Microsoft

Microsoft is a large devices and services company based in Redmond Washington. They are well known for producing the Windows operating system, the Office suite of productivity tools, and the Surface line of computers.

Windows 10 Technical Preview

As a big user of software and services in the Microsoft ecosystem, finding out about the next version of Windows is always exciting. Yesterday, we got our first official look at Windows 10, and while we didn’t learn about many features which hadn’t already been leaked, we did finally get to hear Microsoft’s plan for its next generation Windows platform.

Windows 10 Product Family

The official picture above teases how this single release of Windows will feature multiple interfaces the operating system itself, scaling from the Xbox One and the large Perceptive Pixel multi-user business display, all the way down to embedded devices, phones and small tablets.

From a developer point of view, Windows 10 will support a new universal app model that spans across multiple devices. This means that an application can be written only once to run across all of these environments, end-users will only have to purchase the application once to use it everywhere. Universal apps for Windows 10 will probably be very similar to the ones announced at Build earlier this year.

Windows 10 Start Menu

New features like Task View and Snap Assistant are included in the technical preview, but the more obvious user interface changes look like they are still to come. For example, Continuum is a set of features which enable hybrid devices to switch between touch and desktop modes automatically, just by attaching or removing the keyboard.

Windows 10 Task View

Today, along with many other Windows enthusiasts, I signed up for the new Windows Insider Program. This new program is similar in concept to the Windows Phone Developer Preview, but it will also provide opportunities to provide feedback directly to the Windows team.

Trust me, I’m going to provide as much feedback as possible.

It’s a great time to be a Microsoft-focused software developer

The Build 2014 conference took place in San Francisco last week, where thousands of developers and designers came together to learn all the latest information about what it means to use Microsoft development tools, and build solutions that run on Microsoft platforms.

I have over 137 GB of videos yet to watch, but I can already say that it has been one of the best Microsoft developer conferences to date.

Here are my thoughts so far, with a few links to some of my highlights.

.NET is alive and well – and becoming more open

build-2014-4

There was a general feeling that .NET developers had been left behind in recent years. A strong push to using HTML and JavaScript really got some people worried when Windows 8 was announced – but at Build 2014 the message was loud and clear. The .NET platform is alive and well.

It’s almost as if they asked .NET developers what would make them really happy, and set about doing all those things. For me, personally, I was most excited by the promise of open-sourcing even more of the framework, including the brand-new compiler platform (Roslyn) that has been years in the making.

Initiatives like .NET Native will allow applications built with C# and Visual Basic to get much closer performance to applications created with C++. Starting first with Windows Store apps, these architecture specific binaries will increase performance at runtime without losing the productivity of developing with the architecture-agnostic .NET Framework.

Roslyn and .NET Native are in preview, and won’t be completed until the next version of Visual Studio. But there have also been a wide range of updates to the ASP.NET web platform, MVC, Entity Framework and way more – most of which are either available now with Visual Studio 2013 Update 2, or can be downloaded using packages from NuGet.

You can tell Windows is under new leadership

build-2014-1

Cortana – the new assistant built into Windows Phone 8.1 – was the highlight of the show. There had been rumours of Microsoft’s answer to Siri and Google Now for quite some time, so a lot of the information had already come out. But still, it was great to see Joe Belfiore talking to her publicly for the first time, confirming what Halo fans were waiting for: yes she is called Cortana, and yes, she sounds like Cortana.

As Cortana is such a huge step for Microsoft, I’ll be going in depth on what I think over the next few weeks.

Cortana wasn’t the only addition to Windows Phone 8.1, there were hundreds of new features and tweaks to the UI that will take weeks to be documented – the new calendar is just one of these. I’ve tried it in the emulator and it’s really great. The developer preview is due this month.

As a developer, the news of Universal Apps was very welcome. This allows high amounts of code sharing between applications designed for both Windows and Windows Phone. I can’t wait to try this stuff out, especially with the new JavaScript support.

Windows 8.1 has some new features too. The much-leaked Windows 8.1 Update includes changes to how the operating system behaves with a keyboard and mouse – though these changes are only the start of the improvements that are coming.

