Thursday, 31 July 2008

The "Mojave" Experiment and my own Vista Experience


Earlier today I whinged on Twitter that I was fed up of Microsoft shills using a Microsoft marketing exercise called "The Mojave Experiment" to clog up far too many blog RSS feeds with enthusiastic declarations of how this "proves" that Vista is a much better operating system than the media in general are claiming it to be.

The story behind this "experiment" (marketing stunt) is that XP users have been lured into Microsoft to ostensibly be shown the NEXT version of Windows on camera. The pitch is that they are suitably impressed by some whizz-bang features and then find out – surprise! – they’ve been shown NOT the next Windows product after all, but instead plain old Vista – the stale, critically derided mess of an operating system that’s been around for 18 months and still generates a lot of dislike, thus proving all the negativity around the operating system is wrong. Who’d have thought?!

It’s a neat bit of marketing according to some, albeit with an impact that’s somewhat lessened by the fact the participants appear to be more excited about being on camera and the possibility of being shown something not yet released than in the Vista "features" we've been told they were wowed by.

But, coming, as it did, on the back of a newspaper story last week claiming that we are all lemmings who’ve bought into the negative press around Vista when it isn’t born out by fact - and which caused a similar deluge of "hah!" postings clogging up my MSDN RSS feeds from the more "enthusiastic" (read "ambitious and brown-nosing") Microsoft employees - it was the straw that broke the camel’s back when it comes to tolerance of shills! Especially when so many of these enthusiasts are so vocal about minor shortcomings of the Apple iPhone! (Mr Huge Pot, meet this tiny Kettle. It's black!)

In case anyone’s in any doubt, let me be clear here: my opinions of Vista are based solely on my experience with the O.S. NOT what the media or anybody else for that matter is saying. To keep telling me otherwise, or to state that I’ve been brainwashed by the media, is just plain insulting and smacks of the sort of arrogance that almost killed IBM back in the day.

So here, by way of counter-experience, is what I can recall of my Vista experience to date. To misquote Bette Davis: "Fasten your seat belts. We're in for a (long and) bumpy ride"


I think Vista is a mess of an operating system. It reeks of something that's been rushed-to-market far too early, presumably so that Jim Allchin could retire as quickly as possible before the proverbial stuff hit the fan. Actually given the number of years spent de-scoping everything that had been initially promised maybe "rushed" is a rather ridiculous word to use! To me it's a Frankenstein’s monster of an operating system that had promised so much, only to deliver so little, and one which has invariably and consistently turned previously reliable hardware into a malfunctioning mess of non-working peripherals or dreaded blue screens of death.

It's an operating system with an inconsistent and incoherent look and feel, a user interface that just hasn’t been thought through when it comes to presenting the user with any kind of intuitive consistency, and an operating system with some serious performance issues to boot.

To me, it demonstrates the complete "lack of joined up thinking" that seems, alas, to be the norm at Microsoft these days, whether we’re talking developer/designer vision tools for the enterprise that don’t include any kind of source control support and require endless XAML hacking to do anything real world, ridiculous claims about Silverlight vs Flash (sorry Jessie Liberty, I love what you're doing for Silverlight but the ONLY argument that matters right now is that Flash is on 98% of target devices and the Silverlight beta isn’t!) or it seems, pretty much anything else that’s coming out of Redmond these days (Don't even get me started on the whole Microsoft 'let's spoil Apple's launch' Mesh nonsense - reminds me of the WPF/E announcement at PDC 2005 when it quickly became clear that there was maybe one person working on it after somebody had the idea the week before :-P)

And all this despite the lessons that should have been learnt from the whole Trust Computing initiative that finally gave us a very solid and reliable OS in the form of XP SP2.


