Microsoft Takes a Mulligan with Windows 10 Build 17134

Subject: General Tech | April 16, 2018 - 09:21 PM |
Tagged: microsoft, windows 10

We were supposed to get Windows 10 build 17133 last week – but we didn’t.

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As it turns out, Microsoft says that they noticed their reliability metrics fall below their comfortable threshold, so they pulled the build. They could have fixed the issues with a Cumulative Update, but they didn't. While I’m sure Microsoft doesn’t want you to avoid Windows Updates, cough cough, the feature updates are kind-of the blank slates that get updated, so it’s probably for the best that they meet a certain level of stability. I mean, it would suck to not be able to install an update because your machine crashes before it installs the update that fixes the crash, right?

Fast forward a week, though, and we now have a new build, 17134, which is being pushed to Insiders. This means that it will probably be a bit of time before the public gets their hands on it. It would seem kind-of odd to push a build to Insiders and then YOLO it to the world at large the very next day.

Maybe next week? Maybe the week after? No idea. It's coming, though.

What a load of codswallop; sard off Microsoft!

Subject: General Tech | March 28, 2018 - 12:45 PM |
Tagged: wtf, microsoft, censorship

You might have noticed and deleted an email from Microsoft this morning, informing you of a change in their Services Agreement with you.   Fortunately someone over at The Inquirer actually read the update and noticed a particularly egregious update, if you swear at your friends on Skype you just might lose your account.  By using Microsoft services you are now agreeing not to share inappropriate content or material, which includes offensive language, so you should watch your tongue around Cortana in case she reports you. 

It is unlikely that Microsoft will have the capability to monitor all conversations so the use of occasional blue language may escape their notice; hopefully they don't watch the bloody podcast.  Illegal content remains illegal and is what they should be devoting their resources to detecting, not someone showing off their intellect and grasp of language.

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"If you violate these Terms, we may stop providing Services to you or we may close your Microsoft account. We may also block delivery of a communication (like email, file sharing or instant message) to or from the Services in an effort to enforce these Terms or we may remove or refuse to publish Your Content for any reason."

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Source: The Inquirer
Manufacturer: Microsoft

O Rayly? Ya Rayly. No Ray!

Microsoft has just announced a raytracing extension to DirectX 12, called DirectX Raytracing (DXR), at the 2018 Game Developer's Conference in San Francisco.

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The goal is not to completely replace rasterization… at least not yet. This effect will be mostly implemented for effects that require supplementary datasets, such as reflections, ambient occlusion, and refraction. Rasterization, the typical way that 3D geometry gets drawn on a 2D display, converts triangle coordinates into screen coordinates, and then a point-in-triangle test runs across every sample. This will likely occur once per AA sample (minus pixels that the triangle can’t possibly cover -- such as a pixel outside of the triangle's bounding box -- but that's just optimization).

microsoft-2018-gdc-directx12raytracing-rasterization.png

For rasterization, each triangle is laid on a 2D grid corresponding to the draw surface.
If any sample is in the triangle, the pixel shader is run.
This example shows the rotated grid MSAA case.

A program, called a pixel shader, is then run with some set of data that the GPU could gather on every valid pixel in the triangle. This set of data typically includes things like world coordinate, screen coordinate, texture coordinates, nearby vertices, and so forth. This lacks a lot of information, especially things that are not visible to the camera. The application is free to provide other sources of data for the shader to crawl… but what?

  • Cubemaps are useful for reflections, but they don’t necessarily match the scene.
  • Voxels are useful for lighting, as seen with NVIDIA’s VXGI and VXAO.

This is where DirectX Raytracing comes in. There’s quite a few components to it, but it’s basically a new pipeline that handles how rays are cast into the environment. After being queued, it starts out with a ray-generation stage, and then, depending on what happens to the ray in the scene, there are close-hit, any-hit, and miss shaders. Ray generation allows the developer to set up how the rays are cast, where they call an HLSL instrinsic instruction, TraceRay (which is a clever way of invoking them, by the way). This function takes an origin and a direction, so you can choose to, for example, cast rays only in the direction of lights if your algorithm was to, for instance, approximate partially occluded soft shadows from a non-point light. (There are better algorithms to do that, but it's just the first example that came off the top of my head.) The close-hit, any-hit, and miss shaders occur at the point where the traced ray ends.

