All posts by Tim Anderson

The best apps for a Windows 10 PC? Disappointing list shows key Windows weakness

I happened across Tom Warren’s list of 9 best apps for your new Windows PC and it gave me pause for thought. You may love some of those apps – Tweeten, Wox, ShareX, for example – but as it happens I don’t use any of them and it strikes me as a weak list.

There are reasons for this and it is not Warren’s fault (though of course you can argue with his selection, that’s really the point of this kind of post).

The most essential app for Windows is Microsoft Office. In business environments a new Windows 10 installation may only need Office, or Office and perhaps a few custom business applications, and it is ready to go.

You might add Chrome or Firefox if you want to avoid Edge (I use Edge and find it pretty good), and you probably want Adobe Reader or equivalent as Edge is not that good for PDFs.

There are other fantastic commercial applications of course, not least Adobe’s amazing Creative Cloud, and of course stalwarts like AutoCAD.

These expensive business applications are not the kind of thing you want to list in a consumer-oriented post though. So you end up desperately searching the Windows Store for apps that deserve to be on a “best apps” list. It is not easy.

The core problem is that Microsoft expended considerable energy telling developers not to bother with classic Windows desktop applications but to target the Windows Runtime, later reworked as UWP (Universal Windows Platform). Then with Windows 10 (and the abandonment of Windows 10 mobile) UWP became rather pointless. You can debate this back and forth, but the net result is that much of the life was sucked out of the Windows developer ecosystem, even though Windows remains popular.

I don’t see this changing and it will not help Microsoft sustain Windows market share versus Google Chrome OS and Apple iPad Pro. From a consumer perspective, an iPad now has vastly better apps than Windows.

Incidentally, my favourite free Windows apps are Visual Studio Code, Filezilla, Putty, Notepad++, Paint.NET, Audacity, Foobar2000 and Open Live Writer. And stuff I have installed in Windows Subsystem for Linux (Ubuntu) though I am not sure if that counts.

David Bowie Is app: Floating in a most peculiar way

The exhibition David Bowie Is, originally at the Victoria and Albert museum in London and subsequently on tour around the world, has proved an enormous success with over 2 million visitors in 12 locations. Sony Entertainment has now released David Bowie Is AR Exhibition, an app for iOS and Android that uses Augmented Reality to enable users to enjoy the exhibition at home and whenever they like.

I found the app though-provoking. I am a fan of course, so keen to see the material; and I attended the London exhibition twice so I have some context.

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I tried the app on an Honor 10 AI – note that you have to download the Google ARCore library first, if it is not already installed. Then I ran the app and found it somewhat frustrating. When the app starts up, you get a calibrating screen and this has to complete before you can progress.

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If you struggle at all with this, I recommend having a look at the help, which says to “Find a well-lit surface with a visible pattern or a few flat items on it. A magazine on a desk or table works well.” Another tip is that the app is designed for a table-top experience. So sit at a desk, do not try walking around and using a wall.

The app streams a lot of data. So if you are on a poor connection, expect to wait while the orange thermometer bar fills up at the bottom of the screen. The streaming/caching could probably be much improved.

Once I got the app working I began to warm to it. You can think of it as a series of pages or virtual rooms. Each room has an array of object in it, and you tap an object to bring it into view. Once an object is focused like this, you can zoom in by moving the phone. Pinch to zoom should work too though I had some problems with it.

Here is a view of the recording page:

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and here I’ve brought a page of Bowie’s notes into view (note the caption which appears) and zoomed in; the resolution is good.

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The clever bit is that you can move objects around by tap and drag. This is a nice feature when viewing Bowie’s cut-up lyric technique, since you can drag the pieces around to exercise your own creativity.

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Fair enough, but is this really Augmented Reality? I’d argue not, since it does not mix the real world with the virtual world. It just uses the AR platform as a viewer into this virtualised environment.

