Posts Tagged‘metro’

Surface 2 Pro

Microsoft’s Surface 2: A Big Hole To Fill.

There’s no question that  Microsoft’s attempt at the tablet market has been lacklustre. Whilst the hardware they have powering their tablets was decent the nascent Windows Store lacks the diversity of its competitors, something which made the RT version of it even less desirable. This has since resulted in Microsoft writing down $900 million in Surface RT and associated inventory something which many speculated would be the end of the Surface line. However it appears that Microsoft is more committed than ever to the Surface idea and recently announced the Surface 2, an evolutionary improvement over its predecessor.

Surface 2 ProThe new Surface 2 looks pretty much identical to predecessor although it’s a bit slimmer and is also a bit lighter. It retains the in built kick stand but it now has 2 positions instead of one something which I’m will be useful to some. The specifications under the hood have been significantly revamped for both versions of the tablet with the RT (although it’s no longer called that) version sporting a NVIDIA Tegra 4 and the Pro one of the new Haswell i5 chips. Microsoft will also now let you choose how much RAM you get in your Pro model, allowing you to cram up to 8GB in there. The Pro also gets the luxury of larger drive sizes, up to 512GB should you want it (although you’ll be forced to get the 8GB RAM model if you do). Overall I’d say this is pretty much what you’d expect from a generation 2 product and the Pro at least looks like it could be a decent laptop competitor.

Of course the issues that led Microsoft to write down nearly a billion dollars worth of inventory (after attempting to peddle as much of it as they could to TechEd attendees) still exist today and the upgrade to Windows 8.1 won’t do much to solve this. Sure in the time between the initial Surface release and now there’s been a decent amount of applications developed for it but it still pales in comparison. I still think that the Metro interface is pretty decent on a touch screen but Microsoft will really have to do something outrageous to convince everyone that the Surface is worth buying otherwise it’s doomed to repeat its predecessor’s mistakes.

The Pro on the other hand looks like it’d be a pretty great enterprise tablet thanks to its full x86 environment. I know I’d much rather have those in my environment than Android or iPads as they would be much harder to integrate into all the standard management tools. A Surface 2 Pro on the other hand would behave much like any other desktop allowing me to deliver the full experience to anyone who had one. Of course it’s then more of a replacement for a laptop than anything else but I do know a lot of users who would prefer a tablet device rather than the current fleet of laptops they’re given (even the ones who get ultrabooks).

Whilst the Pro looks like a solid upgrade I can’t help but feel that the upgrade to the RT is almost unnecessary given the fact that most of the complaints levelled at it were nothing to do with its performance. Indeed not once have I found myself wanting for speed on my Surface RT, instead I’ve been wanting my favourite apps to come across so that I don’t have to use their web versions which, on Internet Explorer, typically aren’t great. Maybe the ecosystem is mature enough now to tempt some people across but honestly unless they already own one I can’t really see that happening, at least for the RT version. The Pro on the other hand could make some headway into Microsoft’s core enterprise market but even that might not be enough for the Surface division.

 

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Microsoft’s Surface RT: It’s Nice, But…

Just like any new tech gadget I’ve been ogling tablets for quite some time. Now I’m sure there will be a few who are quick to point out that I said long ago that an ultrabook fills the same niche, at least for me, but that didn’t stop me from lusting after them for one reason or another. I’d held off on buying one for a long time though as the price for something I would only have a couple uses for was far too high, even if I was going to use it for game reviews, so for a long time I simply wondered at what could be. Well whilst I was at TechEd North America the opportunity to snag a Windows Surface RT came up for the low price of $99 and I, being able to ignore the fiscal conservative in me and relent into my tech lust, happily handed over my credit card so I could take one home with me.

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It’s quite a solid device with a noticeable amount of heft in it despite its rather slim figure. Of particular note is the built in kick stand which allows you to sit the Surface upright, something which I’ve heard others wish for with their tablets. It’s clear that the Surface as been designed to be used primarily in landscape mode which is in opposition to most other tablets that utilize the portrait view. For someone like me who’s been a laptop user for a long time this didn’t bother me too much but I can see how it’d be somewhat irritating if you were coming from another platform as it’d be just another thing you’d have to get used to. Other than that it seems to be your pretty standard tablet affair with a few tweaks to give it a more PC feel.

The specifications of it are pretty decent boasting a WXGA (1366 x 768) 16:9 screen powered by a NVIDIA Tegra3 with 2GB RAM behind it. I’ve got the 64GB model which reports 53GB available and 42GB free which was something of a contentious point for many as they weren’t getting what they paid for (although at $99 I wasn’t going to complain). It’s enough that when using it I never noticed any stutter or slow down even when I was playing some of the more graphically intense games on it. I didn’t really try any heavy productivity stuff on it because I much prefer my desktop for work of that nature but I get the feeling it could handle 90% of the tasks I could throw at it. The battery life also appears to be relatively decent although I have had a couple times where it mysteriously came up on 0 charge although that might have been due to my fiddling with the power settings (more on why I did that later).

