645 – mobile ad blocking

It's always DNS

The internet just wouldn’t work without the magic that is the Domain Name System, or DNS. If you are not a networking guru, this service is effectively the index of internet hosts (not just websites but also anything else that offers a service on the net), and is used to find the actual address that your computer will connect to, using a name as the reference.

If you put www.bbc.co.uk into your browser, that means you want to connect to a machine called www which belongs to the domain bbc.co.uk, and a beautiful yet simply elaborate system is used to figure out how to find that domain, get the address(es) of the actual host, and provide the info back to your device so you can connect to it and request information.

Being the one service to bind it all also means DNS is often the thing that brings everything to a halt, eg. if your home router can’t connect to your ISP’s DNS server, then you’re basically unable to communicate with the rest of the world as you’d be unable to find anything (unless you hard-code your machine to use a different DNS, like CloudFlare’s 1.1.1.1 or Google’s 8.8.8.8).

Futzing about with DNS can sometimes bring benefits, though. One such is that for the many webpages which contain embedded adverts or clickbait links, if your browser is unable to connect to the source of the advert, then it might just not show the content at all. On desktop computers, you could use ad blocker browser extensions of all kinds, but on mobile devices your choices are a bit more limited.

Stupid Ad from Microsoft Start appIf you rely on mobile apps like Google News or Microsoft Start, which show content within the app and have no ability to install 3rd party browser extensions, you may have to take more action to block out all the insidious and stupid adverts.

A true geek’s solution at home could be to set up a Pi-hole; a DNS server (traditionally targeted to run on a Raspberry Pi microcomputer, hence the name) which will filter out the garbage by deliberately blocking the URL-to-address resolution of thousands of known advertisers or clickbait providers. Great when you’re on the home network, but what about if on the move and connected to another network?

One possible solution here is to use a provider like NextDNS, which has been described as effectively running a Pi-hole in the cloud for you to use.

Enable NextDNS on AndroidFree for up to 300,000 name resolutions (which sounds like a lot, but in reality, isn’t), it’s a snap to try out and if you sign up, you’ll be given simple instructions on how to plug it into your phone, tablet, desktop or even home router, so as to extend protection to every device connecting through that network.

Insidious ad has been silently blockedDNS queries would be routed to the NextDNS service and if the requested host is from one of a plethora of blocked sites – not just ads, but known trackers, phishing links etc too – then it will simply return a dud response as if the site doesn’t exist.

Your app or browser will either show you an empty box, maybe an inline error frame, or it may silently move on and display nothing at all. Just one small victory!

Using a service like this – others are available – can be switched on or off quickly (in Android, it takes the form of a single switch to configure a Private DNS with a URL unique to your account), and works regardless of whether you’re on Wi-Fi or mobile connectivity.

626 – Android Link

clip_image002Leaving aside dewy-eyed recollections of Windows Phone, Android and iOS mirror Windows and MacOS in many ways – the latter being more closed and single-supplier while the former is relatively open and available from a large number of providers. Android has a far larger market share than iOS, even if the cognoscenti seem to flock to the Apple device.

Microsoft has made great strides in the Satya Nadella era to embrace other ecosystems, from releasing Office apps for iOS to wide support of Android to emulate some of the best bits of Windows Phone.

clip_image004One way of making your Android device more integrated to your Windows PC has just been refreshed and renamed – Phone Link.

Previously known as Your Phone, this app lets you access a variety of features of your phone from your PC; from reading and sending SMS messages and working with photos easily, to making and taking calls using your PC as a headset to the phone.

clip_image006The UI has been updated to follow Windows 11 design, the app is easy to set up and activate – head to aka.ms/phonelink.

There are some things you can’t easily do with Phone Link, though – while it will mirror notifications you receive on the phone, it doesn’t necessarily allow you to interact with the app that generated them (eg a notification from Twitter won’t let you open the Twitter app to view the full thing). It does allow you to clear notifications though, so if you’re the type with loads of unacknowledged notification badges on your phone, this could be a good way to get rid of them.

While on the topic of mirroring, it is also possible to use WhatsApp on your PC – so you can type messages and paste photos etc into WhatsApp messages, without dealing with the vagaries of autocorrect on the phone.

592 – Take Note

clip_image002The simple text editor Notepad has been around since the dawn of Windows – it’s one of the few apps that was in the box with Windows 1.0 and is still there 36 years later, in Windows 10 and 11. Many people will encounter Notepad because they open a txt or log file, but some still fire up Notepad to quickly scratch something down, like a number being read out to you over the phone, when they say “do you have a pen and paper handy?”. Normally, It should take you under to two seconds to get Notepad running from anywhere – Press WindowsKey+R notepad ENTER.

