Do I need the new £40 version of Office 2007?

Microsoft Office Ultimate 2007 retails at £600. It’s now available, for students, at £40, or £12 for a year1. As of Wednesday, I’ll be an official student. I’m trying to decide whether I need it.

I’m mainly after Word and Excel – the other programs look interesting, but I don’t see any need for them. Right now, Google Apps handles most of my document/spreadsheet needs, and anything more complex is farmed out to OpenOffice. I really like GA’s online model, so I’d be using Word/Excel for anything difficult or where WYSIWYG is important. This is actually quite rare, but I guess uni may change that.

I have plenty of issues with OO Writer – formatting bugs seem to crop up all the time – but I can usually iron out the problems and end up with something decent. My subjective impression is that Word/Excel are less buggy, but it’s not a big issue for me. I think there’s a general quality difference, though. Word and Excel are much smoother and more pleasant to use, in my experience, but, again, I’m not worried about that.

I don’t think there’s much difference in features. OO seems to be capable of all the complexity I’ll ever need, if I take the time to investigate it properly. Compatibility issues could conceivably crop up, but OO has done a great job of saving in whatever format I need so far. And the new XML file formats should help with that. Eventually.

Finally, there’s the technical support side – it helps to know Office when helping people over the phone, and given the major UI changes in Office 2007 it’d be useful to get some experience. I don’t get many questions about Office, though.

The biggest reason against is that the student license prohibits commercial use, whereas I can use OO professionally. I’m aware that nobody’s going to check, but I’d still feel bad – Office may be extortionately priced, but the decent response is to use something else rather than steal it.

I fully expected to snap up this offer, but I can’t currently think of any reasons to, other than curiosity about the new UI. The scheme is apparently around until next March, so I’ve time to change my mind. I’m much more excited about Photoshop CS3 student edition. The GIMP is pretty good, especially the new beta, but I recently installed the CS3 30-day trial and it’s undeniably superior.

  1. thanks for the tip, Ben []

Microsoft announce ad-supported version of Works

Microsoft makes most of its money from Windows and Office, and are under increasing pressure from competitors. Not for the OS: Linux is nowhere close to prime-time1, but there are plenty of Office competitors out there. Offline there’s, which emulates many of Word and Excel’s major features, while online are the simpler but incredibly easy-to-use Google Docs / Zoho, which are far superior to their offline counterparts when it comes to sharing, portability and backup.

So, Microsoft today announced its move: a free, ad-supported version of Microsoft Works. By the end of the year.

Works. You remember. The crappy word processor and spreadsheet that people use until they find that Word / Excel can’t actually read Works’ default file type. With adverts. Adverts. Who bought Works anyway? It was always bundled with new PCs, and any salesman worth his salary would flog an upgrade to Office.

I think the web 2.0 reaction is: weaaaaak. How about an online version of Word, with all the extra functionality it offers over Google Docs etc., that people pay £5 a month for? Or a cut-down version of Word itself? Or an ad-supported version of Office, for non-commercial use? Anything but Works.

  1. most recent problem: no networking, which turned out to be because I’d gone to the network dialog box via the menu system instead of the system tray icon. The same dialog box. Fixing it required editing text files. I rest my case []

Microsoft Update and svchost 100% cpu usage

Quick version: If you’re having problems with ‘svchost.exe’ stalling your computer at Windows startup, it’s possible it can fixed by disabling Microsoft Update, at least until a fix is released. This can be done by going to the Windows Update link in Internet Explorer, selecting ‘Change settings’ on the left, then running the the uninstall option at the bottom. This still allows automatic downloading of standard core Windows updates, but not for Office. This is not the same as disabling all Windows updates in the control panel, which is a bad idea. I’ve used this fix on three computers in the past day and it’s fixed the problem on them all.

Longer version: For a few months I’ve been seeing computers stall at Windows startup (and other occasions, such as when loading IE) for minutes at a time. Mouse-clicks stacked up and were run all of a sudden once svchost decided it was done chugging. The task manager revealed only that ‘svchost.exe’ was taking up 100% of the CPU, which was unhelpful. ‘Svchost’ is a generic container for Windows services – the background programs that *should* be of little interest to the average users. A little investigation (I got sidetracked by thinking it was linked to iPods for a while) and some googling finally turned up links to this Microsoft KB article, which accurately describes the problem. The high cpu usage is apparently caused by the Windows Update service, and seems to be widespread. A few forum posts indicated it was Microsoft Update causing the problem: MU is an optional upgrade that monitors Office (and other Microsoft programs?) for updates, rather than just the core Windows files monitored by the standard Windows Update. The WU website asks if you want to install MU on every visit, and I expect many people have (I do by default).

