Sunday, October 19, 2008

Sysadmin: Macbook Pro, after the honeymoon

security01.pngI’ve been using the MacBook Pro I introduced in my previous blog entry for a few weeks now.
Between love and frustration I hang…
Here is a review of our relationship so far.

The Great

Hardware delight

Whether running OS/X or Windows 2008 I’ve got no major complaint about the performance of the machine. It’s fast, stable (except sometimes it’s not waking up from sleep or it does but the screen remains black). The screen is nice and vibrant, I just love the magnetic power connector and the small size of the power adapter. I have a few complaints though, see below.

OSX battery Power usage

For such a large and powerful laptop I’m pleasantly surprised with the duration of the battery under OSX: I’ve been able to watch videos for 3h, full screen, without trouble and overheating (although I would lower the screen brightness to reduce consumption).
I haven’t had such luck under Windows 2008 where I’ve been struggling to find the right power settings balance, but remember that’s a server OS and it’s not really meant to be run on a laptop.

The Ugly

The mouse

You wonder why Apple, in all its hardware expertise could design the mighty-mouse with a single big button that can still do right-clicking but can’t give us the same thing with the enormous single-button of the trackpad.
Now the new models -just released this week- have done away with the button entirely, which may be just as well although I’m curious about how well the drivers will work under Windows.

Mouse acceleration in OSX is pretty frustrating to me. When you’ve got a large screen, you’re endlessly shuffling the mouse to get that pointer in the right place. It feels slow, inaccurate and is extremely irritating after a while. The problem is even worse when you’re working in OSX under VMware Fusion: while it might still be usable under OSX, the difference is really severe and unnatural in Windows.
This does not happen under bootcamp though where mouse acceleration behaves as you would expect (for windows).
I’ve tried a number of utilities (iMouse , SteerMouse and others) but none gave me what I needed.

The keyboard

The keyboard feels great to type on, with a nice spring and softness. There are a few issues though:
Why is the Return key so small compared to the right Shift?
The rule is that the more a key is used, the bigger it is, yet the Enter is rather small, it’s the same size as the caps lock which serves almost no useful purpose in comparison.
The arrow keys are also minuscule, another probable example of Apple choosing form over function. The lack of delete key forces you to type both the fn + backspace keys instead, which is an unnecessary pain, it’s not like understanding the difference between delete and backspace is that confusing to people using a complex machine like a computer.

The lid

I love the way the hooks for the lid come out just when you close it. It makes for a neat screen without protruding bits of metal or plastic.
My main issue with the lid is with its limited opening angle: if you’re just a little tall and you place your laptop on your lap then there is no way to open the screen enough to have it properly face you.
This is also an issue if you place your Macbook Pro on a cooling pad or a riser that’ll put the laptop too vertical (for instance to free some space around it when using an external keyboard): you just can’t use these devices.

The sound

That one really makes me mad: the MacBook Pro has audio issues that you won’t even find in a US$15 MP3 player and it’s totally unacceptable.
When idle, I can hear hissing sounds that vary in power and frequency if I slide the volume control; when playing music, there is a lot of noise and “cutting” sounds between songs.
These are not noticeable when using the integrated speakers but,they become really annoying once you use earphones.
I am sorely disappointed with sound quality to say the least.

Electronic noises

On top of the annoying sounds from the sound chipset, the LCD inverter also makes a hissing sound that increases in volume when I lower the LCD brightness…
Coupled with that, the processor also makes a hissing noise when it gets into its C4 power saving state…
The noise is probably not high enough to get the laptop fixed but it might be great as a mosquito repellent.

Boot ‘song’

Apple knows best and they know that your only aim in life is to become a poster boy for the brand.
When booting/rebooting your mac, it likes to play its welcome song that says “hey, over here, I’m a mac and I’m telling the world I’m booting up. Everyone listen how awesome I am!”.
The perverse thing is that even if you have earphones plugged in (as in: you don’t want to disturb people around you) the boot song will be played on the speakers…
Of course, there is no option anywhere to disable it.
Apple knows best.
After much trials, I found that booting under OSX, lowering the volume to zero, then rebooting under windows and changing the volume there would be OK: no more booting song -at least for now- and I can still change the volume in OSX and Windows.

Conclusion

Would I buy a Mac again knowing what I know now?
Mmmm, probably not.
I find the annoyances a bit too much relative to my expectations and my usage scenario. To be fair, it’s not all bad and most of the time I’m happy with my mac but I find myself trying to avoid the things that infuriate me and it’s not really what I want from a laptop; it’s supposed to liberate me and give me the freedom I need to get things done, not get in the way.
Re-adapting to a strangely layout keyboard, having to deal with Apple’s brand awareness arrogance, battling with stuff that you just normally take for granted, all this is a bit too much of a price to pay for what is essentially for me a Windows development machine.
I prefer to waste my time actually getting things done rather than searching forums on how to keep Windows and OSX time in sync or bring back my machine for repair if a CD stays stuck in the CD Drive.

So, let’s say that our relationship is more ambivalent than needed to be.

References

Other links to pages of interest.

2 comments   |   Filed under :  Hardware,mac,Reviews,Software,sysadmin

Sunday, August 31, 2008

SysAdmin: Installing Windows Server 2008 x64 on a Macbook Pro

security01.pngMy trusty old gigantic Sony Vaio is about 4 years old. It served me well and still works but it’s about to become my main development machine for the next couple of months and I can’t afford to have it die on me during that time.
It was time to get something as gigantic and more up-to-date in terms of technology.

I use VMware on my main desktop to keep multiple OS setups that match typical configurations of my customer’s machines.
This allows me to test my software before deployment and make sure everything works as expected. It saved me many times from strange bugs and I would consider these final tests to be a mandatory step before deployment.
My old trusty vaio would be hard pressed to run any of these without slowing down to a crawl.

I looked at some possible replacements. Initially I checked Lenovo’s offerings but they don’t seem to offer anything in large screen size (WUXGA 1920×1200) (Note, actually, they have, but not really for me).
Dito for Dell, not counting their humongous XPS M1730 luggable gaming machine that was wayyy over the top as a work computer, not to mention probably heavier than its volume in pure gold.

On a hint from a friend I checked out Apple’s online store and saw they had a nice Macbook Pro configuration. I went to check it out in the retail store close to my office and they had that exact specification in stock, so, in what must have been the highest rated expense/time-to-think ratio of any decision I ever took, well, I bought it…

The spec, some bragging rights:

  • Macbook Pro 17″
  • Core Duo T9500 2.6GHz processor
  • nVidia 8600M GT 512MB graphics card
  • 200GB 7200rpm drive
  • Kingston 4GB DDR2 667MHz RAM
  • Hi Resolution 17″ 1920×1200 glossy screen

It’s a very nice machine, Apple knows how to make nice hardware, there is no question there.
OSX has some cool features, some of them still a bit foreign to me and some minor annoyances are creeping up, like Thunderbird’s not picking up my system date and time settings and displaying the date in the wrong format (a pet peeve of me), probably not Apple’s fault but annoying nonetheless.
So far so good and while I don’t mind using OSX for my browsing, email and creative stuff, that machine is meant to be running Windows Server 2008 x64 as a development platform.

Why Windows Server 2008 x64?

Well, it has some excellent features, a smaller footprint than Vista, all the aero eye candy, is apparently noticeably faster than Vista and has none of the nagging security prompt (you are considered administrator though, so keeping safe is entirely up to you).
The 64 bit version can also address the full 4GB of RAM without limitation and all server features are optionally installable.
By default, the installation is actually pretty minimal and you have to set services and options to get Windows configured as a proper workstation. It is after all, meant to be a server.
Oh, I almost forgot that there is also support for HyperV, although you must make sure you download the right version (if you list all available downloads in your MSDN subscription, you’ll see some that are explicitly without that technology).

Installing Windows Server 2008 x64 is remarkably easy.

