27 January, 2007

Vista may be the beginning of the end of Windows dominance

With Microsoft's pending release of the consumer version of Windows Vista, there have been many blogs and articles about the pros and cons of moving to Vista. Before I discuss some of the details, need I remind you as I did with iTunes, you DO NOT want to be the first to adopt new software. Let others use it first and see if the reported issues play out or not.

Okay, so you are not going to be an early adopter to Vista. If you were recently in need of a PC, you bought one while you could still get XP, right? If you didn't, now is the time to give Apple another shot.

Why am I taking this position? Well for one thing, Microsoft completely re-wrote the security layer for Vista, and there certainly will be bugs (and their track record for fixing bugs in a timely manner is abysmal). But don't just take my one reason, let's consider some other compelling arguments.

franticindustries recently posted a good article on why power users will hate Vista. Case in point, with the removal of expanding widows through the Start menu interface, now each step takes a click --- and if you already have wrist troubles because you click too much, Vista will have you clicking 3 times more. The other issue brought up is the change in location of certain system applications, and how some are now in illogical places and/or buried deeper.

Robin Williams of TechGage posted the top 8 annoyances in Windows Vista. One is based on the new security model that requires users to approve software installations and changes. In short, it works like a nag screen from shareware software that you never purchased. Only in this case you cannot pay for it to go away. Mr. Williams also discusses some usability issues, both based on moving system applications to new locations and because of the system performance impact from the bloated Vista.

Of course Mr. Williams points out the obvious, bugs will be popular because Vista is new; but his most important point is that of DRM. Microsoft decided supporting Hollywood and the music industry through crippling the OS instead of its customers. The DRM constraints requires new hardware and software, plus had a huge overhead that contributes to the performance issue mentioned prior. Peter Gutmann, a computer scientist based in Auckland, New Zealand has posted an in depth article that describes this. You can also listen to him discuss the issue with Leo Laporte and Steve Gibson on episode 74 of Security Now.

There's still more APC Magazine has posted 10 reasons not to get Vista. For example, the cost is high, and you do not get any benefit that requires you to actually get Vista. The point here is that there is no compelling gain to Vista, and XP with SP2 is much more stable. Further, Microsoft has extended XP support another seven years. Of course Vista is the only OS to support DirectX 10, but then again, there is no software that requires DirectX 10.

And if you are in South Korea, moving to Vista will cause so many incompatibility issues that the government has warned users away from it. The issue is that many online financial institutions used Microsoft's security flawed ActiveX for their sites. And now with the higher restrictions for ActiveX in Vista, those sites no longer work. These many sites will need to be upgrade before customers can use them with Vista.

Still with me? Just to make sure you have the full picture, I will conclude with three posts that discuss Vista.
  1. Adrian Kingsley-Hughes of ZDNet covers several areas of Vista to identify whether you really need Vista.
  2. ZDNet also has a review of Windows Vista Ultimate.
  3. Finally, Microsoft has a response to Peter Gutmann's DRM article.
So let me just say if you really, really, really still want to try Vista, at least do yourself a favor and do not put it on your primary machine. Run it on a machine that wont expose you to potential security flaws that can be compromised on the Internet; and don't install it on a machine that you run critical home or business applications.

21 January, 2007

Alternate and New Search Engines

As companies try to develop a better search engine, it turns out it is much more difficult to dethrone Google than I believe most realize. I looked at four new search engines, Snap, Ms. Dewey, ChaCha, and Rollyo, and found that they all had a long way to go.

To be fair, I did not do an exhaustive test, but in most case the user interface is bad enough to not want to use the search engine. In two cases, if you have a particular niche need, you might find help. If you are struggling to find something on the Internet, you might try ChaCha's guided searches, where someone will actually help you. Or, if you search for the same topics over several sites, frequently, Rollyo may be worth a further look.

Before I share all the details, as I said, I did not do an exhaustive test. What I did do is search for these four phrases: 1) content effectiveness; 2) fingertip knowledge; 3) Chris Todd; and 4) Excel tips. I also considered that for a successful search, it takes two things: 1) a good search index and 2) a good way to navigate the results. All of these sites fail in at least one of these areas, some fail in both.

