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April, 2013

The government website that doesn’t work with IE, Chrome, Firefox, Safari, Macs or smartphones

Tuesday, April 30th, 2013

HTML blue screen

Remember how, late last year, the Government promised to start getting its websites in order? Best it pays a visit to the Department of Work and Pensions site.

There you’ll find an e-service that allegedly allows you to claim for Attendance Allowance, Disability Living Allowance and the Overseas State Pension. But only if you have a computer that hasn’t been updated since about 2005.

For if you click on the What Do I Need? section, you’ll find a fairly exhaustive list of the operating systems, browsers and – unforgivably, given this is a site for claiming disability benefits – screen readers with which the site doesn’t work properly. These include:


BlackBerry Q10: has it really sold out?

Monday, April 29th, 2013

BlackBerry Q10

BlackBerry had a cheerful Monday morning, with its BlackBerry Q10 reportedly selling out in the UK and causing queues at Selfridges, which had the device exclusively for the launch weekend. The posh department store claimed the Q10 was the fastest selling consumer electronics device in its history, selling out within two hours; now, stock is being delivered hourly to “keep up with demand”, the breathless press release stated.

Tales of “selling out” are entirely meaningless unless you know how many were stocked in the first place  – which BlackBerry or Selfridges have yet to tell us.

So we decided to go undercover to find the truth. Disguised as a Selfridges shopper — I’m wearing silly shoes and I’m female — I went in, dodging the dangers of Oxford Street (tourists, chuggers, buses) to bring back this exclusive investigative report.


How AOL killed a company’s email

Thursday, April 25th, 2013

Spam folder

AOL is a long-standing provider of online services. I choose that sentence with care: firstly because I want to draw a distinction between “online services” and “internet access”, and secondly because I want to dispose of the fact that far back in the mists of time, there were plenty of PC Pro types, including me and erstwhile editorial director Mr Derek Cohen, who had AOL accounts. For several years, this was a mainstay of my internet access, so trust me when I say that it gives me no pleasure at all to relate this current, 2013 tale of woe.

My client is a wholesaler of raw materials to the fashion business. It has a small list of customers and every so often, it has an over- or under-supply of its principal product. My client has tell its customer base whether it’s sensible to make orders or to hold off, and it has been using a mailing list to do this job for several years. Unbeknownst to my client, there are some gaping holes in its success rate when it comes to mail delivery, and the principal source of the problem here is AOL.

If AOL thinks it has detected incoming UCE (unsolicited commercial emails, to use an acronym that doesn’t come from a Monty Python sketch featuring lots of vikings) then it takes pretty serious and far-reaching action. Rather than responding to the spammer’s apparent reply-to address with a notification of UCE status, AOL goes straight to the top of the tree and threatens the ISP that hosted or forwarded the traffic with a blanket block of not only that customer’s mail, but all customers’ mail. Stopping the flow of identified messages is the only solution it will accept.


Silly Microsoft, that’s not a Start button

Tuesday, April 23rd, 2013

Windows 7 Start Orb

Rumours that Microsoft is bringing the Start button back to Windows 8 have been gathering pace over the past week or so. Don’t get your hopes up, however.

The Verge’s Tom Warren, as reliable a Microsoft-watcher as they come, has been told by his Redmond sources that Windows 8.1 will indeed include a Start button on the desktop – but this will merely send people back to the Metro Start screen. It isn’t a return of the cascading Start menu and search bar that appears when you click on the Start button in Windows 7.

If true, it’s yet another indication that Microsoft just doesn’t get it. The people clamouring for the return of the Start button don’t want just another shortcut to the Start screen – they can get there easily enough by pressing the Windows button or using the Start button charm. What they want is the convenience of being able to open and search for applications, files or settings without being thrust into the touch-optimised Metroverse.

It looks like those PC makers who are preinstalling third-party Start buttons on their machines are going to get no respite.

3D printers: five things I’ve learnt

Friday, April 19th, 2013

This week, I’ve been playing with a 3D printer. The Afinia H-Series – also known as the Up! Plus – arrived on Monday, and I’ve been fiddling with it more or less non-stop since then. There will be a full dissection of the technology in a future issue of PC Pro, but here are some of my initial impressions from my first few days of tinkering.

What are the acceptable limits of “unlimited” internet?

