Life with Azure: the realization

Background

As part of being a technologist in real life, I’ve always felt that one of the important things that I did was that I brought my work home with me, and actually enjoyed it.  What I mean by that is, the long days that I spent with Windows Server, Exchange, and other things in the Microsoft ecosystem, always followed me home in the evenings and on the weekends.  I seemed to have enjoyed the work enough where I really wanted to use my extra time to play with it at home too, which helped me to really build my skills.  I’ve done this for the last 20 years.

My home network didn’t need to be overly complex, but it was.  Learning these things in my off-work time made me more efficient in my “real” job.  An issue I would encounter at work would follow me to the home lab.

Continue reading “Life with Azure: the realization”

Twin Cities LTE Performance: Not too shabby

With Twin Cities AT&T customers getting an added Thanksgiving gift of LTE, I decided to run a handful of tests to see what performance looked like.

This was performed on a Samsung Galaxy SIII using the app from speedtest.net.

speedtest

The results are pretty impressive.  Almost 40Mb/s down and over 10 Mb/s upload speeds. 

AT&T Rocking 4G LTE in the Twin Cities

Looks like today is the day when AT&T flips the switch on full-time LTE for the Twin Cities.  I noticed back in September that the State Fairgrounds was lit up and providing some nice download speeds.  Also the U of M campus and a few other northern suburbs have been enjoying that functionality as AT&T was going through testing.

I can’t find an official release on AT&T’s website, but a few media outlets are reporting this too.

heraldonline.com

Star Tribune

Pioneer Press

Creating an Add-on for Internet Explorer with Add-In Express

Introduction

For some time I have had a few ideas for Internet Explorer add-ons that I’d like to create.  One of the biggest challenges was with creating the wrapper that is required to encapsulate the executing code.  You could create context menu actions pretty easily through the registry, but you were limited to what you could do via JavaScript.

That being said, I was doing some research to see how I could accomplish this.  Almost immediately I came across Add-In Express which makes a product called Add-In Express for Internet Explorer.  They have a number of products available that help build add-ons around Microsoft Office and Microsoft Internet Explorer.

I thought I’d give it a try, so I sent them an email to see about getting an evaluation copy.  Within a couple of days they provided me with an evaluation key good for 45 days. 

This would be enough time for me to kick around the product a bit and see how easy they made it to create a add-on for Internet Express.

Test Project: Instapaper Add-on for Internet Explorer

Have you heard of Instapaper?  Instapaper is this cool “project” founded by Marco Arment.  The idea behind Instapaper is that you are surfing the web, find a webpage that you like and you want to bookmark it for later review.  This is really handy if you’re catching up on your Twitter feed and come across a link you want to visit, you can “send it to Instapaper”, then use an Instapaper application (available for iPhone, Android, and other platforms) to go back and catch-up on the pages you wanted to revisit.  I use this a lot especially when traveling.  I’ll go back to my Instapaper list and read the articles that I didn’t previously have time for, but wanted to review otherwise.  Instapaper also has the option to export your “list” to your Kindle or other eReader device.

When I am on my desktop, and using Internet Explorer, how are you suppose to keep track of things you don’t have time for now, but want to go back and read?  You use Instapaper and my Instapaper Add-on for Internet Explorer!

Installation

A very straight-forward installation process.  Basically during the installer you specify which versions of Visual Studio you want to create add-ons for so it can register it’s templates appropriately.  In my development environment, I use Visual Studio 2010, so I checked that box and continued on allowing the product to finish it’s installation process.

Creating the New Project

Like any other new project in Visual Studio, you select the project type you want to create.  The templates for Add-in Express for Internet Explorer are located under “Other Project Types > Extensibility”.

Creating a new IE Add-on

Once you select that you want to create an Internet Explorer add-on, the Add-in Express Wizard kicks in and asks a few questions about the solution we’re building.  These answers help craft the project that it will create.

Add-in Express Project Wizard

Add-in Express Project Wizard

Once you clicked Finish, our new project is generated and we’re ready to start creating our add-in.

In addition to the creation of the add-on project, it is creates a customized installation project that you can use to distribute your add-on in all it’s glory.  This is cool and really makes the process that much more smoother.

Writing Code

Next, the majority of our action is going to take place in the IEModule.cs class file.  This is the “core” to our add-on and provides us the access to the objects that we’re going to need to draw information from within Internet Explorer.  The HTML document and all of it’s properties are exposed in the form of an HTMLDocument object which makes accessing the specifics of a webpage so easy!

Generic IEModule.cs Code

You can see in my Instapaper project that I have created some additional classes that I am using to communicate with the Instapaper API in addition to a few dialogs in Win Forms.

