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.

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.

Microsoft and GitHub, and will GitHub get worse?

Microsoft has announced an agreement to acquire GitHub for $7.5 billion (in Microsoft stock). Nat Friedman, formerly CEO of Xamarin, will become GitHub’s CEO, and GitHub will continue to run somewhat independently. A few comments.

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Background: GitHub is a cloud-based source code repository based on Git, a distributed version control system created by Linus Torvalds. It is free to use for public, open source projects but charges a fee (from 7$ to $21 per user per month) for private repositories.

First, why? This one is easy. Microsoft is a big customer of GitHub. Microsoft used to have its own hosting service for open source software called CodePlex but abandoned it in favour of GitHub, formally closing CodePlex in March 2017:

Over the years, we’ve seen a lot of amazing options come and go but at this point, GitHub is the de facto place for open source sharing and most open source projects have migrated there. We migrated too.

said Brian Harry.

Microsoft also uses GitHub for its documentation, and this has turned out to be a big improvement on its old documentation sites.

Note also that Microsoft has many important open source projects of its own, including much of its developer platform (.NET Core, ASP.NET Core and Entity Framework Core). Many of its projects are overseen by the .NET Foundation. Other notable open source, Github-hosted projects include Visual Studio Code, a programmer’s editor that has won many friends, and TypeScript, a typed superset of JavaScript that compiles to standard JavaScript code.

When big companies become highly dependent on the services of another company they may become anxious about it. What if the other company were taken over by a competitor? What if it were to run into trouble, or to change in ways that cause problems? Acquisition is an easy solution.

In the case of GitHub, there was reason to be anxious since it appears not to be profitable – unsurprising given the large number of free accounts.

Second, Microsoft is always pitching to developers, trying to attract them to its platform and especially Azure services. It has a difficult task because it is the Windows company and the Windows platform overall is in decline, versus Linux on servers and Android/iOS on mobile. Therefore it is striving to become a cross-platform company, and with considerable success. I discuss this at some length in this piece. Note that there is a huge amount of Linux on Azure, including “more than 40%” of the virtual machines. More than 50%? Maybe.

If Microsoft can keep GitHub working as well as before, or even improve it, it will do a lot to win the confidence of developers who are currently outside the Microsoft platform ecosystem.

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Will GitHub get worse?

The tricky question: under Microsoft, will GitHub get worse? The company’s track record with acquisitions is spotty, ranging from utter disasters (Nokia, Danger) to doubtful (Skype), to moderately successful so far (LinkedIn, Xamarin).

Under the current leadership, I doubt anything bad will happen to GitHub. I’d guess it will migrate some infrastructure to Azure (GitHub runs mainly from its own datacentres as I understand it) but there is no need to re-engineer the platform to run on Windows.

Some businesses will be uncomfortable hosting their valuable source code with Microsoft. That is understandable, in the same way that I hear of retailers reluctant to use Amazon Web Services (since it is a platform owned by a competitor), but it is a low risk. Others have long-standing mistrust of Microsoft and will want to migrate away from GitHub because of this.

Personally I think it is right to be wary of any giant global corporation, and dislike the huge and weakly regulated influence they have on our lives. I doubt that Microsoft is any worse than its peers in terms of trustworthiness but of course this is open to debate.

Another point: with this acquisition, free GitHub hosting for open source projects will be likely to continue. The press release says:

GitHub will retain its developer-first ethos and will operate independently to provide an open platform for all developers in all industries. Developers will continue to be able to use the programming languages, tools and operating systems of their choice for their projects — and will still be able to deploy their code to any operating system, any cloud and any device.

It is of course in Microsoft’s interests to make this work and the success of Visual Studio Code and TypeScript (which also come from the developer side of the company) shows that it can make cross-platform projects work. So I am optimistic that GitHub will be OK.

Update: I’ve noticed Sam Newman and Martin Fowler taking this view, a good sign from a people I respect and who are by no means from the usual Microsoft crowd.

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Official announcements

Press release: https://news.microsoft.com/?p=406917

Chris Wanstrath’s Blog Post: https://blog.github.com/2018-06-04-github-microsoft/

Satya Nadella’s Blog Post: https://blogs.microsoft.com/?p=52553832

Case sensitive directories now possible in Windows Explorer as well as in the Windows Subsystem for Linux

Experienced Windows users will know that occasionally you hit a problem with case sensitivity in file names. The problem is that on Linux, you can have files whose name differs only in case, such as MyFile.txt and myfile.txt. Windows on the other hand will not normally let you do this and the second will overwrite the first.

