Category Archives: microsoft

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Using an M1 Mac after a lifetime of mainly Windows

So I got an M1 MacBook Pro back in April and it is time for a quick brain dump on my experience. I am not travelling as much as I did pre-lockdown, so although I got the Mac as a replacement for an ancient Windows laptop it gets used at home too. My usual desktop PC is a few years old but a decent spec gaming PC withCore i7-7700 3.6 GHz, 16GB RAM and Nvidia RTX 2060 GPU. I have been happy with it; but I do find myself thinking “why not just use the MacBook” when needing to fire up a computer, a subconscious preference that bears examination. Most of my work is writing, web browsing and coding.

I do not particularly prefer the macOS UI to that of Windows. It is more consistent because Apple managed iOS vs macOS sensibly whereas Microsoft made a hash of Windows desktop vs Windows CE vs Windows Phone vs Windows 8 and has now settled on a thing called WinUI but scratch the surface of Windows and you still find UI that has not changed for decades.

I digress though. I do not mind the Windows UI, I am used to it. What I do mind though is annoyances like the always-broken Windows search, and the way certain actions cause lengthy pauses that make me wonder what my PC is doing. In my case, sorting a large directory in Windows Explorer takes an age. Another little issue is that creating a new folder works fine, but renaming it causes a long pause. There also seem to be some focus issues. I create a new folder, I rename it and press Enter. Eventually it renames, but half the time the focus mysteriously switches to a different folder.

I realise that these problems do not occur with a new install of Windows and that I could pop out and buy a Surface laptop and it would be fine. For a bit. Windows, it seems to me, still suffers from the cruft problem beautifully described by Verity Stob 20 years ago. I do not think Macs are completely immune (I had a Mac Mini where I upgraded the OS once too often and it crawled) but does seem to me more resistant.

There is another thing that I like about the MacBook. You close the lid and it sleeps. You open the lid minutes, hours or days later, and it wakes. This has never worked well for me on Windows, though it is meant to do the same. I can believe that it is hard to implement, but when it works it is a huge benefit.

There is also the unwanted advertising that has crept into the Windows UI especially since Windows 11. Working on the MacBook I do notice its absence; I can better focus on what I want to do.

From a developer perspective, the performance of the M1 Pro is a delight. I work mostly in Visual Studio Code on both platforms; even on Windows I have come to prefer VS Code for most types of work. There is also the fact that Unix-like operating systems have won in server and web applications, so there is less friction there.

Launchpad: reminiscent of the Windows 8 Start screen?

Microsoft came up with a great application launcher in the Windows 95 Start menu – and improved it until it reached its peak in Windows 7. I also like the Windows 8 full-screen version. Windows 10 and 11 are not so good though. You get inadvertent web searches, as well as the problem of apps that you search for not appearing for strange reasons. The Mac Launchpad, which reminds me of the Windows 8 full-screen Start menu, seems to work well. You type what you want and all the matches appear.

What do I miss when not using Windows? It is mainly a matter of working out new ways to do certain tasks. I do miss Hyper-V and WSL (Windows Subsystem for Linux) though I have had success with UTM for running both Windows and Ubuntu on the Mac. The integration of WSL with the desktop OS is great though. Microsoft Office still works best on Windows though not to the extent of a few years back. There is no Paint or Notepad, and favourites like Notepad++ do not run natively, but Preview works for cropping images and alternatives to Windows utilities exist.

Sometimes you are pushed towards the command line which is not a bad thing. No WinSCP for example, so use scp instead, and do some helper scripts for common tasks. You end up saving time. (I realise you can script WinSCP as well). And no need for Putty; just type ssh or script the command line you need.

I do expect though to use Windows less in future, and for me that is a big change.

Microsoft moves towards UDP in place of TCP for Azure Virtual Desktop, claims lower latency and higher reliability

Microsoft has announced the public preview of Azure Virtual Desktop RDP Shortpath for public networks – a bit of a mouthful, but what this really means is a switch towards UDP as the first choice transport for remote desktop sessions on the Azure cloud.