Azure is the future, and already here

build-2014-3

Microsoft’s cloud platform has improved tremendously over the last few years and this year was no exception – in fact, there were so many new features I can’t even begin to go through them all. Some I probably won’t even use (Java? No thanks.) but I know the option is there, which will inform my decisions for cloud hosting in the future.

Scott Guthrie and his team talked at great length about new features that will improve productivity for ‘DevOps’ tasks significantly. For example, the new Azure Portal includes the ability to view statistics, create new infrastructure, build new virtual machines, deploy websites and even do code changes with Git source control – all from one UI.

I already use Azure as part for my personal projects, as well as Visual Studio online as my source code repository. I plan on using it even more in the future – so I’m pleased to see Microsoft lead in this area. And they really are leading.

It doesn’t have to be Windows & .NET

build-2014-2

Times have certainly changed, and PCs that run Windows are no longer the most popular computing devices. As a predominantly Microsoft developer, this makes me wonder about the future. This year’s Build has continued the recent trend of Microsoft supporting other platforms in new ways – plus with partnerships with like likes of Xamarin, I see no reason to even contemplate switching over to Android (the most popular platform) in the foreseeable future.

While I was hoping that there would be the announcement of a Xamarin acquisition, they didn’t disappoint. It was great to see Maguel even joining Anders on stage during the keynote. Both of these guys are very smart, and I look forward to what else the partnership can bring. Being able to develop universal apps that also target iOS and Android is not very far away at all.

What’s your every day carry? 2014 Edition

In 2012 I did both what’s in your bag and what’s your every day carry posts, and this year I have decided to revisit both.

Also check out What’s in your bag? 2014 Edition

What's your every day carry?

Windows Phone

My Windows Phone of choice at the moment is the Nokia Lumia 920. If I had to pick a new one today I’d go for the 1020 because of the impressive camera – however I’m going to continue to use the 920 until the next generation of phones powered by Windows Phone 8.1 hit the market. (Very soon!)

Wallet

I am still using an All-Ett wallet, and this one – the small leather ‘sports’ version – is still going strong after getting it in June 2012.

Keys

I carry two keys with me all the time, and I’m still keeping it as simple as possible. I am also still carrying the Swiss Tech Utili-Key, because you get so much for such a small package.

Fitbit

I’ve recently started carrying a Fitbit One with me all the time. This passively records statistics like number of steps and calories burned. It has quickly become an essential item for keeping track of my health and fitness – and I even purchased a second device immediately when I realised I had lost my original one.

Pro-tip: Don’t lose it!

What's your every day carry?

What’s changed?

I no longer carry earphones with me, as I keep a pair in the office and I have a pair at home. Both are the Nokia Purity in-ear type. I like them.

The addition of the Fitbit One is something pretty recent, and I’ll be keeping an eye on other wearable devices that are compatible with Windows moving forward – I love getting all the statistics.

Last of all, I’d like to mention that while this is the minimum I carry, it’s not the only things – when I’m out doing astronomy I have a set of items I take with me, and I recently got a new bag to carry my personal computers around when visiting friends and family.

What’s in your bag? 2014 Edition

In 2012 I did both what’s in your bag and what’s your every day carry posts, and this year I have decided to revisit both.

Also check out What’s your every day carry? 2014 Edition

What’s in your bag?

Unchanged since around 2008, I still carry my Tumi work backpack which I carry into the office every day. If you’re interested in what I carry with me when I’m not at work then have a look at my Knomo Kilkenny bag for Microsoft Surface.

Dell Laptop

My work laptop is a pretty powerful Dell M4600 with an Intel Core i7 processor and 8 gigs of RAM. I’ve had less problems with this machine than the old HP I used to use, so you won’t hear any complaints from me. Though I have had my eye on the newer Dell workstations that include up to 32 gigs of RAM. Yes please.

USB Stick and USB Cable

It’s a tradition of mine to get a new USB stick every time I change jobs. This one contains debuggers, software installers, eBooks, and backups of my scripts and utilities. I never use these USB sticks for personal information about me, my employer or my clients – it only has the software I need to get up and running.

I also carry a standard micro USB cable, because you never know when it’ll be handy for charging my phone.

