Sky[pe|Drive]

Last week, Microsoft released updates to two of its products that I had been waiting for for a long time.

Skype for Windows Phone

At the beginning of 2011 I had put a Skype app for Windows Phone on my wish list for 2011. But 2011 came and went and there was no SkyDrive app. Even though they showed a pretty complete looking prototype at the //build/ conference that year. Finally, a couple of days ago, the app became available for download. Unfortunately, as this ZDNet headline sums it up Skype for Windows Phone is basically useless. That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but the fact that the app doesn’t run in the background to accept incoming calls or chat messages reduces its usefulness quite dramatically. So the only way to contact somebody with a Windows Phone via Skype is when they are sitting in front of their phone with the Skype app running, waiting for your call or IM. In other words, basically useless.

SkyDrive

The more important release, however, was an update to SkyDrive and the accompanying applications. First off, SkyDrive now offers 7GB of free online storage. It used to be 25GB, but as there was really no way to easily upload that much data, I doubt anyone was using that much storage. If you have been using SkyDrive before, you can take advantage of this limited time offer to upgrade your account to 25GB for free. I did and as I’m writing this, the new SkyDrive application for Windows is busy syncing 12 years worth of pictures to my SkyDrive.

This application, finally, makes it possible to actually use SkyDrive from within Windows. There was a workaround to mount SkyDrive as a network drive, but it was ugly and slow. Now, similar to the way Dropbox works, you designate one folder as your SkyDrive folder and everything in that folder will be synced to SkyDrive and vice versa. I would have preferred it, however, if I could tell SkyDrive specifically which folders to sync. I have organized my files in a certain pattern that has ben perfected over the years. In order to sync my pictures and some of my documents to SkyDrive, some folders had to be moved out of the location dictated by the pattern into the SkyDrive folder. There are also a bunch of files that I have on SkyDrive that I don’t want on my PC, but it leaves me no choice but to sync those as well.

While 25GB of free storage is pretty nice, it’s not perfect yet. It’s kind of surprising, however, that Microsoft has a similar solution, Windows Live Mesh, which has some of the features SkyDrive currently lacks, but not others. Paul Thurrott has a nice write-up comparing SkyDrive, Live Mesh, Dropbox and Google Drive. In the end it comes down to what ecosystem you are invested in. If if you are on Android using a bunch of Google services, Google Drive is the natural choice. So is SkyDrive if you’re like me and already use multiple Microsoft products and services, SkyDrive (as Live Mesh might eventually be folded into it). After all, the integration into Windows, Office and Windows Phone is very convenient. I am a bit perplexed though, why there are two very similar ways to access SkyDrive on Windows Phone. First, through the office hub for Office documents and second through a designated SkyDrive app for all content (including Office documents). I feel, SkyDrive should just be part of the platform, not requiring it’s own app.

In conclusion, the latest SkyDrive release has made the service a lot more useful. However, Microsoft still has a long way to go to make it really seamless. Looks like that might come in Windows 8 (and possibly Windows Phone 8), though, which will have much deeper SkyDrive integration, not only for documents, but also for apps, which is something I have been dreaming about for a while.

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Visual Studio all the way

I have used quite a few different IDEs in my days (in roughly chronological order):

  • Turbo Pascal (mostly version 7, though I do have version 1 as well) when I got started with programming in High School,
  • Delphi (versions 1, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 2005, 2006, 2007 and XE) for all of my leisurely programming in college,
  • JBuilder (versions X and 2005) for a Java class in college,
  • Dev C++ for a C class that I accidentally took in college,
  • Excel’s VBA editor for automating the spreadsheets I have to manage my finances,
  • SharpDevelop and C#Builder 1.0 for my first experiments with C# and the .NET framework way back when (I think it was .NET 1.1 at the time),
  • PyDev for some occasional Python coding at work,
  • and I had even written a little mini-IDE when I was first learning HTML and I needed an editor that had templates and a preview feature, but was otherwise more light-weight than a full-fledged web development environment.