“Long running TCP sessions are problematic” said Senior Program Manager Denis Gundarev. “UDP is more tolerant to the temporary network interruptions caused by wireless interference or by changes in dynamic routing.”

UDP in itself is not enough; for example, UDP “does not care about each individual packet’s packet order or delivery. It does not have built-in congestion or rate control,” explains Gundarev. The implementation for RDP (Remote Desktop Protocol) uses a thing called URCP (Universal Rate Control Protocol) which Microsoft developed back in 2013, for real-time communications.

AVD already supported UDP for private networks, but many users do not have a private connection to Azure like ExpressRoute, hence the introduction of the public network version. Microsoft says that the benefits include lower latency, better network utilization, and high tolerance to packet loss.

Implementing the preview is done by setting a registry key on the AVD session host, so this can be done experimentally for just a few hosts in order to try out the feature. That said, it will not always be possible. “RDP Shortpath may fail if you use double NAT setups,” said Gundarev. Users should not notice as the old TCP-based connection will be used automatically instead.

Microsoft’s “new commerce experience” for 365 services: not just price increases

Microsoft stated in August that it is increasing prices for Microsoft 365 (formerly known as Office 365), the increase being around 20%, from March 1 2022. The company argues that prices have not changed substantially for ten years – perhaps contentious since it has introduced premium plans that are more expensive – and that “this updated pricing reflects the increased value we have delivered to our customers over the past 10 years.”

There has been inflation of around 2% per annum since 2011 and there have been need features, so a price increase is not unreasonable. However there are some other changes in the pipeline that are more difficult. This is the thing called the New Commerce Experience that impacts both customers and resellers. Finding out what has really changed is not that easy but if you dig through the fluff about “agility” and “alignment” and “streamlining”, there are some standout changes:

  • Customers that want the flexibility to reduce seat count will pay 20% more. Until now, it has been possible to reduce seat count without penalty, even though Microsoft presents its pricing as for an “annual term.” With NCE, customers can either pay by the month with premium prices but the ability to reduce seat count with a month’s notice, or pay less but commit to seats for one or three years. During that period, seat count can be increased but not decreased.

    Reasonable? The problem perhaps is that it means giving up one of the benefits of cloud, which is elasticity. Or at least, you can still have elasticity but it is going to cost more. We have also seen this with reserved instance pricing on AWS, Azure and Google Cloud Platform: the price comes down substantially if you commit to paying for one year or more.

  • There will be no cancellation allowed after the first 72 hours of a term, as explained here. This may impact partners more than customers. Scenario: partner sells 1,000 seats of Microsoft 365 for a 3-year term to some company. Three months into the term, the company goes bust. Partners are saying that this leaves them on the hook for the remaining cost. Here, for example, Australian distributor Dicker Data states that “If a customer (who has the agreement with Microsoft) no longer want or can finish the payment of the contract (bankruptcy for example), the partner will incur the costs of paying the remainder of the contract to Microsoft.”

One hopes that such matters are negotiable, but it is a significant risk especially in these unpredictable times of pandemic and climate change.

Exchange emails stuck in queue because “message deferred by categorizer agent”- Happy New Year admins!

The first day of a new year is a great moment to relax and prepare for what is ahead – but spare a thought for Microsoft Exchange administrators who may have woken up to seized up installations of their on-premises email servers. I was among those affected, but only on my tiny system. Messages were stuck in the submission queue, suspiciously since midnight or thereabouts (somehow a message sneaked through timed 12.14 am) and the last error reported by the queue viewer was “Messages deferred by categorizer agent.”

As usual I went down a number of rabbit holes. Restart the Exchange Transport service. Reboot the server. Delete the first message not to be delivered in case it was corrupt and somehow clogging up the queue. Check for certificate issues.

