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Patents v. Microsoft

March 30

I told myself I'd never mention the name again on this site, but it's come to this. Microsoft has (temporarily?) caved on the Eolas patent dispute, and issued a warning to web developers everywhere: the Internet Explorer plugin architecture is going to get an unwelcome downgrade, and you need to change your pages now to avoid causing user experience problems down the road. You've got two months.

Who's affected? Well, do you use the <object> element? Then, potentially, you are. Sites that embed PDF, Flash, QuickTime, Windows Media, or RealPlayer files will all get hit by this.

What happens? The page loads, but the controls are disabled by default. In order to activate them, the user must click on them first.

Bad for advertisers? Yep. Bad for CMS/eCommerce vendors that rely on ActiveX controls? Yep. Bad for media sites? You bet. Bad for Adobe? Of course.

Really, there's no good side here. Except that you've got two months to fix your sites. Like you didn't have anything better to do anyway. Enjoy.

(Ethan Marcotte has some history and technical details about this issue from 2003, if you need to play catch-up.)

(And I should be clear: this is Microsoft's response to litigation brought on by an opportunistic third party, it's not an arbitrary decision on their part to make your life worse.)

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VOIP Disconnect

March 29

I have to admit, it took me a while to understand the voice over IP trend (think Skype, Vonage, or iChat AV for that matter), mainly because it has never actually worked for me. Turns out, that was all my fault.

Constant disconnections have always been frequent. I could rarely sustain a conversation over 5 or 10 minutes, whether it was computer to computer, or computer to phone. I often wondered how anyone could make a case for using VOIP on a frequent basis, and assumed the grass was somehow greener.

My current setup sees my cable modem piping into a wireless router, which I've used variably as a wireless or wired hub. I bought it before I was thoroughly versed in the world of Apple so it's not an Airport, it's made by SMC. Which means manual configuration.

Now, I'm a bit of a networking geek; I can tell you the difference between NAT and a MAC address, when you'd use DHCP or manually configure an IP, and I can even explain the difference between the TCP part and the IP part.

So, I assumed I had set everything up to work properly (and low bandwidth applications like email and the web worked fine) and it was just my local service provider having issues, or my wireless B-generation router just wasn't capable of the speeds needed to carry voice and video. Streaming video has always been a problem too, seemingly lending support to my theory. For years I've thought this.

A few things came together that pointed to a solution. 1) I bought an iMac that has a built-in iSight. 2) after SXSW Cindy Li hosted Veerle and Geert in Washington. 3) a stroke of inspiration led to 60" TV iSight chats that kept crapping out on us. That's when Cindy mentioned that iChat AV had a few specific ports that she had to open manually on her router. Hmm.

A bit more research, a bit of plowing through iChat error logs, and it quickly became clear that it was my router's NAT (Network Address Translation) that was causing the problem. After a few minutes of any chat, the expected delivery address shifted and the connection dropped. Whether I was plugged in with an ethernet cable, or connecting over the wireless, I had the same problem.

I'm going to gloss over a bunch of configuration here, and skip why manually overriding ports doesn't work very well when your systems use DHCP. But I will say that in theory NAT seems nice and secure, as any computers within a network appear to come from one single IP address: the router's. So, for the most part, any hacking from the outside could only ever get as far as the router, leaving the computers within the LAN safe enough.

Point being, it's hard to think about turning that off since it's clearly a good thing. So I never tried. But after a bit of time on the phone with the local Apple retailer, I decided to bypass the router completely and plug the iMac directly into my cable modem.

And like that, the problem went away. I managed to maintain constant connections over a series of calls yesterday totaling almost two hours of talk time. So the problem was most definitely NAT-induced, and after eliminating that as a factor, I can now do remarkably clear and reliable VOIP sessions.

Now the question is, do I simply turn off NAT, or buy an Airport/Airport Express and expect it to deal with all this gracefully and securely? That's what I'm not quite sure about yet. Anyone?

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IE7: Details

March 23

A bit late posting this due to travel, but I had a chance to sit down with Markus Mielke of the IE team and find out what precisely we can expect of rendering updates in IE7. It's likely that any praise of Internet Explorer will still be controversial for now, but it's well-earned. Hear me out.