Since I’ve been a Windows 8 user for a while the RT interface on the Surface wasn’t much of a shock to me although I was a little miffed that I couldn’t run some of my chosen applications, even in desktop mode, notably Google Chrome. That being said applications that have been designed for the Metro interface are usually pretty good, indeed the OneNote app and Cocktail Flow are good examples of this, however the variety of applications available is unfortunately low. This is made up for a little by the fact that the browser on the Surface is far more usable than the one on Windows Phone 7 enabling many of the web apps to work fine. I hope for Microsoft’s sake this changes soon as the dearth of applications on the Surface really limits its appeal.

The keyboard that came with the Surface gets a special mention because of just how horrid it is. Whilst it does a good job of being a protective cover, one that does have a rather satisfying click as the magnets snap in, it’s absolutely horrendous as an input device, akin to typing on a furry piece of cardboard. Since there’s no feedback it’s quite hard to type fast on it and worse still it seems to miss key presses every so often. Probably the worst part about it is that if your surface locks itself with it attached and then you remove it you will then have no way to unlock your device until you re-attach it, even if you’ve set a PIN code up. I’ve heard that the touch cover is a lot better but since it was going for $100 at the time I wasn’t too keen on purchasing it.

The Surface does do a good job of filling the particular niche I had for it, which was mainly watching videos and using it to remote into my servers, but past that I haven’t found myself using it that much. Indeed the problem seems to be that the Surface, at least the non-pro version, is stuck halfway between being a true tablet and a laptop as many of its features are still computer-centric. This means that potential customers on either side of the equation will probably feel like they’re missing something which I think is one of the main reasons that the Surface has struggled to get much market share. The Pro seems to be much closer to being a laptop, enough so that the people I talked to at TechEd seemed pretty happy with their purchase. Whether that translates into Microsoft refocusing their strategy with the Surface remains to be seen, however.

The Surface is a decent little device, having the capabilities you’ve come to expect from a tablet whilst still having that Microsoft Windows feel about it. It’s let down by the lack of applications and dissonance it suffers from being stuck between the PC and tablet worlds, something that can’t be easily remedied by a software fix. The touch cover is also quite atrocious and should be avoided at all costs, even if you’re just going to use it as a cover. For the price I got it for I think it was worth the money however getting it at retail is another story and unless you’re running a completely Microsoft house already I’d struggle to recommend it over an ultrabook or similarly portable computing device.

Metro Last Light Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

Metro: Last Light: You Know What Must Be Done, Artyom.

Working from an established, non-game IP is usually a risky move for a game developer. If you’re working on a game that’s based directly off a movie chances are that you’ll barely get a look in with most gamers and your development time will be constrained by the movie’s release date which usually ends up with a lackluster product. Things like comics and novels are a little safer (and have produced far more hits than movie tie ins) however you still run the risk of alienating fans of the original material. Metro: Last Light is the sequel to Metro 2033 which was based on a novel of the same name. However this title apparently bears little resemblance to the story of Metro 2034 and instead continues the story of Artyom, the main character from the previous game.

Metro Last Light Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

Metro: Last Light is set 20 years into the future after Moscow had been turned into a radioactive wasteland by an undisclosed enemy. Those who survived were driven underground by the radiation, finding shelter in the city’s vast metro system and, over time, making it their new home. Several factions have arisen to claim parts of the Metro for their own purposes and have been locked in conflict ever since. You play as Artyom, one of the Rangers who have sworn to protect all life in the Metro and the one who was responsible for destroying the Dark Ones, a strange humanoid race that appeared not long after the bombings ended. However one of them still remains and you’ve been sent to reclaim him by any means possible.

Visually Metro: Last Light can be quite impressive when it wants to be (as the below screenshot will attest) but unfortunately you’ll spend the majority of your time in the many assorted tunnels of the metro. I can’t fault the game for this, since that’s what it’s all about, but it does mean that much of the visual aspect of the game is lost to the small environments. Cranking everything up to max brought my PC to its knees but it was extremely playable after minor tweaks to a few settings as the auto-detection system seems to get most things bang on.

Metro Last Light Screenshot Wallpaper Outside

The game play of Metro: Last Light is a curious blend of stealth and first person shooter with both options being equally viable. The stealth parts are quite Thief like in nature with a visibility indicator that let’s you know when enemies can see you which is based primarily on how illuminated you are. From a first person shooter perspective it’s pretty run of the mill, with all the weapons functioning pretty much as you’d expect them to, but there’s a few variations which can be quite helpful in certain situations, especially if you’re preferring stealth over out and out combat.

