Tag Archives: windows

Microsoft SQL Server is coming to Linux. What are the implications for Windows Server?

Microsoft is porting SQL Server, its popular database manager, to Linux. According to Executive VP Scott Guthrie:

Today I’m excited to announce our plans to bring SQL Server to Linux as well. This will enable SQL Server to deliver a consistent data platform across Windows Server and Linux, as well as on-premises and cloud. We are bringing the core relational database capabilities to preview today, and are targeting availability in mid-2017.

Why do this? The short answer is that like any other software company, Microsoft wants to sell more licenses, and porting its premier (and excellent) database manager to Linux extends its market and helps it compete more directly with the likes of Oracle and even MySQL.

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However that begs a second question, which is why has Microsoft not done this before? After all, SQL Server has been around forever. The first release was in 1989, jointly with Ashton Tate and Sybase, and was for OS/2. The first Windows release was 1993. There was a significant leap forward in SQL Server 7.0, in 1998, which I think of as the beginning of the product as we know it today.

Microsoft in the nineties and in the first decade of the new millennium was all about Windows. Dominant on the desktop, the idea was to build synergies between Windows desktop and Windows server so that running server applications like Active Directory, Exchange and SQL Server was the obvious choice. The Visual Studio development environment pushed developers towards Visual Studio in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Some programming language innovations like LINQ to SQL (a form of Language Integrated Query) only worked with SQL Server. It was not quite lock-in, it was always possible to use a different database engine, but SQL Server was always the default, used in all the examples and documentation, and the best understood when you needed support.

Today Microsoft’s circle of dominance is breaking down. Windows still has desktop dominance, but the importance of the desktop is less, thanks to mobile devices which mostly do not run Windows, and a move away from desktop applications towards web applications that do not care which operating system you use. Active Directory is still important, but cloud computing giants like Google and Amazon are encroaching on that space.

“Only on Windows Server” has become a liability rather than the key to keeping customers locked to Microsoft’s platform.

You can see this in the company’s development strategy, which is migrating towards a cross-platform implementation of .NET as well as embracing iOS and Android via the recently announced Xamarin acquisition. You can also see it in the Azure cloud platform, and Microsoft’s partnership with Red Hat for Linux on Azure. The company is happy to take your money whatever operating system you choose.

It is early days though, and Microsoft is still a Windows-centric company. SQL Server on Linux, expected sometime next year, will probably not be feature-complete compared to SQL Server on Windows – I am guessing, but things like .NET Stored Procedures may be tricky to get right, as well as features like in-memory databases that are tightly integrated with the operating system.

It is worth noting that cross-platform is actually a burden as well as a strength and may involve compromises. It will be fascinating to see how performance compares on equivalent hardware.

Microsoft is now betting than opening up new markets for SQL Server is more important than keeping customers hooked on Windows Server – especially as that last strategy is failing in the cloud computing era.

Finally, there is the question I posed in the title of this post. How does moving key server applications to Linux impact the appeal of Windows Server? After all, Linux licenses are generally cheaper than Windows Server and in some cases free. The answer is that it is one less reason to buy Windows Server, presuming SQL Server works properly on Linux.

You can see this as a process of commoditizing the operating system so that in time expensive server operating system licenses are a thing of the past. This is probably not a good trend for Microsoft. It can still prosper though if you rent your virtual infrastructure from the company and use its cloud services, like Azure and Office 365.

Another way of looking at this is that there is more pressure on Windows Server architect Jeffrey Snover and his team to make Windows Server better than Linux, so that you want to run it because of its merits, not because it is the only way to run SQL Server or Exchange.

Microsoft’s story continues: Windows down, cloud up in financials Oct-Dec 2015

Microsoft has reported its latest financial results, for the quarter ending December 31st 2015.

Here are the latest figures (see end of post for what is in the segments):

Quarter ending  December 31st 2015 vs quarter ending December 31st 2014, $millions

Segment Revenue Change Operating income Change
Productivity and Business Processes 6690 -132 6460 -528
Intelligent Cloud 6343 +302 4977 +272
More Personal Computing 12660 -622 3542 +528
Corporate and Other -1897 -2222 -1897 -1980

A few points to note.

Revenue is down: Revenue overall was $million 23.8, $million 2.67 down on the same quarter in 2014. This is because cloud revenue has increased by less than personal computing has declined. The segments are rather opaque. We have to look at Microsoft’s comments on its results to get a better picture of how the company’s business is changing.

Windows: Revenue down 5% “due primarily to lower phone and Windows revenue and negative impact from foreign currency”.

Windows 10: Not much said about this specifically, except that search revenue grew 21% overall, and “nearly 30% of search revenue in the month of December was driven by Windows 10 devices.” That enforced Cortana/Bing search integration is beginning to pay off.

Surface: Revenue up 29%, but not enough to offset a 49% decline in phone revenue.

Azure: Azure revenue grew 140%, compute usage doubled year on year, Azure SQL database usage increased by 5 times year on year.

Office 365: 59% growth in commercial seats.

Server products: Revenue is up 5% after allowing for currency movements.

Xbox: Xbox Live revenue is growing (up 30% year on year) but hardware revenue declined, by how much is undisclosed. Microsoft attributes this to “lower volumes of Xbox 360” which is lame considering that the shiny Xbox One is also available.

