Tom Petrocelli's take on technology. Tom is the author of the book "Data Protection and Information Lifecycle Management" and a natural technology curmudgeon. This blog represents only my own views and not those of my employer, Enterprise Strategy Group. Frankly, mine are more amusing.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The Pain of Upgrades

We all like up-to-date software. Who can say "no" to new features or more stable code. The past few weeks have seen major new versions of the popular open source browser Firefox, and Konfabulator, now called Yahoo! Widgets. The other great Mozilla application, Thunderbird (which is to e-mail what firefox is to web browsing) is expected within weeks. What great holiday presents. Or, they would be if the actual updates weren't so difficult. This is the tale of three such upgrades.

Windows XP SP2
I will be the first to admit that I made things difficult on myself. I chose to finally upgrade to Windows XP SP2 and install every update that was pending. It was about time. The new features don't matter much - I don't need yet another firewall - but the patches and security features were due.

This one, I must say went relatively smooth. Okay, I had to reboot like a half dozen times. You would think that by now someone would have figured out how to stage these updates so that we don't have to restart after each one. In the grand scheme of things this is an annoyance.

What is not an annoyance is when applications stop working. My favorite graphics program no longer displayed anything loaded into it. The software thought that pictures were there but refused to display them. After another round of updates, it started working again. This leads me to believe that it was not the graphics applications. Instead, it was probably one of the updates. Updates are supposed to fix things not break them.

The second problem occured when I went to run Windows Media Player. It acted like this was the first time I had installed it. It made me run through the whole "first run" process. How stupid. This is an UPGRADE not a new installation. There is no good reason to make us go through the start up process again and again.

Firefox 1.5
The actual installation was a breeze (notice a pattern). It updated my installation in a snap. That's when the fun began. It turns out that a lot of extensions and themes that I had installed no longer worked and there were no updates to them available. This is the Achilles heal of open source. You can't expect that the free extras will work when things change in the main application. Given that Firefox 1.5 has been in Beta for months, you have to wonder why this is so. I have to assume it is because the folks that write these extensions have real lives and simply couldn't spend time on it. That doesn't explain why the AskJeeves toolbar wasn't ready. They're supposed to be a real company, right?

The oddest thing about this upgrade were the inconsistancies between my laptop installation and the desktop one. I had fewer problems on the laptop even though the software is mostly the same and the hardware pretty close. Go figure. A good example is the Greasemonkey script engine. It installed well on both machines but did not work on my desktop. On both it wiped out my existing scripts (a real pain in the neck) but on my desktop machine it wouldn't allow me to install and new scripts (a bigger pain in the neck). I was left scriptless and perhaps witless. That was not the case on my laptop where it worked fine. Hmmmm. As Alice would have said "Curiouser and curiouser". I finally found a resolution on a forum somewhere. Apparently, in some cases a file directory doesn't get created. Without this file (which can be empty), Greasemonkey can't install new scripts.

Again, I know that this is free and all but if things like this continue to happen, open source will eventually die. It will be too expensive and hard to maintain. Microsoft will win and it will be the end for the open source movement. Not that I'm a prophet of doom or anything

Now if they could only fix the memory leak that causes my browser to continue to east memory until it's all gone, I would be happier.

The Software Formerly Known as Konfabulator
First question: Why change the name? I know that Yahoo is all about brand but why not Yahoo! Konfabulator? That at least sounds cool. Yahoo! Widgets sounds so pedestrian. Are they trying to copyright the word "widget"? That can't be since "widget" has been used in this context since the dawn of computing.

By any measure, the upgrade is a mess. The fact that they released three versions of the program in less then a week is an indicator of some pretty poor testing. One look at the forums shows installation errors a-plenty, not to mention broken widgets all over the place. Lots of other problems have been reported including runaway memory usage and endlessly spawning process. Overall the mood is ugly.

My problems were with the installer. Yahoo! has you download a small bit of code which then installs the rest over the Internet. In my case, the installer just plain crashed. In the end, I scrounged around for a full install that worked fine. After that, I had no problems but others have not been as lucky.

