The Status of Windows Phone

Subject: Mobile, Shows and Expos | March 31, 2016 - 01:52 PM |
Tagged: BUILD, build 2016, microsoft, windows 10, windows phone

If you watched the opening keynote of Microsoft's Build conference, then you probably didn't see much Windows Phone (unless you were looking at your own). The Verge talked to Terry Myerson about this, and Microsoft confirmed that they are leading with non-Windows, 4-inch devices, and they want to “generate developer interest” on those platforms for this year.

PC World interpreted this conversation to say that Windows Phone is put on hold.

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That might be a little hasty, though. Microsoft is still building Windows 10 for Mobile. In fact, since Microsoft updated “Windows OneCore” and jumped build to 14xxx-level build numbers with Windows 10 build 14251, Windows 10 Mobile and Windows 10 PC are kept in lockstep. As far as I know, that is still the plan, and Windows Insiders should continue to receive these on compatible devices.

That said, Microsoft has basically admitted that Windows Phone would just be a distraction for developers this year. At the very least, they don't believe that the platform will be ready for them until next year's Build conference, which means that consumers will probably be even further down than that because there would be no applications for them. Yes, Windows Phone could be slowly shimmying out of the spotlight, but it could also be delayed until they make a good impression, and have the PC, Xbox, Hololens, and other ecosystems secure to lift it up.

Source: The Verge

Microsoft's Phil Spencer Discusses UWP Concerns at Build

Subject: General Tech, Shows and Expos | March 30, 2016 - 01:14 PM |
Tagged: windows 10, uwp, microsoft, build 2016, BUILD

When a platform vendor puts up restrictions, it can be scary, and with good cause. Microsoft's Universal Windows Platform (UWP) is the successor of WinRT, which, in the Windows 8 era, forced web browsers to be reskins of Internet Explorer, forced developers to get both their software and themselves certified before publishing, and so forth. They still allowed the traditional, more open, Win32 API, but locked them into “the Desktop App”.

Naturally, UWP carries similar concerns, which some developers (like Tim Sweeney of Epic Games) voiced publicly. It's more permissive, but in a brittle way. We don't want Microsoft, or someone like a government who has authority over them, to flip a switch and prevent individuals from developing software, ban content that some stakeholder finds offensive (like art with LGBT characters in Russia, the Middle East, or even North America), or ban entire categories of software like encryption suites or third-party web browsers.

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This is where we get to today's announcement.

Microsoft's Phil Spencer, essentially responding to Tim Sweeney's concerns, and the PC gaming community at large, announced changes to UWP to make it more open. I haven't had too much time to think about it, and some necessary details don't translate well to a keynote segment, but we'll relay what we know. First, they plan to open up VSync off, FreeSync, and G-Sync in May. I find this kind-of odd, since Windows 10 will not receive its significant update (“Anniversary Update”) until July, I'm not sure how they would deliver this. It seems a little big for a simple Windows Update patch. I mean, they have yet to even push new versions of their Edge web browser outside of Windows 10 builds.

The second change is more interesting. Microsoft announced, albeit without dedicating a solid release date or window, to allow modding and overlays in UWP applications. This means that software will be able to, somehow, enter into UWP's process, and users will be encouraged to, somehow, access the file system of UWP applications. Currently, you need to jump through severe hoops to access the contents of Windows Store applications.

They still did not address the issue of side-loading and developing software without a certificate. Granted, you can do both of those things in Windows 10, but in a way that seems like it could be easily removed in a future build, if UWP has enough momentum and whoever runs Microsoft at the time decides to. Remember, this would not be an insidious choice by malicious people. UWP is alluring to Microsoft because it could change the “Windows gets viruses” stigma that is associated with PCs. The problem is that it can be abused, or even unintentionally harm creators and potential users.

On the other hand, they are correcting some major issues. I'm just voicing concerns.

Source: Microsoft

Win 7 Pro is not Enterprise, which you should have probably known already

Subject: General Tech | March 29, 2016 - 01:57 PM |
Tagged: microsoft, windows 10

As far as Updategate issues go, this one seems less a Microsoft problem and more of a consumer problem; however it does remain a serious problem.  For a while now Microsoft have stated that Enterprise Editions of Windows 7 will not be upgraded to Windows 10, nor should they see the nag screens we have all grown to know and despise.   The problem is that not every company uses Microsoft's Volume Licensing which is the only way to get the Enterprise Edition and even if they do they often customize the installation which can remove the Enterprise flag which prevents the upgrade prompts from appearing.

