All posts by Tim Anderson

Adding a Visual Studio code workspace to a GitHub repository

Rather to my surprise, I am currently spending more of my development time in Visual Studio Code than in Visual Studio. There are a few reasons:

– I am working on a Java project and chose to use VS Code in part as a learning exercise

– I have a PHP website and have worked out a nice debugging environment using VS Code and WSL (Windows Subsystem for Linux)

– I am finding VS Code handy as a general-purpose editor

How about source control though? I guess as you would expect from Microsoft (which now owns GitHub) the git support is built in. So this is how I moved my PHP website, which was not under source control, to a private GitHub repository:

1. In VS Code, open the workspace and press Ctrl-Shift-G or click the Source control icon. Click the repository icon for Initialize Repository:

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Then select your workspace from the dropdown and the local repository is created.

Initially all your files are in an unstaged state. Staging in git is where you define which changes will be committed in your next commit. We want to commit everything to form the initial repo, so drop down the git menu (three dots to the right of the source control pane) and choose Commit all, click Yes.

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Type a commit message and go.

Now go to GitHub and create a new repository.

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This is a private repository as nobody else needs to see the code for my website.

The repository is created, and right there on the default help page is the command for pushing your existing repo to GitHub.

Just open a terminal and paste the command:

git remote add origin https://github.com/[your repo name]

git push -u origin master

After the second command you will be prompted to login to GitHub. This creates an access token.

Done! If you go back to the repo on GitHub you will find it populated with your files.

A similar workflow applies if you use Azure DevOps. The choice is yours; the features of the two services are different but if all you want is source code management GitHub seems the obvious choice.

Linksys LPAC1750C, Cloud Manager, and the mystery of the wifi printer that would not print

I have been testing the Linksys LPAC1750C wifi access point, a mid-price unit aimed at small businesses (or owners of large homes) who want an extensible wifi network with more features than home networking gear, but at a more affordable price than Cisco or other enterprise vendors.

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This unit supports clustering so is really intended for multiple access points managed as one system, but I have only a single access point. Still, it is enough to get a feel for how it works. In particular, I was interested in the Linksys Cloud Manager, which simplifies management and configuration. A five year license comes in the box, and setup is a snap. Just plug the access point into your switch, create an account on Linksys cloud manager, start a new network, enter the serial number and MAC address of your access point, and you are almost done. The only thing that remains is to create one or more SSIDs, which apply automatically to all the access points in your network. VLAN support means you can configure guest networks, and there are options for client isolation and splash screens so that you can display some information to guest users when they log on.

I was impressed with the ease of use, but noticed that the cloud manager has limited features compared to the local browser-based configuration screens. No RADIUS support, for example. You cannot use both, since the cloud manager takes over all the configuration. If you revert to local configuration, everything is reset.

All seemed well, except for a curious problem. I have a wifi connected printer and although it joined the network without any problem, I could not print to it. It was as if it was invisible on the network. Sounds like client isolation (where one wifi client is blocked from accessing other wifi clients), except that client isolation was off. The other odd thing was that rebooting the access point seemed to fix it, and I could print, but only for a short time before it reverted to invisibility.

I called support but no joy. You could try resetting the access point, said the tech person, once I had managed to explain the problem successfully. This wasn’t a problem I could live with, so I did the obvious thing, disabling the cloud manager and using the local configuration.

When I did, I soon spotted the issue. The cloud manager automatically applies the same SSID to both 2.4 and 5GHz radios, which is nice for simplicity but there is an unfortunate side-effect. Although they have the same name, these are really two separate SSIDs, and the LAPAC1750C applies SSID isolation by default.

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The printer, being a few years old, does not support 5GHz wifi connections, so it connected to the 2.4Ghz radio. It was then isolated from a PC, also connected by wifi, trying to print to it directly. You could overcome this by routing printing through a server on the wired network but any direct client to client communication will not work.

The solution is to disable isolation between SSIDs but this option is not exposed in cloud manager. So in my case, cloud manager is not suitable. A shame, since within its limitations it seems nicely done.

Everything works now and printing is fine.

