Publishing an Exchange calendar from Outlook to Outlook.com – not as simple as it should be

Despite the existence of standards, Calendar synchronisation is not easy.  I did once have a convoluted system that worked (sort of) but it fell apart when I switched away from using Google products.

Last night I was trying to work out why an old recurring calendar appointment from years ago was still popping up in the Windows 8.1 Calendar on my family PC.  It turned out to be quite simple: my outlook.com account was still subscribed to an old Google calendar that I don’t keep updated.  Unfortunately, what followed was about an hour of trying various solutions to get my calendars in sync again when I should really have been sleeping…

Removing old calendar subscriptions from outlook.com was fairly straightforward but I wanted to allow my work calendar (on Exchange) to be visible in Outlook.com (and hence on my family PC).  Access controls mean that a “pull” approach won’t work but, in the past, I’ve “pushed” a calendar using Outlook’s publish to a WebDAV server feature. When I had this working before (probably several PC rebuilds ago), I used a private URL for a Google calendar in the format  http://www.google.com/calendar/ical/user@domain.com/private-longstring/basic.ics but Outlook 2013 refused to use that location last night, telling me that “The address you typed is not valid. Check the address, and then try again.”

I could just maintain two calendars and overlay them in Outlook, but, whilst that will show me my personal and work appointments in a single view, it doesn’t help with free/busy time (i.e. stopping someone from booking an appointment with me at work when I’m not available to work). So my work calendar has to be the “master” and I simply sync it to another location so I can view it on other devices.

So, I set up an account with iCal Exchange (iCalShare is an alternative), creating a private calendar that Outlook was happy to publish to.  Result. Except it seems that outlook.com can only subscribe to calendars that are not password protected.  Meanwhile, Microsoft’s advice for sharing an Outlook calendar on Outlook.com would be better described as “export a point in time copy of an Outlook calendar to Outlook.com, and then share it”.

With my bed calling me, I set up a public calendar as a workaround but I’d rather keep my calendar private – even if I’m not sharing the full details of my appointments.  So, it looks like I’ll have to set up my own WebDav server (security by obscurity is not ideal either) just to publish from Outlook (connected to Exchange) to Outlook.com (and on to my family’s Windows 8.1 PC).

Incidentally, whilst working on this issue, I stumbled on an interesting post about “private” items in Outlook/Exchange – they may not be as private as you think!

Are web services really the right answer for small business IT?

A few months ago I moved my home/small business IT to Google Apps. After a few years of running my own servers, it was a big step for me to trust someone else to run it for me but it seems to be working OK… up to a point.

You see, Google may be managing my e-mail, calendar, etc. but they are not backing it up. After all, it’s not very often that you get something for nothing in this world and that’s what I’m paying Google – nothing. So, I needed to find a way to back up my GMail (I have the information on how to do this – I just haven’t finished putting the process in place). Then there’s the migration of my previous Exchange Server data to Google. It’s possible, but painfully slow, using a client application to transfer messages with frequent timeouts (with 10 years’ worth of e-mail to transfer, I’ve given up for the time being – and that’s just for one user).

Software as a service is all very well, backed up with proper service level agreements – but using anything less than that in a business context is really a bit risky.

After all, what happens when that service that you’re paying absolute nothing for stops working?

But it’s really reliable – isn’t it? Yes, undoubtably, Google Apps and competing platforms are reliable but not entirely infallible. And when they fail, you can bet your bottom dollar that it won’t be a good time for you.

Yesterday I was trying to send e-mail from Google Apps Mail (GMail) and I got an HTTP error 500 (server generated error). Today I’ve been having a few problems too – and I’ve had to turn off Calendar and Contacts syncing with my iPhone (where iTunes syncs with Google) because it was hanging… so it seems that all is not well in the part of the cloud where my data sits.

Google Mail server unavailable error

But it’s not exclusively a Google problem. FolderShare is too old - time to upgradeSeeing what Microsoft is doing around Windows Live wave three had made me start to think that maybe I backed the wrong horse until the early hours of this morning, when I sat down at my Mac to be told that the version of Windows Live FolderShare I was using no longer worked and that I should upgrade to Windows Live Sync (just like that, without any warning, although it does seem that some users received an e-mail in advance). Even though I’m really busy at the moment, trying to juggle work (where it’s appraisal season and I need to make sure I hit all of my management’s ill-thought-out-and-not-very-SMART objectives), exam study (MCSE 2003 to MCITP Enterprise Administrator 2008 upgrade), blogging (not much of that happening right now), podcasting (ditto), Christmas preparations, spending some time with my family, etc., etc., I did update to Windows Live Sync… Windows Live Sync is too old too...only to find that the current Mac client also claims to be too old and that I should download a new version from… the place where I downloaded this version from – arghh… (at least it seems I’m not alone).

