Sunday, September 30, 2007

Microsoft Vista Waster

Computer and software manufacturers have turned computers from a convenient tool to a means of dictating to us what to buy next. Nowhere is this more apparent than when it comes to updating equipment. Our reliance on computers has become almost absolute, and as hardware and software keep developing, updating equipment has become an inevitable part of our lives. Far from being easy this is a process fraught with problems and potential failure, the worst-case scenario being a migration from one computer to another.

The following observation on a recent computer migration where the excitement of new, more capable, computing equipment soon turns into despair shows how manufacturers, in the forefront Microsoft, have devised ways of fleecing us for our money without providing any meaningful benefits. Their products are not produced in response to customer demands but in order to give the company greater control over both the market segment and the individual user, creating dependencies. The technological capabilities already exist for us to simply walk around with a pocket USB drive containing all our favourite programs, settings and data to plug into a processor anywhere, be it the home, the office, or an internet café, and start doing our work. This kind of freedom is anathema to the industry which is inventing all kinds of measures to prevent us from slipping out of their grips. Online activation is such an example. The obvious problem with online activation is that if the company selling the software goes bust, the expensive program you bought becomes effectively worthless. But even for a strong market player, like Microsoft, it can render your purchase almost obsolete. There are solutions on offer where software programs and files are hosted online for users to work with, however, since business people travel and do not always have adequate online access, these solutions are not a fix for everybody.

If you go out and buy a new computer in the high street or online it will now come with Windows Vista pre-installed as an operating system. Recently, the European Court ruled against Microsoft for anti-competitive practices by bundling its own software with its operating system and preventing interoperability with other software. The ruling hardly goes far enough. A much bigger anti-competitive measure is that the software comes pre-installed in the first place. Customers should have a choice of operating systems when buying a new computer. Vista retails at almost £200, yet it is bundled with new computers for a fraction of that price. So if a customer buys a computer without an operating system (if he can find one!) and buys the operating system separately, he is greatly disadvantaged.

I’ve been operating a multitude of specialist business software on a machine running under MS Windows XP Professional for years, some of it legacy software for which a new software key can no longer be obtained. When looking for a new laptop I was unable to find a newer model with Windows XP pre-installed. I, therefore, bought a Vista model and set about the task of rolling back the operating system. Idealistically I assumed this task would take about half a day, so I set a whole weekend aside, just in case. In the end, it took the best part of a week. Here is why.

The quickest method of migration is to image an existing hard drive and restore it to the new machine. In the past I used Powerquest Drive Image for this purpose. Unfortunately, it does not run under Windows Vista and no updated drivers are available. Hence, I was forced to buy new imaging software, choosing Acronis True Image. After restoring the image to the new system XP failed to run. An attempted Windows repair installation from the original operating system CD indicated the problem: Windows Setup determined that there was no hard drive on the new computer. There was, of course, a hard drive, larger in size than the previous one, but the Intel chip on the laptop was set to only work with Windows Vista. To work with any other operating system special drivers would have to be installed first. In my opinion, this immediately violates the anti-competition laws under which Microsoft was recently fined for lesser non-compliance.

The installation of a hard disk controller driver in itself wouldn’t be such a problem, once obtained from the computer manufacturer’s website, if Microsoft had not been stuck in the stone age with its flag ship Vista product demanding that the driver be loaded from a floppy disk. In the days of USB sticks, new computers no longer feature pre-historic bulky and useless floppy drives. Hence a visit to a local retailer was required to purchase a USB floppy drive in order to load the required drivers. Either Microsoft developers have been very sloppy in this respect when rolling out a new operating system every couple of years, or this relic from the past was left purposefully because the ability to load the drivers from a USB stick might also make it more likely for the operating system to be booted from a USB drive. If Windows could be booted from a USB storage location, then we could upgrade computer hardware without ever having to migrate the operating system and the software running under it and consequently never would have to buy another Mircosoft operating system unless we really fell in love with it.

Endless hours and computer restarts later (which reminds me of somebody’s email signature: “Linux – life is too short for reboots”) I was finally able to boot into Windows XP on the imaged drive. At this point Windows asked for “reactivation” since the hardware had significantly changed from the last login. When Microsoft launched XP it first introduced the “Windows Product Activation” where the operating system would lock you out unless you had activated it within 30 days. Once activated this program would keep a snapshot of your hardware settings and would ask for reactivation if anything but minor changes had taken place. Activation can be done either online or over the telephone where users are given a new lengthy code to enter into their machines in order for them to function. For reactivation the time scale is extremely short, a mere 3 days in total.

I initially ignored the prompt and set about installing the necessary sound, display, modem, LAN drivers etc., since they differed from those of the previous computer. Since expensive laptops are no longer shipped with driver disks, the drivers only being available as part of the “mandatory” Vista installation bundled with the system, those drivers have to be downloaded painstakingly from the computer manufacturer’s website.

