A technology blog for The Economist Group IT team

Friday, June 27, 2003

Microsoft's XP beta testing program

Yes, since 24 June I've been a beta tester for the Windows XP Hotfix (SP2). I'm about to send them an invoice for three hours of my time.

This is how I enrolled on the program:

1. I accidentally clicked on the Automatic Updates tray icon
2. I [Alt-Tab]ed away from the Automatic Updates window
3. Some time later I hit [Enter] whilst the focus was on the Automatic Updates window
4. The Automatic Updates Install started
5. As I'd applied some in the past I didn't bother trying to stop it

The next day, whilst saving a Word document my PC rebooted. At the time I thought I'd kicked the power cable (despite the fact that I've taped it so that it shouldn't happen). When XP restarted I checked the error report. It contained the following:

BCCode : 6 BCP1 : 00000000 BCP2 : 00000000 BCP3 : 00000000
BCP4 : 00000000 OSVer : 5_1_2600 SP : 1_0 Product : 256_1

and said more details were in these files:


When the same thing happened a few hours later, I knew that it wasn't a one-off. The error report contained the same information.

Now this is the clever bit. I'm sure that most people don't bother sending those error reports to Microsoft, but I did because I knew that it wasn't just an ordinary program crash. Microsoft also know that I installed some updates the previous day, so they should be able to tie the two events together, and if other people had done the same thing...you get the idea.

By this morning I'd kind-of forgotten about the two crashes. Until I had another one (again when saving a Word document). This time I thought a bit and realised that the only thing that had changed on my machine was the automatic update from Microsoft. Handily each of the updates were listed separately in the add/remove programs list in Control Panel. Not so handily, removing each of them required a reboot, until I decided to "End Task" the uninstall program each time it got to the "Click Finish to restart your machine" dialogue box. This saved another three reboots.

This might not have been a good idea because it didn't fix the problem.

When the "Send error report" dialogue box comes up it's worth checking what the files it refers to contain. One of the two is called sysdata.xml and sits in a directory in your /Temp folder. However, when you select either "Don't send report" or "Send error report" this temporary directory gets deleted, so you need to take a copy of it when the dialogie box pops up. This is what I found in the one I opened (along with a lot of other stuff):

<CREATIONDATE>06-24-2003 07:41:42</CREATIONDATE>
<PRODUCTNAME>Microsoft� Windows� Operating System</PRODUCTNAME>

<CREATIONDATE>06-24-2003 07:32:51</CREATIONDATE>
<PRODUCTNAME>Microsoft� Windows� Operating System</PRODUCTNAME>

<CREATIONDATE>06-24-2003 07:46:22</CREATIONDATE>
<PRODUCTNAME>Microsoft� Windows� Operating System</PRODUCTNAME>

There were three entries for drivers with the date of the Automatic Update.

This made me realise that the uninstalls hadn't worked, so next I decided to re-install XP SP1. Not easy; when you try and do this from the Microsoft site, it realises that it's already there and doesn't offer it as an option. Instead I downloaded the full service pack and installed it from my machine (actually SP1a because it's minus Microsoft's Java VM - I expect you know why this was removed, but wait a minute...).

Still no fix.

Then some light. When my machine rebooted again, and after I submitted another error report I was taken to the Microsoft online crash analysis site. What a good idea - shame it didn't work earlier. Although it said the crash was caused by a driver failure, it didn't know which one. By now I had a good idea, though. The beacon in my increasing glooom was a link outlining how I could restore my system to an earlier point in time. If you remember NT, you'll know that this sounds like the "Last known good menu". This is much better.

System Tools -> System Restore.

You click on the date before you applied the updates and that's it!

It worked.

I don't know which of these updates was causing the problem, but it was one of them:

System Update V4

Feedback welcome.

And the moral of the story? Don't install Automatic Updates from Microsoft.
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Thursday, June 26, 2003

One less browser compatabiliy test for you web developers out there!
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Tuesday, June 24, 2003

Corporate blogging

Coporate blogging (that sounds a bit like carpet bagging which is something very different) gets a mention in the NY Times.
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Will Sarbox affect us?

No, this is not to do with a terrorist gas attack (I saw next week's episode of Spooks last night on BBC Three, but that's another story; suffice to say it's rather too dumbed down and therefore obvious). The Sarbanes-Oxley Act is US regulators' answer to problems highlighted by the Enron/Xerox/[insert company name] scandal and it comes into effect on October 31 2003. Since it was enacted, legal opinion has begun to form on just what the effects of it will be. Well, for one, CEOs have to verify that their public accounts are a complete and accurate statement of the financial position of their company and, for two, information that may affect the company's financial position has to be disclosed in a timely fashion.

And some in the IT sector have picked up that Sarbox could herald a new Y2K spending spree. Their rationale behind this theory is that for senior management to be able to satisfy themselves that they are fully aware of their company's financial situation they will need instant access to more information (such as Oracle's daily virtual close) about their company's performance. To enable then to get at this they'll need a properly integrated ERP system, such as PeopleSoft. A series of standalone spreadsheets, for example, would not make for easy access, even if they fed into or out of a corporate ERP/finance system.

