Testing how web pages look in IE without using a PC

At Talis were developing a number of web based applications built upon our platform. When building any web based application testing across different browsers is vitally important due to compatability issues across browsers – these issues arise from differing levels of compliance to standards, and because browser vendors don’t support common baselines. This makes testing not only important but also very frustrating at times.

Here’s some browser usage statistics I found over at w3schools which show’s how commonly used each of these browsers are, the most common at the moment is IE6 followed closely by FireFox:

2007 IE7 IE6 IE5 FireFox Mozilla Safari Opera
May 19.2% 38.1% 1.5% 33.7% 1.3% 1.5% 1.6%
April 19.1% 38.4% 1.7% 32.9% 1.3% 1.7% 1.6%
March 18.0% 38.7% 2.0% 31.8% 1.3% 1.7% 1.6%
February 16.4% 39.8% 2.5% 31.2% 1.4% 1.7% 1.5%
January 13.3% 42.3% 3.0% 31.0% 1.5% 1.7% 1.5%

Now, when developing a web based application it is possible for developers to have most of these browsers installed on a single machine. For example it is now possible for me as a developer to install Firefox, Safari, Netscape, Opera and a single version of IE on my Windows desktop.

The problem that Im often faced with though is that more often than not we have to test applications across multiple versions of IE. Out of the box it isn’t possible to have two different versions of IE installed on the same machine. This is largely due to the fact that IE is integrated so tightly into the OS so as soon as you update to IE7 it removes IE6.

There are some standalone installers out there that allow you to run multiple IE’s under windows. Here’s one such utility that some of my colleagues are using successfully. Unfortunatly I haven’t managed to get it to work for me, it crashes a lot on my machine, as is often the case when your forced to hack around with DLL’s. So I started looking for some alternatives.

I use VMWare a lot – the funky laptop I have has hardware support for virtualisation which means my Virtual Machines run fast enough for me to use them for day to day development work, I like the flexibility this approach gives me, for example I think I currently have a Red Hat, Ubuntu, Fedora Core 5, 6 and 7 VM’s built on my laptop and depending on what I want to do I just fire up the one I want to use. Since I do use linux quite a lot I was intrigued when I came across ies4Linux.

IEs4Linux is a simple way to have Microsoft Internet Explorer running on Linux. It currently installs IE6, IE5.5, IE5.0 as well as several service pack versions of these onto a single box. To install it under Fedora Core, as I did, just follow these simple instructions:

Open a terminal, login as a root and install the following dependencies:


Now open a terminal, logging in with your normal user account and do the following:


The installer is interactive and will ask you which particular versions you wish to install. After that’s all done it will place icons on your desktop. A VM can see the host machine so it really doesn’t matter whether your developing your site under linux natively or if your doing the bulk of your development under Windows. You can still fire up IE on your VM and test how your web application looks and behaves. I’ve used this approach on a couple of projects and it seems to be working out quite well.

Additionally, sometimes you don’t actually want to see to test the behaviour of the web app, you simply want to verify that it renders consistently across different browsers. A number of web based services have started appearing that allow you to specify a URL and will capture an image of that page rendered inside a particular version of a browser, or even a set of browsers. NetRenderer is one such service, which I quite like because of its simplicity, that will capture images of a page in different flavours of IE and display them immediately. On the hand there is also BrowserShots which is a far more comprehensive service that will take images of web pages on different browsers across different OS’s, this service however does not return those images immediately but batches them up and you have to wait around half an hour which can be tedious – however the service is still being developed and we should be seeing real-time offerings at some point in the future.

Poem: Ode to a Grecian Urn

Thou still unravish'd bride of quietness,
    Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thou express
    A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fring'd legend haunt about thy shape
    Of deities or mortals, or of both,
        In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
    What men or gods are these?  What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit?  What struggle to escape?
        What pipes and timbrels?  What wild ecstasy?