And so what exactly is my point? Well, my point is that, when I operate the infrastructure, I plan when the upgrades happen – I don’t just sit down at my computer one day to be told that I must upgrade right now to continue using a service. Frankly I could do without this week’s Google Apps problems, Windows Live Sync upgrades, etc. and would rather upgrade at my convenience.

Cloud computing is all very well – but the current wave of web services are not ready for the enterprise and I’m even starting to question whether they are ready for small business IT (at least not without retaining some on premise IT service provision). I’m sure that the chargeable services that Amazon, Microsoft, et al are putting together will change things over time but it’s still early days yet and running a business on free, pre-release software (yes, that’s what a beta is – even if it’s an incessant beta) is probably not a smart idea.

Microsoft after hours: the sequel

A little over 18 months ago, I attended an event at Microsoft titled “Vista After Hours”. The idea was that, instead of showing us all the features of the Windows ecosystem that were relevant to daily life as an IT Professional, Microsoft would demonstrate some of the things that can be done in Windows apart from work – demonstrating that the world of Windows is not all about dull, corporate applications.

Earlier this week, I was back for more – as Viral Tarpara, Paul Foster and Jamie Burgess demonstrated some of Microsoft’s products aimed at consumers and hobbyists.

As is likely to become the norm around here for such events (so many blog posts, so little time), I won’t write it up in full but here are some of the highlights:

  • Gears of War 2 – the latest big game for the Xbox 360 and phenominally successful (but I’m not a games guy).
  • Viral took a look at Windows Live Services – Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft (MSN/Live) are all doing similar things (although each will claim that it has the best new features!) – taking a look at a few of Microsoft’s Windows Live Services:
    • A new look for live.com is on it’s way to the UK. Personally, I like it – and you can hover the mouse over certain positions on that day’s picture to see links to potentially interesting facts.
    • Windows Live Mail: with a new Outlook-like interface and the ability to connect to multiple mail services (and chose which send via); add own stationary (arghh!); and it will soon include photo e-mail capabilities (e.g. select 4 photos, all resized and embedded in e-mail – rather than as an attachment – then add a frame, or make it black and white, make contrast corrections, etc.).
    • Windows Live Photo Gallery provides a gallery view for resizing, viewing/adding metadata, tagging and editing photos (preserving the original) but publishing etc. is where the Live Services come in and pictures may be published to Flickr, Windows Live Spaces, etc. The end result is highly functional software on the desktop PC, plus services in the cloud.
    • Windows Live Writer is Microsoft’s blogging software and it: integrates with various platforms (WordPress, Blogger, etc. – even SharePoint); applies the site’s stylesheet to the posts as you write; allows insertion of pictures, videos (YouTube or Soapbox), etc.
    • Windows Live Maps: whilst many people use Google Maps – Microsoft claim that Live is superior for business requirements (I prefer the Google mapping view) and it now features: a 3D view using an Internet Explorer/Firefox browser plugin (and no more page refreshes – zoom in and out – very impressive, although it’s a lot smoother on Microsoft’s Internet connection than on mine); a bird’s eye view which uses a Photosynth-like effect to select high resolution images; a free API to use and expose in own applications; collections of public or private searches (e.g. a walk around 3D Manhattan) using public data to link to map (e.g. Times Square).
  • Paul demonstrated Photosynth, which works out how pictures relate to one another in a four dimensional space to build up a complete picture. Because synths only show the data that this appropriate at this moment in time it’s possible to jump around and explore the environment at a reasonable speed. Using the example of Stonehenge, even though the photos were all taken at eye level, the synther can work out where the stones stand so that it is possible to view from above (or even below!). More images helps it to work out more points of view and speech synthesis technologies such as mousegrid can be used to navigate and scroll around.
  • Even I (the non-gamer) was impressed by the new Xbox 360 experience that Jamie demonstrated (due for a worldwide release today for a phased deployment to all Internet-connected Xbox 360s):

