Category Archives: microsoft

Microsoft Planner: a good task management solution for small teams?

It is a common scenario for any team: you have projects which break down into various tasks, and you need to assign tasks to team members with deadlines. The low-tech solution is that you have a meeting, you assign the tasks, and each person organises their time in whatever way works for them. A calendar entry with a reminder, perhaps, or a task entry with a reminder, if you use Outlook and Exchange or Office 365.

But what if you want a project-level view of how the tasks are going? Again there are low-tech solutions like Excel spreadsheets or even a whiteboard on the wall. Of course there are software solutions as well. On Microsoft’s platform (which is the subject of this post) you could use Microsoft Project. A user license for Project Online Professional is currently £22.60 per month, though, more than double the cost of an Office 365 Business Premium account (£9.40). Even a team member license (Project Online Essentials) is £5.30. It seems a big leap in cost, and is more than many businesses need in terms of features.

There is an alternative, which is Microsoft Planner. This is one of those Office 365 apps that is not all that well known, and it comes for free with most Office 365 plans. It gives you basic project management, with the ability to assign tasks to team members.

You can find Planner by logging into Office 365 and choosing Planner from the All Apps view.

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Once Planner opens you can create a plan.

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I advise a careful look at this dialog before clicking Create plan. If you have one big project, such as perhaps a new product you are developing, a plan dedicated to that project makes sense. If you have multiple small projects though, it would be better to have a single plan to contain multiple projects. The reason is that plans have a relatively high overhead. Each plan by default creates an Office 365 group and an Office 365 Sharepoint site. This could easily become a maintenance nightmare. Within a plan though, you can have multiple buckets, and each bucket can contain multiple tasks.

Note also that you can use an existing Office 365 group. It might make sense to create the group first, if only to get a sensible name. By default, the group gets the game of the plan. Only one Sharepoint site is created per group, so this is more lightweight (phew!).

After thinking this through you hit Create plan. The plan is created and you can get on with adding tasks, the base unit of a plan.

A few things about tasks:

– they have due dates

– they are assigned to one or more team members

– they can have checklists of sub-tasks which you check off

– they can have attachments

– they have a status of “Not started”, “in progress”, or “complete”

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Tasks can be grouped into buckets (a good idea). Once you have a few tasks you can view charts showing progress and a schedule showing when task completion is due.

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When members are assigned a task, they get an email notification.

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And as I mentioned there is Sharepoint site which can have all sorts of junk added to it.

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Now a few observations. Planner looks useful but as so often with these Microsoft apps, there are things that make you want to bang your head against the nearest wall. The most obvious problem is that Planner tasks do not integrate with Outlook tasks. The best you can do is to export the plan schedule to an Outlook calendar. Guess what is the top user request for Planner?

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From here we learn of an added complication, that Outlook tasks are being replaced by Microsoft To-Do. Inevitable perhaps but I like Outlook tasks and the fact that everything is in an Exchange mailbox, and therefore easy to manage.

Still, the good news is that it says In Development.

Other limitations? Well, Planner is very basic. You cannot even have dependent tasks. You cannot set status to show the degree to which a task is complete, which even Outlook tasks can do. No Gantt charts either. Or features like milestones, cost tracking, risk assessment, time management, templates, prioritisation, projections, or other such features.

In fact, you cannot even export to Excel, the second most requested feature (the team is working on this too).

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You cannot help but wonder if Microsoft does not want to make Planner too good, lest it cut into lucrative Project sales.

If so, this is to my mind wrongheaded. For every Project sale lost, there would be three sales won for Office 365 if it came with an excellent project management tool built in. There is also the problem of duplicated effort. Why not get the Project team to develop Project Lite for Office 365, limited by lack of some of the more advanced features, but with a smooth upgrade path, rather than making an alternative product which is still not fully ready?

Still, Planner is free with Office 365, and worth being aware of if you can get it to do what you need.

Hands on with Windows Virtual Desktop

Microsoft’s Windows Virtual Desktop (WVD) is now in preview. This is virtual Windows desktops on Azure, and the first time Microsoft has come forward with a fully integrated first-party offering. There are also a few notable features:

– You can use a multi-session edition of Windows 10 Enterprise. Normally Windows 10 does not support concurrent sessions: if another user logs on, any existing session is terminated. This is an artificial restriction which is more to do with licensing than technology, and there are hacks to get around it but they are pointless presuming you want to be correctly licensed.

