Thursday, 26 February 2009

...and what can Microsoft do about it?

Interesting how these things dovetail together. After my rant yesterday, I read this post from Viral Tarpara, where he addresses the issue of 'dumbed-down' marketing because it may be what some customers respond best to. But along the way he addresses the issue of "IT Pros" who don't have a deployment strategy for their next Windows rollout. This ties back into the topic of retention of talent in desktop engineering.

I think a big part of the problem is that there's no way to get recognised for desktop expertise beyond the bog-standard 'desktop support' qualifications which are considered (rightly or wrongly) to be pretty entry-level. The assumption, as I said yesterday, is that anyone who is any good will have moved on to server technologies after a year or two, and only those not good enough for 'promotion' will still be at the desktop. (Not to mention that 'server' products are where the money is.) And I believe the lack of a good desktop certification track only strengthens that view.

MCSE has been widely recognised for a long time as being a qualification that requires a certain amount of expertise and investment of time, but the "supporting Windows desktop" tracks have never gone much deeper than knowing how to uninstall printer drivers and a basic understanding of the results of IPCONFIG.

Some of us in large enterprises don't suffer as badly; we have tiered hierarchies where there's a reasonable chance a hiring manager will understand the value of a skilled desktop engineer, and might have a clue of how to recognise one. A typical hiring manager at an SMB would probably have wider responsibilities so might not be aware of the value of such a person, or be confident that they could pick one out from a lineup, so they rely on tangible things like exam passes and certifications. And if there are no 'engineering' qualifications for the desktop, then surely that means there's nothing to engineer? Just do a vanilla install (or even easier let your hardware supplier start shipping the new OS as your kit gets replaced) and let the support guys figure it out how to make it fit your environment as they go along. Those who hire a firm to do major deployments are likely to go with the cheapest contractor who "gives them what they want". Engineered equals fancy and expensive, they just want something simple, right?

It's going to be the exceptional individuals who don't mind swimming against the tide who also have a passion for desktop technology and don't actively dislike dealing with end-users (can you see how the field is starting to narrow?) who stay the course and become truly expert to a point where they can, for example, create complex automated deployment solutions that scale to thousands of users or are simple and robust enough to be passed on cheaply to multiple SMB customers.

Perhaps Microsoft could help things along by promoting something similar to the BDD MCTS (does anyone outside a very small group of people even know it exists?) and including it in a wider track including e.g. elements of desktop management through SCCM (rather than setting up SCCM architecture), GPO (rather than setting up AD), topics around security that relate to the desktop (rather than focusing on perimeter security), etc. And call it an MCSE so people know it requires the same level of expertise as supporting an Exchange environment or an AD domain! If our skills were better recognised, perhaps more technicians in their first few years working with the desktop would be encouraged not to jump ship to an entry-level 'server' job kicking off VM installs or swapping out disks in a datacentre.

If I sound at all bitter, I have no reason to be. I'm lucky to have worked in some great companies where the end-user experience is prioritised and the investment in desktop engineering has reflected that. I've worked on teams with highly talented people where we've built some truly best-in-class deployment and management solutions for the desktop, and I've done pretty well out of it, thanks for asking.

But I'm only here because I'm a stubborn creature who stuck with something when everyone else told me it was a bad idea. It would have been so much easier to accept the status quo and make that move to setting up file shares and print queues and long for the day I was allowed to configure something with CISCO written on it.

I wonder how many potentially great desktop solutions engineers we lost along the way...

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Why your end users' experience matters most of all

James O’Neill led me to a post from Steve Lamb about end users’ experience of IT:
I continue to be amazed how poor the corporate computing experience is for many people due to the provision of machines that are not fit for purpose - not due to lack of money being spent but simply due to poor configuration/management/consideration of what's required.

