What’s coming in Windows 8.1?

Microsoft is now talking in detail about Windows 8.1, essentially a service pack for the original release.

Windows Vista SP1 used the same core OS as Windows Server 2008 R2, so you might reasonably expect a similar relationship between Windows 8.1 and an updated Windows Server 2012.

So what’s new? My quick summary, with importance rating from 1-10:

You can make your lock screen a slide show (1)

You can set new animated backgrounds for the Start screen (1)

Start button always visible on the desktop. (6) since many struggle with this.

You can choose your desktop background as your Start screen background. This gets a (4) since it reduces the dissonance between desktop and Metro a fraction.

New super large tiles and new super small tiles in the Start screen. Rated (6) since it will help make the all-import initial view more comprehensive on large displays.


The Start screen view is now a “favourites” view. Apps do not add themselves by default (I am not sure if this applies to desktop as well as Store apps, but I hope it does). The All Apps view by contrast has everything. And you can set Apps view as the default if you want. All good changes. (5).

Easier grouping and rearranging of tiles. Rated (5) since this important feature is hard to find in Windows 8.0.

New combined web and local search in the Search bar:

In Windows 8.1, the Search charm will provide global search results powered by Bing in a rich, simple-to-read, aggregated view of many content sources (the web, apps, files, SkyDrive, actions you can take) to provide the best “answer” for your query.

I like the idea but I’m not optimistic about how useful it will be. Hedging bets with (5).

Improved built-in apps. Detail not given. Rated (6) as this is badly needed but the extent of the improvements are unknown.

Variable and continuous sizing of snapped views and support for multi-tasking Store apps across snapped views, multiple displays, and multiple windows of the same app. Fascinating. Handy improvements, but is Metro now re-inventing the desktop but with non-overlapping Windows as in some early windowing systems? What challenges are posed for developers who now have to deal with resizable apps almost as on the desktop? (7).

Improved Windows Store with related apps, automatic background update, on-screen search (no need for Charms). (5) but what we really need is better apps.

SkyDrive app supports offline files and “Save to SkyDrive”. (5) but the desktop one already supports this.

PC Settings more comprehensive so less need for old Control Panel. I’m sceptical though when Microsoft’s Antoine Leblond says:

The updated PC Settings in Windows 8.1 gives you access to all your settings on your device without having to go to the Control Panel on the desktop.

Internet Explorer 11, the “only browser built for touch.” (5) as features unknown.

Hmm, I have got to the bottom of the list and rated nothing higher than 7/10 Then again, I have not had hands-on experience yet. If Windows 8.1 fixes my annoying Samsung Slate unresponsive screen, that will be (9) of course.

The total update may be more satisfying than the sum of its parts. For my general take though on why this will not “fix” Windows 8 see here.

Tip: finding Start menu groups in the Windows 8 Start screen

The Windows 8 Start screen, which occupies the full screen and uses large tiles instead of a hierarchical menu, is a contentious feature which many dislike (though there are ways to get the old Start menu back, or something very like it).

Personally I like the new Start screen, though it does require learning new habits.Instead of clicking a button and navigating a hierarchy of menus, you tap the windows key and type a letter or two matching the app you want to start. You can use the same technique with the Windows 7 Start menu, though not many do.

A complaint I have heard though is that the Start screen loses the group structure of the Start menu. What if you want “that Visual Studio tool that inspects window handles and messages” but cannot remember what it is called? In Windows 7, you go to the Microsoft Visual Studio group, then Visual Studio Tools, and there it is:


How would you find it in Windows 8? Here’s how:

1. Press the Windows key to open the Start screen

2. Right-click and click All apps in the menu

3. Scroll right. Once you get past the alphabetical listings, the group listings appear.


Somewhat long-winded, but I doubt it is worse than clicking down through the hierarchy in the Start menu, and it is not something you need to do often. Next time, just type “Spy”!

Windows 8: return of Start button illuminates Microsoft’s painful transition

The Start button is coming back. At least, that’s the strong rumour, accompanied by leaked screenshots from preview builds. See Mary Jo Foley’s post complete with screen grab, though note that this is the Start button, not the Start menu. Other rumoured changes are boot to desktop by default, and the All Apps view by default in the Start screen.

