Posted by Shawn Oster on 10/31/2007 4:07 PM | Comments

Ever since I reinstalled my home PC with Vista a few months back I've been trying a little experiment of running it without Microsoft Office.  I've heard some great things about Google Docs and since I almost never actually use Word or Excel, seeing as most of my life is spent inside of either Delphi, Visual Studio or E, I figured I'd save myself the price of an upgrade to Office 2007.

For the most part it's been fine, not great, not earth-shattering but workable and I've never had reason to complain until this weekend when my wife innocently asked me to print some quiz questions for a baby shower she was hosting.  No problem, jump into Google Docs and type the questions and since my wife had put so much effort into making everything look polished I figured I'd do the same with the quiz. 

The first head of Cerberus rears it's ugly mug with a slobber covered dog tag saying "Fonts".  There are literally thousands of amazing fonts, created by true craftsmen, all designed to convey a certain feel to the printed word and I have access to none of them.  Typographers out there, you must hate Google Docs with a passion.  I always knew this was an issue in the back of my mind but running into it when you need it most goes beyond annoying.

Second issue that smacked me around was the the amazing suck of printing.  Print preview is a true joke in Google Docs, it gives you no sense of how your text will look on the printed page thus making it impossible for me to see if my ten questions were nicely centered in the middle of the page.  When I finally did print I laughed at how professional documents look when the bottom of the page has a url splashed across it.  That is sarcasm for those that don't know.  What I get from the whole printing aspect of Google Docs is that you shouldn't.  If you ever need to actually print something, which those crazy space monkeys at Google must never do, then Google Docs is definitely not for you. 

The third issue with Google Docs actually came tonight when a client sent me an Excel document that I needed to deal with and I clicked on the handy link inside of GMail that says, "Open as a Google Spreadsheet", only to be greeted with nothing.  By nothing I mean a blank white pristine white sucking rectangle of space, that when I squint and read between the lines says, "Don't Use Google Docs".  I tried it in IE7, I tried it in Firefox, I tried clearing my cache, I logged out and back in.  Nothing.  I need to deal with this document now, not when Google decides to fix the issue.

All of this combined means I'll probably pony up the cash to get Office 2007 but more importantly I'm now just a little more informed about Google Docs and it's limitations and uses.  I did manage to live without Word or Excel for quite a few months with never running into any issues but if you don't use something often you probably won't hit many roadblocks.  In Google Docs current state it's great as a temporary fix but like any temporary solution it will fail at some point and probably when you need it the most.  Of course if you don't care about typography, layout, printing or reliability then Google Docs is great.

Posted by Shawn Oster on 10/17/2007 5:55 PM | Comments

Recently my wife has been struggling with a web developer and he epitomizes a type that you find in specialized areas;  someone that looks down upon and punishes those that aren't also in the field.

A classic example of this is the music critic.  They'll lambaste whatever popular music comes down the pipe while heaping accolades upon bands that you can barely understand, lauding praise upon the intricate chord progressions or the unique way the guitarist bent the notes on the third change, hailing it as the album of the year and declaring the lack of it's appreciation as more proof of our general decline into mediocrity.

In software development this manifests itself as web sites that look horrible in Internet Explorer and have a snide comment along the lines of "Get a Real Browser, download FireFox now to see how this page really looks" or ugly e-mails with a top link saying, "If you're using GMail/Outlook/Insert Hated E-Mail Program Here then click here to see a better version or use a real e-mail program."   Another even more juvenile form is when someone requests help in an online forum and some jackass responds with, "Well, if you had this OS/browser/computer/car/keyboard/mouse/console/Internet connection then you wouldn't have this problem."  Oh let me tell you how useful that is.

The other way this manifests is when a developer gets more focused on a technology rather than the customer's experience.  For example I love and develop CSS/XHTML-based web sites but if you're transitioning from old HTML 4.01 then your new XHTML strict site had better look as good if not better than the previous version otherwise it just appears like a step backwards to the customer.

Whenever you make a technology change, whether it's changing to or from a platform such as PHP, ASP.NET or Rails or it's adopting new standards you need to first ask, "How is this going to benefit my customers?  Are they going to lose any functionality?  Are they going to gain anything that makes the inevitable transition headaches worth it... for them?"  Another important question is, "How does this affect the majority of my customers?".  Too often I see new features being added to support the few but in order to implement them the many are punished or worse the entire customer base is inconvenienced because the developer got a wild hair and swore some new bit of kit would make everything so much easier, yet somehow it really doesn't.