If you are an IT Professional then work with those around you to view your corporate infrastructure from the perspective of your users. Whatever your level of seniority I strongly suggest you make a few minutes to watch how end-users get on with their corporate PCs - chances are there are improvements that could be made simply by better understanding where the frustration lies.
While Steve’s coming from a slightly different direction, this echoes something I've been saying since I was a wet-behind-the-ears floor-walker supporting Windows 3.1: It doesn't matter how great your infrastructure is behind the scenes, if your desktop sucks, your users' experience of IT sucks.
I used to go on about this a lot, back when the prevailing belief was that if you worked with desktop technologies for more than a couple of years, it was because you weren’t smart enough to get ‘promoted’ to working with servers.  (Bitter?  Me?  Never.)  Even though you don’t hear that so much now, the majority of IT departments still recognise and reward someone working with a server product significantly more than someone with the equivalent level of expertise and responsibility working with the desktop.
So 15 years after I started ranting about the desktop being under-prioritised, have we moved forward?  I do hear more these days about focus on the end-user experience, so maybe we are finally starting to get through.  But I think there are still a lot of senior IT managers who would still find this revolutionary, and for Steve to be blogging on the topic I wonder how many underinvested desktop environments he’s seen. I hope it doesn't take another decade and a half for the value of the desktop (and the missed opportunity if you don’t sort it out) to be so obvious we can stop talking about it.

Windows 7 Diary: My Bluetooth Heaven

My Bluetooth headset is working with Skype!  Yes, I have managed to get Windows to understand that a headset can do stereo and have a mic for making calls.  Incredible.

This is something I’d tried on a few occasions with Vista, and never got to any useful level of reliability.  The awful Toshiba Bluetooth stack that’s supposed to work on my Vaio was less than useless in this regard, but unfortunately I couldn’t get it working at all without, so I was more or less stuck with them.

Anyway, I started out with the same problems with Win7 but in a cavalier moment I decided to uninstall the Toshiba rubbish (I did an in-place upgrade so I still had everything installed from my Vista config) and, incredibly, it worked!

It’s the little ways like this where Win7 just seems that little bit more capable than its predecessor that impress me the most.

Tomorrow I’m going to try out my HSDPA stick, so I might even be blogging from the train…

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Sony Vaio/Internet Explorer typing problem fixed!


Right now I’m grinning like a maniac because this problem has been driving me to distraction for ages. It’s weird how a thing like having random keystrokes ignored when you’re typing can drive a person disproportionately loopy, but there you are.

So, if you don’t have the same problem then there’s no point in reading the rest of this post. Nothing for you here. If you are looking to fix keyboard/typing weirdness in Internet Explorer on a Vaio laptop then read on…

You’ll know you have the problem if you type in a text box on a web page and, unless you type v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y and carefully the text looks something like this:

The uick bron foxjumps ver the laz dog.

(Because, as you might have gathered, some of your keystrokes get ignored.)

This has happened to me on two different Vaio laptops now (and when I googled for it, other Vaio users were having the same problem so I had a pretty strong feeling it was something specific to them) and I’ve seen it in IE6, IE7 and even IE8.

Anyway I read a post by some other poor soul frustrated to the point of madness, who just happened to mention that one good thing about the Vaio is the fingerprint sensor for logging on.


Ping! Lightbulb moment!

It suddenly occurred to me that I don’t get the same problem with FireFox or Google Chrome on the same machine. And also that Firefox 3 and Google Chrome aren’t supported for web sites authentication by my fingerprint reader!

So after a little digging around, I found the setting in Protector Suite QL (the utility that provides the fingerprint security functionality) to disable integration with Internet Explorer. If you have the same version as me, here are the steps:

  • Open the Protector Suite QL Control Centre (you can do this by right-clicking the fingerprint icon in the notification area if you have one, or from the Start Menu)
  • Under Settings select User Settings
  • Swipe your finger to let it know who you are
  • Go to the Password Bank tab in the User Settings dialog
  • Under Web Browser support, un-check the box for Internet Explorer
  • Close down all your Internet Explorer windows

Next time you open Internet Explorer you should be able to type without being left wanting to headbutt things. Incredible!

Apologies that my normal, moderate tone has vanished and I’ve gone a bit deranged but if you’ve had the same problem then you already know how annoying it is.

Of course it does mean I’ve lost the fingerprint authentication feature for websites, but for me that’s a small price to pay for my sanity. Which will, I’m sure, be restored when this brief euphoria wears off.

And since this laptop is now running Windows 7 Beta that means I can now try out all the added goodness of IE8 which I’d been missing out on. Manic grins and too many exclamation marks all round!!!!

Saturday, 7 February 2009

Windows 7 diary: first impressions

So to tie up the loose ends from my cliff-hanger ending:

Yes, the laptop woke up from hibernation – the process seemed a bit quicker than before, but I could be imagining that bit.

Yes, I’m creating this post from my Windows 7 machine, so if you’re reading it then I reckon it’s working well enough to be productive.