The latest build of Windows 10 (1803, or the April 2018 Update) has a fix for this. You can now set directories to be case-sensitive using the fsutil command line utility:

fsutil.exe file setCaseSensitiveInfo <path> enable

You can then enjoy case sensitivity even in Windows Explorer:

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This is not particularly useful in Windows. In fact, it is probably a bad idea since most Windows applications presume case-insensitivity. I found that using Notepad on my case-insensitive directory I soon hit bugs. I double-click a file, edit, save, and get this:

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Press F5 and it sorts itself out.

Developers may have written applications where a file is specified with different case in different places. Everything is fine; it is the same file. Then you enable case-sensitivity and it breaks, possibly with unpredictable behaviour where the application does not actually crash, but gives wrong results (which is worse).

If you are using WSL though, you may well want case-sensitivity. There are even applications which will not compile without it, because there are different files in the source whose name differs only by case. Therefore, WSL has always supported case-sensitivity by default. However, Windows did not recognize this so you had to use this feature only from WSL.

In the new version this has changed and when you create a directory in WSL it will be case-sensitive in both WSL and Windows.

There is a snag. In the full explanation here there is an explanation of how to adjust this behaviour using /etc/wsl.conf and also the warning:

Any directories you created with WSL before build 17093 will not be treated as case sensitive anymore. To fix this, use fsutil.exe to mark your existing directories as case sensitive.

Hmm. If you are wondering why that application will not compile any more, this could be the reason. You can set it back to the old behaviour if you want.

Should Microsoft have made the file system case-sensitive? Possibly, though it is one of those things where it is very difficult to change the existing behaviour, for the reasons stated above. Note that Windows NT has always supported case-sensitive file names, but the feature is in effect disabled for compatibility reasons. It is poor for usability, having files whose names differ only in case which are therefore easily confused. So I am not sure. Being able to switch it on selectively is nice though.

Honor 10 AI smartphone launched in London, and here are my first impressions

The Honor 10 “AI” has been launched in London, and is on sale now either on contract with Three (exclusively), or unlocked from major retailers. Price is from £31 pay monthly (free handset), or SIM-free at £399.99.

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Why would you buy an Honor 10? Mainly because it is a high-end phone at a competitive price, especially if photography is important to you. As far as I can tell, Honor (which is a brand of Huawei) offers the best value of any major smartphone brand.

How is the Honor brand differentiated from Huawei? When I first came across the brand, it was focused on a cost-conscious, fashion-conscious youth market, and direct selling rather than a big high street presence. It is a consumer brand whereas Huawei is business and consumer. At the London launch, the consumer focus is still evident, but I got the impression that the company is broadening its reach, and the deal with Three and sale through other major retailers shows that Honor does now want to be on the high street.

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What follows is a quick first impression. At the launch, Honor made a big deal of the phone’s multi-layer glass body, which gives a 3D radiant effect as you view the rear of the phone. I quite like the design but in this respect it is not really all that different from the glass body of the (excellent) Honor 8, launched in 2016. I also wonder how often it will end up hidden by a case. The Honor 10 AI is supplied with a transparent gel case, and even this spoils the effect somewhat.

The display is great through, bright and high resolution. Reflectivity is a problem, but that is true of most phones. Notable is that by default there is a notch at the top around the front camera, but that you can disable this in settings. I think the notch (on this or any phone) is an ugly feature and was quick to disable it. Unfortunately screenshots do not show the notch so you will have to make do with my snaps from another phone:

With notch:

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Without notch:

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The camera specs are outstanding, with dual rear lens 24MP + 16MP, and 24MP front. At the launch at least half the presentation was devoted to the photography, and in particular the “AI” feature. The Honor 10 has an NPU (Neural Processing Unit), which is hardware acceleration for processes involved in image recognition. All smartphone cameras do a ton of work in software to optimize images, but the Honor 10 should be faster and use less power than most rivals thanks to the NPU. The AI works in several ways. If it recognises the photo as one of around 500 “scenarios”, it will optimize for that scenario. At a detail level, image recognition will segment a picture into objects it recognises, such as sky, buildings, people and so on, and optimize accordingly. For example, people get high priority, and especially the person who is the subject of a portrait. It will also segment the image of a person into hair, eyes, mouth and so on, for further optimisation.

What is optimisation? This is the key question. One of the AI effects is bokeh (blurring the background) which can be a nice way to make a portrait. On the other hand, if you take a picture of someone with the Niagara Falls in the background, do you really want it blurred to streaks of grey so that the picture might have been taken anywhere? It is a problem, and sometimes the AI will make your picture worse. I am reserving judgment on this, but will do another post on the subject after more hands-on.

Of course you can disable the AI, and in the Pro camera mode you can capture RAW images, so this is a strong mobile for photography even if you do not like the AI aspect. I have taken a few snaps and been impressed with the clarity and detail.

24MP for the front camera is exceptional so if selfies are your thing this is a good choice.

