Robert McLaws: Windows Edition

Blogging about Windows since before Vista became a bad word

August 2008 - Posts

  • Windows Mobile to Get Application Marketplace

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    The amazing Long Zheng has dug up yet another Microsoft Job offering that once again reveals much about Microsoft’s future direction. This time two job openings reveal that Microsoft will be releasing a sentralized application marketplace, a la Windows Marketplace, Xbox Live Marketplace and Zune Marketplace, for Windows Mobile. The codename is “Skymarket”, but if their previous names say anything about the final name, it will probably be called Windows Mobile Marketplace.

    I hope that Microsoft really learns from the existing App Stores out there (Sidekick, Handango, iTunes App Store) and build a much better (and sexier) one. Personally, Handango came bundled with my Samsung i760, and it is a bloated piece of garbage that is practically useless. You can’t download demos anymore, you cant see decent screenshots without having to wait for them to download, it doesn’t remember your login, etc. Plus they added all this other stuff to it (like weather and news) to try to make it something you’d keep open all the time, but it doesn’t do weather or news any better than the dozens of other programs out there that do weather and news. Hopefully MS keeps this one simple, and makes it more useful than Windows Update on Windows Mobile.

    Congrats to Long who found this one first.

  • Sinofsky Breaks Silence With “Engineering Windows 7” Blog

    Much to my surprise, I woke up this morning with a personal e-mail from the Windows man himself, Steven Sinofsky, informing me about the “Engineering Windows 7” blog that just launched. With PDC 2008 just a few months away, I’m excited to see the wheels start spinning up on the Windows Futures communication machine.

    We strongly believe that success for Windows 7 includes an open and honest, and two-way, discussion about how we balance all of these interests and deliver software on the scale of Windows. We promise and will deliver such a dialog with this blog.

    Related to disclosure is the idea of how we make sure not to set expectations around the release that end up disappointing you—features that don’t make it, claims that don’t stick, or support we don’t provide. Starting from the first days of developing Windows 7, we have committed as a team to “promise and deliver”. That’s our goal—share with you what we’re going to get done, why we’re doing it, and deliver it with high quality and on time.

    I really like the idea of “promising and delivering”… hopefully someone soon will address the “delivering” part of Ultimate Extras, too.

  • New Releases: SQL 2008, .NET Framework 3.5 SP1, VS2008 SP1, and more!

    Over the last few days, Microsoft has released a whole slew of new developer-related bits for the world to enjoy:

    • Three months after its official “launch”, SQL Server 2008 is finally soup. You can find out more about it here.
    • .NET Framework 3.5 SP1 has also been released. Much more than a Service Pack, this release has a whole slew of new features, and also contains serious performance improvements, due to the work they've been doing with Silverlight.
    • Adding one more flavor to the .NET Runtime soup is the .NET 3.5 Client Profile, which is a subset of the standard .NET Framework that doesn't have any of the server-related features (like ASP.NET, etc). Expect this to replace the standard .NET Framework Runtime in future iterations that come built into Windows Client releases (like Windows Vista).
    • Visual Studio 2008 SP1 was also released. As MJ noted, it has enough new features to qualify as a full-fledged release, but don't let Microsoft catch you calling it one.
    • TFS 2008 SP1 is out as well, with dozens of bug fixes and performance improvements.
    • Finally, if you have the beta versions of any of the above, this tool will help clean them off of your system.

    Also, I've come across some interesting developer tools in the last few days:

    • Mirosoft partnered with Axialis Software to give all Visual Studio 2008 customers "IconWorkshop Lite", a stripped-down version of their flagship IconWorkshop application that integrates right with VS. Seeing as how the bitmap editor in VS is terrible, this is a great addition for building solid icons. [via Visual C++ blog]
    • Snipp Dogg is a stand-alone utility that helps you create and manage Visual Studio code snippets. Not enough component vendors are taking advantage of Snippets, but hopefully that will change soon.
  • Upgrading a Virtual Machine from Virtual PC/Virtual Server to Hyper-V

    Microsoft’s Eric Charran has a great tutorial for getting Integration Components to install if you get a Code 10 after moving a VM to Hyper-V. I’ve had to do this a few times now, and it’s been a big help. Thanks Eric!

  • Followup to My Windows Media Center TV Pack Post

    I started working on the rant I posted last night almost two weeks ago, when Microsoft released the bits and made an internal announcement about distribution plans. Since then, lots of things have happened, so just so that I’m 100% clear, that post was not directed at anyone on the WMC team, as they did a fantastic job shipping a great release which tackles a lot of issues that people have been having. It was targeted at the morons at the top echelons of the eHome division that make the “strategic” decisions.

