Mailbag: July 11, 2010

This week in the mailbag:

Are You Still Using Hotmail As Your Primary Email Service?
Fishy In-App Purchases
Using TechNet/MDSN Product Keys with Windows Anytime Upgrade
WinFS Update?
Windows 7 Family Pack Set to Return
Clean Install of Windows 7 with Upgrade Media?

Have a question? I can't guarantee an answer, but I'll try. Drop me a note! (And let me know if you'd prefer not to have your name published.)

Are You Still Using Hotmail As Your Primary Email Service?

Over the past month or so, a number of readers have asked whether I'm still using the new Windows Live Hotmail as my primary email service. This question arises out of my review of the new Hotmail, in which I noted:

For me, integration with various Microsoft services may just be enough to put the new Hotmail over the top ... for now--and believe me, I never thought I'd be saying this again--I'm using Hotmail. I guess anything is possible.

And sure enough, I did keep using it. I believe I was on the new Hotmail for about two months. But last week, Microsoft silently and without explanation or notice removed my access to the "dogfood" version of the service, dumping my primary email account back into the old version of Hotmail. Eventually, my account will be migrated to the new servers, but there's no way to know when that will happen. (Microsoft didn't dump me out of the new Hotmail maliciously. I think the beta period must have just ended or whatever. But they never mentioned that change was coming, so it was sort of surprising when all of my mobile devices could no longer access my email, since they were set up for Exchange ActiveSync support, a feature that is only available in the new Hotmail.)

And that's the problem. Access to over-the-air email, contacts, and calendar made Hotmail workable for me. Removing that functionality makes it a non-starter.

Meanwhile, on the PC, I prefer to use web-based clients, and not Windows applications, for email. And while the transition from old Hotmail to new isn't all that jarring (nor was the transition back, I guess), the old Hotmail isn't as nice as Gmail. More to the point, I don't think the new Hotmail is either.

Not that any of that matters: If I can't access my email, contacts, and calendars over the air, I can't use Hotmail. So I switched back to Gmail. It was easy enough; I just needed to redirect my various email accounts away from Hotmail and to Gmail again. This was accomplished in less than 30 minutes and I was up and running successfully very quickly.

There is an important final note here, though: Moving back to the Gmail web interface, I was immediately struck by how much more efficient it is than Hotmail, and while I had sort of understood this as I got used to Hotmail, using Gmail again really drove it home. My conclusion about the new Hotmail, then, is that it will work just fine for most "normal" people. But if you consider yourself a power user, Hotmail is simply unacceptable, with annoying graphical ads and unnecessary extra screens that get in your way when you're trying to get through your email. (Why the heck do I need to know--and respond to--a page that tells me a person I just replied to is already in my address book? This notification seems to be engineered specifically to slow you down. It just doesn't make sense.)

Anyway. I'm happily back on Gmail. That's the end of that.

Fishy In-App Purchases

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the experience of my children managing to rack up $880 in iTunes Store charges by purchasing in-app add-ons for an iPhone/iPod touch game called Tap Fish. (See So Easy Even a Child Can Do It for the gory details.) Since then, I've received dozens of emails from readers with similar experiences, many with the same game. This leads me to wonder why Apple doesn't do something about this suspicious practice (though to be fair, Apple was overly generous in my dealings with them about this issue and ended up refunding the entire $880 charge.)

This week, several readers pointed out a post on The Unofficial Apple Weblog that, amazingly, discusses a different fish app for iPhone that does exactly the same thing: Fool people into spending money inside the app.

Several iPhone and iPad users have noticed charges totaling several hundred dollars on their iTunes accounts. At first, the issue looked to be part of the App Store's recent woes, but it appears to be linked to an app called Fishies from PlayMesh -- best known for its iFarm app.

Fishies allows you to create a virtual fish tank. You can raise fish, become friends with other users and make purchases for your underwater world. The program itself is cute and colorful, therefore appealing to kids. While the app itself is free, you have to purchase in-game currency called virtual pearls. These run from 99 cents for 10 pearls to $149.99 for 1950. To do this, you need to input your iTunes account information -- though some are reporting that the app isn't prompting for this before the purchase is made.

My kids are smart, and they're trustworthy. They didn't realize they were spending real money. And my guess is that this misunderstanding will continue to trap other people until Apple locks down this capability more ably. My advice to you is to familiarize yourself with the Restrictions interface on the iPhone/iPod touch. It can, among other things, simply prevent in-app purchases and can even disable app purchasing all together. If you value your bank account--and the fact that your kid may be walking around with open access to it as were mine, you'll spend a few moments to get on top of this.

Thank you to everyone that's written in about this issue.


