Windows Vista

OpenVPN in VirtualBox

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There are a number of reasons why you might want to run a VPN on your laptop. The most obvious is that you have to, in order to access files back at the office. Two other likely reasons are security (you are in a public place, and want to encrypt all traffic) and unfettered access (your provider is blocking certain ports or services).

I’ve been interested in implementing a VPN for a while now, but haven’t had any real need, nor tons of copious free time. On Friday, I was informed that one of my portfolio companies had installed OpenVPN and I was welcome to install a client and test it.

I am running Windows Vista Ultimate x64 (the x64 sometimes being problematic with certain software). It turns out that the latest release candidate for OpenVPN has full Windows x64 support, so that wasn’t going to be an issue.

I installed the software, edited the configuration files that the office sent me, fired it up, and it worked the first time. Cool. I tested a few things, including accessing hosts that I wouldn’t be able to see unless I was in the office, and it all seemed to work correctly.

Then I hit a small snag. I tried to fire up my fat-client brokerage application. It behaved as if I didn’t have a network connection, or more accurately, like it couldn’t find the server it wanted to home to. I suspect that this could be something as simple as whether the office itself is set up to route out this type of app/port/protocol through the VPN (I know for a fact that this specific app works when I am in the office).

I also suspect that other fat clients, like a Poker app, might have similar troubles. That got me thinking about the additional use cases beyond just needing access to files/apps/machines in the office.

I fired up VirtualBox, specifically with my new favorite Sidux distribution. I tried to install openvpn from the repo, but it wasn’t found. A Google search said that openvpn is included in Debian itself (which Sidux is based on), so I was temporarily puzzled. I had the following line in my sources:

deb http://ftp.us.debian.org/debian/ sid main

I added another line, identical to the one above, substituting de for us. Presto, openvpn was found, and installed smoothly.

I copied over the same config files from my Windows directory, fired up OpenVPN, and was connected to the office again. This time though, in a pretty cool configuration. Everything in Linux (Sidux), was routed through the VPN. Everything in Windows, was routed normally though my FiOS connection.

If I wanted access to something on the corporate lan, use the browser in Sidux. The brokerage app just worked as normal, as it was unaware of the VPN. On a number of levels, this is the best of both worlds.

Of course, I already summarized situations when you may want/need the full VPN, for the entire machine, or when this use case might be better. If you’re in a public hotspot, and want everything encrypted, even your personal surfing, the Windows-level VPN makes sense.

If you’re in a client’s office, and can’t connect to an odd port on your home server (e.g., you have an application running at http://www.mycompany.com:8765/) which is blocked by your client’s firewall, then you fire up the VPN in the VM, and use that browser, while not disturbing the rest of the applications on your desktop.

This also gave me the idea that since putting Linux on a USB stick is so trivial (see this post about multi-boot USB), it would be simple to have a bootable USB stick, with the OpenVPN client on it (password-protected, of course), that would allow you to boot off any PC/laptop as if you’re in the office, or without leaving any trace on the host PC, whenever the situation called for it. Friends wouldn’t need to feel that you were seeing their browsing history, etc.

Just for yucks, I also installed OpenVPN on my server, for the secondary scenarios mentioned above (security and unfettered access). While I don’t anticipate needing them frequently, knowing that it’s available, on a second’s notice, is a comfort.

Another trick added to my bag. 🙂

Self-Service Pain

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It’s extremely easy to cause yourself a lot of pain while performing maintenance on your computer. Here are two sure-fire steps:

  1. Do something really stupid, while being aware that you are doing so!
  2. Compound the error by being macho, and wanting to fix it manually!

Voila! You will have no one to blame but yourself for your pain, and you can be proud enough of the time wasted to waste a little more by publicly flogging yourself in a blog (like, say, this one…).

Here’s what I did to myself this morning…

Yesterday was Patch Tuesday at Microsoft. When I booted up this moring, Windows informed me that there were four critical updates available, and two optional ones. I looked over the list and was happy to accept the four critical updates.

Of the two optional ones, one was for my LAN device (which I’ve successfully updated in the past, so I was happy to include that). The other was for an external tablet device that I don’t own, and will likely never own. So, why did I check to include it? Only because I thought it might be more efficient to have the updated driver (dormant) on my system, than to hide it from future updates, but make Windows notice each time that it was out-of-date.

