Keeping XP

Screenshot 2014-04-07 19.02.15
Windows XP caught frolicking on its last day of freedom

So goodbye Windows XP. You know, I’m actually sad. Since it came out in 2001 I’ve grown from being indifferent (“Windows 2000 in a dress”), through slightly awed (when Tablet PC edition introduced handwriting recognition that actually worked), to comfortable and complacent. For a long time there, XP was just the way things were, an everyday ubiquitous tool. After using it for over ten years there was very little about it I couldn’t mend, maintain, or make better. And now Microsoft have declared those skills redundant.

You can see their argument: They haven’t made anything out of XP for years now. Well yes but…

The thing is, there’s a big secret about IT. In the terms I’ll be using in the exam I should be studying for right now, information technology cannot provide a strategic advantage (Carr, Harvard Business Review 2003).

In lay terms: IT is for suckers.

When it all began, people thought that computerising a business would mean radically improved efficiency and so lead to greater profits. That seems to make sense, yet somehow it never did. You do increase efficiency, sure. But that almost never translates into more money. This is because very quickly everybody was able to invest in the same technology, levelling the playing field again.

Only now to keep up with your competitors you have to keep on investing in your system, on a hamster wheel of hardware and software upgrades. That was never such a problem with filing cabinets. So bizarrely the technology may actually cost you more than you’ll ever save through improved efficiency – but you need it now just to stay in business. Nobody makes money directly from IT except the people who sell you the IT; Microsoft in particular have made billions and billions and billions and billions.

So I think they kind of owe us one.

It’s not that I don’t want to upgrade. I have a Windows 7 computer too and I quite like it. It seems fussy compared to XP, but it has some good points. I actually like a lot about Windows 8, despite its cool reception. Though Microsoft seem to have lost all sense of direction, their stuff has never looked better.

No, upgrading is just out of the question. Between my own devices and ones I administer for my family I am looking after four XP computers. At over €100 each, that’s far more money than I am either able or willing to give to Microsoft just now. And even if these computers can run Windows 7 or 8, they will not run it well. So I’d be paying them money to convert PCs that are fine into ones that are annoying.

Is there another way? Well yes. In a word: Linux. Two, possibly three of these computers will become Linux boxes now. High time too. But that is not for everyone, and I will want at least one of them to be able to run non-Linux applications like Photoshop. Can that be done?

I’m going to see, I guess… While continuing to use an unsupported operating system is not a course of action I’d recommend to anyone who doesn’t want to get their computer invaded, held to ransom by criminal gangs and used as a spam-vomiting zombie, how would you go about it?

Well there’s one safe way…

PLAN A

Don’t go online. It sounds a bit crazy now I know, but some of us still remember how computers were actually quite useful even before the Internet. If there’s a job you need to do that doesn’t actually require a live data stream it is perfectly feasible to disconnect. Your XP computer will be perfectly secure – forever!

(Well, you’ll still have the problem of moving your files onto and off it without getting it infected the old fashioned way.)

But if you really have to go online – say, you have no other computer – there’s…

PLAN B [>>>Not Recommended!<<<]

1. Stop being an administrator. Ridiculously, every account on an XP computer is an administrator by default. That means you can do pretty much what you like to the system. Unfortunately it also means that if you catch a virus while logged in as administrator, it can do pretty much what it likes too. It is far, far more secure to use a Limited Account. You may have to log in as admin to install software or other such tasks at times, but the security will be worth it. And if this is a family member’s computer that you mind for them, there’s a good chance that they won’t see any difference. Simply go to the User Accounts section of Control Panel and change the account type.

Unfortunately though there is some software that doesn’t like running without complete privileges, Adobe Photoshop being a particularly egregious example. If – like me – you need to work in Photoshop and then email the results, seriously consider logging out of your admin account and into a limited one before you go online. Ridiculous I know – Adobe and Microsoft really need to share the blame for that one – but far safer.

2. Tool up. When XP support goes, updates for Microsoft Security Essentials go with it. So if this is all you have in the way of antivirus you’ll need to upgrade. Currently I’m testing the different free options that are out there, and I’m really liking Bitdefender. This because it scores almost if not as well as the best available when it comes to detecting viruses, but demands very little of your system’s resources. In fact it seems significantly lighter than even Microsoft’s minimalistic solution, despite offering far better protection. Wish I’d used it years ago now…

3. If the OS can’t be updated, at least keep all your application software patched. A great tool to help with this is Secunia’s Personal Software Inspector, which checks the versions of what you have installed against its database of the latest ones, and lets you know when there’s an update you need. Sometimes it can even do the updating for you.