It was none of these. Here is the guilty party in the event viewer:

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The FIPS-FS Microsoft Scan Engine failed to load, with the error can’t convert “2201010001” too long.

The impact was that the malware filter could not check the message, hence the error from the categorizer agent.

The solution is to run the Exchange Shell on the server and navigate to the Scripts directory where Exchange is installed, for example C:\Program Files\Microsoft\Exchange Server\V15\Scripts. Here you will find a script called Disable-AntimalwareScanning.ps1.

& $env:ExchangeInstallPath\Scripts\Disable-AntimalwareScanning.ps1

should work. Run it, restart the  Exchange Transport service, and email will start to flow.

Once the problem is patched, there is a companion script called Enable-AntimalwareScanning which restores it. Though I am not sure of the value of the Exchange malware filter since Microsoft considers that even on-premises installations should use the Microsoft 365 services for spam and malware scanning, and the on-premises protection features are not kept up to date, meaning that a third-party or open source spam and malware filter is a necessity anyway, unless you go the Office 365 route.

Another reason not to run Exchange on-premises – but Microsoft still says that hybrid systems using Azure Active Directory Connect should do so in order to manage mailboxes.

Note: the maximum value for a 32-bit signed integer is 2,147,483,647. Yesterday which was perhaps represented as 2,112,310,001 would have fitted within that whereas today 2,202,020,001 did not. Dates and times are awkward for programmers.

Update: Microsoft  has an official fix here. Thanks to Erik in the comments for the link.

Microsoft posts another strong set of results, does not know how to invest its profits

Microsoft has announced its quarterly financial statements, reporting revenue of $33.1 billion, up 14% on the same period last year (though fractionally down on the previous quarter).

It does not know how to invest the money it is making. It returned $7.9 billion to shareholders via dividends and buybacks.

What’s notable? The fastest-growing business is Azure, with revenue up by 59%, followed by Dynamics 365 up by 41%.

Office 365 commercial revenue up by 25%, Dynamics 365 up by 41%.

Microsoft notes that it is achieving “higher average revenue per user” on Office 365, indicating some success in adding premium features.

LinkedIn is performing well, revenue up by 25%.

Xbox hardware revenue is down by 34%, but gaming revenue overall down by only 7%. The next hope for gaming will be when the next generation of Xbox appears, Project “Scarlett”, expected this time next year.

In Windows. business revenue is up in both “commercial revenue” (Microsoft 365 and other license sales) and OEM Pro revenue (PCs with Windows 10 Pro installed). However consumer Windows is down 7%. Microsoft says “pressure in the entry level category”, but my guess is that home PCs are just not being replaced and that Chromebooks and iPads are eating into laptop sales.

Quarter ending Sept 30th 2019 vs quarter ending Sept 30th 2018, $millions

Segment Revenue Change Operating income Change
Productivity and Business Processes 11077 +1306 4782 +901
Intelligent Cloud 10845 +2278 3889 +958
More Personal Computing 11133 +387 4015 +872

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

Finding the multi-factor authentication and authenticator options in an Office 365 account

Microsoft has done some good work enabling and promoting multi-factor authentication in Office 365, including use of the Microsoft Authenticator app.

Strangely though, it has made the user settings for this hard to find.

Logically it should be in the My Account – Security and Privacy section, but it is not.

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Where is it then? The easiest way to find it is here:

https://aka.ms/mfasetup

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Saving documents in Office 365 desktop applications

Those readers who also follow The Register may have noticed that I am writing more for that publication now, though be assured that I will still post here from time to time. My most recent piece is on saving documents in Office and reflects a longstanding annoyance that in applications like Word and Excel Microsoft mostly bypasses the standard Windows file save dialog in favour of its own Backstage,  now supplemented by an additional dialog which the team says  will help us “save your files to the cloud more easily.”

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Admittedly the new dialog is small and neat relative to the cluttered Backstage but it is not very flexible and if you use multiple sub-folders to organize our files you will be clicking More save options half the time, defeating the point.

