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.

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.

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.

One Week with Microsoft Band

I have now had the Microsoft Band for one week, and it actually feels like I’ve had it for longer. This is usually a very good sign for any new technology, and I thought I’d share my experiences so far. This isn’t a review as such, this is just my findings on how the Band fits into my lifestyle right now.

Microsoft Band and Microsoft Lumia

First of all, I got the large version of the Band. When it’s at its tightest fitting it’s very snug on my wrist. This gives me a little extra room to loosen it up if I wish, however I find that it’s perfectly comfortable when nice and tight. After a long session of exercise my skin tends to be more sensitive in general, and I notice the device more. This is no different to how I used my G-Shock, and in fact I’d go so far as to say that I notice it about as much.

The times I really notice it most are when the rubber catches on the sleeve of my shirt, or I forget that I’m wearing it and I put my hand in a drawer or a bag and knock the device. This is no different to wearing a large watch really, so I’m not complaining, but this is a large device and I do notice it throughout the day – just like my G-Shock.

Band

Talking of my G-Shock, I’ve decided to wear my Band on my left wrist in the position that used to be reserved for my favourite timepiece. The difference here is that the screen is on the inside. This is by far the best position for the screen when checking your heart rate or time elapsed when doing any kind of exercise, and was the correct decision for a fitness-focussed device like this.

As well as replacing my watch, the Band has also replaced my Fitbit. I used my Fitbit One to passively track statistics like steps throughout the day. The Band does this and seems to have approximately the same accuracy as the Fitbit. I only have these two devices to compare against each other, and the Fitbit seems to be consistently higher by a couple of hundred steps every day – this may be a false tracking of car journeys. I’m not sure.

The Band also supports more active statistics like actual exercise. This is one of the things I used to do though MSN Health & Fitness on my Windows phone. Now I don’t even need to take my phone on my run, and I still get even better statistics than I did before. Effectively, the Band has replaced two hardware devices I always carried and two apps I always used for tracking exercise.

As well as running (hiking and walking) you can also track other more generic exercise workouts. This is great for recording time, calories and heart rate for strength workouts, or anything where you’re not running.

Microsoft Health

At the moment, there’s no specific exercise tracking mode for things like cycling. This isn’t something I’m doing right now, so I’m not too bothered. However, the Microsoft Health software offers a number of guided workouts which can be selected to help you exercise over multiple days. Currently I’m using a 5K training workout which uses interval running to get up to a 5K run in 14 days.

And here we get to the really important part. The Microsoft Health software is new. Very new. Probably so new it lacks features that I’ve come to expect – for example there is no way of viewing my statistics online without using the app.
In time this will change and Microsoft Health will support more exercises, better ways to access the data, synchronisation with HealthVault and much more. In many ways the Microsoft Band is just a way for Microsoft to get data into their new health platform, and Band 2.0 will no doubt be out before too long.

Finally, to prove that the software is lacking features, I haven’t yet found a way to use the galvanic skin response or skin temperature sensors. They are in the hardware, but there is no way to access the data through the software. Yet.

So far my experience has been very positive and I’m looking forward to seeing what comes from unlocking the Band hardware and expanding the Health software in the near future.

Using Microsoft Band in the UK

For a while now I’ve been paying a lot more attention to my fitness by using technology. I’ve been using a Fitbit One to track my passive exercise and MSN Health & Fitness to track active exercise. All this gathered information is then collected into Microsoft HealthVault, along with other base metrics like weight and blood pressure.

Microsoft Band

The Microsoft Band will expand on my current tracking, and replace some elements with better data and more coverage. Hopefully things will still synchronise with HealthVault, and I’ll be able to continue my journey to a healthier lifestyle with a new motivation tool.

I’ve only just got the Microsoft Band, so it’s going to take a little while for me to really understand where it fits into everything, but here are some initial observations:

  • The size and the weight is just fine for my wrist
  • The screen is just fine for normal use, even with its “low” resolution
  • I decided to wear it on my left wrist, with the screen on the inside
  • The GPS, heart rate, and other fitness features work really well
  • I don’t think I want a notification for every email, so I’m turning that off for now
  • Cortana integration is most helpful for setting reminders
  • Sleep tracking seems more accurate than the with my Fitbit
  • Make sure you can run the Health app in the background to enable sync
  • Most importantly, the Microsoft Band works perfectly in the UK

I will get more thoughts down on the Microsoft Band in the coming weeks, but I can say this is a pretty impressive piece of equipment, and I’m really going to enjoy using it as a motivation tool.

Update…

The Microsoft Band is now available in the UK from the Microsoft Store for £170.

In my opinion it is well worth getting.

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.