  • Get your hands on the ISO from your MSDN subscription or an install DVD from somewhere else (like a MS event, or even as a free 240 days download from Microsoft).
  • You’ll need to repackage the ISO as it won’t work properly (something to do with non-standard file naming options).
    It’s fairly easy if you follow the instructions from Jowie’s website (cached version): you can get the ImgBurn software for free as well, which is a good find in itself. It should’t take more than 30 minutes to repackage the DVD.
  • In OSX, go to Applications > Utilities > Boot camp and follow the instructions on screen.
    You will be able to resize the default partition by just moving the slider. I left 60GB for OSX and allocated the rest to Windows. The good thing is that OSX can read Windows partitions, so you can always store data there. Windows however, can’t read the HFS+ mac file system, although there are some third-party tools that can do it [1] [2] [3].
  • Insert your repackaged DVD and Bootcamp will have rebooted the machine.
    After a few minutes of blank screen (and no HDD activity light to let you know something is happening), windows setup launches.
  • You will be then prompted with the choice of partition to install to.
    Select the one named BOOTCAMP, then click the advanced options button and click format. From there one, windows will install everything, then reboot, then carry on installing, then reboot one last time.
  • Now, insert your OSX recovery CD 1. It should automatically launch the driver installation.
    Once done, you’ll reboot to a nice, full-resolution windows prompt.
  • All drivers will have been installed correctly except the one for Bluetooth. To easily solve that issue, just go to Spencer Harbar’s website and read how to install the Bluetooth drivers. Takes 5 minutes tops.

The final touches

A few notes to quickly get things running as expected.

  • Get the most of your configuration by following the list of tweaks from Vijayshinva Karnure from Microsoft India.
  • There are more tweaks, and even more tweaks available as well (don’t forget to enable Superfetch).
  • Microsoft has a whole KB entry on enabling user experience.
  • In the Control Panel > System > Advanced System Settings > Advanced > Settings > Advanced > Processor scheduling, set to Programs instead of Background services.
  • Activate your copy of Windows using Control Panel > System.
    I was getting an error code 0x8007232B DNS name does not exist error. To force activation, just click on the Change Product Key button and re-enter the same key you used during install.
    Windows will activate straight away.
  • When booting your Macbook, press the Option key and you will be presented a list of boot choices.
  • You can check on Apple’s Bootcamp webpage other information about how to use the track pad, keyboard layouts etc,

References

22 comments   |   Filed under :  MSAccess,Programming,Software,sysadmin

Friday, July 18, 2008

Linux: AutoCAD DWG to SVG preview conversion.

Linux Years ago I did a small utility to convert DWG or DXF files into a vector-graphic, zoomable, SVG preview. The Linux command-line utility was used in a larger drawing management application that I had built before I left that company for greener pastures.

The Linux server-based application would scan the vast (100,000s of CAD drawings) and, depending on their format, attempt to create thumbnails and extract textual information from them and populate a database so we could easily find related drawings through a simple web-interface.

CAD File The software would present thumbnails of the drawings; when the drawing was in DWG or DXF format, the thumbnail would be an SVG vector representation of the original drawing instead of an image. That made the preview much more useful as you could zoom in and still retain enough detail to ascertain if the drawings was actually what you were looking for.

Other file formats (TIFF, HPGL plots, etc) were transformed into PNG image previews that were saved into 2 size: a small thumbnail, good enough to be displayed in a list, and a larger one that would show more details.

The server software was written in Perl, with some of the converters in C. Every night, the server would go through the whole tree of drawings on the filesystem, looking for drawings it hadn’t seen before and it would pass them to the appropriate plug-in for extracting text -where possible- and create thumbnails.

Memories of fun projects…

Download links:

4 comments   |   Filed under :  Linux,Programming

Friday, June 20, 2008

MS Access: checking network paths without freezing your application

Microsoft Access Access programming is inherently single-threaded. That’s usually OK as most operations are sequential anyway and it keeps things simple at the programming level.
There are times though where the lack of ability to run code on another thread is sorely missing: anything that takes a long time to run will just freeze the application, making it unresponsive and appearing to be locked and about to crash to the user.

Checking for the existence of network paths

Checking for the existence of network paths (directories or files) is one of these issues that can freeze an application for 30 seconds or more if the folder is not accessible.

This is a type of problem that benefits greatly from running in a separate thread: it can take such a long time that the best way to check for these remote paths is to launch the verification for their existence outside of Access and somehow get the result back and cache it for the current session so we don’t have to suffer these delays again every time we check for that path’s existence.

One easy way to do achieve that goal is to create plain DOS batch files that execute hidden from view, create a result file when they complete their task and delete themselves automatically when they are finished.

How to use it

Download the sample database below then just add the FileUtilities, HashTable and MD5 modules to your project and you can use the code as such:

Dim status As AsyncDirectoryStatus
status = FileUtilities.PathExistAsync("\\123.45.67.89\shared folder")

The status variable will return either of the following values:

  • AsyncDirectoryStatus.OK if the path was found.
  • AsyncDirectoryStatus.NotFound if the path was not found (either because it doesn’t exist or you don’t have the rights to access it).
  • AsyncDirectoryStatus.Checking if the verification is in progress and we haven’t received a definite answer yet.
    It’s up to you to decide how you want to handle that case. You could periodically check it, like I did in the example database, or you could disable the controls until you’re getting a confirmed result (by checking every time the user performs some action, like moving from record to record in a datasheet for instance).

You can call PathExistAsync as often as you want to check the status: it will not slow down your application (read the optional arguments section below though).
The result of the verification is cached, so querying the existence of the path is actually only done once; the result of subsequent queries for the same path is just instantly retrieved from memory.

Optional arguments

If you want to force the actual re-checking of a path without using the cached value, you can simply pass the ForceCheck optional parameter:

Dim status As AsyncDirectoryStatus
status = FileUtilities.PathExistAsync("\\123.45.67.89\shared folder", ForceCheck:=true)

The first time you query for a path (or force it to be rechecked) there will be a short 150ms delay to give a chance to the function to return its result straight away (in case the path can be resolved quickly).
This may not be desirable if you’re checking a bunch of directories at a time. For instance, this is what I do when my application launches:

' Check a bunch of paths in parallel
PathExistAsync strPathToQualityDocuments, NoDelay:=true
PathExistAsync strPathToFinancialDocuments, NoDelay:=true
PathExistAsync strPathToShippingDocuments, NoDelay:=true
PathExistAsync strPathToPurchasingDocuments, NoDelay:=true

By querying the existence of all these paths as soon as my application launches, I am starting the verification process without introducing delays in the application itself: each verification will start in its own process, in parallel to the main application.
Later in the application, when I need to actually use these paths, their result is likely to be known.

How it works

The FileUtilities module contains the main code.
In it, the PathExistAsync function works in slightly different ways depending on whether it’s the first time it is being called for a particular path or not.

The first time
The first time the function is called for a given path, we create in the user’s temporary folder the small batch file whose name is simply a MD5 hash (see below) of the path with .bat appended to it.
This batch file simply checks for the existence of the path and will create a small file (whose name is the MD5 hash of the path) with either 0 or 1 in it depending on the result of the verification.
We initially cache the status of the verification for the Path into the AsyncDirectories hashtable (see below) as Checking.

Example of batch file automatically created to verify a path:

IF NOT EXIST "\\123.56.78.9\going nowhere" GOTO NOTEXIST
echo 1 > "C:\DOCUME~1\Renaud\LOCALS~1\Temp\463C7367D8329BD6209A65A70A7DA08C"
GOTO END
:NOTEXIST
echo 0 > "C:\DOCUME~1\Renaud\LOCALS~1\Temp\463C7367D8329BD6209A65A70A7DA08C"
:END
DEL %0

The Batch file name is 463C7367D8329BD6209A65A70A7DA08C.bat where the long number is actually the MD5 hash of the path we’re checking \\123.56.78.9\going nowhere.

