Today is a good day to code

Panic Button in Redmond

Posted: December 31st, 1969 | Author: | Filed under: Companies, Sun Microsystems, Uncategorized | Tags: | No Comments »

Panic Button in Redmond

Picture of Irv Owens Web DeveloperIf the announcement of a collaboration between Sun and Google doesn't set off alarm bells at Microsoft, then nothing will. Even the fact that some states have chosen to use Open Office shouldn't necessarily toll the bell of doom for Microsoft since they indeed still have many, many office users. However, they have taken way too long to bring more web based features of Office for free, largely because of their forced concern over the security holes in Windows XP.

The truth of the situation is that Microsoft has taken its customers for granted. They have felt that since they own the way that companies store and access their data, they could dictate how they used that data. Microsoft decided that integrating their office suite with rich web services wasn't something that their customer base wanted. They were wrong.

Now, that isn't to say that everyone everywhere will just stop working on spreadsheets and word processing documents online immediately. They won't. Sun's CEO was right in that customers want more services and less software. Still, there are those who won't feel comfortable with Google storing or having access to their powerpoint financial statment due to go out to their customers while they are working on it. Nor will many businesses truly want to work on their sensitive data online. Google and Sun will release a version of Star Office that will be for corporate users who want secure internal collaboration. They will bundle it with a new version of the Google search appliance. This could definately be an Exchange killer.

I had thought for a while that Google was going to bring it to Redmond in a way that would make everyone go Ooooh. But never before has Google's intentions been clearer. They want to push Microsoft to the periphery to make the environment better for innovation in computing. They were very conscious about how they worded things in the press release and they are being very careful not to tip their hands, but it was interesting that Google's stock price dipped slightly after the announcement. It would seem that at least a few of Google's shareholders aren't too convinced about them taking Microsoft head on. I for one think that they have to do it, because they are the only ones who can do it. If the end result is only that we end up with a better Microsoft and a better Google, then the consumers still win.

Microsoft’s Back Alley Deals

Posted: December 31st, 1969 | Author: | Filed under: Companies, Sun Microsystems, Uncategorized | Tags: | No Comments »

Microsoft's Back Alley Deals

Picture of Irv Owens Web DeveloperIt is normal for Microsoft to be afraid. I mean Google recently announced an alliance with Sun. My question is why are they making deals with Yahoo and Real. Let's take a look at both.

The deal with Real is clearly a stab at Apple. In order for Microsoft to fight its way back, they have to work their way back into the user's PC space. Right now Apple has that. They have the first thing people do when they get back to their PC and the last thing they do before they leave their PC. This is something that must be difficult for Microsoft to accept. So the partnership with Real is supposed to make this better. Now, I want to understand this properly. Microsoft initially is considering a partnership with Gator, known for their unscrupulous behavior, placing adware and spyware on users' computers unaware. Fortunately they decided against this suicidal path.

Now they are interested in partnering with a company that “reverse engineered” Apple's algorithm to prevent their death. Real still has large contracts with education who would much rather be using Apple's QuickTime algorithm. Apple has accused them of adopting the ethics of hackers. Real is claiming that they are forced to use these tactics because Apple has an unfair hammer lock on the industry. This is bull, do you steal from your neighbor because they have a better house than you do? Would that justify stealing from them? Why would Microsoft want to partner with a company like this then? Microsoft knows how short their time is. They know that Google is dictating to them. They are desperate.

Now, for the second part of its dealings. The partnership with Yahoo for sharing IM solves a need for both companies. Microsoft can begin a strategic alliance with Yahoo to challenge Google on their level, and Yahoo gets a wider audience and possible cooperation with its software on the OS level. It could also mean breaks on their licensing of the windows media codec. So what is wrong with Micrsoft doing this? Well, nothing. In fact this is one of the best strategic moves that Microsoft has done in years. It will help them punish AOL for refusing them, and it will hopefully force Google to do something rash, which is what Microsoft desperately wants. They need an opportunity to take the lead on Google. The question is whether or not Google will take the bait and waste a bunch of money on AOL. Indeed the battle for the future of computing is actively moving out of the cold war era and into the active armed conflict stage. Things could get strange for a while with interoperability, but ultimately it will benefit consumers.

Do You Own the Software You Buy?

Posted: December 31st, 1969 | Author: | Filed under: Companies, Sun Microsystems, Uncategorized | Tags: | No Comments »

Do You Own the Software You Buy?

