Becta – you’re getting it all wrong

I don’t know what Becta think they aim to achieve with the latest anti-Microsoft report, but I don’t think that they are going to reach the computer utopia that their report on Microsoft Vista and Office 2007 seems to desire.

I’ve breezed through the report, and I can’t get into my head

a) Who the report is aimed at
b) What the purpose is

As anybody who knows me knows, I’m not a Microsoft fanboy – and I’m not completely evangelical about Linux either. Both suit a purpose in their own way.

What irks me about this report is that it makes a great deal of assumptions, that invites the reader to go along with the ride and interpret that as the de-facto way of thinking.

My biggest annoyance of the report is the whinging about Office 2007. It complains that the DOCX format is not widely supported (true enough), and because Microsoft’s implementation of the “industry standard” open document formats is poor, everyone should use the Office binary format and OpenOffice.

Yes, that is right. Instead of being the driving force that Becta is supposedly meant to be, it’s making what I can only describe as a half-baked approach to document interoperability by saying, “Yeah – you should use OpenOffice. You should use ODF. But save in the office binary format.” I cannot fathom what they intend to accomplish with this attitude. If Becta truly are to inspire educational establishments to embrace open source and open standards – they are playing this totally wrong. I’ll rant a bit more about this later on. What beguiles me is that there is no acknowledgement of Office Compatibility mode. Also, Becta seem convinced that having an open document format means that it should render EXACTLY the same in any program that opens it. That’s just not the case. The point of open documents is to enable an application to access all of the information within, and render it approximately close to the original intent. Indeed, the DOCX file is a glorified ZIP file and no more. The XML is what’s in question with the open standards that ODF and DOCX are embroiled in.

Their year-long investigation into Windows Vista is a joke. Their summary is not to use mixed XP / Vista environments. If you’re considering upgrading your network, then take a look at Vista. So, the reader (if an IT person) is being told something that they should know: Any implementation of a new O/S environment takes planning, preparation, and testing. Oh, and mixed environments with XP and Vista are not the end of the world – I run them side by side quite happily.

I think it’s fair that the value added of using Vista Business compared to XP Professional is still in question. Not just for education, but for the industry as a whole. Microsoft have done a great job promoting Vista. But ultimately it is a very greedy operating system. Requirements are higher than what should be reasonable for an O/S, and most of the improvements are aimed at corporate customers where staff have their own computers – not the environment of schools or colleges.

A couple of niggles in Vista that cause complications on a roaming network:

  • The ‘lock computer’ button on the start panel can not be configured or changed. Totally useless in a roaming environment as a user may think that they have logged off when they press it. The consequence is that the new Start Panel has to be disabled on Vista machines.
  • No roaming gadgets – therefore the first thing that has to be turned off
  • Loss of active desktop. Now the intranet has to be opened by the user, instead of it being there by default. I know, gadgets are meant to replace that – which would be fine if it wasn’t for my last point

Also, the blanket statement of exercising your downgrade rights is a joke. Drivers for systems – especially laptops – are getting very difficult to track down all of a sudden for systems pre-Vista. The problem is compounded by the issue of a lack of drivers for Vista for some hardware peripherals. We’re in a transitional O/S point where we can’t seem to win either way. Becta miss this point entirely.

Finally, there’s Becta’s supposed pro-Open Source approach. They rejoice with Open Office, and say that there should be more choice. The problem is that when schools receive documents from other schools, or the education authority, of the government guess what? It’s Office binary format! And schools have Windows rammed down their throats because the EAs insist on them using Windows applications to deliver the curriculum. In fact, over the last couple of years, I’ve seem a number of free and discounted applications sent to schools where they are Windows applications. Then they deliver training on these programs.

If you want schools to be open source, you need:

  • to support the schools in doing so and not blame the industry for trying to sell something instead
  • to put pressure higher up the chain to being implementing policies to migrate to open document formats. Only then would it be possible for educational establishments to embrace this format
  • to start to educate people in education that there is an alternative

Finally, Becta needs to stop leeching off open-source like a parasite. I’m annoyed by it’s “get everything for free – don’t pay Microsoft” attitude. That’s not quite what open-source is about. With thousands of schools around the country, to ask schools to contribute in whatever way they can to projects that they benefit from would make open source more viable, because the UK education system could begin to change and direct the movement of open source. If a school is using an open-source alternative that would have cost them £250 for a site license of something else, why not contribute £50 to a project? If the project could do with documentation or translations, surely a secondary school or college could commit some resources to these kinds of things?

The education sector has by far the most potential to steer and promote the direction of open-source than anything else in the UK. It’s a completely missed and wasted opportunity.

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect some practical guidance on these matters from the leader of “the national drive to inspire and lead the effective and innovative use of technology throughout learning.” I really would like to see more of that.

With Vista and Office 2007 out in the wild for over a year now, Becta should have been making these points 12 months ago. Instead they let it slide and the complain when things don’t pan out as they expect, while missing the point entirely.

It’s such a shame.

Vista error Stop 0×0000009F error message (DRIVER POWER STATE FAILURE)

After recently installing a bunch of Shuttle SK22G2 systems in a site with Windows Vista loaded, it became clear that there were some minor issues with the systems shutting down. (Hint: They didn’t)

There was an intermittent fault that made them hang on the last phase of shutting down. Frustratingly, there was no evidence to show that this has happened except for the blue LED on the front of the case, and the noise of the fan it the back. To get the machine going – it was either hold the power button in for a few seconds or hit the reset switch.

