Sunday, October 25, 2009

Windows Vs Karmic Koala

2009 has been a good year for operating systems, or at least the past few months have been. Mac's latest operating system, Snow Leopard was released just a couple of months ago and this week two of the best operating system ever devised are released: Windows 7 and Ubuntu's Karmic Koala.

Windows 7

Microsoft's new operating system has a lot to make up for, namely Vista and the lack of a decent Microsoft operating system for almost a decade.

The fact that the most used Microsoft operating system is still Windows XP, which was launched eight years ago, demonstrates just how tough a job selling Windows 7 is going to be for Microsoft, especially after the Vista disaster.

So what's new in Windows 7? Very little compared to Vista, indeed some critics are calling Windows 7, a Vista service pack or update. Certainly Windows 7 is the operating system that Vista should have been and there are some great improvements.

Performance

This is the important improvement for most people. Vista had a tendency to turn their fast PC into a slow coach, making the user experience a frustration for most people. These issues have been fixed in Windows 7 and the operating system is very nippy, even on netbooks. Yes, Windows 7 even works on netbooks, something that Vista could never do.

Windows 7 boots swiftly, the desktop effects work brilliantly, even on a low powered netbook, and the suspend/resume is almost instant. Performance wise, Windows 7 is a joy to use, it is brisk, even with many windows open and even on our netbook we never noticed any lag.

Taskbar

In Windows 7 Microsoft have altered the taskbar, no longer does it display the number of open windows, instead it just displays a single icon for each application, which, when hovered over, displays thumbnails of the open windows. You can also 'pin' applications to the taskbar, similar to the quick launch area of XP and Vista, and they glow a different colour when they have an application window open.

Initially the new taskbar seemed like a great idea, but this quickly becomes annoying when you have two or more firefox or explorer windows open and have to hover over the icon, and then the thumbnail, and then click it the thumbnail just to get the window you wanted; only to have it revert back to the previous window when you didn't click it hard enough or in the right place!

Gadgets and Themes

Windows 7 has gadgets similar to Vista, except they are no longer in a sidebar by default, instead floating on the desktop in a similar way to those on previous versions of Ubuntu.

Windows 7 now also supports themes, something that has been promised since XP. You can now alter your theme and download new themes. There are also country specific themes included, in the UK theme you get desktop backgrounds of places like Stonehenge, Tower Bridge and the White Cliffs of Dover.

Another great feature is the slideshow, which changes your desktop background automatically after a certain period. This is another feature that should have been available years ago, and it is great to be able to choose your own pictures and have the desktop change periodically. Previously third party applications were needed to do this, indeed they still are in Ubuntu.

Program Search

Although introduced in Vista, the program search in the start menu is also worth a mention. After using XP for many years this is a great time saver, simply start typing the name of a program and Windows begins narrowing it down to a few possibilities and then click the program you require. So simple and yet so useful.

Libraries

Libraries are one of the changes that I found annoying at first, but have since found to be quite useful. Windows 7 automatically sorts your files into categories (or Libraries) of Music, Videos, Pictures and Documents.  This makes it much easier to find files, however not so easy when sharing files as it can cause confusion as to actual file locations.

Cost

As usual Windows 7 comes in several varieties, the cheapest home retail version available in the UK is Windows 7 Home Premium. Don't be fooled by the 'Premium' in the title, this is the worst one available, yet it will still set you back about £100. If you want useful things such as the very good backup utility, drive encryption, remote desktop and Windows XP mode (to run your old XP programs), well that costs extra, about £50 extra!

To get all the features of Windows 7, one needs to stump up about £180. 

Karmic Koala

Having used Ubuntu for many years, initially being drawn to it just as something different (it was a long wait from XP to Vista), it has to be said that many of their recent operating systems have been more than a little underwhelming. Indeed the last few appear to have been a step backwards in some cases.

Past disappointment and releasing their new OS at the same time as the top dog, meant that Ubuntu also had something to prove.

Performance

Performance in the last couple of Ubuntu operating systems has also been less than impressive, Intrepid Ibex 8.10 and Jaunty Jackalope 9.04 particularly, displayed degraded performance on laptops that had worked great under Hardy Heron 8.04 and Gutsy Gibbon 7.10.

