Wednesday, February 21, 2007

It's good to be a monopoly

For quite a while now Microsoft has been releasing bug fixes once a month, on the second Tuesday of the month. Techies refer to this as Patch Tuesday.

They used to release bug fixes as needed but that generated too much bad publicity - there were frequent high profile bug fixes. Don't think it's the publicity? Then why were bug fixes renamed "patches" and then renamed again to "updates".

Now the bad guys have learned to use Microsoft's avoidance of bad publicity to their benefit. They start exploiting newly found bugs the day after Patch Tuesday. This way, they get a full month to wreak havoc before Microsoft issues a fix. At least a month, sometimes more. While the cat's away the mice will play.

Let's review:

  • The bad guys exploit bugs for a month
  • Microsoft limits bad publicity to one day a month
Guess who loses in this arrangement?
It's good to be a monopoly.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Walter Mossberg Wrong Again

Walter Mossberg is the computer columnist for the Wall Street Journal and is not qualified for the job. There are many examples of his lack of qualification and today offered another. Someone who wanted to buy a new computer but did not want Vista asked him if it was possible to wipe off Vista and install Windows XP (read column).

The answer is yes and Mr. Mossberg said the answer is yes. But the question assumes that every new computer on the planet is sold with Vista. This is not true now, it won't be true in the near future and I'm fairly sure it won't be true long term.

Consumer machines come with Vista. As Mr. T used to say: I pity the fools. However, computer companies also sell PCs for use in businesses and they can be purchased with Windows XP. I think you are much better buying XP as opposed to Vista, but that's another story (and one where Mr. Mossberg again shows that is unqualified when it comes to computers).

Large corporations won't use Vista for a long time for many reasons. One is that their current machines can't run it but, most importantly, because they employ some qualified computer nerds that know not to depend on a new Operating System for at least a year or at least a service pack. Probably longer. No computer company is going to refuse orders for hundreds of XP based machines from large companies. Thus, you can depend on being able to buy a machine with XP for quite a while.

There is another advantage to computers targeted to businesses; they come with much less "junkware" pre-installed. Despite the tiny font for this sentence, its a big advantage.

I have said this many times: You don't read PC Magazine for Mutual Fund advice and you shouldn't read the Wall Street Journal for computer advice.

February 20, 2007. Mr. Mossberg responds:

As much as you might enjoy the thrill of pointing out alleged errors in newspapers, my answer to the question posed by my reader was 100% correct. In fact, your email (and blog post) said: "The answer is yes and Mr. Mossberg said the answer is yes."

Your email suggests I should have gone beyond answering the question and instead questioned the question itself, which is not what I do in these short Q&As. Plus, you are seriously confused about my role. I write for consumers, and only consumers (people you dismiss with the snide comment: "I pity the fools.") I don't write for IT people or techies (a group to which you say you belong.) So your advice about what businesses and computer nerds do, or should so, is irrelevant.

February 21, 2007. Regarding Mr. Mossberg's comments:

Saying "As much as you might enjoy the trill of pointing out alleged errors..." is making this personal which it never was. Regardless of any pros/cons about the messenger (me) any discussion should be on the facts.

Not that is matters in this regard, but I don't enjoy pointing out errors. They sadden me. My profession is letting people down. I run and the theme there is one of disappointment, not one of anger.

Regarding: "Your email suggests I should have gone beyond answering the question and instead questioned the question itself..." Yes! Absolutely. That's what experts do, they advise people who are not experts, even advising them when they are asking the wrong question. But, in too many respects, Mr. Mossberg is not an expert.

Mr. Mossberg claims to write for consumers. Well, consumers are often better off buying personal computers targeted at businesses. I have always advised my clients to do this to avoid the ton of pre-installed software on consumer machines that gets in the way (at best), slows down the machine, makes the operation more confusing and makes Windows less stable. Someone went so far as to write a utility dedicated to uninstalling the "junkware" from Dell machines, Dell being among the worst in this regard. The fact that buying a business oriented machine lets you get XP instead of Vista just makes this even more important.

Sidenote: There are four regulars (myself included) on the Personal Computer Show on WBAI. Recently a caller needing to upgrade Windows 98 machines asked if he should go with Vista or XP. We all, immediately, said to get Windows XP. The four of us never agree on anything, but this is was a no-brainer. I mention it, in part, because recently Mr. Mossberg advised his readers to wait for Vista and avoid getting Windows XP. Between the four show regulars there is over 100 years of computer experience.

Mr. Mossberg implies that all consumer machines ship with Vista. Most do, but not all. Lenovo sells new desktops with XP (as of yesterday) as does Velocity Micro. HP does too in the outlet section of their web site. But again, focusing on a consumer targeted PC is a mistake in the first place.

My line about "pity the fools" is joke, referring to something Mr. T used to say. Apparently, it didn't come across as intended. I'm a consultant and almost all my clients are consumers. I do indeed feel sorry for consumers who have little or no training with computers and often get bad advice. And documentation in the field is a disgrace. A brutal disgrace. Heck, even billions-in-the-bank Microsoft doesn't ship Windows with a manual.