Notebooks

I still carry two Moleskine notebooks, but these days I track a lot more work stuff in OneNote – so the black work notebook has become more of a check list for most important tasks with space for notes. I tend to use about two pages a week.

Keys and Pencil Case

I carry a couple of keys with me in my work bag, including ones I need while I’m in the office. I also carry a small pencil case which includes the following:

What’s in your bag?

What’s changed?

The biggest change is the computer, and thankfully I no longer carry my charging adapter with me all the time, as I have a docking station in the office. I keep a spare charger at home, and if I ever need to go see a client I can just take that with me. Thanks to my recently replaced battery, I actually have plenty of power to do email and other tasks when I get home without needing to plug in anyway.

The next biggest change is probably the lack of paper notes. I used to carry a MUJI document folder with various printed specifications and other helpful documents. These days I try to print out as little as possible – mostly for security reasons.

I don’t carry a mouse in my bag either, again this is because my docking station at work is already set up with my Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard and Mobile Mouse. I have a spare mouse at home, for if I need it.

Finally, the Zune HD has been retired – these days I listen to Xbox Music, and when I’m at work that means my Lumia 920 – which is part of my Every Day Carry.

Surface 2 & Surface Pro 2

As expected, Microsoft recently showed off two new Surface tablets, both next generation replacements for their existing offerings. The Surface 2 offers updated specifications and thinner body aiming at personal productivity with Windows RT 8.1 and the Nvidia ARM platform, while the Surface Pro 2 caters more for the professional with Windows 8 Pro and the low power Haswell based Intel Core i5. Both offer a new two position kickstand, which apparently makes it more stable to use on your lap.

Personally, I find the Surface Pro 2 very compelling, and I’m certainly considering it as a possible successor of my old MacBook as my personal software development machine. Though even with the updated lapability, I’m not sure if I would be productive on one as a laptop – when not using a desk.

Surface Pro 2 offers the portability and simplicity of a tablet when you want it…

Surface Pro 2

…and the power and flexibility of a laptop when you need it.

Regardless of if I decide to buy or not, both products look like good solid updates to the line. The real new stuff is a little more subtle though – the updated accessories really fill out the Surface experience, and a clearly the differentiator that puts Microsoft’s tablet into a league of its own. A few worthy of mention are as follows…

Docking Station

This was going to happen, and I’m glad it did. Personally, I’d love to have a setup with a Surface Pro 2 and one of these fancy new Docking Stations – my biggest problem with that is that I don’t currently have the space – though that’s something I’m thinking about changing in the near future. I’m glad they have finally made this accessory, and it would certainly factor into my plans if I decided to get one of these devices.

Power Cover

As well as updates to both the Touch and Type covers – that include backlights, thinner designs and better performance – the Power Cover also includes a large battery that’s meant to increase the life of the new tablets. Personally, I think I’d really have to need one of these before I got it. Maybe even being caught powerless a few times before investing.

Arc Touch Mouse

The Surface Edition of the Arc Touch Mouse interests me quite a lot. I still have mine and I still use it regularly. But the single thing that interests me the most – is the fact that this thing is Bluetooth now. Why wasn’t it already? I don’t know. Also, I find the design way cooler than the Surface Edition of the Wedge Touch Mouse which they previously released.

Surface Music Kit

Surface Music Kit

Finally, this is the cover that interests me the most. It’s a sign of change, a real differentiator on Microsoft’s part – they’re designing a pressure sensitive touch surface that’s tailor made for music tasks. Specifically around their Surface Remix Project. I see a bright future in these kinds of accessories, and I’m looking forward to see what comes next.

Extending the Surface Power Supply

The power supply that comes with the Microsoft Surface for Windows RT is a little short. I’m unsure if it is comparable with other tablets – as it is my first – however I find it a pain to plug in to the wall and use on the other side of the sofa.

Thankfully, it is no major issue as the Surface PSU takes a standard figure 8 cable, which can easily be added to extend it out.

This is very similar to the cable I got with my Apple MacBook from 2008. Though it has to be said, Apple have done a better job overall, because they included both the shorter and longer cables in the box with the machine. Microsoft do not.