Further observations

This is a continuing story of cloud growth and consumer decline, with Microsoft’s traditional business market somewhere in between. The slow, or not so slow, death of Windows Phone is sad to see; Microsoft’s dismal handling of its Nokia acquisition is among its biggest mis-steps and hugely costly.

CEO Satya Nadella came from the server side of the business and seems to be shaping the company in that direction, if he had any choice.

Azure and Office 365 are its big success stories. Nadella said in the earnings call that “the enterprise cloud opportunity is massive, larger than any market we’ve ever participated in.”

A reminder of Microsoft’s segments:

Productivity and Business Processes: Office, both commercial and consumer, including retail sales, volume licenses, Office 365, Exchange, SharePoint, Skype for Business, Skype consumer, OneDrive, Outlook.com. Microsoft Dynamics including Dynamics CRM, Dynamics ERP, both online and on-premises sales.

Intelligent Cloud: Server products not mentioned above, including Windows server, SQL Server, Visual Studio, System Center, as well as Microsoft Azure.

More Personal Computing: What a daft name, more than what? Still, this includes Windows in all its non-server forms, Windows Phone both hardware and licenses, Surface hardware, gaming including Xbox, Xbox Live, and search advertising.

Is Windows 10 stable? Mostly it is, but there are some concerns

“Windows 10’s lack of stability is really starting to be an issue for me” says Mary Jo Foley over on zdnet.

The problems she experienced include the Store not working, the Mail app not syncing and then wiping her accounts after an update, and the PC randomly shutting down. She has now done a clean install and so far all is good.

I am using Windows 10 now for most of my work, having in-place upgraded from Windows 8.1. My experience has been better, with no random shutdowns, and the desktop environment has been perfectly stable. There are some bugs and annoyances though. Here are the ones that come to mind:

The Start menu bug is the biggest annoyance. This one deserves some reflection. If you have a lot (possibly more than 512, possibly some other factors) of Start menu entries, Windows 10 does not show them all. Even Cortana/Search does not find them. The entries exist though, and I use my Explorer workaround to find them.

I find this bug astonishing. It looks like poor coding in a hugely sensitive part of Windows, the first thing people mention when they explain why they dislike Windows 8. There is still no fix from Microsoft, though some users report improvement after various updates.

Another annoyance is that on my HP laptop I cannot disable tap-to-click. I can disable it temporarily but it reverts, certainly on the next start-up.

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While some users like tap-to-click, I loathe it and do not think it should ever be on by default. In many Windows laptops the setting is hard to find and some users have ditched Windows because of it, and switched to Macs. The reason is that it is easy to tap the trackpad by mistake; and an accidental click can have dire consequences, such as sending an email by mistake, or clicking Yes in a dialog when you meant No. If you suffer from any sort of tremble it is a disaster.

I am not sure who is responsible for this bug; it could be the Synaptics driver, but it was fine in Windows 8.1.

Another annoyance relates to the new Windows calculator. On my desktop PC I am in the habit of pressing the Calculator key to open it (I have a Microsoft keyboard). In earlier versions of Windows the calculator appears instantly. In Windows 10 it may take several minutes or not appear at all. Of course what you tend to do is to assume that you did not press the key hard enough and press it again. Eventually lots of instances appear. I’ve looked into this a little; the Calculator does appear in the Task Manager process list, but with a status of Suspended. I’ve also had a scenario where the calculator appears but does not accept input until you click on it with the mouse, defeating the value of the key.

I am using the Edge browser but in practice it is not that good. I like the direction Edge is taking, but some sites do not work properly, and there are bugs. Favourites do not work when you have a long list; you click a sub-folder but the wrong entries appear, until it settles down and starts functioning correctly. You can pin the task pane (with Favourites, History etc) but the setting does not persist when you next start the browser. I also sometimes get long delays opening a web page; it is always hard to say what causes these and sometimes it will be a server issue, but Edge is worse than other browsers so I think it is partly to blame.

Some of the new apps show promise but are not 100% stable. Photos is good but I have had it exit silently when scrolling through a long list (perhaps related to OneDrive issues). I still prefer Paint for quick cropping and simple editing. The Music app has its attractions, but Foobar2000 is much faster, and Spotify is better if you want all the cloud streaming and social aspects.

Talking of OneDrive, the lack of placeholders in Explorer, where a file is listed but only downloaded on request, is an issue though I do not find it too difficult to work around. I have a OneDrive folder called synced which I sync on every PC I use. Photos of course does have a kind of OneDrive placeholder system.

So there are annoyances, and others will have different ones, but nothing I would describe as instability. Most applications run fine, and I have found application compatibility with Windows 7 and 8 very good. I like the faster boot and resume. I like the new Task View button and the multiple desktops. Overall it is working OK for me.

My general advice when consulted about whether to upgrade is to wait until next year, unless there are pressing reasons to go more quickly. I am also aware of numerous issues related to the in-place upgrade. One user for example upgraded from Windows 7 because of the annoying nags from Windows Update. The upgrade worked, but for some reason resulted in tablet mode being enabled (I cannot be sure whether this was a mis-click or an upgrade issue). This is on a desktop PC. Unfortunately, tablet mode is almost as confusing as Windows 8 was for a less technical user. The taskbar is hidden and it is not easy to find your applications.

