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Windows Live SkyDrive

By Steve Ives, Posted on June 28, 2010 at 5:13 pm

Have you ever wished there was an easy way to view and edit your documents on different computers, in different locations, in fact … from anywhere, and without having to carry USB thumb drives, or log in to a VPN. Well there is, and it’s free.

For some time now Microsoft have offered a free service called Office Live Workspace, (http://workspace.officelive.com) which went part of the way to solving the problem. Office Live Workspace essentially provides 5GB of free on-line storage, and a web-based portal, which allows you to upload, manage and view your files. It’s primarily designed to deal with Microsoft Office files, although other files can be stored there also.

Office Live Workspace worked pretty well, but it did have some restrictions, which meant that the experience was somewhat less than optimal. For example, when viewing a document it would be converted to an HTML representation of the actual document and displayed in the browser. You do have the option to edit the document of course, but doing so required you to have a recent copy of Microsoft Office installed on the computer that you were using. This is probably fine if you are using your own system, but was likely a problem if you were using a public computer in a hotel or an airline lounge.

On the positive side, if you did happen to be working on a system with a recent copy of Microsoft Office, and had the Windows Live Workspace extensions installed, it was possible to interact with your on-line storage directly from within the Office applications, similar to the way that you work with files on a SharePoint server, and this worked really well.

So, using Office Live Workspace from within Microsoft Office was a good experience, and at least you could get to, view and download your files from any Internet browser.

There is also another interesting product called Windows Live Sync, which kind of approaches the problem from another angle. Sync allows you to synchronize the files in one or more shared folders with one or more other computers. If you add a file on one computer it is replicated, pretty much instantly, to the other computers that “subscribe” to the shared folder. This is a very different approach, because although your documents clearly flow over the network (securely of course), they don’t get stored on network servers. So this is a great solution if you want to be able to edit a document at home, and have it magically appear in a folder at work so you can work on it the next day. But there is no access to the files via a web browser on some other computer.

Enter Windows Live SkyDrive (http://windowslive.com/online/skydrive), which seems to combine the concepts of both Office Live Workspace and also Windows Live Sync … and then adds even more.

SkyDrive is a free service providing 25GB of on-line storage. Like Office Live Workspace it has a web-based UI, which allows files to be uploaded, viewed, downloaded, etc. It is also possible, of course, to edit your files directly using your local Microsoft Office applications. So far so good … so what’s different?

Well, perhaps the main different is that as well as allowing documents to be viewed in your web browser, SkyDrive also integrates Microsoft’s new Office Web applications. So, not only can you edit your Word Documents, Excel Spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations locally, you can also do so directly in the web browser! You can even create new Office documents directly on the server in the same way.

Of course the new Office Web applications are somewhat cut-down versions of their desktop counterparts, in fact they only have a fraction of the capabilities of the full products, but never the less they are very usable, and allow you to do most of routine editing tasks that you likely need to for day to day work on your documents. Remember, this is all for free – pretty cool!

But there’s more … SkyDrive also provides Sync capabilities also. Not for the full 25BG of on-line storage, but there is also a 2GB “bucket” that you can use to setup synchronization of documents between computers … the difference is that the documents are also available on the SkyDrive. So now you can edit your documents locally at home, or at work … on your own computers, but still have access to them via a web interface when away from your own systems. Unfortunately the Office Web apps can’t be used on these synchronized files (hopefully that will change at some point), but you do have access to them from any browser.

By default everything that you upload or Sync through any of these products can only be accessed via your own Windows Live login … but you can setup shares and give others access to all or part of your storage too. And there is specific support for creating shared on-line photo albums too.

Oh, I almost forgot, if like me you use a combination of Windows and Mac computers then all of these products work just great on Mac too. In fact, personally I think the Office Live Workspace experience is actually better on the Mac than the PC! I have just finished testing SkyDrive on the Mac too, including Sync, and it works wonderfully well.

SkyDrive is currently a beta service, but is in the process of transitioning to full production use about now. I’ve been playing with it for a little while now, and it seems to work extremely well. Check it out.


Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

By Steve Ives, Posted on June 14, 2010 at 7:08 pm

I’ve been writing web applications for years, but I’ve never really had to put too much thought into whether search engines such as Google and Bing were finding the sites that I have worked on, or whether they were deducing appropriate information about those sites and giving them their appropriate ranking in search results. The reason for this is that most of the web development that I have been involved with has tended to be web “applications”, where the bulk of the interesting stuff is hidden away behind a login; without logging in there’s not much to look at, and in many cases the content of the site isn’t something you would want search engines to look at anyway … so who cares about SEO!

However, if you have a web site that promotes your company, products and services then you probably do care about SEO. Or if you don’t, you probably should! Improving your ranking with the search engines could have a positive impact on your overall business, and in these economic times we all need all the help we can get.