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
    Are sweeter: therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear'd,
    Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
    Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
        Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal - yet, do not grieve;
        She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
    For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
    Your leaves, nor ever bid the spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
    For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
    For ever warm and still to be enjoy'd,
        For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
    That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy'd,
        A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
    To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead'st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
    And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
What little town by river or sea shore,
    Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
        Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
    Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
        Why thou art desolate, can e'er return.

O Attic shape!  Fair attitude! with brede
    Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
    Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
    When old age shall this generation waste,
        Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
    Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty," - that is all
        Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

by John Keats

Audiobook: Dune

I have lost count of the number of times I have read Frank Herbert’s Dune. It’s one of those books that I find myself coming back to and re-reading. In fact I think that I have read it at least twice in the last 12 months.

Dune is set far in the future amidst a sprawling feudal interstellar empire where planetary fiefdoms are controlled by noble Houses that owe allegiance to the Imperial House Corrino. The novel tells the story of young Paul Atreides (heir apparent to Duke Leto Atreides and scion of House Atreides) as he and his family relocate to the planet Arrakis, the only source of the spice melange, the most important and valuable substance in the universe. In a story that explores the complex interactions of politics, religion, ecology, technology, and human emotion, the fate of Paul, his family, his new planet and its native inhabitants, as well as the Padishah Emperor, the powerful Spacing Guild, and the secretive female order of the Bene Gesserit, are all drawn together into a confrontation that will change the course of humanity.

I started using iTunes again the other day, as much as I have railed against it in the past it’s actually a very good tool for subscribing to podcasts, and I like the iTunes store, it’s easy to browse and find what your looking for as well as purchasing music. I came across a new Audiobook version of Dune available for download last week so I went ahead and purchased it and downloaded it through the store.

I’ve almost finished listening to it on my iPod. It’s a strange feeling. I’m used to reading books and not to listening to someone else read to me. However it’s been quite an enjoyable experience. For the most part its read/narrated by a Scott Brick, but in some parts other actors assume the voices of the main protagonists and do a good job making the characters come to life .. which is actually quite entertaining.

I’ve really enjoyed the experience. I think might invest in some more audiobooks …

id Tech 5 and Safari for Windows announced at WWDC07

There were a lot of announcements during Steve Job’s keynot ate WWDC07 yesterday. There were two that stood out for me.

Firstly, Apple’s Safari browser is now available for Windows. You can download a beta here. I’ve installed it and have been using it to browse around some of my favourite sites. It definitely renders quicker than Firefox or IE, it has a very snappy feel to it. It is a beta however, although I haven’t had any problems, Andrew, who sits opposite me says its crashed for him when he tried to change the default homepage to www.google.com.

Secondly, John Carmack from id Software, the man responsible for creating the gaming engines that completely defined the First Person shooter genre, appeared on stage to announce id Tech 5 to the world. It’s the next generation of id Software’s revolutionary gaming engine, John describes it briefly:

“So the last couple of years at id we’ve been working in secrecy on next-gen tech and a game for it … this is the first time we’re showing anything we’ve done on it publicly. What we’ve got here is the entire world with unique textures, 20GB of textures covering this track. They can go in and look at the world and, say, change the color of the mountaintop, or carve their name into the rock. They can change as much as they want on surfaces with no impact on the game.”

I dont think the images truly do it justice, but its an immense technical achievement especially when you consider that most people are still raving about the id Tech 4, the engine that powers games like Doom 3 and Quake 4, and the about to be released Enemy Territory: QuakeWars. I’m really looking forward to hearing more about this new technology and the new “secret” title they have been building based on it.

The screen shots above are from Engadget who have been providing minute-by-minute coverage of the keynotes at WWDC07, which you can follow here.