Microsoft apparently have a hotfix for the issue, but are still testing it for public release. I hope they get a move on – there must be people who’ve spotted that the problem started after they enabled updates, so have simply disabled Windows updates entirely in the control panel. You can live without automatic Office updates for a while, but core Windows updates are just too important. It can be hard enough convincing people to turn on automatic updates in the first place, too.

These blogs seem to be tracking the issue, and one suggests there’s a public hotfix coming in the not-too-distant future. Hopefully it’ll be automatically applied.

IE7 install problem

The first time IE7 launches it loads a setup page, which reappears each time if not completed. Unfortunately the traffic seems to have knocked out the MS servers, so the page is responding extremely slowly. Also, IE freezes with 100% cpu usage if the page only partially loads (making a *great* first impression), probably because of the unique way that the page interfaces with IE’s settings.

So it might be worth waiting until the US is asleep before installing, or at least giving it a few hours. Anybody with the problem can try accessing the setup page directly, instead of through IE’s forward.

Internet Explorer 7

After five years of version six, IE7 was released today. Notable new features:

  • Tabbed browsing
  • Built-in RSS reader(!)
  • Proper printing (more of a bug-fix than a feature, if you ask me)
  • Improved interface
  • Built-in search box (that can use google!)
  • Settings protection, which should help prevent spyware drilling itself into the browsing experience

and for us geeks:

  • Extensions a la Firefox. They’re not so user-friendly, but nevertheless it’s a great addition imho
  • Major CSS improvements – hooray!
  • Alpha channel PNGs – transparency without the 256 colour limits of .gifs
  • Faster AJAX – great for all the web 2.0 sites

Plus a bunch of behind-the-scenes security improvements. In November IE7 will be pushed out as a high-priority update to Windows Update users, which includes most people on XP. Yikes. I think it’s a good move in terms of security (and us web-page designers!), but it’s quite the change for people used to IE6. I wouldn’t like to be manning the MS support lines that week.

I’ve been using the release candidate version for a few weeks and actually think it’s very good. It’s much faster than IE6 (or an extension-laden Firefox, although that’s not a fair comparison) and the tab support is decent, although I’d prefer them to run onto multiple lines instead of scrolling sideways. Gmail is noticeably snappier, possibly due to the built-in ajax support, and moving between tabs is effortless. RSS is a slight letdown – you can’t actually view the feed content without visiting the site – but is better than nothing and should help introduce the concepts. I’m really in no place to judge how confusing tabs and RSS will be to the average user, though. Personally I can’t stand going back to tabless browsing, but I’ve shown Firefox to people who’ve reacted with a resounding ‘meh’. All the windows are already at the bottom of the screen, so what’s the point of tabs? I had to resort to ‘it’s just better because it is’.

I’m unlikely to switch completely from Firefox to IE7 as the former has extensions that are just too useful. But it should make using other people’s computers much more pleasant 🙂 By a curious coincidence, Firefox 2.0 is due out any day now. It’s more of an incremental upgrade, and does break extension support, but is a worthy competitor.

You might want to give it a couple of days to let any show-stopping bugs get fixed, although the extensive public beta testing makes this unlikely, but it’s definitely a worthwhile upgrade, imho.

Switching to Firefox

Microsoft has recently been forced to update Internet Explorer, to the detriment of its users. A patent ruling has resulted in users having to click a button before any ‘plug-in’ content can be loaded on a website. This is annoying as hell. Visit onegoodmove in an up-to-date IE6 and you’ll see what I mean. It’s the first time I can see a reason for average users to switch to Firefox1.

By ‘average user’, I mean somebody with little knowledge of software or hardware. They want to use the internet just like they want to use Word or Excel – they have no time or interest in learning their way around computers. I think this represents a huge number of people, and they shall go collectively by the name ‘Joe Sushi’ in this post. I’ve arbitrarily decided that he’s a he. No slight should be inferred, it’s just neater than writing s/he all the time.

Why should people switch to Firefox? The first argument is security. This has never really convinced me, because I’ve found that Joe Sushi is wary of anything that says ‘you must update your software’. His first thought is ‘it’s working fine at the moment, thanks, and how do I know you’re not just going to download a virus?’. Although you could argue that Internet Explorer has had more security issues2, both Firefox and IE need updating on a regular basis. When security issues are found, Firefox and MS release patches in the same amount of time. Old versions of Firefox and IE are both vulnerable to security problems, and once Joe Sushi becomes aware enough of the value of keeping his browser up-to-date, the security argument becomes far less convincing. Sure, IE problems are likely to be more prominent – a virus could circulate a URL that exploits an IE vulnerability and infects your computer – but is this likely? The chances of this happening to any given individual are very slim, and I think they’re outweighed by the advantages in IE’s favour.