Solution Explorer

Creating context menus and other options within the add-on are simplified through the properties dialog boxes.  By defining menus and their properties, events and methods are easily exposed ensuring that even the most novice of developers can create add-ons with little code!

Creating Context Menus

Using the Add-on

Since the project creates the installer for me, the installation is easily executed in the form of an MSI package. 

When I launch Internet Explorer I can use the context menu to customize my options for the add-on.  In this case, in order to save it to my Instapaper account I have specify a username and password.  I also have the option to give me confirmation when the URL is successfully saved to my Instapaper account.  This form allows for the configuration of the Instapaper Add-on.

Add-on Settings

Once I have configured my settings, I can use the same context menu to capture a webpage to my Instapaper account.  There are two options for capturing.  First, you can send the URL of the current webpage that is being shown in the browser to Instapaper.  Secondly, you can also right-click on a link that exists in a particular webpage and send the link’s destination URL to Instapaper.  Swell!

Add-on Context Menu

Can I try the Instapaper Add-on?

I am working on making this add-on available to the general public, but need to add some additional features to the code and complete more testing.  Watch this post for more information on it’s availability.

Add-In Express for Internet Explorer Information

Add-In Express for Internet Explorer is a visual tool to create thread-safe, secure, isolated, deployable and context-sensitive add-ons for Internet Explorer, 6, 7 and 8 in VB.NET, C#, managed C++ and Delphi Prism.

The product current is supported in a number of IDEs including C#, VB.NET, C++ (Visual Studio 2005, 2008, 2010), Delphi Prism 2009/2010.  It current supports Internet Explorer 6,7,8, and soon to be IE9.

There are several different editions available starting at $249 per license.

Conclusion

Add-In Express has made the process of developing add-ons for Internet Explorer so simple.  A developer can create an add-on in little time with minimal development as it pertains to the wrapper.  As a point of reference, from start to functional, it took me about 2 hours to create my Instapaper add-on.  Put your time and thought into your applied code, let Add-In Express handle the integration.

Windows Phone 7 GSM Only at Launch?

Kind of a bummer for Verizon and Sprint customers who were hoping to have one of those new Windows Phone 7 devices in time for the holidays. 

Initial reports indicate that Microsoft will delay the launch of an OS that will support CDMA technology in order to focus on GSM.  This is probably for good reason as CDMA is widely used in the United States, but not much at all beyond that.  GSM is the predominate technology overseas and in other foreign countries.

That being said, AT&T and T-Mobile would be the first to offer the devices, while Spring and Verizon customers will have to wait till sometime in 2011, when CDMA support is rumored to be made available.

"We had to make some trade-offs," senior product manager Greg Sullivan told CNET today. "Even Microsoft doesn’t have unlimited resources. We had to prioritize doing fewer things, really, really well." (Read more: http://news.cnet.com/8301-13860_3-20016752-56.html#ixzz102lPKtPl)

Legislation Would Limit Early Termination Fees

I don’t normally follow politics, but my own Senator from the state of Minnesota, Amy Klobuchar and other senate colleagues introduced a bill today that would limit the amount of cell phone service provider could charge in early termination fees.

The timing is perfect since Verizon recently announced that their customers who were smartphone users would have to pay in upwards of $300 if they prematurely ended their relationship with the provider.  How ridiculous!

Several years ago, I did pay Verizon $175 to end our relationship. 

“Changing your wireless provider shouldn’t break the bank,” said Klobuchar. “Forcing consumers to pay outrageous fees bearing little to no relation to the cost of their handset devices is anti-consumer and anti-competitive.”

I have to agree.  Instead of spending the money on litigation with AT&T, both carriers should put that money towards getting their networks in better shape, especially AT&T.  The iPhone has been a goldmine for AT&T, but their network has subsequently suffered and become unbearable to use.  Between dropped calls and general coverage issues, I can barely stand to keep their service at this point.  Most customers can’t afford to switch carriers – and I’m not talking about those who bought an iPhone.

According to Senator Klobuchar’s website, the bill would:

– Prevent wireless carriers from charging an ETF that is higher than the discount on the cell phone that the wireless company offers consumers for entering into a multi-year contract.  For example, if a wireless consumer enters into a 2-year contract and receives a $150 discount with the contract, the ETF cannot exceed $150.

– Require wireless carriers to pro-rate their ETFs for consumers who leave their contracts early so that the ETF for a two-year contract would be reduced by half after one year and pro-rated down to zero by the end of a contract term.

– Require wireless carriers to provide “clear and conspicuous disclosure” of the ETF at the time of purchase.