Karmic Koala 9.10 however is the fastest Ubuntu has been for a while. Boot time is very fast, boot time on this laptop was just under a minute on Gutsy Gibbon 7.10, but it hasn't been near that since. Running 9.10, this laptop boots in around 30 seconds. Suspend/Resume is also much quicker, indeed resume is almost instant, faster even than Windows 7. Shutdown is also super fast.

The desktop effects that worked flawlessly on even low powered laptops in the Hardy Heron 8.04 days, have suffered from inexplicable CPU spikes and lags since, but now seem to be on top form again.

Karmic Koala has made Ubuntu swift again, very similar to Windows 7, but even so it has to be said that Windows 7 is still smoother; the long speed advantage that Ubuntu has had over Windows (and that always amazed Windows users) may finally have ended with Windows 7.

Gadgets and Themes

As usual Ubuntu is far more customisable than Windows, with more gadgets and far more themes than Windows 7 (Ubuntu even has Windows 7 style themes). However it is a shame that Ubuntu's gadgets, or screenlets, are not installed by default, but at least like everything else on Ubuntu, it is easily installed.

Like other versions of Ubuntu, 9.10 offers the ability to change the desktop effects, but again this isn't installed by default, but once installed the user can choose from many, many different effects for closing, opening or minimising windows.

Sadly there is no option for timed desktop background changes like on Windows 7, at least without installing additional software.

Program Search

Arguably the best piece of software on Ubuntu is Gnome-Do, this is like a cross between Windows program search and Google Desktop Search, but better than both. With a simple keyboard combination (Super/Windows Key + Spacebar) a box pops up that can do everything from simply finding a program as you type its name to searching for files, definition of words or even posting to Twitter.

Once again this isn't installed by default but is available to install. Installation is pretty simple however, Ubuntu have replaced the Add/Remove program with Ubuntu Software Store which allows the user to search for software and install it with a single click. Future versions will also allow developers to sell their software via the store but at present only free software is available.

This makes things even easier than before, and with the added bonus of an Installed programs list, it means that Ubuntu users can finally keep track of what is installed and uninstall all those programs that were installed, used once and promptly forgotten all about. A great move by Ubuntu, but something that has been possible in Windows since its earliest days.

Cost

Obviously Ubuntu is free, but to give a basis for comparison it comes in only one variety - Ultimate. Ubuntu Karmic Koala offers encryption options during start up, such as creating an encrypted home partition, Remote Desktop software by default, and simple backup and Windows XP emulators can easily be installed, all for free.

Karmic Koala also offers 2GB of cloud storage with Ubuntu One, again installed by default and also free.

Windows 7 Vs Karmic Koala

Ubuntu's new operating system is its best yet, it is fast, slick, and seems to get Ubuntu back on track, however other than in performance, it differs little from other versions of Ubuntu.

Windows 7 basically is an updated Vista, but it is also arguably Windows best ever operating system. Both Windows 7 and Ubuntu 9.10 offer the best performance and stability yet seen from their respective series, but Windows 7 seems to edge it in terms of speed and stability, having never crashed on our netbook.

The let downs in Windows 7 are the lack of ability to alter or customise the Aero settings, which, although they look great, quickly become boring, and cannot compete with Ubuntu effects like Burn, Paper Airplane or Beam; and the fact that the Home version is lacking some vital components, particularly XP mode, which you'd expect in a £100 OS.

Apple were able to offer their great operating system Snow Leopard for just £29.99, yet Microsoft, who control 90% of the PC market, charge £100 for their bog standard version.


This is a great offering from Ubuntu, but it also has to be said that Windows 7 is also a great operating system and shows that Microsoft have really raised their game, and we have the likes of Ubuntu and Apple to thank for that. However Windows 7 doesn't feel like a complete operating system, and not just because of the things missing from the home version.

Ubuntu 9.10 too feels like it is still unfinished, and doesn't quite feel as polished as Windows 7.

Overall I'd say that Windows 7 just edges it as the best operating system around, but when you take into account the cost to upgrade, the fact that it doesn't include any Office or other useful software for free, Ubuntu 9.10 seems the better option.

Vista has 20% of the desktop market, XP about 70%, so Microsoft is going to have its work cut out tempting those users to upgrade, especially with such steep pricing. These are tough economic times, so forking out around £200 on a new OS and assorted software, or more on a new computer with Windows 7, is likely to be viewed as an unnecessary expense, particularly if their current computer is running fine.

Add to that Ubuntu's excellent Karmic Koala being free, and Microsoft may have shot themselves in the foot yet again with their exorbitant pricing policies.