My early hate affair with Vista started during the beta. Over on Channel 9 seemingly rabid fan boys gushed about an operating system that was clearly broken, despite the fact that three completely different PCs of mine all had different problems in getting even the basic functionality they had under XP to work. This, apparently, was because "It’s a beta, stupid!" or "Those PCs don’t have enough horse-power even if they fly under XP" or "Of course it doesn’t support third party hardware out of the box. That’s not Microsoft’s problem". I was a lone voice expressing alarm that very close to RTM the operating system looked like a train wreck compared with previous operating systems.

So after being told it was just me, that I was being too negative, that everybody loved Vista, I waited. And when Vista finally went RTM I ignored that "old under-powered" hardware and bought a top-of-the-range Dell laptop with Vista Ultimate pre-installed. This was not a cheap laptop, costing close to 4 grand all-in-all.

Vista Ultimate, by the way, is the version of Vista that cost more than other versions of the operating system because it was going to get a lot of extra goodies that weren’t there in the other versions, albeit goodies that would be shipped out over time rather than available at original purchase. I’m still waiting for those goodies 18 months on, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves and accuse Microsoft of "complete lack of truth in advertising" when it comes to Vista marketing!


The real problems started just a week or so after receiving my new laptop. A package of Vista "automatic updates" was shipped down to my PC. But one of the updates "failed" with little other than one of those obscure HREF errors to go on as the likely cause. Vista's new "more robust" error diagnosis and reporting system did show me two or three possible solutions: these were for completely different HREF errors which appeared to have no bearing at all on the problem at hand.

The trouble was every time I rebooted the laptop it tried to apply the patch again. And failed again! And again! And again! And… well you get the drift. It got to the point where I just avoided ever rebooting the wretched laptop just to avoid the wasted retries and error failures.

Jeff Sandquist on Channel 9 kindly offered to try and get support for the issue. I don’t know whether he forgot or just couldn’t find anyone interested, but the problem stayed with me for a year until Vista Service Pack 1 finally came out and, thankfully, sorted the problem out for me. Hoorah! Maybe Vista Service Pack 1, a year in the making, was going to be the saviour of Vista after all. If only!


About a week after using my laptop I got my first blue screen of death, with several others quickly following it. These came as a bit of a shock as I'd seen them occasionally in my NT4 days, but never once on any of my other PCs running Windows XP or Windows 2000 or Windows 2003. In a good month I get just one or two blue screens a month on Vista, other times 2 or 3 a week, and on some rare, but invariabley important, occasions 2 or 3 in a day!

80% of the time Vista would diagnose the problem for me: "It’s your keyboard driver. You need to purchase a new driver from BITS" it would say. So I’d click on the link it would give me and find myself at a site selling their own brand of "BITS keyboards" (no sign of drivers for purchase, as promised). The trouble is my keyboard is a Microsoft Natural keyboard, connected to the Dell through a simple Belkin KVM switch. There's no sign of any of the hardware displayed for sale on the link Vista has sent me scurrying off to for a fix.

Maybe the KVM switch is the cause of the problem, but the last time I looked it didn’t have a driver,and certainly didn’t come from a company called BITS.

18 months on I’m still getting regular blue screens. Sod's Law says it will happen about 7 hours into a long 8 hour HD video render (where I’ve deliberately just left the machine alone to avoid triggering any kind of problem), or when I’ve just typed a long reply into, only to find the whole lot gets lost because I didn’t save it elsewhere first. It's much safer to use one of my much cheaper PCs with XP for anything crucial.


The other 20% of the time the blue screen of deaths occur the finger points at the driver for the on-board Nvidea graphics card. I’ve updated this when prompted that there's a newer version available, but to no real benefit. I can’t blame Vista for that though can I? After all there are what – TWO major graphics card makers in the world - and expecting an O.S. to just work reliably with one of their products some 18 months on is kind of unrealistic isn’t it?


OK, let’s move away from possible hardware/driver issues and look at the software, starting with something really basic: the Vista trash can.

When it’s empty it says it’s full. When it has files in it says it’s empty. Sure I can click on the desktop and press F5 to force it to "tell me the truth" but why should I have to do that every time I want to find out what the real state of affairs is?

