Viz a Vista

Location: United States

A New Yorker relocated to Florida. I have fifteen years in the IT industry, with stints in product management, database management, application programming... I've been a CIO, a consultant, a software evangelist... one of these days I'll write up a proper profile.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

News - Google Desktop Beta 3 reports that Google will release beta 3 of Google Desktop shortly. The new version will allow greater customization, such as the ability to drag modules to different parts of the desktop. Other new features are expected to include zip file search, cross computer search and query spell check. Support for additional languages is expected to follow. The Google Desktop download location provides further details.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Opinion - Windows Vista Release Date

A blog created by Thomas has claimed to have deduced that the release date for Windows Vista will be December 1st. I'm not sure that he's really serious. The basis of the argument is that he reports that he found that the server sponsoring the contest for guessing the release date divides guesses into the categories of "early" and "late," and that November 30/December 1 is the dividing line.

This doesn't sound like a logical hiding place for an important corporate policy. Still, overall, it sounds like harmless fun to speculate. My personal guess when I had visited that site was March 15, 2007.

News - Microsoft Sets OneCare Live Pricing and Licensing

Price of updates etc. set for consumers for anti virus and malware protection is somewhat less than I had thought they would charge: $49.95 MSRP for up to three personal computers. See PRNewswire article for details.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Windows Vista - the New Help System

There doesn't seem to be a lot yet written on the new XML based Windows Vista help system. As proof, the Windows Vista Developer Center at MSDN actually has a dead link to an article entitled "Introducing Windows Vista Help." Greg Shults at TechRepublic has a nice article but most of it is a recap of the Windows Help since version 1.0. And, of course, most of the pages in the help system of the current beta carry a prominent warning that the help text is incomplete!

Be that as it may, the central new idea of the Vista help system is called the "assistance platform," or "AP Help." In essence, it can display information, suggestions, and interaction with the user interface of the application. It also can support an escalation path something like multi-tier tech support, or at least it's recommended that it do so.

Perhaps it's best to describe the help system interaction with the application in terms of how the user perceives it. To use one of the two examples that Shults cites, in the help page called "What's New in the Documents Folder," there is a link called "Do It For Me."

Pressing the Do It For Me link...
The help topic itself provides brief descriptions of the new controls and options in the Documents Folder. When pressing the link entitled "Do it for me," the help system offers either to automatically guide the user through the Documents folder or just show the user where to click. In the former case, all user input is disabled and the user sits back and views the cursor movements and information boxes that pop up which explain what is being done. In the latter case, user input is limited only to what the task allows (any other key press or click brings up a dialog that asks if you want to exit). As the "how to" progresses, all parts of the screen are slightly dimmed except for what the demo calls attention to, and the dialog box that provides the text for the "lesson." Unfortunately, I could not grab a screen shot. The impression, however, is very slick, and this could be very helpful to both business and home users. The help system's ability to assist the user is created using a feature supported by the new help system markup language, and is referred to as "active content."

This new markup language is called MAML (Microsoft Assistance Markup Language). It essentially takes Windows HTML help and provides a more easily readable markup language as well as the ability to create "active content." We should note that "active content" can also provide help that is somewhat less flashy yet useful, such as bullet list links that expand in place when the user clicks on them. As someone who recalls the pain of creating help files for Windows 3.0 using "Word for Windows" to create endless footnotes to be read by the .HLP compiler, MAML does look very nice indeed.

The indented lines in this illustration appeared after clicking the link line above it
To quote an example from an AP Help Overview which of the examples below is more easily identifiable as a headline:

< size="3"><><>Frequently Asked Questions< /em>< /strong>< /font>

<>Frequently Asked Questions< /title>

The latter, of course, is the MAML example.

Third party developers will obtain the ability to create AP help only with version AP Help 2.0, to be released sometime after the launch of Windows Vista. That's a shame, but I assume the reason is that it won't be ready. It will be interesting to see if Microsoft Office contains AP Help before it's released to other companies.

I do see one minor problem in the current help system.. when jumping from topic to topic the width of the help window changes. This means that the "back" button moves left or right according to what page you're on. This in turn means that the control is literally a moving target for the end user's clicks, which usually confuses the user and invites a problem.

Speaking of inviting a problem, the one place I would HATE to see active help is in security settings for Internet Explorer or any of the security tools... unless the active content was restricted to one direction, namely increasing security.

Some may say that active help such as this is another example of dumbing down the user interface. I don't see it that way. This is not something that takes away or hides options from power users (as, for example, some of the things that the Gnome project has become infamous for in the last few years). Power users can still look up information in the help system quickly, perhaps even more quickly than before. It is possible that some developers might find it tempting to delete proper documentation from the help file, and instead just put in active help; that would be limiting. Too many independent software vendors and IT personnel think that users are dumb. In my experience, users only do dumb things if IT personnel aren't available to answer questions. The new Windows help system will encourage users to seek answers for their questions if vendors include adequate documentation in the system.

The changes to the help system do point to a larger issue, Microsoft's recommendations for changes to program design in general as documented in the Inductive User Interface Guidelines. These guidelines are something that developers need to know about, and I'll put in my two cents in a future entry.