Indeed after the spectacular fail that was Mars: War Logs’ stealth system it was refreshing to play one that, whilst not having the depth of other stealth first games like Dishonored, added some additional depth to your typical run and gun FPS. The mechanics of it are fairly rudimentary, if you’re standing in direct light enemies can see you and if not you’re essentially invisible, but there’s a definite amount of strategy involved if you’re trying to avoid combat. This usually involves taking out strategic lights so you can maneuver around guards to take them out or, as I accidentally found out, causing a ruckus in one area then slinking off into the shadows. You’re also given the choice between knocking out or killing people when they’re unaware of you but as far as I could tell this choice has 0 effect on anything.

Metro Last Light Screenshot Wallpaper Storyboard

Whilst the stealth is good the regular shooting combat is a little lackluster, owing mostly to the encounter design. You see there are many sections where you simply can’t stealth, usually when you’re facing mutants rather than other humans, and in order for them to provide some challenge they usually just throw wave after wave of them at you. This is the same problem that Dragon Age 2 suffered from as you can’t really formulate a strategy before you start the encounter. This usually leads to you running around in circles whilst reloading, hoping that another enemy doesn’t spawn which will usually lead to your untimely death.

The upgrade/currency system is also somewhat moot as whilst it does give you some sense of progression you’re much better off not spending any of your money on new weapons or upgrades as you’ll find guns with them scattered everywhere. I remember picking up the air rifle early on and found it was great for shooting out lights at a distance and so I spent quite a lot of rounds on upgrading it for just that purpose. However not an hour later did I find another one with all the upgrades on it and from then on I simply didn’t bother buying the upgrades, I just waited until I found a weapon with them on it. It’s probably better to do it this way since you’re limited to 3 guns and sometimes you’ll be out of ammo for your weapon of choice, so you’re better off ditching one in favour of another which you have a full pack of ammo for.

Metro Last Light Screenshot Wallpaper Combat

The level of polish in Metro: Last Light is commendable with the only bug I encountered during my playthrough being some texture/terrain glitches that did little more than to distract me for a couple seconds. I will gripe about the interface though as whilst I can appreciate the “realism” of some parts of it having to press and hold M to bring up your objective pad which then can’t be put back down by hitting M again feels a little cumbersome. Also, whilst I lamented to the use of C for crouch initially, most FPS games now use this as default whilst Metro: Last Light uses it for throwing your secondary weapon (CTRL is crouch, like in the old days). These are minor gripes, things that you overcome after a couple hours of game play, but it certainly didn’t endear Metro: Last Light to me early on.

The story of Metro: Last Light has been a major selling point for it with it being touted as a “story first FPS”. This is quite true, almost to the point of frustration, as there can be very long sequences where Artyom and his comrades talk endlessly about plot points which you can’t skip past (I’m sure I’m not alone in being able to read the subtitles faster than people can talk). It does help to give you an insight into the character’s motivations, something which sequels like this usually miss out on due to their reliance on the previous title. Metro: Last Light does a fantastic job for people like me who haven’t played the original and whilst the story can drag at times when you’re just chomping at the bit to get into the action it’s well above par for what I’ve come to expect from a modern day FPS.

Metro Last Light Screenshot Wallpaper Inside A Traitors Mind

Whilst Metro: Last Light has been billed as a story first game I feel that it’s more of a balanced experience with the gameplay and story complementing each other quite well. There’s no one particular feature of Metro: Last Light that makes it worth playing, no it’s more the combination of several, above average elements that meld together well to produce an experience that very much greater than the sum of its parts. It might not be game of the year material but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a great game experience by itself, something which sequels usually struggle to accomplish without relying heavily on their predecessors.

Rating: 8.0/10

Metro: Last Light is available on Xbox360, PlayStation 3 (and apparently the PS4 when it comes out) and PC right now for $88, $88 and $69.99 respectively. Game was played on the PC on normal mode, hard difficulty with 8 hours total play time and 31% of the achievements unlocked.

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Windows 8, Games and The Critical Miss of Expecting The Desktop to Disappear.

If you were to believe what some games industry big wigs were saying you’d be lead to believe that Windows 8 was the beginning of the rapture for games on the Microsoft platform. At first it was just a couple developers, big ones in their own right (like Notch), but when someone like Gabe Newell chimes in you start to take notice as distributing games on the Windows platform is his bread and butter and he doesn’t say things like this lightly. However as someone who’s grown up on the Microsoft platform, from the old MS-DOS days until today where I’m running Windows 8 full time on my home PC, and has made his career on their products I still can’t help but feel that their concerns are misplaced as they seem to hinge on a fundamental miscalculation about Microsoft’s overall product strategy.

