Monday, July 31, 2006

SBCYahoo DSL: Shouldn't this be easier?

Popped over to my mother's house last night, expecting to spend 15 minutes upgrading her Internet connection from dialup to dsl from SBC/Yahoo! I've done this so many times I could do it in my sleep: install the filters on all lines, install the dsl modem itself and connect it properly both to the incoming phone jack and to the computer, open the computer and set the Internet preference to wireless/DHCP. Actually, I wasn't sure whether it was DHCP or PPPoE, but DHCP seemed a good bet. My impression is that PPPoE is out of fashion. Anyway, got it all set up - the work of maybe five minutes - powered on the dsl modem, got an IP address, and - nothing. Could not get to the Info Autobahn. Instead of fifteen minutes, it took me an hour and a half and three calls to SBC Yahoo! tech support to get things ironed out.

The first call was needed to get the dsl modem properly registered and working. This involved some sort of online registration process. Before calling, I had run the installer that comes on the CD (after failing to do it all manually), but it didn't do this for me. At the moment, my impression is that everybody must have to call tech support to complete an installation.

Except that this didn't quite complete it. Seems that the online registration process will not work properly if you use Safari as your browser. Huh!? In 2006 something doesn't work properly unless you use Internet Explorer 5.x? This is pretty shocking and there is no excuse for it. If you can't build a web site that works in Safari, Firefox and Opera as well as or better than it works in some five year old version of IE, then you should not be building web sites.

Anyway, the fact that I could not complete the registration online in Safari caused me to have to call back two more times to get email working in Apple Mail. The first time, I called just to get the addresses of the POP and SMTP servers. I tried to find this info online but was unable to do so.

Now, I'm by no means a networking guru, but I have installed dsl many many times before. I think I was one of the first dozen folks in Houston to get dsl about a decade ago. I remember having to help the installation technician (this was before self-install kits), who had been rushed through training and didn't actually understand what he was doing. If I have to call tech support three times, how does the general public do it? Perhaps I was just unlucky. Perhaps the general public uses the installer, follows all the instructions explicitly, and perhaps if you do that, you don't have problems.

But really, this isn't the kind of thing that should require that you use an installer, is it? From what I could tell, the main things that the installer was going to installer were a Yahoo!-branded version of Firefox and a special Yahoo! chat client - neither of which my mother would want.

Why can't they put all the necessary information on half a sheet of paper, and title the paper "Info for folks who know what they're doing...."?

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Coming Zune?

I've criticized the Apple ads and enjoyed parodies of them here, so I guess it's fair to link to a piece of online video that imagines what Microsoft might do when it tries to copy the iPod - but put its distinctive mark on the copy. Click here to view; warning - has sound. It would be funnier if it weren't so realistic.

But Microsoft might be changing its M.O. For what it's worth, here's the "Zune" prerelease buzz site. It's definitely not an Apple site. But it seems even less like what you'd expect from Microsoft. Maybe somebody at Microsoft has a clue - and an original idea.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Time to dump the desktop?

The lead article in the Technology section of today's Wall Street Journal today (July 24, 2006) is titled, "Is it Time to Dump Your Desktop?" It's interesting to see the question being asked so prominently, but the answer offered in the article is somewhat disappointing - perhaps because the question, as asked, is premature.

The WSJ stacks the deck heavily in favor of the desktop by focusing on the two main components of the standard "office suite," word processing and spreadsheets. It's pretty obvious that people aren't going to switch to using online spreadsheets to run multinational corporations any time soon.

Nonetheless, the trend away from the desktop is clearly established. I've blogged on this subject before. In an entry in June, I listed some of the things I actually do now in my web browser without launching any other locally installed application, such read and write email, manage my calendar, manage projects for my clients (using Backpack), blog, online banking, pay bills, make travel arrangements, buy almost anything that can be bought (books, CDs, comptuers, clothes, groceries), manage my online photo collection, read the news, do FTP, build a Web site, look up almost anything in an encyclopedia or dictionary, and on and on. Actually, I also mentioned word processing and spreadsheets: I do use Google's spreadsheet and I was a Writely subscriber before Google bought it. But even without word processing and spreadsheets, the fact remains: the application I spend the most time in is my web browser - and apparently, I'm not alone in this respect.

It's easy to grasp the appeal of web apps, if they are good. Users don't have to install anything (usually). The application is stored in some central location (on the application server) and users simply open a browser (or the appropriate client application) and connect. Because the application used by everybody is in just one location, it can be updated easily by the owners of the app and users get the benefits immediately. Data storage is also centralized so it's much easier to establish a sound backup program. And (as the WSJ article does note), if the documents being edited are on a shared server, then you can start talking about sharing the documents themselves, doing collaborative editing, publishing documents from the server, etc. Many of these benefits are available with any client-server system, for example, a database hosted on a machine running FileMaker Pro (in which case the appropriate client application would probably be FileMaker Pro, rather than a web browser). The web is, in many respects, simply a huge client-server system with a remarkably flexible client applicatio (the browser).

