Category Archives: windows

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.

Microsoft’s Windows 10 October 2018 update on hold after some users suffer deleted documents: what to conclude?

Microsoft has paused the rollout of the October 2018 Windows update for Windows 10 while it investigates reports of users losing data after the upgrade.

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Update: Microsoft’s “known issues” now asks affected uses to “minimize your use of the affected device”, suggesting that file recovery tools are needed for restoring documents, with uncertain results.

Windows 10, first released in July 2015, was the advent of “Windows as a service.” It was a profound change. The idea is that whether in business or at home, Windows simply updates itself from time to time, so that you always have a secure and up to date operating system. Sometimes new features arrive. Occasionally features are removed.

Windows as a service was not just for the benefit of we, the users. It is vital to Microsoft in its push to keep Windows competitive with other operating systems, particularly as it faces competition from increasingly powerful mobile operating systems that were built for the modern environment. A two-year or three-year upgrade cycle, combined with the fact that many do not bother to upgrade, is too slow.

Note that automatic upgrade is not controversial on Android, iOS or Chrome OS. Some iOS users on older devices have complained of performance problems, but in general there are more complaints about devices not getting upgraded, for example because of Android operators or vendors not wanting the bother.

Windows as a service has been controversial though. Admins have worried about the extra work of testing applications. There is a Long Term Servicing Channel, which behaves more like the old 2-3 year upgrade cycle, but it is not intended for general use, even in business. It is meant for single-purpose PCs such as those controlling factory equipment, or embedded into cash machines.

Another issue has been the inconvenience of updates. “Restart now” is not something you want to see just before giving a presentation, or working on it at the last minute, for example. Auto-restart occasionally loses work if you have not saved documents.

The biggest worry though is the update going wrong. For example, causing a PC to become unusable. In general this is rare. Updates do fail, but Windows simply rolls back to the previous version, annoying but not fatal.

What about deleting data? Again it is rare; but in this case recovery is not simple. You are in the realm of disk recovery tools, if you do not have a backup. However it turns out that users have reported updates deleting data for some time. Here is one from 4 months ago:

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Why is the update deleting data? It is not yet clear, and there may be multiple reasons, but many of the reports I have seen refer to user documents stored outside the default location (C:\users\[USERNAME]\). Some users with problems have multiple folders called Documents. Some have moved the location the proper way (Location tab in properties of special folders like Documents, Downloads, Music, Pictures) and still had problems.

Look through miglog.xml though (here is how to find it) and you will find lots of efforts to make sense of the user’s special folder layout. This is not my detailed diagnosis of the issue, just an observation having ploughed through long threads on Reddit and elsewhere; of course these threads are full of noise.

Here is an example of a user who suffered the problem and had an unusual setup: the location of his special folders had been moved (before the upgrade) to an external drive, but there was still important data in the old locations.

We await the official report with interest. But what can we conclude, other than to take backups (which we knew already)?

Two things. One is that Microsoft needs to do a better job of prioritising feedback from its Insider hub. Losing data is a critical issue. The feedback hub, like the forums, is full of noise; but it is possible to identify critical issues there.

This is related of course to the suspicion that Microsoft is now too reliant on unpaid enthusiast testers, at the expense of thorough internal testers. Both are needed and both, I am sure, exist. What though is the proportion and has internal testing been reduced on the basis of these widespread public betas?

The second thing is about priorities. There is a constant frustration that vendors (and Microsoft is not alone) pay too much attention to cosmetics and new features, and not enough to quality and fixing long-standing bugs and annoyances.

What do most users do after Windows upgrades? They are grateful that Windows is up and running again, and go back to working in Word and Excel. They do not care about cosmetic changes or new features they are unlikely to use. They do care about reliability. Such users are not wrong. They deserve better than to find documents missing.

One final note. Microsoft released Windows 10 1809 on 2nd October. However the initial rollout was said to be restricted to users who manually checked Windows Update or used the Update Assistant. Microsoft said that automatic rollout would not begin until Oct 9th. In my case though, on one PC, I got the update automatically (no manual check, no Insider Build setting) on October 3rd. I have seen similar reports from others. I got the update on an HP PC less than a year old, and my guess is that this is the reason:

With the October 2018 Update, we are expanding our use of machine learning and intelligently selecting devices that our data and feedback predict will have a smooth update experience.