Those concerns are laid out in lengthy detail by Casey Muratori in his latest instalment of Critical Detail: The Next Twenty Years. In there he lays out the future of the Microsoft platform, drawing on the past few decades of Microsoft’s developments and using them to draw conclusions about what the Microsoft ecosystem will look like in 2032. In this world the future of games on Windows seems grim as all the current AAA titles don’t meet the requirements to be present on the Windows Store and the desktop interface is long gone, effectively destroying the games industry on any PC running their operating system.

It’s a grim future and the number of people worried about this coming to fruition seems to increase on a daily basis. However I believe that some of the assumptions made ignore critical facts that render all this doom and glooming moot, mostly because they ignore Microsoft’s larger strategies.

Before I dive into that however let me just acknowledge that yes the Windows Store doesn’t seem like it would be a great place for current games developers. Realistically it’s no different from Google Play or the iOS App Store as many of the requirements are identical. Indeed all of the platforms strive for the same “family friendly” environment that’s bereft of porn (or anything overtly sexual), violence and excessive profanity which does exclude a good number of games from making their debut on the platform. This hasn’t stopped countless numbers of companies from profiting on this platform but there is no denying that the traditional games industry, with its love of all those things these market places abhor, would struggle with these guidelines.

The fundamental misstep that many games developers appear to be making though is thinking that the Windows Store and the guidelines that come along with it will be the only platform available for them to release games onto the Windows operating system. Looking back to previous examples of Windows does show that Microsoft puts an end date on many technologies however I don’t believe that the desktop will be among them. Sure you might not be able to write a DOS game and have it run in Windows 8 but you can take a MFC app built in 1992 and run today (with the biggest challenge there possibly being recompiling it, but the same code will work).

The reason for the Metro (or Modern or whatever they’re calling it now) interface’s existence is not, as many believe, a direct reaction to the success of the iPad/Android devices and Microsoft’s failure to capitalize on it. The Metro interface, which is built upon the WinRT framework, exists primarily to provide a unified platform where applications can provide a unified experience across the three major screens which users interact with. The capabilities provided within that framework are a fairly comprehensive subset of the larger .NET framework but it’s not fully feature complete as the instruction set needed to be cut down in order for it to be usable on ARM based devices. Whilst it still has access to the goodies required to make games (you can get DirectX on it for example) it’s still not the default platform, is just another one which developers can target.

If the WinRT/Metro framework was Microsoft’s preferred direction for all application development then it wouldn’t be the bastard step-child of their main development technologies, it would become the new .NET. Whilst it is going to be the framework for cross platform applications it’s most definitely not going to be the platform for native development on Windows PCs. The argument can be made that Microsoft wants to transition everyone to WinRT as the default platform but I’ve seen no evidence to support that apart from the idea that because the Metro UI is front and centre that means it’s Microsoft’s main focus.

I find that hard to believe as whilst Metro is great on tablets and smart phones it unfortunately struggles in a mouse and keyboard environment as nearly every review of it has mentioned. Microsoft isn’t stupid, they’ve likely heard much of this feedback through other channels and will be integrating it into their future product strategies. To simply say that they’ll go “Nope, we know we’re going in the right direction and completely killing the desktop” is to be ignorant of the fact that Microsoft works extremely closely with their customers, especially the big organisations who have been the most vocal opponents of Metro-first design. They’re also a pretty big player in the games industry, what with that Xbox being so darn popular, so again I fail to see how they wouldn’t take the feedback on board, especially from such a dedicated audience like us PC gamers.

I’d lend some credence to the theory if the desktop environment hadn’t received much love in Windows 8 in lieu of all the work done on Metro but yet again I find myself coming up empty handed. The UI received a massive overhaul so that the styling would be in line with the rest of Microsoft’s products and there have been numerous improvements in functionality and usability. Why Microsoft would invest so heavily in something that will be slated to be removed within a couple generations of Windows releases is beyond me as most of their deprecated technologies receive no updates for decades prior to them being made obsolete.

And the applications, oh don’t get me started about Microsoft’s own applications.

Whilst Metro has some of the basic applications available in it (like Office and….yeah Office) all of Microsoft’s current catalogue received a revamp as desktop applications, not Metro apps. You’d think that if their future direction was going to be all Metro-esque that more of their staple application suites would have received that treatment, but they didn’t. In fact the amount of applications that are available on the desktop vs the ones available on Metro makes it look more like Metro was the afterthought of the desktop and not the other way around.

