Windows 8 and Microsoft Accounts

Windows 8 and 8.1 consumer versions need and use and Microsoft Accounts. A lot of the incremental value of the modern UX and even some of the operating system fundamentals (ex: device encryption by default) is wrapped up in having an account. If you choose to go a different way, as did this Washington Post reporter, please understand that you have gone a different way and your opinion of the tiles, modern UX and the like is going to be relative to a custom mode you’ve arbitrarily set up. Like shutting off the file indexer for “performance”; the OS will limp along best it can, but it’s not our intended experience. There are plenty of places in the OS to criticize (including making you use a Microsoft account) about what we did intend without making us own an experience you created by following 3rd party instructions on the web.

Also, I’ll note that cloud integration is a big part of where computing is going. If you are running a mainstream computing experience, there will be a cloud ID attached to soon it if there isn’t already. There may someday be a mass market for a consumer experience without such, but I haven’t seen it.

Silverlight, Netflix and Tech Support

In response to some news from Netflix regarding the need for less specialized tech support after going to silverlight, the correct answer is “Duh”. Doing your own custom ActiveX control means a lot of exposure to install and platform issues goes away or becomes someone else’s tech support problem.

DRM Thoughts

Saw yet another comment on a blog about Vista and DRM, and thought I could contribute a few distinctions:

DRM Supporting Features
This refers to a set of technologies that help enable practical DRM, but aren’t DRM themselves. This includes stuff like APIs that tell applications that if the output path for audio or video enables perfect digital quality capture without protection. It also includes technologies like “Protected Processes”. Most DRM Enforcing features have hacky ways to do this stuff which can lower system reliability or performance, so adding it as a OS feature improves system reliability and performance in the presence of such applications. These features also tend to overlap with other aspects of security, such a trusted OS private data store or generic encryption decryption libraries. This is the “DRM” support that Vista included in Windows.

DRM Enforcing Features
This refers to applications and shared libraries that allow DRM’d media to play. Typically this handles media decryption and uses various DRM Related Features to help enforce the DRM policy. ITunes, Quicktime, Windows Media Player, Zune and IRM are examples of this type of category. In this category DRM is a capability not a requirement.

DRM Limited Features
This refers to a product or feature that requires DRM and only DRM. The IPhone Apps, most of the iTMS, and the Zune Pass are all examples of this. The hallmark of this notion is that some key device usage is conditional on DRM enforcement.

I’m okay with DRM Supporting and DRM Enforcing, and have a personal policy with regards to DRM Limited Features. Basically it’s a personal acknowledgement that you can’t own DRM’d stuff.; you can only rent it. If you understand this, then you can enjoy features like netflix streaming, the Zune Pass or other time fee based services. The furthest I’ve crossed this line is “buying” Xbox360’s arcade games. Anyhow, when people bitch about Vista and DRM, I’d love to hear reasons why DRM Supporting Features are a bad thing, and specifically how Vista’s actual implementation of them have been problematic.

More on the IE8/Standards fun

I really enjoy Joel’s writing. He does a nice job explaining the state of affairs: Martian Headsets – Joel on Software

Not understanding the Constraints

Reading the original IE Blog Article and the /. Discussion on the X-UA-Compatible markings, I have reached a couple of conclusions.

  • There is a camp of people who think that standards are an end to themselves free from nitty gritty details like solving real world problems.
  • Some people understand the issues but are happy to give the finger to billions of lines of working HTML pages and HTML generating code because it didn’t have the honor of being standards compliant years ago when it was written. (I think these people are secretly interested in donating their time to a  Y2K style effort of fixing all these old sites)
  • Many commenters don’t understand the constraints of this particular problem

For the sake of the last camp, I will attempt to make the issues clear up the problem constraints (and fail).

  1. It is unacceptable to break existing pages. If a person’s favorite site doesn’t work, they will avoid the upgrade or downgrade back to the old browser.  Assuming that all browser upgrades brings us closer to interoperable web standards, non adoption of the latest browser version is a very bad thing.
  2. Most existing content is immutable. There is too much of it and too much work to fix all the HTML and HTML generators which originally produced it.
  3. Web Standards and Implementations are not instantaneously mature, which means that all implementations will ship with bugs. While this is painfully obvious in IE, it is also demonstrated elsewhere: Firefox 2 doesn’t pass ACID 2, Firefox 3 will. What happens to pages depending on the bugs in Firefox 2 fixed in Firefox 3?
  4. There is an awful mess of pages out there that will forever be in Quirks mode and IE6/7 "standards" mode. Any solution that doesn’t deal this issue is broken.
  5. It can’t be a one time fix (debatable?). Something like a one time doctype change is not sustainable and leads to the same problem over and over again (since there will always be the latest new standard). Any solution should be good to handle this type of problem again and again for every browser vendor.

