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The magic of the app

27 Feb 2012
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This is my editorial from the Spring 2012 issue of HardCopy magazine:

It has long been the case that we view intellectual property – software, the written word, music or film – differently to real, physical objects. This stems from a feeling that copying intellectual property without paying is somehow different because it doesn’t actually deprive the author or the distributor of anything: steal a TV, and the owner can no longer watch television; copy a song, and the owner has still got the original.

This attitude was compounded by the growth of the World Wide Web through the 1990s. Right from the start, one of the big benefits of the Web was that – once you’d paid your phone bill – everything else was free. However, once we’d got over the novelty of it all, many of us started wondering how we were going to make a living in this brave new world. Companies like Amazon and eBay didn’t have a problem as they were selling ‘real things’, but those of us in publishing, music and eventually even film had to face the fact that no-one seemed to be prepared to pay for what we produced. Read more…

Windows Azure

24 Nov 2011

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2011 issue of HardCopy magazine.

Cloud computing is entering a new phase, moving beyond simple ‘servers in the sky’ to something rather more sophisticated and even more useful. Microsoft has thrown huge resources into this new arena and come up with Windows Azure.

Of course cloud computing itself is not new. It has long been common for small and even medium-sized businesses to host their Web sites externally, paying a monthly fee to an Internet Service Provider (ISP) for access to a Web server and perhaps a database on which they can run their Web applications. This could be an ASP.NET application talking to SQL Server, or something written in PHP or Perl that interacts with MySQL. The ISP looks after the operating system and the hardware, keeping it updated and properly backed up, leaving the customer to look after the application.

What is new, and quite genuinely changing the landscape, is the application of virtual machine technology to such services. Microsoft Hyper-V, for example, allows a customer’s installation to run in a virtual machine that can be scaled in terms of memory and virtual processor cores according to demand, or seamlessly moved between servers or even data centres for the purposes of load-balancing and maintenance. This is cloud computing in a more literal sense in that the physical location of the server is less well defined and can change moment-to-moment. This is what Microsoft is using to deliver Windows Azure. Read more…

The power of Apple

22 Nov 2011
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What follows is my editorial from the Winter 2011 issue of HardCopy magazine:

Just recently I discovered a couple of things that brought home to me just how much this industry is changing, and just how much Apple’s influence has grown. The first concerned Amazon’s Kindle. I have been using the Kindle eBook app for some time on my Windows Phone and, more recently, I’ve been using the Kindle itself. One thing that has impressed me is the ease with which I can browse the Kindle Store for books and ‘1-Click’ buy straight from both the device and the app. However, this experience is no longer available to owners of the Apple iPhone or iPad. This is because Apple has changed the rules governing the applications available through the iTunes App Store, explicitly prohibiting apps that have “external mechanisms for purchasing content… such as a ‘buy’ button that goes to a Web site to purchase a digital book.” Read more…

Darik’s Boot and Nuke

16 Nov 2011

If you ever need to completely wipe a hard disk, so that all the data on it is erased, then you need Darik’s Boot and Nuke. I’ve used it a couple of times on computers that have reached the end of their time with me, but might still be useful to someone else, and it’s worked a treat. It’s also free of charge.

Darik’s Boot and Nuke (DBAN) creates a self-contained boot device that takes you straight into the program’s main menu. From here you can simply enter ‘autonuke’ to have the program work out the optimum settings, or you can fine-tune the process. It generally takes eight to ten hours to wipe a modern hard disk, but the display keeps you updated on progress. Erasure is achieved by overwriting the data with random numbers.

DBAN creates its own Linux environment and can run on most Intel x86 or PowerPC systems. It comes as an EXE file for creating a bootable floppy disk or memory stick, or as an ISO file for creating a bootable CD or DVD, both available for download from the SourceForge Web site. One of those programs that you don’t need often, but it does the job when you do.

The benefits of competition

11 Nov 2011

What follows is my editorial from the September 2011 issue of HardCopy magazine:

IBM launched the IBM PC in 1981, bringing the microcomputer into the office and simultaneously opening up a whole new market for IBM ‘clones’ from companies such as Compaq, Ericsson and Tandy. The IBM PC used Intel’s 8088 processor and introduced an architecture that allowed a full megabyte of memory to be addressed; so when Intel launched the 80286 processor a year later, which could directly address 16MB of data, the industry waited to see what IBM would do. Two years later, IBM responded with the IBM PC AT, which again was widely cloned.

