Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Skype from Hell

Another day I was using Skype. I expected having the same good experience I had had in Linux, but it just couldn't be this way, because I was stuck in Windows.

Is Skype Really Multi-Platform?

When you go to the download page of Skype, it all looks really nice and good. They offer it for Windows, Mac OS X, Linux and for several handheld devices. But when we look at the version numbers, a completely different picture emerges:

OSVersionRelease date
Mac OS X2.72008-05-14
Windows Mobile2.52008-12-9
Nokia N800/N8101.72007-12-19

The reality is, that versions for all other OS-es lag far behind the Windows version. The release dates for some are quite recent, but these are probably just bug fixes.

The strange thing is, that they are using Qt, which is a cross-platform GUI toolkit, and therefore should make porting of the interface really easy. And I'm sure, that most of the differences between versions are in the interface.

But why am I whining about it now, when I'm using Windows and can use the latest version of Skype?

The Differences in Interface

The problem is, that in Linux I was really happy with the simple interface that Skype had, but when I logged in to the Windows version I was disgusted. Just look at the differences:

The Windows version is just a bloated piece of ugly crap, while the Linux version is slick and easy to understand. Here is a list of the Windows version "features":

  • Advertisements,
  • Greater emphasis on calling (although most users use Skype for simple instant messaging),
  • More buttons for functionality that I rarely use.

Additionally they have screwed up the chat window. The chat was my favorite, because the chat log had the smallest amount of clutter I have seen in any IM app. Again, just compare these by yourself:

In Windows the same amount of information takes up a lot more space. Sure, it's prettier, but prettier is often less usable.

Beyond Skype

But Skype is not the only one in here, who has notably different Windows and Linux versions. Many proprietary software vendors do.

The most astonishing example I've seen is Real Player. Under Windows Real Player is one of the most scariest programs to install. It's huge. It tries to associate it with every file in your file system. It does everything possible to take over your computer. And it looks like this:

The Linux version of Real Player only plays Real Media files. It's small and cute. It follows the UNIX mantra: do only one thing, but do it well. It looks like this:

It looks that Linux users get nice and useful versions of proprietary apps, while Windows users get as much bloat as humanly possible. Therefore we shouldn't be sad that software vendors don't put as much money to the Linux version as they put in the Windows version – it just saves us from bloated software, because bloated software requieres a lot of money to be made, but sleak, small and fast software only flourishes when development resources are severely limited.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

UnRAR Me Please

Another day I was looking for Estonian subtitles to the movie Barry Lyndon. The subs were easy to find, but they came packaged inside a RAR archive. This might not look like a big problem, but remember that I was stuck in Windows.

Windows Support for Archive Formats

Windows supports natively only the ZIP format. Although the wizardly interface for unpacking ZIP files is the crappiest and slowest possible, at least it works out-of-the-box and you can be sure, that every Windows user is able to extract ZIP.

In the land of Windows all other archive formats are second class citizens. Don't you even dare to mention TAR and GZip - the giants from the UNIX world – these drive most Windows users nuts. No-one but ZIP may command archives in the land of Windows.

But there seems to be one notable exception. Somehow the proprietary RAR format has established itself as another mighty archive format. How did this came to be?

The Golden Age of RAR

A long time ago I was also using Windows. It was Windows 95 back then, running on a small 486 box with a crisp sound the small 128 MB hard disk made. So, as you see I got plenty of disk space, but it was really hard to fill it, because my computer was connected to the internet through the sneakernet. All the files and programs I wanted, had to be brought on small 3½-inch floppy disks. But some files were larger than 1.3 MB and didn't fit on one floppy...

This is were RAR came into play. RAR format was excellent for spanning archive across multiple floppy disks. You could do it with ZIP, but it wasn't nearly as convenient. ZIP wrote information about the files in archive to the very end of archive, so to extract a ZIP archive you had to first insert the last disk. With RAR I was able to read the disks in their natural order. Floppies were also quite fragile and bad sectors were an everyday problem. With ZIP the whole archive would have been corrupted, but with RAR only the files directly affected by corruption were broken – others could still be extracted.

But this golden age of floppies has disappeared into the past. No-one uses floppies any more and no-one should also have a reason to use RAR.

The Shadow from the Past

Yes, that's what RAR is. It's history. No place for it in the future. No use for it even in the present. But somehow some old RAR-zealots remain, who just can't get over it. They keep using this ancient technology, feeding the proprietary software daemon behind RAR. RAR is past. RAR is proprietary. RAR is nothing more than pain in the ass. Just read the comments of article Why RAR archives do not belong in torrents – these people are just plain zealots, no constructive arguments whatsoever.

So please each archive unRAR.
If you want, then use a TAR.
But never ever create a RAR.
Or we will have a WAR.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Watching a Movie in Windows

So I wanted to watch the movie Idiocracy. Had planned to see it for quite some time, now finally had time for it. But I was stuck in Windows.

