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.

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

News - MS makes IE7 beta Available for Win XP

Nate Mook at breaks the story.

Download link at Microsoft.

This is excellent news for WinXP users. Better security and new features such as RSS make this important.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Commoditization of Databases and WinFS

IBM recently made the core of DB2 (DB2 Express-C) available for no-cost. Combined with the widespread adoption of open source databases such as mysql and postgres, it’s fair to say that we’re moving toward the commoditization of the database. Base engines are well on the way to being free or very low cost. Meanwhile advanced features such as clustering will generally require commercial licenses, which is how vendors such as IBM and Oracle will continue to prosper.

I was reminded of this in reading an excellent article in InfoWorld on the new Microsoft SQL Server release ("SQL Server Bulks Up.") The article is devoted to describing new features, but the main talking point is that the new release of MS SQL Server brings that product into the heavyweight arena of databases where it joins the likes of IBM and Oracle. Is Microsoft just in time to see its product forced to be given away?

I don’t think so, and the ties to Vista are relevant. Or more specifically, the ties to WinFS are relevant.

WinFS of course depends on a stripped down version of the new MS SQL Server that rides atop the NTFS file system. Note that if you haven’t read much of the documentation so far on WinFS, the key is that it’s not a replacement. WinFS depends on metadata associated with each file, the use of schema to describe that metadata, and MS SQL Server for the engine that relates and queries the data. NTFS is still underneath it all. Two good articles, if you haven’t had the opportunity to review WinFS are "WinFS 101: Introducing the New Windows File System" and "Microsoft unpacks details of Longhorn storage."

In practical terms, I think that we'll be seeing a lot of hidden files (xml and other data) in WinFS, and think that the format that Microsoft Office uses to save web page properties may be an indication. If you've ever noticed when saving a bare bones html file with Microsoft Word, there is no properties sheet for the file in Windows Explorer. But then, if you fill in the File Properties dialog in Office and save it again, you'll find a folder with various helper files, and xml inserted into the html file. For fun, try to delete the folder in Explorer!

At present, in Windows Vista beta 2 without WinFS, only the Mobile SQL server libraries are present (in the system32 directory). ODBC is present, and if the product distinctions we see in the products mentioned above hold true, we will not see SQL Server Integration Services, which is the replacement for Data Transformation Services, in Vista. This would be a shame because features such as fuzzy search and data mining are contained in SSIS. Imagine how they could empower document search! The screen below shows the SQL Server libraries in Vista today. As mentioned, only the SQL Server mobile engine is currently present, presumably for file synchronization. Based on the current marketing trends, I do not think we'll see SSIS included in WinFS, but I hope to be proven wrong.

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. DB2, DB2 Universal Database, and IBM are trademarks or registered trademarks of International Business Machines Corporation. Oracle is a registered trademarks of Oracle Corporation. MySQL is a registered trademark of MySQL AB. PostgreSQL is a tradmark of PostgreSQL Global Development Group.

News - No Antivirus Application in Vista

In an interview with CRN (Computer Reseller News) Jim Allchin says Microsoft's anti virus application will not be included for non technical (read business) reasons. On the issue of security, he also stated "I'm not going to claim perfection or near perfection, but I think we're unrivaled in the work we've done. I believe security will be a huge problem for the industry for years and years and years but this will change the landscape in a fairly dramatic way."

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Is MS ready to embrace web 2.0? and is Vista/Internet Explorer 7 a good platform for running web 2.0 apps?

In thinking about Vista I've thought about how Windows 95 was introduced a decade ago, and how shortly afterwards everyone realized that Microsoft hadn't understood the growing importance of the Internet during the entire period it had been developing Windows 95. Microsoft has changed a great deal during those years and I'm convinced they won't allow themselves to be blindsided again.

We still need to ask if we are in a similar situation now with Vista and Web 2.0. I've tried to write down a few things we might measure to answer these questions as the Vista beta progresses.

First of all, though I think a lot of my readers know about Web 2.0, since it's often not much more than a vaque concept, I'd like to describe what many, including myself, think of as its defining characteristics. A good starting point is a long and thoughtful article that Tim O'Reilly wrote last September, called What Is Web 2.0? In particular, I'm impressed with the "Web 2.0 Meme Map" in that article. At first I thought it looked like a refugee from a Madison Avenue presentation deck (been there, done that!), but it's amazingly concise and well drawn.

Another important source for the definition of Web 2.0 is Tim Berners-Lee. Probably the best way to understand his vision is to read his blog He tends to write short installments which are often quite startling because rather than a just a blog full of comments, he often presents very interesting suggestions for Web 2.0 features. I can only hope this blog will grow into a source of such ideas. To find more of his Web 2.0 ideas in a single location, try the "Semantic Web Roadmap" article.

