Archive for June 2003

2003/06/01 01 Jun

Internet Explorer 7.0

Interesting things are going on in the browser front. Slashdot has discovered an off-the-cuff remark in a chatroom by a Microsoft employee claiming that “IE6 SP1 is the final standalone installation.” Little surprise; there has been virtually no work on the IE web browser for a couple of years now and it looks like Microsoft has no interest in spending resources on a battle they already feel they've won.

Meanwhile the Mozilla and Opera teams were getting bogged down in ground-up rewrites, oops, so there was little or no serious competition and IE climbed in popularity until today we have more than 90% of the world using Windows IE 5 or 6.

Where it gets interesting, is, approximately, today, because, for the first time, the Mozilla Firebird browser has finally caught up with Internet Explorer. After downloading virtually every Mozilla release over the last three years, this is the first browser I'm actually going to make my default web browser. All the little problems are fixed. It loads fast. It's not ugly and clunky. My beloved Alt+D/Ctrl+Enter work perfectly. NT challenge/response authentication is supported. And there are new features, too: tabbed browsing, which is better than it sounds. Incremental search, which is brilliant and I already can't live without. Text size adjustments that always work. A download manager. Excellent cookie management. Oh, and no more whack-a-mole, the reason I've been trying to switch for so long in the first place. Bravo! Now with a good code base to build upon, Firebird is likely to soar past IE in functionality and performance. With some real competition, perhaps Microsoft will again have an incentive to make improvements of their own. Maybe, after 5 years, Microsoft will care enough to make text scalable. Maybe they'll finally fix the bug that causes 99% of web site icons to be lost. But they probably won't wake up and notice that they have real competition for a long time, and in the meanwhile, we may once again have a two browser world.

What about AOL?

Meanwhile, Microsoft has settled the lawsuit with AOL, agreeing to pay AOL $750,000,000 in a complicated deal that allows AOL to continue to use Internet Explorer for several years. I'm not sure why the second part is interesting. Everybody in the world is allowed to use Internet Explorer; it's built into Windows and open to all developers as a component. I suppose one possibility is that Microsoft plans to not make IE available to all developers as a component in some future operating system, and AOL wants to make sure that won't affect them. Considering that AOL spent $4.2 billion to buy Netscape, you'd think somebody would have noticed that they already have a browser component. Aha, but they don't. The Internet Explorer component is so much easier to embed in applications than Gecko that it probably comes down to the programmers on the AOL client team who just don't want to undergo the pain to embed Gecko. Now, if you're a programmer at AOL working on Mozilla, and you like your job, you might want to think about what it's going to take to make your happy little division actually useful to AOL so you aren't jettisonned. My highest priority would be to implement Mozilla as a COM control that supports the same embedding interfaces as IE, so that the AOL programmers can switch to Gecko. Oh, look! There is one Netscape employee, Adam Lock, working on this! And he says, “be advised that these ActiveX related projects are my own personal efforts and have absolutely nothing to do with my employer. I work on them when and if I have the time.” Yo, Netscape employees! This poor sod Adam Lock is working in his spare time to save all your jobs. Wake up.

News 02 Jun

VMWare version 4.0 is out. You've already heard my raves about this brilliant program in the past; I simply couldn't live without it.

VMWare LogoThe new version adds the ability to store snapshots of the virtual computer's complete state, including RAM and all hard drives, and instantly jump back to the snapshot whenever you want. Now, instead of having a blank Win 98 machine ready to boot up at any time, I have a blank Win 98 machine that is already booted and logged on, ready to restore at any time. This actually saves a significant amount of time while doing configuration testing.

I have one complaint about the new version: for some reason, there's a new CMOS, whatever that means, which meant that when my old VMs woke up, they had to rediscover all their hardware from scratch. This was a major nuisance with Windows 98, resulting in a flurry of Plug 'n' Play hell. I gave up, throwing away my Win 98 OSes and recreating them from scratch, a serious annoyance (especially since I have VMs running in languages which I don't understand, so I can't really tell what they're yelling at me about.) The Windows 2000 and Windows XP VMs seemed to handle all the Plug 'n' Play rediscovery transparently.

