All posts by Tim Anderson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Will WPF or WinForms be updated?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Recommended.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More info here and in the video below.

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

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

Chromebooks get more useful as Linux comes to Chrome OS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top feature: security

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

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

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

Microsoft Build: Azure-powered Drones, another go with Kinect, and other key announcements

Microsoft Build is kicking off today in Seattle, and the company has made a ton of announcements.

See here for some background on Build and what is happening with Microsoft’s platform.

The most eye-catching announcement is a partnership with drone manufacturer DJI which says it will make Azure its preferred cloud provider. Microsoft has announced an SDK. There is much obvious value in drones from a business perspective, for example examining pipes for damage. Sectors such as construction, agriculture and public safety are obvious candidates.

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Microsoft’s Kinect sensor was originally launched as a gaming accessory for Xbox 360 and then Xbox One. It has been a flop in gaming, but the technology has plenty of potential. Coming in 2019 is Project Kinect for Azure, a new device with upgraded sensors for connecting “AI to the edge”, in Microsoft’s words. More here.

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The Azure IoT Edge runtime is going open source. More cognitive services will now run directly on the runtime, in other words without depending on internet connectivity, including Custom Vision for image recognition (handy for drones, perhaps). A partnership with Qualcomm will support camera-powered cognitive services.

AI for Accessibility is a new initiative to use AI to empower people via assistive technology, building on previous work such as the use of Cognitive Services to help a visually impaired person “see” the world around them.

Project Brainwave is a new project to accelerate AI by running calculations on an FPGA (Field Programmable Gate Array) in partnership with Intel.

On the Windows front, a new application called Microsoft Layout uses Mixed Reality to let customers design spaces in context, using 3D models.

Windows Timeline, new in the April 2018 Windows 10 update, is coming to iOS and Android. On Android it is a separate application, while on iOS it is incorporated into the Edge browser.

Amazon Alexa and Microsoft Cortana are getting integration (in limited preview) such that you can call up Cortana using an Amazon Echo, or summon Alexa within Cortana on Windows.

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There is more to come, including AI updates to Visual Studio (not IntelliSense but IntelliCode), Visual Studio Live Share collaboration in preview, and a partnership with GitHub to integrate with App Center (DevOps for apps for mobile devices).

And big .NET news at Build: .NET Core 3.0 in 2019 will run Windows desktop applications, via frameworks including Windows Forms, Windows Presentation Framework (WPF), and UWP XAML.

As Microsoft Build 2018 begins, what is happening to Microsoft’s developer platform?

Microsoft’s Build developer conference starts today in Seattle.

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Ahead of Build though, it is worth noting that this Build is different in feel than previous events. The first Build was in 2011 and it was focused on Windows 8, released there in preview.Historically it has always been a Windows-focused event, though of course with some sessions on Microsoft’s wider platform.

Microsoft is changing, and the key document for those interested in the company’s direction is this one from 29th March 2018 – the most significant strategic move since the June 2015 “aligning engineering to strategy” announcement that dismantled the investment in Windows Phone.

In the March announcement CEO Satya Nadella explains that the Windows and Devices Group (WDG) has become the Experiences and Devices Group – no longer just Windows. Former WDG chief Terry Myerson is leaving Microsoft, while Rajesh Jha steps up to run the new team.

I regard this new announcement as a logical next step following the departure of Steven Sinofsky in November 2012 (the beginning of the end for Windows 8) and the end of Windows Phone announced in June 2015. Sinofsky’s vision was for Windows to be reinvented for a new era of computing devices based on touch and mobile. This strategy failed, for numerous reasons which this is not the place to re-iterate. Windows 10, by contrast, is about keeping the operating system up to date as a business workhorse and desktop operating system, a market that will slowly decline as other devices take over things that we used to do with PCs, but which will also remain important for the foreseeable future.

Windows, let me emphasise, is neither dead nor dying. We still need PCs to do our work. The always-enthusiastic Joe Belfiore is now in charge of Windows and we will continue to see a stream of new features added to the operating system, though increasingly they will work in tandem with new software for iOS and Android. However, Windows can no longer be an engine of growth at Microsoft.

