Highlights from Build 2015

The Build 2015 conference has just taken place in San Francisco.

Like last year, this has been another huge event for Microsoft, and a big deal for the people who build solutions using their technologies.

There have been way more interesting things happening than I can possibly cover in one article, but I have decided to cover the three most important to me:

.NET, Windows and Azure.

An exciting future for .NET and Open Source

The future of .NET is the continued push to an open source .NET Core, which is at the centre of both the latest ASP.NET runtime and the Universal Windows app platform. In the future, this will expand and include other application types. In my opinion, they’ve picked the right place to start.

Applications running on the CoreCLR can be developed and deployed on cloud and server-based infrastructures running different operating systems including Windows, Linux and OS X. I have been watching the development efforts on GitHub for a while now, and I’ve set it up on my own machines running both Windows and Linux. It sure is a sight to see.

As well as the core runtime itself going open source, other technologies like Roslyn have enabled products that many wouldn’t have guessed would see the light of day. Having an open source compiler platform has enabled Visual Studio Code – a new cross platform text editor with Intellisense – to be built.

I was lucky enough to see Visual Studio Code before it was announced, and it changed the way I thought about collaboration with Mac users instantly. I’ll have more on this new text editor soon.

Visual Studio Code

With the RC of Visual Studio 2015 there have been some big improvements in the languages supported including both the more traditional C# and Visual Basic, and (my personal favourite) F#.

The Visual F# improvements in ‘every day’ activities are dramatic for anyone who has been using the language. This is all thanks to the new open source attitude, and the amazing community around F# who have helped to develop the Visual F# tools on GitHub.

This new world of cross-platform and open source .NET technology is going to enable some amazing scenarios for .NET developers like myself.

Windows 10’s application platform takes shape

The aforementioned Universal Windows app platform is really taking shape now. Gone are the days of very prescriptive (and maybe too forward-looking) design patterns of Windows 8, and in is the ‘do what’s right for your applications‘ model that has been working well for some for a while.

Universal Windows apps scale from the smallest phones and Internet of Things devices up to the large screens of the Xbox One and the Surface Hub. The most ‘universal’ of these apps are built with just one binary which includes a scalable UI. This allows you to even have the ‘desktop’ app experience when used on a landscape 5.7 inch phone, or when plugged into an external screen using an amazing new Continuum for Phones feature.

For app developers there are some interesting (and controversial) new ways for software venders to build for Windows. The biggest of which are the bridges from Android and iOS. These two are extremely important for the phone and work especially well for iOS games which don’t rely too heavily on the operating specific UI elements. Combined with the bridges for ‘classic windows’ apps and websites using Microsoft Edge, the Store should get a lot more apps on this Windows 10 wave of releases.

From a user’s view, Windows 10 has really rounded out, with the latest Insider Preview feeling a lot more polished than any of the previous builds. Seeing HoloLens run standard Windows Universal apps was a big deal too.

I’ll have more thoughts on these in the future as the Insider Preview continues, and more information for HoloLoens is released at E3.

Microsoft <3 Docker and other Azure improvements

Azure, and the Microsoft Cloud in general, continue to amaze me. Microsoft has managed to embrace this new way of building (and selling) software in at breakneck speed. Additional services were added throughout the platform all the way from storage and networking, to analytics and machine learning. Way too many for this article.

Two of the biggest highlights were the ability to run the complete Azure Stack locally, and Azure’s new Data Lake features too, something which Amazon has had a lot of success with.

Microsoft <3 Docker

For me though, the most interesting changes were around Docker support across Windows and Azure. Docker has been on my radar for a while, but I have yet to use it in production. I have plans to do so in the not too distant future.

Kyoei Orions Grid Ruler

Kyoei Orions Grid Ruler

I know what you’re thinking. Who really cares about what kind of ruler they use?

Well, apparently, I do.

I originally purchased a Helix drafting set when I started studying mathematics back in 2008. I mostly used the ruler to draw lines, diagrams, and all the good things you do when you’re studying maths. After I completed my second year, I put my ruler away in one of my pencil cases and forgot about it.