The basic layout includes search results in the left column, preview in the right. The site was slow to load the preview – obviously partly due to my connection speed, but as it tries to pre-load the previews for the results, it consumes a lot of bandwidth. I found it difficult to navigate results – using the scroll wheel, it moves too fast through the results. If you click Next, it give you the next 10 based on where you are currently highlighting. So if you do not move from the first highlighted result, scroll to the bottom of the list, and click Next, you get one new result instead of the expected 10. You also have to click a link after the first 20 results – without clicking that link, the Next button is hidden. It is not obvious that there is more results as only the small test for more results and the small text of total results at the top give you any indication; and they are too small to be helpful. The search results were poor too. If you can get past all this, Snap does offer a Firefox extension.
Ms. Dewey
From Microsoft, Ms. Dewey has over 1000 pre-recorded sayings to encourage you to search. This site is more of a gimmick, as the user interface for viewing results is worse than Snap’s. The search results are much better, but the scrolling through the list is difficult. You move your mouse cursor in the area of the results, and depending on above or below center, the results will move up or down – much too fast to effectively control. If that isn’t enough, Ms. Dewey cannot keep quiet enough while you search through the list and review the results. Finally, there is no feedback while the search engine checks its index; for that matter, Ms. Dewey doesn’t know you have searched until the index has completed.
ChaCha is the search engine with live representatives to help you find your results. Perhaps expecting their representatives over time to help improve their index. Using the search index, the results were better than Snap, but not up to Ms. Dewey. Worse though was the fact that many of the results were sponsored. When I searched on “Excel tips”, the first five were sponsored. Since the label for sponsor is at the URL line, which is often ignored, and in a light color, it was very hard to recognize. Additionally, they used a page 1 of x to indicate the results instead of 1 of 10 of x results. I initially liked the fact that when I clicked a link, it opened a new window. But if I want to compare results by opening multiple windows, In addition to each window opening in a tab (I held the Ctrl key down using Firefox), the new window still opened and moved to the top most window each time I clicked a new link.
Short for roll-your-own-search, Rollyo is designed to let you customize what search engines and how narrow (or broad) your searches are. The default is searches from Yahoo!; and without customization, I think the results were second only to Ms. Dewey’s (Microsoft). I tried one custom search, but found that Rollyo needed to offer more help. It appears the value is to have already identified multiple sites you want to include in your search. When I tried to include Google, it notified me that if I included Google, then it would search Google’s corporate site. So if you search for the same topics over several sites, frequently, this may be worth a further look. Rollyo does offer a Firefox extension too.
That was a quick peak of what is being worked on. Google is also working on a better way to display results, at SearchMash.com. I suspect if anything unseats Google, will be something from Google -- Google already has a great search index, and though the result navigation could be better, it is clean and everyone is familiar with it.

17 January, 2007

Telcos Need to Inspect Your Data Packets to Filter Content

Daniel Berninger posted a great article on GigaOm about how Internet bandwidth providers would need to inspect your data packets to provide non-neutral routing. More importantly than having net neutrality, Mr. Berninger points out the privacy issue of this behavior -- something that telcos are forbidden to do with telephones. So why should they be allowed to with Internet data?

I believe he makes a good point. In addition to being no different than telephone calls, it reminds me of the AOL mistake of publishing search data of more than 650,000 users. In the wrong hands, which they could not ever guarantee it wouldn't be, would provide data about everything you do, all your account information, your hobbies, and any other information you want to keep private. Remember that Thelma Arnold was the first person (publicly) found from the AOL data -- and this was only search data, not websites, account numbers, and other data you enter into websites.

Perhaps it is time to use the same privacy tools at home as you would use when traveling.

Load Web Data into Excel

Did you know that you can easily load data from a website into Excel? You can even do it with a Macro for sites you visit often. For example if you were tracking your investments or you were monitoring the stats for fantasy basketball. Collecting the data is 7 easy steps.

  1. Select Data from the menu
  2. Select Import External Data
  3. Select New Web Query...

  4. Enter the URL of the page that contains the data to import
  5. Excel will recognize tables. Select the table(s) that contains the data you want to import
  6. Select the Import button
  7. Confirm the first cell of where the data should be inserted

That's all there is to it. If you want to create a Macro, use the Macro Recorder (Tools menu) and repeat the steps. You can then add additional code if you want to import different sites into different sheets.
Happy data collecting!

16 January, 2007

Set your own Hot Keys on Windows

I ran across a clever utility, HoeKey, which is used to configure keyboard shortcuts. HoeKey is a small program (only 12k) that with a little configuration, can make daily computing much easier. You can use it to launch programs, modify existing windows, eject a CD, and more. It may sound a bit hokey, but HoeKey can be a big productivity boost for those who prefer the keyboard over the mouse.

While you're getting HoeKey, check out the other little utilities available.

