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Bill Bennett


Tag: Microsoft

Microsoft grew big on the back of Windows, its PC operating system and Office, the software people and businesses use to create written documents, crunch numbers and build presentations. Now the company is moving into hardware devices and cloud computing. For a while it looked as if Microsoft was losing relevance, but that seems to be changing.

Norton Internet Security Windows 7 update

Norton Internet Security has been my main PC protection in recent years. I have a few criticisms, but it has done a good job guarding my desktop, laptop and family laptops. The computers run Windows XP and Vista.

One problem is PC performance drops a few percent while the program is running – which is all the time. A small performance hit doesn’t matter when surfing the web or using Microsoft Word. It is noticeable when there’s heavy-duty video, audio or Photoshop processing.

Earlier this year I switched from Microsoft Windows Vista to Windows 7 RC. The new operating system performs better than Vista. It appears stable enough to for everyday use. It is everything Windows Vista was not, but it doesn’t work with some popular anti-virus packages.

Beta problems with Norton

Symantec Norton Internet Security didn’t work with Windows 7. So I tried a beta version of an updated version for the new operating system.

I promptly ran into problems with the beta version of Symantec Norton Internet Security 2010. There are great features, but the performance overhead is huge.

It’s flaky around the edges. Of course, the software is beta and Symantec made no promises about performance. But the system crashed two or three times a day.

There were also installation problems. Sadly this isn’t a one-off pain, the software repeatedly timed out. Each time this happens you need to download and install a new version. There were times – many times when the older version timed out before a new build was ready and the PC was left vulnerable for days at a time.

The beta appears to be the only version of Norton Internet Security that runs properly on Windows 7, so I needed to find an alternative security package. For details see: Alternatives to Norton Internet Security

Firefox eating Internet Explorer’s lunch in New Zealand

A press release from Nielsen (not online at the time of writing) says Mozilla Firefox is winning New Zealand users from Microsoft’s Internet Explorer.

It is, but Microsoft’s browser still accounts for a 60 percent market share. According to Nielsen, Internet Explorer dropped from 72 percent to 60 percent between July 2006 and July 2009. Over the same period Firefox climbed from 11 percent to 20 percent. The remaining market share goes to rats and mice – with Google’s Chrome picking up just 3.2 percent of the market.

At the current rate, it’ll be at least two more years before Microsoft’s market share drops below 50 percent – and longer again before Firefox goes past Internet Explorer.

Nielsen’s press release doesn’t explain what it means by market share. The company manages a net measuring business where it tracks traffic to a number of commercial websites. The traffic information includes browser data, so we can assume Nielsen  adds up each browser’s share of the total traffic to these sites. Because Nielsen’s clients are among New Zealand’s busiest sites, it is a reasonable measure of total share.

What Nielsen doesn’t measure is the way many users, myself included, switch between browsers for different jobs. I’d also like to see data on which versions of the various browsers are used.

There’s also no mention of mobile browsers – which may still be a freak show – but are likely to grab market share quickly now New Zealand has two reasonable mobile data networks.

Microsoft Internet Explorer 8: the good the bad and the ugly

Until version 8 Microsoft Internet Explorer has been a necessity not a browser of choice. Explorer is a necessity because a limited number of sites and online services, including a number from Microsoft, are optimised or in some cases restricted to Explorer.

For the past four years Mozilla Firefox has consistently performed better than Internet Explorer. It was always faster and less bloated. Add-ons give Firefox a flexibility older versions of Internet Explorer simply could not match. And, while Microsoft’s browsers were better integrated with Windows and certain key desktop applications, Firefox was still able to deliver a better all round user experience.

In practice I’ve needed to run the two browsers alongside each other. Explorer has always played second fiddle. Can the upgrade to IE8 change that?

What’s good about Internet Explorer 8?

IE8 is fast

IE8 loads pages considerably faster than Firefox 3.0.8. One heavy-duty Web 2.0 page I frequent is ready in around 28 seconds with IE8. The same page takes 52 seconds with Firefox. The difference isn’t always as pronounced, however I did the anal retentive thing and timed a number of pages to discover they all loaded faster with IE8.

