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.

Notes from the Field: dmesg error blocks MySQL install on Windows Subsystem for Linux

I enjoy Windows Subsystem for Linux (WSL) on Windows 10 and use it constantly. It does not patch itself so from time to time I update it using apt-get. The latest update upgraded MySQL to version 5.7.22 but unfortunately the upgrade failed. The issue is that dpkg cannot configure it. I saw messages like:

invoke-rc.d: could not determine current runlevel

2002: Can’t connect to local MySQL server through socket ‘/var/run/mysqld/mysqld.sock

After multiple efforts uninstalling and reinstalling I narrowed the problem down to a dmesg error:

dmesg: read kernel buffer failed: Function not implemented

It is true, dmesg does not work on WSL. However there is a workaround here that says if you write something to /dev/kmsg then at least calling dmesg does not return an error. So I did:

sudo echo foo > /dev/kmsg

Removed and reinstalled MySQL one more time and it worked:

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Apparently partial dmesg support in WSL is on the way, previewed in Build 17655.

Note: be cautious about fully uninstalling MySQL if you have data you want to preserve. Export/backup the databases first.

Instant applications considered harmful?

Adrian Colyer, formerly of SpringSource, VMWare, and Pivotal, is running an excellent blog where he looks at recent technical papers. A few days ago he covered The Rise of the Citizen Developer – assessing the security impact of online app generators. This was about online app generators for Android, things like Andromo which let you create an app with a few clicks. Of course the scope of such apps is rather limited, but they have appeal as a quick way to get something into the Play Store that will promote your brand, broadcast your blog, convert your website into an app, or help customers find your office.

It turns out that there are a few problems with these app generators. Andromo is one of the better ones. Some of them just download a big generic application with a configuration file that customises it to your requirements. Often this configuration is loaded from the internet, in some cases over HTTP with no encryption. API keys used for interaction with other services such as Twitter and Google can easily leak. They do not conform to Android security best practices and request more permissions that are needed.

Low code or no-code applications are not confined to Android applications. Appian promises “enterprise-grade” apps via its platform.  Microsoft PowerApps claims to “solve business problems with intuitive visual tools that don’t require code.” It is an idea that will not go away: an easy to use visual environment that will enable any business person to build productive applications.

Some are better than others; but there are inherent problems with all these kinds of tools. Three big issues come to mind:

  1. Bloat. You only require a subset of what the application generator can do, but by trying to be universal there is a mass of code that comes along with it, which you do not require but someone else may. This inevitably impacts performance, and not in a good way.
  2. Brick walls. Everything is going well until you require some feature that the platform does not support. What now? Often the only solution is to trash it and start again with a more flexible tool.
  3. Black box. You app mostly works but for some reason in certain cases it gives the wrong result. Lack of visibility into what it happening behind the scenes makes problems like this hard to fix.

It is possible for an ideal tool to overcome these issues. Such a tool generates human-understandable code and lets you go beyond the limitations of the generator by exporting and editing the project in a full programming environment. Most of the tools I have seen do not allow this; and even if they do, it is still hard for the generator to avoid generating a ton of code that you do not really need.

The more I have seen of different kinds of custom applications, the more I appreciate projects with nicely commented textual code that you can trace through and understand.

The possibility of near-instant applications has huge appeal, but beware the hidden costs.

On Microsoft Teams in Office 365, and why we prefer walled gardens to the Internet jungle

Gartner has recently delivered a report called Why Microsoft Teams will soon be just as common as Outlook, which gave me pause for reflection.

The initial success of Office 365 was almost all to do with email. Hosted Exchange at a reasonable cost is a an obvious win for businesses who were formerly on on-premises Exchange or Small Business Server. Microsoft worked to make the migration relatively seamless, and with strong Active Directory support it can be done with users hardly noticing. Exchange of course is more than just email, also handling calendars and tasks, and Outlook and Exchange are indispensable tools for many businesses.

The other pieces of Office 365, such as SharePoint, OneDrive and Skype for Business (formerly Lync) took longer to gain traction, in part because of flaws in the products. Exchange has always been an excellent email server, but in cloud document storage and collaboration Microsoft’s solution was less good than alternatives like DropBox and Box, and ties to desktop Office are a mixed blessing, welcome because Office is familiar and capable, but also causing friction thanks to the need for old-style software installations.

Microsoft needed to up its game in areas beyond email, and to its credit it has done so. SharePoint and OneDrive are much improved. In addition, the company has introduced a range of additional applications, including StaffHub for managing staff schedules, Planner for project planning and task assignment, and PowerApps for creating custom applications without writing code.