According to a Google search this problem is caused because the stupid right-mouse context menu allows you to delete the trash can and once you've done that you're screwed. I confess I did this - accidentally at one point because the machine response was so sluggish the “delete” option got actioned when the “empty” option was the one I had visually selected with the mouse. It was relatively easy to get the "deleted" trash can back with a tray command but since it was restored it's been worse than useless. Quality!


The problems with Vista's 'File Copy' functionality (taking hours to do what should take minutes) have been fully documented on numerous occasions elsewhere. Suffice to say that even though Service Pack 1 is supposed to have fixed this pretty major problem file copying on my highly specced Vista system is still slower than my much lower-specced XP PC's. File copying is slow on Vista.


Then there’s Windows Explorer - a pretty intrinsic part of the operating system I hope you’ll agree. If I had a penny for every time I saw the dialog "Windows Explorer has stopped responding" for no good reason I’d be a rich man by now! Fair enough it seems to auto-restart itself with no apparent ill-effects fairly quickly but what the heck causes it to "stop responding" to the extent it decides to shut down? Don't take my word for it - google it and find how many others are suffering with this wretched problem.

How about Internet Explorer? I open it with six tabs pre-populated via the Home URL option. More often than not if I'm stupid enough to close down Internet Explorer with all the tabs open it displays an error that tells me it is restarting and then slowly shuts itself down, restarts and slowly reloads all the wretched tabs again. If I just close a couple of the tabs first it will close down without mishap, but why should I have to? XP has no problems with this. Maybe it’s a memory issue because after all I’ve only got 4GB memory on my laptop!


Then there’s Security Centre and Windows Defender with LiveCare as my virus protection software (I’ve learnt my lesson with Norton – the spawn of the devil!). Once in a while the task bar will show a red alert after a reboot. Often I've opened email or started surfing before I've noticed that I'm open and vulnerable to attack for no good reason. Windows Security console will tell me it's because I’ve "turned off Windows update" (no, I haven't. I really haven't) or I "don’t have virus protection turned on" Errm yes I do. Or rather did before I did a restart.

I use Windows LiveCare and if I get the red warning I turn it and Defender and updates back on if I’m lucky. But a few days and reboots later they'll suddenly have decided to turn themselves off again. How many times do you need to turn something on?

Worse, on a couple of occasions I’ve found I CAN’T turn anything on. LiveCare tells me via the Windows panel that my subscription runs out in 2009 but clicking on the "turn on virus protection" button does absolutely nothing no matter how many times it’s clicked. Not so much as an "Can't do that because..." by way of explanation. Until I do a reboot when it will (so far, touch wood!) magically turn itself back on again – at least for a few more reboots before getting back into the same "No I’m not doing that" pattern.


How about Camtasia Studio? It's the Ford Motor Car of screencasting software. Under XP I can reliably record audio direct from the sound chip on my PC’s mother board. Under Vista? Nada. This is explained in Camtasia Studio in Depth as a problem down to Vista and poor driver support. Oh well, I guess I could plug a microphone near my PC speaker outlet instead – that’s a real quality multimedia experience!

What about the Media Centre? Ah yes. I turn on my Xbox and Vista helpfully tells me it’s found a media extender and do I want to hook it up? Sure! 'Just get the meaningless random number that will appear on your Xbox display screen in another room and we’ll play' it says. So I traipse through to the lounge, dutifully transcribe a meaningless set of numbers, return to Vista where it says 'Ah I can’t find that guy'. Excuuuse me? If you can’t find it why did you tell me it was there!