To connect this with current technology, imagine that ray-generation is like a vertex shader in rasterization, where it sets up the triangle to be rasterized, leading to pixel shaders being called.

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Even more interesting – the close-hit, any-hit, and miss shaders can call TraceRay themselves, which is used for multi-bounce and other recursive algorithms (see: figure above). The obvious use case might be reflections, which is the headline of the GDC talk, but they want it to be as general as possible, aligning with the evolution of GPUs. Looking at NVIDIA’s VXAO implementation, it also seems like a natural fit for a raytracing algorithm.

Speaking of data structures, Microsoft also detailed what they call the acceleration structure. Each object is composed of two levels. The top level contains per-object metadata, like its transformation and whatever else data that the developer wants to add to it. The bottom level contains the geometry. The briefing states, “essentially vertex and index buffers” so we asked for clarification. DXR requires that triangle geometry be specified as vertex positions in either 32-bit float3 or 16-bit float3 values. There is also a stride property, so developers can tweak data alignment and use their rasterization vertex buffer, as long as it's HLSL float3, either 16-bit or 32-bit.

As for the tools to develop this in…

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Microsoft announced PIX back in January 2017. This is a debugging and performance analyzer for 64-bit, DirectX 12 applications. Microsoft will upgrade it to support DXR as soon as the API is released (specifically, “Day 1”). This includes the API calls, the raytracing pipeline resources, the acceleration structure, and so forth. As usual, you can expect Microsoft to support their APIs with quite decent – not perfect, but decent – documentation and tools. They do it well, and they want to make sure it’s available when the API is.

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Example of DXR via EA's in-development SEED engine.

In short, raytracing is here, but it’s not taking over rasterization. It doesn’t need to. Microsoft is just giving game developers another, standardized mechanism to gather supplementary data for their games. Several game engines have already announced support for this technology, including the usual suspects of anything top-tier game technology:

  • Frostbite (EA/DICE)
  • SEED (EA)
  • 3DMark (Futuremark)
  • Unreal Engine 4 (Epic Games)
  • Unity Engine (Unity Technologies)

They also said, “and several others we can’t disclose yet”, so this list is not even complete. But, yeah, if you have Frostbite, Unreal Engine, and Unity, then you have a sizeable market as it is. There is always a question about how much each of these engines will support the technology. Currently, raytracing is not portable outside of DirectX 12, because it’s literally being announced today, and each of these engines intend to support more than just Windows 10 and Xbox.

Still, we finally have a standard for raytracing, which should drive vendors to optimize in a specific direction. From there, it's just a matter of someone taking the risk to actually use the technology for a cool work of art.

If you want to read more, check out Ryan's post about the also-announced RTX, NVIDIA's raytracing technology.

Manufacturer: Microsoft

It's all fun and games until something something AI.

Microsoft announced the Windows Machine Learning (WinML) API about two weeks ago, but they did so in a sort-of abstract context. This week, alongside the 2018 Game Developers Conference, they are grounding it in a practical application: video games!

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Specifically, the API provides the mechanisms for game developers to run inference on the target machine. The training data that it runs against would be in the Open Neural Network Exchange (ONNX) format from Microsoft, Facebook, and Amazon. Like the initial announcement suggests, it can be used for any application, not just games, but… you know. If you want to get a technology off the ground, and it requires a high-end GPU, then video game enthusiasts are good lead users. When run in a DirectX application, WinML kernels are queued on the DirectX 12 compute queue.

We’ve discussed the concept before. When you’re rendering a video game, simulating an accurate scenario isn’t your goal – the goal is to look like you are. The direct way of looking like you’re doing something is to do it. The problem is that some effects are too slow (or, sometimes, too complicated) to correctly simulate. In these cases, it might be viable to make a deep-learning AI hallucinate a convincing result, even though no actual simulation took place.

Fluid dynamics, global illumination, and up-scaling are three examples.

Previously mentioned SIGGRAPH demo of fluid simulation without fluid simulation...
... just a trained AI hallucinating a scene based on input parameters.