The latest beta preview release of IE7, the one that came out in association with this conference, is expected to be more or less the final revision to the rendering engine. What exists now is as feature-complete as it will get, so expect no more CSS or major bug fixes past this point for IE7.

They're not 100% there yet, there's still a lot of work to be done, but there are two important take-aways here. First, IE7 is not the end of the road. This is the first big step, but they expect to make many more. Second, now is the time to start fixing your sites. Grab the latest version, and test against it; if your site breaks in it (as this one does), you can expect that will remain true after IE7 final is released. It's time to start the surgery. It'll hurt. But hopefully, the rest of this post will convince you and me both that it won't be so bad.

In the Explorer Exposed section on Position is Everything, there's a big list of bugs exclusive to IE running down the left hand side of the page. With one exception, consider that entire list fixed. The exception is the escaping floats bug, which apparently will take a major code re-architecturing that they simply couldn't do in IE7; it'll come in a later release.

The big sexy stuff is of course, transparent PNGs, :hover on any element, and fixed positioning. They've even gone so far as to create a code demo of these in action, which is actually a Zen Garden design. Seriously. If you were in Markus' Wednesday morning session you probably saw it. But I'm not sure if it'll make it to the actual site or not since—(chuckle)—it would have to be made to work in IE6.

What else? They've started implementing CSS3 selectors. How about pixel-unit text scaling? Problem solved! Font sizing is deprecated, wait until you see the new full-page zoom. It's like zooming in on a PDF. Your absolutely positioned text will no longer scale out of its block, since the block scales equally as well. It's a designer's dream. I'm a bit concerned about how the user will view this change, but that remains to be seen.

I still harbour just as much ill will toward IE6 as ever, like many of you. And I'm pretty sure a lot of the IE team understands that sentiment. So while being excited about IE7 might seem contradictory to my past stance on the browser, it's because I simply see the potential. This first step is a big one. It's not enough yet, but it's significant enough that I know the next step afterward is going to be exactly what we wanted, and likely a bunch more.

As I said to Markus, at one point in time they had the best browser on the market; given the sheer momentum I uncovered at this conference, I could very well see it happening again. IE8: the new Firefox? Hmm.

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MIX06

March 21

Things you might not have expected to read on this site: I hung out with the Internet Explorer team, and they're fun people.

I decided to keep notes during MIX06 this week. I was interested in coming to this event to hear about Microsoft's future plans for Internet Explorer. It's been a predictably Microsoft-heavy event, but I hardly think exposure to this world is a bad thing. It is, after all, how a huge chunk of those building for the web approach their development, and at the root of it, we're all doing basically the same thing with different tools.

Dinner with the IE Team

Thanks mainly to Tantek Çelik, I managed to show up at an IE team dinner the first night at the Venetian Hotel here in Las Vegas. We shared a table with Chris Wilson, and another guy whose name I remember bits and pieces of (but not enough to attempt to reconstruct here).

Of course at some point I managed to ask about the more recent update to IE7, which was released during this conference. But what I found more interesting was the tangents about the difficulty of true XML parsing, as experienced by Çelik and Wilson alike when attempting to implement in their respective browsers (IE/Mac and IE/Win). And of course, I've been extremely interested in the CSS updates that have occurred between IE7 Beta 2 Preview Release, and this new MIX build that came out yesterday.

Summary for the rest of us: Floats, overflow, and the like? Fixed. Done. It's over. No more inconsistency, it looks like that's a wrap. We get min-width and max-width. Oh, joyous day. CSS2 selectors? You name it. There's only one remaining which might not make it into IE7, the rest are all there.

Naturally, I had to bring up (probably more than once) the question about CSS tables; namely, when will we get them? Cause that's what us designer types are really waiting for. Grid-based layouts in IE? Hell yeah. Long story short: not IE7. Maybe IE7.5. It's on their list. Maybe some of you can back me up on this, but I'd much rather see CSS tables implemented first, before generated content. Floats have only ever been a hackish way to layout a web page; we need something more intelligent, something that can say "yes please, I really would like column a to be as high as column b" and have it stick. Are you with me?

