Default Search Wars and a new OS feature

I read this article today about how Google’s Toolbar takes an aggressive stand against someone changing the “default search” provider in IE. Wow – this is pretty aggressive!


Now, I’m sure people will start yelling at Microsoft, and maybe that is deserved. For the record though, Microsoft’s software doesn’t do this (yet).

Anyway, this problem of “software wars” is not new. And the OS should protect the poor user from it.

It all starts with a Cold War
During the Cold War, two competing programs will, invariably, put an option into their installers to override the competitor’s settings. Engineers, like me, at each company will complain that this is terrible and should never be done, but we are always overridden by business folks that are smarter.

Once the cold war starts, it begins to escalate. First, one side will make it so that the software *always* overrides the competitor’s settings, without giving the user a choice. Then, the other will respond with something equally clever, like additional popup warnings or something silly like that.

Eventually, the cold war turns into an all out war, with users as the casualties. In this phase, the product is installing executables on your system which run constantly just to monitor for the competitor’s software and do something different. Sadly, Google’s Toolbar has entered this phase.

How to Fix?
The operating system really ought to protect against this more readily. Why is it that one program can alter another program’s config without the user even knowing about it? It shouldn’t be allowed. So when any competitor changes the default IE settings, the OS ought to tell the user that this has happened, and let the user deal with it. It prevents any surruptitious altering of configurations, and educates the user at the same time. If we had this, the cold war probably never would start- because if either side instigated, the users would be able to knowingly protest immediately.

Your browser’s cache is full and may interfere with your Gmail experience.

A while back, I wrote an article about Gmail’s cache complaint message. In order to believe the Google claim, you’d have to believe that IE’s cache is implemented in such a way that it doesn’t know how to clear space automatically when it gets full. Every cache I know of does that, so it seems pretty hard to believe. I thought it might be voodoo. Since I never heard an answer, I finally stopped being lazy and investigated myself.

Turns out that Google’s right. IE6 really is that lame.

To test this, I first started up Fiddler, a great little utility for tracing HTTP requests. Then, I navigated to my favorite brother-in-law’s website (Don’s Drug), and loaded two pages. Here is the trace:
/ 200 1027 bytes
/styles-site.css 200 4075 bytes
/c/header-dd.jpg 200 26774 bytes
/archives/cat_news.html 200 868 bytes
/styles-site.css 200 4075 bytes
/c/header-dd.jpg 200 26774 bytes

Ack – see that? The second two pages got reloaded with HTTP 200 responses! Those were static and should have been cached, or at the very least we should have seen “304 not modified” responses from the server (which saves us from having to redownload all the bytes).

Then I cleared the cache and loaded another two pages (my cache was set to the max size of 32GB, so it took about 5 minutes to empty):

/archives/cat_drugs.html 200 813 bytes
/styles-site.css 200 4075 bytes
/c/header-dd.jpg 200 26774 bytes
/c/about.html 200 546 bytes

Aha! So this time the static content that we had previously fetched (styles-site.css and header-dd.jpg) were now fetched from the cache. So, Google’s right. Web browsing will really suck if you leave your IE6 cache full for too long.

What does this mean? Well, it means that if your cache is full, and you are browsing a site like “CNN”, every page has to keep downloading the content which is common to all CNN pages. And, this can be the bulk of what you download. You could easily see 2-3x faster web browsing by clearing your cache manually.

The IE7 team has been doing a lot around caching and performance, so I bet this is fixed. I’m going to hit them up to make sure.

NoSpyMail Revisited

It’s been a couple of years now since I wrote NoSpyMail, and I haven’t really done much with it. Each month I get a few nice emails from users that are using it – and I’m always pleasantly surprised to hear that they still like it. It’s a simple little utility, probably written more out of anger than anything else.

But today I got a friendly email from a guy that is upgrading to Vista, and he reported that it wouldn’t install for him. OK – so I fixed that (I think!) for him. But I asked why he used it when he’s using Outlook 2003. After all, Outlook 2003 already has html image filtering built in.

His answer was that he still needs it. Even though we may filter out *most* of those HTML emails, how many do we still click on because they are from our “legitimate” places, e.g. costco, fandango, ticketmaster, etc. These are emails that we want to receive, but even these “legitimate” mass-email-senders are using trackers to spy on who’s clicking.

He’s got a valid point. He also thinks he gets a lot less spam as a result of using NoSpyMail. Hard to say, but I hope he’s right.