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Monday, July 06, 2009

The Decline of Internet Explorer

During the browser wars of the mid to late 1990s many initially had their money on Netscape to win as Microsoft were mostly playing catch up. However the sheer monetary might of Microsoft soon told and at the turn of the century Internet Explorer was used by 96% of web surfers.

I am sure that when the developers of Netscape fragmented and announced that they were working on a new browser, Microsoft were hardly shaking in their boots. After all by 2002 Netscape was effectively dead, although it took several years for Netscape to realise this.

Firefox

However it wasn't long before Microsoft once again underestimated the browser market and announced that they would no longer be updating their browser after IE6, instead stating that IE would be updating only when new versions of Windows Operating systems appeared.

Indeed Microsoft's IE6 came out in 2001, IE7 at the end of 2006, about the same time as Windows Vista. A lot had happened in that time and Microsoft had left themselves once again with a lot of catching up to do. In the same time Mozilla had released 3 versions of their new Firefox browser and made tabbed browsing, search boxes and Extensions/Add Ons the way to go.

The browser wars have been raging again ever since. Apple joined in 2007 with Safari and Google at the end of 2008 with Chrome.

2009

2009 has been a great year in terms of web browser development, Firefox released version 3.5 of their browser, Apple version 4 of Safari, Microsoft IE8 and even Google updated Chrome. With the greater choice this entails, it seems that many people are jumping ship and swapping browsers.

Today, Internet Explorer has just 59% of the browser market, the lowest for more than a decade. This is despite the recent release of IE7 and IE8. Firefox has shot up from about 5% in 2005 to now account for about 31.2% of the browser market.

Even new boys like Safari and Chrome have overtaken Opera (1.56%), with 4.07% and 3.3% respectively.



What is apparent is that despite the release of IE8 this year, Microsoft have still lost almost 10% of their market share in just 6 months. This trend is only likely to continue, especially as Microsoft have announced that in Europe, they won't be releasing Windows 7 with Internet Explorer, or any browser for that matter. Giving much more incentive to switch to Firefox, Safari or Chrome.

Browser of Choice

Although IE still has around double the market share of Firefox, its closest rival, it is much closer when the browser versions themselves are compared.

IE7 had 45% of the market share at the start of the year, now it is down to just 29%, with Firefox 3 right behind at 25% (up from 20%). Of course many of those who stopped using IE7 switched to IE8, but not all of them, clearly some are moving to Firefox. If more make the switch from IE7 to either Firefox or IE8, then, for the first time in more than a decade, Internet Explorer will no longer be the world's most popular browser.

Web surfers have never had such a rich choice, nor such a rich browsing experience as they have right now, and things look as though they will just keep getting better.

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Friday, January 16, 2009

Internet Explorer 8

Microsoft disables automatic IE 8 downloads | The Register
Microsoft will cushion you from the Internet Explorer 8 standards mess with software to prevent automatic download of its next browser to your machine.

Ask any web designer what their least favourite browser is and it's a good bet that Internet Explorer will be their reply. It isn't because of some anti-Microsoft sentiment, or because it isn't as cool or as customisable as other browsers, nor even anything to do with page loading speed, but quite simply because it doesn't follow the official W3C web standards. Microsoft acknowledges this problem and since Internet Explorer 6 (IE6) has been working to bring its browser into line with W3C specifications.

The Browser Wars

The browser wars of the 1990s between the now defunct Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer started off this problem, as each browser began following only some standards, or worse, only following their own standards.

Surprisingly, back then it was Microsoft's browser that was the most standards compliant, and Netscape that used its own 'standards'. By the time that IE had won the browser war and was used by 96% of web surfers, it too had moved onto supporting its own proprietary standards. At this point it wasn't too much of a problem, as web designers could simply design for IE, as it was a fairly safe bet that most of the viewers of a website would be using it.

It wasn't all rosy however, the browser war had meant there had been a stagnation in bug fixes and actual development, web designers were stuck designing in lengthy, bloated code as the slicker design method of HTML and CSS didn't work properly with Internet Explorer.

CSS

Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) were meant to make the design process far, far easier and also make the viewing of web pages faster and more aesthetically pleasing. Web pages using CSS load faster, are easier to alter and allow more complicated layouts, but for years after CSS was accepted as a standard, web designers were stuck using the older, more troublesome table based designs.