    Since Microsoft posted on the forum over at TheGreenButton (which was just acquired by Microsoft, so congrats guys!) on Friday, there have been nearly 200 replies. Some of those replies come from Microsoft employees, most prominently by Jeff Tucker. From his posts, I’ve been able to glean the following information:

    1. My assertion that the WMC team is under-resourced is spot-on. WMC is a small team with few resources, even though they arguably own one of the most compelling features of Vista.
    2. The WMC team considers this a full-fledged release, and is just as pissed about this decision as we are.
    3. Someone posted the final bits to TheGreenButton. (Won’t link to them, but you can find them on your own)
    4. Microsoft, in its desire not to completely alienate the community they just acquired, are not pulling the bits, or censoring the posts in any way.
    5. There is a possibility that some of the Guide improvements delivered in the TV Pack will make their way into a future Vista SP1 update.
    6. The next release of Windows Media Center will ship inside Windows 7.

    If I were you, I’d grab the bits while I can… before the people with higher pay grades than Jeff override him.

    And a word to Windows Product Management: Whomever is prioritizing the resource allocation of the WMC team in the eHome division is now officially making you guys look bad. Someone needs to walk over to Building 10 and tell Robbie Bach that you’re perfectly capable of making yourselves look bad, you don’t need other management trying to “lend a hand”. Then you need to do whatever it takes to make sure that team gets the resources it needs to continue be a full-fledged part of your product. Don’t make excuses, or “him and haw” over the fact that you “don’t have the money”, just do it. You were gonna blow $40B on a has-been company, you can cough up the dough. And then make sure it gets officially released to all Ultimate customers, or give us our hundred dollars back.

  • WMC TV Pack: The Ultimate Windows Screwjob You Didn’t See Coming

    Before I go into this post, I have to explain my intentions. I respect NDAs very much, and I always have. I’ve built my career as a Microsoft commentator on acquiring as much access as possible, through playing by the “rules”. When someone asks me not to talk about something, or tells me something in confidence, most of the time I don’t blog about it.

    The rule of thumb with Windows Featured Communities is, if it’s NDA, we can talk about it until Microsoft talks about it. I’m a Digital Cable Tuner (OCUR) beta tester, and as such I’ve been testing "Fiji" over the past few months. As MJ so accurately reported, Microsoft has gagged all of the (generally angry) beta testers from speaking about anything until the CEDIA conference on September 3rd. However, Microsoft released a statement on Friday about the contents of the TV Pack, as well as its distribution model, which means I can put forth my opinion on the matter without disclosing any new information. Microsoft may very well sanction me for this post (they tried to have my MVP taken away once because I *speculated* on the Diamond release, even though I had no direct knowledge about it and was not a beta tester at the time), but IMO they are about to make what could be the last mistake for the Media Center platform, and there is still time to stop it.

    Please Note: This passionate rant is not directed at any of the awesome beta coordinators, PMs, or developers on WMC. They are awesome, and have done a great job with the resources they have been given. It is directed at the decision makers at the highest level who have let this mess come to pass. It's directed at the "Marketers" who think its customers are stupid. We are not.

    Calling a Spade a Spade..., or "When Marketers Deceive"
    The powers that be over at the eHome Product Management (that's "Marketing" for the uninitiated) are calling this the "Windows Media Center TV Pack". Calling it this would be fine if it added-on functionality to the RTM bits. But it doesn't, it completely replaces core WMC binaries. That means it's not an add-on, it is a version upgrade. But Microsoft doesn't want you to feel entitled to this upgrade, so they think by calling it something else, you'll fall for their cop-out.

    But when Robbie Bach’s eHome team aligned the post-Diamond release with the next Windows release, they committed to providing regular updates to every single user, in a manner consistent with the rest of the Windows stack, ie: through upgrades via Windows Update. Whether they realized it or not, that’s the commitment they made to their customers.

    When It Comes To Broadcast Media, You Are the Consumer, Not the Customer
    That’s right, Microsoft… I’m talking about your *real* customers. Not OEMs who turn around and resell your product (just like end users are not DVR manufacturers' customers either). I’m talking about END USERS. You know, the people that Apple seems to have such an easy time pleasing, and the people form whom you have seen to forgotten about. Because Microsoft has decided that the “cone of silence” is the best thing for consumers, as MJ has spent so much time reporting on. The surprising part is, this cover-up isn’t coming from the Windows division, who wouldn’t even talk about Windows Vista SP1 until it was practically in the general population’s hands. Nope, this is coming from the same division that just spent a week wowing people at E3; the same people who are so eager to please with the Xbox 360 and the Zune.