Getting back the result
Whenever the PathExistAsync function is called, we check the currently cached result from the AsyncDirectories hastable.
If it is still Checking then we try to verify if we the result file has been created from the running batch. If not, we just return the same status, if yes, we read the result from the file, save it in the hashtable and delete the result file.

Useful libraries

The code makes use of 2 extremely useful libraries that I end up using quite often:

  • a HashTable implementation.
    It makes it easy to create hashtable objects (otherwise known as Associative Arrays) to store and retrieve key/value pairs quickly.
    Hashtables are often used to cache data and can be thought of arrays where the index is a string value instead of an number.
    Here I use a hashtable to keep track of the paths we’ve checked and their result.

  • a MD5 hash implementation.
    MD5 is a way to get a somewhat unique fixed-length value from a chunk of data.
    It’s a mathematical function that guarantees that a small change in input (say a single bit in the input data) has a large effect on the output value (a totally different number will be generated) and that you can’t reverse the function (you can’t obtain the input just by looking at the output).
    It is often used in applications to transform sensitive data like passwords into unique values that can be (somewhat) safely stored because you can’t easily reverse a md5.
    Well, MD5 are not secure any longer but here we just use their ability to transform our path into a unique number that we can easily use as a filename and a key for our hash to retrieve the current status of the path being checked.

Sample database

DownloadDownload the PathExistAsync01.zip (67KB) containing the Access 2007 ACCDB database.

DownloadDownload the PathExistAsync02b.zip (121KB) containing the MDB database1 (untested as I only have Access 2007).

Test Database

License

Please refer to the source code in the database for the exact licensing terms.
Note that the license only refers to code by me. When code from other sources is used, you will have to conform to their own licensing terms.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

References


  1. A specific version for Access 2000 now included in the archive (updated 25JUL2008). 

7 comments   |   Filed under :  Database,MSAccess,Programming

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Linux sysadmin: a short RAID trouble-shooting story

Linux I recently had an issue at a remote location (12000km away) where the old multi-purpose Linux server that had been working for the past 5 years wouldn’t boot again after a nasty power failure.
The server was used as a firewall, a local email store, a file server and a backup server, so its failure is a big deal for the small business that was using it.

RAID explained
RAID configurations explained
You can’t always have complete redundancy, so some amount of bad crash is to be expected over the years. Fortunately, I always construct my servers around a simple software RAID1 array and that leaves some hope for recovery.
In this instance, the server would start and then miserably fail in a fashion that would suggest a hardware failure of some sort. Not being able to be physically present and having no dedicated system admin on location, I directed the most knowledgeable person there to use a spare internet router to recover Internet connectivity and connect one of the disk to another Linux server (their fax server) through a USB external drive.

Doing this, I was able to remotely connect to the working server and access the disk, mount it and access the data.

Salvaging the data

Once one of the RAID1 drives was placed into the USB enclosure and connected to the other available Linux box it was easy to just remount the drives:

fdisk will tell us which partitions are interesting, assuming that /dev/sdc is our usb harddrive:

[root@fax ~]# fdisk -l /dev/sdc

Disk /dev/sdc: 81.9 GB, 81964302336 bytes
16 heads, 63 sectors/track, 158816 cylinders
Units = cylinders of 1008 * 512 = 516096 bytes  

Device      Boot    Start         End      Blocks   Id  System
/dev/sdc1   *           1         207      104296+  fd  Linux raid autodetect
/dev/sdc2             208       20526    10240776   fd  Linux raid autodetect
/dev/sdc3           20527       22615     1052856   fd  Linux raid autodetect
/dev/sdc4           22616      158816    68645304    f  W95 Ext'd (LBA)
/dev/sdc5           22616      158816    68645272+  fd  Linux raid autodetect

We can’t simply mount the partitions, they need to be assembled into a RAID partition first:

[root@fax ~]# mdadm --assemble /dev/md6 /dev/sdc1 --run
mdadm: /dev/md6 has been started with 1 drive (out of 2).

The --run argument forces the RAID partition to be assembled, otherwise, mdadm will complain that there is only a single drive available instead of the 2 -or more- it would expect.

Now simply mount the assembled partition to make it accessible in /mnt for instance:

[root@fax ~]# mount /dev/md6 /mnt

We can now salvage our data by repeating this process for every partition.
Using RAID1 means you have at least 2 disks to choose from, so if one is damaged beyond repair, you may be lucky and the mirror one on the other drive should work.

If the drives are not physically damaged but they won’t boot, you can always use a pair (or more) of USB HDD enclosures and reconstruct the RAID arrays manually from another Linux box.

Planning for disasters

The lesson here is about planning: you can’t foresee every possible event and have contingencies for each one of them, either because of complexity or cost, but you can easily make your life much easier by planning ahead a little bit.

Most small businesses cannot afford dedicated IT staff, so they will usually end-up having the least IT-phobic person become their ‘system administrator’.
It’s your job as a consultant/technical support to ensure that they have the minimum tools at hand to perform emergency recovery, especially if you cannot intervene yourself quickly.

On-Site emergency tools

In every small business spare parts closet there should be at least:

  • Whenever possible, a spare Linux box, even if it’s just using older salvaged components (like a decommissioned PC). Just have a generic Linux install on it and make sure it is configured so it can be plugged in and accessed from the network.
  • a spare US$50 router, preferably pre-configured to be a temporary drop-in replacement for the existing router/firewall. Ideally, configure it to forward port 22 (SSH) to the spare Linux box so you can easily access the spare box from outside.
  • USB external hard-drive enclosure.
  • a spare PC power supply.
  • some network cables, a couple of screwdrivers.

There are many more tools, such as rescue-CDs (like bootable Linux distributions), spare HDD, etc that can be kept but you have to remember that your point of contact need to be able to be your eyes and hands, so the amount of tools you provide should match their technical abilities.
Don’t forget to clearly label confusing things like network ports (LAN, WAN) on routers, cables and PCs.

The point is that if you can’t be on site within a short period of time, then having these cheap tools and accessories already on site mean that your customers can quickly recover just by following your instructions on the phone.
Once everything is plugged-in, you should be able to remotely carry-out most repairs.

Resources

5 comments   |   Filed under :  Linux,sysadmin

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

MS Access: Enhanced Message Box Replacement

Microsoft Access This project provides a custom and enhanced message box replacement for the default MsgBoxfound in Access. A Test database containing all the code for Access 2007/2010/2013 is available at the bottom of this post.
(UPDATED Saturday 21OCT2014 to VERSION 1.10.)

What’s wrong with the default MsgBox

The default message box in Access is sometimes useful to warn, inform or ask confirmation from the user.

Standard MsgBox

It has, however, a few drawbacks:

  • It is bland: the standard message box does not even follow the currently selected Office colour scheme.
  • The amount of text it can display is limited: if you try to display too much text it will be truncated.
  • You can’t copy or save the content of the message.
  • Because popup boxes are viewed as intrusive, people tend not to read them and end-up closing message boxes before they realize they may have contained useful information.
  • They only displays plain text: you cannot format the message to draw attention to the key points.
  • They are blocking, meaning that nothing can happen in the main application while the box is displayed (it can’t even shut down).
  • It will only appear on the monitor that has the main Access application window, even though the message box may have been opened from a form on another monitor.

Sometimes you need to display an important message or require users to make take a decision.
Message boxes are not to be abused but they serve a useful purpose.

An enhanced message box

Rather than using the bland standard message box you can now have something a bit more customized.

