Category Archives: microsoft

On Face Unlock

Face unlock is a common feature on premium (and even mid-range) devices today. Notable examples are Apple with the iPhone X, Microsoft with Windows Hello (when fully implemented with a depth-sensing camera like Intel RealSense), and on Android phones including Samsung Galaxy S9, OnePlus 6, Huawei P20 and Honor View 10 and Honor 10 AI

I’ve been trying the Honor 10 AI and naturally enabled the Face Unlock, passing warnings that it was less secure than a PIN or password. Why less secure? It is not stated, but a typical issue is being able to log in with a picture of the normal user (this would not work with Microsoft Hello).

Security is an issue, but I was also interested in how desirable this is as a feature. So far I am not convinced. Technically it works reasonably well. It is not 100% effective, especially in either bright sunlight or dim light, but most of the time it successfully unlocks the Honor phone. It is all the more impressive because I sometimes wear glasses, and it works whether or not I am wearing them.

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I enjoyed face unlock at first, since it removes a bit of friction in day to day use. Then I came across annoyances. Sometimes the face recognition takes longer than a PIN, if the lighting conditions are not optimal, and occasionally it fails. It has introduced a touch of uncertainty to the unlock process, whereas the PIN is fully reliable and controllable. I tried the optional “wake on pick up” feature and again had a mixed experience; sometimes the the phone would light up and unlock when I did not need it.

Conclusion? It is something I can easily live without so a low priority when choosing a new phone. Whereas fingerprint unlock, now that the technology has matured to the point of high reliability, is something I still enjoy.

Microsoft announces Visual Studio 2019, but pleasing developers is a tough challenge

Microsoft’s John Montgomery has announced Visual Studio 2019, in a post which is short on any details of what might be in the product, other than to continue evolving features that we already know about, such as Live Share, AI-powered IntelliCode, more refactorings and so on.

The acquisition of GitHub is bound to impact both Visual Studio and Visual Studio Team Services, but Montgomery does not talk about this.

Note there is already a Visual Studio roadmap which gives some clues about what is coming. A common theme is integration with Azure services such as Azure Key Vault (for app secrets), Azure Functions, and Azure Container Service (Kubernetes).

It is more illuminating to read the comments to Montgomery’s post. Montgomery says that Visual Studio 2017 is “our most popular Visual Studio release ever,” which I presume is a count of how many times it has been downloaded or installed. It is not the most reliable though; one comment says “2017 has been buggier than all of the bugs 2015 and 2013 had combined.” I imagine every Visual Studio developer, myself included, has to exit and reload the IDE from time to time to fix odd behaviour. Other comments include:

– Reporting components have to be added per project rather than being integrated into the toolbox

– SQL Server Data Tools (SSDT) lagged behind the 2017 release and still have issues

– the XAML designer has performance and behaviour issues and the new XAML designer in preview is missing many features

In general, Microsoft struggles to keep Visual Studio up to date with its constantly-changing developer platform while also working well with the older technologies that are still widely used. The transition from .NET Framework to .NET Core is a tricky issue for the team to solve.

User Benjamin Callister says this:

I have been developing professionally with VS for 20 years now. honestly, the experience seems to get worse with each new release. the amount of time wasted in my day working with XAML alone makes me more than frustrated. The feeling is mutual among my peers as well – and it has been for years now. VS Code is such a fresh breath of air because of its speed. VS full has become so bloated, working with UWP/XAML so slow, and build times so slow. Also, imo profiling tools should be turned OFF by default, with a simple button to toggle them back on when needed. As a developer, I don’t want them on all the time – rather, just when I want to profile.

The mention of Visual Studio code is an interesting one. Code is cross-platform and has an increasing number of extensions and will be an increasingly popular choice for developers who can live without the vast range of features in Visual Studio.

Asus Project Precog dual-screen laptop: innovation in PC hardware, but missing the keyboard may be too high a price

Asus has announced Project Precog at Computex in Taiwan. This is a dual-screen laptop with a 360° hinge and no keyboard.