Will this fix Windows 8? Absolutely not.

There are two reasons. First, in one sense Windows 8 does not need fixing. I’ve been running it from the first previews, and find it solid and fast. The new Start screen works well, and I’m now accustomed to tapping the Windows key and typing to start apps that are not already on the taskbar. It is a better app launcher and organiser than what it replaces, though I am not excited about Live Tiles which are out of sight and out of mind most of the time.

Second, this kind of minor UI change will not address the larger problem, which is the lack of compelling Metro-style apps for the platform. Nor will it fully placate those for whom nothing but making Metro completely invisible is acceptable.

These revisions are intended to make Windows 8 more acceptable to a market that essentially does not want it to change. The core market for Windows is increasingly conservative, being formed of business users with a big investment in the platform who do not want the hassle of retraining users, and home users who are used to Microsoft’s OS and not inclined to switch. While this is a large market, it is also a declining one, with tablets and smartphones taking over many former PC roles, and Macs increasingly the platform of choice for high-end users who need the productivity of a full OS.

Rather than content itself with a declining market, Microsoft came out with its bold re-imagining of Windows, with a new tablet-friendly app platform, while keeping faith with the past by preserving the desktop environment. Predictably, this was not a hit with the conservative market described above; in fact, it was the last thing they wanted, confusing and alienating.

Microsoft made it particularly hard for these users by making the new Metro environment hard to ignore. The Start screen, some settings, default apps for file types including images, PDFs and music, and power button hidden in the right-hand Charms menu all cause confusion.

Only the modern app platform has the potential to lift Windows beyond its large but suffocating and declining market of change-resistant users. Unfortunately the first months of Windows 8 has been more or less the worst case for Microsoft. Existing users dislike it and new users have failed to embrace it.

A rough ride for Windows 8 was expected, though if the script had run according to plan there should have been mitigating factors. A wave of Windows 8 tablets should have delivered a delightful experience with touch while still offering desktop productivity when needed. Well, it has happened a little bit, but Windows 8 tablets have suffered from multiple issues including high prices, lack of availability, fiddly designs, and in the case of Windows RT (the ARM version) poor performance and confusing marketing. Here’s a review of the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 11 RT machine, from Ebuyer, which shows what can go wrong:

THIS IS NOT A LAPTOP. It runs the dreadful Windows RT which is NOT windows 8, but a very poor limited version of 8. You can only download what Microsoft wants you to have. It came with a free Norton. The dealer convinced me that the failure to be able to download this was my deficiency. NOT – Norton cannot be downloaded onto RT machines. Neither can any other security software except defender which is already on it. You cannot install Chrome (much better than Explorer) It does not accept I tunes, You cannot dispense with the Microsoft log in password, which I do not need. Where the instructions for how to change the settings are, is still a mystery – as usual THERE IS NO INSTRUCTION MANUAL IN PAPER. You have to hunt for everything or go to an online forum.

A shame, because personally I like the concept of Windows RT with its low power consumption and nearly tinker-proof OS.

Is there hope for Windows 8? Sure. The core of the OS is excellent on the desktop side, less good on the Metro side but this can be improved. The app story remains poor, though occasionally a decent app comes along, like Adobe’s Photoshop Express: easy, fluid, elegant photo editing which works on both ARM and Intel.


It is fair to say, though, that Microsoft and its partners have plenty of work to do if they are to make this new Windows a success.

Build Mac and iOS apps in Visual Studio: Oxygene for Cocoa

Remobjects has released Oxygene for Cocoa, which lets you build apps for Mac and iOS using Visual Studio and the Oxygene language.

Oxygene is a Delphi-like language, making this an easy transition for Delphi developers. Until the most recent release, a version of Oxygene, called Prism, was bundled with Delphi, though this targeted .NET rather than Cocoa. Oxygene can also build apps for the Java runtime, making it a three platform solution.

The cross-platform approach is different from that taken by Embarcadero with FireMonkey, a cross-platform framework for Delphi itself. FireMonkey abstracts the GUI as well as the non-visual code, and in many cases controls are drawn by FireMonkey rather than using the native controls on platforms such as iOS. By contrast, Oxygene works directly with the Cocoa frameworks, so you will build the GUI in code or using the Xcode tools on the Mac.