The experience is good when it works, but not if you get disappearing content, endless “calibration”, stuttering videos, or content that is too small and stubbornly refuses to come into view – all issues which I encountered. It also requires a fairly high-end phone or tablet. So your environment has to be just right for it to work; not ideal for enjoying on a train journey, for example. And some of the content is literally shaky; I think this is a bug and may improve with an update.

Would it be better if it were presented in a more traditional ways, as a database of items which you could search and view? Unfortunately I think it would. This would also reduce the system requirements and enable more people to enjoy it.

It does look as if there is a lot here. According to the site:

56 costumes
38 songs
23 music videos
60 original lyric sheets
50 photos
33 drawings and sketches
7 paintings

I would love to be able to look up these items easily. Instead I have to hunt through the virtual rooms and hope I can find what I am looking for. Just like a real exhibition, complete with crowds and kids wanting toilets I guess. 

Unlimited free private repositories come to GitHub

When I was looking for an online code repository some years back, I picked Visual Studio Online (now called Azure DevOps) over GitHub. The main reason was the ability to host private repositories with a free account. The projects I work on typically only have one or two developers.

Microsoft acquired GitHub last year and has now announced free private repositories on GitHub – provided you have no more than three collaborators. You can see all the plans here.

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There is still a bias towards open source, in that open source developers can use the Team plan for free. This is essential for GitHub to fulfil its role as the home of many widely used open source projects.

The addition of free private repositories is significant though. There are plenty of developers like myself who will now look again at hosting code on GitHub.

What is Microsoft’s strategy? There seem to me two important reasons why Microsoft acquired GitHub. One was as a defensive measure. Microsoft now has a ton of open source projects that are critical to its platform, things like .NET Core and now most of the .NET frameworks as well. It would have been uncomfortable if a rival like Google had acquired GitHub.

The second is to promote Azure. GitHub’s infrastructure will no doubt move to Azure, and all going well the service will promote Azure both as an example of a successful at-scale service, and by little ads and signposts that Microsoft can include. The developer audience is influential when it comes to platform choices.

Microsoft therefore does not need GitHub to be profitable, which is just as well having now removed one of the main incentives to get a paid account.

I will be interested to see how the company moves to further integrate GitHub and Azure DevOps. There is currently quite a lot of overlap and it would make sense to streamline the offerings to share the same back-end technology, or even to fold Azure DevOps services into GitHub.

There is no hurry. Microsoft’s priority will be to keep existing GitHub developers happy and to convince them that the acquisition will do no harm.

Desktop development: is Electron the answer, or a tragedy?

A few weeks ago InfoQ posted a session by Paul Betts on Desktop Applications in Electron. Betts worked on Slack Desktop, which he says was one of the first Electron apps after the Atom editor. There is a transcript as well as a video (which is great for text-oriented people like myself).

Electron, in case you missed it, is a framework for building desktop applications with Chromium, Google’s open source browser on which Chrome is based, and Node.js. In that it uses web technology for desktop applications, it is a similar concept to older frameworks like Apache Cordova/PhoneGap, though Electron only targets Windows, macOS and Linux, not mobile platforms, and is specific to a particular browser engine and JavaScript runtime.

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Electron is popular as a quick route to cross-platform desktop applications. It is particularly attractive if you come from a web development background since you can use many of the same libraries and skills.

Betts says:

Electron is a way to build desktop applications that run on Mac and Linux and Windows PCs using web technologies. So we don’t have to use things like Cocoa or WPF or Windows Forms; these things from the 90s. We can use web technology and reuse a lot of the pieces we’ve used to build our websites, to build desktop applications. And that’s really cool because it means that we can do interesting desktop-y things like, open users’ files and documents and stuff like that, and show notifications and kind of do things that desktop apps can do. But we can do them in less than the bazillion years it will take you to write WPF and Coco apps. So that’s cool.

There are many helpful tips in this session, but the comment posted above gave me pause for thought. You can get excellent results from Electron: look no further than Visual Studio Code which in just a few years (first release was April 2015) has become one of the most popular development tools of all time.