Apart from that, the usual rules still apply – just more so. Never use Internet Explorer (the version XP has is hopeless outdated now anyway), use Firefox or Chrome or… anything else. Make sure the device you use to connect to the Internet has some level of inbuilt protection like an NAT firewall. Only connect to known secure networks, not random Wi-Fi signals. Avoid visiting criminal corners of the Internet. Don’t install anything, ever, unless you’re absolute sure it’s safe. Be careful out there.

How Did I Get Here?

compro-s350-front

Yeah, well. When you find yourself wedged head down in a narrow, cobweb-filled space between ceiling and roof tiles, you do tend to take stock of your life.

I was laying a cable to the satellite dish; a second one, so that we could record one channel while viewing another. But the original run had been put in when the house was far from finished. All is buried now behind stud partitions and under layers of insulation. My only choice was to to squeeze into the little triangular storage space at the side of the attic room, crawl along its length until I reach a gap that slopes down to the eaves, through that to where the slates meet the top of the stone wall…

Except the sloping part is way too tight. I probably could worm my way down it, but worming back up in reverse might be a different story altogether. One with the headline “Skeleton Discovered”.

Luckily though, I see a literal way out. Light shines dimly in through a knothole in the fascia board. Thanks to a slight stiffness in the cable, from where I’m lodged I can maybe feed it through – and from there run it along the front of the house, hidden by the gutter. It’s a matter of a few feet, but in the claustrophobic location it feels as tricky as in-flight refuelling.

Why all this death-defying effort? It’s not like there’s so much good on television you need two channels of it at once. Ludicrously perhaps, it’s mostly because I came across a decent satellite card that was almost too cheap not to buy, about a quarter the price of my original one. Admittedly, that was a much nicer job. It can pick up Saorview, and comes with a fully-featured Windows remote control. The remote (and software) with the cheap card are more novel than useful, but that didn’t matter. It picks up satellite channels – even HD ones – perfectly well, and can be controlled seamlessly by Windows Media Center. (Or MythTV if you like.) The result is just an easy-to-use entertainment system, one that doesn’t intimidate parents or children. All the cleverness happens behind a pretty blue interface that anyone can use to surf, record, and pause TV.

I hope Microsoft aren’t in the process of quietly dropping Media Center. In Windows 8 it’s an extra you have to buy, and even then you can’t boot directly into its television-friendly interface but still have to go via the screen of tiles. Yes, when Microsoft has an idea nothing gets in the way. Your phone, your tablet, your desktop PC has to have a touch interface. Even your television on the other fucking side of the room has to have a touch interface. That’s vision taken to the point of obsession. But it would be a terrible shame if they gave up on Windows Media Center just because its face no longer fits. In its quiet way it’s one of the best things they’ve done, with possibly the nicest EPG of any satellite/cable/PVR device. It takes a bit of trouble and/or experience to set it up just right, but you can get all the channels you actually want into one manageable menu, and banish all the porn and religion to the outer darkness.

Perhaps the worst-designed part is arranging the order of your channels, which has to be done painstakingly with the arrow keys of the remote. Here is where a touch interface – or just drag and drop – would be a good idea. But no, this is a home entertainment or “10-foot” interface, so everything has to be done via the remote.

I think we’re zoning in on the problem here, aren’t we? It’s not bad interface design per se. Microsoft make some great interfaces, and probably research human-machine interaction more than anyone else in the world. It’s when a design orthodoxy takes over. This one is for remote controls. This one is about touch and touch only. As if letting us plug in a mouse or boot straight to the desktop would mean abject failure. It must be PURE. And so we actual users have to find ways to get around all the convenience they invented for their ideal users.

Why not have devices designed to be used from whatever distance, by whatever means, that we want to use them?

There's Yer Feckin' Start Button

Win81

Terrible fuss was made when Windows 8 introduced a whole new interface designed around touch, completely lacking the familiar and comforting Start Menu. Now instead of mousing through a list to find an app you were supposed to tap or click on its big bright “tile” on the new home screen.

