Archive for October, 2007

Smurf sur Tableur

Sunday, 28th October, 2007

I spotted someone had visted this site via this Google French translation.

Of course as any francophile should know smurf is Stroumph in French. What would be ideal now is if one of these French visitors could sort me out a 3 month contract in Grenoble for the winter. (Or Lyon or Annecy, or Chamonix even better).

Madame Stroumph could bring out the stroumph-lings at weekends for a bit of snowboarding – much better than a walk in the Cumbrian winter drizzle.

I guess I could live with a 3/6 month stint in Paris instead.

Anyone else got their sights set on an alternative location?



Excel ecosystem

Thursday, 25th October, 2007

Nick Hebb has an interesting post here where he talks about the uphill battle Google have against MS Office. A key factor being the ecosystem that has built up around many of MS products.

I agree that is an important factor and one that will take any competitor many years to compete with. But it wouldn’t take long for Microsoft to destroy it, or at least make it vulnerable.

To be honest I think Microsoft gave the ecosystem (the Office developer part) a pretty good kicking with the UI incompatibilities in Excel 2007, and with the mess. As I see it many of the valuable contributors to the ecosystem are experienced users, and the ribbon pain seems to increase in relation to comfort with the 2003 style UI. (I can’t bring myself to say menu+toolbar system, because thats all the ribbon is, all they did was shuffle things around to make it harder for advanced users).

I’m not convinced the ecosystem has turned against MS, or away from Excel, but I do think it could be more ‘pro’ Office 2007. I seem to remember 2003 was met with massive apathy, as there seemed so few useful new features compared to 2002/2000. For 2007, I don’t see much ‘buzz’ positive or negative. Its the Excel ‘alternatives’ such as Google Docs and Apple iWork Numbers that seem to be making the news. (Apart from the recent calculation excitement of course).

(I find it ironic that many people access the Microsoft.Public newsgroups via Google Groups)

What do you think? have you noticed any impact in the on-line communities?



Google apps making headway

Thursday, 25th October, 2007

(According to Google)

El Reg has an interesting article here. It seems that 1,500 new clients are signing up for Google apps per day. Google reckon this level of adoption is driven by the speed of their innovation. Which is an important benefit of the ‘service’ model v ‘manufacturing’ we discussed last week. Google run all the code on their servers (in most cases) so they can update as often as they like. Microsoft on the other hand are stuck to 2-3 year release cycles, and they rarely add features in a service pack.

[By the way – where IS service pack 1 for Office 2007? It seems to have been floating around for a while, but still no release date – How I hope its because they added a new ‘classic’ ui!] (a dream I know!)

What would be really interesting is how many of that 1,500 don’t use MS office? in particular how many find Google apps totally satisfies their needs? I’d also love to know how many people are trying Office 2007 per day? A trial version seems to be part of the crapware that infests most new pcs. And you can download it of course. It would be great to give some context to the Google numbers. 1,500 per day is roughly half a million per year, which doesn’t see that impressive when MS have around 440 million users. I also wonder how fast OpenOffice is getting downloaded/installed?

Of course I’ve just done a simple 1,500 * 365, if they are on an exponential growth path, things could get much more exciting. If 1,500 don’t download it on Christmas day then it could be less exciting.

I still think its too early to say what the impact on Google Apps and Docs might be on the Excel development world. But I don’t think its too early to track the developments in this area pretty closely.

What about you? do you see any big opportunities, or threats?



Virtual Machine security

Wednesday, 24th October, 2007

I read an interesting snippet from a security researcher the other day.

Apparently one of the recent bits of malware had specific code in it to detect if it was running on a virtual machine. And if so to shut down ASAP. Why? because the author knows that most researchers use VMs to investigate badware, reverse engineer it and come up with signatures that can be added to the AV detection list.

This then begs the question, would we be safer running on a virtual machine all the time? I keep meaning to do this, but never get around to investing the necessary time.

An interesting feature of VMware is the many freely available images you can download and try here. One thing someone pointed out to me that I had’t realised is any of these will run with the free version of VMware Player.

I don’t think Microsoft Virtual PC (also free now) can run them as they are mainly Linux based.

This strikes me as a great way to try out an operating system or product with no commitment, and no installation hassle. Stephane mentioned ages ago about distributing software as an ‘appliance’.