Not to pick on the Journal or Mr. Mossberg, I'll modify my motto: You don't read PC Magazine for Mutual Fund advice and you shouldn't read any newspaper for computer advice.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

What Makes a Good WebSite?

Think of this as a Buyers Guide to a Good Web Site. Obviously, much of what makes a "good" website is subjective, but the items below are not and are easily measured.

  • Consistent Navigation: All the links, menus, buttons should be in the same place on every page.
  • Printable Pages: All too often web pages are chopped off on the right side when printed. There is no excuse for this. Printer friendly versions of each page can either be maintained separately or reformatting for printing can be enabled for an entire site with an alternate style sheet. Either way, test printing with all the popular web browsers on Windows and on a Mac. In addition, I like to insure that each printed page always displays it's URL (web page address) either at the top or at the bottom. The web browser usually puts it there, but things can go wrong with that.
  • With or without "www": The web site should be usable both with and without the leading three Ws.
  • Page titles: Each page should have a unique title. If you would like people to find the website when searching by location, add the city and state to the titles where appropriate.
  • Liquid Design: The width of a good web page will adjust to fit its container (thus the term liquid). That is, if it's viewed with a resolution of 1024x768, the page will be 1,024 pixels wide. If viewed on a monitor with a resolution of 1280x600, the page will be 1,280 pixels wide. This means less vertical scrolling for the user, a good thing. Not only do narrow sites look silly on wide screens, but they indicate the site designer isn't up to the harder task of the liquid design. The choice of fixed vs. liquid design tells you a lot about the person who designed the web site. If it has a fixed width, get someone else to do your website.
  • Text size: View the website in Internet Explorer. Then, from the menu bar, select View -> Text Size -> Larger. The text on the site should get larger. If not, nag the webmaster to change things so it does. Some people, after all, wear glasses.
  • Adjust to larger text size: If the text does get larger, review a couple pages to insure that various sections of text don't overlay themselves or images. The best test is to use the Internet Explorer "Largest" text size. Also test in Firefox with View -> Text Size -> Increase.
  • Text is text: The use of images of text should be minimal. It is certainly justified for a logo, but probably not in other cases. For one thing, pictures slow down the loading of the website (in two different ways). Also, the text in an image doesn't resize.
  • Statistics: If it's your web site you should be able to easily view stats on its usage.
  • Speed: Pages should load quickly. This means a few things. First, the size and number of images can't be excessive. Defining "excessive" is admittedly a judgment call. Second, if there is a server side database, performance needs to be reviewed. This may mean a dedicated server vs. shared hosting or it may mean changes to the indexes on tables. Finally, the whole world is not yet on broadband, so test page load times on a dial-up connection.
  • Customized Error Pages: The most common error on a web site is a "Page Not Found." A well done site will intercept this error and display a friendly message on a page that looks like all the other pages on the site. A poorly done web site shows a default, ugly error message on a page with no formatting at all. Creating customized error pages is easy, there is no excuse not to have them. One website that deals with Page Not Found errors well is Woot (see example). A site that does not do this well is Trusted Reviews (see example).
  • Feedback: There should be an email address for feedback about the website. Preferably this will be on every page, but at the least, it should be on the Contact Us page.
  • Page Footer: And, speaking of every page, the footer should include the last update date and some contact information.
  • Firefox: Since Firefox is the second most popular web browser, check that web pages display correctly with it. Frequently increasing the font size causes layout problems, but this is fixable. Also, Firefox has an excellent error checker. That is, it logs the errors it encounters when rendering a web page. Some of these errors are important, some are not, but there is no reason for there to be any errors. To use it, Click on Tools -> Error Console. Clear out the old error messages by clicking the "Clear" button at the top (red X). Then load your web pages, one at a time and see what, if any, errors are generated.
  • Adobe Acrobat PDF files: Whenever a link on the site goes to a PDF file rather than a web page, this should be made very obvious to the user before they click on the link. In general a web site is for web pages, not for Adobe Acrobat documents. The use of PDF files should be minimal.
  • JavaScript: A common mistake web developers make is assuming everyone uses JavaScript. In both IE and Firefox try to view the website with JavaScript turned off. It should still function, even if some features don't work. If features of the site absolutely require JavaScript then the site has to check for the presence of JavaScript and when not found, explain this to the user in simple language. (updated May 21, 2007)
  • New Window Links: Sometimes links open new browser windows rather than load the target page in the current browser window. Any such link should clearly indicate that it opens a new window.
  • Directory Browsing: If you go to a valid directory on the website you should never see a list of files. For example, a URL such as should produce either a web page or an error message saying that directory browsing is not allowed. Test all the sub-directories this way and verify with the webmaster that directory browsing is disabled.
  • Screen resolution of 800x600: Webmasters generally use new hardware and software, but there are still people who view the Internet through 800x600 glasses. They should not have to scroll horizontally to see the entire page.
  • Other web browsers. Other operating systems: Lazy web developers only test a website with Internet Explorer on Windows. Maybe they will test with Firefox on Windows. But you're website is going to be viewed on Macintosh and Linux computers with different web browsers. At you can see how your home page looks when viewed with many different browsers on Macs, Windows and Linux. As of May 2007 it's in Alpha testing (which comes before Beta testing) - in other words, don't expect too much from quite yet.
  • Last updated June 21, 2007
If you paid someone to make a website and it does not have the above characteristics, take your business elsewhere.