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The name suggests a focus on AI, but how much AI is actually baked into this device? Not that much. It features “Intelligent Touch” that will change the virtual interface automatically and adjust the keyboard location or switch to stylus mode. It includes Cortana and Amazon Alexa for voice control. And the press release remarks optimistically that “The dual-screen design of Project Precog lets users keep their main tasks in full view while virtual assistants process other tasks on the second screen,” whatever that means – not much is my guess, since is the CPU that processes tasks, not the screen.

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Even so, kudos to Asus for innovation. The company has a long history of bold product launches; some fail, some, like the inexpensive 2007 Eee PC which ran Linux, have been significant. The Eee PC was both a lot of fun and helped to raise awareness of alternatives to Windows.

The notable feature of Project Precog of course is not so much the AI, but the fact that it has two screens and no keyboard. Instead, if you want to type, you get an on-screen keyboard. The trade-off is extra screen space at the cost of convenient typing.

I am not sure about this one. I like dual screens, and like many people much prefer using two screens for desktop work. That said, I am also a keyboard addict. After many experiments with on-screen keyboards on iPads, Windows and Android tablets, I am convinced that the lack of tactile feedback and give on a virtual keyboard makes them more tiring to work on and therefore less productive.

Still, not everyone works in the same way as I do; and until we get to try a Project Precog device (no date announced), we will not know how well it works or how useful the second screen turns out to be.

Microsoft and GitHub, and will GitHub get worse?

Microsoft has announced an agreement to acquire GitHub for $7.5 billion (in Microsoft stock). Nat Friedman, formerly CEO of Xamarin, will become GitHub’s CEO, and GitHub will continue to run somewhat independently. A few comments.

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Background: GitHub is a cloud-based source code repository based on Git, a distributed version control system created by Linus Torvalds. It is free to use for public, open source projects but charges a fee (from 7$ to $21 per user per month) for private repositories.

First, why? This one is easy. Microsoft is a big customer of GitHub. Microsoft used to have its own hosting service for open source software called CodePlex but abandoned it in favour of GitHub, formally closing CodePlex in March 2017:

Over the years, we’ve seen a lot of amazing options come and go but at this point, GitHub is the de facto place for open source sharing and most open source projects have migrated there. We migrated too.

said Brian Harry.

Microsoft also uses GitHub for its documentation, and this has turned out to be a big improvement on its old documentation sites.

Note also that Microsoft has many important open source projects of its own, including much of its developer platform (.NET Core, ASP.NET Core and Entity Framework Core). Many of its projects are overseen by the .NET Foundation. Other notable open source, Github-hosted projects include Visual Studio Code, a programmer’s editor that has won many friends, and TypeScript, a typed superset of JavaScript that compiles to standard JavaScript code.

When big companies become highly dependent on the services of another company they may become anxious about it. What if the other company were taken over by a competitor? What if it were to run into trouble, or to change in ways that cause problems? Acquisition is an easy solution.

In the case of GitHub, there was reason to be anxious since it appears not to be profitable – unsurprising given the large number of free accounts.

Second, Microsoft is always pitching to developers, trying to attract them to its platform and especially Azure services. It has a difficult task because it is the Windows company and the Windows platform overall is in decline, versus Linux on servers and Android/iOS on mobile. Therefore it is striving to become a cross-platform company, and with considerable success. I discuss this at some length in this piece. Note that there is a huge amount of Linux on Azure, including “more than 40%” of the virtual machines. More than 50%? Maybe.

If Microsoft can keep GitHub working as well as before, or even improve it, it will do a lot to win the confidence of developers who are currently outside the Microsoft platform ecosystem.

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Will GitHub get worse?

The tricky question: under Microsoft, will GitHub get worse? The company’s track record with acquisitions is spotty, ranging from utter disasters (Nokia, Danger) to doubtful (Skype), to moderately successful so far (LinkedIn, Xamarin).

Under the current leadership, I doubt anything bad will happen to GitHub. I’d guess it will migrate some infrastructure to Azure (GitHub runs mainly from its own datacentres as I understand it) but there is no need to re-engineer the platform to run on Windows.

