Category Archives: Technoloy

Microsoft in 2014

I started writing this post last week, right after I sat through the entirety of the BUILD 2014 Opening Keynote, then real life. So now, I’m finally getting it posted. So hopefully you’ll enjoy my (most likely) old-news musings.

This conference marked the first time I’ve actually sat through the entirety of a major conference keynote. Usually, like a normal person, I just let Anand sit through them and tell me what I need to know. For some reason, this year we were left to our own devices, and thus 3 hours later I found myself trying to process the sheer amount of info, product changes, and demos squeezed into those 180 minutes. All joking aside, it was actually a really good presentation, you should take a look. While there will be thousands of words written over the next few months by people far more qualified then myself, I thought I’d offer a few quick thoughts and observations of my own.

Note: I am by no means a Microsoft expert, while I have extensive experience as a user of the OS (both phone and desktop), and many of their business applications, my experience as a developer is limited to a few aborted app attempts and a smattering of copied C# code. However, I do have a lot of experience crossing between system platforms, cloud offerings, and a bunch of different programming languages. So take everything with a grain of salt.

If I had to sum up the entire presentation into a single phrase, it would be: We told you so. The last few years have been really rough on the giant of Redmond. Vista was a mess, the success of 7 was quickly followed by a huge paradigm shift with 8, which landed right in the middle of the enterprise upgrade cycle from XP (as most people skipped the sinking Vista ship altogether). On the phone front Windows Phone (WP) quickly established itself as something uniquely different from anything being done in the iOS or Android camps. While the platform seemed to test well with potential users, it never quite seemed to gain the desired traction and only gained the 3rd spot in mobile OS usage, while being propelled aloft by the flaming crash of the once great RIM Blackberry. Finally, on the web services side, Bing became an acceptable alternative for googling information when google seemed inconvenient, and while Windows Live Folders Windows Live SkyDrive SkyDrive OneDrive always seemed quite slick, navigating the myriad of byzantine menus, logins, and UIs quickly made any thought of switching from DropBox laughable at best. Also, the Surface is still a thing, right?1

While all this was going on, Microsoft kept working. They released Azure (and it rocks), they moved WP to the NT kernel, they slogged through the messiness of migrating from Win32 to WinRT. They unified their web services and made some awesome improvements2. Then, yesterday morning they came out beaming.

Windows Phone 8.1

Honestly, it feels like this should really be Windows Phone 9. There’s so much tied into this release it’s almost impossible to summarize here, but some will try. Basically what you need to know is, Microsoft hit parity. They took WP8, which often felt quite powerful, but a little unfinished, and revved it right to the level where iOS and Android no longer resemble that one cousin at family reunions which seems to be all the things your parents hoped and dreamed you would be. Now, you just might have a fighting chance.

The thing most people will be talking about is, of course, Cortana, but really, while I’m really excited to use it, it’s not all that interesting from a technical perspective. Only time will tell if it proves superior to Siri or Google Now, but honestly, it doesn’t need to be better, it just needs to be comparable. For Microsoft, this is about showing that their web platform can compete with anything Google can build, or Apple can buy. Interestingly, one of the thing briefly mentioned, was that Cortana only processing personal information stored on your device. While they didn’t go into much detail as to what that actually means, they emphasized (several times) the work being done by the application, as opposed to server side processing. This could stack up as an interesting alternative to Google’s approach which involves their own processes running rough shod over whatever private data you have stored within their server farms.

This dual SIM thing could be really, really cool. Especially with the ability to automatically tag contacts to specific SIMs, this could be a huge deal for individuals carrying multiple phones, or international users where pre-paid sim cards and multiple competing networks are the norm. Couple this feature with all the added enterprise hoopla3 and you have a strong entrant to bring balance to the BYOD conflagration. Perhaps here is a device that both users, and administrators can be happy with. Perhaps.

I’ve always liked WP. I picked up a Samsung Focus not too long after the WP7 release. In fact, I even rocked an HTC S620 back in the day, and loved it4. That being said, I never quite got over the feeling that us Redmond faithful were slowly being left behind. Apple and Google were adding features and apps at breakneck pace, new hardware designs put my plastic slabs to shame5. The other week I was lamenting to a friend that even though WP8 is my favorite mobile OS, it seemed certain that another iPhone was in my future. After yesterday, I’m not so sure. Microsoft has shown that they’re still in the game, at least for now. What we need now is a roadmap, are they on a yearly release cadence? Does the shift to services mean more rapid, out-of-band, updates to Bing and other apps? Right now, I have no idea, but one thing’s for sure. Unless Apple releases a revolutionary change to iOS at WWDC, I’ll be rocking the blocky blue for at least another upgrade cycle.