When I started studying again last year, I dug it out and used it in my Moleskine notebook. When procrastinating from my studies, I ended up using it in my weekly journal for drawing extra boxes for health data and other things I found interesting.

I was hooked. Whenever I added an extra table of data to my journal, I wanted it to be nicely lined up with the other sections. I continued to use this ruler for a while, but then I found something pretty amazing, a better ruler. Maybe even the best ruler? (For me, anyway)

From the moment I saw the Kyoei Orions Grid Ruler on JetPens, I knew I wanted to have one. (Feel free to check out the Kyoei site, if you know Japanese).

What’s so special about this ruler I hear you ask?

  • Every edge is used
  • No inches, just metric
  • Horizontal and vertical labels
  • Highlights every 5 cm
  • Starts at both 0 mm and -5 mm
  • 5mm grid lines everywhere

The most important feature is the 5 mm grid, which means that you can align the ruler both vertically and horizontally when drawing lines.

This is much better than most rulers, where you have to use use the small indicators on the side to align the ruler. Generally these don’t even line up with each other anyway, due to each side having a different measurement system. (Also why did Helix put a blue background on the indicators? Madness!)

This isn’t a problem with the Grid Ruler, as everything is metric. The edge-to-edge measurements are great for lining up to the inside of a notebook page too, especially when it also uses a 5 mm grid.

Kyoei Orions Grid Ruler

I like this ruler so much I got a couple of them to use both at work and at home along with my Kuru Togas and Boxy Erasers.

Microsoft Future Vision 2015

I’ve always been inspired by the Microsoft ‘Future Vision’ videos which depict a not-too-distant vision of productivity. This year’s entry has not been a disappointment, with a number of interesting UI concepts explored.

The best thing to do is watch the video above to see them all, but I’ve picked four of my favourites below.

Augmented Reality + Tactile Controls

I’m not really what to call this, so I’m just going to call it a ‘holographic puck’. In this instance, a round hardware device can be rotated to make selections on a holographic UI which has been augmented over the top of Kat’s vision.

By mixing the feel of tactile controls with the holographic interfaces you can avoid the strange experience of ‘tapping thin air’ while still providing the users with the infinite possibilities of augmented reality.

Holographic puck

I really like this concept, and it’s not too unrealistic considering the holographic technology coming in Windows 10. Later in the video you see the same hardware device used to transfer the data collected in the first scene.

Flexible Digital Notebooks

Opening the flexible computer

My favourite concept from the whole video is shown when our hero attends a café. The tea selection is shown on this flexible display, and when Kat opens it all of her personal stuff is automatically available to her.

While I think the folding doesn’t look as amazing as it could be (give me a proper notebook style folding, please) – it is a great example of the kind of computers we will be using in the future, and something I really want.

Flexible computer

Being a massive notebook and stationery nerd, I really love the idea of having a flexible notebook computer like this. I hope it happens in the not-too-distant future. The Surface line of computers already has rich inking capability, so it’s only going to get better over time.

Wearable Computing Devices

Throughout the video only one computer looks like it belongs exclusively Kat. The screen on her wrist is probably the equivalent of the smartphone today, being a general purpose communication and computing device.

Wrist computer

This is quite a way off the current Microsoft Band, but the technology sector is certainly going this direction. My Band has already helped give me the motivation to be fitter and healthier, and while we don’t really see much in the way of health statistics in this video, it can certainly be inferred from the way things are going.

Large Table-like Displays

Large table

I also love this large table computer concept. When Kat needs to get some real work done, she just uses her wearable computer to hand off to a bigger computer in a shared workspace.

I’m sure this kind of keyboard-free interaction will be best suited to a world where voice interaction has been perfected. Though I’m sure a software keyboard could be provided. You can even see Kat use a Bluetooth headset (Bragi Dash?) to work with Cortana-like assistant in the top left of the UI.

Captivated by Her

When reading an article about how design is shaping the new Microsoft, I stumbled upon a video by Kat Holmes from last year.

In this video, Kat talks about how conversations power innovation and new experiences. She goes on to discuss how the movie Her both validated and shaped Microsoft’s thinking around their Cortana digital assistant.