Thursday, April 18th, 2013

Frustrated computer user

For years we’ve argued against the sheer ridiculousness of the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) allowing fixed and mobile ISPs to advertise services with stated limits as “unlimited”. Recently, the ASA has upheld complaints against both Virgin Media and T-Mobile when advertising “unlimited” services, claiming that the limits they imposed went beyond the permitted “moderate restrictions”.

The networks have told us that they’re confused about what they can and can’t advertise as “unlimited”; broadband customers are confused; we’re confused. So we asked the ASA to define exactly what counts as a “moderate restriction”. It sent us the text of a Help Note, that’s designed to clear this all up:


Windows 8 sparking little more search interest than Vista

Monday, April 15th, 2013

There’s a lot of debate over the popularity of Windows 8. Microsoft claims Windows 8 is outselling Windows 7; British desktop PC makers have told us that up to 93% of new PC buyers still want Windows 7.

Google provides us with another means of divining the popularity of different products. The Google Trends website allows you to compare the search volumes of different terms, and it doesn’t make particularly pleasant reading for Microsoft when you start comparing recent versions of Windows.

We compared the search volumes for the past four editions of Windows, from 2004 until the present day, and this is the result (click graph to enlarge):

Windows search volume

As you can see, Windows 8 is following a very similar trend line to Windows Vista, briefly bursting past the incumbent version of Windows at the time of launch, before settling down at a level that’s well below its predecessor. While the post-launch drop-off isn’t quite as severe for Windows 8 as it was for Vista, it’s still pretty grim viewing for Microsoft.

If there are crumbs of comfort for Microsoft, searches for OS X appear to be in long-term decline — although we suspect more people search for the particular version number than “OS X”:

Windows vs OS X search volumes

Indeed, when you throw the search term “Mac” into the comparison, it paints an entirely different picture:

Windows vs Mac search volume

Raspberry Pi Fuze enclosure revives 1980s micros

Saturday, April 13th, 2013


This post was updated on 13 May 2013 to add information about the Fuze’s project cards and final hardware design.

It’s fair to say the Raspberry Pi is a hit with at least two constituencies. Without a doubt it’s captured the imaginations of youngsters attracted to its simple versatility. To those of us from an older generation, it also has a certain nostalgia value, harking back to the days when bare circuit boards were de rigueur and writing your own software was all part of the fun.

It’s appropriate then that the Fuze enclosure – made by Aylesbury-based Binary Distribution – looks like something that itself fell out of the eighties. Following consciously in the footsteps of the BBC Micro, Binary Distribution has aimed the Fuze at schools – a fact which explains its tough, aluminium casing. Each unit comes with a deck of 16 colourful and jovially written project cards (aimed at key stages one to four) that guide students through the fundamentals of BASIC programming, starting with a classic Hello World program and moving on to more advanced concepts such as variables and loops.


The rotten side of Bletchley Park: a photo story

Friday, April 12th, 2013

Hut 3

Britain’s computing heritage is literally rotting away. One of the most famous buildings at Bletchley Park — or what should be famous, at least — is Hut 6, where much of the key work on the Enigma took place during the war, and the subject of the first British book to really discuss what happened at Britain’s code-breaking centre.

Now, if you’ve ever been to Bletchley Park, it may sound extreme to describe it as rotting. Back in 2008, its supporters called for funding help, saying the estate “was in a terrible state of disrepair”, and under threat of being lost entirely. Donations and funding poured in, and visiting the place now is a wonderful experience.



Posted in: Random


Thatcher’s tech legacy: an inconvenient truth

Tuesday, April 9th, 2013

BT phone

There are no shortage of reasons to regret the influence of the late Baroness Thatcher. Her death has produced an understandable outpouring of bile from those who believe that a Thatcherless world would have been a better place, though I confess I don’t understand their emotional approach to the matter, best summarised as “good riddance to the politician who did more than any other to ensure the death of social compassion in the UK”, which to my mind demonstrates far less compassion than anything she managed to achieve…

That’s hardly a matter for us techies, however. Instead, I want to highlight something that is tech-centric, yet which at the time was taken to be an irrelevant sideshow.

It surprises me how much I turn out to know about telecommunications – not in terms of all the protocols and structures, but rather in terms of the companies and the relationships and the winds of change. I think this has a lot to do with my late uncle, who was “something” in the GPO before British Telecom was moved out into a separate but still government-run entity.  Even though he didn’t bring his work back to the family very much, some genetic osmosis seems to have taken place, and it’s against that background that the death of Thatcher cast my mind back to what life was genuinely like in the early 1980s.







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