Archive for August, 2008

Windows and Performance

Sunday, August 31st, 2008

Microsoft recently launched a blog dedicated to the engineering of Windows 7, the current code-name designation for the next major release of the OS.  Earlier this week, they put up a post that introduced the team’s approach to performance, an issue that I believe to be a vital concern regarding the future of Windows.

For the most part, I don’t subscribe to the fairly harsh criticism that some have leveled at Windows Vista since its launch early last year.  I installed it both on my home desktop computer and my UMPC right after its public launch.  I have never given serious consideration to going back to Windows XP on my desktop system (which I have even upgraded to the 64-bit version of Vista) and even stuck it out on my under-powered TabletKiosk eo v7110 UMPC until I eventually upgraded to the must faster performing Vys S37.  I think the improvements in the overall user interface and feature set (particularly when it comes to Tablet PC functionality) do make Vista a worthwhile upgrade.

That said, I do also very much feel that the overall performance of the operating system falls short of what it should be.  I don’t have any huge complaints about the performance on my pretty heavily souped-up desktop system, but it definitely is pretty sluggish on the Vye and I’m certainly well aware that it would be much snappier with XP and that I’m unquestionably making a choice to compromise performance for features.  On the old eo, it was really pushing the edges of tolerability and I suspect that I probably would have eventually gone back to XP had I not just upgraded altogether.

Most of the Microsoft blog post was a high-level overview of the key factors involved with performance optimization (memory, CPU, and disk utilization; start-up, shut-down, and stand-by/resume speeds, base systems, and disk footprint) and is a decent read if you aren’t already highly familiar with all these concepts.  I think the most interesting part of the post, though, was the following quote regarding the overall issue of feature trade-offs versus performance:

On the one hand, performance should be straight forward—use less, do less, have less. As long as you have less of everything performance should improve. At the extreme that is certainly the case. But as we have seen from the comments, one person’s must-have is another person’s must-not-have. We see this a lot with what some on have called “eye candy”—we get many requests to make the base user interface “more fun” with animations and graphics (“like those found on competing products”) while at the same time some say “get rid of graphics and go back to Windows 2000”. Windows is enormously flexible and provides many ways to tune the experience. We heard lots on this forum about providing specific versions of Windows customized for different audiences, while we also heard quite a bit about the need to reduce the number of versions of Windows.

I think that these are completely valid points, but I am left with some uncertainty about whether or not they are yet coming at this subject from quite the right perspective.

I do recognize that there are a lot of differences in individual needs, but I also hope that Microsoft remembers that Windows is, in fact, an operating system.  In the constant need to add lots of new features and capabilities to the system in order to justify both the upgrade charges and the promotional push behind major new releases, it does often feel like there is an attempt to bundle too many features that stray quite a bit away from the core role of an OS.  Photo galleries, music/video players, video editors, and other similar applications all are becoming pretty major components of Windows (as well as Mac OS and major Linux distributions) and I can’t help but feel this is all leading to a serious loss of focus.

The concern about the number of versions of Windows strikes me as a situation where the company frequently tries to apply a marketing solution to what should be a technical problem.  I absolutely agree that they need to reduce the number of versions of Windows.  In fact, I think there should only be two current versions of the OS: Windows Vista and Windows Server 2008.  I think Vista has been hurt quite a bit by the confusion over all the different "editions" of Vista and which features are in which version.

For Windows 7, I think Microsoft’s goal should be to have only a single version of the OS that includes a robust system to allow the end user to easily add or remove features based on his/her needs and system capabilities.  The installer should do an on-the-fly hardware evaluation and identify a "best fit" feature set for any given system.  I also think they should spend some time carefully designing an installation wizard that would essentially interview the user to help determine a recommended configuration based on what features the user is likely to actually use.  It should also be easy to later add or remove features as the user’s needs change or as hardware is upgraded or removed.

Finally, I think they need to start backing away from the overall bundling concept.  I recognize that a lot of the reason for the various editions of Vista was to try to avoid the view that one is paying for unneeded features, such as Media Center for an office workstation or Remote Desktop for the typical non-networked home PC.  I simply think they picked the wrong approach.  What Microsoft needs to do is to recognize that the ubiquitously connected nature of PCs today makes an ala-carte solution for features such as these both feasible and probably preferable.  Basically, everyone should get the same core functionality and then should be allowed to pick and choose, and pay separately, for these types of add-on features. 

I really believe that Microsoft needs a bit of a shake-up in their overall focus and marketing approach for Windows if they are going to get past the shortcomings that seriously crippled the Vista launch.  While it was reassuring to read on their blog that performance issues are a key focus for the next version, I’m discouraged by the suggestions that they may not really be deviating much from the basically failed approach that they took with Vista.