Like Kat I have found the movie Her to have a fascinating look at the future of human and computer interaction, primarily through verbal communication and relationship building. While the movie certainly takes the relationship part of the equation to the extreme, I firmly believe that this kind of trust between digital agents and ourselves will eventually enable a new kind of human excellence.


Microsoft also collaborated with Vice’s Motherboard to produce a couple of short documentary videos titled Captivated by Her. They’re well worth watching if you’re interested in how human emotion inspires and shapes technology.

Holographic Computing is Coming

Microsoft HoloLens

A bit like something out of their Future Vision videos, Microsoft’s Windows Holographic software and HoloLens hardware look to enable many of the augmented reality dreams technologists like myself have been imagining for years.

Truly I’m excited about this platform, and I’m keen to try out the product as soon as I possibly can, but I still have a large amount of questions.

What happens if you put your hand ‘in front’ of a hologram?
If you have a virtual 80 inch TV screen – what resolution does it have?
Can you stream Xbox games to it?
How long does the battery last?
Can other people hear the audio from the speakers located on the side?
How hot is the air that comes out of the vents?
How well does it work with glasses?
Will there be a holographic version of PowerShell?

It may be a while until all our questions are answered, but until then I’m going to simply imagine the possibilities this new form of computing will bring. Check out the videos below and have a look at Microsoft’s website to get an idea of what’s coming.

As someone who is always trying to simplify and keep things minimalistic, I always question new technologies to decide if they’re really worth investing in. One part of my believes I already have enough computing devices, but another part yearns to try new technology and find new ways to interact with the digital world. The HoloLens definitely seems like something I’m going to want to experience.

Will it be a success? Only time will tell. But future versions of the hardware will no doubt be smaller, and have better field of view. One day this kind of thing will simply be built into a normal pair of glasses – but that’s a little way off.

More to come soon.

Remote Desktop to the Cloud

Remote Desktop for Windows Desktop

For the last six months I’ve been using an Windows 8.1 virtual machine running in Microsoft Azure for various day-to-day developer activities. It has ended up being extremely useful to have a full Windows machine that’s accessible from any place and any device.


The VM I’m using is A2 Standard and running Windows 8.1, set up with my Microsoft account so all my apps are working on it properly – from Windows Store to Office 365.

Most importantly it also provides an always-on development platform for all my applications even when my main PC is being reinstalled with the Windows 10 technical preview builds. I have access to Visual Studio, F# Interactive, Node.js and all my usual scripting tools in PowerShell at any time.

Remote Desktop for Windows Phone

The remote desktop client for Windows Phone is truly brilliant too, with support for a virtual mouse pad enabling me to get access to applications like Visual Studio or Outlook at any time. True it’s a little fiddly, but it’s really powerful.

Azure’s Virtual Machines suite me as I have a number of credits every month, and nowhere at home to keep a server that could be on 24/7. Overall I’m really pleased with the service.

HP Stream 7

Four Screens

Back in May 2014 I was looking forward to getting a Microsoft Surface Mini as soon as they became available. I already have a Surface Pro 2 set up as a great developer workstation at home, but I wanted a smaller tablet to replace my original Surface RT. However, the Surface Mini wasn’t announced. It seems like it is a complicated story, and one we won’t know all of the details about for a while. But essentially the Surface Mini was indeed real, and Microsoft held it back because the software wasn’t good enough.

I still wanted a small tablet to fill in the gap between my phone and my workstation though. Even if Microsoft’s top class hardware wasn’t able to fill the gap for me. By the end of 2014 I had given up waiting for Microsoft’s hardware and I decided to take a look at some of my other options.

HP Stream 7

While I have to admit I’m still yearning for a high end device with a magnesium alloy case and pen input, the HP Stream 7 is a fantastic Windows tablet with a competitively low price. It’s made of out plastic, and the battery isn’t as impressive as it could be, but like my cheap Lumia phone – it’s certainly good enough.

