Check out this TechNet blog: “Microsoft Research – free holiday booty.” It profiles and depicts five very cool, free tools you can download and play with from Microsoft Research:
- Kodu comes from the FUSE labs team. It’s a visual programming language built specifically for creating games that’s also simple and fun enough to appeal to kids, and let them get right to work.
- AutoCollage is a program that uses computer vision and image processing to make collages from a collection of photos. It uses face detection, various relevancy and saliency filters, and other cool MS technologies to grab interesting parts of pictures, and then employs object selecting and blending technologies to combine images into an AutoCollage. Neat!
- Photosynth takes photos and combines them to create a 3D scene from their visual content, and provides a POV (point of view) engine that then lets you view and move around inside that virtual world. This technology has been used by organizations that include National Geographic, NASA, and the Obama inauguration team to create “synths,” among thousands of other such environments also available online.
- WorldWide Telescope provides tools for viewing our universe but also enables developers to produce customized visualizations for astronomical and planetary data. It’s a real tour-de-force illustration of effective data use, and should become a popular and powerful educational tool at all levels.
- Team Crossword is another FUSE labs goody — namely, a Web-based collaborative tool for creating and sharing crossword puzzles with your friends. Use it to start a puzzle, and then invite friends and colleagues to work together to solve it!
I hope you get time to look at and play with at least one or two of these items as you while away the hours before we all go back to the grind next Monday. Happy New Year!!
In keeping with my wont to look for and report on the lighter side of IT during that fallow period between Christmas and New Year’s here’s a terrific slide show from eWeek.com. Entitled “Kroll Ontrack’s Top 10 Data Storage Disasters of 2010.” Like the old Letterman Top 10 Lists, it’s numbered in reverse order and includes the following items:
10. A Square Peg in a Round Hole: a laptop gets fried when the wrong charger gets plugged into its power port
9. Double Data Recovery: A foolproof redundant backup scheme fails when somebody accidentally overwrites data on a set of six drives stored in a fireproof safe
8. Keeping the memories alive: Kroll saves precious memories when they recover the only photos remaining of a now-deceased family member from the wiped drive on a stolen (and recovered) laptop
7. Meat the experts: hard disk meets cured ham but data recovery is a complete success
6. Up in the air: a frequent flyer leaves a laptop in an airport coffee bar; subsequent detonation by the bomb squad prevents any data recovery
5. The flying squash: a woman in a hurry to get to work puts her notebook on top of her car to buckle her child into its car seat; when she backs out of the garage, the laptop flies off the car and she runs over the HD; no recovery possible
4. Laptop kitty disaster: when a young kitten uses a laptop for a litter box, Ontrack recovers the HD contents anyway
3. Fire drop: When running out of his burning apartment to escape a fire, a photographer drops his notebook; Ontrack still manages to score a complete recovery of precious photos for charity work
2. The Ants Go Marching In: After a flood in Europe leaves a PC submerged for over two days, its drive is sent to Ontrack for recovery, where an ant is found clinging to a drive head. The data survives, but the ant is a goner.
1. Laptops underwater: To protect his laptop during a beach visit, a man stashes it inside a plastic bag and takes it swimming with him. The bag leaks, but Ontrack manages to recover the data anyway.
I’m glad I’ve never left a laptop atop my car: I’ve sure sent plenty of cups and bottles flying, though. Nice to know occasional moments of lunacy or thoughtlessness never go completely unnoticed. Here’s a case where 80% of incidents result in recovery of some or all the potentially lost data, albeit at considerable cost. Happy New Year!
In researching a vexing IE problem on one of my Windows 7 desktops, I stumbled across a treasure trove of troubleshooting tools that are readily available to all Windows 7 users and admins. I had never run across many of these, and am glad to have a new place to turn when trouble pops up and is in need of shooting. Here’s what you can do to see Windows 7 long and impressive list of troubleshooting tools (aka “troubleshooters”).
