Subject: General Tech | February 4, 2016 - 06:18 PM | Tim Verry
Tagged: open source, microsoft, machine learning, deep neural network, deep learning, cntk, azure
Microsoft has been using deep neural networks for awhile now to power its speech recognition technologies bundled into Windows and Skype to identify and follow commands and to translate speech respectively. This technology is part of Microsoft's Computational Network Toolkit. Last April, the company made this toolkit available to academic researchers on Codeplex, and it is now opening it up even more by moving the project to GitHub and placing it under an open source license.
Lead by chief speech and computer scientist Xuedong Huang, a team of Microsoft researchers built the Computational Network Toolkit (CNTK) to power all their speech related projects. The CNTK is a deep neural network for machine learning that is built to be fast and scalable across multiple systems, and more importantly, multiple GPUs which excel at these kinds of parallel processing workloads and algorithms. Microsoft heavily focused on scalability with CNTK and according to the company's own benchmarks (which is to say to be taken with a healthy dose of salt) while the major competing neural network tool kits offer similar performance running on a single GPU, when adding more than one graphics card CNTK is vastly more efficient with almost four times the performance of Google's TensorFlow and a bit more than 1.5-times Torch 7 and Caffe. Where CNTK gets a bit deep learning crazy is its ability to scale beyond a single system and easily tap into Microsoft's Azure GPU Lab to get access to numerous GPUs from their remote datacenters -- though its not free you don't need to purchase, store, and power the hardware locally and can ramp the number up and down based on how much GPU muscle you need. The example Microsoft provided showed two similarly spec'd Linux systems with four GPUs each running on Azure cloud hosting getting close to twice the performance of the 4 GPU system (75% increase). Microsoft claims that "CNTK can easily scale beyond 8 GPUs across multiple machines with superior distributed system performance."
Using GPU-based Azure machines, Microsoft was able to increase the performance of Cortana's speech recognition by 10-times compared to the local systems they were previously using.
It is always cool to see GPU compute in practice and now that CNTK is available to everyone, I expect to see a lot of new uses for the toolkit beyond speech recognition. Moving to an open source license is certainly good PR, but I think it was actually done more for Microsoft's own benefit rather than users which isn't necessarily a bad thing since both get to benefit from it. I am really interested to see what researchers are able to do with a deep neural network that reportedly offers so much performance thanks to GPUs. I'm curious what new kinds of machine learning opportunities the extra speed will enable.
If you are interested, you can check out CNTK on GitHub!
That Depends on Whether They Need One
Ars Technica UK published an editorial called, Hey Valve: What's the point of Steam OS? The article does not actually pose the question in it's text -- it mostly rants about technical problems with a Zotac review unit -- but the headline is interesting none-the-less.
Here's my view of the situation.
The Death of Media Center May Have Been...
There's two parts to this story, and both center around Windows 8. The first was addressed in an editorial that I wrote last May, titled The Death of Media Center & What Might Have Been. Microsoft wanted to expand the PC platform into the living room. Beyond the obvious support for movies, TV, and DVR, they also pushed PC gaming in a few subtle ways. The Games for Windows certification required games to be launchable by Media Center and support Xbox 360 peripherals, which pressures game developers to make PC games comfortable to play on a couch. They also created Tray and Play, which is an optional feature that allows PC games to be played from the disk while they installed in the background. Back in 2007, before Steam and other digital distribution services really took off, this eliminated install time, which was a major user experience problem with PC gaming (and a major hurdle for TV-connected PCs).
It also had a few nasty implications. Games for Windows Live tried to eliminate modding by requiring all content to be certified (or severely limiting the tools as seen in Halo 2 Vista). Microsoft was scared about the content that users could put into their games, especially since Hot Coffee (despite being locked, first-party content) occurred less than two years earlier. You could also argue that they were attempting to condition PC users to accept paid DLC.
Regardless of whether it would have been positive or negative for the PC industry, the Media Center initiative launched with Windows Vista, which is another way of saying “exploded on the launch pad, leaving no survivors.” Windows 7 cleared the wreckage with a new team, who aimed for the stars with Windows 8. They ignored the potential of the living room PC, preferring devices and services (ie: Xbox) over an ecosystem provided by various OEMs.