Between these two eminent authorities, I summarize the characteristics of Web 2.0 as follows:

  • Letting users decide instead of dictating to them, i.e., collaboration and constant refinement by the users. This can be seen in the evolution of web apps based on user feedback. Google appears to be eminently good at harvesting user suggestions, allowing third party development, and incorporating user feedback in their very long beta cycles for products such as Google Maps.
  • Harnessing local resources instead of centralized servers. Any P2P or AJAX application illustrates this. In particular, an application such as Skype or Bittorrent, which distributes servers among the users and which supports multiple platforms. I think it's significant that the most widely distributed P2P apps focus on media.
  • Syndication and structured tagging of data that allows programmatic access and queries. That is the basis of the semantic web as Berners-Lee sees it. Most importantly, this vision opens the possiblity of adding a level of comprehension far and above the text search and link count in a Google search, i.e., data that identifies itself, making searches more intelligent.

So what would a Web 2.0-friendly operating system look like? Well, it's not exactly a thin client, not if there's a lot of local processing involved, so thin competition probably doesn't threaten Windows. A Web 2.0-friendly operating system must be secure (i.e., users won't want to expose personal data), if they're possibly going to be P2P servers. And files must be organized, both to store the data it downloads from feeds and other sources, and to present data where the user allows. (I've admired the way that iTunes automatically creates order out of the typical MP3/AC3 chaos most music lovers have in their file systems!)

When I first started planning this entry, I thought, gee, I've found so many positive things to say about Vista so far, I hate to turn to an area where Microsoft has been traditionally so weak. My first impression (and I think a lot of other people may have the same impression) of Vista was that it seemed to be half Microsoft responding to the business community's concern with the historical insecurity of Windows, and half catching up to Apple in appeal to home users.

Adding an RSS Feed in Internet Explorer 7
Once past that first impression, the focus on organizing documents apart from the traditional file system hierarchy, the ability to query those documents via structured queries and the stress on security play right to the Web 2.0. You can add to that the following:

  • The first apparent willingness to make it easier to connect to software services outside Microsoft (e.g., the RSS support in IE7).
  • Some of the document synchronization (e.g., PC to PC) that is being built in may appears to me to mimic the sharing between systems and devices that iTunes does so well.
  • The Windows Live effort may turn out to be something that threatens MS Terminal Server and promotes user mobility; perhaps not even tieing the user to a Windows PC.
  • The .NET Framework may not be the underpinning of Windows Vista that it was originally foreseen to be, but I think it's significant that Microsoft has not yet crushed the Mono project. I for one expected Mono to be gone by now.

Obviously, there are many, many more points to cover on this topic, and perhaps we'll return to it in the future.

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. Apple is a registered trademark of Apple Computer.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Change of Pace: Windows Photo Gallery

Today we'll take a quick look at the Windows Vista Photo Gallery applet. It's safe to say that many people will probably say "cute!" the first time they see it. Would you use it to store hundreds of family photos, or thousands of downloaded photos? The jury is out. It has some promise.

Windows Photo Gallery, Grouped by Tag

It appears to have the capability to do the standard actions you might expect; download images from a camera, display a slide show, and import pictures from a directory. Additionally, it can manage video and burn DVDs.

This is Microsoft's feature list. The page appears to be still a work in progress.

The user interface is very Explorer like, with a tree on the left and view pane on the right. Folders can be added by right clicking on any of the nodes below "Folder" and choosing "New." Notice that the folders are the equivalents of the "My Pictures" and "Shared Pictures," "My Videos," and "Shared Videos" in Windows XP. You can move or copy a folder from outside that hierarchy into one of the nodes. To link to a folder outside the hierarchy, including a network folder, right click the top level folder and use the Add command.

You may also do some editing of photos. The color management was quite simple to use. A useful addition would be a red-eye reduction tool. The applet failed to save my changes, but I assume that will be corrected.

Using the Fix Tool in Windows Photo Gallery

The View options for the view pane are thumbnails or tiles. Perhaps the most interesting feature is the ability to group photos and videos: based on standard photo metadata tags (date taken, month taken, year taken) or on keyword tags. It's easy to create a custom tag such as "childhood photos." The screenshot at the top of this article illustrates grouping by tags.

What is to me most interesting is that you can't use drag and drop to add a tag to a picture; I would have thought this the quickest way to tag. Instead, you have to right click, choose "Add tags" and then type in a tag name! You can't even choose from a list. This may simply be a problem with the beta. You also can't drag from another Explorer folder window into a tag group to simultaneously add a photo to the gallery with a specific tag!

