Food for thought

 

  1. When you open a restaurant, you know the risk of people going to the supermarket and cook their own meal, not paying you as the restaurant owner.
  2. When you publish a book, you know there are going to be libraries where people can share one copy of your work.
  3. When you build a house and sell it, you know the people living there will be going in and out of your house for year without ever paying you anything more.
  4. When you live in a family and clean the parents car for one Euro, you know about the risk of your sister doing it for 50 cents next time around.

But

  1. The music industry claims to have a monopoly on their work, managing to get laws created that allow them to control distribution and disallow anybody to create a lookalike without paying them.
  2. The game industry is hard at work making it impossible for honest customers to even use the game they bought on multiple devices. And now they even begin to go after the used games market (think about that SNES pearl you just saw in your small games store. The one you wanted so badly ever since you’ve been young. Wouldn’t it be a shame it was illegal for them to sell it?)
  3. The entertainment industry is hard at work to make you pay for every device you want to play the same content on.
  4. Two words. “SMS pricing”.

Why do things applying to “small people” not apply to the big shots? Why does the government create laws to turn around well-known facts we have grown up with just so that the wealthy companies (the ones not paying nearly enough taxes) can get even wealthier?

I just don’t get it.

reddit’s commenting system

This is something I wanted to talk about for quite some time now, but I never got around to it. Maybe you know reddit. reddit basically works like digg.com – it’s one of these web2.0 mashup community social networking bubble sites. reddit is about links posted by users and voted for by users.

Unlike digg, reddit has an awful screen design and thus seems to attract  a bit more mature crowds than digg does, but lately it seems to be taken over by politics and pictures which devalues the whole site a bit.

What is really interesting though is the commenting system. In fact, it’s interesting enough for me to write about it and it works well enough for me to actually post a comment there here and then. It’s even good enough for me to be sure that whenever I will be in the situation to design a system to allow users to comment on something that I will have a look at what reddit did and I will model my solution around that base.

There are so many commenting systems out there, but all fail in some regards. Either they disturb your reading flow, making it too difficult to post something. Or they either hide comments behind a foldable tree structure or they display a flat list making it difficult to see any kind of threading going on.

And once you actually are interested in a topic enough to post a comment or a reply to a comment, you’ll quickly lose track of the discussion which gets as quickly buried by newly arriving posts.

reddit works differently.

First, messages are displayed in a threaded, but fully expanded view, thus allowing to skip over content you are not interested in while still providing all the overview you need. Then, posting is done inline via some AJAX interface. You see a comment you want to reply to, you hit the reply link, enter the text and hit "save". The page is not reloaded, you end up just where you left off.

But what good is answering to a comment if the initial commenter quickly forgets about his or her comment? Or if he or she just plain doesn’t find her comment again?

reddit puts all direct replies to any comments you made into your personal inbox folder. If you have any of these replies, the envelope to the top right will light up red allowing you to see newly arrived replies to your comments. With one click, you can show the context of the post you replied to, your reply and the reply you got. This makes it incredibly easy to be notified when someone posted something in response, thus keeping the discussion alive, no matter how deeply it may have been buried by comments arriving after yours.

So even if reddit looks awful (one gets used to the plain look though), it has one of the best, if not the best online discussion systems under its hood and so many other sites should learn from that example. It’s so easy that it even got me to post a comment here and then – and I even got replies despite not obviously trolling (which usually helps you get instant-replies, though I don’t recommend this practice).

Apple TV – Second try

When Apple announced their AppleTV a couple of months (or was it years?) ago, I was very skeptical of the general idea behind the device. Think of it: What was the big success behind the iPod? That it could run proprietary AAC files people buy from the music store?

No. That thing didn’t even exist back then. The reason for the success was the total easy (and FAST – remember: Back in the days, we had 1.1 MB/s USB which every MP3 player used vs. 40MB/s Firewire of the iPod) handling and the fact that it was an MP3 player – playing the files everyone already had.

It was a device for playing the content that was available at the time.