I am sure Windows 10 will be the best version yet. It is taking time though and from a user perspective there is no rush (yes, it was released before it was ready). From Microsoft’s point of view it is important that the worst bugs get fixed soon (Start menu, please); and the generally poor performance of the Universal apps is a concern, considering the strategic significance of the platform.

Update: a newer Synaptics driver on the HP site has improved the trackpad problem; at least, the setting has survived a reboot so I hope it is fixed.

Microsoft financials April-June 2015: loss from Nokia write-down, comments on future direction

Microsoft has reported its financials for its fourth quarter. The company made a loss of over three billion dollars ($bn 3.195) but this was because of an eight billion dollar write-down mostly on the phone business – in effect, writing off the value of its Nokia acquisition. It still has plenty of cash in the bank – over $96 bn according to its balance sheet. Perhaps it is too easy for companies of this size to make bad business decisions (I leave open whether it was the acquisition or the way it was handled that was the bad decision, but one of them was).

Here are the latest figures:

Quarter ending  June 30th 2015 vs quarter ending June 30th 2014, $millions

Segment Revenue Change Gross margin Change
Devices and Consumer Licensing 3233 -1670 2966 -1555
Computing and Gaming Hardware 1933 +591 435 +417
Phone Hardware 1234 -748 -104 -158
Devices and Consumer Other 2300 +538 594 +303
Commercial Licensing 10451 -782 9529 -769
Commercial Other 3076 +814 1350 +659

A few points to note. The confusing segment names are summarised at the end of this post. Revenue was slightly down quarter on quarter, from $bn 23.4 to 22.2, largely because of a decline in consumer Windows (weak PC sales). Commercial licensing was also down, which Microsoft attributes to the end of the XP migration boom.

Phone aside, Microsoft’s hardware is performing well, thanks to Surface Pro 3 and Xbox One. Although Xbox One has been outsold by Sony’s PlayStation 4, it is holding its own and Microsoft says that Xbox Live usage has grown by over 30% over the year. The company says this is “deeper user engagement”; another way of looking at this is that playing games without an Xbox Live subscription is often disappointing.

Microsoft’s cloud and server projects are both growing. Business cloud revenue (Office 365, Azure and Dynamics CRM) is up 106% over the year and server products up 12%.

A bright spot is that search advertising revenue grew by 21% and Bing is expected to be profitable in the next financial year. The search wars are last year’s thing but Microsoft’s determination has won it a small but viable slice of the market. It is important because the data from search is essential for high quality predictive analysis and personalisation services, which is still a coming thing (Cortana, Siri, Google Now).

In the earnings call, CEO Satya Nadella revealed some data:

  • 15 million consumer Office 365 subscribers growing by 1 million per month
  • 50,000 new SMB customers for Office 365 per month
  • Paid seats for Dynamics CRM up 140% year on year
  • 17,000 customers for Enterprise Mobility Services (Mobile Device Management)
  • Over 100% growth in Azure both in revenue and compute usage

Of Windows 10, Nadella says:

While the PC ecosystem has been under pressure recently, I do believe that Windows 10 will broaden our economic opportunity and return Windows to growth.

A short-term boost from Windows 10 would not be surprising, but does he think that Microsoft can reverse the trend from PC to mobile, or that Windows can be successful enough in the mobile category (tablets and phones) to benefit from that trend? If the latter, perhaps destroying the Nokia acquisition was not the best move (but I must not harp on about this).

On Windows 10, Nadella described three phases:

Upgrade phase: From July 29th when free Windows 10 upgrades begin.

OEM device phase: From “the fall” when Windows 10 PCs and devices go on sale.

Enterprise upgrade phase: Piloting and deployments from January 2016

Note from the last that Windows 10 is not fully business-ready yet. Enterprise Store, OneDrive for Business client, “Project Centennial” which lets you wrap Win32 apps for Store deployment, none of these are done.

How is Microsoft hoping to grow its business? CFO Amy Hood identified three areas, in response to a question on operational expenditure:

The first one is Windows 10. The second is the first party hardware where we just had such terrific performance again this Q4. And then, finally, the third bucket was about accelerating our commercial cloud leads.

Of these, the third looks a sure bet, the other two are more speculative. Microsoft will continue to be a fascinating business to watch.

Microsoft’s segments summarised

Devices and Consumer Licensing: non-volume and non-subscription licensing of Windows, Office, Windows Phone, and “ related patent licensing; and certain other patent licensing revenue” – all those Android royalties?

Computing and Gaming Hardware: the Xbox One and 360, Xbox Live subscriptions, Surface, and Microsoft PC accessories.

Devices and Consumer Other: Resale, including Windows Store, Xbox Live transactions (other than subscriptions), Windows Phone Marketplace; search advertising; display advertising; Office 365 Home Premium subscriptions; Microsoft Studios (games), retail stores.

Commercial Licensing: server products, including Windows Server, Microsoft SQL Server, Visual Studio, System Center, and Windows Embedded; volume licensing of Windows, Office, Exchange, SharePoint, and Lync; Microsoft Dynamics business solutions, excluding Dynamics CRM Online; Skype.

