The MSDN Wiki Project

September 9th, 2006

I noticed earlier today that Rob Caron at Microsoft was glad I posted my first entry to the MSDN Wiki. While I really don’t consider my posting to be any sort of a milestone, it did remind me that the Wiki project is no longer under NDA so I can actually comment on it.

So here goes.

As someone who has been doing Windows software development since version 1.0, I long considered MSDN the single most important product Microsoft ever shipped - you had to have suffered through the painful lack of documentation earlier on to really appreciate what a revolution it was. The complexity of Windows programming is ever increasing, and MSDN remains the foundation that every developer relies on. While it’s true that for most of us the front-end for searching MSDN is now Google, the content remains the gold standard.

But as good as MSDN is, it’s not good enough. There are far too many holes (and probably always will be - I doubt any doc team could keep up). Even now, it’s extremely common for me to have to search the web for solutions to problems - answers that should be in MSDN but are not.

None of the search engines are good enough for what is needed - a cross linking of information (samples, best practices, caveats and bug reports) that is relevant to each MSDN entry. This problem - discoverability of knowledge that already exists - is the biggest problem faced by any software developer today.

I’ve known about the MSDN Wiki project for a while, but have been too busy with other things to pay close attention. That said, I believe that the MSDN Wiki project is the single most important project going on at Microsoft in terms of software development.

My plan is to add content to it any time I run into something that I get stuck on and have to research - something that should have been in the docs in the first place. I invite and encourage everyone to join in.

I also challenge Microsoft to encourage every one of their software developers to contribute to those areas where they were involved in the development.

The MSDN Wiki project has enormous potential, and I am very excited to see it becoming a reality.

Check it out:

Stunning Privacy Breach by AOL

August 6th, 2006

By now you’ve probably read about the astonishing breach of privacy in which AOL posted the supposedly “anonymous” search records for 500,000 users over a three month period.

You can read more at:

siliconbeat , techcrunch , digg , reddit , and zoli’s blog

Most of the comments on these sites point out the problem of people entering personally identifiable information searches - the idea being that if people searched on topics that might identify them, then also search on topics that are embarrassing or illegal, the database effectively becomes a map to prosecution, blackmail, etc.

What most of the posts and comments miss is that the situation is even worse. Each search request also includes a very accurate (to the second) timestamp. So all the government would need to do to identify someone is to match up a couple of requests to a government owned web site by IP address and time (one can assume that while a company like Google might protect users privacy, government owned web sites probably won’t).

So, to use a hypothetical example: if someone searches for how to pass a drug test, and you find the same user paid a visit to the Department of Motor Vehicles and maybe a court site, it wouldn’t be too hard to pull the logs from those sites and see which IP address visited both at the times specified. Presto - you have some pretty solid evidence what that user is up to, and a map of their searches (who knows what else it might turn up). Plus, since you now have their IP address, you can (as a tech savvy prosecutor), subpoena their records from their ISP you now have some solid identification.

Aside from a gross violation of trust on the part of AOL, this represents a threat to the very future of the Internet. If every search you perform becomes part of your permanent record, how will that impact search?

One thing is clear - AOL cannot be trusted. This is too great a mistake to just brush off. Google has shown at least a willingness to protect user’s information, going to court to protect exactly this kind of information. I don’t know Microsoft’s stand at the moment - if anyone has information on their record please feel free to comment.

Fun Buying From Dell

August 1st, 2006

Joel Spolsky just posted an item on Why Still Feels Like Buying A Used Car that describes how Dell’s attempt to segment their customer base makes it that much harder to buy a computer (and know you’re getting a good deal).

I do have two small items to add:

First, they aren’t just trying to make more from business customers - they’re trying to make more from all customers and manage their supply chain efficiently. Thomas Friedman writes about this in his fantastic book “The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century” where he convinces Dell to trace the history of all the components that make up his laptop.

Second, assuming you aren’t buying in volume and able to negotiate a better deal, here’s a hint - always check prices on both the consumer and small business sites. The consumer site may seem cheaper, but they sometimes stack the small business site with some serious rebates and premium service plans that can actually make it less expensive for a comparable or better machine.

For the biggest bang for the buck on PCs, the best deals are often the refurbished units or discontinued models, where you can get 6 month old technology for a substantial discount over the latest and greatest. I discuss this in my article “The Best Deals on Desktop PCs“.

Real Geeks Use Tools

July 21st, 2006

So today I saw a funny series of Blog posts starting with Robert Scoble’s defense of his “Geekhood” after a post by someone named Cody who hates fake computer geeks.

What’s interesting about these posts are the examples that both use to define geekiness. Cody complains that Scoble doesn’t host his own Blog software. Scoble defends his geek credentials by mentioning past experience installing NT 3.5. Either way, those definitions don’t reflect the reality of the information age.

To put this in context, let’s think back 15 years or so to the Visual Basic story. Here was a tool that provided a high level of abstraction over Windows. Who were the geeks? The C++ programmers who blew off VB as a “toy language” or “glue language”, or the millions who adopted VB either as their first language or migrating from another language?

