The large corporation and the government consultation – no, not that one

In the week that the big news story is about a large corporation well used to allegations of monopolistic behaviour (like this one), and its attempts to build relationships with those formulating government policy, in areas where a certain decision could be to its distinct commercial advantage…

I draw your attention to a post on the GDS blog, describing itself as an ‘important update’, written this evening by Liam Maxwell.

On 4th April 2012, Dr Andy Hopkirk facilitated a roundtable on behalf of ICT Futures on Competition and European Interaction. […] At the time he was engaged to facilitate the Open Standards roundtable, while we were aware that he represented the National Computing Centre on the Microsoft Interoperability Executive Customer Council [..] he did not declare the fact that he was advising Microsoft directly on the Open Standards consultation.

This all appears to have been sparked by Mark Ballard’s report, declaring the event to have been a ‘triumph’ for the ‘proprietary lobby’, and some pretty heated debate in the ensuing comments. Ballard himself adds in the comment thread:

Hopkirk is himself a cohort of MutKoski, Parker, and Brown. They are all members of the OASIS Transformational Government Framework Technical Committee, an unusual policy lobby unit that is sponsored by Microsoft. All have been critical of either UK government policy or its objectives and have specifically opposed defining elements of the coalition government’s open standards policy.

Dr Hopkirk was given a right to reply, in which he declares:

I do have a longstanding relationship with Microsoft purely on the basis of my consistently neutral, pragmatic, end-user oriented and supplier-agnostic perspective. I have supported, and continue to support, open markets, open standards and free/open source software for their contributions to furthering interoperability and IT market competition. I have not been asked to publicly or privately support any client brief or position in the government consultation.

Regardless, Maxwell has done the right thing, by declaring that ‘any outcomes from the original roundtable discussion will be discounted in the consultation responses’. The session is to be re-run, and the consultation deadline extended.

Didn’t I tell you this stuff was dynamite?

[Disclosure: I have worked for both BSkyB and Microsoft in my past. I do not do so currently. I cancelled my Sky Sports subscription a year ago. My main computer these days is a Mac. I’m writing this on a Linux machine. My belief in open standards is well documented.]

Microsoft thanks WordPress for dropping IE6 support

As I noted here a while back, there could be bad news on the way for government people running WordPress sites: the next release of WordPress, version 3.2, will discontinue support for Internet Explorer version 6. Here’s how the new WP dashboard will look, courtesy of Automattic’s Jane Wells:

Ouch. Now, Microsoft has published its official reaction on the Exploring IE blog – and it might come as a bit of a surprise.

Last week, WordPress dropped support for IE6 and joined the hundreds of other web sites that are working to move enterprises and consumers alike to a modern browser platform. Thank you! … The additional developer work supporting IE6 and even IE7 is something we would love to see be a thing of the past. More than that, however, is the security concern.

Of course – and I say this as someone who used to work there – it wouldn’t be Microsoft if there wasn’t a sales message dropped in somewhere; and the blog post turns into a pitch to upgrade to Windows 7 on security grounds. But the point about developer effort is still entirely valid – trust me.

Out of interest: are any government readers facing a crisis next month, when the upgrade happens? Anyone running websites on WordPress, with only IE6 available to them? (Feel free to contact me directly.)

Say goodbye to IE6, urges Microsoft site

Internet Explorer v6 is the bane of any web developer’s life. You can build a web page, and it’ll look beautiful in every other browser – but then you look at it in IE6, and it’s a mess. Without getting too technical, IE6 interprets the web’s CSS design code in ways which are irrational, unexpected, illogical and sometimes just plain wrong. If it could simply be wiped off the face of the internet, the web developer’s job would be much easier – and frankly, projects would be cheaper, and prettier too.

Microsoft has never made a secret of its desire to move people to more recent versions; but now, with IE6 approaching its tenth birthday – although strictly its birthday isn’t until late August – and IE9’s release imminent, they’ve started a proactive campaign to shame people into upgrading. IE6Countdown.com displays a map showing percentage market share for IE6 worldwide; and invites you to join its campaign ‘to get Internet Explorer 6 to 1%.’ In all likelihood, Microsoft is seeing this as an opportunity to sell upgrades to Windows 7 – but that doesn’t undermine the validity of the message.

