Tag Archives: microsoft

Office 365 vs Office 2019 vs LibreOffice: some thoughts

What has rescued Microsoft in the cloud era? It seems to me that Office 365, rather than Azure, is its most strategic product. Users do not like too much change; and back when Office 365 was introduced in 2011 it offered an easy way for businesses small and large to retire their Exchange servers while retaining Outlook with all its functionality (Outlook works with other mail servers but with limited features). You also got SharePoint online, cloud storage, and in-browser versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint.

There was always another aspect to Office 365 though, which is that it allowed you to buy the Office desktop applications as a subscription. Unless you are the kind of person (or business) that happily runs old software, the subscription is better value than a permanent license, especially for small businesses. Currently Office 365 Business Premium gets you Outlook, Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote and Access, as well as hosted Exchange and SharePoint etc, for £9.40 per month. Office Home and Business (which does not include Access) is £250, or about the same as two years subscription, and can only be installed on one PC or Mac, versus 5 PCs or Macs, 5 tablets and 5 mobile devices for the subscription product.

The subscription product is called Office 365, and the latest version of the desktop suite is called Office 2019. Microsoft would much rather you bought the subscription, not only because it delivers recurring revenue, but also because Office 365 is a great upselling opportunity. Once you are on Office 365 and Azure Active Directory, products like Dynamics 365 are a natural fit.

Microsoft’s enthusiasm for the subscription product has resulted in a recent “Twins Challenge” campaign which features videos of identical twins trying the same task in both Office 365 and Office 2019. They are silly videos and do a poor job of selling the Office 365 features. For example, in one video the task is to “fill out a spreadsheet with data about all 50 states” (US centric or what?).

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In the video, the Office 365 guy is done in seconds thanks to Excel Data Types, a new feature which uses online data from the Bing search engine to provide intelligent features like entering population, capital city and so on. It seems though that the twins were pre-provided with a spreadsheet that had a list of the 50 states, as Excel cannot enter these automatically. And when I tried my own exercise with a few capital cities I found it frustrating because not much data was available, and the data is inconsistent so that one city has fields not available for another city. So my results were not that great.

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I’m also troubled to see data like population chucked into a spreadsheet with no information on its source or scope. Is that Greater London (technically a county) or something less than that? What year? Whose survey? These things matter.

Perhaps even more to the point, this is not what most users do with Office. It varies of course; but a lot of people type documents and do simple spreadsheets that do not stress the product. They care about things like will it print correctly, and if I email it, will the recipient be able to read it OK. Office to be fair is good in both respects, but Microsoft often struggles to bring new features to Office that matter to a large proportion of users (though every feature matters to someone).

It is interesting to browse through the new features in Office 2019, listed here. LaTeX equation support, nice. And a third time zone in Outlook, handy if you discover it in the convoluted Outlook UI (and yes, discoverability is a problem):

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It is worth noting though that for document editing the free LibreOffice is excellent and good enough for a lot of purposes. You do not get Outlook though, and Calc is no Excel. If you mostly do word processing though, do look at LibreOffice, it is better in some respects than Word (style support, for example).

I use Office constantly and like all users, I do have a list of things I would like fixed or improved, that for the most part seem to be completely different from what the Office team focuses on. There are even longstanding bugs – see the recent comment. Ever had an email in Outlook, clicked Reply, and found that the the formatting and background of the original message affects your reply text as well and the only way to fix it is to remove all formatting? Or been frustrated that Outlook makes it so hard to make interline comments in a reply with sensible formatting? Or been driven crazy by Word paragraph numbering and indentation when you want to have more than one paragraph within the same numbered point? Little things; but they could be better.

Then again there is Autosave (note quite different from autorecover), which is both recent and a fantastic feature. Unfortunately it only works with OneDrive. The value of this feature was brought home to me by an anecdote: a teenager who lost all the work in their Word document because they had not previously encountered a Save button (Google docs save automatically). This becomes what you expect.

So yes, Office does improve, and for what you get it is great value. Will Office 2019 users miss lots of core features? No. In most cases though, the Office 365 subscription is much better value.

Microsoft quarterly financials: strong figures, note LinkedIn and Dynamics numbers

Microsoft has released its financial statements for the quarter ending December 31 2018. Sometimes it seems that all the talk is of Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon, but Microsoft continues to deliver strong results.

That said, it is an increasingly corporate story. The company still has a presence in gaming, both on Xbox and PC, and reports Xbox software and services growth of 31%. Consumers still buy Windows and Office; there are now 33.3 million Office 365 consumer customers.

