The Case of Outlook not downloading RSS content because of a problem connecting to the server

The Problem

I had been using Outlook to subscribe to RSS feeds for many years. Mostly because I like to have my email and news in one place with the ability to add them to my Outlook to-do list for follow-up.

Over time, however, I noticed that one feed after the other stopped updating. Even feeds from Microsoft sites such as TechNet and MSDN which I had assumed simply had to be compatible with Microsoft’s own RSS reader. Trying to remove and then re-add them gave the following error:

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I eventually found out that all feeds that no longer updated had been switched from HTTP to HTTPS, which seems to be unsupported by Outlook.

The Cause

This support document describes the scenarios in which Outlook supports authenticated RSS feeds. Basically, support is extremely limited. Normally, HTTPS is not supported and the workaround using Internet Explorer’s Common Feed List did not work for me.

Initially, Internet Explorer would download the RSS feed and they would show up as unread items in Outlook, but after the initial download I wouldn’t get any new items in Outlook, even though they did show up in Internet Explorer.

The Solution

Searching online for a solution did not turn up anything. Either people described workarounds that did not work for me, or recommended simply abandoning Outlook in favor of some other feed reader.

So I implemented my own solution and wrote a very simple proxy server that runs a local web server via HTTP that fetches the requested feed via HTTPS from the original source. By configuring Outlook to use this proxy, I now receive updates for feeds in Outlook even when the source uses HTTPS.

This RSS-via-HTTP Proxy runs as a service in the background. Its source code and some instructions on how to configure it are available on GitHub.

Day-Trip to Lingen

Yesterday I spent the day in Lingen to attend the CIM Lingen. The conference starts at 09:00, meaning I had to catch a train from Düsseldorf around 06:00.

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The train consisted of old cars from many different eras, including this kind I remember travelling in as a kid in the 1980s.

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At the conference

CIM Lingen is a conference with a special focus on Microsoft solutions and thus perfect for me. A lot of MVPs from Germany went there, presenting on Azure and Internet of Things among other things.

Best of all, the conference is entirely free to attend.

CIM Lingen Klein

It is held on the campus of Osnabrück University of Applied Sciences whose building was formerly a locomotive factory. And although it was equipped with all the amenities of a modern university, it still has a nice industrial flair and wide open interior spaces where there once was the factory floor.

Osnabrück University of Applied Sciences

Stahlträger

Around town

Before and after the event there was some time to walk around and take in the sights. What a beautiful small town.

Anno Haus Klein

Einmal Welfe Immer Welfe

Turm

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As the sun sets I have to catch my train back home.

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Abfahrt

This was my first time at CIM Lingen, but I know that I’ll probably go again next year 09-Sep-2017.

I don’t Get the Music Industry

The other day I came across this great lip dub of Harvey Danger’s Flagpole Sitta by the folks at Connected Ventures. Here is an article from the Washington Post about the lip dub phenomenon.

It seemed like a fun song, so I wanted to buy it from Amazon. As it turns out, amazon.de did not have the song as an MP3 download, amazon.co.uk did, however. I’m not sure why they don’t offer it in Germany. Since the marginal cost of putting these things in their online shop should be close to zero, it should be in Amazon’s and the music industry’s best interest to make all of their content available for purchase online, even if there is little demand for the individual items (cf. long tail).

Anyway, since it’s a download, I figured I might just as well buy the songs from Amazon’s UK website. Except they did not want to sell it to me because of “geographic restrictions”. I suppose their arrangement with the music industry for offering downloads doesn’t allow them to sell in Germany.

The funny thing, though, is that they were perfectly happy to sell me the physical CD containing the same music they couldn’t sell me as a download. Somebody please explain the logic behind that to me, because I don’t get it.

Internet Explorer 9: looks good, but Firefox is still my favorite

I just got the latest beta version of Internet Explorer 9 from Microsoft’s promotional IE site: http://www.beautyoftheweb.com. And I must say that this release is a huge step forward for Microsoft. Here’s what I liked the most after playing around with it for a while:

  1. Of course the number one thing is speed. The improvement here is spectacular. For JavaScript-heavy sites like the WordPress dashboard, it feels noticeably faster than Firefox.
  2. I am not sure whether this might have been in IE8 already, but as I have to use IE7 at work, I just hate that I can’t re-open tabs I accidentally closed. IE9 now keeps a history of previous tabs. That’s great.
  3. The address bar has also been improved nicely over IE7. Being able to type a couple of letters to incrementally search my bookmarks is huge for me. Given the number of bookmarks I have, having to find something in IE7’s Favorites folder is a huge productivity killer.