Another handy use of Notepad is to quickly strip text of formatting; you might find that copying and pasting text from multiple documents often drags unwanted font choice, size, colours etc. In many apps clip_image004you have the option of pasting something as Text Only, but if not, then putting the decorated text into Notepad first, then selecting and copying it again from there will mean it pastes quickly and cleanly into the destination document. Sometimes, it’s actually quicker to use Notepad as a middleman too (especially if you favour the CTRL-C / CTRL-V method of clipboard interaction).

Some people – for whatever self-flagellatory reasons – actually use Notepad for taking notes during meetings or calls, and then maybe format their raw text into something more structured afterwards. ZDNet’s Microsoft commentator Mary Jo Foley is devout Notepad user. The fact that it’s simple and quick appeals to many, it seems.

clip_image006Notepad was turned into a Store app in mid 2019 and has gained a few tweaks to functionality, though nothing that normal people might notice. It’s getting a new icon in Windows 11, and who knows what other advanced functionality might follow.

Despite its relative simplicity, there are some obscure features – like the ability to add content to the header and/or footer of a page that’s being printed, even if there’s nowhere to save that clip_image008setting (since a TXT file is just that, until you start getting into the intricacies of different text file formats and what that might mean to applications which may consume the text file you’re editing).

Following last week’s F4 tip for Office apps like Excel, ToW reader Flaviu Comanescu-Balla goes one better in highlighting that pressing F5 in Notepad will insert the current date and time, clip_image010so if you are keeping phone notes or something, you can quickly annotate them.

In fact, Flaviu also spotted an even more obscure feature, where if you put .LOG as the first line in a Text file saved from Notepad, every time you open that file, the current date and time is appended at the end, so you can jot something down, save it again and keep a log of activities.

524 – I read the news today, oh boy

clip_image002

With most of the world in lock-down and everyone staying at home, it’s easy to be fixated with the news, even though there’s really only one topic.

clip_image004You could look at Microsoft News – a recently-updated app and website that serves up a mixture of curated news from 3rd party sources that you can define, along with annoying click-bait adverts for sometimes dubious products that you clip_image006are seemingly unable to block or hide.

The same guff pollutes the otherwise excellent new-tab experience in the new Edge browser, assuming you aren’t seeing the Office 365 tab.

There’s an FAQ that explains the rationale behind the advertising, though if you have time on your hands, you could always make your feelings known through the Feedback Hub app (here’s how), add your voice to the reviews tab on the Store, or join up to the Microsoft Old Timers group on Facebook and gripe about it while sharing photos of old t-shirts and stuff.

In the “good old days” theme, a new beta “News bar” app has been released, offering to display the same curated and presumably ad-filthy content on a sidebar reminiscent of a Vista gadget, or a ticker running along the top of the task bar like a 1990s website. Though it may be geo-locked so you can only get it in certain countries for now, read more on the News bar app here.

Whilst cooped up inside, spending your life on conference calls or Teams meetings, spare a thought for those who are new to the whole experience, and shed a tear for the technology they’re using. They could be Skyping.

518 – The App(s) of Office

clip_image002Once upon a time, there were Microsoft Office mobile apps, for Windows.

Ever since the demise of Windows Mobile and the collateral damage caused to Microsoft’s previous Universal Windows Platform apps strategy by not having a universal platform any more, their future has been in some doubt. In fact, since late 2018, it was reported that the Office “Mobile” apps for Windows were being de-prioritized in favour of the desktop variants (with the exception of OneNote), and separate mobile apps for the surviving mobile platforms.

clip_image004If you search the Microsoft Store app on PC, you won’t find any trace of the Office mobile apps for Windows PCs any more but if you want to see what the future looked like from a point 5+ years in the past, you can still access the direct links get the UWP apps for Word, Excel and PowerPoint.

In these enlightened days, Microsoft builds quite a lot of apps for iOS and Android, more especially the latter since it has a larger number of users (and seems to be growing its share in key markets) as well as being more open when it comes to the both the end-user and developer experience (though Apple may be changing its tack a little).

Recently, the Office team has shipped a whole new, unified Office app for Android and for iOSmore details in the team’s blog, here.

The app brings together Word, Excel and PowerPoint, but also adds a bunch of other related things – like Sticky Notes, and some related and useful technology like the ability to manage PDF files, extract text from an image and more.

Back in Oct 19, MJF wrote about this strategy and more recently has suggested more features are on their way.