    If Microsoft listened to it's true customers about WMC development, this release would have:

    To be fair, consumers HAVE been asking to be able to use Analog and Digital tuners together (called "heterogeneous tuning"), which is a feature that is purported to be in Fiji... (though I can't confirm or deny it), so it's not completely without input from consumers. But if you happen to own an existing HTPC with Digital Cable Tuners, and want to add an analog tuner to your rig, you're SOL

    And so Microsoft has decided to go back on their word yet again, and is returning to the strategy they used with Windows XP Media Center by releasing this WMC 3.5 upgrade only for purchase on new computers. As they conveyed in their release, they think that the only people that buy new computers will be in a position to take advantage of the new features in Fiji. They’ll try to tell you that it’s all about supporting TV standards, but that is a load of garbage. It has new features and bug fixes in it, just like any other release. It has better tuner support, more options for HD users (can't talk specifics, sorry), and plenty more that the entire Windows user base should have the opportunity to take advantage of.

    IMHO, The Real Reason You're Not Getting "Fiji"
    AFAIK, the Windows Media Center team is the only team in the history of Microsoft NOT to have a clear upgrade path between versions, and I personally think that is ludicrous. It's not because OEMs "are best positioned to provide the testing and hardware configurations for a great customer experience", much as they would like you to believe it. The real reason you're not getting this upgrade is because WMC is the red-headed stepchild of the eHome division, and the Xbox team is the only one over there allowed to blow through piles of cash to fix every mistake or solve any problem.

    Microsoft, in it's infinite wisdom and seemingly endless piles of cash, is not willing to commit the money necessary to hire enough developers, internal testers, and beta coordinating resources to write the code necessary to be able to do an in-place upgrade supportable on the millions of Vista systems out there. That's why Vista was on the market for 18 months before compatible Media Center Extenders were widely available (WTF was up with THAT??!?!), and that's why 60M+ Home Premium and Ultimate users are about to be given the proverbial shaft.

    The Overlooked Incompatibility
    In all the discussions that have taken place so far, no one has yet mentioned the inevitable 'customer experience": A family with an existing Vista Media Center RTM system decides to buy a new computer with a Vista Media Center "TV Pack". Because it's Windows Vista, the average consumer would expect that they would be able to watch non-DRMed content on any Media Center PC in the house. Not so with this "TV Pack", because the format for WMC-recorded content has changed from DVR-MS to WTV, meaning that older Media Centers will not be able to view the content *at all*. Not in Windows Media Player, not at all. If you don't have an Extender, you're screwed. Which leaves me to wonder, Is this the "great customer experience" Microsoft was referring to, cause it sounds pretty stupid if you ask me.

    And by the way, how are add-on developers supposed to get their hands on bits to fix compatibility issues that the file format change has caused? Does Microsoft just expect them to buy new PCs? Give me a break.

    My Bottom Line
    Microsoft, I kept relatively quiet about the Ultimate Extras nonsense, even though I thought it was bullsh!t that Sinofsky could just go in there and cancel a feature that was supposed to deliver value to Microsoft's best customers. But now you have gone too far. If you are not going to *at the very least* provide this so-called "TV Pack" to your Ultimate customers as a function of Ultimate Extras, then maybe it's time that we, as Microsoft's true customers, should start looking at our other options for Microsoft's failure to deliver what Ultimate customers paid for. Because I have yet to see an Ultimate Extra that is worth the extra $100 I paid. Personally, I would think that committing the resources to be able to let everyone upgrade to WMC 3.5 would be a lot cheaper than the write-down involved in refunding every Ultimate user $100 (plus the legal fees of obtaining such a refund). But then again, I was never very good at math.

    Oh yeah, Microsoft should also move the Media Center team out of eHome and into the Windows division. The risk of even more radio silence FAR outweighs the access to resources and test-system coverage that the Windows team has access to. And anyone who had a hand in green-lighting this completely asinine decision should be fired for gross incompetence.

    So, I've ranted long enough. What, dear reader, do YOU think? I'm sure Microsoft will be paying attention to this post, so feel free to leave your comments... no registration required.

  • Turn Your Home Server Into a Powerhouse

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    It’s no secret that HP’s MediaSmart Server, while sporting an impressive form factor, is seriously underpowered. Well, when I purchased one to replace my homebuilt WHS box last week, I decided that the stock system was not good enough. Thanks to Donavon West, the Windows Live MVP and Gadget Guru who also happens to run, and “ymboc” from, my stock EX470 model is now rockin a Dual-Core 1.9GHz AMD BE-2300, 2GB RAM, and 3.5 TB of storage (3 of these puppies plus the system drive).

