Make Windows 3.x look like Windows XP

Screenshot of Kalmira 4.0, an application that makes Windows 3.0 look like Windows XP

This is great! As this month’s PC Plus and Personal Computer World magazines examine the forthcoming Windows Vista (which is now to be postponed for a public release until the first quarter of 2007) there are still people developing software for good ol’ Windows 3.x.

Calmira XP 4.0 is an application that replaces the graphic user-interface (GUI) in the 16-bit Windows 3.x family of operating systems (such as Windows 3.1 and Windows for Workgroups 3.11) and replaces it with one that looks and feels remarkably like the 32-bit Windows XP operating system GUI. Version 4.0 also has support for long filenames, something that’s not built into Windows 3.x.

I’m now having second thoughts about getting rid of my old Dell Optiplex 486 DX2 50MHz; it’s still running Windows for Workgroups 3.11. Ever seen a 486 WfWg machine on 10 meg broadband?

Removing adverts in the MSN Messenger 7.5 the easy way with Mess Patch

Screenshot of MSN Messenger
Screenshot of MSN Messenger 7.5 (Build 7.5.0324) patched to remove adverts. By default there would be a flashing advertisment above the search box at the bottom of this window.

The fine people at www.mess.be have done it again, and produced a customizable patch application for the latest version of MSN Messenger 7.5.(Build 7.5.0324).

One of the things that I — and countless others — find annoying is the built-in adverts at the foot of the MSN Messenger contacts window and also the conversation windows. In the past you had to remove these yourself using an application such as Resource Hacker, as documented on my previous blog post: Removing adverts from MSN Messenger 7 and 7.5.

The Mess Patch for MSN Messenger 7.5.0324 puts an end to all that DIY hacking by allowing you to specify which features you wish to disable or add, and the patch utility does it for you.

Screenshot of the Mess Patch for Messenger, showing tick box options
Screenshot of the Mess Patch for Messenger 7.5.0324, showing how easy it is to remove the annoying advertising banners.

As well as nuking the advertisement banners the Mess Patch also has a useful feature that users of Linux or Open Source instant messenger applications such as Gaim take for granted: the ability to distinguish between a contact being Away or Idle.

By default MSN Messenger blocks the transfer of a certain number of file extensions, such as .mp3 and .exe files. This is for security purposes, seemingly. But I always objected to Microsoft deciding on my behalf what files I could or could not share with my friends. I always used to hack this setting by hand (it’s stored in the Windows Registry — details on request) but now this is possible to do by simply selecting the “Remove File Transfer Blocked Extensions” option in Mess Patch.

It is worth noting at this point that I also have the excellent Messenger Plus! extension for MSN Messenger installed, which adds a host of features including the ability to decide which contacts you will automatically accept downloads from, and which you have to authorize. My closest and most trustworthy online contacts (of whom there are currently 12) can send me pretty much any file they wish, everyone else has to wait until I give the go-ahead.

On final thing about the latest update of MSN Messenger: the Help > About MSN Messenger window still shows last year’s date (highlighted in red below):

Screenshot of the MSN Messenger About screen, which shows last year\'s date

Copyright (C) 1997-2005 Microsoft Corportation. All rights reserved.

I’m no expert on how software is versioned or copyrighted, but if this is the most recent build then surely that should read “Copyright (C) 1997-2006”. You would think.

My next Project …

Photo called Weather Project which shows people standing in front of a huge sun.
This photographs was taken at the Weather Project in the Tate Modern, London by amcloughli. Downloaded from stock.xchng.

They do say that you only just 10% of your brain — I’m sure we must only use about the same of most of our computer’s applications.

When I was first introduced to Microsoft Windows in 1995 it was on a PC running Windows 3.1. It was an Elonex 386 SX20, with a 20MB hard drive and — I think — 4MB of RAM, in our office, in a homeless hostel in London. On it we used two main programs: a word processing package called Lotus AmiPro 3.0 and, of course, Solitaire.

I loved Lotus AmiPro. It was the first proper WYSIWYG word processor that I’d ever used, that could also be used as a basic Desktop Publishing (DTP) package due to its cunning use of frames. It was quite revolutionary, so I’m told.

But my point is that I knew AmiPro inside-out and back-to-front. I’d read the Que guide from cover-to-cover and devoured most of the built-in help too. I knew how it worked, from basic editing, writing newsletters, compiling massive multi-file documents, to indexing, mail merge and even writing, editing and debugging macros.