Commercial Other: Enterprise Services, including support and consulting; Office 365 (excluding Office 365 Home Premium), other Microsoft Office online offerings, and Dynamics CRM Online; Windows Azure.

Windows Phone puzzles: strategy, what strategy?

Today Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella announced that 7,800 employees will be removed “primarily in our phone business” and that the company is taking a $7.6 billion “impairment charge … related to assets associated with the acquisition of the Nokia Devices and Services business.”

Time for a quick resume of the company’s troubled mobile efforts since the introduction of Windows Phone in October 2010:

October 2010: botched launch of Windows Phone. Despite much good work in the OS and user interface, Microsoft had lacklustre support from hardware partners, and focused on the consumer when its potential strength was in business integration with Office, Exchange etc. In addition, availability was poor; after the UK launch I went down to my local town centre and not one of the 4 or 5 mobile phone shops had it on sale.

February 2011: Nokia announces that Windows Phone will be its primary smartphone OS.

October 2011: First Nokia Windows Phones appeared. Lumia 800 was a nicely designed phone in some respects, but suffered from poor battery life and some quality issues.

Nevertheless, the Nokia Windows Phones were the first ones where the manufacturer made an effort to get the best from the OS and to tailor the hardware for it. In addition, Nokia brought excellent mapping and photography expertise, so that Windows Phones began to get some standout features.

11 July 2013: Launch of Nokia Lumia 1020 with an amazing 41MP camera.

September 2013: Microsoft announces that it will acquire Nokia.

An awkward period follows before the acquisition completes. It is meant to be business as usual at Nokia but of course it is not.

February 2014: Despite some progress, Windows Phone is not getting the market share Nokia needs, so CEO Stephen Elop announces the Nokia X range, Android smartphones with Google removed and replaced by Microsoft services. A curious announcement, since why would anyone buy Nokia X? It was not because Android works better than Windows Phone on low-end hardware; vendors have told me that the reverse is true. Nor does it make sense bearing in mind the Microsoft acquisition – though it will have been in the planning stage before that was decided.

April 2014: Microsoft’s Nokia acquisition completes. Elop joins Microsoft to head up devices. As soon as July, it is obvious that Microsoft will not be continuing with Nokia X.

September 2014: Microsoft announces Windows 10. “we are delivering one application platform for our developers … Windows 10 will deliver the right experience on the right device at the right time. It will be our most comprehensive platform ever,” says Windows VP Terry Myerson.

The new universal app platform is all very well, but it means that Windows Phone is now in stasis, waiting for Windows 10 before anything much can happen to it. There is a notable lack of new high-end phones. No phone since the Lumia 1020 has had a camera of equal resolution.

At the same time, part of the point of Windows 10 is to revive the application platform across phone and PC. If you remove the phone, the Universal Windows Platform is what, PC, Xbox (mainly a games console) and HoloLens? With a few Raspberry Pis and IoT devices thrown in?

17 June 2015: Elop leaves Microsoft following an executive re-shuffle.

8 July 2015: Suspicions that Microsoft is wavering in its commitment to Windows Phone (or Windows 10 Mobile) are confirmed by the announcement of major cuts to the phone business.

A few observations

Microsoft has given Nokia little chance of success following the acquisition. It is not quite a repeat of the Kin disaster (acquisition of Danger in February 2008, a strong company wrecked by its acquirers), but there are echoes. It is only a year and three months since the acquisition completed, and the phone range is in an uncomfortable “waiting for Windows 10” phase. What did the company expect, that a Microsoft halo effect would suddenly lift sales, even without distinctive new models?

Nokia did a much better job with Windows Phone than either Microsoft or its other hardware partners. Nokia’s retail presence, operator partnerships, and marketing, were all far superior.

The main reason for the failure of Windows Phone is the lack of apps and ecosystem, and the reason for that is that Microsoft was too late to launch; iOS and, more to the point, Android, were already well entrenched. The Windows Phone OS is pretty good, and superior to the competition in some respects; apps are easier to find, for example.

Another problem is that Windows Phone has been more successful in Europe than in the USA. This means that US-centric vendors perceive that Windows Phone has an even smaller market than in fact it has.

Bearing in mind that the app story is the biggest single problem for Windows Phone vendors, and that Windows 10 is intended to address that, it is puzzling that Microsoft is now writing off the phone division before Windows 10 has launched.

Nadella writes:

I am committed to our first-party devices including phones. However, we need to focus our phone efforts in the near term while driving reinvention. We are moving from a strategy to grow a standalone phone business to a strategy to grow and create a vibrant Windows ecosystem that includes our first-party device family.

The problem is that frail market confidence in Windows Phone will be further shaken by today’s announcement. Further, if Nadella thinks that Microsoft’s trusty hardware partners will step up their game if Lumia is given less investment, than he has forgotten their dismal performance first time around.

Does Microsoft need Windows Phone?

Microsoft has been investing in Android and iOS apps since Nadella’s appointment, and it may not have a choice about whether or not it needs a mobile OS, if it cannot find a market for it.

There some strategic issues though. Microsoft itself succeeded first with Windows on the desktop, and exploited its desktop presence to drive server products that integrated with Windows and shared its user interface and operating system.

Mobile operating systems are now ascendant, and if Microsoft has little or no presence in that market, it is vulnerable to its competitors exploiting their control of the client to drive users to their own services, rather than those run by Microsoft.