The Death of Outlook & Exchange for Task Management

Windows Mobile

Rewind to around 2005 – 2006, I had recently discovered the works of David Allen’s Getting Things Done, and I had started looking for more resources and found the likes of Merlin Mann and others. These people were telling me that it was possible to do all the things you want to do by keeping track of all the tasks and commitments in a simple, trusted system.

Just like now, I was living mostly in a Microsoft ecosystem – I had a Windows Mobile Smartphone, I used Outlook & Exchange for my email and all my computers ran Windows.

I read a book called ‘Take Back Your Life! Using Outlook to Get Organized & Stay Organized‘ which took many of the principles behind Getting Things Done and implemented them in Microsoft Outlook to help keep track of what’s important.

  • Outlook Tasks – universal capture for all ideas as well as a single place for next actions
  • Outlook Calendar – the ultimate way to track professional and personal commitments
  • Outlook Email – a large amount of incoming tasks would come through email and processed directly from the inbox
  • Outlook Notes – sticky notes that could be used to make lists and capture ideas to be processed later, this was later superseded by OneNote for Windows Mobile – a separate download.

Outlook was ideal for this, because it also synchronised using both Microsoft Exchange and ActiveSync – software that ran on your computer and would sync your Windows Mobile device when attached. As Windows Mobile was my mobile operating system of choice it included Tasks, Calendar, Email and Notes without any extra software. It was Outlook, in my pocket.

Windows Phone

Fast-forward to 2012 – 2013, and the importance of Outlook has diminished significantly. Not by my choice.

The support for Outlook or Exchange Tasks in Windows Phone is very low. In Windows RT the situation is even worse, there is no way of getting access to Exchange tasks without third party software, and no way to flag emails to follow up. If I can’t use it on all my computers, it’s not worth using the feature at all.

These days I use a combination of other apps to follow up on actions – the Mail, Calendar, People, and Messaging applications allow me access to Exchange Mail and Calendar – but I manage notes and tasks through OneNote – which is fantastic for capturing but not so hot for reviewing, processing or planning.

Over the years I have actually moved away from using purely digital capturing and planning tools, favouring paper notebooks in some cases. However, I feel that Microsoft has not done enough to keep the functionality that they used to have for task management, and that they’re missing a trick by letting the functionality fall behind.

By focussing their smartphone and tablet efforts on consumer tasks and social networking, I believe they have lost a lot of the value they had by giving users ‘Outlook in their pocket’ – I hope they bring it back.

Microsoft Touch Mouse

Last week a couple of us in the office decided to treat ourselves to a Microsoft Touch Mouse each – mostly because they were on special offer on Amazon.

So far, I really like it. Like the last few Microsoft mice I’ve had, it’s optical, wireless and uses BlueTrack optical technology. The difference is that this time the whole front of the mouse is touch sensitive.

Scrolling content in Windows 8 is just as smooth as you’d expect, and there are additional gestures to make using the touch-centric operating system faster to use with a mouse:

  • Two fingers up and down – show and hide the app bar
  • Two fingers from the left – switch application
  • Two fingers from the right – show the charms
  • Three fingers up and down – zoom in and out
  • Thumb up and down – backwards and forwards

It’s a little larger than the Arc Touch Mouse that I used up until now, which is probably a good thing for everyday use in the office but it is not quite as compact in my work bag.

The extra weight means there is no chance of accidentally moving the cursor while using it like a touchpad for scrolling through content. Overall I’m quite pleased with the results, and I’ve even got used to the (optional) reverse scrolling.

Pros

  • Great size and weight
  • High build quality
  • Fantastic gestures on Windows 8

Cons

  • Horrible Exposé-like interface on Windows 7
  • You have to lift your left finger to right click (like a Magic Mouse)
  • No middle click at all (like a Magic Mouse)

Two Weeks with Microsoft Surface

Two weeks ago I finally got my Microsoft Surface for Windows RT. On the run up to the launch of the first Surface device, I started to think about if I’d actually be able to use the Surface for Windows Pro as my only computer as I had planned.