Plain Text version of the enhanced custom message box under the Office Blue Colour Scheme:

Plaintex Enhanced Message Box

RichText version of the enhanced custom message box under the Office Black Colour Scheme:

RichText Enhanced Message Box

Here are the features of the enhanced message box:

  • It is entirely compatible with the standard one: just change MsgBox to Box using find and replace should be enough (see tip below to avoid getting strange errors).
  • It allows the user to simply click on a button to copy the content of the message to the clipboard or save it to a text file to a configurable default location.
  • It looks and feels like it belongs to the main application, following its colour scheme.
  • It attempts to prevent users from blindly closing the modal box reading the message: buttons will first be inactive for a configurable amount of time. It’s not a perfect solution, but it is quite effective.
  • There is a RichBox version that can display rich HTML content, not just plain text, so important parts of the message can be formatted in a useful way.
  • It is able to display large amount of data. While it’s not something you usually want, it may be useful for the message box to display more text in some situations (log or tracing information, legal documentation, etc).
  • Rather than sprinkling your code with “& vbCrLf & _” uglies, you can embed newlines in the text itself by using C-style “\n” escape sequences that will automatically be transformed into the appropriate newlines. Makes for clearer code and less typing.
  • Because you get the source, you can easily customise the message box with new icons and colours to better match your overall application’s personality.
  • It is non-blocking: if your application forces users to log-off after a certain amount of inactivity, the enhanced message box will just close rather than prevent Access from shutting down like the standard MsgBox does. Of course, it’s up to you to decide how to handle that gracefully, if at all.
  • It properly displays the expected button captions based on the language of the operating system, so it behaves very much like the default MsgBox (for instance, it will properly display “Cancel” on English systems and “Annuler” on French ones).
  • It also properly plays the system sounds associated with the type of message. You can also enable or disable the sound effect as needed.
  • From of version 1.4, it will display on the correct monitor in a multi-monitor environment.
  • Version 1.7 adds support for Unicode escape sequences within strings to display Unicode characters in the dialog box. This was added following the publication of this article about .Net Strings in VBA.
  • Version 1.10 adds a feature that allows users to dismiss a particular message so it doesn’t appear again.

How to use it

Download the demo database below and copy (drag & drop) the following into your application:

  • the FormDialog form,
  • the Dialog module.

If you rename the FormDialog, make sure you replace any occurrence to it in the code, in particular in the Dialog module.

Since the enhanced message box is just a replacement for the standard one, you just use it like you would use the MsgBox.

    '-----------------------------------------------------------------------------
    ' Simple use of the Plaintext box
    ' Note the use of n that will be converted into a newline
    Dialog.Box "This is a plaintext message.\nClick OK to dismiss",
               vbOKOnly + vbinformation, _
               "Message Title"

    '-----------------------------------------------------------------------------
    ' Getting the result back
    Dim dr As vbMsgBoxresult
    dr = Dialog.Box("Are you sure you want to delete?", _
                    vbYesNoCancel + vbQuestion, "Confirm action")
    If (dr = vbYes) Then DeleteRecords

    '-----------------------------------------------------------------------------
    ' Using named parameters
    Dialog.Box Prompt:="All your bases are belong to us", _
               Buttons:=(vbOkOnly + vbCritical), _
               Title:="Bad error"

    '-----------------------------------------------------------------------------
    ' Using the RichBox to display simple HTML
    ' The first line will be bold, then the word 'button' will be printed in red
    ' Here the \n will be escaped to '<br/>' tags to simulate newlines.
    Dialog.RichBox "<strong>This is a bold message</strong>.\n" & _
                   "Click the <font color=""#FF0000"">button</font> to dismiss.", 
                   vbOKOnly + vbInformation, _
                   "RichText Message Title"

Options

There are a few additional settings that can be used to change the behaviour of the enhanced message boxes.

Custom buttons

You can customise the button labels instead of using the default ones (thanks to Kristjan for the suggestion):

Screenshot of dialog box with custom button labels

    '-----------------------------------------------------------------------------
    ' Use custom labels. Buttons that are not labelled will not be displayed
    ' The returned value is either vbBt1, vbBt2 or vbBt3
    Dim dr As vbMsgBoxresultEx
    dr = Dialog.Box (Prompt:="This is a custom button label test.", 
                     Buttons:=vbCustom + vbInformation, _
                     Title:="A custom message", _
                     LabelButton1:="Hit Button 1!", _
                     LabelButton2:="No!, Me! Me!", _
                     LabelButton3:="Forget it!")

    If (dr = vbBt1) Then Debug.Print "Button 1 pressed!"
    ElseIf (dr = vbBt2) Then Debug.Print "Button 2 pressed!"
    ElseIf (dr = vbBt3) Then Debug.Print "Button 3 pressed!"

Button delay

One is that you can adjust the delay before the buttons become activated.

    '-----------------------------------------------------------------------------
    ' Use the ButtonDelay to specify the time in seconds before the buttons become activated
    ' The default is 2s. Use 0 to activate the buttons immediately.
    Dialog.Box Prompt:="All your bases are belong to us", _
               Buttons:=(vbOkOnly + vbCritical), _
               Title:="Bad error", _
               ButtonDelay:=1    

    '-----------------------------------------------------------------------------
    ' Change the default delay value.
    ' To disable the activation delay
    Dialog.DefaultButtonDelay = 0    
    ' To make the user wait 3 seconds before they can press any button
    Dialog.DefaultButtonDelay = 3

Beep

Another one is that you can enable or disable whether beeps should be played or not.

    '-----------------------------------------------------------------------------
    ' Use AllowBeep to specify whether beeps should be played when the message box opens
    ' By default, they are.
    Dialog.Box Prompt:="All your bases are belong to us", _
               Buttons:=(vbOkOnly + vbCritical), _
               Title:="Bad error", _
               AllowBeep:=False    

    '-----------------------------------------------------------------------------
    ' Change the default behaviour. This is True by default.
    Dialog.DefaultAllowBeep = False

Hide Buttons

You can also hide the Copy to clipboard and save to File buttons which are normally visible by default.

    '-----------------------------------------------------------------------------
    ' Use AllowCopyToClipboard and AllowSaveToFile to specify whether to display 
    ' the copy to clipboard and save to file buttons. 
    ' By default, they are visible, but here we hide them.
    Dialog.Box Prompt:="All your bases are belong to us", _
               Buttons:=(vbOkOnly + vbCritical), _
               Title:="Bad error", _
               AllowCopyToClipboard:=False, _
               AllowSaveToFile:=False

    '-----------------------------------------------------------------------------
    ' Change the default behaviour. This is True by default.
    Dialog.DefaultCopyToClipboardAllowed = False
    Dialog.DefaultSaveToFileAllowed = False

Save Folder

It is recommended to set the the folder where we should save the content of the message when the user clicks the Save button on the message box.

    '-----------------------------------------------------------------------------
    ' Change the save folder.
    ' By default, the text messages will be saved in the same directory as the database.
    ' Here we want them to be saved to a temp directory
    Dialog.DefaultSavedTextFileFolder = "C\:temp"

These few settings make the enhanced message box more customizable.

Raw text and paths

By default, the enhanced dialog box will escape certain sequences in the message to convert them to their printable version:

  • Escape sequences like \n and \t are converted to newlines and tabs spaces
  • Unicode sequences are converted to their symbol: \u20ac is converted to the euro symbol .

If you do not want this behaviour (for instance you need to display data that contains lots of \ characters), use the NoStrEsc option:

    '-----------------------------------------------------------------------------
    ' By default, all messages are unescaped.
    ' Here however, we want to disable that so we can display 
    Dialog.Box Prompt:="A path c:\my\doc\file.doc", _
               NoStrEsc:=True    

    '-----------------------------------------------------------------------------
    ' Change the default behaviour. This is False by default.
    Dialog.DefaultNoStrEsc = True

Alternatively, you can use the helper function dialog.EscBackslash():

    '-----------------------------------------------------------------------------
    ' Use EscBackslash() when you only want some portion of text
    ' to display '\' correctly, like paths.
    ' Here however, we want to disable that so we can display 
    Dialog.Box Prompt:="A path " & EscBackslash("c:\my\doc\file.doc")

Don’t display this message again

Based on suggestions (and on a feature I wanted to implement for a while), I added a way to allow the user to choose not to display a particular message again.

