Make your Windows apps DieHarder

The popular interpretation of Moore’s Law is that computing power doubles every 18 months-ish. Happily, RAM and hard drive speeds and capacities follow a similar exponential curve. Yay tech-for-tech’s-sake!

Sometimes — okay, rarely — advancements in computing power are dedicated to making the computing experience suck less (see the giant leap to the GUI, and a few other hops here and there). Mostly, additional resources go toward making computers suck in the same way that they always have, only faster.

Restoring a bit of my faith in humanity, along comes DieHard. The dry summary is that DieHard:

  • Prevents some kinds of memory-related errors outright
  • Reduces the chances that other kinds of memory-related errors will cause problems
  • Makes it nearly impossible for malware to know where vulnerable bits of data live, in turn thwarting a variety of attacks

Nothing’s free, of course, and using DieHard means trading resources for reliability. With DieHard, protected apps will use 50-75% more RAM. However, DieHard won’t noticeably hurt the performance of most apps unless you’re RAM-starved.

On Windows, the initial release of DieHard only works with Firefox. Let’s hope it’s extended to support other popular apps soon, and enhanced to give users an easy way to run it automatically on startup. Get it, install it, use it, and give Mr. Berger some love.

Thoughts on "Thoughts on MCE beta feedback"

Matt Goyer, a Program Manger for Microsoft’s Windows Media Center (motto: “Before we were a Vista feature, we were an _entire operating system!”)_ recently posted that he’s frustrated by people who say that Vista’s Media Center capabilities offer no compelling improvements over Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 (a.k.a. MCE 2005).

In response, Matt posted a [long list of features][Goyer] that help illustrate why MCE Vista is a vast improvement over MCE 2005. In my opinion the list is embarrassing, and — if you take the post as a litmus test for how “in touch” Microsoft is with consumers — doesn’t make me optimistic about MCE’s future.

(Note: This isn’t a random critique, nor is it intended as Matt- or Microsoft-bashing. I’ve been an MCE user since 2004. I built my current MCE, a 3 GHz box with a dual analog tuner and an OTA HDTV tuner. Other than an Xbox 360 for gaming, my MCE is the only thing that feeds my TV.)

Let’s look at the list.

> _Support for 64bit machines_

Makes sense, since 64-bit versions of Windows have been out for well over a year. But there are no intrinsic performance- or feature-related benefits to using MCE on a 64-bit processor vs. a 32-bit processor. **Consumer value: None.**

> _You can upgrade to Windows Vista Media Center from XP_

Any MCE install for a PC _used primarily as an MCE_ should be a clean install. For upgrades on PCs used primarily as PCs, it’s a questionable convenience to be able to avoid a clean install, and it was already possible to use Windows’ Files & Settings Transfer Wizard to achieve the same end. Frankly, this should’ve already worked — MCE is just Windows — and it certainly no reason to upgrade. **Consumer value: Dubious.**

> _Media Center is included as part of two Windows Vista SKUs_

This is pointless, since you’d never buy Windows Vista Teh Ultimate XXL 3000 Windows Vista Ultimate for a machine intended to be your MCE PC. **Consumer value: None.**

> _No need to buy a Media Center. You can install yourself_

…just like you could with MCE 2004 and MCE 2005. (Plus, this is incorrect if you want CableCARD support…see below for more on this.) **Consumer value: None.**

> _Domain join_

This refers for the ability of MCE to join Microsoft Active Directory domains, used by only large enterprises. This feature is meaningless for 99.9% of MCE users. **Consumer value: None.**

> _Available worldwide in every locale that we ship Windows to (160 new locales! 15 new languages!)_

It’s great that Microsoft is localizing/internationalizing MCE functionality, although you have to wonder what took so long. **Consumer value: Some**, if you haven’t previously been able to use MCE because of localization/internationalization issues.

> _More content on screen in our photos/music/videos/TV libraries_

This means that MCE Vista uses widescreen displays more efficiently. That’s nice and all, but this hasn’t proven to be a problem with MCE 2005. **Consumer value: Dubious.**

> _Faster perf for the music library_

One problem that’s always haunted MCE is that it’s never been able to efficiently deal with even moderately-large music libraries. **Consumer value: None** to anyone new to MCE (of course it should work), and an **insult** to current MCE owners who’ve been waiting years for a fix.

