Unified Messaging (UX perspective) – COOL!!

I had a conversation with my Exchange Server last night.

Microsoft has been talking about Unified Messaging for a couple of years now, and I have been interested in it since the outset but because I do not always have the infrastructure (or the time) to do a lot of the things I would like to do, this (among myriad others) has fallen by the wayside.

My own mail domain is actually managed by an online hosting provider that has recently enabled Unified Communications… and the other day they sent me an e-mail telling me that I could now set up my voice mail to forward to their server. 

With only a few steps it was done.  I forwarded my US cell phone to the number they provided, and was off to the races.

The cool features I got to play with last night:

  • Voice Mail from my Inbox: I left myself a voice mail (at 1:30am there aren't too many other people to talk to… even the puppies were asleep).  Within seconds I received an e-mail not only telling me I had a voice message… but it allowed me to play it right from my Inbox.
  • Listen to my e-mail: I called in an after entering my secure code I was able to not only listen to my voice mail, but could navigate my Inbox and have the pleasant female voice read my e-mails to me.  I could then reply and go on to the next one.  Really cool!
  • Hear my calendar: I saw a video last year that was a take-off of The Devil Wears Prada (a movie I have not seen but I am assured the characters are spot on).  In it the Administrative Assistant uses all sorts of features that look like magic, including talking to her Calendar and telling it that she will bee ten minutes late for a meeting (the pleasant female voice then assures her that 'she' would notify all meeting attendees).  I always thought it was cool, but did not realize how easy it was to do…   I did not actually reschedule meetings, but I did get to hear how busy my day would be today.
  • All the normal Voice Mail options…: Of course I was able to change my pin, record my name, change my OGM (I opted to use the pleasant female voice rather than my own).  These are all features we expect to be able to do with voice mail… but with Exchange?

So far the only drawback I have found to the setup has nothing to do with Exchange… my server is hosted in the United States, so my (Canadian) Rogers cell phone does not seem to support forwarding calls internationally.  So while I am in Canada I will have to continue to not receive my e-mail in my Inbox… but since my bigger issue has always been that I rarely carry my US cell phone around when I am in Canada, this is a great solution to that dilemma… I use UM for that phone, and will no longer have to check my 'seventeen voice messages' every time I cross the border.

Steps I had to take:

Before I could get it working, even after I forwarded my phone to the proper number, I had to make sure that Exchange knew what phone number to accept calls from.  That was a simple matter of finding the Voice Mail tab in Outlook Properties (I actually did it using the Outlook Web Access but I suspect you can do it from the Outlook 2007 client as well). 

Once that was done I was literally off to the races.  It really was set up so that anyone could do it.  It spoke to me in plain English and asked me to do the same.  I do not know about other languages, though I suspect someone has thought of that.

My favorite Arthur C. Clarke quote is: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."  When I was a kid I used to wonder at Michael Knight (actually David Hasselhoff) speaking with his car.  It was of course science fiction, but the concept of speaking with a computer amazed me.  We have advanced to the point that while I cannot actually have an intelligent conversation like K.I.T.T., but we are certainly further along than I would have suspected twenty-five years ago… or even ten.  Unified Messaging truly does bring magic to our Inbox.

Isn't technology amazing?

The end of a long day…

I tend to work a lot of late hours.  I am not entirely sure why, but it probably has to do with the fact that there are fewer distractions about at midnight than there are at noon.  The phone doesn't ring, there's really nowhere to go.  I can sit at my computer and work.

It was not too long ago that at the end of those long nights I would get into bed with either a glass of single-malt scotch or a cup of Earl Grey tea, turn on the TV and watch whatever was on (or a movie, or something I had recorded) for a while, wind down, and go to sleep.

It is not quite a year that my life took a turn.  For those who have not been keeping track I am now engaged and living with my fiancé, her (our!) son, and three dogs.  For those of you who know me outside the home you will know what a softie I am for my family, or as I like to refer to them, my sixteen favourite legs.  At home, at least among the bipeds, I do not always appear so soft.

As I was walking away from the computer tonight I walked into the living room and saw Bailey (the Wheaton Terrier) sprawled out on the floor.  He saw me, got up, gave me a quick opportunity to pet him, and then hopped up onto his couch (don't start with me…) and went back to sleep.

I walked up the stairs and stuck my head into Aaron's room (our ten year old son).  He was fast asleep, which made me happy because only a couple of hours ago he called out to us, and when I went up to his room he told me he was scared and could not sleep.  All that is forgotten and all is well for Aaron and Patches (stuffed dog… we have three real ones, he still likes Patches).

I step into our bedroom and from the glint of light I see that Theresa – I have a lot of loves in this house, but only one partner – is sound asleep.  She had a tough week-end; Friday she finished her class in Deep River and we drove home… she only drove for the first two hours but was still in the car for four more.  Saturday we ran errands all day and Sunday – after singing in her choir – she drove down to Ohio to her parents' place.  It's a seven hour drive, and she didn't hit the road much before 5:30 so she didn't get in until LATE.

