Category Archives: Windows

Usability expert pronounces new Windows 8 UI confusing

Apple fans like to accuse Microsoft of stealing ideas from Apple. They also like to give Steve Jobs credit for inventing things actually invented by others. A recent example of this is the apparent belief among some Apple diehards that Jobs invented tablet computing.

Another common misconception is that Apple (and Jobs) invented the graphical user interface and mouse. In fact that honour goes to the wonderfully creative folks who worked at the Xerox Parc research facility in Palo Alto in the 1980s. Jobs saw a demonstration of a graphical interface at Parc and soon afterward, the Mac appeared on the scene.

In fact, all creative work builds on what came before, whether we’re talking about art or technology. These days, there’s far too much emphasis on ownership of ideas, with hopelessly broken patent and copyright systems making lawyers rich and causing untold misery for everyone else. Don’t get me started.

Raluca Budiu is a computer usability expert who previously worked at both Xerox Parc and Microsoft. She was recently interviewed by laptopmag.com, and was asked about the Windows 8 UI. What she says will surprise nobody who has given any thought to the new tablet/touch-focused UI. It’s confusing. It’s cognitively jarring. It’s more work than previous Windows UIs. Her comments were based on her own personal use of the new O/S and not the result of any kind of formal study, but I think we can agree that her observations have merit. I hope she decides to study the new UI in detail; the results could encourage Microsoft to provide workarounds for some of the more awkward UI issues in Windows 8.

Low prices for Windows 8 will end after January 31, 2013

I was encouraged by Microsoft’s recent announcement that pricing for Windows 8 was going to be lower than previous Windows offerings. In particular, $40 for the retail Windows 8 Pro Upgrade is a lot more reasonable than I had expected. Of course, that’s the download-only version; the retail box will be priced at $70. The non-upgrade version of Windows 8 Pro will be $70, which is still better than it was for Windows 7.

Alas, these prices are only going to be in effect for a brief period, from the retail release on October 26, 2012 to January 31, 2013. After that, the non-upgrade Pro version will increase from $70 to $200 (gag), while the Pro Upgrade price will increase from $40 to something higher (exactly what remains unclear). These prices are all in US dollars.

In related news, Microsoft has revamped their licensing for Windows. Among other changes, users will now be able to – for the first time! – legitimately install Windows on a self-built PC without paying full price for a retail version. The new license type is called “Personal Use License for System Builder (PULSB)” and although pricing is not yet know, it will hopefully be significantly lower than the full retail version. Ed Bott has additional analysis over at ZDNet, and he’ll be posting more as his analysis continues. ARS Technica has more info on the new licensing and PULSB.

Windows 8 prevents site blocking using HOSTS file

Another day, another reason to hate Windows 8. And I haven’t even installed it yet. According to ghacks.net, using the Windows HOSTS file to block web sites will no longer work reliably in Windows 8.

Modifying the Windows HOSTS file is a simple and effective way to fiddle with the way domain names are translated into IP addresses. I use it on development PCs to allow access to locally-hosted web sites using their public URLs. It can also be used to redirect unwanted web sites to LOCALHOST, effectively blocking them. This can be used as a rudimentary form of ad blocking, although there are some risks involved.

Microsoft apparently doesn’t want people using the HOSTS file that way, because it silently updates the file, even if it’s marked as read-only, removing entries for facebook.com and ad.doubleclick.net (a major advertising source), and presumably others.

It turns out that the culprit is Windows Defender, which is enabled by default in Windows 8. Exactly why Windows Defender is doing this is not certain, but it’s safe to assume that Microsoft was pressured to do this by Facebook, Doubleclick, and others. Microsoft will probably claim that it was done for reasons of security, in which case it will be interesting to hear their explanation.

Meanwhile, disabling Windows Defender apparently resolves this issue. You should probably use real anti-malware software anyway. There are plenty of free alternatives.

August 2012 Patch Tuesday

Another Patch Tuesday is here, and this time there are nine bulletins, with associated patches affecting most versions of Windows and Microsoft Office. Several of the Windows patches are classified as critical.

Details on the August 2012 patches are posted on the Microsoft Security Bulletin site.

The patches are now available via Microsoft Update. Computers configured for automatic updates should start receiving them overnight.

No way to avoid crappy new UI in Windows 8

As predicted by many, Microsoft has officially adopted Apple’s “take what we give you and like it” approach to software development. The hopelessly clunky, nameless, tablet-oriented new user interface in Windows 8 will not be avoidable.

Microsoft apparently really does think that everyone will like the new UI, and anyone who doesn’t is just not important. Since that last group of people includes everyone who uses their computer for more than web browsing, Skype and email, as well as everyone who reviews and evaluates software and makes software purchasing recommendations for organizations, I’m calling it now: Windows 8 is going to be a disaster.

On the other hand, intrepid developers out there have found ways around Microsoft’s idiocy before, and they’ll no doubt do it again. With any luck, they’re working right now on ways to make Windows 8 a usable O/S. UPDATE: Indeed they are – see how to bring back the Start menu in Windows 8 and Samsung’s attempt to revive the Start menu.

