The misnomer of ‘Software as a Service’

There is a type of deception which takes place where something is renamed to obscure what it is and to leave behind any negative connotations of it’s original name.

Like the Conservatives slowly privatising the health service but calling it outsourcing so that people don’t realise the health service is being privatised.

Another example of this deception is ‘Software as a Service’ which should really be called ‘Software Rental’, the people who push this idea don’t like the name ‘Software Rental’ because they would like to obscure the fact that you are renting software so they call it something that doesn’t sound as bad.

Let us call it what it actually is, Software Rental!

I can see why software developers like rental software because it provides them with a continuous revenue stream so they are pushing the idea but I have yet to hear any convincing arguments as to why it is good for the customers.  For the customers it is a continuous revenue drain.

The software companies claim that it is better because the customers get continuous updates to the software, but if the software worked properly in the first place it wouldn’t need fixing, and the continuous tweaks to the way things work and to how things look for the sake of novelty are just annoying and unnecessary.

There are two models for ‘Software Rental’ one of them is the model adopted by The Brain Technologies (TheBrain) where if you stop paying the rent then you are left with the version of the software you had when you stopped paying but it still works, but there are no updates.

This is not as bad as the other model adopted by Microsoft (Microsoft Office 365) where if you stop paying the software stops working altogether.  If you have a lot of data and documents produced by these programs then it is as if the company are holding your data hostage against your continuing payments.  This model is very bad.

The problem is that ‘Software as a Service’ may come to be seen as the norm in the software industry, this would be very bad for the users.

I hope this does not happen but I suspect a lot of people in the software industry might use the fact that Microsoft are using this model as justification to use it themselves.

 

Ribbons, screens and links

Why ribbons?

A few of years ago Microsoft started putting ribbons on most of their applications and trying to promote them as a good idea, “this is the future” they said and many people believed them. On a lot of applications the ribbon is optional, you can choose to have the traditional menus and toolbars but on Microsoft applications the ribbon is mandatory whether you like it or not. But on a small screen a ribbon is a really bad idea, it takes up far too much room. If you use the keyboard shortcuts a lot then this is just wasted space.

The reason Microsoft are so enthusiastic about ribbons is that they see the future of computing in small mobile devices with touch screens, like the Microsoft Surface. With a touch screen you prod the screen with your finger. With a finger you have much less precision than if you are using a mouse or even a stylus, so the icons have to be bigger and have to be spaced further apart.

So the ribbon should have been optional on mobile devices with touch screens but instead Microsoft chose to impose it on everyone. It is puzzling why they have caught on as much as they have, I think this is partially due to the novelty value and partly because Microsoft are such a big company with a disproportionately large influence over the computing community that anything they do becomes a standard so they do not have to pay any attention to common sense or ease of use.

How to tame the ribbon on Microsoft Office

You can make the ribbon less obnoxious on Microsoft Office programs. At the top far right of the screen just below the window controls is a blue circle with a white question mark in it. This is next to a white up arrow. If you click on this up arrow the ribbon goes away until you click on one of the menu tabs at the top of the screen, then the ribbon you have selected appears until you have used it and then it goes away again. There is also something called the ‘quick access toolbar’ which isn’t used very much by most people.  It is usually at the very top of the screen but in the options there is a ‘quick access toolbar’ tab with a tick box to put it below the ribbon, from this screen you can also select which commands go on to the quick access toolbar.

I have put many commands on there, if I find that I am having to use the ribbons a lot then I put the commands I need onto the quick access toolbar and so it has grown until now it is almost all the way across the screen and it only takes up a small amount of vertical space. Microsoft are very good at designing user interfaces so I suspect this is deliberate and how the interface is supposed to be used but it is not obvious and a lot of people just don’t use the quick access toolbar at all.

High DPI Screens

I recently had to buy a new laptop because Microsoft destroyed my old laptop. When Microsoft destroyed my old laptop in the upgrade to Windows 10 (an upgrade which I did not instigate or desire) I needed to buy a new laptop. The one I chose has a very high resolution screen, the resolution is 3200 by 1800. I thought that having a high DPI screen would be a good idea, now that I have been using it for a while I think that perhaps it wasn’t such a good idea. The picture on the screen of the laptop itself is very clear and incredibly sharp but at a scaling factor of 100% the text is un-readably small, currently I have it set to 200% and this is still a bit small.