The reason she drove to Ohio was because Aaron had been with grandma and grandpa and we had to get him back.  My work just did not let me be out of contact for two more days so she went on her own, and this morning before heading north with Aaron they first drove 90 minutes south to see her sister and the new baby.  They then left and drove the entire way home – Aaron couldn't share the driving of course – and got in around 9:45 this evening.  She stayed with me while I had a bite and then went off to bed… exhausted and rightly so.

With her on the bed were two more figures… Jacob (our Boston Terrier/Beagle cross) was sprawled on my side of the bed with his head on the pillow.  When I came down to work he came with me for a bit, but even at eleven p.m. I could see the fatigue in his face.  He went up after half an hour, and because of his obvious love for me takes my place when I am not there… including the head on my pillow.  It is truly adorable to see.

Gingit – our five month old Basset Hound/Pug cross – seems to alternate between the foot of the bed, the top of the bed (either between us, on my pillow, or behind Theresa's head), and under the bed (she is the only resident who can comfortably crawl under there and discovered the first time she stole Jacob's steak bone that it was a really good place to be safe).  At 1:20am she was at the foot of the bed, and seems to have forgiven us that we rearranged the furniture this week-end… it was hilarious to see poor little Gingit realize that she had miscalculated the foot of the bed yesterday, and try as she might to hold onto the sheets slid off the foot of the bed as if in slow motion.  I can see now that there are six good inches between her and the end now, and like no other dog I have seen is actually lying on her back asleep.

My sixteen favourite legs are all comfortably asleep, and having made the rounds to check in on them I went back down to make sure the hatches were all secure, and then to take a few minutes… I have been doing a lot of technical writing of late, but little mention of how much I love and appreciate my family.

It was long overdue.

Recording video into Windows from your analog device

…So my brother-in-law, like most people I know, assumes that when it comes to computers I will know the answer. This led to my learning something new this week.

The question: ‘I have an analog camcorder with which we have documented our lives over the past eight years. We recently purchased a Media Center PC (HP Media Center PC, m8200n) and we would like to use that to record our video tapes into digital format so that we can share them and keep them longer. How do we do this?

Of course it sounds simple, and when I looked at the PC and the camera they both had all of the right connectors, so this should be another five minutes and done solution. I forget that my brother-in-law actually is a rocket scientist, and if it were that simple he probably would have figured it out without my feeble help.

Let’s skip what I tried that did NOT work and move onto what did. What you will need is simple:

  • A PC with a Composite Video connector
  • The proper cable to connect the Audio/Video jack on the camera to the Composite Video Connector. (For bonus points you will need an audio in connector on the computer)
  • An Infrared remote control receiver with the IR wire plugged in
  • Windows Vista Home Premium (or Windows Vista Ultimate… either will have the Windows Media Center).

**PLEASE NOTE** If like me you use Windows Media Center to control your television the following procedures will wipe out your settings.  Make sure you can recover from that before going forward.

Out of the box WMC does not allow you to record from an analog device, and you really do have to fool it into working.  What I have done for Grant and his family, who use their Media Center PC as a desktop and not as a TV, is to configure Media Center to receive the TV feed (or so it thinks) from the Composite Video (the yellow RCA jack).  Of course this is not entirely normal behaviour for Media Center, so you do have to fool it into doing what you want.

  • In Windows Media Center navigate to Tasks -> Settings -> Set Up TV Signal
  • When asked assure it that you do have a set top box.
  • Connect your camcorder (VHS/other analog device) to the computer.  Remember that Composite Video will not transmit audio, and you will have to connect that separately (usually a white or red RCA jack or, for bonus STEREO, both).
  • Select the input that shows your video (for us it was Composite 2)… these procedures should work for SVGA as well, or if you are connecting your VCR to the cable jack)
  • Tell it you do not have a remote for your set-top box.
  • Select Two Digits, and that you just enter the channel number.
  • Since you do not have a set top box the brand is irrelevant… I chose 3M.
  • Select C0033
  • Using your keyboard enter a two-digit channel (say 05) and press Enter.  When asked confirm that the channel changed correctly.
  • Confirm that there is no digital antenna connected.
  • Return to the Media Center Main Menu

**PLEASE NOTE** You must have your remote control receiver plugged in and the IR wire connected to both configure Media Center's TV settings and any time you use the procedures to record or watch video from your analog device.  <note to the dev team at Microsoft: this is an unnecessary pain!>

**SUGGESTION** Media Center allows you to select the recording quality of your video, selecting from BEST to GOOD, and depending on your selection the bit rate and file size will be affected.  Since most of your VHS or Super-8 tapes would fit in the FAIR to LOUSY quality range there is no benefit to recording them in the BEST or VERY GOOD qualities… select the lowest possible to save a lot of hard disk space (80 Meg on a 3 minute file… nearly two gigabytes on an hour of video)

The box is now configured, and you should be able to go ahead and watch/record from your analog device.  However Media Center THINKS that your analog device is actually live television, so that is what you are going to watch.  (It will not matter what channel it thinks it is watching… ignore that)

To Watch: From the main menu navigate to TV -> Live TV.  The screen will be black until you press Play on your device (there will be channel information at the bottom… it is irrelevant). 