You have various options for unlocking the device: PIN, password, pattern swipe, fingerprint, proximity of Bluetooth device, or Face Unlock. The fingerprint reader is on the front, which is a negative for me as I prefer a rear fingerprint reader that lets you grab the device with one hand and instantly unlock. But you can do this anyway with Face Unlock, though Honor warns that this is the least secure option as it might work with a similar face (or possibly a picture). I found the Face Unlock effective, even with or without spectacles.

The fingerprint scanner is behind glass which Honor says helps if your finger is wet.

There are a few compromises. A single speaker means sound is OK but not great; it is fine through headphones or an external speaker though. No wireless charging.

Geekbench scores

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PC Mark scores

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So how much has performance improved since the Honor 8 in 2016? On PCMark, Work 2.0 performance was 5799 on the Honor 8, 7069 on the 10 (+21%). Geekbench 4 CPU scores go from 5556 multi-core on the 8 to 6636 on the 10 (+19.4%).  The GPU though is more substantially improved, 4728 on the 8 and 8585 on 10 (+81.5%). These figures take no account of the new NPU.

First impressions

I must confess to some disappointment that the only use Honor seems to have found for its NPU is photo enhancement, important though this is. It does not worry me much though. I will report back on the camera, but first impressions are good, and this strikes me as a strong contender as a high-end phone at a mid-range price. 128GB storage is generous.

Spec summary

OS: Android 8.1 “Oreo” with  EMUI (“Emotion UI”) 8.1 user interface

Screen: 5.84″ 19:9, 2280p x 1080p, 432 PPI, Removeable notch

Chipset: Kirin 970 8-core, 4x A73 @ 2.36 GHz, 4x A53 @ 1.84 GHz

Integrated GPU: ARM Mali-G72MP12 746 MHz

Integrated NPU (Neural Processing Unit): Hardware acceleration for machine learning/AI

RAM: 4GB

Storage: 128GB ROM.

Dual SIM: Yes (nano SIM)

NFC: Yes

Sensors: Gravity Sensor, Ambient Light Sensor, Proximity Sensor, Gyroscope, Compass, Fingerprint sensor, infrared sensor, Hall sensor, GPS

WiFi: 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, 2.4GHz/5GHz

Bluetooth: 4.2

Connections: USB 2.0 Type-C, 3.5mm headphone socket

Frequency bands: 4G LTE TDD: B38/B40/B414G LTE FDD: B1/B3/B5/B7/B8/B19/B203G WCDMA: B1/B2/B5/B8/B6/B192G GSM: B2/B3/B5/B8

Size and weight: 149.6 mm x 71.2 mm  x 7.7 mm, 153g

Battery: 3,400 mAh,  50% charge in 25 minutes. No wireless charging.

Fingerprint sensor: Front, under glass

Face unlock: Yes

Rear camera: Rear: 24MP + 16MP Dual Lens Camera,F1.8 Aperture.

Front camera: 24MP

“An invalid name request was made”: an ugly error from the Windows 10 app platform

I went to open Spotify this morning, installed from the Windows Store, but saw the following error:

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This is not user friendly. However I have the latest April update of Windows 10 (this may be the reason of course) which can reset and repair apps. Just right-click the app and choose App Settings. I clicked Repair. Got a nice tick. However the same error message.

So I tried Reset. This completely reinstalls the app and resets its settings (annoying). Got a nice tick. Same error message.

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Figuring this might be worth a blog post, I went to Open Live Writer, also installed from the Store. Oh dear. An invalid name request was made. The name requested cannot be retrieved at this time.

In true Windows style, the actual name requested is hidden, not that I was consciously wanting to retrieve any kind of name. I just want the app to run, and being locally installed, reckon it should just work.

I reverted to the non-Store version of Open Live Writer to make this post.

In the event viewer, I see this:

0x801F0005: Cannot create the Desktop AppX container for package SpotifyAB.SpotifyMusic_1.80.474.0_x86__zpdnekdrzrea0 because an error was encountered configuring the runtime.

Next thing to try: reboot. Everything is fine.

This is ugly though. Something broke multiple apps installed from the Store. I will update if I discover more about the reason for this.

Update: A tweet from Microsoft Lead Program Manager Stefan Wick states that a fix is in the works:

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Cosmos DB or SQL Server? Do you need Kubernetes? VM or App Service? A guide to Azure worth checking out

One of the best features of Microsoft Build, possibly the best, is the exhibition. Microsoft sets up stands for each of its product teams, and the staff there generally include the people who actually build that product, making this a great way to interact with them and get authoritative answers to questions.

I interviewed several executives at Build and asked a couple of times, how can your customers work out which Azure service is the best fit for what they need? It is not a trivial question, now that there are so many different services which overlapping functionality.

It is critically important. You can waste a large amount of money and cause unnecessary frustration by selecting the wrong services.