1. Click Start, Control Panel.
2. If in icon view, click “Troubleshooting;” if in category view type “Troubshooter” into the search box.
3. Either way, click “Troubleshooting.”
4. Click “View All” in the left hand column of the Troubleshooting window to produce a complete list of troubleshooting utilities.
Windows 7 Complete List of Troubleshooters
The one that caught my eye was entitled “Internet Explorer Performance,” where you’ll find a tool to check for defective add-ons (a common cause of IE issues on my own and many other machines). There are quite a few others worth exploring there, too: check it out!
Wow! I just scanned through the Windows 7 news reports on Google, and found myself inundated with information, plans, and announcements related to Windows 7 on tablet PCs. Topics covered under this general heading include everything from rumors and reports of planned changes to the Win7 OS itself to support ARM and other non-traditional processors, to mostly CES-related announcements from numerous notebook PC vendors with so-called Windows 7 tablets in their futures (including MSI, Asus, HP, ECS, Toshiba, Samsung, IN Media, and many others).
Aside from seeking to address a bad (and richly deserved) case of “iPad envy,” what’s really going on here? After just traveling with a 15″ notebook PC (an HP dv6) in coach on Delta, I think I can understand the desire for a light and compact machine that makes working on the plane less of a travail, but I’m not sure that a tablet is the answer for those interested in more than reading e-mail, catching up on Facebook, and surfing the Web.
Looking beyond home and consumer situations, where tablets are sure to be a big hit (for many of the same reasons that the iPad continues to rule the touch-based “thin and light” machine realm), the only place I really see touch-based units succeeding is in special-use applications: the signature pad and tracking devices that both UPS and FedEx use; the tracking and reporting handhelds that nearly every service and utility tech seems to carry nowadays; ditto for rental car check-in devices; and so forth. I could see an entirely usable replacement for medical staff who routinely carry a clip-board with tracking, status, and other forms, but I’m not sure there’s enough other stuff like that going on in the corporate world to justify a big influx of tablets for more general applications.
If you think I’m wrong, or have other examples of situations and applications tailor-made for tablet use, please share them here. Otherwise, I’m thinking that conventional desktop and notebook PCs will continue to function as the corporate information consumption and creation tools of choice for the foreseeable future.
Those who read my blog regularly know that Paul Thurrot and his SuperSite for Windows often provide grist for this particular mill. Today I’d like to point at two of his recent and stellar efforts in exploring how Microsoft can improve on what it did right with Windows 7, and do even better with Windows 8 — namely:
- How Microsoft Can Fix Windows 8, Part 2: Virtualize Compatibility
- How Microsoft Can Fix Windows 8, Part 1: User State Virtualization
In the first item in this two-part series, Thurrot makes the point that Microsoft defines “…user state virtualization as a way to ‘separate the user’s data and settings from the physical device and replicate it centrally…'” and then goes on to observe that “…Windows should be configured in such a way that these things are separated in separate hard drive partitions or, preferably, on separate physical disks. Furthermore, the user data and settings should be replicated to some central location for redundancy and data recovery reasons.” In the second part, he clearly and cogently lays out why so many third-party vendors (Zinstall, Prowess, and others) and Microsoft itself (Windows XP mode) have been chasing the rainbow involved in grabbing and virtualizing the Windows XP environment with older, incompatible-with-Win7 applications installed as a way of delivering continued access to important apps and services even when current Windows environments can no longer do that directly.
Put these things together, and you have the foundation for a user computing experience that remains accessible on any of the possible platforms where a user might wish to compute, including smartphones; tablets, netbooks, and other touch devices; and more conventional desktop and notebook PCs. You also have a user computing experience that provides an easy way to continue running outmoded legacy apps inside clean, portable envelopes that will also be accessible across that same continuum of computing devices. Put them all together, and suddenly, you’ve got a prescription for a Windows 8 that’s as much an improvement over Windows 7, as Windows 7 proved to be over XP and Vista.
