The closest I got to Windows on ARM at Microsoft BUILD 2011

A couple of the stands in the exhibition at Microsoft’s BUILD conference last week were showing Windows on ARM. This one was on the NVIDIA stand and was most likely running its Tegra 2 SoC (System on a Chip) though Tegra 3 (code-name Kal-El) is apparently now in production. The tablet was displayed under a plastic shroud which could only be lifted when someone from Microsoft was present, though I was able to get this snap of the machine sans shroud. I was not permitted to handle the machine.


I have blanked out part of the background because it was black on black.

My main observation: it looks just like the Intel version. This screen shows a Metro app running side by side with the Windows desktop, and showing the “charms” on the right.

Gartner reports that Apple will have the tablet market almost to itself in 2011 (73.4% market share). I believe Windows on ARM is critical to Microsoft’s strategy to compete. In principle, it should be cheaper and more efficient than an Intel device, and one that is more locked-down in the style to which Apple has made us accustomed.

If Microsoft and its hardware partners can get the size, weight and design details right, I suspect I would rather have a Windows 8 tablet than an iPad. One advantage is the ability to have two apps side by side. Microsoft’s new user interface works really well with touch. I will expect to find a Windows remote desktop client there by default, and better support for Microsoft Office and SharePoint than I find in the iPad.

By the time Windows 8 comes out though, we will likely have iPad 3 with who-knows-what improvements; Apple has all the apps; and breaking into this market will not be easy.

Appcelerator opens component marketplace for mobile developers

Appcelerator has launched its Mobile Marketplace, offering software components for mobile and web developers using Titanium, Appcelerator’s cross-platform toolkit for Apple iOS, Google Android, and others – though only iOS and Android seem to be supported in the Marketplace currently.


Developers create modules using the Titanium Module SDK, and get 70% of revenue.

I took a quick look and found it thought-provoking. I am a fan of user reviews, and one nice feature of the Mobile Marketplace is that it supports reviews and ratings. Finding out what other developers think of a particular component often involves trawling through Google searches, asking on forums and so on; a marketplace with authentic hands-on reviews has real value.

That said, when I checked out an example, LucidChart, which is a diagramming component with 5 star rating and four reviews, I was not impressed with the review quality, and puzzled that some of the reviews date from July, before the Marketplace opened. Still, developers can make their own judgment about the reliability of a particular review.

Many of the components are on a monthly subscription, on a per seat, per month basis. Some developers are uncomfortable with this model and the likely costs:

… charging such high monthly fees is a complete rip off. My entire Apple developer license only works out at $8.25, are you seriously thinking that a module is worth more than what Apple provide to developers for a fraction of the cost?

Another issue is that some of the products are not really code components, but developer services like TeamworkPM.

Some components are free though, and if the Marketplace attracts a reasonable level of traffic and interest then it could prove an excellent resource for Titanium developers.

Finding apps in Windows 8

I’ve been spending some time in Windows 8, complete with the Metro-style Start menu. The new Start menu is not great in a virtual machine without touch. You have to navigate with the horizontal scroll bar at the bottom of the screen, which I find somewhat jerky. DirectX is not particularly fast on the VM, which I view using Remote Desktop. Another puzzle is that many apps are not represented by tiles on the big menu. How do you find them?

The answer is that the tiles are not exactly equivalent to the items on a Windows 7 Start menu. They are more equivalent to the items that you have pinned to the taskbar in Windows 7; and in fact, if you pin an app in Windows 8, it appears as a tile. To get the full list of Start menu items you are meant to start typing.

image image

When you press a key in the Metro Start menu, the tiles disappear, and you get a list of all the apps that match what you have typed. The match seems to be based on words with initial letters that match your string. So if you type CL you match Disk Cleanup, but typing PAD does not find WordPad.

If you press Windows key – Q it brings up the Search Apps screen with an empty search box, and lists all your apps in a columnar A-Z view.


Now, the thing that gives me hope here is that the search is very fast, much faster than I am used to with search in the Windows 7 start menu. It could almost convert me.

Search is baked into Metro, and searching apps is only one of the options. You can also search settings and files (though files seems to mean documents), and any applications that implement the search contract. For example, from the same search pane, you can search the custom BUILD app for c#:


One other thing: “All Apps” is not really all apps, of course; just the ones that would have been in the Windows 7 Start menu. If you want, say, Dxdiag, you will have to press Windows Key – R and type it in there. It would be nice if typing DX would find it, but it is not that smart unfortunately (update – but see comments below).