I have always been happy with Windows 8.1 and because I’m already well established in the ecosystem, all I had to do was log in with my Microsoft account and all my Windows Store applications were there right away. Here are just 15 of the apps I use the most on the device (not including the many games):

  • Flipboard
  • Cover
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • HealthVault
  • Kindle
  • Netflix
  • Skype
  • Xbox Music & Video
  • OneNote
  • OneDrive
  • Bing Wikipedia
  • Wunderlist
  • NextGen Reader
  • The MSN Apps

I haven’t noticed any issues with any of these apps at all, and the device certainly performs better than the Surface RT I used previously. True the device doesn’t come with a keyboard, but the on-screen one is just fine for the kinds of apps I use.

HP Stream 7 Start Screen

In fact I have hardly used the desktop at all, though I have gone into it change some power settings that I couldn’t find in the full screen PC settings application, a problem that is fixed in Windows 10.

Talking of Windows 10, I’m wondering which version of the Windows 10 UI we will see on the HP Stream 7. The device is essentially a normal x86 PC, and can run the full version of Windows 10. But there’s also a special version of Windows 10 (based on Windows Phone) which is designed to run on phones and small tablets. I’m assuming it will be the full version, but we don’t know that for sure yet.


Just as this post went live I spotted a Tweet from Microsoft’s Joe Belfiore which stated that the HP Stream 7 will get the full Windows 10 experience, including the desktop. I’m unsure if that’s a good thing or not for the way I use it. But it’ll be the preferred option for anyone who uses the desktop.

Feeling Good with Microsoft Band

Microsoft Band

Like the Fitbit before it, the Microsoft Band is now well and truly part of my everyday life. Thanks to the addition of the exercise tracking and the Guided Workouts I have seen some tremendous improvements in my health and fitness since strapping the device to my wrist for the first time two months ago.

I have seen an increase in the number in the steps I do and a huge increase in the amount of time I spend exercising every day. At the same time I have measured a decrease in my weight, and my average blood pressure is a little bit lower too. Most importantly I feel better.

I’ve always been driven by these kinds of statistics and throughout my life I have found that mindfulness is always a key driving factor in making improvements to myself. The Band gives me that health mindfulness on a new level, though the motivation to be better is all my own.

Microsoft Health

Positive results aside, I have some notes on a more technical level to share:

And finally I have one more point, which is probably the most important, when you think about it. It isn’t accurate when measuring lower heart rates. In some situations it literally doubles the reading I’m getting through another device – and this is usually when I’m very relaxed or sleeping. I have tweeted Microsoft, but they haven’t replied.

I’m sure the accuracy of the lower heart rates will improve in time, so I’m not too concerned about it. I do look forward to seeing the kind of insights we were promised when the device first came out, as well as web access to the data. I’m sure it’s coming soon.

Waking Up with Light

I like to keep a pretty fixed schedule for my days so that I can be as productive as possible. In the winter I find it especially hard to get up in the dark mornings, and traditionally I have just forced myself to wake up using alarms.

For the last 3 months I have been using a Philips Wake-Up Light Alarm Clock to help me wake get out of bed with a more positive attitude.

Philips Wake-Up Light Alarm Clock

I used to have an alarm on my phone set for 06:30 every day, but now I have the light alarm set for 06:00. It actually turns on at 05:30 and gradually brightens over half an hour. I usually wake up before the light reaches its full luminosity, and I’m fully awake and ready to go before 06:30 without feeling like I have been rudely awoken.

Unfortunately I had to make a modification to the alarm to get it to work the way I actually wanted. Because I got the least expensive version, it didn’t include any options for changing the alarm sound. I don’t understand why this alarm has such an annoying, loud, high pitched beep for something which is meant to wake you more naturally.

Why did Philips add an annoying beep to an alarm that is meant to wake you naturally? Totally bizarre.

Anyway, using my Leatherman I cut open the alarm and removed the offending speaker. Now the light comes on in the morning and automatically stays on for two hours before switching itself off. No interaction required. (And yes, I could have done a better job at opening it up, but I can’t stress how annoying the beep is…)

I’m really pleased with it now, though there is definitely room for improvement. Philips do make a number of other models in the range, however a lot of them include features like radio that I don’t care for. I’ll certainly be looking at using this method to wake from now on – especially in the winter months.