All trademarks are properties of their respective owners. Windows is a registered trademark of Microsoft Corporation in the United States and other countries. This weblog is an independent publication and is not affiliated with, nor has it been authorized, sponsored, or otherwise approved by Microsoft Corporation.

Friday, February 03, 2006

News - VMWare Expected To Distribute GSX Server For Free

Reported by Ed Oswald in BetaNews. If true, definitely a big plus for developers, especially if Vista can be installed and run safely in a virtual machine. Virtualization is tremendously useful. I had seen several reports regarding installing Windows Vista beta 1 in VMWare. Here is one example.

For information on GSX Server, see the product page.

Opinion - The Danish Cartoons/Jyllands-Posten/Muslim Brouhaha

Frankly, I think both sides are wrong. If you're a Muslim, the cartoons are more than insulting, they're idolatry. That, however, is no excuse for kidnappings (one so far that I've read of) and violence. A violent reaction is worse than the original provocation.

I think the U.S. press is concentrating so much on the freedom of opinion angle that they're not seeing the whole picture. I came across one blogger this morning (Cynapse, at Cynics Unlimited) whom I thought had an excellent column worth a link.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Windows XP With a New Face Does Not Equal Windows Vista

I had noticed the release of the Vista Transformation Pack from WindowsX and thought it might be a good exercise to apply it to a copy of Windows XP. My goal was (1) to satisfy my curiousity and see if it really did what it promised, and (2) to use a copy of Windows XP with a Vista theme as a "control," that is, to see how important Vista changes under the covers were... could it stand by itself if you could filter out the "eye candy" factor?

Here's what I found: Vista Transform is indeed for real. It makes a copy of Windows XP look real purdy indeed. The second thing I found, perhaps more importantly, is that a pretty XP doesn't equal Vista.

Here, by the way, is what Windows XP with Vista Transform looks like.

A Windows XP Explorer Window with Vista Transformation Pack
For the installation process, I took a spare PC and installed Windows XP with Service Pack 2. Because I had some reservations about the trustworthiness of the product, I kept the PC off the network. I created a system restore point, and started the install.

The install, after advising of all the changes it would make, provided five different install options that would change in varying degrees the current setup. These range from essentially just changing the theme to allowing you to add your own custom bitmap files. A normal first-time installation requires multiple reboots, and comes with warnings that you may have to run the install multiple times. I chose the most extreme option (having nothing to lose), which required rebooting and starting the install in safe mode.

There are three main features, once it's all installed: a Vista-like sidebar including gadgets, desktop and window translucency, and a change to Windows Explorer that places the HTML task pane and preview content at the bottom of the window, so it looks somewhat like Windows Vista's Explorer.

The sidebar includes a clock, memo pad, RSS Feed (limited to a single source), Google Search, slide show and "File Mirrors." Because I did not attach the computer to the network, I could not determine what feeds and what file peers the sidebar accesses.

Desktop and window translucency is delivered by Glass2K from Chime Softwares. The translucency is delivered even at 64K color depth. Graphics appear to experience a slight slowdown when the translucency is applied, but it is very pretty indeed.

The Explorer changes mvoe the task pane from the side to the bottom of the window. The first impression was that it looks like Windows Vista, though it does not have the same functionality.

Additional items such as skins, themes, and various bitmaps complete the product.

Vista Transformation Pack contains various bitmaps which may have been taken from Microsoft products. I therefore recommend caution in installing this product. I have a concern about the ownership of those files. I can only say that it appears to be virus free (according to my scan), and that the Windows XP restore utility appears to return the system to its former state.

Now... what did I learn about Vista?

Excuse the cliche, but Vista's beauty isn't skin deep. It's very clear that Windows Vista has tremendous internal advantages over XP. In looking at XP with a Vista skin, it drives home an impression that Windows XP was not much more than a theme upgrade to Windows 2000 until Service Pack 2. The single worst moment of using Vista Transform was pressing F3 to search for a file, and seeing the damn animated dog in the search pane. I kept looking for the search box in the start bar. I wanted to filter the Explorer views. The new organizational character of Windows Vista is a considerable improvement, and I just do not wish to go back. Putting a new look on Windows XP without adding any functionality simply underscored the fact that Windows XP is in its old age, in "operating system years."

Start Menu with Vista Transform
The two big features of Windows Vista are improved security and improved document organization in that order. This excercise simply drove that home. There is a link on the left of this page to a WinFS video demo ("Splashy Demo"). The demo has an emphasis on glitz, but the underlying message, which is finding and connecting information that lives on your computer and on the Internet, is something that many users will be sympathetic to.

I realize that Microsoft has to concentrate its Vista ad campaign's message on improved security. I do think, however, that a variation on the WinFS demo themes can provide a positive and compelling message for users to move to Windows Vista.

All trademarks are properties of their respective owners. Windows is a registered trademark of Microsoft Corporation in the United States and other countries. This weblog is an independent publication and is not affiliated with, nor has it been authorized, sponsored, or otherwise approved by Microsoft Corporation.