Live Writer beta 2 releases

I only really started blogging “properly” when Windows Live Writer (WLW) beta first shipped… it’s been a really user-friendly tool for blogging, for a whole load of reasons.

The WLW team has just shipped a new beta which has a nice UI polish, some great new features (like inline spell checking) and other interesting stuff like Sharepoint 2007 integration (since Sharepoint 2007 implements blogging).

Steve posted about this and other Live betas (Live Mail & Live Messenger).

Surface er, surfaces

The secret project codenamed Milan was announced today, as “Microsoft Surface”: there have been a few videos floating around from Microsoft Research open days and the like, but the announced technology has had a good deal of marketing gloss applied and it really looks fantastic.

Check out the videos on – it’s interesting to note that this is technology that’s been developing for years, not just some great idea that’s been annonced before it has any legs. The actual device is going to be relatively expensive ($1000s) and won’t be available until late this year, but it has some interesting possible applications – particularly in face:face scenarios where having a screen/keyboard between two people could be divisive.

The scenarios in the several videos might seem a bit far fetched right now, but who knows where this technology could be in 5 or 10 years’ time?

The lost art of the .sig

Whatever happened to elaborate and amusing ‘.sig’s? It used to be common practice to have a signature with some kind of witty/pithy quote appended at random to every email.

Nowadays, the autosignature that most email programs can insert (such as Outlook’s ability to have multiple autosigs, which vary depending on which account is sending, or whether the mail is a new message or a reply), is typically informative with lots of contact information, job titles, disclaimers etc. I’ve seen some sigs which are twice as long as the message itself (though there may be a legal requirement in the UK to put company information in the sig, in the same way that letterhead paper would, but some people really go to town).

I’ve had a lot of people comment on my own sig (or steal it – you’re welcome to, if you like), since I tried to make it as small as possible whilst still conveying the maximum information, and using hyper links for the different ways you can contact me:

Ewan Dalton
communicator email phone RSS | +44 118 909 3318 |
Solutions Architect – Microsoft UK
cid:image001.jpg@01C6A4F4.036E8CF0  Sent using Exchange 2007 and Outlook 2007
Microsoft Limited | Registered in England | No 1624297 | Thames Valley Park, Reading RG6 1WG

or for replies (where real estate is even more important)…

Ewan Dalton | communicator email phone RSS | Microsoft UK | |+44 118 909 3318
Microsoft Limited | Registered in England | No 1624297 | Thames Valley Park, Reading RG6 1WG

Since we’re using Office Communicator, if someone clicks on the first link (the sip: URL), they’ll send me an IM. The 3rd pic (the tel: URL) will call me using Communicator (or whatever else they’re using that can support a telURL, such as a Smartphone).

I kind of miss the days where interesting quotes were de rigeur – you know, the kind of thing about BillG saying 640k should be enough for anyone (I’m not actually sure he ever said that, but we’ll leave it for now) or Thomas J Watson saying there should be a worldwide market for maybe 5 computers…

Speaking of Thos J Watson, if you have an idle few minutes, you really should check out the IBM Songbook – top marks for IBM to keeping it alive as historical curio in the IBM Archives. My own personal favourite is “To Thos J. Watson, President, I.B.M.”, sung to the tune of “Happy Days are Here Again”.

Anyway, last word on .sigs. David Harris, author of the now venerable Pegasus Mail (which had support for auto-insertion or random quotes from a .sig file, used to have a cracker or two. One that sticks in my mind (apparently taken from a real newspaper):

After the boat had been secured above the wrecked galleon, the diving apparatus was set in motion by the Captain’s 18 year old daughter, Veronica. Within hours she was surrendering her treasure to the excited crew.

iCon – Steve Jobs biography

I don’t make a great secret of the fact that I’m not much of an Apple fan – I can appreciate the great design in the products but I’ve just never had a desire or need to actually buy any (apart from the iPod sock, and that was actually a freebie from Jason) – and the whole religious fervour thing that tends to attach itself to Apple stuff has a tendency to put me off.