More like Xamarin then? “We do work together with Mono and with Xamarin,” says Remobjects chief Marc Hoffman. “Oxygene for .NET works with the regular Mono framework for desktop or server apps. But when you get to the devices, the benefit with Oxygene is that you get much closer to the framework, you don’t have the weight of providing an abstraction for the classes you want to use.  If you write a UITableViewController to define a view, then you really write a UITableViewController, the same as you would in Objective-C, just the language is different, whereas in Xamarin you write a different class that sits on top and Mono does the mapping.”

Why not just use Xcode? This is in part a language choice. Remobjects says that Oxygene is “better than Objective-C” thanks to features like automatic boxing of integers, floats and strings, and generic arrays. There is more about the language here. Perhaps more important, if you know Pascal or Delphi it will look more familiar. You also get the ability to share code between Windows, Android, Mac and iOS, though this will be the non-visual code. Developers can also work mainly in Visual Studio rather than in Xcode.

The disadvantage is that you need two machines, or a VM running Windows on a Mac, and a remote connection to a Mac in order to debug.

I plan to try out Oxygene for Cocoa soon and of course will report on the experience.

Fixing an unresponsive screen on a Samsung Series 7 Slate with Windows 8

I currently travel with a Windows 8 slate, the slate being the retail Samsung Series 7 model (similar but not the same as the one given to Build attendees in 2011).

It is a decent machine with good performance, but has one considerable annoyance. From time to time, when waking the device from sleep or even turning on from cold, the screen stops responding to touch. The crude fix is to reset it by turning it off, then holding down the power button so it reboots. Open documents may be lost of course.

I do not have a cure for this behaviour, though I would love to know. However I have discovered the cause, which is that one or both Intel USB host controllers fails to start. You can see the problem in Device Manager:


How do you even get to this screen? Well, on my machine, if the top Intel host controller has a problem, then pen input fails but touch works. If the second Intel host controller fails, touch input fails but pen input works. If both fail (which also happens) you are sunk unless you can remote desktop in from another machine on the network.

Once you are in – via pen, touch, or remote desktop – right-click the offending controller and choose Disable. Then right-click again and choose Enable. This will fix the problem until next time.

A likely fix would be an updated driver for the host controller. The current driver dates from 2006.


However I cannot easily find anything more up to date.

Update: I have succeeded in updating the driver to one from February 2013 but it does not fix the problem. My conclusion is that the error in the USB Enhanced Host Controller is the symptom and not the cause of the issue. It is a resume or power-on problem; such as something happening too quickly or in the wrong order. Again, suggestions welcome!

Why custom templates might not appear in Word 2013

I have a custom Word template which I use for transcribing interviews (it lets me start and stop the audio with a key combination). I installed this into the location defined for user templates. This option is in File – Options – Advanced – File Locations.


However, when I chose File – New in Word, my custom template did not appear. The reason, I discovered, is that Word has an additional option which sets the save location of personal templates. This was blank in my installation.


You have to set this to be the same as the user template path in File locations. After you do that, personal templates show up when you do File – New. Note that you also have to click on the PERSONAL heading before you see them.


It works. Now for a little rant.

  • Why are there two locations? What is meant to be the difference between the location for user templates, and the location for personal templates?
  • Why does a Save location impact what happens when happens when you are starting a new document?
  • How did the personal template location get to be blank?
  • If one of these locations is blank, why is Word not smart enough to have a look in the other one?

I guess this may be a bug.

While I am on the subject, it appears that there is no automatic way to sync custom templates across different Office installations, even if you sign in with the same account. A shame.

Windows in Xbox One: a boost for Windows 8 apps?

What if the just-announced Xbox One runs Windows 8 apps? Could this be the boost that Microsoft’s store and app platform needs?


Microsoft has yet to describe the app story for the One in detail, but it would make sense. Here is what we know, as I understand it, though it is no doubt an over-simplification.

Xbox One is described as having three operating systems: a virtualisation host, a Windows OS for general purpose use (including web browsing, Skype, and I would guess the management app), and a dedicated games OS. The games OS runs in parallel, so you can do instant switching between a game and other activities like watching TV, or have a Windows 8-style snapped view where both are visible.

