Vista SP1: More Details

March 31, 2008

Further to my previous post, I think it’s rather useful to look up Microsoft’s detailed list of changes for SP1. You can find an HTML version here, and a downloadable PDF version here.

I find the extreme length of this document anything but reassuring. Especially as so many of the changes are:

  1. things that shouldn’t have been broken;
  2. probably still not truly fixed;
  3. things that shouldn’t have been in this OS in the first place.

Note that even the “Updating Stack” itself had to be updated in order to install the update. Eeek!

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Vista SP1: how hard can it be??

March 31, 2008

[A comment I posted to this very interesting story by Preston Gralla, over on ComputerWorld. Seems that Vista Service Pack 1 will adamantly refuse to install if you have certain older drivers on your system. When will the madness end?]

Everyone seems to be too busy splitting hairs to notice the basic absurdity of a (rather minimal) OS update that breaks device drivers. Especially in an OS that is already maniacally stringent about driver standards and digital signing. Why should SP1 break fairly commonplace drivers that have presumably already passed Microsoft’s vetting process for Vista??

I don’t know what’s more pathetic: this kind of lame programming, or the fact that anyone would actually rush to defend it.


Windowing Basics

March 31, 2008

[As posted to SteamPowered.com… but applicable to many other programs. Why don’t developers get the easy stuff right?? Most programming tools provide basic window management as a template.]

I think Valve is doing a tremendous job with Steam, but has oddly ignored the basics. These are things I’ve expected to see fixed with each new patch, yet they’ve never been addressed.

  1. Colors. Why are all the available color schemes so totally illegible? How about, oh, I don’t know… black on white? Or Windows-standard, according to the Control Panel settings? Or user-definable? Instead, we get gray on lavender, or beige on mushroom… reminds me of those dot images they use to test for color blindness.
  2. Window sizing. I keep the Steam window in compact form against the left edge of my screen. Once in a while, I click the arrow icon to go to wide view. When I click it again, the window narrows – towards the right edge, leaving it in the middle of the screen! This is so annoying that I click on Valve’s various advertising views much less often than I would otherwise. So it would be to the company’s benefit to fix this. The window should respect ‘stickiness.’ If it’s stuck to the left edge, it should stay stuck.
  3. Shutdown. There should be an option to make ‘X’ mean ‘shut this program down.’ That’s the Windows standard. I know Valve would like me to leave Steam running for all eternity, but that just ain’t gonna happen. My computer is used for too many other things, and already has too much junk running in the background. So I have to remember to use File-Exit, or right-click on the Tray icon. Listen: I am going to shut it down, so you might as well make it easy for me. (I don’t even care if you leave ‘run forever’ as the default; those who care will find the option.)
  4. Lots more… but it’s mostly been said before. How about the ability to group game titles in different ways. Or customize columns. Rename games. Create a ‘wish list’ (like on Amazon). Etc.

The Steam window is the main part of our ‘Steam experience.’ If Valve wants us to live in it and explore it, they need to make it more convenient. This is not rocket science; this is the easy, basic stuff. Why not fix it first?


Update: My post on the Steam forums drew a response from a very reasonable Valve person. After a bit of back-and-forth debate, I forgot all about it. Imagine my amazement a few weeks later when I logged into Steam and found that my point 2 had been fixed! Apparently, it had never occurred to them before that anyone would dock the Steam window to the left side of the screen. But once I’d brought it up, they got on the case. Shortly after that, I noticed that another long-standing request was fulfilled, with the addition of ClearType font-smoothing support.

Got to hand it to Valve — I’ve haven’t seen this kind of responsiveness from a software company in a very long time. Maybe ever. If these guys can keep it up, they should go a very long way.


PlayStation 3: How Doomed Is It?

March 18, 2008

Yesterday, I posted some comments in response to a very interesting item over on BitBurners.com, which stated that “momentum is high for the PlayStation 3.” My contention is that the media’s sudden love-affair with the PS3 is way premature, and that in fact this console is doomed to play second fiddle to the Xbox 360 for the rest of its market life. (Probably third fiddle to the Xbox 360 and Wii.)

I’ve since had a very intelligent rebuttal from BitBurners. I’d recommend clicking over there if you want to follow our debate in detail. However, I’m going to reiterate at least my main points here.