Vista's user interface: Can we talk about the UI? The great Vista innovation where so many other promised features got axed? I've got a big hi-res screen. I want nice big res-free icons. What I get instead is a mess of inconsistencies in size and look and feel all over my desktop. Would Apple ever launch something like this? Of course not. Microsoft will, of course, respond that they can’t be responsible for what application vendors do. But Microsoft itself is more often than not the main culprit when it comes to application icons that can't be made to appear as more than a miniscule set of imperceptible dots. There’s that complete lack of "joined up thinking" I was talking about earlier. Try leading by example once in a while Microsoft and then maybe others might follow?! If Microsoft can’t be bothered to prep mainsteam apps like Virtual PC with the right resizable icons why should anyone else?


Enough of my problems. There's a lot more to say, but this entry is already too long. Maybe I’ve just been unlucky with my hardware/software choices, or maybe I’m just a miserable old grump who’d never be satisified? Yeah, right!

XP is hard to buy pre-installed with many vendors and Vista has been on the market for 18 months. I want a reliable machine to edit video on. Is this too much to ask for? The “nearly 4 grand laptop” I bought just over a year ago isn’t up to the job – mainly because of all those Vista crashes.

Luckily I have big fat, expensive, colour catalogues full of turnkey solutions costing several thousand pounds from big vendors like Planet PC, CVC and Mittcorp.

But here’s the odd thing: not one of them offers a Vista solution 18 months after the operating system shipped. The ONLY PC solutions available are XP-based, despite the fact the main software packages that are being sold here (Adobe Premiere CS3, Avid etc) have been selling as "Vista compatible" versions for some time now. I wonder why that might be, given that it’s apparently only me and some negative media types apparently having problems with Vista?!!


Assuming, just for one second, we pretend video editing really is a niche application where Microsoft are concerned (and if it is, why didn't someone tell the Vista marketing folks who are constantly selling the multimedia and video advantages of Vista over XP), what about disk drives? And in particular solid state drives which have been edging into the market recently with the potential for big improvements in battery life, performance and reliability?

The CEO of SanDisk – hardly an insignificant player in the PC market - unequivocally blames Vista, and Vista alone, for the fact his company can’t get their SSD products to perform. You can read about that here

But heh, that’s just negativity caused by the media, right? Vista rocks. It’s been given an unfair ride! Or so Microsoft keep trying to tell us.

At a time when Microsoft should just "come clean" about the mess that is Vista it’s going in completely the wrong direction. Any problems are all imagined apparently, and the results of the media brainwashing us.

Given my experiences above, I hope you'll understand why my reaction whenever this theory is put forward is to point out that 'No. The emperor - or Vista this time around - really has got no clothes on'.

Saturday, 26 July 2008

July Update: Upcoming Events and Video Links

I really do need to update this blog more frequently! Alas, my lifestyle is such that currently Twitter is serving as my main work-related blog (as well as a more limited personal one) albeit with each entry limited to 140 characters maximum length. Actually, being limited word-wise is probably a VERY GOOD thing in my case ;-)).

Anyway, here's a few diary updates...


I missed the first ALT.NET conference (which I was supposed to be videoing - doh!) but managed to get onto the second one which 'sold out' (it's free!) pretty quickly. I haven't totally bought into ALT.NET yet - I think there are too many scenario's where the traditional ALT.NET tools and approaches are just too complicated and 'abstract' for the average developer. And at times too many of its advocates seem obsessed with the latest fad regardless of any kind of cost/benefit analysis that favours the traditional 'MSDN.NET' approach :-P So it'll be interesting to see if I'm 'converted' after the conference. Don't get me wrong about development - I love Agile, especially when it's done right. But (maybe I've been unlucky) too often it's NOT done right, and often used as an excuse to avoid doing things that should be done. So I'm very much looking forward to this, even with the completely ad-hoc agenda, which is making me nervous about how the hell I get good video from such an ad-hoc format. Filmed user group presentations without the original slide decks can make for very dull video (a bit like filming theatre). Impromptu discussions and white board debates could be even worse (and sound recording is a nightmare as the video of audience questions at the first Silverlight User Group proved). I'll find out soon!