Picture of Irv Owens Web DeveloperTecmo recently announced that it has sued some of its customers over posting modifications to its games on the internet. Perhaps the most parental paranoia inspiring fact is that they have modified the game DOA volleyball, which features incredibly buoyant, unrealistically gorgeous, women playing volleyball. Some industrious individuals who are interested in sexy pixels have figured out how to modify the textures that comprise these digital vixen's bikinis in order to render them non-existant. That's right, nude volleyball. Most of us probably don't think that kids seeing nudity is all that bad, especially when completely out of context as far as sex goes. I don't think that is all that bad either, especially when they can freely see people cutting other people's heads off with lightsabers on Sunday night prime-time TV.

The larger issue is, however that these people have modified software. Most X-Box users can't enjoy these modifications unless they have modified their X-Boxes to do so. These kits are available all over the internet, and have made the X-Box a great cheap linux workstation. The thing about software though that most people don't get is that even though you go to the store, pay money, get a box, and take it home, you don't own that software. The company that made it still owns it, even though you have installed it onto your computer. What you have purchased is the right to use the software in accordance to the terms and conditions that the company has stipulated. Usually by installing the software you have agreed to these conditions whether you have read them or not.

Most of the conditions in the software contract have to do with modifications and re-distribution of the software. It is these clauses that have inspired Tecmo to sue these people. There is a minor difference with this case that the Judge in the case wisely caught on to. The software, distributed on a DVD-ROM is not modifyable, meaning that no one can permanently modify the code on the disc. The modifications are made by putting the software on the X-Box's hard drive and calling it through the X-Box hardware modification, therefore the party in question did not violate their software agreement as far as modification goes, also, they are not distributing any of the company's propriatary code. The Judge also seemed to think that the disc, belonged to the purchaser. I find that to be extremely interesting.

If the disc belongs to the purchaser, but the code contained within the disc does not, it seems that there could be a potentially ambiguous understanding of the EULA, or end-user licensing agreement. Technically, no matter what happens I can not modify that company's code, however once it is off the disc and onto my computer, if I have never installed it and therefore not agreed to the EULA, I should be able to do whatever I want to it right? Wrong, courts up until this recent case have almost always sided on the side of the software company. The reason is obvious, how could anyone stop the reverse engineering of software if a company could install and steal that code. The truly interesting thing is that most software development companies engage in reverse engineering all the time and get away with it, just take a look at Microsoft's MSN search. It seems just like Google, doesn't it?

I think the larger issue here is what it means to buy something. No one ever has had the understanding that when they pay rent every month for their apartment, they are buying it. If someone were to freely allow the tennants to believe that they were buying the apartment by paying every month, the tennant's lawyers would have a field day, citing fraud. The competing apartment's lawyers would also go into frenzy, citing an unfair advantage due to fraud. The landlord of the fraudlent apartment building would be forced to pay damages to the tennants who thought they were buying property. The same should go for software. Most people think they are buying the software, that they own it. That is another reason why piracy is so difficult to stop. If I think that I own a piece of software, then there is nothing wrong with my copying it off the original disc and onto my own disc to give to my friend.

Bill Gates has even said that software patents are useless. There are too many ways to write code. The only way to protect software is to either make it impossible to copy off the disc, which is owned by the buyer and therefore unacceptable, or to make the software unusable once copied off the disc. Tecmo should have known better. You can't sue someone for modifying their own property. The buyers own the X-Box. There is no EULA saying that the X-Box is still property of Microsoft, therefore there is no case. It doesn't make sense to try to litigate to keep your software from falling into the wrong hands, either just admit that when someone buys software it is theirs to do what the want with, and bring litigation only if they start selling your intellectual property. People think its theirs anyway, and unless you can sue millions of people, you won't win. The RIAA is learning that the hard way, all of the money spent litigating and people are still downloading music illegally. They haven't stopped anything, they have just made it harder to track.

(Read More abut this at CNET.)

Windows 2000

Posted: December 31st, 1969 | Author: | Filed under: Companies, Sun Microsystems, Uncategorized | Tags: | No Comments »

Windows 2000

Picture of Irv Owens Web DeveloperIt is very suprising that in the light of the stupendous failure of Windows XP to lure businesses away from Windows 2000, due to its awful mangling of a resonably solid code base, Microsoft would persist in attempting to bring Windows to a unified code base.

I understand that for them it is much cheaper to have a single team working on Windows, than to maintain different versions for their professional audience as well as their consumer space, but they really should look at some real-world use cases. In almost all of the corporate environments where Windows XP Professional is used, the individuals using those workstations almost always change the interface back to the old Windows 2000 look. They are doing this because the visual clutter associated with Windows XP is apalling. I remember the first time I installed XP and showed it to some friends, they told me that it looked like a circus and they weren't interested in it. I eventually found myself changing XP back to the old look, before switching completely to the Macintosh platform.

