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:

  1.  

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

  1.  

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.

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.

Microsoft adds copyrighted books to its Live Search

Microsoft has added copyrighted books to its online library, stating it has permission to offer the works t searchers on the internet .  They have made deals with with authors and publishers to include their works in the Live Search, and in doing so Microsoft have managed to sidestep the controversy that Google initially triggered when they began their book digitising project to offer the worlds written works online.

User’s have to log into Live Search in order to read the content online, it appears that user’s can only read a certain number of pages and the software keeps track of how many pages visitors have read online for free. Most of the searches I have performed allow me to read 10% of the pages in any Copyrighted book that I’m browsing. I actually find this far more useful than simply being able to browse the table of contents or view selected extracts as one can in Google’s Book Search. This enables me to make a more informed decision as to whether I want to go and buy the book, and also, if im just searching for the answer to a question or need to read up on a chapter on some specific subject, I can read those bits for free online which probably will mean I wont need to go out and buy the book.

Amongst the publishers who have agreed to allow this type of access to their materials are Simon and Schuster, Mcgraw-Hill, Rodale and Cambridge University Press. Microsoft obviously provide direct links to where the books you are reading online can be purchased from. It’s an interesting move by Microsoft when you consider that Google’s wholesale scanning of copyrighted works in library collections will give it a larger database of books, but by working with publishers and obtaining their permission, Microsoft is seemingly able to offer a better experience to users.

Microsoft Surface

Rob mentioned Microsoft Surface to me at lunch time, I had seen it on several blogs but   haven’t really had a chance to have a look at it. It’s very impressive technonology. as Rob points out its a combination of many different muli touch techniques that we’ve seen in other demonstrations over the last six or so months. As far as I’m aware this is the first commercial product to enter the market, and they’ve done a great marketing piece on it over at http://www.microsoft.com/surface

However if you want to see it an action, I found this product demo on YouTube. I was very impressed with how the surface interacts with real world objects like camera’s, for example, placing a digital camera on the table will automatically grab the photos off it.

Below is another demonstration of Surface, this time over at PopularMechanics

There more I see this in action the more I want one!

Microsoft Silverlight

Although I had heard that Microsoft had announced it was going to release Silverlight, I hadn’t actually had the time to look into it. Got back from the gym this evening and decided I’d find out a bit more about it. I have to confess at first glance im very impressed.

First things first you can find out more about it at the Official Product Homepage. You can download Silverlight Community Technology preview from here. Once installed you’ll need to restart your browser and now if you go back to the Silverlight product homepage and click on the video in the centre of the screen to view it in the embedded Silverlight player.

You can also click on this link to view a demo of the Silverlight Page Turn media feature. This demonstrates how Silverlight uses XAML to create a presentation of images. When the demo loads, hold down your mouse button on the page turn icon and drag the page as though you were actually turning a page in a book. It’s quite nice.

On their own these two demo’s dont really give you a huge insight into where MS is headed with this product. Naturally its being positioned to compete with Adobe’s Flash. However to get a feel of just how far Microsfot has come watch this video! This video shows the power of MS Expression Media Encoder and Silverlight working together. The Real Time video editing capabilities using hardware graphics acceleration is really impressive. So too is the ability to create and stream media with chapter links, so you can jump to predefined points in the stream, by embedding meta data into the video’s.

By far the most impressive feature is called Video Brush, that in the demo is used to overlay a video on a jigsaw, here’s the impressive thing you can move the individual pieces of the jigsaw around and the video is still plays inside the pieces. Whilst this is eye candy, it could have amazing real world uses … picture in picture over the web for example!

Learn more about Expression Media Encoder and SIlverlight over at Tim Sneath’s Blog.

Google buys DoubleClick for $3.1 Billion

It’s official, Google has acquired on-line advertising outfit DoubleClick for $3.1 billion. The sky high price though may be less a function of DoubleClick’s actual worth and more about what it can strategically provide for Google – and what it could have done for Microsoft, who were also bidding for the company.