Bill Gates Keynote

Summarizing this one will be a bit tricky, as it was a bit of a rambling mind dump about the next few things Microsoft is doing in the web sphere. IE7, Vista, Atlas, a bit on WS-*, etc. There were a few guest speakers - the CTO of MySpace, who proceeded to show all the wildly innovative things MySpace is doing with Microsoft technology (useless photo rotating widgets and the like); a fellow from the BBC (I missed his title) who was a much more engaging speaker than either of the previous two, and proceeded to tell us about the archival problems that the BBC faces (600,000 hours of programming going back to the 30's) and the technological solutions they're exploring to make that accessible to the British public; and finally, Tim O'Reilly came on to interview Gates for a half hour or so.

Gates himself touched on some of the IE improvements we can expect, things like UI and security upgrades, and a bit of lip service to the CSS update. What was most interesting to me is that he issued a mea culpa about Microsoft's sitting on IE for so long, and that IE7 is definitely not the end of the line this time.

The Tim O'Reilly interview was interesting, as Tim and the audience had a few tough questions that could have been insightful, had Gates answered them at face value. Questions about competition, mainly—the theme seemed to be, should we take you at your word this time, given what we know from the last 10 years? But the answers rarely matched the question, and meandered into other Microsoft territory that seemed more in line with the conference agenda.

Dean Hachamovitch Keynote

Dean started with a quick history of IE, that left off at 2001. After that? (sound: crickets chirping) Anything short of an apology from Microsoft at this point is not enough: "we messed up," said Dean. But now, "we get it". They're fixing it. And it's time to show that, and keep showing it with continual improvement.

The new IE7 build was then announced, and we got a look at some of the UI/security updates. Tabs, a customizable drop-down search box, SSL certificate warnings, and the like. Lots of catch-up to everyone else, of course, but there were a few neat new things on that end.

The new search box is going to allow you to search any site, and will notify the user if a site can potentially be added to the drop-down list. Driving that is an open format that anyone can implement. The security updates are much more obtrusive, trying to actively prevent people from falling victim to all the current online scams. If you change your security settings to something unsafe, IE will nag you until you change them back, and give you a one-click method to do it. Some usability trade-offs happening here, but I think the industry is universally figuring out that ease of use doesn't outweigh safety.

So, CSS? Where are we now? Dean loaded up a couple of examples from Position is Everything and Eric Meyer's css/edge demos, and showed IE6 and IE7 rendering. We didn't get many more details than that, but there's clearly a lot more improvement happening.

On to RSS. Aside from the usual catch-up, there are a few cool things they're doing here. Dean showed an Amazon wishlist feed, where IE exposes a couple of smart filters that allow a user to filter/sort the feed by price, name, description etc. Then he showed a vanilla Flickr feed where he could hit a button and kick in a full-screen slideshow of the high-res photos. Though Apple's blue swirling RSS screensaver in Tiger is nicely rendered, this insta-screensaver from an RSS feed is seriously cool.

On to Atlas, where I tuned out to polish my notes. Atlas is essentially an AJAX and ASP.NET framework for rapid application development. Seems like a good idea if you're using ASP.NET. I'm not.

Side note: during the morning, I heard both Gates and Dean mention the term "beyond the browser" a few times. Hmm.

That's all I've got the time to write up for now. I'll likely come back in and supplement this with my notes from the Microsoft Expression sessions later in the afternoon, and the Future of IE7 panel with Dean, Chris Wilson, Eric Meyer, Molly, and a few others.

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Red Bull House light wall | March 16

This year at SXSW, Red Bull rented out an open warehouse-like building and set up themed rooms. One had a bar, one had XBoxes, one had art installations, and this one had an interactive lavalamp wall that responded to your shadow.

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Mac vs. Intel vs. Adobe

March 6

So here's where we're at on announced MacIntel computers right now: we've got the MacBook Pro, the Mac mini, and the iMacIntel.

Does anyone spot a trend? Neither do I. The releases are happening in seemingly completely random order, without much concern to the traditional consumer and pro lines. So Apple's charging away at the transition, regardless of the lineup. Great.