We have also seen a boost to the cloud-based Dynamics suite thanks to synergy between this and Office 365.

Having lots of features is one thing, winning adoption is another. Microsoft lacked a unifying piece that would integrate these various elements into a form that users could easily embrace. Teams is that piece. Introduced in March 2017, I initially thought there was nothing much to it: just a new user interface for existing features like SharePoint sites and Office 365/Exchange groups, with yet another business messaging service alongside Skype for Business and Yammer.

Software is about usability as much or more than features though, and Teams caught on. Users quickly demanded deeper integration between Teams and other parts of Office 365. It soon became obvious that from the user’s perspective there was too much overlap between Teams and Skype for Business, and in September 2017 Microsoft announced that Teams would replace Skype for Business, though this merging of two different tools is not yet complete.

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To see why Teams has such potential you need only click Add a tab in the Windows client. Your screen fills with stuff you can add to a Team, from document links to Planner to third-party tools like Trello and Evernote.

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This is only going to grow. Users will open Teams at the beginning of the day and live there, which is exactly the point Garner is making in its attention-grabbing title.

A good thing? Well, collaboration is good, and so is making better use of what you are paying for with an Office 365 subscription, so it has merit.

The part that troubles me is that we are losing diversity as well as granting Microsoft a firmer hold on its customers.

It all started with email, remember. But email is a disaster, replete with unwanted marketing, malware links, and some number of communications that have some possible value but which life is too short to investigate. In the consumer world, people prefer the safer world of Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp, where messages are more likely to be wanted. Email is also ancient, hard to extend with new features, and generally insecure.

Business-oriented messaging software like Slack and now Teams have moved in, to give users a safer and more usable way of communicating with colleagues. Consumers prefer Facebook’s walled garden to the internet jungle, and business users are no different.

It is a trade-off though. Email, for all its faults, is open and has multiple providers. Teams is not.

This will not stop Teams from succeeding, even though there are plenty of user requests and considerable dissatisfaction with the current release. Performance can be poor, the clients for Mac and mobile not as good as for Windows, and there is no Linux client at all.

Third-parties with applications or services that make sense in the Teams environment should hasten to get their stuff available there.

Amazon offering Linux desktops as a service in WorkSpaces

Amazon Web Services now offers Linux desktops as part of its WorkSpaces desktop-as-a-service offering.

The distribution is called Amazon Linux 2 and includes the MATE desktop environment.

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Most virtual desktops run Windows, because most of the applications people want to run from virtual desktops are Windows applications. A virtual desktop plugs the gap between what you can do on the device you have in front of you (whether a laptop, Chromebook, iPad or whatever) and what what you can do in an office with a desktop PC.

It seems that Amazon have developers in mind to some extent. Evangelist Jeff Barr (from whom I have borrowed the screenshot above) notes:

The combination of Amazon Linux WorkSpaces and Amazon Linux 2 makes for a great development environment. You get all of the AWS SDKs and tools, plus developer favorites such as gcc, Mono, and Java. You can build and test applications in your Amazon Linux WorkSpace and then deploy them to Amazon Linux 2 running on-premises or in the cloud.

Still, there is no problem using it for any user for productivity applications; it works out a bit cheaper than Windows thanks to removing Microsoft licensing costs. Ideal for frustrated Google Chromebook users who want access to a less locked-down OS.

Notes from the field: Windows Time Service interrupts email delivery

A business with Exchange Server noticed that email was not flowing. The internet connection was fine, all the servers were up and running including Exchange 2016. Email has been fine just a few hours earlier. What was wrong?

The answer, or the beginning of the answer, was in the Event Viewer on the Exchange Server. Event ID 1035, only a warning:

Inbound authentication failed with error UnexpectedExchangeAuthBlobCheckForClockSkew for Receive connector Default Mailbox Delivery

Hmm. A clock problem, right? It turned out that the PDC for the domain was five minutes fast. This is enough to trigger Kerberos authentication failures. Result: no email. We fixed the time, restarted Exchange, and everything worked.

Why was the PDC running fast? The PDC was configured to get time from an external source, apparently, and all other servers to get their time from the PDC. Foolproof?