Note that this feature will only work for dialog boxes displaying a single vbOKOnly button. It makes some sense since if you ask the user to choose between multiple actions, you can’t really expect their choice to be the same every time the message is displayed.

To make the dialog box dismissable, you only need to provide it with a unique ID for the message, using the DismissID option:

    '-----------------------------------------------------------------------------
    ' Use DismissID to allow the user to never show the message again.
    Dialog.Box Prompt:="An annoying warning message", _
               Buttons:= vbOKOnly + vbExclamation
               DismissID:="1234ABC"

sshot-309

The user can then tick the box and this particular message will never be shown again (unless we reset the setting for it).

To ensure that the user’s choice is remembered even if the Access application is updated, the message’s DismissID is stored in the registry under:
HKCU\Software\VB and VBA Program Settings\<AppFileName>\DialogBox, where <AppFileName> is simply the name of your Access file (without the path).

You can easily re-enable a particular message or all messages from your code:

    '-----------------------------------------------------------------------------
    ' Re-enable the display of a previously dismissed message:
    Dialog.ResetDismissID "1234ABC"

    '-----------------------------------------------------------------------------
    ' Re-enable the display of all messages:
    Dialog.ResetAllDismissID

Large text

The standard MsgBox cannot display much text. On the other hand, there is no real limitation to the amount of text the Box and RichBox can display.
When the amount of information is too much to fit the maximum allowed size for the message box the text will overflow and can be scrolled up/down as necessary.

Limitations of the RichBox

The RichBox version relies on the normal TextBox control’s ability under Access 2007 to display RichText wich is nothing more than lightweight HTML.
Because font size may be varying a lot in the message, it becomes very difficult to accurately predict the size of the box needed to display the whole message.
Short of implementing a complete HTML engine, we have to rely on some assumptions to display HTML.
The risk is that sometimes the content may not properly fit the TextBox control in some circumstances.
If you use the RichBox, thoroughly try displaying your messages and tweak the HTML as necessary to include additional lines or non-breaking spaces to ensure that the result looks good.
If you don’t overuse font size and don’t display in multiple fonts the RichBox should do the right thing most of the time.
Don’t overuse the RichBox to display colourful messages. There is a fine line between being informative and tasteless. Keep colours and formatting where it is useful.
I think that in most cases, the plain text version Box is more than enough.

How it works

The code makes extensive use of Win32 API calls.
Most of the hard work is done in the FomDialog class form. There is too much there to really go into the details but you are welcome to have a look at the commented code.
The code relies also on a utility function from Stephen Lebans used to calculate the size of of text. I have made some minor modification to that code so I would refer you to his original implementation if you are interested in calculating TextBox sizes for forms or reports.

In the code for the FormDialog, I re-implement some of the expected functionalities of the MsgBox: proper arrangement of the buttons, displaying of the appropriate icon, etc.
Once this is done, we calculate the size of the textbox needed to display the whole of the message.
In the case of RichText, we first use Application.PlainText() to convert the HTML into properly formatted plain text. We then calculate the Textbox size using a slightly larger font than needed as a way to ensure that the content of the RichText message will fit the box in most cases.
Once we know the size of the TextBox, we can easily resize the form to properly display the TextBox.
If there is too much text, we resize the form to its maximum permissible (70% of screen width and 90% of screen height) and change some of the visual cues to let the user know the text is overflowing.

One thing of note is the way the form is kept modal.
Rather than using DoCmd.OpenForm and DoCmd.Close I use the form as a class and create an instance manually (see the code in Dialog.Box and Dialog.Richbox). I keep this instance alive until I got the form’s result back.
If you are interested in knowing how the form is made modal, this is the code in FormDialog.ShowModal() what keeps the form open until the user clicks a button:

    Public Function ShowModal() As VbMsgBoxResult
       ...
        ' Here we reset the result for the clicked button such as vbOK, vbYes, etc
        ' This is set in each Button's Click event
        m_Result = -1
        ' Wait for the user to click a button
        Do While (m_Result = -1)
            DoEvents
            Sleep 50
        Loop
        ShowModal = m_Result
    End Function

The Sleep() function is a Win32 API that stops the current process for the given number of milliseconds. This in effects hands back the control to the Operating System for a short time. That way the system is still responsive and does not consume resources when it’s just waiting for user input.

Replacing MsgBox in existing code

As I said above, replacing the standard MsgBox is easy but you need to make sure your search and replace parameters are configured correctly:

Search and replace options

If you’re getting strange compile errors, it may be because you forgot to tick the Find Whole Word Only and some of the strings containing the letter sequence “msgbox” were replaced in the process.

If that’s the case, you can revert the damage by simply doing a search and replace across the whole project on:
VbboxStyle or VbDialog.BoxStyle to be replaced with VbMsgBoxStyle
VbboxResult or VbDialog.BoxResultto be replaced with VbMsgBoxResult

Upgrading from an older version

If you are already using the enhanced DialogBox, upgrading to the newest version is simple.

In your Access application:

  • delete the FormDialog form,
  • delete the Dialog module.
  • delete the API_GetTextMetrics module if you have it (used in versions before 1.5)

Download the new version of the demo database below and open it.

  • drag and drop the `FormDialog to your application
  • drag and drop the Dialog module to your application

That’s all you need to do.

Code and demo database

You can download a database containing all the necessary code as well as a number of tests.
This version contains the database in Microsoft Access accdb format (the code relies on features that don’t exist in pre-2007 versions of Access).

sshot-310

Download Download the EnhancedMsgBoxv1.10.zip (177KB), version 1.10 – 21OCT2014 containing the ACCDB database.

Code Updates

v1.10: 21OCT2014
Corrected minor bugs and added new features:

  • Added dialog.EscPath() to escape paths in your message and display them correctly, as suggested by Mark Singer in comment 115.
  • Added option NoStrEsc to display raw text when you don’t want escape and unicode sequences like ‘\n’ and ‘\u20ac’ to be converted at all in your whole message.
  • Modified the code for FileExists() to avoid the issue raised by Matthias Kläy in comment 116
  • Added option DismissID to allow the user to choose to prevent a message from displaying again (suggested by David Dewick in comment 110).

v1.9: 03FEB2014
Corrected some bugs and added some options:

  • Corrected bugs that would throw exceptions when a message would contain some file path whose ‘\’ would be wrongly interpreted as an escape sequence.
  • Added options to show the buttons for copying the message to the clipboard or saving it to file.

v1.8: 28SEP2013
Resolved some Unicode-related bugs:

  • Corrected bugs that would truncate the strings in the dialog box when they contain some Unicode characters.
  • Corrected bug with copy-to-clipboard that was not copying Unicode text.
  • Corrected bug with copy-to-file that was not saving Unicode text properly.

v1.7: 13SEP2013
Added support for character literals in strings and Unicode escape sequences as supported in .Net strings.
See using .Net strings in VBA for fun an profit for details.

v1.6: 29JUN2013
Corrected issues pointed out by Joseph Strickland (thanks) when running under Office 2010 x64.
Code updated and tested under a Virtual Machine running Win8 x64 and Office 2010 x64.

v1.5: 23JUN2013
Many thanks to contributors Steve Spiller, Jiriki and Kytu for improving and pointing out issues. See details below.

  • Moved the code from the API_GetTextMetrics module into the FormDialog class to reduce the number of necessary files (now only FormDialog and Dialog objects are necessary).
  • Corrected bugs on the test form (button delay and beep options on the form were not wired up correctly in the test form)
  • RichBox was not initialising its buttonDelay correctly, resulting in the first call to use a 0 delay instead of the DefaultButtonDelay value.
  • Corrected bug reported by Jiriki on 06JUN2013 (when the ButtonDelay was set to 0, the dialog would just close the first time the dialog was opened).
  • Focus issues should be solved: the buttons are now properly focused and will behave as the standard dialog box (you can hit ENTER or ESC on the keyboard once the buttons are visible to confirm the default dialog action or cancel it).
  • Addressed parent form focus issue mentioned by KyTu on 19JUN2013: when closing the dialog, the parent form will be properly focused instead of the Navigation Panel.
  • Now supports both x86 and x64 Office systems (32 and 64 bits versions of MSAccess). Many thanks to Steve Spiller for sending me the updated database.

v1.4: 01APR2013
It’s been a while, but at last some improvements and bug fixes!