At the same time, I am reluctant to dismiss native code desktop development as yesterday’s thing. John Gruber articulates the problem in his piece about Electron and the decline of native apps.

As un-Mac-like as Word 6 was, it was far more Mac-like then than Google Docs running inside a Chrome tab is today. Google Docs on Chrome is an un-Mac-like word processor running inside an ever-more-un-Mac-like web browser. What the Mac market flatly rejected as un-Mac-like in 1996 was better than what the Mac market tolerates, seemingly happily, today. Software no longer needs to be Mac-like to succeed on the Mac today. That’s a tragedy.

Unlike Gruber I am not a Mac person but even on Windows I love the performance and integration of native applications that look right, feel right, and take full advantage of the platform.

As a developer I also prefer C# to JavaScript but that is perhaps more incidental – though it shows how far-sighted C# inventor Anders Hejlsberg was when he shifted to work on TypeScript, another super popular open source project from Microsoft.

Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division by Peter Hook

Peter Hook, known as Hooky, played bass for Joy Division and then New Order – though he is no longer with New Order, having fallen out with guitarist Bernard Sumner (also ex Joy Division) in early 2007.

Hook’s first book, called The Hacienda: how not to run a club, was published in 2010 but I paid no attention at the time, nor to its successors Unknown Pleasures and Substance. Leafing through the Hacienda book earlier this year though, I discovered that Hook is an excellent writer, with a disarming to-the-point style and deadpan humour. He is also, it seems, ruthlessly honest in his recollections; maybe there are some embellishments, or maybe he tells it just as it happens, but either way he neither holds back nor wallows in the excesses of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, just narrates it.

I resolved to do some reading over the break and have just finished his Joy Division book. It is at once illuminating, entertaining and moving. I love the prologue:

Normally I don’t include any other people in my writing. Everyone remembers the same things completely differently.

The central character in this book is not Hooky, but rather Ian Curtis, the lyricist and singer in Joy Division. In fact, as you finish the book, you realise that Hooky has kept his own personal life, such as his relationship with Iris with whom he stayed for 10 years, largely hidden from view. The Hooky self-described in the book is a lad and a japer who gets lucky with his distinctive bass playing almost by accident. Curtis on the other hand is an intellectual and a poet, though when off-stage with the band he adopts a laddish persona which is at odds with how he behaves with his wife Debbie or his mistress Annik Honoré. Maintaining these different personalities was a source of huge stress, especially since Curtis was an epileptic and not physically robust.

During the recording of the second and last Joy Division album, Closer, and just a couple of months before Curtis took his own life, the band stayed in two adjacent London flats. In one were Hooky, Sumner and drummer Stephen Morris, and in the other Curtis with girlfriend Honoré. As Hooky tells is, the band did the usual rock lifestyle focused on drink, drugs girls and recording sessions, while Curtis and Honoré would go out to art galleries and museums. The separate flats and lifestyle seem symbolic of the differences between Curtis and his band. Though that did not stop the other band members disassembling and removing their bed one night as a jape, causing Curtis to “go mental, absolutely mental”.

This and other accounts of high jinks on the road now seem deeply insensitive, considering the state of Curtis’s physical and mental health, a fact which Hook openly acknowledges.

I feel terrible about it now of course. Now I’m older and wiser, and now I’ve looked at his lyrics and worked out what a tortured soul he was. We should have left him alone to have his love affair but we didn’t because he wasn’t tragic Ian the genius then. He was just our mate and that’s what you did with your mates up north, you ripped the piss out of them.

This remark touches on another thing: that Hook says little about the content of Curtis’s lyrics and apparently took little notice of them at the time. He experienced the songs viscerally without troubling much about the meaning of the words.

The consequence is that this book says little about what Curtis was trying to communicate through the music and lyrics of Joy Division. Hook presents track-by-track descriptions of Unknown Pleasures and Closer but focuses largely on the instruments, song structure and produce Martin Hannett’s effects.