In practice what that means is businesses are now starting to see the upgrade nag screens, from doctors offices to roofing companies to large businesses which are not part of the volume licensing.  As The Inquirer spotted in one comment, this can be a huge problem as a bronchoscopy cart in a hospital which was needed immediately couldn't be used until Windows Update was finished with it.  It has also negatively effected Bootcamp setups or required a system password which no one had used for years.  Here we thought U2 giving away music for free was bad; expect to become as bored of this topic as you are of the nag screens over the coming months.

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"Qualified computers and devices that are deployed in your organization and that are running Windows 7 Pro or Windows 8.1 Pro are eligible for the free Windows 10 upgrade offer and will be able to upgrade through Windows Update."

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Source: The Inquirer

Tim Sweeney (Epic Games) Is Concerned About Openness

Subject: Editorial | March 28, 2016 - 08:44 PM |
Tagged: windows 10, Oculus, microsoft

... and so am I.

When you develop software, you will always be reliant upon platforms. You use their interfaces to make your hardware do stuff. People who maintain these will almost always do so with certain conditions. In iOS's case, you must have all of your content certified by Apple before it can be installed. In Linux's case, if you make any changes to the platform and distribute them, you need to also release what those changes are.

Sometimes, they are enforced with copyright law. Recently, some platform vendors use chains of trust with strong, mathematical keys. This means that, unless Apple, Microsoft, Oculus, or whoever else made a mistake, members of society can be entirely locked out of creating and installing content.

This has pros and cons.

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On the one hand, it can be used to revoke malware authors, scammers, and so forth. These platforms, being more compact, are usually easier to develop for, and might even be portable across deeper platforms, like x86 or ARM.

On the other hand, it can be used to revoke anything else. Imagine that you live in a jurisdiction where the government wants to ban encryption software. Imagine you live in a jurisdiction where the government wants to ban art featuring characters who are LGBT. Imagine you just want to use your hardware in a way that the vendor does not support, such as our attempts to measure UWP application performance.

We need to be extra careful when dealing with good intentions. These are the situations where people will ignore potential abuses because they are blinded by their justifications. This should not be taken lightly, because when you build something, you build it for everyone to use and abuse, intentionally, or even blinded by their own justifications, which often oppose yours.

For art and continued usability, Microsoft, Oculus, and everyone else needs to ensure that their platforms cannot be abused. They are not a government, and they have no legal requirement to grant users free expression, but these choices can have genuine harm. As owners of platforms, you should respect the power that your platform enables society to wield, and implement safeguards so that you can continue to provide it going forward.

Microsoft Surface Book, taking the prize for most expensive laptop and running with it

Subject: Mobile | March 23, 2016 - 12:32 PM |
Tagged: surface, surface book, tablet, Skylake, notebook, microsoft, Intel

The Register is not exaggerating in the quote below, the new Microsoft Surface Book ranges from $1500-$3200 depending on the model you chose, passing even the overpriced Chromebook Pixel by quite a sum of money.  For that price you get a 3200x2000 (267ppi) 13.5" display on a tablet which weighs 3.34lbs (1.5kg), the detachable keyboard with an optional Nvidia GPU and an extra battery as well as a Surface pen.  If you want the dock which adds more connectivity options, well that is another $200 and seeing as how there is only two USB3.0 ports, a single MiniDP and an SD card reader on the keyboard you are likely to want it. 

Certainly The Register liked the looks, design and power of this ultrabook but with the competition, up to and including Apple, offering similar products at half the price it is a hard sell in the end.  Ryan expressed a similar opinion when he reveiwed the Surface Book.

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"Sumptuous and slightly absurd, Microsoft's Surface Book is the most expensive laptop you can get, short of ordering a 24-carat custom gold plated jobbie."

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Source: The Register

Just when you thought Patch Tuesday couldn't get any more absurd

Subject: General Tech | March 10, 2016 - 04:32 PM |
Tagged: microsoft, patch tuesday, windows 10

Microsoft is trying a lot of new things with Windows 10, unfortunately they seem to be things no one has asked for.  We have seen them about face on providing Knowledge Base information on updates, from hiding the actual updates which were being installed to providing a way for admins to actually see which updates were being pushed.  Then they tried out reinstalling and resetting default programs during updates, again something not particularly well received and so was discontinued.   Now Microsoft has found yet another trick to advertise the availability of Win10 to those who have not yet upgraded.  After this latest patch opening a new blank tab gives you a nice blue bar with the text 'Microsoft recommends upgrading to Windows 10.' ... because the pop up and emails were apparently not enough.