And what do I think now I’ve had a chance to begin to get to know Windows 7… well so far I’m kind of ambivalent, but let me explain why…

First, let me say I read an article few weeks ago about the cool new features to look forward to in Windows 7.  And like most information I don’t use immediately, I promptly forgot just about everything in it.  So I’m pootling about discovering bits and pieces for myself, and to be honest I’m probably missing the WOW-factor features.  I plan to go back and re-read about what I should be looking out for later, for now I’m content just to go with the immediate impact of a new OS on the things I already do.

So, the thing I’ve been most impressed with was the upgrade from Vista.  That went smoother than I ever could have imagined, and not having to reinstall most of my software is a wonderful thing.

When I woke my machine up from hibernation today I had a notification alert that my CA Antivirus wasn’t enabled.  Letting Windows try to fix it for me didn’t seem to do very much after the UAC prompts, so I tried opening up the Antivirus console.  From there I took the option to enable real-time protection and that was it – I had to reboot Windows, but even that seemed quicker than before.  And I now have virus protection.

I thought this would be a long shot but, incredibly, BBC iPlayer downloader worked first time!  That was a surprise because it used to be finicky on XP and Vista.  I guess iPlayer has come a long way since those days, but I was still expecting trouble.  I downloaded a programme and set the options to play in my default media player (Windows Media Player in my case).  First time I tried to play I got an error message from a WMP addin that wanted updating, and even after installing the latest version from the vendor, the error didn’t go away.  Having said that, I hadn’t even tried loading Media Player on its own at any point to give it a chance to initialise itself, so I wasn’t being entirely fair.  Sure enough, just starting Windows Media Player and letting it settle down fixed the problem and now my iPlayer works just fine. I haven’t done anything else in the new Windows Media Player yet, so I’ll have to save my opinion on the improvements for another time.

My Windows Home Server connector couldn’t find my server on the first attempt, so it had to do a re-discovery but that sorted itself out quickly and wasn’t any real trouble.

So next was Internet Explorer 8.  This was my first experience with IE8 and unfortunately I don’t think I’ll be using it as my primary browser.  The reason for this is an annoying bug with Vaio laptops that causes the keyboard to skip characters when typing in Internet Explorer.  It’s definitely not Windows 7’s fault (I had the same problem with Vista and XP) and I’m not blaming it on IE because I haven’t seen it on any other machines… but FireFox doesn’t give me any trouble so I’ll be using that for most of my browsing.

I did briefly check out the new Accelerators in IE which look pretty useful.  The only one I can really see myself using for now is mapping with Google Maps, although as more become available it will be nice to replace bookmarklets (e.g. for Delicious) and toolbars (e.g. for StumbleUpon) with something I can use from a right-click.

Web Slices sound like a very cool feature (allowing you to tag content on a web page and have IE notify you of any updates) but I couldn’t find a site with them enabled.  Maybe I’m doing it wrong – I’ll need to investigate that one some more another time.

As for the new UI… well I never liked the sidebar so it’s definitely good being able to drag desktop gadgets about the place, but this is an ultra-portable laptop with 1024x768 screen resolution, so I don’t generally see much of the desktop.  The one use I can think of for the moveable gadgets though is that I have a 7” digital photo frame will work as a small extra monitor when connected by USB.  Assuming I can get that working in Windows 7 then I might find myself putting gadgets over there.

I’m undecided on the new taskbar.  Again, on such a small screen I’m slightly begrudging of the extra real estate required for the taller icons.  Aesthetically I think it looks kind of clunky, although I understand that the ergonomic reasoning is sound.  (See this post about how Fitts’ law influenced the ribbon design in Office 2007.)  I was never one for hiding the taskbar in previous incarnations of Windows, so not having it visible feels a bit weird, but I’m giving that a go as a compromise.  I found the option to use small icons – so basically have it look more like Vista – but I don’t think there’s much point in testing a new OS and making it look like the old one without at least giving the new UI a try first.  (Plenty of other features have grown on me in the past that I haven’t warmed to straight away, so I’m being open-minded about this one.)

So… I’m hardly leaping for joy, but then Windows 7 seems stable enough, the upgrade was surprisingly smooth, and my apps pretty much just work.  So maybe I was expecting too much after the real WOW that was seeing the Vista UI for the first time.

Next post I’ll do some poking around in the dark corners to see what I can find that’s less obvious, and at some stage I’ll re-do my research and find out what features I’m supposed to be loving and whether they live up to the hype.

