Useful Links: March 2010

A list of items I’ve come across recently that I found potentially useful, interesting, or just plain funny:

  • Password checker – Microsoft’s online password checker for assessing relative strength of passwords
  • HAV Detection Tool – Microsoft’s tool for detection of hardware assisted virtualisation capabilities
  • Add cascading menus in Windows 7 – Vishal Gupta describes the process for various Windows twaeks including cascading application menus on the Windows 7 desktop (via Rob Margel)
  • Free PC Audit – Audit installed hardware, software and running processes (via Michael Pietroforte)
  • How to solve Windows system crashes in minutes – Great article by Dirk A.D. Smith that may be old but is still relevant today
  • Searchtastic – Search Twitter history and export tweets to Excel

5 bar Vodafone 3G reception with Sure Signal… eventually

Where I live, the mobile phone reception can be a little… patchy… at times.  Vodafone and O2 are okay, as long as I stay upstairs and away from all of the electrical interference in my home office (not too helpful when I’m working!) but for Orange I have to go outside to get decent reception (and I haven’t tried T-Mobile but the coverage map doesn’t fill me with hope).  All of that is just for standard GSM coverage – 3G is non-existent… although Vodafone’s coverage map suggests I might be able to get a signal the fields across the road!

As I spend a good chunk of my day on the phone, and VoIP becomes problematic when the local schools kicks out (as my broadband slows to a crawl), I decided to give Vodafone’s Sure Signal a try.  Sure Signal (formerly known as Vodafone Access Gateway) is a femtocell (a tiny base station, about the size of a typical broadband router) that provides 3G reception and routes the calls over an existing broadband connection although Pocket Lint were less charitable:

“Of course the sceptics amongst us can see Vodafone’s evil plan from the get go. They get you to pay for the shortcomings of their network while at the same time boosting your phone’s capabilities in your home or office so you’ll use it more. Using it more means they get more money from you at the end of the month because you’ve found a new sense of freedom when it comes to making calls or surfing the Web.”

That’s all well and good, but this is my company mobile phone – I don’t pay the bill – and when it’s the difference between flaky call quality and a clear signal, I’ll happily give up a little bit of bandwidth (after all, this is only voice traffic).

The difference between the Sure Signal solution and a normal VoIP call over my ADSL line is that I’m still using a normal mobile handset to access the network and the portion from the femtocell back to the rest of the mobile network is managed by Vodafone – with whom I have far more trust in managing issues such as latency, jitter, and quality of service than I do in my own ability to configure a VoIP client with a third party SIP provider in a reliable manner.

Only registered mobile phone numbers can access the Sure Signal (up to 4 at a time from a maximum of 32 registered numbers), so it doesn’t provide a service to the rest of the street (at least not unless their numbers are registered too); however it is pretty good to have 5 bar 3G reception in my house for Vodafone-connected 3G handsets (other networks are not supported, neither are 2G handsets).

So that’s the theory.  Getting the Sure Signal working was not all plain sailing though… Vodafone’s Quick Start guide directs users to register their sure signal at but it was only after a couple of days of the registration site telling me that technical difficulties were preventing Vodafone from registering the device at the moment and that I should try again in a few minutes, and an unanswered support request, I Googled and found a forum thread that suggested I try instead.  To be fair, that is also on the quickstart guide – but in a far less prominent position, in black text on a red background. Lo and behold, the second URL uses a different registration form (without the troublesome and confusing interface to accept terms and conditions) and started the activation process. 

Text message from Vodafone to say that the Sure Signal is activeA few minutes later, I received an e-mail from Vodafone to say that the device would be made active and that I’d be notified by text message when it was ready – but that was on Saturday… and nothing happened for a few days so, on Tuesday evening, I e-mailed to find out how much longer I might need to wait.  I’d started to wonder if there were problems with my router’s firewall configuration but I decided not to change anything and, the next morning, I woke up to a full 3G signal and a message from Vodafone to tell me that the Sure Signal was active.

So, was it worth it? Certainly, a great mobile phone signal is what I was after – and that’s what I got.  The device has no user interface though (it’s managed from the Vodafone website) – which is probably fine for consumers but, if I have to rely on Vodafone’s offshore support (provided by Firstsource) to deal with any problems (potentially with no phone signal!), the delays in getting the device working do not fill me with hope.