Some businesses will be uncomfortable hosting their valuable source code with Microsoft. That is understandable, in the same way that I hear of retailers reluctant to use Amazon Web Services (since it is a platform owned by a competitor), but it is a low risk. Others have long-standing mistrust of Microsoft and will want to migrate away from GitHub because of this.

Personally I think it is right to be wary of any giant global corporation, and dislike the huge and weakly regulated influence they have on our lives. I doubt that Microsoft is any worse than its peers in terms of trustworthiness but of course this is open to debate.

Another point: with this acquisition, free GitHub hosting for open source projects will be likely to continue. The press release says:

GitHub will retain its developer-first ethos and will operate independently to provide an open platform for all developers in all industries. Developers will continue to be able to use the programming languages, tools and operating systems of their choice for their projects — and will still be able to deploy their code to any operating system, any cloud and any device.

It is of course in Microsoft’s interests to make this work and the success of Visual Studio Code and TypeScript (which also come from the developer side of the company) shows that it can make cross-platform projects work. So I am optimistic that GitHub will be OK.

Update: I’ve noticed Sam Newman and Martin Fowler taking this view, a good sign from a people I respect and who are by no means from the usual Microsoft crowd.

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Official announcements

Press release: https://news.microsoft.com/?p=406917

Chris Wanstrath’s Blog Post: https://blog.github.com/2018-06-04-github-microsoft/

Satya Nadella’s Blog Post: https://blogs.microsoft.com/?p=52553832

Case sensitive directories now possible in Windows Explorer as well as in the Windows Subsystem for Linux

Experienced Windows users will know that occasionally you hit a problem with case sensitivity in file names. The problem is that on Linux, you can have files whose name differs only in case, such as MyFile.txt and myfile.txt. Windows on the other hand will not normally let you do this and the second will overwrite the first.

The latest build of Windows 10 (1803, or the April 2018 Update) has a fix for this. You can now set directories to be case-sensitive using the fsutil command line utility:

fsutil.exe file setCaseSensitiveInfo <path> enable

You can then enjoy case sensitivity even in Windows Explorer:

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This is not particularly useful in Windows. In fact, it is probably a bad idea since most Windows applications presume case-insensitivity. I found that using Notepad on my case-insensitive directory I soon hit bugs. I double-click a file, edit, save, and get this:

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Press F5 and it sorts itself out.

Developers may have written applications where a file is specified with different case in different places. Everything is fine; it is the same file. Then you enable case-sensitivity and it breaks, possibly with unpredictable behaviour where the application does not actually crash, but gives wrong results (which is worse).

If you are using WSL though, you may well want case-sensitivity. There are even applications which will not compile without it, because there are different files in the source whose name differs only by case. Therefore, WSL has always supported case-sensitivity by default. However, Windows did not recognize this so you had to use this feature only from WSL.

In the new version this has changed and when you create a directory in WSL it will be case-sensitive in both WSL and Windows.

There is a snag. In the full explanation here there is an explanation of how to adjust this behaviour using /etc/wsl.conf and also the warning:

Any directories you created with WSL before build 17093 will not be treated as case sensitive anymore. To fix this, use fsutil.exe to mark your existing directories as case sensitive.

Hmm. If you are wondering why that application will not compile any more, this could be the reason. You can set it back to the old behaviour if you want.

Should Microsoft have made the file system case-sensitive? Possibly, though it is one of those things where it is very difficult to change the existing behaviour, for the reasons stated above. Note that Windows NT has always supported case-sensitive file names, but the feature is in effect disabled for compatibility reasons. It is poor for usability, having files whose names differ only in case which are therefore easily confused. So I am not sure. Being able to switch it on selectively is nice though.

“An invalid name request was made”: an ugly error from the Windows 10 app platform

I went to open Spotify this morning, installed from the Windows Store, but saw the following error:

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This is not user friendly. However I have the latest April update of Windows 10 (this may be the reason of course) which can reset and repair apps. Just right-click the app and choose App Settings. I clicked Repair. Got a nice tick. However the same error message.

So I tried Reset. This completely reinstalls the app and resets its settings (annoying). Got a nice tick. Same error message.