This is an attractive interface, and as well designed for touch as anything from Apple or Google. The little problem is, the vast – indeed, vasty vast – majority of users do not have a touchscreen. They are still using mice, touchpads, and similar pointing devices. Because while touchscreens are cute and all, most people use Windows PCs for work things like typing reports or articles, or entering numbers on spreadsheets – things you need a keyboard for. And in those situations, a touchscreen is at best a frivolity. It’s actually inefficient because, at least compared to a touchpad, it requires you to move your pointing hand further from the keys.

For all these people, having to use an interface designed for touch is a small irritation but a constant one – and we all know how infuriating constant small irritations can be. In response, some PC vendors introduced their own solutions: third-party apps that imitate the old Start Menu. Samsung took a different turn, and equipped some of their Windows 8 laptops with an extension that looks remarkably like the Dock from the Mac OS X desktop. This has led me to formulate the theory that Samsung actually like Apple’s legal team personally, and look forward to meeting them.

Eventually though Microsoft responded to the outcry and yielded with good grace, restoring the Start Button to its pride of place in the free update called Windows 8.1.

Did they buggery.

They said they restored it. But if you’ve downloaded the 8.1 preview (or more likely, watched the demo video), you’ll see that all they’ve really done is placed a button on the taskbar of the Windows Desktop – a button that opens not the Start Menu, but that same old shiny tiled home screen. It is an improvement in that you can find your applications in the place that your hand has spent the last fifteen-odd years going to and so don’t have to change direction every. bloody. time (the “proper” shortcut is at the right-hand edge of the screen), but it’s still a touch-oriented interface on a mouse-oriented device.

Similarly, it won’t let you boot straight to a desktop like all previous versions of Windows. Even if you only ever want to use applications on the desktop, you have to get there through that damn screen of tiles. Every time.

A tip: If you move the Desktop tile to the top left position it becomes the default option, and so can be selected without any mouse movement at all by hitting the “Enter” key. Similarly you can put the Windows Media Center tile here – if you have it – to make Windows 8 more usable with a remote control. Or perhaps I should say, less unusable.

Why does Microsoft not allow these as options – even turned off by default? The reason is they want to ‘encourage’ software vendors to develop for the touch interface – by taking away any other option. In its visionary ruthlessness it’s a very Apple-like move, certainly a bold one. Probably, once the new religion catches on, they will allow flexibility and convenience again. But right now it’s just another little thing that makes me want to spend less time as a Windows user and more as a Linux one.

By the way, this is the first Windows version with a point-release name since Windows NT 3.51, way back in 1995. Though it should be pointed out that Windows 8.1 is known internally as NT 6.3. As the NT series started not at 1 but at 3.1, we deduct that to find that Windows 8.1 is really NT 5 – which was Windows 2000.

OK now I’m confused.

Microsoft Makes Its Move

Today, the final piece of Microsoft’s strategy slotted into place. They announced Windows Phone 8, their new OS for phones. It’ll still have that pretty tiled “Metro” interface, but to the consternation of those few people currently developing apps for Windows Phone 7, just about everything else is changed utterly. We’ll see why later.

And that’s not even the most unexpected part of the new strategy. Yesterday they tore up the playbook and actually made a thing. Of course the software giant has done hardware before, almost from the start indeed. They produced their own mice to make sure the peripheral vital to Windows would be standardised and cheap. There was the highly successful Xbox, and the highly unsuccessful Zune. But this is the first time Microsoft has made their own… Laptop? Tablet?

A little from column A and a little from column B. Microsoft have decided, reasonably I think, that somewhere between the tablet and the ultra-light notebook there’s a product waiting to happen. And they call it Surface.

Which is a little confusing, because up till now Microsoft Surface was an intelligent multi-user tabletop wholly unrelated to this device (and now renamed PixelSense). Maybe they envisage integrating the two technologies at some future date, but really it seems they decided Surface was too cool a name for anything except their coolest product. The nerds.

Even more confusingly, Surface comes in two versions. Both are slim 10.6″ tablets. Both have a light and attractive magnesium alloy chassis. Both have a neat kickstand that props it at a good viewing angle. Both can use intelligent covers that attach with magnets. Shades of the iPad’s Smart Cover perhaps, but these are also keyboards, instantly transforming tablet into laptop. They come in a thin touch version and a slightly thicker one with some key travel, and both can be used with either Surface model.