So, after having not used NoSpyMail myself for quite a while, I brought it back into my software lineup. Works great (it ought to – I wrote it! :-), and really doesn’t tax you in any way except that it filters out nasty HTML trackers. I was a little annoyed by the default settings because you get notified *so much* about the spymail. So I quickly unchecked the box to “Notify me when Spymail is discovered” (available via the Options). I don’t need to be notified – just clean it up and let me read my mail safely.

Sorry for the blatant plug.

Patents- the only way to win is not to play

In the software industry, our employers sometimes ask us to patent stuff.  The usual claim is that it is for “defensive purposes” in case your company gets sued.  Of course, as loyal employees, we want our company to safe from greedy lawyers seeking bogus patent infringements, so we blindly believe, agree, and patent like mad.

This is a fallacy, of course, and all of us at the rank-and-file levels of our companies should resist patenting anything.

The problem is that eventually patents are used for offensive purposes rather than defensive purposes.  It’s just a matter of when it economically makes sense to use the patent.  Eventually, your company will struggle financially, and eventually an energetic young lawyer will come to the senior management with a solution to the shareholders’ woes –  enforcement of patents.  This has happened too many times to count.  It is the inevitability of patents.

So, if you are a technologist, don’t file software patents.  Software patents are for lawyers that like to destroy other businesses for their own personal gain.  The USPO is not capable of differentiating a worthy software patent from mathematically impossible one. Your company may try to bribe you with incentives to get you to “help”.  Your company will claim that the patents are only for “protection”.  It’s not your company’s fault.  All successful companies need lawyers, and lawyers tell them to do this.  The company always starts out with the best of intentions.  But, mark my words, if the patent proves useful monetarily, your patent will someday be used to tear apart someone else’s hard work.

Until the law changes, the only way to win is to not play.

Alternative Search from the Windows Live Toolbar

You may have read that the Windows Live Toolbar shipped yesterday.  It’s got a lot of new features, and uses the new Windows Live Search (  If you are like me, you may not like the new search engine because it’s still pretty slow (it is still in beta).  Since I do a lot of searches this is a show-stopper for me.  In fact, you might be inclined to uninstall the toolbar.  But wait! …

Before you do, consider keeping the toolbar and just swapping out the search engine to a faster one.  You can either do it through the Toolbar’s Options|Web Search|Other Search Engine setting, or just click on this file and it will set the following registry setting:

[HKEY_CURRENT_USERSoftwareMicrosoftMSN AppsShared]

Alas, now you can have nice, speedy searches and have your toolbar too!

Critical Update! “Unacceptable symbols” in font!

Not sure why, but over the last few days, windows has been hounding me about the following:

“A critical update is available to remove unacceptable symbols from the Bookshelf Symbol 7 font that is included with Microsoft Office 2003. The Bookshelf Symbol 7 font is contained in the Bssym7.ttf file.”

Turns out I already have the new version, but Windows wanted to make sure, I guess.

This site describes the defect pretty well – apparently the critical update first went out in 2004. Can you believe that there were swastikas and jewish stars in the font. Heaven forbid!

It bugs me that this was marked as a critical update.

So, in a single move, Microsoft has not only annoyed every Windows customer with an unnecessary Windows Update, but also completely alienated the Nazi party. How will they write their memos now?

iTunes and MSN Music Incompatibility

I am probably late to the game on this one, and it really doesn’t surprise me, but it sure is annoying.

About a year ago, I bought and downloaded one song from MSN Music.

Today, I purchased my second song, this time from Apple’s iTunes.

Then, I wanted to burn both to a CD. Of course, iTunes refused to read the music signed by MSN Music. And, of course, Windows Media Player can’t grok the new “mp4” format that you download from iTunes. So, I can’t burn them together. Well – you probably can, but you probably have to go through 10 steps I don’t care to learn.

So, I didn’t use them both. I used iTunes today, but I could have easily picked either service.

After the fact, I did some reading on this, andthere seems to be agreement, that iPod is indeed at fault for being proprietary. Read here and here.

Can you guys go settle this out and use a common format? You don’t do yourselves, or anyone else, any favors by not agreeing on the formats for music. In my opinion, you BOTH SUCK for letting this happen. Nonetheless, next time I download music next year, I’m using MSN Music again. (I know, big spender. This will certainly change roadmaps ’round the globe)