In other words, my PC was automatically selected to give Microsoft data on upgrades expected to go smoothly. I am guessing though. I am sure I did not trigger the update myself, since I was away all day on the 2nd October, and buried in work on the 3rd when the update arrived (I switched to a laptop while it updated). I did not lose data, even though I do have a redirected Documents folder. I did see one anomaly: my desktop background was changed from blue to black, and I had to change it back manually.

What should you do if you have this problem and do not have backups? Microsoft asks you to call support. As far as I can tell, the files really are deleted so there will not be an easy route to recovery. The best chance is to use the PC as little as possible; do a low-level copy of the hard drive if you can. Shadow Copy Explorer may help. Another nice tool is Zero Assumption Recovery. What you recover is dependent on whether files have been overwritten by other files or not.

Update: Microsoft has posted an explanation of why the data loss occurred. It’s complicated and all do to with folder redirection (with a dash of OneDrive sync). It affected some users who redirected “known folders” like Documents to another location. The April 2018 update created spurious empty folders for some of these users. The October 2018 update therefore sought to delete them, but in doing so also deleted non-empty folders. It still looks like a bad bug to me: these were legitimate folders for storing user data and should not have been removed if not empty.

More encouraging is that Microsoft has made some changes to its feedback hub so that users can “provide an indication of impact and severity” when reporting issues. The hope is that Microsoft will find reports of severe bugs more easily and therefore take action.

Updated 8th Oct to remove references to OneDrive Sync and add support notes. Updated 10th Oct with reference to Microsoft’s explanatory post.

Where next for Windows Mixed Reality? At IFA, Acer has an upgraded headset at IFA; Dell is showing Oculus Rift

It is classic Microsoft. Launch something before it is ready, then struggle to persuade the market to take a second look after it is fixed.

This may prove to be the Windows Mixed Reality story. At IFA in Berlin last year, all the major Windows PC vendors seemed to have headsets to show and talked it up in their press events. This year, Acer has a nice new generation headset, but Asus made no mention of upgrading its hardware. Dell is showing Oculus Rift on its stand, and apparently is having an internal debate about future Mixed Reality hardware.

I reviewed Acer’s first headset and the technology in general late last year. The main problem was lack of content. In particular, the Steam VR compatibility was in preview and not very good.

Today I tried the new headset briefly at the Acer booth.

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The good news: it is a big improvement. It feels less bulky but well made, and has integrated headphones. It felt comfortable even over glasses.

On the software side, I played a short Halo demo. The demo begins with a promising encounter with visceral Halo aliens, but becomes a rather dull shooting game. Still, even the intro shows what is possible.

I was assured that Steam VR compatibility is now much improved, but would like to try for myself.

The big questions are twofold. Will VR really take off at all, and if it does, will anyone use Windows Mixed Reality?

All the way from 1997: Compaq PC Companion C140 still works, but as badly as it did on launch

I am having a clear-out which is bringing back memories and unearthing some intriguing items. One is this Compaq C140 PC Companion, running Windows CE, which launched in December 1997.

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The beauty of this device is that it takes two AA batteries. I stuck in some new ones and found that it started up fine, not bad after more than 20 years. Most more recent devices have a non-replaceable rechargeable battery which usually fails long before the rest of the electronics, rendering the entire device useless (at least without surgery).

The C140 runs Windows CE 1.0 and has a monochrome touch screen designed to be used mainly with a stylus. 4MB RAM, 4MB storage, and comes with versions of Word, Excel, Calendar, Contacts and Tasks. There is also a calculator and a world clock. It is expandable with PCMCIA cards (though not many have drivers). The idea is that you link it to your PC with the supplied serial cable and synch with Outlook, hence PC Companion.

The odd thing is, looking at this device I still find it superficially compelling. A pocketable device running Word and Excel, with a full QWERTY keyboard, stylus holder so you do not lose it, what’s not to like?

A lot, unfortunately. The biggest problem is the screen. There is a backlight and a contrast dial, but it is faint and hard to read in most lights and you constantly fiddle with the contrast.