Not so. If you typed:

w32tm /query /status

at a command prompt on the PDC (not the Exchange Server, note), it reported:

Source: Free-running System Clock

Oops. Despite efforts to do the right thing in the registry, setting the Type key in HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Services\W32Time\Parameters to NTP and entering a suitable list of time servers in the NtpServer key, it was actually getting its time from the server clock. This being a Hyper-V VM, that meant the clock on the host server, which – no surprise – was five minutes fast.

You can check for this error by typing:

w32tm /resync

at the command prompt. If it says:

The computer did not resync because no time data was available.

then something is wrong with the configuration. If it succeeds, check the status as above and verify that it is querying an internet time server. If it is not querying a time server, run a command like this:

w32tm /config /update /manualpeerlist:”0.pool.ntp.org,0x8 1.pool.ntp.org,0x8 2.pool.ntp.org,0x8 3.pool.ntp.org,0x8″ /syncfromflags:MANUAL

until you have it right.

Note this is ONLY for the server with the PDC Emulator FSMO role. Other servers should be configured to get time from the PDC.

Time server problems seem to be common on Windows networks, despite the existence of lots of documentation. There are also various opinions on the best way to configure Hyper-V, which has its own time synchronization service. There is a piece by Eric Siron here on the subject, and I reckon his approach is a safe one (Hyper-V Synchronization Service OFF for the PDC Emulator, ON for every other VM).

I love his closing remarks:

The Windows Time service has a track record of occasionally displaying erratic behavior. It is possible that some of my findings are not entirely accurate. It is also possible that my findings are 100% accurate but that not everyone will be able to duplicate them with 100% precision. If working with any time sensitive servers or applications, always take the time to verify that everything is working as expected.

Inside Azure Cosmos DB: Microsoft’s preferred database manager for its own high-scale applications

At Microsoft’s Build event in May this year I interviewed Dharma Shukla, Technical Fellow for the Azure Data group, about Cosmos DB. I enjoyed the interview but have not made use of the material until now, so even though Build was some time back I wanted to share some of his remarks.

Cosmos DB is Microsoft’s cloud-hosted NoSQL database. It began life as DocumentDB, and was re-launched as Cosmos DB at Build 2017. There are several things I did not appreciate at the time. One was how much use Microsoft itself makes of Cosmos DB, including for Azure Active Directory, the identity provider behind Office 365. Another was how low Cosmos DB sits in the overall Azure cloud system. It is a foundational piece, as Shukla explains below.

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There were several Cosmos DB announcements at Build. What’s new?

“Multi-master is one of the capabilities that we announced yesterday. It allows developers to scale writes all around the world. Until yesterday Cosmos DB allowed you to scale writes in a single region but reads all around the world. Now we allow developers to scale reads and writes homogeneously all round the world. This is a huge deal for apps like IoT, connected cars, sensors, wearables. The amount of writes are far more than the amount of reads.

“The second thing is that now you get single-digit millisecond write latencies at the 99 percentile not just in one region.

“And the third piece is that what falls out of this high availability. The window of failover, the time it takes to failover from one region when a disaster happens, to the other, has shrunk significantly.

“It’s the only system I know of that has married the high consistency models that we have exposed with multi-master capability as well. It had to reach a certain level of maturity, testing it with first-party Microsoft applications at scale and then with a select set of external customers. That’s why it took us a long time.

“We also announced the ability to have your Cosmos Db database in your own VNet (virtual network). It’s a huge deal for enterprises where they want to make sure that no data leaks out of that VNet. To do it for a global distributed database is specially hard because you have to close all the transitive networking dependencies.”

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Technical Fellow Dharma Shukla

Does Cosmos DB work on Azure Stack?

“We are in the process of going to Azure Stack. Azure Stack is one of the top customer asks. A lot of customers want a hybrid Cosmos DB on Azure Stack as well as in Azure and then have Active – Active. One of the design considerations for multi master is for edge devices. Right now Azure has about 50 regions. Azure’s going to expand to let’s say 200 regions. So a customer’s single Cosmos DB table spanning all these regions is one level of scalability. But the architecture is such that if you directly attach lots of Azure Stack devices, or you have sensors and edge devices, they can also pretend to be replicas. They can also pretend to be an Azure region. So you can attach billions of endpoints to your table. Some of those endpoints could be Azure regions, some of them could be instances of Azure Stack, or IoT hub, or edge devices. This kind of scalability is core to the system.”

Have customers asked for any additional APIs into Cosmos DB?

“There is a list of APIs, HBase, richer SQL, there are a number of such API requests. The good news is that the system has been built in a way that adding new APIs is relatively easy addition. So depending on the demand we continue to add APIs.”