Using TechNet/MDSN Product Keys with Windows Anytime Upgrade

I feel like the TechNet issue has been beaten to death here on the site, on Windows Weekly, and via email, but I did get one email this week that I feel needs addressing. Jess N. wrote:

I tried the anytime upgrade tip using my technet subscription license number and could not use my windows 7 ultimate license to upgrade from home premium, however I was able to use a license from windows 7 professinal I obtained there to upgrade my install. Just an FYI not sure if it is just me or if they are restricting the use of these licenses for anytime upgrade.

So this should simply work. I don't have a TechNet subscription right now, but I do have an MSDN subscription, and my understanding is that the product keys work identically between the two subscriptions. So just now, I tested using a MSDN key for Windows 7 Ultimate in Windows Anytime Upgrade on a laptop running a version of Windows 7 Home Premium that was preinstalled by the PC maker. It worked fine. It's possible that in this specific case, you could first use Windows Anytime Upgrade to go from Home Premium to Professional, and then from there to Ultimate. But I can't imagine why it didn't accept the Ultimate key the first time around.

So against my better judgement. :) Has anyone else experienced this issue?

Note: Not familiar with Windows Anytime Upgrade? Check out my feature focus article.

WinFS Update?

Brandon A. asks:

Could you or do you have any plans to do a write up on WinFS anytime soon? I know MS has delayed it for awhile now but it's still a relevant and interesting topic. It's abilities and uses and if MS still plans to implement it. You mention WinFS a few times in some articles and the podcast but never go in depth with the status of it. If not WinFS then what new File System if any they plan to go with instead? Your access to MS's industry and news would be enlightening and interesting, because I can only piece together some minor information from various news sources out on the Internet, but no one is really talking about it.

That's because WinFS is dead.

WinFS (Windows Future Storage) was the successor to the "Cairo" object-oriented file system called Storage+ that Microsoft envisioned in the mid-1990s. It was originally a replacement for NTFS, and then it was a "data storage engine" that would work in concert with the NTFS file system.

The underlying technologies behind WinFS carry on, however. They are included in Microsoft's SQL Server product line, which in SQL Server 2008 picked up the ability to work with "unstructured data, like documents in the file system, through a new file stream data type. This isn't a replacement for the file system, but rather a replacement for the old blob data type, which had no understanding of the underlying data."

As for Windows, Microsoft decided that Windows 7, like Windows 95 before it, could get along just fine using the then-current file system rather than replacing it with something based on a database. However, there are some interesting developments here that were clearly inspired by WinFS. Virtual folders, which debuted in Windows Vista and are still present in Windows 7, owe their existence to WinFS and work like live database queries. (In this case, the underlying technology is file indexing.) WinFS concepts are also at the heart of libraries, though again the underlying technology is much simpler.

Looking ahead, Windows 8 will almost certainly be the first client version of Windows to use the Drive Extender technology that debuted in Windows Home Server. Among other things, Drive Extender allows Windows to divvy up hard drive storage into a single, uninterrupted blob of storage space, removing the need for drive letters. While it's unlikely that Windows 8 will dispense with drive letters all together, this is clearly the first step in that direction.

Windows 7 Family Pack Set to Return

I mentioned on the Windows Weekly podcast this week, and on Twitter, that Microsoft will be selling the Windows 7 Family Pack again this holiday season, so if you missed out on the first round available, hang on, as it's coming back. Joell H. (who lives in Canada) notes a cute little workaround for those who can't wait (though you may have to live in Canada):

Nice to hear the Family Pack is making a comeback. The workaround that I've been using for folks, is to buy the French Canadian version (which there are lots of) and using the serial numbers with English install disks. Works great. :)

Nice.

I've been asked for details about the Family Pack's return, but there's little to say around pricing and timing. Here's what I know: Microsoft is repeating the Windows 7 Family Pack promotion for the 2010 holiday season. The offer will be made available in "mature markets as well as select emerging markets." That's literally all I know beyond the fact that the pricing has set internally but not announced. Nor as the availability date(s).

Clean Install of Windows 7 with Upgrade Media?

Walter C. asks:

Is there anyway to do a re-install of Windows 7 from upgrade media without first re-installing the previous OS?

This is the tech Q & A version of a "meatball" or "softball" question since I did in fact write an excellent (if I do say so myself) guide to doing just that. (See Clean Install Windows 7 with Upgrade Media.) So why even mention this question here? Because it's a classic. And if you look over my Windows 7 activity center, which contains hundreds of article spanning almost three years, you can see why this kind of gem can easily get hidden among all the other stuff. There are few guarantees in life, but I can come pretty close to guaranteeing that, using that guide, you can get up and running with an Upgrade version of Windows 7.

More next week...