So how then do they differ? In a word, fundamentally. The slightly more svelte of the two uses a RISC processor from ARM, like just about every tablet or smartphone on the market, and runs only “Metro” apps. It does have a desktop, but only as an environment for editing multiple documents with a built-in, touch-friendly version of Office. No conventional desktop software runs on this, so it is very much to the PC as the iPad is to the Mac. And much as the the iPad has a special, much-reduced version of OS X called iOS, so the Surface has Windows RT, a stripped-down variant so named because it only runs apps written for WinRT.

That should make the confusion complete… I’ll go over this again because it’s going to come up a lot in the next few years and you won’t regret getting it straight now: Windows RT, Microsoft’s operating system for ARM processors, is called that because it only runs WinRT.

So what the hell is WinRT? It’s the new Windows “runtime”, a programming environment providing simplified access to the hardware’s resources – memory, camera, sensors, network and so on. Apps are created to run in this environment.

OK, what about the other model, sometimes referred to as Surface Pro? It looks very similar to the basic version. The only different dimension is thickness – the Pro has an extra 4.2mm to accommodate (among other things) an Intel Core i5 processor, just like you’d find on a good laptop or desktop PC. So it has a perfectly normal version of Windows 8 for its operating system and can run all traditional Windows programs. In many ways this incarnation of Surface is simply a reboot of the slate-style Tablet PC, such as those made by Motion.

Except of course that it also has WinRT, and so can run just the same apps as the ARM version in just the same Metro touch interface. This then is the key idea: WinRT works on both the Intel hardware architecture and on ARM. The same apps will run on tablets, laptops and desktops, no matter who makes the chips.

So have you guessed? Yes, Windows Phone 8 also has WinRT. That’s why they had to rebuild it from the ground up. Before, the phone and desktop versions of Windows had been pretty much completely incompatible. From this on they will share a lot in common. The very same apps – with suitable adjustment for screen size, etc. – will run on phones as well now.

But wait, there’s more!

Another of Microsoft’s recent flurry of announcements was SmartGlass, which helps integrate tablets and phones with the Xbox and so with your TV. The possibilities are intriguing, especially if – as I think is a completely safe prediction – WinRT comes to the Xbox as well. No one else can offer a single platform for developers like that – phones, tablets, laptops, desktops and perhaps game consoles, all running the same apps. For the first time in years, Microsoft look like a company with a vision.

How To Play With Windows 8

Windows 3.0, released in 1990
Lovely, isn't it? Wait, wrong picture

So, you want to have a go on Windows 8? It’s easy enough, but there are a few things you must bear in mind first:

  • Only do this if you have a spare computer to try it on, or are familiar with setting up a dual-boot system. If you install it as an upgrade on your working computer there will be no way back afterwards short of completely re-installing your old version of Windows. And all your software. Assuming you can even find all those discs. And remember all those hundreds of settings. Basically it’s a world of pain and you don’t want to go there.
  • You’ll need at least a 1GHz processor, 1GB RAM, 16GB of free hard drive space (20GB for the 64-bit version), and a DVD burner.
  • You indemnify me for anything that can, and probably will, go wrong. Windows 8 is Not Ready For Prime Time, and the management is not responsible for lost data or computers exploding in sprays of white-hot metal.

OK, You Ready? 

(If you’re starting with an empty hard disk, or one you are OK about permanently obliterating, you can skip the first two steps. Otherwise, skip nothin‘.)