There is no longer a PC in every home though. There might be an old one; but PCs now  tend to be bought for specific purposes such as gaming or home working. There are plenty of other options for casual home computing. Windows OEM revenue is down 5%.

It is a different story in the business world. Office 365 is still motoring, with revenue growth of 34% year on year. A spin-off benefit is that Dynamics 365, once a poor cousin to Salesforce for cloud CRM, now reports revenue growth of 51% year on year, despite the product’s eccentricities and high price. The key is integration and upsell: get users hooked on Office 365 for email and documents, and compelling add-ons become an easy sell.

Rather to my surprise, Microsoft’s LinkedIn acquisition seems to be working. Revenue is up 29%, session numbers are up 30%. My anecdotal experience bears this out. People are actually acquiring and doing business via LinkedIn, even though it suffers from masses of bad data and the usual perils of social media (fake accounts, scammers, harassers and so on). For now, users seem to be able to manage these problems and interact with the right people.

Azure revenue is up 76%.

All well in Redmond then? The risk is that the company’s narrowing focus will leave it vulnerable to competitors who take advantage of their control of the end points (clients): smartphones, tablets, smart devices running Linux. Even now the web browser, with the Edge team now integrating Google’s browser engine, Chromium, rather than building their own.

For now though, Microsoft powers on.

Here is the breakdown by segment, such as it is:   

Quarter ending December 31st 2018 vs quarter ending December 31st 2017, $millions

Segment Revenue Change Operating income Change
Productivity and Business Processes 10100 +1147 4015 +678
Intelligent Cloud 9378 +1583 3279 +447
More Personal Computing 12993 +823 2964 +454

The segments break down as:

Productivity and Business Processes: Office, Office 365, Dynamics 365 and on-premises Dynamics, LinkedIn

Intelligent Cloud: Server products, Azure cloud services

More Personal Computing: Consumer including Windows, Xbox; Bing search; Surface hardware

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.

Unlimited free private repositories come to GitHub

When I was looking for an online code repository some years back, I picked Visual Studio Online (now called Azure DevOps) over GitHub. The main reason was the ability to host private repositories with a free account. The projects I work on typically only have one or two developers.

Microsoft acquired GitHub last year and has now announced free private repositories on GitHub – provided you have no more than three collaborators. You can see all the plans here.

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There is still a bias towards open source, in that open source developers can use the Team plan for free. This is essential for GitHub to fulfil its role as the home of many widely used open source projects.

The addition of free private repositories is significant though. There are plenty of developers like myself who will now look again at hosting code on GitHub.

What is Microsoft’s strategy? There seem to me two important reasons why Microsoft acquired GitHub. One was as a defensive measure. Microsoft now has a ton of open source projects that are critical to its platform, things like .NET Core and now most of the .NET frameworks as well. It would have been uncomfortable if a rival like Google had acquired GitHub.

The second is to promote Azure. GitHub’s infrastructure will no doubt move to Azure, and all going well the service will promote Azure both as an example of a successful at-scale service, and by little ads and signposts that Microsoft can include. The developer audience is influential when it comes to platform choices.

Microsoft therefore does not need GitHub to be profitable, which is just as well having now removed one of the main incentives to get a paid account.

I will be interested to see how the company moves to further integrate GitHub and Azure DevOps. There is currently quite a lot of overlap and it would make sense to streamline the offerings to share the same back-end technology, or even to fold Azure DevOps services into GitHub.

There is no hurry. Microsoft’s priority will be to keep existing GitHub developers happy and to convince them that the acquisition will do no harm.

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.

The end of the Edge browser engine. Another pivotal moment in Microsoft’s history

Microsoft’s Joe Belfiore has announced that future versions of its Edge web browser will be built on Chromium. Chromium is an open source browser project originated by Google, which uses it for Chrome. The browser engine is Blink, which was forked from WebKit in April 2013.

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Belfiore does not specify what will happen to Chakra, the JavaScript engine used by Edge, but it seems likely that future versions of Edge will use the Chrome V8 engine instead.

There is plenty of logic behind the move. The immediate benefit to Microsoft in having its own browser engine is rather small. Chromium-based Edge will still have Microsoft’s branding and can still have unique features. It opens an easy route to cross-platform Edge, not only for Android, but also for MacOS and potentially Linux. It will improve web compatibility because all web developers know their stuff has to run properly in Chrome.

This is still a remarkable moment. The technology behind Edge goes right back to Trident, the Internet Explorer engine introduced in 1997. In the Nineties, winning the browser wars was seen as crucial to the future of the company, as Microsoft feared that users working mostly in the browser would no longer be hooked to Windows.