Just before going on holiday, though, I was book-shopping on Amazon (it’s the only time I’ll ever plough through a series of books without taking weeks & weeks), and decided to grab the unathorised biography of Steve Jobs, iCon Steve Jobs: The Greatest Second Act in the History of Business.

Having read the first few pages, I was half expecting the book to be a sycophant’s 360 page eulogy as to how wonderful Jobs is, but was pleasingly set straight after a chapter or two. The picture that the whole book paints is that, like many successful and distinctive people, Jobs is a flawed diamond – undeniably talented and possessing of an ability to energise teams of people to do things they wouldn’t do for anyone else (characterised by the now-famous “Reality Distortion Field” said to surround him).

Like other successful IT folk (Bill Gates maybe the most well known example), Steve combined a mixture of foresight (which could be seen as equally gifted and delusional for the time) which good luck (being in the right place at the right time), and managed to hang on for the ride enough to make it very successful.

It’s interesting to note that when Jobs was essentially kicked out of Apple, he went on to a series of other ventures which very nearly went badly wrong – NeXT was a hardware flop but the OS that they built paved the way for his return to Apple, and Pixar (which he picked up as an already-going concern) was seen by him as a way to sell high-end graphics computers (without apparently cottoning on to the potential of the animations they were producing, which went on to make the company billions).

One thing that characterises Jobs however, and I think is also true of Microsoft in general, is that failure is accepted as an occupational hazard and as long as some lesson is taken from the failure, it isn’t the end of the world. Steve proved this by coming back to Apple and turning the company around – though Gil Amelio might have some words to say about how the recovery in Apple’s fortunes had a lot to do with the groundwork that he had done beforehand, and that Steve happened to come back at the right time. Whatever, it’s hard to deny that had Apple without Steve might not have survived at all, and it’s a more interesting world with companies like Apple still flourishing in it.

The book finishes up before Apple’s move to Intel CPUs for the Mac lines, before the launch of the iPod Nano (which is surely the most innovative & successful of the iPods so far) and obviously before the announcement of the iPhone. It would be interesting to read a future edition of the book which looks back on the success (or otherwise?) of these strategies in years to come. All in, well worth a read, especially if you (like me) are interested in the history of our industry.

NB: Geek in Disguise, Steve Clayton, wrote about the “D Conference” this week, where Gates & Jobs will jointly appear for the first time in a long time. Now that’d be worth seeing…

TripAdvisor – an example of the web

I’ve been on holiday for the last 2 weeks. Whilst away (and trying not to think about work), we took a boat trip where 12 people went off on a catamaran for the day, 6 of us from the same hotel. During the chit-chat that goes on in such a scenario, we got to talking about the hotel and how its location was surprisingly good for getting around – and one thing struck me: all 3 couples who stayed at this hotel (it was a Hilton, not normally my 1st choice of a vacation hotel, really) had used to select where to stay.

Now for the last couple of years, I’ve used TripAdvisor to research places for holidaying, and it’s always come up trumps… sometimes leading us to hotels or locations that we’d not normally have known about, or giving tips on what to do when we get there. I love the fact that it’s constantly being updated and that you can take or leave some of the more positive and negative comments based on the style of writing and after forming an opinion about how experienced the author really is (eg. if someone thinks everything is brilliant, maybe they don’t have much to compare it with).

There are plenty of web sites I’d use routinely, but there are relatively few that the “general public” might have cottoned onto and not see as a nice (eg. Microsoft Technet isn’t going to be on the radar of your average PC user).

Obviously, news sites like have a general appeal but they’re straightforward replacements for other sources of news. Sites like Amazon and any number of other shopping sites can replace the physical shopping in a store, and using their reader reviews might give you more context on what to/not to buy. Shopping comparisons like PriceGrabber or PriceRunner help the user find where the cheapest items are, so replace the need to shop around by going from store to store.

TripAdvisor, on the other hand, is like taking traditional holiday guidebooks and turbocharging them. I’ve already started researching the next 2 holidays 🙂

I mentioned a few other travel sites in a previous blog post – all part of the clued-up traveller’s kit bag.