    • The user interface has been redesigned and blades have been replaced with a dashboard.
    • Music can be streamed from another PC to the Xbox and played over the top of games or anything else; effectively the Xbox becomes the presentation layer in the living room.
    • Avatars are a huge new feature – with more and more options coming online all the time.
    • Games may be stored on the hard drive.
    • Xbox messaging capabilities integrates with non-Xbox users of Windows Live Messenger (e.g. on PCs).
    • The interface is much more graphical/visual than previously and therefore become much more immersive.
  • Paul showed how Community Games allow anyone (or at least anyone who can write code) to create and publish their own games to Xbox Live (10 million people) including charging Microsoft points and sharing the revenue with Microsoft (the approval process does require accurate rating of the game’s suitability). XNA Game Studio is used with the Express Edition development tools and the resulting games will run on Windows, XBox, or Zune. For more information, check out the XNA UK user group, which aims to provide “a helping hand for bedroom coders throughout the land”.
  • Moving on to home automation systems, Jamie spoke about how he had run co-axial and CAT5 cabling around his parents’ house to stream content from two Sky Plus boxes to almost any room, using IR receivers in the ceiling to control everything from a single remote control. Further information on this type of setup (with Windows Media Center) can be found at The Digital Lifestyle and The Green Button. Much more tangible was Paul’s demonstration of his home automation with everything from recording and playing media content in Windows Media Center to using the mControl digital home software to remotely access CCTV feeds, set the temperature in a room and even water the plants in the garden. B&QBased on a system of scheduling and triggers, Paul demonstrated a HomeEasy system (available from B&Q) with an RF controller and xPL software to control lights (a blog post has been promised…). More Home Automation products are available from Let’s Automate.
  • Viral took a look a some more of the Windows Live services and admitted that the current version of the Windows Live Homepage is not as engaging as other Web 2.0 technologies (the good thing about Viral is that he may be a ‘softie but he also admits to using alternative solutions “because that’s how real people work”) before commenting that a new version will have tighter integration with various other services (e.g. Flickr, Twitter, etc.).
  • Viral also showed off some of the new features in the latest Windows Live Messenger beta – things like assigning your own entrance sound to play on your friends’ messenger client (uh huh… that will be annoying); what’s new (see what friends are up to – a bit like a Facebook status); activities – games, calendar swap, etc.; and photosharing where you can send a series of thumbnails by messenger and recipient can browse for more detail.
  • Ethernet over powerline is a technologies I considered until I replaced my wireless access point with something decent and Jamie briefly mentioned the success he’s had with a NetGear 200Mbps solution in his modern apartment (where the building construction makes Wi-Fi difficult.
  • Jamie then went on to talk about modifying his Mazda MX5 with a 7 inch touchsreen, connected to a mini-ITX PC in the boot, running a Centrafuse front end for GPS (USB attached), Radio, Phone via Bluetooth, Playlist, Music and videos (using a USB dongle Wi-Fi synchronisation between the car and his home whilst in the garage), OBDII diagnostic data, camera, weather, etc. Apparently, you can even have Live Mesh working on this solution too. It sounds like a neat in car entertainment solution but it also sounds like the classic case of a rich kid putting more electronics inside his car than the car is worth… but if this sounds like something of interest then check out MP3car.com.
  • So, moving on to Live Mesh, Viral demonstrated it as a combination of social networking and synchronisation so that files in Mesh-enabled folders on each connected device are synchronised so that data is accessible wherever (based on synchronisation policies to control which contacts can see which data). Using the “Synchronising Life” video I embedded in my recent post on Windows Live FolderShare, he spoke of the potential for Mesh-enabled picture frame and gave a real-world example of how he (in the UK) and his girlfriend (in the USA) share pictures and other information via Live Mesh as the different timezones and work schedules mean that they may not be online at the same time.
  • Paul spoke of how he has Windows XP Pro trimmed down to 384MB and running on a USB key with a mini-ITX PC. It’s possible to do this using the evaluation tools for Windows XP Embedded/CE to strip down although the operating system image does expire. Pico-ITX PCs are even smaller yet still offer USB support, VGA output and SATA II drives. Find out more at mini-itx.com.
  • A Microsoft Surface table is a $10,000 device based on a technology called Frustrated Total Internal Reflection (FTIR). Paul demonstrated build a DIY multitouch device using nothing more than a cardboard box, a webcam, a sheet of perspex and a sheet of paper, together with software from the Natural User Interface group). Basically, he fed the webcam through a hole in the bottom of the box (camera facing up) and used the perspex as surface (with paper on top to block out ambient light). The NUI software will handle the view, inverting the image, removing the background, etc. but some additional coding will be required in order to build multi-touch applications. I have to say that it was pretty amazing!
  • Next up – robotics. Those who were at the Windows Server 2008 launch in Birmingham earlier this year may remember Paul’s A1-DW robot (A1 = top stuff, DW = a bit of a dimwit – he needs to be told what to do) but Paul showed a video of the robot working its way around his house. A1-DW is controlled with software developed using the Microsoft Robotics Developer Studio (MRDS) which is free for non-commercial use and provides a combination of a visual programming language and physics-enabled based simulation. In Paul’s demonstration he used a simple programme to join the SetDrivePower control on a GenericDifferentialDrive to the TriggersChanged event from XInputController (a Wireless Xbox controller) and drove it around the room – the idea being that services scattered across a home network (one big grid computer) can be used to control less powerful robot.
  • The next demonstration was of Windows Home Server, showing how this product has a very simple user interface, designed to make it easy for consumers to set up a server in their home and manage users, shared folders, storage and websites (e.g. for sharing a photo album with friends and family). Plugins are available (e.g. mControl for home server) whilst the network status is indicated with a simple red, amber, green system which advises of any action to be taken (e.g. update anti-virus definitions, perform a backup). There is also a simple interface for setting up backups, password policies, remote access (reverse DNS is established via the Windows Live ID authentication process – upon sign in, the IP address of the server is recorded in the homeserver.com DNS zone), port forwarding (via uPnP), etc. Windows Home Server is available to system builders as an OEM product, or a fully-configured system costs around £500 (e.g. the HP EX400 MediaSmart server at £499). For more information on Windows Home Server and the digital home, see We Got Served.
  • Looking at some of the developments in Microsoft hardware, Viral demonstrated: Microsoft’s new mice with a blue LED light which can track smoothly regardless of the surface; new LifeCam devices with HD picture quality and messenger integration; and an arcmouse where the end folds in for travel without the usual restrictions of a mobile mouse (i.e. its small size).
  • Finally, Paul showed off Windows 7 Ultimate Edition running on a netbook. The model he used was an Acer Aspire One with a 1.6GHz Intel Atom CPU, 1GB RAM, 120GB Hard drive (not SSD) and I was very impresed at the performance and the graphics (e.g. very smooth Flip-3D effects). For those who were confused by the apparant doublespeak in my recent post about installing Windows 7 on an old PC, it’s worth considering that this machine cost him £228 including shipping (for a Linux version) and has a Windows Experience index of 2.3 (2.9 for the CPU, 3.3 for RAM, 2.3 for graphics, 3.0 for gaming graphics and 5.0 for disk). Having seen this, I’m almost certainly going to be buying a Dell Inspiron Mini 9 for Windows 7.

