Windows Live Essentials Wave 4 Beta

Microsoft released a public beta of the Windows Live Essentials (Wave 4) today. The application I use more and am most interested in is Live Messenger. With each release, a bit more glitz seems to get added in, and with Wave 4, the inclusion of its social networking intentions has blown it a bit over the top. The default screens looks something like the following.

wave4-social

Fortunately, the little button in the top right shrinks the contact list down to something more manageable, and not dissimilar from what we had in the past. I’ve gone with a two-column layout. The ad banner has changed format, but still takes up a good portion of the application, unfortunately.

wave4-messengerThere’s a clear focus on the social aspect of Windows Live in the new release. Your name can no longer be changed in the Messenger interface; instead it’s tied to your profile. You’ll have to modify your Live settings to update your name. However, the chat box beside your avatar is more obvious than before, and serves as a status update.

Speaking of your Windows Live profile, I hadn’t noticed it much in the past, but with many of the account functions now tied to that web interface, many more people are going to be visiting the site. It looks fairly clean, with your own status updates front and center. It seems like very few of my contacts currently use the service, with Facebook around, so they’ve gone and added the ability to link (one-way or two-way) your social accounts, such as Facebook, YouTube, etc. When I installed Windows Live Writer, I was prompted to link my WordPress blog with Windows Live. A couple clicks later and my recent posts started populating my feed. Pretty neat.

wave4-profile

Back to Live Messenger. An oft-requested feature, tabbed messaging, makes an appearance. Furthermore, Messenger now plays nice with the Windows 7 taskbar, removing the superfluous taskbar item, as well as showing each tab as an individual preview. Nice little status buttons on the contact list preview enable quick status changes.

wave4-tabbed

One feature that is indicative of a mindset that makes me extremely proud to be a Program Manager shows up in the notifications. The little gear circled in the screenshot below takes you directly to the notification settings.

wave4-notifier

When a user sees the little notifier pop up, they’re likely going to think one of three things.

  1. Okay, but I don’t care (leaves it to go away on its own, or click the little x)
  2. Oh, I meant to speak to him/her (clicks the notification to launch a chat)
  3. Gosh, I hate these notifications! (????)

Normally, the third reaction meant the user had to go dig around in the settings until they found what they were looking for, or give up trying. However, the little icon uses up some of the otherwise wasted space and delivers what the user wants in a single click. That’s a much better experience, and that’s the goal of any Program Manager.

I haven’t delved into the rest of the applications yet, although this post was written in the new Live Writer. For the most part, what I’m seeing at a glance are the old apps, now with more ribbon. Perhaps there are little user experience nuggets like the settings link in Live Messenger, helping the interface. I’m also rather excited about Live Sync (+ SkyDrive). I’ve been using DropBox, but it doesn’t work with my own file structure, so I’m curious to see how Live Sync stacks up. Get the Live Essentials Beta here.

Lightroom ‘Underexposing’ Nikon RAWs?

Solution inside.

I used to have a dilemma. I typically shoot RAW with my Nikon D90 and process them with Capture NX2. I much prefer the workflow and interface provided by Lightroom, but couldn’t quite get the same color and tone I got from Capture NX2. I knew that Lightroom didn’t have access to all the proprietary camera data that Nikon can put into NX2, but Lightroom always seemed to do something weird with the exposure of the RAWs I took, seemingly dropping the brightness or exposure on them. I would then need to tweak the hell out of the develop settings (boosting exposure, for example) to get it anywhere close to the Capture NX2 starting point. It was a pain. Even the camera Nikon camera profiles I downloaded from Adobe didn’t help matters.

I had become content, settling with Capture NX2, but recent glowing reviews of Lightroom 3 beta piqued my interest once more. More digging on the issue led me to download some Nikon color presets, which didn’t help, and one tidbit on Capture NX2’s handling of Active D-Lighting (fancy name for dynamic range expansion through in-camera processing). Apparently the feature works by underexposing the shot, then gaining up the photo in select areas to produce the effect of increased dynamic range. Capture NX2 reads the ADL setting and previews the RAW image with the adjustment. However, Lightroom, not knowing anything about Nikon’s proprietary ADL algorithms, simply spits out the RAW sensor data, resulting in the sometimes grossly underexposed image. Take a look:

Nikon Active D-Lighting Effect on RAW

On the left I’ve switched off ADL in Capture NX2 and you see the RAW sensor data. Meanwhile, on the right, Capture NX2 has done its wizardry and applied ADL – High. Lightroom will display the image on the left, even though the camera will show you something akin to the right in its preview display.

I fault myself for not turning off ADL in the first place when shooting RAW. Now that I know what’s causing Lightroom’s ‘apparent underexposure’ problem with Nikon RAWs, I can switch my workflow over. Hope that helps people out there who were just as confused as I was. I went through a ton of unsolved trouble-shooting posts during my search.

Windows 7 Long Shutdown Times Solved

Ever since setting up my new desktop, I’ve had extremely long shutdown times with Windows 7, usually taking several minutes to turn off. Initially, I thought this was due to a buggered install, but after a reformat did nothing to solve the issue, I dug deeper into the internet.