Windows 8.1

Meh. I don’t use Windows very often, and I never really found Metro Microsoft Blokus OS, much of a hassle so bringing back the start bar and such is largely uninteresting to me. That being said, I do like the fact that they’re bringing convergence to the two star crossed launchers, and are seemingly open to user input and complaints. I look forward to them continuing to promote synergy like a boss.

Universal Apps

This is where things get interesting. Now, keep in mind, everything we’ve seen so far has been ‘keynote speak’, we’ll have to wait until devs get their keyboards on some shipping software and see what shakes out. That being said, the demos they showed of sharing almost the entirety of the Windows 8 app code base between laptop and phone, are if not a game changer, then at least a huge remittance on the pain and confusion suffered over the past few years. Let me try and expand on this.

The major complaint lodged against WP was the lack of available apps. Purists proceeded to shout back that almost all of the top apps on iOS and Android were available, and that WP was so superior to anything else that you didn’t need all those fancy apps which were merely responding to the shared misery of the Apple Industrial Complex. While I myself uttered the same arguments and passionately demonstrated WPs inherent understanding of information and context one thing still bugged me. The Facebook app was written by Microsoft. In fact, a bunch of the best applications were written either by Microsoft or Nokia. While that’s been changing somewhat over the past few months, it doesn’t seem to bode well for the health of the platform as a whole. In addition, even the apps developed by their respective owners seemed to be afterthoughts, lacking the robustness and features of their gleaming counterparts. Of course, this is the classic chicken and the egg condundrum. Developers aren’t incentivized to port their applications (or develop entirely new ones) to WP without users, and users are less inclined to use a platform which is missing any number of app they find themselves using in an average day. Windows, as a platform, is a totally different story. Just about any application you can think of has some sort of presence. It’s a huge market with a strong user base and entirely new interface that’s just begging for beautiful new ways of interacting with traditional services and applications6. In one fell swoop, what Microsoft’s done here is taken all the work they been building on for the past decade, all the work on the Common Language Runtime, the fragmented APIs and leveraged it open up both platforms to developers with the hopes that all the interesting things people are working on in Windows 8 will quickly be ported to WP8 as well and thus drive user growth on the platform. Of course, this isn’t as simple as snapping one’s fingers and hoping for apps to magically descend from the great developer on high, a lot of applications have years worth of cruft, meticulous validated logic, or fragile code bases that probably won’t take well to being moved to an entirely new system. Don’t worry nervous dev, Microsoft has the (an) answer. During the Keynote they gave a quick demo of an old ADO.net database application, moving the core logic (in its entirety) into its own processing container and then calling that code from a brand new WinRT interface that’s fully touch compatible and complies with all the latest rules in hipster app design. While seemingly simple on the outside, this ‘pathway to upgrading’ opens the door to a huge number of enterprise-esque applications that may never have been upgrading to the new OS without a way to separate the application logic from the presentation layer. In a sense, Microsoft has planted its stake in the ground, it desperately wants apps on in the Windows Store, it doesn’t care about your crappy application logic. It cares that you’re using their new delivery mechanism and embracing all the new ways of touching your computer, if you don’t want to move your app from ADO, fine, don’t, just don’t make your users suffer through your 2000s Windows Forms anymore.

Oh, and you can run your apps on Xbox.

Oh, and you can run your Store apps in a window on the Desktop.

The last reason why this is potentially a big deal, is that everyone else is trying to get here as well, and Microsoft beat them to it. They built their ecosystem from the ground up, they own the compilers, they own the tools, they own the cloud, they own the devices, and now they can leverage all those benefits to give a unified set of tools and APIs to enable developers to develop software in a way views hardware in the same way web apps view browsers, they don’t care what your OS is, they don’t really care what modern browser you’re running, or what weird refresh rate you’ve set your monitors to, they just run on a common runtime and go from there7.

Concluding Thoughts

BUILD 2014 was Microsoft taking a stand. They came out declared a vision for future, and set down the first, few, steps on how to get there. While you may disagree with the direction they’ve chosen, or you may find it overly ambitious, or maybe you’re still smarting over IE6, the fact remains that they’re going somewhere, and it’s functionally different from anything Google or Apple is doing.

While it’s still too early to know how things will pan out in the long run, personally I’m hopefully cautious. I think the path they’ve presented is imminently achievable, I think it’s a realistic approach to the direction computing is moving, I think it leverages some really cool technologies, and I think it’s going to result in genuinely useful tools for their users.

It’ll be interesting to watch both I/O and WWDC and see what tricks the California wonder twins (if that’s not a phrase, it should be) have up their sleeves. Regardless though, last week showed that the giant of Redmond still has some fight left in him.


  1. JK, the Surface Pro is the future of computing. Seriously. 

  2. Seriously, go checkout how OneDrive handles photos

  3. VPN access, device profiles, company app stores, S/MIME, etc. 

  4. Belt holder included, of course. 

  5. It’s worth pointing out, that I quite enjoyed my Lumia 920, right up to the point where it got in a fight with Mother Earth. That camera though, oh that camera. 

