Ed’s Head

Start me up — Again. Windows 8.1 is here

Windows-8.1

Less than a year since Microsoft unleashed Windows 8 on the unsuspecting public, they have seen fit to bring us the long anticipated 8.1 version which is now available for download for free in the Windows App Store.

The move to Windows 8 brought with it the new start interface simply named “Windows 8” and formerly known as “Metro”. The purpose of which is too bridge the gap between mobile, tablet, and PC platforms. One interface and one unified experience across all your favourite devices. Despite this grand idea, the result often leaves users familiar with previous windows interfaces lost and confused. The number one complaint I hear is “Where is the start button?”.

Personally, I find the new “Start” interface rather easy to use and does provide an efficient desktop alternative to pointing and clicking through the start menu of yore. Launching MS Word as an example: From the desktop, press the WINDOWS button on my keyboard, type “Word” and press ENTER. Tada!  I’m documenting away far more quickly this way than navigating through the plethora of icons on my desktop or pinned to my task bar or through the old Start interface on the hunt for the MS Word Icon. Try it, you’ll love it.

That being said, Microsoft has heard your complaints and has returned the start button – Well, Sort of. You see, the Icon is there in it’s familiar place and rather stylish looking. Clicking it however simply brings you to Windows 8 tile interface which is still a major departure from Windows 7. In essence it is a virtual version of the Windows button on your keyboard. What is cool however is that opposite clicking it brings up a menu with a host of shortcuts and options such as settings and sign out. These options were likely the ones you used the old start button for in the first place, so this is a good thing.

Another improvement in Windows 8.1 designed to ease the transition from classic windows interfaces is the ability to boot up directly to the desktop, bypassing the Windows 8 tile screen.

There are also a host of other changes that aren’t related to desktop usability as well. For instance there is now support for gesture enabled apps. Using a camera enabled device, the user can change pages by motioning with their hand to the left or two the right in some apps. Automatic updates of App Store Apps and global search functionality are some other noteworthy improvements.

In all, this update should improve the experience of many users as it provides some important ease of use features leading towards a more fluid transition between older versions of Windows and Windows 8.

The update process was fairly strait forward and consisted of a download and install from the app store, followed by a license agreement and some standard configuration options to select. The entire process took just under 2 hours to complete on an HP Pavilion laptop with an i5 chip, 8GB of ram and a 5400RPM 1TB HDD.

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Why The Fat Lady Won’t Sing For RIM

It’s been suggested this week that RIMs final nail in its coffin is now imminent. There has been much conjecture online as to the validity of RIM’s claims that the new Blackberry Enterprise Server(BES10) will support legacy BlackBerry(bb7) devices. Some reports say that it will, while others claim that infrastructures that wish to maintain BES support for new and old blackberrys alike will have to maintain both the old BES5 and BES10 installations. The later reportedly being a costly and inefficient methodology that will surely further turn companies away from RIM.

This latest development, true or otherwise follows an already long list of factors impacting RIMs global market share. Continued delays in delivery of BB10, the “Bring your own device(byod) to work” trend, losses in market share to Apple, Android, and yes now Windows Mobile Phones,  and Playbook foul-ups (Imagine releasing a tablet to market with no email support, certainly it isn’t true!) are just some of the examples.

Proof of how dismal it is for RIM is in the pudding: A concoction of reported million dollar losses, mass layoffs, and a steady news stream detailing restructuring initiatives to feed the enquiring minds. Throw in a lost patent lawsuit just to ensure to kick RIM while it’s down. They even saw fit to sell one of their corporate jets.

Surely if RIM doesn’t hurry up and release their BB10 phones to an already dwindling market share then take their next BES version to the limit by supporting all blackberry devices while maintaining their secured environment and push technology, all the while keeping company infrastructure costs low, its game over, right?

Wrong.