Anyhow, since I do most of development theses days in C#, I obviously spend a lot of time in Microsoft Visual Studio. While Visual Studio by itself has a ton of features already, there are a couple of plugins I no longer want to live without:

  • First and foremost, ReSharper, a tool that has dramatically changed the way I code and made me so much more productive, it’s unbelievable. I dread the times I have to code without its help (i.e. when using Visual C# Express at home).
  • Productivity Power Tools: although it has some overlap with ReSharper, it adds a couple of nice things to the IDE, like the ability to pin tabs.
  • See also Scott Hanselman’s collection of his favorite tools.

Visual Studio = C# + Python + HTML + XML + …

But I don’t just use Visual Studio for C#. Thanks to the Python Tools for Visual Studio I no longer have to leave my favorite IDE when I need to code in Python. I also use the free Visual Web Developer Express for the light HTML and CSS editing I do from time to time. And for my .NET Gadgeteer development, I have Visual C# Express (also free) installed. At one time I also had the free Visual Studio Express for Windows Phone installed. I played around with it a bit, but never quite got around to writing my own Windows Phone app.

Visual Studio is also a very powerful XML editor. I used to use XMLSpy for this, but as I rarely used its advanced features, it was easy to move on. Also, Visual Studio’s XSL transformations are literally an order of magnitude faster, which makes a big difference in terms of productivity for me.

The only disappointment I had with Visual Studio was when I was working on C++ code. The developer experience in C++ is so vastly inferior compared to C#, it’s astonishing. I don’t know whether it’s because of inherent differences in the two languages or whether Microsoft’s focus is just C#, but without support from a plugin like Visual Assist, writing and navigating through C++ code in the current version of Visual Studio feels a lot more cumbersome than writing and navigating through Delphi code in Delphi 7 (which is almost ten years old by now).

.NET == C#

And one more C++ rant, before I go: The other day I was working with a colleague who’s a C++ developer working on a piece of C++/CLI I was going to use from C#. He’s a very smart man, but there were just so many tiny things that are super-easy and elegant to do in C#, that took him forever to accomplish in C++/CLI. I am exaggerating a bit, but I find it nonetheless amazing how one can seriously claim that C++ is the most powerful language for .NET framework programming. .NET is C#. Period.

Quick trip to the North Sea

When my Mom returned from a sailing trip the other day I tagged along with my Dad to drive up to Bremerhaven to pick her up. To be honest, there’s a lot about sailing on a tall ship I don’t get: in addition to the obvious question, why anyone would pay money to cram themselves into these tiny compartments and work eight hours a day, I have always been skeptical about why sailors have so many knots. Check out that article, their numbers are ridiculous. I think it’s just to make themselves look important and the rest of us feel like idiots. I think, science should by now have converged on a single knot that combines the best aspects of all the other ones. Hence consolidation in the knot market is definitely overdue.

Fedderwardersiel Harbor

Regardless, it was fun seeing Butjadingen again. When I was a kid (some twenty years ago) our family had been vacationing there a couple of times and seeing the places again, the memories returned of all the fun times we had had there.

For lunch we stopped in Fedderwardersiel a tiny, but really beautiful fishing town. And though I don’t normally fancy fish, it felt inappropriate to order steak. So I had the fish platter at Dat Havenhuus (“the harbor house”) which was really good in fact.

Looking Out To Sea

On the way back, we must have passed by a few hundred wind turbines, which the landscape has been dotted with over the years. You literally can’t turn anywhere without seeing a couple of them in the distance. It’s actually a bit of an eyesore when looking over the otherwise completely flat countryside with its uninhibited vistas.

It has been awhile since my Israel vacation. And since I don’t think I will be able to go on another big vacation anytime soon, I have planned a couple more of these quick trips to other parts of Germany for the coming months. In May I am going to Korbach with our drama group (again), and I also want to go see Frankfurt (I’m finally going to take you up on that offer, M) and Münster this summer. Stay tuned…

Post scriptum: Pictures are courtesy of my Dad, taken under my supervision and instruction, and published here with his permission.