Category Archives: rant

rant technical

Adding search plugins to firefox is now broken by default?

I’ve just discovered an incredibly annoying bug downgrade “feature” in the new firefox (3) – the new add-search-plugins site is broken. I noticed it in later versions of firefox 2.x as well: I was kind of hoping it was something temporary but it looks like its here to stay.

(Quick solution: ignore the site the “Add engines” link takes you to and go to instead – its all there).

I’m a big fan of the firefox search bar: I have it setup for google, google images,, urban dictionary, wikipedia, wikiquote, youtube, imdb and ebay. I’ve even written two search plugins in use at the computer science dept at my university which is used to search the staff directory + and general website.  I use them all the time, and they will be included in the firefox 3.x deployed to the workstations our 17+ computer labs this semester.

So I’m a fan, I consider search plugins a highly desirable if not essential time-saving feature in my browser, and as soon as I install a new copy of firefox, I take time out to customise my search menu pretty much straightaway. I quietly evangelise the feature to others, show them how easy their common searches can be. Click here, click there, bam, done, easier, isnt firefox great?

Problem is,  what used to be a simple and smooth process is no longer. By default anyway – and only if you’ve upgraded your browser relatively recently.

Now I haven’t actually gone back and installed an older version to check or anything, but I’m pretty sure that getting more search plugins used to be a case of dropping the search menu, selecting “Manage Search engines”, then “Get more search engines” (or the equivalent text) in the settings dialog.

This would take me to a site I never bothered to remember the URL of, since the link was always right there in settings.

Used to be, I could go *wherever the aforementioned link went*, type in the name of *major searchable site* I wanted to add (ebay/youtube/wikipedia/etc) and would be presented with a list of links – click on them, approve the security popup, and wham, the plugin is added. It was quick and easy, and I found that if I was searching somewhere (ebay for example), rather than go straight to the site and use their search, it was worth the 60 or so extra seconds to go via the search plugins site and add them to my search bar.

Now, this simplicity is broken, due to a simple change: the “Get more engines” link now takes me to Different site, ok, cool – as long as it gives me the functionality, right? I have faith. Its landed me automatically in the ‘Search plugins’ category. Cool. I seach for ‘ebay’. It turns up… zilch. Searching for ‘google’ gives me… ‘AOL search’ (wtf?).

Oh no.

A couple of minutes later navigating around and trying different searches with no fruit, I realise that regardless of whether this site actually does conspire to harbour the search bar plugins I pursue, perhaps concealed behind some menu or search option I have overlooked, however n00b-like I may be in overlooking said option, this new way of adding plugins has failed, catastrophically. It has failed the end user test. Namely, its chief advertised function – adding searchbar plugins – is nowhere in sight. Not to the casual user, and not to me. It is, it seems, akin to getting in a taxi, asking to be taken to a restaurant and being dumped at the local gymnasium. I wanted a hamburger and I didn’t even get something edible. The place I’ve been taken is not even related.

So I dumped the broken site and hit google looking for firefox search plugins. A couple of links in, I found what looks like the old site – - which has the goodness, the instant search, the 60 second convenience I wanted. I bookmarked it, problem solved – for me, anyway. Now I remember that URL in case I need to add more plugins on another machine, or demonstrate the add plugins feature on someone elses browser.

I just hope this difficulty doesn’t put people off using firefox, especially those migrating from other browsers.

mobile devices rant sysadmin technical

A hall of mirrors: configuring Windows Mobile Networking and the gremlins therein

The time is apon me for a bit of a rant about Windows Mobile, specifically with regards to its approach to networking profiles. I’ve been spoiling for a write up on the topic for a while: ever since the PocketPC days, networking on PDAs with windows O/S has been, at least for this techie, a giant pain in the ass.

It should be noted that most of this gripe is based on experiences with Pocket PC 2003 and its predecessors. WM5 and WM6 are recent additions to the fold for me, and a number of the mentioned issues seem to be, if not solved, at least partially smoothed over.

So far, so far the strongest argument I’ve yet encountered for blowing Windows Mobile away in favor of some flavor of embedded linux is the WM implementation of networking. A real shame because aside from that, WM more or less seems to get it right – decent information management, desktop / remote email sync (when you can get past the networking hurdles), and with third party tools, enough access to the internals to keep a techie happy. Except the networking interface.

Windows mobile networking has generally confused me. As a network admin, I’ve dealt with plenty of odd setups, but Windows Mobile truly does take the cake. After a few hours of mind games you’ll likely be begging for a simple ‘do what your told’ setup as opposed to the ‘second guess you because we know better’ philosophy that WM6 seems to adopt.

I have messed around with these devices for longer than I should admit. Many a time I’ve had everything working – for a while. Then it stops, develops amnesia, stumbles about disoriented. Losing wireless has the device utterly, and inexplicably confused, and too often for happenstance a hard reset will get things going again – with the exact same config.