Oh oh, first big dumb mistake. When I restarted the computer, installing that driver triggered Vista to think that I now had a Tablet device, and it automatically turned on Tablet PC mode. In itself, that wouldn’t be so bad, except that it disabled my touchpad, which is my only mouse. 🙁

Other than resizing and moving windows around, Windows (XP and Vista) are suprisingly easy to navigate around with only a keyboard, even without Accessibility settings turned on.

I could have undone the Windows Update quickly and painlessly, through the keyboard. But no, I’m macho and need to figure out how to fix this on my own. I launched a browser, searched Google, and found out how to turn off Tablet PC mode. That worked (Tablet PC mode was off) but my touchpad was still dead, even after a reboot.

I found an updated Synaptics Touchpad driver for Windows Vista x64, downloaded and installed it, but it failed to load properly after the reboot.

After dorking around way too much (nearly 90 minutes!), completely mouseless, I finally broke down and did what I should have done in the first place. I pulled up the System Restore facility, selected a restore point from this morning and let it do its magic.

After rebooting, everything was exactly the way it was before I updated the system. I then reapplied the four critical updates plus the networking one. I hid the Tablet (IdeaCOMM) update forever, and all is back to normal and wonderful.

To summarize:

Don’t install optional updates for hardware you don’t own!

If you make any mistake after an update, roll it back immediately!

Lessons to live by. 🙂

Vista speech recognition

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I’ve been fascinated by speech recognition for a very long time.  I used a program called Simon on a NeXT computer back in 1992. I have toyed with every version of Dragon Naturally Speaking since v2 (now owned by Nuance). I keep upgrading my copy of Dragon Naturally Speaking (through v9, I haven’t done v10 yet), even though I never actually use it for anything real beyond checking out how much better each version has gotten.

The primary reason I don’t dictate more is that Lois and I work two feet apart 99% of the time. That makes it awkward to be speaking to the computer, from a number of perspectives. Still, I remain intrigued by the concept.

Vista has built-in speech recognition. My new laptop also has Realtek HD Audio built in, including a very high quality microphone next to the webcam, at the top of the monitor. As an example, I tested it with Skype the other day, with no headset, and there was no echo on either side of the conversation, and the other person said I sounded fine.

That made me think about the extra convenience of being able to dictate without scrounging around for headset, or wearing it for extended periods. I decided to play with the speech recognition just to see.

Basically, it works pretty well. Far from perfect. In fact, I’m not sure that Dragon 10 wouldn’t be better. That said, it’s built in, and feels much lighter weight (starts up instantly, shuts down instantly, doesn’t shift application windows around to put its toolbar up, etc.).

It took me a while to get it to work with my USB headset. Basically, you don’t tell the speech recognition program which device to use. In order to use it with the USB headset, you have to set the USB headset to be the default microphone on the system, and then the speech recognition program automatically picks it up.

You might be asking why I wanted to use the USB headset? The simple reason is that my headset has a microphone mute button on the cord. That’s very cool for speech recognition. If the phone rings, or Lois wants to talk, I can just hit the mute button, and speech recognition is off, even though the program is still listening. It simply can’t hear anything. As a bonus, in theory, the recognition should be better, but for now, I don’t care too much about that.

Here’s one annoyance. It was my intention to dictate this entire post, including all of the actual production of it (clicking the save button, publish, etc.). Unfortunately, I gave up after five minutes. I tend to write my posts in Firefox, right in the admin interface of WordPress. Even with Allow Dictation Everywhere set on in speech recognition, it doesn’t think that Firefox is a normal input program (though it recognizes that I’m in a text area).

So, every phrase gets put up in a dialog box for me to confirm. It got them all correct, but I couldn’t just speak the post. I could have dictated into Word, WordPad, NotePad, WindowsLiveWriter, etc., and in the future I might just do that, but for now, I’m typing this post…

Using speech recognition in Command Mode works reasonably well. I can switch applications easily, select menu items, switch folders in email (Thunderbird, which obviously isn’t written by Microsoft), etc. Yesterday, while eating lunch with both hands, I had an IM conversation with someone by speaking my responses and saying Enter after each one. The concept was very cool, even though I had to correct a bunch of words (I wasn’t using the USB headset at the time).