Adobe to ship Flash 11 and AIR 3, repositions Flash vs HTML 5

Adobe has announced that Flash 11 and AIR 3 will ship in early October.

There are significant changes in this release.

  • Flash gets Stage 3D (previously codenamed Molehill), a set of low-level 3D APIs, GPU accelerated where hardware allows, which will make console-like 3D graphics and games possible in Flash. Stage 3D wraps DirectX on Windows and OpenGL on desktop and mobile platforms.
  • 64-bit Flash is here at last, supporting 64-bit Internet Explorer and other browses on Windows, Mac and Linux.
  • AIR, which uses Flash as a runtime for desktop and mobile applications, now supports native extensions for better device support, operating system integration, and the ability to speed performance-critical code or use open source libraries.
  • In addition, the AIR packager for iOS, which lets you wrap your application as a native executable, is now a feature called Captive Runtime which is available for Windows, Mac and Android as well as iOS. Users who install a packaged application will not know it uses AIR, and will not need to install or update the AIR runtime as it is packaged with the application, though it is not actually a single file (on Windows at least).

These new options make the Flash and AIR combination an interesting comparison with other cross-platform development tools, such as Embarcadero’s new Delphi XE2, which targets Windows, Mac and iOS with a new framework called FireMonkey; or Appcelerator’s Titanium tool for cross-platform desktop and mobile development. Note though that Adobe is not promising any performance improvement. This is just another way to package the same runtime.

Adobe’s advantage is its high quality design and development tools and the maturity of the Flash runtime. For application size and performance, it will likely fall short of true native development tools. The ActionScript language could do with updating, and I would not be surprised if Adobe addresses this in the next major Flash release.

But do we still need Flash? Flash in the browser is in decline, thanks to the influence of Apple and the rise of HTML 5. Adobe’s MAX conference is coming up soon, and I noticed in the schedule [Flash needed] a defensive note in some of the sessions; there is even one called “The Death of Flash” which talks about “the misinformation that’s percolated through the web over the past year”.

That may be so; but even Adobe is re-positioning Flash and recognizing the rise of HTML 5. “Customers see significant advantages for Flash in a few focused areas,” said Adobe’s Danny Winokur, VP and General Manager of Platform , in a press briefing. He identified these areas as gaming, media apps, and “sophisticated data-driven applications” – think data visualisation rather than just forms over data. “For everything else it is very clear that … HTML 5 is a mature enough technology that it is a really good solution.”

Adobe is therefore investing in HTML 5 tools as well as Flash tools, and Winokur mentioned the Edge motion design tool as well as the venerable Dreamweaver.

I asked Winokur, given that HTML 5 is maturing fast, how Adobe sees the picture vs Flash in say two years time. He replied that Adobe is actively working to advance HTML 5, but that “there will continue to be opportunities for innovation in Flash, where we can … enable new possibilities that did not previously exist on the Web.” He makes the case for Flash as a kind of leading edge for HTML, with features that eventually become part of the HTML standard.

It is a fair point, but it is obvious that the niche for Flash is getting smaller rather than larger.

Adobe has never charged for the Flash runtime, and while the Flash vs HTML path is tricky to navigate, Adobe mainly makes its money from design tools, server applications and web analytics, and while Flash plays some client role in many of these products, Adobe can tune them over time to make less use of the runtime. I believe we can see this happening.

More positively, Adobe is benefiting from the demand for rich content across both web and applications, and has just reported decent financial results, showing the company’s resilience.

Finally, everyone is asking what Adobe will do about Microsoft’s WIndows 8 Metro platform for tablets, given that browser plug-ins are not supported. Here is the answer:

… we expect Flash based apps will come to Metro via Adobe AIR, much the way they are on Android, iOS and BlackBerry Tablet OS today

though I hope this will be delivered more quickly than the promised Flash runtime for Windows Phone 7, which is not a subject either Adobe or Microsoft seems willing to talk about.

Update: Adobe has also announced the Flex 4.6 SDK and Flash Builder 4.6, which supports these new capabilities including Captive Runtime and Native Extensions, and has new controls specifically aimed at tablet apps.

Delphi team focusing on FireMonkey, VCL winding down?

Julian Bucknall at componnent vendor DevExpress writes a thoughtful post arguing that Embarcadero will focus on Delphi’s new cross-platform FireMonkey framework in future, and that the VCL (Visual Component Library) which has been at the heart of Delphi since its first release will receive little future investment.

Bucknall notes that ex-Borland employee Danny Thorpe tweeted about 1/3 of the Delphi VCL and IDE team being laid off in Scotts Valley, USA; while Embarcadero’s Tony De La Lama blogs about new posts in Europe. FireMonkey was originally developed in Russia.