  • As per Julie B’s comment, updated code to properly display the dialog on the proper monitor in multi-monitor environments.
    The dialog box will open in front of the Access window that currently has focus (assumed to be the one that opened the dialog), so if your application has forms on different monitors, the dialog should open on the right one. If we can’t determine the active window, the dialog box will open in the middle of the monitor containing the main Access application window.
  • Implemented Kristjan’s suggestion regarding the use of custom button labels. See updated description above.
  • Corrected background colours for the dialog box so they correctly match the MS Office theme.
  • Corrected a bug in the code that decided of the correct sound to play.

v1.3: 17MAR2009
Thanks to Henry of Access-Pro.de for proposing a correction to the default buttons behaviour.

  • Updated behaviour for the default buttons. They are now focused in a way that matches that of the standard msgbox.
  • Reversed the naming of the buttons on the form to make it a bit more consistent with the standard box.

v1.2: 07SEP2008
Thanks to Andy Colonna (http://www.pcesoft.com) for uncovering the following bugs (check out his free Spell Checker with source code!):

  • Corrected bug in Form_FormDialog.FilenameSanitize() function that would fail to remove all invalid characters for a file name.
  • File name for the saved text message will be truncated to first 32 characters of message box title in Form_FormDialog.MakeFriendlyFileName().
  • Changed the use of FollowHyperlink to ShellExecute to avoid security warning in some instances in Form_FormDialog.btCopyToFile_Click()
  • Corrected twips to pixel conversion bug in API_GetTextMetrics.fTextWidthOrHeight() that would result in an improperly sized dialog box when the text message was too wide.

v1.1: 08AUG2008

  • Corrected code for DefaultButtonDelay (thanks to Geoffrey) (was referencing wrong variable, causing self-referencing code).
  • Corrected code for Box and RichBox to take the DefaultSavedTextFileFolder into account (the path was previously not passed onto the dialog boxes and the text file would always be created in the application folder instead of the one specified by DefaultSavedTextFileFolder)
  • Added license notice at top of source code.

v1.0: 20MAY2008

  • Original version

Resources

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.
Free for re-use in any application or tutorial providing clear credit is made about the origin of the code and a link to this site is prominently displayed where end-users can easily access it.

161 comments   |   Filed under :  .Net,Business,Database,MSAccess,Programming

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

MS Access: Restarting and compacting the database programmatically

Microsoft Access In my previous article about changing the MS Access colour scheme I had the need to allow the user to restart the database after the colour scheme was changed.
(Article and Code Updated 13FEB2009.)

Being able to cleanly restart and compact the application is also useful in other instances:

  • Changes made to the environment
  • Recovering from errors (for instance after a network disconnection)
  • Forcing the user to re-log cleanly into the application
  • Automatically restarting a long-running application (for instance so that it may automatically compact on close and restart afresh with or without user intervention).

The problem is that you cannot -to the best of my knowledge- close and open again the same database from within MS Access itself.
Most executables cannot do that and the way to solve the issue is usually to pass the control to another boostrap programme, close the main application and let the bootstrap programme re-open the main application again.
I wanted a simple and clean way of using it. One that would not require shipping external dependencies.

How to use it

Download the sample database below, copy the Utilities module or just the Restart sub defined in it into your own application.

To use it, just call the Restart sub and the application will close and re-open.
If you supply the optional Compact:=true parameter, the database will also be compacted during the restart process.
This will work for normal databases (mdb/accdb) and also compiled (mde/accde) and runtime (accdr) databases as well.

Important note

If you want to use this code do not enable the Compact on Close option in Access for your database as the code doesn’t pick that up yet.
Instead, you can either simply call restart Compact:=true on user action (for instance from a menu) or on other triggers, for instance when the database is being open and hasn’t been compacted for more than a week.

How it works

If you’re curious about the technical details, here is how it was put together.
The main idea is that the MS Access database application has to be self-sufficient and restart itself by performing these steps:

  • create a small batch file
  • run the batch file, passing the path and extension of our database
  • close the main application
  • the running batch file would wait for the MS Access lock file to be removed
  • once the lock file disappears, we open the database after compacting it if required.

The key point here is that the batch file cannot just reopen the database right away: if the application is big or if it’s compacting on close for instance, it may take several seconds to actually close.
The only moment we can be pretty sure that the database is effectively closed is when the lock file is deleted by MS Access.

The batch file is hard-wired in the Restart sub that does all the work:

SETLOCAL ENABLEDELAYEDEXPANSION
SET /a counter=0
:CHECKLOCKFILE
ping 0.0.0.255 -n 1 -w 100 > nul
SET /a counter+=1
IF "!counter!"=="60" GOTO CLEANUP
IF EXIST "%~f2.%4" GOTO CHECKLOCKFILE
"%~f1" "%~f2.%3" /compact
start " " "%~f2.%3"
:CLEANUP
del %0

When the application runs the batch file, it passes 4 arguments:

  • the full path to the MSAccess.exe executable (used for compacting the database)
  • the full path to the database without the extension
  • the database file extension without the leading “.”
  • the appropriate database lock file extension (laccdb or ldb).

This allows us to easily construct the path to either the database or the lock file at line 07 and 09.
Line 08 is actually only inserted if we need to compact the database: it simply launches MSAccess.exe with the /compact command line switch.

The funny use of PING is actually a simple way to wait for some time before we check if the lock file is still there or not. There is no SLEEP or WAIT function provided by default in Windows so we have to be a bit creative and use the time-out option of the PING command trying to ping an nonexistent, but valid, IP address.
Once the lock file has disappeared, we open the database at line 09 and then delete the batch file itself so we leave no leftovers.

The other thing of note is that we now use a counter to keep track of the number of times we checked the existence of the lock file.
Once this counter reaches a pre-determined amount (60 by default, ~ 45 seconds) we consider that there is a problem and the database application didn’t close, so we just exit and delete the batch file.

DownloadDownload the DatabaseRestart.zip (48KB) containing both an Access 2007 ACCDB and Access 2000 MDB test databases.

Other implementations

Code Updates

v1.2: 13FEB2009

  • Added optional parameter to compact the database during restart.

v1.1: 09AUG2008

  • Now a separate test database (used to be bundled with the Colour Scheme sample).
  • Added support for older Access versions (an Access2000 MDB is now included).
  • Corrected wrong lock file extension for accd* files.
  • Added a time-out feature after which the batch file will delete itself after a while if the Access lock file wasn’t released (for instance following a crash).
  • Added checks to delete the batch file if it has not deleted itself for some reason (for instance after a reboot).
  • The batch file now has a unique name based on the name of the database, allowing multiple databases to be restarted from the same directory.
  • Added license notice at top of source code.
  • Updated the article to reflect the changes.

v1.0: 06MAY2008

  • Original version

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

40 comments   |   Filed under :  Database,MSAccess,Programming,sysadmin,Web Design

Saturday, May 3, 2008

MS Access: Changing the Color Scheme programmatically

Microsoft Access Microsoft Office 2007/2010 comes with 3 colour (color) schemes. Users can easily change it but when you deploy an Access application under the Runtime your users have no way to set the colour scheme as the application’s options are not available.
(Article and Code Updated 01DEC2014.)

