Technical Writing

Welcome to IT Writing. This site is edited by Tim Anderson, a techncal journalist. Here you will find comment, articles and reviews on a variety of subjects. A few words of guidance on navigating the site:

  • On the home page you will find posts relating to professional technology.
  • Consumer technology is covered in the Gadget Writing section on the top menu.
  • Occasional posts about music are found in the Music Writing section on the top menu.

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.

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

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

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

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

Betts says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

writes Chase.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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IBM has agreed to acquire Red Hat:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The segments break down as:

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

Intelligent Cloud: Server products, Azure cloud services

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Windows on a Chromebook? How containers change everything

Apparently there are rumours concerning Windows on a Chromebook. I find this completely plausible, though unlike Barry Collins I would not recommend dual boot – always a horrible solution.

Rather, when I recently explored about Chromebooks and Chrome OS, it was like the proverbial lightbulb illuminating in my head. Containers (used to implement Linux and Android on Chrome OS) change everything. It makes total sense: a secure, locked-down base operating system, and arbitrary applications running in isolated containers on top.

Could Chrome OS run Windows in a container? Not directly, since containers are isolated from the host operating system but share its base files and resources. However you could run Windows in a VM on a Chromebook, and with a bit of integration work this could be relatively seamless for the user. Systems like Parallels do this trick on MacOS. Instead of the wretched inconvenience of dual boot, you could run a Linux app here, and a Windows app there, and everything integrates nicely together.

Microsoft could also re-engineer Windows along these lines. A lot of the work is already done. Windows supports containers and you can choose the level of isolation, with either lightweight containers or containers based on Hyper-V. It also supports Linux containers, via Hyper-V. Currently this is not designed for client applications, but for non-visual server applications, but his could change. It is also possible to run Linux containers on the Windows Subsystem for Linux, though not currently supported.

Windows RT failed for a few reasons: ARM-only, underpowered hardware, Windows 8 unpopularity, and most of all, inability to run arbitrary x86 Windows applications.

A container-based Windows could have the security and resilience of Windows RT, but without these limitations.

So I can imagine Google giving us the ability to run virtual Windows on Chrome OS. And I can imagine Microsoft building a future version of Windows in which you can run both Windows and Linux applications in isolated environments.