The migration process had by now eaten most of the weekend, but there remind the nagging threat of Windows product activation. The Windows XP CD from which this operating system was installed was a genuine one, so reactivation after moving it to a new machine should not pose a problem, however, as the support technician at Microsoft whom I spoke to on the phone declared: “We do not support image installations”. He further explained that the preferred method of installing Windows was to reformat one’s hard drive and start from scratch, as if people only wanted to run Microsoft operating systems for the sheer joy of the Windows welcome tune without the need for any other software and data on their hard drives to be retained.

The problem with the Windows activation was that the Activation Window which popped up on screen was blank, looking like this:

Without any information being displayed, neither internet nor telephone activation would work.

To their credit, Microsoft tried every possible avenue in their arsenal of tricks when I spoke to them for hours to resolve the issue. These calls would have cost me a fortune on the high rate number provided to the public for Microsoft technical support, however, there is a handy website providing alternative numbers, even freephone numbers, for high rate 0807 numbers, helping Joe Public to escape from yet another favourite company money spinning trap.

After accepting that I did not want to wipe my hard drive, Microsoft came up with a number of other possible solutions, the most ingenious one being to do a repair installation of Windows XP after first completely removing Mozilla Firefox from the computer! Mozilla Firefox is a free alternative browser to Internet Explorer, and I wondered whether this was yet another anti-competitive trick Microsoft had up their sleeves. I opted for changing the Windows registry instead so it would not default to Mozilla when trying to display the activation window. As a precaution I also uninstalled Windows Internet Explorer 7, which has been known to cause some display problems in the past, although I was not advised to do so by Microsoft!

After sitting through another boring Windows Setup session with its boastful messages how this Windows was the best ever and allowed you to do anything you could ever wish to do, the result was as disappointing as before. Windows could not be activated. A very helpful Microsoft engineer talked me through some tweaks which were entered in the command prompt in safe mode. He tried his very best, especially since I had intimated I was going to write about my experiences, but it is now official: Microsoft are unable to fix this bug in their activation process.

There are a number of suggestions on this issue on the internet. If anybody encounters as similar problem my advice is not to waste time with them. I should know, because I tried them all. Copying over the wpa.dbl file from a sound installation does not work. Resetting the computer’s system clock to an earlier date does not give you extra days for activation but locks you out straight away even before the 3 days are up! Microsoft have made their activation process quite fool-proof; so fool-proof that even they can’t fix it when it goes wrong!

My only remaining option was now to install a clean copy of Microsoft XP (each time loading the drivers from the floppy drive, of course!), activate it as a new installation and then move my existing programs and files across using Laplink’s PC Mover. This is an ingenious program which moves most applications including their registry entries and only very few of them will require reinstallation or re-licensing. The process takes many hours, but it is second best only to cloning a hard drive. The fact that this is possible renders the Microsoft claim baseless that they do not support image installations to prevent people from running the same operating system on more than one machine. With PC Mover I can do exactly that, because I do not have to de-activate my old Windows copy before activating the new one. The downside to imaging or cloning a hard drive is that a lot of tweaking is required after the move, and of course, it’s yet another product to pay for.

I now have a functional XP Professional installation on my new computer with all my legacy applications working well, many of which would have failed under Vista. Because many of my clients require me to work in applications which run under Windows, I did not consider switching to Linux in the past or swapping the expensive Microsoft Office installation for the free Open Office, which can effectively do all the same things. However, knowing that XP will no longer be supported, and being pretty sure that Vista is going to be even more patronising and devious than XP ever was, I am now seriously looking into installing Linux and running Microsoft programs in a Windows shell or emulator, available from Win4Lin, for example. Microsoft have gone to extreme lengths to trap computer users into running and constantly updating their products without tangible benefit. For me, this latest waste of money and time associated with migrating my computer has gone one step too far. I am planning to set some time aside to experiment with the alternatives, and if I can get it to work, will turn my back on Microsoft forever. Meanwhile, computers continue to come with their software pre-installed, so I better hold on to my USB floppy drive!

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Friday, September 14, 2007

Own goal: Bush sponsored al-Qaeda

In his recent televised address US president Bush landed a serious own goal. Media commentators almost exclusively focused on his promise of troop reductions which the president announced and tried to make out as the result of a successful campaign in Iraq rather than an acknowledgement of ultimate defeat. Yet, the recurrent theme in the Bush address is the struggle to drive al-Qaeda out of Iraq and deny them a safe haven there. He makes the case, for example, that the people of Anbar province were suffering under the Taleban-like rule of al-Qaeda and asked the US to intervene, which ultimately drove al-Qaeda out, although it did not eliminate it as a threat. Likewise, he states that Diyala province was a sanctuary for al-Qaeda, but is no more. Mentioning al-Qaeda no less than eleven times in his short address makes them the central theme of the Bush Iraq strategy.