Let’s hope somebody heavy and insightful at Microsoft is reading Thurrott’s musings and taking them very seriously indeed. This sounds like just what the doctor ordered, and very much what MS needs to do not only to keep itself on top of the OS pecking order, but also to deliver the kinds of cloud-based and device-independent computing that users everywhere are coming to expect.
OK, now I’ve been through the update cycle on all of my Windows 7 PC (all 8 of them), and have seen anywhere from 11 to 15 updates ger processed on each one (another item for Silverlight popped up later in the day, after the first batch came out). Here’s the deal on the 17 security bulletins and the other 5 miscellaneous updates that appeared on January 14:
|2146400*||MS10-090||Cumulative IE Update|
|2296199*||MS10-091||OpenType Font (OTF) Driver|
|2447961||MS10-094||Windows Media Encoder|
|2385678*||MS10-095||Windows versions (XP, Vista, 7, …)|
|2423089*||MS10-096||Windows Address Book|
|2443105||MS10-097||Internet Connection Signup Wizard|
|2436673*||MS10-098||Windows Kernel-mode drivers|
|2440591||MS10-099||Routing & Remote Access (RRAS)|
|2442962*||MS10-100||Consent User Interface|
|2207559*||MS10-101||Windows Netlogon Service|
|2292970||MS10-103||MS Office Publisher|
|2455005||MS10-104||MS SharePoint Server|
|0968095||MS10-105||MS Office Graphics Filters|
|2407132||MS10-106||MS Exchange Server|
|2443685*||No bulletin||December 2010 cumulative time zone update|
|890830*||No bulletin||December 2010 Malicious Software Removal tool|
|2412171*||No bulletin||Office Outlook 2007 Update|
|2466076*||No bulletin||Office Outlook 2007 Junk Mail Filter update|
|2477244*||No bulletin||Update for Microsoft Silverlight|
|None||No bulletin||List of current Windows Security Bulletins|
The final 6 entries in the table include 5 other updates pushed out along with the December Security Bulletins, which explains why they are marked “No bulletin” (because they’re not covered by security bulletins). The very last entry provides a link to the list of current security bulletins, which readers may also find interesting. Items marked with an asterisk represent those that I actually saw installed on one or more of my machines. So far, their impact seems negligible except that navigating between folders in Outlook 2007 now takes quite a bit longer than it did before the related updates were applied.
In a fascinating phone call with Samit Patel of App-DNA.com last Monday (12/13/2010) I learned more about that company’s Windows applications analysis technology called AppTitude, specifically in light of ongoing, planned, and upcoming enterprise-class migrations from older Windows desktop versions to Windows 7. Along the way, I also learned that the same technology that App-DNA brings to operations wishing to streamline and manage that migration process will also work for other likely migrations, including virtualization efforts aimed at Hyper-V, VMWare, Citrix XenApp, Xen Desktop, and so forth (in fact, AppTitude won “Best of Show” at Citrix Synergy 2010).
Let me be very clear as to why I describe AppTitude as an analysis tool rather than a migration tool, even though it can be an important or even invaluable part of the migration process. AppTitude does not actually do migration; rather, it analyzes elements from what Patel calls an “enterprise’s definitive software library” (the collection of installable images, programs, and executable files it uses to generate desktop environments for end users) to determine where potential software conflicts or problems might exist, and then to implement automated remediation strategies or techniques to address them.
Most migration tools work by observing runtime behavior of specific instances of desktop environments, but AppTitude constructs a static virtual model for each of the elements it finds in an organization’s software library. This permits the tool to leverage information from packages or items that would normally be handed off to IT professionals for packaging and/or deployment, and to decompose underlying software API calls and object references to find dependencies within the code that may or may not be compatible with a Windows 7 runtime environment. Says Patel: “The real value comes from going beyond MSI tables for portable executables to analyze headers and other data, and to access pre-installation (PE) data to see if it will run or not.” This technique does not require actual installation, so no observation of runtime behavior is needed. In fact, the 60,000 or so data points that AppTitude collects for application library entries suffice to answer these all-important questions:
- Will it install?
- Will it run properly (or at all)?