Through this acquisition Google has gained a vibrant advertising business for banners, videos and other so-called display-ads intended to promote brands rather than to generate immediate sales. It’s widely known fact that DoubleClick has relationships with almost every major online publisher and almost half of all online ad agencies. This means that Google can now go head to head with its main search rival Yahoo! in the display advertising business.

To get an idea of why this is so important, analysts predict that the paid search advertising market will account for more than 40% of the $19.5 billion expected to go to on-line advertising this year (Mar. 7 eMarketer report).

David Rosenblatt, CEO of DoubleClick, made an interesting comment about this acquisition – he’s excited at the prospect of using DoubleClick’s relationships and Google’s targeting to sell off-line ads in the future. He also believes that DoubleClick’s existing clients wont think of this as a threat, but as a tool that makes advertising easier : ” I think they will see this as a best-of-breed combination – the leading platform technology provider and the leading monetization engine”.

Even more power for Google.

Microsoft is dead.

I’ve read pretty much all of Paul Graham’s essays. I think he’s a wonderful writer and in the past we have often found ourselves debating his views at our bi-weekly geek bookclub @ Talis. One of his most seminal pieces was Hackers and Painters – which every developer should read. So, as you might imagine, I was more than a little intrigued this morning when my FeedReader listed a new essay by Paul with the contentious title: Microsoft is Dead.

Paul argues that Microsoft is no longer frightening, that the company is no longer seen as a threat, no longer casts the shadow it once did over the entire software industry:

I can sense that. No one is even afraid of Microsoft anymore. They still make a lot of money—so does IBM, for that matter. But they’re not dangerous.

Paul attributes this demise, if that’s the right word for it, to four things:

Firstly , Google. Who Paul believes is the most dangerous company now by far, in both good and bad senses of the word – using www.live.com as an example of how Microsoft is limping behind Google, continuously playing catchup.

Secondly, was the release of Gmail and the introduction of AJAX to the masses. Gmail showed how much you could do with web based software – signalling the death knell of the desktop as more and more applications are delivered over the web. Paul describes how Microsoft themselves might have contributed to the rise of AJAX, something I was previously unaware of:

Ironically, Microsoft unintentionally helped create Ajax. The x in Ajax is from the XMLHttpRequest object, which lets the browser communicate with the server in the background while displaying a page. (Originally the only way to communicate with the server was to ask for a new page.) XMLHttpRequest was created by Microsoft in the late 90s because they needed it for Outlook. What they didn’t realize was that it would be useful to a lot of other people too—in fact, to anyone who wanted to make web apps work like desktop ones.

The third cause is the widespread availability of high speed broadband Internet access – which is key to facilitating the delivery of web based applications to end users – which in turn is key to moving users away from the reliance on desktop based tools and applications.

The final nail in the coffin, Paul argues, came from Apple. The company re-defined itself and offered the world a viable alternative to Windows, in OS X. I know from personal experience that although I don’t have a Mac or a PC running native Linux, I do much of my development work in Linux VM Machines – this is partly due to infrastructure policy on our company laptops … which I should hasten to add … just changed 🙂 So when I get my shiny new laptop I can run Linux on it natively Yippee! ( I’d love it even more if I could have one of those 17″ MacBook’s … pretty please Ian if you do I’ll buy you one of these t-shirts!)

I think to a great extent Paul is actually right. But I personally wouldn’t count Microsoft out of the running. Microsoft is still a company that is capable of innovating great things. Just take a look at what’s coming out of their research labs in terms of PhotoSynth and DeepFish – to understand that they are looking to push the envelope in certain areas. Unfortunatly it does appear that these days they are reacting to innovations made by their competitors – www.live.com , and maps.live.com are great examples of two Microsoft products that are essentially late alternatives to Google Web Search, and Google Earth. Instead of leading the way, Microsoft is being forced to change it’s traditional business because others, like Google, are changing the industry around it.