I know some of the straggling government departments have finally upgraded in recent months; so, it’s over to you, gang. Which departments are still on IE6… despite Microsoft’s own advice, and indeed, the advice of government’s own IT security campaign?

Search tools for Directgov: Puffbox vs Microsoft

Directgov has announced a ‘partnership’ with Microsoft, promising to make it ‘easier than ever to find government information and services online’. In practice, this means they’re using the new ‘accelerator’ feature in Internet Explorer v8: you can select some text on any web page, then right-click to access a ‘search Directgov’ link which fires that word directly into the Directgov search engine as a search query. I don’t think it’ll be life-changing for anyone, and my suspicion is that there’s more in it for Microsoft than Directgov – but hey, it’s not a bad thing.

dgsearchBut how many people are using IE8? What about the much greater number of people using, say, IE7… or Firefox? Puffbox to the rescue! I’ve thrown together a quick search plugin for Directgov, which will allow you to search Directgov directly from the browser interface. You will have to do the copying and pasting manually though, so apologies for the lack of acceleration.

And if you’re using Firefox, and you happen to have Directgov selected as your browser-bar search engine at the time – behold! you’ll have the same ‘search Directgov’ option in your right-click menu! (Thx to Stuart in the comments.)

Visit this page on the MozDev website to find Puffbox’s brand new Directgov search plugin. Click on the word Directgov, and it’ll ask you if you want to install – say yes. If you then consult the list of search engines available from your browser’s built-in search box, you should now see a Directgov option. Enter a word, and it’ll take you straight to a search query for that word.

Puffbox principal consultant Simon Dickson said: ‘Directgov is taking advantage of long-established capabilities within Internet Explorer 7, and better alternatives such as Firefox, to make it easier for members of the public to find information on the Directgov website – whether they realise it or not. Directgov is among the forward-thinking organisations using modern technologies to benefit their target audience, and we are delighted to be helping them.’

I’ll link to the Directgov newsroom article as soon as it’s been posted.

Should HMG support IE6?

I’m on the brink of starting another coding project – a blogging initiative on behalf of another central government department, which I won’t name just yet. And I know how it’s going to turn out, because it always turns out the same.

Many a true word, as they say, spoken in jest. But the reality is, most coding jobs would take a fraction of the time if we didn’t feel obliged to support IE6.

I mention this because today, 27 August 2008, is the 7th birthday of Internet Explorer v6. Seven years, people. Yet the latest data from Hitslink shows IE6 still has a market share in excess of 25% – despite the upgrade to v7 being free, despite the availability of better competitors, despite the lack of ongoing support from Microsoft itself.

But there are rumblings in the industry. Apple’s MobileMe service announced back in June that users would need to be using Internet Explorer v7 (the first major service to do so, according to 37signals). Then, 37signals themselves announced that their entire product line – including the well-known project management tool, Basecamp – would stop supporting IE6 as from this month. They wrote:

Continued support of IE 6 means that we can’t optimize our interfaces or provide an enhanced customer experience in our apps. Supporting IE 6 means slower progress, less progress, and, in some places, no progress. We want to make sure the experience is the best it can be for the vast majority of our customers, and continuing to support IE 6 holds us back.

It’s an even more compelling case when we’re talking about taxpayers’ money. Is it right for a government web project to cost (wild guess) 20% more than necessary, just because some of its potential users can’t be bothered doing a free upgrade – which, since 93.2% of UK internet connections are now broadband, most of them at speeds of 2Mbps or higher (according to the latest ONS data), should take a couple of minutes, at most?

It wouldn’t be difficult for sites to do a quick browser detection, then offer links to download pages for IE7 and some other alternatives you might want to consider (Firefox, Safari, Opera, etc). It’s in everyone’s interests, not least Microsoft’s, to make more people upgrade. We’d be open to allegations of ‘nanny state’… but I wonder if the ‘public finances’ argument would win out?

Standard behaviour

I used to get really excited about the release of new versions of the big web browsers. These days the overwhelming emotion is worry, bordering on panic. What is it going to do with the HTML I lovingly crafted to work with its predecessor?