With the decline of Netscape that preceded its eventual demise, it was clear that Microsoft were in the driving seat of website design. From 2002 many web designers created websites aimed only at IE5.5 and IE6,  by this point IE had become mostly CSS compliant. Anyone attempting to design to official W3C standards, was asking for trouble and many headaches.

Then the second browser war started.

Firefox

Firefox was more standards compliant than IE, which meant that website designers had another browser to consider when designing a website, especially as Firefox became instantly popular and standards compliant websites were back in vogue.

Many designers were therefore creating W3C compliant websites, and uncovering the power of CSS. But upon viewing them in IE, they'd discover things like the double margin bug, three pixel bug, float drop problems and also the fact that IE6 doesn't handle transparent PNGs.

More than a few of them were scratching their heads and wishing 'If only IE were like Firefox!' With the popularity of Firefox soaring, accounting for 21% of the browser market by the end of 2008, it seemed that Microsoft heard.

IE7

There are workarounds and so called hacks to get websites to look in IE6 as they do in Firefox but they were a hassle and meant much fiddling on the part of the designer. Firefox and Apple's Safari were far more forgiving and getting more and more popular with users, in response Microsoft released IE7.

Although still not fully standards complaint, IE7 was the most compliant browser yet and Microsoft promised to go even further with IE8.

IE8

IE8 is fully standards compliant, but after a decade of IE only designs, that may not be a good thing. If your website is fully standards compliant, or was aimed primarily at Firefox but with a few IE hacks, you should be OK, but if it was aimed mainly at IE6, you may have problems. It is certainly worth checking out IE8 to see what your website looks like as you may find, particularly if it is a few years old, that is doesn't look as good as it did.

It seems that Microsoft have delayed IE8 to allow businesses to do precisely this. Microsoft did see this problem coming and have added two viewing modes for IE8, the default mode which is the standards compliant viewing mode and compatibility mode, which allows the user to view the website as if viewing with an older version of IE. Sadly though, few people are switching modes, meaning a lot of websites are not displaying correctly in IE8.

Although this may not be too much of a problem at the moment, especially with Microsoft's delaying the release of the browser, it could become a problem very quickly. Although it was released only two years ago, IE7 accounts for 50% of the browser market,  the previous version, IE6 just 20%.

Two events this year are likely to push the uptake of IE8 to be faster than that of IE7.

The release of Windows 7 later this year, which will most likely ship with IE8 as standard and also the fact that mainstream support for Windows XP ends in April 2009. Those buying a new PC will have the choice of Vista, or Windows 7, both of which will likely have IE8 as their default browser.

If you're not sure what your website will look like, you can use this website to preview your website in IE8 (and other versions of IE) for free. Needless to say the Horizon Web Development website and the Horizon Flash Memory website display perfectly.

Others, aren't so lucky.   



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Sunday, September 07, 2008

Google and the Cloud

Google's launch of a new browser named Chrome this week has been met with a somewhat muted response. Although it was expected that at some point Google would launch a browser, there is still concern as to just where this new browser would fit into the market.

Firefox has for several years been taking chunks out of the dominance of the Internet Explorer, and if Google's Chrome is going to be taking users from anywhere, it will likely be those that use the likes of Firefox, Opera or Safari.

A different sort of browser

However Chrome isn't intended as a direct replacement for Firefox, or even Internet Explorer for that matter. Chrome is aimed at a completely different market. Chrome's primary aim is to give better compatibility and reliability with some of it's other services such as Google Apps.

"What we really needed was not just a browser, but also a modern platform for web pages and applications, and that's what we set out to build,"
Mr Pichai, VP Product Management.

Regardless of it's main focus, there are plenty of raised eyebrows at the thought of a Google browser.

Privacy

Google does not have a good record when it comes to privacy, up until recently it kept search data indefinitely, now Google says that it would only be keeping search data for up to two years.

Many have questioned just why the search company needs to keep this data at all, let alone for two years, and the EU and Norway have launched investigations into this type of data retention.

The data kept by Google includes the search term typed in, the address of the internet server and occasionally more personal information contained on “cookies”, or identifier programs, on an individual’s computer.

It is quite worrying the amount of data that Google, and other search engines are able to glean from simple searches, and it is not clear whether after two years the information is in some way randomised, or deleted entirely.

Peter Fleischer, European privacy counsel for Google, has said that the company..