If you look at the goals of Steam OS, they align pretty well with the original, Vista-era ambitions. Valve hopes to create a platform that hardware vendors could compete on. Devices, big or small, expensive or cheap, could fill all of the various needs that users have in the living room. Unfortunately, unlike Microsoft, they cannot be (natively) compatible with the catalog of Windows software.
This may seem like Valve is running toward a cliff, but keep reading.
What If Steam OS Competed with Windows Store?
Windows 8 did more than just abandon the vision of Windows Media Center. Driven by the popularity of the iOS App Store, Microsoft saw a way to end the public perception that Windows is hopelessly insecure. With the Windows Store, all software needs to be reviewed and certified by Microsoft. Software based on the Win32 API, which is all software for Windows 7 and earlier, was only allowed within the “Desktop App,” which was a second-class citizen and could be removed at any point.
This potential made the PC software industry collectively crap themselves. Mozilla was particularly freaked out, because Windows Store demanded (at the time) that all web browsers become reskins of Internet Explorer. This means that Firefox would not be able to implement any new Web standards on Windows, because it can only present what Internet Explorer (Trident) draws. Mozilla's mission is to develop a strong, standards-based web browser that forces all others to interoperate or die.
Remember: “This website is best viewed with Internet Explorer”?
Executives from several PC gaming companies, including Valve, Blizzard, and Mojang, spoke out against Windows 8 at the time (along with browser vendors and so forth). Steam OS could be viewed as a fire escape for Valve if Microsoft decided to try its luck and kill, or further deprecate, Win32 support. In the mean time, Windows PCs could stream to it until Linux gained a sufficient catalog of software.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
This is where Steam OS gets interesting. Its software library cannot compete against Windows with its full catalog of Win32 applications, at least not for a long time. On the other hand, if Microsoft continues to support Win32 as a first-class citizen, and they returned to the level of openness with software vendors that they had in the Windows XP era, then Valve doesn't really have a reason to care about Steam OS as anything more than a hobby anyway. Likewise, if doomsday happens and something like Windows RT ends up being the future of Windows, as many feared, then Steam OS wouldn't need to compete against Windows. Its only competition from Microsoft would be Windows Store apps and first-party software.
I would say that Valve might even have a better chance than Microsoft in that case.
Subject: General Tech | January 28, 2016 - 07:25 PM | Jeremy Hellstrom
Tagged: Privacy, microsoft, edge
Microsoft is revisiting an old issue with private browsing which we have seen too many times unfortunately. In 2010 Firefox's private browsing broke and left site visits on your computer and in 2013 Chrome went through the same issue. More recently it was discovered that when Chrome interacted with an NVIDIA GPU, sites could also be retrieved. Now it is Edge's turn, the browser stores your page visits in tables under <user>\appdata\local\microsoft\windows\history even when using InPrivate Mode. This will be resolved soon but for now if you are secretly ... ah, shopping for a loved one you might want to use a different browser, VPN or other measure. There is more info over at The Inquirer.
"BURGEONING ORWELLIAN nightmare corporation Microsoft has once again been found lacking in the security department, this time for the new and improved Edge browser in Windows 10."
Here is some more Tech News from around the web:
- Windows 10: Preloaded TripAdvisor app could open doors to a world of crap @ The Inquirer
- Apple recalls some iPad and MacBook chargers due to electric shock risk @ The Inqurier
- Production of new 4K iPad Air to begin in 2Q16, say Taiwan makers @ DigiTimes
- Windows Mobile users suffer backup super-slurp as Redmond forgets Wi-Fi switch @ The Register
- GitHub falls offline, devs worldwide declare today a snow day @ The Register
- Brit censors endure 10-hour Paint Drying movie epic @ The Register
- Computer Beats Go Champion @ The Inquirer
Subject: Systems | January 23, 2016 - 07:26 AM | Scott Michaud
Tagged: microsoft, surface, surface pro 4, surface book
The Microsoft Surface Book and Surface Pro 4 launched back in October, and Ryan published a review of them in December. He didn't really make reference to it, but the highest-end model of each were unavailable until a later date. As it turns out, that time is roughly now. I say “roughly” because, while Microsoft has launched the devices, Amazon's landing page doesn't list them, and searching for the product directly shows a price tag of just under $10,000. I assume Amazon hasn't pushed the appropriate buttons yet.