Another place where AI could be useful is… well… AI. One way of making AI is to give it some set of data from the game environment, often including information that a player in its position would not be able to know, and having it run against a branching logic tree. Deep learning, on the other hand, can train itself on billions of examples of good and bad play, and make results based on input parameters. While the two methods do not sound that different, the difference between logic being designed (vs logic being assembled from an abstract good/bad dataset) someone abstracts the potential for assumptions and programmer error. Of course, it abstracts that potential for error into the training dataset, but that’s a whole other discussion.

The third area that AI could be useful is when you’re creating the game itself.

There’s a lot of grunt and grind work when developing a video game. Licensing prefab solutions (or commissioning someone to do a one-off asset for you) helps ease this burden, but that gets expensive in terms of both time and money. If some of those assets could be created by giving parameters to a deep-learning AI, then those are assets that you would not need to make, allowing you to focus on other assets and how they all fit together.

These are three of the use cases that Microsoft is aiming WinML at.

nvidia-2018-deeplearningcarupscale.png

Sure, these are smooth curves of large details, but the antialiasing pattern looks almost perfect.

For instance, Microsoft is pointing to an NVIDIA demo where they up-sample a photo of a car, once with bilinear filtering and once with a machine learning algorithm (although not WinML-based). The bilinear algorithm behaves exactly as someone who has used Photoshop would expect. The machine learning algorithm, however, was able to identify the objects that the image intended to represent, and it drew the edges that it thought made sense.

microsoft-2018-gdc-PIX.png

Like their DirectX Raytracing (DXR) announcement, Microsoft plans to have PIX support WinML “on Day 1”. As for partners? They are currently working with Unity Technologies to provide WinML support in Unity’s ML-Agents plug-in. That’s all the game industry partners they have announced at the moment, though. It’ll be interesting to see who jumps in and who doesn’t over the next couple of years.

Windows 10's latest trick? Perpetually hitting EOL; secretly.

Subject: General Tech | March 9, 2018 - 01:49 PM |
Tagged: windows 10, spring creators update, microsoft

Microsoft demonstrated once again how little it learns from past mistakes.  Those who chose to opt out of updates to reduce the amount of data which Microsoft collects, or to ensure a production machine remains in a known state will soon find themselves running the latest build of Win10.  This will not be a choice, as it bypasses Windows Update and will install even if you have blocked that service; similar to the last three major updates.  Microsoft decided not to officially inform users of this, perhaps in the hopes no one would notice.

It seems that Windows 10 builds will essentially hit EOL every time a new major update is pushed out, and if you manage to successfully block the update, you won't receive any new security patches.  The Inquirer is as unimpressed with this as you are.

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"Users, particularly those who have opted out of data collection, are being told that they must update to Build 1709 (the most recent) in order to continue receiving security patches."

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Source: The Inquirer

Qualcomm signs major carriers and retailers for Always Connected PC launch

Subject: Mobile | February 21, 2018 - 11:10 AM |
Tagged: snapdragon, qualcomm, microsoft, always connected pc

With availability scheduled to begin next month, Qualcomm is prepping for its final push to prepare the market for what it believes is a revolutionary product category for the PC market. Just before the mobile media and analysts focus attention on Mobile World Congress in Barcelona next week, Qualcomm hopes it has completed the final step in the launch of its “Windows 10 on Snapdragon” line. Partners like Amazon, the Microsoft Stores, Verizon, and AT&T will provide the cellular LTE connections to maintain an always-connected state and the retail and online locations to purchase them.

By combining Windows 10 and the company’s Snapdragon mobile platform with efficiency and connectivity advantages other PC chip vendors can’t match, Qualcomm is hoping that its creation of this new sub-category of PC that focuses on being always connected through a smartphone-like cellular connection will pay dividends. Compared to Intel processors that target similar form factors of notebook PCs including 2-in-1s and detachable tablets, the Qualcomm chips differentiate by including the capability for LTE connectivity on every design, without having to pay an upgrade cost.

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The ability for a Qualcomm-powered Windows 10 PC to have an “instant on” button to turn on the screen without a boot or wake-from-sleep process, again in the same way your smartphone works today, is another touted feature. Battery life is the other tent pole, with Qualcomm often citing disingenuous battery life estimates on Intel-powered systems but “beyond all day” battery life for its own.