Office 365 vs Office 2019 vs LibreOffice: some thoughts

What has rescued Microsoft in the cloud era? It seems to me that Office 365, rather than Azure, is its most strategic product. Users do not like too much change; and back when Office 365 was introduced in 2011 it offered an easy way for businesses small and large to retire their Exchange servers while retaining Outlook with all its functionality (Outlook works with other mail servers but with limited features). You also got SharePoint online, cloud storage, and in-browser versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint.

There was always another aspect to Office 365 though, which is that it allowed you to buy the Office desktop applications as a subscription. Unless you are the kind of person (or business) that happily runs old software, the subscription is better value than a permanent license, especially for small businesses. Currently Office 365 Business Premium gets you Outlook, Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote and Access, as well as hosted Exchange and SharePoint etc, for £9.40 per month. Office Home and Business (which does not include Access) is £250, or about the same as two years subscription, and can only be installed on one PC or Mac, versus 5 PCs or Macs, 5 tablets and 5 mobile devices for the subscription product.

The subscription product is called Office 365, and the latest version of the desktop suite is called Office 2019. Microsoft would much rather you bought the subscription, not only because it delivers recurring revenue, but also because Office 365 is a great upselling opportunity. Once you are on Office 365 and Azure Active Directory, products like Dynamics 365 are a natural fit.

Microsoft’s enthusiasm for the subscription product has resulted in a recent “Twins Challenge” campaign which features videos of identical twins trying the same task in both Office 365 and Office 2019. They are silly videos and do a poor job of selling the Office 365 features. For example, in one video the task is to “fill out a spreadsheet with data about all 50 states” (US centric or what?).

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In the video, the Office 365 guy is done in seconds thanks to Excel Data Types, a new feature which uses online data from the Bing search engine to provide intelligent features like entering population, capital city and so on. It seems though that the twins were pre-provided with a spreadsheet that had a list of the 50 states, as Excel cannot enter these automatically. And when I tried my own exercise with a few capital cities I found it frustrating because not much data was available, and the data is inconsistent so that one city has fields not available for another city. So my results were not that great.

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I’m also troubled to see data like population chucked into a spreadsheet with no information on its source or scope. Is that Greater London (technically a county) or something less than that? What year? Whose survey? These things matter.

Perhaps even more to the point, this is not what most users do with Office. It varies of course; but a lot of people type documents and do simple spreadsheets that do not stress the product. They care about things like will it print correctly, and if I email it, will the recipient be able to read it OK. Office to be fair is good in both respects, but Microsoft often struggles to bring new features to Office that matter to a large proportion of users (though every feature matters to someone).

It is interesting to browse through the new features in Office 2019, listed here. LaTeX equation support, nice. And a third time zone in Outlook, handy if you discover it in the convoluted Outlook UI (and yes, discoverability is a problem):

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It is worth noting though that for document editing the free LibreOffice is excellent and good enough for a lot of purposes. You do not get Outlook though, and Calc is no Excel. If you mostly do word processing though, do look at LibreOffice, it is better in some respects than Word (style support, for example).

I use Office constantly and like all users, I do have a list of things I would like fixed or improved, that for the most part seem to be completely different from what the Office team focuses on. There are even longstanding bugs – see the recent comment. Ever had an email in Outlook, clicked Reply, and found that the the formatting and background of the original message affects your reply text as well and the only way to fix it is to remove all formatting? Or been frustrated that Outlook makes it so hard to make interline comments in a reply with sensible formatting? Or been driven crazy by Word paragraph numbering and indentation when you want to have more than one paragraph within the same numbered point? Little things; but they could be better.

Then again there is Autosave (note quite different from autorecover), which is both recent and a fantastic feature. Unfortunately it only works with OneDrive. The value of this feature was brought home to me by an anecdote: a teenager who lost all the work in their Word document because they had not previously encountered a Save button (Google docs save automatically). This becomes what you expect.

So yes, Office does improve, and for what you get it is great value. Will Office 2019 users miss lots of core features? No. In most cases though, the Office 365 subscription is much better value.

How Windows 10 Ransomware protection can cause install failures, LibreOffice for example

While researching a piece on Office applications I needed to install LibreOffice. The install failed with a message about an error creating a temporary file needed for installation.