Microsoft would be well served to rethink their position on the combining of their “professional” and “home” code. I know that there is a “Home” version of XP that is awful, and there is a “Professional” version that is just bad. For the remaining PCs that I own, and I own many, I have reverted all of them to Windows 2000 because I am a developer. I want my software to work and I don't need a bunch of visual garbage.

Most people would then ask, “Why did you switch to OS X then?” Apple's visual garbage is not in my way. There aren't wizards to attempt to do every little thing for me and it doesn't hide icons or settings in little acordians making things hard for me as a user. Everything is where I need it or where I expect for it to be, and they don't change that. Windows 2000 was the same way. It is rock solid, I have maybe half of the crashes with 2000 that I have with XP, and I think much of that is due to Microsoft still trying to support software that ran on Windows 95. Microsoft should go back to peddling their buggy user-friendly code to consumers for $79.99, and give the solid consistent no-nonsense code to businesses for $299.99. Its more expensive, but which is better saving 2 million dollars on revenues of 3 million, or spending 17 million dollars on revenues of 100 million, and re-establishing your reputation. I think any businessperson with half a head on their shoulders would figure out that the latter is the way to go.

Perhaps the Department of Justice had something when they suggested that Microsoft split up. I think it would have made the company a lot stronger, and that Microsoft should pursue this course of action of its own volition. They should spin off their search, home OS, professional OS, and office divisions into their own pseudo-corporations with budgets and little to no interference from the top. These modules should be able to come up with their own software and product agendas, and be able to act more independently. Then perhaps Microsoft would get back the innovative scrappy spirit that made it what it is. The home group could develop a killer version of Windows that worked with the XBox in some previously unimagined configuration that would revolutionize home entertainment, and it would work with everything under the sun. Maybe for kicks it could even be stable and in true Microsoft style have a strange bulbous UI that would appeal to characters who might make cameos on the saturday morning cartoon Tokyo Pig.

Then on the other hand, they could release a slick sexy OS for business that used the 3D performance of nVidia and ATi's graphics cards for purpose and not for eye candy. The OS wouldn't be based on 10 year old technology, and it would use biometrics for security. The business OS would be focused on speed, security, and efficiency, and would be a perfect platform for software development. It would bundle IIS and the standard version of the visual studio tools. The business release would create new avenues of developemnt for Microsoft, since with these tools it would be more work to badly code interface elements and other interactions with the underlying OS. It would continue in the true Windows 2000 fashion.

While all this is a dream, the reality is that “Longhorn” has too much visual garbage. The 3D, in the most recent betas, seems tacked on and is not used to any particular effect. The look of the betas is much better than Windows XP, but it is still not really dialed in. Apple did the brushed metal thing, and I am hoping that Microsoft can get a little more original than that. Apple has some three different interface looks going on in “Tiger” which is ridiculous. I have to commend the “Longhorn” UI designers on their consistency of the interface.

There is no reason for businesses to upgrade to “Longhorn” since the hardware requirements to get it to be any different from Windows XP will not be worth it. Microsoft can try to release Office to require users to upgrade, but they haven't really innovated in this space since Office 2000 anyway so that won't work. What they really need to do is to get the OS figured out in tandem with some new really cool way for their customers to work. If they can not do this they'll figure out the hard way that business users are pretty happy with what they've got and Redmond isn't releasing anything that makes them want to change. This is the core problem, and it has a lot to do with the compatability garbage built into Windows XP Pro and Home. On paper, Microsoft is way out front, but in reality Bill Gates is right, any kid anywhere in their garage can put Microsoft out of business. At least he still has the sense to know that. Hopefully he can inspire that same level of paranoia in his team, or it will be a long ugly decay for Microsoft, and all those little companies they stepped on heading up will have fun picking at their bones on the way down.

The Security Question

Posted: December 31st, 1969 | Author: | Filed under: Companies, Sun Microsystems, Uncategorized | Tags: | No Comments »

The Security Question

Picture of Irv Owens Web DeveloperIt seems that something like three in every ten tech articles is about some virus, exploit, or other security warning. They are starting to sound like the local news, predicting doom and gloom because clicking on this email, or that link can wipe out your computer. I think they are being particularly unfair to Apple, being the largest company with a reputation for security. It wouldn't suprise me too much to see them pay someone to write a Mac virus so that they would have something to talk about. I guess dual-core processors isn't a juicy enough topic, they need something more scary so they go for the “flaws” in Mac OS that Apple patched. Give me a break! Any developer that has written a stitch of code knows that whenever you release any piece of that software to the public things come up that you didn't, and probably couldn't forsee. Mainly surrounding users, and they way they use the applications. Much of the more egregious user problems can be ironed out by getting complete specs and building proper functionality into software, but 90% of this stuff comes down to education.