Further reading

March is Prostate Cancer Awareness Month

The Prostate Cancer CharitySometimes, on the occasions that I wear a suit, I wear a lapel badge with a little blue man on it.  It does its job well as people often ask me what it represents – pink ribbons (in fact, pink in general) are well known in association with the Breast Cancer Campaign but The Prostate Cancer Charity‘s “blue man” logo is less well known.

March 2010 marks Prostate Cancer Awareness Month.  Sadly, for my family, May will be the month when we’re most aware of this illness as it will be the anniversary of my Father’s death, after a mercifully short but nevertheless agonising battle with multiple secondary cancers when we all thought his prostate cancer was under control.  But, aside from my personal connections, why do we need to be aware of prostate cancer?  Well:

  • Prostate cancer is the most common cancer in men.
  • One man dies every hour in the UK.

‘Don’t let prostate cancer hide’ is this year’s campaign to help get prostate cancer out in the open. It’s a hidden cancer because not enough people talk about it. We can’t see the prostate, and many people don’t even know what it is or what it does.

Prostate cancer awareness month is all about changing that. The more we talk openly about prostate cancer, the more lives can be saved.

Find out more at

( is not affiliated with The Prostate Cancer Charity; however I do support its activities and invite readers of this blog to do so too)

Windows support lifecycle reminders

Last week, I wrote about the forthcoming service pack for Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2.  At the other end of its support lifecycle, is Windows 2000, which finally reaches end of life (i.e. the end of extended support) on 13 July 2010.

Windows XP remains on extended support for a while longer (until 8 April 2014) but service pack 2 (SP2) also goes out of support on 13 July 2010 and, from that date onwards, Microsoft will no longer support or provide free security updates for Windows XP systems running SP2 or earlier.  Service pack 3 is available free of charge; however Windows XP users should really be planning on migration to a later version of Windows.  For details of how to obtain the latest service pack for Windows XP, see Microsoft knowledge base article 322389.

Also, on 13 July, Windows Server 2003 moves out of mainstream support and into its extended support phase.   Service pack 1 for Windows Server 2003 was retired on 14 April 2009, so service pack 2 is required in order to remain supported.  For details of how to obtain the latest service pack for Windows Server 2003 (and Windows Server 2003 R2), see Microsoft knowledge base article 889100.  Windows Server 2003 and Windows Server 2003 R2 are subject to the same support lifecycle milestones as each other.

Windows Vista with no Service Packs installed will also lose support on 13 April 2010.  Customers are advised to install service pack 2 for Windows Vista in order to remain secure and supported (although service pack 1 is still supported until 12 July 2011).  For details of how to obtain the latest service pack for Windows Vista, see Microsoft knowledge base article 935791.

Customers running Windows Server 2008 have plenty of time left in their operating system investment, although Windows Server 2008 service pack 1 will be retired on 12 July 2011.  For details of how to obtain the latest service pack for Windows Server 2008, see Microsoft knowledge base article 968849.  The same service pack is applicable to both Windows Vista and Windows Server 2008.

Three phases of Microsoft support

The Microsoft support lifecycle policy has been around since October 2002 but still seems to be a source of confusion for many.  In effect, there are three phases of support:

  • Mainstream support provides full product support, including security updates, hotfixes and the ability to raise product enhancement requests.
  • Extended support means that a product is on its way towards retirement and, in order to open a support case on a products in its extended support phase, a Premier Support contract with Microsoft is required. There is a higher risk involved in relying on products in their extended support phase (when compared with mainstream support products) as extended support is only available for business and developer products – and it does not allow product enhancement requests, or non-security updates (unless an Extended Hotfix Support Agreement is available – more on that in a moment…).
  • Self-help means “Google it!” as Microsoft will not accept support requests for products in this phase.  The Microsoft knowledge base is available, as are all the resources of the Internet, but the risks involved with of running out-of-support products is high.

For business and developer products, there is normally 5 years of mainstream support, followed by 5 years of extended support.  Self-help via the Microsoft online support site will be available for at least 10 years.  There are some exceptions (e.g. Windows XP) as these products predate the support lifecycle policy.  For consumer products there is no extended support, just 5 years of mainstream support, and the commitment to self-help from Microsoft is 8 years.

Microsoft does have support solutions for individual customers that are forced to stray outside mainstream support.  Extended Hotfix Support agreements allow customers to request non-security hotfixes for products in their extended support phase and these agreements involve substantial fees (for the agreement, and for every non-security hotfix requested). Furthermore, there is no contractual commitment from Microsoft to agree to a hotfix request. Custom Support agreements are prohibitively expensive and designed to provide limited support during the self-help
support phase. These agreements are product- and customer-specific.