The biggest problem with other tools and approaches that require migration by trial and error, or by runtime observation, is that this approach cannot possibly follow all potential cases or use scenarios. Patel offered a telling example of how an application that might be subject to batch script invocation every other Sunday wouldn’t manifest problems in a runtime environment unless testing happened to occur on that particular day, or run long enough to come up against this schedule (neither of which is terribly likely, he also opines). Only a tool like AppTitude that systematically examines every possible cross-reference, all internal code structures and external references, and scripts or other automated processes that might invoke the application can possibly catch potential gotchas that could emerge.
The approximately 60,000 data points that AppTitude gathers about applications are what represent the so-called “application DNA” that gives this company its name, and its tool so much punch. Though AppTitude doesn’t actually DO migration per se, it can (and has) helped large organizations anticipate and remediate potential issues when conducting the migration process. Patel indicated that use of App-DNA resulted in price reductions of up to two-thirds for competitive bids for extremely large migrations, as opposed to more labor-intensive and time-consuming approaches to performing migration using the runtime approach. Even better, those winning bids also included timelines that were less than one-third as long as the losing bids based on runtime methodology.
App-DNA prices its offerings on a per-application basis, but enterprise licenses based on the total number of endpoints (as is the case with Citrix Xen and other desktop management environments) are also available. With Windows 7 spearheading the need for future migrations, Windows 8 in the offing for 2014, and virtualization or mobile interface migrations also in the mix in many enterprises, AppTitude appears to offer the opportunity to pay for itself many times over for organizations with thousands of desktops and hundreds to thousands of applications to manage (and migrate).
Holy Moly! I just took a quick look at the Microsoft Security Bulletin Advance Notification for December 2010 (this is a temporary placeholder for the actual security bulletin, which will be released at the same time Microsoft posts its updates to the Windows Update Service, so the final bulletin may be in place by the time you read this). There are 17 security updates in the queue for this month, which is certainly the highest number I’ve seen. In fact, according to Mark Reavey of the Microsoft Security Response Center (MSRC) this is the highest number of updates ever released on a Patch Tuesday. See his MSRC blog “December 2010 Advance Notification Service is released” (12/9/2010) for some interesting information about total bulletin counts, vulnerabiliites covered, and information security trends.
Among the most interesting tidbits from this blog is the declaration that Microsoft “…will be closing the last Stuxnet-related issues this month. This is a local Elevation of Privilege vulnerability and we’ve seen no evidence of its use in active exploits aside from the Stuxnet malware.” Likewise, an older (reported in November 2010 in MS Security Advisory 2458511) Remote Code Execution vulnerability in Internet Explorer that affects versions 6, 7, and 8 will also be addressed in the December security updates. Finally, Reavey also points to an interesting article from Microsoft Security Research & Defense entitled “On the effectiveness of DEP and ASLR” (DEP is Data Execution Prevention, and ASLR is Address Space Layout Randomization, two techniques Microsoft uses to good effect to limit the impact of exploit attempts, especially those that seek to leverage buffer overflow weaknesses).
It will be interesting to read more details about this month’s security updates when Microsoft posts them to its update servers at about 11 AM Pacific time today (-08:00 UCT). I’ll post further on what’s in the mix in a follow-up blog tomorrow.
When Alice heads off to Wonderland, she does so by falling down a rabbit hole, and experiencing a sequence of dizzying and terrifying transitions from top to bottom. I had a similar experience this morning, as I tried to find a newer Wi-Fi driver for the Intel Centrino Advanced-N 6200 AGN interface device in my HP dv6t-2300 notebook PC. My first stop, of course, was at the HP support pages where, to my ultimate consternation and confusion, the Intel device was not listed among the options available for this notebook make and model. My immediate reaction: “WTF?!” was followed by extended poking around to see if I could find through other means what I couldn’t get by politely knocking on the front door. No dice.