Except for those of us who want to buy new technology right now. See, Adobe has seemingly committed to not porting existing software (meaning both CS2 and Studio 8 here, remember) to MacIntel. Instead we're going to have to wait for the next versions, which, given the current product cycle, means we've got a year or two to wait it out.

Yes, you can run the existing software in emulation mode, but it ain't quick. It's hard to justify shelling out now for a speed decrease, when the actual benefits won't kick in for another year or more.

Here's the big dilemma for Mac-based creative professionals looking for new gear at the moment: buy a G5-based system now and get the speed boost for the short term, thus facing obsolesence in a few year's time. Or, buy an Intel-based system now, take a short-term speed hit, and be assured that your system will live on well after the transition is finished.

Of course, with the PowerMacs you don't even have the choice, the Intel versions haven't been announced yet. And there's another variable: you'd need to stick it out until they arrive, and buy then. Anyone needing new gear right away is going to get stuck with a very tough choice.

I'd been thinking about a PowerMac lately myself, but this issue made the decision a lot harder. I was all set to pick up a quad-core G5 at some point in the very near future, until I started seeing the Intel benchmarks. I had assumed the G5's would still out-pace the Intel chips for the first generation or two, but it sounds like the new chips are way faster already when running Universal binaries. So that doesn't help the matter.

Right now, I can't see any way to personally justify buying a G5 PowerMac. It's a lot of money for something guaranteed to be obsolete within a few years. At the same time, I can't really justify laying out the same amount of cash for a system guaranteed to chug away for the next year or more. So PowerMacs just don't make sense until Adobe's on board.

I realized that, just as Apple is in the middle of a transition, I guess I'll have to be as well. So I ended buying a 20" iMac G5. It's cheap, it's got a nice big screen, and even with the stock 512MB of RAM (which will get maxed out in short order) it's already running circles around my Powerbook.

When it makes more sense to jump into the world of MacIntel, I'll do it. But a week in, I'm not regretting this move one bit. I can always sell it when it's time to move on, but I already suspect it'll be hard to get rid of.

Word of advice though: if you're thinking along the same lines, go and get one yesterday. It seems Apple is putting them to bed rather quickly, to the point where mine may have come from the very last shipment of iMac G5's to the local Mac outlet.

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Randoms

March 2

A few random tidbits from around the web this week:

Feeling Random?
Take pictures of people at SXSW. Lots of them. Upload them to Flickr. Wait. If the random person of the day happens to be in your photo, both you and they win an iPod nano. That's it? That's it. Brought to you by those fine folks at WestCiv.
Veerle's blog now 2.0
Holy moly, that's a hell of a redesign. Hats off!
Layout Gala
One common markup format, 40 different CSS layouts. Creating a new CSS-based site? Start here. Every time.
Windows Live Local Virtual Earth Technology Preview Enoughsyllablesalready? Edition
Not sure if I've said it on here before, but I really loved Microsoft's response to Google Maps. Now this new one, despite being buggy and obviously not a final product of any sort, is just totally mind-blowing.
The IE7 MIX 06 Release

Okay, this is a bit of a shocker. Look at the IE7b2TechPreview screenshots (the IE7 beta that came out last month, that is) vs. the upcoming IE7 beta release later this month. What the...? I mean, bloody fantastic, but how in the world did they go from the middle to the bottom in only a month?

Though Microsoft has obviously gotten a bit better at communicating with the developer community, I'm still waiting for any sort of public roadmap about what we can actually expect of the final release. Which, if the random sources on Google can predict properly, appears to be some time this summer. At least things are looking up.

I'll be plunging head-first into Microsoft land later this month, and plan to live-blog as much as I can from the conference. I'll tell you what I find out.

Designing Against a Degrading Experience

I didn't expect to be so Microsoft-heavy today. But anyway. Checking in with Jensen Harris' Office UI blog once again, he's posted a fascinating article about the longer-term cruft buildup Office users frequently struggle with, and how they've chosen to expressly design against that experience in the upcoming version.

This isn't something web sites have to deal with yet, but when feature creep and user customization start becoming issues, this will be one to refer back to.

I Know HTML
The greatest T-shirt ever for a web designer of the male persuasion.

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