Microsoft Updates Anti-Piracy System on Windows XP for Some Reason

Wednesday, August 27th, 2008

Yesterday, Microsoft announced a number of updates to the anti-piracy features of Windows XP Professional (as well as Tablet and Media Center editions).  They indicated that Windows XP Home was not included since it apparently isn’t pirated as often.

This announcement was made via a post to their Windows Genuine Advantage Blog, which described the updates in some detail.  In addition to some routine validation updates intended to detect more pirated keys, they also apparently made a number of more substantial changes to the user-experience on non-validated systems as well as some changes to make future updates more automatic.  The post summarized the reasons for the update as follows:

I’m excited about how this release balances our goals of providing a great experience to those who have genuine Windows and at the same time creating a compelling experience for those who have non-genuine copies to get genuine Windows.

The various items in this update seem that they might have made some sense as anti-piracy measures if they were part of the out-of-the-box product or included as part of a major service pack (such as the recently released Service Pack 3), but they seem like a colossal waste of effort as a basically optional update to a product that is officially discontinued at this time.

In all their paranoia about piracy, I really wonder if anyone at Microsoft actually did any analysis into the likely return on this investment.  Do they really believe that enough people will somehow have their minds changed about using pirated copies to generate enough additional income from new licenses to justify the cost of developing, testing, and deploying these updates?  This seems especially unlikely when the update is optional and, presumably, could probably be uninstalled (or at least defeated by reinstalling the pirated copy of the OS) if the new nag screens are too bothersome.

I’ve worked in the software industry long enough to know that piracy is a real concern and I do understand why company’s like Microsoft keep looking for better ways to deal with it.  I do also think that many companies get seriously carried away in that effort.  Microsoft’s current operating systems (and other software) have enough problems that it really seems that there should be far more important tasks for their developers to be focusing on than this.

My Inventory of Computer Equipment

Tuesday, August 26th, 2008

I figure this is a good time to give an inventory of my home computer equipment.  I’m only listing personal stuff here, not my work computers.  I’m also only listing the items that are in active use currently.  We have quite a bit of older equipment in closets or on shelves around here as well.

1. Home-built Desktop PC: I haven’t purchased a desktop computer for over 10-years.  Instead, I build my own system from individual parts, occasionally upgrading when the pricing and my needs dictate.  My current system has an Intel 2.13GHz Core 2 Duo processor, 3GB of memory, 1.5TB of hard disk space (spread across 4 drives), NVIDIA GeForce 8600 GTS video card, and a Creative SoundBlaster X-Fi sound card.  The OS is Windows Vista Ultimate 64-Bit.

2. Vye S37: This is my every-day laptop.  It is a mini-tablet UMPC with a 7-inch touch-screen, a nearly full-sized keyboard, 250GB hard drive, and 2GB of RAM.  It is running Windows Vista Ultimate 32-bit.  I’ve written several previous articles about this device on the previous version of this blog.

3. Apple MacBook: This is primarily my wife’s laptop computer, although I do use it occasionally as well.  This is the newest computer in our collection, having just purchased it a few weeks ago after the power supply died on her old HP laptop.  I’ve never been a big fan of the Mac OS, but we felt that it might fit my wife’s needs much better than Windows.  So far, she has been very happy with it.

4. HP EX470 MediaSmart Home Server: This unit is our primary backup and centralized file storage device.  We also use it as a media server.  This system runs Microsoft’s Windows Home Server OS and I have upgraded it from its stock configuration of 500GB hard disk space and 256MB of RAM to 2.25TB of hard disk storage and 2GB of RAM.

5. Palm Treo 700P (Sprint): My current cell-phone/PDA is the latest in a series of Palm OS devices that I have owned.  I am nearing the end of my current contract with Sprint and will be eligible for the best upgrade rates on a new phone starting September 1.  I’m starting to evaluate options for new phones (a topic for another article) and probably am ready to finally move away from the Palm OS.

6. Sony Playstation 3: Although I do use the PS3 for some game playing, it was actually purchased primarily because it is generally the best currently available choice for a Blu-Ray video player.  The PS3 is located in the upstairs bedroom and is also used to stream music up there from the home server.

7. HP OfficeJet 7410: This is an "all-in-one" color ink-jet printer that also works as a scanner, copier, and fax machine.  A big motivator for purchasing this particular printer was that it has built-in wi-fi networking.  That let us put the printer up in the bedroom (out of easy reach of our preschooler) and still send print jobs to it from the desktop computer downstairs as well as from any of the laptops.  While it is now a somewhat older, discontinued model, it still works pretty well for us.