Today’s mobile market is saturated with different flavours of smart phones and tablets. Gone are the days of RIMs dominance in this field. The year 2002 where your mobile options were fat phones, flip phones and of course the only smart phone: the BlackBerry is long gone. If you were lucky you still had youself a really neat palm pilot. Today however there are options. Android, iPhones, Windows Phones, Blackberrys, all jockying for market share. One would be daft to think that RIM would find the glory they once had in this mobile market.

Add to this the complexity involved in switching your core software platform from one language to another. The  BB7 devices operating system is written in C++. BB10 Devices make use of QNX, a complete new direction to say the least. Here at Penad we are in process of converting our flagship software from one language to another. Take it from me that this venture is an intricate, time consuming process in which the challenges are not always known.

RIMs technological shift comes at a time where the likes of Apple are focusing their efforts on increased functionality, usability and adding cool features to appeal to the market;  no wonder they are gaining market share, a trend that surely has it’s limits. I still find it astonishing to hear that people are lining up at their local best buy stores hours before opening to get their hands on the latest iteration of iPhones. Hey guys, you know it’s just a smart phone, right? But I digress.

Instead lets talk about some of the things that Blackberrys are really good at.

Blackberry users insist that the little physical keyboard on the blackberry is something that the right stuff is made of. On this point, I have to agree. I myself am a former blackberry user lured to to the dark side of Android. Of all the things I miss the most in my mobile experience is the ability to write an email or text message quickly with proper spelling and punctuation.

Push email and BBM are next on the list. Who among us wouldn’t prefer having the server responsible for our emails notify our devices of waiting mail over our devices incurring data charged by constantly checking for mail in order to receive mail in a timely fashion.

Third on the list, and perhaps most important  is security. No other mobile devices offer the same level of security and encryption that Blackberry does. Perhaps for the average mobile user, encrypted email is not something of importance. However for many of the companies, governments and public services, large and small that dot the globe, it is.

Why then are some of these same organizations adopting a byod attitude towards their staff? Well, it`s human nature to adopt feature and functionality, want and desire over security while driving head long into a sustained state of  complacency. The longer one goes without feeling vulnerable, the more secure one feels. Add to this, there is much to be learned from past incidents that  drive the security of the future. The history of technological security brings this point home as it is rich in measure, counter-measure. Technological security policy in organizations as you may know it today exist the way they do because there is a proven reason to have them. This is akin to personal safety in automobiles. The seat belt was only introduced after people lost their lives in car accidents. The guardrail installed after an unfortunate soul slid off the road and over a cliff on a rainy day.  To be fair, I should point out that there are ways to secure email bound for mobile devices from server software such as Microsoft exchange, a methodology not always employed. All of us while participating in this phenomenon do so full well knowing the implications in the back of our minds and are aware of the security shortcommings.

RIM has something no other mobile manufacturer has, BES. Installed into organizations and integrated into messaging services, it provides the security we all know we should have while communicating through our corporate mobile devices, while offering push mail and a host of other features. Currently this security is only offered up to blackberry users.

RIM has indicated that the next generation BES to be released in early 2013 will make use of Blackberry Mobile Fusion to integrate IPhone and Android users into the secure fold of BES for any organization. What this means is that while the byod trend continues, RIM will supply the back-end infrastructure to provide organizations with a unified control and secure platform for all mobile devices in use by staff. In short, RIM is positioning itself to be the defacto all encompassing mobile security backbone software provider.

Of course,  RIM will continue to provide the world with hand held devices, and from what I’ve seen and read concerning the upcoming BB10 devices, they are likely to dig their way back into a fair share of the market albeit never to the point of the glory days of many moons ago.

None the less, this represents a fundamental shift from mobile device provider to mobile security provider for all. I suggest that we should all start looking at RIM that way, and if I’m even remotely correct, RIM will be with us for many years to come.

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MS Outlook 2007 performance patch is anything but….

In mid December Microsoft released a patch for MS Outlook 2007 that promised to increase performance of the email client.  Once installed however, many at Penad began to notice lagging issues while switching between oultook folders. Moving from the inbox to the sent items folder, as an example, brought much frustration.