If you can.

This last point is the most important of all. Every domain is registered in a big master file in the sky. Whoever did the initial registration, in addition to paying the bill, also got to chose who owns the domain. Us nerds call this the "Registrant". If someone built a website for you they may have registered the name and made themselves the Registrant. If so, it's not your domain, even though you may be paying for it. Paying for the web site hosting has nothing to do with the owner of the domain.

The companies that register domains are called "registrars". At the website of any registrar you can look up the "registrant" for a domain. GoDaddy, which advertises during the Super Bowl, is a registrar. One that I like is Directnic makes this query particularly easy, just enter a URL in this format:
Behind The Scenes

These reports are designed for techies, but can still be useful for anyone in evaluating a website.

Go to and get their opinion of your website. Your site should get a green check and the message "We tested this site and didn't find any significant problems." If not, ask the webmaster to make whatever changes are necessary. If your site has not been evaluated by Site Advisor, enter it into their system and check back in a few days.

Go to Google webmaster tools to verify that your site is indexed by Google and to learn the date they last indexed (a.k.a. crawled) your site. (added June 30, 2007)

Go to SiteUpTime to test how fast your website responds to someone in any three cities of the four they offer: New York, Chicago, San Francisco and London. (added December 17, 2007)

A free service for monitoring the availability of your web site is available from BasicState. (added March 10, 2008)

Go to for information on your web site, domain registration and more. This link does an analysis of, simply replace "" with your domain name. (added February 25, 2008)

Go to Exploit Prevent Labs to get their opinion of your website. You can enter your website address at the bottom of their home page, then click on the Scan button. (added June 15, 2007)

At you can get a free DNS server analysis. Simply put, DNS servers are in charge of telling the world everything about your web site and about your domain. For example, they are the final link in the chain for finding a website. The important point here is that configuring a DNS server computer is complicated and this website offers a free report on how well the DNS servers servicing your website are configured. Anything in red is an outright error, anything in yellow is a warning. Talk to your webmaster about fixing anything in red in this report. (added March 29, 2007)
Posting viewed: times since June 1, 2007

Friday, February 9, 2007

Office 2007 Gripes

These Office 2007 gripes were added to my site today.

As a starting point, I used this article by Paul Boutin in Slate: Microsoft's Office 2007, the most annoying computer upgrade since Windows 95 (January 30, 2007). Cruel words from someone who, in general is pro-Microsoft.

  • Mr. Boutin argues that Office is Microsoft's real monopoly, not Windows and offers pricing as proof. The cheapest upgrade to Vista is $100, the cheapest upgrade to Office is $150, but that's without Outlook, which adds another $100 to the price. Ouch.
  • Quoting: "Upgrading to Vista is mostly painless but not necessary, while upgrading to Office 2007 is painful but inevitable."
  • Quoting: "Office 2007 ... seems to go out of its way to make your transition as difficult as possible. By default, the Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files you create won't open for people who have older versions of the software." Needless to say, Microsoft has free software to let you deal with files created in Office 2007 even if you don't have Office 2007 installed. But, there is no Mac version.
  • This is my favorite point in the article. Quoting: "My home office has two computers, a Mac with Office 2004 and a PC running Office 97. I've never needed to upgrade for work." Even techies see no reason to use the latest versions of Office. Mr. Boutin still uses the brutally old Office 97, I use Office 2000 and I've been told by the computer reporter for a major newspaper that he too still uses Office 97. Non techies take note.
  • Quoting again "First reaction: They changed everything! Office 2007 deletes the old toolbars and menus at the top of the screen and replaces them with the Ribbon, an overlapping set of tabs that regroups each application's functions". Every article I've seen on Office 2007 has gripes about the new user interface and the hubris of Microsoft in not offering a fallback to the older familiar interface.
In summary, Office 2007 is expensive, hard to learn because of major user interface changes and less compatible with the rest of the world that has standardized on the file formats used by the last few versions of Office.

For argument sake, assume that the new file formats are an improvement and the new user interface will eventually make you more productive after spending the time and effort to learn it. Even then, Office 2007 is analogous to new keyboard layouts. The current layout of keys on a keyboard and typewriter date from ancient times and are inefficient. So what? We all use it, we're used to it and the world has much invested in it. It's a standard. Even "better" layouts have no chance of getting adopted. This is what should happen to Office 2007 also. My guess is that sooner or later Microsoft will release a patch for Office 2007 that lets people switch to the "classic" interface. Think clippy.

If your judgment is so poor as to actually purchase Office 2007, keep it to yourself. It's a step below tatoos.
FYI: You can see Office 2007 for yourself with a test drive that runs inside a web browser.
FYI: Microsoft created free training videos for Office 2007 and 2003.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Online radio stations

RadioAs the old commercial used to say "Try it, you'll like it." Clear Channel makes HD Digital Radio stations available from all over the country. While not completely interruption free, there are no commercials and just a few station promos. Highly recommended.