So the question boils down to this: how good can web apps get? Or to put it differently, can they compete with desktop apps?

The answer to this is, at least in many cases, not just yes, but hell yes. The most complex apps on my desktop (say, Microsoft Word and Excel) are not going to be replaced by web-based services until web programming gets a lot more powerful or our expectations from these kinds of applications get simpler. Or both. In fact, both things are happening. The tools available to Web 2.0 developers - Ajax, Ruby on Rails, etc. - are relatively easy for programmers to use and provide plenty of power to developer neat and useful web apps.

In the last twenty years or perhaps the last thirty, software developers constantly asked the computer to do more. The ultimate product of that era in software development is Microsoft Office, the product that can do almost anything, from making grocery lists to running a multinational company, from writing a business letter to writing and collaboratively editing a scholarly book with illustrations, notes, indexes, table of contexts, and computer-generated typesetting. I think that we've learned that computers can do a lot, but that they do some things better than others, and some of the things that computers don't do terribly well (or at least don't do very easily) may be done better by human beings using other technologies or other systems. The one thing that software developers have talked about for decades but never achieved is real ease of use. I cannot predict the future, but I think easy to use computing must be the Next Big Thing. And if computers are going to be easy to use, then applications need to have easy to use user interfaces, but they must also be shared and centrally administered.

Gmail domain hosting

Gmail domain hosting
Published 7/24/2006

Some months ago, I learned that Google was initiating a beta of its new hosted-domain email service for small businesses. I applied for admission to the beta immediately, got accepted, and I've now been using the new service for a full week. Do I like it? Yes, I like it a lot. Actually, I feel like I've finally fully entered the twenty-first century.

Why did I switch? Well, I suppose the sine qua non is that Google gave me the option to consider, by introducing this new domain-hosting service, which makes it legal for me to use Gmail for business. But I decided to take the opportunity for two main reasons. First, I finally convinced myself that the advantages of web mail outweighed the disadvantages. And second, after using the older Gmail for a couple of years, I knew that Gmail's online email application has some strengths that desktop applications don't have.

Gmail domain hosting?

This is not the regular Gmail service that everybody knows, where you have an address that ends with "". The new service completely replaces the email hosting I got as part of my domain-name hosting contract with Point in Space, an outstanding small hosting service. The web site is still hosted on Point in Space's servers, and I use Point in Space for other things, as well, such as FTP, discussion list services and database hosting. But as of one week ago, email sent to me or anybody else "" ends up on servers owned and managed by Google - and stays there. I wasn't even aware until recently that this bifurcated arrangement was technically possible. Google hosts the "MX" (mail exchange) servers for, while Point in Space continues to host every other aspect of the domain.

Advantages of web mail in general

The point of the switch, or at least the first half of the point, is to get the benefits of web mail.

Using web mail means that I can get my email from any computer. This matters to me as I switch computers fairly regularly, and also because on a regular basis I tend to work at more than one computer. I can now get the same email equally well from any of the four computers that I have handy, or from any other computer anywhere in the world. This is an unmitigated plus.

Using web mail also means that I have to worry slightly less about losing mail. It would, no doubt, be foolish of me to trust the safety of my email 100.0% to Google. I do remember the problem Hotmail had a few years ago, when it had a major glitch and irretrievably lost subscribers' email. So I will regularly download my messages to Thunderbird for archiving. But generally speaking, Google's (or Yahoo!'s or Microsoft's) technical folks are likely to do a better job than I have been doing about backing things up.

And even if I decide that I don't like the online user interface after all, the fact that I can nevertheless leave all my messages on Gmail's servers means that Gmail could solve another problem for me - the problem of switching desktop clients. During the last nine months, I've vacillated between Thunderbird and Outlook for Windows. The vacillation has been a waste of time and has caused me to lose messages, because getting messages from Outlook to Thunderbird is not easy, and moving messages from Thunderbird to Outlook is nearly impossible. But if I can keep all my messages on Gmail's servers, I can decide in a month to switch from Thunderbird to Outlook, and simply download to Outlook everything that's on Gmail's servers, which will be everything I have. With Gmail providing 2 GB of storage, I don't expect to have to delete messages from the server for a good long while, at least not for a couple of years.

But I don't expect to switch back to using a desktop app again. I'm committed now to Gmail and will use its online email application, for receiving, reading, composing and send all of my mail, from this day forward, until death (or a better deal) do us part.