Microsoft has positioned itself to succeed despite the decline of the PC, primarily through cloud services. It has made huge investments in cloud infrastructure – that is, datacenters and connectivity – as well as in the software to make that infrastructure useful, from low-level server and network virtualisation to a large range of high level services (which is where the biggest profits can be made).

The company’s biggest cloud success is not Azure as such, but rather Office 365, now running a substantial proportion of the world’s business email, and building on that base with a growing range of collaboration and storage services. It is a perfect upsell opportunity, which is why the company is now talking up “Microsoft 365”, composed of Office 365, Windows 10, and Enterprise Mobility + Security (EMS).

Nadella’s new mantra is “the intelligent cloud and the intelligent edge”, where the intelligent cloud is all things Office 365 and Azure, and the intelligent edge is all the computing devices that connect to it, whether as small as a Raspberry Pi running Azure IoT Edge (a small cross-platform runtime that connects to Azure services), or as large as Azure Stack (an on-premises cloud in a box that uses the Azure computing model).

We need an “intelligent edge” because it makes no sense at all to pump all of the vast and increasing amounts of data that we collect, from sensors and other inputs, directly into the cloud. That is madly inefficient. Instead, you process it locally and send to the cloud only what is interesting. Getting the right balance between cloud and edge is challenging and something which the industry is still working out. Nothing new there, you might think, as the trade-off between centralised and distributed computing has been a topic of endless debate for as long as I can remember.

Coming back to Build, what does the above mean for developers? From Microsoft’s perspective, it is more strategic to have developers building for its cloud platform than for Windows itself; and if that means coding for Linux, iOS or Android, it matters little.

At the same time, Belfiore and his team are keen to keep Windows competitive against the competition (Mac, Linux, Chromebook). Even more important from the company’s point of view is to get users off Windows 7 and onto Windows 10, which is more strategic in every way.

Just because Microsoft wants you to do something does not make it in your best interests. That said, if you accept that a cloud-centric approach is right for most businesses, Windows 10 does make sense in lots of ways. It is more secure and, increasingly, easier to manage. Small businesses can log in directly with Azure Active Directory, and larger organisations get benefits like autopilot, now beginning to roll out as the PC OEMs ready the hardware.

The future of UWP (Universal Windows Platform) is less clear. Microsoft has invested heavily in UWP and made it an integral part of new Windows features like HoloLens and Mixed Reality. Developers on the other hand still largely prefer to work with older frameworks like Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF), and the value of UWP has been undermined by the death of Windows Phone. In addition, you can now get Store access and the install/uninstall benefits of UWP via another route, the Desktop Bridge – which is why key consumer applications like Spotify and Apple iTunes have turned up in the Store.

Finally, Build did not sell out this year; however I have heard that it has doubled in size, so these things are relative. Nevertheless, this is perhaps an indication that Microsoft still has work to do with its repositioning in the developer community. The challenge for the company is to keep its traditional Windows-focused developers on board, while also attracting new developers more familiar with non-Microsoft technologies. Anecdotally, I would say there are more signs of the former than the latter.

Notes from the field: “cannot open the Outlook window” in Windows 10. OneDrive the culprit?

A friend was having problems with Outlook on a new Windows 10 laptop. It had been set up with a POP3/SMTP email account. Everything worked fine at first, but then Outlook refused to open, displaying a message “Cannot open the Outlook window”. The version of Outlook was the latest Outlook 2016, purchased via personal subscription.

Presuming database corruption, I created a new profile and entered the email settings. It worked at first and then exactly the same error occurred, after Outlook had been closed and reopened a couple of times.

I looked more closely and noticed something odd. Outlook was saving the .pst database for this account to OneDrive. This is not something you would notice, since the location of this database is normally invisible to the user. However you can see it if you go into Account Settings and then Data Files.

Note: this screenshot comes not from my friend’s PC but from my own test install of Windows 10, which uses the defaults. I simply set up Outlook with a POP3 email account.

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Why was this happening? It is because Windows 10 sets OneDrive as the default location for documents if you set it up with a personal Microsoft account, which is the default for non-business users.

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Outlook creates .pst files in a sub-folder of the special Documents location, called Outlook Files.

Note: Outlook does not do this for .ost files used for Exchange, Office 365 or Outlook.com. It is only something you will see if you use an old-style POP3 email account, or possibly IMAP (I have not tested this).