I think Paul is absolutely right when he attributes part of their downfall, as it were, to their complacency as a Monopoly:

I’m glad Microsoft is dead. They were like Nero or Commodus—evil in the way only inherited power can make you. Because remember, the Microsoft monopoly didn’t begin with Microsoft. They got it from IBM. The software business was overhung by a monopoly from about the mid-1950s to about 2005. For practically its whole existence, that is. One of the reasons “Web 2.0” has such an air of euphoria about it is the feeling, conscious or not, that this era of monopoly may finally be over.

It’s been a well known fact for years that Microsoft is propped up by the profit it generates from two product lines … Microsoft Windows, and Microsoft Office. Hell even the XBOX is still making a loss for the company. It’s no accident then, that Google, have released browser based Office applications, in the form of docs.google.com. This service allows people to write and share documents and spreadsheets for free, combined with gmail and several other apps. Google are now positioning themselves as a service provider offering enhanced versions of this service for small businesses for $50 per user, per year. This will no doubt force Microsoft to change – perhaps even releasing a browser based SOA version of its Office Suite. It’s going to be interesting to see how this competition between these two giants pans out. I’m not saying that being the first in this kind of race is always the best, but if you get into a position where your forcing both the industry and your competition to react to you then thats got to be a good thing.

Take the time to read Paul’s essay. It’s not very long, but it does make some excellent points.

Cracking weak passwords

A really interesting read over at One Mans entitled “How I’d crack your weak passwords“. The article outlines how he’d go about cracking weak passwords, which involves making some educated guesses which in 20% of cases actually succeed. If they don’t he resorts to brute force attacks.The attacks can vary in the amount of time they take to crack a password, with the time increasing depending on the strength of the password. Here’s a table that demonstrates this, and should illustrate why its a good idea to use strong passwords:

People are generally very bad at selecting strong passwords, the OneMan provides a some tips on how you can go about selecting a strong password. One tool that he recommends and that I have used in the past is Microsofts Password Strength Tester. Another tool is Google’s password checker, which is driven by a URL request that returns an integer in the range 1 – 4, where 4 means Strong and 1 means very weak, for example, the password “123456” returns 1 denoting its very weak:

https://www.google.com/accounts/RatePassword?Passwd=123456

It’s relatively simple to integrate Google’s solution into your own web applications, however I should point out that the company does not provide any official branding or user interface, and im not sure how long they will continue to provide it.

Google Apps Launches premium offerings

Everyone knew it would happen sooner or later but it’s official. Google is launching a premium service for companies wishing to use Google’s on-line app’s as opposed to traditional desktop suites such as MS Office. The premium package includes a custom 10GB Gmail inbox, Google Calendar, Writely, Google Spreadsheet, GTalk IM, Google Pages, Google Custom Home page, and iGoogle – the price will be around $50 per Employee per year, as opposed to MS Office which costs between $500-$600 per license..

You can read more about the competitive pricing in this articly over on NY Times. It’s going to be interesting to see how Microsoft react, however I doubt they’re will be any immediate impact from this, it will take time for Google to take any significant market share for the simple reason that I personally don’t believe large organisations are ready to trust Google with all their corporate data … yet!
I’ve been using OpenOffice for a while now, I also have MS Office on my works laptop. My own feeling is that as much people berate Microsoft, the Office suite is actually really quite good. Open Office is catching up, but does have a fair way to go in terms of a feature by feature comparison. Google’s Writely ( word processor ) doesn’t come close to having the same number of features in it as either of the other two, but the question is … does it need to? I don’t think it does. Most users probably dont use more than 30% of the features ( if that ) in MS Word – I know I don’t! ( admittedly I’d still love to use LaTex ).

Google’s new offering is not only a threat to both OpenOffice and MS Office, it’s an excellent example of how, with today’s technologies, you can liberate people from the desktop and deliver compelling Software as a Service Solutions, that users can use … anywhere! They’re not tied down to a single machine … and that’s really cool!

In fact find out more over at the Official Google blog.