  6. Go checkout some of the marque apps, like Netflix, or Kayak, or Facebook. They’re gorgeous. 

  7. yes, yes, I know there’s a huge amount of variability between browsers and device platforms that affect how your application performs, but there’s still a large chunk of Javascript that’s just going to work whether it’s Chrome, Firefox, or IE. 

On Net Neutrality

With all the hubbub around the recent Court opinion on Net Neutrality, I thought I’d way in with my two cents. It’s important to point out that I am in no way a lawyer, nor do I have expansive experience in legal analysis. The following thoughts are simply my reflections and understandings from reading the Opinion. Take them as you well.

 

Did the court kill Net Neutrality?

No.

 

What, yes they did!!

No, what they did was vacate 2 provisions of the FCC’s Open Internet Order, specifically the anti-blocking and anti-discrimination provisions, which prevent Internet Service Providers (ISPs) from blocking or throttling content on their networks. All, while leaving the disclosure rules intact.

 

Dude, I think you’re full of it, that sounds like killing to me.

Yup, that seems to be the prevailing opinion (see what I did there), but in reality, the court didn’t really comment on the content of the rule, only the FCC’s statutory authority to implement said rule. The issue of neutrality is very much alive.

 

Hmm, explain.

I’ll do my best. But first, a little history. In 1996 the Telecommunications Act (Pub. L. No. 104-104, 110 Stat. 56 ) was passed which broke telecommunications providers (telcos) into 2 classes, those who provided basic services (such as phone lines), from those who provide more enhanced information services (such as America Online, when that was a thing (sorry Tim Armstrong)). Then, in 2000 the FCC classified all cable broadband providers as ‘single, integrated information service’ providers, which was subsequently upheld by the Supreme Court (National Cable & Telecommunications Ass’n v. Brand X Internet Services, 545 U.S. 967 (2005)).

 

So what?

So, the last time this issue came up, it was in 2008 for Comcast blocking peer-to-peer networking apps (for a refresher on the gems people were torrenting in 2008). The court held that the FCC did not have the authority to regulate the network practices of Comcast, since it had classified them as ‘enhanced providers’ (600 F.3d (2008)). So, the FCC, instead of changing the rules and reclassifying Comcast and its ilk as ‘basic providers’ they instead opted to issue the Open Internet Order (25 F.C.C.R. 17905) which Verizon challenged.

 

Still not clear, maybe you’re not so good at this.

Probably not, but still, I press on. The FCC’s argument is based on a simple assertion: We (the FCC) have the duty (and regulatory authority) to promote internet access nationwide. We take the stand that an open internet is critical to said access, and thus we have the authority to enforce a certain minimum standard that all ISPs must provide, because we have the authorization to regulate telcos as ‘common carriers’ and thus enforce minimum standards.

 

Verizon’s response: I thought we weren’t telcos.

 

FCC: ….

 

What’s a common carrier?

The term “common carrier” or “carrier” means any person engaged as a common carrier for hire, in interstate or foreign communication by wire or radio or interstate or foreign radio transmission of energy, except where reference is made to common carriers not subject to this chapter; but a person engaged in radio broadcasting shall not, insofar as such person is so engaged, be deemed a common carrier.

– 47 U.S.C. § 153(11) 

 

Basically, it’s phone companies. The courts have consistently (FCC v. Midwest Video Corp., 440 U.S. 689; Cellco, 700 F.3d (2012)) upheld that cable (video cable) and mobile data providers are not subject to common carrier rules (for a variety of reasons). And remember, the FCC took the stance that ISPs were distinctly different from traditional ‘basic service’ providers.

 

I feel like you’re building towards something. I don’t like being strung along.

You’re right, here’s the kicker. The court ruled that the FCC, by forcing the ISPs to provide service indiscriminately (e.g. to any weirdo with a WordPress blog) then they are in fact forcing them into ‘common carriage’ status.

And that, faithful readers, is the primary reason why the court vacated the Open Internet provisions. Not because they were bad per se, but because they overstepped the statutory authority granted to the FCC.

 

Cool story bro, so what happens now?

Well, Verizon has already stated that would be exploring pray-for-priority arrangements, if it wasn’t for the Open Internet restrictions (Oral Arg. Tr. 31), so that could happen. Comcast, due to its merger with NBC,  is prohibited from any such action until 2016. AT&T has stated that they will continue to abide by the Open Internet rules, for now.

 

So is the FCC going to be relegated to the dustbin of federal agencies?

No. At least, not until they allow cellphones in flight.

 

Will Verizon stop providing internet to rural areas? Because I’m so over having only EDGE at my grandma’s house, it makes holidays akin to Dante’s 2nd circle.