Finally, be aware that the support lifecycle does not just apply to product versions, but service pack and cumulative update versions too.

First service pack for Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2

It’s not news that there will be a service pack for Windows 7 and Server 2008 R2.  We don’t know when it will come (and I’ve been asked not to speculate…) – and we don’t know if there will be a public beta but there will be a service pack.

Here’s what Microsoft has announced so far:

  • The same service pack will be applicable for Windows server and client – i.e. for Windows 7 and Server 2008 R2 (just as with Vista/Server 2008 service packs).
  • SP1 will enable two key new features for Windows Server 2008 R2: Dynamic Memory for Hyper-V, allowing for dynamically adjusting RAM allocation between virtual machines; and RemoteFX, which is an enhancement for RDP for rich media and 3D.
  • For Windows 7, there are no significant changes in SP1 – it’s effectively an update rollup – there is no need to wait for service pack 1 before deploying!

Desktop virtualisation shake-up at Microsoft

What an afternoon… for a few days now, I’ve been trying to find out what’s the big announcement from Microsoft and Citrix in the desktop virtualisation hour webcast later today. I was keeping quiet until after the webcast but now the embargo has lifted, Microsoft has issued a press release, and the news is all over the web:

  • Coming in Windows Server 2008 R2 service pack 1 (for which there is no date announced, yet) will be the dynamic memory functionality that was in early releases of Hyper-V for Windows Server 2008 R2 but was later pulled from the product.  Also in SP1 will be a new graphics acceleration platform, known as RemoteFX, that is based on desktop-remoting technology that Microsoft obtained in 2008 when it acquired Calista Technologies, allowing for rich media content to be accessed over the remote desktop protocol, enabling users of virtual desktops and applications to receive a rich 3-D, multimedia experience while accessing information remotely..
  • Microsoft and Citrix are offering a “Rescue for VMware VDI” promotion, which allows VMware View customers to trade in up to 500 licenses at no additional cost, and the “VDI Kick Start” promotion, which offers new customers a more than 50 percent discount off the estimated retail price.
  • There are virtualisation licensing changes too: from July, Windows Client Software Assurance customers will no longer have to buy a separate license to access their Windows operating system in a VDI environment, as virtual desktop access rights now will be a Software Assurance (SA) benefit – effectively, if you have SA, you get Windows on screen, no matter what processor it is running on!  There will also be new roaming usage rights and Windows Client Software Assurance and new Virtual Desktop Access (the new name for VECD) customers will have the right to access their virtual Windows desktop and their Microsoft Office applications hosted on VDI technology on secondary, non-corporate network devices, such as home PCs and kiosks.
  • Citrix will ensure that XenDesktop HDX technology will be interoperable with and will extend RemoteFX within 6 months.
  • Oh yes, and Windows XP Mode (i.e. Windows Virtual PC) will no longer requires hardware virtualisation technology (although, frankly, I find that piece of news a little less exciting as I’d really like to see Virtual PC replaced by a client-side hypervisor).

Activating an iPhone: some gotchas along the way

Yesterday, I wrote about my problems with an offically-unlocked iPhone that suddenly detected it had a new SIM and needed activation.  Today, I downloaded and installed iTunes on my Windows 7 notebook PC and borrowed a sync cable to connect the phone and activate it.  Here are a couple of things I found on the way:

Now, I’ll make sure that I have a bent paperclip (iPhone SIM removal tool) and sync cable in my bag when I go to work… just in case my iPhone falls out with its SIM again.

iPhone – SIM = iBrick

Now that I’m out of contract with my iPhone, I’ve switched my account to something more reasonably priced whilst I wait for a new handset/phone operating system combination to grab my attention.  At the same time, my work e-mail was switched over to an ActiveSync service and I wanted a 3G handset for that so I’ve “donated” my iPhone to business use for a few months.

I soon got fed up of activating the phone (via iTunes) every time I switched SIMs between home and work (I don’t use my work number at weekends and when I’m on holiday), so I redirected my personal number to my work number.  Everything was good - I listened to a few podcasts on the drive to work, made some calls, connected to my e-mail service, got back in the car (listened to some more podcasts) and drove to meet a partner at their offices – but then my iPhone decided that it had a new SIM (it didn’t) and that it needed to be connected to iTunes.  That caused a few problems:

  1. I don’t have iTunes on my work PC (and nor should I have).
  2. I don’t have an iPhone/iPod sync cable with me.
  3. I’m working away from home… and I’m not going to drive for up to 2 hours in either direction just to get my smartphone working.