Anyway, I recommend playing around with speech recognition in Vista if you work in a room alone, or have a spouse (or co-worker) who would be amused by your ranting at the computing out loud. 😉

Vista Hotsync Success

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I’ve written numerous times about the fact that Palm doesn’t support (nor intend to support!) Vista x64. I have also noted that many people claim to have success with Bluetooth Sync (and Phone-as-Modem as well).

I recently reported getting Phone-as-Modem to work over BT, but have had zero success with Hotsync over BT.

Following the instructions in this forum post, I have finally successfully sync’ed the Treo 755p with Vista x64! The technique uses a Network Hotsync, using the Sprint Network. I couldn’t test it until today when I got home and could put the correct port forwarding comnands on my router.

It worked instantly. The first sync was extremely painful (in length) because the machine correctly noticed that it was a first sync, and that the Treo had previously been syncing with another machine. In total, it took 80 minutes and drained 1/4 of the Treo battery in the process. Still, it worked with no errors or timeouts!

The second sync picked up on other things that were left out of the initial sync, and it took about 20 minutes. The third sync became a more normal sync, and took roughly two minutes (not too bad at all!).

I don’t sync all that often, so I don’t really care about the speed. Even with the cable, I was syncing roughly once a month.

This will be workable for the forseeable future even if I never get BT sync to work. The only downside is that I won’t be able to sync when traveling, because I won’t be able to control the port forwarding to the laptop. I tried doing something clever with a reverse SSH tunnel, but I think there might be some UDP packets involved, and SSH is only forwarding the TCP packets.

Either way, I’m back to being a happy camper, even if Palm didn’t help.

Also, just for the record, I am running the Sprint version of the Palm software, installed off of the Treo 755p installation CD that came with the phone. That CD claims that you need to visit Palm for an updated Vista version (which also runs on my machine). But, as I have noted before, everything seems to run fine on Vista x64, now that SP1 is out, including the Palm software that isn’t supposed to work.

Now if they only wrote a USB driver, I’d be all set!

Semi Bluetooth Success

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For those who read this space regularly, you know that the one thing I’ve struggled with on my otherwise perfect new laptop is getting my Treo 755p working with Vista x64. The USB Cable option simply isn’t available, as Palm is too busy dying to support an up-and-coming version of the most popular operating system in history…

But, many people report success using Bluetooth to sync (and dial up I guess). I wasn’t able to get either working, even though I was able to pair the phone to my laptop (it has a built-in BT radio). I admit that I didn’t kill myself to get it going, but I tried many things.

Today, I decided to try again (given the hassles that I had on our trip this past weekend to Birmingham, where I connected through Lois’ old laptop using ICS). I found instructions on the Palm website for connecting Windows DUN via Bluetooth to a Treo 755p.

When I tried it, I got the same error that I did previously, “modem already in use”. This time, I had a clue (last time I didn’t). In messing around today, I deleted the original pairing, leaving myself without a device. Somehow, that hung Hotsync Manager. When I killed and restarted it, it said that it couldn’t connect to Serial Port COM41, but would connect automatically if it became available!

Aha, that was the clue I was missing, that somehow, Hotsync Manager was successfully grabbing the Serial Port, even though it wasn’t correctly syncing! After re-pairing (not repairing) 😉 I quit Hotsync Manager, and then did the normal DUN dance on the PC (with Sprint, you dial #777 with no username/password). I pay for full Phone-as-Modem (PAM) from Sprint, but on XP I use their Sprint Broadband Connection Manager application (which won’t even install on Vista x64!).

Voila, it dialed and authenticated right away. I had a semi-pokey connection, 341Kbps download and 105Kbps upload, but hey, that’s infinitely better than no connection at all!

At least now we don’t both need to share one connection. That’s not the big win though. At some point, Lois might actually want to switch to her new laptop (don’t hold your breath, I stopped holding mine!) 😉 and when that happens, we wouldn’t have had any Treo connectivity. Now each of us will be able to use our phones via BT if/when necessary. I continue to hope to never need such a connection, but at least I’m not as likely to cancel the insurance premium just yet, now that I know it works.

Sprint will continue to get a crazy premium from me for the moment, until an Android phone that I like becomes available. Now if I can only figure out how to sync via BT (others claim it works perfectly, but my phone hangs every time, instantly)… 🙁

Welcome Vista x64

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I wrote quite a while ago that I had ordered two new laptops for Lois and me, with Vista x64 on them. They took a lot longer to arrive than anyone thought (including the vendor, PowerNotebooks), due to delays in getting the LCD’s from China.