For someone who mostly concentrates on Microsoft’s business-focused products, it was interesting to spend an evening on the consumer side of the fence. In summary: an evening of geeky goodness.

Live Mesh reaches out to the Mac

Graphic showing files moving between devicesOn the same day that I published my recent post about Windows Live FolderShare, I heard that the current Live Mesh beta is now available on a Mac.

Despite already being a Mesh user, I tried to add my Mac as a device but was disappointed to read that the Live Mesh Tech Preview was out of invitations so I tried again this evening and was pleased to find that it accepted me and let me install the software.

First impressions were good, with a really straightforward installation and good client support – working like a Mac application (not a Windows application running on OS X) and with support for both Safari and Firefox.

Then I realised that Mac-PC synchronisation in Mesh still needs to go via the Live Desktop (i.e. out to the ‘net and back), as evidenced when I tried to sync a folder that was not fully replicated:

The current version of Live Mesh cannot synchronize a folder with a Mac computer unless the folder is also synchronized with your Live Desktop.

This lack of LAN-based peer-to-peer support, combined with Mesh’s 5GB storage limit means that FolderShare is still the sync option for my work in progress (be prepared for a long wait if you’re syncing via the web and an ADSL connection – ADSL downloads are fine, but uploads are s…l…o…w…).

Predictably, some features are Windows-only too (like the remote desktop capability). There’s mobile device support too but it does depend on the phone – for example my Apple iPhone 3G was recognised as a Mac, after which Safari refused to install anything (I didn’t expect it to work but I just had to try!).

I don’t want to sound negative – Live Mesh is has so much potential and it is still a beta – over time new features will be added and it will be fantastic. Right now it’s still a little confusing – with the feature sets of Windows Live Skydrive, Mesh, FolderShare and Office Live Workspaces all overlapping slightly it’s sometimes difficult to fathom out the best tool to use – and those are just the Microsoft options! Hopefully this will all shake down over the coming months and the vision of my digital life being available wherever I am will become a reality.

Windows Live FolderShare – an example of Microsoft’s cloud computing platform that’s here to use today

I started off writing this post on the train, as the stacation (taking a break from work but staying at home) part of last week became the vacation part (a few days by the seaside with my wife and sons – the fact that I woke up to snow in Buckinghamshire didn’t seem to put the boys off wanting to build sandcastles in Dorset… even with their winter coats on).