I first checked my Startup/Shutdown logs to see if any processes were hanging. You can access the logs by:

  1. Searching for “Performance Information and Tools” in the Windows 7 start menu search
  2. Click “Advanced Tools” on the left
  3. Select “View performance details in Event log
  4. The Event Viewer will now pop up.
  5. Drill down into “Application and Services Logs
  6. Go down further into Microsoft > Windows > Diagnostics-Performance
  7. Under “Operational“, any events with IDs of 201 and higher will indicate shutdown issues. Check them.

I didn’t find any processes that were slowing the shutdown, so I looked harder.

Turns out Windows was getting stuck on clearing the page file on shutdown. Since I have an SSD, had disabled the page file altogether as one of the standard SSD OS tweaks. Was Windows getting confused about not being able to find the page file to clear? I’m not quite certain what the explanation is.

If you’re having long or delayed shut downs, try disabling page file clearing at shutdown by setting the following registry (regedit.exe) DWORD to zero (0).

HKLMSYSTEMCurrentControlSetControlSession ManagerMemory Management
> ClearPageFileAtShutdown

Hopefully that helps anyone with shutdown performance issues. If any SSD users find the registry edit solved the problem, let me know if you have a page file enabled or not in the comments. Perhaps I can collect some data and forward it on to some contacts at Microsoft.

Application Stores – Purveyors of Innovation

One of the reasons I’ve remained enamoured with the computing space is the potential for software to do amazing things. It’s one of the few subjects in which a single person can formulate a vision, undertake its design, and carry out the implementation of a complete, functional system, a system that can change the way people use technology to solve real world problems. However, the software developer is faced with a pretty big challenge.

Distribution.

How does that developer, with near-zero capital, get his application into the hands of people who might find it useful? In the past, it was nearly impossible to reach more than a handful – you could host the application on your personal webpage, and hope people find it. If you were giving the program away for free, you might get a few nibbles. If you were charging for it, you’d have to think about a secure payment system (PayPal, perhaps?). You’d almost certainly get very few users, unless you were discovered by some larger publication.

In fewer words, it was difficult as hell to make any money from your software development efforts.

And that’s why there were relatively few indie developers making anything decently worthwhile. The distribution method for most successful software has been shiny media in retail stores, or bundled on OEM computers.

Shiny Media

Say what you want about Apple’s closed application ecosystem on the iPhone OS, it opened up the floodgates of eager developers who had amazing ideas but no way to show the world their creations. More importantly, the Apple App Store provided these individuals and small organizations a way to effectively monetize their work. If necessity is the mother of all invention, but then (monetary) incentive is probably the father.

Apple iPhone Applications

It is my firm belief that the App Store is a purveyor of innovation, not in the platform itself, but the applications that are enabled by the model. No longer does a developer question whether they can make some money from a great idea. Don’t read this wrong. The App Store model doesn’t guarantee earnings from just any idea.

Many other software platforms are either in the process of, or have already imitated the App Store model. It’s unreasonable to assume the developer of any platform is going to be able to implement or even determine all the potential use cases for their software system. The centralized application store provides a community that creates its own demand and provides its own supply. It’s a circular effect, and creates new scenarios in which that software system is useful to the masses. The system that emerges is significantly more agile, not relying on a single entity to provide functionality, and even more so than an open platform, with no proper distribution method. Furthermore, many of the applications that come about arise from grass-roots movements, evolving with community input. These new use cases help sell the devices, as Apple has shown.

Whether that application store needs to be the only source of applications is debatable. I contend that it is the small minority of developers that would actually take advantage of 3rd-party distribution, but the possible issues of code quality, security, and dilution of one key characteristics of the application store, singular, centralized repo, outweigh that advantage, for less general-computing platforms such as the iPhone and iPad.

Apple Application Store

Long story short, the Apple App Store has empowered individuals and small organizations to create software solutions to their problems. These applications were previously undiscoverable, and thus lacked the monetary incentive necessary to foster this sort of interest in development by non-traditional developers. Whether the closed-platform model is the right one is contentious, but it’s hard to argue against the innovation that exists in 140,000 applications in the Apple App Store today.

The next step is to bring the development learning curve and overhead down even further. There are about a billion computer users who have a better way to do something with their computing devices, but can’t turn those ideas to reality.

Windows 7 Release Candidate Now Available

Possibly the most anticipated Windows operating system ever is now available for download in Release Candidate form. Windows 7 is Microsoft’s attempt at mitigating many of the usability concerns with Vista, and after using the beta 1 version as my main operating system on both my desktop and laptop (yeah, a bit risky, I know) for the past few months, I’m confident in saying it does that and more. What’s especially pleasing to see is that Microsoft is directly incorporating customer feedback into Windows 7  throughout the pre-RTM product phases. I hope this is a precursor for future collaboration with their other products as well.

Currently, rumours put the official Windows 7  launch in October of this year. That will certainly make for an exciting work term!