So now that you understand the constraints and you still have issues, make the world a better place and figure out a better solution then Microsoft did.

They are just more critical these days

Since the launch of Vista, I’ve simply been amazed and the frequency and severity of criticism Vista has received. I humbly accept the places where the complaints make sense to me (Performance/Compatibility; and in many cases I grok the reason compatibility was broken), but much of it, like the DRM hype is just astonishing to watch. Worse, there are many features and improvements that I’ve yet to see Vista get credit for. Anyhow, I’ve been collecting theories of what happened:

  • Security trumped compatibility in this release. (Most of the things that Windows could do without breaking stuff was done in XPSP2)
  • We didn’t focus on compatibility like we did in Windows 95
  • We shipped new Networking, Audio and Video stacks in Vista, and that will cause application compatibility issues and it’s going to take a while for drivers to catch back up to the level of optimization we had before.
  • Too many little features, not enough big ones.
    • Broken planning, dependency tracking, etc.
    • Ship everything at once mentality, instead of incremental improvements
  • There wasn’t enough architectural oversight of the product
  • Too many shifting and impossible to follow through “Basics” (Don’t worry if you don’t get this one)
  • Vista wasn’t selfhost-able until way too late in the product cycle
  • Since the product shipped late, expectations were set to negative by default
  • XP brought the reliability people were screaming for, XPSP2 brought the security people were screaming for. Vista just meet a fundamental need the way XP did.
  • The big stuff people were promised didn’t show up (WinFS and ???)
  • This is really the same thing XP went through
  • ABMs (Anything But Microsoft) people are more are listened to more and more effective with FUD then in the past.
  • They are just more critical these days

I must admit, I didn’t get the last one when I was told it, but I’ve been warming up to it. Enough people are computer savvy now that they no longer blame themselves when things break, they blame the hardware and software people. Well actually, most people just plain blame Microsoft, but give it a couple another decade and people will get better at blaming individual hardware/software manufacturers. While none of the the list is self sufficient as a reason, the recent criticism around Apple’s Leopard release is giving more and more credit to the theory.

Vista

So I’ve started to see some press getting way down on Vista about things I haven’t experienced and decided to go and see if I could figure out what was going on. First off, let me summarize my house’s trip to vista.

  • Machines
    • 3 older machines
    • 1 brand new nice 64 bit box
  • Issues
    • Memory
      • Most of my machines needed a memory upgrade to be happy on vista.  Where I Couldafford it machines went to 2Gb.
    • RAW photo support for my camera on 64 bit windows
      • Canon was in no rush to release it and I still don’t have RAW support on 64bit (which is where I do photo stuff)
    • Media Center on 64 bit
      • It was either the 64bitness or trying to also use the machine as a desktop while it was a media center, but this led to a lot of crashes of media center.
    • Loud machines
      • Since vista supports sleep better then previous versions, I started used it for my desktops. I then started to notice the noise difference between on and off.

 

And while I’m at it, the BS issues that people complain about, but I don’t get the issue.

  • DRM
    • Everyone gripes about it and it’s the default reason people give for anything that is broken, but it probably has nothing to do with anything since I’m not aware of anyone using it’s new features yet. It’s a passive, when the application asks for it, feature not an active (lets look for violations) system.
  • UAC
    • When you get a okay/cancel UAC prompt, you are running as an administrator and if you weren’t you would have been asked for administrator account and password. Even when you run as administrator with UAC, you are not administrator. The prompt authorizes a process to run as true administrator. There is a reasonable amount of security value here. The main question is “Should this require administrator rights to run?” whenever you see a prompt. Frankly I don’t get prompted often, and when I do, I find it’s appropriate. The notable exception is when I want to see details of what driver is loaded for my network card or video card. The UI for viewing and setting the settings weren’t separated and so you get a prompt even when you don’t want to change anything.
    • If you think UAC is annoying, the question is, what did it prompt you for that it shouldn’t have?
    • It’s very amusing when people comment about UAC and get recommend another OS that does the same thing, except requires you type in a password.