The VCL is a mature framework by any standards (Delphi was first released in 1995), and now that the 64-bit VCL has been released the most pressing demands of developers have been met.

Further, Microsoft itself is slowing development of the Win32 API on which VCL is based, in favour of the mobile and touch-friendly Metro user interface and the new Windows Runtime on which it is built. The VCL will never adapt to Metro, but FireMonkey might do so. The Windows Runtime has an API which is represented by metadata in same format used by .NET’s Ildasm. If Embarcadero can adapt Delphi to read this metadata so that you can easily call the API, then a Delphi for Metro seems plausible, but it would not use the VCL.

Delphi already works well for Windows applications, so from Embarcadero’s point of view, growth will come from cross-platform and mobile development using FireMonkey.

The main snag is that unlike the VCL, FireMonkey is far from mature, and developers are complaining about lack of documentation as well as limitations in the current implementation.

There is also a philosophical difference between VCL and FireMonkey. VCL is a “heavyweight” GUI framework in that it depends on native Windows controls, with the advantage that you get a truly native look and feel in your Delphi application. FireMonkey is a “lightweight” GUI framework which renders the UI entirely through custom drawing, which is great for cross-platform consistency, but poor if you want a native look and feel. Performance-wise, and despite the name, heavyweight frameworks often feel faster because native controls are optimised for the operating system.

The key question then: will FireMonkey be as good for cross-platform, as the VCL has been for Windows? Based on my first experiments I am not sure at the moment, though I expect it to improve. I would be interested in views from others who have worked with it.

Installing Windows 8 developer preview on VirtualBox

I have installed the Windows 8 developer preview on Oracle VirtualBox. It does not work on Virtual PC since 64-bit guests are not supported. It is probably fine on Hyper-V, but I don’t have spare Hyper-V capacity for it at the moment.


I had a few hassles and thought it would be worth sharing my notes.

I gave the VM 2GB of RAM, 2 processors, and the maximum amount of video ram, but these settings are up to you.

The main problem I encountered was with the mouse. I found that it worked a bit in the Windows 8 guest, but only a bit. The pointer jumped around and was too frustrating to use.

The solution I found was to remote desktop to the VM from my Windows 7 desktop. I could not get the remote desktop built into VirtualBox to work, on a brief try, so I used pure Windows to Windows.

In order to do this, I first set networking in VirtualBox to Bridged. This means it is on the same subnet as the host computer. Then I enabled remote desktop access in the Windows 8 control panel. I opened a command prompt to check the IP address – Windows key + R opens the Run prompt and is a useful combination when the mouse is not working.

Then I was able to use remote desktop to that IP address. Note that unless you join the Windows 8 machine to a domain, the username is:

machinename\email address

or alternatively

WindowsLiveID\email address

presuming you do the default thing, which is to hook up Windows 8 to a Live ID.

Now, if you do this you will have two GUIs showing, which is untidy. You can fix this by running the VM headless. Shut down the VM, navigate to the VirtualBox directory and run the following command:

vboxheadless –startvm yourvmname

Now you can log on to the Windows 8 VM without having any other instance on the screen.

You might not have the same problem with the mouse, of course.

Incidentally, I am not sure what is the best way to shutdown the VM, but I use a command prompt or WindowsKey – R and type:

shutdown /s

My final observation: Windows 8 with just mouse and keyboard is a lot less fun than on a real tablet. It raises the question of just how much value there is in Windows 8 for non-tablet users. I suspect rather little, which is why Windows 7 is set for a long life on the corporate desktop, and for other users who do not have touch screens.

Why I miss pinball machines

I’m just back from Microsoft’s BUILD conference in Anaheim, California, where I had little time to do much other than attend sessions, write, eat and sleep (a little).

I did have a quick look round the exhibition though, and was pleased to find four pinball machines. Unfortunately I never got a go, except on one that proved to be slightly broken. Another was so broken that it was switched off.


That’s one of the reasons you don’t see many pinball machines these days. They are high-maintenance, with many moving parts that get pounded constantly by one or more heavy silver balls, plus the occasional thump from the player as he bangs or shifts the machine just enough to affect the ball’s motion without causing, he hopes, a tilt.

Another reason for the game’s decline is that a good player can play for ages on a single quarter – or 50c, which seems to be the going rate now. It is a game of skill where accurate shooting gets you both long games and frequent extra balls and replays.

Neither of these characteristics is good for arcades, which like high income and low maintenance.