If Microsoft’s future is going to be all Windows Store and WinRT apps there’s really no evidence showing to show for it and this is the reason why I don’t feel sympathetic to those developers who are bellyaching about it. Sure if you take a really, really narrow view of the Microsoft ecosystem it looks like the end is nigh for the current utopia of game development that is Windows 7 but in doing so you’re ignoring the wealth of information that will prove you otherwise. The Windows Store might not be your distribution platform of choice (and it likely will never be) but don’t think that the traditional methods that you’ve been using are going anywhere because if Microsoft’s overall strategy is anything to go by they aren’t.

Durango, Orbis and What’s Influencing the Next Generation of Consoles.

The current generation of consoles is the longest lived of any generation of the past 2 decades. There are many reasons for this but primarily it came from the fact that the consoles of this generation, bar the Nintendo Wii, where light years ahead of their time at release. In a theoretical sense both the Xbox360 and the PlayStation 3 had 10 times the computing power of their PC contemporaries at release and they took several years to catch up. Of course now the amount of computing power available, especially that of graphics cards, far surpasses that which is available in console form and the gaming community is starting to look towards the next generation of consoles.

The last couple weeks have seen quite a lot of rumour and speculation going around as to what the next generation of consoles might bring us. Just last week some very detailed specifications on the PlayStation4, codenamed Orbis, were made public and the month before revealed that the new Xbox is codenamed Durango. As far as solid information goes however there’s been little to come by and neither Sony or Microsoft have been keen to comment on any of the speculation. Humour me then as I dive into some of the rumours and try to make sense of everything that’s flying around.

I’ll focus on Durango for the moment as I believe that it will play a critical part in Microsoft’s current platform unification crusade. Long time readers will know how much I’ve harped on about Microsoft’s Three Screens idea in the past and how Windows 8 is poised to make that a reality. What I haven’t mentioned up until now is that Microsoft didn’t appear to have a solution for the TV screen as the Xbox didn’t appear to be compatible with the WindowsRT framework that would underpin their platform unification. Rumours then began swirling that the next Xbox could be sporting a x86 compatible CPU, something which would make Metro apps possible. However SemiAccurate reports that it’s highly unlikely that the Durango CPU will be anything other than another PowerPC chip, effectively putting the kibosh on a Three Screens idea that involves the Xbox.

Now I don’t believe Microsoft is completely unaware of the foot hold they have in the living room when it comes to the Xbox so it follows that either Durango will have a x86/ARM architecture (the 2 currently confirmed WinRT compatible architectures) or WinRT will in fact work on the new Xbox. The latter is the interesting point to consider and there’s definitely some meat in that idea. Recall in the middle of last year that there was strong evidence to suggest that Windows 8 would be able to play Xbox360 games suggesting that there was some level of interoperability between the two platforms (and by virtue the Windows Phone 7 platform as well). Funnily enough if this is the case then it’s possible that Metro apps could run on the Wii U but I doubt we’ll ever see that happen.

Coincidentally Orbis, the PlayStation3 successor, is said to be sporting a x64 CPU in essence eliminating most of the differences between it and conventional PCs. Whilst the advantages to doing this are obvious (cross platform releases with only slight UI and controller modifications, for starters) the interesting point was that it almost guarantees that there will be no backwards compatibility for PlayStation3 games. Whilst the original PlayStation3s contained an actual PS2 inside them the vast majority of them simply emulated the PS2 in software, something that it was quite capable of doing thanks to the immense power under of the PlayStation3. Using a more traditional x64 CPU makes this kind of software emulation nigh on impossible and so backwards compatibility can only be achieved with either high end components or an actual Cell processor. As Ars Technica points out it’s very likely that the next generation of consoles will be more in line with current hardware than being the computational beasts of their predecessors, mostly because neither Microsoft or Sony wants to sell consoles at a loss again.

The aversion to this way of doing business, which both Microsoft and Sony did for all their past console releases, is an interesting one. Undoubtedly they’ve seen the success of Nintendo and Apple who never sell hardware at a loss and wish to emulate that success but I think it’s far more to do with the evolution of how a console gets used. Indeed on the Xbox360 more people use it for entertainment purposes than they do for gaming and there are similar numbers for the PlayStation3. Sony and Microsoft both recognise this and will want to capitalize on this with the  next generation. This also means that they can’t support their traditional business model of selling at a loss and making it up on the games since a lot of consoles won’t see that many games purchased for them. There are other ways to make up this revenue short fall, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they can keep using the console as a loss leader for their other products.

All this speculation also makes the idea of the SteamBox that much more interesting as it no longer seems like so much of an outlier when lumped in with the next generation of consoles. There’s also strong potential that should a console have a x86/x64 architecture that the Steam catalogue could come to the platform. Indeed the ground work has already been done with titles like Portal 2 offering a rudimentary level of Steam integration on the PlayStation3, so it’s not much of a stretch to think that it will make a reappearance on the next generation.

