Microsoft Semblio


Microsoft Semblio is a new iteration of their development platform which utilises .NET and WPF (Windows Presentation Foundation) and is specifically targeted towards the educational market.

Semblio can be used to create information rich, graphically engaging, immersive learning materials using a wide range of multimedia, all aimed at enhancing the learning experience for students (and indeed, the teaching experience for teachers!). As it is based on the .NET Framework:

“it works across software, services, and learning management systems.”

However, it isn’t just for developers. The Semblio assembly tool, which will ship with Office 2010, will:

“allow multiple content types to be combined into a single, rich, multimedia presentation, all in a single, familiar, and easy-to-use Microsoft Office-like application”

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This has got something of a Web 2.0 “mashup” stle about it and will certainly be familiar and more engaging for students than more traditional methods. This next screenshot shows the kind of interactivity that can be expected:

Semblio screenshot1

Using the slider to increase/decrease the temperature and seeing the effects on the water…

Benefits:

This can either mean that schools will have the ability to create exciting learning materials in-house as well as making it easier for partners to create such materials too. You can:

  • Increase the value of your content by enabling educators to customize materials to their specific requirements.
  • Engage today’s students and foster exploratory learning with packaging and arrangement of dynamic, interactive, and rich instructional material.
  • Improve efficiency during content creation by enabling nontechnical subject matter experts to participate in the content creation process
  • Reduce the cost of going digital by creating your content once, then delivering it to all customers regardless of platform.

To me this looks like a great new addition to the Office suite of products and also a great addition to schools, for students and teachers alike. Having been on visits to various schools this year, it’s clear that they’re much more advanced that back in my day (!) and can sometimes rival corporations when it comes to technology adoption.

VLE’s (Virtual Learning Environments) such as Moodle, and products such as Sharepoint have made big changes to learning over the past few years; and I can see Semblio really making a mark. These interactive lesson modules delivered in Moodle accessed via Sharepoint would give a great experience for students at home/learning remotely.

I’d be interested to hear what people involved with Education think about this…be it students, teachers, IT managers, suppliers, coders etc :-)

Get Started:

Download the Semblio SDK.

Download Visual Studio 2008

Get familiar Service pack 1 of .NET 3.5 platform

Get familiar with WPF

If you want to get more in-depth, grab the programmer’s guide here.

Other Links:

Semblio: How it works

Semblio Blog

MS BPOS Connectivity Test


The Microsoft Online (BPOS) team have released an excellent tool, which measures the upload/download speeds of your connection to show how it would fare with using BPOS services.

This tests the speed of your connection:

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This looks at the routes:

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This analyses the capacity:

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Details:

This tool helps you understand the quality of the Internet connection between your environment and Microsoft Online Services. It does not measure your environment compatibility with Microsoft Online Services. The tool performs three tests:

  • Speed: This test measures your actual download and upload speeds, quality of data, and TCP efficiency. It uses TCP/20000 for download testing and TCP/20001 for upload testing.
  • Route: This test validates your connection quality, including packet loss, latency, round trip, and ISP peering points. It uses Internet Control Message Protocol (ICMP).
  • Capacity: This test measures your potential maximum download and upload speeds. It uses UDP/8090.

 

Thoughts:

Potentially this is going to be very useful when speaking to customers about BPOS, as one of the big worries that many people have is there connection not being good enough. They worry that suddenly throwing all their internal email, as well as Sharepoint uploads/downloads could be too much for their existing networks; this could be an easy way of showing exactly what it can and can’t handle. The reason I say “potentially” and “could” is this:

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The results seem to be aimed solely at VOIP traffic for using Office Communications Online (OCO). However, it still shows them that their bandwidth etc is, so it’s definitely useful but it would be nice if it had a separate answer for each of the products.