"...needed to keep search information for some time for security purposes – to help guard against hacking and people trying to misuse Google’s advertising system."

Even so, two years is a long time to keep information on the off chance of misuse.

Google's advertising system has also come under fire for its privacy issues, with AT & T saying:

Advertising-network operators such as Google have evolved beyond merely tracking consumer web surfing activity on sites for which they have a direct ad-serving relationship. They now have the ability to observe a user's entire web browsing experience at a granular level, including all URLs visited, all searches, and actual page-views.

If this wasn't the case before, with Google having its own browser, it is likely to be the case now. A browser automatically tracks the sites that a user visits, as well as storing cookies. Normally this isn't too much of a concern except on a shared PC, but if Google's Chrome sends this information back to Google....

There are already concerns regarding Google's Omnibox:

Provided that users leave Chrome's auto-suggest feature on and have Google as their default search provider, Google will have access to any keystrokes that are typed into the browser's Omnibox, even before a user hits enter....A Google representative told CNET News that the company plans to store about 2 percent of that data--and plans to store it along with the Internet Protocol address of the computer that typed it....In theory, that means that if one were to type the address of a site--even if they decide not to hit enter--they could leave incriminating evidence on Google's servers.

Quite a surprising feature and again we must ask if this is really necessary. There is an option (Incognito mode) that prevents the sending of information, but it is unclear how well this mode is labelled and whether the average user will be aware of it. As in all aspects of personal privacy the options should be the other way round, Incognito mode should be enabled by default and turned off by users that wish to, as the vast majority of users are likely just to use the browser as is.

The Cloud

There is of course another area in which Google is competing with Microsoft, the cloud. The cloud is where services are provided as web based applications, in other words where no software is purchased or downloaded, the user simply needs a web browser to use the applications. Many companies are moving into providing services in 'the cloud'; Adobe for instance provides a stripped down version of its Photoshop application for free as a web based service.

Google provides Google Apps, also for free - at least for basic use, as a web based service, directly competing with Microsoft's Office program. Admittedly the cloud appears to be a very useful way of using software at first glance. Previously those using multiple computers have to carry around flash memory cards or USB sticks containing their information and documents. Even then they had to make sure that the same software was installed on every PC they were intending to use.

Google Apps, and other services like them, make working on the move much more conveinant and remove the hassle of trying to open an important document on a PC that doesn't have Microsoft Office installed.

Along with the pros, there are a few cons; this move toward providing a service rather than the actual software means that the user has nothing tangible to rely on. Should the internet or even just the service provider fail, they are lost.

Then of course there are the costs, at present many of these services are free with premium paid for subscription services an option, but once the dominance of the likes of Microsoft is broken, what is to stop these service providers charging everyone? Moreover, what is to stop them setting whatever price they want to, once you have become tied in to their services?

Add to this the privacy issues concerning someone like Google, who have access to your search records and information; with GMail, your emails and content; with your browser, the websites you visit and your browsing habits; and with your documents and accounts they may well have filled in the last gaps in your private information.

Of course this is a cynical view, but a slip up the Chrome EULA provided the cynics with quite a bit of ammunition:

"By submitting, posting or displaying the content you give Google a perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-free, and non-exclusive license to reproduce, adapt, modify, translate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display, and distribute any Content which you submit, post, or display on or through, the Services."

This was of course later altered when it was pointed out, but it does bring up another important point, few people actually read EULAs and this article shows why perhaps they should do.

The Future

Google envisions a move toward the cloud in most aspects of every day computing, and in fact this view is nothing new. Bill Gates said many years ago that he believed computing would move toward a subscription service, where Microsoft are paid every month, just like other utility providers. Now such a reality is closer than ever.

However a complete move to remote computing is unlikely, what with the prevalence of cheap flash storage and with laptops and netbooks being so cheap and open source software being so freely available, there isn't a desperate need for such a solution.

Should Google resolve its privacy issues, it will be an excellent option for many people, and that of course is what is key - choice. It would give users a variety if options of how to use software, so they aren't tied to just one method, particularly those on the move. The smart people would have a laptop and/or a flash card and perhaps use Google Apps too, just in case one should fail.

Google's Chrome is an interesting move, Chrome isn't yet the answer to anyone's prayers, but it will certainly push forward browser development and open new avenues. If the fears over Google and privacy turn out to be wholly unfounded, then it may help enable a much freer computing environment for everyone.

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