It will be interesting to see how these rumours develop over the next year or so as we get closer to the speculated announcement. Suffice to say that the next generation of consoles will be very different beasts to their predecessors with a much more heavy focus on traditional entertainment. Whether this is a positive thing for the gaming world at large will have to remain to be seen but there’s no mistaking that some radical change is on the horizon.

Changing the User Paradigm with Windows 8.

As any IT admin will tell you users aren’t really the best at coping with change. It’s understandable though, for many people the PC that they use in their everyday work is simply a tool with which to accomplish their required tasks, nothing more. Fundamentally changing the way that tool works means that they also have to change the way they work and often this is met with staunch resistance. As such it’s rather difficult for new paradigms to find their feet, often requiring at least one failed or mediocre product to be released in order for the initial groundwork to be done and then the next generation can enjoy the success that its predecessor was doomed to never achieve.

We don’t have to look that far into the past to see an example of this happening. Windows Vista was something of a failure commercially which can be traced to 2 very distinct issues. The first, and arguably the most important, was the lack of driver support from vendors leaving many users with hardware that simply couldn’t run Vista even if it was technically capable of doing so. The second was the major shift in the user experience with the start menu being completely redesigned and many other parts of the operating system being revamped. These 2 items were the 1-2 knock-out punch that put Vista in the graveyard and gave Windows 7 one hell of an up hill battle.

Windows 8, whilst not suffering from the driver disaster that plagued Vista, revamps the user experience yet again. This time however it’s more than just a simple splash of eye candy with a rearranging of menu items, it’s a full on shift in how Windows PCs will be used. Chief amongst these changes is the Metro UI which after being field tested on Windows Phone 7 handsets has found its way onto the desktop and any Windows powered device. Microsoft has made it clear that this will be the way they’ll be doing everything in the future and that the desktop as we know it will soon be fading away in favour of a Metro interface.

This has drawn the ire of IT professionals and it’s easy to see why. Metro is at its heart designed for users, taking cues from the success that Apple has achieved with its iOS range of products. However whilst Apple is happy to slowly transform OS X into another branch of their iOS line Microsoft has taken the opposite approach, unifying all their ecosystems under the one banner of Metro (or more aptly WinRT). This is a bold move from Microsoft essentially betting that the near future of PC usage won’t be in the desktop sense, the place where the company has established itself as the dominant player in the market.

And for what it’s worth they’re making the right decision. Apple’s success proves that users are quite capable (and willing) to adapt to new systems if the interfaces to them are intuitive, minimalistic and user focused. Microsoft has noticed this and it is looking to take advantage of it by providing a unified platform across all devices. Apple is already close to providing such an experience but Microsoft has the desktop dominance, something that will help them drive adoption of their other platforms. However whilst the users might be ready, willing and able to make the switch I don’t think Windows 8 will be the one to do it. It’s far more likely to be Windows 9.

The reasoning behind this is simple, the world is only just coming to grips with Windows 7 after being dragged kicking and screaming away from Windows XP. Most enterprises are only just starting to roll out the new operating system now and those who have already rolled out don’t have deployments that are over a year old. Switching over to Windows 8 then is going to be something that happens a long way down the line, long enough that many users will simply skip upgrading Windows 8 in favour of the next iteration. If Microsoft sticks to their current 3 year release schedule then organizations looking to upgrade after Windows 7 won’t be looking at Windows 8, it’s far more likely to be Windows 9.

I’m sure Microsoft has anticipated this and has decided to play the long game instead of delaying fundamental change that could put them seriously behind their competition. It’s a radical new strategy, one that could pay them some serious dividends should everything turn out the way they hope it will. The next couple years are going to be an interesting time as the market comes to grips with the new Metro face of the iconic Windows desktop, something which resisted change for decades prior.

Windows 8 Screenshot Start

Windows 8 Developer Preview.

Windows 7, whilst being around for quite a while in some form, has only been officially available for just on 2 years. It’s successor, the ingeniously named Windows 8, is scheduled to hit the markets late sometime next year or around 3 years since its predecessors release. Should that stay on schedule Microsoft will be on track to keeping its promise of releasing new versions of Windows every 3 years or so, hopefully avoiding the long development cycle that plagued Vista and signalling to corporate IT that yes XP really is about to die. As part of their recent BUILD conference Microsoft released a developer preview of Windows 8, aimed at those looking to have a play with the up and coming OS and get developers started on building apps for the platform. I’ve had my hands on a copy for the past week or so and I’ve given it the once over, with some rather interesting results.