The issue is caused by the update kb2412171. Information from Microsoft is located here.

In order to resolve the issue go into control panel, Programs and features , and select “Installed Updates” from the blue menu on the right it will display all the updates. In the Office section locate the update numbered kb2412171, and uninstall it, the problem will go away. Make sure you close outlook before you do so.

While we are on the subject of outlook performance, it should be noted that the pst file where one’s emails, calendar items and contacts are stored tends to grow and fragment over time. An occasional cleanup of old mail items, archived or moved to another pst file, followed by compacting the pst can do some real good in keeping your outlook email client quick and responsive.Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditlinkedinmail

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FBI Good. TrueCrypt Better.

During a 2008 investigation, the Brazilian Police seized several hard drives from a banker. After several failed attempts at accessing the information on the drives by the National Institute of Criminology,   the FBI was contacted to provide assistance. The FBIs attempts to crack the hard drive encryption met with equal failure. The encryption on these hard drives, you ask?

TrueCrypt – a free Open-Source program that is widely used across the globe.

Not only did the IT folks at Penad share a good laugh about this, but we also felt a wholesome satisfaction as we have been using TrueCrypt’s technology for some time on not only our own servers and daily backup volumes but on our laptops and computers that travel away from the security of our office both in Canada and abroad.

Tonight, I sleep like a baby knowing that private information on our servers, databases and roaming PCs will stay that way. Good luck on your next attempts FBI techs, let us know how it turns out.

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Vista: Administrator VS Administrator

So you’ve decided it is time to ditch Windows XP and introduce yourself to the world of Windows Vista and the new way of doing things.

Like many other users you are accustomed to logging into Windows XP and running in a profile with administrator privileges. Running with lesser rights makes it quite cumbersome to install applications, configure things, and in some cases move about your computing tasks in general.

Now that you are boldly venturing into the realm of Windows Vista, you probably have carefully unpacked your shinny new machine, hooked it all up, and booted it for the first time.  Greeted with a sparkling new interface you gladly meander through the initial configuration.  Now it comes time to customize your user login. Familiar with XP terminology, you give yourself administrative privileges and log in.

You begin by installing your applications, and on the first attempt you are greeted with an unexpected error. The installer won’t run because it has insufficient rights to your system and registry.  Being the smart user you are, you check to ensure that your profile has indeed been assigned to the Administrator’s group, and it has. So why then don’t you have the accesses you need to install your application?

Well, Microsoft has in Vista separated rights for Administrator into two levels: Administrator and you guessed it, Administrator. One might think that they would create a new term such as Super Administrator for the top level, but they stuck with Administrator and created much confusion amongst users everywhere.

The first “Administrator” is the level assigned to your profile. This allows you to do most things on your computer that lesser access groups cannot. Unknown to you until now is that there is another level of Administrator for such things as registry access and the ability to write to  certain protected folders on your hard drive. Access to this level of Administrator is given to you through the system’s User Account Control or UAC.

The purpose of UAC is to strengthen security in Vista and to minimize risks from malware. Should you be subjected to a virus, the virus would not be permitted to do any harm to critical protected parts of the system unless the UAC was invoked, and you, when prompted allowed the virus access to critical system areas. Of course this also does affect other applications from accessing needed parts of the system as well.

In the first example above, you were trying to install some software. In order to perform the install, you would need to opposite click the application and select “Run as Administrator“. This would call upon the UAC which will prompt you to allow the install access to the needed parts of your system.

UAC is not required for all software installations, and it can also be invoked during other operations. An example of this is flushing the local DNS cache of the computer. This is a function that you might perform at the Command Prompt. After launching the command prompt window you proceed to type the following:

ipconfig /flushdns

The system immediately returns: “The requested operation requires elevation” This is fancy IT talk for, “You don’t have access rights to do this”. In order to successfully perform this function, you have to run the Command Prompt window with elevated rights. For this, you would once again opposite click on the Icon, and select “Run as administrator“. Once prompted with the UAC window, you click the continue button. This time when you input the command “ipconfig/flushdns” you are greeted with: “Successfully flushed the DNS Resolver Cache“.