IE, for all its flaws and rendering issues, is the browser standard to which all websites must comply. Almost every website in the world will work fine with IE, and this is the killer feature. Yes, Firefox’s rendering engine is excellent, but it has problems with plenty of websites that look fine in IE. Sure, this is normally the result of bad page design, but Joe Sushi doesn’t care. Many online banks demand IE because it’s far easier to comply with one browser than the myriad available, and they have to pay technical support staff to answer phones. Joe Sushi just wants a website that works. Somebody with a little knowledge of browsers will switch to IE for that particular site, but is Joe Sushi going to want to do that? Of course not. Do you want to tell him why he should juggle two different programs when one seems to work fine?

The basic Firefox package is essentially an IE6 clone, with tabs. Joe Sushi doesn’t care about extensions (or tabs, for that matter), he just wants to browse the net as he always has. Firefox provides an Internet Explorer not made by Microsoft, but, to to Joe Sushi’s eyes, it’s inferior. IE is also integrated into Windows (for better or worse) and many programs are hard-coded to run IE when launching a URL. This is indeed rather silly, but there’s no way around it.

However, IE has never annoyed Joe Sushi before. Clicking a pop-up button, with associated beep, gets old very quickly. A large number of sites will be affected, too. IE7 should fix the majority of IE6’s problems, but this issue may remain if MS can’t overturn the court ruling3. It’d be nicer if software patents were scrapped outright, given that they inhibit practically all innovation, but I can’t see that happening. I should think IE’s annoyance factor will win Firefox a few converts.

Interestingly, an MS spokesman says:

This is not an issue just for IE…This is a potential issue for Netscape Navigator, for Opera and for other browser vendors. This is an industry issue.

Netscape Navigator? As long as they’re keeping up with the times. However, I’d bet that nobody’s going to sue the Mozilla foundation, or Opera. MS is where the money is, after all.

  1. I’ve deliberately used Firefox as an example because I think it’s designed as a direct IE replacement, especially in the default download. Much of the above applies to Opera etc. too []
  2. and this may have more to do with the number of people looking for exploits, rather than inherent security problems, although this is a contentious topic []
  3. there may be ways for website designers to bypass the issue, but older sites will still suffer []

Why aren’t random photo screensavers very random?

Windows has a built in screensaver that purports to show random photos from the My Pictures folder, and the Google Pack contains something similar. Neither seem to work very well, though. Google’s in particular seems to iterate through folders in a regular order, and despite having 10,000 photos I see the same shots on a regular basis – there are whole directories that are never touched. According to my parents the Microsoft version is the same.

I know that true random numbers aren’t really do-able by microprocessors. But there must be at least a faux system that’s appropriate in this case, surely? Google’s screensaver always shows me images from the root directory first – that can’t be the result of problems with random number selection. Are there any random photo screensavers out there that at least give the appearance of being random?

IE7 Beta Two, and running it side-by-side with IE6

The recently-released beta of IE7 is apparently ‘layout complete’, which means websites should render as they will in the final release (barring any major bugs, presumably). wongaBlog looks fine, and the text-just-not-appearing-sometimes IE6 bug is fixed – woohoo! Fun new features include (full list here):

  • Tabbed browsing – I’ve found it’s impossible to explain this to people without it sounding like, well, Windows. They just have to try it to see the advantages 🙂
  • Alpha-channel PNGs (a type of image that allows transparency at full colour depths – try this page in IE6 and Opera/Firefox/IE7 to see what I mean)
  • CSS updates and fixes – just don’t get me started on IE6’s CSS problems
  • RSS support and a reader – this should be great at bringing feeds to the average user
  • Printing that works – it’ll resize to the paper, apparently(!)
  • Generally improved security (including ActiveX opt-in)

Unfortunately, IE7 overwrites IE6 on install. Whether you use Firefox, Opera, or whatever, you’ll know that sometimes you just have to run IE6 to get some broken site working properly. I can’t really afford to lose IE6 access, so this is a problem. It turns out that there is a way around it, but it takes a little setup. Using instructions from here, I did the following:

  1. Downloaded the IE7 Setup file
  2. Extracted the contents (using WinRAR)
  3. Created an ‘ie7launch.bat’ file as described on the site

Running ie7launch.bat launches IE7 in a ‘self-contained’ mode, and the batch file clears up all registry entries after it’s closed. It’s awkward, but far preferable to losing IE6 altogether, imho.