But not only that.

Cap Gemini-Ernst & Young told CIO Magazine that among the 48 questions they would ask CIOs to allow then to gauge a comany's compliance with Sarbox are:

37. Does the company have a retention policy for electronic information?
39. How often do you back up your data?
40. What controls are in place over record retention to avoid tampering with the data?
48. What controls are in place to detect wire/mail fraud?

The first two of these relate to the requirements of sections 103 and 802 of the Act. While section 802 (now part of SEC rules) covers distruction of materials, section 103 stiplulates that auditors must keep all supporting documentation relating to an audit for a period of seven years. In turn, this means that the company itself should keep these records too, in case further supporting information is later required. The current thinking is that this "supporting documentaion" includes e-mail communications and (if they were used) Post-It notes where they support or clarify other information.

So, a public company needs to keep archives of it's e-mail system going back seven years? That's the view that many are taking and here's where it affects us. Companies like KVS have products that allow seamless archiving of e-mail so that any e-mail sent can be retrieved at a later date, even if it has subsequently been deleted. However, I haven't seen a product that works with GroupWise yet; could the availability of such products at some point in the future be the influencing factor in the choice of e-mail system? And how much of this is, in turn, because it's easier to develop third party software that integrates via .NET to Microsoft products?

The e-mail archiving is just one example, but you get the picture.

Anyway, the good news is that Sarbox only applies to US public companies (well, some non-public too), which The Economist Newspaper is not. The bad news is that there will be pressure for non-public companies to meet some of the standards laid down by Sarbox and that the EU is planning its own version.

Treo 600

Not sure how far off the ground this product will get, what with the Palm merger, and it doesn't have Graffitti, but boy, does it look good. It's out this fall (that'll be end of the year to you and me).
Even the largest of companies will struggle with Sarbox compliance and I think the main issues they will fall down on is the security, shredding and destruction of matters concerning electronic data as well as correctly identifying data interception and fraud.
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Monday, June 23, 2003

Happy Birthday DNS - 20 today.
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Thursday, June 19, 2003

The link to the discussion forums on the right was causing this page to load very slowly yetserday, so I took it off. The site seems ok now so it's back on. Apologies.
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Tuesday, June 17, 2003

Poundradio, Outlook 2003 and browser hijacking

PCCW owned company Poundradio looks likely to get 13 of the 15 regional wireless broadband licenses currently being auctioned in the UK. The UK Radiocommunications Agency has some info (well a lot, actually) on applications and availability of the 3.4Ghz spectrum. If you take a look at the latest bidding round; you'll see that there's quite some contrast to the amounts being offered compared to the 3G auctions of a couple of years ago. There's some debate about whether PCCW will bother doing much with rural licenses, but this is interesting technology - the spectrum can be used for voice as well as data. Whether this (rather than cable) will lead to local loop unbundling remains to be seen.

Maybe this will really see voice over IP (VOIP) take off. VOIP certainly hasn't delivered on early promise, but that largely revolved around corporates and enterprises piggbacking voice services on their existing data circuits. The problem was that voice calls were (and are) cheap - anyone with any kind of volume should get around 1p/minute for a transatlantic call. Now, however, we all have wireless handsets at home, but still have analogue lines. Perhaps wireless broadband will lead the way to a digitally connected home.

I mentioned a while back how Microsoft web mail sites have implemented image blocking capabilities (turned off by default), well now it's the turn of Outlook. Outlook 2003 (Outlook 11) will, by default, block the loading of images not embedded in the message when viewd in the preview pane. The latest beta release also has this behaviour, by default, when messages are opened. However, products with anti-spam technology (i.e. Outlook, web mail and, soon, Exchange) are now co-ordinated by one team within Microsoft, so it seems logical that the default when viewing may be switched to allow external images to be seen when a message is opened. Microsoft say that their driver in these initiatives is two fold: to stop the verification of e-mail addresses and to prevent children accidentally viewing porn. It also has implications for reputable publishers and marketeers. The preview pane setting is sensible - people aren't really opening a message when they view it in this way, but if opening a message supresses externally hosted images, a lot of HTML e-mails are going to need re-formatting and their value to the publisher re-assessing.

Lastly for today, browswer hijacking. This is a real pain. Do the basics and make sure that you have "Download unsigned ActiveX controls" and "Initailize and script ActiveX controls not marked as safe" set to to "Disable" in Tools->Internet Options->Security" in IE or equivalent in your browser. If you've been hijacked, then take alook at SpywareInfo for how to get your browser back.
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Wednesday, June 11, 2003

Can't see the keyboard when playing Quake in the dark? No more. Thanks to The Register for that one.
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Tuesday, June 10, 2003

More on Oracle's "bid" for PeopleSoft on CFO.com.