It doesn’t take took much imagination to work out that an iPhone that doesn’t make calls is not a very good phone.  And it turns out that it’s not really a very good “anything” because, as I drove to the hotel this evening, I found a number of other things that an iPhone without a SIM is useless for:

  • It couldn’t work as a camera to take pictures in the late-afternoon winter sunshine.
  • It couldn’t work as a GPS/sat-nav device for helping me from the office to the hotel… resulting in a 30 minute drive around Reading using my sense of direction and the setting sun as a compass whilst avoiding the city centre and the motorway…
  • It couldn’t work as a music player to provide entertainment on the drive.
  • It couldn’t let me access my e-mail (not even over Wi-Fi) when the hotel had failed to read my reservation details correctly.

In short: an iPhone minus its SIM might as well be an iBrick – far from the device Apple described back in 2007 (a mobile phone, iPod and Internet device), it’s a useless piece of electronic hardware.  And, just to be clear, this is an offocially unlocked iPhone (i.e. unlocked by my carrier) that has not been “jailbroken”.

The madness of this situation is that it doesn’t have to be this way - Apple’s stranglehold on iPhone activation is just part of the way in which they control the iPhone ecosystem but they seem to miss the point of having a Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) – i.e. that it’s the SIM that is supposed to control my identity and make it transferable between devices.  No other phone that I’ve used has needed to be activated using software once it has a SIM installed – it checks with the network if my details are valid and, if they are, I can make calls.  Simple!

A phone that doesn’t work is pretty useless as a business tool – even if it’s a phone as remarkable as the iPhone was when it launched a couple of years ago (in my opinion, Apple has squandered the lead it had over everything else in the market). The fact that it’s not possible to simply insert a valid SIM and boot up the device is just one reason why the iPhone is not an enterprise product, although plenty of companies will be forced to support them by VIPs wielding enough power to override IT policies (just as we saw with Blackberry devices a few years ago).  Thankfully a colleague is going to bring a sync cable with him tomorrow so I can (hopefully) get the thing working again in the morning – but I won’t be trusting my iPhone next time I travel long distance.

How UK iPhone users can save money…

I bought my most recent iPhone (a white 3G) back in August 2008.  On an 18 month contract, that means I’ve fulfilled my commitment but O2 is quite happy to keep on taking the £35 a month which partially subsidises the handset cost!

I’ve been thinking about switching back to Vodafone and an HTC HD2 on Windows Mobile but, in the absense of a clear statement that says I’ll be able to upgrade that device for Windows Mobile 7 (in fact, I’ve seen an APC article that suggests I won’t be able to as well as a plea from Engadget for Microsoft to get off the fence), I’ll be staying put for a while.

In the meantime, @jonhoneyball mentioned some Simplicity deals from O2 for iPhone users.  There is an IT Pro article which suggests that O2 are pushing these deals to out-of-contract iPhone users but I’ve seen nothing to indicate this – although when I called O2 they knew about the tariffs and were happy to help me switch (although I did have to tell the upgrades department to stop trying to upsell me and to just do as I asked).

I’ve elected to reduce my £35 monthly payment to £20 on a rolling 30-day contract, halving my minutes from 600 to 300 but keeping unlimited texts, data, and Wi-Fi.  Alternatively I could have had a 12-month contract on the same terms for £15, or 600 minutes a month for £25 (900 for £30, etc.).  There are some gotchas though (O2 did let me know about these): the account defaults to online billing (no problem); picture messages are 20p (not 4 texts from normal allowance); SMS from abroad is also chargable; and voicemail is now taken from the inclusive minutes.  Even so, I should still be well within my limits.  After the initial 30-day period I can switch to another O2 tariff at any time, or give 30-days notice if I decide to terminate the contract.

Vodafone has similar SIM-only deals but there are caps on data usage – I don’t use much iPhone data but others might be concerned by them (My iPhone was unlocked a few months ago when other UK carriers started stocking iPhones – iPhone unlocking is free of charge for O2’s pay-monthly customers and £15 for pay as you go (PAYG) customers).

So, that should allow me to sit tight until either the next iPhone or a tasty Windows Mobile 7 device becomes available. And the £15/month saving will go some way towards the cost of my next partially-subsidised handset…