Because of all of the delays, I had to keep updating my shipping address (we’re nomads). Unfortunately, while I communicated the correct address by the time the machine actually shipped, due to human error (which originated at the vendor, but then was replicated at UPS), they shipped to the apartment, even though we were at the house. They arrived at the apartment at 7:45pm last Thursday. Once I verified with the doorman that they were there, Lois and I drove the 2-hour round-trip in the rain to bring them back to the house.

I didn’t boot mine until the morning, knowing that if I turned it on at 10pm, I would have stayed up all night. 😉

I wanted to blog about my first impressions on Saturday, but I’ve been wildly busy (largely with the new toys, but with a number of other things as well) that by now, it’s no longer fair to call it a first impression, since I’ve been using the machine full time for five days now.

First the bottom line, for those who don’t care about details (and are annoyed to have read through the intro already!): I love Windows Vista x64, and I love this particular laptop even more!

OK, on to the details, for those who care.

First, the machine, because it’s the most awesome laptop I’ve ever used. There’s only one thing I am not crazy about on it, and I’ll definitely get used to it (thankfully, I always do!).

Here’s a link to the base model of my machine. I upgraded a number of the features, notably:

4GB low-latency RAM
1920×1200 screen res
Intel P9500 low wattage CPU
4GB Turbo Memory
320GB SATA 7200RPM Disk
Windows Vista Ultimate 64 bit

Most of my friends have Macs, and they swear by them. I made a career on Wall Street deploying NeXT machines, so I full well understand the power of the Mac. There are many reasons why I haven’t been tempted to buy one, but near the top of the list is the fact that you are locked in to their hardware, and you pay a premium for the privilege, in every respect!

This machine is customized and tuned to my exact needs. And even with the above tweaks, it’s cheaper than a high-end MacBook Pro (yes, yes, I know that they look cooler, ooh…).

This machine is a screamer. I simply can’t believe how fast things load, and how fast they run. One example (of many!) is iTunes. On my pretty damn fast Windows XP machine (it had a Desktop Pentium IV running at 3.4GHz!) iTunes took forever to load before even showing the Loading Library message. On this laptop, you better not blink. You never see the Loading Library message, as iTunes is already open a second after you double click the icon. Wow.

But, the additional 4GB of Turbo Memory (the equivalent of built-in Windows Boost) is amazing. I recently wrote about my new favorite program, Digsby. While Digsby runs fast enough (even on the old machine), it actually loads quite slowly. While acceptable on the new machine, it was one of the few apps that wasn’t screaming. I config’ed it to run from the Turbo Memory, and it’s now a screamer too. Other programs that ran nearly instananeously anyway, are now truly instantaneous. Awesome!

One final word on the machine, it’s cool! No, I don’t mean cool, as in design cool like a Mac. I mean it runs cool. After it’s on for 12 straight hours, you can touch the bottom of the machine, and it’s not even warm! Practically every laptop I’ve touched in the past five years (this wasn’t the case 10 years ago!) runs hotter than an oven. You can’t put them on your lap, ever. This one feels like it wasn’t even turned on.

There are two reason why I chose the low-wattage version of the Intel CPU (25 Watts instead of 35). The first was so that it wouldn’t run so hot (man, this was a bigger win than I expected). The second is related, and that is that if it doesn’t run so hot, it would be quieter (Lois’ last machine was louder than a Jet Engine!), because the fans wouldn’t have to work overtime. This machine is whisper quiet, all day, every day!

Now the one thing I don’t like about the machine. The keyboard layout is different enough from my last machine that I keep having to look to hit certain keys (notably, the arrow keys, which are too tightly placed, and the delete key). Also, while there is a full-size shift key on the left, the right hand shift key is chiclet-sized. The enter key is a little small too. The tactile feel is OK, but pressing keys makes a louder noise than I care for, making me self-conscious when I type while Lois is asleep (happens more often than you’d think). I always get used to new keyboards, so this too shall pass, but at the moment, it’s the only annoyance I have with the machine…

I agonized for months about which OS to run on my (eventual) new laptop. I really wanted it to be Linux. I was tired of the Microsoft treadmill. I like Linux, so that wasn’t going to be a problem (I really like administering my own server). However, I knew that I would have to run Windows (any flavor) in a Virtual Machine (VM), for a number of applications that I really don’t want to live without (yes, I can easily live without them). The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I was just copping out to not just recommit to another round of Windows on the new laptop.