The only real improvement that you will see, versus the second-highest SKU, is a jump in SSD capacity from 512GB to 1TB. This extra storage will cost roughly 1$/GB, but this is also a very fast NVMe SSD. If 512GB was too small, and you were holding out for availability of the 1TB model, then your wait should (basically) be over.
Although, since you waited this long, you might want to hold off a little longer. Microsoft is supposed to be correcting (some say) severe issues with upcoming firmware. You may want to see whether the problems are solved before dropping two-and-a-half to three grand.
Subject: General Tech | January 22, 2016 - 05:15 PM | Jeremy Hellstrom
Tagged: microsoft, Windows Store, windows 10
If the complaints of the developers in this story over at The Register are accurate then the problem with the Windows Store might not be that there are no good apps but instead that you simply can't find them. If a developer can't find their own app in the store using keywords in the title or description or even the ones they submitted to the store then how can you expect to? If the only good way to find an app is to know its exact name, how many apps are there in the store that no one but the developer has even seen? It is still possible that an improved search function will not help the Windows Store but at this point its reputation could not get all that much worse.
"Looking at the developer forums though, it seems that official guidance and assistance for this issue is not easy to find, which will not help Microsoft in its efforts to establish a strong Windows 10 app ecosystem."
Here is some more Tech News from around the web:
- Containers! Containers! Containers! And RHEL 7.2. Employ as you wish @ The Register
- Microsoft launches Office Insider programme for Mac OS X users @ The Inquirer
- Security company RSA wants your plain text Twitter log-in @ The Inquirer
- Alcatel Flash 2 Upgrades @ TechARP
Subject: General Tech | January 21, 2016 - 11:39 PM | Scott Michaud
Tagged: windows 10, microsoft
I wasn't planning on reporting every Windows 10 Insider build, but I actually have something to say about this one. The last couple of builds were examples of Microsoft switching to a faster release cycle for preview users, although the known issues list were quite benign. The semi-frequent upgrade cycles would shake users away from the Insider program, or transition to Slow.
They now seem ready to start rolling back to less QA for Fast users.
Five issues are known about build 11102. First, internal changes to the Windows Graphics architecture cause some games to crash on launch, full screen, or resolution changes. The Witcher 3, Fallout 4, Tomb Raider, Assassin's Creed, and Metal Gear Solid V are known to be affected by this bug, but other games (and maybe even other software) could be affected too. Second, screen readers and other accessibility software may crash randomly. If you require those accommodations, then this build could make your device functionally unusable to you.
Beyond those two, big issues, three other ones are present. There is an error message on login with a workaround, a breaking change for old wireless drivers that you should probably upgrade beforehand if you rely upon wireless to download drivers, and “The Connect button does not show up in Action Center.”
Microsoft is currently updating the deep insides of the OS, which means that they will be poking around the source code in weird places. Once it's completed, this should make Windows more maintainable, especially for multiple types of hardware. But again, if you're not wanting to be a part of this, switch to Slow or leave Insider.
Subject: Processors | January 17, 2016 - 07:20 AM | Scott Michaud
Tagged: Windows 8.1, Windows 7, windows 10, Skylake, microsoft, kaby lake, Intel, Bristol Ridge, amd
Microsoft has not been doing much to put out the fires in comment threads all over the internet. The latest flare-up involves hardware support with Windows 7 and 8.x. Currently unreleased architectures, such as Intel's Kaby Lake and AMD's Bristol Ridge, will only be supported on Windows 10. This is despite Windows 7 and Windows 8.x being supported until 2020 and 2023, respectively. Microsoft does not believe that they need to support older hardware, though.
This brings us to Skylake. These processors are out, but Microsoft considers them “transition” parts. Microsoft provided PC World with a list of devices that will be gjven Windows 7 and Windows 8.x drivers, which enable support until July 17, 2017. Beyond that date, only a handful of “most critical” updates will be provided until the official end of life.
I am not sure what the cut-off date for unsupported Skylake processors is, though; that is, Skylake processors that do not line up with Microsoft's list could be deprecated at any time. This is especially a problem for the ones that are potentially already sold.