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Fortunately I knew where to look for the answer. Windows Ransomware Protection is a feature which whitelists the applications allowed to write data to the folders likely to contain the data you care about, such as documents and pictures. The idea is that malware which wants to encrypt these folders and then demand a ransom will find it harder to do so.

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Ransomware protection can have side effects though. Operations like creating desktop shortcuts may fail because the desktop is one of the protected locations. That is just an annoyance; but in the case of LibreOffice, setup tried to write an essential file to a protected location and the install failed completely.

Solution: turn off Ransomware protection temporarily and re-run setup.

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Which application platform for desktop Windows apps? Microsoft has stated its official line, but UWP is still not compelling

One year ago I wrote a post on Which .NET framework for Windows: UWP, WPF or Windows Forms? which is still the most popular post on this site, indicating perhaps that this is a tricky issue for many developers. That this is a live question is a symptom of Microsoft’s many changes of strategic direction over the last decade, making it hard for even the most loyal developers to read the signals.

I was intrigued therefore to note that Microsoft has an official Choose your platform post on this subject. There is something curious about this post. It covers three frameworks: Universal Windows Platform (UWP), Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF) and Windows Forms (WinForms). Microsoft states:

UWP is our newest, leading-edge application platform.

implying that if you have an unconstrained choice, this is the way to go. Yet if you look at the table of “Scenarios that have limited support”, UWP has the longest list. It is not only Windows 7 support that you will miss, but also something called Dense UI, along with other rather significant features like multiple windows and “full platform support”.

What is Dense UI? I presume this is a reference to the chunkiness of a typical UWP UI, caused by the fact that it was originally optimised for touch control. This matters if, for example, you are writing a business application and want to have a lot of information to hand in a single window. It may not be ideal for cosmetics, but it can be good for productivity.

With respect to all three of these limitations, Microsoft does note that “We have publicly announced features that will address this scenario in a future release of Windows 10.” I am not sure that they are in fact fully addressed; but it is clear that improvements are coming. In fact, the promise of further active development is perhaps the key reason why you might choose UWP for a new project, that is, if you do not learn from the past and believe that UWP will still be core to Microsoft’s strategy in say five years time.

Take a look at the strengths column for UWP though. Anything really compelling there? To my mind, just one. “Secure execution via application containers.” Yet the security of UWP was undermined by Microsoft’s decision to abandon its original goal of restricting the Windows Runtime API (used for UWP) to a safe subset of the full Windows API. You can also now wrap WPF and WinForm applications using Desktop Bridge, getting Store delivery and a certain amount of isolation.

At the time of writing, Microsoft is still displaying this diagram in its guide to UWP.

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This is now somewhat misleading though. Windows Mobile is on death row:

Windows 10 Mobile, version 1709 (released October 2017) is the last release of Windows 10 Mobile and Microsoft will end support on December 10, 2019. The end of support date applies to all Windows 10 Mobile products, including Windows 10 Mobile and Windows 10 Mobile Enterprise.

Windows 10 Mobile users will no longer be eligible to receive new security updates, non-security hotfixes, free assisted support options or online technical content updates from Microsoft for free.

As a developer then, would you rather have PC, Xbox and HoloLens support? Or PC, Mac, iOS and Android support? If the latter, you would be better off investigating Microsoft’s Xamarin Forms framework than UWP as such.

The truth is, many developers who target Windows desktop applications do so because they want to run well on Windows and are not concerned about cross-platform. While that may seem odd from a consumer perspective, it is not so odd for corporate development with deskbound users performing specific business operations.

I was at one time enthusiastic about Windows Runtime/UWP because I liked the idea of “one Windows platform” as illustrated above, and I liked the idea of making Windows a platform for secure applications. Both these concepts have been thoroughly undermined, and I would suggest that the average developer is probably better off with WPF or WinForms (or other approaches to Win32 applications such as Delphi etc), than with UWP. Or with Xamarin for a cross-platform solution. That is unfortunate because it implies that the application platform Microsoft is investing in most is at odds with what developers need.

If UWP becomes a better platform than WPF or WinForms in all important respects, that advice will change; but right now it is not all that compelling.