I love the idea, but I’m not clear how realistic it would be for a spreadsheet auditing tool for example. (compared to an xla and ignoring anyone who doesn’t use Excel). I have no idea of the licensing issues, but I assume using open source will be easier than proprietary.

Is anyone else evaluating their use of virtualisation s/w? What are your conclusions?



Microwave dinners

Tuesday, 23rd October, 2007

I was on a training course a while ago and they provided a buffet dinner (thats northern for the meal eaten around midday btw). They were nice enough (no pies though – it was down sarrrf (lots of quiche of course!)), but someone commented it would have been nice to heat up some dishes.

The trainer said they used to have microwaves until the government brought in additional legislation around hygiene, premises registration, inspections, health and safety etc. Rather than comply with the red tape mountain they just got rid of them and went to cold meals. (and in fairness who can blame them?)

So a bit of legislation brought in to ‘protect’ us, actually ends up preventing us from accessing a fairly reasonable facility – for our own safety.

Ring any bells?

I’m thinking patches to close security holes?

Many Office service packs ‘fix’ security holes by removing the whole chunk of functionality. Outlook especially has suffered from this, and Marcus mentioned the pain of 2k SP2 in comments recently. This is why I get more and more worried by each SP, as they now pretty much always remove or block, or make painful and convoluted, some once useful feature. I remember when SPs used to add features.

Of course as developers this adds a significant compatibility burden, as you need to develop against the service pack that will be the production environment. The old mantra was develop against the oldest version, now we are beginning to need to target the latest to see if our code gets tripped up by any new security roadblocks.

Lucky then that this has coincided with the widespread availability of virtual machines. Microsoft Virtual PC is free now I think, and VMWare is about 100 quid I think. and they can both convert from each others formats.

Its getting towards the classic – how do you keep a machine secure? Unplug it. Which would seem to be the approach many sys admins would prefer.

Are you seeing the same trend?

Got any clever ways to push back and protect our productivity?



Easter eggs

Sunday, 21st October, 2007

Star calc Open Office calc Easter Egg

I spotted a tip off to this Easter egg in OpenOffice here

As far as I am aware Easter eggs are now banned from Microsoft products under their trustworthy computing initiative. So how is that fair?

Heres some questions:

  1. Do you think OpenOffice Calc is less secure than Excel?
  2. Does the existence of this Easter egg impact that view?
  3. Does removing Easter Eggs from Microsoft products make you feel warm and fuzzy about them?
  4. Is this an example of them mis-aiming their efforts?

I don’t think I have a strong view either way actually. But I have noticed open source stuff often has neat little twists that Microsoft being Microsoft just could not do.

Easter eggs – Good or bad? (or don’t care?)



US Excel User Conference

Sunday, 21st October, 2007

Just to let you know its the US Excel User Conference this week so things may be a little slow if you are trying to get booked up for the UK event. (And if not why not?)

Had enquiries from the US and Canada already so distance should not be a problem for anyone in Europe (or the UK).



UK Excel user conference and Excel developer conference

Friday, 19th October, 2007

Finally got the dates and venue for the UK Excel user conference nailed down. Its going to be in Cambridge, right in the centre at the Crowne Plaza. Here is a map. Here is a piccy (choose aerial). I went to a conference here last year its a great venue, in a good location.

The dates are:

Thursday 29 Nov – Intermediate conference, optional advanced classes

Friday 30 Nov – Advanced conference, optional intermediate classes.

Saturday 1 Dec – Excel Developer Conference.

Full info and signing up here.

The developer event is kind of connected, but kind of separate. All are welcome, you don’t need to be a hardcore fulltime dev, but some appreciation for developing spreadsheet based systems will definitely help.

I think the time is ripe for an Excel developer conference. Things have moved quite rapidly recently and VBA is no longer the only choice. Its often the best choice, but with an eye to the future its worth keeping track of the alternatives.

The plan is for one day of developer focused content, in a small friendly environment (max 30ish people). Please leave a comment with your suggestions for topics. I guess we should have time for 4 slots. Here are some of my thoughts to get you started:

  • Migrating working solutions to 2007 – issues, gotchas and workarounds.
  • Migrating Excel based solutions to relational or OLAP databases
  • Web enabling Excel/VBA applications
  • Future of VBA
  • VSTO and .net in Excel applications
  • Writing fast user defined functions in xlls (for VBA devs)
  • Migrating away from Microsoft
  • Testing Excel apps effectively
  • round table shared projector session
  • development problem clinc
  • colloboration and server spreadsheets

Basically anything goes, whatever you want/need to know about to do your Excel development. Also if there is someone you specifically want to hear from leave a comment, or email me. If you would like to present let me know too, with some ideas for content. On the subject of slots – should we go for 5/6 shorter slots or 3/4 longer ones?