The Inquirer might be stretching it a bit when they refer to it as adware but it is certainly not the security patch it is billed as.  For a bit of added class you will never see KB3146449 in your list of installed updates, the only way you will know is if you get that message.  The hidden update is the real worry here, if a patch is released which you cannot determine is actually installed the difficulty to troubleshoot problems is vastly increased.  Advertise if you want but please don't make a habit of pushing hidden updates, OK?

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"JUST WHEN YOU thought Microsoft had stooped as low as it could with Updategate, along comes another low blow. This time it's an advertising payload hidden in a security patch."

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Source: The Inquirer

Microsoft Cancels Fable Legends

Subject: General Tech | March 7, 2016 - 06:44 PM |
Tagged: microsoft, lionhead, fable legends, dx12, DirectX 12

Officially, Microsoft has not yet shut down Lionhead Studios, but they have canceled Fable Legends. They “are in discussions with employees about the proposed closure of Lionhead Studios in the UK.” Press Play, another developer at Microsoft Studios in Europe, will be shut down as a result of this same announcement, but that studio only developed Xbox One titles, and so I'll defer to other gaming outlets to cover that part of the story.

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It's always unfortunate when jobs are cut, which seem certain given the closing paragraph of the Xbox announcement thanking them for their service. The weird part about this whole issue is how late plug was pulled in its development cycle. A closed beta has been operating for months, and a demo was shared with press as a DirectX 12 benchmark. The business model was supposed to be free-to-play, which means that it could potentially continue to bleed money after launch, but you would expect that concerns would have boiled over much earlier than now.

For our audience, this also means the cancellation of one of the expected, early implementations of DirectX 12. Lionhead Studios have also contributed to Unreal Engine 4 during the development of Fable Legends, particularly with shadow map optimization. I think their Global Illumination features, the main topic of the same article that was linked in this paragraph, were contributed upstream too, but I can't find an explicit source of that.

Microsoft Comments on UWP Games and Full Screen Capability

Subject: Graphics Cards | March 3, 2016 - 11:54 AM |
Tagged: uwp, uwa, universal windows platform, microsoft, full screen, dx12, DirectX 12

With all of the debate and discussion that followed the second release of Ashes of the Singularity's DX12 benchmark mode, questions about full screen capabilities on AMD hardware and a debate of the impact the Microsoft Store and Universal Windows Platform would have on PC gaming, we went to the source of the debate to try and get some feedback. Microsoft was willing to talk about the issues that arose from this most recent storm though honestly what it is willing to say on the record today is limited.

When asked specifically about the UWP and PC games made available on the Windows 10 Store, Microsoft reiterated its desire to work with gamers and the community to find what works.

“UWP (Universal Windows Platform) allows developers to create experiences that are easily deployed across all Windows 10 devices, from PCs to tablets to phones to Xbox One. When it comes to a UWP game on Windows 10 PCs, we’re early in our journey. We’re listening to the feedback from the community – multiple GPUs, SLI, crossfire, v-sync, etc. We’re embracing the feedback and working to ensure gamers on Windows 10 have a great experience. We’ll have more to discuss in the coming months.” – a Microsoft spokesperson

It's good to know that Microsoft is listening to the media and gamers and seems willing to make changes based on feedback. It will have to be seen though what of this feedback gets implemented and in what time frame.

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Universal Windows Platform

One particular fear for some gamers is that Microsoft would attempt to move to the WDDM compositing model not just for games sold in the Windows Store, but for all games that run on the OS. I asked Microsoft directly:

To answer your question, can we assume that those full screen features that work today with DX12 will work in the future as well – yes.

This should ease the worries of people thinking the very worst for Windows and DX12 gaming going forward. As long as DX12 allows for games to enter into an exclusive full screen mode, like the FlipEx option we discussed in a previous story, games sold through Steam, Origin and anywhere else will have the ability to behave with DX12 as they do today with DX11.

windowsstore.jpg

Windows 10 Store

I have some meetings setup with various viewpoints on this debate for GDC in a couple weeks, so expect more then!

Microsoft plans to merge PC and Xbox gaming

Subject: General Tech | March 1, 2016 - 11:05 AM |
Tagged: xbox one, windows 10, uwp, uwa, universal windows platform, pc gaming, microsoft, consoles

If my editorial from yesterday didn't get you interested in this discussion, then perhaps a new line of talking from Microsoft's Phil Spencer will do the job. During its spring presser, the company's gaming lead talked about a plan to merge the PC and Xbox gaming experiences with cross platform gaming, universal applications and compatibility for upgraded Xbox consoles. I found a great write up over at The Guardian that I will pick some of the quotes from and then offer up my views.