You are keeping your security tools up-to-date, aren't you?

Apparently if you are a user of Symantec's security software, and have not kept your software and virus definitions up-to-date, you have been vulnerable to Spybot -- malware that will use your computer in malicious ways. In November of 2006, Spybot (a varient of the original Spybot from 2003) started showing up on machines with Symantec security products; and a fix had been available since May. Clearly there is an issue with folks not keeping their security software up-to-date.

Unfortunately if you are a Windows user, your machine is much more likely to be under attack -- hackers looking for vulnerabilities. And the general user population just want to use a computer, not be a technology geek, which seems to be the requirement. I think it is worse than owning a car.

With a car, the buy-in cost is much higher, so in general terms, there is more recognition that maintenance is required. Further, there is an infrastructure in place to make it easy to keep up on basic maintenance. But in the PC space, the buy-in cost is much lower, but the cost of compromising your personal data is much higher. Yet people do not understand that just having an anti-virus software is not enough -- it must be closely monitored and maintained. It is also more difficult to pack up your PC and take it in for work compared to your car. And because of that low buy-in cost, people are less willing to spend money for the maintenance.

So what should your average user do? Though not completely impervious to attack, the Apple platform is much more likely to offer the security protection required. Again if you look at cost, yes you will pay a bit more (entry level is actually only $599) to get a Mac with all the productivity tools that you use on Windows, but your total cost of ownership would still be considerable less than if your machine was compromised.

Finally you might ask, "Do I use a Mac?" Well, I have, but not since 1999. But remember, I am in the niche group of technology geeks. And with Apples move to the Intel platform and the maturity of Parallels and Boot Camp, it looks like I will be returning to the Mac on my next purchase.

14 January, 2007

Is Your Autorun Not Auto Running? Having Troubles Deleting a File?

Windows XP has a tendency for the autorun feature to quit working. It is a great feature, and a big headache if you are not real familiar with computers. I found this easy utility that will change your settings and/or fix your corrupt Registry, so that autorun works again. You can download it from The Software Patch. Run it, follow the prompts, and reboot. That's all it takes.

The Software Patch also has a handy tool to help you remove files that Windows XP wont let you delete. Once you tell the tool what file you want to delete, reboot your computer and your file will be deleted before Windows XP starts again.

Manage Logins and Passwords Has Never Been Easier

For the last month I have been using RoboForm to manage my passwords, and I have been extremely happy with it. RoboForm installs as a simple toolbar in your browser (Firefox, Netscape, and IE) as well as an icon in the tray. In addition to storing passwords, RoboForm can automatically complete and submit forms. This is the best tool I have used for form completion -- others I have tried seem to only work part of the time.

When I log into a website, if the login is successful, RoboForm will prompt me to save the information. First of all, the fact that it waits to see if the login was successful is a very useful feature. With other tools, they save what ever you type, and if you made an error it takes a lot of extra work to correct it. Once my login credentials are stored, I can select a login from the toolbar, similar to bookmarks, and RoboForm will call the URL and log me in.

The toolbar also has a search field. I turned off my Google toolbar and configured RoboForm's toolbar to search Google, therefore not taking an additional real estate. If you type a word in the search box and press F8, RoboForm appends www. and .com to the word, taking you to the website.

RoboForm also offers a level of protection -- if it is the first time using during a session, it will prompt you for your global password. So in the event someone gets onto your computer, they wont be able to get to your password file. I also like that if I want to edit an entry, I can see and edit all the data elements, including the password. Some tools never show you the password, so if you do not store it somewhere else, you will never be able to look it up if you forget it.

There are many other features. For example, after installing on my work laptop, and storing 50 passwords, it was easy to copy them onto my home PC, therefore I did not have to manually duplicate each entry. And since each entry is its own file, it is as easy as syncing files between to PCs to get both computers updated with my latest passwords.

For all this, hopefully you would not expect it to come for free. Well, if you have 10 or fewer password files, it is free; if you have more, you get a 30 day trial. It is then $30 for a license and $10 for a second. Or after buying the first license, you can buy a second version for $20 that you run from a USB drive on any PC. I also found a site that had a coupon code that gave me $10 off.

Like I said before, I have 50 passwords in RoboForm. If you find yourself having way too many sites to remember logins and passwords, and are tired of managing them manually, I highly recommend that you give RoboForm a try. Don't just take my word for it, RoboForm has been recognized by many industry organizations including CNet and PC Magazine.