So, with that, I had to decide whether to stick with XP, which I basically like (I certainly don’t love it), or give Vista a shot, or wait until Windows 7, etc. After helping a friend with a new Vista laptop, I was an instant hater of Vista, and quite vocal about it. I blogged about how stupid Microsoft was for forcing people to take Vista instead of extending the life of XP (which they ended up doing at least twice!). So, I’m not coming at this from a fanboy perspective.

Then I heard from a few friends that after installing Vista SP1 (Service Pack 1), their machines became rock solid. When my friend’s machine was overtaken by spyware, I agreed to clean it for her. It was as painful dealing with it as it was the first time. But, after fighting it for a few hours, I was finally able to force SP1 to install (from a USB key, which I downloaded SP1 onto from my XP laptop!). Once SP1 was on the machine, it became completely stable.

That gave me at least the courage to consider Vista. I started reading as many blogs as I could about people’s actual experiences with it. The more I read, the less nervous I was. People were also raving about Vista x64. I wanted the benefits of extra memory, the Turbo Memory, etc., but I was worried about compatibility. Most people said it simply wasn’t an issue. So, nervously, I chose the x64 flavor.

I am very glad I did. I can’t believe how well the 32-bit emulation/virtualization works. It’s invisible. Everything installs normally (no warnings, just into a separate “Programs (x86)” directory. You can’t feel any difference in the speed (at least not on this class of machine). Programs that I was really afraid would give me a hassle just worked, perfectly, the first time.

In addittion, quite a number of programs are available in native 64 bit versions, including iTunes!

So far, there is a single program that I have that doesn’t fully support Vista x64. Palm Desktop. Even that runs in 32-bit mode, correctly (even though their page doesn’t even make that claim, simply stating that the application isn’t supported on 64 bit operating systems, implying it won’t even install!). The only thing that doesn’t work (and it’s a biggie!) is that they don’t support Hot Syncing over a USB cable (which I really need, regardless of the fact that I have built-in Bluetooth support on the machine and on my Treo 755p).

So, they were too lazy to get a 64-bit USB driver coded? Seriously, that’s all that’s missing. And people wonder why Palm is going out of business as fast they possibly can. Mac is going 64 bit, Vista is, the world is (eventually), but Palm can pretend that it just doesn’t matter to them…

Am I annoyed? A drop, but it will simply accelerate my switch to a non-Palm phone, even though I’m reasonably happy with my Treo (I started with the 650, upgraded to a 700 and then to a 755, so they will be losing a very loyal customer), I will likely get a Google Android phone, whenever the right model becomes available on Verizon (I’m currently a happy Sprint customer, yes, the only one perhaps, but they too will be losing me over issues like this…).

So, that leaves 32 vs 64 bit decisions. For example, there are versions of Firefox (my default browser) that are 64 bit (code name Minefield). After thinking about it a lot, and reading a lot, I decided that I’d rather go for the latest build, supported by Mozilla, with the latest security patches. So, I have gone with 32 bit versions whenever the 64 bit version isn’t natively supported by the vendor. I have had zero regrets. Firefox screams, Thunderbird screams, Google Chrome screams, etc.

I was a tad worried that apps like Sling Box wouldn’t work well. Wrong. Not only is it running nicely, it’s the latest version (which was an upgrade for me) 2.x. It even correctly updated the firmware on my Sling Box at home (300 miles away at the time I did it) over my Verizon FiOS link (which is fast enough for me not to have worried about doing it remotely!). Of course, my Poker software runs too, whew! 😉

So, other than Palm being stupid and lazy, I haven’t found anything that didn’t just work. Any compatibility issues between my favorite XP apps and Vista were theoretical, thankfully. I am not giving Vista the credit for the speed improvements, as I bet that this laptop would have run XP way faster than my old one did, but still, Vista hasn’t slowed me down, or gotten in my way.

Since the machine is fast, I have all of the animations (Aero stuff) turned on. They’re cool, and since they aren’t even slowing me down even slightly, I’ll keep the eye candy on! (They’re off on Lois’ machine, because the motion makes her sick, literally, so it’s not a speed issue there either.)