Once Firefox loads into memory, it can restart in seconds. But the first load in a session can run to as long as five minutes. That’s just plain awful. In many cases Firefox takes so long to fire up, I wonder if it is loading at all. I often find my self opening two or more instances. IE8 always fires up in seconds. However, there’s a down side to this as we shall see later.

Fabulous developer tools

Developer tools are geeky, but among the best improvements in IE8. Hit F12 and you can view a page’s source code and CSS. This is great for fixing up problems with your own pages. To get similar features in Firefox you need to install the Firebug extension.

Internet Explorer 8 is cleaner than earlier versions

Explorer is now web-standard compliant, has a tidy user interface and most of the time renders pages beautifully with crisp text.

I also like:

  • Colour-coded tabs Open a new tab and its colour will match that of the parent page.
  • Tab grouping Tabs are grouped with their parent tab.
  • Smart address bar Similar to the Firefox’s new address bar, it remembers where you’ve been and your most visited sites.
  • Useful new tabs Open a new tab and you get links to the sites you’re most likely to want to visit.
  • Tab view A quick tab feature allows you to see thumbnails of all open tabs.
  • RSS Internet Explorer does a better job of handling feeds than Firefox.
  • Search bar Sure Firefox has the same feature, but I like the way the IE8 search bar works and I especially like the way it can be used to search the current page as well as the entire Internet.
  • Smooth integration Microsoft gets nervous when people talk about the way its products integrate, but IE8 works smoothly with Windows and Office.  The software also downloads and installs without a hitch.
  • Security See the anti-phishing feature kick in for the first time is impressive.

Bad things about Internet Explorer 8

Within hours of installing and running Microsoft Internet Explorer 8 on my Windows Vista Ultimate system I quickly discovered some negatives. Let’s look at them one by one:

1. Key features simply don’t work or are erratic

There are two pre-installed items on the favorites bar: Suggested Sites and Get More Add-ons. Neither of them work. Clicking either opens a windows that says “Internet Explorer cannot display the webpage” and there’s a button labeled Diagnose Connection Problems. This doesn’t happen all the time, just most of the time.

Some basic things simply don’t work at all on some sites. For example I tried joining Chi.mp using IE8, but the Captcha feature didn’t show up making it impossible to use. I had to switch to Firefox to enroll.

While we’re on the subject, Microsoft hasn’t bothered to localize spellings. Outside of North America the word is favourite, not favorite.

2. Crashing

After one month of use I experienced three major Internet Explorer 8 crashes. In each case I’ve had to reboot the machine and lost work because of the crashes. I’m not certain what causes the problems, but there’s something weird happening. I’m running IE8 on a Windows Vista Ultimate system with 2GB of Ram. Firefox has its problems, but it never crashes in such a spectacular and worrying fashion. I’ve also experienced a number of less serious crashes which can be fixed by closing and reopening IE8. Frankly this instability is the biggest barrier to my switching from Firefox to Internet Explorer. Presumably Microsoft will fix up the bugs over the coming weeks, but this does not fill me with confidence.

3. A lot of pages look strange

Internet Explorer 8 may be standards compliant, but it won’t display all the pages you throw at it. Ironically the biggest problem come when you view a page designed for IE7 or IE6. There’s a compatibility button in the address bar to ‘fix’ odd-looking pages by reverting the browser to IE7 mode. Nevertheless some pages still struggle. And curiously the button doesn’t always appear when you need it.

There are other anomalies. For example, if I visit the dashboard at WordPress.com, IE 8 frequently struggles to display the stats graph, even though it shows up perfectly well in Firefox.

4. Unable to automatically reload settings on start-up

One Firefox feature I love is the way it opens up with all the tabs exactly as they were left when you closed down. IE8 doesn’t do this. Apparently it was designed this way.

5. Active X is still a pain in the bum

Sorry Microsoft, I know Active X is your baby, but there’s a good reason everyone whinges about it. Here’s a simple explanation of why it is so awful for non-technical readers.