Bittorrent and

First I had to download the movie. So I went to, searched for Idiocracy and discovered that I had no program in my computer to download the torrent. No problem. I googled for "Bittorrent" and found a program with the same name that seemed to be doing exactly what I wanted.

Downloaded the installer, started it up, pressed "Next" and "Next" and "Next"... But just after I had pushed "Install" on the last almost empty page of the installer, the same page was suddenly populated with the following options (all nicely checked):

  • Make my home page,
  • Make my default search engine,
  • Install toolbar,
  • Make the owner of my soul.

What!!! I had just agreed to all this shit!!! What!!! I panicked. But while I panicked, the installer had already finished its dirty job and I was left wondering how screwed up my computer was.

Luckily the damage was limited to browsers (and my soul). The large and ugly toolbar had penetrated both Firefox and IE. Fortunately Firefox had detected this perversion and informed me, that new extension had been installed. Removed this extension right away. With IE it was harder - had to remove the plugin through "Add/Remove Programs". Then I came back to Firefox and discovered that default search and homepage were still pointing to Luckily these were easy to change. In IE I had to do the same. But it wasn't over yet. Typing search terms to address bar still directed me to I had to dig inside about:config and reset some settings there to completely get rid of – the search engine I'm never going to use, especially after the terror I just experienced.

Finally I was able to download the torrent. The Bittorrent program was actually quite good, so I kept it regardless of how the installer had misbehaved.

Media Player

Finally I had the movie downloaded. I double-clicked on the icon of the AVI file and Windows Media Player started up. But instead of showing me the movie, it wanted me to set up his privacy and other settings. The defaults seemed OK to me and I managed to get past those nagging screens quite fast. Then the Media Player finally started and opened... emm... a blank screen. Great, it forgot entirely about the file I wanted to open.

As the old joke about Windows goes, I closed the app and tried opening it again. This time the movie opened and even started playing. But there was no sound. Some codec seemed to be missing. Sure the Media Player tried to gave me the impression, that it tried to download the codec from somewhere, but failed. This old trick didn't work with me - I've never seen it working.

But as the movie loaded, another window popped open. It was DivX for Windows and it asked me if I would like to upgrade it. Maybe this will solve the missing audio-codec problem, I wondered. So I accepted the upgrade.

The download took some time and an installer appeared. I should have already learned the lesson that those installation programs are the most dangerous things in Windows, but I foolishly agreed again with the default settings, and my computer received all the following:

  • DivX Player
  • DivX Converter
  • "Buy DivX for Windows" shortcut on desktop
  • A folder My Videos\DivX Movies, that contains just a bunch of shortcuts to some stupid websites, that probably will want to take over my computer.
  • Hopefully some codecs too.

Additionally I had to restart the computer. What!!! A restart for video codec? Is it going to run in kernel mode or are they writing it to MBR? Alright, alright... it's the Windows way... I restarted.

After restarting Windows I restarted Media Player and... the movie still had no sound. I also tried opening the movie with the new DivX player that I just got. I saw some truly ugly interface coming up, then a popup appeared that asked me if I would like to try DFX Audio Enhancer free for 30 days. What kind of stupidity is an audio enhancer – clearly no-one wants to use one, if they aren't forced to, like I was. The dialog had two buttons: "Not now" and "Begin Trial", which suggested that they were going to show this popup as long as I finally agreed to try it out. I clicked "Not now", which gave me another popup explaining that I could "try the DFX Audio Enhancer any time by clicking the button on the DivX Player window". Great – they had incorporated try-our-another-product-button into a video player UI. Finally I managed to open my movie inside this program and make notice, that it still had no sound.

I cursed myself for installing all this DivX crap and decided to uninstall all of it. I had to remove four new entries under Add/Remove Programs and delete the stupid shortcuts by hand.

Codec Packs

Then I remembered, that there are some things called codec-packs, that Windows people use. I decided to get one of these. Quick search in Google directed me to XP Codec Pack 2.4.5, which again seemed like something that could solve my problems. Another installation dialog to get by and I got my codecs... plus I also agreed to install Windows Media Player Classic, which seemed like a nice program to have in addition to the XP Media Player bloatware.

To try the movie again, I opened up the folder it was in and... a freaking popup appeared! It said that Windows Explorer tried to load ddfshow and that it couldn't decide whether to load it or not. So I had to make the decision instead of him. The dialog offered four choices like the following:

  • Disable ddfshow just once,
  • Disable ddfshow forever,
  • Enable ddfshow just once,
  • Enable ddfshow forever.

While I was wondering what the heck this freaking ddfshow is, the timer running at the title bar of this dialog reached zero and the dialog disappeared, leaving me wondering if I had agreed to some really bad default.

Alright... let that ddfshow be... I opened the movie again in Media Player and this time it only showed me blank screen. Great! A step back. Not only the sound was missing, but the video too.

Finally I opened the movie with Media Player Classic, and it worked!

So, the computer is now loaded with tons of codecs, there is some kind of ffdshow, movie playing ability of Media Player is reduced and I probably managed to install all kind of other crap... But at least I can watch the video.