The AppleTV in its first incarnation was a device capable of playing content that wasn’t exactly available. Sure it could play the two video podcasts that existed back then (maybe more, but you get the point). And you could buy TV shows and movies in subpar quality on your PC (Windows or Mac) and then transfer them to the device. But the content that was available back then was in a different format: XVID dominated the scene. x264 was a newcomer and MP4 (and mov) wasn’t exactly used.

So what you got was a device, but no content (and the compatible content you had was in subpar quality compared to the incompatible content that was available). And you needed a PC, so it wasn’t exactly a device I could hook to my parents PC for example.

All these things were fixed by Apple today:

  • There is a huge library of content available right here, right now (at least in the US): The new movie rental service. Granted. I think it’s not quite there yet price vs. usability-wise (I think $5 is a totally acceptable price for a movie with unlimited replayability), but at least we have the content.
  • It works without a PC. I can hook this thing up to my parents TV and they can immediately use it.
  • The quality is OK. Actually, it’s more than OK. There is HD content available (though maybe only 720p one, but frankly, on my expensive 1080p projector, I don’t see that much of a difference between 720p and 1080p)
  • It can still access the scarce content that was available before.

The fact that this provides very easy to use video-on-demand to a huge amount of people is what makes me think that this little device is even more of a disruptive technology than the iPod or the iPhone. Think of it: Countless of companies are trying to make people pay for content these days. It’s the telcos, it’s cable companies and it’s device manufacturers. But what do we get? Crappy, constantly crashing devices, which are way too complicated for a non-geek and way too limited in functionality for a geek.

Now we got something that’s perfect for the non-geek. It has the content. It has the ease-of-use. Plug it in, watch your movie. Done. This is what a whole industry tried to do and failed so miserably.

I for my part will still prefer the flexibility given by my custom Windows Media Center solution. I will still prefer the openness provided by illegal copies of movies. I totally refuse to pay multiple times for something just because someone says that I have to. But that’s me.

And even I may sooner or later prefer the comfort of select-now-watch-now to the current procedure (log into private tracker, download torrent, wait for download to finish, watch – torrents are not streamable, even if the bandwith would easily suffice in my case – the packets arrive out of order), so even for me, the AppleTV could be interesting.

This was yet another perfect move by Apple. Ignore the analysts out there who expected more out of this latest keynote. Ignore the bad reception of the keynote by the marked (I hear that Apple stock just dropped a little bit). Ignore all that and listen to yourself: This wonderful device will certainly revolutionize the way we consume video content.

I’m writing this as a constant sceptic – as a person always trying to see a flaw in a certain device. But I’m sure that this time around, they really got it. Nice work!