06 January, 2007

Seven Firefox Features not in Internet Explorer 6

I get an RSS feed from FranticIndustries (Stan Schroeder) blog. Stan's most recent post was seven things he missed from Firefox when forced to use IE6. I thought the list was great. Not only did it point out some less common features, but it also explained how to set them up.

I'll give you the list, but you will need to visit FranticIndustries to learn how to use them:
  1. Multipage home page
  2. Selection source
  3. Undo closed tabs
  4. The test profile
  5. Search tricks
  6. Quick tabbing and session saving
  7. Spell checking

04 January, 2007

Office 2007 Seems to be Worth the Upgrade

I am generally skeptical about new versions of software. If I have been productive in the version I have, why would I need a newer version? Usually it seems that it is just a money grab by software vendors. In the case of Office 2007, I was additionally skeptical about the replacement of the menus with ribbons. This was partially based on the new Internet Explorer 7 design, which I do not like.

Just by chance, today I picked up a copy of PC Magazine's January edition (so I could read it on the plane), and it provided a First Look review of Office 2007. Ironically, I also happen to be listening to an older (Nov 7, 2006) podcast from PC Magazine (called PCMag Radio), which happen to also review Office 2007. In listening and reading, my opinion began to change. If that wasn't enough, today Walter Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal also released a favorable review of Office 2007.

All the reviews promise that the changes will be difficult to make for current Office experts, as the interface changes so drastically. The good news though is the improved functionality. I believe the improvements in charting (Excel) and formating (PowerPoint) alone are worth the change. Excel will also let you make changes while you preview.

If you want to see, read and/or listen for yourself, check out these reviews:
For me, as soon as I can, this is an upgrade that I am going to make.

Now You Know Why I Have Pushed the Adoption of Firefox

Brian Krebs, blogger of Security Fix, posted some recently completed research that clear shows why none of us should be using Internet Explorer. According to Mr. Krebs' research, Internet Explorer was unsafe for 284 days of 2006 -- 284!

In case you doubt this number, here's what Brian Krebs had to say about his research methodology.
...individually contacting nearly all of the security researchers who submitted reports of critical flaws in Microsoft products to learn from them not only the dates that they had submitted their findings to the company, but also any other security trends or anomalies they observed in working with the world's largest software maker.
Additionally, he also shared the data with Microsoft before posting it on his blog. This chart shows all the vulnerabilities that Mr. Krebs included in his findings.

So if you were an Internet Explorer user in 2006, chances are you opened yourself up to compromising your PC. Mr. Krebs reports that the second most popular browser, Firefox, was only exposed for 9 days -- that is 2% vs. 78%. Of course I wish the 2% was lower, but it is clearly much better than Microsoft.

Where to from here? Even with Internet Explorer 7 now released, and supposedly safer, are you willing to risk being exposed to more vulnerabilities with a track record like this? I'm not. In case you have forgotten, here's how you get Firefox.

02 January, 2007

Deleted Data Isn't Really Gone

informit.com posted a great article on how to retrieve deleted data from memory cards. They did an experiment where they purchased 14 memory cards from eBay, and in most cases, were able to retrieve deleted data.
Statistically, this indicates that 78% of the cards we obtained on eBay contained recoverable data. In total, we found 240 pictures, 17 movies, and a wide range of files from the card with computer files.
This was a follow up from an exercise in 2004 where they bought 10 used, formatted hard drives. In both cases, unless you know how to completely erase your data, they are suggesting physical destruction.
Fortunately, deleting the data is not too difficult or expensive. If you are a Windows XP Professional owner, then you already have the tools needed to ensure your drive is clean. All you need to do is click Start — Run and type in cmd. Then at the command prompt, type in the following:

cipher /w:[drive letter]: Where [drive letter] should be replaced by the media card drive letter that is listed in Windows Explorer.
The article also describes another option, software called Eraser. The writers also describe the process used for the recovery.

So before you discard your next drive or memory card, be sure that you have properly destroyed your data.

The Month of Apple Bugs

LMH (an unidentified hacker) and Kevin Finisterre have started publishing a new Apple bug each day this month (January 2007) in order to bring attention to that fact that Apple software has security bugs too. This is similar to a browser bug a day that H D did in July of 2006. H D did give the vendors advanced warning before releasing each vulnerability, though LMH and Kevin Finisterrre will not.

I believe if Apple really wants us to switch to their platform, some proof that they know how to deal with security issues is important. It will be interesting to see how Apple responds. LMH and Kevin Finisterrre claim their goal is to make OS X a better platform -- I hope they are successful.