Therefore it seems to me that ceding the mobile market to Apple and Google is a strategic risk.

How to overcome “A required drive partition is missing” in Windows 8.1 reset

Here is the scenario: an HP all-in-one PC gets a virus and as a precaution the owner wishes to reinstall Windows.

The recovery drive on the PC is intact, but attempting to use the Windows 8.1 troubleshooting tools to “Reset your PC” (in effect reinstalling Windows) raises the error “A required drive partition is missing”.

This seems to be a common scenario in cases where the PC was supplied with Windows 8 and upgraded to Windows 8.1. The problem seems to be that Windows 8.1 makes some changes to the drive partitions that make it incompatible with the Windows 8.0 recovery partition.

Here is the workaround I used:

1. In Windows 8.1, make a recovery drive. To do this, first connect a USB drive that you are happy to have wiped. It will need a capacity of around 16GB or more. Then run Control Panel, search for “recovery”, and choose Create a recovery drive.

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2. When creating the recovery drive, make sure the option to include the recovery partition is checked. This will copy the recovery partition from the PC to the USB drive.

3. When you are done, you will be able to boot from the USB drive. You could choose the Reset option from there, however you will still get the error. First, go to Troubleshooting and Advanced and select the command prompt. When the command prompt opens, type:

diskpart

Now type:

list disk

You will see two disks (or more) listed, one for the USB boot device, and the others the disk(s) in the PC. Select the internal boot drive. It is normally obvious from the sizes which is which. Select it by typing:

select disk n

where n is the number of the drive as shown by list disk.

WARNING: the next step will delete all data on the selected drive. If in doubt, back out and make a backup of the drive before proceeding. If something goes wrong, your PC will no longer be bootable and you will need recovery media from the manufacturer, or to buy a new copy of Windows.

Once you are happy that it is safe to delete everything from the drive, type:

clean

or

clean all

The first command does a quick removal of the partition table from the drive but does not zero the data; it will be invisible but possibly recoverable using data recovery tools. The second command zeroes all the data and takes much longer (several hours), but it is more secure, if for example you want to sell or transfer the PC.

Once this is done,reboot the PC using the USB recovery drive. Select troubleshooting, then Reset your PC. This time it will work and you will be back in Windows 8.0.

Note: This scenario is common enough that it seems to be a flaw in the Windows 8.x recovery tools. I do not understand why Microsoft has so little regard for its users attempting to recover Windows (and usually highly stressed) that it has not fixed this problem.

Note 2: What if you cannot boot into Windows 8.1 to make the recovery drive? I have not tried it, but in theory it should be possible to create a recovery drive on another PC and copy the recovery drive to it.

Windows 10: Moving Windows into the mobile and app era take 2, and why Windows 8 is not so bad

I attended Microsoft’s Build conference last week where there was a big focus on Windows 10. I spent some time with the latest Build 10074 which came out last week as well attending various sessions on developing for the upcoming OS. I also spoke to Corporate VP Joe Belfiore and I recommend this interview on the Reg which says a lot about Microsoft’s approach. Note that the company is determined to appeal to Windows 7 users who largely rejected Windows 8; Windows 10 is meant to feel more familiar to them.

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That said, Microsoft is not backtracking on the core new feature in Windows 8, which is its new app platform, called the Windows Runtime (WinRT). In fact, in its latest guise as the Universal App Platform (UAP) it is more than ever at the forefront of Microsoft’s marketing effort.

Why is this? In essence, Microsoft needs a strong app ecosystem for Windows if it is to escape legacy status. That means apps which are store-delivered, run in a secure sandbox, install and uninstall easily, update automatically, and work on tablets as well as with keyboard and mouse. Interaction and data transfer between apps is managed through OS-controlled channels, called Contracts. Another advantage is that you do not need setup CDs or downloads when you get a new PC; your apps flow down automatically. When you think of it like this, the advantages are huge; but nevertheless the Windows 8 app platform largely failed. It is easy to enumerate some of the reasons:

  • Most users live in the Windows desktop and rarely transition to the “Metro” or “Modern” environment
  • Lack of Windows 7 compatibility makes the Windows 8 app platform unattractive to developers who want to target the majority of Windows users
  • Many users simply avoided upgrading to Windows 8, especially in business environments where they have more choice, reducing the size of the Windows 8 app market
  • Microsoft made a number of mistakes in its Windows 8 launch, including an uncompromising approach that put off new users (who felt, rightly, that “Metro” was forced upon them), lack of compelling first-party apps, and encouraging a flood of abysmal apps into the Store by prioritising quantity over quality

History will judge Windows 8 harshly, but I have some admiration for what Microsoft achieved. It is in my experience the most stable and best performing version of Windows, and despite what detractors tell you it works fine with keyboard and mouse. You have to learn a new way of doing a few things, such as finding apps in the Start screen, following which it works well.

The designers of Windows 8 took the view that the desktop and app environments should be separate. This has the advantage that apps appear in the environment they are designed for. Modern apps open up full-screen, desktop apps in a window (unless they are games that are designed to run full-screen). The disadvantage is that integration between the two environments is poor, and you lose one of the key benefits of Windows (from which it got its name), the ability to run multiple apps in resizable and overlapping windows.