– You can use Windows 7 with free extended security updates to 2023. As standard, Windows 7 end of support is coming in January 2020. Without Windows Virtual Desktop, extended security support is a paid for option.

– Running a VDI (Virtual Desktop Infrastructure) can be expensive but pricing for Windows Virtual Desktop is reasonable. You have to pay for the Azure resources, but licensing comes at no extra cost for Microsoft 365 users. Microsoft 365 is a bundle of Office 365, Windows InTune and Windows 10 licenses and starts at £15.10 or $20 per month. Office 365 Business Premium is £9.40 or $12.50 per month. These are small business plans limited to 300 users.

Windows Virtual Desktop supports both desktops and individual Windows applications. If you are familiar with Windows Server Remote Desktop Services, you will find many of the same features here, but packaged as an Azure service. You can publish both desktops and applications, and use either a client application or a web browser to access them.

What is the point of a virtual desktop when you can just use a laptop? It is great for manageability, security, and remote working with full access to internal resources without a VPN. There could even be a cost saving, since a cheap device like a Chromebook becomes a Windows desktop anywhere you have a decent internet connection.

Puzzling out the system requirements

I was determined to try out Windows Virtual Desktop before writing about it so I went over to the product page and hit Getting Started. I used a free trial of Azure. There is a complication though which is that Windows Virtual Desktop VMs must be domain joined. This means that simply having Azure Active Directory is not enough. You have a few options:

Azure Active Directory Domain Services (Azure ADDS) This is a paid-for azure service that provides domain-join and other services to VMs on an Azure virtual network. It costs from about £80.00 or $110.00 per month. If you use Azure ADDS you set up a separate domain from your on-premises domain, if you have one. However you can combine it with Azure AD Connect to enable sign-on with the same credentials.

There is a certain amount of confusion over whether you can use WVD with just Azure ADDS and not AD Connect. The docs say you cannot, stating that “A Windows Server Active Directory in sync with Azure Active Directory” is required. However a user reports success without this; of course there may be snags yet to be revealed.

Azure Active Directory with AD Connect and a site to site VPN. In this scenario you create an Azure virtual network that is linked to your on-premises network via a site to site VPN. I went this route for my trial. I already had AD Connect running but not the VPN. A VPN requires a VPN Gateway which is a paid-for option. There is a Basic version which is considered legacy, so I used a VPNGw1 which costs around £100 or $140 per month.

Update: I have replaced the VPN Gateway with once using the Basic sku (around £20.00 or $26.00 per month) and it still works fine. Microsoft does not recommend this for production but for a very small deployment like mine, or for testing, it is much more cost effective.

This solution is working well for me but note that in a production environment you would want to add some further infrastructure. The WVD VMs are domain-joined to the on-premises AD which means constant network traffic across the VPN. AD integrates with DNS so you should also configure the virtual network to use on-premises DNS. The solution would be to add an Azure-hosted VM on the virtual network running a domain controller and DNS. Of course this is a further cost. Running just Azure ADDS and AD Connect is cheaper and simpler if it is supported.

Incidentally, I use pfsense for my on-premises firewall so this is the endpoint for my site-to-site VPN. Initially it did not work. I am not sure what fixed it but it may have been the TCP MSS Clamping referred to here. I set this to 1350 as suggested. I was happy to see the connection come up in pfsense.

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Setup options

There are a few different ways to set up WVD. You start by setting some permissions and creating a WVD Tenant as described here. This requires PowerShell but it was pretty easy.

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The next step is to create a WVD host pool and this was less straightforward. The tutorial offers the option of using the Azure Portal and finding Windows Virtual Desktop – Provision a host pool in the Azure Marketplace. Or you can use an Azure Resource Manager template, or PowerShell.

I used the Azure Marketplace, thinking this would be easier. When I ran into issues, I tried using PowerShell, but had difficulty finding the special Windows 10 Enterprise Virtual Desktop edition via this route. So I went back to the portal and the Azure marketplace.

Provisioning the host pool

Once your tenant is created, and you have the system requirements in place, it is just a matter of running through a wizard to provision the host pool. You start by naming it and selecting a desktop type: Pooled for multi-session Windows 10, or Personal for a VM per user. I went for the Pooled option.

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Next comes VM configuration. I stumbled a bit here. Even if you specify just 10 (or 1) users, the wizard recommends a fairly powerful VM, a D8s v3. I thought this would be OK for the trial, but it would not let me continue using the trial subscription as it is too expensive. So I ended up with a D4s v3. Actually, I also tried using a D4 v3 but that failed to deploy because it does not support premium storage. So the “s” is important.

