EMEA Project Conference – Madrid

Finally, after all the excitement that Richard and Robert had in Seattle and Barcelona, I find myself in the Auditorium Hotel, Madrid for the EMEA Project Conference.

According to the multilingual sales blurb in my room, the hotel is the largest in Europe, and I must say it’s very nice. We flew in yesterday and today is an MS Partner-only day before the conference itself kicks off tomorrow.

Project Server is something we’re very interested in using ourselves, and it’s integration with SharePoint (MOSS/WSS) makes it an attractive solution to anybody who has already deployed MOSS for their corporate intranet, as we have.

Also on the agenda today is VSTS integration with Project Server, which I’m keen to see more on. Closing the loop between developer activity and project planning and monitoring can make a big difference to whether a project comes in on time and budget.

I’m here for the SysAdmin track, whilst Paul and Jim cover the managerial and best practice side of things. I’ll do my best to blog on what I see, although it’s a pretty packed few days, ending in a good sprint from the end of the last session at 3:15 on Wednesday to make it to the airport in time for our 5:25 flight back to Blighty.

Mix:UK 07 Round-up

We’re back up north after Mix:UK 07 and I thought I’d follow up my earlier post with a few thoughts on the event and it’s content.

Before I do that, however, I need to give a cheer for our guys: Jonny performed incredibly in the Guiter Hero competition to  be triumphant in front of his screaming supporters, and Sam, Mat, Tom and Jonny cleaned up the the goody-bagging stakes of the Swaggily Fortunes quiz!

Anyway, back to the plot. Day two of the event had some good sessions. Kicking off the day with good humour was a pretty inspiring talk by Beau Amber of Metaliq.He apologised for not being awake, having not slept. He then showed the fruits of his sleepless night by demoing an iPhone built in Silverlight! It was a great session on what kinds of things you can do with Silverlight 1.0 and I look forward to his continued development of the Silverphone.

Next up was Todd Landstad, who was infectiously enthusiastic about mobile devices. He was showing interesting stuff using tablet PC, Sideshow and a suit of UMPC devices. As an avid Engadget reader none of the devices came as a surprise, but it was a great demo on how a little lateral thinking can result in useful software for people on the move, and the things to consider when targeting mobile devices.

Now it gets tricky. The next session was all about accessibility. It wasn’t bad, I have to say, and the guy running the session showed a couple of things I didn’t know about how to kick ASP.NET into generating some of the elements that are needed when doing accessible tables. The trouble is, that it was like watching a presentation from about five years ago. The points covered were all WCAG 1 level A, with little mention of level AA. More worryingly, the speaker referenced WCAG 1 but called it WCAG 2. He didn’t seem versed in current thoughts and best practices regarding semantic structure, skip links and access keys. He even admitted to using tables for layouts!

I appreciate that he only had an hour, but I’m not convinced that anybody left the room really understanding what their obligations were or where to go to find out more.

So, if you were in the room and want to find out about accessbility here are a couple of links to get you started:

  • AbilityNet – a UK organisation who give support and advice on accessibility.
  • JuicyStudio – the site of Gez Lemon, who’s involved in WCAG 2 and knows his accessibility onions.
  • Joe Clark – extremely passionate about accessibility across a broad spectrum of areas.
  • Accessify – a community site founded by Ian Lloyd and a hub for accessibility discussion.
  • Further Ahead – run by Derek Featherstone, who’s a really cool guy and knows his stuff.

Overall I was at times impressed, inspired, disappointed and frustrated at Mix:UK, but I have to say that at all times the guys running the conference were helpful and organised and all the Black Marble posse had a great time.

Web site development: University of Bradford Part 1

One of the last projects I was involved in before I left the University of Bradford to join Black Marble was a new design for the external web site of the institution. I’d pretty much finished the construction of the page layouts and styles before I left, but it’s only now that the site is about to go live. I’ve threatened a few people with a series of posts on how the site is constructed and although I’m not there any more it seems topical.

In this post I’ll give some background, describe the project and run through why things were done in a certain way. Over the next few posts I’ll cover the construction in more detail – what styling problems I hit and how they were fixed, and how the site tries to make use of things like microformats and opensearch.

A Brand Refresh; A whole new look

The University of Bradford old website

The University’s external web site hasn’t really changed much in years. Having said that, in spite of not necessarily being the snappiest dresser on the block, it was always extremely easy to find what you were after. Back in early 2006 the marketing department were engaged in a ‘brand refresh’ which to you and me means fiddling with the logo and corporate colours. Also to be included in the spruce-up was the web site.

The University of Bradford WebsiteFor those of you who don’t know, my role at the University expanded to take in the web when one of my colleagues, who ran the web servers, left the organisation. I’ve always been passionate about web development (and I use that term advisedly) and I spent a fair amount of my time trying to expand the level of knowledge and appreciation of web standards, issues and technology throughout the university. It was because of this that I was asked if I could assist with the development of the new web site.

University internal page new designThe design for the site was done by the same agency responsible for the brand refresh. It is extremely striking, and still in keeping with trying to make the site as navigable as possible. A meeting was had with the designer, the University’s Web Officer, the Head of Marketing and myself. In that meeting we agreed that the University would build the site itself from the designs created by the agency. This would allow us to make sure that we met our legal obligations in terms of Accessibility, and also ensure that the was knowledge and understanding within the organisation of how the site was built.

A series of laudable aims

It was agreed that the site should meet a series of requirements from a technical perspective:

  • It should be a fully fluid design – not a thin sliver down the middle of your monitor but able to flow and take up as much space as allowed.
  • It should work in all modern browsers, including mobile browsers such as Opera, and text-only browsers such as Lynx.
  • It should be as accessible as possible, using accepted best-practice for ensuring users of assistive technologies would be able to get the most out of the site.
  • It should attempt to include new technologies such as OpenSearch and Microformats if and where appropriate.