> _OCUR/CableCARD support_

This is true only if you buy a _new_ MCE with Windows Vista that’s been “approved” by CableLabs. Current MCE users will need to toss their current setups and start over. **Consumer Value: Significant**, but at a very high price.

> _It was very hard to use a mouse in MCE 2005. We’ve made some big improvements to mouse handling._

It was not difficult to use a mouse (even the terrible thumb-pointer on Microsoft’s Remote Keyboard was tolerable) with MCE 2005. **Consumer value: None.**

> _Likewise, hard to use with a touch screen before, should be better now_

This is great news for the twelve people that use a touchscreen as their interface for MCE. **Consumer value: None.**

> _Run on your Tablet PC_

MCE already ran on Tablet PCs. **Consumer value: None.**

> _New start menu to get you to where you want to be faster_

The old Start menu got me to where I wanted to be almost instantly. **Consumer value: None.**

> _Start photo slideshow from Music Now Playing_

No one does this, except Microsoft employees demonstrating how cool it is that MCE can play death metal _at the same time_ it’s showing pictures of your vacation to Philadelphia. **Consumer value: None.**

> _Now playing item on the start menu, should be more discoverable_

From what I’ve seen, MCE Vista’s UI “improvements” made the Now Playing item less discoverable, and now we all need to pay for that with a useless Start menu item. **Consumer value: None.**

> _More ways to slice and dice your music collection_

It’s nice that playlist creation within the MCE interface sucks less, even though the MCE 2005 workaround (i.e. use Windows Media Player to create your playlists) works fine. **Consumer value: Medium.**

> _New music Now Playing_

**Consumer value: None.**

> _Way better queue management_

I imagine that somebody must care about this. **Consumer value: Low.**

> _View photos and videos by folder or date_

Wow, folders…just as we’ve determined that’s it’s really inefficient to wade through and manage folders. **Consumer value: Low.**

> _Mini TV guide_

The guide already worked as well as any DVR’s, and it’s rarely used except to set up (generally recurring) recordings anyway — if you’ve got a DVR, you rarely (if ever) watch live TV. **Consumer value: None.**

> _TV favorites/most viewed_

Again, the guide is rarely used except to set up recordings. **Consumer value: None.**

> _TV categories is now discoverable_

This assumes people search for shows by category. “Honey, I’m really in the mood for a police procedural tonight.” (Hint: Nobody does this.) **Consumer value: None.**

> _TV guide is an overlay_

Instead of seeing the current channel in the lower-left corner, we get to see it obstructed by the entire interface. **Consumer value: None** (and possible negative).

> _Easy to get to TV categories_

This is a duplicate of “TV categories is now discoverable”. **Consumer value: None.**

> _Thumbnails in recorded TV library_

Because how could you possibly know that the show called _House_ was really _House_ without a thumbnail of a commercial? **Consumer value: None.**

> _PAL exhaustive channel scanning_

This sounds more like a PAL-related MCE 2005 design flaw related to PAL support rather than a new feature. **Consumer value: Moderate** to PAL users bitten by this problem in the past.

> _Microsoft DVD codec_

For those of you who haven’t used MCE previously, it’s true — you really couldn’t watch anything without a third-party decoder.

If you previously built an MCE PC, you knew this and either bought an MPEG-2 decoder or installed a free one. If you previously purchased an MCE PC, it already came with a MPEG-2 decoder and you didn’t have to worry about it. **Consumer value: None.**

> _Native burning solution_

By “native”, Matt means that you can now burn DVD Video discs that can be played in any DVD player — useful for sharing episodes of American Chopper with grandma. (Previously, MCE only burned nearly-useless data DVDs.) **Consumer value: Medium.**

> Extender platform. Now any hardware manufacturer can integrate a MCX into their TV, DVD player, etc.

Which is what absolutely everybody nobody is clamoring for. **Consumer value: None.**

> _Tighter integration on start menu for third parties. You’re no longer buired in More Programs_

This will save me 30 seconds a month at first, and then cost me more and more time as my Start menu becomes overrun with add-ons. **Consumer value: None** (and possibly negative).