Can you tell me anything about how you’ve implemented Cosmos DB? I know you use Service Fabric. Do you use other Azure services?

“We have dedicated clusters of compute machines. Cosmos DB is a Ring 0 service. So it’s there any time Azure opens a new region, Cosmos DB clusters have provision by default. Just like compute, storage, Cosmos DB is also one of the Ring 0 services which is the bottommost. Azure Active Directory for example depends on Cosmos DB. So Cosmos DB cannot take a dependency on Active Directory.

“The dependency that we have is our own clusters and machines, on which we put Service Fabric. For deployment of Cosmos DB code itself, we use Service Fabric. For some of the load balancing aspects we use Service Fabric. The partition management, global distribution, replication, is our own. So Cosmos DB is layered on top of Service Fabric, it is a Service Fabric application. But then it takes over. Once the Cosmos DB bits are laid out on the machine then its replication and partition management and distribution pieces take over. So that is the layering.

“Other than that there is no dependency on Azure. And that is why one of the salient aspects of this is that you can take the system and host it easily in places like Azure Stack. The dependencies are very small.

“We don’t use Azure Storage because of that dependency. So we store the data locally and then replicate it. And all of that data is also encrypted at rest.”

So when you say it is not currently in Azure Stack, it’s there underneath, but you haven’t surfaced it?

“It is in a defunct mode. We have to do a lot of work to light it up. When we light up it on such on-prem or private cloud devices, we want to enable this active to active pathway. So you are replicating your data and that is getting synchronized with the cloud and Azure Stack is one of the sockets.”

Microsoft itself is using Cosmos DB. How far back does this go? Azure AD is quite old now. Was it always on Cosmos DB / DocumentDB?

“Over the years Office 365, Xbox, Skype, Bing, and more and more of Azure services, have started moving. Now it has almost become ubiquitous. Because it’s at the bottom of the stack, taking a dependency on it is very easy.

“Azure Active Directory consists of a set of microservices. So they progressively have moved to Cosmos DB. Same situation with Dynamics, and our slew of such applications. Skype is by and large on Cosmos DB now. There are still some fragments of the past.  Xbox and the Microsoft Store and others are running on it.”

Do you think your customers are good at making the right choices over which database technology to use? I do pick up some uncertainty about this.

“We are working on making sure that we provide that clarity. Postgres and MySQL and MariaDB and SQL Server, Azure SQL and elastic pools, managed instances, there is a whole slew of relational offerings. Then we have Cosmos DB and then lots of analytical offerings as well.

“If you are a relational app, and if you are using a relational database, and you are migrating from on-prem to Azure, then we recommend the relational family. It comes with this fundamental scale caveat which is that up to 4TB. Most of those customers are settled because they have designed the app around those sorts of scalability limitations.

“A subset of those customers, and a whole bunch of brand new customers, are willing to re-write the app. They know that that they want to come to cloud for scale. So then we pitch Cosmos DB.

“Then there are customers who want to do massive scale offline analytical processing. So there is, Databricks, Spark, HD Insight, and that set of services.

“We realise there are grey lines between these offerings. We’re tightening up the guidance, it’s valid feedback.”

Any numbers to flesh out the idea that this is a fast-growing service for Microsoft?

“I can tell you that the number of new clusters we provision every week is far more than the total number of clusters we had in the first month. The growth is staggering.”

Manage your privacy online through cookie settings? You must be joking.

Since the deadline passed for the enforcement of the EU’s GDPR (General Data Protection Register) most major web sites have revamped their privacy settings with new privacy policies and more options for controlling how your personal data is used. Unfortunately, the options offered are in many cases too obscure, too complex and too time-consuming to be of any practical value.

Recital 32 of the GDPR says:

Consent should be given by a clear affirmative act establishing a freely given, specific, informed and unambiguous indication of the data subject’s agreement to the processing of personal data … this could include ticking a box when visiting an internet website … silence, pre-ticked boxes or inactivity should not indicate consent.

I am sure the controls on offer via major web properties are the outcome of legal advice; at the same time, as a non-legal person I struggle on occasion to see how they meet the requirements or the spirit of the legislation. For example, another part of Recital 32 says:

… the request must be clear, concise, and not unnecessarily disruptive to the use of the service for which it is provided.

This post describes what I get if I go to technology news site zdnet.com and it detects that I have not agreed to its cookie management.