The next issue is the keyboard. It is too cramped to type comfortably. And the format, though it looks reassuringly like a small laptop, is actually awkward to use. It works on a desk, which seems to miss the point, but handheld it is useless. You need three hands, one for the device, one for the stylus, and a third for typing. The design is just wrong and has not been thought through.

I have searched for years for small portable devices with fast text input. I suppose a smartphone with a Swype keyboard or similar comes closest but I am still more productive with a laptop and in practice the thing that has made most improvement for me is that laptops have become lighter and with longer battery life.

Spare a thought though for Microsoft (and its partners) with its long history of trying to make mobile work. You can argue back and forth about whether it was right to abandon Windows Phone, but whatever your views, it is a shame that decades of effort ended that way.

RemObjects Elements: mix and match languages and platforms as you like

The world of software development has changed profoundly in the last decade or so. Once it was a matter of mainly desktop Windows development for the client, mainly Java for server-based applications with web or Windows clients. Then came mobile and cloud – the iPhone SDK was released in March 2008, kicking off a new wave of mobile applications, while Amazon EC2 (Elastic Compute Cloud) came out of beta in October 2008. Microsoft tussled within itself about what to do with Windows Mobile and ended up ceding the entire market to Android and iOS.

The consequence of these changes is that business developers who once happily developed Windows desktop applications have had to diversify, as their customers demand applications for mobile and web as well. The PC market has not gone away, so there has been growing interest in both cross-platform development and in how to port Windows code to other platforms.

Embarcadero took Delphi, a favourite development tool based on an Object Pascal compiler, down a cross-platform path but not to the satisfaction of all Delphi developers, some of whom looked for other ways to transition to the new world.

Founded in 2002, RemObjects had a project called Chrome, which compiled Delphi’s Object Pascal to .NET executables. This product was later rebranded Oxygene. For a while Embarcadero bundled a version of this with Delphi, calling it Prism, after abandoning its own .NET compilation tools.

The partnership with Embarcadero ended, but RemObjects pressed on, adding language features to its flavour of Object Pascal and adding support for Mac OS X, iPhone and Java.

In February 2015 the company was an early adopter of Apple’s Swift language, introducing a Swift compiler called Silver that targets Android, .NET and native Mac OS X executables.

The company now offers a remarkable set of products for developers who want to target new platforms but in a familiar language:

  • Oxygene: Object Pascal
  • Silver: Swift 3 (and most of Swift 4)
  • Hydrogene: C# 7
  • Iodine: Java 8

Each language can import APIs from the others, and compile to all the platforms – well, there are exceptions, but this is the general approach.

More precisely, RemObjects defines four target platforms:

  • Echoes: .NET and .NET Core including ASP.NET and Mono
  • Cooper: Java and Android
  • Toffee: Mac, iOS, tvOS
  • Island: CPU native and WebAssembly

So if you fancy writing a WPF (Windows Presentation Foundation) application in Java, you can:

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As you may spot from the above screenshot, the RemObjects tools use Visual Studio as the IDE. This is a limitation for Mac developers, so the company also developed a Mac IDE called Fire, and now a Windows IDE called Water (in preview) for those who dislike the Visual Studio dependency.

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Important to note: RemObjects does not address the problem of cross-platform user interfaces. In this respect it is similar to the approach taken by Xamarin before that company came up with the idea of Xamarin Forms. So this is about sharing non-visual code and libraries, not cross-platform GUI (Graphical User Interface). If you are targeting Cocoa, you can use Apple’s Interface Builder to design your user interface, for example.

Of course WebAssembly and HTML is an interesting option in this respect.

A notable absentee from the list of RemObjects targets is UWP (Universal Windows Platform), a shame given the importance Microsoft still attaches to this.

RemObjects is mainly focused  on languages and compilers rather than libraries and frameworks. The idea is that you use the existing libraries and frameworks that are native to the platform you are targeting. This is a smart approach for a small company that does not wish to reinvent the wheel.

That said, there is a separate product called Data Abstract which is a multi-tier database framework.

These are interesting products, but as a journalists I have struggled to give them much coverage, because of their specialist nature and also the demands on my time as someone who prefers to try things out rather than simply relay news from press releases. I also appreciate that the above information is sketchy and encourage you to check out the website if these tools pique your interest.