As I hinted earlier, this will probably reinforce the opinion that Microsoft is doing something malicious with Windows 10. As Peter Bright of Ars Technica reports, Windows 10 does not exactly have an equivalent in the server space yet, which makes you wonder what that support cycle will be like. If they can continue to patch Skylake-based servers in Windows Server builds that are derived from Windows 7 and Windows 8.x, like Windows Server 2012 R2, then why are they unwilling to port those changes to the base operating system? If they will not patch current versions of Windows Server, because the Windows 10-derived version still isn't out yet, then what will happen with server farms, like Amazon Web Services, when Xeon v5s are suddenly incompatible with most Windows-based OS images? While this will, no doubt, be taken way out of context, there is room for legitimate commentary about this whole situation.
Of course, supporting new hardware on older operating systems can be difficult, and not just for Microsoft at that. Peter Bright also noted that Intel has a similar, spotty coverage of drivers, although that mostly applies to Windows Vista, which, while still in extended support for another year, doesn't have a significant base of users who are unwilling to switch. The point remains, though, that Microsoft could be doing a favor for their hardware vendor partners.
I'm not sure whether that would be less concerning, or more.
Whatever the reason, this seems like a very silly, stupid move on Microsoft's part, given the current landscape. Windows 10 can become a great operating system, but users need to decide that for themselves. When users are pushed, and an adequate reason is not provided, they will start to assume things. Chances are, it will not be in your favor. Some may put up with it, but others might continue to hold out on older platforms, maybe even including older hardware.
Other users may be able to get away with Windows 7 VMs on a Linux host.
Subject: General Tech | January 14, 2016 - 01:18 AM | Scott Michaud
Tagged: microsoft, windows 10
The second Insider release on the “Redstone” branch has been pushed to Fast ring users. Once again, this has basically no release notes because a lot of features are “under the hood.” The push with Windows 10 since just before the holidays is to create a sensible structure for various teams to target with their changes. You could imagine how difficult this gets when you're dealing with phones, IoT, tablets and convertibles, HoloLens, and high-performance workstations, across a few different architectures.
Insiders who are interested in UX updates and other features will probably be best to switch to “Slow” for a handful of builds once they find one that's stable for them. I can't really see this being useful for most Insiders, because unlike open-source previews where you can contribute to (or develop software alongside of) the internal tweaks, all you really can do is report when something is broken or acting funny. If that's what you want, then it's great that Microsoft is providing these previews.
Subject: General Tech | January 9, 2016 - 03:31 AM | Scott Michaud
Tagged: Windows 8.1, windows 8, microsoft
So I was just browsing ZDNet when I came across a post by Ed Bott. Turns out that Microsoft, on top of deprecating Internet Explorer 8, 9, and 10, will also end support for the original Windows 8 on that date. To receive security updates, users will need to install the Windows 8.1 update first. Alternatively, if they have Windows 8 Pro, they can exercise their downgrade rights and install Windows 7 Pro. You can also install Windows 10, but I'm sure Microsoft has told you that ad nauseum.
They reason for this is because Windows 8.1 is considered a service pack. Microsoft allows service packs to be delayed for up to 24 months before they stop developing security updates. Once they upgrade to Windows 8.1, they will remain supported until 2018 with “extended” support until 2023. Windows 7 will continue to be supported until 2020.
The vast majority of our readers probably don't care. One or two might have an old laptop that you've never bothered pushing the service pack on, or they work for an enterprise IT firm that will have an annoying week starting Monday.
Subject: Mobile, Shows and Expos | January 8, 2016 - 09:44 PM | Scott Michaud
Tagged: CES, CES 2016, microsoft, windows 10
Microsoft is partnering with Transatel to provide cellular data services for Windows 10 PCs and tablets, but not phones. It will launch in France, the United Kingdom, and the United States, but could be rolled out to other regions over time. This will not be a contract service. Everything will be pre-paid, with short-term plans (think “XGB for the next 30 days for Y upfront”) available for a discount before a trip or something.
One downside is that compatible PCs will require a SIM card slot, which a Microsoft-branded SIM card will be inserted into. The write-up at Thurrott.com doesn't discuss external adapters, like the USB cellular modems that carriers offer and were popular until tethering became mainstream. A few unlocked LTE, USB modems can be found online, which you'd think would be compatible, but I'm not up on many of the details. I'm not a mobile enthusiast.
Despite the source being a Microsoft corporate VP, speaking on the record, it has not been officially announced by the company yet. Details, like when it will be available, have not been released.
Follow all of our coverage of the show at http://pcper.com/ces!