Just to be clear – this conference is about gritty real world tried and tested technical content that real developers are delivering to real clients right now. This isn’t about fluffy vapourware that would solve all our problems if only we download one more framework or component. Its not about technology that clients might adopt in 2010 and beyond – its now and the next 12-36 months (that would be 2010 right? ;-)).

The comments and emails will totally drive the content of the day so don’t be shy.



Ubuntu 7.10 released

Thursday, 18th October, 2007

The latest and greatest Ubuntu was released today.

There is a review here.

Bits here.

I’m downloading it now.

I havent seen any mention of which version of OpenOffice or Gnumeric it ships with. I’ll report back when I have had chance to play.

In other news I read here that Apple now have 6.4% of the computer market (whatever they are defining that as!) up from 5% a year ago (according to Gartner). Thats quite a step up. Makes me think I should be keeping an eye out for opportunities on Apples.

I was thinking on standardising on SLED (SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop from Novell) on my non dev machines. Maybe I should follow the trend and go with Ubuntu.

In reality I’ll probably go with whatever I can get to install properly on my Sony laptop, (if anything).

For anyone who hasn’t tried Linux recently, it really is worth a new look. Ubuntu comes as a live CD that you can run directly from the drive making no changes to your system, unless you ask it to install.

Anyone else planning on trying it?

Dennis have you got this new version up and running yet?



Service v manufacturing

Wednesday, 17th October, 2007

I do most of my banking on-line, its dead easy. The bank run all the software on their server. Because they control all of the code on their server its super easy for them to change it when they want, how they want, for whatever reason they want. Lets call this the service model – roughly 1 chunk of code used by many users.

I also have a car, this is handy for getting around, but not as much fun as a bike (in the sun). I bought it and I keep it at home, like many people. If the manufacturers find a problem they then have to issue a recall notice, every customer has to get their vehicle back to a dealers to get it fixed.

Duke with axle scare

Every new vehicle we have bought has had at least 1 recall. My Ducati recall was for a potentially terminal rear axle failure – I had to ride it 100 miles to the dealers in the rain knowing that someone recently died when their axle broke without warning – nice ride (not). This is clearly not as handy as the service model, but its hardly insurmountable.

Lets call this the manufacturing model, each user get their own copy of the product.

Now you have to have been hiding under a big stone for a long time not to have noticed the increased interest in the service model of delivering software. In part related to the massive uptake of t’interweb. I reckon even the most zealoty Web 2.0 zealot would accept that there is still a place for distributed software in the manufacturing model style. Do you agree?

I guess all those forecasting the imminent death of the desktop, probably don’t agree? And we have been having an interesting discussion around App level or WB level code, which is pretty much the same issue.

I’d say all versions of Visual Studio after VS6 (ie all the .net ones) have been pretty much exclusively focused on the service model of software delivery. The recent versions have pretty much ignored the manufacturing angle. Hence why many standalone apps are written in Delphi or C++.

I’d say MS Office (well all desktop s/w really) follows the ‘manufacturing’ model, as do many of our solutions built on top of it. MS have a pretty smooth patch process, as demonstrated with the recent Excel calc bug fix, issued within a couple of weeks, and about to be automatically pushed out to clients. (The Windows update bit seems a bit ‘flaky’ though!)

Most Excel users are also following this manufacturing style too, build a model/report, email it out. Email a correction when an error is found. Copy and paste data from one to the other as required.

I can’t help feeling MS have lost the love for this manufacturing model s/w though.

And I think a lot of software devs are now nervous of widely distributing software, in case they need to make a change. They prefer the safety net of server based services that they can change/fix as needed. On the one hand that is prudent, on the other hand aren’t they(/we?) just a bunch of big scaredy cats? Or is the security requirement of working in an always on, always connected environment just so great, that old style is no longer viable?

At the end of the day, for most of us (certainly in business apps development) a problem in the software we write is an inconvenience (possibly expensive), but not life-threatening like the Duke axle issue.

Shouldn’t we be focusing on writing good software instead of avoiding the issue by concentrating on delivering our work in a way that makes it easy for us to correct our blunders later?