Friday, 6 February 2009

Windows 7 diary: the install

Inspired partly by this post and partly by the news that I had until 10th February to get my backside in gear, last night I took the plunge and installed Windows 7 on my laptop.

Yes, you read that right, my laptop. As in my only laptop. I have a desktop PC I use most of the time, so it's not my most critical machine, but still, it's a leap. So while I was waiting for the DVD image to download I took a manual backup (I just love my WHS so much for this kind of thing).

I also decided to take an unprecedented step and run it as an upgrade from Vista instead of a fresh install. I don't think I've tried a version upgrade to Windows like this since a very bad experience going from Windows 3.1 to Windows 95 all those years ago.  Even though the underlying architecture is supposed to be near as dammit the same as Vista, I know my reaction would be “you did what?!"” if one of my techie friends did the same and it all went horribly wrong.  But the convenience of not having to reinstall all my apps to make the machine usable enough for a real-life test was just too much of an incentive to resist.

So... download completed, DVD burned, I put it in the drive and kicked off the setup. After a few clicks and quite a bit of waiting around - this laptop is an ultra-portable so not exactly built for speed - the setup program told me I needed to reboot to update some system files before it would allow me to continue. It was a bit frustrating that after the reboot the setup had to go through the same routine again (same set of clicks, 'checking compatibility' for quite a few minutes) before eventually allowing me to continue. It would be nice if it could store what it learnt the first time round and not have to go through all that again - but maybe the reboot scenario is a glitch they're hoping to be rid of before Windows 7 goes RTM.

By this time it was getting pretty late so I left the install running and went to bed, so I can't tell you how long the whole process took.

This morning I was greeted by a prompt to select my time zone, a couple more clicks and next thing I knew I was ready to log in! The biggest surprise of all was that the login screen had the option for me to use my fingerprint reader to authenticate - as it uses a utility that hooks into the Windows Login screen it seemed like a long shot that it might work straight away, but there it was, working just like it did in Vista!

My desktop took a few moments to build, but it's only thinking back I realise what an incredible thing happened next. Windows just loaded. And sat there, waiting for me to do something. No error messages! No unknown device driver install prompts!  No hung (or processor-greedy) processes for me to kill!

I did have one slightly worrying moment when the notification about syncing my offline files came up. I have my Documents folder located in a share on my server, so both my desktop and laptop can use the same files. Windows 7 picked up the setting (in theory a good thing) and started syncing files. You can call me a scaredy-cat, but I'm not sure I like the idea of a beta OS syncing with my server copy of my important files. The server does have an off-site (i.e. online) backup but the pain of getting all my data back from there isn't something I want to go through for anything less than a real unavoidable data-recovery emergency. So I stopped the sync and took away the *Always available offline* setting from my synced shares just to be on the safe side. As time goes on I may relent on that one, but this was my first minute in a new beta OS so I hadn't had time to get any kind of comfort that it works well enough to be allowed near my files.

So, sync stopped and panic over, I only had a couple of minutes to spare before my early morning conference call. I launched Firefox 3 just to see how it would behave, and it seems to play nicely. After my call I had to head straight into the office so I closed the lid on my laptop and it began to Hibernate, so it seems to have remembered that setting. The hibernation process seemed pretty quick, but I've never sat with a stopwatch and timed it under Vista so I can't say whether it's better or not.

So that was my first day with Vista and I leave you with a cliff-hanger ending...

Will the laptop wake up from hibernation?

Will I be able to create my next post in Windows Live Writer from my upgraded machine?

What will I think when I've had a chance to get to know Windows 7 a little better?

We'll find out soon.

Monday, 2 February 2009

Great little app for mounting ISO files as CD/DVD drives

Every now and again I need to use an ISO image of a CD or DVD.  I’ve tried various approaches (burning to a physical disk, mounting on a Virtual PC when I’ve had one available, using the Microsoft’s Virtual CD Control Panel) in the past but to be honest they’ve all been a bit of a pain.

So I was really pleased when I found this free app, which seems to just work without any fuss.  I’ve used it on both my Vista machines (desktop and laptop) and it does exactly what it’s supposed to, quicker and easier than I expected.

This is especially useful if you have a laptop or netbook without an optical drive, or if you prefer not to use the optical drive to save battery power.  You can create ISO images of your discs (plenty of software is available to do that part), store them on your hard drive, and never need to carry a CD or DVD with you again.  Provided, of course, you have enough free disk space!

Clonedrive by Elby

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