I liked that about AmiPro; I liked that I knew it so thoroughly. There are very few applications that I can say that about these days: Microsoft Publisher 2000 is now probably the application with which I am most familiar. With so many more demands being made on my time in front of the computer (email, Web design, photo editing, MP3 playing, etc.) I, like most people I guess, usually use only the most immediate features of our most commonly-used applications. Most of the Microsoft Office applications install with the default setting that it only presents you with your most often used menu items, for example. (I always switch that off — I want to know everything that an application is offering, because that’s usually the way that I learn how to use more features.)

Project 2003 book coverRecently I’ve been delving deeper into Microsoft Office Project 2003, using Microsoft Office Project 2003 Step by Step. Sometimes it’s just good to get back to basics to both learn new features and unlearn bad habits.

Web ReDesign book coverOne of my main reasons for going back-to-basics on Project 2003 is that I want to use it in conjunction with another book that I’m reading just now: Web ReDesign 2.0 | Workflow That Works by Kelly Goto and Emily Cotler.

As I’ve taken on larger and larger Web projects I’ve begun to suspect that there are probably things that I could do more efficiently and effectively. And as we all know, there is no need to keep reinventing the wheel. Goto and Cotler present a fabulously well-thought out and worked-out method for any Website design or re-design, in five phases:

  1. Define the Project — Discovery, Planning, Clarification
  2. Develop Site Structure — Content-View, Site-View, Page-View, User-View
  3. Design Visual Interface — Creating, Confirming, Handing Off
  4. Build & Integrate — Planning, Building & Integration, Testing
  5. Launch & Beyond — Delivery, Launch, Maintenance

Part of the reason that I was moved to St Ninian’s from St Salvador’s was to free me up to concentrate on the Scottish Episcopal Church Website, which was thrown together quickly last June to get something up and running before General Synod 2005. There is a whole lot more to complete. I need a good workflow plan, and these two books are my first port of call.

I now just need to find the space to sit down at my desk and work through these two books. That my move to St Ninian’s now has me doing more services a week than when I was at St Salvador’s is neither here nor there!

Get Yacking!

Screenshot of Yack Pack
Screenshot of Yack Pack.

Yesterday my friend — and infrequent blogger — James Frost asked me how things were coming along with the Yack Pack project that a friend of mine in the States was putting together. Check it out:

Yack Pack logo

When Jane and I were holidaying in California in 2004 we stayed with my cousin Charlotte Anderson in Healdsburg (wine country!). One of her neighbours (or ‘neighbors’) was BJ Fogg, who is the brains behind the Yack Pack software. While staying with Char I got the chance to ‘hang out’ with BJ a couple of times, to talk about website usability and to see a working preview of Yack Pack. We even had a game of Mah Jong one evening:

Playing Mahjong
(From left to right): BJ, Char and Denny playing Mah Jong in January 2004.

BJ was working at Stanford at the time, and had recently published his book Persuasive Technology about “Using Computers to Change What We Think and Do”.

At the time Yack Pack was an installable application, but it has since become an award-winning Web 2.0 application: it is entirely web-based, so now you can access it and use it no matter where you are in the world, no matter what system you are using (so long as it has Web access, speakers and a microphone).

What is Yack Pack?

Yack Pack is simply a web-based voice messaging service for groups — think email, but with voice — and it’s quite simply brilliant. What’s really nice about it is that it’s really quick to use, much quicker than typing an email, and no risk of RSI! You select the person (or persons) that you want to send a message to, click, talk, send. That’s it!

And because it’s voice-based you can hear the intonation of the message being spoken, something that you can’t with text-based email. How many short and to the point emails have you received that you misinterpretted as snippy and rude? Well you just don’t get that with Yack Pack, because you can hear the emotion.

It’s great for messages that are quiet sensitive too, eg “Hey! I’m really sorry to hear that your Mum’s in hospital. Thinking about you…” Messages that don’t come hit the mark when they are just typed words.

I’ve just signed up … I just need some friends now to Yack with. My user ID is the same as my email address.

Related resources:

Review: Royal Mail SmartStamp

Screenshot of Royal Mail SmartStamp
Royal Mail SmartStamp software open at a blank labels template.

Today we posted our Christmas cards. Yes, I know the airmail ones won’t get there in time for Christmas, but hey! last year we didn’t write our Christmas 2004 letter until the end of January 2005! It’s a start.