That said, the above does point towards something else…currently OCO only contains the Presence and Instant Message (IM) features. I’ve heard on the grapevine that VOIP calls will be coming to OCO but this is the first definite sign that this is underway :-)

Being able to use Office Comms Online for Voice calls will be a huge selling point for customers as the on-site version (Office Communications Server (OCS)) can be quite tricky to install and get running correctly. Normally I’d guess we’ll see this in the US first and not here for a while but the URL for this tool is:

http://speedtest.emea.microsoftonline.com/

Note the EMEA (Europe, Middle East & Africa) part…looks like we’ll be getting it pretty soon too…I’ll see what further info I can find out from MS ;-)

As Paul from Worktivity points out in the comments, if you’re outside of EMEA the links you need are:

For the APAC region: http://speedtest.apac.microsoftonline.com/
For America’s region: http://speedtest.microsoftonline.com/

Thanks to @worktivity who’s tweet alerted me to this…

Accessing Zune Marketplace in UK


As you can see from my previous post (here) I am now a huge fan of Microsoft’s Zune 4.0 desktop software. However being in the UK means that a lot of the features are unavailable to us…mainly the Zune marketplace.

Zune Marketplace:

The Marketplace is where you can preview and purchase songs, videos, apps, podcasts, games and more.

Zune marketplace

As you can see in the screenshot above, it’s got pretty much everything you could want:

  • New releases
  • Top Songs
  • Top Videos
  • Topical/focus sections

and you can split it down into genre, which then gives you all the above but specific to that kind of music.

Zune marketplace video

The video section is similar and also lets you purchase movies.

Zune marketplace apps

Above is the Zune App section of the marketplace, which looks pretty great. If I actually had a Zune HD, I’d definitely be loving this!

Anyway I digress slightly. You’re quite probably wondering how this is possible-what with me residing in England and Zune Marketplace being US only…well let me tell you.

UK Access

I was having a look around the internet to see what I could find on accessing the Zune Marketplace from outside the US and I came across this blog. Here the author, Ian Blackburn, details how to get initial access to the Marketplace; and it’s much simpler than I would have thought.

You simply change your PC location to “United States” via “Region & Language” in Control Panel.

The next step is being allowed to download things. To do this, you simply need to log into Zune Marketplace with a Live ID that is set to US location.

I changed my Live ID location and it worked. I was in Marketplace and downloading a free track from “People Under the Stairs”…brilliant :-) However, when I tried to download something a few minutes later, it said that “marketplace wasn’t available in my location” and blocked me from downloading anything :-(

The way I found around this was to download HotSpot Shield (available here) which masks your IP address. This gave me proper, full access to the Marketplace as well as Zune Social; plus little things such as syncing my proper play count…and the big one – enabling me to download things once again! The only downside I’ve found to Hot Spot Shield is that it places banner ads at the top of web pages which is a bit annoying; however I can put up with that…

Over at Bbits, Ian ponders how one would purchase things from Zune…and I agree with his theory. As the Zune marketplace users Xbox points as currency, one should be able to redeem a code against the LIve ID used for Zune and be able to download freely, without worrying about a US address/credit card etc. I haven’t tried it but if I do, I’ll let you know ;-) Another thing I’m going to investigate is getting a Zune Pass…but that’s for another day.

So there you have it, a relatively easy way to access the Zune marketplace from the UK, or indeed anywhere else…have fun!

Microsoft Licensing Changes


Microsoft licensing is an ever changing world and there have been a few changes recently that I think you could do with knowing.

Removal of Grace Periods:

Previously, all Microsoft licence programs gave customers a 30 day grace period on Software Assurance (SA) renewals…but not any more.

There is no longer a grace period for the following programs:

  • Enterprise Agreement (EA)
  • Enterprise Agreement Subscription (EAS)
  • Select
  • Select Plus
  • Open Value Perpetual
  • Open Value Subscription
  • The exceptions are:

    Open Licensing (OLP)

  • Schools Agreement
  • Campus Agreement

This doesn’t impact current agreements so current customers will still receive a grace period until the end of the contract they have at the moment.

Change of Channel Partner:

The Change of Channel Partner (CoCP) forms are used when a customer wants to move their agreement from one reseller to another and applies to all agreements except OLP. They currently take 30 days to process which, in my opinion is too long so when I heard there was a change coming-I was cautiously optimistic…however I was also wrong!