My PSP just got a whole lot more useful

<p>Or useful at all – considering the games that are available to that console. To be honest: Of all the consoles I have owned in my life, the PSP must be the most underused one. I basically own two games for it: Breath of Fire and Tales of Eternia – not only by this choice of titles, but also by reading this blog, you may notice a certain affinity to Japanese Style RPG’s.</p> <p>These are the closest thing to a successor of the classical graphic adventures I started my computer career with, minus hard to solve puzzles plus a much more interesting story (generally). So for my taste, these things are a perfect match.</p> <p>But back to the PSP. It’s an old model – one of the first here in Switzerland. One of the first on the world to be honest: I bought the thing WAAAY back with hopes of seeing many interesting RPG’s – or even just good ports of old classics. Sadly neither really happened.</p> <p>Then, a couple of days ago, I found a usable copy of the game Lumines. Usable in a sense of when the guy in the store told me that there is a sequel out and I told him that I did not intend to actually play the game, he just blinked with one eye and wished me good luck with my endeavor. </p> <p>Or in layman’s terms: That particular version of Lumines had a security flaw allowing one to do a lot of interesting stuff with the PSP. Like installing an older, flawed version of the firmware which in turn allows to completely bypass whatever security the PSP would provide.</p> <p>And now I’m running the latest M33 firmware: 3.71-M4. </p> <p>What does that mean? It means that the former quite useless device has just become the device of my dreams: It runs SNES games. It runs Playstation 1 games. It’s portable. I can use it in bed without a large assembly of cables, gamepads and laptops. It’s instant-on. It’s optimized for console games. It has a really nice digital directional pad (gone are the days of struggling with diagonally-emphasized joypads – try playing Super Metroid with one of these).</p> <p>It plays games like Xenogears, Chrono Cross, Chrono Trigger – it finally allows me to enjoy the RPG’s of old in bed before falling asleep. Or in the bathtub. Or whatever.</p> <p>It’s a real shame that once more I had to resort to legally questionable means to get a particular device to a state I imagine it to be. Why can’t I buy any PS1 game directly from Sony? Why are the games I want to play not even available in Switzerland? Why is it illegal to play the games I want to play? Why are most of the gadgets sold today crippled in a way or another? Why is it illegal to un-cripple our gadgets we bought?</p> <p>Questions I, frankly, don’t want to answer. For years now I wanted a possibility to play Xenogears in bed and while taking a bath. Now I can, so I’m happy. And playing Xenogears. And loving it like when I was playing through that jewel of game history for the first time.</p> <p>If I find time, expect some more in-depth articles about the greatness of Xenogears (just kidding – just read the early articles in this blog) or how to finally get your PSP where you want it to be – there are lots of small things to keep in mind to make it work completely satisfactory.  </p>

The IE rendering dilemma

There’s a new release of Internet Explorer, aptly named IE8, pending and a whole lot of web developers are in fear of new bugs and no fixes to existing ones. Like the problems we had with IE7.

A couple of really nasty bugs where fixed, but there wasn’t any significant progress in matters of extended support for web standards or even a really significant amount of bugfixes.

And now, so fear the web developers, history is going to repeat itself. Why, are people asking, aren’t they just throwing away the currently existing code-base, replacing it with something more reasonable? Or if licensing or political issues prevent using something not developed in-house, why not rewrite IE’s rendering engine from scratch?

Backwards compatibility. While the web itself has more or less stopped using IE-only-isms and began embracing the way of the web standards (and thus began cursing on IE’s bugs), corporate intranets, the websites accessed by Microsoft’s main customer base, certainly have not.

ActiveX, <FONT>-Tags, VBScript – the list is endless and companies don’t have the time or resources to remedy that. Remember. Rewriting for no real purpose than “being modern” is a real waste of time and certainly not worth the effort. Sure. New Applications can be developped in a standards compliant way. But think about the legacy! Why throw all that away when it works so well in the currently installed base of IE6?

This is why Microsoft can’t just throw away what they have.

The only option I see, aside of trying to patch up what’s badly broken, is to integrated another rendering engine into IE. One that’s standards compliant and one that can be selected by some means – maybe a HTML comment (the DOCTYPE specification is already taken).

But then, think of the amount of work this creates in the backend. Now you have to maintain two completely different engines with completely different bugs at different places. Think of security problems. And think of what happens if one of these buggers is detected in a third party engine a hypothetical IE may be using. Is MS willing to take responsibility of third-party bugs? Is it reasonable to ask them to do this?

To me it looks like we are now paying the price for mistakes MS did a long time ago and for quick technological innovation happening at the wrong time on the wrong platform (imagine the intranet revolution happening now). And personally, I don’t see an easy way out.

I’m very interested in seeing how Microsoft solves this problem. Ignore the standards-crowd? Ignore the corporate customers? Add the immense burden of another rendering engine? FIx the current engine (impossible, IMHO)? We’ll know once IE8 is out I guess.

A followup to MSI

My last post about MSI generated some nice responses, amongst them the lengthy blog post on Legalize Adulthood.

Judging from the two track-backs on the MSI posting and especially after reading the linked post above, I come to the conclusion that my posting was very easy to misunderstand.

I agree that the workarounds I listed are problems with the authoring. I DO think however that all these workarounds where put in place because the platform provided by Microsoft is lacking in some kind.