Windows 10 takes the opposite approach. Modern apps run in a window just like desktop apps. The user might not realise that they are modern apps at all; they simply get the benefits of store delivery, isolation and so on, without having to think about it.

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This sounds good and following the failure of the first approach, it is probably the right thing for Microsoft to do. However there are a couple of problems. One is the risk of what has been called the “uncanny valley” in an app context, where apps nearly but not quite work in the way you expect, leading to a feeling of unease or confusion. Modern apps look a little bit different from true desktop apps in Windows 10, and behave a little bit different as well. Modern apps have a different lifecycle, for example, can enter a suspended state when they do not have the focus or even be terminated by the OS if the memory is needed. A minimized desktop app keeps running, but a minimized modern app is suspended, and the developer has to take special steps if you want a task to keep running in the background.

Another issue with Windows 10 is that its attempt to recreate a Windows 8 like tablet experience is currently rather odd. Windows 10 “Tablet Mode” makes all apps run full screen, even desktop apps for which this is wholly inappropriate. Here is the Snipping Tool in Tablet Mode:

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and here is the desktop Remote Desktop Connection:

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Personally I find that Tablet Mode trips me up and adds little value, even when I am using a tablet without a keyboard, so I tend not to use it at all. I would prefer the Windows 8 behaviour, where Modern apps run full screen (or in a split view), but desktop apps open in a window on the desktop. Still, it illustrates the point, which is that integrating the modern and desktop environments has a downside; it is just a different set of compromises than those made for Windows 8.

Now, I do think that Microsoft is putting a more wholehearted effort into its UAP than it did for Windows 8 modern apps (even though both run on WinRT). This time around, the Store is better, the first-party apps are better (not least because we have Office), and the merging of the Windows Phone and Xbox platforms with the PC platform gives developers more incentive to come up with apps. Windows 10 is also a free upgrade for many users which must help with adoption. Even with all this, though, Microsoft has an uphill task creating a strong modern app ecosystem for Windows, and a lot of developers will take a wait and see approach.

The other huge question is how well users will take to Windows 10. Any OS upgrade has a problem to contend with, which is that users dislike change – perhaps especially what has become the Windows demographic, with business users who are by nature cautious, and many conservative consumer users. Users are contradictory of course; they dislike change, but they like things to be made better. It will take more than a Cortana demo to persuade a contented Windows 7 user that Windows 10 is something for them.

Note that I say that in full knowledge of how much potential the modern app model has to improve the Windows experience – see my third paragraph above.

Microsoft told me in San Francisco that things including Tablet Mode are still being worked on so a little time remains. It was clear at Build that there is a lot of energy and determination behind Windows 10 and the UAP so there is still room for optimism, even though it is also obvious that Windows 10 has to improve substantially on the current preview to have a chance of meeting the company’s goals.

Why Windows Server is going Nano: think automation, Cloud OS

Yesterday Microsoft announced Windows Nano Server which is essentially an installation option that is even more stripped-down than Server Core. Server Core, introduced with Windows Server 2008, removed the GUI in order to make the OS lighter weight and more secure. It is particularly suitable for installations that do nothing more than run Hyper-V to host VMs. You want your Hyper-V host to be rock-solid and removing unnecessary clutter makes sense.

There was more to the strategy than that though, and it was at last week’s ChefConf in Santa Clara (attended by both Windows Server architect Jeffrey Snover and Azure CTO Mark Russinovich) that the pieces fell into place for me. Here are two key areas which Snover has worked on over the last 16 years or so (he joined Microsoft in 1999):

  • PowerShell, first announced as “Monad” in August 2002 and presented at the PDC conference in September 2003. Originally presented as a scripting platform, it is now described as an “automation engine”, though it is still pretty good for scripting.
  • Windows Server componentisation, that is, the ability to configure Windows Server by adding and removing components. Server Core was a sign of progress here, especially in the Server 2012 version where you can move seamlessly between Core and full Windows Server by adding or removing the various pieces. It is still not perfect, mainly because of dependencies that make you drag in more than you might really want when enabling a specific feature.
  • PowerShell Desired State Configuration, introduced in Server 2012 R2, which puts these together by letting you define the state of a server in a declarative configuration file and apply it to an OS instance.

I am not sure how much of this strategy was in Snover’s mind when he came up with PowerShell, but today it looks far-sighted. The role of a server OS has changed since Windows first entered this market, with Windows NT in 1993. Today, when most server instances are virtual, the focus is on efficiency (making maximum use of the hardware) and agility (quick configuration and on-demand scaling). How is that achieved? Two things:

1. For efficiency, you want an OS that runs only what is necessary to run the applications it is hosting, and on the hypervisor side, the ability to load the right number of VMs to make maximum use of the hardware.

2. For agility, you want fully automated server deployment and configuration. We take this for granted in cloud platforms such as Amazon Web Services and Azure, in that you can run up a new server instance in a few minutes. However, there is still manual configuration on the server once launched. Azure web apps (formerly web sites) are better: you just upload your application. Better still, you can scale it by adding or removing instances with a script or through the web-based management portal. Web apps are limited though and for more complex applications you may need full access to the server. Greater ability to automate the server means that the web app experience can become the norm for a wider range of applications.