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Figuring this might be worth a blog post, I went to Open Live Writer, also installed from the Store. Oh dear. An invalid name request was made. The name requested cannot be retrieved at this time.

In true Windows style, the actual name requested is hidden, not that I was consciously wanting to retrieve any kind of name. I just want the app to run, and being locally installed, reckon it should just work.

I reverted to the non-Store version of Open Live Writer to make this post.

In the event viewer, I see this:

0x801F0005: Cannot create the Desktop AppX container for package SpotifyAB.SpotifyMusic_1.80.474.0_x86__zpdnekdrzrea0 because an error was encountered configuring the runtime.

Next thing to try: reboot. Everything is fine.

This is ugly though. Something broke multiple apps installed from the Store. I will update if I discover more about the reason for this.

Update: A tweet from Microsoft Lead Program Manager Stefan Wick states that a fix is in the works:

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What is happening with desktop development on Windows and will WPF be upgraded at last?

Once upon a time all Windows development was desktop development. Then there was web development, but that was a server thing. Then in October 2012 Windows 8 arrived, and it was all about full-screen, touch control and Store-delivered applications that were sandboxed and safe to run. Underneath this there was a new platform-within-a-platform called the Windows Runtime or WinRT (or sometimes Metro). Developing for Windows became a choice: new WinRT platform, or old-style desktop development, the latter remaining necessary if your application needed more features than were available in WinRT, or to run on Windows 7.

Windows 8 failed and was replaced by Windows 10 (July 2015), in large part a return to the desktop. The Start menu returned, and each application again had a window. WinRT lived on though, now rebranded as UWP (Universal Windows Platform). The big selling point was that your UWP app would run on phones, Xbox and HoloLens as well as PCs. It was still locked down, though less so, and still Store-delivered.

Then Microsoft decided to abandon Windows Phone, a decision obvious to Microsoft-watchers in June 2015 when ex-Nokia CEO Stephen Elop left Microsoft, just before the launch of Windows 10, even though Windows Phone was not formally killed off until much later. UWP now had a rather small u (that is, not very universal).

In addition, Microsoft decided that locking down UWP was not the way forward, and opened up more and more Windows APIs to the platform. The distinction between UWP and desktop applications was further blurred by Project Centennial, now known as Desktop Bridge, which lets you wrap desktop applications for Store delivery.

Perhaps the whole WinRT/UWP thing was not such a good idea. A side-effect though of all the focus on UWP was that the old development frameworks, such as Windows Forms (WinForms) and Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF), received little attention – even though they were more widely used. Some Windows 10 APIs were only available in UWP, while other features only worked in WinForms or WPF, giving developers a difficult decision.

The Build 2018 event, which was on last week in Seattle, was the moment Microsoft announced that it would endeavour to undo the damage by bringing UWP and desktop development together. “We’ve taken all the UI stacks and merged them together” said Mike Harsh and Scott Hunter in a session on “Modernizing desktop apps” (BRK3501 if you want to look it up).

According to Harsh and Hunter, Windows desktop application development is increasing, despite the decline of the PC (note that this is hardly a neutral source).

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So what was actually announced? Here is a quick summary. Note that the announced features are for the most part applicable to future versions of Windows 10. As ever, Build is for the initial announcement. So features are subject to change and will not work yet, other than possibly in pre-release form.

Greater information density in UWP applications. WinRT/UWP was originally designed for touch control, so with lots of white space. Most Windows users though have mouse and keyboard. The spacious UWP layout looked wrong on big desktop displays, and it made porting applications harder. The standard layout is getting less dense, and a new Compact Size, an application setting, will pack more information into the same space.

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More controls for UWP. New DataGrid, Forms with data validation, Menu bar, and coming in future, Status bar, tab controls and Ribbon. The idea is to make UWP more suitable for line-of-business applications, which accounts for a large part of Windows application development overall.

New Windowing APIs for UWP. WinRT/UWP was designed for full-screen applications, not the popup-dialogs or floating windows possible in desktop applications. Those capabilities are coming though. We will get tool windows, light-dismiss windows (eg type and press Enter), and multiple windows on one thread so that they work like a single application when minimized or cycled through with alt-tab. Coming in future are topmost windows, modal windows, custom title bars, and maybe even MDI (Multiple Document Interface), though this last seems surprising since it is discouraged even in the desktop frameworks.