Last Friday afternoon, you may have noticed that this site was down for 10 minutes or so while we rebooted the server a few dozen times to apply the latest Microsoft patches, flash the bios, reseat some memory, etc. It occurred to me: what if, instead of running a conventional server, you ran your server in a VM? So everything my server does would actually be running in a virtual machine on the server. That has five interesting implications:

  1. I could make a snapshot of the complete machine state. If anyone hacks into the machine, installing trapdoors or defacing the website, a single click gets us back to a known-good condition. The catch: you can't keep any frequently-changing state on the server. Easy fix: run another VM as a file server for your frequently-changing state (like web log files, mailboxes, etc.).
  2. You can split up functions among different VMs without buying more hardware. Isolate your mail server from your web server from your DNS server, all on one machine.
  3. When I need to install an OS patch or even an entirely new operating system, rather than rebooting, I would simply apply the patch to a new, identical copy of the virtual machine running on my desktop computer. I could copy the new VM up to the server, stop the old VM and start the new VM at the same time. Net effect: you can replace the whole operating system on a live server with only seconds of down time, zero risk that the new OS won't come up, and only one physical box.
  4. If anything goes wrong and you need to swap in different hardware, all you need is some kind of box that will run VMWare. Solutions like Ghost won't quite work because the ghosted image may not have the right device drivers for the replacement hardware.
  5. Everything runs emulated, so you're paying for all this convenience with a lot of CPU cycles.

Anyway, VMWare has a server product, about which I know very little, but it probably lets you do all this and more and I think it's going to be an increasingly standard policy of good system administrators to build servers as VMs for all but the most CPU-intensive applications.

News 04 Jun

There are certain fundamental assumptions about doing business in the VC world that make venture capital a bad fit with entrepreneurship. And since it's the entrepreneurs who create the businesses that the VCs fund, this is a major problem.

Fixing Venture Capital

Meanwhile, some corrections

Yesterday I said about VMWare that "everything runs emulated." This was not correct. Keith Adams of VMWare informs me "VMware's core technology is an x86 virtual machine monitor, not an emulator. The vast majority of guest instructions are run not by our software, but by the nice, fast x86 hardware our users have already paid for. It's only when the guest does something "supervisor-ish" that we step in, and emulate an instruction or so at a time... We have a non-trivial CPU overhead, but it's workload-dependent, and nowhere near as bad as if we were an emulator."

On the topic of AOL using Gecko in their client, I have heard from more than one inside source that this was a decision made by AOLTW management in New York because they were afraid AOL customers would complain if the AOL browser didn't display every web page perfectly. Given how long AOL went with their own substandard browser that was the joke of the Internet industry, I can understand their sensitivity to this issue, but it seems like they've swung a bit too far in the other direction. AOL is using the Gecko client on other platforms like OS X.

05 05 Jun

Joi Ito on No Shop Agreements: “[I]f you decide that you like each other and REALLY want to work together but that it will take a lot of work before the actual transaction happens, a no-shop allows both parties to focus on building the business.”

John Ludwig: “I don't think I've ever heard anyone at our firm telling a startup to spend more, faster.”

Zimran Ahmed: “...those ‘sure things’ that Joel mentions exist more often in the mind of the entrepreneur than in reality.”

Eric Sink : “... most VC firms don't have much to offer people who want to build solid, long-lived companies.”

07 07 Jun

Steve Pavlina has written up some great business tips for shareware and games developers.

Steven Den Beste: “Citydesk cannot be beaten.” [Well, not without knowing the cheat codes.]