This context sensitive serving of ads on Blogspot makes me chuckle each time a new one pops up on this blog. Mention a cup of coffee and you get ads for mugs!
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Monday, June 09, 2003

How well do IT staff communicate with their customers, the following contribution wonders?

A Cup of Coffee and a Croissant, Please.

That is a simple request that is heard thousands of times every morning in the City of London. Yet, what is a croissant, what is a cup of coffee, and does the interaction mean the same thing to the customer and the waiter?

The assumption that a cup of coffee is just that, and that a croissant is a croissant is too simplistic. A latte, an espresso, a cappuccino, a black americano, a pain au chocolat, a plain croissant, are all within the scope of satisfying that simple request.

The coffee shop provides a range of services and products, much in the same way we do to our customers. We, as Group IT, in all our various hues of responsibilities, provide many cups of coffee and many croissants every day; and, like the waiter in my favourite caf�, we know our range of products and how quickly we can offer them. Much like �Mario�s� we have a lot of customers. The problems we face are similar in essence, especially with customers who pop in for the first time, or who do not call so often, or with those who are in a hurry. They assume that what they have in mind we have in mind, they assume because this is a �caf� they can get anything their friends can get in Starbucks in Chicago or in Pret a Manger in Los Angeles.

It is not their fault because, as customers, well, they are right. The problem lies in the ways expectations are raised or lowered. Do we tell our customers what is actually available? How do we respond when we know that we can only offer them a limited range of options � even when, as is the rule, the reason for a limited range is perfectly legitimate from a business perspective?

Another question that comes to mind automatically is, how much entrenched are we in our own ideas and perceptions about what users mean (when they call to report an error), or we think they mean? How much do we let them know when we do a fix, when we repair a desktop, build a server, offer VPN, configure a PDA, offer advice for best ways to work with technology, or, when we have to explain that what they want will be available in the next upgrade? Talking to users can be frustrating, annoying, boring, superfluous, unnecessary. On the other hand, explaining � in English � why something the user did broke his/her computer, why an action in Groupwise is a bad idea, (as in attaching a 10Mb file to an email and send it to ten people in the company and ten outside the company) can be of enormous benefit to both the users and ourselves.

Should we not consider, in the field, the communication of information instead of simply the management of information for others? Are we too paternalistic in our approach to our users? Do we talk to them enough? I believe that if we talk to our users and make them participate in the decision making regarding a request they may have � provided we give them accurate information about what are the business options, the pros, the cons and the potential risks for each option � or simply let them know what alternatives are available to them (other than email when there is a good business case from their perspective to send a 10Mb attachment to twenty people) we will perhaps find, that, little by little, the next time they will call they will ask for a �doppio ristretto�* and thus they will save time both in the making of the �coffee� and in the serving it.

* doppio/dopple ristretto: double very strong espresso
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Saturday, June 07, 2003

"It was like Larry was driving by, spotted a really nice wedding in progress, crashed it with a shotgun and said: 'This bride's going to marry me at the end of a barrel'. It's a pathetic tactic even by Oracle standards".

PeopleSoft CEO Craig Conway tells Reuters that Oracle's offer of $16 a share is nothing more than a disruptive tactic. Look's like Larry Ellison is going to have to back down one way or another after saying that Oracle had no plans to raise its offer. PeopleSoft shares rose 18% to $17.82 on the news.
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Wednesday, June 04, 2003

Life get's easier if you can't make your mind up whether to buy a Palm or Handspring PDA. Palm is to buy Handspring in a $169m paper deal. If you remember, Handspring was formed by two former Palm execs - Jeff Hawkins, the designer, and Donna Dubinsky. Handspring will be renamed in the autumn. Palmspring has a nice ring to it, but I suspect they mean Palm. At the same time Palm announced that they are so spin off Palmsource.

The Guardian speculated a while back about the two Beatles going after Apple Computer as they did in the 1980's. Back then Apple agreed not to venture into the music business (Steve Jobs chose to name his company Apple after the Beatles record label). Fox News think they have more on this, but it's probably idle speculation.
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Tuesday, June 03, 2003

I notice that the ads on this page are now picking up on my comments on spam (as well as PDAs)!
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The Securities & Exchange Commission have started an investigation into the accuracy of IBM's accounts. The investigation is looking at the 2000 and 2001 numbers. PricewaterhouseCoopers, who audited IBM's accounts during these periods has made no comment. It is believed that the investigation relates to the division that sells point-of-sales equipment. The FTSE was down on opening on the back of this news.

Consolidation and divestment in the ERP business. Invensys have sold Baan and PeopleSoft have bought JD Edwards. The merged company will have some product overlaps, admitted PeopleSoft's CEO, Craig Conway, but would have very little overlap among users.

eAssist have also announced that they've bought bits of the bankrupt Divine. Recently ex-Northern Light CEO, David Suess, bought dSCI (formerly known as, you guessed it, Northern Light). OpenMarket still not sold as far as I know.
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