What many developers will care about more though is new features coming to desktop applications. There are two big announcements.

.NET Core 3.0 will support WinForms and WPF. This is big news, partly because it performs better than the Windows-only .NET Framework, but more important, because it allows side-by-side deployment of the .NET runtime. Even better, a linker will let you deliver a .NET Core desktop application as a single executable with no dependencies. What performance gain? An example shown at Build was an application which uses File APIs running nearly three times faster on .NET Core 3.0.

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XAML Islands enabling UWP features in WinForms and WPF. The idea is that you can pop a UWP host control in your WinForms or WPF application, and show UWP content there. Microsoft is also preparing wrapper controls that you can use directly. Mentioned were WebView, MediaPlayer, InkCanvas, InkToolBar, Map and SwapChainPanel (for DirectX content). There will be a few compromises. The XAML host window will be rectangular (based on an HWND) which means non-rectangular and transparent content will not work correctly. There is also the Windows 7 problem: no UWP on Windows 7, so what happens to your XAML Islands? They will not run, though Microsoft is working on a mechanism that lets your application substitute compatible Windows 7 content rather than crashing.

MSIX deployment. MSIX is Microsoft’s latest deployment technology. It will work with both UWP and Desktop applications, will support Windows 7 and 10, will provide for auto-updates, and will have tooling built into Visual Studio, as well as a packager for both your own and third-party applications. Applications installed with MSIX are managed and updated by Windows, have tamper protection, and are installed per-user. It seems to build upon the Desktop Bridge concept, the aim being to make Windows more manageable in the Enterprise as well as safer for all users, if Microsoft can get widespread adoption. The packaging format will also work on Android, Mac and Linux and you can check out the SDK here.

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Will WPF or WinForms be updated?

The above does not quite answer the question, will WPF or Windows Forms be significantly updated, other than with the ability to use UWP content? I could not get a clear answer on this question at Build, though I was told that adding support for .NET Core 3.0 required significant changes to these frameworks so it is no longer true to say they are frozen. With regard to WPF Microsoft Corporate VP Julia Liuson told me:

“We will be looking at more controls, more capabilities. It is widely recognised that WPF is the best framework for desktop development on Windows. The fact that we’re moving on top of .NET Core 3.0 gives us a path forward.”

That said, I also heard that the team would rather write code once and use it across UWP, WPF and WinForms via XAML Islands, than write new controls for each framework. That makes sense, the difficulty being Windows 7. Microsoft would rather promote migration to Windows 10, than write new UI components that work across both Windows 7 and Windows 10.

Cosmos DB or SQL Server? Do you need Kubernetes? VM or App Service? A guide to Azure worth checking out

One of the best features of Microsoft Build, possibly the best, is the exhibition. Microsoft sets up stands for each of its product teams, and the staff there generally include the people who actually build that product, making this a great way to interact with them and get authoritative answers to questions.

I interviewed several executives at Build and asked a couple of times, how can your customers work out which Azure service is the best fit for what they need? It is not a trivial question, now that there are so many different services which overlapping functionality.

It is critically important. You can waste a large amount of money and cause unnecessary frustration by selecting the wrong services.

None of these executives mentioned that Microsoft has a rather good guide for exactly this question. It is called the Azure Architecture Center and I discovered it on the show floor.

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The stand was called Azure Clinic and I told the guy his costume reminded me of Dr GUI. He was too young to remember this MSDN character of old but another guy on the stand overheard and said it brought back bad memories!

You can find the Azure Architecture Center here. It does not make any assumptions about the depth of knowledge you have, which seems right to me since it is aimed at developers who are not sure exactly what they need. There is a ton of useful material, like this decision tree for the compute services (click to enlarge):

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Recommended.

Hands On with Remote Assist, a compelling HoloLens application, at Microsoft Build

One of the announcements at Microsoft’s Build event in Seattle was Remote Assist, an application for the HoloLens augmented reality headset. Today I got an opportunity to try this out, and was impressed.