Gmail in particular as an email client

Of course, none of the advantages just mentioned would be worth the trouble if the Gmail application itself were lousy. Luckily, it isn't. I was a little worried that I'd miss the editing tools available in a desktop client. But to my surprise, I'm finding that I can edit messages about as well in Gmail as I could in Thunderbird or Outlook. I do switch over to textSOAP occasionally to clean up quoted text in a message, but I did that in the desktop apps, too. Gmail's spelling checker works fine, and I'm able to provide ordinary text formats.

And in a couple ways, Gmail is - at least to my way of thinking - fundamentally and decisively superior not just to Yahoo! mail, but superior even to Thunderbird, Outlook, Eudora, Mailsmith and Apple Mail (to name just a few of the desktop clients I'm familiar with).

I'm very fond of the way Gmail organizes messages into threads or "conversations." Messages that belong together - incoming and outgoing - are always kept together. No desktop email client I know does this. Apple Mail gives you the ability to click on a message that you've replied to and find the reply that you composed. But Apple Mail, like every other desktop client I know, is a slave to its folder hierarchy. Incoming mail automatically lands in the inbox, outgoing messages land in the "sent" mailbox. You can move things around manually and you can use filters, too, but the fact remains that the program itself does nothing at all to keep together all the messages that belong together. Gmail's notion of an inbox is rather looser. Gmail calls it an "inbox" because that is the term people are familiar with, but it's really more like a "current messages" mailbox. The inbox in Gmail contains all messages that you have not archived yet, both incoming and outgoing - in fact, even draft replies that have not been sent yet are stored with the conversation that they are part of. It's a brilliant idea.

(NOTE: Gmail also has a "sent" mailbox that serves a fairly conventional purpose: it simply contains messages you have sent, without conversations. If you start a conversation by sending a new message to someone, in other words, by creating a message that is not a reply, that message goes to the sent mailbox and gets archived immediately, so it does not show up in your inbox - until the person replies. As I said above, the inbox contains active conversations. If a conversation has been archived, and a new message is added, Gmail brings it back to the inbox automatically.)

Which leads me to another novelty in Gmail: Gmail does not use folders. It doesn't require you to spend time organizing your messages, instead, it provides you tools that make it easy to find messages. Google is, of course, synonymous with web searching, and the find feature in Gmail is easy to use, accurate and fast.

And if you want some preliminary grouping of messages such as you normally get by moving messages into folders, in Gmail, you use labels. Labels, like folders, are an organizational tool, but with a twist. A single message in a desktop client can only be filed in one folder. The same message in Google can have as many labels as appropriate. So, for example, a single message from my associate Daniel can get the label "Daniel" (applied to all messages to or from him); and if appropriate, it can also get the label for a specific project that we're working on together.


Inevitably, the decision to switch to Gmail, while solving many old problems, introduces a few new ones.

My only real problem with the Gmail online application itself is that it doesn't have a stationery or templates feature. Thunderbird and Outlook both let you create stationery or templates - messages that have boilerplate text, or standard groups of addressees, so that you can use them over and over again without rewriting the message each time or even having to find an old copy and modify it. I'd also like to pay a few dollars to get the ads in Gmail to go away, but that's not an option.

There is a larger problem that may not really be Gmail's fault at all, namely, I can't configure Gmail as the default email client for my operating system. Windows XP won't even let me identify Firefox as my default client (although it does recognize Hotmail).

Finally, although Gmail was able to import addresses from Thunderbird, it is not able to import messages, that is, there does not seem to be any obvious or easy way for me to upload all my old messages to the Gmail servers, so that I can have everything in one place. Right now, I'm going to have to remember July 2006 as the birth date of this new service. If a message was received after that date, I can search for it online. If the message was received before that date, I'll have to dig through my Thunderbird archives.

Bottom line

But the bottom line is that Gmail is very good and I'm quite happy with the switch.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Windows XP Self-Help

I must be getting the hang of Windows. Tonight, I solved not one, but two problems with my computer that Dell Tech Support gave up on.

Problem 1: Can't set desktop background

I couldn't change my desktop picture or "background" as it's called in Windows. I'd right click on the desktop, click on the Desktop tab of the Display Properties dialog, click the Browse button, find and select a photograph that I wanted to use as a background and click Open, and then - nothing. Well, the file-selection dialog would close, but the file would not appear in the list of background options, the Apply button would not activate and basically, I'd be unable to make the change. I was able to select the default colors and textures that were already in the list. I just could not select a picture of my own.