What do you think?

 

No….?

Correct. The Court reaffirmed section 706 of the Telecommunications Act, which is what governs broadband rollout and other such matters (47 U.S.C. § 1302(a). Section 706(b)). To be clear, it was never overtly challenged, but the court still reiterated that the FCC has a property role in the internet in general. In fact, a primary argument by Verizon is that infrastructure is expensive, and they need more capital in order to continue expanding and improving their services.

 

Do you actually believe that?

No, but it’s now in oral testimony, so somebody should hold them to that.

 

Did the Court simply roll over and let Verizon walk all over them?

Nope, in fact, they were pretty unconvinced by the majority of their arguments (see most of Part II), so I think in future cases telcos will have their work cut out for them.

 

What if I like my Net Neutrality? Can I keep it?

If you like your Net Neutrality, you can keep your Net Neutrality. Sort of. The FCC laid out a couple of options.

 

  1. The FCC could reclassify ISPs as ‘basic providers’ and thus be subject to ‘common carrier’ regulation. [Actually, I’m a little shaky on this, it seems that this is possible, but the ruling in Midwest II seems to make things tricky. It seems the Court is suggesting that ISPs could be considered common carriers with respect to third-party content providers. I would love some clarification on this.]. Nevertheless, the Court remanded the case back to the FCC, so the ball’s in their court (Part IV, 63).
  2. Congress could pass a law that places ISPs directly under common carrier rules, after all, they didn’t write a statute that prohibits them from doing so (Part III, 53).

 

Ugh, I hate Congress!

You and 86% of your peers.

 

What else can we do, while Congress is debating how much bathroom tile to embargo from Iran?

A few thoughts.

 

  • It seems to me that this is an incredibly fertile ground for some good-old-fashioned anti-trust litigation, especially once Comcast gets into the game. Since many of the ISPs are moving into the content production realm, I could see some seriously angry third-parties camping out in front of the FTC’s office.
  • Going along with that, just because a corporation is allowed to engage in contract negotiation and variable pricing (like most businesses), doesn’t mean that they’re allowed to do whatever they want, whenever they want, to whomever they want (like most businesses). They still have to abide by fair practice laws, and now with the eyes of the world upon them (or at least, all the eyes that can be spared from the latest Vine stream), it should only be a matter of time before something happens. Remember, see something, say something.
  • We as consumers do have some abilities to influence markets. While it’s true most people only have 1-2 options for internet access, that doesn’t mean that all forms of civic action are simply out the window (remember the Comcast data caps?). If the ISPs do start charging places like Netflix more and more money, it’s likely so they can drive people to their alternative service offerings. Services that people don’t have to accept, or embrace.
  • I find the assertion that ISPs will limit access to news sources a bit incredible, that seems like a huge violation of Freedom of the Press, and the courts have shown a pretty substantial reluctance towards doing anything that would impede their ability to disseminate information. So, while most blogs (including this one) would hardly count as news, there’s still a pretty good argument for Comcast not doing this.
  • Can we do a Kickstarter ISP?

 

Ok, but I still think ISPs should be required to carry all types of content.

You’re probably right, here’s a good piece by my friend Nick DeBoer talking about it in more detail, along with an incredibly convoluted opening metaphor.

It really comes down to a simple question. What is the Internet? Is it a public utility (like power, water, etc)? Is it a public good (like food, or healthcare)? Or is it a commercial business (like YouTube, or Best Buy)? How you answer that question is largely going to determine whether the Court’s decision angers your, or relieves you.

 

What do you think?

I haven’t decided yet. I think there are very strong arguments for a concept of the Open Internet, I’m a strong believer in freedom of information, and I think the Internet is a tremendous tool for justice and equal rights. That being said, there are substantial commercial interests involved, and I think the public utility arguments are both 1) not quite applicable to the dynamics of internet economics, and 2) not a great model for us to follow in general (do we really want our internet to look like our power grid?); however, when you phrase the argument around a freedom of speech issue, and when you basically apply a status-quo (as opposed to a highly regulated model) to the current system, the arguments get much stronger in favor of openness. That being said, I really don’t think this does a whole lot (either way) to address the root issue of ISP cost and quality. We still have a long way to go before things get measurably ‘good’.

 

Well, this wasn’t a total waste of my time, is there anything else I should know?

Yes, I would like point out that the court did use the example of a ‘video of a cat’ (Part I, 6) in their opinion, a strong point in their favor as actually ‘getting the internet’. Also, they took the time to point out that even federal agencies are entitled to a little pride (Part II (A), 20).

 

That’s funny, where can I read that?

Here

 

Whoa! That’s like 80 pages!

Yup, gotta love Administration Law.

 

Forget that, I’m going to go troll Buzzfeed.

Enjoy it while it lasts.