My rant was not about the side effects of these workarounds. It was about their sole existence. Why are some of us forced to apply workarounds to an existing platform to achieve their goals? Why doesn’t the platform itself provide the essential features that would make the workarounds unneeded?

For my *real* problems with MSI from an end users perspective, feel free to read this rant or this on e (but bear in mind that both are a bit oldish by now).

Let’s go once again through my points and try to understand what each workaround tries to accomplish:

  1. EXE-Stub to install MSI: MSI, despite being the platform of choice still isn’t as widely deployed as the installer authors want it to be. If Microsoft wants us to use MSI, it’s IMHO their responsibility to ensure that the platform is actually available.

    I do agree though that Microsoft is working on this, for example by requiring MSI 3.1 (the first release with acceptable patching functionality) for Windows Update. This is what makes the stubs useless over time.

    And personally I think a machine that isn’t using Windows Update and thus hasn’t 3.1 on it isn’t a machine I’d want to deploy my software on because a machine not running Windows update is probably badly compromised and in an unsupportable state.

  2. EXE-Stub to check prerequisites: Once more I don’t get why the underlying platform cannot provide functionality that is obviously needed by the community. Prerequisites are a fact for life and MSI does nothing to help that. MSI packages can’t be used to install other MSI packages but Merge Modules, but barely any libraries required by todays applications actually come in MSM format (.NET framework? Anyone?).

    In response to the excellent post on Legalize Adulthood which gives an example about DirectX, I counter with: Why is there a DirectX Setup API? Why are there separate CAB files? Isn’t MSI supposed to handle that? Why do I have to create a setup stub calling a third-party API to get stuff installed that isn’t installed in the default MSI installation?.

    An useful package solution would provide a way to specify dependencies or at least allow for automated installation of dependencies from the original package.

    It’s ironic that an MSI package can – even though it’s dirty – use a CustomAction to install a traditionally packaged .EXE-Installer-Dependency, but can’t install a .MSI packaged dependency.

    So my problem isn’t with bootstrappers as such, but with the limitations in MSI itself requiring us developers to create bootstrappers to do work which IMHO MSI should be able to do.

  3. MSI-packages .EXE’s: I wasn’t saying that MSI is to blame for the authors that repacked their .EXE’s into .MSI packages. I’m just saying that this is another type of workaround that could have been chosen for the purpose of getting the installation to work despite (maybe only perceived) limitations in MSI. An ideal packaging solution would be as accessible and flexibly as your common .EXE-installer and thus make such a workaround unneeded.

  4. Third party scripting: In retrospect I think the motivation for these third party scripting solutions is mainly the vendor-lock-in. I’m still convinced though that with a more traditional structure and a bit more flexibility for the installer authors, such third party solutions would get more and more unneeded until they finally die out.

  5. Extracting, then merging: Also just another workaround that has been chosen because a distinct problem wasn’t solvable using native MSI technology.

    I certainly don’t blame MSI for a developer screwing up. I’m blaming MSI for not providing the tools necessary for the installer community to use native MSI to solve the majority of problems. I ALSO blame MSI for messiness, for screwing up my system countless times and for screwing up my parent’s system which is plainly unforgivable.

    Because MSI is a complicated black box, I’m unable to fix problems with constantly appearing installation prompts, with unremovable entries in “Add/Remove programs” and with installations failing with such useful error messages as “Unknown Error 0x[whatever]. Installation terminated”.

    I’m blaming MSI for not stopping the developer community to author packages with above problems. I’m blaming MSI for its inherent complexity causing developers to screw up.

    I’m disappointed with MSI because it works in a ways that requires at least a part of the community to create messy workarounds for quite common problems MSI can’t solve.

    What I posted was a list of workarounds of varying stupidity for problems that shouldn’t exist. Authoring errors that shouldn’t need to happen.

    I’m not picky here: A large majority of packages I had to work with do in fact employ one of these workarounds (the unneeded EXE-stub being the most common one), none of which should be needed.

    And don’t get me started about how other operating systems do their deployment. I think Windows could learn from some of them, but that’s for another day.