My next move was to engage HP support in an online chat session to see if they knew something I didn’t. After going round and round with a very nice support tech, I did learn that my system was part of a special build put together for a promotion at the beginning of 2010 (I bought my system in February 2010 for just over $1100, in a configuration that HP no longer makes today, where neither the i7 Q720M processor nor the Intel 6200 AGN interface is available on current models). In fact, this particular tech couldn’t find any drivers for the wireless interface that was installed on my machine at all.
So I transitioned to a phone call, to a location coded PH (which Bing cheerfully informs me is in the Phillippines), and got down and dirty with another support tech instead. Interestingly, the HP support tech on the phone who picked up from his online counterpart couldn’t use the service ticket number the chat tech gave me to identify our session, but he was able to find the ticket using my phone number. Go figure…
After double-checking my product id and serial number six ways from Sunday, he told me my machine definitely included the aforementioned Intel Wi-Fi interface but that the general information for my make and model didn’t. He did some more poking around, and eventually found a source for the drivers that I hadn’t considered while conducting my own search — namely, the “reload drivers” function inside the HP Advisor software that HP installs on all of its PCs. Alas, however, this turned out to be driver version 220.127.116.11 when I was already running version 18.104.22.168. I am also aware that Sony has published version 22.214.171.124 thanks to my handy-dandy DriverAgent.com subscription, even though HP is apparently still lagging behind (and I can neither install the Sony driver on my HP as you might expect, nor can I extract sufficient “driver goodies” from the Sony Installer file using Universal Extractor to get the driver files that way, either).
The ultimate outcome of the adventure was to realize that HP doesn’t necessarily have access to information that’s any more current or correct than what’s available on the Web (even though they are the gatekeeper to this particular driver, as the Sony version won’t install on my HP machine, and the Intel Driver Update Utility says that I must contact the system vendor to get drivers for the 6200 AGN device that provides me with wireless network access).
As I’m watching my wireless bandwidth on the HP notebook on the one hand, and on my el-cheapo Asus EeePC 1000HE on the other, both connected to the same 802.11n WAP in my bedroom closet, I’m also struck that bandwidth on the HP box is bouncing from a low of 13 Mbps to a high of 130 Mbps, while the Asus stays solidly pegged at 150 Mbps when both units are literally sitting right next to each other. I was really hoping a new driver might help take care of this and put the more expensive machine on a par with the cheaper one, but apparently the Atheros Wi-Fi interface works a lot better than the Intel one. Maybe I’m going to have to look into antennas, machine placement, and yada yada yada. Sheesh!
For those of you who don’t already know, I’ve got a bit of an HTPC Jones (that’s “Home Theater PC” BTW). I’ve written a book with audio-video-PC guru and SilentPC.com site operator Mike Chin (Build the Ultimate Home Theater PC) and another book about the stellar, Linux-based media PC environment named MythTV with FAQ guru Jared Wilson (Hacking MythTV). So when I found this year’s ARS HTPC Guide: December 2010 I read it over with both anticipation and delight. Not only is ARS Technica a great source for breaking Windows news and rumors, they also offer solid, informative technical content as well (along with partner arm Orbiting HQ).
For those of you readers who might be interested in putting together a state-of-the-art HTPC system for the end of 2010, you’d be hard-pressed to find as useful, cogent, and up-to-date a set of specific hardware and software picks and recommendations as you’ll find in this guide. It offers a slate of various hardware options for CPU, motherboard, memory, the all-important digital TV tuner card, storage, Blu-ray, remote, and so forth, that should let even relative DIY novices acquire and assemble a kick-butt HTPC system for a relatively modest budget (around $1150) and without killing themselves in the process.
While there’s a recommended selection in each category, there are also enough options discussed so that those who may not like (or be able to afford) the first choice in each area will have plenty of other items to ponder. The discussion of the TV Tuner card (an element that can easily make or break your HTPC experience) is right on the money (but expensive: it’s a CableCARD unit that retails for $400). Case, PSU, and remote control discussions are equally helpful.
If your thoughts, plans, or wishes for a home theater system include a PC in the mix, check out this guide. It’s definitely worth a read, or even a spot in your favorites or bookmarks.