Now they are harping on Dashboard in Mac OS X 10.4 “Tiger.” They are trying to make it out to be the next ActiveX as far as bad security goes, or bad development decisions. Dashboard is an incredibly useful feature for legitimate development. No software developer should allow malware writers to determine what features or software goes into their products. That would be kind of like allowing terrorists to dictate your country's foreign policy wouldn't it? Those types of decisions should be made by the users and the software developer. Security should be thought of after the features are included. Dashboard is relatively safe. You would have to be root, or be able to execute a perl script that would gain you root access to be able to destroy someone's computer. Since you have to jump through some hoops on a Mac to enable root user access, and for most applications you don't need to be root anyway, the effects of this will be minimal.

If you download a widget from what appears to be a legitimate site that turns out to be porn, just delete it and if it offends you, let Apple and the BBB know what the details are and how you feel you have been wronged. If you download a widget from a sketchy website and it asks you to authenticate and you do it, then it deletes all your files, you probably deserve to have it happen. No one would get into a car and drive it without learning how to not drive off into a ravine, computers are the same way, there are some simple rules about how to operate it safely, and it is up to the media and users to learn about how to do this.

Instead of just reporting on the bad stuff, giving hackers and malware writers more reason to write malicious code, how about educating Ma and Pa computer user about how to spot nasty code, or malware. I'll start.

  • If you open something from the web and the OS prompts you to enter your password, don't do it until you are absolutely sure about what you are doing. If a password is needed, the company that sent you the object should give a good explanation as to why.
  • In the case of Dashboard, I agree with a poster on macrumors; In your preferences, turn off “Open Safe Files after Download.” Make sure you have to explicitly execute the file to run it. This will prevent widgets from installing themselves
  • Think about where you are when you are downloading. Do you know these people? Is it a friend's site? What is their reputation? I don't download anything from a site of which I know nothing. If your pop-up blocker is saying that it has blocked ten pop-ups from this site, then you probably don't want to download anything from them.
  • Make sure you have a valid email address or phone number for anyone whose software you install. Chances are that if they don't respond to email or phone calls, then their software isn't any good. Unless of course you know personally the programmer.
  • Don't use Windows 98, Windows 95, or Windows 3.1 anymore. Go ahead, treat yourself to an update. Last time I checked Windows XP ran decently on a PIII 1 GHz computer with 256 MB of RAM. You probably shouldn't be running a pre-security era operating system if you plan to use the internet. If you are on a Mac, OS X 10.4 will run on a circa 2001 iMac G3, or an old PowerMac blue and white just fine. I am currently running “Tiger” on the iMac 500 and it is reasonable, but better yet, it is way more secure than Mac OS 9
  • Don't open email from people that you don't know personally, or who have a phone number that you have called. If you are unsure, just click new and send an email back to that person and see if you get a decent response. Better yet, delete anything that looks suspicious. I have friends ask me whether I got the email they sent, and I say no becuase I follow an aggresive policy regarding email. Usually we can catch up over IM anyway. Its that simple, just delete, delete, delete.
  • If you are on the web and you see that you have just won a new iPod, or that you have just won a trip, or you have just won a new laptop! Just remember that in this world nothing is given for free, and most of the time these are just hoaxes to get you to give up your personal information so the companies can spam you in various and sundry ways. If you get an email to that effect, or these silly refinancing emails, don't trust them. You have to ask yourself, how did they get my email address in the first place? They probably bought it from some spam outfit looking for a quick buck. They probably aren't reputable.

Probably the most important thing is to upgrade. Don't be afraid of updates from Apple and Microsoft. The short term pain of applying the patch and possibly having some buggy behavior is worth keeping the mountains of files you have on your computer and not losing them to some virus. Whether or not you like Windows XP / 2000 or Mac OS X, they are much more secure than their predecessors.

On the server side, admins should go ahead and update their IIS, JRun, Apache, Tomcat, JBoss, or whatever HTTP server they are using, it is a pain in the behind, I know because I just had to do it, but the more recent versions are way more secure. In most environments you might see some improvement in performance too, of course you should test it thoroughly before deploying the upgrade, and I know that most admins are way overburdened as it is, but isn't it better to have a updated server than to have to keep fixing the same old issues?