Category Archives: microsoft

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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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Windows Subsystem for Linux 2: Microsoft’s change of direction delivers better performance, worse integration

It is s feature which most users are not even aware of, but for developers and admins the Windows Subsystem for Linux (WSL) is perhaps the best feature of Windows 10. It gives you seamless access to Linux applications and utilities without needing to run a virtual machine (VM) or remote session. For example, I use it to develop and debug LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP) applications using Visual Studio Code on Windows as the editor. I also use it for running the Let’s Encrypt certbot utility as well as using Linux OpenSSL utilities. It solves Windows annoyances like path limitations and case insensitivity.

Now at the Build developer conference Microsoft has introduced WSL, advertising “dramatic file system performance increases, and full system call compatibility.” That is great, but there is a downside. Unlike the first version, WSL 2 runs in a VM:

WSL 2 uses the latest and greatest in virtualization technology to run its Linux kernel inside of a lightweight utility virtual machine (VM)

says the announcement from Microsoft’s Craig Loewen.

Although Microsoft also says that WSL 2 “still provides the same user experience as in WSL 1,” this is not altogether true. One specific difference is that currently I can run my LAMP application, fire up a Windows browser, navigate to Localhost, and there is my application. In WSL 2, the LAMP application will have a different IP number so this will not work. To be fair, when I discussed this with a member of the team I was told that they are working to address this and tinker with the networking so that localhost will work again. It also arguable that the different IP number is preferable behaviour, since it will not conflict with other endpoints on the Windows side. But it is different.

The use of a VM for WSL 2 is the conventional approach to this problem. In fact, you have been able to run a Linux VM on Windows for many years. The difference is the work Microsoft is doing to provide the fastest possible startup and deep integration with the file system so that it behaves more like the original WSL than like an isolated VM. In other words, the problem of running Linux binaries by redirecting system calls (WSL) has been exchanged for another.

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Why the change of direction? There are several reasons.

The first is compatibility. No matter how well WSL worked (and it does work very well), there would always be something that did not work as users attempted to use more and more Linux applications.

Second, performance. Apparently:

Initial tests that we’ve run have WSL 2 running up to 20x faster compared to WSL 1 when unpacking a zipped tarball, and around 2-5x faster when using git clone, npm install and cmake on various projects.

Third, when WSL was first conceived it was intended to work on mobile devices which could not support a VM (maybe this was something to do with Android compatibility efforts on Windows Phone).

Finally, Hyper-V has improved to the extent that running WSL 2 on a VM is more feasible.

It does mean that Microsoft will ship its own (but open source) Linux kernel with Windows and update it via Windows Update, a good thing for security.

The reasons are good ones, but it would not surprise me to see other niggling integration issues. And it is just a little sad that the magic of the original WSL has been replaced by a more conventional approach.

I also feel that if you came to Build looking for support for a narrative that Microsoft is drifting away from Windows and towards Linux, WSL 2 would support that narrative.

One .NET: unification of .NET for Windows and .NET Core, Xamarin too

Microsoft’s forking of the .NET development platform into the Windows-only .NET Framework on one side, and the cross-platform .NET Core on the other, has caused considerable confusion. Which should you target? What is the compatibility story? And where does Mono, the older cross-platform .NET fit in? Xamarin, partly based on Mono, is another piece of the puzzle.

Now Microsoft has announced that .NET 5, coming in November 2020, will unify these diverse .NET versions.

“There will be just one .NET going forward, and you will be able to use it to target Windows, Linux, macOS, iOS, Android, tvOS, watchOS and WebAssembly and more,” says Microsoft’s Rich Turner.

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Following the release of .NET 5.0, the framework will have a major release every November, says Turner, with a long-term support release every two years.

Some other key announcements:

  • CoreCLR (the .NET Core runtime) and Mono will become drop-in replacements for one another.
  • Java interoperability will be available on all platforms.
  • Objective-C and Swift interoperability will be supported on multiple operating systems.
  • CoreFX will be extended to support static compilation of .NET and support for more operating systems.

A note of caution though. Turner says there are a number of issues still to be resolved. There is room for scepticism about how complete this unification will be.

More details in the official announcement here.

Update: having looked at these plans in a little more detail, it is wrong to say that Microsoft is unifying .NET Framework and .NET Core. Rather, Microsoft is saying that .NET Core is the replacement for .NET Framework for new applications whether on Windows or elsewhere. Certain parts of .NET Framework, including WCF, Web Forms, and Windows Workflow, will never be migrated to .NET 5. .NET Framework 4.8 will still be maintained and is recommended for existing applications.

Microsoft Build and the repositioning of Windows

Microsoft Build is under way in Seattle, with around 6000 attendees here to learn about the company’s latest developer technology. But what is the heart of Microsoft’s platform today? The answer used to be Windows – and this conference was originally the Build Windows event, distinct from the earlier Professional Developer Conference which was run by the Developer Division and had a wider scope.

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Microsoft’s Satya Nadella introduces Build 2019 

  Today though it is not so clear. The draft Build 2019 press release hardly mentions Windows. Here is the summary of topics: 

In his opening keynote, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella outlined the company vision and developer opportunity across Microsoft Azure, Microsoft Dynamics 365 and Power Platform, Microsoft 365, and Microsoft Gaming”

Windows is there of course. Azure uses Hyper-V, the Windows Server hypervisor. A Microsoft 365 license is a bundle of Office 365, InTune device management, and Windows Enterprise. Microsoft Gaming includes PC gaming, and Xbox gets its name from the Windows DirectX hardware accelerated graphics API. But no, this is no longer a conference about developing for Windows, and Microsoft seems happy for its operating system to be less visible. PCs remain the devices on which many of us get most of our work done, but it is not a growth market, and cannot really become one unless by some miracle Microsoft returned to mobile or wearables. That would be hard, especially since the Universal Windows Platform, originally conceived as an app platform for touch and mobile as well as desktop, has drifted away from that concept and become something of uncertain relevance unless you are targeting HoloLens or some other niche.

