EU passes telecoms reform – how the new regulations will affect you

Château de Villandry Gardens
Creative Commons License photo: geoftheref

The European Parliament passed into law a new set of telecoms regulations today. This creates a few new consumer rights and as such we could be seeing some changes in the mobile industry in the months to come.

What’s going to change for consumers?

  • Switching networks: Currently you can switch between networks and take your number by requesting a PAC code. It can currently take up to two days for the request to be processed; this has been cut to just one day.
  • Contract length: We’ve seen the move towards longer mobile contracts. First we had 18 month contracts which rapidly became the norm and now we’re seeing a lot of 24 month contracts. We’ve even seen 36 month contracts in the market. The new regulations mean that customers must have the option of choosing a 12 month contract and contracts cannot be longer than 24 months.
  • Various personal data & privacy changes.

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The Mystery White Box of MSN/Windows Live Messenger

Mystery White Box

I’ve noticed that this evening some mystery white boxes have begun to appear in Windows Live Messenger beneath display pictures. It’s just a strange white square which doesn’t seem to do anything.

Why am I making a post about such a seemingly banal thing you ask? Well…

It’s not in all conversation windows. And I’ve heard that certain people using Windows Live Messenger 9 see a Microsoft Office icon rather than a blank square.

The reason why this is possibly significant is because it could hint that Microsoft is launching a way for people to collaborate on Microsoft Office documents through Windows Live Messenger. A way to collaborate on work through WLM and Office certainly seems a lot more natural than using Google Docs.

I had a phase where I developed a few small applications which integrated with Windows Live Messenger and there was definitely a hint of future Office integration in there. In the “What am I listening to?” music feature, changing one argument in the API function call would give you the Office logo instead in the message

My prediction is that Microsoft is just about to launch a feature where you can collaborate on documents. The only thing is there doesn’t seem to be any logic in which contacts the white box appears with. I thought it might have been visible for people who used Office 2007 but that doesn’t seem to be the case, nor does it seem to matter whether the other person has a copy of Office running.

Watch this space…

Test your website in Internet Explorer 5.5, 6, 7 and 8

A big headache for web developers is testing websites in different versions of Internet Explorer. In Windows you can only have one copy of Internet Explorer installed.

To get around this limitation, some developers use IECapture which takes a screenshot of your webpage in Internet Explorer. It’s great for a quick test but it’s impractical during development: you can only see part of the page and if doesn’t help you debug anything.

Another option is to use Microsoft’s virtual machine or the Standalone IE program.

IE Tester

A little application called IETester can simplify the process. It features the rendering engines for IE 5.5, IE 6, IE7 and IE8. You can open up a tab for each rendering engine, hence switching between different rendering engines seamlessly. It also allows you to split the view and to see your website in the different rendering engines at once.

An interesting user interface design too… An odd blend of Firefox 2 icons with an Office 2007 ribbon.

Windows Live Messenger Down

People across the world have been reporting that Windows Live Messenger, Hotmail and Windows Live sign-on is down across the world. Web Messenger also seems to be down, although Live Search still works.

I get the following message:

We were unable to sign you into Windows Live Messenger at this time. Please try again later.”

Don’t worry, it’s not you… its Microsoft! It does make me wonder whether we put too much trust in Microsoft and one centralised IM server – maybe something decentralised like Jabber is a much better way forward, especially with critical and important IM.

Oddly enough, I found out about the downtime when I saw the traffic from my blog doubling in one page and a few hundred pageviews on one of my old blog posts about MSN Messenger Downtime.

In the mean time, it’s a fantastic time to catch up on work and those tax returns 🙂

Free Microsoft Software: Visual Studio, Windows 2003, Expression

If you’re a student, you can download free Microsoft software from Microsoft’s DreamSpark website.

Now, for the first time, Microsoft is giving its valuable software developer and design tools directly to students worldwide at no charge! This site enables students like you to download professional-level Microsoft developer and design tools to unlock your creative potential and set you on the path to academic and career success, by supporting and advancing your learning and skills through technical design, technology, math, science and engineering activities.

Your university will verify that you are a student. If you currently attend college you can get an ISIC Card for £9 to verify that you’re a student.

Products available include:

  • Microsoft Visual Studio 2008
  • Microsoft Windows Server 2003
  • Microsoft SQL Server 2005 Express Edition
  • Microsoft Expression Studio
  • XNA Game Studio 2.0
  • XNA Creators Club Online
  • Microsoft Visual Studio 2005

Not bad for free eh?