Getting these Qualcomm-chip Windows notebooks into the market might seem like a trivial task but inserting a new totally new product category into retail and e-tail takes careful management. Qualcomm will have to educate consumers on how its platform is different and what advantages it can offer over other laptops. Retailers will have to undertake most of that education process, as the customer will need guidance to avoid costly returns and support calls.

The added complexity of a cellular connection will mean that some kind of registration process will have to occur before the PC is truly “always connected.” It will need to be added to a data plan on an existing carrier agreement (think adding a new phone to your cell account) or through a pre-paid arrangement.

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A touchier subject surrounds the retail channel and how PCs are sold in today’s market. Despite the years of legal disputes and resolutions, most in the industry still view Intel as wielding incredible power in the retail and online e-tail sales channels. Through practices like rebates, education programs, and sales clerk discounts, it can be hard for a new player to battle the incumbent without a similar amount of marketing muscle and dollars behind them. Even AMD, with years of practice selling its own processors and systems, struggles at time to get the attention and retail shelf space its products deserve.

In the US market, Microsoft will be taking the helm at the retail channel, stocking and selling the three first Qualcomm Snapdragon Windows 10 PCs from HP, Lenovo, and ASUS. Though the quantity of Microsoft stores is limited, placement here is a big win for Qualcomm and its partners. The Microsoft Stores are generally considered the presentation point for the flagship Windows devices, indicating that Microsoft itself puts a lot of weight behind the category that Qualcomm is creating.

For the online markets, Amazon will be the primary location in the US for sales. In talks with Qualcomm executives, it appears that the online giant will be handling a lot of that education and cellular activation. While I am certain that Qualcomm would love to have had a nationwide brick-and-mortar retailer like Best Buy in the mix, the Minneapolis-based company did not buy in.

Qualcomm has other retailers lined up across the globe, including in Australia, Italy, France, and the UK. China will have sales through JD.com, one of the largest online retailers in the world with more than 266M active users. Qualcomm still has many regions to address with availability and wider distribution as the second wave of PCs comes to market in the holiday of 2018, but it believes it has a solid start under its belt.

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Graphic Source: TechSpot

Operator support is just as crucial for Qualcomm’s new PC category as retail availability. If a consumer buys a device but isn’t offered service from a mobile telecommunications provider along with it, much of the appeal of the device is lost. Carriers in the UK, Italy, China, France, Germany, Ireland, Spain, Switzerland, and US (including all four major players Verizon, Sprint, AT&T, and T-Mobile), will begin offering plans for the Windows 10 on Snapdragon PCs. Details of what the specific costs will be aren’t being shared and will vary for each carrier.

Affordability of these plans will be critical to the mass market success of the Always Connected PC. Consumers will not pay exorbitant amounts of money to add a device to their existing cell phone plan but providers may be hesitant to offer discounts for a platform that inherently will have potential for greater data consumption. Users on smartphones often get lower resolution video or web pages because of the smaller screen size. But these full capability PCs will likely stream full resolution content and could create additional strain on the networks.

Source: Qualcomm

Windows 10 on ARM Details

Subject: General Tech | February 19, 2018 - 01:22 PM |
Tagged: microsoft, windows 10, qualcomm, arm

Paul Thurrott found a developer documentation page, Troubleshooting x86 Desktop Apps, on the Windows Dev Center. The goal of the page is to list a few reasons why the software you develop might not be compatible with Windows 10 on ARM and the WOW translation layer. Yup, they’re reusing that name, which was the translation layer for 32-bit Win32 applications running on 64-bit Windows.

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Based on this document, we now know that Windows on ARM:

  • Will not translate x86 drivers, just x86 applications and services.
  • Does not support 64-bit applications (Thurrott.com says they’re working on it.)
  • Does not support (hardware-accelerated) OpenGL 1.1+ or DirectX 1-8
    • Vulkan is not mentioned anywhere, but I’m guessing not.

There are also a few other issues, like the application cannot modify Windows components (ex: the 7-zip entry in the Windows file explorer’s right-click menu) unless it is recompiled for ARM. Thurrott.com also says that Hyper-V is not supported in Windows 10 on ARM.