I love the game though. It offers tactile, physical pleasure that will never be captured by video simulations. The machines themselves are pure delight, every one different, often with gorgeous artwork and amazing gameplay with loops and tunnels and mini-play areas and fantastic contraptions that enable themselves if you get the right sequence of targets.

Most latter-day machines have a multi-ball mode, which is a lot of fun and surprisingly difficult. Watching several balls at once is a great deal harder than keeping your eye on just one.

I am not sure that pinball machines are made any more, though enthusiasts seem to be able to keep the old ones going. Sadly a lot of the machines you encounter in dusty corners of cafés and arcades are not in good order, the bumpers do not bump as they should, some features do not quite work, and they are disappointing.

The best one at BUILD was called Pirates of the Caribbean and seemed pretty good, though I never got a game.

Most of the time I have to make do with computer simulations. The best I have come across are the Pro Pinball series for the PC (don’t get the Xbox version which is a poor port). I was on a forum once with one of the developers, who explained how he hated scrolling on pinball simulations. I agree – how you can shoot accurately with the play area is scrolling all time? There is also an amazing open source project which lets you load actual machine ROMs for authentic simulation, though this is of uncertain legality.

I am more interested in simulations than pinball-ish games that you could never build. One of the great features of Pro Pinball is that you can go into a maintenance mode and tune it as you would a real machine.

Unfortunately none of these are anything like as much fun as the real thing, though they do save on quarters or your local equivalent.

Reflections on Microsoft BUILD 2011

I’m just back from Microsoft’s BUILD conference at Anaheim in California, which lived up to the hype as a key moment of transition for the company. Some said it was the most significant PDC – yes, it was really the Professional Developers Conference renamed – since 2000, when .NET was introduced; some said the most significant ever.


“Significant” does not necessarily mean successful, and history will judge whether BUILD 2011 was a new dawn or the beginning of the end for Windows. Nevertheless, I have not heard so much cheering and whooping at a Microsoft conference for a while, and although I am no fan of cheering and whooping I recognise that there was genuine enthusiasm there for the new direction that was unveiled.

So what happened? First, let me mention the Windows Server 8 preview, which looks a solid upgrade to Server 2008 with a hugely improved Hyper-V virtualisation and lots of changes in storage, in IIS, networking, in data de-duplication, in modularisation (enabling seamless transition between Server Core and full Server) and in management, with the ascent of PowerShell scripting and recognition that logging onto a GUI on the server itself is poor practice.

The server team are not suffering the same angst as the client team in terms of direction, though the company has some tricky positioning to do with respect to Azure (platform) and Server 8 (infrastructure) cloud computing, and how much Microsoft hosts in its own datacentres and how much it leaves to partners.

What about Windows client? This is the interesting one, and you can almost hear the discussions among Microsoft execs that led them to create the Windows Runtime and Metro-style apps. There is the Apple iPad; there is cloud; there are smartphones; and Windows looks increasingly like a big, ponderous, legacy operating system with its dependence on keyboard and mouse (or stylus), security issues, and role as a fat client when the industry is moving slowly towards a cloud-plus-device model.

At the same time Windows and Office form a legacy that Microsoft cannot abandon, deeply embedded in the business world and the source of most of the company’s profits. The stage is set for slow decline, though if nothing else BUILD demonstrates that Microsoft is aware of this and making its move to escape that fate.

Its answer is a new platform based on the touch-friendly Metro UI derived from Windows Phone 7, and a new high-performance native code runtime, called Windows Runtime or WinRT. Forget Silverlight or WPF (Windows Presentation Foundation); this is a new platform in which .NET is optional, and which is friendly to all of C#, C/C++, and HTML5/JavaScript. That said, WinRT is a locked-down platform which puts safety and lock-in to Microsoft’s forthcoming Windows Store ahead of developer freedom, especially (and I am speculating a little) in the ARM configuration of which we heard little at BUILD.

BUILD attendees were given a high-end Samsung tablet with Windows 8 pre-installed, and in general the Metro-style UI was a delight, responsive and easy to use, and with some fun example apps, though many of the apps that will come as standard were missing and there was evidence of pre-beta roughness and instability in places.

The client strategy seems to me to look like this:

Windows desktop will trundle on, with a few improvements in areas like boot time, client Hyper-V, and the impressive Windows To Go that runs Windows from a bootable and bitlocker-encrypted USB stick leaving no footprint on the PC itself. Many Windows 8 users will spend all their time in the desktop, and I suspect Microsoft will be under pressure to allow users to stick with the old Start menu if they have no desire or need to see the new Metro-style side of Windows..