Configuring the Android emulator for Hyper-V

Great news that the Android emulator now supports Hyper-V, but how do you enable it?

Pretty simple. First, you have to be running at least Windows 10 1803 (April 2018 update). Then, go into Control Panel – Programs – Turn Windows Features on and off and enabled both Hyper-V and the Windows Hypervisor Platform:

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Note: this is not the same as just enabling Hyper-V. The Windows Hypervisor Platform, or WHPX, is an API for Hyper-V. Read about it here.

Reboot if necessary and run the emulator.

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TroubleshootIng? Try running the emulator from the command line.

emulator -list-avds

will list your AVDs.

emulator @avdname -qemu -enable-whpx

will run the AVD called avdname using WHPX (Windows Hypervisor Platform). If it fails, you may get a helpful error message.

Note: If you get a Qt library not found error, use the full path to the emulator executable. This should be the one in the emulator folder, not the one in the tools folder. The full command is:

[path-to-android-sdk]\emulator\emulator @[avdname] -qemu -enable-whpx

You can also use the emulator from Visual Studio, though you need Visual Studio 2017 version 15.8 Preview 1 or higher with the Xamarin tools installed. That said, I had some success with starting the Hyper-V emulator separately (use the command above), then using it with a Xamarin project in Visual Studio 15.7.5.

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Hyper-V compatible Android emulator now available

An annoying issue for Android developers on Windows is that the official Android emulator uses Intel’s HAXM hypervisor platform, which is incompatible with Microsoft’s Hyper-V.

The pain of dual-boot just to run the Android emulator is coming to an end. Google has announced that the latest release of the Android Emulator will support Hyper-V on both AMD and Intel PCs. This a relief to Docker users, for example, since Docker now uses Hyper-V by default.

Google Product Manager Jamal Eason has made a rather confusing post, positioning the new feature as mainly for the benefit of developers with AMD processors. Intel HAXM does not work with AMD processors.”Thanks to on-going development by Intel, the fastest emulator performance on Windows is still with Intel HAXM,” says Eason, stating that HAXM remains the default on Intel PCs and is recommended.

However the new Hyper-V support works fine on Intel as well as AMD PCs. The official docs say:

Though we recommend using HAXM on Windows, it is possible to use Windows Hypervisor Platform (WHPX) with the emulator. Situations in which you should use WHPX with the emulator are the following:

  • You need to use Hyper-V at the same time.
  • You are using an AMD CPU.

The new feature is “thanks to a new Microsoft Windows Hypervisor Platform (WHPX) API and recent open-source contributions from Microsoft,” says Eason.

It is another case of Microsoft doing the hard work to make Windows a better platform for developers, even when they are targeting non-Windows platforms (as is increasingly the case).

Account options when setting up Windows 10, and Microsoft’s enforced insecurity questions

How do you sign into Windows 10? There are now four options. I ran through a Windows 10 setup using build 1803 (which was released in April this year) and noted how this has evolved. Your first decision: is this a personal or organisational PC?

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If you choose Setup for an organisation, you will be prompted to sign into Office 365, also known as Azure AD. The traditional Domain join, for on-premises Active Directory, has been shunted to a less visible option (the red encircling is mine). In larger organisations, this tends to be automated anyway.

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But this one is personal. It is a similar story. You are prompted to sign in with a Microsoft account, but there is another option, called an Offline account (again, the red circle is mine).

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This “Offline account” was in Windows 7 and earlier the only option for personal accounts. I still recommend having an administrative “offline account” set up so you can always be sure of being able to log into your PC, even without internet. Think about some of the scenarios. Someone might hack your Microsoft account, change your password, and now you cannot even log onto your PC. Unless you have an offline account.

I’ve been awkward and selected Offline account. Windows, or rather Microsoft, does not like it. Note the mind games in the screenshot below. Although I’ve made a positive selection for Offline account, the default and highlighted option now is to change my mind. I do not like this.

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Now I can set up my offline account. A screen prompts for a username, then for a password, all the time nagging that I should create an online account instead.

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I type and confirm the password; but now I get this:

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Yes, I have to create “security questions”, with no option to skip. If you try to skip, you get a “This field is required” message. Worse still, they are from a pre-selected list:

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I really hate this. These are not security questions; they are insecurity questions. Their purpose is to let me (or someone else) reset the password, forming a kind of back door into the PC. The information in the questions is semi-secret; not impossible for someone determined to discover. So Microsoft is insisting that I make my account less secure.