A notable feature of Joy Division’s short life is that the band never had much money. There is even a suggestion that when the band was achieving considerable success, Factory Records and band manager Rob Gretton were happy to keep the band poor on the grounds that the music was better that way. So we get accounts of travelling down the motorway in old vans that hardly worked, sleeping on tour in dormitories and brothels (if the hotel says your room will not be available until 1.00am you should worry), and making do with dodgy instruments and amplification. There is an illustration showing Joy Division’s accounts in 1980 and 1981: the band made far more money after Curtis died than it ever did before.

If you like Joy Division (and I personally find the band utterly compelling) then you will enjoy this book, even though it is not, and does not pretend to be, the last word. If you wonder what the UK’s punk movement was like at the sharp end, you should read this book (hint: it was not glamorous). Then put on some Joy Division and reflect on how amazing and accidental it is that this music exists, with all its emotional power; and how it is so unlike the music of New Order, fine though that is in its own right.

A glimpse into Microsoft history which goes some way to explaining the decline of Windows

Why is Windows in decline today? Short answer: because Microsoft lost out and/or gave up on Windows Phone / Mobile.

But how did it get to that point? A significant part of the story is the failure of Longhorn (when two to three years of Windows development was wasted in a big reset), and the failure of Windows 8.

In fact these two things are related. Here’s a post from Justin Chase; it is from back in May but only caught my attention when Jose Fajardo put it on Twitter. Chase was a software engineer at Microsoft between 2008 and 2014.

Chase notes that Internet Explorer (IE) stagnated because many of the developers working on it switched over to work on Windows Presentation Foundation, one of the “three pillars” of Longhorn. I can corroborate this to the extent that I recall a conversation with a senior Microsoft executive at Tech Ed Europe, in pre-Longhorn days, when I asked why not much was happening with IE. He said that the future lay in rich internet-connected applications rather than browser applications. Insightful perhaps, if you look at mobile apps today, but no doubt Microsoft also had in mind locking people into Windows.

WPF, based on .NET and DirectX, was intended to be used for the entire Windows shell in Longhorn. It was too slow, memory hungry, and buggy, eventually leading to the Longhorn reset.

“Ever since Longhorn the Windows team has had an extremely bitter attitude towards .NET. I don’t think its completely fair as they essentially went all in on a brand new technology and .NET has done a lot of evolving since then but nonetheless that sentiment remains among some of the now top players in Microsoft. So effectively there is a sentiment that some of the largest disasters in Microsoft history (IE’s fall from grace and multiple “bad” versions of Windows) are, essentially, totally the fault of gambling on .NET and losing (from their perspective). “

writes Chase.

This went on to impact Windows 8. You will recall that Windows Phone development was once based on Silverlight. Windows 8 however did not use Silverlight but instead had its own flavour of XAML. At the time I was bemused that Microsoft, with an empty Windows 8 app store, had not enabled compatibility with Windows Phone applications which would have given Windows 8 a considerable boost as well as helping developers port their code. Chase explains:

“So when Microsoft went to make their new metro apps for windows 8/10, they almost didn’t even support XAML apps but only C++ and JavaScript. It was only the passion of the developer community that pushed it over the edge and let it in.”

That was a shame because Silverlight was a great bit of technology, lightweight, powerful, graphically rich, and even cross-platform to some extent. If Microsoft had given developers a consistent and largely compatible path from Silverlight to Windows Phone to Windows 8 to Windows 10, rather than the endless changes of direction that happened instead, its modern Windows development platform would be stronger. Perhaps, even, Windows Phone / Mobile would not have been abandoned; and we would not have to choose today between the Apple island and the ad-driven Android.

The end of the Edge browser engine. Another pivotal moment in Microsoft’s history

Microsoft’s Joe Belfiore has announced that future versions of its Edge web browser will be built on Chromium. Chromium is an open source browser project originated by Google, which uses it for Chrome. The browser engine is Blink, which was forked from WebKit in April 2013.