> _Windows Media Center Presentation Layer, now you can build apps that have the same fidelity as Media Center_

It’ll be nice to use MCE add-ons that don’t look like absolute crap, and potentially even work kind of like MCE. **Consumer value: Medium.**

> _Windows Presentation Foundation, re-use your Avalon code to build Media Center applications_

This is a gross oversimplification. **Consumer value: None.**

> _Hotstart_

I rarely need to restart my MCE, so this would save me about 10 non-contiguous minutes a month — time that I use to, say, grab a refreshing beverage rather than stare blankly at the TV while Windows reboots. **Consumer value: None.**

After the list, Matt continues on for a bit. This jumped out at me:

> Something not on that list that we’ve likely spent more time on than anything else is getting Media Center to integrate with the Vista codebase. It was a lot of work getting Media Center to work with Vista and all the changes to the things we’re dependent on like drivers, graphics infrastructure, sound infrastructure, networking, etc.

Ooof, sad…it’s not like they’re writing to the metal. MCE is basically a .NET application that uses higher-level APIs.

I’m sure the MCE team got sucked into the Vista vortex like everyone else at Microsoft. It’s likely that they wasted people-years worth of engineering time building, testing, and rebuilding on very shaky versions of Vista. There are probably some heroic efforts behind the few genuinely-useful features that are new to MCE Vista.

Yeah, it looks cool, and yeah, I kinda want it. But it’s clear that MCE Vista is a dubious upgrade at best.

* [Matt Goyer: Thoughts on MCE beta feedback][Goyer]


CeBIT bites

I just returned from a week at CeBIT. I’d hoped to be able to post regularly while I was there, but internet access where I was staying was too expensive to justify anything but critical communications, and my schedule was too packed during show hours to allow for browse-time via the open Wi-Fi base stations I was able to find in the messe (“fair”) halls.

CeBIT may be the largest computer trade show in the world, but the show was, on the whole, incredibly boring. (It’s not over yet, but I glad to be able to bow out early considering the threat of war and of SARS.) There were 10% fewer exhibitors this year than last year, which was in turn had 10% fewer exhibitors than the year before. (I haven’t seen estimates of how much they expected attendance to drop, but last year it dropped a shocking 21% compared to the year before.)

There were some interesting themes at the show…

  • Small, solid-state storage devices (like Sony’s USB 2.0 MicroVaults) and smart storage devices (hard drives with CPUs, like the iPod but with support for video and photos as well as music) were common.
  • Flat panel displays were everywhere, and I saw at least one effective 3D display that didn’t require special glasses. In my opinion, 3D video is inevitable, and I think that 2D displays and video/still cameras will be considered as quaint as mono audio within 10 years.
  • Wireless was a domiant theme, but the difference is that it’s being viewed as integral rather than optional. Intel introduced Centrino, which is chipset that includes a Pentium M (a new Pentium that doesn’t suck nearly as much as a normal Pentium for mobile applications) and wireless support. There were lots of consumer products with wireless support as well.
  • The show reinforced that DVD burners are becoming a commodity. There are still “dash” and “plus” camps, but although “plus” is the way to go if you have to pick one (given the format’s minor technical advantages and Microsoft’s support), “risk-free” multi-format drives will be available inexpensively from many vendors soon.
  • Finally, the more I consider it, the more I think that Tablet PCs are going to rule the earth. If Apple doesn’t have one of these in the pipeline now, they’re in trouble.

Other than that, gimmicks. PowerBook G4 clones (running Windows, of course), Windows CE for Automotive, the occasional booth featuring hot chicks dancing suggestively in the name of boring technology, etc. It’s a big show and I couldn’t have seen it all, though, so please comment if you were there and saw something interesting.

Interesting milestone for consumer voice-over-IP

I recently read The Innovator’s Dilemma, which is a great book by Clayton M. Christensen about why dominant incumbents rarely continue as anything more than crumb-catchers (if they aren’t forced out of business altogether) once a disruptive technology takes hold.

Voice-over-IP is a disruptive technology. VoIP used to be something that only large businesses could consider, but now it’s trickling down to consumers. VoIP probably means the eventual end of the current leaders in wired telephony, although history suggests that they won’t understand this until it’s too late.

Vonage is the first company that I know of to offer VoIP to consumers — for $40, you get unlimited calls to anywhere in the U.S. and Canada. Recently, they announced that they’d completed 10 million calls for over 15,000 customers over their network.

Now, Earthink is getting into the fray with Vonage as their partner. They’ll be reselling Vonage’s services to their 5 million customers, presumably using VoIP as a carrot for converting their 4+ million (and falling) dialup customers to broadband customers (which currently number just under 800,000).