The amount of software that Windows on ARM can run is surprisingly both broader and narrower than I would have expected. The major issue for me is OpenGL – you would think that the graphics driver would dictate this, not so much the OS APIs. I certainly hope that, especially after their other pushes toward openness, Microsoft isn’t pressuring ARM manufacturers to not ship an OpenGL driver, even though the hardware vendors clearly know how to support OpenGL ES at the very least.

And yes, there could very well be a good reason, and they might even be working on OpenGL support as we speak, but it’s an odd omission (at least for now).

Lastly, this has nothing to do with UWP applications. This document is only about standard Win32 applications running on ARM processors. UWP is designed to be cross-architecture. You just need to include the ARM target when you build and package.

Source: Microsoft

Windows 10 brings you Ultimate Power!!!

Subject: General Tech | February 15, 2018 - 01:00 PM |
Tagged: microsoft, windows 10

Microsoft's new Ultimate Performance mode is impressively name but a bit hyperbolic as what it refers to is a new power plan which will be available to desktop machines in Build 17101 and Build 17604.  There is not much more information on the new setting, apart from its intent to reduce micro-latencies, likely referring specifically to intense computational tasks and not aimed at making your game run faster.  It is possible that an enthusiast would benefit from the new power schema, it will be interesting to see the results once the update lands.  In the mean time you can pop by Slashdot for links and commentary.

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"As the name implies, this is a step up for people for whom even the High Performance mode isn't enough -- it throws power management out the window to eliminate "micro-latencies" and boost raw speed. You can set it yourself, but PC makers will have the option of shipping systems with the feature turned on. Ultimate Performance isn't currently available for laptops or tablets, but Microsoft suggests that could change."

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Source: Slashdot

The new Skype, with assorted features you don't want and none of the ones you used to love

Subject: General Tech | February 13, 2018 - 01:23 PM |
Tagged: microsoft, skype, security

The new Skype looks much like a child who swallowed far too many Halloween candies and happened to be facing a monitor during the inevitable outcome; a feature not many requested.  Also gone is the ability to program your own add-ins and apply them to Skype to enhance recording and a variety of other features which made the product useful.  Microsoft ended that when they took Skype over, however they offer some other less popular features.   One such is a vulnerability which allows the unsecure update process to be used to inject nasty DLLs to give SYSTEM level access to an attacker.  From what The Inquirer has been able to find out, Microsoft will not be releasing a patch for vulnerable versions but will instead release a new version at some point, without the vulnerability baked in. 

Conspicuosly absent from this discussion was the soon to be Team-ed Skype for Business which may or may not feature this particular problem.  As it updates through Office 365 it should be safe, but not many security execs are satisifed by 'should'.

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"Long story short - there's so much code that would need to be rewritten that it isn't worth it to Microsoft to shore-up this version. What's not quite clear is whether this affects the grotesque UWP version of Skype or just the old desktop version."

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Source: The Inquirer

LinkedIn and Microsoft find a way to help you need to find a new job ... in a hurry

Subject: General Tech | February 8, 2018 - 12:50 PM |
Tagged: résumé, microsoft, linkedin, bad idea, résumé assistant

It is so obvious that it is hard to believe Microsoft didn't do this years ago.  Obviously the best time and place to search for a new job is over your current employers network, using Microsoft Word.  Now you can, as Word and LinkedIn will now be joined at the hip.  Yes, that source of bizarre requests to connect with people you have essentially nothing in common with apart from the fact that you may have been employed at some time in your life is coming to O359!  It won't start out as annoyingly persistent as Clippy, it will be buried under the Review tab on your ribbon, but it will be there unless IT decides to block it. 

It is of course referred to as having an AI, to pop up those completely inappropriate job suggestions LinkedIn excels at, as well as scanning the résumés of others to offer you advice on how to best write about your qualifications.  Read more about Microsoft's $25 billion Résumé Assistant over at El Reg.

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"Microsoft has glued LinkedIn and Office 365's Word together so it can automatically help folks write or update their résumés – and find them new jobs at the same time."

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Source: The Register