The CoCP forms now take 90 days to be processed, which is frankly ridiculous. That is 1/4 of a year just to change resellers and I don’t think it is in the interests of resellers or customers. It is due to an “increasing volume of CoCP forms” but I can’t believe there are so many forms flying around that a company the size of Microsoft can’t process them in less that 3 months.

The form is about 1 side of A4 and contains very few details so I struggle to see why it takes so long. I can only assume it’s done as a manual process and that makes it slower…so I suggest making it do-able online. Either:

1) A customer does it via MCLS/VLSC

2) The reseller does it via those or another tool. It is then emailed to the customer for verification.

Bada-Boom, Bada-Bing, job done :-)

If anyone from MS can explain why it takes so long, please do.I think this is possibly the part of dealing with Microsoft that infuriates me the most!

Zune 4.0 Desktop Software


I’ve always been a big Windows Media Player (WMP) fan. I never bothered with any of the alternatives as WMP has always had most/all the features I’ve needed, and I despise iTunes (for way too many reasons to go into here!).

When I first got the beta of Windows 7 back in Feb/March (?), one of the first things I did was check out WMP 12. I was very pleased with what I found…it’s quicker and smoother and has got numerous great new features such as “Play To” for streaming to other devices, the ability to be played remotely to another Windows 7 machine, the ability to preview songs and more. It works really well and is much improved over V11 but recently I’ve been thinking about checking out something different.

I’ve been wanting a Zune for years but as they aren’t properly available here in the UK, I’ve not got one. While thinking on possible replacements for WMP 12, I remembered hearing the Zune desktop software getting good reviews; so I thought – will it work without a Zune? Perhaps obviously, yes it will…and it is truly great!!! :-)

I’ve only been using it for a little under 24 hours but so far, I’m a huge fan of it. I’ve taken a bunch of screenshots so you can see the elegant, modern, media centre style vibe it’s got going on.

This is the Welcome Screen I get when I load it up:

Zune Quickplay View

It’s divided into four sections:

New: This section contains any news tracks added into the library

History: This contains the tracks/albums that have previously been listened to.

Pins: You can “pin” albums/singles to the front page with a simple right click

Smart DJ: Automatically generates playlists based on your library.

Smart DJ

This I’ve heard a lot about. It creates playlists all on its own, based on artists that you give it as a reference after analysing your music. It’s just finished analysing my music and has given me a Smart DJ playlist based on Wu-Tang Clan and it’s excellent:

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As you can, it’s not just other Wu-Tang songs – it’s got Nas and Canibus in there too, artists who are indeed related.

This Smart DJ based on “Onyx” is even more impressive:

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Every artist is different there-great stuff :-)

Collection

This is where you can see all the songs/albums/artists/genres etc in your library, much like Windows Media but just better.

Zune Artists View

Rather than them being separate section as in WMP, you can see Artists, Albums and individual songs all at once. This section has got a very current, web 2.0 app style feel and I’m a big fan.

The “Songs” section also includes a “Play Count” column which is what I was originally looking for. I know it’s pretty gimmicky and all the rest of it, but I like the idea of being able to see what songs get played the most. This features aligns quite nicely with today’s IT drive towards ever deeper data mining too ;-)

Album View:

This is clearly taken from Media Centre but that’s no bad thing:

Zune Album View

I love the tiled album art background and the changing colour schemes that it moves through…also, the tiles in the background flip round – small things eh?! :-)

Another nice touch is the ever-present yet subtle graphic equalizer down at the bottom of the screen:

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There are a few things that aren’t in there when compared to WMP 12-inc most/all the new Windows 7 features (play to, stream, preview etc) but I don’t really mind that. The biggest downside for me is that I can’t sync my Windows Mobile device with it. I know that seems logical as it’s designed for the Zune but as it can work without one – it’d be nice to have that option. The mobile syncing is the only thing keeping WMP12 in the picture…and I never thought I’d say that…

All in all, I’m a HUGE fan of Zune 4.0 Desktop software and I highly recommend you go and download it here right now!

