June, 2007

  • The Old New Thing

    Even advanced users liked the Windows XP Start menu


    In addition to testing out the Windows XP Start menu on beginners, we asked advanced users (including lots of system administrators) what they thought of it, and the response was still positive. This was kind of surprising, for advanced users tend to be resistant to change.

    In fact, system administrators like the new Start menu so much that they asked for a special "server administrators" version of the new Start menu. Explorer decides whether you get the "normal user" version or the "server administrator" version of the Start menu based on your account permissions at the time you log on for the first time.

    If your account is a member of the Administrators group when you first log onto one of the Server editions of Windows Server 2003, then Explorer sets up your defaults to be more suitable for server administration. The default pin list contains server management utilities (I forget exactly which ones, but I think "Manage Your Server" is in there somewhere), Explorer defaults to Details mode, and showing the full path in the address bar. There may be some other minor changes; I forget exactly.

  • The Old New Thing

    What is the international sign for "you left something on the roof of your car"?


    Occasionally, I'll spot a car with something on its roof, the driver clearly having put it there and forgotten about it. I have just a few seconds to catch the driver's attention and make some sort of explanatory gesture. What is the international sign for "You left something on your roof"?

  • The Old New Thing

    How does the Windows XP Start menu decide that a program is newly-installed?


    Actually, I discussed this topic already, but I'm mentioning it again here since it's thematically related to the other Start menu articles.

    I'm told that there have been a few tweaks to the rules for Windows Vista. Some installers set the time stamps on the program to match the time stamp of the install media. This makes for pretty directory listings but means that the Start menu fails to recognize the program as new. To address this, the Start menu also takes the creation time of the directory containing the program into consideration when determining which programs are new.

    Second, a program that appears in the pin list will not be marked as new, since that would be pointless duplication. (This is only an issue for the "chameleon" pin list entries like "Internet" and "Email" which track your current default Web browser or mail program.) And third, the grace period after installation has been extended from one hour to five hours. This gives computer manufacturers more time to install all their shovelw^H^H^H^H^H^H^Hhigh-quality added-value software.

  • The Old New Thing

    In order to serve you better: Frequent flyer miles expiring sooner


    At the beginning of the year, United quietly changed its policy on frequently flyer points. Under the old rules, your account remained active provided there was some sort of account activity in the past three years. The activity could be taking a flight, redeeming points for product, or earning points through one of their partners. Anything that changes the point total resets the clock. Under the new rules, the lifetime of an inactive account has been cut in half, to 18 months. What's more, they made the change retroactive with no grace period. If your account had been inactive for two years, poof, it's gone.

    I understand why the airlines are doing this. It is widely reported that there are over 9.7 trillion unredeemed points in frequent flyer programs, and the threat of having to redeem those points for flights means having to account for them in their balance sheets.

    What I found interesting is that the explanation United gave for the policy change is the classic lie: "In order to serve you better." They explained that making points expire sooner means that there will be fewer people competing for the free tickets, and therefore a higher likelihood that you'll get what you want. Of course, this only holds true if you're not one of the suckers whose points just got expired out from under you.

    Now, they could have turned this lie into a truth by a simple change in wording. Instead of saying that it's "in order to serve you better," they could have said that was made "in order to serve our most loyal customers better." Because the loyal customers will have lots of points that don't expire, and it's the infrequent customers that will watch their points disappear.

    United is hardly the first or the last airline to be more aggressive on inactive accounts. In late 2006, Delta dropped their inactivity cutoff from three years to two, and US Airways dropped theirs from three years to 18 months. And recently, American dropped their cutoff from three years to two. (Alaska Airlines has held steady at three years, and Continental's technically expire after 18 months, though they also say that they haven't enforced the rule. USA Today summarizes the policies for the major U.S. airlines.)

    Epilogue: Yeesh, this article was intended to be just a "public service announcement" to remind people to check the mileage expiration policies of the airlines they fly with. I didn't expect the Spanish Inquisition. Fortunately, this problem is easy to fix: I'll simply post a dry "public service announcements" and not include my own personal analysis.

  • The Old New Thing

    More Start menu fine-tuning: Choosing a better representative for a frequently-run program


    If you paid really close attention to the way a representative shortcut is selected for a program, you may have noticed a problem with it. Here's the rule again:

    If there are multiple shortcuts to the same program, then the most-frequently-used shortcut is selected as the one to appear on the front page of the Start menu.

    Suppose there are two shortcuts to Notepad on the All Programs section of the Start menu, one is the standard Notepad shortcut that comes with Windows, and the other is a shortcut whose command line is notepad.exe C:\Program Files\LitWare Inc\Release Notes.txt. Now suppose the user opens a text document on the desktop. Notepad runs, it "earns a point", and suppose that this gives Notepad enough points to appear on the front page of the Start menu. Which Notepad shortcut do we show?

    According to the rule stated above, we will choose either the standard Notepad shortcut or the LitWare Release Notes shortcut, depending on which one you've run most frequently. If it's the latter, then you'll have the puzzling result that opening a text document on the desktop causes the LitWare Release Notes shortcut to show up on the front page of the Start menu. It's perfectly logical and completely baffling at the same time.

    In Windows Vista, another tweak was added to the algorithm by which a shortcut is chosen to represent a program on the front page of the Start menu: If the user hasn't run any of a program's shortcuts from the Start menu, a shortcut that doesn't have any command line parameters is preferred over one that does.

    This tweak causes the Start menu to favor the standard Notepad shortcut over the LitWare Release Notes shortcut. It also means that, for example, a shortcut to Litware.exe is preferred over a shortcut of the form Litware.exe -update.

