Obnoxious Office

December 18, 2012

It’s amazing that Microsoft Office still manages to dominate the world of ‘productivity’ applications. The feature set is good (though stuck firmly in the 1990s), but the under the hood it’s the worst-programmed mess I’ve ever encountered. What’s particularly galling is that a lot of the problems are there not by accident, but by design. Case in point:

  • I need to install holidays in the Outlook calendar for 2013. No can do. Outlook 2007 only goes up to 2012.
  • Is there a simple fix? A tiny download, perhaps? No. You need, at minimum, a Microsoft executable ‘hotfix.’
  • Can you just download it? No. You need to request a link to be sent to your email address.
  • Can you just install it? No. You need at least Outlook SP2.

Remember: I’m not having any particular problems with Outlook that need a whole service pack. I just want holidays for 2013.

  • Does SP2 just install itself politely and go away? No. It needs a Windows reboot. Which means shutting down all the stuff I was working on when I discovered I needed holidays for 2013.
  • Upon rebooting, does Outlook just run? No. It pops up a dialog cryptically (and incorrectly) reporting “Preparing Outlook for first use.” Then proceeds to process all my data, for compatibility with the update.
  • Does this process complete quickly? No. In fact, I can hear my disk thrashing as I type. Why?? Outlook itself is running from my SSD, and the data files will easily fit into my 16GB of system RAM. So no disk access should be required.
  • The process completes after about 10 minutes. Are my problems over? Hardly! A warning pops up: “Microsoft Office Outlook has not been installed for the current user. Please run setup to install the application.” There is only one user: me. When I click “OK” (my only option), Outlook shuts down. Now I have to find my original disks, or something.
  • The installer runs, but now Outlook won’t recognize itself as legitimate. Neither Internet nor phone activation will work. Microsoft’s automated phone-registration robot implies that I’ve got an ‘illegitimate’ copy. I most definitely don’t… it’s a review copy I got directly from Microsoft. (The big plastic box is in front of me now… although I still can’t figure out how to open it.)
  • Does tech support have an answer? Oh, sure, but it’s not very satisfying: “This product is very old, there’s no free support, so pay up for support or pay up for a newer version.” (The support rep was very nice about it, and even confirmed that my product key was indeed legitimate. I’m afraid I was a bit testy with him, which I regret… none of this is his fault.)

What an incredible productivity-suck. If Outlook were just a regular program, with clearly-defined data structures, and without low-level hooks or obnoxious DRM, I’d have had the data I needed in a minute or two and been on my way. Instead, my afternoon is shot, I have no access to my huge file of email, and I still don’t have the 2013 holidays for my calendar. At the very least, I’m looking at a full re-install and probable loss of all my settings.

All for what? A tiny calendar-data update. This is just plain bad.

In fairness, I have to add that Outlook is the only email client that comes close to giving me the features I need. In particular, the ability to define custom columns, which allow me quickly access all messages relating to a particular company. Ironically, this feature seems to be gone in recent versions of the software. Fortunately, the columns I originally created in Outlook 2003 remain.

Despite the creeping de-featuring, Outlook remains my best option. But I’m always painfully aware that it’s a pale shadow of what it could be. The masses of priceless information in its store are only barely accessible to me. The tools for finding, correlating and exploiting all that information are rudimentary at best. The data files are monolithic, inaccessible to third-party tools. Performance, even on my Core i7 system is often lethargic. And every so often, it dumps me into a pit… like it has today.

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Auto-updates: Is It Just Me…?

October 17, 2012

I just came across yet another security discussion, in which at least one poster emphasized the importance of auto-updates as a means of keeping a system protected. Here’s the response I added:

I couldn’t agree less. Auto update is a huge vulnerability. It’s literally a welcome mat for some third party to shove software into the bowels of your system. That third party may be both trustworthy and technically competent… but there is no guarantee that it will remain so over time, and no likelihood that you’ll know if and when it becomes untrustworthy or incompetent.

Ironically, far from “getting it right,” [as the previous poster had suggested] Microsoft provided the best-ever example of the auto-update fallacy, when it mis-used the mechanism to shove Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA) onto systems around the world. WGA is not a ‘feature’ that any user would want. It gives Microsoft extra control over your PC, and opens the possibility of false positives that could literally require you to buy a new copy of Windows. No, the problems are not frequent… but the point is that whether an update is to your benefit or not, you gave up the right to complain about it when you enabled (failed to disable) the service.

I’m still waiting for someone to hack the auto-update feature. What better mechanism could their be, for installing malware? Even if Microsoft’s auto-update service happens to be secure (a big if), there are probably lots of others on your system by now, some of which you’re probably not even aware of.

It’s your system, do what you think is best. But on my gear, all auto-update services remain in the OFF position.