None of these executives mentioned that Microsoft has a rather good guide for exactly this question. It is called the Azure Architecture Center and I discovered it on the show floor.

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The stand was called Azure Clinic and I told the guy his costume reminded me of Dr GUI. He was too young to remember this MSDN character of old but another guy on the stand overheard and said it brought back bad memories!

You can find the Azure Architecture Center here. It does not make any assumptions about the depth of knowledge you have, which seems right to me since it is aimed at developers who are not sure exactly what they need. There is a ton of useful material, like this decision tree for the compute services (click to enlarge):

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Recommended.

Hands On with Remote Assist, a compelling HoloLens application, at Microsoft Build

One of the announcements at Microsoft’s Build event in Seattle was Remote Assist, an application for the HoloLens augmented reality headset. Today I got an opportunity to try this out, and was impressed.

The company has set up a hotel room as a factory with some big machines that whir and hum and a scary power supply cabinet. I took the part of the engineer when a fault stops the machines and the factory grinds to a halt. Unfortunately I knew nothing about how to fix it.

The solution was to put on the HoloLens headset and make a call to someone better informed. The concept is pretty simple. The remote technician sees what you see, so can easily inspect the screens as well as the physical state of the machinery. Along with the video call, HoloLens and Remote Assist lets the remote technician add annotations to the real world, pinpointing the exact button, cable or belt that needs attention. They can also stick images or documents next to the machinery to show you what to do.

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The fake factory floor was a little contrived, but nevertheless effective in showing how this approach can make it easier to offer support. The alternative in this kind of case is a site visit, which with specialised equipment might well involve a flight and several days delay. The cost is not only the travel expenses, but also the possible extended downtime while machinery is idle.

If you have ever tried to guide someone at the other end of a telephone through fixing a physical problem, you will know how tricky it can be. Send me a photo. No, that’s not quite the right spot. Send me another photo. What happens if you change that setting? No, not that setting! Sorry, now you have two things to fix …

Remote Assist makes this much easier and I can see the potential. HoloLens may seem expensive for a casual purchase, but could soon pay for itself in this context.

There is no date yet for availability, but the technology will enter limited preview soon.

More info here and in the video below.

I also tried Remote Layout, a HoloLens application for designing room layouts. This was less exciting. I was not clear how to achieve the precision you need for a real-world factory layout. Nevertheless, I get the point that overlaying life-size objects onto the real world can reveal issues that you might well miss with just a drawing.

Finally, I tried a super-secret demo that I am not allowed to tell you about. Yet.

Chromebooks get more useful as Linux comes to Chrome OS

At Google’s IO conference under way in San Francisco, the company has announced the ability for a Chromebook to run Linux applications.

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“Support for Linux will enable you to create, test and run Android and web app for phones, tablets and laptops all on one Chromebook. Run popular editors, code in your favourite language and launch projects to Google Cloud with the command-line. Everything works directly on a Chromebook,” says product manager Ton Buckley. “Linux runs inside a virtual machine that was designed from scratch for Chromebooks. That means it starts in seconds and integrates completely with Chromebook features. Linux apps can start with a click of an icon, windows can be moved around, and files can be opened directly from apps.”

Squinting at the screen in Google’s photo, above, it looks like the Linux VM runs Debian.

Coupled with the existing ability to run Android apps, the announcement makes Chromebooks more attractive for users (and I am one of them) who would previously have found the operating system too restrictive.

Buckley presents the new feature as primarily one for developers. You will be able to build and test Android applications directly on the Chromebook. Given the operating system’s native support for Android, this should be an excellent machine for Android development.

One of the first things I would install would be Visual Studio Code, presuming it runs OK. Thanks to .NET Core, ASP.NET development should work. The LAMP stack running locally would be great for  PHP development.

Personally I would not only use it for coding though. The ability to run LibreOffice would be great, for example. There are also a ton of handy Linux utilities for admins.

Top feature: security

The key attractions of Chromebooks (aside from low prices from OEM vendors) is security. They are popular in education for this reason. They require less management than PCs because the operating system is locked down and self-patching. The new feature should not compromise security too much, because Linux runs in a VM and in the worst case resetting the VM should clear any malware – though access to user documents could make malware running in the VM quite disruptive.

Apple’s iPad Pro is another capable device with a locked down OS, but does not run Linux applications.

What about Windows? Microsoft has tried and so far failed to lock down Windows in a manner acceptable to its customers. Windows RT was the first attempt, but users found it too restrictive, partly because the Windows 8 app ecosystem was so weak. Windows S is another attempt; but progress is slow. Microsoft has also weakened the security of its modern app platform to make it more capable, even to the extent of allowing desktop applications into the Windows Store. The approach taken by Apple and Google, to design a new secure operating system and make it gradually more capable, is more viable than Microsoft’s work in the opposite direction.