Saving active .pst files in OneDrive is not a good idea. Even if it works, it brings no benefit, since you cannot get multiple versions of Outlook on different PCs to use the same synced .pst.

Worse, it is known to cause corruption. Check out this ancient post on the subject from the experts at Slipstick systems:

The answer: It won’t work in most services and is not recommended in any service. Outlook puts a lock on the pst file when the pst file is open. OneDrive (and other cloud solutions) continually syncs the local folder. It won’t be able to sync the pst because Outlook has a lock on it and as a result, the pst file could become corrupted and data loss occur.

Unfortunately it is not that easy to persuade Outlook to save the .pst elsewhere. The method I used was:

1. Open the Mail applet in Control Panel (always the first port of call if Outlook will not open).

2. Select a profile, even one that doesn’t work, and choose Properties.  Click Data Files tab and then Add. This lets you create a new, empty .pst in the location of your choice. Close this dialog.

3. When setting up the email account, choose Manual settings, and then select the option to deliver mail to an existing .pst. Browse to select the one you created.

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All of this is well buried and typical users will not find these settings.

The other solution is to reconfigure the location of the Documents folder to be on the local hard drive and not in the special OneDrive folder. Of course this will affect all your documents and not just Outlook. Saving everyday documents to OneDrive is not such a bad idea, since it gives you resilience in the case where your hard drive or SSD fails.

Note: There are multiple reasons for the “Cannot open the Outlook window” error so the above is not necessarily the fix you need, if you have come here in search of an answer. It only applies if you have this particular configuration and use POP3 email.

Microsoft financials: Azure revenue grows 93% year on year

Microsoft delivered excellent figures in its latest financial results, for the period Jan-March 2018. Total revenue of $26,819 million was up 16% year on year, within which Azure revenue grew 93%.

The overall story is that cloud services and subscription income is working well for the company. Azure is not the whole of Microsoft’s cloud; in fact I would argue that Office 365 (built around hosted Exchange) is equally important, since it drives uptake for other products and services including desktop Office and Dynamics. Office 365 commercial revenue grew 42% and Office consumer grew 12%.

Perhaps more surprising is that this was also a good quarter for Windows and Xbox. Windows OEM revenue up 4%, Surface up 32%, Xbox up 24%. Why is Windows growing? One reason is that businesses really are upgrading to Windows 10, where perhaps they sat out Windows 8 as best they could. This is necessary for security reasons if nothing else. The uptake for Windows 10 has had spin-off benefits for things like Surface sales, as CFO Amy Hood explained in the financial webcast.

Even LinkedIn is doing well, with revenue growth of 37%, driven by job advertising and sponsored content.

In the webcast, CEO Satya Nadella talked up “the intelligent cloud and the intelligent edge” and the role of AI in securing the cloud.

GDPR is also seen as an opportunity. It is less costly to host applications in our GDPR-complaint cloud than to achieve this on-premises, said Microsoft.

So everything is fine for Microsoft? Perhaps, perhaps not. The company has transitioned not only to cloud, but to enterprise, and is becoming less and less visible to consumers. The home PC is not the ubiquitous thing it once was, and in mobile there is no longer any Windows, aside from the occasional Windows 10 tablet. Xbox and gaming PCs are the only bright spots in consumer.

This means the company has changed its character. It has also missed out on things like mobile payments, home assistants and home automation. You can see how Google, Amazon and to some extent Apple are jostling for position as a kind of portal to everything for the consumer, with great strategic advantage as powerful intermediaries to consumer purchases. Microsoft is absent.

Every business person is also a consumer and retreating from this market could prove costly long-term.

For now though, the company is delivering nicely on Nadella’s cloud strategy.

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

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

Segment Revenue Change Operating income Change
Productivity and Business Processes 9006 +1299 3115 +575
Intelligent Cloud 7896 +1166 2654 +506
More Personal Computing 9917 +1142 2523 +488

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

The Future of PowerShell:

PowerShell, Microsoft’s scripting platform, is significant for several reasons. It is critical to Microsoft’s strategy of reducing dependence on a GUI in Windows Server. It is also a key piece in automating IT administration, which is fundamental to business agility.

The platform was invented by Microsoft’s Jeffrey Snover, now Technical Fellow and Lead Architect for the Enterprise Cloud Group. The evolution of PowerShell has gone hand in hand with the company’s broader strategy for Windows and Azure, guided by Snover as architect.