Of course you do not have to give honest answers. You can call your first pet yasdfWsd9gAg!!hea. But most people will be honest.

Does it matter, given that a PC account offers rather illusory security anyway? Unless you encrypt the hard drive, someone who steals the PC can reset the password by booting into Linux, or take out the disk and read it from another PC. All true; but note that Microsoft makes it rather easy to encrypt your PC with Bitlocker, in which case the security is not so illusory.

Just for completeness, here is what comes next, an ad for Cortana:

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Hey Cortana! How do I delete my security answers?

I do get why Microsoft is doing this. An online account is better in that settings can roam, you can use the Store, and you can reset the password from one PC to restore access to another. The insecurity questions could be a life-saver for someone who forgot their password and need to get back into their PC.

But such things should be optional. There is nothing odd about wanting an offline account.

Surface Go: Microsoft has another go at a budget tablet

Microsoft has announced Surface Go, a cheaper, smaller model to sit at the budge end of its Surface range of tablets and laptops.

The new model starts at $399, will be available for pre-order today in selected territories, and ships on August 2nd.

In the UK, the Surface Go is £379 inc VAT for 4GB RAM and 64GB storage, or £509.99 inc VAT for 8GB RAM and 128GB storage.

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I go back a long way with Surface, having been at the launch of the first device, Surface RT, back in 2012. The device was a flop, but I liked it. The design was genuinely innovative and sought to make sense of a Windows in transition from desktop-only to a viable touch/tablet device. It failed primarily because of the poor range of available apps, lack of user acceptance for Windows 8, and somewhat underpowered hardware. There were also keyboard issues: the fabric-based Touch keyboard was difficult to use because it gave no tactile feedback, and the Type keyboard less elegant and still somewhat awkward.

Surface Pro came next, and while it was more useful thanks to full Windows 8 and an Intel Core i5 CPU, it was disappointing, with battery life issues and a tendency to stay on in your bag, overheating and wasting battery. There were other niggling issues.

The big disappointment of Surface for me is that even with full, Apple-like control over hardware and software, the devices have not been trouble-free.

Another issue today is that Windows 10 is not designed for touch in the same way as Windows 8. Therefore you rarely see Windows tablets used as tablets; they are almost always used as laptops, even if they are 2-in-1 devices. The original kickstand design is therefore rather pointless. If I got another Surface it would be a Surface Laptop or Surface Book.

Of course they are not all bad. It is premium hardware and some of the devices are delightful to use and perform well. They are expensive though, and I suggest careful comparison with what you can get for the same money from partners like HP, Lenovo and others.

What about this one? Key specs:

  • 10″ screen, kickstand design
  • 1800 x 1200 (217 PPI) resolution
  • 8.3mm thick
  • USB-C 3.1 port, MicroSD, headphone jack socket
  • Intel® Pentium® Gold Processor 4415Y
  • Windows Hello camera supporting face-recognition log in
  • Up to nine hours battery life
  • Intel® HD Graphics 615
  • Display supports Surface Pen with 4096 levels of pressure sensitivity
  • Signature Type Cover with trackpad supporting 5-point gestures
  • Windows Hello face authentication camera (front-facing)
  • 5.0 MP front-facing camera with 1080p Skype HD video
  • 8.0 MP rear-facing autofocus camera with 1080p HD video
  • Single microphone
  • 2W stereo speakers with Dolby® Audio™ Premium

It sounds a great deal for £379 or $399 but you will pay more, for three reasons:

  • The base spec is minimal in terms of RAM and SSD storage and you will want the higher model
  • The Type Cover is essential and will cost – a Pro Type Cover is $159.99 and this may be a bit less
  • The Surface Pen is £99.99 or $99.99

This means your $399 will soon be $550 or more.

It could still be a good deal if it turns out to be a nice device. The Hello camera is a plus point, but where I would particularly recommend a Surface is if you want Pen support. Microsoft is good at this. Unfortunately I do not get on well with pen input, but some people do, and for artists and designers it is a real advantage.

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.