Today those fears have somewhat come to pass; and Windows does indeed face a threat, especially from Chrome OS for laptops, and of course from iOS and Android on mobile, though it turns out that internet-connected apps are just as important. Since Microsoft is not doing too well with its app store either, there are challenges ahead for Microsoft’s desktop operating system.

The difference is that today Microsoft cares more about its cloud platform. Replacing a Windows-only building block with a cross-platform one is therefore strategically more valuable than the opportunity to make Edge a key attraction of Windows, which was in any case unsuccessful.

The downside though (and it is a big one) is that the disappearance of the Edge engine means there is only Mozilla’s Gecko (used by Firefox), and WebKit, used by Apple’s Safari browser, remaining as mainstream alternatives to Chromium. Browser monoculture is drawing closer then, though the use of open source lessens the risk that any one company (it would be Google in this instance) will be able to take advantage.

Internet Explorer was an unhealthy monoculture during its years of domination, oddly not because of all its hooks to Windows, but because Microsoft stagnated its development in order to promote its Windows-based application platform (at least, that is my interpretation of what happened).

Let me add that this is a sad moment for the Edge team. I like Edge and there was lots of good work done to make it an excellent web browser.

State of Microsoft .NET: transition to .Net Core or be left behind

The transition of Microsoft’s .NET platform from Windows-only to cross-platform (and open source) is the right thing. Along with Xamarin (.NET for mobile platforms), it means that developers with skills in C#, F# and Visual Basic can target new platforms, and that existing applications can with sufficient effort be migrated to Linux on the server or to mobile clients.

That does not mean it is easy. Microsoft forked .NET to create .NET Core (it is only four years since I wrote up one of the early announcements on The Register) and the problem with forks is that you get divergence, making it harder to jump from one fork to the other.

At first this was disguised. The idea was that .NET Framework (the old Windows-only .NET) would be evolved alongside .NET Core and new language features would apply to both, at least initially. In addition, ASP.NET Core (the web framework) runs on either .NET Framework or .NET Core.

This is now changing. Microsoft has shifted its position so that .NET Framework is in near-maintenance mode and that new features come only to .NET Core. Last month, Microsoft’s Damian Edwards stated that ASP.NET Core will only run on .NET Core starting from 3.0, the next major version.

This week Mads Torgersen, C# Program Manager, summarised new features in the forthcoming C# 8.0. Many of these features will only work on .NET Core:

Async streams, indexers and ranges all rely on new framework types that will be part of .NET Standard 2.1. As Immo describes in his post Announcing .NET Standard 2.1, .NET Core 3.0 as well as Xamarin, Unity and Mono will all implement .NET Standard 2.1, but .NET Framework 4.8 will not. This means that the types required to use these features won’t be available when you target C# 8.0 to .NET Framework 4.8.

Default interface member implementations rely on new runtime enhancements, and we will not make those in the .NET Runtime 4.8 either. So this feature simply will not work on .NET Framework 4.8 and on older versions of .NET.

The obvious answer is to switch to .NET Core. Microsoft is making this more feasible by supporting WPF and Windows Forms with .NET Core, on Windows only. Entity Framework 6 will also be supported.  It is also likely that this will work on Windows 7 as well as Windows 10.

This move will not be welcome to all developers. The servicing for .NET Framework is automatic, via Windows Update or on-premises equivalents, but for .NET Core requires developer attention. Inevitably some things will not work quite the same on .NET Core and for long-term stability it may be preferable to stay with .NET Framework. The more rapid release cycle of .NET Core is not necessarily a good thing if you prioritise reliability over new features.

The problem though: from now on, .NET Framework will not evolve much. There are a few new things in .NET Framework 4.8, like high DPI support, Edge-based browser control, and better touch support. There are really minimal essential updates. In time, maintaining applications on .NET Framework will look like a mistake as application capabilities and performance fall behind. That means, if you are a .NET developer, .NET Core is in your future.

Microsoft is making lots of money. Anything else notable in its first quarter financials?

Microsoft has released its statements for the first quarter in its financial year, ending 30th September. Here is the segment breakdown. Everything has moved in the right direction.

Quarter ending September 30th 2018 vs quarter ending September 30th 2017, $millions

Segment Revenue Change Operating income Change
Productivity and Business Processes 9771 +1533 3881 +875
Intelligent Cloud 8567 +1645 2931 +794
More Personal Computing 10746 +1368 3143 +578

The segments break down as:

Productivity and Business Processes: Office, Office 365, Dynamics 365 and on-premises Dynamics, LinkedIn

Intelligent Cloud: Server products, Azure cloud services

More Personal Computing: Consumer including Windows, Xbox; Bing search; Surface hardware

Any points of interest? In his earnings call statement, CEO Satya Nadella talked Teams, the Office 365 conferencing and collaboration solution:

“Teams is now the hub for teamwork for 329,000 organizations, including 87 of the Fortune 100. And, we are adding automated translation
support for meetings, shift scheduling for firstline workers, and new industry-specific offerings including healthcare and small business.”