PowerShell is everywhere in Azure Stack, Microsoft’s packaged version of Azure for running on-premises, and presumably in the online version of Azure as well. There are an “average 472 cmdlet calls” when a VM is created, according to Snover’s keynote at the recent PowerShell Europe conference in Hanover.

The PowerShell team is now apparently part of the Azure Management Team within Microsoft.

What is happening with PowerShell? The main thing to understand is that Microsoft has forked the platform. Windows PowerShell is the Windows-only version, while PowerShell Core is cross-platform on Windows, Mac and Linux. Windows PowerShell is based on the .NET Framework, while PowerShell Core is based on .NET Core.

The situation with this is odd, in that Windows PowerShell is installed by default in Windows Server and the one that most people use; but PowerShell Core is the one that is under active development. This is explained here. Snover emphasised in his keynote that Windows PowerShell is done:

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Note though that PowerShell is modular, and although the Windows PowerShell engine is not being developed, new or enhanced modules will still appear. In fact, they are likely to run both on Windows PowerShell and on PowerShell Core. Like all forks, there will be some pain over compatibility versus using the latest features as the Core platform evolves.

If you want to try PowerShell Core you can download it here. However it is of limited use for day to day work unless you also install and activate a module called WindowsPSModulePath which you can get from the PowerShell Gallery. This lets you use all your current Windows PowerShell modules, subject of course to compatibility.

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So what is next for PowerShell? Snover’s ambition for the platform, he said, is to manage any server or service, from any client, running on any cloud (or on-premises, any hypervisor).

Much of what is interesting is not so much new features in PowerShell itself, but additional modules or other utilities.

PSSwagger is helpful for creating modules: it will create a PowerShell module from a Swagger API (a popular standard for specifying RESTful APIs).

CloudShell is a command shell for Azure which you can run from a web browser.

Windows Admin Center, formerly known as Project Honolulu is a browser application for managing servers (and some desktops). You can open a PowerShell session directly from the browser. In addition, it is PowerShell that enables much of the other functionality.

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As for Microsoft’s plans for PowerShell Core, Snover refers to this site which sets out the company’s strategic investments. These include help system improvements, a GUI framework for the console perhaps like Curses on Linux, a mechanism for PowerShell to prompt for install (as in Bash) when a command is not found, but a module containing that command is known to exist, and Just Enough Administration (JAE) on Linux.

At the PowerShell conference Principal Software Engineer Steve Lee talked about a PowerShell Standard Library, which itself targets .NET Standard 2.0, for module authors to use when creating modules so they will work cross-platform.

PowerShell and Microsoft’s platform

One of the intriguing things about Microsoft’s evolution is its embrace of both Linux and cross-platform. PowerShell is one small part of this, but fits in with that strategy. We should no longer think of Microsoft’s platform as based on Windows, even though of course it mostly runs on Windows today. The OS is becoming less important as the company focuses on services and applications.

The further implication is that cross-platform support is not just a nice-to-have feature for pieces like .NET Core and PowerShell Core, but essential for Microsoft itself as it integrates multiple operating systems in its cloud platform.

While we tend to applaud cross-platform support as a good thing, it is not without pain. PowerShell is a case in point. Windows PowerShell is at the same time the current thing, and the thing that is no longer evolving.

PowerShell and IT admins

PowerShell is an essential skill for Windows IT admins. On Office 365, for example, there always seem to be things you can do in PowerShell that you cannot easily do though the GUI, and even where you can, it often pays to use PowerShell because you can script and automate common operations. The same is true for Azure.

Not everyone loves PowerShell as a language. Some complain of its verbosity. It can also be prickly to work with. It is not at all English-like, making it less accessible for beginners than most scripting languages.

It is however well suited to its purpose, which is what counts.

David Bowie: Welcome to the Blackout

The 21st April 2018 was Record Store Day, when the industry comes up with hundreds of special edition vinyl records which are offered for sale only through independent record shops. A helping hand for the independents, or a an attempt to con us into buying overpriced product via the old trick of artificial scarcity? Take your pick; but there’s no doubting that it gets thousands of people into record shops for at least one day in the year.