The point of this is that I wanted to use the time on the train to good effect – and that meant catching up on my writing. Despite having spent a few days decommissioning my old file server in favour of a new NAS box, I still have a certain amount of local data that I need to access – spread across multiple Windows and Macintosh PCs. This is where Microsoft’s web services platform comes in. I’ve been using the Live Mesh CTP for a while now, but the current version of Mesh is just a starting point and there is another Live service in beta that I’m using here – Windows Live FolderShare.

FolderShare is a web service for distributed folders across multiple devices – either personal or shared folders. If you’ve used Windows Live SkyDrive as file storage in the cloud, then imagine if that data was hosted on your PCs (phones, and other devices) rather than in cyberspace – and replicated automatically.

Over time, I expect to see FolderShare move into Live Mesh and, in my coverage of the recent PDC keynote, I wrote about how:

Live Mesh bridges [islands of information] with a core synchronisation concept but Mesh is just the tip of the iceberg and is now a key component of Live Services to allow apps and websites to connect users, devices, applications and to provide data synchronisation.

My personal file data may not be the scale of enterprise service Microsoft plans for Windows Azure but Windows Live FolderShare does nicely demonstrate the concept in a way that most of us can appreciate. Here I am, creating content on the train using my Macintosh PC and I know that, when I hook up to a network, FolderShare will sync this (via Windows Live Services) to people/devices that I want to share the data with – for example my Windows PC in the home office. Then, whichever device I’m using, I can continue my work without worrying about where the master copy is. Add a phone into the mix and one would expect me to be able to access that data wherever I am as well as creating additional content – for example photos, or location specific data.

Jasdev Dhaliwal has an interesting article about Microsoft’s cloud computing announcements over at the Web Pitch. Jas’ post includes: Microsoft’s “Overnight Success” video which talks about the greater sum of software plus services “moving beyond devices and across borders to capture the imagination of the world… a world where the richness of software and the ubiquity of services are rapidly converging”; a BBC interview with Ray Ozzie where he talks about how it has become burdensome to manage the computer we’ve got at work, the computer we have in the den, childrens’ PCs, a cellphone with contacts, photos and information, cable boxes with recorded movies and how “Windows in the sky” can bring all of those devices together and make it easier to manage – more than just applications in the cloud but a total computing infrastructure; another BBC film where Rory Cellan-Jones visits one of Microsoft’s vast datacentres; and finally Microsoft’s “Synchronizing Life” video where a Mum takes a picture of a child at play using her mobile phone and that picture appears on a display many miles away in Dad’s office, on his PC, on his Mac, and how the Live Mesh extends to his media player, phone, into the car and to the childrens’ games console.

I started this post on the train, using a Mac. Now I’m ending it in the office, on a Windows PC – and I haven’t had to think about which copy of the data is current – it just works. That’s what connected synchronicity is about – it’s not about uploading everything I do to some website but about a mesh of devices working together to make my local data available globally… synchronising my life.

Installing Live Mesh on Windows Server 2008

Live Mesh logoYesterday, I was chatting with Eileen Brown and she asked if tried the Microsoft Live Mesh preview yet?

I didn’t think it was available outside the United States yet but it seems that it is… (in any case, there is a workaround) and within a few minutes I was logged on to a Live Desktop in three browsers on two computers – using IE8, Chrome (on a PC) and Safari (on a Mac). That’s all very well, but the beauty of Mesh is when I can share my data directly between computers, so I tried to install the Live Mesh client software but, unfortunately, it wouldn’t install on my Windows Server 2008 workstation (despite recognising it as Vista x64).

Just as when I installed Google Chrome a few days back, I found that I couldn’t install directly from the IE8 download prompt:

This installation is forbidden by system policy. Details about this problem can be found here.

Running the installer as administrator invoked UAC but it still failed, telling me that:

Installer encountered errors. Please verify your network settings and attempt to reinstall.

Then I found a blog post suggesting the use of the livemesh -force to skip version checking but it was still complaining about my network settings. I did wonder if the problem was that this computer also runs Hyper-V (so the network stack includes a virtual switch) but it seems that I need to completely turn off UAC for the installation (it’s back on again now) and that temporary elevation or TweakUAC are not enough.

Once I’d switched off UAC, rebooted, installed Live Mesh (with the -force switch), re-enabled UAC and rebooted once more, the Live Mesh was client was up and running (on Windows Server 2008). Life is Good.

Live Mesh preview with meshed folders on the desktop and the live desktop as well as the view of connected devices.