That said, Windows is still evolving and Build remains the best event to keep track of what is new. In the advance news on which this post is based, several key features were announced.

Windows Subsystem for Linux 2 (WSL) now supports Linux Docker containers as well as faster file I/O. This also integrates nicely with new Visual Studio Code Remote Development Extensions which let you edit and debug code in WSL, in Docker containers, or on any remove machine over SSH.

Windows Terminal is a new application for command lines including PowerShell, Cmd and WSL. It includes rich fonts (with hardware accelerated rendering), multiple tabs, and “theming and customization”.

React Native for Windows is an open source project on GitHub that will let you develop high performance Windows applications.

MSIX Core is the next step in Windows setup technology and lets you install MSIX packages on Windows 7 as well as Windows 10.

.NET 5 has been announced and seems to embrace both Windows Desktop and cross-platform – I will be unpacking the details of how this works shortly. .NET 5 will release in 2020.

Microsoft Edge (on Chromium) has new features announced included an IE mode tab (for running Internet Explorer applications/sites), three levels of privacy (Unrestricted, Balanced and Strict) which claim to control third-party tracking, and Collections which is a feature for collecting and sharing web information and integrates with Office.

Of course there is much more news on what Microsoft now sees as its top priority topics: Azure, AI, Microsoft Search, PowerApps, PowerBI, Cognitive Services, Bot Framework, Mixed reality, IoT and Edge computing, Cosmos DB, Azure Kubernetes Service, GitHub and more.

Windows? Still the best way to run Office, and excellent for developing applications. But this is Microsoft Build, not Build Windows.

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Seattle, Washington the evening before Microsoft Build

Microsoft Office and privacy: happy to send what you type to the cloud for analysis?

I attempted to open a document from on-premises SharePoint recently and was greeted with an error asking me to check my privacy settings.

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“The service required to use this feature is turned off” I was informed. Hmm, what service is that then? The solution turned out to be in the new Office privacy settings, just as the dialog suggested.

If you disable what Microsoft calls “Connected experiences” it appears to block access to SharePoint. Probably not what the user intended.

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This setting is not great for clarity. Privacy-conscious users like myself may disable it because it represents your agreement to “experiences that analyze your content”. Since this means uploading your content to the cloud for analysis it sounds as if it might weaken both privacy and security. If you look at all the options though, it may be possible to agree to access online file storage without agreeing to content analysis:

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It looks as if by unchecking “Let Office analyze your content” you might be able to stop Office uploading your stuff.

Is there anything to worry about? We need to know more about what happens to our data. There is a Learn More link that takes us here. This lists lots of features but does not tell us what we want to know. Maybe here? This tell us that:

Three types of information make up required service data.

  • Customer content, which is content you create using Office, such as text typed in a Word document, and is used in conjunction with the connected experience.

It is still not clear though what happens to our data, other than that it is “sent to Microsoft”. Even the massive Microsoft Privacy Statement is no more illuminating on this point. In fact, it is arguably rather alarming since it contains this statement:

Microsoft uses the data we collect to provide you with rich, interactive experiences. In particular, we use data to:

  • Provide our products, which includes updating, securing, and troubleshooting, as well as providing support. It also includes sharing data, when it is required to provide the service or carry out the transactions you request.
  • Improve and develop our products.
  • Personalize our products and make recommendations.
  • Advertise and market to you, which includes sending promotional communications, targeting advertising, and presenting you with relevant offers.

We also use the data to operate our business, which includes analyzing our performance, meeting our legal obligations, developing our workforce, and doing research.

In carrying out these purposes, we combine data we collect from different contexts (for example, from your use of two Microsoft products) or obtain from third parties to give you a more seamless, consistent, and personalized experience, to make informed business decisions, and for other legitimate purposes.

This suggests that Microsoft will profile me and send me advertising based on the data it collects. What I need to know is not only the fact that this happens, but also the mechanism, in order to make an informed judgement about whether it is sensible to enable these options. Of course it is also possible that the Office content analysis service does not do this. I am guessing.

What can go wrong? These risks are hard to quantify. If you are typing something confidential, it makes sense not to share it more than is necessary, as further sharing can only increase the risk. There are some interesting scenarios too, such as what happens if Microsoft receives a legal demand to have sight of the content of your documents. Microsoft may not want to give access to your content, but in some circumstances it might not have the choice. Then again, I doubt it retains content sent for the purpose of personalisation, beyond whatever factors the service determines are significant. However this is not stated here.

Is this any different from storing documents on a cloud service such as SharePoint / OneDrive online? It is a bit different since in the Office case you are permitting Microsoft to analyze as well as to store your content.

All of this is up for debate. I accept that the risks are probably small as well as the fact that the wider world has little or no interest in most of the content I type but do not choose to publish.

Nevertheless, there are a few things which seem to me reasonable requests.

– A clear statement concerning what happens to my content if I choose to let it be analyzed by Microsoft’s cloud service, to enable better informed decisions about whether or not to enable this feature. Dumping the user into an all-encompassing privacy policy is not good enough.

– Improved settings (and possibly some fixed bugs) so that privacy-conscious users do not inadvertently disable access to on-premises SharePoint, as in my example, or other unexpected outcomes.

– A simple way to exclude a specific document from the service, conceptually similar to “in-private” mode in a web browser though with more chance of actually protecting your privacy (in-private mode is not really very private).

In general, I do not think the solution to a customer’s reasonable concerns about privacy and security of personal information is to obscure how this data is handled.