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The next dialog has some potential snags.

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This is where you choose an OS image, note the default is Windows 10 Enterprise multi-session, for a pooled WVD. You also specify a user which becomes the default for all the VMs and is also used to join the VMs to the domain. These credentials are also used to create a local admin account on the VM, in case the domain join fails and you need to connect (I did need this).

Note also that the OU path is specified in the form OU=wvd,DC=yourdomain,DC=com (for example). Not just the name of an OU. Otherwise you will get errors on domain join.

Finally take care with the virtual network selection. It is quite simple: if you are doing what I did and domain-joining to an on-premises domain, the virtual network and subnet needs to have connectivity to your on-premises DCs and DNS.

The next dialog is pretty easy. Just make sure that you type in the tenant name that you created earlier.

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Next you get a summary screen which validates your selections.

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I suggest you do not take this validation too seriously. I found it happily validated a non-working configuration.

Hit OK and you can deploy your WVD host pool. This takes a few minutes, in my case around 10-15 minutes when it works. If it does not work, it can fail quickly or slowly depending on where in the process it fails.

My problem, after fixing issues like using the wrong type of OS image, was failure to join the VM to the domain. I could not see why this did not work. The displayed error may or may not be useful.

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If the deployment got as far as creating the VM (or VMS), I found it helpful to connect to a VM to look at its event viewer. I could connect from my on-premises network thanks to the site to site VPN.

I discovered several issues before I got it working. One was simple: I mistyped the name of the vmjoiner user when I created it so naturally it could not authenticate. I was glad when it finally worked.

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Connection

Once I got the host pool up and running my trial WVD deployment was fine. I can connect via a special Remote Desktop Client or a browser. The WVD session is fast and responsive and the VPN to my office rather handy.

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Observations

I think WVD is a good strategic move from Microsoft and will probably be popular. I have to note though that setup is not as straightforward as I had hoped. It would benefit Microsoft to make the trial easier to get up and running and to improve the validation of the host pool deployment.

It also seems to me that for small businesses an option to deploy with only Azure ADDS and no dependency on an on-premises AD is essential.

As ever, careful network planning is a requirement and improved guidance for this would also be appreciated.

Update:         

There seems to a problem with Office licensing. I have an E3 license. It installs but comes up with a licensing error. I presume this is a bug in the preview.    

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This was my mistake as it turned out. You have to take some extra steps to install Office Pro Plus on a terminal server, as explained here. In my case, I just added the registry key SharedComputerLicensing with a setting of 1 under HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Office\ClickToRun\Configuration. Now it runs fine. Thanks to https://twitter.com/getwired for the tip.

How Windows 10 Ransomware Protection interferes with application installs

Three times recently I have had install failures on Windows 10, and three times have fixed them by disabling one of its security features.

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“Ransomware protection” does not know anything about ransomware as such, but simply blocks access to files and folders where you are likely to store documents and data. Ransomware works by encrypting your documents and demanding money (usually in the form of bitcoin) to unlock them. Therefore blocking access prevents it from working, or at least that is the idea.

I am all in favour of blocking ransomware, but unfortunately this feature may also break application installs. Worse, they tend to break in ways that do not make the problem obvious to the user.

I installed Docker for Windows, for example (actually just accepted a prompt to upgrade) and it hung on the Installing… dialog.

Another application complained about insufficient disk space.

The problem seems to be related to application shortcuts, which are created in protected folders such as the desktop. Even though the install is running with admin rights, it cannot write these files. What happens next depends on how well the installer handles unexpected outcomes. This is not really a fatal error, but may become so.

What is the solution?

The obvious answer is to turn off controlled folder access before running installers for desktop applications. You can turn it back on afterwards.

Microsoft may say that if we all use Store apps or the Desktop Bridge packager the problem will not occur. The issue is related to the Windows legacy of free-for-all installations and the way Microsoft has been trying for many years (with partial success) to bring it under control. Mobile operating systems tend to be better behaved because they were designed to be locked down and to isolate applications from one another and from the operating system.

Office 365 vs Office 2019 vs LibreOffice: some thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UWP is our newest, leading-edge application platform.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Azure revenue is up 76%.

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

For now though, Microsoft powers on.

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

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

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

The segments break down as:

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

Intelligent Cloud: Server products, Azure cloud services

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unlimited free private repositories come to GitHub

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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