Dan Appleman: Kibitzing and Commentary

My personal blog

Old Tech Rules

Yesterday I needed to do a simple Excel add-in.
No problem, right?
Being an experienced .NET developer, I figured this would be a good time to try the Visual Studio Office system – to create the add-in using VB .NET. I mean, how hard could it be?
Not hard at all as it turned out. The project template for the add-in worked well, and it took no time at all to find some simple examples online to build on. I had enough familiarity with the Excel object model to make short work of the task at hand, and the integration that allowed debugging of add-ins in Visual Studio worked brilliantly.
Then it came time to test deployment – as I needed to provide this add-in to a couple of clients.
What a fiasco.
The setup project that was created didn’t work. The instructions on MSDN and other sites for diagnosing problems were complex and unreliable. I found additional articles with suggestions for creating custom installation actions to handle the security issues that might have been the problem. There were clearly differences between versions of the Visual Studio office runtimes depending on framework version and versions of Excel to support, with no clear explanation of which to use and how to create a deployment that will work with both.
I spent as much time trying to figure out the deployment as I did creating the add-in when I decided I was wasting my time. The Visual Studio office support may be nice, but the deployment solution and documentation is abysmal. Microsoft should be ashamed to have released it. It is perhaps the most disappointing experience I’ve had with any Microsoft developer technology.
I ended up porting the code to VBA in an Excel workbook and creating a .xla Excel add-in. Though I missed the intellisence of Visual Studio, the building and debugging experience was fine. And deployment was trivial – save the workbook as an add-in. Deployment consisted of browsing to the add-in file and enabling it – and the add-in worked perfectly on Excel 2003 and 2007 the first time I tried it.
I’d come to think of .NET as current technology rather than the wave of the future. It’s clear to me that at least when it comes to Office, .NET is still future technology – costly, complex and unreliable. If I need to do any more Office add-ins, you can bet I’ll stick with VBA.

Why The Author's Guild is Wrong about the Kindle

The Author’s Guild has objected to the text-to-speech features of the new Kindle, suggesting that it somehow jeopardizes the rights of authors (See: will lawyers kill the Kindle). They are wrong on many counts.
First, it is not a copyright violation.
If you read a book out loud, is that different from reading it silently? If someone reads a book to you, does that mean you both have to buy a copy of the book? What if you hire someone to read to you? Of course not. So why would an automated reading device be any different? It is not.
Now a true audio book is different from a printed book. Why? Because it is a derivative work – a performance of a book. It is a new work that is derived from the original.
Some might argue that speech-to-text is also a performance of a work and subject to a new copyright – and it would be, if you tried to sell and market such a work. A similar situation exists with translations. If you wish to translate a book and sell the translation, you have to get permission from the copyright holder. But if a friend comes over to read a book in a foreign language and translates it for you as they read, that is perfectly fine. Text-to-speech is that high-tech friend.
But the copyright argument is not the biggest reason that the Author’s Guild is wrong about the Kindle. The real problem is that they are acting against the best interests of authors.
Here’s why.
Let’s consider audio books on CD in two categories. In general fiction Amazon.com shows 13867 results. In SF and fantasy, 1891 results.
Why would someone buy an audio book? Possibilities include:

  • Unable to read (visually impaired)
  • Too lazy to read
  • Wants to utilize commute time (while driving, on public transit).
  • Enjoys the performance.

Let’s assume that the first three of these represent 75% of the market, and that it can be replaced by text-to-speech. Let’s also assume that few people would buy both the print and audio book. Since audio books cost more than print books, text-to-speech technology should result in some drop of income to these authors as people choose to buy the print book instead of the audio book. If audio books represent 10% of a book’s total sales, and if we assume the audio book pays an author twice what a print book does, the author will lose 50% of 75% of 10% of their income – a drop in 3.75% of their income.
Of course, this would have a much greater impact on audio book publishers – but then why isn’t the audio book publisher’s guild complaining? Surely the Author’s Guild wouldn’t make such a fuss over a 3.75% drop of author’s income.
Especially when you consider the following:
Amazon lists 403,000 results just in general fiction, almost 90,000 books in SF and Fantasy. Or put another way, maybe 3% of printed books have audio books available. If there’s one thing we know about the market – when prices drop, people tend to buy more. Text-to-speech effectively reduces the cost of audio books which means people will buy more – and now they’ll be able to choose from any title, not just those with audio books available. Ultimately this will benefit far more authors as book sales increase overall.
While the numbers I use are largely hypothetical, the principle is clear – text-to-speech is good for authors. It makes their existing books more accessible and opens them to markets (commuters, visually impaired) that were otherwise closed to them. Authors win. The consumer wins. A few authors might lose a small amount. And audio book publishers potentially lose – they will have to market their good purely based on the quality of their performers, not just on the fact that it is an audio book.
The Author’s Guild should live up to its name and acknowledge the fact that the Kindle’s new text-to-speech feature is neither a copyright violation, nor is it counter to the interests of authors.

Tax time

As an active software developer, I know that technology advances rapidly. My nose is rubbed in that fact every day as I work to keep up, catch-up, and occasionally learn something new. It therefore leaves me somewhat bemused when I am surprised by huge changes in technology in areas that I don’t focus on daily. Intellectually I know they must be changing, but I’m too busy to pay attention to them, and when I do – I discover all sorts of surprises.
For many, many years tax preparation time was a routine – buy the latest edition of TurboTax, do my taxes and send them in. The only big change was switching to e-file from paper returns some years ago.
But this year that was shaken up. I was about to buy TurboTax when saw that for some reason this year’s version was getting one star rankings on Amazon.com. What could have happened? I wrote about this in my gadget column in “TurboTax takes a wrong turn- will TaxCut become the #1 tax software“.
Because that price increase (since reversed) would have doubled my costs, I started looking for other options for the first time in many years. One of the things I found was that there were numerous online options for doing taxes. What seems to have happened is that the IRS was planning its own free online filing system (it’s far less expensive and far more accurate for them to process an electronic return than a paper one). Tax preparation software companies got together to oppose this and created the “Free File Alliance” to try to protect their revenue. The way they do this is by using their free filing options to upsell other features -and to charge for filing state returns. Though officially this free filing is limited to incomes of $56,000, in fact many of the vendors don’t abide by this – neither TurboTax, TaxCut or TaxAct mention any income restrictions.
So, to my surprise, instead of reviewing the tax preparation software packages, I found myself first reviewing the free online services (See Free tax return software reviewed: TurboTax vs. TaxCut vs. TaxAct).
What really floored me was TaxAct. Their free edition could even handle my return (which is moderately complex). And the upgraded version is only $9.95. Now, I wouldn’t actually use it for my return – I find standalone software has other features that are important to me (something I’ll discuss when I review the software packages) – but it demonstrates that there has been some real progress in the area of tax return software that I had been completely oblivious to.
Makes me wonder what else I haven’t noticed recently….