Finally, one of my favorite features of Vista (it’s also available to be downloaded and installed in XP) is Windows Desktop Search (WDS). I have been a long-time user of X1 (I started when they had a deal with Yahoo!, calling the download Yahoo! Desktop Search). To me, it killed Google Desktop Search (though GDS has had a number of version upgrades, so I’m comparing old versions). X1 indexes everything, including my Thunderbird mail, and I find things instantly.

In addition, I also ran Launchy for keyboard launch services (very happily, it’s a great program). Neither is necessary any longer. WDS is fantastic, and instantaneous as well. There are a number of ways to get at it, but the simplest is to press the Win key (or click the Windows Icon, previously known as the Start Menu). Then just start typing.

I use it to launch programs (rarely do I have to type more than the first two characters, then hit Enter). I use it to search for text in documents, contact info, etc. The only problem for me at the moment is that it doesn’t natively index Thuderbird email (it does a wonderful job of Outlook mail, obviously). There is a years-old plugin for Thunderbird 1.x, and I don’t want to install it. I can index Thuderbird files as if they were just plain text files, but I’ve chose not to as yet.

I’m waiting (patiently) for Thunderbird 3.0, a few more months only (I hope), because it has a plugin for WDS to enable native search. That will be the final icing on this wonderful cake. Not to start a flame war (seroiusly), but I’ve looked over the shoulder of Mac users when they used Spotlight, and it’s a funny joke to me that anyone would consider it usable…

So, from a true hater of Vista, to a true fanboy, in about six months. And, of course, a major fanboy of PowerNotebooks as well.

PowerNotebooks Laptops Ordered

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I’ve written about my laptop a number of times. Separately, I’ve written about Windows XP, Vista, Linux and what I might choose when buying a new laptop.

This morning, I ordered two identical laptops from PowerNotebooks.com, one for me and one for Lois. Here is the link to the specific model: PowerPro I 8:17. I max’ed out a bunch of the options (but not all), so these are extremely sweet machines.

First, a few words about PowerNotebooks.com. The last five laptops that I have paid for personally have all come from PowerNotebooks.com (with these two, that makes seven!). My current Sager NP8890 was the first one purchased from them, over four years ago. I still love the machine, and will definitely feel a bit like I’m cheating on it with my new one.

Since then, I’ve purchased two other Sager models, one for Lois, and one for my godson. I then bought a PowerPro for my goddaughter, and then a PowerPro for my godson. PowerNotebooks.com carries a number of brands. We’ve been extremely happy with our Sagers and PowerPros. They stand behind their machines, and have been incredible in solving problems when they’ve come up over the years. Pricing is very fair as well, for these extremely high-end machines.

I really can’t say enough about the choice and customer service offered by PowerNotebooks.com, and am proud to count myself among their happy and loyal customers.

Now for my choice of OS. I’ve railed in the past against Vista. At the time, it was inconceivable to me that I would ever install it on any machine under my control. While I was reasonably happy with XP, I was heavily leaning toward running Linux and having XP available in a virtual machine. I spent a few seconds considering a Mac, which most of the tech people I know use and love.

As much as the romance of running Linux appealed to me, I knew that I couldn’t remotely consider not having XP available in a VM (the same would be true if I bought a Mac). The more I thought about it, the more it annoyed me that I was desperately trying to work around pretending that I wasn’t somehow married to Windows. In other words, I wasn’t being pragmatic, and I like being pragmatic.

So, I spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about and reading as much as I could about Vista, specifically Vista x64. As I noted in a previous post, Vista SP1 seemed to have solved the most heinous problems that I personally noticed in the original release of Vista.

Pragmatism has ruled the day (for me), and I am at peace with my decision. I have no doubt that I will love the PowerPro (from a hardware point of view). I will report back a few days after it becomes my regular machine on how I feel about Vista (64 bit or otherwise). That should be roughly two weeks from now.

While I can’t imagine that I’ll switch away from Vista, at least with this hardware choice, I could easily revert to XP or Linux. If I bought a Mac and didn’t like it, I could run XP natively as well, but I would have grossly overpaid for the hardware for that scenario.