August 2012 Patch Tuesday advance warning

Microsoft will be issuing several patches for Windows, Office, and other software on August 14, 2012. According to the advance bulletin, there are nine updates in all, with five affecting various versions of Windows, and three affecting various versions of Office.

A total of 14 vulnerabilities will be addressed by the patches. Five of the bulletins are rated critical.

Additional details will be posted here as they are made available in the lead-up to Patch Tuesday.

Flash is crashing most browsers on Windows 7

Since I originally posted this, I learned that Adobe released version 11.3.300.268 to address this problem. It remains to be seen whether the problem has actually been resolved.

The latest version (11.3.300.265) of the ubiquitous Flash plugin found in most web browsers seems to be causing web browsers running on Windows 7 and Vista to crash. A quick search of Google shows that there are reports of this happening in Firefox, Chrome and Opera. Internet Explorer seems unaffected so far, possibly due to the fact that IE uses a separate (ActiveX) version of the Flash player.

Reports indicate that Mozilla is working with Adobe to resolve this problem, and presumably the other browser developers are doing the same. Meanwhile, if you’re running Windows 7 and you watch video on the web, you may run into this problem. As awful as it sounds, the only useful workaround at this point is to switch – temporarily – to Internet Explorer.

Update 2012Jul31:
I’ve been digging through reports from all over the web, and it looks like this problem has actually been going on since as far back as 2009 and Flash 10.0.42.34. Internet Explorer may also be affected, although recent reports seem to exclude IE. Some reports imply that only 64 bit versions of Windows are affected. There are even reports that Windows XP and Mac OSX are affected. But it seems clear that something happened to Flash in version 10 that made it unstable in web browsers on Windows 7 and Vista, and the problem still exists in the most recent version of Flash, 11.3.300.265. It’s possible we’re looking at more than one problem, or one that has morphed somewhat as the Adobe developers try to fix it. An old problem that was previously fixed may have reappeared when Adobe changed something in a later version. Clearly, not all Windows 7 users are affected; if everyone who uses Youtube (the highest-profile Flash video source) on Windows 7 was having this problem, we would have heard more about it by now.

The problem seems to take slightly different forms: it may crash the browser; the plugin itself may crash, leaving the browser running; and in some cases Windows may crash. The web browser may freeze for a few minutes before any crash occurs, and Windows may become unresponsive. In most cases, the problem occurs after two or three minutes of Flash video, but it make take up to fifteen minutes. The most common scenarios involve long Youtube videos and Facebook games (both use Flash).

Here are some of the more interesting problem reports I’ve found:

Possible solutions:

  • Try Internet Explorer. I know, yuck. But it’s only temporary.
  • Uninstall all Flash software, then install Flash 9. This ancient version is apparently the last one that didn’t have these crashing problems. Again, this is temporary. You should upgrade to the latest version once Adobe finally fixes this problem.
  • Adobe recommends uninstalling both Flash and Shockwave, then rebooting your PC, then installing the latest versions of Flash and Shockwave.
  • Disable your anti-virus software. This is not recommended, although it may be useful as a test.
  • Disable all non-Microsoft startup programs using MSCONFIG. If that works, re-enable each startup program one at a time until the problem recurs.
  • Disable hardware acceleration in the Flash settings.
  • Disable “Enable Web Download & Recording for these installed browsers” in RealPlayer (yes, in Realplayer). Some recent Flash installers include a link to a page on the Adobe support site about an incompatibility between Flash and RealPlayer, and this is the recommended solution.
  • Revert to Flash version 10.3.183.20.

Prediction: if Adobe doesn’t figure this out, and Google has heard enough complaints about it, Google might be inclined to switch Youtube from Flash to HTML5. Everyone else in the world will follow Youtube, and then Flash will disappear forever and not be missed.

Update 2012Aug03: Adobe snuck a Flash update past me on July 26. Version 11.3.300.268 attempts to address crashing problems that occur on Windows and Mac computers when playing Flash content. Adobe doesn’t seem to be convinced that the problem is resolved, however: in the version announcement, they ask users for assistance in troubleshooting the problem.

Valve chief not impressed with Windows 8

Valve is one of the most successful – and influential – gaming companies around. Valve’s boss, Gabe Newell, has expressed his feelings about Microsoft’s upcoming version of Windows, and they are not good.

In fact, Newell is so worried about Windows 8 that he is predicting major OEM players will bail completely. And Valve is actively looking at porting its Source gaming engine and Steam client to Linux. The hugely popular Valve game Left 4 Dead 2 has already been ported to Ubuntu Linux.

Having Steam and Valve games on Linux might just be the push needed to get Linux gaming off the ground at last. Once Linux is seen as a viable gaming platform, Microsoft will be in serious trouble.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether Windows 8 is the disaster predicted by Newell. But Gabe is a smart guy, and he spent some time working at Microsoft. If he’s right, we’re about to witness a major shift in consumer operating system preference.

Update 2012Aug01: Richard Stallman, an outspoken leader of the free software movement, isn’t happy about the idea of non-free games running on an otherwise free software platform. Still, he agrees that if you want to run non-free software, you’re better off running it on a free software platform like Linux.