The problem is the scaling of text in applications. If the application doesn’t scale the text properly then you get microscopic text or on some programs the text does scale properly but the toolbar icons are microscopic. And some programs have not got the idea that a computer can have two different resolution screens, so windows and dialog boxes are scaled correctly on the screen that they were drawn on but if you drag them to the other screen some programs re-scale the dialog box or window properly, some programs don’t scale the dialog box so it becomes very small, some programs make the window or dialog box disappear whilst other programs just crash.

The problem is the new ‘Windows Presentation Foundation’ which is an API for rendering text and images on a computer screen. Somewhere between Windows 7 and Windows 10 it has been updated to include new features to handle the scaling of text and GUI elements, so programs which use the new features in the API need to be re-written, or at least the GUI needs to be re-written.  The change is not trivial, it isn’t just like compiling to a different library, the changes cannot be done automatically so the code needs to be edited manually to include the new features.

Of course all the Microsoft applications handle this correctly, as you might expect, but other programs sometimes don’t handle it quite as well. This has meant that some of my favourite programs either don’t work properly or are completely unusable on my new laptop.

I tried out a few of the programs I have been using and which I have used in the past using my laptop with it’s high DPI screen and a 1600 by 1200 monitor plugged into the HDMI port of the laptop.

Compendium

Compendium ignores any scaling factors you have set on your screen and draws its user interface at the native resolution of the screen. The text and icons are microscopic and the program is unusable without a magnifying glass.  On the external monitor things are scaled to the same size but the pixels are bigger so that even with a magnifying glass it is unreadable.

WhizFolders

WhizFolders scales everything correctly and works as expected.

VUE

VUE ignores any scaling factors you have set on your screen and draws its user interface at the native resolution of the screen. The text and icons are microscopic and the program is unusable without a magnifying glass.  On the external monitor things are scaled to the same size but the pixels are bigger so that even with a magnifying glass it is unreadable.  This has left me looking for a new mapping program, I relied on VUE quite heavily.

CMAP Tools

Because I can’t use VUE on my laptop anymore I revisited CMAP Tools, a program I tried a while ago, but alas CMAP Tools ignores any scaling factors you have set on your screen and draws its user interface at the native resolution of the screen. The text and icons are microscopic and the program is unusable without a magnifying glass.  On the external monitor things are scaled to the same size but the pixels are bigger so that even with a magnifying glass it is unreadable.

Scrivener

Scrivener draws most of its user interface correctly but the icons in the toolbar are now small and the text in the binder panel looks cramped, it has been drawn at the correct scale but too close together. This can be solved by switching fonts to a font which has a larger line spacing, Calibri worked on my system.  The toolbar icons in Scrivener were too large, having them much smaller is a little tiresome but not as bad as it would have been if the icons had started out at normal size, this problem is trivial.  Scrivener works well on a high DPI screen.

TheBrain

TheBrain scales its user interface correctly but cannot handle having two screens with different scaling factors.  If any of the panels are put into a floating window and dragged to the other screen then the program crashes if the scale factor is different on the two screens.  If the scale factor is the same on both screens then everything works as expected.

MyInfo

MyInfo scales everything correctly and works as expected.  Embedded OLE objects are rendered at the correct scale.

Ultra Recall

Ultra Recall scales its user interface correctly and works as expected apart from one problem.  Embedded OLE objects are rendered at a ridiculously large scale.  The developer said that he is using Internet Explorer to render the objects within Ultra Recall and so cannot do anything about the scale factor at which they appear.  However developers of some other programs seem to have been able to do this correctly.

ConnectedText

Unfortunately ConnectedText has some problems with high DPI screens, the icons on the toolbar become microscopic and the titles of topics show only the top half of the text.  Apart from those problems it works correctly.  I still use ConnectedText despite the problems.