The answer is obvious - both were. The only difference was that the VB geeks were much more productive (for a wide class of applications).

The world has changed of course, and neither VB .NET nor C# provide the kind of abstraction levels that are needed going forward. We don’t have a tool that corresponds to the .NET framework the way VB related to the Windows API. Or put another way - VB was incredibly productive because it provided a level of abstraction to the underlying API for which C/C++ was the “first class” language. Today, VB .NET and C# are the “first class” languages for .NET - but we don’t yet have that new paradigm, that new level of abstraction, that will bring us to the next level (of geekiness, as it were).

Or do we?

At least in one area, I’m beginning to think that we do.

When I look at ASP .NET, I see lots of great components and features for building great web applications. At the same time, the prospect of building a site using it is… well, it’s about as exciting as Hello World was in C back in the 90’s. I’m working on a project now (not ready to talk about yet), that is web based, and building it from scratch wasn’t even a consideration.

For web applications, tools like Wordpress and CMS systems like Plone, Drupel and DotNetNuke are compelling platforms on which to base new applications. Their open source nature and flexible architectures assures extensibility in much the way that VB’s support for custom controls allowed the language to do things that it’s developers never imagined.

This, by the way, should be something Microsoft pays close attention to - the vast majority of CMS systems today are LAMP systems - and this is what might cost them the web platform war (not the quality of the platform itself).

Anyway, I digress. Cody, Robert - you’re both geeks in my book.

And for the record, this particular Blog is on Wordpress, that is in fact hosted on my own server - not because there is any geek value in doing so, but because my incremental cost to do so is zero (which is, coincidently, the cost of Robert’s hosting as well).

The Graduating Geek’s Guide to High Finance

July 3rd, 2006

As many of you know, I’ve been turning some of my attention to the topic of finance and investing (the results of which you can find on my alternate blog at While most of my focus has been for somewhat more advanced investors, it occurred to me that there’s one beginners group that desperately needs financial education - new college graduates - specifically those with tech degrees.

New graduates with tech degrees suddenly find themselves making real money - in many cases for the first time in their lives. In our consumer society (devoted to separating us from our money), it’s not uncommon for them to quickly find themselves in debt and living from paycheck to paycheck.

So I wrote an e-Book called “The Graduating Geek’s Guide to High Finance” that contains the most important information they (if not everyone) needs to know about personal finance (the kind of information that isn’t taught in school). It also contains some of the career advice/wisdom that is traditionally handed down to newcomers from jaded industry veterans.

Sample topics include:

  • Money Isn’t Everything.
  • Wealth isn’t Income.
  • Start Today, well actually - tomorrow.
  • Think twice before you spend.
  • Time is Money.
  • The Tax Man cometh.
  • A Piece of the Action.
  • Stock and Stock Options.
  • Investing.
  • Start a business.
  • Going Independent.
  • Corporate Myths.
  • Buying A House.
  • Insurance.
  • Trust No One.

The Graduating Geek’s Guide to High Finance is published as an e-Book for $3.99. Now available on

If you’re interested in a review copy, contact me via Email.

Kudos to Bill Gates

June 15th, 2006

With news of Gates’ planned retirement from Microsoft, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on his extraordinary accomplishments:

  • He founded Microsoft
  • He managed to maintain a majority stake and control over Microsoft.
  • He recruited a team capable of managing Microsoft (in so far as any company of that size and built-in degree of chaos can be managed).
  • He built an organization strong enough to carry on running Microsoft without him.
  • He’s leaving Microsoft so he can spend his time making the world a better place by working on health projects and reforming education (something desperately needed).

While one might credit some of these to being at the right place at the right time, and one might disagree with some of his actions along the way, one can’t help but being impressed by these absolutely remarkable accomplishments.

Given the resources he brings into play with his foundation, and his talents, it’s just possible he’ll make a real difference addressing these problems. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if he makes more of a difference than some of the governments who are supposed to be addressing these problems.

I, for one, commend him on his decision, and wish him all success on this venture.

Thinking About Money

June 5th, 2006

I’ve been thinking about money.

Odd isn’t it that we in the technology field have so much to say on everything from technology to politics, but hardly ever talk about money? (at least our own - we’ll talk about a company’s money, especially when they are stupidly losing it).

For all that we tend to make a good living, it’s amazing how many of my friends find themselves struggling financially to various degrees. Is it possible that we’re so busy struggling to keep up with the newest .NET framework features or server technology that we never bother to learn about finance beyond the clichés (set aside money for retirement, diversify through mutual funds, etc)?

I’ve always been one of the few authors and speakers who has incorporated economics and psychology into my work. I’ve long advocated the blasphemous idea that you should choose a technology based not on what’s new or cool, but based on what is the best economic choice. And we all know (though we don’t necessarily admit it) that many technological choices are actually emotional rather than rational (the pseudo conflict between VB .NET and C# being a classic example).