Windows 8 installs just like its predecessor does, although this one required me to break out one of my dual-layered DVDs in order to fit the image onto a single disk. The difference begins when it comes to configuring Windows 8 once the install has completed. Most noticeably the UI at these stages has been completely redone in the Metro style, signalling that Microsoft believes this will be the main way in which people will use their computers in the future. In a similar vein to what Apple has long done Microsoft now gives you the option of signing into your PC with a Windows Live account, allowing you to sync certain settings with the cloud. For both tablets and desktop PCs alike this will be a good feature for your average home user, especially if Microsoft includes some automated backup of say the My Documents folder to a user’s SkyDrive account. 

The first screen (pictured above) is what will be presented to users after their first login. Although there might be some familiar names on there (like Internet Explorer and Control panel) these items are in fact Metro applications based on the new WinRT framework. The darker green backgrounded icons are shortcuts to the traditional desktop applications and the desktop itself can be accessed by the aptly named Desktop shortcut. It’s quite obvious that this interface is designed with touch in mind as the icons are massive compared to their predecessors counterparts and navigation comes by the way of swiping mouse motions or using the mouse wheel. I can see this interface replacing the regular Windows desktop for a lot of users, especially if the app scene is comparable to Apple’s.

Diving into the desktop interface reveals a few new features. Gone are the rounded corners that we’ve become used to since Vista and back are the sharp angular edges that are somewhat reminiscent of Windows XP. The aero translucency is still around however which I’ve always loved but it will still be there to offend those die hard “windows classic” fans. The major change you’ll notice is the addition of the ribbon bar at the top of the explorer window. Now the ribbon always seems to be a point of contention and I’ll be honest I hated it too when I first saw it. In Office though it made quite a lot of sense and I’ve grown to like it. For Explorer on the other hand I’m not so sure, since all of the items on there are all familiar context menu items or keyboard shortcuts. Thankfully you can hide the entire thing by clicking the little carrot in the right hand corner, so it’s a non-issue.

Gone is the start menu as well being outright replaced by the new Metro interface you saw earlier. Clicking the start button or hitting the windows key will spin you right out of desktop mode and into Metro, although it seems to be dependant on the hardware you installed it on. In a virtual machine that seems to be the default behaviour but on my physical test box I was able to get up a context menu of a couple options (log off, switch user, etc). This is somewhat disconcerting for an admin user like myself who’s become quite accustomed to finding most things by hitting the Windows key then typing in what I want (called Windows Desktop Search). It’s still available through Windows + F however, but only in Metro form:

However as an OS it’s pretty much just Windows 7 underneath all the Metro changes as I haven’t found anything significant under the hood that isn’t already in Windows 7. This is both good and bad as it means that’ll be a somewhat easy transition for administrators to change users over but there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of innovation apart from Metro and WinRT. Of course this is still very much an alpha type product (the UI is constantly breaking in my virtual, it’s slightly better on physical hardware) so there could be a lot of stuff that’s just not turned on or not yet implemented. I’m sure the next year will bring a lot of changes to the OS in both visual and non-visual aspects, so I’ll reserve judgement until it’s more feature complete.

For what it’s intended for though (I.E. to get developers working on Metro apps)? This build seems perfect for that. I’ve yet to tinker with building an application past starting up Visual Studio to see if it works but the build is functional enough to test out everything that a budding app developer would need to. It’s far from being usable as an everyday machine though, even as an early adopter. I’d say we’re about 6 months away from it being ready in that kind of form much like its predecessor was before it. There’s still a lot I haven’t had the chance to fiddle with yet so I’ll probably be revisiting Windows 8 a couple times, as well as the new Visual Studio.

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Windows 8 and WinRT: On the Cusp of Platform Unification.

Last week saw the much talked about Microsoft BUILD conference take place, the one for which all us developers tentatively held our breath wondering what the future of the Microsoft platform would be. Since then there’s been a veritable war chest of information that’s come from the conference and I unfortunately didn’t get the time to cover it last week (thanks mostly to my jet setting ways). Still not writing about it right away has given me some time to digest the flood of information and speculation that this conference has brought us and I personally believe that Windows 8 is nothing but good news for developers, even those who thought it would lead to the death of their ecosystem.

For starters the project codenamed Jupiter has an official name of Windows Run Time (WinRT) and looks to be an outright replacement for the Win32 API that’s been around since 1993. The big shift here is that whilst Win32 was designed for a world of C programmers WinRT will instead be far more object-oriented, aimed more directly at the C++ world. WinRT applications will also use the XAML framework for their user interfaces and will compile to native x86 code rather than to .NET bytecode like they currently do. WinRT applications also do away with the idea of dialog boxes, removing the notion of modal applications completely (at least, in the native API). This coupled with the fact that any API that takes longer than 50ms to respond being asynchronous means that Metro apps are inherently more responsive, something that current x86 desktop apps can’t guarantee. Additionally should an app be designed for the Metro styled interface it must only use the WinRT libraries for the interface, you can’t have mixed Metro/Classic applications.