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Belfiore does not specify what will happen to Chakra, the JavaScript engine used by Edge, but it seems likely that future versions of Edge will use the Chrome V8 engine instead.

There is plenty of logic behind the move. The immediate benefit to Microsoft in having its own browser engine is rather small. Chromium-based Edge will still have Microsoft’s branding and can still have unique features. It opens an easy route to cross-platform Edge, not only for Android, but also for MacOS and potentially Linux. It will improve web compatibility because all web developers know their stuff has to run properly in Chrome.

This is still a remarkable moment. The technology behind Edge goes right back to Trident, the Internet Explorer engine introduced in 1997. In the Nineties, winning the browser wars was seen as crucial to the future of the company, as Microsoft feared that users working mostly in the browser would no longer be hooked to Windows.

Today those fears have somewhat come to pass; and Windows does indeed face a threat, especially from Chrome OS for laptops, and of course from iOS and Android on mobile, though it turns out that internet-connected apps are just as important. Since Microsoft is not doing too well with its app store either, there are challenges ahead for Microsoft’s desktop operating system.

The difference is that today Microsoft cares more about its cloud platform. Replacing a Windows-only building block with a cross-platform one is therefore strategically more valuable than the opportunity to make Edge a key attraction of Windows, which was in any case unsuccessful.

The downside though (and it is a big one) is that the disappearance of the Edge engine means there is only Mozilla’s Gecko (used by Firefox), and WebKit, used by Apple’s Safari browser, remaining as mainstream alternatives to Chromium. Browser monoculture is drawing closer then, though the use of open source lessens the risk that any one company (it would be Google in this instance) will be able to take advantage.

Internet Explorer was an unhealthy monoculture during its years of domination, oddly not because of all its hooks to Windows, but because Microsoft stagnated its development in order to promote its Windows-based application platform (at least, that is my interpretation of what happened).

Let me add that this is a sad moment for the Edge team. I like Edge and there was lots of good work done to make it an excellent web browser.

State of Microsoft .NET: transition to .Net Core or be left behind

The transition of Microsoft’s .NET platform from Windows-only to cross-platform (and open source) is the right thing. Along with Xamarin (.NET for mobile platforms), it means that developers with skills in C#, F# and Visual Basic can target new platforms, and that existing applications can with sufficient effort be migrated to Linux on the server or to mobile clients.

That does not mean it is easy. Microsoft forked .NET to create .NET Core (it is only four years since I wrote up one of the early announcements on The Register) and the problem with forks is that you get divergence, making it harder to jump from one fork to the other.

At first this was disguised. The idea was that .NET Framework (the old Windows-only .NET) would be evolved alongside .NET Core and new language features would apply to both, at least initially. In addition, ASP.NET Core (the web framework) runs on either .NET Framework or .NET Core.

This is now changing. Microsoft has shifted its position so that .NET Framework is in near-maintenance mode and that new features come only to .NET Core. Last month, Microsoft’s Damian Edwards stated that ASP.NET Core will only run on .NET Core starting from 3.0, the next major version.

This week Mads Torgersen, C# Program Manager, summarised new features in the forthcoming C# 8.0. Many of these features will only work on .NET Core:

Async streams, indexers and ranges all rely on new framework types that will be part of .NET Standard 2.1. As Immo describes in his post Announcing .NET Standard 2.1, .NET Core 3.0 as well as Xamarin, Unity and Mono will all implement .NET Standard 2.1, but .NET Framework 4.8 will not. This means that the types required to use these features won’t be available when you target C# 8.0 to .NET Framework 4.8.

Default interface member implementations rely on new runtime enhancements, and we will not make those in the .NET Runtime 4.8 either. So this feature simply will not work on .NET Framework 4.8 and on older versions of .NET.