Although this may be confusing to users, the extra step does provide you with valuable protection for your computer. There is a way to turn off UAC, however given the rampant state of malware in the cyber-universe, I would not recommend it.

Edward Blokland, Systems Manager, Penad Pension Services Limited

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Microsoft Discontinues Office 2000 Support

Beginning July 14th, 2009, Microsoft will cease to support its aged Office 2000 suite of applications. Released in 1999, Office 2000 was the last version of Microsoft Office to support Windows 95 and the first to introduce adaptive menus; where lesser used features are hidden from the user.

By its own policy, Microsoft supports its products for ten years after its initial release and has a distinct formula for doing so. Mainstream support includes patches for various bug fixes during the first five years, and limited support; where vulnerabilities are fixed via critical updates for the last five years.

This means, of course, that users of Office 2000 will no longer receive patches or upgrades after mid July; since Microsoft expects office users to migrate to Office 2003 or 2007. They are currently working on Office 2010 but have yet to announce a release date. Beta testers should expect to get their hands on a copy as early as July, perfectly timed to coincide with support for Office 2000 ending.

Penad has just finishing wrapping up its own upgrade to Office 2007. Our users are in the process of familiarizing themselves to the new “ribbon” interface. The ribbon organizes the commands into a set of tabs that are relevant to each set of tasks in Office 2007. The goal is to make it easier for the user to find “powerful” features that allow the creation of better documents in shorter time. There is a learning curve however, where users familiar with Office 2000 are not finding features where they know them to be; this new logic takes a short time to get used to.

Overall it has been my experience that the Office upgrades and the learning curve have been a fairly painless process.

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WordPress, Themes, PHP, and short and long opening tags

Wordpress is a wonderful thing.

We have just embarked on implementing our own company blog and as such have downloaded, installed and configured WordPress on our web server. As we use PHP on a number of our other sites and online tools, the rollout of  WordPress was a snap. Of course, we are endeavoring to give our blog a slicker look beyond that of the default themes that come bundled with WordPress. To achieve this we have brought in the fine folks at Template Monster. For a small price, we at Penad can roll out some very exciting looks to our blog.

We selected and purchased a few themes that we deemed to be rather slick looking and a good fit to our company. WordPress makes it so easy to apply themes and I happily embarked in doing so with the first of three that we downloaded. To my surprise I was greeted with an ugly error message:

PHP Parse error, unexpected ‘}’ in F:\IISites\blog.penad.ca\wp-content\themes636\functions.php on line 69

Being one that writes PHP code myself, I immediately opened the file with the thought that I could correct what was probably a syntax error in the file. Of course all the while thinking “hmmm, this is a package we paid for, not a free download, surely they wouldn’t sell a theme with broken code would they?”

Well, I was partly right and mostly wrong, if that is possible. As it turns out the syntax in the file was quite correct, namely any code associated with the closing ‘}’ bracket. No issues there. Upon a further look I had noticed that there were several opening and closing PHP blocks in the file mixed in with HTML. The opening tags for PHP in this file were the short tags (<?) and not the long tag (<?php).

In older versions of PHP, the short tag is generally an acceptable way to begin a block of PHP code. However, by default, newer installations come configured to allow for long tags only. Short tags are not good because they can conflict with the opening tag for xml as an example: <?xml.

It is possible to configure the PHP server installation to allow for short tags, but I prefer to leave this part of the default installation alone.

I proceeded to check all the other PHP files bundled with the theme and noticed that they all used proper long PHP opening tags. Functions.php is the only file with the short ones.

The solution was to replace all the <? tags in the functions.php file with <?php tags. Once the edited file was saved, I went back into WordPress and tried to set the theme again. This time I was not greeted with an ugly error, but a fully working theme.

Until this problem is resolved, a search and replace in any good text editor will do the trick.

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