Nonetheless, I don’t feel like I would want to switch back from Firefox just now. Here’s why:

  1. Having the tabs next to, instead of above or below the address bar gives them too little room. I tend to have a lot of tabs open at any given time, so I want the tab bar to have available the full width of my monitor. It’s small enough as it is.
  2. It’s not possible to close the last tab by middle-clicking it. I oftentimes want to close all the pages and have a clean slate. This is something I have to enable in the advanced options in Firefox, but IE makes me open a new, blank tab and then close the other tab to mimic that behavior. I just find it strange that the last tab behaves differently when it comes to middle-clicking.
  3. As I was switching between tabs, for a brief second a ghost image of a previously closed tab appeared. I guess this is just be a glitch as this is just a beta release that will be ironed out for the final version.
  4. I want my browser to always accept cookies, but throw them all away (along with the history, cache etc.) when I close the browser. This way, I know I start with a clean slate whenever I close and re-open my browser. This level of control over cookies doesn’t seem possible in IE.
  5. It’s still too much work to bookmark stuff. I love that it’s just one click in Firefox to add a bookmark for the current site under “Unsorted Bookmarks”. I often use this feature to quickly bookmark pages I want to revisit and classify later. IE always wants me to choose a folder first. Normally, I’m all about freedom of choice, but sometimes things like this just get in the way. There is a nice discussion of this in chapter 3 of Joel Spolsky’s excellent book User Interface Design for Programmers.
  6. Finally, the lack of something like AdBlock and NoScript: These are the two Firefox extensions I can no longer live (or at least surf) without. Not being able to meticulously control what sites may run scripts and add-ins in my browser is a deal-breaker for me.

So in the end I will probably stay with Firefox for the foreseeable future. I did check out Chrome once, since all the cool kids seem to be using it these days, but the thought of having my browser report to Google is just a bit too scary for me.

Goodbye Google, Hello Bing and a Bonus Firefox Tip

I have recently switched to Bing as my primary search engine. And according to this TechCrunch article, I’m not the only one. I remember my first searches on the internet were with AltaVista in the computer lab of my high school. But soon thereafter I like so many others switched to Google and have been a loyal Google Search and GMail user since. Until about mid 2009 shortly after Microsoft had announced it was replacing its awful MSN Search with something that could take on Google. I figured I already use Microsoft’s products for most of my computing needs, I might as well give this a try. Especially, after I couldn’t find my blog via Google (they have added it to their index in the meantime, though).

And I certainly have not regretted tht move. Sure, internet search is still synonymous with Google for most people, but there are a couple things that I think Bing does a lot better than Google.

First, there is the start page. Sure, Google’s simplistic “just a search box” design was a neat feature back when we all had dial-up connections and Yahoo’s bloated front page took for ever to load, but nowadays I have broadband and my 16MBit/s connection doesn’t mind loading a large and pretty image such as the one gracing the Bing homepage.

As far as search results go, I think Bing is pretty much on-par with Google. I haven’t had a single instance were I didn’t find the information I was looking for on Bing, but did on Google. Also, Bing’s preview feature where it displays a longer excerpt from the page on the right hand side when you hover over a result has proven invaluable to me. No more clicking on an irrelevant link when I can already tell from the preview that the page doesn’t have what I’m looking for.

Next, there is image search. Google displays the results of an image search as a static page with 20 images in a grid. If you want to see the next 20 search results, you have to click through to the second page and wait for it to load. Bing on the other hand has a scrollable content area that dynamically reloads images as you scroll down. Nice!

Finally, there is Bing’s Visual Search. Visual search is great when you are looking for something, but don’t know what it is called. Say you saw a movie poster and want to know more about it, but don’t recall the movie’s title. In that case you would be lost with a traditional Google search that always requires a search term. With Bing you could try the Movies in Theaters section and scroll through the images until you find the one of the movie you were looking for.

If you want to see for yourself, I should mention that many of the newer features are only available in the U.S. version of Bing. If you live outside the United States, however, you can add “?mkt=en-us” to the end of the URL to have Bing default to the U.S. version. So instead of http://www.bing.com just bookmark http://www.bing.com/?mkt=en-us and you are good to go.

Bonus Firefox Tip: In a related matter, I have finally figured out how to use Firefox’s “search keyword” feature properly. If you don’t know this feature either, here’s the deal: open bing.com in Firefox, right-click in the search box and click on “Add a Keyword for this Search…”. This let’s you create a special kind of bookmark that is linked to a keyword. Use “b” (without the quotes) for the keyword for simplicity. Until now, I had to find my Bing bookmark, wait for the page to load, enter my search term, hit enter and then wait again for the results to come back. Now, I just need to go to the address bar (for instance by pressing Ctrl+L), enter “b StefanH Nexus”, hit enter and I am taken directly to the Bing search results for this blog (i.e. “StefanH Nexus”). As I rarely take my hands off the keyboard this is sure going to save me hundreds of unnecessary mouse clicks every day.