This one took some determined Googling, but I finally found this page, which contains a link to this freeware library of registry fixes on a web site called Kelly's Korner. In line 142, on the right, there's a file named "Allow Wallpaper/Background Changes" which I downloaded, double-clicked and loaded into the registry - after first making a restore point using Registry Mechanic and saying a quick prayer to St Isadore of Seville. Prayer answer, problem solved.

Problem 2: Double-clicking an .fp7 file opens, um, Firefox

Can't say how this happened. Must have started when I installed the official 8.5 upgrade for either FileMaker Pro or FileMaker Pro Advanced, which is to say a couple of weeks ago. The problem wasn't so much that double-clicking an .fp7 file opened the wrong program, it was rather that I couldn't fix that problem in the ordinary way. The ordinary way - as I understand it - is to right-click the file, select Open With from the contextual menu, then "Select the program from a list," find FileMaker Pro Advanced (or whatever) in the Programs folder, check "always use the selected program....", and voila! it's fixed. But this one was like the problem with the desktop background. I could find get as far as selecting FileMaker Pro Advanced as the program to open .fp7 files - but then, nothing. FileMaker Pro Advanced would not appear in the actual list of programs to use.

I had also tried uninstalling FileMaker Pro 8.5, on the theory that perhaps Pro and Pro Advanced were fighting with one another. That didn't fix it either.

But I figured this one out on my own. I remembered seeing a list of file types in the Windows Explorer's Folder Options dialog (Tools > Folder Options > File Types tab). I went there, scrolled down a bit to the .FP7 listing, and tried to fix it using the Advanced button - essentially the same thing as using the Open With command described above. No go. But then I noticed the New and Delete buttons. So I deleted the entry for .FP7, and then created a new one. Selected "FileMaker Pro Database" as the file type, okayed my way out of the dialog. And that did the trick.

Who you gonna call?

Dell tech support has been good for me in the past, not so good this time. When I had problems installing Office 2003 a couple of months ago, the Microsoft tech support guy had a rather impressive bag of tricks to try. None of them worked, but he spent hours on the phone with me and I couldn't fault him for trying. And late last night, another Microsoft tech support guy actually took remote control of the new computer I was trying to configure and helped me install updates that I needed to have before I could complete the installation of the Windows Defender beta that goes with Windows Live OneCare. Now that was some good tech support.

Thanks to the generally anonymous expert users that I found through Google and whose suggestions led me to the solution for the first problem, and thanks especially to Kelly's Korner for the library of fixes. Yes, I've bookmarked it.

(Originally published 7/19/2006 on Typepad)

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Macs still no go in business?

According to Macworld online (7/7/06), computer industry analysts predict that the ability of Macs to run Windows well (either via Parallels or Boot Camp) isn't going to do much to increase the market share of Macs in the business world.

No surprise here.

I will say it again: While there may be a reason for Macs to want to run Windows, there's virtually no reason for somebody with a Windows machine to want to run the Mac OS as well, at least no commercial reason. Businesses are about productivity, not about vaguely "better" user interfaces for operating systems. What business software does the Mac have that isn't available for Windows? Even in the category of personal "lifestyle" software, what does the Mac have that can't be matched pretty well on the PC?

The fact that so much of Apple's marketing now is focused on the ability of Macs to run Windows, does not seem to me in any way a sign of the strength of the Mac OS. There is a distinct strain of snobbery in Apple's ads - one is almost tempted to call it OS-ism. Mac users are like the old aristocrats, still convinced that not needing to work is proof of their own superiority, and oblivious to the fact that nobody actually gives a damn any more. "Well, yes, Charles, I suppose you could run Windows XP on it, too, if you had the stomach for it." Sheesh.

(Originally published on Typepad 7/13/2006)

Apple Ads: What goes around, comes around

I learned about this from an article at PC World online by Narasa Rebbapragada, who learned about it from an article at Engadget, which in turn got it from somewhere else. Anyway, it's legit, funny, and inevitable: a spoof of the recent Apple television ads in which the roles of the Mac and the PC are played by two human beings. The spoof shows just how obnoxious the Apple guy is. You'll have to have Flash Player 8 installed to view the content. WARNING: Very mild vulgarity, befitting a poke-in-the-eye spoof, so you might not want to show it to your Sunday school class.

The only thing I don't quite understand is why Microsoft didn't make its own response to the Apple ads. I mean, the ad in which it is suggested that the Mac can connect to everything in the world (for example, all the latest cameras), etc., cries out for a response. I can only guess that Microsoft simply doesn't regard Apple as a threat worthy of a response; in other words, Microsoft views Apple's ads the same way the leading candidate in a political race views a challenge to debate from the Green Party candidate.

(Originally published on Typepad 7/13/2006)

About Me

I am an event photographer living in Dallas, Texas.