Goodbye Dated Technology

I’m happy to report that I’ve been making progress in my ongoing effort to get rid of stuff: Over Christmas, I’ve helped my parents sort through their pile of no-longer used tech-equipment and in the process have gotten rid of a bunch of old cables, CD and floppy drives, and other assorted pieces of dated technology myself. It was amazing how much of this stuff had piled up over the years: hard disks that seemed extremely large when they were bought, but are now really tiny (anybody care for a 160GB IDE disk?); or a couple of routers and other telecom equipment one gets for free when getting a new contract or switching internet providers, but never uses because the one router one has is working just fine.

Goodbye Parallel Port

Today then, I finally kissed goodbye my trusty old HP Deskjet 895cxi. the ink cartridge had dried up and since I’m barely printing things anymore, it’s time had come. Although I should note that it has functioned flawlessly until the very end under Windows 7 with no driver issues whatsoever. I guess it pays to buy rom a company like HP that even after many, many years still provides drivers for their old printers. From what I hear from colleagues who bought cheaper printers only to find out after a few years, those wouldn’t work under the latest version of Windows, because the manufacturer didn’t bother providing an updated driver. Now, after almost ten years of wonderful service, it’s headed for the recycling station. This also means that my last device to still use a parallel port (pictured above) is now retired. From now on, it’s only USB, baby.

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Integrating various Microsoft Technologies

The other day I was watching Steve Ballmer’s Keynote Address at CES 2011. If you’re a fan of Microsoft technologies, it’s a nice wrap-up what Microsoft has been up to lately and how great their stuff is. In addition to talking about some of the new stuff (Surface version 2, Windows 8 on ARM SoCs; check out the video for details), it also reiterated the “Three Screens and a Cloud” mantra Microsoft has been preaching since PDC 2009 and basically saying how nicely various Microsoft technologies integrate with each other (Xbox and Zune were given as an example in the presentation).

Windows Live SkyDrive limitations (and workaround)

In reality, however, integration isn’t always that great. Take for instance SkyDrive: it’s 25GB of free online storage and you can view and edit your Office documents stored there via the Office Web Apps, which is nice. However, there is no easy way to access this content from Windows. And then there is Live Mesh, Microsoft’s file synchronization solution. It occupies a special 5GB area on your SkyDrive. Why it doesn’t just sync anything in SkyDrive, I don’t know. And because of this special treatment, the files synced to SkyDrive via Live Mesh cannot be access by the Office Web Apps. Bummer.

Even though not officially supported by Microsoft, there is way to access SkyDrive from Windows by mounting it as a network drive, as I wrote a while back in How to use SkyDrive for cloud backup. I hadn’t actually used it like that in a while, so it wasn’t until this morning that I noticed one can no longer copy certain file types to SkyDrive this way. For instance, I use WinRAR to create a password-protected archive of the files to back up. I have automated creating the rar-files and copying them to SkyDrive with a little batch file. However, when I ran it this morning the batch failed with an “Access Denied” copying the rar-file to SkyDrive.

First, I tried creating a new text file on SkyDrive in Windows Explorer and it worked as expected. Then I manually copied a (smaller) rar-file to SkyDrive via Explorer and that failed as well. I then changed the file extension on the RAR archive I wanted to upload from “rar” to “txt” and voilà, it was possible to upload the file. Here’s the interesting bit: once the rar-file disguised as a txt-file is on SkyDrive, one can rename it to change the extension back to “rar”, but only from Windows, as it’s not possible to change file extensions via the SkyDrive web page. Renaming can even be automated. So to make my backup script work again, I now have a rename command in there in addition to the copy command. Work’s just fine.

OneNote: from Windows Phone to SkyDrive to my PC

The reason I was fiddling with SkyDrive and found this out in the first place, was because I wanted to synchronize OneNote notes between my Windows Phone, SkyDrive (and thus the Office Web Apps) and OneNote running on my PC. Microsoft has a very good how-to article that explains everything one needs to know to make this happen and it actually works very easily.