Am I being unreasonable? Paranoid? I don’t think so. I have never seen any compelling advantage to automatic updates. If the software is so crappy it can’t work without constant updates, I’ll just pass on it entirely. On the other hand, if there are substantial changes, I will inevitably want to assess them before allowing them on my equipment. I don’t give anyone carte blanche to enter my front door, and I can’t see why I should be less stringent with my electronic devices.


The Dual Irony of Windows 8

July 16, 2012

I’ve been writing about the upcoming Microsoft Surface, and studying the keynote presentation describing it. It has struck me that with Windows 8, Microsoft has managed to screw up not once but twice, in a single release:

  • Windows 8 RT looks like a pretty good tablet solution. But, apart from the highly misleading name, it offers absolutely no continuity whatsoever with the 30-year-old Windows ecosystem.
  • Meanwhile, Windows 8 Pro breaks violently with that same 30-year tradition. Yet it fails to deliver a touch-based solution for existing Windows applications, with not even a token effort at making the desktop mode more finger-friendly.

This really is the worst of both worlds. Microsoft has belatedly launched a brand-new mobile OS, that’s going to have to catch up in stability and app support with two huge contenders, iOS and Android. (Even the BlackBerry OS has more of a track record at this point.) Yet it’s squandered its one undeniable advantage, by not playing off of the huge success of Windows on the PC. As Microsoft has pointed out, the potential audience for a truly Windows-like mobile OS was on the order of a half-billion users. The audience for brand-new MetrOS, dramatically less Windows-like than any of its competitors? Who knows.

At the same time, Microsoft has launched a new desktop OS without adding much-needed touch support. Windows 8 slaps on the goofy new Metro mode like a coat of paint… but, astoundingly, offers no improvement whatsoever in touch facilities for existing applications. Simply enlarging the red X ‘close window’ button might have been a start; how hard would that have been??? Microsoft has done so pathetically little to make the desktop more usable by touch that you simply can’t help thinking the company plans to kill it entirely. Thereby discarding its own most important asset: the continuity of applications, skills and user acceptance that Windows has built up over three decades. Microsoft has ensured that Windows users looking for a touch-based solution will find more continuity by switching to a competing OS.

Nice work. It’s not all that rare to see a big company shoot itself in the foot. But both feet with one pull of the trigger? That takes real genius.


Microsoft’s Metro Marketing Madness

June 13, 2012

A lot of people are miffed by Microsoft’s bizarre new UI direction in Windows 8. I explain why they’ve done it, and why it won’t work, over on Marketnews.ca.


Y I h8 IE8

March 13, 2009

I’ve just attended a Microsoft LiveMeeting briefing talking about the new version of Internet Explorer. The comparisons to Firefox were fairly contrived, as you might expect, and even so, the pitch still came off as fairly underwhelming.

Here’s a quick run-down:

  • Pages render faster in IE8 than in other browsers. Maybe. Under some circumstances. But in any case, the difference is “pretty small.” (Getting excited, yet?)
  • Interesting statistic: Microsoft claimed that Mozilla itself admits only about 20% of Firefox users install add-ons. If true, having more stuff built-in would certainly be an advantage. As long as that stuff was equally ‘rich’ (to use Microsoft parlance) and far-reaching. Well, Microsoft’s main alternative to add-ons are Accelerators, which are like mini-add-ons specific to certain services — Gmail, Facebook, etc. But of course, the functionality is pretty restricted too — mostly they show little pop-ups, like a Live Map. Or instead of cutting and pasting a bit of text into an email, an Accelerator might allow you do it with one right-click. Cute, but hardly Earth-shattering. And it still depends on third parties cooking up the dowloadable modules — just as with add-ons.

ie8-briefing-001-crop-sm1

  • Web Slices are like a proprietary take on RSS feeds. They can let you track specific parts of a favorite Web page — but of course, they require the page to enable this, using special markup on their site. Slices look easier to use than most RSS feedreaders, perhaps, but RSS is a widely-adopted standard, while Slices are all custom Microsoft. (See below about how Microsoft is now playing nice with standards…)
  • IE8 clones the Firefox URL “amazing bar,” where it can now offer extensive suggestions as you type, from both your recent sites and quick online searches. There are some minor tweaks, mainly by virtue of working with specific providers, like Amazon and Wikipedia.
  • IE8 has a cross-site scripting blocker, which Microsoft admits is similar to the Firefox NoScript add-on. But they called NoScript “extreme” in that it blocks all scripts. (As if that weren’t a good thing!) IE8 InPrivate Filtering is not unlike Firefox AdBlock — but with a simpler dialog, I’ll give them that.
  • IE8 allows tabs to crash individually, without bringing down the browser. Cool. This would be a huge help — about twice a year.
  • Another big feature: IE is now supporting standards. (As they admit Firefox and Safari have been doing for some time…) Gosh! But the real beauty of IE8 is that it has a Compatibility View, to correctly render all those pages that have already been built for Microsoft’s previous rogue non-standards. Microsoft has even created a new XML tag that can tell IE8 to render in IE7 mode. (Just one more new trick for developers to learn… assuming they still care what IE does with their pages.)
  • Not discussed in the demo, but Tabs in IE8 are still horrible, horrible, utterly useless and horrible. Microsoft seems to feel no one will ever open more than about 6 tabs. In my case, their estimate is out by at least an order of magnitude.