The picture tags appear to be stored in a metadata repository; folders are not automatically created, and no files appear to be moved when a tag is applied. Note that the search function appears to rely only on a file name search.

Note also that you can "rate" your photos via selecting a quantity of stars.

I've not tested creating a DVD from video files at this time.

While I hesitate to use the Mac as a standard, Windows Photo Gallery appears to be an iPhoto like application with "tags" and video as an added twist. Some of the publishing features in iPhoto are unmatched. iPhoto claims to support up to 250,000 photos, and I can attest to its robustness; I will "torture test" Windows Photo Gallery by copying some tens of thousands of photos and report back!

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. Apple is a registered trademark of Apple Computer.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Virtual Folders and Indexing - The Ten Thousand Foot View

I thought that today we could start with a quick summary of press impressions of the virtual folders in Windows Vista.

Stacks of Keyword Searches
Virtual folders are probably the second most significant user interface change (I consider Microsoft's long overdue move away from default administrator logins number one, and yes, besides being a change in security design, it's also a UI design change too!), Yesterday's topic focused on extended file properties/metadata and how they relate to virtual folder support. Today's article will attempt to take more of a ten thousand foot view.

The following articles discuss virtual folders.

To summarize: the press by and large is focusing on saved searches. It's probably not unreasonable to assume that they consider it merely a copycat feature of the Apple smart folder feature. What are they missing? To answer that, consider what searches are currently used for: a web-centric view of text data, (i.e., it's merely a saved text search, so therefore it's a browser-like feature). Most times when searching for a local document, the text content is just the file name!

There's another view: the database-centric view. If virtual folders are to be a central feature of WinFS, the database/file system, we should look carefully at where the virtual folder feature may be going. If you have structured storage, you can have structured queries. A small case in point: take a look at the Windows attributes for a JPEG file: the dimensions are a string, such as "1024 x 768." Can't sort on the height of a picture? In Windows Vista, there is a width column and a height column. How much would you like to bet we'll be able to query them as numbers when WinFS arrives?

Consider also the "stock list of well known property types" which Explorer already supports, such as keywords (see Filtering Well-Known Properties for more information).

The whole purpose of the IFilter interface described in that article is so that the Windows index service can make a search for files with a specified property (for example, a keyword such as "contract") instantaneous. Currently (Windows XP) the indexing service does not index network storage by default; but you can add a network location, or you can configure the indexing service to query a remote systems' indexing service. This weblog will dig deeper into the indexing service as it applies to external files linked into a virtual folder in a future article. In Windows Vista beta two, at least, you cannot drag a file from a network folder into a stack, nor if you add a keyword to a network file, will the network file appear in the virtual folder for that keyword. To learn more about how network indexing currently works, see the article Using Microsoft Indexing Service to search for files in Network by Boris Goussakov."

But for the future, if it should be implemented, structured searches that intelligently query local and select external indices have tremendous applications. For example, given that many files in a corporate environment are housed on non-local drives, this could save a tremendous amount of time searching for documents, especially if the indices could be updated overnight or during idle time. For the home user, many of whom have never quite mastered the hierarchical file structure, this could make the "where did I put that file" question go away once and for all.

The biggest problem in implementing this, besides shipping WinFS, may be classifying "legacy" files for which no properties were defined at the time of file creation. I just checked my "My Documents," "Shared Documents, and my external drive. Not counting the folder on the external drive for backup, I've got nearly 200,000 files in those places. Clearly, I'll have to add keywords to many, many files at once if I ever hope to catch up. I guess this means that for me to gain a "Vista" upon my files, it will take much more of my time than an operating system upgrade!

Windows XP File Properties/Metadata
For new files, it's probably imperative that users learn to fill in the extended properties dialogs. Microsoft Office provides a means of automatically prompting the user to fill in title, subject, keywords etc. when saving a file for the first time. In yesterday's topic, I suggested it might be a good idea to add these to the Save As common dialog.

Many file types might have attributes that don't fit into the "well known property types" or their developers may wish to expose text within the file to indexed text searches. See the article mentioned yesterday (Be Discoverable). For applications that define their own file formats, an IPropertyStore interface can manage custom property types. It's not difficult to imagine a custom file format for a print application, for example, that stores a "target press" property that could then be searchable.