6. Spell-checking missing in action

Yes I know I’m supposed to be a professional writer and I shouldn’t need a spell checker. Generally I don’t. A spell checker is a way of a avoiding red faces.

And the ugly?

Despite the headline, there’s nothing ugly. I claim poetic licence. Internet Explorer 8 is a good all-round browser. It will meet most people’s needs most of the time. It comes close to meeting mine. I’m certain the majority of users will happily browse away using IE8 without giving the technology a second thought.

However, Internet Explorer’s shortcomings mean, at least until the next iteration or service pack arrives IE8 remains on my machine by necessity for those IE only sites rather than because it is the best browser. If it was more reliable, this decision could change. This is a pity because there is much to love about IE8 – and that’s not something I would ever have said about IE7.

Wanted: a distraction free Microsoft Word 2007

Word 2007 is distracting. There are plenty of low distraction writing tools out there. I’ve used Q10 and Darkroom on my PC. Both are good. I’m told Mac users have something called Bean. I can’t comment, I’ve not had a Mac in five years. And there are web-based alternatives.

I’d like to see is Microsoft Word 2007 tweaked for distraction-free writing. Like it not, Word is the industry standard. As a professional writer, I’m usually expected to turn in copy as Word files. I’m sometimes expected to use Word’s abysmal review and comparison features (don’t get me started).

My problem with Word is that it is massively overpowered for everyday writing. And overpowering to look at.

So what is required?

Get rid of those ribbon bars, the menu bar and the never-required left-right scroll bar. In fact get rid of almost everything. Default to the draft view with standard fonts and a handful of standard styles. Allow for all the Word keyboard commands. Can you see where I’m coming from here?

Whisper this, Microsoft’s Live Writer is almost what I’m after. At least it would be without the screen clutter. I’m writing this with Live Writer now and it’s functionally all I need.

Desktop Linux fades

At the end of the 1990s, Linux looked like it could challenge Microsoft Windows as an alternative for everyday PC users. Linux has come a long way since then. And Microsoft scored an own goal with the confusing, incomplete and often annoying Windows Vista.

Yet desktop Linux failed to break out beyond a hard-core following of geeky devotees. Windows now faces bigger threats than Linux.

Meanwhile, Linux struggles to gain traction.

When desktop Linux was news

A decade ago I wrote for Australian Linux Today. At its peak, my posts would be read by tens of thousands and attract hundreds of comments. Being slashdotted was addictive.

Apart from the odd loon, most discussion was informed and intelligent. Internet.com couldn’t make Linux Today pay, at least not in Australia. The parent Linux Today site lives on under the Jupitermedia banner.

The problem with a free operating system

The demise of the Australian Linux Today site was part of the broader problem with Linux and its inability to reach a wider audience. We had bankable traffic, but nobody in the Linux business bought advertising.

That’s because nobody in the Linux business has a marketing budget. That’s because hardly anyone in the Linux business makes money. Which in turn is down to the fact that Linux is given away.

This meant there was no profit to support the kind of thriving media community that follows Microsoft Windows.

There’s not much today either. More to the point, there’s not even the money to fund the kind of activity that underpins planet Google, mobile computing and the world of Web 2.0 websites-cum-services-cum-applications that now threaten to outflank Windows.

Irony of desktop Linux economics

Ironically, Linux or something similar, underpins most Microsoft challengers. And Vista’s annoyances aside the threat of desktop Linux and open source did much to prod Microsoft into improving its act. Today the company and its products are massively improved.

Today’s Linux distributions are excellent. There’s not much in Vista that the latest version of Ubuntu, 8.10 fails to offer. Kubuntu is possibly better. Fedora is less consumer-friendly, nevertheless a plausible option.

Companies and people freely give their own time and energy to open source projects. That’s great. Long may that continue.

Linux users work at the frontier and continue to pioneer new ideas and technologies that will permeate into the mainstream. But I can’t see Linux ever climbing out of its geeky gravity well and being mainstream. That day has passed.

Linux may find its way under the bonnet (hood if you’re American) of mainstream technologies, it will never be the face of day-to-day computing.