Archive for the ‘Software’ Category

File Under: Security, Software

Microsoft Gets Ready to Pull the Life Support on Windows XP

That’s the end of the line. Image: Johan Larsson/Flickr

Today marks the first day of the last year of Windows XP’s long and storied life.

On April 8, 2014, Microsoft will officially stop supporting Windows XP, meaning there will be no more security updates or other patches. When April 2014 rolls around Microsoft will have supported Windows XP for nearly 12 years.

Should you chose not to upgrade before next year, you will be, in Microsoft’s words “at your own risk” in dealing with security vulnerability and any potential malware designed to exploit them.

According to NetMarketShare, just over 38 percent of PCs connected to the web are still running Windows XP. Given that current XP users have already ignored three OS upgrades, it seems reasonable to assume a significant number of XP diehards still won’t upgrade even now that Microsoft is no longer issuing security updates — all of which adds up to a potentially huge number of vulnerable PCs connected to the web.

NetMarketShare’s OS statistics for March 2013. Image: Screenshot/Webmonkey.

Starting around this time next year expect black hat hackers to have a botnet fire sale.

With so many suddenly vulnerable PCs on the web, it’s really only a matter of time before unpatched vulnerabilities are identified and exploited, which could mean a serious uptick in the amount of botnet spam or worse — imagine even a small percentage of those 38 percent of PCs being harnessed for distributed denial of service attacks.

For individual users upgrading Windows XP shouldn’t be too difficult, barring a dependency on software that’s never been updated. If Windows 7 or 8 aren’t to your liking there’s always Linux (I suggest starting with Mint Linux if you’re new to Linux).

Upgrading enterprise and government installations is somewhat more difficult. Microsoft puts the matter quite bluntly on the Windows blog: “If your organization has not started the migration to a modern desktop, you are late.”

The Windows blog post contains quite a few links designed to help anyone looking to upgrade, but at the enterprise/government level it may well be too late anyway. “Based on historical customer deployment data,” says Microsoft, “the average enterprise deployment can take 18 to 32 months from business case through full deployment.”

Windows XP isn’t the only Microsoft product that will be getting the heave-ho this time next year. Internet Explorer 6 on XP, Office 2003, Exchange Server 2003 and Exchange Server 2010 Service Pack 2 (newer service packs of Exchange Server 2010 are still supported) will all be cast adrift. It’s also worth noting that this affects virtual machines as well, so if you’ve got a Windows XP virtual machine for testing websites, well, be careful out there.

File Under: Software, Web Services

It’s Official, Microsoft to Kill Off Windows Messenger in March

Image: Screenshot/Webmonkey

Attention fans of Windows Live Messenger (née MSN Messenger), Microsoft is shutting the service down for good March 15, 2013.

The company sent out an email this week informing Windows Live Messenger users that the service will be going the way of Clippy. Instead users (and their contact lists) will be migrated to Skype, which Microsoft acquired in May 2011.

As with most service shutdowns, expect this one to be bumpy, especially given the relatively short notice and the fact that Skype lacks a number of features Messenger offers, including controlling a remote screen, custom emoticons and offline messages. There are already numerous threads on the Skype community forums complaining about the features lost in the move to Skype.

But thus far, complaining hasn’t stopped the transition. To get started making the switch you’ll need to download the Skype client app and then login using your Microsoft account. From there you should have access to all your Windows Live Messenger contacts. If you’re already a Skype user as well you can login with your Skype account and link it to your Messenger account.

According to Microsoft’s FAQ, between now and the cutoff date, Messenger will continue to work as it always has, though you’ll see a banner encouraging you to download Skype (provided you’re using a newer version of Messenger). If you click the banner and follow the install instruction Messenger will be uninstalled after Skype is ready to go.

After March 15, you’ll no longer be able to sign into Messenger.

File Under: Software, Web Services

Microsoft Puts ‘Windows Live’ Brand Out to Pasture [Updated]

Microsoft is getting ready to ditch the “Windows Live” moniker for the company’s suite of online services like mail, messaging, syncing and account management. The changes to Microsoft’s cloud offerings will be more than skin deep though; the revamped Windows Live services will be tightly integrated into the coming Windows 8 operating system.

When Windows 8 arrives it will be “cloud-powered”, as the Building Windows 8 blog puts it. That means the Windows Live Essentials app suite (a separate download for Windows 7) will no longer be around. Instead Metro-style apps that handle mail, photos, calendars and sharing are a default part of Windows 8 and come already connected to the cloud.

When you sign into a Windows 8 PC or tablet with your Microsoft account — that would be the account formerly known as Windows Live ID — your e-mail, calendar, contacts, messages, and shared photo albums are synced to that machine.

What’s slightly confusing about the changes is that they represent an about face not only in branding, but in goals. When Microsoft introduced the Windows Live Essentials suite of apps for Windows 7, it touted the fact that they were separate applications that could be updated more frequently than Windows itself. Now Microsoft is once again integrating the apps and their syncing components into the OS and this time around it’s touting the integration rather than the separation.