Turns out that the basic principles of SEO are pretty straight forward, really it’s mainly about making sure that your site conforms to certain standards, and doesn’t contain errors. Sounds simple right? You’d be surprised how few companies pay little, if any, attention to this potentially important subject, and suffer the consequences of doing so … probably without even realizing it.

You have little or no control over when search engine robots visit your site, so all you can do is try to ensure that everything that you publish on the web is up to scratch. Here are a few things that you can do to help improve your search engine ratings:

  • Ensure that the HTML that makes up your site is properly formatted. Robots take a dim view of improperly formatted HTML, and the more errors that are found, the lower your ratings are likely to be.
  • Don’t assume that HTML editors will always produce properly formatted HTML, because it’s not always the case!
  • Try to limit the physical size of each page. Robots have limits regarding the physical amount of data that they will search on any given page. After reading a certain amount of data from a page a robot may simply give up, and if there is important information at the bottom of a large page, it may never get indexed. Unfortunately these limits may be different from robot to robot, and are not published.
  • Ensure that every page has a title specified with the <TITLE> tag, and that the title is short and descriptive. Page titles are very important to search engine robots.
  • Use HTML headings carefully. Robots typically place a lot of importance on HTML heading tags, because it is assumed that the headings will give a good overall description of what the page is about. It is recommended that a page only has a single <H1> tag, and doesn’t make frequent use of subheadings (<H2>, <H3> etc.).
  • Use meta tags in each page. In particular use the meta keywords and meta description tags to describe what the page content is about, but also consider adding other meta tags like meta author and meta copyright. Search engine robots place high importance to the data in meta tags.
  • Don’t get too deep! Search engines have (undocumented) rules about how many levels deep they will go when indexing a site. If you have important content that is buried several levels down in your site it may never get indexed.
  • Avoid having multiple URL’s that point to the same content, especially if you have external links in to your site. How many external links point to your content is an important indicator of how relevant your site is considered to be by other sites, and having multiple URL’s pointing to the same content could dilute the search engine crawlers view of how relevant your content is to others.
  • Be careful how much use is made of technologies like Flash and Silverlight. If a site’s UI is comprised entirely of pages which make heavy use of these technologies then there will be lots of <OBJECT> tags in the site that point the browser to the Flash or Silverlight content, but mot much else! Robots don’t look at <OBJECT> tags, there’s no point because they would not know what do with the binary content anyway, so if you’re not careful you can create a very rich site that looks great in a browser … but has absolutely no content that a search engine robot can index!
  • If your pages do make a lot of use of technologies like Flash and Silverlight, consider using a <NOSCRIPT> tag to add content for search engine robots to index. The <NOSCRIPT> tag is used to hold content to display in browsers that don’t support JavaScript, but these days pretty much all browsers do. However, search engine robots DO NOT support JavaScript, so they WILL see the content in a <NOSCRIPT> section of a page!
  • Related to the previous item, avoid having content that is only available via the execution of JavaScript – the robots won’t execute any JavaScript code, so your valuable content may be hidden.
  • Try to get other web sites, particularly “popular” web sites, to have links to your content. Search engine robots consider inbound links to your site as a good indicator of the relevance and popularity of your content, and links from sites which themselves have high ratings are considered even more important.
  • Tell search engine robots what NOT to look at. If you have content that should not be indexed, for any reason, you can create a special file called robots.txt in the root folder of your site, and you can specify rules for what should be ignored by robots. In particular, make sure you exclude any binary content (images, videos, documents, PDF files, etc.) because these things are relatively large and may cause a robot to give up indexing your entire site! For more information about the robots.txt file refer to http://www.robotstxt.org.
  • Tell search engines what content they SHOULD look at by adding a sitemap.xml file to the root folder of your site. A sitemap.xml file contains information about the pages that you DO want search engine robots to process. For more information refer to http://www.sitemaps.org.
  • Ensure that you don’t host ANY malware on your site. Search engine robots are getting pretty good at identifying malware, and if they detect malware hosted on your site they are likely to not only give up processing the site, but also blacklist the site and never return.

Getting to grips with all of these things can be a real challenge, especially on larger sites, but there are tools out there to help. In particular I recently saw a demo of a new free tool from Microsoft called the SEO Toolkit. This is a simple application that you can use to analyze a web site in a similar way to the way that search engine robots look at a site, and the tool then produces detailed reports and suggestions as to what can be done to improve the SEO ratings for the site. You can also use the tool to compare changes over time, so you can whether changes you make to the site have improved or worsened your likely SEO rating. For more information refer to http://www.microsoft.com/web/spotlight/seo.aspx.

This article only scratches the surface of what is an extensive and complex subject, but hopefully armed with the basics you can at least be aware of some of the basic rules, and start to improve the ratings for your site.