Microsoft quarterly financials: strong figures, note LinkedIn and Dynamics numbers

Microsoft has released its financial statements for the quarter ending December 31 2018. Sometimes it seems that all the talk is of Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon, but Microsoft continues to deliver strong results.

That said, it is an increasingly corporate story. The company still has a presence in gaming, both on Xbox and PC, and reports Xbox software and services growth of 31%. Consumers still buy Windows and Office; there are now 33.3 million Office 365 consumer customers.

There is no longer a PC in every home though. There might be an old one; but PCs now  tend to be bought for specific purposes such as gaming or home working. There are plenty of other options for casual home computing. Windows OEM revenue is down 5%.

It is a different story in the business world. Office 365 is still motoring, with revenue growth of 34% year on year. A spin-off benefit is that Dynamics 365, once a poor cousin to Salesforce for cloud CRM, now reports revenue growth of 51% year on year, despite the product’s eccentricities and high price. The key is integration and upsell: get users hooked on Office 365 for email and documents, and compelling add-ons become an easy sell.

Rather to my surprise, Microsoft’s LinkedIn acquisition seems to be working. Revenue is up 29%, session numbers are up 30%. My anecdotal experience bears this out. People are actually acquiring and doing business via LinkedIn, even though it suffers from masses of bad data and the usual perils of social media (fake accounts, scammers, harassers and so on). For now, users seem to be able to manage these problems and interact with the right people.

Azure revenue is up 76%.

All well in Redmond then? The risk is that the company’s narrowing focus will leave it vulnerable to competitors who take advantage of their control of the end points (clients): smartphones, tablets, smart devices running Linux. Even now the web browser, with the Edge team now integrating Google’s browser engine, Chromium, rather than building their own.

For now though, Microsoft powers on.

Here is the breakdown by segment, such as it is:   

Quarter ending December 31st 2018 vs quarter ending December 31st 2017, $millions

Segment Revenue Change Operating income Change
Productivity and Business Processes 10100 +1147 4015 +678
Intelligent Cloud 9378 +1583 3279 +447
More Personal Computing 12993 +823 2964 +454

The segments break down as:

Productivity and Business Processes: Office, Office 365, Dynamics 365 and on-premises Dynamics, LinkedIn

Intelligent Cloud: Server products, Azure cloud services

More Personal Computing: Consumer including Windows, Xbox; Bing search; Surface hardware

Google’s search monopoly, the decline of organic search and its implications

A piece by Rand Fishkin tells me what I already knew: that Google has a de facto monopoly in search, and that organic search (meaning clicking on a result from a search engine that is not an ad) is in decline, especially on mobile.

According to Fishkin, using data from digital intelligence firm Jumpshot, Google properties deliver 96.1% of all search in the EU and 93.4% of all US searches. “Google properties” include Google, Google Images, Youtube, and Google Maps.

To the extent that this shows high satisfaction with Google’s service, this is a credit to the company. We should also look carefully though at the outcome of those searches. In the latest figures available (Jan-Sept 2018) they break down as follows (EU figures):

  • Mobile: 36.7% organic, 8.8% paid, 54.4% no-click
  • Desktop: 63.6% organic, 6.4% paid, 30% no-click

On mobile, the proportion of paid clicks has more than doubled since 2016. On the desktop, it has gone up by over 40%.

A no-click search is one where the search engine delivers the result without any click-through to another site. Users like this in that it saves a tap, and more important, spares them the ads, login-in pleas, and navigation challenges that a third-party site may present.

There is a benefit to users therefore, but there are also costs. The user never leaves Google, there is no opportunity for a third-party site to build a relationship or even sell a click on one of its own ads. It also puts Google in control of information which has huge political and commercial implications, irrespective of whether it is AI or Google’s own policies that determine what users see.

My guess is that the commercial reality is that organic search has declined even more than the figures suggest. Not all searches signal a buying intent. These searches are less valuable to advertisers and therefore there are fewer paid ads. On the other hand, searches that do indicate a buying intent (“business insurance”, “IT support”, “flight to New York”) are highly valued and attract more paid-for advertising. So you can expect organic search to me more successful on searches that have less commercial value.