There is also a suspicion that rather than helping us with something most of us do not need help with, Microsoft is trying to promote OneDrive – which it is entitled to do, but it is an annoyance if the software you have paid for is being used as a surreptitious marketing tool.

Microsoft earnings: strong quarter, but Xbox revenue dives

Microsoft has announced its quarterly financial statements, reporting revenue of $33.7 billion, up 12% on the same period last year.

The company stated that Azure revenue is up 64% year on year. Azure has overtaken the other two segments and is now the biggest, by a small amount. In addition, Azure gross margin has improved by 6% year on year.

Office 365 revenue is up 31% year on year.

Gaming was a black spot, declining 10% year on year – though Xbox Live monthly active users is at a record 65 million. The main problem is a 48% decline in the volume of Xbox consoles sold.

Quarter ending June 30th 2019 vs quarter ending June 30th 2018, $millions

Segment Revenue Change Operating income Change
Productivity and Business Processes 11047 +1379 4344 +878
Intelligent Cloud 11391 +1785 4502 +601
More Personal Computing 11279 +468 3559 +547

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

Chromium and Microsoft annoyances : Dynamics CRM issues like broken downloads, Chromium team “won’t fix”

Microsoft Dynamics CRM (which exists in both cloud-hosted and on-premises versions) is not working well with Chromium, the open source browser engine used by Google Chrome.

I discovered one obvious issue using Edge Preview, which is based on Chromium. If you download a file, for example using a Word template, Microsoft Office does not recognise it. It turns out to have single quotes around it. I imagine the quotes are there to allow for document names which include spaces, but it should use double quotes. Chromium (and Chrome) used to work OK with single quotes but now does not. It’s causing quite a bit of grief for CRM users in businesses that have standardised on Chrome.

You can read all the details here. Here’s a user report by Troy Siegert, whose organization frequently downloads files from Dynamics:

This week when the Chrome beta build went mainstream, my 30 users suddenly had Windows 10 unable to determine what to do with the files they were so dutifully downloading and trying to look at. Instead of *Report.pdf* the file was named *’Report.pdf’* and of course Windows 10 has no idea what a *.pdf’* file is or what to do with it, so it started asking users questions for which they weren’t prepared and that they didn’t understand. Some of them got confused and tried to associate .xlsx files with Adobe and then became unhappy when Adobe was throwing up messages about corrupt files.

Google’s Abdul Syed responds:

For any server operators running into this issue, the way to fix for this is to use double quotes around any quoted string in the Content-Disposition header (And, more generally, in any HTTP header).

Translation: fix your stuff, don’t expect us to fix our stuff. And in fact the issue has been marked WontFix (Closed).

There was actually a bit of a battle about this. The original commit here (Oct 2018) was reverted here (Feb 12 2019) and unreverted here (Feb 19 2019). In other words, the Chromium team knew it broke downloads for Dynamics CRM users but were not willing to compromise.

I am in two minds about this one. Dynamics CRM is sloppy in places and part of me favours giving Microsoft’s team a kick to make them fix thing that should have been fixed years back.

On the other hand, Mozilla Firefox works fine with the CRM single quotes and you cannot help wondering if Google’s attitude would be different were it a Google application that is impacted.

Automatic transcription for journalists: still not viable despite Microsoft push for “Modern journalism”

I am just back from Microsoft’s developer-focused Build event, where some special sessions were laid on for press, on the subject of “Modern journalism.”

Led by Microsoft’s Ben Rudolph, Modern Journalism is described on his public LinkedIn profile as “a new program committed to helping the news industry fight fake news, tell stories that resonate with modern audiences, and succeed financially.”

The sessions appealed to me for one particular reason, which was the promise of automatic transcription. We were given a leaflet which says:

Tired of digging through hours of recordings to find that one quote? When you record a Teams interview, it’s saved to Microsoft Stream. Here you’ll get game-changing AI features: searchable transcript to jump to exact moments a key word or phrase was used.

