Category Archives: windows 7

Windows Azure: since PDC, how is it going?

At the Professional Developers Conference 2008, held at the end of October 2008, Microsoft unveiled Windows Azure, its new cloud platform. I was there, and got the impression that this is a big deal for Microsoft; arguably the future of the company depends on it. It is likely that the industry will reduce its use of on-premise servers in favour of hosted applications, and if Microsoft is to preserve its overall market share it needs a credible cloud platform.

That was nearly two months ago. What’s been the developer reaction, and how is it going with the early tech previews made available at PDC? It’s hard to tell; but there is less public activity than I expected. On the official Azure forums there are just 550 messages at the time of writing; and glancing through them shows that many of them are from people simply having difficulty signing up. One of the problems is that access to the preview is limited by developer tokens of various types, and although Microsoft gave the impression at PDC that all attendees would have these, that has not really been the case. Those who attended hands-on labs at PDC got tokens there; others have had to apply and wait like everyone else. Part of the reason for lack of activity may just be that not many have been able to get in.

There are other issues too. I’ve spent some time trying out Live Framework and building applications for Live Mesh. I’ve written this up separately, in a piece that will be posted shortly. However, I found it harder than I expected to get good information on how to proceed. There is plenty of high-level marketing, but hands-on documentation is lacking. Azure may be different – though I was interested to find another user with similar frustrations (it’s worth reading this thread, as Microsoft’s moderator Yi-Lun Luo gives a handy technical outline of Azure and Live Services).

Still, let’s bear in mind that PDC is where Microsoft shares early technical information about the Windows platform, which is subject to change. Anyone who built applications for the preview Windows Longhorn code doled out at PDC 2003 (Paul Thurrott’s report is a reminder of what it felt like at the time) would have been in for some disappointment – Longhorn was both greatly delayed and much altered for its eventual release as Windows Vista.

It’s possible then that most developers are wisely waiting for the beta of Azure before doing serious experimentation. Alternatively – the bleakest outcome for Microsoft – they are ignoring Azure and presuming that if and when they do migrate applications to the cloud they will use some other platform.

Nevertheless, I’d suggest that Microsoft’s evangelism of Azure has been poor since PDC. There is more buzz about other things presented there – including Windows 7, which in contrast to Azure seems nearly done.


Matt Rogers from Microsoft comments below that the service is not going to change radically between now and general release. He claims that feedback is extensive, but not evident in the online forums because it comes from other sources – he told me on Twitter that “we are getting much of it directly through relationships with customers, local user group meetings and through our evangelists”.

Maarten Balliauw has converted an application to Azure and written up the experience on his blog. He is using Azure TableStorage for data and Live ID for authentication. He says:

Overall, Microsoft is doing a good job with Azure. The platform itself seems reliable and stable, the concept is good.

Unfortunately the app itself does not work at the time of writing.

Service triggers: an attempt to reduce bloat in Windows 7

I’ve been reading through the Windows 7 Developer Guide. I like this document; it is tilted more towards information than hype, and is readable even for non-developers. There are things mentioned which I had not spotted before.

One example is triggers in the service control manager. There was actually a PDC session which covered this, among other things, under the unexciting title Designing Efficient Background Processes (PowerPoint). If you check out the slides, you’ll see that this is actually something significant for Windows users. It is an attempt to reduce all that stuff that runs whether or not you need it, increasing boot time and slowing performance. Apparently some people are so upset with the time it takes Windows to boot that they are threatening to sue; so yes, this does matter.

Services are applications that run in the background, usually without any visible interface. They consume system resources, so it makes sense to run them only when needed. Unfortunately, many services run on a “just in case” basis. For example, if I check the services on this machine I see I have one running called Apple Mobile Device, just in case I might connect one. It is using 4MB of RAM. However, I never connect an Apple device to this machine. I’m sure it was installed by iTunes, which I rarely use, though I like to keep up-to-date with what Apple is doing. So every time I start Windows this thing also starts, running uselessly in the background.

According to Vikram Singh, who took the PDC session, adding 10 typical 3rd party services to a clean Vista install has a dramatic effect on performance:

  • Boot time: up by 87% (24.7 to 46.1 seconds)
  • CPU time when idle: up by six times (to 6.04%)
  • Disk Read Count: up by three times (from 10,192 to 31,401 in 15 seconds)

Service triggers are an attempt to address this, by making it possible to install services that start in response to specific events, instead of always running “just in case”. Four trigger types are mentioned:

  • On connection of a certain class of device
  • On connection to a Windows domain
  • On group policy refresh
  • On connection to a network (based on IP address change)

In theory then, Apple can rewrite iTunes for Windows 7, so that the Apple Mobile Device service only starts when an Apple device is connected. A good plan.

Now, I can think of three reasons why this might not happen. First, inertia. Second, compatibility. This means coding specifically for Windows 7, whereas it will be easier just to do it the old, compatible way. Third, I imagine this would mean faster boot, but slower response when connecting the device. Apple (or any third party) might think: the user will just blame Windows for slow boot, but a slow response when connecting the device will impact the perceived performance of our product. So the service will still run at start-up, just in case.

Still, I’m encouraged that Microsoft is at least thinking about the problem and providing a possible solution. We may also benefit if Microsoft tweaks some of its own Windows services to start on-demand.

WordPad in Windows 7 supports Open XML, OpenDocument

Interesting twist in the document format wars. Early builds of Windows 7 have extended document support in WordPad, the word-processing applet in Windows. WordPad will now read and write both Microsoft’s Open XML (docx) and OpenDocument (odt). The latter is the native format of the open source I was sceptical about this since the support is not in the Milestone 3 build given to journalists here; but the builds running on stands in the Pavilion area do have this support, so it is real. I’m guessing that it is based on the the OpenDocument support coming in Office 14. Of course, this is pre-beta, so subject to change.

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Windows 7 media: AAC yes, FLAC no

Microsoft’s Larry Osterman is here at PDC 2008 and I took the opportunity to ask a couple of questions about media in Windows 7. Windows Media Player is getting built-in support for AAC (as used in iTunes – but not when DRM-protected) and H.264 – but not ALAC (Apple lossless) or FLAC (open-source lossless). What about DRM in Windows 7, any change to the Protected Media Path? No, he told me; adding how frustrated he was by the common supposition that DRM somehow slows everything down in Vista. His line is that Microsoft supports DRM content, but does not in any way impose it.