Now it seems Microsoft’s plan is to shift the entire development model towards universal applications that run across PC and console – indeed any machine that’s compatible with the Universal Windows Platform. This could have radical implications for the console model, which so far has always been based on the idea that the hardware has to remain largely unchanged throughout the machine’s lifespan.

Much like I detailed in yesterday's story, the Universal Windows Platform and applications are the key here, with the goal of allowing developers to code a single game or program that will run on the entire gamut of PCs in the world including desktops and tablets, as well as on the Xbox One game console. 

“In other [consumer technology] ecosystems you get more continuous innovation in hardware that you rarely see in consoles because consoles lock the hardware and software platforms together at the beginning and they ride the generation out for seven years or so,” said Spencer. “We’re allowing ourselves to decouple our software platform from the hardware platform on which it runs.”

I am actually incredibly excited for the idea of more, and more frequently, updated Xbox hardware from Microsoft. Like it or not, with UWP or without it, consoles and their hardware capability have always been a somewhat limiting factor on how much effort game devs put into creating new games for the PC. If we can depend on newer console hardware, and that games will more ably handle newer, faster components, then it raises the ceiling for image quality, new features, experiences like VR, etc.

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“We can effectively feel a little bit more like what we see on PC where I can still go back and run my old Quake and Doom games, but then I can also see the best 4K games coming out. Hardware innovation continues and software takes advantage. I don’t have to jump generation and lose everything I played before.”

Expect to see some rolled eyes as you read this quote from Spencer; as PC gamers we already HAVE that capability and the move to UWP and UWAs is threatening to hinder that for us going forward. The PC has seen Steam, Origin, DRM-free gaming, an accelerated path to digital distribution, mods, overlays, benchmarking - all things that were held back or outlawed on consoles.

The Xbox chief ended his keynote by reiterating the importance of the PC as a gaming platform. He promised that UWAs will support multiple different graphics processors and that issues with V-Sync ( a setting that matches the game framerate with your monitor’s screen refresh rate) would be resolved.

Enabling support for different GPUs is a good promise, but much more important than just saying it is knowing HOW that support will be handled. As we saw based on our testing and research with Ashes of the Singularity, just supporting Radeon and GeForce cards isn't enough. What about features unique to each GPU? What about SLI and CrossFire? Variable refresh rate monitors? Enabling maximum performance with exclusive fullscreen modes? There is a lot to be answered and discussed. 

ed4.jpg

Quantum Break will be on PC, exclusively as a Unified Windows App

This also marks the second time I have heard Spencer mention a "fix" for Vsync issues. I'd love to hear what they have in mind, and I have asked MS several times, but so far I haven't gotten any kind of solid answer. The real question is: does MS understand the problem and the gaming community on the PC well enough to even know what the problem is they are trying to fix?

The big question now is how onboard the development community is with the UWA concept. In theory, these apps should run seamlessly on top of PC and Xbox One architectures, with abstractions to exploit the graphics processors, system memory and other hardware features, as well as compatibility with Microsoft’s DirectX application programming interface (API) for enhanced graphics performance. But will the reality match the promise?

"In theory" and "in practice" are two wildly different things, and we've already seen one example of this not going as planned. I do believe that game developers would jump at the chance to have true cross compatibility as long as the hiccups and issues we are discussing can be dealt with in a reasonable way. It just makes sense: this eases development hurdles and expands the possible customer base.

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Outside of Microsoft, it will be interesting to see how studios react. “In principle UWA sounds like a good idea,” says Byron Atkinson-Jones, a veteran games programmer, now running his own indie studio, Xiotex, and working on sci-fi puzzler, Caretaker. “It offers a more unified platform or environment rather than a fragmented operating systems running on an even more fragmented hardware base. However, this is all reliant on just how hard it is to develop for and how much of a closed shop it will become.

“The best thing about PC is that anyone can make a game for it and UWA sounds like it’s going to become a curated system that will probably require some developer registration to get on.”

Exactly this. The benefit of the PC is its openness, even when running on Windows (as opposed to SteamOS or Linux, for example.) If you take that away, will developers and gamers start to walk? 

Given that Microsoft is promoting UWP as a catch-all platform for Windows 10 that encompasses Xbox one, what does this mean in terms of support for the console’s hardware specifications? “As it stands currently, if you are making an Xbox one game you can be sure on what kind of hardware it’s running,” says Atkinson-Jones. “If developers are then forced down a UWA route, is it going to be the case that this certainty is gone and we get back to the situation on PC where you have to start specifying a minimum spec – which kind of renders a unified platform redundant?”