I’m sure the wired telephony leaders are completely discounting Earthlink’s entry onto their turf, but in ten years they’ll see that this is when it all started to go wrong for them.

AOL's newest plan to get their chat on

Sun and Java. Apple and QuickTime. AOL and instant messaging. It’s a mixed blessing when a company’s most-interesting assets don’t come with a ready-made windfall.

AOL claims that about 40% of Americans from age 14 to 24 use AOL Instant Messenger (a.k.a. “AIM”). They say that 2.3 billion messages a day are sent through their systems — 1.6 billion through AIM and 760 million through ICQ.

Wow. That’s over 25,000 messages a second, folks.

(Speaking of ICQ, AOL acquired them in 1998. You’d think that an ailing company would be careful about redundancy, but nearly five years later ICQ effectively operates as a separate entity with a separate web site, separate servers, and separate client software for several operating systems in several languages. The way that ICQ’s integration into AOL’s business remains half-finished is probably helpful for understanding how well AOL has a handle on costs.)

So, AOL has an amazingly popular service that they can’t possibly be breaking even on with ad revenue. The question investors are asking is, “now what?” AOL’s new senior management (unlike that pesky old senior management?) says that they have an answer.

…it is no surprise that America Online’s new senior management, led by chief executive Jonathan F. Miller, has focused on IM, as it is known, as a powerful tool with the potential to provide the company with the fresh revenue needed to restore growth.

First, AOL will “attack” (the article’s word) the corporate marketplace. As one example of of the attack, AOL will be allowing Hewlett-Packard to devise new IM features to meet the specific needs of individual businesses.

Personally, I’m not sure how long The World will allow AOL to tell them what they can and can’t do with chat. Once technologies become commodities, standards always win. If AOL continues to play chicken with standards rather than drive them (although it’s probably too late for that), they’re going to turn around one day to discover that everyone’s happily chatting without them.

Still seeking contributing editors

Apologies for the erratic posting schedule this week — next week’s should be back to normal. (If you or someone you know is interested in sharing interesting digital media news with a couple thousand folks a day, be sure to ask me about being a PlaybackTime contributing editor.)

When only the very worst Mac software will do

One of the more popular Mac sites is VersionTracker, which tracks the latest versions of most Mac software using a pleasant (albeit personality-free) newest-first list format surrounded with as much advertising as possible. It’s useful, and (like many useful things) boring.

In contrast, the bitchy PerversionTracker much more entertaining.

The highly trained PerversionTracker staff locates the very worst of Mac software. We search the web for 15 minutes a day — so you don’t have to!

How can you not love a review of the horrible-but-strangely-revered Opera brower that starts like this?

Using Opera is like slipping on a comfortable pair of shoes, and then discovering that your formerly comfortable shoes have been surreptitiously filled with broken glass. As you make this realization, a troupe of baboons rounds the corner, baring and snapping their grisly teeth. They howl and begin to chase you. Knowing youÂ’re the only fresh meat for miles, you start running from this horrible Ape Menace, suspecting that you have somehow fallen into the hands of the Global Monkey Conspiracy. As the simian horde draws closer, in your desperate panic to get away, you slide into a steep ravine. As you strike bottom, you awake, in bed. It was all a dream. You are safe, asleep, and your computer has only non-Opera browsers installed.

Answer: You can’t not love it.

"We don't serve your kind here…"

Dive Into Mark, a great blog whose name inevitably conjures slightly disturbing imagery when read the first few times, has a cool article on how Mark used Apache and the mod_rewrite module to stop evil spambots, spybots, and unwanted robots — by definition, those that don’t respect the Robot Exclusion Standard — from stealing his bandwidth, content and email addresses.

Some will say that the Internet is a public place, and if I don’t want something abused, I shouldn’t put it on the Internet. Well, that’s true. It is also true that if I don’t want to get mugged, I shouldn’t leave my house, and if I don’t want calls from telemarketers, I shouldn’t have a phone. But I like leaving my house, I like having a phone, and I like having this web site.

Amazingly, a particularly evil — if not malicious, then programmed by friggin’ idiots — “plagiarism prevention system” called Turnitin hit his site nearly 20,000 times in January, using up over a gigabyte of transfer bandwidth in the process.