8. D-Link DIR-655: This router is the centralized networking device for our home network.  It is a fairly new wireless router that includes draft 802.11n high-speed networking.  The desktop PC and home server are both directly connected to the router, while the laptops, PS3, printer, and our DirecTV HD-DVR are all set up to connect to it wirelessly.  The router is connected to a DSL modem with service from DSL Extreme with 6000/768Kbps download/upload speeds.

Macintosh Clone Maker Counter-Sues Apple

Tuesday, August 26th, 2008

A few months ago, a small company called Psystar introduced a fairly generic Intel-based PC which they were offering pre-installed with Apple’s Mac OS X.  Apple’s official End-User License Agreement (EULA) for the Mac OS indicates that it is not permitted to run it on hardware that isn’t made by Apple.  From the start, it appeared to me that this company probably existed largely to provoke a lawsuit.  Not surprisingly, Apple did file suit against them claiming copyright violations and the news came out today that Psystar is counter-suing with a claim of anti-trust violations.

In a cnet.com article reporting the counter-suit, Psystar outlined their case as follows:

Psystar argues that its OpenComputer product is shipped with a fully licensed, unmodified copy of Mac OS X, and that the company has simply "leveraged open source-licensed code including Apple’s OS" to enable a PC to run the Mac operating system.

I’m pretty unsure of how strong Psystar’s position really is, but I think this could be a fascinating and fairly ground-breaking test case, assuming that Psystar has the financial backing to go the distance on this case.  This could end up having a substantial impact on the strength of EULAs and the degree to which they can restrict how a customer uses a piece of software after purchase. 

Although they appear to be citing a number of different issues in their defense/counter-claim, the two main items that Psystar’s case appears to hinge on are the fact that Apple sells boxed-copies of OS X in stores separate from the hardware and whether or not the EULA’s restrictions that the software only be installed on Apple hardware are really legitimate.  

While I’m uncertain of what the legal finding will be, my own view is that Psystar’s argument represents the way that the situation should work.  Basically, if a customer goes into a store and purchases a piece of software, I believe that he/she should be free to install and use it as the purchaser sees fit.

That isn’t to say that I don’t think Apple should be required to make it readily available or easy for customers to run the software on non-Apple hardware.  I’m perfectly fine with them putting technological barriers in place that are designed to prevent unintended use.  I just don’t think that there should be any legal restrictions that will prevent the legal purchaser of the product from bypassing those restrictions, assuming he/she can find a way to do so.  Along the same lines, I also don’t think there should be any legal restrictions against someone publishing, or even selling, that solution or offering to perform that service for the customer.

My view is that this is how it should work in a free-market system.  I essentially see this as a matter that is between Apple and their customers and I believe that the legal system should essentially stay out of their way.

Tech Blog – Take 3!

Tuesday, August 26th, 2008

Yes, I’m re-inventing this blog once again.  I originally started this as a blog for discussing Ultra-Mobile PCs back when I bought one of the first ones off the line.  I later decided to broaden the coverage to all mobile technology as I kind of started to run out of things to say about UMPCs.

I’m now transitioning this into a completely generalized technology blog.  The main reason for this is that I kind of hit a wall as far as what to talk about even within the broader realm of mobile tech.  While I use my UMPC and cell phone pretty much every day, I’m not a gadget collector and have realized that my attention to that market in general tends to wane when I’m not in the process of shopping for an upgrade.

There have been a whole bunch of more general issues regarding computers and technology that I wanted to cover, but didn’t really fit in the narrow mobile technology category.  I also have been hesitant to talk too much about technology on my personal blog.  That blog has a pretty small readership (mostly family and friends) and I know that most of them would get pretty bored if I got too much into technology issues.

I am a software engineer working in the web division of a major media company, so I certainly am surrounded by computers and technology pretty much every day.  I have a pretty nice selection of gadgets at home and also tend to be something of a do-it-yourself tinkerer (my desktop PC is home-built).  With the subject broadened in this way, I don’t think I’ll be too short on subjects to talk about.

My plan is to treat this as more of a traditional weblog than I have in the past.  I hope to put up much more frequent posts, but most will be very short.  I read a lot of technical sites, blogs, and even magazines and expect to often use this blog to highlight interesting items that I come across.  I also want to put up occasional short tips and observations from my everyday experiences.  I’m sure I will also put up the occasional lengthy review or essay when I have something to talk about, but those do take a lot of time to write (as well as a topic of inspiration), which is why my updates have always been very infrequent when those articles were my focus.

I am changing the primary URL for this site to http://tech.bigbeaks.com to better reflect the new subject, although I am going to retain the old http://umpc.bigbeaks.com as a mirror in order to retain those that may already have the site in their feeds or bookmarks.

Hopefully this version of the blog will work out better for me and at least a few people will find it to be interesting!