Note: before I continue, let me emphasize that there is lots of great content on zdnet, some written by people I know; the site as far as I know is doing its best to make business sense of providing such content, in what has become a hostile environment for professional journalism. I would like to see fundamental change in this environment but that is just wishful thinking.

That said, this is one of the worst experiences I have found for privacy-seeking users. Here is the initial banner:

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Naturally I click Manage Settings.

Now I get a scrolling dialog from CBS Interactive, with a scroll gadget that indicates that this is a loooong document:

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There is also some puzzling news. There are a bunch of third-parties whose cookies are apparently necessary for “our sites, products and services to function correctly.” These include cookies for analytics and also for Google ad-serving. I am not clear why these third-parties perform functions which are necessary to read a technical news site, but there we are.

I scroll down and reach a button that lets me opt out of being tracked by the third party advertisers using zdnet.com, or so it seems:

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I want to opt out, so I click. Some of the options below are unchecked, but not many. Most of the options say “Opt out through company”.

It also seems pretty technical to me. Am I meant to understand what a “Demand Side Platform” is?

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I counted the number of links that say “opt out through company”. There are 63 of them.

I click the first one, called Adform. Naturally, the first thing I see is a request to agree (or at least click OK to) their Cookie Policy.

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I click to read the policy (remember this is only the first of 63 sites I have to visit). I am not offered any sort of settings, but invited to visit youronlinechoices or aboutads.info.

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Well, I don’t want anything to do with Adform and don’t intend to return to the site. Maybe I can ignore the Adform Cookie Policy and just focus on the opt-out button above it.

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Currently I am “Opted-in”. This is a lie, I have never opted in. Rather, I have failed to opt out, until I click the button. Opting out will in fact set a cookie, so that Adform knows I have opted out. I am also reminded that this opt out only applies to this particular browser on this particular device. On all other browsers and/or devices, I will still be “opted in”.

OK, one down, 62 to go. However scrolling further down the list I get some bad news:

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In some cases, it seems, “this partner does not provide a cookie opt-out”. The best I can do is to “visit their privacy policy for more information”. This will require a search, since the link is not clickable.

How to control your privacy

What should you do if you do not want to be tracked? Attempting to follow the industry-provided opt-outs is just hopeless. It is mostly PR and attempting to tick legal boxes.

If you do not want to be tracked, use a VPN, use ad blockers, and delete all cookies at the end of each browsing session. This will be tedious for you though, since your browsing experience will be one of constant “I agree” dialogs, some of which you may be able to ignore, or others for which you have to click I Agree or endure a myriad of semi-functional links and settings,

Maybe the EU GDPR legislation is unreasonable. Maybe we have been backed into this corner by allowing the internet to be dominated by a few giant companies. All we can state for sure is that the current situation is hopelessly broken, from a privacy and usability perspective.

Is Ron Jeffries right about the shortcomings of Agile?

A post from InfoQ alerted me to this post by Agile Manifesto signatory Ron Jeffries with the rather extreme title “Developers should abandon Agile”.

If you read the post, you discover that what Jeffries really objects to is the assimilation of Agile methodology into the old order of enterprise software development, complete with expensive consultancy, expensive software that claims to manage Agile for you, and the usual top-down management.

All this goes to show that it is possible do do Agile badly; or more precisely, to adopt something that you call Agile but in reality is not. Jeffries concludes:

Other than perhaps a self-chosen orientation to the ideas of Extreme Programming — as an idea space rather than a method — I really am coming to think that software developers of all stripes should have no adherence to any “Agile” method of any kind. As those methods manifest on the ground, they are far too commonly the enemy of good software development rather than its friend.

However, the values and principles of the Manifesto for Agile Software Development still offer the best way I know to build software, and based on my long and varied experience, I’d follow those values and principles no matter what method the larger organization used.

I enjoyed a discussion on the subject of Agile with some of the editors and writes at InfoQ during the last London QCon event. Why is it, I asked, that Agile is no longer at the forefront of QCon, when a few years back it was at the heart of these events?

The answer, broadly, was that the key concepts behind Agile are now taken for granted so that there are more interesting things to discuss.

While this makes sense, it is also true (as Jeffries observes) that large organizations will tend to absorb these ideas in name only, and continue with dark methods if that is in their culture.

The core ideas in Extreme Programming are (it seems to be) sound. Working in small chunks, forming a team that includes the customer, releasing frequently and delivering tangible benefits, automated tests and continuous refactoring, planning future releases as you go rather than in one all-encompassing plan at the beginning of a project; these are fantastic principles and revolutionary when you first come across them. See here for Jeffries’ account of what is Extreme Programming.