Leaving aside the highly suspect claims that al-Qaeda is operating successfully inside Iraq and trying to make the country its power base, the September 11 commission in the US, for all its failings to deal with most of the crucial evidence of 9/11, dismissed any link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda. Whilst the Bush administration used al-Qaeda as an excuse to invade Iraq, any intelligence analyis worth his salt understood these links to be politically contrived. So if al-Qaeda has become a serious problem in Iraq, as the president is trying to assert, then his administration must be credited with having introduced al-Qaeda to Iraq. Far from making the world a safer place, therefore, they created a lingering problem in the region which continues to haunt them.

In his obsession with al-Qaeda, president Bush is also demolishing his other hobby horse argument, namely that Iran is fuelling and supporting the Iraqi insurgency. "One year ago, Shia extremists and Iranian-backed militants were gaining strength and targeting Sunnis for assassination. Today, these groups are being broken up and many of their leaders are being captured or killed.", he asserts, missing the point entirely, that al-Qaeda is defined as a Sunni terrorist organisation which considers Shia Muslims to be disbelievers and legitimate targets. It is unperceivable, therefore, that Iran would sponsor such an organisation.

In his televised speech Bush tried to placate the public mood which had turned seriously against him by offering a troop withdrawal on the near horizon. Instead, he has once more made a total fool of himself.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Short sighted environmentalists

To some it is astonishing when protesters join the establishment, like George Monbiot, gamekeeper turned poacher, whose conservative upbringing caught up with him and makes the erstwhile vociferous critic of the establishment now spout the official mantra on 9-11 as well as climate change or global warming. Due to his former credentials as a campaigner he is now a high value asset to those in power.

Yet, there should be nothing surprising about such apparent U-turns. From the days of the early Christians in the Roman Empire to, more recently, the post-war labour movement, opposition has been bought up and re-branded by the ruling elite. These processes are often justified with the need for efficiency in organising the alternative view, and because a lot of the old rhetoric remains in place, genuine believers in the cause only realise what has been happening after the takeover is complete. "Middle England's" "New Labour" is a recent example.

That the hitherto anti-establishment, anti-capitalist environmental movement is becoming an establishment hobby horse is clearly evident in the protest camp recently set up at London Heathrow airport. When environment editor of The Guardian complained about media management at the camp he received a vociferous rebuttal by Media Lens lambasting The Guardian as an establishment paper in bed with Big Oil. Conveniently forgotten in this row was that George Monbiot is a regular columnist in The Guardian, the establishment paper aimed at what remains of "The Left".

In my mind the obsession of the New Environmentalists with air travel is nothing short of a diversion from more important issues like the 9-11 cover-up, the disastrous war in Iraq, and forthcoming war in Iran. Numerous websites offer the unwary traveller an air travel calculator to figure out how badly his journey impacts the environment, so he can set out on his well deserved holiday laden with guilt. I have been unable to find a similar calculator for cruise missiles which are regular fired in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A cruise missile uses only about one tenth of the fuel in its rocket propellant than the fuel burnt by an Airbus, but an Airbus carries almost 150 peaceful people to a place of relaxation, whereas a cruise missile will at most send 15 people into a place of no return. On that score the carbon footprint per person going on holiday and per person killed in these wasteful wars is about the same, but the comparison is slanted, because missile propellant, unlike aircraft fuel, is converted almost completely into CO2, many missiles miss their targets and the equation omits the environmental impact of the carrier aircraft and of other ammunition such as laser-guided bombs. I leave the detail to the statisticians, but let's say for argument's sake that for the negative environmental (never mind social) impact of every human being killed during war you can send at least three people on holiday. These macabre statistics alone should drive home the futility of obsessing with individual air travel.

The casualty figures for these two senseless wars range from 100,000 to half a million; if the latter figure presented by The Lancet was true, then all the 2.5 million passengers passing through all of the UK airports during the course of a whole year could have flown for free as far as the carbon footprint is concerned, and considering the costs of missiles and bombs our government could also have issued them with free complimentary tickets.

Civilian air travel is a peace-time offshoot of military developments. In spite of being heavily subsidised, turnover and profit figures are only in the millions, whereas the military hardware produced by the same companies making civilian aeroplanes nets them billions. War is immensely more profitable than peace, and George Monbiot and his Heathrow protesters help blinding the general public about this unpalatable fact. When will we start hearing about the effects those military adventures have on climate change and calls for the return of our troops not only to save innocent lives in the regions concerned but also to save the planet? Go, camp outside the Pentagon!