517 – Try the preview…

clip_image002Several of Microsoft’s standard apps within Windows ship updates regularly, and increasingly are offering willing early adopters a peek at what’s coming through a  “Try the preview” clip_image004or “Coming Soon” option, usually in the top right of the main screen.

clip_image006You might need to force an update on your apps to get the latest version; go into the Store app and in the ellipsis menu on the top right, select Downloads and updates then hit the Get updates button. If you don’t like clicking menus, you could jump straight there by opening a run dialog with Win+R and entering ms-windows-store://DownloadsAndUpdates/

To find the name of any installed Store app, so you can run it from a command line or dialog, fire up powershell (just press the Start button and type that) then paste:

foreach ($p in $(get-appxpackage)) { foreach ($n in (Get-AppxPackageManifest $p).package.applications.application.extensions.extension.protocol.name) { $p.packagefullname + “`t `t `t -=- ” + $n } }

… and enter that. You’ll get a list of long app names followed by a one-word name that can be used to invoke the app. To run a Store app from a Run dialog or the Start menu directly, use that one word with a colon at the end – to start the Store version of OneNote try typing Win+R onenote: (for example).

clip_image008

clip_image010

clip_image012The Calendar app – improbably named outlookcal: even though it has nothing to do with the desktop Outlook, other than it too can display a calendar – has recently received an opt-in preview which adds a funky new UI with background graphics reminiscent of Wunderlist, and nice icons to help you quickly switch between different calendar sources.

The preview will only show up (for now) if you’re a Windows Insider. Fortune favours the brave

515 – Whiteboarding Teams

clip_image002[1]Microsoft Teams continues to attract more fans, as Office 365 licensees deploy it and end-users embrace and enjoy Teams as another way to other communicate and collaborate. As part of a blog post in November, some best practices and references were shared, as was the widely-reported figure of 20m active users.

After a while, Teams becomes prevalent as a way of managing online meetings: handy, for example, when the usual seasonal rain in Seattle gives way to the odd bout of debilitating snow.

clip_image004[1]clip_image006[1]If you’re having meetings with Teams, there’s always the chance you’ll want to collaborate on a virtual whiteboard, something that was discussed a bit back in ToW #440.

Just go to the Share control within the meeting and scroll over to the right – past a list of PowerPoint files you have recently opened; yes, it is possible to display PPT content without sharing your whole desktop – and you’ll see Whiteboard as a category.

clip_image008[1]The Microsoft Whiteboard that is listed within is a simplified version of the main application; as used in Teams, you get less control and fewer pens etc. You could just start then share out the main Whiteboard application, but as it would be a single-user application being displayed, you wouldn’t have the same fidelity of multi-user interaction.

clip_image010[1]

It is possible, however, to open up the Whiteboard canvas associated with a Teams meeting, back in the separate Microsoft Whiteboard app. So, if you want to use the groovy tools like highlighter and ruler, start Whiteboard, then look in the gallery of existing whiteboards you’ve used.

One of them will be the Whiteboard from the meeting: open it up in the main app and you’ll also be able to interact in real-clip_image012[1]time, even if the meeting is still taking place with others contributing.

Whiteboard is available as a Windows app, an iOS app, and also as a web apphere – and the web app provides the same kind of slightly more basic functionality as the Teams version. Who knows, they might be related…?

There’s also an even-more-capable whiteboard app that needs you to sign up for a free account and provides a commensurate web experience – Freehand by InVision. The Teams app basically embeds the web UI of that app too, but it provides a wider choice of features (like holding ALT down to force your freehand shapes to snap to real ones, or press SHIFT to force a straight line even if drawn with a mouse or a pen) and some additional organisational control. It’s worth looking at both Freehand and the simpler Microsoft Whiteboard.

510 – Fluent apps flow in

clip_image002Fluent is a “design language”.

Or purportedly, it’s a “design system”, itself an evolution of an earlier “Microsoft Design Language”, which evolved from “Metro”. You follow?

https://i.ytimg.com/vi/miM6mBAfA8g/maxresdefault.jpgOver the last couple of years, a variety of changes in design have rolled out across all sorts of Microsoft applications – from a simplified look of toolbars and the canvas that makes up a big part of many apps, to new icons and other UI elements. Consistency, reuse and a common experience across multiple devices is the aim.

When Hypertext was first conceived – the term itself is more than 50 years old – early implementations tended to use a book metaphor, where a page was the size of one screen, and moving around the content dived in and out through following hyper-links. Apple pioneered a similar approach with HyperCard, where a stack of virtual cards would hold data (and other objects) that were linked together.

Over the last decade, as web and app users have moved to being more mobile, the way content is displayed and interacted with has changed – many websites appear less hierarchical, with longer pages that can be swiped up and down, rather than the classic design where short pages were strung together with links.

As one example, look at the British Airways site today – it’s designed to be touch-friendly and yet be usable with a more traditional mouse/menu approach if desired:

clip_image004

clip_image006

…compared to the old, from December 2009 …

Back then, pretty much everyone who hit that site was using a keyboard, mouse and non-touch screen. Completely separate mobile versions were often build for smartphone users, but the more traditional site was still very mouse oriented. Not so today.

