The End of Active X and the Microsoft Internet

Microsoft’s attempts to take control over dynamic Web content are officially over. My proclamation comes after hearing from Marty Focazio, who works for ScribeStudio.com. The company offers a service for users to quickly create, package and publish their own dynamic content, such as e-Learning Programs, video seminars and multimedia presentations.

Marty is just one of many people that changing their Web sites over from Active X and popups to display dynamic and interactive content. I’ll let him explain.

While I was not here when that decision was made, I am faced with dealing with the downstream effects of having a service that won't run on Firefox, occasionally requires the installation of an Active-X control, is Mac-hostile and requires people to explicitly allow pop-ups. So what's the alternative? In a word, Ajax.

In many ways, we have to go Ajax, just to reach our corporate customers, because we're seeing flat-out bans on Active-X, a pretty substantial move away from IE, and an increasing number of Mac systems. Not to mention that a site that uses unrequested pop-ups, whether it's our own or the US Postal Service, can't be around that much longer. So we're fixing these issues. It's not pleasant and it's not fun.

The reasons for the use of Active-X and Pop-ups were essentially that the user needed to be able to interact with the server and stored data in a way that wasn't really possible without Active-X, or at least not to the level of interaction that's more like a "local" application, in terms of things you can do with the data on your computer and on the web server.

For example, we have a really nice text editor - word processor, really, that is pretty much the same as the Writely product Google recently bought. But again, that's an Active-X control, not an Ajax-y thing, so that's gotta go. That's the root of the issue -- our application lets people create online versions of their courses, events and presentations, and there's a huge amount of data interaction involved, so the ability to extend the user's computer into our servers and vice versa is at the heart of the matter.

In the end, it's kind of the whole "network is the computer" model that's making Ajax compelling for us. Yeah, that's old news, but when you treat a web browser as a "sandbox" for your application, and you have what feels like live data interaction, you can begin to do what Java promised and never delivered. Instead of slow-loading, jerky applets with annoying interfaces and horrendously pokey jsp servers, with Ajax like development, I have a "never stop writing, run almost anywhere" environment which is less sexy than "Write once, run anywhere" but is more pragmatic and fits the reality of the market.

Does anyone still use Solaris?

Apache Foundation does, but then, they got a free box. I recently got a tour of Stanford’s data center, and was interested to see that they are moving off of Sun platforms for a variety of reasons: cost, lack of timely support from their Sun reps, Linux is almost as good, and did I mention cost?

I went to Stanford grad engineering school back in the dawn of the personal computing era in year [mumble]. Back then if I could have gotten into Forsythe Hall I would have seen a lot of DEC and IBM gear. Now there is a single IBM mainframe, and DEC is long a memory. Ironically, the robotic tape library that supports it dwarfs the mainframe itself, and the clusters of Intel boxes occupy most of the floor.

Even though the Stanford data center is in an air-conditioned, raised floor type of place, the technicians have to be careful where they place the gear because the PC platforms can output plenty of heat. I was interested to see that there are “hot” and “cold” rows of gear in alternating rows around the floor: depending on the server, you might not be able to densely pack them on racks because they will cook.

Beware of the PIN pad

If you have a debit card and make purchases use those little terminal point-of-sale thingies that have a small keypad to enter your PIN number for your transaction, a rule of thumb:

Don’t enter your PIN on these terminals. The latest round of thefts, according to MSNBC, hacks into these terminals and retrieves the stored PINs from the system.

Most people don’t know this, but when you go to use a debit card for a transaction, you can still choose the “credit” option and sign your receipt. The purchase still gets posted to your bank account as if it were a debit transaction, but at least you don’t have to use your PIN.

I don’t like the POS machines anyway — I always forget which way to slide my card through, and sometimes the screen is hard for these old eyes to read. But now you have even more motivation not to use them.

Blogging and the mainstream media: one comment

Those of you that don’t live in LA probably don’t realize how sucky our local print media coverage is. We have numerous newspapers, but none really offer what is going on outside of The Industry, that small segment of the population that we all aspire to be, or at least aspire to have multi-million dollar paychecks and homes perched precariously over major fault lines, but with fabulous ocean views.

Anyway, Mack Reed publishes the LAVoice, a fledgling effort that has some quite good journalism and is always entertaining. Here is a post of his about how blogs are not The Next Big Thing:


Blogs are the CB radio of the '00s. Those who know how to use 'em, and need to, will do so, and they'll be as commonly accepted as part of the mediastream as hey-looka-this irritainment e-mails are now.