Before the transcription thing though, we were taken on a tour of OneNote and Word with AI. The latest AI Editor in Word will tighten up your prose and find gaffes like non-inclusive language. There is lack of clarity over the privacy implications (these features work by uploading everything you type to Microsoft) but perhaps it is useful. I make plenty of typographical errors and would welcome help, though I remain sceptical about the extent to which AI can deliver this.

On to transcription though. Just hit record during a voice or video meeting in Teams, Microsoft’s Office 365 collaboration tool, and it gets automatically transcribed.

Unfortunately I do not use Teams for interviews, though it is possible to use it even for in-person interviews by having a meeting of one and recording it. I am wary though. I normally use an external recording device. Many years ago my device failed one day (I forget whether it was battery or something else) and I used my Tablet PC to record an interview with the game inventor Peter Molyneux. My expectations were not particularly high – I just wanted something good enough that I could transcribe it later. Unfortunately the recording was so poor that you can only make out about one word in ten. This, combined with my written notes and memory, was just about sufficient to write up my piece; but it was not an experiment I felt inclined to repeat – though recording quality has improved since that early disaster.

Still, automatic transcription would be an amazing time-saver. Further, I respect what can be achieved. Nuance Dragon Dictate can give superb results after a bit of training. What about Teams?

Today I put the idea to the test. I took a recorded interview from Build, made with a dedicated device, and uploaded it to Microsoft Stream. I tried uploading an audio file directly, but it would not accept it. I then created a “video” by importing my audio into a one-slide PowerPoint presentation and exporting it as a video. The quality is fine, easily intelligible. Stream chewed on it for maybe 30 minutes, and then my transcript was ready. The subject was the Azure Kubernetes Service. Here is a snippet of what Stream came up with:

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There is an unnecessary annoyance here, which is that you cannot easily select and copy the entire transcript. Notice that it is in short snippets. The best way to get the whole thing is to click the three dots under the video, choose Update Video Details, and then download the caption file.

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Now you get something like this:

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The format is, shall we say, sub-optimal for journalists, though it would not take too long to write a script that would extract the text.

The bigger problem is the actual transcription. The section I have chosen is wrong in an interesting way. Here is part of what was said:

With the KEDA announcement today, what you’re seeing is us working with the ecosystem, in this case Red Hat, to solve some tricky problems around how to autoscale containers.

and here is the transcription:

with
the Kate Announcement. Today, which are seeing is also
actually working with the ecosystem in this case. We had
to sell some tricky problems around how to autoscale containers

Many of the words are correct, but the meaning is scrambled. Red Hat has been transcribed as “we had” losing a critical part of the content.

It is not my intention to rubbish this technology. Automatic transcription is very challenging, especially with specialist content. It is not unreasonable for the system to transcribe KEDA as “Kate”: it is a brand new acronym (Kubernetes-based event-driven autoscaling).

Still, the question I ask myself is whether fixing up the auto transcription will save me any time versus the old-fashioned approach. I use a Word macro that plays back the interview with hot keys to pause and backtrack, editing as I go.

The answer is no. It will take me as long or longer to make sense of the automatic transcription, by comparing it to the original, than to type it from scratch.

This might not always be the case. Perhaps with a more AI-friendly subject the transcription will be good enough to save some time. It could also help to find where in the recording a particular quote appears. So it is not altogether useless.

Transcription is difficult, but there are some simpler matters which Microsoft could improve. Enabling upload of audio files rather than video, and providing a continuous transcript that can easily be copied, for example.

Having a team within Microsoft rooting for journalists strikes me as a good thing in that an internal team may have more influence over the products.

It may be more a matter of some bright spark thinking, hey if we get more journalists using Office 365 that will help to promote the product. A strategy which will be more successful if effort goes into making product fit better with the way journalists actually work.

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