He also mentioned Power Apps and Flow, interesting to me because they are the most successful so far of the company’s efforts to come up with a low-code development platform:

“Power BI, Power Apps and Flow are driving momentum with customers and have made us a leader in no-code app building and business analytics in the cloud.”

He also mentioned the pending GitHub acquisition, which he says is “an opportunity to bring our tools and services to new audiences while enabling GitHub to grow and retain its developer-first ethos.”

Note that despite the cloud growth, Windows remains the biggest single segment in terms of revenue.

Determining how much of Microsoft’s business is “cloud” is tricky. The figures in the productivity segment lump together Office 365 and on-premises products, while Office 365 itself is in part a subscription to desktop Office, so not pure cloud. Equally, the “intelligent cloud” segment includes on-premises server licenses. No doubt this fuzzing of what is and is not cloud in the figures is deliberate.

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.

Linux applications and .NET Core on a Chromebook makes this an increasingly interesting device

I have been writing about Google Chromebooks of late and as part of my research went out and bought one, an HP Chromebook 14 that cost me less than £200. It runs an Intel Celeron N3350 processor and has a generous (at this price) 32GB storage; many of the cheaper models have only 16GB.

This is a low-end notebook for sure, but still boots quickly and works fine for general web browsing and productivity applications. Chrome OS (the proprietary version of the open source Chromium OS) is no longer an OS that essentially just runs Google’s Chrome browser, though that is still the main intent. It has for some time been able to run Android applications; these run in a container which itself runs Android. Android apps run fairly well though I have experienced some anomalies.

Recently Google has added support for Linux applications, though this is still in beta. The main motivation for this seems to be to run Android Studio, so that Googlers and others with smart Pixelbooks (high-end Chromebooks that cost between £999 and £1,699) can do a bit more with their expensive hardware.

I had not realised that even a lowly HP Chromebook 14 is now supported by the beta, but when I saw the option in settings I jumped at it.

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It took a little while to download but then I was able to open a Linux terminal. Like Android, Linux runs in a container. It is also worth noting that Chrome OS itself is based on Linux so in one sense Chromebooks have always run Linux; however they have been locked down so that you could not, until now, install applications other than web apps or Android.

Linux is therefore sandboxed. It is configured so that you do not have access to the general file system. However the Chromebook Files application has access to your user files in both Chrome OS and Linux.

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I found little documentation for running Linux applications so here are a few notes on my initial stumblings.

First, note that the Chromebook trackpad has no right-click. To right-click you do Alt-Click. Useful, because this is how you paste from the clipboard into the Linux terminal.

Similarly, there is no Delete key. To Delete you do Alt-Backspace.

I attribute these annoyances to the fact that Chrome OS was mostly developed by Mac users.

Second, no Linux desktop is installed. I did in fact install the lightweight LXDE with partial success but it does not work properly.

The idea is that you install GUI applications which run in their own window. It is integrated so that once installed, Linux applications appear in the Chromebook application menu.

I installed Firefox ESR (Extended Support Release).  Then I installed an application which promises to be particularly useful for me, Visual Studio Code. Next I installed the .NET Core SDK, following the instructions for Debian.

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Everything worked, and after installing the C# extension for VS Code I am able to debug and run .NET Core applications.

I understand that you will not be so lucky with VS Code if you have an ARM Chromebook. Intel x86 is the winner for compatibility.

What is significant to me is not only that you can now run desktop applications on a Chromebook, but also that you can work on a Chromebook without needing to be deeply hooked into the Google ecosystem. You still need a Google account of course, for log in and the Play Store.

You will also note from the screenshot above that Chrome OS is no longer just about a full-screen web browser. Multiple overlapping windows, just like Windows and Mac.

These changes might persuade me to spend a little more on a Chromebook next time around. Certainly the long battery life is attractive. Following a tip, I disabled Bluetooth, and my Chromebook battery app is reporting 48% remaining, 9 hrs 23 minutes. A little optimistic I suspect, but still fantastic.

Postscript: I was always a fan of the disliked Windows RT, which combined a locked-down operating system with the ability to run Windows applications. Maybe container technology is the answer to the conundrum of how to provide a fully capable operating system that is also protected from malware. Having said which, there is no doubt that these changes make Chromebooks more vulnerable to malware; even if it only runs in the Linux environment, it could be damaging and steal data. The OS itself though will be protected.