The trouble is that the form factor is not a laptop replacement, it’s a tablet which has a ‘ready to work’ mode which can be used easily on a desk. A laptop has a stable base and a screen which can be tilted to any angle – so getting real work done is still doable on your lap. I don’t have a desk at home, just a coffee table, so when I want to write some code or a long blog post – I tend to sit cross-legged on the sofa and type away. This is quite tricky to do with the form-factor that Microsoft has chosen for the first two Surface devices.

As a first time tablet owner there are a huge amount of benefits which are more related to the form-factor rather than the individual device, but for me having the Microsoft Surface has been a really fantastic and new experience.

Being able to surf the web and use application while laying down or standing up are pretty obvious, but there are more subtle benefits like being able to take it to work every day without my bag getting really heavy. Plus it’s always nice to have all your personal stuff available to use at lunch time, including emails and OneNote notebooks.

In the first two weeks have found a few suggestions for improvements to the design of the hardware:

  • The keyboard case should really have a magnetic grasp
  • Power Cable is a little short (though it can be extended)
  • Windows Phone earphones don’t work as expected (see below)

These improvements aside, the Surface has already proven to be a fantastic companion device, and due to the nature of the keyboard and kickstand design it has become my go-to device for email and instant messaging. In the last two weeks my MacBook has spent most of its time in a draw while the Surface has been my primary machine for personal use.

As someone who is a Windows developer and lives in a Microsoft ecosystem (Office 365, SkyDrive, Xbox etc.) it’s the ideal tablet for me, and I’m really pleased I got it.

Now if only I could find a Windows 8 laptop to replace my ageing MacBook and I’ll be sorted.

Update

I’m not sure if it was a firmware update, or just me not being able to test properly – but it seems like the Surface RT now supports Windows Phone earphones as expected. The microphone now works!

Surface for Windows 8 Pro

Originally I wanted to get Surface for Windows RT, but I’ve changed my mind about which Surface computer I want to get. Mostly because of two reasons.

1 – I’ve seen no Windows 8 Ultrabooks I like

I have been looking around for a good Ultrabook for a while now, and I had pinned high hopes on Vizio, but lacklustre scores on the touchpad and keyboard have tarred that machine. I have recently had a look at many of the machines shown at IFA – including the Acer Aspire S7) but none have them have really grabbed my attention like Surface.

The Aspire S7 has some fantastic Windows-friendly features, but in terms of traditional laptop design, the MacBook Air still has the edge for me. But I don’t want to have to hack around with a MacBook to get Windows to run well again. True I have enjoyed using Windows on my current MacBook, it’s just such a pain to set up just right.

2 – I really like using Windows 8

Windows 8 became available as an evaluation recently, and I have taken advantage of that to try out this new operating system in day-to-day use. I love how the operating system really does have this no compromises feel to it. It works extremely well on a laptop* and better than Windows 7 when used with a mouse and keyboard.

This has made me think that the best (and cheapest) option is to get one machine rather than two: a tablet that is a PC.

One PC

My experience of Windows 8 has been through the 90 day enterprise evaluation, and I’m still using Windows 7 on my MacBook. Before the Surface was introduced, I set out that I wanted to have only four machines (Xbox, Ultrabook, Phone, Tablet) but now I’m leaning toward having only Xbox, Surface and Phone for personal use.

It’s going to be interesting to see how I tackle the smaller screen size with productivity for personal tasks, but making things as simple as possible is what I always strive for. Though I do get the feeling that there’s room for a device around the 7″ mark to take the number of machines to four at some point in 2013. (NewCo?)

  • Processor: Intel Core i5
  • Weight: 903g
  • Thickness: 13.5mm
  • Display: 10.6″ ClearType Full HD (1080p) capacitive touch screen
  • Battery: 42Wh
  • I/O: microSDXC, USB 3.0, Mini DisplayPort, 2×2 MIMO antennae
  • Software: Windows 8 Professional
  • Case: VaporMg Case & Stand
  • Accessories: Touch Cover, Type Cover, Pen with Palm Block
  • Capacity: 64GB / 128GB

* Unfortunately the touchpad in my HP Laptop doesn’t have very nice support for Windows 8. Hopefully that’ll come soon.