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For me, the highlight this year was a 3LP David Bowie live release, called Welcome to the Blackout. Not least because it was recorded at Earls Court London on the evenings of 30 June and 1 July 1978, and well, I was there, at least on one of the nights (I am not sure which). I remember it was an amazing experience, and that the the set visuals including the vertical bars backdrop were stunning – apologies for the poor quality of the picture below, which is taken from here.

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The Earls Court concerts were filmed by David Hemmings but the film was never released. However this might explain why the concerts were recorded by Tony Visconti and selected songs from the last two concerts were mixed by David Bowie and David Richards at Mountain Studios, Montreux between 17th and 23rd January 1979 (according to the sleevenotes). Two additional songs on Welcome to the Blackout, Sound and Vision and TVC 15, do not use Bowie/Richards mixes, perhaps because they were not selected at the time.

In 1978 David Bowie embarked on the ISOLAR II world tour, building on the release of Low and Heroes. The tour began in San Diego, March 1978, and ended in Tokyo, December 1978. Performances in Philadelphia in late April, and in Boston in early May, were recorded and formed the basis of the album Stage, first released in November 1978. Stage was originally just 17 songs, presented in a different order from that of the performance. In 2005 this was expanded to 20 songs, and the performance running order was restored, so that the opening track is the moody instrumental Warszawa. There was also a surround mix released on DVD Audio for a short time. Then in 2017 Stage was again reissued, now with 22 songs.

Since we already have Stage in so many guises, do we need Welcome to the Blackout? Having enjoyed this release for a couple of days, my answer is an emphatic yes. The Earls Court dates were at the end of the European leg of the tour, which did not resume until November in Australia. Bowie seems to be energised by this being in some sense the last concert of the tour and refers to this several times. He also performs two songs not on any version of Stage: Sound and Vision, and Rebel Rebel.

More important, the character of both the performance and the sound is different. There is simply more energy, and although the crowd noise is still mixed fairly low, it comes over as more of a live performance than the rather bland sound of Stage. We also get a longer Station to Station, under 9 minutes on Stage, and over 11 minutes here.

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The band, the same on as for Stage, is outstanding:

Carlos Alomar: Rhythm guitar
Adrian Belew: Lead guitar
Dennis Davis: Drums and percussion
Simon House: Electric violin
Sean Mayes: Piano, string ensemble
George Murray: Bass guitar
Roger Powell: Keyboards, Synthesizer

I’ve compared several songs on Stage and Welcome to the Blackout. For example, the song Blackout itself, which is decently performed on Stage, is introduced here by Bowie saying hoarsely “Welcome to the Blackout”; the instrumentation at the beginning of the song is more menacing and engaging on the new release; the vocal is more frenetic and desperate.

In TVC 15, the opening loony voiceovers is louder and more distinct on Welcome to the Blackout; it sounds like the band is having a great time and the song is more fun to listen to.

Jean Genie is stunning on this album; the guitar growls and grinds, Bowie’s vocal is full of drama; it makes the Stage performance (only on the 2017 edition) sound tame.

Despite the occasional flub, I can’t find any instances where I prefer the Stage recording.

Of course the album is meant to be heard as a piece, and seems to me to be an excellent capture of one of Bowie’s best performances.

Having said that, this concert lacks the intensity of Bowie in 1974 or 1976. Bowie is more at ease here.

I was fortunate to catch Bowie in performance in 1978. His next tour was not until 1983, when we got a different kind of performance to support the more mainstream Let’s Dance album; and after that in 1987 with the unsatisfactory Glass Spider tour.

Full track listing:

Warszawa
”Heroes”
What in the World
Be my Wife
The Jean Genie
Blackout
Sense of Doubt
Speed of Life
Sound and Vision
Breaking Glass
Fame
Beauty and the Beast
Five Years
Soul Love
Star
Hang on to yourself
Ziggy Stardust
Suffragette City
Art Decade
Alabama Song
Station to Station
TVC15
Stay
Rebel Rebel

Finally a shout out to Ray Staff who mastered the album. On first listen he did a great job. I love the dynamics and the overall balance of the sound.

Recommended; and if you find the album hard to find at a sensible price, or don’t have a record player, there is no need to panic as it will probably be out on CD and download/streaming in a few months.

Update: Welcome to the Blackout is released on CD on 29 June 2018.

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