This year I used the Royal Mail SmartStamp software that I bought (leased?) earlier this year. I’ve been using it off-and-on for the last four months but today was the first time that I really put it to the test, and I have to admit that while it does what I need it to do (that is: print stamps) the whole experience is rather disappointing.

It doesn’t appear to be a terribly well thought-out piece of software. The graphic user interface (GUI) isn’t great, or terribly user-friendly. One of my major gripes is that it is limited to an 800 x 600 pixels screen resolution. Here’s how it looks when I maximize the SmartStamp window on my 1280 x 1024 pixels resolution monitor:

Disappointing screenshot of Royal Mail SmartStamp showing a lot of white space.
Having maximized the window, disappointingly, nothing has resized!

Look at the size of the labels! I can’t read them, but if they automatically resized when I maximized the window that would make things a whole lot easier. I might even overlook some of the other ‘features’ if it did that.

I’ve not used the print-directly-onto-envelopes option yet, I’ve only used the print-onto-labels option, which suits me fine. It’s easier to load an A4 sheet of labels into my laser printer than faff around adjusting the paper guides to load a ream of envelopes.

Labels can be created either individually, one label at a time, or in a mail-merge where you select the stamp price and then tick the contacts you want labels printed for — SmartStamp automatically hunts down your Outlook or Outlook Express address book (which is great!)

Opening the application and double-clicking the first stamp you are presented with this screen:

Screenshot of the labels screen
Customize your stamps and address labels here.

The three options are

  • Single Print
    This allows you to create a variety of stamps (1st class, 2nd class, Airmail, etc.) with or without address labels.
  • Mail Merge
    For loads of stamps of the same denomination, with address labels selected from your Windows Address Book or Outlook contacts.
  • Bulk Print
    This option will give you a sheet of stamps of the same denomination, with no address labels.

Stamp prices and weights are all kept up-to-date and selecting the right price is simple — this I think they have got right — for either UK Mail or Overseas Mail. You can also assign regularly-used stamps to one of six Favourites buttons. CDROM in the screenshot above is for my Psion SDK software CDROM that I distribute.

Clicking the Address Book button (top-right) brings up this window:

Screenshot of SmartStamp Address Book
Choose your recipient’s address either from the list on the left or use the search facility to narrow it down to a shorter list.

As soon as it is open the Address Book list on the left starts to populate, which feels really annoying. I have 541 items in my Outlook Contacts list (which is the default address book selected in my SmartStamp). Almost every time I use this feature all I want to do is search for one particular name. I’d much rather that SmartStamp waited for me to type in the name rather than racing off trying to be helpful and list every name in my address book.

For Mail Merge much the same window pops up, but with the addition of tick-boxes to the left of the names in the Address Book list. This I don’t mind. But I do wish that it would sort the list alphabetically by surname once it has populated the list.

Another feature that would have been wonderful would have been to tie it into the Royal Mail’s online postcode checker facility. What a faff it was to keep clicking back and forth between SmartStamp, Outlook Contacts and the Royal Mail postcode website just to ensure that three addresses had their postcodes completed.

It would also be great if this software could read syndicated feeds that gave useful information such as last posting dates at Christmas, or information about proposed price increases.

Finally, once I’ve completed one batch of labels (eg Mail Merge of airmail letters to the USA) the only way that I can see to start anew is to exit the application completely and start again from scratch. Surely it wouldn’t have been too much of a hardship of include a New button. In fact, had they built the application using a standard Windows UI it would have made things much more familiar.

This week I ordered a book on Amazon called Don’t Make Me Think about website usability. I’m absolutely certain that this application could do with a major usability overhaul. Royal Mail, if you’re listening I’d be delighted to be involved.

And the price really is too high, for something this poor: £4.99 a month or £49.99 a year, plus cost of postage. I wouldn’t have minded paying a one-off fee of £49.99 to buy the software but every year?! Come on, Royal Mail!

And I forgot to mention that once you have printed your labels and stamps you then have 2 days to post the letters! I printed a sheet of 21 stamps today each of which said at the bottom of each “Post by 19.12.05”. Why?! I don’t get booklets of stamps at Tesco that have a use-by date, why here?!

I will keep using the software because it saves me time, and it means that I can deal with my mail at times that are convenient to me and when the local post office is closed. But at the end of the day while I was able to use the software to print all our labels and stamps, I could have done it a lot more pleasurably and intuitively had a few things been better designed, in my opinion.