas emissions. The software “automatically optimizes your PC’s power consumption by using a more effective power save mode. You will be able to see your savings in real-time translated to more evironmental terms such as how many trees and gallons of oil you have saved.”

Sim CityElectronic Arts Inc. today announced SimCity for mobile, which “lets mobile phone users create and manage the growth of a living city in the palm of their hands. Originally created by Will Wright, SimCity is now available on major U.S. carriers.” Not sure how this works, as there’s nothing yet on EA’s site. It does sound a bit like milking a cash cow or is it flogging a dead horse? 

free spam filterCyberDefenderFREE is “a full internet security suite that can operate  standalone, or complement existing security software to add an existing layer of early-alert security to the desktop.” As far as I can work out, this is a competitor to Windows Defender although it seems to include a collaborative element, where users report either manually or automatically dodgy software and sites they’ve come across. I think.

Apple, Nano, and the Cost of Silence

It’s been nearly a week since the first stories about problems with the Apple iPod Nano screen started to surface, and, according to The Register, they’re spreading:

More importantly, the post on Apple’s discussion boards discussing the issue has grown from 188 posts to 583 (at last count), and now includes people who have cancelled their orders. Ooooh dear.

Indeed, the screen-scratching problems don’t seem to be the only ones with the Nano. Some people have been complaining about wholesale screen failures and others about the battery life, which they say doesn’t match the claimed 14 hours, even when you follow Apple’s instructions (backlight off, no skipping songs). Except in the latter, Apple carefully claims “up to 14”, and some have managed more.

What worries me more than anything is Apple’s response. Or rather, its non-response. I had very little joy getting a specific response to my query to them about problems installing iTunes for a piece I wrote in last week’s WSJ.com (subscription only I’m afraid) and it seems they’re adopting the same position with the Nano problem, according to The Register:

So what, we asked Apple, is it going to do about those screens? The reply: “Apple has no comment at this time.” Stores will decide for themselves whether to swap scratched or broken machines.

In the long run this approach can only harm the company. In the case of software, end users can at least clamber to the assistance of flailing fellow users where the company’s own support staff don’t, but what happens in the case of faulty hardware? Inaction and silence merely give free rein to angry customers on Apple’s own discussion boards to lambast the company and persuade uncommitted customers not to buy. Can’t be good for business or Apple’s image.

The Demise of the Handheld Interface

Am I the only person depressed by the idea that Treos are now going to be Windows Mobile-powered? (It remains to be seen whether there’ll be Palm versions too; it would make sense, at least for a while.)

First off, feel sorry for all the third party developers who came up with great Palm software over the years. Mourn the small file sizes. Mourn the simple interface.

For sure, Palm and the OS had their weaknesses. They never seemed to really improve on the software that was in the Palm IIIs except add some colour. They missed more opportunities than your average Premier League club. And my Treeo 650 still crashes on a regular basis. But Windows? Why has nobody ever questioned the wisdom of mimicking a Windows environment and GUI on a screen the size of a cigarette box? The whole idea of Windows is to have lots of programs open that you can see on your screen and move stuff between. When did anybody ever do that on a Pocket PC?

I hate everything about Pocket PC Windows. I really do. There’s no style, no grace to it. Too many unnecessary lines. Big clunky scroll bars. Silly start menus that are at the bottom or top of screens, making for awkward stylus (or finger nail gestures.) Why is the only serious innovation in this field done by outsiders such as the great University of Maryland-developed Datelens? And what’s so Windowsy about Pocket PC Windows anyway? Why, for example, has Microsoft (nor Palm, for this matter) not figured out how to throw up status messages that don’t take up the whole screen?

Sorry, I’m cranky today. But while I long ago lost hope in Palm turning its software into more than a colour version of its mid 1990s original, I have never been a convert to Windows on a handheld. Is there no vision out there about how we use our portable devices that isn’t just an ugly, stripped down and clunky version of what we have to put up with on our desktop? Why haven’t these wonderfully simple new ideas about interfaces from, say, 37signals spread to the handheld? Or is the future Apple shaped and we haven’t seen it yet?

Another Kind of Portable Device: The SoulPad

ZDNet reports on an interesting tool being developed by IBM — the SoulPad:

The SoulPad could let users carry their computer’s data, applications and personal settings on their mobile phone or digital music player

Researchers at IBM are testing software that would let you tote your home or office desktop around on an iPod or similar portable device, so that you could run it on any PC.

The virtual computer user environment setup is called SoulPad, and consumers install it from an x86-based home or office PC. SoulPad uses a USB or FireWire connection to access the network cards for connecting to the Internet, the computer’s display, the keyboard, the main processor and the memory, but not the hard disk.

As the article points out, this is not dissimlar to the idea of USB keydrive-based programs, which we’ve gone into some detail here in the past.

Getting Excited and Depressed About Scalable Interfaces

This isn’t new, and it’s not even supported anymore, but it’s a great Outlook add-in that is both inspiring and depressing. Inspiring because it shows us what we could be doing, depressing because there’s nothing really like this out there that fulfils this kind of potential. It’s Datelens – A Revolutionary Scalable Calendar Interface:

Calendar applications for small handheld devices such as PDAs are growing in popularity. This led us to develop DateLens, a novel calendar interface that supports not only PDAs, but a range of devices, from desktop computers to Tablet PCs. It supports users in performing planning and analysis tasks by using a fisheye representation of dates coupled with compact overviews, user control over the visible timer period, and integrated search. This enables users to see overviews, easily navigate the calendar structure, and discover patterns and outliers. Moreover, DateLens takes advantage of each device, running quickly on PDAs and supporting ink on Tablet PCs.