All in all, the final release is looking no more amazing than early betas suggested it would be. The new features are all swell, but limited in quantity, and mostly just catching up on features already available in other browsers. The user interface remains by far the worst of any browser, ever. Overall functionality is light-years short of what Firefox can do with a few well-chosen add-ons. (And you can bet that Firefox will remain the more attractive platform for add-on developers.)

This is a far cry from Microsoft’s glory days. When threatened by Netscape Navigator, the company really moved browsing forward in a big way. Overall, there’s nothing in IE8 that would cause anyone to switch back from an alternative browser. Nor anything that would slow the steady trickle of IE users who try something else and never come back.


Vista User Account Contortions

April 27, 2008

I was just skimming this exhaustive article by Mark Russinovich on Microsoft’s TechNet site, hoping to understand just why those User Account Control pop-ups in Vista have to be so annoying. Much of his treatment is far too detailed for me to care about, but in the second-last paragraph, Russinovich tosses out this little bombshell:

“…users who want to forgo security in favor of convenience can disable UAC on a system in the User Accounts dialog in the Control Panel, but should be aware that this also disables Protected Mode for Internet Explorer.” [my emphasis]

In other words, if I read this right, you have to accept the incessant nag dialogs of UAC in order to get the benefit of the vaunted sandbox for IE… even though the latter is exactly the sort of feature a power user might want to count on for ‘invisible’ protection! Worse, there’s no warning of this hidden connection; I disabled UAC with no idea that I was giving up the other feature. (Note that the free Sandboxie utility doesn’t seem to make this kind of demands. Yet another touted Vista feature that apparently could have been implemented — better — on Windows XP.)

Russinovich also reiterates Microsoft’s position that UAC is “a convenience” (who says they don’t have a sense of humor?) and not “a security boundary.”

I think the idea is that you should run as an admin but give up most of your admin rights — then constantly beg for them back. The benefit of this contortion is nebulous at best. Russinovich notes that malware can intercept the UAC process, though he says that this type of attack would be “relatively sophisticated.” (Thank god today’s hackers are incapable of sophistication!)

From Russinovich’s explanation, it would seem that the only way to get any real value out of the new Vista rights scheme would be: run most of the time in a standard user account, and switch to a separate admin account (with UAC disabled!) when elevated privileges are required. To me, this would seem to give exactly the same level of security that the Linux crowd likes. (While working pretty much exactly the same way that it does in Linux… or, presumably, that it could work in Windows XP.)

All of which leaves me right back where I started, with UAC still looking like nothing more than a redundant annoyance. Worse, actually; it now looks to me like a way of fooling yourself into thinking you have the security of running in a user account, with twice the hassle and very little (if any) of the actual benefit.

If someone more knowledgeable in this area wants to convince me I’m mistaken, by all means fire away.


Fun with Standards

April 24, 2008

I just came across a marvelous page that runs through “Dirty Tricks” that Microsoft has done with various technical standards. It’s a long list, and a fascinating one, from both historical and technical perspectives.

If you’ve been around the computing industry a few years, many of the examples will be familiar. But a few may surprise you. Personally, I hadn’t really been following how Microsoft was pushing its new XML-based OOXML Office document format against the perfectly good existing standard (ISO Open Document Format). For me, this battle is purely academic; I wouldn’t ‘upgrade’ to Office 2007 even with a gun to my head. But it does rankle that something this important should be subject to such self-serving squabbles.

Another gruesome little tale is how Microsoft has nearly obliterated the OpenGL standard for 3D graphics. As someone who closely follows gaming, I’ve always appreciated the virtues of Microsoft’s DirectX in that area. It’s a great system for realtime graphics, something that OpenGL doesn’t really tackle. But I always took Microsoft at its word, that OpenGL would continue to be available in parallel, for those applications in which it excels. Not so, according to the Dirty Tricks page — and Vista is apparently the last nail in the coffin, since the entire UI is now based on DirectX, making it tougher than ever to squeeze in an OpenGL engine.

The site makes no secret of its bias, so by all means take its pronouncements with a grain of salt. But also take a moment or two to follow some of the many links, and see what the fuss is about. Whether you side with Microsoft or agin’ ’em, you’ll come away with a deeper appreciation for the whole standardization process.


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!


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.


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.