Come to think of it, most of what is published in the mainstream press is irritainment. A great high concept!

Trusting Slate’s server logs

More on opening the kimono, this time from Slate magazine. Want to understand how Slate thinks it has 8 million uniques a month, while the two Web rating services show about half that? An interesting analysis and explanation to be sure from Paul Boutin.


[T]he more I realize people in other media are in denial. Internet publishing is the most finely measurable medium ever invented; broadcast, movie, and print companies have no way of monitoring individual transactions from their end. Yet, while the Web guys admit they could be off by half, Nielsen claims its television ratings have a margin of error of 4 percent. If I were in the cast of Arrested Development, I'd demand a recount.

The Microsoft iPod

In my quest for finding office space, I have been visiting numerous businesses in the area in the attempt to find a shared office. And while I haven’t found anything that appealing yet, it has made me get out of the house and at least see some pretty cool offices.

Last week, I was in a computer consulting firm in Venice that had all of the original 1980-era Macs on display, supposedly in working order. They were lined up on top of their very nice big screen TV system and made for a great conversation piece.

I thought about this after seeing this wonderful parody video that answers the musical question what would Microsoft do for its iPod box design. Apple still gets consumer packaging and design better than anyone else. Well, their newest boom box might be an exception.

Mashups galore

No, I didn’t go to Mashup Camp, much as I would have liked. But if you missed the festivities of having people proud of their APIs trying to get 20-somethings interested in building apps for them, then take a gander over yonder at this amazing listing of mashups.

What’s a mashup you might ask? In music/podcasting terms, it is when someone combines multiple songs together for a mixture of something new. In Web terms, you take multiple programming interfaces and produce something unique, like a way to display a map of used cars in your ‘hood that meet your specs, or bands that are playing at nearby clubs. All done within the comfort and safety of your Web browser. No small animals were harmed during the creation of this movie. And safe for families too.

Why marketing matters

I spent some time with Marcia Kadanoff of Firewhite this week and loved the fact that she was not only a very smart gal but also moonlights as her home CIO. When I came by she was telling her hubby what was wrong with their home network, while whipping out the Web browser to add access for my laptop. I have to admit, I got a little hot.

And check out this post on why marketing matters even more. These days when companies are being created right and left with little regard for how to capture and retain customers, it is time to go into the Wayback machine and remember those first marketing principles.

You have heard of iTunes, now there is iMom

In today’s LA Times, a representative from HP is quoted as saying:

"Digital photography used to be male-dominated; all images ended up in cameras and on hard drives and the guy would take care of it," said Larry Lesley, HP's SVP of digital photography and entertainment services. "Now it is shifting to the iMom who used to drop off film then do shopping. She's taking back control of the family memories."

The story talks about a new kiosk computer from HP that will go into drug stores around California soon to enable people to print their digital photos.

Now, it so happens I was in a Wolf Camera store this week, getting a battery for my bike computer. A woman in front of me was getting her passport photo, and I noticed the process. First the clerk took her picture with a digital camera. Then he took the media out of the camera and placed it in a kiosk in the store and printed the pictures. The kiosk had about 17 different slots for various digital media, and a CD burner too. It was a nice setup, and it took no time to get the photo printed and the woman on her way.

So these kiosks are already out there. It sure will help get those photos off the hard drives of the world and onto paper, where they then can be filed away in shoeboxes just like the analog prints of old.

Certainly, Apple has done more than anyone to make things easier: you just plug the camera in, and iPhoto takes care of the rest. And there are several solutions on the Windows side, including preclick.com (which is OEM’ed to HP, BTW). But it will be interesting to see if HP can recapture the balance of power over who owns the digital family photo assets. The problem, like so much of digital photography, isn’t about the tech. It is about family politics.

Now, I am just one silly user in this arena, but my digital assets are a mess. Part of the problem is that both my wife and I have changed so many computers over the past couple of years that we can’t keep track of things. Part is that we use both Windows and Mac PCs, and have photos on both (the Mac works much better but my wife is a Windows gal). And part is just inertia — this is a project for a rainy weekend, but we live in LA where we don’t usually have too many rainy weekends.

No amount of software is going to help us get organized. But I love the fact that guys at HP are targeting the iMoms of the world.