Vista SP1

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If you stop by here regularly, then you know I’ve railed about Windows Vista at least once. Aside from hearing tons of complaints from friends and strangers, I had the displeasure of using my previously mentioned computer ministry to set up a new Dell computer for my cul-de-sac neighbor’s mom last year.

At that time, Dell was only offering Vista on some models of their laptops, something they then backed off of. The machine, a Dell 1501 was value priced, so I endorsed the purchase (Vista included) in advance. I only say this to make the point that I wasn’t against Vista before I experienced it directly!

Anyway, I had never seen a more unstable machine from the minute it was turned on. Since then, I haven’t been asked to work on it (thankfully), mostly because the mom really doesn’t use the machine much, and she’s not really a complainer by nature either.

Last week I wrote about working on one of their machines which ended up in a full reinstall of Windows XP. As a result, my friend asked me if I could take a look at her mom’s machine to make sure all was well. I agreed.

Yesterday afternoon her mom dropped off the laptop. When I booted it, it was every bit as unstable, and downright unpleasant to work on as I remembered. Every few minutes the desktop would restart itself (in XP, that might be explore.exe or explorer.exe, but I’m not really sure). Aside from that, everything took forever or hung awaiting some hidden dialog box requiring a click.

I struggled to apply Windows updates until the only one left was Vista SP1. That claimed to be a 66MB download, but even though I’m on a blisteringly fast Verizon FiOS connection, multiple attempts (at least five!) to install it all failed, with the package never fully downloading (on a wired connection).

I turned to my XP laptop and downloaded the full 484MB standalone Vista SP1 file directly to a flash drive. It came down so quickly I couldn’t believe it. I put the flash drive in the Vista laptop and ran the patch. It took a while (as they predicted), and rebooted a number of times (as they predicted), but when it was done, I had my first experience with a stable Vista machine!

It wasn’t half bad, and I’m man enough to admit it. I was then able to clean off some other bloatware, install some useful utilities, all without a hitch. The machine is running quite nicely, and I will be returning it to her later today.

I had heard similar things from other people. One friend of mine told me that Vista was crashing on her laptop a minimum of once a day. After she installed SP1, it hasn’t crashed even once, and that’s been over three months now.

Anyway, I’ll bash when it’s deserved, but correct when that is deserved as well, and it now seems reasonable to consider Vista if you are going with a Windows-based machine anyway.

If/when I get closer to buying a new laptop (could happen in a day, or in six months), I’ll share my thoughts on that, as I am heavily leaning towards running Vista 64 on any new machine I buy.

Microsoft Madness

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Yesterday, I read the following article on PC World’s website. It mirrored my thoughts about Windows XP vs Windows Vista perfectly, including direct experience not just theory.

What I learned in that post (which I probably should have known earlier but didn’t) is that Microsoft intends to stop most sales of Windows XP as of June 30th, 2008. I’m not really sure what most means in this context, but either way, it’s boneheaded.

I just did a quick search, and apparently it means that they likely won’t be offering it to OEMs, so if you expect to get Windows pre-loaded on a new laptop after June 30th, you’ll have a choice of Vista or Vista (or Vista or Vista, given that there are four version of Vista available!).

John Heckman questions whether Microsoft won’t bow to pressure and push back the June 30th date.

The minute I read the article I knew I was going to post this. My first instinct was to title it Wake Up Microsoft. Then this morning, it came to me, this is the perfect season to aptly and correctly use the term Madness.

It’s clear that Vista is a bomb. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone without an ax to grind that would seriously defend the merits of Vista over XP. It’s not the first time Microsoft has bombed with an entire operating system. How many of you are still running Windows ME?

At least with Windows ME, it died a relatively quick and painless death. With Vista, for any number of reasons, Microsoft isn’t willing to give up. Given enough time (and money), they will likely make it decent, though it’s unlikely to ever be great (given it’s core), and it’s not even likely to get decent given that they are already working on it’s successor.

The madness isn’t in not killing Vista (I understand that the investment and marketing bets that they’ve made are too big to simply throw away). The madness is taking away the only viable choice that still puts money in Microsoft’s pocket!

Folks, there’s no doubt that XP is eating into Vista sales. That’s the only reason that Microsoft wants to stop selling XP, they want to remove the competitive choice and force new computers to be pre-loaded with Vista! Will it work? Of course, there are many people who wouldn’t consider Linux or Mac under any circumstance, and they will grudgingly (or ignorantly) accept a machine with Vista on it, if they have no other choice.