These ideas have everything to do with how the team works and little to do with specific tools (though it is obvious that things like a test framework, DevOps strategy and so on are needed).

Equally, you can have all the best tools but if the team is not functioning as envisaged, the methodology will fail. This is why software development methodology and the psychology of human relationships are intimately linked.

Real change is hard, and it is easy to slip back into bad practices, which is why we need to rediscover Agile, or something like it, repeatedly. Maybe the Agile word itself is not so helpful now; but the ideas are as strong as ever.

Microsoft announces Visual Studio 2019, but pleasing developers is a tough challenge

Microsoft’s John Montgomery has announced Visual Studio 2019, in a post which is short on any details of what might be in the product, other than to continue evolving features that we already know about, such as Live Share, AI-powered IntelliCode, more refactorings and so on.

The acquisition of GitHub is bound to impact both Visual Studio and Visual Studio Team Services, but Montgomery does not talk about this.

Note there is already a Visual Studio roadmap which gives some clues about what is coming. A common theme is integration with Azure services such as Azure Key Vault (for app secrets), Azure Functions, and Azure Container Service (Kubernetes).

It is more illuminating to read the comments to Montgomery’s post. Montgomery says that Visual Studio 2017 is “our most popular Visual Studio release ever,” which I presume is a count of how many times it has been downloaded or installed. It is not the most reliable though; one comment says “2017 has been buggier than all of the bugs 2015 and 2013 had combined.” I imagine every Visual Studio developer, myself included, has to exit and reload the IDE from time to time to fix odd behaviour. Other comments include:

– Reporting components have to be added per project rather than being integrated into the toolbox

– SQL Server Data Tools (SSDT) lagged behind the 2017 release and still have issues

– the XAML designer has performance and behaviour issues and the new XAML designer in preview is missing many features

In general, Microsoft struggles to keep Visual Studio up to date with its constantly-changing developer platform while also working well with the older technologies that are still widely used. The transition from .NET Framework to .NET Core is a tricky issue for the team to solve.

User Benjamin Callister says this:

I have been developing professionally with VS for 20 years now. honestly, the experience seems to get worse with each new release. the amount of time wasted in my day working with XAML alone makes me more than frustrated. The feeling is mutual among my peers as well – and it has been for years now. VS Code is such a fresh breath of air because of its speed. VS full has become so bloated, working with UWP/XAML so slow, and build times so slow. Also, imo profiling tools should be turned OFF by default, with a simple button to toggle them back on when needed. As a developer, I don’t want them on all the time – rather, just when I want to profile.

The mention of Visual Studio code is an interesting one. Code is cross-platform and has an increasing number of extensions and will be an increasingly popular choice for developers who can live without the vast range of features in Visual Studio.

Asus Project Precog dual-screen laptop: innovation in PC hardware, but missing the keyboard may be too high a price

Asus has announced Project Precog at Computex in Taiwan. This is a dual-screen laptop with a 360° hinge and no keyboard.

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The name suggests a focus on AI, but how much AI is actually baked into this device? Not that much. It features “Intelligent Touch” that will change the virtual interface automatically and adjust the keyboard location or switch to stylus mode. It includes Cortana and Amazon Alexa for voice control. And the press release remarks optimistically that “The dual-screen design of Project Precog lets users keep their main tasks in full view while virtual assistants process other tasks on the second screen,” whatever that means – not much is my guess, since is the CPU that processes tasks, not the screen.

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Even so, kudos to Asus for innovation. The company has a long history of bold product launches; some fail, some, like the inexpensive 2007 Eee PC which ran Linux, have been significant. The Eee PC was both a lot of fun and helped to raise awareness of alternatives to Windows.

The notable feature of Project Precog of course is not so much the AI, but the fact that it has two screens and no keyboard. Instead, if you want to type, you get an on-screen keyboard. The trade-off is extra screen space at the cost of convenient typing.

I am not sure about this one. I like dual screens, and like many people much prefer using two screens for desktop work. That said, I am also a keyboard addict. After many experiments with on-screen keyboards on iPads, Windows and Android tablets, I am convinced that the lack of tactile feedback and give on a virtual keyboard makes them more tiring to work on and therefore less productive.

Still, not everyone works in the same way as I do; and until we get to try a Project Precog device (no date announced), we will not know how well it works or how useful the second screen turns out to be.