Then in 1985, Intel introduced its first general-purpose 32-bit processor in the 80386, and IBM hesitated. The company was frankly fed up with the clone manufacturers, whose ranks now included Dell, Gateway, Olivetti and Zenith, and was looking for strategies that would enable it to reclaim the market. Furthermore, the power of Intel’s new processor meant that a PC based around it might well compete with IBM’s own lucrative minicomputer range, which did not seem like a good idea at the time. Read more…

PSU failure and flashing green light? Find a hair dryer

31 Aug 2011

So how’s this for a nightmare situation: you turned the power to your server off last night, to allow some electrical work to be done. Next morning, you turn the server back on and… nothing happens: nothing lights up, none of the fans are turning, everything seems dead – except for a solitary green light flashing away next to the power inlet. Pull the power plug out and the light stops flashing: plug it back in and the light’s flashing again, but the machine still won’t turn on.

Yes, everything important is backed up (or at least I think it is), but what do I restore it to? Thankfully my desktop PC still connects to the Internet, so in desperation we do a Google search on ‘psu failure flashing green light’. The result: a whole bunch of references to hair dryers, which all sound totally crazy, but what the heck, I’ve got nothing else to try. Unsurprisingly, no-one in the office has a hair dryer to hand, so it’s a quick trip home to borrow one. But what’s totally amazing is that it actually works!

What you do is take the side panels off the server box and then plug it into the mains, so the green light is flashing. Then play the hot air from the hair dryer around the light and around the power supply area with the object of generally raising the temperature of the metal. It takes some time for the heat to permeate into the internal electronics, but just as I’m thinking WHAT AM I DOING THIS IS CRAZY, the green light stops flashing. I press the power switch and the server boots up as if nothing’s happened. And it’s still running now, 12 hours later.

It’s all to do with the fact that the server hadn’t been switched off for such a long time for years, and the temperature within the power supply had dropped causing metal components to shrink, and brittle solder joints to crack. Heating it up caused the metal to expand and the solder to soften, restoring a broken connection somewhere. It’s only a temporary solution but it gives me time to get a new server, or think about moving it all out into ‘the cloud’.

So if you find yourself in a similar situation, go find a hair dryer before you do anything more drastic.

Don Box: the bathtub lecture

19 May 2011

Don Box, co-founder of Developmentor and now Distinguished Engineer at Microsoft, delivers his talk on the intricacies of XML and SOAP from a bathtub at TechEd 2001 Europe, held in Barcelona. (Video copyright Matt Nicholson)

Putting a value on your identity

17 May 2011

What follows is my editorial from the May 2011 issue of HardCopy magazine:

Identity is a funny thing. We all have one, and at some deep level we all know how important it is. Witness our panic at the thought of approaching a border post unable to find our passport, or the idea that someone else might have access to our bank accounts. On the other hand, we’re happy to give away considerable amounts of personal information with little thought as to how it might be used – until, that is, something goes wrong.

Two events have brought the issues that surround personal identity and privacy to the fore recently. Firstly, there was the Sony PlayStation Network hacks in which the personal details of over 100 million users look to have been compromised. This was a case of straightforward identity theft, with the added frisson that it might include your credit card details. Exactly how much this was down to lax security on Sony’s part is not known – although as I write this very question has become the sharp end of a class action suit seeking $1 billion in damages. Read more…

New directions for Intel

20 Apr 2011

Reporting from the Intel Software Conference 2011, held in Dubrovnik this April and based in part on an interview with James Reinders, Director of Software Products.

iStep 2011 conference in Dubrovnik

Despite the undoubted importance of companies like Apple and Microsoft, it is Intel that has most influenced the history of the microcomputer. Back in 1971 it kick-started the whole industry with the first commercial microprocessor, and a decade later the 8088 processor became the basis for the IBM PC. Then in 1982 the release of the 80286 created an architecture that made the likes of Microsoft Windows possible. Since then each successive wave of Intel processors has brought us ever increasing clock speeds, effortlessly allowing our software to achieve more in less time.

But then, in 2004, Intel found itself unable to increase clock speed any further. As a result the company changed tack, realising that it could increase processing speed by doing more than one thing at a time, rather than trying to do one thing after another at ever increasing speed. However this introduced a new problem, as computer programs would only be able to take advantage of multi-core processors if they were rewritten to do so. Read more…

How Windows is shooting itself in the foot

24 Feb 2011

What follows is my editorial from the February 2011 issue of HardCopy magazine:

I recently bought myself a brand new notebook PC. It’s not something I’ve done for a while but the battery life and performance of my previous model, a dinky little JVC number that seemed so sweet when I bought it some eight years back, was no longer tolerable. I wanted Windows 7, I wanted dual-core, I wanted light weight and I wanted something with a battery that would last at least a return trip to London, if not a transatlantic flight. I dabbled momentarily with the idea of an iPad, but I needed something that could integrate seamlessly into my Windows-centric world, and I baulked at the lack of keyboard. Netbooks seemed tempting but under powered, so in the end I plumbed for a very natty-looking notebook from a very respected manufacturer who shall, for reasons that will become apparent, remain nameless. Read more…

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