Anyway, it seems to me that since most people reading this are highly paid professionals, all of us (at least those who’ve been in the business for a couple of decades) should be pretty well off - possibly ready to retire. And I’m quite sure those who are newer to the profession would very much like to be pretty well off within a couple of decades (or sooner, preferably much sooner). But I also know that for most of us it doesn’t work out quite the way we hope. And that got me thinking. Thinking about money.

So I am about to “fork” this blog. I’ve decided that right now, along with continuing the semi-futile fight to stay up to date with the newest technology, I’m going to spend some time learning about money. I know a fair amount, but there’s a lot I don’t know, and I don’t trust any of those financial/investment web sites and books that claim to know “THE SECRET” to instant wealth (or even long term wealth). Instead, I’m going to study the topic, with the same focus that I’ve been known to apply to technological topics.

And I’m inviting you to come along for the ride. The best way to learn something is to teach it, so I’m going to write about the things I learn on a new site I invite you to join me for the ride.

Thoughts on written communication

June 1st, 2006

The three comments on my previous post, along with some conversations elsewhere, have led me to think a bit on the nature of written communication in the information age.

Consider this comment: “You clearly don’t have any idea of what you are talking about. Unsubscription from the VB5 guy’s blog is in order” and the one that follows: “Surely you can have an opinion without resorting to personal comments.”

Now the interesting thing about the first comment isn’t that the reader disagrees with me – even most Microsoft folks will admit that google is still better on search (Gates implied as much at the D4 – All Things Digital Conference this week). It isn’t even that the reader made personal comments.

It’s that the personal comments were so mild.

It wasn’t too many years ago that virtually every forum or discussion board on the web was not only illiterate, but would frequently degenerate into massive “flame wars” where insults and personal attacks became the order of the day. Frankly, I haven’t noticed too many of those recently. In fact, take a random sampling of any discussion board from slashdot to most blogs and I think you’ll find them remarkably civil – at least compared to earlier days.

Some felt that the reason flame wars took place was the lack of immediate feedback that comes from posting on a discussion board. It’s easier to disregard someone’s feelings if you can’t see their expression while disagreeing with them. This still applies, but now it seems more common for people to respond critically to personal attacks. Perhaps as a result there is a sense that personal attacks reduce your own credibility? (If only that worked with political campaigns).

Another interesting phenomena I’ve seen is especially among younger people – the quality of their writing has improved dramatically. Fifteen years ago when teens showed up on our local BBS discussion boards, most of them could barely string a coherent sentence together (much less spell the words correctly). Today, thanks to Email and IM, teens write all the time, and the results are noticeable. Most may not be great writers, but the overall quality of writing has improved dramatically.

Between increased civility and better writing, participating in NET discussions has, frankly, become much more pleasant than it used to be – at least from my point of view. I’d be interested in hearing if any of you who have been around for a while have noticed this as well?

Whatever happened to

May 6th, 2006

One of the terms I hear often when people talk about search is relevance - which I interpret to mean the ability of the search engine to return the result you actually want. To be honest, I didn’t pay much attention to this. Like most everyone else, I’ve been using google for a while, and the results were quite acceptable.

When launched, I switched to it immediately because I was able to get the best of both worlds - it was serving up google’s results, plus giving me a small additional discount on may purchases.

Last week I noticed something funny though - the search results I was getting didn’t seem as helpful as I had come to expect. In some cases I would type in a search term that I knew should quickly bring me to a particular site whose URL I had forgotten, but it wasn’t on the first or even second page. I couldn’t figure out what might be wrong. Then I took a closer look at the page - the web search was now by - which I guess is the beta for Microsoft’s new search. I then retried some of the searches that frustrated me on google, and sure enough - the sites I was looking for were right there near the top. Google also proved much more understanding of spelling mistakes than - a good thing since spelling is not my strong suit.

I don’t know what the future will bring in the search engine wars, but this is the first time that I’ve really had my nose rubbed in the fact that not all search engines are equal - and Microsoft indeed has a long way to go.

Oh, the Mac-Irony

May 1st, 2006

It’s not every day I see an ad on TV that makes me laugh out loud, but tonight I saw one by Apple that pulled it off. Two men appeared on screen. On the left, a Bill Gates look-alike suffering from a very bad cold (one of 114,000 known viruses that knocks him down - aka causes him to crash - before the commercial is done). On the right, an “I wish I still looked like that” Steve Jobs imitator who is, of course, naturally immune from such illnesses.

The irony of course, being that today is also the day that MAC OS appeared on the SANS top 20 vulnerability list, a fact that was picked up by many news services. Of course the MAC and Safari has always had vulnerabilities - just a lot fewer than Windows and IE. And the fact that today Apple got a lot of bad press because SANS released a new list has more to do with hype and marketing than security.

The new from SANS only served to make the ad even funnier, though I suspect the humor is a bit darker than Apple had in mind.