– Require monthly billing statements to clearly state the pro-rated fee customers would be charged if they terminate their contracts before the end of the next billing cycle.

I think most customers are pretty loyal to their carriers.  Most customers see an average bill between $90-$200/month.  Your customers are paying plenty to stay connected – if you as a carrier can’t get the job done, then the customer should have the right to go somewhere that can.

If you’re interested in more about the bill, check out Senator Klobuchar’s press release.

Sony BDP-N460 Network Blu-ray Disc Player Review

I was at Costco this last weekend and saw the Sony BDP-N460 Network Blu-ray Disc Player on sale for $199.  It usually sells for $249, but most places have it on sale right now.  As a side note, I wasn’t able to locate it on their website, but it was on an end-cap in one of their stores.

A while back, right after Blu-ray was initially introduced, I purchased the Best Buy “Insignia” brand Blu-ray player.  I think I paid $250 for it.  Back then, if you wanted network capabilities, you had to pay a premium, now this type of functionality is pretty standard. 

The Insignia model that I owned was slow to start up.  It took 30-45 seconds for it to power up before I could even insert a disc.  You can’t upgrade the firmware on it, and there are no network capabilities.

BDPN460_1

That’s why the Sony was appealing.  The BDP-N460 has full HD 1080p, Dolby True HD and DTS-MA audio decoding, BRAVIA Internet Video streaming, BD-Live 2.0 support, DVD playback and upscaling.  It has built-in applications for Netflix, Amazon Video On-Demand, and Slacker, just to name a few.

I hooked it up to my system, plugged in a network cable and powered it up.  It immediately determined that there was a firmware update available and within a couple minutes it had applied it and rebooted the player.  That’s cool. 

I also activated the Netflix application on the player.  I was able to see my queue and I played three different movies over the weekend.  It worked very slick.  No glitches as far as I could tell.  No skipping, very good video and sounds quality.  I also tried Slacker, a free Internet radio service, which I had never heard of. 

One other nicety of this product is that they include an HDMI cable in the box.  Overall, I am very happy with the player.  Historically, I have always had good luck with Sony components. 

Virgin Mobile Doesn’t Survive My Bag of Gadgets

Only a week after I had purchased the Virgin Mobile Broadband2Go USB card, I returned it to Best Buy, the exclusive reseller of this product.

Last week, I wrote about the Broadband2Go card with somewhat of a glowing review because of the fact that it was available without a contract and actually connected through Sprint’s EVDO network.

So why didn’t it survive my bag of gadgets.  It’s pretty simple. 

Windows Only Support

I use both a Mac and PC and most of them time I am using Windows on top of my Mac.  This means that wherever I go, I usually have my Mac with me so I can work on both personal and business-related stuff.

Even though the Virgin Mobile website indicates that the system requirements include Mac OS 10.3, and the modem drivers actually install on my Mac, there is no “Connection Manager” type software.  I did manage to get the modem to connect to the Sprint network, but attempts to surf the web were filled with errors and lots of slowness.

I should’ve known this from the beginning when I discovered that the modem had to activated (programmed) on a Windows PC.

Weird Connectivity Issues

I call it “weird” because I got it home and found that I only had one bar for reception off of the card in Windows.  The activation process was extremely slow – took me about 30 minutes in whole to get the card activated.  Page loads were slow.  I have never had problems with Sprint coverage in my house previously.

Questionable Customer Support

Since not working on a Mac was a deal breaker, I returned it to Best Buy.  I called Virgin Mobile to cancel my account and was greeted with someone who I couldn’t completely understand and in the end took about 15-20 minutes to close my account as he “worked on the system”.  I was holding a screaming baby for all of the 20 minutes, but that didn’t seem to make him work any faster.  When I was asked about why I wanted to cancel, I plainly told the rep that the card didn’t work on a Mac.  I didn’t expect any technical banter, but I did also mention that the Virgin website includes Mac OS in their system requirements.  In the end, my account was closed, but my opinion of Virgin Mobile, although somewhat appealing, is now questionable.

In the end…

I still wanted to have an aircard so I went back to Best Buy and purchased the AT&T Quicksilver aircard.  This aircard has support for both Mac and PC and was functional and ready-to-go when I left the location. 

Both Windows and Mac have a connection manager that gets installed as soon as you insert the card.  I found this to be handy. 

The only quirk for me was that the firmware update that was recommended required Windows to apply the firmware update.  My opinion is that if you are going to support an OS, make sure that your application and any required utilities also support the OS.  Although they clearly noted on the website that the Mac firmware update was in development, you need to have this.  If I am a “Mac-Only” user, I’m left in the cold if I need that firmware update (which according to the website connectivity issues and provides stability), things that most people would like.

Virgin Mobile Broadband2Go USB Aircard

I picked up a Virgin Mobile Broadband2Go USB modem for my laptop tonight.  I travel fairly regularly and like to have access to the Internet when I am on the road.  Since AT&T hasn’t enabled tethering for it’s iPhone users still, I wanted to find an aircard that would allow me to get Internet access wherever I may be.

I thought about purchasing an AT&T card, but wasn’t crazy about having to sign another two year contract even though the hardware was free, or pay $60 per month for data access.  In addition, monthly data transfer was capped at 5 GB.

Other vendors like Sprint and Verizon offer similar plans.

The one that I found that was pretty intriguing was the offering from Virgin Mobile called “Mobile Broadband2Go”.  Virgin Mobile prides itself on not signing it’s customers up for contracts, but providing affordable hardware and service at competitive prices. 

The USB modem cost me $99 at Best Buy.  While the competitors tend to give away their hardware for aircards, they get you by signing the two year contract and put you in a position to pay an early termination fee if you decide to quit your contract early.  $60 is a lot of money on top of an existing cell bill just to provide data access.

I intent to use it both with my work laptop which is PC-based running Windows 7.  I also plan to use it with my MacBook Pro.  I thought I would activate it using my Mac, but what I found out is that when you insert the USB modem into a USB port on your Mac, it will automatically start the installation of the modem drivers.  However, the configuration of the connection is completely manual and up to the user.  The process is a little different on a Windows machine.  When you insert the USB modem, an installation for a Connection Manager is started which installs the required drivers and an application to manage the aircard connection.

The important thing here is that initial activation of the modem has to take place on a Windows PC and not on the Mac.  Since when Connection Manager is started, it brings you to Virgin Mobile’s website where you can enter all of your account information.  It in turn gives you a couple sets of numbers which have to be entered in the Connection Manager to program the modem before it is usable.  During this time you will also select a rate plan or how you want to handle the data access on your account.

Once I followed the process to activate the modem on the Windows PC, I was then able to take it out and put it into my Mac and make things work. 

Why did I pick Virgin Mobile Broadband2Go?

1. No contract commitment (and no activation fee)
2. Pay-as-you-go Plans
3. Uses Sprint EVDO Network

Why I would possibly consider another carrier like AT&T, Sprint, or Verizon?

1. Quality of network
2. 5 GB data transfer/month vs. 1 GB max on Virgin Mobile
3. Price savings on larger data transfer plans

Who is the Mobile Broadband2Go suited for?

In my opinion, it is probably best suited for the person that needs occasional Internet access while on the go.  If you are an everyday road warrior, you’ll probably find that traditional aircard plans are better suited for you.

Cross-Platform Bookmark Sync with Xmarks

One of the challenges has always been trying to manage bookmarks (or favorites in Internet Explorer) across multiple computers. You may have bookmarks that you use across a couple different computers at home, some that you might want to share at work, and it’s even more challenging if you have both a PC and Macintosh mix.

I have a mix of PCs and Macs. I want to share my “Home” bookmarks across those PCs and Macs, and a separate list of bookmarks for “Work” on my work laptop. Windows Live Favorites worked great for my PCs, but required the Windows Live Toolbar, Internet Explorer, and therefore a PC. It didn’t help take care of my cross-platform needs.

Till Xmarks. Xmarks in the new name of the product previously known as Foxmarks. Foxmarks was a Firefox add-in that would handle the synchronization of bookmarks across computers using the Firefox Web Browser. When Xmarks was born, they expanded support to not only include Firefox, but also Internet Explorer, Safari, Mac, and Linux too.

How it works is an agent is installed on each platform and you provide an account username and password. Your bookmarks are stored on Xmarks servers (traffic can be fully encrypted) but the agent communicates with the server to perform synchronization. When a change is detected on one of the clients, it is synched back to the “cloud” and then the other agents pull the change down.

Xmarks also supports sync profiles. This means that I can have my “Home” and “Work” profiles which allow me to keep my bookmarks separated from each other. I don’t want my home bookmarks at work or vice versa. In addition, my iPhone can access all of my synchronized bookmarks by going to http://my.xmarks.com so I am always in sync no matter what device I use. A mechanism for backup and recovery of your bookmarks is also included and accessible from the Xmarks website.

The product is completely free and as far as I know doesn’t have a limit to the number of computers that are synched as long as it is for personal use.

This is exactly the solution I was looking for. It has worked great and keeps my bookmarks synched and ready to go whenever and wherever I am.