Nano Server is more efficient. Look at these stats (compared to full Server):

  • 93 percent lower VHD size
  • 92 percent fewer critical bulletins
  • 80 percent fewer reboots

Microsoft has removed not only the GUI, but also 32-bit support and MSI (I presume the Windows Installer services). Nano Server is designed to work well both sides of the hypervisor, either hosting Hyper-V or itself running in a VM.

Microsoft has also improved automation:

All management is performed remotely via WMI and PowerShell. We are also adding Windows Server Roles and Features using Features on Demand and DISM. We are improving remote manageability via PowerShell with Desired State Configuration as well as remote file transfer, remote script authoring and remote debugging.

Returning for a moment to ChefConf, the DevOps concept is that you define the configuration of your application infrastructure in code, as well as that for the application itself. Deployment can then be automated. Or you could use the container concept to build your application as a deployable package that has no dependencies other than a suitable host – this is where Microsoft’s other announcement from yesterday comes in, Hyper-V Containers which provide a high level of isolation without quite being a full VM. Or the already-announced Windows Server Containers which are similar but a bit less isolated.

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This is the right direction for Windows Server though the detail to be revealed at the Build and Ignite conferences in a few weeks time will no doubt show limitations.

A bigger issue though is whether the Windows Server ecosystem is ready to adapt. I spoke to an attendee at ChefConf who told me his Windows servers were more troublesome than Linux,. Do you use Server Core I asked? No he said, we like to be able to log on to the GUI. It is hard to change the culture so that running a GUI on the server is no longer the norm. The same applies to third-party applications: what will be the requirements if you want to install on Nano Server (no MSI)? Even if Microsoft has this right, it will take a while for its users to catch up.

Microsoft Financials

Microsoft has released figures for its second quarter, ending December 31st 2014. Here is my simple summary of the figures showing the segment breakdown:

Quarter ending  December 31st 2014 vs quarter ending December 31st 2013, $millions

Segment Revenue Change Gross margin Change
Devices and Consumer Licensing 4167 -1377 3876 -1105
Computing and Gaming Hardware 3997 -473 460 +49
Phone Hardware 2284 N/A 331 N/A
Devices and Consumer Other 2436 +562 550 +163
Commercial Licensing 10679 -227 9926 -154
Commercial Other 2593 +813 900 +485

There are a couple of blotches of red in the figures, reflecting weak PC sales in the consumer market and decline in non-subscription Office products. This is offset by strong growth in cloud and subscription. Microsoft says in the accompanying press release that revenue from Office 365, Azure and Dynamics CRM online grew 114%. SQL Server and System Center grew revenue yet again, with server products up 9% overall. Microsoft also notes that this quarter revenue from Surface exceeded $1 billion for the first time, thanks to the success of Surface 3. Note though that margins are relatively poor on hardware.

Nadella talked up both cloud and integration in the earnings call. On cloud, he said that new Office 365 features like Sway, Delve and Video are “completely new scenarios”; I am personally not yet convinced by Sway but both Delve (a search service) and video look compelling. On integration he referenced unifying Xbox Live across PC, tablet, phones and Xbox, streaming Xbox games to Windows 10, and the unified app store and platform with Windows 10 phones, tablets and PCs.

A lot rests on Windows 10; following the rocky reception for Windows 8, Microsoft cannot afford to get this one wrong.

Windows 10 and HoloLens: quick thoughts and questions following the January reveal

Microsoft is revealing its Windows 10 plans in stages, presumably in part to build up expectation and get feedback, and in part because some pieces are ready to show before others.

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Today in Redmond Microsoft shared a number of new features. In quick summary:

Windows 10 will be a free upgrade for all Windows 7 and 8.x users, at least for the first year.

Comment: this is necessary since the refusal of Microsoft’s user base to upgrade from Windows 7 is a strategic roadblock. For example, Windows 7 users cannot use Store apps, reducing the market for those apps. It is more important to persuade users to upgrade than to get upgrade revenue. Windows 10, of course, will have to be compelling as well as free for this initiative to work, as well as providing a smooth upgrade process (never a trivial task).

Windows to evolve to become a service Executive VP Terry Myerson says this in this post:

Once a Windows device is upgraded to Windows 10, we will continue to keep it current for the supported lifetime of the device – at no additional charge. With Windows 10, the experience will evolve and get even better over time. We’ll deliver new features when they’re ready, not waiting for the next major release. We think of Windows as a Service – in fact, one could reasonably think of Windows in the next couple of years as one of the largest Internet services on the planet.

And just like any Internet service, the idea of asking “What version are you on?” will cease to make sense – which is great news for our Windows developers.

Comment: What does this mean exactly, beyond what we already have via Windows Update? What does Myerson mean by “the supported lifetime of the device”? What are the implications for the typical three-year Windows release cycle? I hope to discover more detail soon, though when I enquired whether there will be, for example, a “Windows 11” I was told, “We aren’t commenting beyond what’s stated in post that you reference.”

Project Spartan (a code name) is a new browser developed as a universal app – this means an app built for the Windows Runtime (“Metro”) environment, though in Windows 10 these also run in a window on the desktop, blurring the sharp distinction you see in Windows 8. Project Spartan features, according to Microsoft’s Joe Belfiore, a new rendering engine along with features includes the ability to annotate web pages with keyboard or touch/stylus, and the ability to save pages for reading offline. There will also be “enterprise mode compatibility for existing web apps”, which means that old IE will live on.