This doesn’t make it a smart strategy. The sane move would be to keep offering XP as a choice (while heavily promoting Vista). Then, whenever Vista truly rivals XP (don’t hold your breath), or Windows 7 (or whatever it will be called when it finally arrives) is available, stop selling XP.

In the best case scenario, Microsoft will sell exactly the same number of licenses in total (Vista only, instead of a mix of Vista and XP). They will get to declare a huge PR win for Vista (look how sales ramped so nicely!). They will not get any additional profit (since they will be maintaining XP for years to come anyway). They will create a slew of miserable users who will equate Microsoft with pain (or worse).

In the worst case scenario, they will push people toward alternative operating systems like Mac and Linux.

I haven’t done a scientific survey, but I honestly believe that nearly every technology professional (business people too, not just developers) that I know has switched to using a Mac as their primary computing platform (most on laptops, but I know a number of people who use iMacs as well!). When I say “nearly every” one, I believe the number is pretty close to 90%.

Examples include Zope Corporation. While 100% of our services to customers are delivered on Linux-based servers, there is only one developer in the company that hasn’t switched to a Mac. Even the SAs (System Administrators) all got Macs recently (though one of them decided after the fact that he’s more productive on his Linux laptop).

My friends (you know who you are) have been needling me for years to switch to the Mac. I have very long experience with the origins of Mac OS X (NeXT), so no one needs to convince me of the power and the beauty of the underlying software.

I haven’t switched for two reasons:

  1. There are programs (some cool, some necessary) that only run on Windows, or at the very least, run on Windows way earlier than they become available on Mac.
  2. The value proposition of generic hardware (laptops and desktops) is overwhelming vs the Mac stuff. The Mac stuff is gorgeous, and brilliantly designed. Ultimately, it’s not worth the money and locks you in. They also have enough quality problems to make me pause.

My non-technology professional friends (neighbors for example) still prefer Windows. There are a number of reasons but they are all valid (games for their kids, Windows is used at the office, I know Windows, I don’t want to have to buy new copies of software I already paid for, etc.).

In April 2004 I bought my current laptop. In fact, I just wrote about that in this post. I bought it without an operating system pre-loaded because I was committed to switching to Linux full time. The experiment lasted six weeks (not too bad), but once I started running Windows in Win4Lin, I realized that I wasn’t quite ready to cut the Windows cord full time, and I installed Windows XP Pro.

There were two reasons that I switched back:

  1. 95% of the day I was happier on Linux than on Windows. 5% of the day I required a program that was only available on Windows. That 5% started to bug me more each day until I switched back.
  2. Linux was great in 2004, but it wasn’t quite as good on cutting edge hardware as it is today, and I had some real problems on my (at the time) brand new beast. It’s possible that I would have toughed it out if Linux had worked perfectly on my laptop back then. I have no doubt it would work flawlessly today.

My one direct experience with Vista came when my next door neighbor bought a new Dell Laptop for her mother. There was no choice, Vista only. I am their tech support team and she asked me to customize the machine for her mother when it showed up. I was amazed at the hoops I had to jump through to install programs onto the machine. I couldn’t begin to imagine what someone who was less technical would have done (other than throw the machine out!).

In addition, the machine crashed on me at least 10 times in one day during the setup. Sheesh.

Since then, I have been asked for laptop recommendations at least five times. In all cases, the buyer wanted Windows. In all cases I have vehemently recommended XP, and (amazingly enough) it was now available again as an option. None of those users has had a single problem with their new laptops.

Where does that leave me? As I mentioned in my spring cleaning post, I will likely be buying two new laptops at some point (possibly this year, but definitely next year if not in 2008). I have thought about this (before knowing about the demise of XP) for much longer than I care to admit, and I decided that I was going to stick with Windows. Sorry Mac fanboys. 😉

If Vista is my only choice, I can guarantee you that I won’t be buying it. Best case scenario (for Microsoft) is that I will buy a retail CD of XP and load it myself. Much more likely scenario is that I will install Linux on the machine, and try really hard to avoid the few Windows-only programs that I’ve come to rely on. The least likely choice is that I will break down and buy Mac laptops, but it’s not impossible (the possibility is at least on my radar for the first time ever).

So, coming full circle to my original post title: Wake Up Microsoft!