Assigning roles

There were a number of areas that required work to make the new web site a reality. It was agreed that I would build the external homepage and a template for the content pages. I would not deal with site structure or content- those would be managed by the Web Officer and the marketing team.

Starting Out

I started out with a series of visual comps given to me in PDF format. I began with the homepage and started to work out how to tackle taking the design and building the underlying HTML structure.

I’m a bit of a luddite at heart, so I printed all the comps out at A3, got some large sheets of tracing paper and traced my initial wireframe, labelling the parts as I went.

Once I’d got a basic structure I then made some scribbled notes about how certain elements should function – using remote rollovers, for example.

After that, I pulled the comps up in my bitmap editor (Corel PhotoPaint, if you care) and took some dimensions to inform the initial styling, and lifted the colour values from the design element to feed into the stylesheets.

Once I had my trusty paper notes to work from, I started to tackle the creation of the site. I code by hand – I hate GUI editors – so I did most of the work in HTML-Kit from Chami.com. I now tend to use Expression Web, although I dip into Dreamweaver occasionally and I suspect that I will use Visual Studio 208 more as the projects I work on at Black Marble tend to involve ASP.Net coders as well.

In my next post I’ll run through how the homepage was built and what hurdles the web browsers threw into my path along the way!

Web development helpers: Redux

After posting yesterday about useful tools for development I stumbled across another little gem of a utility. IE7Pro is much more of a usability-enhancing tool but it has a wonderfully handy tool nestling within – Save Current Tab As Image. If you need to do grabs of pages for documentation or presentations and the page is more than a single screen in length this will transform your life – no more cropping and stitching!

IE7Pro also has a raft of features such as adblocking and mouse gestures, which I will admit to switching off immediately. However, it’s inline search (not quite Find As You Type, but pretty close) is jolly useful.

Get IE7Pro

Updating firmware on SPV M3100 (HTC TyTN)

Still no Windows Mobile 6 update for my Orange SPV M3100, but they did release an update to WM5 recently.

Installing said update turned out to be slightly trickier than I expected. I don’t know if anybody else has experienced the same problem, but a word to the wise – don’t try the update on Windows Vista!

The first part works OK – it connects to the device and interrogates it, but when it actually tries to connect and download the new firmware it fails.

Luckily, I still have a PC at home running XP (Media Centre Edition, as it happens), so I installed Active Sync 4.5 and rant he update successfully on that.

I’m surprised though – Vista’s nearly six months old now and there must be others with the same phone who don’t have the recourse to an old PC (!) to run the update.

Windows Home Server – something for my father

On Saturday I got the email telling me that I’d been accepted onto the Home Server Beta 2. I’m excited about this product in a way that I haven’t been about new software solutions for a while.

I’ve taken part in beta programmes before. I’ve been around a while, and as an IT pro you get desensitised after a while. Vista has some innovative features, but it’s evolutionm, not revolution.

Home server is different.

To explain why, let me give you a bit of background: Being a geek, you’d expect my home to have a few PCs and you’d be right. I had a purge shortly after I got married, which reduced the number of active systems from eight (don’t ask!) to four – my home desktop, my wife’s home desktop, a media PC and a Mac Mini (which I use for web site testing and development). On top of that, we have a Netgear SC101 NAS box for shared storage, a networked printer and a photo printer attached to my wife’s PC.

My Grandmother has firmly embraced the information age. She has a desktop and a laptop. She sends emails all over the place and is slowly scanning all the photographs that the family has collected over the years. The desktop stays on all the time with a file share for the laptop.

My parents have a computer each. They also have a Netgear SC101 and a coulpe of printers. In addition, my father has a laptop.

Particularly for my parents and grandmother, the Home Server will be a perfect match to requirements. A black box that can back up systems, is easy to manage and allows file and printer sharing – great!

Being the defacto tech support for my family, the opportunity to put one system in each home that can do automatic backups and store all the important files safely is extremely welcome. I’m looking forward to getting my Home Server beta up and running and if it works like the documentation suggests, there’ll be three customers lining up for a copy when it’s released.

Vista Upgrade – attempts 4, success 0

I have yet to succeed in upgrading from Windows XP to Windows Vista. Each time it runs through to the completing upgrade phase, gets about halfway through that bit whereupon I get stuck in a reboot cycle.

I have tried this now on three separate machines and two different installed partitions on one of them.

Two of the machines were Shuttle SN25G2 SFF boxes with Nforce 2 motherboards and the onboard nforce 2 (basically a geforce 2) video.

One of them was an Acer E360, an nforce 3 chipset box with an Nvidia 6600GT display card.

On the OS front, the Shuttles ran XP Pro SP2, fully patched; the Acer has the XP MCE that it came with, and an XP Pro SP2 install.

I’m starting to wonder if the common denominator here is Nvidia. In spite of the fact that I spent a long time with my Acer stripping off drivers and applications and repeatedly trying the upgrade I have not managed a successful upgrade. Has anybody managed to upgrade an Nforcex system?

What I will say, having now lost days of my life to failed upgrades, is that the Upgrade Rollback feature of Vista is fantastic! A no messing, works every time, put it back to how you found it option that takes only a few minutes. Wonderful!

So, now I’m going to look into the recently-release Windows Easy Transfer Companion as a way to get my applications across onto Vista.

Why do I need to do that? Because Acer, like so many other manufacturers these days, provides no installation media for the applications they ship with the computer. Unless I want to shell out again for things like PowerDVD and NTI CD-Maker I need to either upgrade (been there, tried that), hack the cached installed files (also tried, and failed) or use a magic bullet (see above). I’ll let you know how I get on with that one.