The company has set up a hotel room as a factory with some big machines that whir and hum and a scary power supply cabinet. I took the part of the engineer when a fault stops the machines and the factory grinds to a halt. Unfortunately I knew nothing about how to fix it.

The solution was to put on the HoloLens headset and make a call to someone better informed. The concept is pretty simple. The remote technician sees what you see, so can easily inspect the screens as well as the physical state of the machinery. Along with the video call, HoloLens and Remote Assist lets the remote technician add annotations to the real world, pinpointing the exact button, cable or belt that needs attention. They can also stick images or documents next to the machinery to show you what to do.

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The fake factory floor was a little contrived, but nevertheless effective in showing how this approach can make it easier to offer support. The alternative in this kind of case is a site visit, which with specialised equipment might well involve a flight and several days delay. The cost is not only the travel expenses, but also the possible extended downtime while machinery is idle.

If you have ever tried to guide someone at the other end of a telephone through fixing a physical problem, you will know how tricky it can be. Send me a photo. No, that’s not quite the right spot. Send me another photo. What happens if you change that setting? No, not that setting! Sorry, now you have two things to fix …

Remote Assist makes this much easier and I can see the potential. HoloLens may seem expensive for a casual purchase, but could soon pay for itself in this context.

There is no date yet for availability, but the technology will enter limited preview soon.

More info here and in the video below.

I also tried Remote Layout, a HoloLens application for designing room layouts. This was less exciting. I was not clear how to achieve the precision you need for a real-world factory layout. Nevertheless, I get the point that overlaying life-size objects onto the real world can reveal issues that you might well miss with just a drawing.

Finally, I tried a super-secret demo that I am not allowed to tell you about. Yet.

Chromebooks get more useful as Linux comes to Chrome OS

At Google’s IO conference under way in San Francisco, the company has announced the ability for a Chromebook to run Linux applications.

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“Support for Linux will enable you to create, test and run Android and web app for phones, tablets and laptops all on one Chromebook. Run popular editors, code in your favourite language and launch projects to Google Cloud with the command-line. Everything works directly on a Chromebook,” says product manager Ton Buckley. “Linux runs inside a virtual machine that was designed from scratch for Chromebooks. That means it starts in seconds and integrates completely with Chromebook features. Linux apps can start with a click of an icon, windows can be moved around, and files can be opened directly from apps.”

Squinting at the screen in Google’s photo, above, it looks like the Linux VM runs Debian.

Coupled with the existing ability to run Android apps, the announcement makes Chromebooks more attractive for users (and I am one of them) who would previously have found the operating system too restrictive.

Buckley presents the new feature as primarily one for developers. You will be able to build and test Android applications directly on the Chromebook. Given the operating system’s native support for Android, this should be an excellent machine for Android development.

One of the first things I would install would be Visual Studio Code, presuming it runs OK. Thanks to .NET Core, ASP.NET development should work. The LAMP stack running locally would be great for  PHP development.

Personally I would not only use it for coding though. The ability to run LibreOffice would be great, for example. There are also a ton of handy Linux utilities for admins.

Top feature: security

The key attractions of Chromebooks (aside from low prices from OEM vendors) is security. They are popular in education for this reason. They require less management than PCs because the operating system is locked down and self-patching. The new feature should not compromise security too much, because Linux runs in a VM and in the worst case resetting the VM should clear any malware – though access to user documents could make malware running in the VM quite disruptive.

Apple’s iPad Pro is another capable device with a locked down OS, but does not run Linux applications.

What about Windows? Microsoft has tried and so far failed to lock down Windows in a manner acceptable to its customers. Windows RT was the first attempt, but users found it too restrictive, partly because the Windows 8 app ecosystem was so weak. Windows S is another attempt; but progress is slow. Microsoft has also weakened the security of its modern app platform to make it more capable, even to the extent of allowing desktop applications into the Windows Store. The approach taken by Apple and Google, to design a new secure operating system and make it gradually more capable, is more viable than Microsoft’s work in the opposite direction.