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Bug of the moment 2010-10-31

Update Roll-Up 6

I have decided to use Update Roll-Up 6 to cover a number of software design issues I’ve been collecting recently.

Do as you’re told!

After disabling Google Toolbar, it’s not uncommon to be prompted whether you really wanted to get rid of it or whether you’re sorry, want all to be forgiven, and want to have it back on your screen again:

I turned it off. I want it to stay off. If I wanted it back, I would ask! I think I have only ever seen this dialog with Google Toolbar, so I am not sure whether Google or Microsoft are responsible. I’ve already discovered that plugins can still run when disabled, and given the big Google logo in the top-right, I do suspect this is Google’s doing. I do still blame Microsoft for writing a plugin system where plugins can continue running when they’re disabled.

Also, take a close look at the right-hand end of the address bar. Notice that there is a weird grey symbol placed over the end of it. It was a while before I figured out why I kept seeing that. That is placed there courtesy of the Trusteer Rapport online banking security program, whose main objective appears to be make computers run extremely slowly. I have no idea what that grey button is for. None whatoever.

What is a valid number?

Word 2003 scolding me for not giving it a “valid number”:

Of course 6.6 is a valid number. Word accepts 6.5, which implies that it’s looking for any rational number. For font size s, s ∈ ℚ (in theory).

Word on the other hand has its own private concept of what a “valid” number is, and it refuses to explain what it considers these valid numbers to be. Like many applications, it’s happy to tell off the user for being so stupid as to make a logical assumption about the application, but stops short of indicating what it really wanted.

I would like to believe that Word 2007 and 2010 now accept any rational number as a font size, but on the occasions that I have to use Office 2007, I blow away too much time trying to find features that were easy to find previously. I seriously hope 2010 has been improved.

Most Valued Professionals

I was asked to explain why Outlook 2003 kept displaying the following window when attempting to reply to a specific e-mail:

Outlook here is connected to Microsoft Exchange on a domain, so I thought that it was trying to communicate with the Exchange server at this point. I seem to recall reading though that this occurs when Outlook is used at home on (most likely) POP3, so we can rule out Exchange server and domain controller issues.

I never did find out what it was trying to do; the “solution” in this instance was to start a new e-mail instead of reply. For many people, though, this error occurs when they reply to any e-mail, possibly also composing any e-mail, and they just cannot get rid of it.

The Most Valued Professionals for Outlook, though, haven’t got a clue. Despite how many times people have raised the issue of this mysterious window, at no point have the MVPs ever recognised it as a recurring fault or been able to shed any light on it. MVPs for Outlook may simply dismiss anything they don’t understand, and at best you’ll get some laughably unhelpful suggestions. There’s another recurring fault where editing an e-mail signature using Word (Advanced Edit) embeds an ActiveX <object> tag into the signature. The MVP’s response to one person’s question was, effectively, “well don’t use Word then”. Gee, thanks mister. What would you suggest that I use instead?

One reason for using Word to edit a signature is for when it needs to contain an image. Outlook’s signature editor only supports images via copy-and-paste, forcing you to be subject to Outlook’s dire JPEG compression settings. With chroma subsampling engaged and quality set to no visible detail loss when viewed on old fuzzy CRT that belongs in a skip, a predominantly red signature image is going to be pretty much destroyed by the compression. At least with Word, you can reference an existing image and retain its format and compression settings. (The solution is to disable not just smart tags under AutoCorrect Options, but also smart tag embedding in the Save Options; the former prevents text from being tagged in future, and the latter–that switches itself back on every time–clears any already-recognised tags from being saved back out with the current document.)

I don’t see the use of MVPs for Outlook. Outlook isn’t really that hard to use, but it’s riddled with bugs and random behaviour, and it would be nice for some really valuable professionals to be able to steer us good folk in the right direction around the minefield that is getting Outlook to function reliably. Instead, you get silly suggestions and every indication that their experience with Outlook is limited to their own computer. I would not consider anyone a valued professional in any application unless they’ve had years of experience in dealing with it in real world scenarios. I would also expect Microsoft to give them direct access to developer channels such that in cases like these, they could have someone check the source code to find out what’s going on e.g. grep the codebase for “Contacting the server for information” to see exactly what triggers that message. Instead we get people who are as clueless as the users themselves when anything goes wrong. And it does. Often.

MVPs do nothing to ease the pain of working with applications written by a mega-corporation whose bugs are set in stone.

I was uninstalling SQL Server 2005 Express Edition from a computer recently, and I was seriously impressed that every step of the uninstall was stated as it was taking place, so that at any time, I knew exactly what the program was doing. Gone were the days of generic "Please wait" prompts. However, at one point, the uninstaller froze. At this step, the readout of what it was doing, was blank. Could Microsoft miss the point in a bigger way? What is the use of detailing progress if you have places where you show nothing? Fortunately it didn’t freeze for good.

When in Rome

The decision of whether your program, or any aspect thereof, should follow platform convention or not, is a difficult one. For example, Microsoft preferred that the wheel on the mouse scrolled the focused control, not the one below the cursor. Vista reversed this decision, bringing Windows in line with Linux desktops and Mac OS X, although I am not sure that everyone in Redmond is co-operating over this one. I welcome any application in 2000 and XP that went against Microsoft’s wishes here, such as Microsoft Outlook 2003. With its split-pane layout, even Microsoft had to agree that Linux and Apple figured out wheel scrolling better. (If you want all programs on your PC to agree with Apple and Linux, install Tordex Wheel. Your blood pressure will thank you for it.)

However, for the most part, developers are expected to pay attention to how every platform works, and write software that uses services available on that platform wherever possible, simulating them as best they can if not. Add or Remove Programs starting with XP, has a feature where updates for a program can be hidden from view by default, for tidiness. Sun never figured this out, so removing Java from a PC (since its sole purpose is to spread infections) is tedious as every update must be manually removed one by one. Time will tell whether Oracle ever twig this feature.

Java also does something similar to Firefox’s add-ons list:

I don’t know how long I can hold out before I fly over and beat the folk at Ahsay senseless for succeeding in writing software in the 21st century that still has no idea what a proportional scroll bar is. To be fair though, it took Apple over ten years to figure them out after the Amiga 1000 debuted with them, with Acorn and then Microsoft beating them to it in the 80s and 90s respectively.

Helpful menus

How long do we have to go before menus figure out in which direction a submenu will appear, and draw the arrows accordingly?

Posted 31st October 2010 – Comments and questions?