Microsoft's chart of software and services in the coming world of Windows 8.

There’s one exception to the Windows-Live-to-Metro-app migration — Microsoft’s blogging software, Windows Live Writer, which is not mentioned at all in Microsoft’s announcement. While far from the most popular of the Windows Live Essentials apps, Live Writer has a vocal and enthusiastic user base as is evidenced by the numerous comments on the Building Windows 8 blog. Microsoft did not respond to our inquiries regarding Live Writer in time for this post. [Update: Microsoft tells Wired that it will have “more info soon,” but in the mean time points out that “all desktop apps work great and are supported on Windows 8, including Windows Live Writer.” In other words, even if Live Writer doesn’t get a Metro makeover, the standard desktop app will work just fine in Windows 8.]

To learn more about the changes and see the new Windows 8 syncing features in action, be sure to watch the video on the Windows 8 blog.

Video: Inventing on Principle

We just had a moment similar to the time we first saw content-aware scaling in action, but this time it’s even better — we’ve seen the future of programming tools and it looks awesome.

Check out the video above of Bret Victor‘s recent talk, “Inventing on Principle.” Victor has worked on experimental UI concepts at Apple and also created the interactive data graphics for Al Gore’s book, Our Choice. The video above of Victor’s keynote at the Canadian University Software Engineering Conference, captures a wonderful talk on living your life based on principles, but for many developers what’s most arresting are the software development tools demoed.

Do your current tools suddenly feel incredibly outdated? Perhaps you thought you were using a well-tuned coding machine but suddenly realize you’re really just hitting two stones together? Thought so. Sadly, the apps demoed in the video aren’t available. That’s all right, though; it just means someone needs to build them. Be sure to let us know if you do.

File Under: Software

Review: Lightroom 4 Beta Offers Subtle, but Worthwhile Improvements

Lightroom 4 beta

Adobe has released the first public beta of what will become Photoshop Lightroom 4, a subtle but important upgrade for Adobe’s Camera Raw image editor. This release sees Adobe primarily focused on improving the Lightroom interface, particularly the core Develop Module which offers a revamped, more intuitive set of image controls.

Lightroom 4 beta is a free download available from the Adobe Labs website, but do keep in mind that this is beta software intended for testing. Be sure to use duplicates of images that have been backed up elsewhere when testing Lightroom 4.

While many of Lightroom 4′s upgrades are subtle tweaks there are some bigger changes as well, including two new modules — a new Map Module for adding and storing geodata and a Book Module for designing and printing books.

The new Map Module requires an internet connection and uses Google Maps to show satellite, hybrid and other Google Maps views. You can drag and drop images from the film strip onto the map and Lightroom will add the geodata to the image. Naturally, while that works it’s rather tedious for large imports. Those with thousands of images to add will be happy to know that Lightroom supports so-called track logs. For example, if you use a mobile app to log your image locations, Lightroom can read the data (provided the app can export it) and then attach it to your images. If your camera records geodata directly, Lightroom will use that info. Once you have the geodata added you can search images by location or browse through them using the map.

LR4 Map Module

Along with the geodata comes some new privacy settings for your images, including an option to ignore any geographic data Lightroom might find.

The other entirely new menu item in Lightroom 4 is the Book Module which does exactly what you think it does — helps you layout and typeset a book for printing. The Book Module works much like what you’d find in other software and online services: Select your images, choose from a number of templates and then start customizing. The difference with Lightroom is the level of customization possible, which includes everything from layouts to fonts to even the leading and kerning applied to fonts. Actual book printing is handled through (or you can export a PDF to print on your own).

Creating books in Lightroom 4

Another notable new feature worth mentioning before we dive into the revamped Develop Module is that Lightroom 4 includes much improved support for HD videos. While Lightroom 3 can import and store videos, it can’t edit or even play them back. Lightroom 4 steps up the video support. Playback is handled by some components borrowed from Adobe Premiere and Lightroom itself treats the movies as just another image. That means you can adjust levels and make basic tweaks to your video directly in Lightroom 4 using most of the tools in the Quick Develop panel (except for Crop, Highlights, Shadows and Clarity, which are disabled for video). The editing tools are obviously nowhere near as powerful as what you’ll find in dedicated video editors, but it will work for serious photographers who occasionally dabble in video.

The Develop Module

The Develop Module is the heart of Lightroom and it’s where most of the refinements in Lightroom 4 have happened. At first glance the Develop Module looks about the same, but the basic development tools have been considerably reworked. Instead of the somewhat obscure tone sliders like Recovery, Fill Light and Brightness, Lightroom 4 has been reorganized to Highlights, Shadows, Whites and Blacks. Each slider controls exactly what its name suggests.

Adobe has also changed the sliders so that all of the tone adjustments default to the middle. Drag the slider left and whichever effect you’re using gets darker; drag it to the right and it gets lighter. It’s a small change, but it makes adjusting images more intuitive and also makes it easier to get back to where you started.