Essential PIM Pro

This is a curious one.  I was using Essential PIM Pro 6 which had all sorts of problems with scaling when I was forced onto Windows 10, so I wrote to the developer telling him what the problems were and he wrote back saying that ‘Unfortunately there is no way to overcome this problem’ which I assumed to mean that he wasn’t going to do anything about it and started looking for a new e-mail program but then just a couple of weeks later Essential PIM Pro 7 came out which solved almost all the problems.  He could have told me that the new version was coming out and to wait a little while but for some reason he didn’t.  There is still a problem with some of the text in some of the panels and dialog boxes looking too cramped, this could be solved by switching fonts but you cannot change the interface font in Essential PIM Pro like you can in Scrivener.


So, which laptop should I have bought?  Well I think there is an optimum screen resolution for each screen size, you want it high enough that the individual pixels are not visible but not so high as to cause the scaling issues detailed above, and for the external screen you want it to have enough pixels so that you can set the scaling factors to be the same for the two screens.  So the external monitor should be high resolution. But I am stuck with the monitor that I have (1600 by 1200) unless I want to purchase another one.

For a screen which is 13 inches between diagonally opposite corners I think the optimum resolution would be 1920 by 1080.  If the screen were bigger then the resolution could be higher to keep the DPI (dots per inch) the same.

Universal Links

I sometimes get e-mails about the blog and sometimes people put comments on my posts.  One thing that has been asked more than once is :-

“What is a universal link anyway?”

A universal link is a link to specific content within the file of an application.  For instance Essential PIM Pro allows you to copy a link which will point to a specific e-mail in a specific database created in Essential PIM Pro.  This can be activated from another application and will not only start up Essential PIM but open the specific e-mail to which the link points.

There is a protocol which the application needs to register with the operating system when it is installed, once registered if the operating system receives a link of the correct format it will pass the link to the specified application.

As an example of what they look like a link to one of the e-mails in Essential PIM looks like :-

epim://D:\Data\EPIM\Pauls.epim/mails/544385275277860595

the bit up to the :// is the string which is registered with the operating system, the rest is application specific.

As another example a link to a topic in my ConnectedText notes looks like :-

ct://Potek/HD%20Clone%20Notes

again the bit before the :// specifies the application to which the link points but the rest of it is almost human readable once you realise that ‘%20’ is the space character.

So a universal link is like a URL but it points to specific content within a specific application on the local machine.

Windows 10 ate my Laptop

A while ago Microsoft announced the upgrade to Windows 10, at that time I had no strong feelings about it one way or the other, as far as I was concerned Windows 7 worked very well and Windows 8 was an unmitigated disaster. When I found out more about Windows 10 my impression was that technically very good but as far as user surveillance and tracking was concerned it was much more intrusive and there were a lot of privacy issues that I was not happy with.

Now that I have used it for a while it has confirmed my initial feelings, before it seemed like a Windows 7 computer was your computer, whereas a Windows 10 computer is Microsoft’s computer which they are kindly letting you use.

Despite my misgivings I eventually upgraded my desktop computer to Windows 10 and all went well, I chose not to get a Microsoft account and learned how to switch off as much of the tracking as I know about and have access to, I also do not use Cortana which just seems like it refers every question to the Bing search engine. Well if I wanted to use a search engine I would use one without having to go through Cortana.

In a way my desktop machine was the least important of my computers, in years gone by it was the most important machine but Laptops have become ever more powerful until now I do most of my work on my Laptop and the desktop machine is just used for games.

The most important machine I have is my Laptop and that is where most of my programs are installed and where most of my documents, spreadsheets and databases reside. In theory my old Laptop was much more powerful than in needed to be to run Windows 10.

Because I have a lot of important documents and data on my Laptop I backed up my hard drive before trying to update to Windows 10, I took the hard disk out of my Laptop and made a clone of it on another slightly smaller hard disk.

It was fortunate that I did because the upgrade turned my Laptop into a brick. When I switched it on it would apparently boot up with the screen with the blue window and the dots chasing one another round a circle but then the screen would go black and the computer would become completely unresponsive.

When it became apparent that the upgrade didn’t work I swapped the backup disk back into the Laptop and investigated the problem. It seems that many people with Alienware MX series Laptop computers were having exactly the same problem.