In September I'm also going to be attending the Microsoft's Remix 08 event in Brighton just a few days before the NxtGen talk. There's a vague possibility I'll be doing video at the event - not sure yet, and rather apprehensive about even offering given the nightmare experience at MIX08 in Las Vegas earlier this year!


I'm giving a talk of the session I'd offered for the next Developer! Developer! Developer! Day event, "Internet Killed the Video Star" at the NxtGen user group meeting in Coventry on Monday, 22nd September. I suspect the developer day talk won't happen as there's a lot of good stuff on offer and my suggested session has little to do with development per se, being all about video and prepping material for the web with the only real technical content being about codecs, transcoding and the like. So it's good to have the chance, at NxtGen, to summarise the vast amount of information I seem to have accumulated rather painfully over the last 7 months, and hopefully we'll have a bit of fun at the same time (just to be clear: this is NOT going to be a session where I whizz around Visual Studio while everyone squints at the back wondering what I'm doing, although I will be having quick dips into Sorenson Squeeze, Microsoft Expression Encoder and TechSmith's Camtasia Studio during the talk).


I've been filming the talks at the Vista Squad user group. I guess this is kind of ironic given how terrible I think Vista is (There's a reason why not one professional Windows video turnkey provider will offer Vista as an option more than a year after its launch, and as an aside Vista just blue-screened again on this Vista pre-installed top-of-the-range laptop from Dell half way through this blog entry) But the folks behind Vista Squad are really friendly and there have been some excellent developer talks, which really relate to .NET development in general and also Microsoft Server I.T. rather than just Vista, contradictory to what the name might imply.

I'm not convinced these user group video's work as web-based video per se (lots more on this - and what DOES work - in my NxtGen talk), but they're a conveniant record of the event for those who want to recall forgotten bits or just missed a meeting they were interested in.

I've had a LOT of problems with Vimeo who seem to change their methods of encoding/transcoding HD video on an almost daily (if not hourly) basis. Video's frequently fail to upload/transcode then magically work a few days later. Or they appear for a few days then mysteriously disappear. Support is lacklustre to say the least, which is in complete contrast to ExposureRoom who will be my hosting company/community of choice when I launch the couple of projects I seem to have been 'prepping' forever finally launch later this year.


Those waiting to see the recent excellent Vista Squad talk by Mike Taulty on LINQ to XML should hopefully see it appear on the main Vista Squad site soon, although there were problems uploading the source that Vista Squad repost so there may be a delay. In the meantime, if you don't want to wait, you can view it here. Apologies (especially to Mike) for the dreadful thumbnail (ExposureRoom's 'Change Thumbnail' option seems to be broken - I'm chasing it up with them) and the poor focus/white balance for the first few minutes of Mike's talk. Things improve later and Mike manages to condense a really useful primer about LINQ to XML in the hour that the video runs for.


The second meeting of the Silverlight User Group UK will be taking place on the 14th August, and I'll be attempting to video the talks at that event too. The first meeting of the user group was excellent, with really good talks throughout (I think it helps a lot to have input from a large number of former Flash developers in the audience and helps newbies like myself get to hear about the negative stuff that Microsoft seem to forget to tell you about). You can see the video's from the last user group meeting on the organiser's blog here.


Alas, all the video hosters seem to be struggling at the bleeding edge of trying to catch community early when the technology (especially for anything which runs for more than a minute or two, or which is in an HD format) is still extremely flakey. Support for my beloved iPhone (which supports H.264 but not Flash) is almost non-existent, unless you count YouTube who have severe limits on format, length and size of compressed files that make it impractical for user group recordings (quite aside from the fact that on the iPhone you're watching video that has first been compressed/transcoded to the Flash format and then re-transcoded to H.264!) Apparently Vimeo are 'working on it' when it comes to iPhone video hosting but I've been told not to expect anything 'soon', which is just as well as the turnaround time on failures for the current offerings on sites like Vimeo seems to be in the order of weeks rather than the hours it should be. It's painful being on the bleeding edge!