More Office Grooviness

Whilst mucking about with Word the other day with my buddy Steve, he was talking about the improvements that Word has introduced (common with the other Office 2007 apps) in the way it handles pictures. Let’s take a standard looking Word doc…


and drag & drop a picture right into the middle of it, where it normally fills the entire width of the document. There are some simple resize handles on the picture which will allow you to change it to a suitable size, there’s even a crop tool right in Word (as you’ll see on the Ribbon, which has now changed its focus to be formatting the picture), and in this example I’ve also set the position using the live preview “Position” button or by setting the Text Wrapping option…

Steve was gushing over how useful all this was (he’s a keen photographer so has probably spent many an hour noodling with pictures), when I wondered what would happen if you rotate the picture using the standard rotation handle in the middle at the top of it…

Now the text just flows round the shape of the picture… even if it’s an irregular shape (such as this example where I’ve taken the same picture and added an elliptical border around it…

How cool is that?


PS – I’m probably going to be offline for a little while … I’ll be back later in the month!

The power of SmartArt

Careful you say it, “SmartArt“. It’s a new capablity in Office 2007 which is designed to make manipulation of graphical representations more easy – you know, instead of a boring list of words, a presentation or document can have more impact if a diagram is used instead.

Here’s just one example a colleague gives, which illustrates the point beautifully. Let’s say we’re in Powerpoint and want to do a simple chart of steps in a process. You could enter the steps as text, and select it like shown in the screenshot. Look on the Ribbon after you’ve selected it, and select “Convert to SmartArt”.

What you’ll now see is a “live preview” of a selection of SmartArt shapes which will modify the layout of the graphic you’d convert the text into. There are about 115 different SmartArt schemes, arranged by category (eg are you trying to show a hierarchy, a process flow, a relationship etc). Once you’ve settled on which scheme you want, the Ribbon’s context will change and offer you lots of ways to vary the style of the graphics (adding shadows, empahsis, colour schemes, 3D effects etc).

It’s not a one-time process this, either: you can go back and tinker with the layout scheme, the colours, effects etc, and since most of the time you’ll see what effect that change would have immediately, there’s a lot less of the to-ing and fro-ing you might have expected when you try stuff out, then think “I don’t like that”, go back, try again…

If ever you’ve sat down and drawn a process flow or relationship map etc in Visio or Powerpoint (or pretty much any other tool), one of the more challenging actions is to insert a new step – imagine the case where you’ve got a simple 4 step model like in my example. If I wanted a cycle type map (maybe illustrating an iterative process) but then needed to add a new step later, I’d be moving all the shapes around and possibly would need to modify all the arrows that link them. With SmartArt, it’s literally a 10-second step.

In my example here, once you’ve applied the style to your SmartArt, a text box will pop up (or you can always click on the SmartArt object to edit the text later)

… and by simply inserting a new line, the graphics representation will be updated and will even vary the colours according to whatever scheme you’re using…

When my colleague Steve was demonstrating this to someone a few months ago, the customer looked agog – and then said he’d literally spent 2 hours the day before, reorganising a diagram which had to have some modifications just like this. I can honestly say, it’s saved me hours of work too when doing flow charts for documentation. Truly one of the coolest features in Office 2007 which lets the author concentrate less on making everything look pretty (since that only takes a snap), and spend more time on making the content right.

Whilst looking in the Office help yesterday (and it really is very helpful), I noticed there are links to demo videos on the web – there’s one quite nice one on using SmartArt. See if you can count how many times the presenter says “Hmmm, I like that!” 🙂

Finally, a sidebar gadget worth having

Oooh, that’s a bit flippant. The whole Vista sidebar thing has kind of passed me by, though it really does make sense on widescreen monitors.

Kitten has nothing but destruction on his little mindI set about looking for a particular gadget today, though – one of my cats managed to knock my home PC over last night (it’s a desktop which I have standing vertically under the desk, propped up on a couple of old plastic floppy disk boxes to allow airflow under).