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Comment: Creating a new browser is a bold step though it may be as much for marketing reasons as anything else, since IE has a tarnished reputation. The advantages of the new rendering engine, and the way compatibility will be handled, are not yet clear. Another point of interest is compatibility issues caused not only by the new engine, but also by running in sandboxed universal app environment. Looking forward to more detail on this.

Windows 10 across PC, tablet and mobile: the OS will have the same name on all three, universal apps (like a new mobile Office) will run on all three, and there are new efforts to synchronize content. For example, notifications will sync across phone and PC/Tablet.

Comment: Sounds good, but there are a few downsides. One is that Windows Phone is tied to the same release cycle as full Windows, which is rather slow. Currently Windows Phone is falling back as it waits for Windows 10 in respect of both operating system upgrade and also the universal app version of Office – which is already available for iOS and Android. CEO Satya Nadella said today that there will be new “flagship” Windows phone devices, which is good news for what is currently a neglected platform, but it will be hard for the platform to thrive if it is constantly waiting for the next big Windows update. Update: if “Windows as a service” means no more monolithic upgrades but constant incremental improvement, perhaps this will not be the case. Watch this space.

Cortana coming to Windows PC and tablet: we saw Microsoft’s digital assistant, powered by Bing search, demonstrated on full Windows.

Comment: Cortana is impressive and fun, but I am not sure how much the feature enhances the platform. On the phone I do not use it much; the problem is that speaking to your phone “what meetings to I have today” and getting a spoken response is a great demo, but in practice it is easier to glance at the calendar, especially as voice control only works in quiet scenarios. The other aspect of Cortana is the personalisation it brings to things like web search or reminders; more data about our preferences and activities can bring some magic. This is Google Now territory, and while Microsoft’s approach to privacy may be preferable, Google will be hard to match in respect of the amount of data it can draw upon.

DirectX 12: Microsoft showed a demo of its latest DirectX graphics API, claiming up to 50% better performance and up to 50% less power consumption.

Comment: this is solid good news. If games run best on Windows 10 a significant enthusiast community will want to upgrade right away. Further, DirectX is not just for games.

Xbox One integration: Microsoft showed how Xbox Live team or competitive games can work across Xbox One and PC, and how games can be streamed from XboxOne so that the console becomes a kind of games server for your Windows 10 tablets and PCs. Xbox One will also run universal apps.

Comment: Better integration between Windows devices and Xbox is long overdue and can help to promote both. Xbox One though has a bit of a Windows 7 problem of its own, with Xbox 360 remaining popular simply because of the huge numbers of games that have not been ported. If only Microsoft could introduce backwards compatibility …

Surface Hub: this is a giant 84”, 4K display wall-hanging PC which you can use as an interactive whiteboard for meetings and so on. It seems to be the next innovation from the Perceptive Pixel folk who also developed the table-top Surface device.

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Comment: Looks cool, but it will be expensive. May help to encourage businesses to keep faith with the Windows client.

Microsoft HoloLens: this was the big reveal, a secret project that, we were told, has been developed in the basement of the Microsoft Visitor Center on its Redmond campus.

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HoloLens is a headset which enables 3D augmented reality: projected images are seen like holographic images in the space around you, and you can interact by gesture detected by cameras and motion sensors in the headset. Look carefully at the following image:

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In this example, the demonstrator is assembling a quad copter using a palette of 3D components in Holo Studio, an application which uses the technology. However, note that you only see the quad copter through the HoloLens headset, the image from which in this case is merged with a view of the demonstrator herself using a custom camera:

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If you had been in the room, you would see the quad copter only on the screen, not in the room itself. Therefore I suspect this is more accurately described as augmented reality than holography, though the scene does look holographic if you are wearing the headset.

In a final flourish, Microsoft a 3D printed version of the quad copter which duly flew up and down; I am sure the motor and so on was NOT 3D printed, but it made a lovely demo.

Apparently NASA loves the technology and will be using it with Mars Rover in July in a project called OnSight – read the NASA release.

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Bringing it down to earth, Microsoft also stated that all universal apps will have access to the HoloLens APIs.

Comment: This looks amazing and must have potential for all sorts of scenarios: architects, planners, marketing, games and more. The tough question I suppose is how much it has to do with Windows 10 as experienced by most users.

In closing

Microsoft surprised us today and deserves kudos for that. Nobody can accuse the company of lack of innovation; then again, Windows 8 and the original Surface were innovative too, and proved to be a disaster. I do not think Windows 10 will be a disaster; we have already seen in the preview how it is an easier transition for Windows 7 users.

A key thing to note from a developer and technical perspective is that universal apps are right at the centre of the Windows 10 story. That is a good thing in many respects, since we get Store deployment, sandbox security, and a degree of compatibility across phone, PC, tablet and Xbox One. But is the Store app / Universal app platform mature enough to deliver a good experience for both developers and users, bearing in mind that in Windows 8.x it is really not good enough?

Look to Microsoft Build at the end of April, which Myerson said is the culmination of the Windows 10 reveal, to answer that question.