The obvious answer is to switch to .NET Core. Microsoft is making this more feasible by supporting WPF and Windows Forms with .NET Core, on Windows only. Entity Framework 6 will also be supported.  It is also likely that this will work on Windows 7 as well as Windows 10.

This move will not be welcome to all developers. The servicing for .NET Framework is automatic, via Windows Update or on-premises equivalents, but for .NET Core requires developer attention. Inevitably some things will not work quite the same on .NET Core and for long-term stability it may be preferable to stay with .NET Framework. The more rapid release cycle of .NET Core is not necessarily a good thing if you prioritise reliability over new features.

The problem though: from now on, .NET Framework will not evolve much. There are a few new things in .NET Framework 4.8, like high DPI support, Edge-based browser control, and better touch support. There are really minimal essential updates. In time, maintaining applications on .NET Framework will look like a mistake as application capabilities and performance fall behind. That means, if you are a .NET developer, .NET Core is in your future.

From Big Blue to Big Red? IBM to acquire Red Hat

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IBM has agreed to acquire Red Hat:

IBM will acquire all of the issued and outstanding common shares of Red Hat for $190.00 per share in cash, representing a total enterprise value of approximately $34 billion.

IBM Is presenting this as a hybrid cloud play, with the claim that businesses are held back from cloud migration “by the proprietary nature of today’s cloud market.”

IBM and Red Hat will be strongly positioned to address this issue and accelerate hybrid multi-cloud adoption. Together, they will help clients create cloud-native business applications faster, drive greater portability and security of data and applications across multiple public and private clouds, all with consistent cloud management. In doing so, they will draw on their shared leadership in key technologies, such as Linux, containers, Kubernetes, multi-cloud management, and cloud management and automation.

Notably, the announcement specifically refers to multi-cloud adoption, and that the company intends to “build and enhance” partnerships with Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud and Alibaba.

Red Hat will be a “distinct unit” within IBM, the intention being to preserve its open source culture and independence.

My own instinct is that we will see more IBM influence on Red Hat, than Microsoft influence on GitHub, to take another recent example of an established tech giant acquiring a company with an open source culture.

IBM is coming from behind in the cloud wars, but with Linux ascendant, and Red Hat the leader in enterprise Linux, the acquisition gives the company a stronger position in today’s technology landscape.

Microsoft is making lots of money. Anything else notable in its first quarter financials?

Microsoft has released its statements for the first quarter in its financial year, ending 30th September. Here is the segment breakdown. Everything has moved in the right direction.

Quarter ending September 30th 2018 vs quarter ending September 30th 2017, $millions

Segment Revenue Change Operating income Change
Productivity and Business Processes 9771 +1533 3881 +875
Intelligent Cloud 8567 +1645 2931 +794
More Personal Computing 10746 +1368 3143 +578

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

Any points of interest? In his earnings call statement, CEO Satya Nadella talked Teams, the Office 365 conferencing and collaboration solution:

“Teams is now the hub for teamwork for 329,000 organizations, including 87 of the Fortune 100. And, we are adding automated translation
support for meetings, shift scheduling for firstline workers, and new industry-specific offerings including healthcare and small business.”

He also mentioned Power Apps and Flow, interesting to me because they are the most successful so far of the company’s efforts to come up with a low-code development platform:

“Power BI, Power Apps and Flow are driving momentum with customers and have made us a leader in no-code app building and business analytics in the cloud.”

He also mentioned the pending GitHub acquisition, which he says is “an opportunity to bring our tools and services to new audiences while enabling GitHub to grow and retain its developer-first ethos.”

Note that despite the cloud growth, Windows remains the biggest single segment in terms of revenue.

Determining how much of Microsoft’s business is “cloud” is tricky. The figures in the productivity segment lump together Office 365 and on-premises products, while Office 365 itself is in part a subscription to desktop Office, so not pure cloud. Equally, the “intelligent cloud” segment includes on-premises server licenses. No doubt this fuzzing of what is and is not cloud in the figures is deliberate.