Problem Report Screen with Blue Screen Error Message

Vista has come a long way in error reporting from the Windows 9x days. In fact, combined with the internet there are very few unfixable problems of this nature. What really helps us here is the Problem Reports and Solutions utility. This keeps a track of any errors that may have happened, and gives you the details in a (relatively) easy to read format.

Problem Reports and Solutions

What it was telling me, is that the system was crashing with a blue screen. I tried a few solutions, including a far-reaching bluetooth issue.

In the end, the problem turned out to be caused by the ATI drivers. After a couple of weeks, the computers reported that updating the ATI drivers might help, and they did! Hurrah.

Virtual Desktop for Windows XP and Vista

Yes, it’s true!

Windows Vista may actually start making use of the 3D effects enjoyed by other operating systems for so long now.

Most notably, the virtual desktop has been toyed around with before in Windows, but it never seems to be executed well. So it seems fitting that there’s a Vista / XP Virtual Desktop Manager open-source project on codeplex. The current version is 0.5, which is a release candidate.

The desktop manager itself works, but isn’t fantastic. It’s still a little buggy and as such, the live updating doesn’t seem to work exactly as advertised. What is more appealing is that the next version is showing promising signs that it may include an Exposé-like feature for task switching. If this can replace or be added onto the rather lame Flip-3D feauture, then that’s even better.

Whatever next? Fast file access in Vista?

Office 2007 Deployment Computer Startup Scripts

Now that MS Office 2007 is doing the rounds, I suppose it’s time to lookat some of its shortcomings.

It has a few when it comes to deployment. The biggest nuisance being deployment.

You have four options:

  • Install it on a PC manually (not great)
  • Deploy through group policy with no customisations
  • Use a deployment system such as SMS
  • Use a computer startup script

You may as well just say “no” to the first one. Anything more than a handful of PCs and you have a tedious task.

Group Policy has always been my method of choice. Most of my clients have less than 100 PCs, so Group Policy deployment is ideal. But as pointed out in the list, you cannot customise the installation with any defaults.

SMS is out. It’s not worth explaining to clients why it’s a good idea to buy software that makes my life easier. Even though the effort and management might simplify things somewhat.

So we’re stuck with computer startup scripts. Another method I hate – but if you want to control Office Deployments, then this is the way to do it. Thankfully, Aaron Parker has posted some startup scripts to help with this using the MSP method.

If you are using a network with WSUS, then updates become a non-issue, and I think that the only time to need to redeploy is if you decide to change the application packages that you want. At which point, you could check that executables of the programs exist or record your own registry entries that you can check for.

It’s not a great method (I’ve managed to avoid having to use ANY computer startup scripts in 2000-based networks) – but there’s no reason why it shouldn’t work. Especially if you make sure to use the quiet options in the Setup /admin tool.

Office, eh?

Active Desktop, I barely knew ye

Windows Vista. It’s big, bad and insists its new technologies upon unsuspecting users while not actually working quite right.

The Vista Sidebar is one such culprint. Ever since the early previews of Vista (aka Longhorn), there was a giant box hanging around the desktop on the right side that had a giant clock in it.

Of course, that has now become sidebar gadgets – which can live on your desktop.

It’s a poor tradeoff though. We’ve lost Active Desktop.

Foisted upon an unsuspecting user base. Active Desktop was pitched as a portal to an always-on internet with IE4 or Windows 98. The fact that barely anyone had an always-on internet connection seemed irrelevant. But you could put loads of webpages in little windows on your desktop, or just replace your wallpaper with a web page or HTML page.

Until recently, I’ve found this pointless – but for networks running an intranet such as Sharepoint, it’s the perfect solution. A user logs on, and on their desktop appears the site’s intranet. At a single glance you have all the information you need from your intranet. If you click on a click, a new IE window opens, and you carry on from there. Simple, and very effective.

Vista comes along and as surprisingly AD was put into Windows, it was taken away again. Gone forever (probably). Now, considering how much old Windows fluff is still hanging around in Vista (old Font dialog box, anyone?) it seems that this is a bit of an own goal on Microsoft’s front.

The suggestion now is that I have to write desktop gadgets to do the same jobs as a webpage would. And to make matters worse (and here’s the kicker), Desktop Gadgets does not support roaming profiles! So you move from one computer to another, and the sidebar smugly sits there with its clock, photo slideshow and newsfeeder. So even if I did make those gadgets, they would currently be about as much use as a Dell laptop battery.

Fantastic! So for network administrators – there is now no native way to access an intranet or any other application service with a user specifically going there. And I can really see illiterate computer users making sure that they start IE and go to the intranet when they log in. Yeah, right!

Thank you Microsoft, good night!

Xerox Phaser drivers print very dark in Vista

I was having a great deal of trouble installing printer drivers in Vista for the Xerox Phaser 6100.

Online, Xerox say that the XP drivers wok fine in Vista, so use them until the new drivers come out. I’ve spent two hours trying the get the badger to work.

And what was it in the end? Stupid driver defaults!

  • Right-click on the printer
  • Click run as administrator
  • Click properties
  • Clear any UAC prompts
  • Click on the Advanced tab
  • Click ‘Printing Defaults…’
  • Click Graphics
  • Click ‘Adjust Color’
  • Click ‘reset’
  • Keep pressing OK until the windows are cleared

Now send a print job! That’s it. Really!