I love shiny new things but it's important to not let all that shiny get in the way of the actual product.

Categories: SubSonic Posted by Shawn Oster on 10/4/2007 7:40 PM | Comments

I'm being lazy and just posting a link because I think this feature is that cool:

SubSonic: Migrate Me

If you've used Rails you'll know why this is so cool and if you haven't then think "A really cool way to version your database schema and all it's changes and it's default data."  The Rails kids shouldn't have all the fun.  Read the article, Rob Conery will explain it much better than I ever could.

Plus, he's been known to use phrases like "The Tits" when describing software features and you just don't see quality writing like that just anywhere.

Categories: Music Posted by Shawn Oster on 10/4/2007 7:32 PM | Comments

With the recent announcement of the new Zunes coming this fall and the accompanying software, firmware, web site, server and music policy changes a lot of people have taken up the popular Zune vs. iPod debate.

There are lots of comparing of features, disappointments that the Zune doesn't do everything the iPod does and general hand wringing over the lack of various features.  Some people are quite down on the new Zune, others much more excited, yet in all of this not many people touch on the core reason that iPods and Zunes exist... to listen to music.

A lot of people are upset over the lack of a WiFi Marketplace to compete with WiFi iTunes yet this doesn't seem like a real need that occurs in the daily use of people's lives.  It is definitely cool to buy music from your device but after that initial, "Look what I can do!" how many people will actually use the feature?  Do people find themselves that often away from a computer, needing to buy music yet happening to be near an open wireless hotspot?

Some people compare the iPod and Zune as if they're comparing high-end sports cars that will be driven in 8-to-5 traffic.  Does it really matter if you car can go 180 mph or that it's 0 to 60 can smoke a new set of tires?  Not really since those are rare edge cases, not anything that supports the core experience, that of sitting in mind numbing traffic.

All of this begs the question, how do you listen to music and what features best support that experience? 

Personally I sync every day to get the latest podcasts and song ratings/metadata so Zune's auto wifi sync is a time saver.  I buy music from emusic and Amazon or actual physical CDs,  a Marketplace/iTunes WiFi Store isn't going to help me much there.  I listen to a few daily podcasts so native podcasting ability is nice and both iTunes and the new Zune software have support plus FeedDemon actually does a great job so that's a wash.  I don't use or want a PDA so the Touch is a bit of a non-feature.  I have a medium (large?) music collection around 80gb so a 160gb iPod would be perfect, but that doesn't have wireless anything so I lose out there.

Point being that when you apply a bit of reality to how you'll actually use these devices there isn't nearly that big a difference between them.  Hell,  a lot of the reasons I like the Zune is I just dig the matte-black look and bigger screen.  I wish a lot more of these reviewers and bloggers would compare real world use vs. specs.

Posted by Shawn Oster on 10/4/2007 7:51 AM | Comments

One of the things I always loved about working with Delphi was the fact that the entire VCL framework's source code was shipped with the product.  Being able to look at and debug into the existing framework code is an invaluable tool for both learning how things are done as well as debugging tricky issues.

Today Microsoft announced that they'll be doing the same for the .NET 3.5 framework in the upcoming Visual Studio 2008 release which is awesome news.  Scott Guthrie has the deets

While you've always been able to use a tool like Lutz Roeder's Reflector to get an approximation of the source code there are always little nuisances that get lost in the CodeDOM translation.  Reading source code is really a great way to learn a language and I've often found other's code inspiring me to write better.

This is yet more good news for what's shaping up to be a pretty solid release with Visual Studio 2008.  I've been using the beta for awhile now and find it hard to go to back 2005 for the few times I have to.

Posted by Shawn Oster on 9/28/2007 5:58 PM | Comments

I recently heard a story from a program manager of her debating (fighting) with her web developer about how she wanted to send more focused newsletters while he wanted to send fewer, more broad ones which in turn got me thinking about how e-mail has changed since it first started and what is really effective these days.  In the "old" days I would have said he was right, people are overwhelmed with e-mails, reduce their load by giving them less to deal with but now I'd say she's absolutely right.