Following Arnie’s destructive rampage, the PC refused to boot. So I had to drag it out from under the desk, and start pulling it apart to figure out what was wrong. After a process of elimination, I figured that the CPU must be the problem and sure enough, the CPU cooler had come loose. On closer inspection, the CPU itself had been yanked out of position (by the weight of the huge heatsink/fan combo) and managed to mangle numerous of the 478 pins…

… which is never going to be a good thing.

Anyway, I eventually gave up trying to straighten the pins (that’s one way to make you go cross-eyed) and decided to sacrifice the CPU from another PC that happens to be elsewhere in the house. By the time I’d taken *that* one to bits, put the CPU in my main machine, reassembled both and reinstalled the system unit under the desk, I was pretty happy.

Until about 5 minutes in to using the thing, when it abruptly shut itself down and emitted a selection of beeps on restarting… uh oh, sounds like a thermal shutdown where the system throws itself on its own sword rather than bursting into flames.

It turns out the CPU fan cable had got wrapped around the fan itself so the cooling forces were less than optimal (ie none, apart from the heatsink). After fixing that and reassembling/reinstalling the machine, I went looking for SpeedFan, a great little bit of diagnostic software that displays all the temperatures, fan speeds, voltages etc from the numerous internal sensors within the case (if your system supports it).

There’s even a beta SpeedFan gadget, which will report any of the info that Speedfan can grab, right there on the sidebar. Excellent!

More information here.

PS – another tip for Sidebar usage… Windows Key + Space bring it to the fore.

Chris Bangle – an inspiration

I was fortunate enough to listen to Chris Bangle, group chief of design at BMW, talk about design, about his own personal journey to where he is now and what inspires him, when he spoke at Microsoft’s TechReady conference in Seattle earlier this year. Paul Foster wrote a good review of that session, closing with a comment that Chris presented to us (bearing in mind the audience was several thousand technical people):

For generations, man has wondered what dreams are. We’ve had Freud and many others try to define dreaming, but Chris said Microsoft had helped him solve this mystery. Dreams are really just our brains defragmenting over night…

Now Chris is a man who has made quite an impact on car design at BMW, and has legions of fans and detractors in the car industry. His controversial “flame surfacing” design style, which first saw light in the BMW 7-series redesign of a few years ago and has gone to influence every model since, is a great example of the kind of design change which initially many people are resistant to, but get over it in the end and may even look back on it favourably.

When Windows XP came out, a lot of business people complained that it was too glossy and consumer-oriented, and they wanted to swtich off all the nice stuff and make it look like Windows 2000. I haven’t heard too many people say the same about Vista, but the question of whether there is a “classic mode” always comes up with any UI redesign, like the Ribbon in Office 2007.

Listening to Chris talk about the way design evolves, and how sometimes it takes a leap forward, it’s quite possible to draw comparisons with the world of IT, or wider into consumer devices, fashion etc.

I came across a video of Chris talking to car people, at the Autocar Awards 2006, on his thoughts of the cars of tomorrow. Quite a bit of the content he used was also part of his speech to Microsoft people, but what he said and the emphasis on what points he was making, were subtly different. It’s well worth 12 minutes of your time to watch this video – even if you don’t like Chris’s car designs, you can’t deny he’s a smart guy who appears really likeable in person.

Link to video | Link to Autocar TV |

How to really wipe a hard disk

In one of those weird coincidences, someone asked a question to an email DL in MS this morning, about how to securely erase a hard disk (since, as every skoolboy kno, deleting files doesn’t really remove them from the HDD, and even formatting a HDD still leaves residue that could be recovered).

A few suggestions came back:

As it happened, Robin Harris from ZDNet blogged today about some freeware utilities to go over the disk and overwrite every track, even blocks marked as bad, using the “Secure Erase” function that’s built into most ATA disks, but is not typically made accessible by the BIOS. It’s a process that’s not for the faint hearted, but still seems effective (and appears to be good enough for the US National Security Agency).

The best comment I saw in response to the internal mail was the final suggestion, though:

  • Military method – a team with angle grinders destroy the platters + one person to witness that it was done.

I suppose the military really like to do things properly 🙂