Unlike the Mozilla people, Yahoo! has few excuses for this. They have the resources to properly test this code better. It is supposed to be a major step in their overall strategy to tie us to Yahoo services. It's a nice integration too. The Notes widget (which looks like a stick notepad) is integrated with Yahoo! Notepad and the Day Planner with Yahoo! Calender. It sure is a value-add to these services, though I'm not sure how Yahoo! will make money from it. There's no advertising on any of these widgets. Whatever the strategy, it won't work if the software is a bust. It's hard to make money by pissing off your customers.

Overall, consumer software upgrades are too sloppy. This type of behavior will drive people to hosted applications.Maybe that's the strategy. If the software on your PC is so hard to maintain, everyone will use the hosted applications instead. Then, companies will be able to shove advertising in front of our eyeballs... or wherever else they might want to shove it.

Okay. Now I get it...

Friday, December 16, 2005

Okay! Now I get VMWare

I started goofing around with VMWare. There has been an awful lot of noise about virtual machines and how they will change everything. I was compelled to download VMWare's VMPlayer and see how it worked.

At first I was mystified. Okay, running Linux in a box on my Windows desktop was cool but was it useful? I struggled to find a reason for it. Sure, there are a lot of developers out there that do cross platform work and this saves them having to have multiple machines. Everyone knows that multi-boot machines are a pain in the neck and you have to constantly reboot to use them. Still, how many people is that really? A handful.

So, as I'm goofing around with the VMPlayer, it dawns on me. With the right scripts, I can run legacy operating systems and hence, legacy software on my computer. Cool! That old DOS program that I like but can't run under Windows XP is once again usable. Perhaps in the future, I can even run the Intel version of MAC OS X (a fantastic operating system) and Windows together.

Even that is not the real reason that VMWare and it's kin (such as QEMU) matter. Instead, what these emulators represent is upgarde security. There is nothing worse then upgrading to a new OS (for example Vista) and discovering that your old applications don't run. Heack I just upgraded to Win X SP2 and found one of my old favorite applications isn't working right anymore. With the virtual machine technology, that's not nearly as big a concern. That also explains why Microsoft has there own VM technology. No more refusing to upgrade because of that one old application that you absolutely rely on. No need to upgrade all your applications for the new OS. Run the old stuff in a box if it won't run native.

Hopefully, this makes up for the 2000/XP Command Prompt program that looks like DOS but doesn't run DOS programs well. In fact, shouldn't this be part of the OS? Sure should. Not that Microsoft is going to listen to me. Okay, maybe they will make it part of the server OS but that will miss the point entirely.

In the meantime, maybe my new favorite folks ar VMWare will give us some legacy operating system scripts and such. Then, I can run cranky old programs on my new computer. Huzzah!

Friday, December 02, 2005

I got the new Firefox. Yawn!

I just installed the newest version of Firefox (v1.5), my most favorite browser. This was touted as a major release with all kinds of improvements. Unfortunately, most of the improvments are under the hood. It seems like the same ole Firefox to the me - which is not a bad thing. The bad thing is that some of my extensions aren't working anymore, especially Bookmark Sychronizer.

Adblock, one of my favorite and most important extensions, is still working but differently. Instead of the neat little tab that used to be displayed that allowed me to block Flash ads, I have to go through new gyrations and use the Overlay Flash feature. It's not a big deal but not a positive improvement. I also don't understand why all the search plug-ins I used to have loaded simply disappeared. It would be less of an annoyance if the plug-in site was accesible, which it isn't right now.

Many of the new features, such as the ability to rearrange tabs, have always been available via extensions like Tabbrowser Extensions. Others are just not obvious. Perhaps they have benchmarks that show that the back and forth buttons work faster but I don't see it. It's never been much of a problem for me so it's not something I would notice.

What I like the best is the new error message handling. Since the dawn of the Internet, error messages have been less then useful. If you didn't know what the rather common 404 was, you would just sit there perplexed. Firefox 1.5 seems to be able to interpret errors better and actually provide useful feedback. This is very timely indeed since most of the Mozilla web sites are timing out, probably because they are being hammered.

Ultimately, this looks like a minor release and not the major one that Mozilla has been touting. Maybe that's why it's still 1.5 instead of 2.0. To quote Dom Deluise in The History of the World Part I (a really funny movie) it's "Nice. Not thrilling but nice". For all the hype, there shoudl be something more .. innovative.