It’s early days yet, but my first impressions are that this is very cool. Think about the usability of Groove’s collaboration features – and then some. I have folder sharing, news (e.g. Mark has added this file in this folder), a live desktop and remote desktop capabilities but there is one question, now I have 5GB in Mesh, what do I do with my Skydrive? Can I have all this data in one place?

The other thing I’ve noticed is that upwards syncing over ADSL is slow but once I have some more devices on the local network with the Live Mesh client installed, it should sync up directly (at least, I think that’s what happens). The Windows Mobile client should be here soon but I’m really waiting for the Macintosh client, after which I can really start to get stuck in to what Mesh could do for me to make sure that everything I’m working on currently is available to me, regardless of the device I’m using at the time.

Adding Windows Live Messenger presence to a web page

For a while at the end of 2007, this blog had a feature where it showed presence information for me (with the ability to send me an IM) based on my status in Windows Live Messenger. I’ve removed that functionality now because: a) I find IM to be a distraction and so am very rarely logged in; b) I use a private IM system using OCS when I’m working; and c) I use a variety of IM systems (and three different Windows Live logins), so my presence on any one Windows Live Messenger account is not really relevant.

Even so, if this is something that might be useful, there is a page on Windows Live to generate the necessary HTML (I found this information from Michael Niehaus’ blog).

First post from Windows Live Writer

I have a strange relationship with Microsoft’s Windows Live services.  To some extent, I have the same issue with Google in that sometimes I find them really useful but then I get uncomfortable with storing all of my information "in the cloud", rather than on a server that I control (and don’t get me started on the data that the UK Government stores on me…).

Well, for once, Microsoft seems to have the right idea.  It may all be based around shoring up their traditional cash cows of Windows and Office, but instead of saying "forget the desktop… switch to the webtop", they are developing applications that bridge the gap between desktop and web (as are Google with Google Gears).

A few months back I wrote about blogging from within Microsoft Office and this is my first post using Windows Live Writer.  Although I’ve only been using it for a few minutes I’m impressed – and this is why:

  • Firstly, although the installer told me about the other Windows Live applications that I might like to try, it didn’t force them on me.
  • Secondly, it was perfectly happy to accept that I don’t use Windows Live Spaces for blogging.
  • Thirdly, it was able to detect the settings for my WordPress site without me supplying any more than a URL, username and password – and then the advanced settings were quite happy with the idea that I publish images via FTP rather than storing them in the WordPress database.
  • It also downloaded the stylesheet that I use, so as I write this (offline), I can see what the post will look like when I publish (there are options to view unstyled, with the layout that I use on the site, preview the post on the site, or view the code).  I can also see that it’s also using valid XHTML.

For the last few years, I’ve been writing on the train using Windows Notepad or gedit, then coming home and finishing the post with weblinks and additional information.

Now I can streamline the process with Windows Live Writer (including setting categories and a publishing date) so that the rework when I get home should be fairly minimal.

Links

Windows Live Writer team blog

Windows Live OneCare 2.0… proof readers required?

Overnight, I received an e-mail from the Windows Live OneCare team announcing the end of the OneCare 2.0 beta. That’s good news (OneCare is not exactly inexpensive and new features would be welcome) but then I read a bit more closely:

[…] Beta to Close at End of December 2007
We wanted to give you an advance notice that the (v2.0) beta will be closing at the end of February […] To thank you for your participation, we’re extending a special introductory offer […] at 39.95 AUD for a year[…]

[Emphasis added by the author]

Let’s just hope that the beta testing was better than the proof reading and mail merge on the communications. I have a .co.uk e-mail address and I haven’t lived in Australia for six years. At least when I click on the link the special price is £14.99 (i.e. pounds sterling).

Get a Mac? Maybe, but Windows Vista offers a more complete package than you might think

I’ll freely admit that I have been critical of Windows Vista at times and I’ll stand by my comments published in Computer Weekly last November – Windows XP will remain in mainstream use for quite some time. Having said that, I can’t see Mac OS X or Linux taking the corporate desktop by storm and the move to Vista is inevitable, just not really a priority for many organisations right now.

Taking off my corporate hat one evening last week, I made the trip to Microsoft’s UK headquarters in Reading for an event entitled “Vista after hours”. Hosted by James Senior and Matt McSpirit it was a demo-heavy and PowerPoint-light tour of some of the features in Windows Vista that we can make use of when we’re not working. Not being a gamer and having bought a Mac last year, I’ve never really paid attention to Microsoft’s digital home experience but I was, quite frankly, blown away by what I saw.