Another TechEd Sticky Note

By synergexadmin, Posted on June 10, 2010 at 11:58 pm

The other night, I discovered the way to beat the heat while here in New Orleans. It’s a fruity little concoction known as the Hurricane, and while it doesn’t actually affect the climate around you, it sure makes feeling hot and sticky a lot more enjoyable. I’m also pretty sure how it got its namesake: in the morning, you find yourself trying to reconstruct the previous 12 hours of your life by putting together the pieces and fragments of your memory.

TechEd 2010 draws to a close this evening, and though it’s been increasingly difficult to find sessions that seem pertinent to we Synergexians, it’s still been a worthwhile experience.
I’ve learned a lot just by watching presenters step through the build of a Silverlight UI using Microsoft Expression, or show off the latest features of Visual Studio 2010 and how it can be used to quickly create a web app, or walk through the use of new simplified Windows Communication Foundation 4 features.I’ve even filled in the holes in my schedule with sessions on interesting (to me) topics, such as IPv6, trends in cybercrime, and hacker techniques.

Which all brings me to the point of this little blog entry: It seems to me that the value of conferences lies not in the number of sessions that directly apply to you, but in the quantity and quality of the little tidbits you pick up each day. It’s in the discussions you have with other developers and like-minded individuals – whether they take place while sitting down over a cup of coffee, or simply during a quick ride in the elevator. It’s in the creative ideas that spring up when you see a clever implementation and wonder if you can apply the same techniques to an unrelated solution of your own. It’s in the tips, tricks and techniques that you pick up, which will not only save you hours, days, and even weeks of effort in the year ahead, but which can also be shared with the rest of your team to make them more productive as well.

Just a sales pitch for SPC2010? Perhaps…but that wasn't the intent. After all, this is my blog, and with it I get to share helpful experiences from my time “out in the field.” If writing about it all means I’ll get to see more of you when we set up shop in October at the Citizen Hotel, then so much the better. But in the end, my little revelation about the value of coming to TechEd – even with so much focus on technologies that I can’t use – is helping me to sit back and enjoy this final day of the conference, secure in the knowledge that I’m going to be learning something interesting at every turn. And isn’t that what attending the conference is all about?

That, and the Hurricanes, of course…


Preparing for Windows Phone 7

By Steve Ives, Posted on at 7:59 pm

By Steve Ives, Senior Consultant, Synergex Professional Services Group

Windows Phone 7

Later this year, probably, Microsoft are releasing a new version of their phone operating system, and it’s going to be a BIG change for developers who have created applications for the earlier Windows Mobile operating systems. The new O/S is called “Windows Phone 7”, and although under the covers it’s really still Windows CE, on the surface things will look VERY different.

Perhaps the largest single change will be the user interface of Windows Phone 7 devices, which will be entirely driven by Microsoft Silverlight. That’s potentially great news for existing Silverlight or WPF developers, but will of course mean a total re-write of the UI for developers with existing applications which were essentially based on a subset of Windows Forms.

Using Silverlight will mean that we can expect some dazzling UI from applications, and indeed the O/S and the standard applications provided with it already look pretty cool, but there will definitely be a learning curve for anyone who has not developed Silverlight applications before.

Part of the good news is that the basic tools that you need to develop Windows Phone 7 applications are free. You can download Visual Studio Express Phone Edition and have pretty much what you need to develop applications. At the time of writing though, these tools are in a “pre-beta” form, and as such you can probably expect some issues, and need to update the tools pretty regularly.

There is, in my humble opinion at least, also some bad news, not least of which is that Microsoft seem to have turned the Windows Phone platform into, essentially, another iPhone! While developers can use free development tools (or full versions of Visual Studio) to create their applications (just like with the iPhone) they will have to sign up for a $99 annual “Windows Phone Developer “subscription in order to have the ability to deploy their application to their physical phone for testing (just like with the iPhone).

It will no longer be possible to deploy applications via “CAB file” installations, in fact for anything other than developer testing, the ONLY way to get an application onto a Windows 7 Phone will be via the Microsoft “Windows Phone Marketplace” (just like with the iPhone). When a developer publishes an application to the marketplace they can chose whether the application is free, or is to be charged for. With iPhone development developers can submit an unlimited number of free applications, and many do. With Windows Phone 7, developers can only submit five free applications, and after that there will be a charge to submit further free applications. If an application is submitted for sale, Microsoft will take a 30% cut of any proceeds (just like with the iPhone).