Still looking for the Wow

I gave Windows Vista a go on a secondary computer and I’m still looking for the Wow. It really doesn’t do anything better than XP. The applications that I use are all the same, but I’ve had several problems with hardware working correctly, drivers, UAC driving me up the wall and generally Vista being slower than XP. The learning curve from XP to Vista actually wasn’t high at all; Vista was pretty intuitive. The compatibility problems are the main thing.

I use my computer as a tool – a tool to play games, watch television and videos, listen to music, chat to people and to surf the internet. The two things which are important to allow me to do that are quality of hardware and quality of software. All my software, and all my hardware works with Windows XP. Now the chances are I could upgrade to Vista and benefit from transparent title bars, but it’ll require many hours of work to locate new versions of software, upgrade and resolve compatibility issues.

Costs vs Benefits

On the face of it, £60 for an upgrade to Windows which looks slightly nicer and allegedly has improved security is actually quite attractive. But the monetary costs only scrape the surface. There are many other costs:

  • Time required to create backups
  • Time required to solve hardware, driver issues. Possibly an additional monetary cost in purchasing new hardware or upgrading existing hardware.
  • Time required to find software, updates, subscribe to relevant mailing lists awaiting Vista patches. Temporary loss of productivity in the meantime.
  • Temporary loss in productivity from relearning location of features, etc. 

There is also an opportunity cost* in upgrading to Vista. That is, upgrading to Vista, will probably involve about two or three evenings of work to reinstall software and resolve issues. That time could possibly be better spent elsewhere, or spending that time upgrading could mean missing vital work deadlines.

Totalling up all the indirect costs of upgrading to Vista and including the monetary cost (very minor compared to the other costs) and comparing it to the benefits, I still believe Vista is far from a viable upgrade for me.

That is, my computer works perfectly. The software and hardware; they all just work. Yet every week, I get asked when I’m going to upgrade to Vista, with Aero 3D and "improved security" always being the reasons cited.  So Vista looks nice, but it doesn’t work. Wouldn’t it be a bit shallow to switch to Vista?

* Opportunity cost is an economics term which means the benefit which would have been gained from the best alternative and was foregone by making an economic decision. That is, if you have a choice of doing A or B and you choose A, the benefits which you could have gained from choosing B is the opportunity cost.

Upgrade Cycle

I’ve had my computer for almost 3 years and traditionally I’ve always set about upgrading and updating my system every 3 years. This is to ensure the computer will run all the latest software, and its a fantastic way of cleaning up the PC (I honestly cannot be bothered to reformat, etc.)

DOS 

My first PC ran DOS 6.0. It had a 5.25inch floppy reader only and didn’t do a lot but I remember programming in Microsoft QuickBasic. It was really nice and I got the hang of DOS without too many problems. It did word processing and printed out on a nice ribbon printer.

Windows 95 

Eventually we got a new PC (166MHz Pentium 2?) with Windows 95 and all kinds of nice graphical software. This was before the internet and I actually missed DOS cos you couldn’t just turn the computer off and I didn’t have my Quick Basic. But there were all kinds of cool programs you could get off the cover CDs of PC magazines to try out. We did get onto the internet from Windows 95 eventually, after spending absolutely ages trying to set up the modem.

Windows ME 

The next upgrade was the infamous Windows ME (1GHz Pentium 3). It crashed several times daily but I didn’t complain because I experienced that on Windows 95. ME got very very slow after a few years of usage, probably because of the huge amount of junk I was installing from cover CD roms and downloading from the internet.

Upgrading to Windows XP Linux… 

There really was no compelling reason to switch to XP back in those days except from stability. On ME, everything did work and I really didn’t see the benefit of XP. In fact, the only reason I upgraded my PC to the current one was because the hard drive on the old computer couldn’t be partitioned to install Linux. The main reason for upgrading my PC was to be able to use Linux.

The current PC has run all kinds of operating systems. Windows XP mainly but brief flirtations with Mandrake, Gentoo, Ubuntu, Solaris, ReactOS but nothing has ever tempted me away from XP. I do like XP – it’s relatively stable and it’s not immensely buggy or full of security holes.

Software

The software I use is still pretty old – Paint Shop Pro 7, Office 2000.

I see absolutely no good reason to upgrade to newer versions of these softwares, and open source has allowed me to upgrade or to replace some of the older programs on my system with free and superior alternatives.

It’s reached the point in the upgrade cycle where I normally upgrade my computer. It’s a logical time to upgrade, with the release of Windows Vista, and the release of new processors from Intel last year. The thing is, an upgrade isn’t compelling.

XP works fine. All an operating system needs to do is to be able to run software and to work with hardware. XP does both of these. There are no essential Vista-only programmes, and many of the technologies from Vista such as XAML work in Windows XP.