The basic panel in the Develop Module. The old, LR3 is on the left, the new LR4 beta on the right

Of course while the new controls may be more intuitive and somewhat easier to use that’s really only an improvement if they’re capable of producing the same or better results. After testing them on a variety of images over the course of a few days it’s clear that the new tools are an improvement, though there’s definitely a learning curve to perfecting them. (Hint: apply your adjusts in order, from top to bottom.) And sometimes the loss of the Brightness slider is annoying. Despite Adobe’s assurances that Exposure covers the same ground as Brightness used to, sometimes it doesn’t look that way.

The new Highlights and Shadows sliders essentially do the work of the old Recovery and Fill Light sliders, respectively. In most situations the Highlights and Shadows sliders work much better than their predecessors. Highlights in particular is more useful than Recovery and actually lightens or darkens all of an image’s highlights, rather than washing out the middle highlights in kind of neutral gray color the way Recovery often did. (This is particularly noticeable in images with snow, clouds, concrete or any other situation with a wide but subtle range of highlight tones.)

Where Highlights is more powerful than Recovery was, Shadows seems more restrained than Fill Light. Indeed in some images I tested it was hard to tell any effect at all with the Shadows adjustment until it was paired with the Blacks slider. However, the subtleness of Shadows makes it perfect for adjusting shadows in darker images where more subtly is called for. If you’re just looking to create greater contrast look to the Blacks or Contrast adjustments.

In the end Highlights and Shadows are not intended to be one-to-one replacements for Recovery and Fill Light; they’re similar, but different enough that it takes some practice to get comfortable with them. However, after practicing for a few days I found that I was able to produce better results than I had on the same images using Lightroom 3.

[Note that should you export some images from Lightroom 3 to test in Lightroom 4, you may not see the new sliders in the Develop Module. Instead you'll see a small exclamation point icon at the bottom right corner of the image window. Click that icon and Lightroom will offer to upgrade your images to the "current process." Once you've converted the images the new adjustment tools will appear.]

RGB Channel adjustments

Lightroom 4′s Develop Module also offers better local adjustment tools, making it easier to apply adjustments to only select parts of images. For example, graduated filters can now apply effects like noise reduction and moire. Both of those new filters are also available via the brush tool so you can brush noise reduction into, say, only the shadow areas of your image. Similar local adjustments can be made using the new Highlights and Shadows as well as the Blacks and Whites.

There are a number of other changes in the development panel — for example, the algorithms behind the Clarity slider have been updated to reduce halos — but perhaps the most interesting small change is the ability to make Point Curve edits to individual RGB channels. Previously this sort of fine-grained tweaking necessitated a trip to Photoshop (or similar), but now you can tweak your RGB channels right in Lightroom.

Other Improvements

There are a number of small but welcome changes in Lightroom 4 that solve some “paper cut” problems in previous releases. For example Lightroom 4 now has an option to e-mail a photo. Strange that it took four revisions to get something so simple in, but it’s there now. Another nice new change is the ability to hide the main menu items you don’t need. Outside of verifying that it works for review purposes I’ve never used Lightroom’s Web Module, so now I can stop it from taking up screen real estate — handy considering that with the Book and Map menu items the menu is occupying more space than ever.

Under the hood Adobe has made some changes to the DNG format which will affect anyone who is converting Camera RAW images to DNG format. The most significant change for Lightroom is something Adobe calls fast load data. Fast load data lets Adobe apps display images faster using just the core data, without waiting for the entire set of image data to load. Adobe claims that images using fast load load up to eight times faster. If you’re worried about backward- or cross-compatibility with other apps Adobe assures me that apps that don’t understand fast load will still be able to process those images. The new fast load feature is enabled by default.

The second change to the DNG format is the addition of a lossy compression option. Given that part of the appeal of DNG (and more generally, Camera Raw) format is that it preserves all your data it’s hard to see why anyone would want lossy compression in DNG, but it’s there if you do. (The new lossy compression option is, thankfully, disabled by default.)


The Lightroom 4 beta sees Adobe playing a bit of catch-up — tools like the Map and Book modules have been available in competitor Aperture for some time — but also focusing on improving the core of Lightroom, the Develop Module. It might take a day or two to wrap your head around the changes in the revamped tone adjustment tools, but once you do you won’t want to go back. Indeed that’s the biggest problem with this beta release — it’s a beta and, much as you might like to, I wouldn’t suggest using it with your actual images yet. However, Adobe tells that the Lightroom 4 beta period will likely be somewhat shorter than the rather long Lightroom 3 beta test.

Of course, given that, at least on the surface, Lightroom 4 looks like less of an upgrade than the move from Lightroom 2 to 3, it’s worth asking whether or not Lightroom 4 will be worth the price. The answer will depend on your image workflow and whether the new adjustment tools help you develop better images. For that reason I would suggest trying the beta now and spending some time with it before the final (paid) release rolls around later this year. Keep in mind though that this is an early beta and, if past beta release are any indication, Adobe may well add some more features before Lightroom 4 is finalized.