Microsoft Research & Guitar Hero


Guitar Hero is awesome (and Rockband-don’t worry!) and Microsoft Research are pretty great too. So what happens when you put the two together? I’ll tell you…playing Guitar Hero without a controller!

This would definitely reduce the amount of space that all the guitars take up, and make it easier to carry them around (should you wish). They also show the technology being used to control an MP3 player whilst out jogging…just move a finger to skip, pause, play etc…something that would definitely take off :-)

Again, more great work from Microsoft Research :-)

Windows 7 Stuff


We had our Windows 7 launch day at work last week and we all got Windows 7 pens and Windows 7 slinkies…which are officially awesome!

The slinky and pen:

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The posters we got up around the office:

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They’re nice and clean and simple-I like them.

As an added bonus, here’s my software poster wall:

 SDC10744 <—This isn’t the only one!

Hope you like it :-)

There is a picture of me in front of the big Windows 7 stand thing we had but I, oddly, can’t find that one anymore ;-)

MS Exam 70-680 training videos


Exam 70-680 is the new Microsoft MCTS exam for Configuring Windows 7 that builds towards the MCITP accreditations.

I’ve been thinking of taking this exam for a little while and now there is what’s shaping up to be an excellent series of training videos available from @Bibbleq. He’s an IT Admin and has started putting these videos together in his spare time to help out anyone looking at this exam – so ‘nuff respect for that :-)

I’ve watched the 1st 2 videos that are available and they’re really good. Well presented, clear and I’ve definitely picked up a thing or two, which is what it’s all about isn’t it?! I’m not sure how many will be in the series but I’m confident that once you’ve seen them all, you’ll be in a position to pretty much go and take the exam straight away!

First video is here.

Second video is here.

Third video is here.

Fourth video is here. This is the start of Section 2.

Section 2 Module 2 is here. This covers DISM & ImageX.

Homepage is here.

Nice one Bibbleq!

Microsoft Total Recall


This is a great piece on the work going on inside Microsoft Research called MyLifeBits. Gordon Bell and his colleague Jim Gemmell have been working to digitally record nearly everything that goes in in Gordon’s life…and make it a useful data repository. As Graham said:

“I was saving everything, but it became clear that the problem was a search problem. You could save everything…but the big problem was organizing and then searching…”

They created a database to store all this data and then wrote software to collect, scan and label all the things captured, which include emails, pictures, phone calls, web pages visited, documents, scanned receipts and more!

A real life example:

“If I’ve ever seen a Web page, I’ve got a copy of it, and I can find it again quickly because I only have to search my own corpus, not the entire Web.”

That sounds pretty great to me :-) The number of times that I know I’ve seen something on a site and I either can’t remember which one, or I get the right site but just can’t find the page is crazy…and this’d be a good way to sort that out. Not sure about storing EVERY web page though you know ;-)

This work is a great example not just of what Microsoft Research get up to, but also a great example of what IT in general can do for the world. 10-15 years down the line when MyLifeBits is commonplace-finding information will be so much easier!

Check out the full article over at MS Research here.

Microsoft open up .PST files


Microsoft have announced that they are opening up the technology behind their .PST files- the files that hold all the email, calendar and contact info that Outlook archives. While many people aren’t fans of .PST files (products such as Symantec’s Enterprise Vault have whole modules aimed at eradicating them), they are still prevalent and so anything that makes interacting with easier has got to be good :-)

While developers have been able to work with .PST files in the past through MAPI and the Outlook Object Model, it required that Outlook was installed on the machine. However once this new documentation is released it will:

“will allow developers to read, create, and interoperate with the data in .pst files in server and client scenarios using the programming language and platform of their choice. The technical documentation will detail how the data is stored, along with guidance for accessing that data from other software applications. It also will highlight the structure of the .pst file, provide details like how to navigate the folder hierarchy, and explain how to access the individual data objects and properties.”

This is another move by Microsoft to increase interoperability between their products and those of other manufacturers, and is to be applauded I think. Some say this might lead to more people moving away from Exchange but I doubt that anyone was sticking with Microsoft’s email platform simply because of .PST’s ;-)

The full post can be found here.