The first portion of the evening looked at some of the out-of-the-box functionality in Windows Vista, covering topics like search, drilling down by searching within results, using metadata to tag objects, live previews and saving search queries for later recall as well as network diagnosis and repair. Nothing mind-blowing there but well-executed all the same. Other topics covered included the use of:

  • Windows Photo Gallery (which includes support for the major, unprocessed, raw mode formats as well as more common, compressed, JPEG images) to perform simple photo edits and even to restore to the original image (cf. a photographic negative).
  • Windows Movie Maker to produce movies up to 1080p.
  • Windows DVD Maker to produce DVD menus with support for both NTSC and PAL as well as 4:3 and 16:9 aspect ratios.
  • Windows Media Player to organise media in many ways (stack/sort by genre, year, songs, album, artist, rating, recently added, etc.) and share that media.

Apple Macintosh users will think “yeah, I have iPhoto, iMovie, iDVD and iTunes to do all that” and they would be correct but Apple says (or at least implies in its advertising) that it’s hard to do these things on a PC – with Vista it’s just not… which moves me on to backup – not provided (at least in GUI form) by the current Mac OS X release (only with a .Mac subscription) and much improved in Windows Vista. “Ah yes, but Leopard will include Time Machine!”, say the Mac users – Windows has had included the volume shadow copy service (VSS/VSC) since Windows XP and Windows Backup includes support for multiple file versions right now as well as both standard disk-based backups and snapshots to virtual hard disk (.VHD) images, which can then be used as a restore point or mounted in Virtual PC/Virtual Server as a non-bootable disk. Now that does sound good to me and I’m sure there must be a way to make the .VHD bootable for physical to virtual (P2V) and virtual to physical (V2P) migrations… maybe that’s something to have a play with another day.

Regardless of all the new Vista functionality, for me, the most interesting part of the first session was Windows Home Server. I’m a registered beta user for this product but must confess I haven’t got around to installing it yet. Well, I will – in fact I’m downloading the April CTP as I write this. Based on Windows 2003 Small Business Server, it provides a centralised console for management of and access to information stored at home. Microsoft claim that it has low hardware requirements – just a large hard disk – I guess low hardware requirements is a subjective term (and I figure that my idea of low hardware requirements and Microsoft’s may differ somewhat), nevertheless it offers the opportunity to secure data (home computer backup and restore, including scheduling), provide centralised storage (a single storage pool, broken out as shared storage, PC backups, operating system and free space), monitor network health (i.e. identify unsafe machines on the network), provide remote access (via an HTTPS connection to a defined web address) and stream media, all controlled through a central console. Because the product is aimed at consumers, ease of use will be key to its success and it includes some nice touches like scheduled backups and automatic router configuration for remote access. Each client computer requires a connection pack in order to allow Home Server to manage it (including associating account information for secuirity purposes) and, in response to one of my questions, Microsoft confirmed that there will be support for non-Windows clents (e.g. Mac OS X 10.5 and even Linux). Unfortunately, product pricing has not yet been released and early indications are that this will be an OEM-only product; that will be a great shame for many users who would like to put an old PC to use as a home server.

Another area covered in the first session was parental controls – not really something that I worry about right now but maybe I will over the next few years as my children start to use computers. Windows Vista includes the ability for parents to monotor their child’s activities including websites, applications, e-mail, instant messages and media. Web filters can be used to prevent access to certain content with an HTTP 450 response, including a link for a parent to approve and unblock access to the content as well as time limits on access (providing a warning before forcing a logout). Similarly, certain games can be blocked for younger users of the family PC. The volume and diversity of the questions at the event would indicate that Vista’s parental controls are fairly simplistic and will not be suitable for all (for example, time limits are on computer access as a whole and not for a particular application, so it’s not possible to allow a child access to the computer to complete their homework but to limit games to a certain period in the evening and at weekends).

If session one had whetted my appetite for Vista, session two (Vista: Extended) blew my mind and by the time I went home, I was buzzing…

I first heard of Windows SideShow as a way to access certain content with a secondary display, e.g. to provide information about urgent e-mails and upcoming appointments on the lid of a laptop computer but it actually offers far more than this – in fact, the potential for SideShow devices is huge. Connectivity can be provided by USB, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth – Windows doesn’t care – and the home automation possibilities are endless. I can really see the day when my fridge includes capabilities for ordering groceries via a SideShow display in the door. There is at least one website devoted to SideShow devices but James Senior demonstrated a laptop bag with a built-in SideShow controller including a cache for media playback. Typically used to expose information from a Windows Sidebar gadget, SideShow devices will wake up a sleeping computer to synchrosise content then put it back to sleep and can be secured with a PIN or even erased when logged off. Access is controlled within the Windows Control Panel and there is an emulator available to simulate SideShow devices.