At least at first, because once I had my notes synchronized, it bothered me that the notebook was called “Personal (Web)”. What a stupid name, I thought, and promptly renamed it. Big mistake. Had I continued reading the article I would have come a cross the following passage in the very next paragraph:

To ensure that this notebook syncs properly to Windows Live SkyDrive, do not change the default notebook name from Personal (Web), and don’t change the name of the Unfiled Notes section in the notebook.

To make matters worse, not only could I no longer sync the notebook, I also couldn’t delete it from my phone. Because it was the default notebook where all new notes created on the phone go, OneNote wouldn’t allow me to delete it, until I designated another notebook as the default one. Except, there is no way to create new notebooks on the phone. So I created one using the OneNote web app. I even used the original name and thought maybe I could trick my phone into thinking this was the same notebook. No such luck. Creating an entirely new notebook didn’t work either, because of the missing original notebook, synchronization always failed.

There is, however, a workaround as this thread on Microsoft Answers explains. The solution was to create a new notebook (which can have any name you want, by the way) and save it on SkyDrive. Then use Internet Explorer on the phone to go to http://office.live.com and download the file to the phone. This adds the notebook to OneNote, where one can set it as the new default notebook. Now it’s possible to delete the old notebook, and as a bonus, you now have a notebook with the name of your choice synced across your phone, the web and your PC.

Finally some good news for Windows Home Server

For the past 18 months or so I have had a version 1 Windows Home Server and love it (except when it let’s me down). When the beta version of its successor codenamed “Vail” was released last year, I checked it out, but was underwhelmed. Most changes were cosmetic or in areas that I didn’t use, so I decided I probably wouldn’t upgrade. Especially since there was no migration strategy for the data on my old WHS machine. After Microsoft’s announcement that Drive Extender was removed from the product, I was sure I wouldn’t upgrade. That was until Microsoft showed off a wonderful Windows Phone 7 app at CES the other day. This aps in conjunction with the new Windows Home Server streams content (music, videos and pictures) stored on the server to the phone: “Windows Home Server goes mobile… Phone!

Now I’m not so sure anymore whether I should upgrade. I guess if Microsoft present’s a viable alternative to Drive Extender (maybe some RAID-based thingy their hardware partners could pre-configure to make it almost as easy to use as Drive Extender), I would seriously consider the upgrade.

Conclusion

I think “Three Screens and a Cloud” is a great idea. If synchronization and integration between them actually work, that is, and as I said above, in many areas it doesn’t yet.

The most important element in this I think is cloud. I was skeptical about cloud computing at first, because it reminded me to much of the mainframes and terminals of way back when, but now that Windows Phone 7 has forced me to embrace it, I actually find it very useful to have data and certain applications in the cloud and/or my phone, while also having more powerful versions of the same applications on my computer (e.g. Microsoft Office) when I need the power and ease-of-use of rich-client software.

I think given it’s broad product portfolio, Microsoft is in a unique position to make an integrated and synchronized “Three Screens and a Cloud” computing set-up become reality for its customers. I’m very excited to see what’s going to come of it.

At the Joseph Beuys exhibit

I’ll admit, this is a bit unusual for me, but today I went to see the Joseph Beuys exhibit “Parallel Processes” in Düsseldorf. Despite the fact that Beuys had a lasting impact not just on the Düsseldorf art scene but way beyond, I have been blatantly ignorant about him and his work. So when my employer organized free tours of the exhibit I figured this would be good way to get to know more about a kind of art that until then I had found very hard to approach, let alone enjoy.

Has that changed after seeing the exhibit? A bit. Sure, some things are still just plain weird, such as a music stand with bits of sauerkraut hung over it (see this picture). But having a guide explain the story behind the different pieces was very helpful in getting the most out of them. It was also interesting to see his fascination with certain materials such as copper, felt and fat that played a recurring role in his work and seem to give it a theme. While none of his works are beautiful in a classic sense, some do have a certain appeal to them, and some of his drawings I could even imagine having hanging on my wall (if I had an decent place to hang them).

The tour was only ninety minutes so it didn’t cover the majority of the exhibit, but I think I might be going again before it ends 16 Jan 2011. It’s definitely worth a visit even if you’re like me and not normally into art.