  1. First, back up any important data on the hard drive you’re partitioning. (If you don’t know what partitioning a drive is you are in too deep and should back out now…) If it also has your working Windows installation it would be a very good idea to image the whole drive, then if everything goes horribly wrong you have a good chance of easy recovery. (Macrium Reflect is a free yet reliable way to image drives.)
  2. In your spare drive space, make as large a partition as you can afford – it must be 16GB at least. It should be a primary as opposed to a logical or extended partition.
  3. Next, download the Windows 8 Developer Preview, choosing the right version for your hardware. (If you aren’t sure which is the right version then, again, you shouldn’t be trying this.)
  4. Once downloaded, burn it to a DVD. (If you try to mount and run the ISO image it will only offer you the option to install to your C drive, which you don’t want.) Label the DVD “Deadly Space Virus”. Or, you know, whatever you like.
  5. Boot from the DVD. (Just possibly, you may need to change your BIOS settings to allow that.) You’ll be offered a nicer-looking version of the usual Windows install dialogue. Go through it, selecting your options with great care.
  6. Take PARTICULAR care when you are asked which partition to install Windows 8 to. Make sure it’s the one you just created. One error here, and you return Earth to the stone age. Well all right, you destroy your existing Windows install and/or all your data. Which is bad enough.
  7. Once you pass this point, things go remarkably fast for a Windows installation. When it’s finished, you’ll be greeted with Windows 8. It’s quite pretty. You’re not finished.
  8. Get online. You may have a problem with this if the Developer Preview doesn’t happen to contain all the right drivers for your hardware, but you will probably find that an Ethernet connection to a router will work. Or if you have a 3G dongle there should be no problem. Once online, get all the Windows 8 updates. (Users of some earlier Windows versions may have trouble finding Windows Update, it’s: Control Panel/All Control Panel Items/Windows Update. These downloads will make Windows 8 look and act a lot more polished.
  9. Simple! Oh wait, one other thing…
  10. If your other operating system is XP, you’re going to discover that you can’t boot back into it now. Bummer. This is because Windows 8 introduces a new bootloader that’s not compatible. To get around this, set XP as the default operating system. Go to: Control Panel/All Control Panel Items/System, click “Advanced System Settings” and then “Start Up And Recovery Settings”. Here you can change the default to “Earlier Version of Windows”, after which you’ll be faced with an option screen when you boot. Phew.

So, could this be the answer to iPad and Android? Have at it.

New Windows 2 – The Ecosystem

windows 8 preview
A Glimpse Of The Future

Perhaps as early as next year you will be able to run Windows on the same sort of low-energy ARM processors that iPads and phones use. Interesting.

What exactly is the point though? By itself, Windows for ARM doesn’t change a lot. All the programs that we use on Windows were written for Intel chips. They won’t run on ARM. They would have to be “ported” to the different architecture, and there’s no guarantee that a heavyweight program converted for a nimble processor would be anything you’d really want to use. Apple didn’t get where it is by simply porting Mac programs to the iPad. Garage Band, to take one example, is pretty much a wholly new version written to take full advantage of the touch interface.

It will be up to the market to create the software that really suits ARM-based Windows, and that of course depends on the platform taking off, which depends on the market… The Catch-22 of new technologies. Microsoft can seed it for success, but a huge amount of the detail still remains to be seen. It will surely run many Windows Phone 7 apps, but will it be able to take on the full-fat version of Office? (Rumours that it already can are probably based on an Intel tablet demo.) What about all the software created in Microsoft’s .NET framework? In Java?

Will it even have a desktop? This may seem an odd idea – Windows without a desktop? But in Windows 8, the desktop has been demoted to the status of an app; just another program, rather than an integral part of the operating system. Instead, the default interface of all Windows versions will be Metro, the “live tile”, highly touch-orientated look pioneered on Windows Phone 7. It’s all about fast and attractive access to information feeds. To do traditional work, with one or more heavy-duty application program running at once, you first open out a desktop. So it’s at least a possibility that the ARM-based version of Windows will only run lighter apps purposely designed for the touch interface. I am sure that “heavier” Intel versions of Windows will run those too though; Microsoft wants touch to be ubiquitous.

At the moment, leaving aside special-purpose and older versions, there are basically two Microsoft operating systems: Windows 7 and Windows Phone 7, and in most respects they’re distinct, incompatible things. In the near future though there could be a pretty continuous spectrum of Windows 8, over not two but four distinct types of device:

  1. Phones that can run lightweight touch-based apps.
  2. Light ARM-based tablets that can run the same apps – and some traditional software?
  3. Full Tablet PCs that definitely can run traditional software as well, but are still totally touch-orientated.
  4. Laptops and desktops that have an optional touch interface.

Hopefully they should all blend well so that data (and perhaps apps) move from one device to another seamlessly, even by touching them together. One can turn to the device suitable for your situation – a phone for walking, a desktop for work, a slate for sitting back – and find little changed about the user experience other than the size of the screen. It’s easy to see that merging very gracefully with “Surface“-type touch- and object-aware furniture. It’s as interesting as Windows has sounded for a very long time. Perhaps ever.