As elegant as Apple Front Row is, for once Microsoft outshines the competition with Windows Media Center

Next up was Windows Media Center. Unlike with the Windows XP Media Center and Tablet PC editions, Microsoft no longer provides a separate SKU for this functionality, although it is not enabled in all Vista product editions. Media Center is a full-screen application that offers a complete home media hub – sort of like Apple Front Row but with support for TV tuners to include personal video recorder (PVR) functionality. As elegant as Apple Front Row is, for once Microsoft outshines the competition with Windows Media Center – multiple TV tuners can be installed (e.g. to pause live TV, or to record two items at once, as well as the elctronic programme guide (EPG), controls, etc. being displayed as an overlay on the currently playing content. As with Windows Media Player, visualisations are provided and in theory it ought to be possible to remote control a Media Center PC via Windows Home Server and set up a recording remotely. Individual programs, or whole series, can be recorded and many TV tuners include DVB-T (digital terrestrial) support (i.e. Freeview), with other devices such as satellite and cable TV decoders needing a kludge with a remote infra-red controller (a limitation of Sky/Virgin Media network access rather than with Windows). Other functionality includes RSS support as well as integration with Windows Live Messenger and some basic parental controls (not as extensive as elsewhere in Windows Vista but nevertheless allowing a PIN to be set on certain recordings).

The event was also my first opportunity to look at a Zune. It may be a rather half-hearted attempt at producing a media player (no podcast support and, crucially, no support for Microsoft’s own PlaysForSure initiative) but in terms of form-factor it actually looks pretty good – and it includes functionality that’s missing from current iPods like a radio. If only Apple could produce an iPod with a similarly-sized widescreen display (not the iPhone) then I’d be more than happy. It also seems logical to me that as soon as iTunes is DRM-free then the iTunes/iPod monopoly will be broken as we should be able to use music purchased from the largest online music store (iTunes) on the world’s favourite portable media player (iPod) together with Windows Media Center… anyway, I digress…

I mentioned earlier that I’m not a gamer. Even so, the Xbox 360‘s ability to integrate with Windows PCs is an impressive component of the Microsoft’s digital home experience arsenal. With its dashboard interface based around a system of “blades”, the Xbox 360 is more than just a games machine:

As well as the Xbox 360 Core and Xbox 360 Pro (chrome) systems Microsoft has launched the Xbox 360 Elite in the United States – a black version with a 120GB hard disk and HDMI connectivity, although it’s not yet available here in the UK (and there are also some limited edition Yellow Xbox 360s to commemorate the Simpsons movie).

Finally, Microsoft demostrated Games for Windows Livebringing the XBox 360 Live experience to Windows Vista-based PC gaming. With an Xbox 360 wireless gaming receiver for Windows, Vista PC gamers can even use an Xbox 360 wireless controller (and not just for gaming – James Senior demonstrated using it to navigate Windows Live maps, including the 3D and bird’s eye views). Not all games that are available for both PCs and the Xbox will offer the cross-platform live experience; however the first one that will is called Shadowrun (and is due for release on 1 June 2007) bringing two of the largest gaming platforms together and providing a seamless user experience (marred only by the marketing decision to have two types of account – silver for PC-PC interaction and gold for PC-XBox).

Apple’s Get a Mac campaign draws on far too many half truths that will only become apparent to users after they have made the decision to switch… and then found out that the grass is not all green on the other side

So, after all this, would I choose a Mac or a Windows PC? (or a Linux PC?) Well, like so many comparisons, it’s just not that simple. I love my Mac, but Apple’s Get a Mac campaign draws on far too many half truths that will only become apparent to users after they have made the decision to switch, splashed out on the (admittedly rather nice) Apple hardware and then found out that the grass is not all green on the other side. In addition, Apple’s decision to delay the next release of OS X whilst they try to enter the mobile phone market makes me question how committed to the Macintosh platform they really are. Linux is good for techies and, if you can support yourself, it has the potential to be free of charge. If you do need support though, some Linux distros can be more expensive than Windows. So what about Windows, still dominant and almost universally despised by anyone who realises that there is a choice? Actually, Windows Vista is rather good. It may still have far too much legacy code for my liking (which is bound to affect security and stability) but it’s nowhere near as bad as the competition would have us thinking… in fact it hasn’t been bad since everything moved over to the NT codebase and, complicated though the product versions may be, Windows Vista includes alternatives to the iLife suite shipped with a new Macs as well as a superior media hub. Add the Xbox integration and Windows SideShow into the mix and the Microsoft digital home experience is excellent. Consumers really shouldn’t write off Windows Vista just yet.