Talis Summer Party … pics and vids

My Colleague Ian Davis posted up some great pictures and videos from our summer party, you can view them following the links below






Enjoy 🙂

A Note On The Word ‘Nigger’

Here’s an interesting essay by Randall Kennedy, Professor of Law at Harvard:

The term has been put to other uses. Some blacks, for instance, use “nigger” among themselves as a term of endearment. But that is typically done with a sense of irony that is predicated upon an understanding of the term’s racist origins and a close relationship with the person to whom the term is uttered. As Clarence Major observed in his Dictionary of Afro-American Slang (1970), “used by black people among themselves, [nigger] is a racial term with undertones of warmth and goodwill – reflecting…a tragicomic sensibility that is aware of black history.” Many blacks object, however, to using the term even in that context for fear that such usage will be misunderstood and imitated by persons insufficiently attuned to the volatility of this singularly complex and dangerous word.

It’s the final sentence of that passage, the one I have highlighted in bold,  that has me wondering whether a young lady who uttered the word and at the time seemed to be  motivated more by alcohol and adolescent stupidity rather than any malicious intent, should have been ejected from a television show.

Kennedy’s words are particularly poignant because we are, increasingly, living in a society where black performers in the music industry are using the word “nigger” so increasingly, it seems to permeate rap and hip hop music to the point that it is used so frequently in lyrics it’s become totally ubiquitous. It no longer seems to matter what the etymology of the word actually is … it’s become part of popular culture.

For example …

I love the artist Sissel, I think she has one of the most amazing voices I have ever heard. I remember not too long ago my younger brother was listening to a song in his car, he’s into rap and hip hop music – I’m not. The song had a good beat but there was nothing particularly great about it, unti Sissel starts singing the chorus in this glorious operatic voice that works so well with the beat. I listen to the song a lot, it has a permanent fixture in my On-The-Go play list on my iPod.  So what’s the point I’m making? Here’s the video for the song … I want you to count the number of times Warren G uses the word “nigger” and also count the number of times the word “fuck” is bleeped out – and explain to me why one is censored but the other is perfectly acceptable?

I noticed that a spokesman for the Commission for Racial Equality commented on the Big Brother incident by stating: “whichever way you look at it using the ‘n’ word is offensive”.  Well to that spokesman I would say if its that offensive shouldn’t we all stop using it?  ( personally I think the most racist organisation in Great Britain is The Commission for Racial Equality, but that’s a whole different rant!).

I think that when words, not matter how offensive, are hijacked by popular culture, their meaning becomes skewed and this results in confusion. When is it ok to use the word nigger? Is it only black’s who should be allowed to use it? If its not ok then why should I have to hear it every time I listen to a rap song, or a hip hop song? Why should I have to see it on the screen when I play Grand Theft Auto?

If the meaning of a word has become confused then surely the context and the intent with which the word is used should be what is used to determine whether we label the one using it as racist.

PhotoSynth at TED

PhotoSynth is a Microsoft technology that I have talked about before, it’s certainly one of the most impressive visual technologies I have seen.  Here’s a video of Blaise Aguera y Arcas at TED this March presenting PhotoShop to the conference attendees and getting a standing ovation … quite deservedly in my opinion. The video is also a great introduction to the technology and what its capable of doing.

I agree with Blaise when he says Simply put, it could utterly transform the way we experience digital images.

Twelve months at Talis

So much has been lost, so much forgotten. So much pain, so much blood. And for what, I wonder. The past tempts us, the present confuses us, and the future frightens us. And our lives slip away, moment by moment, lost in that vast terrible inbetween. But there is still time to seize that one last fragile moment. To choose something better, to make a difference ... and I intend to do just that.

Yesterday was an anniversary of sorts, it marked the end of my first twelve months here at Talis. I was chatting to Ian on the train home last night and as always he asked me how I’m getting on, and I’m happy to say that im still loving everything im doing. I’ve learnt more this last twelve months than in the five years I spent at my previous job. It’s an fantastic environment and its been incredible working alongside a group of extremely talented geeks. I feel like I have grown a lot this past twelve months and not only learnt new things but learnt new ways of thinking about problems.

When I joined Talis I was looking for a new beginning, I guess there was a part of me that needed to start over and that needed more than anything else to forget the past. I certainly found that new beginning here and it’s helped me to find my direction again and a sense of purpose … it’s helped me make some wonderful new friends along the way … but most of all I finally feel like I’m actually making a difference.