To Record: before pressing play on your analog device press the Record button in the Media Center controls.  The Record Screen will come up asking you time and date to record… ignore that, but you should take this opportunity to change the title of the video from 'Untitled Recording' to 'Elise's Confirmation Video'.  Once you have named your video (and ensured the video quality) press Record on the Media Center, and then Play on your analog device.

Remember that unlike digital video you actually have to let it run, so recording a one hour video will take you one hour, and so on.  Unless you want to get into editing these videos later on you should make sure you are ready to press Stop when the video ends.

Saving your videos for all time

We all know that analog video tape degrades over time, and that digital does not.  Windows Media Center allows you to natively burn your videos (they will be stored under Recorded TV) to DVD.  This will convert them to DVD format, which will allow you to watch them in any regular DVD player.  However if you want to edit them in the future it would be worth your while to save the digital file, a .dvr-ms file, which is natively readable by Windows Movie Maker which can then be used to convert it to the file format of your choice.

Have fun and remember… any of those embarrassing videos <Mitch being discrete> of you or your kids will be on the hard drive when you either sell your computer, or take it into the shop for service.  If you don't want anyone to see them, either encrypt them or better yet wipe them off that drive after moving them to an external hard drive or DVD!

Getting Past iastor.sys Errors in Vista Deployment with the Microsoft Deployment Toolkit

They say that when you cannot do, teach.  I am not entirely fond of this particular expression, chiefly because I am primarily a teacher in my profession.  I do tend to 'eat my own dog food' and work with the tools that I instruct on though, which is why at the moment I have, for the first time in a while, a very large and powerful (and loud!) Hewlett Packard ProLiant DL-585 G2 server sitting in my office.  I like to joke that if G-d had a server at home, this is what he would have.

So because I was going to be doing some work for Microsoft on desktop & server deployment this week I decided to go back and create a new deployment server using the new Microsoft Deployment Toolkit (MDT) 2008 and Windows Automated Installation Kit (Windows AIK).  As I have written in the past this is nothing new to me, and I did not expect to encounter any issues.  The only difference was I had been using Microsoft's Business Desktop Deployment (BDD) 2007, the predecessor to the current version.  I spent most of last year teaching this technology, I did countless user group presentations on it; I was not expecting any surprises.

I imported my source files for the OS and the Applications, and I even imported the Dell-specific driver files from the CDs they provided.

Because I was doing this all in the parent OS on my server which at the time was hosting several virtual child OSes I could not reboot the system, so rather than implement a Lab Deployment Point I created a Media Deployment Point; I burned the ISO file to a DVD and then booted into it.  After a minute or two I got the following error message on a Stop Screen:

File: \Windows\system32\DRIVERS\iastor.sys Status: 0xc000035a Info: Windows
failed to load because a critical system
driver is missing, or corrupt.

I tried the same DVD on a different machine and received the same error, and then on the off chance it was the disc I created a new DVD.  Same issue.

IASTOR.SYS is an Intel SATA driver which should by all rights be included in Windows Vista.*  In fact it is, otherwise it would be impossible to install Vista out of the box.  Unfortunately for some aspects of deployment the driver that was delivered with Vista is not sufficient, and you have to download (and then extract and then import into WinPE) a newer version of the driver.

Behind the scenes someone at Microsoft's deployment team told me that the Intel SATA drivers were a royal pain, and that because the WHQL (Windows Hardware Quality Labs) team had signed off on the driver Intel refused to fix it.  Hopefully based on this article there will be enough backlash towards Intel and convince them to fix it.

So in short, here is what you are going to have to do:

  1. Download the IntelSATA drivers from Intel.  You will likely have to download the Intel Matrix Storage Manager.
  2. Extract these files by executing the IMSM with the proper command line switch (iata82_enu.exe -a).  The following files will be extracted to the directory C:\Program Files (x86)\Intel\Intel Matrix Storage Manager\winall.
    1. iaahci.cat
    2. iaahci.inf
    3. iastor.cat
    4. iastor.inf
    5. iastor.sys
    6. txtsetup.oem
  3. Import these drivers into your MDT Distribution Share as an Out-of-Box Driver.

The Out-of-Box Drivers should now include two new drivers called:

  • Intel hdc iaAHCI.inf 8.2.0.1001 (or later); and
  • Intel SCSIAdapter iaStor.inf 8.2.0.1001 (or later).

At this point you can recreate your ISO file (by clicking on your Deployment Point and clicking Update).  At this point you should be able to continue your deployment without any further issues.

*While searching the Internet I found a number of newsgroup and forum posts surmising the Vista does not need a SATA driver; in reality Windows needs a driver for everything piece of hardware; many of these drivers are so basic that we do not realize they are there.