A lot of journalists and bloggers lately have been rushing to declare the PS3 the winner in the console battle… despite the undeniable fact that the Xbox 360 currently has about 3 times the installed base… a small matter of some 10 million extra users. (Let’s not even discuss the Wii.) Never, ever, in the entire history of gaming, has any console come back against that kind of lead. [I have in fact seen various stats, some more favorable to the PS3 than others; the ones I’m talking about referred to worldwide installed base. On the other hand, all favorable predications regarding the PS3 seem to stem from a single rather incredible market study, which takes the product’s recent cost-cutting sales surge and projects it out to infinity.]

Meanwhile, we’re seeing news releases from major game publishers, canceling PS3 projects. [Again: I have seen at least two such announcements. I’ll try to dig them out and post them here.] With game budgets topping $20 million, who in their right mind is going to develop a great exclusive title for an audience of 6 million, when they could be developing for an audience of 18 million?

Some have suggested that the Blu-ray capability of the PS3 will be an increasingly important asset now that HD DVD is out of the picture. This logic seems flawed at best. Sony was able to use PS3 stats to bulk up its Blu-ray numbers, and thereby ‘win’ the race to dominate HD movie formats. But even if Blu-ray now starts to take off (a very big if, given its current sub-2% market share), the benefit of that Blu-ray drive in the PS3 will decline. Consumers will find many dedicated players to choose from, cheaper and simpler to use than the PS3. (How many DVD movies have you ever played in your Xbox or PS2?)

So far, Blu-ray movie sales stats show quite clearly that only an insignificant minority of PS3 owners use their consoles to play movies; as you’d expect, most bought them to play games. But when it comes to games, Microsoft has a huge and growing lead. The Xbox 360 (for which I am anything but a cheerleader, as you can see from my last few MS-bashing posts!) has a massive library of games, and an excellent online service that Sony has not even come close to matching.

Yes, Sony ‘won’ the battle for HD disc formats. (We’ve yet to see what that means.) But they sacrificed the PS3 to do it, delaying release by a vital year, and then putting an untenable early price on it, while Xbox 360 was happily building its user base. For Sony to make a comeback now would be far from the slam-dunk implied by BitBurner and other observers… It would be little short of a miracle.

My prediction: by the end of this year, or at latest early 2009, we’ll start to hear Sony dropping hints about the “PS4,” which will be the “killer console” that will really put the Xbox 360 in its place. Sony may wait to see how Christmas 2008 turns out first… but unless there’s some sort of vast and entirely unprecedented resurgence in PS3 demand, I don’t think they’ll have any cards left to play.

You read it here first. (Make a copy of this page; I’ll be re-editing it a year from now, if I turn out to be wrong.)


Flash Panoramas

March 17, 2008

Here’s an amazing site someone just pointed me to, containing some of the best Flash and QuickTime virtual panoramic views I’ve seen:

Gilles Vidal

Some of the best examples: the A380 Airbus cockpit, and the collection of Saint Marie Cathedral views. If you’re not prone to vertigo, I also recommend this QuickTime view from a high construction crane.

Hours of viewing fun!


Can’t be wrong all the time!

March 17, 2008

I’d begun to believe that everything you get in email is baloney. But the Internet is unpredictable… and sometimes even correct.

Today I received in an email what purports to be a PC Magazine award-winning letter, complaining hilariously about the message “Have a happy period” printed by Procter & Gamble on its maxi pads. Funny, yes. But true? Well, never over-estimate the marketing mind. A few quick searches later, and I’ve found several posts confirming that the “happy period” message is quite real, and does indeed appear as described. Yikes!

Unexpectedly, I also found this blog post, which seems to be the original “letter” that started it all. An actual letter, from an actual person. Who’d have thunk it? Especially considering the number of sites that have picked this up verbatim, clearly without doing any checking whatsoever. (Almost none link back to the original article.)