To get a proper sense of it download the movie/screencast on the page. What impressed me is not the graphics, which are clunky, with too many lines and not enough charm, but its malleability to the user. Or what is called ‘scalable user interfaces’. For example

  • By zooming in on the entry, day or month you’re interested in you can see more of what you need, right down to the half-hour segment itself, but with lots more context;
  • Search for events doesn’t throw up a boring list of matches, but a colour-coded range of matches, plus more colour markings on the scroll bar to show you what else is matching offscreen;
  • Easily assign more space or less to weekends, or months, or weeks;
  • The video/screencast (actually it’s not really a screencast) shows how even something as complex as these features can be explained really easily in three minutes.

Oh, and it’s free. I would love to see this kind of thing introduced into ordinary software. I’m not an Outlook user, which it plugs into directly, or a PocketPC, which it also works well with. But hopefully Microsoft are thinking along these lines. (All this reminded me of the late Jef Raskin’s zoomable user interfaces. What a shame no one ever got that kind of thing onto the desktop computer in his lifetime.)

Another Incentive To Leave The Office

I’m a big fan of AlphaSmart’s range of portable writing devices, which are aimed at students but are good for anyone with itchy feet who does a lot of typing and needs a device with a good keyboard, screen and battery life.

After the Dana, the Dana Wireless and the AlphaSmart 3000, the company has just launched another model which takes the thing a step or two further: the Neo, which has the same full-size keyboard but tackles a shortcoming or two in it predecessors — screen size and memory.

The Neo now has a much larger screen than its predecessors and twice as much memory (512 KB, which doesn’t sound much, but is enough for “hundreds of pages of single-spaced text”. The Neo can communicate with both Macs and Windows and costs $250. Pricey, I guess, for something that’s just a word processor, but these devices have their place, and I’d argue that’s not just the classroom. You can take them on weekend trips for when the muse strikes, on flights when you can’t be bothered firing up a laptop, or even to company meetings to take notes when a PDA+keyboard is too fiddly and the laptop too intrusive.

A Directory of The Best RSS readers

This is by no means a definitive list, but I’ve tested these programs and found them all to be worthwhile. Some more additions after feedback. Please keep the suggestions coming. (These are mainly Windows programs: At some point I’ll do a Mac list, suggestions for that also welcome)

  • Awasu A free Windows RSS client, allowing monitoring of a variety of news sites and weblogs around the world. Using plugin architecture, can also be customized to monitor databases, email accounts, and other resources
  • FeedReader Freeware application for Windows.
  • Newz Crawler Provides access to news content from several sources, including XML, RSS, Usenet, and the Web.
  • NewsGator News aggregator that runs in Microsoft Outlook. Site features product overview, online tutorial and trial download.
  • Novobot A heavily featured desktop newsreader, that can also scrape non-RSS’d sites
  • RSS Bandit A free desktop news aggregator for Windows built on the .NET Framework.
  • RocketInfo The Rocketinfo RSS Reader is a FREE personal news and information tool that allows you to search, subscribe, read and track content from thousands of RSS and Weblog sources.
  • FeedDemon FeedDemon enables you to quickly explore the world of RSS from your desktop without having to visit hundreds of sites. Written by Nick Bradbury, creator of TopStyle and HomeSite, FeedDemon makes RSS as easy to access as your email.
  • Abilon Abilon displays headlines from RSS (Rich Site Summary) Channels in an easy to read format. It is small (364 kb), fast, and free. Adding new channels is as simple as right-clicking and entering the address of the feed.
  • RssReader RssReader collects news in the background at user configurable intervals and warn with a little popup in the system tray that there is a new message arrived. You can click the news headline to see a short description of the news and click or open the original news web page in an RssReader browser or default browser window.
  • SauceReader Clean, intuitive Outlook 2003 style user interface. Integrated weblogging environment with full posting functionality. Share content with friends using the Windows Messenger integration. Automatic application updates. Feed discovery and one-click subscription to RSS and Atom feeds. Full-text search of archived items.
  • RSSOwl (thanks, Sam Prince) It lets you gather, organize, update, and store information from any compliant source in a convenient, easy to use interface, save selected information in various formats for offline viewing and sharing, and much more. RSSOwl is also free of charge, fast, cross-platform, and unobtrusive. It’s easy to install, easy to use, and easy to move.
  • Bloglines (thanks Mark) Bloglines is the most comprehensive, integrated service for searching, subscribing, publishing and sharing news feeds, blogs, and rich Web content. It’s free and easy-to-use.
  • SharpReader SharpReader is an RSS/Atom Aggregator for Windows, created by Luke Hutteman.
  • BlogMatrix Jäger (thanks, Dewayne Mikkelson) BlogMatrix Jäger is an extensible “one-panel” reader, taking up a very small amount of screen space, and includes a synchronization feature. (+ Mac)

Here are some others I haven’t tried, but which have been suggested by readers: