Posted on February 2, 2008. Filed under: Clarity, Microsoft, Technology, VSTO |

Seems like Microsoft is having a V Day, every day. Here’s a run down of the main V technologies/tools:

VSTS (Visual Studio Team System)

Firstly, Visual Studio. Visual Studio 2008 (the current version) is Microsoft’s IDE for building .NET based applications, be they Web, Desktop, Device or Microsoft Office based.

Visual Studio comes in a number of different versions, grouped into three main areas:

The premier version is called Visual Studio Team System 2008 Team Suite and includes everything from all the different-role based versions.

VSTO (Visual Studio Tools for Office)

VSTO is Microsoft’s tool set for building applications that run in Microsoft Office (eg Word, Excel, Outlook, PowerPoint). They are built using Visual Studio.

Originally a replacement for VBA (Visual Basic for Applications) in Excel and Word, VSTO was made available in its first version approximately around the start of 2004. The most recent version – VSTO V3 – was delivered as part of Visual Studio 2008 in November 2007.

The aim of VSTO is to provide tools for developers to build on top of Office as a platform. Using VB.NET and/or C#, developers can use Visual Studio to build add-in for most of the Office 2003 and 2007 applications, including Word, Excel, Outlook, PowerPoint, InfoPath and Visio. SharePoint and Groove development is also possible, al though not directly targeted.

(See also my further thoughts on VSTO here)

VSTA (Visual Studio Tools for Applications)

VSTA is a customisation toolkit for allowing your application to be extended (using .NET). You are basically exposing your application’s object model in a form that can be built upon using Visual Studio. You can even embed a cut-down version of Visual Studio into your application to allow customers to extend it without having to install Visual Studio.

If they do have Visual Studio installed, they’ll be able to built add-ins for your application.

VSTA comes from the same Microsoft product group as VSTO and shares a similar architecture. Here’s how they relate to each other:

Microsoft has a product (eg Outlook) that they want you to be able to extend. They use VSTA to allow their product (Outlook) to be extended using Visual Studio. They call their extension toolset VSTO.

(Note: They don’t embed the cut-down version of Visual Studio into Outlook, but the concept is similar to how they provide the macro editor embedded into Office.)

VSTA is reasonably new – the first version was announced in early 2006. The second version is due in early 2008.

VSX (Visual Studio Extensions/Extensibility)

It’s easy to get confused between VSTA and VSX. The difference is that with VSTA you provide extensibility for your application, whilst with VSX you build new extensions for Visual Studio. With VSX you are building something new onto the Visual Studio IDE.

Code Magazine recently had an entire issue devoted to VSX.

VSX is part of the Visual Studio Ecosystem of products, delivered via the Visual Studio 2008 SDK.

Microsoft has been focusing on opening up extensibility for Visual Studio a lot lately. Although the ability to do so has been around for a while, it is now free (previously it was licensed at a cost), licensing restrictions have been toned down, and the Visual Studio Shell has been released (meaning you can build Visual Studio Add-ins without even needing Visual Studio installed).

Also, a number of open source projects have appeared on CodePlex, including the World of Warcraft AddOn Studio.

Other V words:

VSS (Visual SourceSafe)

Microsoft’s long running source control product has been superseeded in many ways by the source control elements of Team Foundation Server, however VSS is still promoted and supported. Ideal for smaller development teams.

Volta (Volta)

A new initiative from Microsoft labs, as opposed to a product as such, this is a process of so called tier splitting, whereby the Volta technology takes a traditional WinForms application and splits it out into client and server tiers/components, all held together with Volta goodness. The server tiers can be transformed to being web based (JavaScript usage features heavily in this case).


I think we all know this one. Microsoft Vista is an operating system, and the successor to Windows XP. 

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TECHNOLOGY: Security, email and SPAM

Posted on January 20, 2008. Filed under: Technology |

Reading through Australia’s IT news roundup over the last few weeks has been illuminating.


Take security exploits and spam for example. This reminder on SQL exploits welcomed us back to the new year, alongside this note about how 70K web pages were hacked in a single week. And a new take on the hijacking side things was scary (but inventive): the printer hijacking method. Or perhaps just using Windows Server 2008 is enough. In any case, you’ve been warned. That won’t matter for some though, given that many still fall for lottery scams. Especially ones from the FBI. Oh, and brace yourself for Valentines Day.


And speaking of email, more interesting (or depressing) were the SPAM statistics delivered by various parties. Reportedly 95% of all email traffic in 2007 was spam. Can this be true? I get a lot of spam, but 95% seems excessive. The results did come from an anti-spam firm, so perhaps they were measuring outside the norm…

Not to be outdone, another Spam monitoring company pegged the figure at 97%. I tried to get more information on how they come up with these figures, but the details are sketchy at best. For example, did they include intra-company emails (by far most of the emails I deal with come from my work colleagues) or were these excluded, and only external email sources included in their scans?

Spam traction

Either way, there’s a lot of rubbish email floating around these days. The interesting point in all this is how it manages to get any traction. The answer is in the technology the spammers use. Spammers aren’t all old school – many of the successful spammers are using attachments with MP3s, videos, SWF files, documents and other items that grab (fool) the readers attention.

Fed up with all the spam you get? Yeah, well spare a thought for the techies over at SpamStopsHere:

“SpamStopsHere has a team of technicians that review spam 24/7. This allows us to update our system every minute and block the latest spam campaigns.”

As if getting regular spam isn’t bad enough, these guys have to look at it all day long as part of their job. They must be awesome conversationalists at parties…

But here’s the scary part…

In the end, all the hassles of spam and virus attacks, web sites going down and general time wastage, are nothing compared to the most frightening threat: the ‘powers that be‘ that start deciding your privacy today is worth far less than it was yesterday.


[And if all that isn’t disruptive enough, seems there’s a damn sunspot out to cause havoc. Out damn spot.]

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ELCOM: Windows Server 2008, SQL Server 2008, Visual Studio 2008

Posted on January 15, 2008. Filed under: Elcom, Microsoft, Technology |

Elcom is all 2008.

The Elcom web site is now running on a Windows 2008 Server, with SQL Server 2008 as the back-end and Community Manager.NET completely recompiled under Visual Studio 2008 (targeting the 3.5 Framework) delivering the content.

Elcom - Enterprise Content Management

Community Manager.NET is Elcom’s content management system (CMS), which we have now re-compiled, tested and released on the .NET 3.5 Framework.

Now, you might think this is a pretty simple thing to do, but there’s actually a reasonable amount of work involved to ensure it is all performing smoothly. I won’t go into the details here, but suffice to say, when you have a mature product (Community Manager is in its 5th year of development) there’s a fair bit of code that needs to be checked. Third party tools, and rarely used custom modules only add to the mix.

Additionally, running it on two products that are still not yet released (Windows 2008 and SQL 2008) brings its own share of fun 🙂 The main hassles have been in getting up to speed with a few of the Windows 2008 Server settings, some of which Brad and Alan have noted.

And, to be honest, there are still a few little issues with the site… (can you find them?).

It’s a little early to be talking about the advantages and performance improvements that the updates provide, but we’ll report back in the coming months with issues and improvements.

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GOOGLE: Playing with Google AJAX Search API

Posted on January 8, 2008. Filed under: Technology |

I’ve been playing with the Google AJAX Search API for a few hours and it seems pretty easy. (The API isn’t new or anything, it’s just that I haven’t played with it until now.)

The advantage of the AJAX search is that results are presented in the page with no obvious refresh or having to open a new page.

You can see a simple implementation on my home page (just type something in the search box, click Search, and the search results will appear in the page) and also a test search page I built (you can view source on it to see how simple the code is).

Getting started is simple, and there are plenty of example scripts in the Developer Guide. You’ll need an API key, but that is easily obtained (and all free of course).

I won’t go through the code here as it is all well explained in the doco, but I will highlight three little tips that took me a little while to find.

1. Opening search result links in the same page (instead of firing off a new instance)

To do this simply set the Link Target using this code:

searchControl.setLinkTarget( );

2. Showing all results by default

Set this line of code:


3. Setting the width of the results set

You need to override the .gsc-control style. In your own stylesheet do something like this:

#searchResults .gsc-control { width : 554px; }

where searchResults is the name of your results DIV

There’s plenty of online help, especially the Google AJAX Search API Group. I’ve only done simple stuff and limited it to Web searches that search only within my web site. You can add tab groups, with local searches, news, blog, book and video searches as well.

Note: The Search results still include sponsored links, but are displayed at the bottom.

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2008: The Year of VSTO

Posted on January 6, 2008. Filed under: Microsoft, Technology, VSTO |

There’s been a number of predictions made about technology for 2008, and of course a list of disappointments for the past year. Considering that no ones really takes any of them very seriously, then why not add my own 🙂

Here’s my prediction:
2008 will be the year that Office Business Applications go mainstream*.

And by Office Business Applications (OBAs) I’m interested primarily in applications built using Microsoft Visual Studio Tools for Office (VSTO) technologies**. Word, Excel, Outlook and PowerPoint are the main platforms targeted.

Outlook is the future  

My main focus will be on Outlook because it is the program (IMO) that is used by the most people, and for the most time during each day (ie ‘everyone’ has Outlook open all day). (Word and Excel are of course close behind).

Outlook has over 450 million users (admittedly most are not yet on Outlook 2007) and this will only increase in the coming year.

But why hasn’t this happened already?

Hurdles so far
Reason 1: Toolset

VSTO, even though it is in its third version is still hard to learn. There are still significant hurdles to cross, but it is getting much better. Many of the security and deployment concerns have been addressed, and the breadth of material and online help available is growing steadily.

Reason 2: Mindset

However, the main reason for the lack of mainstream* movement so far is because people are still caught up with matching VSTO applications to Office functional context.

Thus, they think (incorrectly in my Web 2.0 opinion) that an Outlook add-in should relate to an already existing Outlook task eg helping with email, or contact, a to do item etc.

Time to rethink I say.

We should start building all kinds of applications into Outlook, especially those that have nothing to do with normal Outlook activities.

Changing our mind set

And ironically the catalyst for this will be games.

I predict that there will be a rash of games built into task panes of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and most importantly Outlook.
Sound crazy? Yeah, I know…

But wait.

Imagine having Poker, Sudoku, Scrabble, Chess, Minesweeper and other games hanging off your Outlook 2007 To-Do Bar. Just sitting under the calendar and above your task list. Perhaps in a task pane of your email, constantly there as you go through each item. (With a ‘boss’ key of course 🙂

And it won’t stop there.

Follow the Facebook model

Facebook really upped their traction when they added the developer tools to allow applications to be built into the platform.
It is a simple conceptual jump to see how this can be easily transferred to Office.

The key of course is that many of the Facebook applications available have nothing to do with social networking (ie they are using a social networking platform simply as a developer platform, focusing on the reach, not the social networking nature).


– So, think of any Facebook application that you currently use, and simply transfer it to Outlook.

– Next, think of any gadget currently in your Vista side bar and then imagine it in an Outlook task pane.

– Further, open it up to Skype and IM, all built into Outlook, along with Twitter and other communication tools.

And the list goes on…

Key point

The key is to use Outlook (and Office) as a developer platform, and stop limiting it to just an email, contact, calendar, to-do list related platform.


Microsoft Office is a platform. Let’s start using it as such for ALL application types***, whether they be directly related to an Office function or not. Think about reach, not functional context.

And finally

Look out for later this year…


* Mainstream – there are a lot of OBAs in enterprises already of course, so when I talk of mainstream, I am referring to that adoption rate where non-IT friends and family are happily installing the applications. Various Outlook add-ins (Plaxo, LinkedIn, etc) have come close to bridging this gap – we just haven’t had the killer Outlook app yet…

** For those not familiar with VSTO (Visual Studio Tools for Office) it is a set of tools for building applications into Office programs using Visual Studio and .Net.

*** By application types, I mean let’s make our Outlook add-ins relate to anything. Obviously, I’m not suggesting we re-write our huge standalone Winform apps into Outlook 🙂



It was Scott Scovell (a former work colleague, now making waves in the BizTalk community) who first put me on to the whole Office applications idea. Three years ago he was telling me how we should be building some of our company apps into Outlook (I wasn’t convinced at the time, but as usual he was right…)

However, for me it wasn’t until I heard Andrew Coates present on VSTO at TechEd 2007 last year that the penny finally dropped. His excellent ‘Standing on the Shoulders of Giants‘ post in September was the clincher.


Note: This post is covered under my new Disclaimer ‘terms’.

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CLARITY: Flash versus Flex versus Silverlight

Posted on November 28, 2007. Filed under: Clarity, Microsoft, Technology |

Summary: Flex is to Adobe as Silverlight is to Microsoft

Silverlight is often referred to as Microsoft’s version of Flash, however it is more correct to say it is Microsoft’s version of Flex.

You could say the following…
Silverlight 1.0 = Flash
Silverlight 2.0 = Flex

[UPDATE: Silverlight 1.1 has been re-branded as Silverlight 2.0]

Here’s a very basic comparison of Flex and Silverlight:

Flex is an Adobe product which allows you to build Rich Internet Applications* (RIA)

It is basically a developer tool which has a framework of functions that allows you to build applications that run in a browser (any browser on any platform).

Flex can use the Adobe Integrated Runtime (AIR)** to run those very same web apps on the desktop as desktop apps.

Flex is currently building in .Net framework support.
Flex is currently in Beta for version 3.

In comparison, Silverlight is a Microsoft technology that allows you to build RIAs.

Silverlight apps are built using Visual Studio, Blend and other tools.
Silverlight 1.0 (released in October 2007) focused on providing Rich Media support.

Silverlight 1.1 (currently in Alpha) is focused on the programmability behind the apps.

Via a Silverlight plug-in, the apps run in any browser on any platform (there are some limits though).

Silverlight does not provide desktop app functionality. WPF is the Microsoft solution for rich media desktop applications.

* Some people contest that RIA stands for Rich Interactive Applications
** AIR used to be referred to as Apollo (it’s previous codename)

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CLARITY: SaaS versus S+S

Posted on November 23, 2007. Filed under: Clarity, Technology |

If, like me, you’d just assumed that Software + Services (S+S) was Microsoft’s way of trying to take over and re-brand an existing concept – namely Software as a Service (SaaS) – then the following diagram is a helpful corrective.

It’s taken from page 18 of Issue 13 of the Architecture Journal (download here), and is a nice overview of how S+S and SaaS relate to each other.


Aside: I’ve tried reading this excellent magazine in soft form (ie PDF) many times (in fact I originally referred to this issue back in September). But, call me old fashioned, it wasn’t until my printed copy arrived a few weeks back that I actually read and absorbed the content in depth. Amazing what you miss on screen.

It’s one of the reasons I’m dubious about the Kindle (even though I’d desperately love to have one).

Anyone else have this problem?

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CLASSIC: Mark’s Infinite Solutions

Posted on November 9, 2007. Filed under: Humour, Technology |

This is seriously one of the funniest sites I have witnessed – I was in pain laughing at some of his amazing solutions. The attention to detail is priceless. The best IMO is his tip to increase WiFi strength, followed by his now famous How to Sign Up for GoogleTV Beta, but all of them are good. Mark Erickson is a genius.

Even reading his blog is amusing.

There are more of his videos on YouTube.

Morgan Webb has the full behind-the-scenes story.

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Google’s OpenSocial

Posted on November 2, 2007. Filed under: Social networking, Technology |

Old news now of course 🙂 but surely the most devastating/interesting/wonderful technology announcement this year. Scoble has a round up of all the best bits on the new Google OpenSocial API that every social networking site on the planet is signing up to.

Open Social is available here.

Plaxo, Ning, MySpace, Beebo, Six Apart, Orkut, Salesforce, LinkedIn, Friendster, Oracle, Engage, the list goes on (via TechCrunch).

Incredible. Perhaps even scary.

Marc Andreesson comments (with screen shots), as does Dave Winer (here and here) and Dan Farber.

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Jonathan Schwartz is my new hero

Posted on October 19, 2007. Filed under: Technology |

I’ve been reading Jonathan’s blog for a while now (he’s the CEO of Sun) because I love his honesty, curiosity and ability to think right outside the square.

His latest post on reducing waste by improving efficiency is so simple and common sense as to be jarring – it caught me completely by surprise. I’ll never look at a computer spec the same way again.

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CeBIT: How to have a ‘sticky’ booth

Posted on August 1, 2007. Filed under: Technology |

I was going through a pile of papers and found my notes from CeBIT earlier this year. Yay! I thought I’d lost them.

Anyway, back in early May (yikes – was it that long ago?) I attended CeBIT to check out the latest and greatest in the technology stakes.

There were a few things that struck me about the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of exhibitor’s stands. So I compiled a list, with the aim of referring back to it should I ever want to set up a booth in future years.

Here’s my observations:

  1. You need to stand out. Obvious yes, but mentioned up front because that is what most of the following points will build on.
  2. Descriptive names are everywhere (you know, things like: Superior Data Solutions, Expert Managed Hosting, Integrated CRM Management, etc, etc). Whilst this might be helpful in some ways, for the most part it is very boring. Few people (with perhaps Internet Dashboard being the exception) can get away with it.
  3. Instead you need to have a cool name. Something short and funky, and easy to remember.
  4. And you must have really cool branding. Bright colours are part of it, but a really slick look is the most important. Standouts were google and eWay. Everyone was flocking to their stands.
  5. In general most stands were ‘blah’, they need to be ‘hey you!’ and grab attention. It was sad to see so many booths being walked past simply because they were drab, had long boring names, or didn’t have even a dash of colour.
  6. You must look different. For example, so many online hosted services companies looked the same.
  7. You must be in the middle. Booths on the outer rims were like a ghost town – ideal for people who needed take a phone call (or catch up on sleep) due to them being so quiet.
  8. I don’t have the cost schedule for the booths but I’m sure the extra cost of being in the centre of things would be worth it. Imagine if you’d managed to get the booth next to the google stand…
  9. You need to have people form a line at your booth. Nothing generates interest better than a crowd (as nightclubs and buffet RSL restaurants know all too well :-). The campaigns that worked well that I noticed were: lining up to use a voucher to redeem a specially prized gizmo (eg IP telephony handset) or answering a quiz question to get a CD (anti-virus software with 6 months free updates, in this case).
  10. You should make noise. But not annoying noise. Having widescreen TVs with interesting demos and the volume up was effective. Most stands however had demos but the volume muted. Perhaps there are some restrictions on volume that I’m not aware of?
  11. You need to come up with a new gimmick. Coffee carts with baristas are old hat these days. A Juice bar would have been good, as would a company handing out bottles of water (with their branding of course), but I didn’t see either of these. You need to say, ‘give me your card, and we’ll give you a free gift’ (of value). I did see a popcorn machine at one stand which was generating a bit of a line.
  12. You need useful flair. Everyone is sick of the stress balls, caps, even T shirts, demo CDs, etc. Instead you need to give something of value. One stand was giving out the new wallet flash USB sticks to select enquirers (not everyone). Nice.
  13. Some stands had Xboxes and Playstations going, and these got some interest. Overall I suspect they weren’t a great draw card.
  14. The days of scantily clothed ‘booth babes’ is almost gone (but not quite). One stand had a spa bath with two bikini clad girls. Heaps of people wandering past, but no one stopping. I actually think this worked against the company.
  15. Instead, I noticed that attractive, professionally attired, immaculately groomed females were drawing in enquiries all the time. Even late in the day when booth after booth was occupied by just the company rep, those with the professional women were always occupied. This might sound obvious (or even sexist – it is), but it was very noticeable. And I should mention that the ladies were engaging about the products – they knew their stuff, they weren’t just eye candy. So forget the lame booth babe concept (from point 14). [And, I should mention that by far the majority of attendees were male.]
  16. Present at one the theatres around the event. In each corner of the main hall there was a mini theatre, with huge screen and PA, for select companies to present. Aim for around lunch time, because everyone is looking for somewhere to sit and eat. Why not take advantage of that captive audience? But your talk needs to be interesting. I was surprised at how bad the two presentations I stopped for were. One presenter was boring, monotone and repeated himself. What the? They must have paid a fortune for that gig and then basically advertised why you should be running away from them screaming… The other presenter I saw was an arrogant know-it-all, who couldn’t stop patting himself and his company on the back. Yawn. You need to be interesting and add value. Don’t try to sell at these presentations.
  17. Talk about the customer. I was surprised at how many stands were ‘us’ focused. All their brochures and demos were about how great their company was, how their software was the most innovative event of the year, etc. Who gives a toss? In the few seconds you have to attract attention, you need to either intrigue the person (ie with a cool logo, branding or giveaway) or, and this is the most likely, show them immediately that you can give them value. You can help. You can solve their problems. You can improve profits, etc, etc. And don’t use scare tactics (eg trying to generate fear about internet security attacks) – people are well aware of the problems; you just need to indicate that you can help.

Some other thoughts about the event:

  1. As an aside, the toilets were appalling, too few, and inaccessible to wheel chair attendees in most cases. This is a criticism of the venue, not the event of course. But, call me crazy, one of these days a vendor is going to come along and set up a big line of ‘glammed up’ Portaloos, and be the most talked about company of the show…
  2. Food was very expensive (eg a sandwich and drink set me back more than $10). Perhaps if an exhibitor did a deal with the caterers to offer some discount to attendees, that could be an option. Attendees would have to line up, hand over their business card, and in return be given a lunch discount voucher.
  3. I have to say that one thing CeBIT has absolutely spot on is the registration process. It was very smooth. Nice work.
  4. I’ve heard some people say that you should focus on getting the right contacts, as opposed to just heaps of unqualified contacts, at these events. This is of course true. However, the people who makes those comments sometimes use this as justification for not having a popular stand – instead, they say, focus on the few good leads you get. This seems bizarre to me – surely you need to be attractive and positioned well to get the qualified contacts too. Weeding out inappropriate prospects takes a few days of phone calls after an event – a small price to pay if it yields even a few extra good leads.
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