Applications submitted for inclusion in the marketplace will be subject to “testing and approval” by Microsoft (just like iPhone apps), and apps may be rejected if they don’t meet the guidelines set by Microsoft (just like with iPhone apps). This inevitably means that some types of applications won’t be allowed. For example, with the iPhone it is not possible (in the US at least) to use “tethering” to enable you to plug your iPhone into your laptop in order to access the Internet via the cell phone network, and I would imagine we’re now going to see similar restrictions on Windows 7 Phone applications.

iPhone applications execute in a very strictly defined sandbox, and while this does afford a lot of protection for the platform (because, for example, one application can in no way interact with the data of another application), it can also seriously limit what applications can do. For example, on the iPhone it is not possible to save an email attachment (say a PDF file) and subsequently open that PDF file in another application, Acrobat Reader for example. While I understand the protections offered by the sandbox approach, as a user of the device I feel that it restricts too far what I can do with the device. The Windows Phone 7 platform is essentially exactly the same.

Other restrictions in the Windows Phone 7 platform that developers will have to come to terms with are:

  • No access to TCP/IP sockets
  • No access to Bluetooth communication
  • No access to USB connections to a host computer
  • No Windows Forms UI’s
  • No SQL Express access
  • No ability to execute native code via pinvoke (except device drivers, which must be approved by Microsoft)
  • No customization of O/S features (e.g. no alternate phone dialers)

One thing that strikes me as kind of strange is that, apparently, the web browser on Windows Phone 7 will not support Flash, and apparently will not support Silverlight either! The flash thing is kind of expected, both Apple and Microsoft seem to do everything they can to keep Flash of THEIR devices, but not supporting Silverlight (on an O/S where the entire UI is Silverlight) was a surprise … at first. Then I realized that if the browser supported Silverlight there would be a way for developers to circumvent all of the application approval and marketplace restrictions that I talked about earlier!

Another surprise was that, like all versions of the iPhone until iOS 4.0, Windows Phone 7 devices will only execute a single user application at a time. This is one of the main things that iPhone users have complained about through the versions, and Apple just learned the lesson, but it seems that Microsoft have decided not to. For developers this means that it is imperative that applications save their data and state frequently, because the application could be terminated (with notification and the ability to clean up of course) at any time.

One thing is for sure … Microsoft seem to be betting the company on “The Cloud”, and Windows Phone 7 falls straight into this larger scale objective. The vision is that this new device will be a gateway to The Cloud in the palm of your hand. It is expected that many applications may execute directly from The Cloud (rather than being installed locally on the device) and that the device will have the ability to store (and synchronize) data in The Cloud. Apparently these features will be included for free, with a limited (not announced) amount of on-line storage, and presumably fee-based options for increasing the amount of storage available. Of course using things in The Cloud is all well and good, until youfind yourself in a "roaming" situation, paying $20/MB, or more!

On the bright side, Windows Phone 7 devices will be available from a number of different manufacturers, so there will be choice and competition in the marketplace. Windows Phone 7 devices will (in the US at least) be available from a number of cell phone carriers, unlike Apples exclusive deal with AT&T.

While there is no doubt that Windows Phone 7 promises to be a seriously cool new device, and I have no doubt will sell in larger numbers than any of the predecessor Windows Mobile devices ever did, it remains to be seen whether it will have what it takes to be a serious competitor to the mighty iPhone. I can’t help wishing that Microsoft had done at least some things a little bit differently.


A Sticky Note from TechEd 2010

By synergexadmin, Posted on June 9, 2010 at 12:00 am

So, I’m here at TechEd 2010 in the hot, muggy, all-around sticky town of New Orleans. I’m pretty sure that the person who decided that holding a summer conference in the bayou was a good idea is not here, as I’ve yet to hear of any lynchings.

Fortunately, the conference center is nice and cool (I’m sure the air conditioning bill is staggering), and the fact that I’m surrounded by thousands of techies – mostly of the male variety – is somehow less onerous when combined with the cool, climate-controlled breeze swirling about me.

TechEd is most certainly a Microsoft conference, and it can be difficult to find the right sessions to attend. Sure, we want to keep up on the latest and greatest uses of Microsoft technology, but only as they relate to the needs of Synergex’s customers. Learning all there is to know about SQL Azure, or figuring out how to take advantage of SharePoint SuperDuper Edition just isnt’ going to help many of us.

However, there’s been at least one session during every schedule slot which highlights some product, feature or design pattern that can assist Synergex customers who employ Microsoft technologies. Surprisingly, there have even been a few presentations that contained nuggets of good material that can be extended to some of our OpenVMS and Linux/Unix customers as well.

I’ll be following up in the days and weeks to come with some “Tech Tips” that will hopefully save some of you a headache or two. From diagnosing network problems that affect the performance of xf-enabled solutions (you’ve just gotta love what XP does to networks), to using Visual Studio 2010 to quickly set up a working CRUD application (which pretty much looks like it sounds, but at least it works!), to Silverlight desktop deployments (anyone for providing a Mac solution?), I’ll be trying to share some of the knowledge with those fortunate enough not to be trapped in the sauna known as the Big Easy.

Until next time!


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