Alienware is really Dell, when they brought out the MX series computers the Laptops of that series had Nvidia graphics chips but I don’t think they are the official Nvidia graphics chips. Certainly they were renamed and when Windows 7 tried to update the graphics drivers they were misidentified so several times I have had to use the safe boot option to boot with vanilla drivers and roll back the graphics drivers to the previous version. I learned not to update anything to do with the graphics drivers via Windows Update.

That safe boot option no longer exists in Windows 10.

So I decided not to upgrade my Laptop to Windows 10, I was perfectly happy with the way Windows 7 worked and decided to leave it.

However I reckoned without Microsoft’s dirty tricks.

I should have cloned the disk again because the clone now contained the corrupted version with Windows 10 installed, unfortunately hindsight is 20:20 vision and I had decided not to install Windows 10 so I thought I was safe. It was one of the things I intended to do at some point but never got round to it.

One day whilst using the Laptop a dialog appeared saying that the upgrade to Windows 10 had been scheduled for a date which I didn’t take note of, I just cancelled the dialog box assuming that this would cancel the purpose of the dialog. However unknown to me Microsoft had scheduled the update and cancelling the dialog did not cancel the scheduled update.

A few days later I had left my Laptop on doing a virus scan and had occasion to go out in the car to pick up my daughter from her boyfriends house. When I came back the Laptop was in the middle of installing the update to Windows 10, apparently it must have downloaded it and started installing it without my consent or instigation. I thought about switching it off in the middle of the installation but decided against it.

Right after the update Windows 10 appeared to work, for a short time, but then it updated its video drivers and the screen went to 800 by 600 in 256 colours. I thought maybe a reboot would clear the problem but instead it booted to the black screen after showing the screen with the blue window and the dots chasing one another round a circle. After booting up it was completely unresponsive.

So safe boot doesn’t work with Windows 10, the option to go back to Windows 7 only works if you have a working computer which can respond to the command and I have not got a DVD from which I can install a fresh copy of Windows 7, my laptop was provided without media, there was an emergency partition on the hard disk from which I might be able to install Windows 7 if the computer still worked and if it has not been erased by Windows 10.

As far as I have been able to find out the latest video drivers from Nvidia have been deliberately tweaked to fail on non Nvidia hardware, they say that their drivers work on all genuine Nvidia hardware. Alienware (aka Dell) say that they are not going to update the video drivers because the MX series Laptops are obsolete.

Thanks a bunch Nvidia!   Thanks a bunch Alienware!

In the future it is likely that I will have to purchase new computing equipment eventually either for myself or recommend which equipment is to be purchased at work, you can be sure that none of this equipment will be from Dell or Alienware and none of it will have Nvidia graphics cards. This is a pity because Dell do make good monitors.

And of course Microsoft are a big enough company that they feel that they can take a dump on individual customers with impunity, they couldn’t care less.  And they are right of course, there is little I can do to make my complaints heard, apart from expressing them in this blog.

Microsoft don’t seem to have any sort of complaints department, telephone line or e-mail address to handle unhappy customers. I think they know that if they opened anything like that it would get swamped immediately.

I have installed Ubuntu Linux on my old Laptop but of course it won’t run most of the Windows programs I know and love. So I ended up having to buy a new Laptop. And some of the software which I had on the old Laptop was licensed to that computer and won’t activate on the new computer. There are only a few companies who have licensing as pernicious as Microsoft and so only one other non-microsoft program was shackled to the old laptop. But I have had to buy a new copy of Microsoft Office (2013, not the 365 rental version).

So this supposedly ‘Free’ update to Windows 10 has cost me £550 for a new Laptop, £100 for a new copy of Microsoft Office and £60 for replacement of other software.  Over £700 !

Needless to say I am unimpressed with the way Microsoft have rolled out (some might say steamrollered out) Windows 10.

 

Review of Microsoft OneNote 2007

OneNote is part of the Microsoft Office suite.  It has many of the features of the other note taking programs but is not as useful as some of them because more work has gone into making it look pretty than has gone into getting the functionality correct.  Using OneNote one gets the impression that many of the features which have been added were added for the specific purpose of ticking a box in the advertising.