Okay, so now that I have that out of the way… I’ll next write on where and what I’ve learned

Google decides to be evil

According to a number of articles like this one, Google is the source of an antitrust complaint against Windows Vista because of a change of the default implementation of Desktop file search. In Windows XP, when you searched for files it would do a actual, go scan your harddrive search, and at the end of the search you got an option to turn on indexing to make your search faster. This would search anvista indexingd make notes about your harddrive in advance so that the requested search became much faster. I’m guessing that it was off by default in XP because it wasn’t really optimized for a desktop both in performance, the type of data it indexed about the files and it wasn’t something people did a whole lot so it wasn’t worth the weight on the system. Enter Vista and the world has changed, indexing is the standard approach to search on the desktop as demonstrated by the improved indexers shipped in MacOSX, Google desktop and MSN one. So the good old xp indexer gets a lot of attention, a nice upgrade, some very nice usability improvements and, Oh yeah, the indexer is now on by the default instead of just for power users. Well, that last step is one step too far according to Google.

According to the article they are worried about interactions between their indexer and the vista one. While a lot of people, on digg at least, are calling BS. It is especially weird to me since a number of applications that I’m running these days are busy indexing the harddrive. The photo gallery software and all three music applications are going at it. They manage to coexist in vista, what’s wrong with Google’s indexer? This sounds like a technical limitation in their product they wish to use to harm vista’s indexer.

They have plenty of business reasons for such a desire, they used XP’s deficiencies in this area as a big reason to get people use the Google toolbar (which includes their desktop indexer). This is important to them because it has all sorts of tie backs to Google services where they make money. It was a good gig, the MSN team developed and did the same thing. The Vista indexer doesn’t have any such ties, but now people have lost a huge reason to install the Google toolbar (and the MSN toolbar for that matter). So they have a business problem, and from their complaint a minor technical problem. Business model problems don’t make good complaints to the DOJ, but maybe they could make hay with their technical issue. Unfortunately most techies would predictably call BS if they heard the complaint (I guess that’s why it was a confidential complaint) which leads back to the premise, It appears that Google has unabashedly decided to be evil.

On the other hand, indexers are programs that are not just running all the time, but constantly trying to do work. Smart applications attempt to do more and more stuff when the user wouldn’t notice, such as checking for and downloading updates or pre-creating image thumbnails so they don’t have to be generated at run time. On a logical level there is some theoretical maximum to how much time a computer has for such background tasks. Google seems to be implying that there is not enough room for anyone but them. Even in this worse case, this is something that a years worth of Moore’s law will fix faster then any legal remedy. Oh and I should point out it has been years since the first of this generation of indexers were downloaded and used on computers.

It’s going to be interesting to see the arguments on the other side of this one.

Disclosure: I work in windows networking, I don’t have anything to do with the indexer technologies except complain about how slow the early versions of it in pre-reset longhorn were.

Get together my thoughts on OOXML/ODF

An attempt to respond to the latest thing I’ve read and stake out my feelings on ODF/OOXML.

From what I understand of the market, you have a number of (free) add-on ODF plugins for Microsoft Office. This means that the simple requirement being able to read and write the format will be satisfied to the level of quality of the plugins and the ability of the interoperable aspects of the ODF standard to handle office semantics. I feel that the blogoshpere has made it clear that the only way ODF will be able to handle the body of existing office documents (Bugs and features) at full fidelity is for there to be a large number of extensions that would render ODF something not ODF anymore, especially from the standpoint of other ODF implementations. It might be in the vaguely “right” looking container, but it would not be interoperable. Any movement in this space would (rightly?) be branded Embrace, Extend, Extinguish.

I believe it is clear that users want something like OpenXML. We’ve seen that previous movements in this direction by office in the 2003 products are never used because of the loss of fidelity. I’m just not going to migrate my spreadsheets to ODF format if my formulas are going to break, and that is the type of user complaints that you will start to get when you tell your customers you must move over. If you don’t get how complex this type of thing gets, you should start reading Raymond Chen’s blog. It is quite obvious how hostile the ODF crowd appears to be to backwards comparability with the amount of hoopla generated around supporting the 1900 excel/lotus 123 date issues in OOXML.