These days people are conditioned to quickly scan subject lines in order to weed out spam, see if there is any urgent  news or check if Amazon has shipped their order.  During this quick skim most people are mentally or even physically flagging their e-mail as important, trash or the dreaded "I'll deal with it later".  It's that last category that's the kiss of death for a newsletter because that "later" never seems to come or if it does it's usually weeks if not months later.  If you can help a user decide if they should read or delete your e-mail that is much more effective then getting put in the "wait for later" category.

A perfect example is two different event newsletters I get.  One newsletter sends me a monthly list of all up coming events and any special promotions that may be available.  Guess how often I read it?  Almost never because when it first lands in my inbox all I see is, "Your Colorado Concert July Update" and mentally I say, "That's not business, urgent or even personal, I'll read it later during lunch or when I'm looking to kill some time."  Of course that never happens because other things pile on top of it and by the time I actually do read it months have passed and it's worthless.

On the other hand the other event newsletter sends me a single e-mail for every event that's about to go on sale.  That may seem like a lot of e-mail, and some weeks it is, but the key is that the subject is usually something like, "Event Update: 6/15 - Flogging Molly - Red Rocks, Tickets On Sale Monday!".  I now have enough information to either delete it right then or mentally flag it as important instead the limbo of "I'll deal with it later."  Since I deal with it right then I actually end up with less e-mail than the event digest/summary form of the first one.

On a related note, don't try to force people to your website by keeping your newsletter vague and mysterious.  All too often I've seen this cute ploy, "Exciting TechEvent Coming to Denver!  Click Here to Learn About the Special Guest!".  Give people the information to make their own decision instead of trying to trick them to your site.

Now to geek out I have to say the whole debate reminded of the old CISC vs. RISC CPU design debate.

Categories: Music Posted by Shawn Oster on 9/26/2007 6:07 PM | Comments

Amazon just entered the digital music download fray and they've just set the gold standard.  The price is right, the quality is great, and since it's straight MP3 you can use it on pretty much every digital music playing device ever made.  Downloading Ministry's "Rio Grande Dub(ya)" was a snap and the required download manager is simple and unobtrusive.  It may not be the closed-loop system of iTunes+iPod or Zune+Marketplace but it's close enough that I think a lot of people will dip their toes in the water, especially with the Amazon name behind it.

To be fair has been offering DRM-free MP3 downloads for years but their biggest weakness has always been satisfying the Top 40 crowd.  While you can find great albums like Beirut's "The Flying Club Cup" you won't find Gwen Stefani's "The Sweet Escape".  EMusic is closer to that great indie record store that sometimes has Top 40 albums but you know the real focus is the off-the-beaten-path gems tucked among the aisles.

My biggest question is where is Microsoft in all of this DRM-free loving?  Even Apple has conceded that users may want less restrictions on their music by offering to over-charge customers for DRM-free tracks yet the Zune Marketplace still staunchly holds onto the DRM model of business.   Microsoft is the new kid on the block in terms of online music yet they already seem like an anachronism without any attempt so far to really embrace "the social".  The rumor is that October is going to see a new crop of Zune players and they had better update more than just the hardware.  Unless there is a major update to the Zune ecosystem then they're going to fail.

Amazon has a winner on it's hands and it'll be interesting to see both where they are headed as well as the industry's reaction to this bold and welcome move.

Categories: Music Posted by Shawn Oster on 9/21/2007 6:40 AM | Comments

One of my favorite uses for my Zune is listening to audiobooks and one of my greatest disappointments with the Zune was the lack of support for the Audible format.  Audible's proprietary format has always been a thorn in my side because unless you're using a major MP3 player the chances of it supporting Audible are slim.  I used to be able to work around this by converting the .aa format into straight .mp3, as it should be, but Audible seems to have patched that hole.

Well, I can start listening to audiobooks once again because is now offering them in addition to their usual music catalog, and just like their music, it's in straight MP3, no DRM to fuss with.  Their audiobook catalog isn't nearly as extensive as Audible's but I'll gladly trade a large selection that I can't listen to for a smaller one that I can.