This note taking program stores its notes in separate files, each notebook is a folder on the hard disk within which the notes are stored.  I was unable to conduct the test of a notebook with over one thousand notes because Microsoft OneNote does not have a bulk import facility.  To get all my notes into OneNote I would have to open each note (I have them stored as .RTF files) individually and copy and paste it into a note.  There is also no bulk export so that once you have a substantial number of notes in OneNote you are effectively ‘locked in’, because the more notes you have the more effort it would be to change programs.  You can have multiple notebooks open at once.

The version I was testing is Microsoft Office OneNote 2007 (because that’s the one I have).  This is not the latest version.

There are some advanced facilities within this program, like OCR on pictures and images and recording of audio clips for spoken notes but in my opinion this is only a good program if you have a small number of notes, if you have a substantial number of notes I would imagine it is not so good.  I cannot say this definitely because I have only used this program for a few weeks some years ago (apart from the work I did to prepare this review).  I regard this as a toy note taking program, so this will be a biased review but it portrays my honest opinion.  I have tried to be fair.

I don’t know what the price of OneNote is.  I checked on the Microsoft website and the only option which seemed to be available was ‘Buy with Office’ and of course only the latest version is available.  I don’t know if it is available separately.

Overall score = 39 out of 60

Verdict       I don’t like it but I know a lot of people love it, good if you don’t mind being locked into the Microsoft hegemony.

1. Connectivity            =    8

This program supports universal links, however it calls them Hyperlinks.  Within OneNote you can hyperlink to specific pages within any OneNote notebook, it supports hyperlinks to files on the local file system and of course hyperlinks to URL’s on the internet.

If you generate a ‘hyperlink’ to a page in OneNote and then paste it into another program then what is pasted looks exactly like a universal link to a OneNote page, and works exactly like a universal link (so why the non standard nomenclature).

You can also use OLE to embed files within a page, but this only seems to work well with other Microsoft products.  OLE should have been great for displaying the output from one program within another but unfortunately it has not been so good in practice.  This is because it has to be correctly implemented at both ends for it to work properly.  The program displaying the result needs to implement the OLE client correctly but also the program sending the data has to implement the OLE server correctly.  There are many many programs out there which either don’t implement the OLE server correctly or don’t implement it at all.

Microsoft products unsurprisingly implement both the OLE server and client correctly.  So you will be able to embed Excel spreadsheets, Power Point presentations and Word documents within OneNote pages and it all works as expected.  But don’t expect to be able to embed the output from <insert random small company name here> programs in your OneNote pages.

OneNote also works with Microsoft Outlook to send and receive E-mail.  So you can send a page or put a received E-mail into a page but only if you are using Microsoft Outlook.  It seems like all Microsoft products are deliberately designed to work with each other in such a way as to try to lock you in to only using Microsoft products.  I don’t have Microsoft Outlook as my default mail client and when I tried to ‘send to email client’ it opened my default mail client and then brought up an error message in a dialog box.

2. Classification            =    3

There is a tagging scheme of sorts.  It is just a flat list and it is in a drop down box so don’t expect to be able to have thousands of tags, it gets cumbersome with any more than forty or fifty tags, so this is for broad classifications and as such it is not particularly useful.  Blocks of text can be tagged individually and the tags appear as small icons to the left of the text.  There are no keywords.

3. Text layout and formatting    =    9

The text layout and formatting are exemplary.  The only thing I didn’t like is the fact that all the text is in boxes on the page.  The box only appears when you mouse over it.  Doing it this way makes moving text around on a page very easy but I would prefer a simple page similar to that of a word processor, however having said that it is possible to make the box as big as a page and then in effect what you get is a simple page similar to that of a word processor.

Table handling is excellent, just what you would expect from a word processor.  Pictures can be pasted onto a page and everything works as expected.

Although OneNote does not support spreadsheets in notes you can use OLE to embed an Excel spreadsheet if you have Excel installed on your system.

4. A sense of time            =    0

OneNote does not have a sense of time.  There is no calendar.

5. Ease of use            =    9

Microsoft have a lot of experience at designing user interfaces and this program is an example of a simple and intuitive user interface.  Everything works as expected.

6. Visual Appeal            =    10

This is one of the better looking of all the note taking programs reviewed here.  They manage to cram in a lot of functionality with little wasted space.

screenshot of Microsoft OneNote 2007

screenshot of Microsoft OneNote 2007