In the early days of the internet the idea that sites would have to pay to get visitors was not foreseen. Of course it is still possible to build traffic without paying a Google tax, via social media links or simply by hosting amazing content that users want to see in full detail, but it is increasingly challenging.

There must be some sort of economic law that says entities that can choose whether to give something away or to charge for it, will eventually charge for it. We all end up paying, since whoever actually provides the goods or services that we want has to recoup the cost of winning our business, including a share to Google.

Around six years ago I wrote a piece called Reflecting on Google’s power: a case for regulation? Since then, the case for regulation has grown, but the prospect of it has diminished, since the international influence and lobbying power of the company has also grown.

OneDrive Upload Blocked and the “Use Office 2016 to sync Office files” setting

For several years the story with Office 365 was that email (essentially hosted Exchange) works great but OneDrive cloud storage, not so good. The main issues were not with the cloud storage as such, but with the sync client on Windows. It would mysteriously stop syncing and require a painful reset process to get it going again.

Microsoft squashed a lot of bugs and eventually released a much-improved “Next generation sync client” (NGSC) based on consumer OneDrive rather than Groove technology.

In the 2017 Windows 10 Fall Creators Update Microsoft also introduced Files on Demand, a brilliant feature that lists everything available but downloads only the files that you use.

The combination of the new sync client and Files on Demand means that life has got better for OneDrive users. It is not yet perfect though, and recently I came across another issue. This is where you get a strange “Upload blocked” message when attempting to save a document to the OneDrive location on your PC. Everything works fine if you go to the OneDrive site on the web; but this is not the way most users want to work.

The most popular fix for this problem is to go into OneDrive settings (right-click the little cloud icon to the right of the taskbar and choose Settings). Then find the Office tab and uncheck “Use Office 2016 to sync Office files that I open.” But don’t do that yet!

If you check this thread you will see that over a thousand users clicked to say they had the same problem, and over 400 clicked to say that the solution helped them. Significant numbers for one thread.

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But what does this option do? It appears that checking the option makes big changes to the way Office files are saved. Here is the explanation:

Similar to how Office opens files, saves start with the locally synced file. After the file saves, Office will upload changes directly to the server. If Office can’t upload because the device is offline, you can keep working offline or close the file. Office will continue to save to the locally synced file, and OneDrive will handle the upload once the device gets back online. In this integration, Office works directly with the files that are currently open, enabling co-authoring in Office apps like Word on the desktop, which no competitor offers. For files that are not open in Office, OneDrive handles all syncing. This is the key difference between the old sync client integration and the NGSC, and this lets us achieve co-authoring along with the best  performance and sync reliability.

We can conclude from this that the “upload blocked” message comes when Office (not OneDrive) tries to “upload changes directly to the server”. Office as well as OneDrive needs to be signed in. The place to check these settings in on the Account tab of the File menu in an Office application like Word or Excel. There is a section called Connected Services and you need to make sure this lists all the OneDrive locations you use.

I suggest that you check these settings before unchecking the “use Office 2016 to sync” option in OneDrive. However, if it still does not work and you cannot troubleshoot it, it is worth a try to get reliable OneDrive sync

If you uncheck the “User Office 2016” option you will lose a couple of features:

  • Real-time co-authoring with the desktop application
  • Merge changes to resolve conflicts

The first of these features is amazing but many people rarely use it. It depends on the way you and your organization work. The second is to my mind a bit hazardous anyway.

The decline of high end audio at CES and what it says about the audiophile market

I am not a regular at CES, the huge trade consumer technology fair in Las Vegas, but well recall my last visit, in 2014. I did the usual round of press conferences from various technology vendors, but reserved some time towards the end of my stay for the high-end audio rooms at the Venetian, one of the more civilized hotels in Vegas despite the fake canals.

There was plenty of activity there, floor upon floor of exhibitors showing all kinds of audio exotica, from cables thicker than your arm to amplifiers that would test the strength of your flooring. Of course there was plenty of audio on the main CES exhibits as well, but my observation at the time was that while the mainstream manufacturers like B&W and Sony had good sounds at relatively affordable prices, the crazy folk in the Venetian did achieve the best sonics, if you closed your eyes to the wild theories and bank-busting prices.