Indeed, there seems to be a new definition of logic when it comes to how networking should function, and often a setting will seem to have no effect, or the result will be inconsistent. It will work for a while then stop. One application will work fine, but another will not. Changing a seemingly unrelated networking parameter has ramifications: things start working in an unexpected fashion or not at all.

The approach seems to be akin to a puzzle game with a random element as opposed to a tool designed to achieve an outcome. Sometimes it will work, sometimes will not. The same inputs to the black box will not always render the same output.

Now I’ve had a bit of a dubiously qualified rave, making vague accusations and pointing my finger about the place at indistinct phantoms, here are some actual specifics I have encountered.

Most, if not all of the headaches come from the implementation of multiple networking profiles – “My Work”, and “The Internet”. Now this multiple config setup could have been cool, if they hadn’t crippled them both in subtle and painful ways. Setting them up in seemingly logical configs does not work (ie you expect to connect to a network, access that network through a proxy if specified, access it directly if not).

After many many hours of trial and error I found some answers on the net which pretty much confirmed there wasn’t much to be done except half baked workarounds. I’ll outline the situation briefly; Its been a while since I struggled with them properly, but heres the gist:

  • Options for the different networking areas are buried, entwined, and otherwise concealed within layers of subterfuge – idiosyncratic ways to get to oddly named tabs and mislabeled options, labels and check boxes. I can only assume this is to prevent joe businessman getting into the settings to mess them up, but they do equally well at confusing IT techs who expect some kind of consistency with other configuration standards. I’ve been hoping since the pocket PC days that they would throw all this out and start again, but sadly WM6 seems to have retained most of it.
  • “My Work” traffic is defined by the device as any server accessed without a period-delimited dns entry. Whaa… So ‘ourmailserver’ would be accessed through whatever the ‘My Work” profile uses, but ‘ourmailserver.internaldomain’ won’t be. You don’t get an option to change this. Also, its not specified or appear to be documented anywhere obvious on the device.
  • To get to the internet via a connection associated with the ‘My Work’ profile, you must have a proxy server entered. You do not get a choice. No proxy, no internet, regardless of whether you happen to have direct access or not.
  • You can specify a list of addresses NOT to use the proxy/internet profile for. (Exceptions). This seemed to be a workaround to get access to the net via VPN from the wireless network on campus (see below).
  • Activesyncing the device with a PC seems to arbitrarily replace the proxy settings on the device with the proxy settings of IE from the PC being synched. It took me a while to figure out this is why my old bosses settings would work for a while on his GPRS plan (which uses a proxy server on the ISP’s network), then die (after he docked his pda and the settings were replaced).
  • VPN-ing only seemed to be allowed through an ‘internet’ connection. (this might have changed in WM6 – except… well see the next point). In WM5 The device assumes you will never be connecting to a VPN from the ‘My Work’ network. Wrong in our case, as we connect to a VPN internally when using wireless – 99% of how the PDA works. To get this working, the wildcard exceptions workaround needed to be used.
  • VPN in WM6 – what VPN? It doesnt work. Sets up fine, then never offers to connect, and attempts to connect manually fail silently. Less than ideal. Fortuantely re-jigging the new devices to use our internal proxy seems to work for most functionality.
  • Pocket IE is hardwired to obey the O/S proxy settings. Often I was unable to access web pages because of some internal device proxy confusion based in the proxy settings (third party tools would show clean pings and connections possible to the proxy server and / or the destination server). It is notable that I could often get pocket mozilla (minimo) and pocket opera to load pages when pocket IE would not.
  • Pocket MSN seems very sensitive to proxy settings. I have only ever had it working when the device has a direct connection to the net, wither via activesyncing to a PC which has a direct connection, or using GPRS.

Complaining like this smacks of heresay, because its hard to be specific about just where and in what manner things are broken. The place is like a wall of mirrors – and the diatribe sounds like someone ranting on without qualification. It sounds like the ravings of a lunatic, of a n00b, of a crazy man.

In truth, a lot of the complaints I have had seem vapous unless you’ve experienced them yourself. I know – I know these problems exist because I’ve sat for hours struggling with the damn things, and I’ve managed to set up plenty of networking devices before, and they work, so I have to lay it back on the device in question rather than any outstanding incompetence on my part.

I think the problem is this: if you add to the various configuration craziness mentioned before the fact that wireless can be flaky, you have a test environment with shifting terrain which makes it difficult to baseline and describe properly, let alone start mapping out solutions. Regardless, Windows Mobile devices are set to become part of the widespread IT landscape at my workplace very soon, and it will be at least partly up to yours truly to ensure it happens as smoothly as possible, so a-testing I must go.

UPDATE: I have posted a few solutions to some of these issues in the post Windows Mobile 5/6 Networking Profiles, Proxy and VPN setup.