Ellen Ullman's new book The Bug is a terrific novel about a programmer coming unravelled because of a killer bug nicknamed The Jester which seems to only appear at the worst possible times. Highly recommended. (There's a bug in the book, too, probably left in as a reward for real programmers. I don't want to spoil it for you so I'll describe it in an HTML comment right here.)

11 11 Jun

Fog Creek is hiring a Support Engineer. (This position has been filled.)

15 15 Jun

Floor plan for new Fog Creek OfficeConstruction has finally begun on the new Fog Creek office. Remember how I said you should start looking for an office nine months before you need it? Make that ten.

Beware National News Magazines Claiming Cycles Are Permanent

Fortune writes, "Professionals have never had a tougher time finding a job. It's not just the economy; the rules of the game are changing." This is, quite frankly, no different than four years ago during the "New Economy" bullshit when they were blabbing about a new, permanently high level for stock prices as if there would never be business cycles again. It's just bullshit. The economy is cyclical and has been for hundreds of years. In fact the sure sign that things are about to change is when the conventional wisdom becomes, "things will never change."

Cover Letters

Here's some advice for people writing cover letters. Don't take any of the standard career-services-office advice for writing cover letters, or your cover letter will look exactly like everyone else's cover letter. If you write one of those "I work great on teams but am also a strong independent worker" cover letters, your cover letter will look just like everyone else's, and you won't stand out. The way to stand out is to write a letter that reflects your unique personality and highlights the reasons why you want to work at the place to which you are applying. 95% of the cover letters I receive do not include anything about Fog Creek and show no sign that they have been customized in any way for the job in question. This sends a signal that you are simply spamming your resume to hundreds of jobs, which, in turn, sends a signal that you are both desperate and not willing to work very hard.

Here's the thing: the very best candidates have come to realize that they have a choice of where to work, and when they apply for a job, they are applying because there's something intriguing about that particular job, not because they'll take any work that comes along. And you can see it in their cover letters. For example, if I were to see something like "I'm happy where I am, but I've always wanted to move to New York and if Fog Creek is anything like you describe it on your website, it sounds like a great place" you would sound a lot more desirable than someone who writes, "You will find that I am a very hard worker." If you make your cover letter interesting, make it personal, and drop hints that you have choices in the world, you will sound more like one of the top 1% candidates.

By the way, we received something like eighty applications for our opening. Probably 50% of those people were qualified and at least ten of them were great. I won't say more because we're still in the interviewing stage.

16 16 Jun

Scoop: Salam Pax has a photo blog.

17 16 Jun

 Does anyone have any experience with the quality of the IP*Works components? (Discuss)

19 19 Jun

For devotees of the arsDigita soap opera, another insider's view. MuchNext Slide, Please! overlooked in the fact that incompetent VCs destroyed the company was the fact that demand for the company's product (Internet consulting) had plummeted.

From Aaron Swartz's devastatingly funny parody of Tufte's latest:

  • PowerPoint is standard…
  • …but bad.
  • Why?


20 20 Jun

Jason Fried likes this dialog from OmniWeb 4.5 :

(Picture of a dialog box which reads: UPDATE BOOKMARK. You have a bookmark set on which has been permanently redirected to Should the bookmark be changed to point to the new address?

I have to disagree. I think it's a nice feature that shouldn't be advertising itself, it should just happen automatically and silently. It's a permanent redirect, that's what it means, and designers of web browsers know that a lot better than users, so why should users be inflicted with the need to make a complicated decision about something they don't understand as well as the software designers? Especially in the form of a modal dialog that interrupts whatever the user is trying to accomplish.

Unnecessary UIs like this that pop up to brag about a cool feature the developer implemented are a little bit obnoxious. Too many software developers just can't bring themselves to implement completely invisible features. They need to show off about what a great feature they just implemented, even at the cost of confusing people. Really great UI design disappears. It's a matter of taking away, not adding. Is this dialog any better than the Windows Help Find Setup Wizard?

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