Luckily for us, the global colour scheme setting in the registry under the Key:

  • Office 2007: HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft\Office\12.0\Common\Theme
  • Office 2010: HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft\Office\14.0\Common\Theme
  • Office 2013: HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft\Office\15.0\Common\UI Theme

The values being stored under that key are, For Office 2007 and Office 2010:

  • 1: Blue
  • 2: Silver
  • 3: Black

For Office 2013:

  • 0: White
  • 1: Light Gray
  • 2: Dark Gray

With this information, we can easily both read and set the colour scheme.
The only caveat is that I could not find a way to notify Access to reload the setting automatically once it is changed, so users will have to restart the application before the change becomes active. A small price to pay but if anyone has a better idea, please let me know.

To write the new value to the registry I use a set of WIN 32 APIs that are more flexible than the default ones provided in VBA.

Office 2007 Colour Schemes

You can download the sample database as it contains all necessary files, including the definition for the Win32 API functions.

DownloadDownload the ColorSchemeV1.4.zip (46KB) containing the ACCDB database.

The sample also contains some code to restart the database. This is the subject of another post: Restarting and compacting the database programmatically.

Improvements/uses:

  • Find a way for Access to reload the settings without having to restart the application.
  • Use the knowledge about the current scheme to change the other colour settings in the application (or even adapt the form’s theme).

Updates:

v1.4: 01DEC2014

  • Updated code for Office 2013 support.
  • Updated Registry API functions for compatibility with 64 bit Office
  • Combined all modules into OfficeScheme
  • Added new function to return the name of a Theme/current Theme in plain English.

v1.3: 31MAY2011

  • Updated code for Office 2010 support.
  • Autodetect correct registry key for Office 2007/2010

v1.2: 13FEB2009

  • Updated code for restarting the database.
    See exact changes at: http://blog.nkadesign.com/2008/ms-access-restarting-the-database-programmatically/

v1.1: 09AUG2008

  • Updated code for restarting the database.
    See exact changes at: http://blog.nkadesign.com/2008/ms-access-restarting-the-database-programmatically/
  • Added license notice to code.

v1.0: 03MAY2008

  • Original version

References:

14 comments   |   Filed under :  Database,MSAccess,Programming

Thursday, May 1, 2008

MS Access: Modal Dialogs with Transparent Backgrounds (redux)

Microsoft Access Microsoft Access Team made an interesting post and a follow-up on how to add a transparent layer that cover the screen to focus the attention of the user to a login form or other important popup window.

The trick is to use some WIN 32 API calls to modify the transparency of a standard MS Access form made to cover the screen.

The effect is quite neat and I thought I would try it and make a sample database for others to tinker with it.
My version allows you to chose between covering the whole screen or just the main Access window and it will test if it’s running under a Remote Desktop Terminal and disable the layer in that case.

The transparent layer covering the main Window onlyThe transparent layer covering the full screen

Update 07MAY2008

Following Rob’s improvements I made another sample database that incorporates his code with a few improvements:

  • I added the LightBoxForm.LayerToFullScreen property so users can choose explicitly how they want the layer to be shown.
  • I moved the code to hide the layer into a Hide() sub so you can just show/hide the layer using LightboxForm.Show and LightboxForm.Hide.
  • I changed the Form’s Resize event code in the LightBoxForm class to avoid flickering: resizing the form within its Resize event actually trigger the Resize event again a second time which causes flickering.
    I simply modified the code to make the form totally transparent (opacity of 0) the first time the event is fired and assign it the expected opacity when the event handler in re-entered.
'-----------------------------------------------------------------------------
' Handle the Layer Form Resize event
'-----------------------------------------------------------------------------
Private Sub m_objForm_Resize()
    Static busyResizing As Boolean
    Dim lngStyle As Long
    Dim r        As RECT

    ' disable screen updates
    m_objForm.Painting = False

    ' When the form opens initially, we make it totally transparent to avoid flickering
    lngStyle = GetWindowLong(m_objForm.hWnd, GWL_EXSTYLE)
    SetWindowLong m_objForm.hWnd, GWL_EXSTYLE, lngStyle Or WS_EX_LAYERED
    SetLayeredWindowAttributes m_objForm.hWnd, 0, 0, LWA_ALPHA

    ' If the Access window is maximized, then maximize the lightbox form.
    ' If the Access window is not maximized, then
    ' position the lightbox form so that it covers the Access window
    If IsZoomed(hWndAccessApp()) Or m_bLayerToFullScreen Then
        DoCmd.Maximize
    Else
        GetWindowRect Application.hWndAccessApp(), r
        MoveWindow m_objForm.hWnd, r.x1, r.y1, (r.x2 - r.x1), (r.y2 - r.y1), True
    End If

    If busyResizing Then
        ' Get the current window style, then set transparency
        lngStyle = GetWindowLong(m_objForm.hWnd, GWL_EXSTYLE)
        SetWindowLong m_objForm.hWnd, GWL_EXSTYLE, lngStyle Or WS_EX_LAYERED
        SetLayeredWindowAttributes m_objForm.hWnd, 0, (m_sngOpacity * 255), LWA_ALPHA
        ' enable screen updates
        m_objForm.Painting = True
        ' Back to normal
        busyResizing = False
    Else
        busyResizing = True
    End If
End Sub

Samples

There are now 2 sample databases. Ech zip contains a Microsoft Access 2007 ACCDB file and its conversion to Access 20001 and Access 2002-2003 MDB but please note that I have not been been able to test those in older version of Access and that form transparency doesn’t work in Operating Systems older than Windows 2000.

DownloadDownload TransparentLayer02b.zip (138KB), recommended version
(improved, more flexible version, based on Rob’s updated article).

DownloadDownload TransparentLayer01b.zip (122KB), original version
(simple code, based Rob’s original article).

Troubleshooting

  • If you are getting security warnings: make sure that you open the database from a Trusted Location or you will receive a security prompt. If you don’t know how to do that, check these steps.
  • If the layer appears on top of the login form instead of behind: make sure that the top-most form has ist Modal properties set to Yes and the frmLightBox form has its modal property set to No.
    If you improve on it, please let me know and I’ll post it here for all to find.

  1. A specific version for Access 2000 now included in the archive (updated 25JUL2008). 

21 comments   |   Filed under :  Database,MSAccess,Programming

Sunday, April 13, 2008

“Apple’s OS Edge Is a Threat to Microsoft”. Really?

BusinessBusiness Week has a recent article where the author foresee the demise of Windows in favour of Apple’s OS.
Reading it, I couldn’t help thinking I was reading one of these overenthusiastic 1925 popular-science article promising us that within just a few years we would all use our own flying car to get to work.
Yeah, right, mine is parked right under my window.

The basic premise of the article is that Apple will attack the corporate market through the back-door, using the iPhone and its forthcoming development platform.
The author contend that development to the iPhone will drive interest in the Mac and allow Apple to displace Windows by offering more business-related applications that would eventually not require Microsoft’s OS running side-by-side in your Mac, freeing you of the dominance of the evil empire.
Please read the article first. Done?
Hmmm…
Ok, let’s see…

First, let’s be nice: if Apple want to eat at Microsoft’s dominance of the OS market, then all the better: more competition will drive innovation and choice, which is always nice.
There is certainly some truth to the idea that Apple could offer some useful tools and technologies to the corporate world.

The problem is that author of the article was a bit too much of a Mc Fanboy(TM) to make his arguments compelling.

Let’s start direct quotes from the article.

Speaking of the ability of the Mac to quickly switch from a Windows application to a Mac by using a keyboard shortcut:

“Windows users, in the very near future, will be free to switch to Apple computers and mobile devices, drawn by a widening array of Mac software, without suffering the pain of giving up critical Windows-based applications right away.”

Useful as it may be, it’s forgetting one thing: if you need to be able to run your windows application under a Mac, you will need to give Microsoft money for the Windows license, making the newly found convenience of running the two OS together seamlessly a fairly expensive one, both in terms of computer resources and money.
While it will interest a lot of people and they may use their windows apps on Apple hardware is this really compelling enough to make it a viable migration path?