I held my breath this morning as I fired up the first beta version of Internet Explorer v8 for the first time. And whilst there’s nothing catastrophic to report, I’m surprised how may things are ‘a few pixels out’, even things you never thought could be risky. If you’re reading this on the puffbox.com site in IE8, for example, you’ll see the ‘find’ button is out of line with the search box, and there’s an unexpected gap between the header and navigation strip. The Wales Office site adds a few (inactive?) horizontal scrollbars to various DIVs.

There’s been a lot of talk about Microsoft’s Damascene conversion to web standards: effectively they’re saying ‘no really, this time we mean it.’ And Ray Ozzie appears to be thinking and talking long-term:

On one hand, there are literally billions of Web pages designed to render on previous browser versions, including many sites that are no longer actively managed. On the other hand, there is a concrete benefit to Web designers if all vendors give priority to interoperability around commonly accepted standards as they evolve. After weighing these very legitimate concerns, we have decided to give top priority to support for these new Web standards.

In other words, standards-compliance over legacy support. That’s the message web designers want to hear. As I’ve written before, I’m convinced the bulk of HTML coding effort is spent making the same design work identically across all browsers. An across-the-board commitment to universal standards would end that waste of our time, and clients’ money.

So why am I looking at pages which are fine in Firefox, fine in Opera, fine in Safari, fine in Konqueror… but a bit off in the new standards-compliant, ACID2-passing IE8? (No browser hacks, before anyone asks.) Please, please, let this just be ‘a beta thing’.

Microsoft-Yahoo: I’m past caring

I’ve been extensively quoted in a technology story on the Sky News website this morning, in which I describe Microsoft’s proposed purchase of Yahoo as ‘a deal for the accountants and advertisers, not the users’. I’ll tell you why.

I like to keep a lid on my RSS consumption: anything over 100 feeds feels like too much. I had one of my occasional clearouts at the weekend, and I was actually surprised to find myself removing the final feed in my Microsoft folder. But it’s been a long, long time since Microsoft launched or announced anything which excited or inspired me. It’s not just the disappointment of Vista. There have been too many underwhelming ‘me too’ launches lately: the Zune and Silverlight spring immediately to mind.

Over at Yahoo, it’s more like a succession of false dawns. The 2005 purchases of Flickr and Delicious suggested they really ‘got it’, and I still use both daily; but they don’t seem to have moved on much since the purchase. Whatever happened to Flickr’s promised video? Delicious has promised ‘big things coming soon‘, but the definition of ‘soon’ is stretching all the time. And just as significantly, neither seems to have influenced Yahoo’s core service much. (I’ve used Pipes a few times, but it’s for RSS-obsessed geeks only… like me.)

The unpleasant truth is that a Yahoo news story these days is unlikely to solicit more than a disinterested grunt from me, and Microsoft is rapidly going down the same road. From a user’s perspective, all this deal would/will do is reduce the field from ‘Google plus two also-rans’ to ‘Google plus one’. I sense more dread out there than enthusiasm.

And those following the Puffbox philosophy won’t be surprised to read my quote: ‘Being successful online isn’t about being big – if anything, it’s a hindrance rather than a help.’ Discuss.

Curing Vista’s outrageous wifi problem

At the heart of my dislike for Windows Vista has been a recurring problem with wifi. The spread of free wifi, notably thanks to McDonalds has been a godsend to someone like me, living well outside London (ooh, nice double entendre there) but spending a lot of time in it. But too many times, I’ve connected to a wifi network only for Vista to tell me: local access only.

I’ve finally found a cure, but typical Microsoft, it’s hard to find and even harder to understand. All it involves is a bit of registry tweaking: follow these (fairly simple) instructions on their support site. It worked, and I’m relieved. (For what it’s worth: I opted to disable the ‘DhcpConnForceBroadcastFlag’ completely, on all the GUIDs listed in the registry. It worked for me, but it may be better for others to follow the ‘DhcpConnEnableBcastFlagToggle’ route.)

But this issue causes me real concern as regards Vista. The Microsoft wording infers that it’s a feature, not a fault. That it’s deliberate on their part. That it’s the wifi providers’ fault for not supporting its new feature… not that it’s Vista’s fault for not being automatically compatible with (in my experience) most public wifi networks. And I just don’t think it’s fair or realistic to expect the typical laptop buyer to start hacking the registry, especially when Vista goes to such great lengths to scare you away.