Could all the the technical issues been worked out in ODF? Maybe. I think the hostile environment, the time required to work on modifications to ODF in an open way and the timeline for the politics and government mandates pretty much precluded that option for the short term. On the brightside, ODF folks can take the out there and free OOXML spec and decide how they want to absorb it for future versions of ODF. Thus somday the promised nirvana of ODF being the native interoperable format of all office suites that it’s supporters want might be realized. In the here and now, there is a pretty cool creative energy that both formats competing right now has created. In an attempt to score points in some insane “Who is Right” contest both sides are pointing out the flaws in the other, and the pragmatists will pick up the real stuff and just make thier stuff better. This is a good thing no matter how ugly the process is to get there.

In the background of this debate, It appears that their are two camps in the world when it comes to this stuff, purists who believe that future technology should be clean slates not marred with the real world and those who muck around in the complex world of user demand and prior work. I have to admit out of college I was very much in favor of the purist view of the world. This little debate is making me realize that I’ve now firmly landed in the other camp. The purist typically ends in the worst hacks and/or low adoption. There are a lot of people out there who use software and just don’t care about the religious battles. It doesn’t matter what your standard is or how you architected the code is, if it doesn’t solve the user’s needs.  Put simply, users are more important then you or I and placing requirements down that are tangential to their needs is just a speedbump for them to roll over. The coders who love and support these users are going to have to help carry forward whatever hack someone came up with to get around the artificial speedbump. The sooner one grok’s this concept the better the world might be.

If ODF solves a user’s needs, they will use it, if OOXML solves it better it will be used regardless of which of them have ISO certification. There is already ECMA certification and good IP promises for OOXML. (The inability to use without IP considerations a file embded in either format is a red herring). It appears that Microsoft is supportive of having OOXML ISO certified, which sounds great to me. If there are considerations unrelated to ODF then they should be fixed, but the notion of which sausage factory produced the 1.0 spec or that you can’t have both formats be standards seems silly to me. Both are too new on the scene to have proven that they are going to be the end all. If anything, office via market share and caring about backwards compatability has a huge leg up.

Disclaimer: I work for Microsoft but nothing to do with office.

Vista FUD

It’s easier then ever to get a continuous stream of Windows Vista FUD. In the past you had slashdot, but had to ignore the pesky rated 5 comments which often would point out the obvious stuff. Now however we have the BadVista blog, which is FSF new foray into the world of pure unadulterated BS. Some of which the press runs away with because there aren’t enough people actually using the software to call BS loud enough. Let’s look at some of today’s news stream:

  1. Microsoft Vista is not an option
    This link is about the “Licensing and Activation” hurt hobbiests meme. We have a writer who switches out the hardware inside his case once a week and is using XP. To my spider senses, Something doesn’t add up here. XP already has activation. Even If they tightened up the requirements (which in practice remains to be seem) he should already be tripping over activation left and right. In some ways activation has gotten less onerous, especially in cases where you buy a computer from a OEM like Dell or HP. Personally, I have built all the machines in my house, and swap around components regularly (although I guess I’m too busy and poor to swap things weekly on a single machine). I’ve been bit by re-activation and had to call the activation help for my home machines twice since 2001. I told them that I was moving around components and things worked within 5 minutes both times, this is hardly social engineering. I don’t expect Vista to be any different, and I’ve already moved some hardware around. If the author hasn’t been through this already with XP, the the worst I would expect is that he will make the 5 minute phone call once a couple years. If the fear of that potential phone call and not even a real experience is bad enough to make him switch to another OS, then I not sure Vista is the real issue.
  2. DRM behind lack of Windows Vista drivers.. and fear new content protection.
    This is based on the Gutmann FUD, which spells out a worse case scenario for the implementation DRM in Vista based on random bits of documentation and conjecture. The basic problem here is that the worst case scenario he envisions isn’t  how anything was implemented and causal checks confirm it. There are still class drivers for video. Non-protected content (which is most of what I have) plays unmolested, even while I play DRM’d music and video.  There is an example in the paper of expensive optical system computer in a hospital going fuzzy because the user is playing music. The first question a reader should ask is, even if the hospital bought into that sort of DRM and the system was designed that way (which from casual observation it isn’t) why would the hospital not buy a computer system to view the imagery that supported a DRM path in the hardware. It’s like buying a CAT scan system and not buying a compatible display to see the results.
    In reality there is more drivers and compatibility for Vista pre launch then there was for XP (probably because of continuation of the move to class drivers and early frequent public releases). Inherent to the whole arguement is a bet that you will have pervasive protected content you want. This is the same bet that iTunes Music Store makes. If you want to watch such content, then you won’t want to run an OS where you can’t watch such content, and only systems with these protections will be allowed to decrypt it. Back in the early days of DVD’s, Linux had zero players until the protection scheme for DVD’s was broken. These days the new formats won’t be cracked that easily as they have learned a couple lessons since then. (They can remove support from all future media for a player’s decryption key once it’s known to be cracked and the general purpose cracking is probably much harder)
    There are some real stuff to the story, supporting DRM through hardware is not free, and if you want that feature you will pay for it (similar to how we all pay for DVD support), but none of this is Vista specific. The main thing with Vista that you might complain about is that it supports it at all, or that Microsoft hasn’t done enough to fight DRM. Of course if you buy PowerDVD for BlueRay or HD-DVD you are getting pretty much the same thing from a different vendor. This type of stuff really annoys open source purists because licensing and securing implementation runs counter to the basic philosophy, but it’s not a showstopper as companies that actually build commercial products using pieces of open source don’t have such issues.
    I’ll also note that I’m not in love with DRM, but that’s a topic I’ll save for a different post.
  3. Vista: Why Bother?
    This starts with the insufficient hardware meme. If you asked me right after beta 2 shipped, I would be wholeheartedly agreeing. What I have discovered is that a) they fixed much of that between beta and release and b) more RAM fixes the rest . Ironically the RAM part was exactly what I was sitting around realizing when XP shipped. The end rule is if you bought it in the last two years new, get it up to say 1 Gb RAM, it’ll be fine.
    The actual piece plays a bunch of games with the facts. First it talks about video editing, which is demanding in general and nothing specific to Vista. Even looking at the Mac’s that advertise high end video editing you are looking at some seriously powerful machines. Processor, RAM speed and file system speed are the things I’ve noticed are the big deal, not OS. Next there is the 94% figure, which pulls a double whammy, first it is a survey of corporate machines, which since they tend to do simpler less CPU/ram intensive things compared to consumer PCs. The more realistic numbers are the CPU replacement numbers (replacing the CPU, especially in older machines usually means a new PC), here we see 84% of corporate PCs will be ready from a CPU standpoint (I suspect many of the 84% will need more RAM, but the numbers aren’t in the article). The other little trick done with that number is using the premium level of readiness instead of the minimum. For corporate PCs, the difference between the premium and the Min are features that won’t be missed doing day to day work, like the flashier GUI.
    Next in the piece is software compatibility. This is a harder area, although three of his examples are now bogus. The Zune software for Vista is already released on zune.org, I’m running the Vista Powershell (it comes as an OS update, so it’s mostly an issue of packaging, not compatibility as people running the old msi versions of Powershell can attest). The new Virtual PC has hit RC status. OpenGL is supported in the major graphic vendors drivers. I’ve found that most of the real issues with compatibility are from deeply integrated software using unpublished interfaces who aren’t in a rush to put the vista versions out and UAC related issues. For many of these companies the clock didn’t start until we RTM’d Vista. The latter is a price we will pay for the security it brings, but will be lessened as compatibility updates come out. On the anacdotal side, I’m mainly feel pain with x64 versus x86 rather then Vista versus XP.
    Also in the piece Start Menu issue. My start menu has two options for “shutdown” and a somewhat hidden advanced menu. The two options on my box are: low power mode and lock session. Ironically, I don’t even use either of them on my home machine. I just push the power button on my case to go to low power mode. At work I only use the Lock one (assuming I don’t just press Windows-L). So it appears they choose the right two.
    For bonus points the author then compares upgrading a point release of openSUSE to upgrading Vista from XP. A fair comparison would be to a service pack update, although I would guess that even that would be more then the dot release.
    Which finally concludes in the classic, why update? If you need a single compelling reason to go to vista, it would be security and maybe the flashier GUI, after that it just feels better, the sum of a thousand little things. This is not great for marketing, but pure addicting goodness as a user and home admin. This should become quite apparent after the OS is actually out there, but you can see it in people like the TWIT crowd who has talked about their experiences since they first installed it and now really like it (oh and they are heavy Mac users). My suggestion is to find someway to use it for a week or two and decide for yourself.

Disclosure: I am a Microsoft Employee who works on Windows, but these views are my personal ones and are not my employers.