However, the part about this “open letter” winning a PC Magazine award is still unconfirmed, despite repeated searches of the publication’s own site. If anyone can discover a link to PC Mag showing this embellishment to be either true or false, let me know…


Steam Stats

March 12, 2008

Speaking of Steam (Valve’s excellent games-download service), it’s worth cruising over to check the results of their ongoing online hardware survey. As usual with this data, it’s not difficult to draw some fascinating inferences:

  • Creative Labs is no longer in the sound card business. This survey is presumably weighted towards hard-core gamers. And yet, over 30% of those responding are using Realtek audio (presumably, what’s built-in to their motherboard). Only a few percent list any type of Creative audio device. Even if you assume that the entire “Other” category is Creative, that gives them a dismally low market share.
  • Gamers have not bought into Vista. Over 80% are using Windows XP, and a mere 14% are on Vista. Worse yet, only about 9% have the combination of hardware and software to use Vista’s much-ballyhooed DirectX 10 graphics.
  • Widescreen has a way to go. Only about 25% of users are on “16:9” displays. (An obvious misnomer, as most monitors are actually 16:10.)
  • Broadband is big. While only about 30% of respondents have Internet speeds above 2 megabits, an amazing 12% claim speeds of over 10 megabits.

Funny, how the real world doesn’t look like what you’d expect based on the headlines you read.


Oh, no: Another Addiction

March 12, 2008

I made the horrible mistake last week, while browsing Steam, of downloading Infinite Interactive’s diabolically addictive little game Puzzle Quest. Omigodomigodomigod. I’ve lost entire days to this madness, and there’s no end in sight.

In case you haven’t tried it, PQ is a strategy game married to an RPG. As you win successive rounds of the match-three-jewels play, you advance in a story, which gives you extra abilities that you can bring to future rounds. And so on.

At about $20, this is the best gaming value I’ve seen in years. I hear there’s a sequel in the works, but it’s going to be tough to beat this perfect little jewel of a game.


IE8… sorry, must have dozed off

March 12, 2008

One last Microsoft bash, before I move on to another target…

It looks like the “New and Exciting Features” coming to Internet Explorer 8 are more things I never asked for, and which do absolutely nothing to close the usability gap between IE and Firefox.

  • Activities? Yet another way for Web sites to annoy me, while attempting to sell me services I don’t want and won’t use.
  • WebSlices? Yet another way for Web sites to annoy me, while… wait, didn’t I just say that?
  • Favorites Bar? So, renaming an existing UI element makes it a new feature? Or is this yet another Vista-ish reshuffle of controls to ensure I don’t get too comfortable with the way I do things?
  • Automatic Crash Recovery? What, IE crashes?? And in what way is this better than the similar (but more configurable) feature I’ve been enjoying in Firefox (especially with plugins like TabMix Plus?)
  • Safety Filter? So, renaming the Phishing Filter makes it a new… wait, didn’t I just say that? (And that?) Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, the filter continues to send all your surfing info to Microsoft, so I’m afraid I don’t feel any safer.
  • No More Bullets…? Yep, that’s all folks.

That’s right: a full integer revision in the numbering, from 7 to 8, for these five count ’em five heart-stopping features. Well, actually, Microsoft’s site does say these are just “some” of the features we can look forward to. So there may be more. But what’s the betting these really are the exciting ones?

At this point, the only feature that would let IE8 catch up on Firefox would be a Mass Hypnosis plugin.


Security backdoor in Vista?

March 12, 2008

This is one of the scariest things I’ve seen yet about Windows Vista. According to Bruce Schneier, who literally wrote the book on cryptography, it seems that Microsoft has added a new standard random-number generator, which very possibly has a built-in backdoor, whose ‘keys’ are held by parties unknown, and which would open any material encrypted using random numbers generated by Windows to scrutiny by said unknown parties.

This is so scary, I’d happily dismiss it as mere paranoia, were it not that Schneier is definitely not prone to wild statements, and is certainly one of the greatest current experts in cryptography and security. What’s more, he’s published a detailed analysis of the math that suggests the presence of a backdoor, so if you’ve got the background to make sense of it, you can check his argument for yourself.

Of course, this random-number generator is not something that will concern most users. It’s a facility that application software can take advantage of, or ignore. However, at the very least, this allegation suggests a rather slipshod approach to security in The Most Secure OS the World Has Ever Seen. And at worst, it suggests the possibility that it’s not me the OS is trying to safeguard.