And of course, providing protocol handlers for exposing text within a custom file format is a main concern of "Be Discoverable" as well. It appears that what Microsoft is aiming for is to meet and exceed competition in text search, and perhaps most importantly, move users away from a hierarchical file system by encouraging file search by easily identifiable metadata properties and attributes. I have not yet confirmed this, but it appears the search box in the Start menu utilizes the index service (either that, or it heavily caches the virtual folder stacks!).

Searching for a keyword from the Start Menu search box
This is a very major change from text based search or tags, and probably a harbinger of WinFS. It appears that there may be a big difference between a saved query (Microsoft's term used in the Windows Vista Self Guided Tour) and a saved full text search.

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. Apple is a registered trademark of Apple Computer.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Keywords and Other File Attributes in Windows Vista Part 1

Windows XP contains the ability to display extended file properties (such as keywords and categories) in the details pane in Windows Explorer. Users are probably most familiar with displaying extended attributes such as "shooting date" for photo files. Extended attributes such as these have been a "why didn't they finish this?" question in my mind for some years. In Windows XP Explorer you can't effectively search or filter on extended attributes.

It's not difficult to imagine how much easier it would be to manage a folder hierarchy of thousands of documents for which you can filter views by keywords such as "contract," "family," "New Jersey," and so forth.

In Windows XP Explorer, both the attributes dialogs and the Explorer views have limitations; even entering the information is difficult. To enter keywords for multiple selections of files, the keyword entry box is disabled for "simple" view, but enabled for "advanced" view. There is no keywords box in the advanced properties for JPG files, certainly a file type crying for additional organization (see below). Finally, once you've entered your keywords, even when the keywords column is checked for the Explorer detail view, Explorer doesn't display them!

Windows Vista provides additional functionality to make keywords and other extended attributes more useful. Others have speculated that this functionality will only take off when WinFS, the native database/file system, is implemented. For now, in beta two, build 5270, we see the following functionality.

  • You can now single click in the keywords column in Windows Explorer and add a keyword for that file.
  • If when doing so, you type in a keyword never previously added as a keyword, that keyword is added to the keyword list in your Documents Library hierarchy (see illustration). When you open the "Library" in Explorer, each will be listed as a "generic stack."
Windows Vista Explorer - the Keywords column populated with keywords from the file properties dialogs
  • By clicking on the Library icon in "Common Places" in the Explorer navigation pane, then right clicking on a keyword in that hierarchy and choosing "open" you may open a new Explorer window containing all documents associated with that keyword. Note that you cannot simply click on the keyword and view it in the current Explorer window. Microsoft would do well to review this behavior and seek to make it more consistent with other Explorer behavior. In the "Top Rules for the Windows Vista User Experience," rule number 7, Microsoft states "Navigation-based user interface—characterized by staying in a single window and having a Back button in the upper-left corner—allows users to navigate easily, efficiently, and confidently; they can always ‘go back’. Even traditional applications that don’t inherently ‘navigate’ can often benefit from providing in-frame navigation."
  • Explorer provides for saving searches as virtual folders. This feature is not unlike Apple's "Smart" folders feature. This could lead a user to attempt to copy a virtual folder to removable media in an attempt to copy all documents related to a keyword. Currently, an attempt to copy a virtual folder to a real folder creates an error (see below). It might be a useful utility suggestion to create a method of copying all the documents in a "stack" to a real location.
File error on attempt to copy a virtual folder to a normal folder -- the file name you specified is not valid or too long
  • The search function, as related to keywords and extended attributes, is a topic unto itself. Suffice it to say for now that the filtering functions are much more powerful than current, but also that it's going to confuse a lot of users.
  • Filtering the Explorer view also merits further description. For example, it's now possible to add an attribute to the Explorer detail pane and filter it through the dropdown for that column. For example, one can easily filter a folder of photos to display all photos that are 1024 pixels wide.

This is the first installment of a blog whose key interest will be Windows Vista and its user interface. We're by no means done with keywords and extended attributes. Some further suggestions for exploration:

  • What can be done (through methods such as scripting) to automatically add new documents that contain current keywords or specified attributes to a virtual folder? Currently, opening a virtual folder that originated as a saved search updates the search. Rather than wait for the search to take place again, would it not save the users' time by updating each virtual folder in the middle of the night or at a time when the system is idle?
  • If attributes are to take on added importance, it would be a good suggestion for Microsoft to add standard attributes such as keywords, title and subject to the standard Save As file dialog.
  • Microsoft provides good documentation regarding implementation of properties and attributes in custom file types. The goal is apparent in the title of the following article: "Be Discoverable." .

Discovering the user interface of Windows Vista and making positive suggestions to users and Microsoft is the goal of future entries.

The following are some additional blog postings that include this subject:

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. Apple is a registered trademark of Apple Computer.