Category Archives: windows

Hands on with Windows Virtual Desktop

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

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

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

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

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

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

Puzzling out the system requirements

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Setup options

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

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

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

Provisioning the host pool

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

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

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The next dialog has some potential snags.

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

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

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

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

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Next you get a summary screen which validates your selections.

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

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

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

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

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

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Connection

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

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Observations

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

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

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

Update:         

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

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

How Windows 10 Ransomware protection can cause install failures, LibreOffice for example

While researching a piece on Office applications I needed to install LibreOffice. The install failed with a message about an error creating a temporary file needed for installation.

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Fortunately I knew where to look for the answer. Windows Ransomware Protection is a feature which whitelists the applications allowed to write data to the folders likely to contain the data you care about, such as documents and pictures. The idea is that malware which wants to encrypt these folders and then demand a ransom will find it harder to do so.

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Ransomware protection can have side effects though. Operations like creating desktop shortcuts may fail because the desktop is one of the protected locations. That is just an annoyance; but in the case of LibreOffice, setup tried to write an essential file to a protected location and the install failed completely.

Solution: turn off Ransomware protection temporarily and re-run setup.

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

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

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

UWP is our newest, leading-edge application platform.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Betts says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

writes Chase.

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

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

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

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.