July 29, 2004

By Karen Kenworthy


Whew! What a month. Glad it's almost over ...

It started well enough. After our recent discussions of Microsoft's new .NET Initiative, I decided to spend several days immersing myself in the new Visual Basic .NET programming language.

Now that was a blast! I've used VB.NET since its first release, a couple of years ago. But I wanted to really expand and polish my VB.NET skills, learning enough to write new Power Tools in this fascinating and powerful programming language. At first, all went well.

Lost in Cyber Space

Then, about 10 days ago, just as I was about to emerge back into the real world, I lost my Internet connection! That's right, I was cast into outer darkness, where all bits are zero, no e-mail flows, uploads and downloads exist only in the realm of folklore and the imagination, web sites are but a faded memory.

You can imagine my panic!

Sadly, Joe, the best ISP in the world, had suddenly developed health problems. Unbeknownst to me, and almost everyone, he'd been unable to work for days. His business, including the servers that hosted the KarenWare.com web site, and the high-speed connection between the secluded Power Tools workshop and the rest of the cyber world, were like a train without a conductor. For a while they sped along the tracks as usual. But a train wreck was inevitable.

Then, with only a few hours notice, it happened. Fortunately, another local ISP, and Brian, my friend of almost 40 years, worked night and day to put me back online. I now have two computers busily responding to requests for web pages and file downloads from my KarenWare.com site. And the workshop now has a sprightly DSL connection -- not as fast as the original factional T1, but much better than the temporary modem dial-up I used for a few days during the transition.

I apologize to all who were frustrated by the outages. There were hours when no one could view my main web site, or download any of my Power Tools programs. And there were a few days when it was impossible to access the secure Subscription Center web site, or purchase a CD.

I wish it weren't so. But these transitions are an unfortunate fact of 'net life. I've actually been pretty lucky when it comes to Internet providers (this is only is my third commercial ISP and web host, in the last ten years). Let's hope my new provider, who I'm sure is as admirable as Joe, will be my cyber home for years to come.

P.S. Joe is recovering. Tragically, his business is gone, and won't be rebuilt (at least for some time). But no one with his abilities, who works as hard as Joe, will be down or out for long. It will be a happy day for his many friends when he's completely on his feet again.

Preview the Future?

Did I mention I've been spending time in the world of ".NET"? :)

We've talk a lot about .NET recently. As you know, this "umbrella" term identifies several technologies important to Microsoft's vision of the future. They include new programming languages, new web server and database software, and even a new version of Windows.

Recently, Microsoft announced several new ".NET Express" products. One, called "Visual Basic 2005 Express", promises to quickly and painlessly teach new-comers how to write computer programs in the new Visual Basic .NET language. Three others claim to do the same for the C#, C++, and J# programming languages. Additional newly-announced products offer an "express" lane to web site development and SQL Server knowledge.

Each of these products includes a stripped-down version of Microsoft's upcoming program development system, Visual Studio 2005. Despite lacking certain features, they do include enough features of the full VS 2005 to allow users to create Windows programs, new class libraries, and more.

What sets these products apart are some interesting bonus features. They include tutorials and additional sample programs, designed to ease the usually painful transition from "normal person" to "computer-programming nerd". The results, if Microsoft's expectations are realized, are low-cost options for beginning and hobbyist programmers, and those who would wish to learn the subtle art of "bit fiddling".

Did I say "low-cost"? Actually, at the moment, they are free! That's right. Endure a rather large download, and you can begin writing programs today!

If all this sounds too good to be true, you're right. There's less to Microsoft's offer than first appears.

To begin with, the Express products you can download today are early "beta" versions. Like all betas, they have more than the usual number of bugs awaiting extermination.

Worse, these "Express" products are incomplete. Oddly, most of the features that make them appealing, such as the promised tutorials, aren't yet available.

Finally, while the beta versions of these products are free, they will "expire", or stop working when the shipping versions are released. The final versions will require a few coins in order to operate. I expect the prices will be "reasonable", but they won't be free.

On the plus side, these products really are free at the moment. And Microsoft will provide improved "beta" versions of each product over the coming months. Features missing or broken, today should arrive or be fixed, in the future.

Best of all, testing beta versions of Microsoft's products lets you influence the shape of the future. Testers can report bugs directly to Microsoft, increasing the odds they'll be fixed before the final release. And Microsoft often listens to suggestions made by beta testers, using this feedback to guide future designs and development.

If you'd like to give these Express editions a try, visit this page on Microsoft's web site:


New Arrival!

The recent digital disconnect left me with unexpected time on my hands. I'm sure you won't be surprised to hear I spent a lot of that time in front of my computer, writing a new program. The result of this labor is my latest Power Tool, something I call "Karen's Time Sync".

This little program keeps our computer clocks accurate, synchronizing them with any of the many "time servers" available on the Internet. Either on a schedule, or on demand, Time Sync contacts one of these servers and determines the current date and time -- often with an accuracy of only a few thousandths of a second. It then adjusts our computer's clock, moving its "hands" until they match the server's ultra-precise clock.

Why is such a program useful? For some folks, it may not be. But if you're one of those who need an accurate clock, or reasonably insist that any clock faithfully report the accurate time, you may find Time Sync indispensable.

The Time Sync is also handy if your computer is attached to a local network. Running the program on every computer ensures all computers agree on the current date and time of day.

Hopefully, I've made Time Sync easy to use. Run it, and you'll see a single window containing three tabs. The first tab, labeled "Welcome", displays information about the program, and the purpose of the other two tabs.

The second tab reads "Auto Sync". Click it and you'll see a list of over 200 Internet Time Servers, grouped by country and (in the case of servers located in the United States) state. Your first job is to select one of these servers, preferably one near your computer or network.

Below the list of servers you'll see Time Sync's schedule. By changing these settings can order the program to automatically synchronize your computer's clock as often as once a minute, or as infrequently as once every 99 days.

Adjusting a computer's clock once a day is will usually keep its clock within a second or two of perfect time. But if you have an especially wayward clock, more frequent adjustments might be in order. Be careful, though, not to make excessive demands on your chosen time server. Overloading a time server may reduce the accuracy of the time it reports. And it's a very good way to upset the nice person or company providing this free service.

The program's third tab bears the words "Manual Sync". As you've guessed, clicking this tab reveals buttons and other gizmos that let you synchronize your computer's clock manually, or "on demand".

Again, you'll see hundreds of time servers displayed in a list. Click on any server's name, then click the button labeled "SNTP", and the program will contact that server, and use the time it reports to adjust your computer's clock. The whole process normally takes just a second or two.

There's a lot more to tell about the "Manual Sync" tab. For example, what do the letters "SNTP" mean? And what happens when other buttons, such as "Daytime" and "Time", are clicked? But ironically, we're all out of time. The answers to those questions, and lots of others we haven't even asked yet, will have to wait until we meet again. :(

Fortunately, you can start using the new Time Sync right now. Just visit the program's home page at:


As always, the program is free for personal/home use. If you're a programmer, you can download the program's Visual Basic source code too!

Better yet, get the latest version of every Power Tool, including Time Sync, on a brand-new, shiny CD. You'll also get three bonus Power Tools, not available anywhere else. Source code of every Power Tool, the text of every issue of my newsletter, and some of my original Windows Magazine articles, are also included. And owning the CD grants you a special license to use all my Power Tools at work.

Best of all, buying a CD is the easiest way to support the KarenWare.com web site, Karen's Power Tools, and this newsletter! To find out more, visit:


Until we meet again, if you see me lost in space or time, or on the 'net, be sure to wave and say "Hi!"