I disagree that having a minimum spec makes a unified platform less useful, it simply sets a standard for which experience and gameplay can be measured. Even Apple iPhones and iOS implement this to some degree and they have as locked down of a software ecosystem as you can get. If it's handled correctly, Microsoft could be the arbiter of hardware classification and certification, as they kind of already are with WHQL, making sure that any PC hardware or updated Xbox hardware will pass the test for previous and upcoming gaming titles.

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But that is a very difficult task and is likely why MS would like to integrate some restrictions through the API and Windows compositing engine to help them hold that promise moving into the future.

But he will have to convince not just gamers, but the development community. “Microsoft has tried this before with Games for Windows and that was a disaster,” says Atkinson-Jones. “There will be many game developers who had to go through that monstrosity shaking their heads in disbelief that history may just be about to repeat itself.”

Oh yeah, that...remember Games for Windows Live? Remember when it cratered and we had to deal with the fallout of some games not working without GWL servers running? Or just the complication of needing a unique sign-in that often tied the game down in unwieldy ways? That's the dystopian future that PC gamers want to avoid.

All of that being said, I'm still hopeful that Microsoft can turn this into a positive movement. Removing the 7 year upgrade cycle for the Xbox One means that PC gamers will benefit from moving specs on the consoles, giving game developers the ability to target higher end hardware as the platform evolves. I do believe that cross platform games will mean an increase in innovative titles with expanded audiences and more opportunity for developers to make money for their work. But all of this has to be done with more sensitivity to the PC ecosystem than it is being addressed with currently. If nothing else, PC gamers are a loud and easily started group.

Be sure you read the full story over at The Guardian!

Source: The Guardian
Author:
Manufacturer: Microsoft

Things are about to get...complicated

Earlier this week, the team behind Ashes of the Singularity released an updated version of its early access game, which updated its features and capabilities. With support for DirectX 11 and DirectX 12, and adding in multiple graphics card support, the game featured a benchmark mode that got quite a lot of attention. We saw stories based on that software posted by Anandtech, Guru3D and ExtremeTech, all of which had varying views on the advantages of one GPU or another.

That isn’t the focus of my editorial here today, though.

Shortly after the initial release, a discussion began around results from the Guru3D story that measured frame time consistency and smoothness with FCAT, a capture based testing methodology much like the Frame Rating process we have here at PC Perspective. In that post on ExtremeTech, Joel Hruska claims that the results and conclusion from Guru3D are wrong because the FCAT capture methods make assumptions on the output matching what the user experience feels like.  Maybe everyone is wrong?

First a bit of background: I have been working with Oxide and the Ashes of the Singularity benchmark for a couple of weeks, hoping to get a story that I was happy with and felt was complete, before having to head out the door to Barcelona for the Mobile World Congress. That didn’t happen – such is life with an 8-month old. But, in my time with the benchmark, I found a couple of things that were very interesting, even concerning, that I was working through with the developers.

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FCAT overlay as part of the Ashes benchmark

First, the initial implementation of the FCAT overlay, which Oxide should be PRAISED for including since we don’t have and likely won’t have a DX12 universal variant of, was implemented incorrectly, with duplication of color swatches that made the results from capture-based testing inaccurate. I don’t know if Guru3D used that version to do its FCAT testing, but I was able to get some updated EXEs of the game through the developer in order to the overlay working correctly. Once that was corrected, I found yet another problem: an issue of frame presentation order on NVIDIA GPUs that likely has to do with asynchronous shaders. Whether that issue is on the NVIDIA driver side or the game engine side is still being investigated by Oxide, but it’s interesting to note that this problem couldn’t have been found without a proper FCAT implementation.

With all of that under the bridge, I set out to benchmark this latest version of Ashes and DX12 to measure performance across a range of AMD and NVIDIA hardware. The data showed some abnormalities, though. Some results just didn’t make sense in the context of what I was seeing in the game and what the overlay results were indicating. It appeared that Vsync (vertical sync) was working differently than I had seen with any other game on the PC.

For the NVIDIA platform, tested using a GTX 980 Ti, the game seemingly randomly starts up with Vsync on or off, with no clear indicator of what was causing it, despite the in-game settings being set how I wanted them. But the Frame Rating capture data was still working as I expected – just because Vsync is enabled doesn’t mean you can look at the results in capture formats. I have written stories on what Vsync enabled captured data looks like and what it means as far back as April 2013. Obviously, to get the best and most relevant data from Frame Rating, setting vertical sync off is ideal. Running into more frustration than answers, I moved over to an AMD platform.

Continue reading PC Gaming Shakeup: Ashes of the Singularity, DX12 and the Microsoft Store!!