Office 

I’m certainly not shelling out a few hundred pounds for an upgrade to the Office suite either. Office 2007 has a steep learning curve for not much benefit. I know how Word 2000 works. I don’t desire any more from it. It works. I don’t want to have to relearn it all.

I’ve also found that Excel 2007 actually makes it harder for me to do many things – perhaps it’s my lack of familiarity but once again I already know how to do it in Excel 2000 and I don’t desire any of these other features. But if Excel 2007 is going to draw histograms or box plots from statistical data in frequency distribution tables then I’m all for.

OpenOffice.org isn’t an attractive upgrade path either as it will require retraining and once again does not provide any features I want. I can see myself using my copy of Office 2000 for another 5 years or so, maybe more.

Why upgrade?

So the question I put out to all of you is this: why should I upgrade my PC? How is Vista a useful upgrade when 99% of the time I spend on a computer is within a few programs, all of which work equally well on XP? What are the benefits of shelling out for an upgrade when hardware or software isn’t even guaranteed to work?

Do you recommend upgrading today or holding on? 

IE6 and IE7 on a single machine

One of the issues with Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 7 is that it isn’t easy to have it running simultaneously on the same machine as Internet Explorer 6.

For web developers, this is a real headache. Many of our visitors still use Internet Explorer 6 so we need to ensure our websites work well on IE6 but IE7 is becoming more popular by the day.

The Virtual Image

The Internet Explorer Team Blog talks about this issue and recognises it. To cut to the chase, the Internet Explorer team recommends using virtualization. This is a way of having a piece of software on your machine behave like it’s a computer. You can run operating systems inside a window in another operating system.

To help developers to that extent, they have released a free virtual machine containing a fully patched Windows XP SP2 with Internet Explorer 6. This will work with Microsoft’s free Virtual PC 2004 software. It’s pre-activated but it’s set up to expire in April 2007.

The IE team say they’ll investigate virtual machines with different versions of Internet Explorer and perhaps having the programme running as a service for developers on a concurrent basis.

Unfortunately you can’t run Virtual PC on Linux so web developers on Linux won’t be able to use this service.

  • You can get a free copy of Windows Server 2003 R2 from Microsoft which lasts 180 days. Presumably this will run in a virtual machine and will have Internet Explorer, etc. but I haven’t tried it.

Standalone IE

Standalone versions of IE are currently one of the most popular ways to have both IE6 and IE7 running on the same machine. You don’t have to worry about installs, virtual machines, etc. Simply download a zip file, extract it and run the relevant copy of iexplore.exe.

I’m currently using this method to test my sites in IE6 and IE5.5. There are several issues with running standalone IE and Microsoft don’t support it. But I find it works pretty well for just having a glance at the layout and it’s certainly a lot better than not testing in IE6 altogether.

Microsoft Licenses Office 2007 Interface

Office UI designer Jensen Harris reports on his blog that Microsoft has decided to license the Microsoft Office 2007 user interface to other developers under a royalty free license. This includes the Ribbon, galleries and mini toolbars.

Developers will have to get a license from Microsoft and it’ll come with several restrictions – for example it must change it’s layout when the window is resized, must include a quick access toolbar and the ribbon should disappear if the window gets below 300×250.

Word 2007 

At first glance it seems like Microsoft is simply licensing this out of the goodness of their heart. But it does make a lot of sense – people have already tried to imitate the Ribbon in their own products, without a license from Microsoft. Microsoft probably knew people were going to do it anyway so this way gives Microsoft a bit more control over how the UI is used in other programs.

There is a 120 page booklet of guidelines which developers must adhere to. Says Jensen Harris, "There’s tremendous value in making sure that we all use these models in a consistent way, because it helps to ensure that people have predictable user experiences moving between Office-style user interfaces."

To get a feel for what the guidelines look like, see this preview which shows the guidelines for ribbon resizing. 

You can use the Office 2007 UI on other operating systems but you can’t obtain a license if your product directly competes with Office 2007.

So is Microsoft’s license going to hinder or encourage the implementation of ribbon-like interfaces in other programs? Could we soon be seeing Firefox with a ribbon-like interface? Ribbon "Widgets" for your website? A whole GUI based on Ribbon?  

See the licensing web page or the press release for more information.

Via Inside Microsoft.

I Started Something – Blog of the Week

Long Zheng’s "I Started Something" blog is a technology blog which over time has slowly evolved into a blog which mainly talks about cool innovations and Windows Vista.

The blog provides a fantastic insight into what’s new in Vista. There are interviews with Microsoft staff, some awesome screencasts, and competitions to win software, et al. There are also some tips and tricks for users of Vista – for example Vista scales wallpapers differently depending on how to set it.