A new breed of Intel tablets and touch-screen notebooks will make great devices towards the high end of mobile computing. This is something I look forward to taking with me when I need to work on the road: Metro-style apps for when you are squashed in an aeroplane seat, browsing the web or checking a map, but full Windows only a tap away. These will be useful but slightly odd hybrids, and will tend to be expensive, especially as you will want a keyboard and stylus or trackpad for working in desktop Windows. They will not compete effectively with the iPad or Android tablets, being heavier, with shorter battery life, more expensive and less secure. They may compete well with Mac notebooks, depending on how much value Metro adds for business users mainly focused on desktop applications.

Windows on ARM, which will be mainly for Metro-style apps and priced to compete with other media tablets. This is where Microsoft is being vague, but we definitely heard at BUILD that only Metro-style apps will be available from the Windows Store for ARM, and even hints that there may be no way to install desktop apps. I suspect that Microsoft would like to get rid of desktop Windows on ARM, but that it will be too difficult to achieve that in the first iteration. One unknown factor is Office. It is obvious that Microsoft cannot rework full Office for Metro by this time next year; yet offering desktop Office will be uncomfortable and (knowing Microsoft) expensive on a lightweight, Metro-centric ARM device. Equally, not offering Office might be perceived as throwing away a key advantage of Windows.

Either way, Windows on ARM looks like Microsoft’s iPad competitor, safe, cloud-oriented, inexpensive, long battery life, and lots of fun and delightful apps, if developers rush to the platform in the way Microsoft hopes.

There are several risks for Microsoft here. OEM partners may cheapen the user experience with design flaws and low-quality add-ons. Developers may prove reluctant to invest in an unproven new platform. It may be hard to get the price down low enough, bearing in mind Apple’s advantage with enormous volume purchasing of components for iPad.

Still, one clever aspect of Microsoft’s strategy is that everyone with Windows 8 will have Metro, which means there will be a large installed base even if many of those users only really want desktop Windows.

I also wonder if this is an opportunity for Nokia, to use its hardware expertise to deliver excellent devices for Windows on ARM.

Finally, let me mention a few other BUILD highlights. Anders Hejlsberg spoke on C# and VB futures (though I note that there were few VB developers at BUILD) and I was impressed both by the new asynchronous programming support and the forthcoming compiler API which will enable some amazing new capabilities.

I also enjoyed Don Syme’s session on F#, where he focused on programming information rather than mere algorithms, and showed how the language can query internet data sources with IntelliSense and code hints in the IDE, inferred from schemas retrieved dynamically. You really need to watch his session to understand what this means.

In the end this was a great conference, with an abundance of innovation and though-provoking technology. In saying that, I do not mean to understate the challenges this huge company still faces.

No plugins in Metro-style IE, and here is why

This evening was Ask the Experts time at Microsoft’s BUILD conference in Anaheim, California, so I took the opportunity to ask the Internet Explorer (IE) team why the Metro-style IE does not support plugins such as Adobe Flash and even Microsoft’s own Silverlight.

I find it puzzling since the desktop IE in Windows 8 does support plugins, and when a page is open in Metro-style IE there is an option to open it in desktop Windows, in which case all the ActiveX controls start working.

The reason I was given is that Microsoft cannot control or predict the user experience if these plugins are running. For example, a Silverlight applet might have a user interface designed for mouse and keyboard. Microsoft has built in touch gestures that work for HTML in IE but cannot do so for plugins.

Once a user takes the decision to open in desktop Windows, these considerations change since desktop Windows is a mouse and keyboard environment.

I expect performance was also a consideration.

I was also told that Apple has made the no-plugins option viable by taking the same line in the iPad. Sites have been forced to offer iPad-friendly versions of their sites, which will also work in Windows 8 Metro.

Data Access in Windows 8 WinRT

I’ve been teasing out details about the Windows Runtime (WinRT) here at Microsoft’s BUILD conference in Anaheim, California.

WinRT is the runtime for touch-friendly Metro-style apps, in effect Microsoft’s operating system for tablets, though it has a dual personality and full desktop Windows is also available.

Microsoft experts told me that there is no client for SQL Server or other network databases in WinRT. To access such databases, you have to create a web service and call that. This is similar to the Silverlight model. The .NET Framework in WinRT will support WCF RIA Services, which is one option for this.

If you only want to store and retrieve data locally, there seems to be a JET API, or you could use something like SQLite or roll your own simple database manager. HTML and JavaScript apps support IndexedDB. All these options read and write data to the app’s isolated storage; they do not enable free access to the file system.

LINQ (Language Integrated Query) is supported but of course that is only as useful as the data it can connect to.