I just picked up "Indecision" by Benjamin Kunkel and it's "A hugely funny satire that effortlessly captures the confusion of privileged and educated twentysomthings...".  I couldn't agree with the reviewer more.

Now I just have to see if the Zune ever gets it's act together when it comes to setting bookmarks because currently the Zune gets a big fat "F" when it comes to listening to audiobooks.  With no ability to set bookmarks or even have your paused location persist between syncs it makes remembering where you last left off a pain in the arse.

Posted by Shawn Oster on 8/30/2007 2:07 PM | Comments

I was going to do a big write-up of Microsoft Money Plus vs. Quicken 2008 as I've just tried both but no one wants to read a 10-page rant about the poor state of personal finance software in this day and age.  It's now just a few paragraphs rant.

Microsoft Money Plus

There is nothing Plus about the latest offering from Microsoft.  It's still not a real Vista application, it's slow, the main landing page flickers like a broken strobe and Microsoft seems content to let the world innovate around them.  No features to get excited about and they've obviously decided to stay off the entire Vista and Office 2007 bandwagon by staying with a barely helpful interface.  There is nothing worth upgrading for and calling it "Plus" must have made some laugh while others cried.

Quicken 2008

Beautiful and grand ideas implemented poorly or at the expense of real fit and finish.  256-color icons (read "ugly") and clunky dialogs litter the user interface thus greatly minimizing the attempts to create a polished, stream-lined user experience.  I found over 30 issues in the first 15 minutes and that was just setting up a new QDATA file (who uses an all uppercase filename these days?).  There are lots of great ideas here; a tagging system, easier ways to categorize expenses, a default view that is actually helpful, an easy at-a-glance budgeting system.  Sadly they're all marred by usability quirks and general horrible performance on Vista.  The screen constantly flickers when doing certain actions and it even managed to crash the window manager twice.

In a bit of irony Quicken 2008 has a bona fide Vista Sidebar Gadget showing you upcoming bills and transactions in a compact little calendar view.  The Money team should bow their head in shame for not having such a thing in Plus and if they're not bowing their heads they should be fired because they obviously just don't care anymore.

A Sad State

On one hand we have Money playing it safe by not even attempting to try new things or freshen their interface, in fact by not even admitting to the existence of an entire new operating system, Vista, at all.  On the other is Quicken blowing it's budget on big ideas yet forgetting to spend any on polish or usability testing.

What all of this says to me is that there is room for a new-comer.  Neither products have dominated simply because they both suck in equal measure, just in different ways, while having just enough of the right features to get by.  There is quite a bit of wiggle room and someone could carve a nice chunk out of the market if they wanted.

So for now Microsoft Money stays on my computer, though I'm not upgrading to "Plus".  Don't gloat though Money, you still suck, you just happen to play fractionally better with Vista.

Categories: SubSonic Posted by Shawn Oster on 8/18/2007 9:05 AM | Comments

My current favorite .NET DAL/ORM solution is SubSonic.  It strikes a good balance of being helpful without hindering, partly due to it being heavily inspired by Rails as well as the creator's focus not only on good code but good architecture and design.  Another great thing about the project is that the creator, Rob Conery, does frequent screencasts explaining the nooks and crannies of SubSonic as well as writing informative, engaging and colorful posts over on his blog.

Enough praise though, this post is all about fixing an "issue" that annoys me.  SubSonic does part of it's magic through the SubSonicService, which is a custom configuration section in your web or app config.  Since it's a custom section Visual Studio won't give you code completion (aka Intellisense) and it'll spit out a ton of "Could not find schema information for blahblahblah" warnings.  These warning are basically saying, "I have no idea what this crap is in the web.config so you get no fancy Intellisense magic from me".  To get back some of that magic here's all you have to do:

1. Download SubSonicSchema.xsd (if you right-click to download make sure you save it with an xsd extension)

2. Put it in C:\Program Files\Microsoft Visual Studio 8.0\Xml\Schemas

3. Edit DotNetConfig.xsd in the same folder and add the following line:

<xs:include schemaLocation="SubSonicSchema.xsd" />


(I added it right underneath the <xs:schema> opening tag, seems to work)


4. Close Visual Studio if it's running, re-open, ta-da you now have Intellisense as well as no more annoying "Could not find schema information for..." messages.