Microsoft’s Fluent design system embraces a common ethos that applies to web pages as well as apps on all screen sizes – and forms a big part of an expanded design philosophy, as covered by an interesting article and video from The Verge earlier this year.

As Fluent principles are being applied across the board, we’ve seen updated versions of lots of apps and online experiences – like OneDrive and OneNote, for example. More will follow, with Teams and Yammer being identified as “coming soon”.

The same thinking may even generate new forms of application – the Fluid Preview, a new canvas-type collaboration app which was announced at Ignite potentially being one.

506 – OneNote 2016 reprieve

clip_image002clip_image004OneNote is, for a lot of fans, the best application that Microsoft makes, especially in an educational setting. About 18 months ago, it was announced that the venerable and extensible (especially if you’re a OneTastic / OneCalendar user) desktop version was being put out to pasture, in favour of the more modern, erm, Modern version.

Office 2019 was no longer going to ship with OneNote – the desktop app was not being developed beyond OneNote 2016, but it would still be freely installable if desired.

Efforts would be focussed on the Modern / Store / “OneNote for Windows 10”, which shares a lineage with the mobile apps; there’s a lot to be said in favour of this strategy, since it would bring the UX of the Windows Store, tablet, phone and web apps into alignment. For regular ToW readers, this has been covered ad nauseam.

Well, blow me down, a brilliant Ignite session from @Ben Hodes only went and wound the clock back (and simultaneously painted it forward)…  [Check out Union Jack Man at 42:18 in the video stream if you want a laugh]

OneNote 2016 is getting some CPR, and will be installed by default with clean Office setups again, early in 2020.

Point of clarity – a clean Office2019 / Office 365 install doesn’t currently include OneNote 2016 … but upgrading from an existing Office install that already had OneNote, does. If need be, go to http://aka.ms/installonenote  to install OneNote 2016.

Some new features are coming, too – like Dark Mode, @mentions, To Do integration and more. The OneNote for Windows 10 code base is being back-ported to the older Win32 version; in time, the same underlying code will exist, even if there remains two versions of the product. It was previously reported that across the Office suite on Windows, the Win32 codebase will be favoured going forward, even though Modern versions were released for several of the traditional apps. We will have to wait and see.

clip_image006clip_image008Of course, lots of functionality exists in common between the two current versions of OneNote, even if the level of detail and the way to invoke and use it is a little different – take Record Audio, for example.

Did you know that if you insert an audio recording into your OneNote page, that any handwritten or typed notes you take while the recording is underway, will be linked to the corresponding place in the audio?

Later, if you click on a block of text or handwriting, you can play back the recording at just that point, or if you just start playing the audio, the notes you took will be highlighted as the playback progresses.

clip_image010In OneNote 2016, you can also have the application index the contents of audio recordings, looking for keywords. Enable it at  File > Options > Audio & Video.

No such function appears to exist in the OneNote for Windows 10 app; maybe that’s a good thing. After all, OneNote 2016 only lets you turn it on after an ominous-sounding warning…

Tip o’ the Week 496 – Dark Mode marches on

clip_image002Back in the olden days of computing, wage slaves sat in front of terminals with black backgrounds and lurid green text writing. The advent of the graphical user interface relieved this tyranny with a paper-white background from a bitmapped screen to write your WYSIWYG text, to showcase colourful graphics (and Fonts!).

Fast forward 30+ years and it seems every app and OS is running away from black text / white backgrounds, and heading for monochrome graphics and oppressive white text on a black background again.

Using Dark Mode, either in apps or in the operating system on your computer or phone, promises a variety of benefits – less noticeable flickering, reducing eye strain, avoiding bright lights in a dark environment, perhaps better readability and therefore productivity, and even lower energy costs.

clip_image004

Dark Mode has existed in Windows for a while – but ultimately, apps need to support the theme, too, and more and more are doing so – like new Edge browser, or Office apps (where you can set the Office Theme).

Microsoft recently put out a groovy video to highlight Dark Mode across a variety of apps and device types, and some commentary about why and when. It’s even come to Outlook.com as well.

clip_image006

The announcement on Microsoft 365 functionality adds for August 2019 highlighted additional Dark Mode support coming to Outlook mobile apps and Outlook.com, saying, Dark Mode is not only easier on the eyes and may extend battery life, it also enables you to comfortably continue using your device in places where the default bright mode isn’t appropriate, like darkened airplanes and movie theaters.”

So kids, next time you want to go and watch a movie & catch up on your email, make sure you’ve Dark Mode on!