Sunday, September 10, 2006

Technology notes - Vol I, Ed I, Sept 06

For some time, I've been thinking that I need to have a regular spot on my blog for anything I want to write about technology. So, in the spirit of the times, I'm calling it "Technology notes" - random jottings about my tecxperiences. ;)

* Why hotmail sucks

I've been using hotmail since the time it was the only free, web-based, e-mail service provider, way back in the mid-1990s. Even when I got my Yahoo and Gmail accounts, I continued to use my hotmail account for some of my e-mail. Of late, Microsoft has paid more attention to Hotmail, and I now have like 2GB of free storage, and a whole new interface that looks just like Outlook. While the extra storage is welcome, and is a marked improvement over the 2MB I had earlier, the new interface, simply sucks.

First, it takes a long while to load. Then, I still need to click on "Inbox" to access my e-mail. Why can't Hotmail (and Yahoo) simply take me to my Inbox? Do I login to check my Junk e-mails, or do I login to check my Inbox!?
My next peeve is the usage of screen real-estate. The "Windows Live" banner takes away 25% of screen space, and there is a lot of additional white space surrounding it, which makes my e-mail pane really small and forces me to do a lot of scrolling. This is another illustration of forgetting user needs over self-aggrandization. It doesn't look like the product has seen a lot of usability testing.
Finally, there is the point about Junk e-mail filters. Hotmail's is probably the worst in the business. There is hardly any filtering done and all the junk simply lands up in my Inbox totally reducing my effectiveness in processing my e-mail.


* Unicks rocks

Heh heh. Did I just hear a "I told you so" from somewhere in Sahakaranagar, Kansas City, LA and Singapore? All I can say in response is that I believe in the "horses for courses" theory. There are things about Windows that are nice, and the same holds for Unix. But anyway, coming to the point of this post - the problem with WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) is WYSIWAG (What You See Is All You Get). No designer can design a GUI for doing everything a user may want - but a group of well written tools that confirm to an interface can rock your world.

How did I realize this? Well, recently, I had to create a password file for a project I'm working on. The file stored a triple - username, password and a user directory for users enrolled in the system. For bootstrapping, I already had a directory tree with a lot of user directories listed, so I wanted to write a script that'll run through the tree, and dump each folder name into a text file in the format X, , X, where X is the directory name and passwd is a number that gets incremented for each directory.
Question was, how can I do it easily on Windows? Well, a small C program might do the trick, but then I need to check for file handles, and stuff like that which is clearly not an option. DOS shell scripting is too primitive - for example, the for loop can only execute one command! So, if you want to execute multiple commands, you need to put them into a separate batch file! And I don't know anything in VB, so there was no way I was going to write my 'program' in VB script.
I was in a quandary, cursing myself for not having a Unix shell somewhere, when cygwin came to my rescue. One install and two lines of shell script later, my password file was ready!

So there. While GUI's have played a very important role in making computers more accessible, a shell prompt is indispensable if you are doing serious programming, as I realised after this experience.

On an aside: Eric S Raymond has these fun Unix Koans, with the one about GUI's being the best. Read them here.


Anand said...

May be that is was the reason I discontinued using my Hotmail account. Some how I have found Gmail very good. The way it sorts mail by subject and keeps stuff together; avoiding spam mail; rich GUI which really does not take so much time to load, (of course they have html options too) and no Ads. (Yahoo has many.. but you can manage).

Gops, Windows also support Javascripts. May be you can try it out. Recently I got "Service for Unix" on my machine. This creates an Unix environment on Windows and it is a Microsoft plug-in. Some commands are slow, but overall you still have a familiar environment.

I hope your colleagues did not read your comments on "Hotmail"


gops said...

Yep - couldn't agree more, Anand! By supporting Javascripts, you mean, in the browser, right? And even then, the program will be quite complex - nothing like a simple "for i in `ls -b`" command! :)

Cygwin is awesome - it has most of the Unix utilities and it is fully interoperable with my NTFS file system. Super cool.

Stier said...

Agree with the stuffs about hotmail. I had created an account there down the road, but asu said, their junk filter is pathetic. Actually for me it was doing the other way round ( putting all the proper mails in junk folder and junks in inbox). And the new interface ... well for starters, its too slow. Secondly,i just hate those ads they put up. i think i get somewhere around 40% of the screen space for my mails or even less.

Actually i have stopped using Hotmail and have kept it for just junk mails. My gmail is much much much better.

Anand said...

I am referring to JScript support for Windows (like VBScript). Just save a file as .js and run using WScript or CScript. I do agree on the complexity. Nothing can be as simple as csh/sh in Unix.
Some how I have started liking Perl, the control you get is better than scripting, and quick to program compared to C/C++.


gops said...


I;ve sent some of our feedback to the hotmail guys. Lets see how that pans out :)


Haven't tried JScript on windows directly...yeah, PERL is nice too... :)

Stier said...

wow gops, thats gr8. Hopefully they improve the service