I was ushered into a room to hear a preview of Naim’s Statement amplifiers and heard a sound that was “muscular, etched and authoritative”, no less than it should be at £150,000 for a set.

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It appears that memories will now be all we have of the these great days in the Venetian. Last year CEPro reported:

Maybe the writing was on the wall last year at CES 2017 when two of the suites in the high-performance area were occupied by AARP and Serta Mattress. The running joke among attendees was the elderly audiophiles there could take a nap and check in on their retirement status while listening to audio …. “This is the end of high-performance audio at CES,” said one exhibitor bluntly.

This year it has played out more or less as expected:

The impact of the high-fidelity corner of CES was certainly diminished by any standard. Actual listening rooms were reduced to a single hallway, with some stragglers to be found a few floors upward.

says AudioStream.

The word is that High-End Munich has replaced CES to some extent; but this is not just a matter of which industry show is more fashionable. You only have to look around you at a hi-fi shows to note that these enthusiasts are mostly an older generation. The future does not look good.

There is no decline in music appreciation, so what is wrong? There are several factors which come to mind.

The first and most important is that technology has made high quality audio cheap and ubiquitous. Plug a decent pair of headphones into the smartphone you already have, and the quality is already more than satisfactory for most listeners. Spend a bit on powered wireless speakers and you can get superb sound. In other words, the excellent performance of mainstream audio has pushed the high-end market into a smaller and smaller niche.

The industry has also harmed itself by seemingly embracing every opportunity for hype, regardless of what science and engineering tell us. Exotic cables, digital resolutions beyond anything that human ears can hear, unwarranted fuss about jitter or mysterious timing issues (MQA anyone?), and more.

In the meantime, the music companies have done their best to make high resolution audio even more pointless by excessive dynamic range compression engineered into the music they release, wasting the fantastic dynamic range that is now possible and even on occasion introducing audible distortion.

I became an audio enthusiast when I heard how much I was missing by using mainstream budget equipment. I recall listening sessions in hi-fi shops where I was stunned by the realism, musicality and detail that was to be heard from familiar records when played back on high-end systems.

Such experiences are less likely today.

Fixing OneDrive Camera upload on Android

A feature of Microsoft’s OneDrive cloud storage is that you can set it to upload photos from your smartphone automatically. It is a handy feature, in part as a backup in case the you lose your mobile, and in part because it lets you easily get to them on your PC or Mac, for editing, printing or sharing.

This feature used to work reliably on Windows Phone but I have not found it so good on Android. Photos never seem to upload in the background, but only when you open the OneDrive app and tap Photos. Even then, it seems to stop uploading from time to time, as if everything is up to date when it is not.

The fix that I have found is to open OneDrive settings by tapping the Me icon (not a particularly intuitive place to find settings, but never mind).

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Then I turn Camera upload off. Go back to Photos. Go back to settings and turn Camera upload on again. It always kicks it back into life.

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It is worth noting of course that Google Photos also has this feature and it is likely to be enabled, unless you specifically took care not to enable it. And  cloud storage of photos on Google is free if you choose “High quality” for upload size. If you choose “Original” for upload size, you get 15GB free photo storage.

This being the case, why bother with OneDrive camera upload? A few reasons I can think of:

1. The Windows 10 Photos app integrates with OneDrive, showing previews of your images without downloading them and letting you download on demand.

2. You might have more space on OneDrive, especially if you use OneDrive for Business, which is now in beta

3. In a business context, automatic upload to OneDrive for Business has great potential. Think surveyors, engineers, medicine, anyone who does site visits for work

4. For consumers, it probably does not make sense to spread your stuff across both a Microsoft account and a Google account. If you have picked Microsoft, maybe because you use Windows or because you would rather trust Microsoft than Google with your personal data, then you would want your photos to be in OneDrive rather than Google Photos.

It is therefore unfortunate that in my experience it does now work right. I am not sure if this is just a bug in the app, or something to do with Android. In the end though, it is just another niggly thing that pushes Android users away from Microsoft and towards Google services.