About the new Mac OS kernel:

“That kernel has proved easily adaptable across the entire Apple product line, from highly complex servers all the way down to the relatively simple iPod Touch. Such modularity allows Apple to add whatever functions are necessary for each product environment—all while maintaining cross-product compatibility.
By contrast, Microsoft has held on to an OS tethered to the 1980s, piling additions upon additions with each upgrade to Windows. With last year’s arrival of Vista, Windows has swollen to 1 billion bytes (a gigabyte) or more of software code. The “Mach” kernel of the Mac OS X, however, requires less than 1 million bytes (a megabyte) of data in its smallest configuration, expanding modestly with the sophistication of the application.”

All this is so silly and skewed that I wonder where to start.
First, kernel size is irrelevant: a basic kernel functionality does not make an operating system. Additionally, I doubt that we’re comparing the same functionality and for desktop or server applications this is utterly irrelevant.
For small devices Windows has its own flavours and they can quickly be deployed to almost any hardware with minimal effort.
Applications built for Windows built for mobile devices can be ported to Windows without too much trouble, and vice versa. Whatever platform you’re developing on, applications for small hardware are always an exercise in compromise: there is no way that you can just recompile an app for a different target and have it just work beautifully in any device. A mobile app must take care of power requirements, limited screen estate, memory and CPU limitations and specific usability issues like the presence of a touch-screen instead of a keyboard and mouse.
The point is that you have to take the platform into consideration when crafting software. Besides, using .Net makes it fairly easy to develop applications for any flavour of Windows. Additionally, whether the OS under the XBox is different or not from the desktop version of Windows is also irrelevant: you can develop games under the XNA platform that compile and work just the same under Windows as they do on the Xbox.

Now, for the argument regarding the “additions upon additions” made upon Windows that contribute to its bloat, it’s an easy shot to make and an unfair one: Apple has had no regards for its legacy applications and since its primary market was consumers, it could get away with making each of its major OS release incompatible with the previous one.
We can argue whether it was a good thing for Microsoft to keep all the quirks from previous releases of its operating system alive but we must not forget that in the corporate world, Windows has close to 100% market share on the desktop.
What that means is that Microsoft could not afford not supporting business applications across versions. it would have been suicidal to even envisage dropping compatibility.
If Apple ever get into that corporate market above a few percent it will have to guarantee compatibility between versions of its OS and programming tools if it wants to have any chance at being taken seriously at all.
When companies spend money developing an application that is critical to their business, they don’t want to hear about its supporting OS becoming incompatible every couple of years.
Apple would have to support and maintain compatibility for at least 10 years for every major OS version. So far Apple hasn’t shown that it was capable of that type of commitment.

Amipro 3.1 on my computerA small digression.
A couple of weeks ago I found some old files of mine on a floppy.
They were Ami Pro files, made at a time when Ami Pro 3.1 was the best word processor around.
Problem was that I could not safely open these files any longer: filters for various word processors would mangle the complex layout of the pages, making them un-usable. Out of curiosity, I found a full version of the original Amipro 3.1.
I had no expectations of being able to run that setup package. After all, Ami Pro 3.1 came out in 1994, before Windows 95 was even released!
Well, I clicked on that setup.exe file and watched the installation process go through… Everything went fine.
Surely, I thought, there is no way this is going to run under Windows XP. It’s going to crash for sure.
I double-clicked on the 16 colour icon and lo and behold, the whole thing actually ran! Flawlessly!
I was able to open my old files without any issue, save them under another format. Everything worked, miraculously.
That application was written at a time the Internet didn’t even exist yet I was able to install and run it without problem on a current operating system.
Back to our regular schedule.

“Despite Apple’s relative scarcity on corporate desktops, Mac laptops are already well accepted within the enterprise, with a market share of more than 20% and growing. For business travellers, the new MacBook Air, some three pounds lighter than comparable Windows-based laptops, already offers one huge advantage.”

First, Apple has a almost 20% market share on overall laptops sales only, not corporate sales.
Second, that figure is for the US only. Apple’s laptop market share in the world is certainly not bad, but it’s a quarter of that figure, making adoption of Apple laptops outside the US very small indeed.
Third, while Apple laptops are certainly sexy, they bring their own issues to businesses: lack of in-house serviceable parts, issues with making them fit into a complex infrastructure, hardware and software compatibility problems.
Bringing Macs into your organisation can be painful. Of course, it’s never impossible, but beyond simple setups, it takes time, energy and money to make stuff work seamlessly.
So I contend that, unless you have a serious commitment to Apple, most of the Macs getting into companies are for simple usage: fetching emails, browsing, making presentations and maybe Photoshop, although it seems that the application that was once the sole reason for some to use macs is now going to switch side, at least for a little while.
For Macs to become a first-class corporate platform would require that Apple makes a very serious commitment to cross-platform development to make applications work on Windows as well.
I seriously don’t think that the ability of Macs to run Windows side-by-side will do much: as mentioned above, the expense incurred offers no real benefit to businesses and having to support both platforms would increase the cost of ownership because of the upfront cost of buying and installing multiple OS, 15% higher average cost of Apple laptops compared to other similarly specified laptops and the cost of maintaining and supporting multiple hardware and OS stacks.
Slickness can only get you so far I suppose.

“While Mac desktops offer a growing number of superior features over Windows desktops”

Seriously dude, what superior features?

“Apple’s recently introduced Leopard servers compete in a market of unhappy Vista server buyers where Microsoft’s market share is only 40%. Leopard has a decent chance to expand from its small beachhead.”

Huh? Vista servers?
WTF is that?
You can’t be talking about Windows 2003 because it’s actually a rock-solid platform and there isn’t much to complain about.
Windows 2008 is just coming out and it looks just as promising.
Apple has some seriously nice server hardware, it’s so beautiful to look at all this engineering that it gets me all hot and bothered.
Seriously though, on the server side, Leopard would not be in competition with Windows but with *nix.
Server-side applications like ASP, Exchange, Sharepoint, SQL Server and the myriad other Microsoft-only server software will only work on Windows.
Apple is not going to compete as a platform for hosting these which means it will host services traditionally found on Linux/Unix/BSD systems.
In that *nix camp Apple would certainly be a good contender, although it would have to prove that it can compete with the low license and hardware cost of its competitors and offer more.

One more thing to remember: Apple is in the hardware business: it uses software to lock people into its hardware business.
I’m all for competition but at least using Linux or Microsoft products doesn’t lock me into a single hardware/software platform pair: I have orders of magnitude more choices when it comes to my servers, desktops and laptops than what Apple can offer me.
Apple products may be slick and beautifully engineered but they certainly don’t offer more freedom: chose an iPhone and get stuck with a single network provider, buy an iPod and get stuck with iTune, buy a mac and get stuck with Apple, limited software offerings, no serious games and limited hardware support.

One other thing to keep in mind is that Microsoft has acquired a huge weight in terms of software development power: new technologies have been pouring out of Redmond at a pace that is impossible to follow.
The number of developers and companies able to develop software for Windows platforms is wayyy above what Apple can dream of at the moment (we’re talking about millions of developer making a living off Windows).
Apple will need to make serious efforts to woo the huge amounts of developers it needs to bring enough business and non-business applications to its platforms before it can become a serious competitor to Windows in the corporate world.
Whether Apple has the capacity and will to do that instead of remaining a consumer-oriented company remains to be seen.

That being said I wouldn’t mind developing software for Apple platforms. I would love to be able to use a generic “surface laptop”, a sort of larger iPhone that could be used by sales people for taking orders and showing off new products.

Anyway, the point of all this was simply to offer a modest reality-check to an article that should have been a bit more measured and balanced in its fanboy-ish enthusiasm.

1 comment   |   Filed under :  Business,Reviews,sysadmin

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Renaud This is a simple technical weblog where I dump thoughts and experiences from my computer-related world.
It is mostly focused on software development but I also have wider interests and dabble in architecture, business and system administration.
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