    How I did it:

    I should note that doing this will void your warranty… but it is well worth it. A word to HP: the rest of your computers are configurable, why not give your buyers some OPTIONS?

  • You Can Be the Proud Owner of a Microsoft Surface

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    it appears that the Microsoft Surface train is ready to leave the station. Besides posting new “Marketing Guidelines” to the Microsoft Download Center, the Redmond behemoth has also posted the “Microsoft Surface Order Form”, and it appears that there are no limitations on who can buy one. So for a measly $12,500, you can own a multi-touch computer in a coffee table. Or, you can just wait for Windows 7.

    Anyone want to give me a couple grand to buy one? :)

  • Would You Put Your Digital Life in the Hands of a Cable Box?

    I came across not one, but two articles on MSNBC today about niche markets that Microsoft currently dominates that are becoming more mainstream. One is a well researched, if not slightly misguided piece on Home Theatre PCs (who needs a Core 2 Quad in a media server, and HomePlug… seriously??), and the other has some misleading information about Home Servers that I just couldn’t let slide. From the article:

    Microsoft, and its Windows Home Server software that it launched in January, is expected to rule the home server market for the next five years, during which PC-based servers will be the dominant solution. But [Diffusion Group senior analyst Ted] Theocheung says the real spike in consumer adoption won't come until after consumer electronics companies begin building server-like functions into their entertainment system products, which will overtake the PC as the primary source of such store-and-synch capability. In particular, he expects cable operators to be leaders in this transition, doing for servers what they did for DVRs by including the functionality in set-top boxes.

    "That changes the whole model," Theocheung says. "If you have to buy these yourself, the trend is going to be slower. But when service providers latch onto this and let you just add $5 to your $100 monthly cable bill, it's not a noticeable impact. Then you're going to see some action."

    I have a couple major issues with this argument that I believe will not allow this to come to pass:

    You are not the DVR manufacturer’s customer. I was at CES a few years ago, right when Cisco bought major DVR maker Scientific Atlanta. I went up to their booth and asked one of the people there about Networked DVRs, and their rep said “We will never have that functionality.” I pressed him further by saying I had the functionality in Windows Media Center, and I wanted it in their DVR, so that I could watch stuff from their DVR on other DVRs and on my Media Center PC. He again said “We will never allow that to happen because our customers don’t want it.” When I said, “But I have one of your DVRs, so I’m your customer, and I want it,” he thanked me for my time, and turned to talk to someone else.

    In my youthful naiveté, I did not realize that I was not, in fact, their customer after all. Their customer was Cox, who was kind enough to loan me their DVR to use in my home in exchange for part of my hard-earned money every month. Cisco’s customer, Cox, did not want people to watch their recordings on more than one room in the house, so they weren’t going to do it. While it appears that never came too soon, there is no doubt that the cable companies want to exhibit as much control over the content that comes over their equipment as possible.

    High failure rates of cable-provided DVRs are unacceptable for “life media” storage. Have you ever had your DVR fail? I have, on more than one occasion... and the heartbreak of losing every episode of this season’s 24 to a bad firmware update can sometimes be extremely painful. When you lose a DVR, you know how much time is spent trying to recover those recordings you spent so much time trying to attain? ZERO. The cable company doesn’t care, they come out and replace your box. That’s it. Anything more would cost them thousands in support hours that they would be very unwilling to eat.

    Would cable box-based home servers feature the redundancy of Windows Home Server? Not a chance. You can’t even replace the hard drive in your DVR now, think they’ll let you have hot-swappable drives? Again, not a chance.

    Cable companies have near limitless power over your digital life already. They’re already locking down the content you record, throttling your bandwidth, and limiting what you can and cannot access. What happens when you put your collection of ripped CDs on your cable-owned Home Server/DVR. What’s to stop the cable company from providing that information to the RIAA? Right now, nothing.

    My Two Cents: Home Servers don’t need the cable companies to bring the technology mainstream. PCs are already mainstream. The hardware is cheap, easily replaceable, and user serviceable. IMHO, WHS is going to dominate this area for the next decade, especially when they move the technology onto the Vista codebase, and start integrating it with Windows Media Center. THAT is the day when I think HTPCs may replace cable boxes as the dominant force in consumer living rooms.

    But that’s just my opinion. So let me pose it to you, dear readers. Would you trust the irrecoverable elements of your digital life in the hands of your local cable company?