    Note: I was not present at the Windows Vista Start menu design meetings, so I have no insight into the rationale behind its design. Sorry.

  • The Old New Thing

    I'm pretty sure he's going to be the envy of his next school reunion


    Masi Oka has pretty much everything the dorky nerd geek has ever dreamed of.

    Right out of college, he lands a job at Industrial Light and Magic doing digital effects, developing complex algorithms for water and other fluid effects seen in movies like The Perfect Storm. That'd already be enough to make him the hit of his next school reunion.

    And then he scores a major role in the television series Heroes as a, well, dorky nerd geek. But one with a super power. Now at his next school reunion, he's going to be mobbed by people who wouldn't even give him the time of day when he was in school.

    But wait, there's more. Now it is rumored that Riyo Mori, the newly-crowned Miss Universe, is being considered for a role on Heroes as "the love interest of one of the show's superhero characters." Given that her character has a Japanese name, it's not unreasonable to suppose that the superhero in question may be Oka's character Hiro. If so, and she gets the role, then he'll not just be an accomplished digital effects artist, not just a prime-time actor, but an actor whose on-screen girlfriend was crowned the most beautiful woman in the world! At his next reunion, Oka's going to be mobbed by people who didn't even attend his school.

  • The Old New Thing

    What is the impact on the Start menu of long-running programs?


    Let's take another look at the basic principle that determines which programs show up in the Start menu:

    Each time you launch a program, it "earns a point", and the longer you don't launch a program, the more points it loses.

    If you stare at this long enough, you might see a hole in this principle: What about a program that you launch once and keep running all the time? According to the rule, this program would "earn a point" when you first launched it, and then it would gradually lose points even though you clearly use this program frequently. (Here, "frequently" is an understatement for "all the stinking time!")

    Thus was born another fine-tuning rule: For each consecutive day◊ a program was kept continuously running, it "earned a point" as if you had launched it yourself.

    This little "feeding the program points under the table" was enough background radiation to keep the program afloat in the points race, but not so much as to overwhelm the programs that you actually launch frequently. After all, if you keep the program running all the time, the Start menu didn't have to give the program high placement. Most of the times you open the Start menu, you don't need to launch that program; it's already running. The program just needed to be kept from dying out completely.


    In extreme cases, it might even drop all the way to zero, at which point the program would act like you'd never run it at all!

    ◊"Day" here is shorthand for a more complicated definition (taking into account idle time), the details of which are not relevant.

  • The Old New Thing

    Project Update 3: Voyage to Our Hollow Earth


    Alas, the original plan for the trip to the hole in the Arctic Ocean had to be scrapped due to the passing of organizer Steven Currey. But hollow earthers, don't give up hope! U.S. scientist Brooks Agnew has announced his plans to take the place of Mr. Currey, chartering the same ship and taking the same itinerary with the same goal.

    We'll check in next year to see what they've found.

  • The Old New Thing

    Why does a new user get stuff on their Start menu right off the bat?


    In the initial designs for the Start menu, the list of most-frequently-used programs on the Start menu would be completely empty the first time you opened it. This was perfectly logical, since you hadn't run any programs at all yet, so nothing was frequently-used because nothing had been used at all! Perfectly logical and completely stupid-looking.

    Imagine the disappointment of people who just bought a computer. They unpack it, plug everything in, turn it on, everything looks great. Then they open the Start menu to start using their computer and they get... a blank white space. "Ha-ha! This computer can't do anything! You should have bought a Mac!"

    (In usability-speak, this is known as "the cliff": You're setting up a new computer, everything looks like it's going great, and then... you're staring at a blank screen and have no idea what to do next. The learning curve has turned into a precipice.)

    The original design attempted to make this initially-blank Start menu less stark by adding text that said, roughly, "Hey, sure, this space is blank right now, but as you run programs, they will show up here, trust me."

    Great work there. Now it's not stupid any more. Now it's stupid and ugly.

    It took a few months to figure out how to solve this problem, and ultimately we decided upon what you see in Windows XP: For brand new users, we create some "artificial points" so that the initial Start menu has a sampling of fun programs on it. The number of artificial points is carefully chosen so that they are enough points to get the programs onto the Start menu's front page, but not so many points that they overwhelm the "real" points earned by programs users run themselves. (I believe the values were chosen so that a user needs to run a program only twice to get it onto the front page on the first day.)

    Note that these "artificial points" are not given if the user was upgraded from Windows 2000. In that case, the points that the Windows 2000 Start menu used for Intellimenus were used to seed the Windows XP point system. In that way, the front page of the Start menu for an upgraded uses already reflects the programs that the user ran most often on Windows 2000.

    In the initial release of Windows XP, the "artificial points" were assigned so that the first three of the six slots on the most-frequently-used programs list were chosen by Windows and the last three by the computer manufacturer. If your copy of Windows XP was purchased at retail instead of preinstalled by the computer manufacturer, or if the computer manufacturer declined to take advantage of the three slots offered to it (something that never happened in practice), then Windows took two of the three slots that had been offered to the computer manufacturer, leaving the last slot blank. That way, the very first program you ran showed up on your Start menu immediately.

    In Windows XP Service Pack 1, the assignment of the six slots changed slightly. Two of the slots were assigned by Windows, one by the United States Department of Justice, and the last three by the computer manufacturer. (Again, if you bought your copy of Windows XP at retail, then two of the computer manufacturer slots were assigned by Windows and the last was left blank.)

  • The Old New Thing

    "Super" watch, episode 2


    Not just "super exciting" but "super-super-exciting". (But at least he's not super super super excited.) I don't consider this super encouraging.

    Episode 1.

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