The Apps element on the One will, I presume, be part of the Windows OS. There is considerable commonality between the demands of a touch UI and that of a TV UI (where you are sitting well back from the screen). A touch UI demands large targets so you can hit them with fat fingers, while a TV UI requires large targets so you can see them from a distance. It could be that the tendency towards large, chunky controls in the “Metro” Windows 8 UI is partly driven by planned support for Xbox, even though this tendency is frustrating for desktop users sitting close-up to large screens.

It is unlikely that Microsoft will introduce a completely new app model for Xbox One. Rather, I would expect to see some compatibility between Windows Store apps and Xbox One apps, with differences to account for the different platforms. No accelerometer or touch control on the Xbox One, for example, though you have Kinect which enables a touch-like interaction though hand detection.

What about the OS partitioning? This may mean that the powerful One GPU will not be available to app developers, or that game apps follow an entirely distinct development model.

If developers can easily share code between Xbox One apps and Windows Store apps, with Windows Phone 9 added to the mix at some future date, will that be enough to get some momentum behind Microsoft’s app platform?

Keep your 360 – Xbox One not backward compatible

Microsoft says that the newly announced Xbox One is not backward compatible with the 360:

Xbox One hardware is not compatible with Xbox 360 games. We designed Xbox One to play an entirely new generation of games—games that are architected to take full advantage of state-of-the-art processors and the infinite power of the cloud. We care very much about the investment you have made in Xbox 360 and will continue to support it with a pipeline of new games and new apps well into the future.

This contrasts with the considerable compatibility effort made in the 360, which runs some (but not all) original Xbox games despite having an equally different architecture and a switch from Nvidia to ATI for the GPU. The way this works on the 360 is that when you put in a compatible original Xbox game, it downloads a patch to enable it to run. I am not sure of the details, but there is some kind of compatibility or emulation layer combined with game-specific code to fill any gaps.


This may not seem a big deal to Microsoft, but in a family context it matters. Space in the living room is at a premium in many households, and lack of compatibility means a difficult decision. Replace the old 360 and abandon all that investment in existing games? Have both side by side, adding complexity and clutter? Or pass on the new Xbox and rely on your iPad or Android tablet for fun new games, as the 360 fades from view?

What will happen to classic games as the consoles which run them crumble? Emulation is the answer, and enthusiasts have come up with solutions for many obsolete consoles. In other words, we will end up running those games on PCs. For example, check out Cxbx for an ongoing effort to run original Xbox games, though progress is slow.

Miguel de Icaza: don’t blame Google for Microsoft’s contempt for developers

Xamarin’s Miguel de Icaza (founder of the Mono project) has complained on Twitter about Microsoft’s Windows Division’s “contempt for developers” when it created the Windows Runtime and a “4th incompatible Xaml stack”, in a conversation prompted by the company’s spat with Google over the YouTube app for Windows Phone. Google wants this removed because it does not show YouTube ads, to which Microsoft counters that the API for showing these ads is not available.


I am more interested in his general reflections on the wisdom (or lack of it) shown by Microsoft in creating a new platform for touch-friendly apps in Windows 8, that lacks compatibility with previous Windows frameworks. “No developer wants to build apps twice for Windows: one for desktop, one for winstore” he also remarked.

The four XAML stacks are Windows Presentation Foundation, Silverlight (for which de Icaza created a version for Linux called Moonlight), Windows Phone (which runs a slightly different version of Silverlight), and now the Windows Runtime.

Could Microsoft have done this differently, without compromising the goal of creating a new tablet personality for Windows rather than continue with doomed attempts to make the desktop touch-friendly?

The obvious answer is that it could have used more of Silverlight, which had already been adapted to a touch environment for Windows Phone. On the other hand, the Windows division was keen to support native code and HTML/JavaScript as equally capable options for Windows Runtime development. In practice, I have heard developers remark that HTML/JavaScript is better than C#/XAML for the new platform.

It is worth noting that the Windows Runtime stack is by no means entirely incompatible with what has gone before. It still uses the Windows API, although parts are not available for security reasons, and for non-visual code much of the .NET Framework works as before.