Wednesday, July 29, 2009

More problems with Word

You may hear from "Microsofties" who claim that OpenOffice just doesn't render Microsoft Word documents properly. In my 6-7 years running Linux at work, I used OpenOffice exclusively to write and edit documents, and to create and modify spreadsheets. I never had a problem exchanging documents with others. Of course, I was careful to save documents in the Microsoft Word "DOC" format, and spreadsheets in the Microsoft Excel "XLS" format.

It's true that sometimes Word will fail to render a document properly. But it's not the fault of OpenOffice - sometimes, Microsoft Word fails to properly display other Microsoft Word files. Just this morning, I saw an example in action in a meeting:

Last night, one of the attendees sent out some notes for us to read before the meeting. We all dutifully printed out our copy of the document, and brought it with us to the meeting.

Despite the fact that the document was created with Microsoft Office, and that we all run Microsoft Office, there were 3 different versions of the printed document at the meeting. You could tell by looking around the table that one version of the notes (printed from Microsoft Office for Macintosh) arranged the text around a table in a weird way. Another version (printed by Microsoft Office 2007) put a page break in a different place and put an extra blank line between a table and its caption. The original version (Microsoft Office 2003) was formatted as intended.

This was a simple 3-page document in "DOC" format, with an enumerated list of paragraphs, so it didn't take long for us to realize our copies printed out differently, and to figure out the correlation between versions of Word and how the document printed out.

I think it just goes to show: if you have a document that absolutely must preserve formatting, send it as a PDF.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Windows Update owns my machine

The other day, my Windows Vista system got messed up. Really messed up. Let me tell you how:

During the day, I got one of those little "system tray" messages from Windows, telling me that updates were available for my system. Normally, I apply Windows updates only when I'll be away from my office for several hours, like for those mid-afternoon strategy meetings. That way, Windows can apply the update, and I don't have to wait for it. But since others have reassured me that I can install updates while using the Windows system, this time I went ahead and let Windows Update do its thing. I happily continued working.

After Windows Update was done, I got another message advising me to reboot so the changes could take effect. I figured this was just Windows covering for itself, especially since Evan claimed that "patches you'll get from Windows update don't require rebooting". So I dismissed the alert, and went back to work.

The day rolls by, and eventually it's 6:00 PM. My wife was there to pick me up so we could go out to dinner. As usual, I worked right up until it was time to go, then shut down my laptop.

I was dismayed to see that Windows meant it, and really did need to reboot for those changes to take effect. Except Windows wanted to install a bunch more updates before it would let me shut down. No option to skip this step, no option to do it later. Windows Update wanted to install these patches right then, so it effectively owned my machine.

The patches installed at a rate of about 2% per minute. I thought, "I can't wait for this - my wife is downstairs right now, it's time to go, I can't wait almost an hour for this thing to finish." And I didn't have an option to close my office and leave it, since we've had thefts inside the building. So I did the unthinkable, and unplugged the power. (I rarely keep the battery in the laptop when it's plugged into the dock - otherwise, the system gets really hot.)

The next morning, my laptop won't reboot. Got to the graphical boot screen, then powered off.

Our desktop support folks couldn't do anything with it. When I told them my story about what happened (at least I'm honest) they realized it would be easier to re-install the machine with a fresh image of Windows Vista.

So thank you, Microsoft. Your "awesome" Windows Update process needs some work. Why is System Update not really done installing patches until you shut down? This doesn't make sense to me. It should have installed those other patches while the system was up, then let them take effect after reboot. I'm most shocked that System Update had to "own" my machine when I was trying to shut down.

And that claim that Windows doesn't need to reboot for changes to take effect? Total lie.

In stark contrast, when I ran Linux at work, I could install updates while using the system. If the system update tool wanted to reboot afterward, it was usually because I'd received a kernel update, and you do need to reboot for the new kernel to take effect. But on Linux, you can keep using the old kernel until you're ready to shutdown/reboot. And I always had the option to shutdown or reboot later, when I was ready to.

And in Linux, when you reboot or shutdown, you actually reboot or shutdown. None of this "let me install a few updates before you really get to shut down your system." Reboot means "reboot", and shutdown means "shutdown".

I guess I got spoiled for how cleanly Linux systems apply updates. Microsoft sure could take a lesson from that.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

I love Microsoft Word

The Microsoft Office 2007 suite in general, and Microsoft Word in particular, is the subject of a long-standing love/hate relationship of mine.

Case in point: I had opened a few Word documents, to catch up on some technical design plans our IT staff had submitted to me. I had 3 files open, plus an extra window with an empty document. When I was done reading the documents, I clicked the Office logo, then "Exit Word".

Imagine my amusement when I got an error message that "Microsoft Word has quit unexpectedly". Then Word let me know it was trying to find a "solution" to my "problem". The "problem" was that I tried to exit Word. So it should be of little surprise that Word has quit. That's what I was trying to do.

Monday, July 6, 2009

I'll just reboot, thanks

Ever since the invention of APM (Advanced Power Management) in 1992, then ACPI (Advanced Configuration and Power Interface) in 1996, modern computers have had the ability to enter a low power mode typically referred to as "Sleep Mode", "Stand By", or "Suspend". Usually, this is done by cutting all power to the system, except that required to keep memory "alive".

You see this a lot with laptops, as it is a great way to save battery when you aren't going to use the laptop for a while. I used to do this all the time when I ran Linux on my laptop at work - worked great. If I needed to take my laptop with me to a meeting, I wouldn't shut down. I'd just put the laptop to sleep, bring it with me to the meeting - and if I needed the laptop, it took only a few seconds to resume.

But I probably used this feature the most when traveling. At a conference, I'd regularly check email during "down time". When it was time to attend a session, I'd put the computer to sleep, then during the next break I'd wake up the system and see if anyone had replied to my messages. It doesn't take long for Linux to do a hard boot, but it certainly took much less time to suspend the laptop, and resume later when I needed to use it.

Now that I'm forced to run Windows at work, I've tried to use the "Sleep" feature in the same way. I'll tell you, I'm not sure why Microsoft even bothers with this option. Under Windows Vista, there's a button that claims "Saves your session and puts the computer into a low-power state so you can quickly resume working." Technically, this is Hibernate, where the contents of RAM is written to non-volatile storage, such as the hard disk. Later, when you bring the system back up, the memory is read back from disk and things should be back where you left them.

However, I've never seen the point in how Vista goes into hibernation, and gets woken up again later. Things take forever to come back up. And if you changed anything while the computer was asleep, forget about it.

Example: Last night I was doing some work from home, finished, then put the computer to sleep. Never went back to it. This morning, I'm back in the office, put my laptop in the dock, and woke it up again. Everything was messed up, even to the point that basic USB devices like my keyboard and mouse weren't working. I ended up rebooting.

I pretty much just reboot Windows by default, rather than bother putting the laptop to sleep and waking it up again. It's too much bother to get Windows working again after things wake up. Really, it's not a useful feature if it takes me twice as long to get back to work by using Sleep Mode than if I'd just shut down the system and rebooted when I needed it.