If you’re after an in-depth breakdown of what WinRT means for developers Miguel de Icaza (of Mono fame) has a great breakdown here.

WinRT will also not be a universal platform on which will provide backwards compatibility for all current Windows applications. It’s long been known that Windows 8 will be able to run on ARM processors but what wasn’t clear was whether or not current applications would be compatible with the flavour of Windows running on said architecture. As it turns out x86 applications won’t work on the ARM version of Windows however applications written on the WinRT framework will run on every platform with only minor code changes (we’re talking single digit lines here). Those legacy applications will still run perfectly well in the Desktop mode that Windows 8 offers and they’ll be far from second class citizens as Microsoft recognizes how things like their Office suite don’t translate well to the tablet environment.

At the same time Microsoft has also announced that the web browser in the Metro UI will not support any kind of plug-ins including their very own Silverlight. Of course you’re always welcome to switch into desktop mode should you visit a website that requires a plug-in but Microsoft said the aim is for everyone to transition away from plug-ins and onto the HTML5/JavaScript stack. On the surface this seems to verify the notion that Silverlight developers are screwed as all their apps are second class citizens in the new Metro world. However since WinRT apps are developed in a very similar way to that of Silverlight apps the transition to the Metro platform will probably be nothing more than changing namespaces and tidying up the UI so it fits in with the new design. Distribution of said apps will then come via the Microsoft app store, rather than a company’s web server. Sure it’s a paradigm shift away from what they’re currently used to, but Silverlight developers will find themselves right at home with WinRT.

Taking this all into consideration it seems like there will be a line in the sand between what I’ll call “Full” Windows 8 users and “Metro” based users. Whilst initially I thought that Jupiter would mean any application (not just those developed on WinRT) would be able to run anywhere it seems that only WinRT apps have that benefit, with current x86 apps relegated to desktop mode. That leads me to the conclusion that the full Windows 8 experience, including the Desktop app, won’t be available to all users. In fact those running on ARM architecture more than likely won’t have access to the desktop at all instead being relegated to just the Metro UI. This isn’t a bad thing at all since tablets, phones et. al. have very different use cases than those of the desktop but, on the surface at least, it would appear to be a step away from their Three Screens vision.

From what I can tell though Microsoft believes the future is Metro styled apps for both desktop and tablet users a like. John Gruber said it best when he said “it’s going to be as if Mac OS X could run iPad apps, but iPads could still only run iPad apps. Metro everywhere, not Windows everywhere.” which I believe is an apt analogy. I believe Microsoft will push WinRT/Metro as the API to rule them all and with them demoing Xbox Live on Windows 8 it would seem that at least on some level WinRT will be making it’s way to the Xbox, thereby realizing Microsoft’s Three Screens idea. Whether the integration between those 3 platforms works as well as advertised remains to be seen but the demo’s shown at BUILD are definitely promising.

Windows 8: First Step to the Realization of Three Screens.

The last two years have seen a major shake up in the personal computing industry. Whilst I’m loathed to admit it Apple was the one leading the charge here, redefining the smart phone space and changing the way many people did the majority of their computing by creating the wildly successful niche of curated computing (read: tablets). It is then inevitable that many subsequent innovations from rival companies are seen as reactions to Apple’s advances, even if the steps that company is taking are towards a much larger and broader goal than competing in the same market.

I am, of course, referring to Microsoft’s Windows 8 which was just demoed recently.

There’s been quite a bit of news about the upcoming release of Windows 8 with many leaked screenshots and even leaked builds that gave us a lot of insight into what we can expect of the next version of Windows. For the most part the updates didn’t seem like anything revolutionary although things like portable desktops and a more integrated web experienced were looking pretty slick. Still Windows 7 was far from being revolutionary either but the evolution from Vista was more than enough to convince people that Microsoft was back on the right track and the adoption rates reflect that.

However the biggest shift that is coming with Windows 8 was known long before it was demoed: Windows 8 will run on ARM and other System on a Chip (SOC) devices. It’s a massive deviation from Microsoft’s current platform which is wholly x86/x86-64 based and this confirms Microsoft’s intentions to bring their full Windows experience to tablet and other low power/portable devices. The recent demo of the new operating system confirmed this with Windows 8 having both a traditional desktop interface that we’re all familiar with and also a more finger friendly version that takes all of its design cues from the Metro interface seen on all Windows Phone 7 devices.

The differences between these two interfaces just don’t stop at what input device they were optimized for either. Whilst all Windows 8 devices will be capable running the huge back catalog of software that has been developed for Windows over the past few decades in the traditional desktop interface mode the new tablet optimized interface relies on applications built using HTML5 and JavaScript. This is arguably done so that they are much more platform independent than their traditional Windows applications cousins who, whilst most likely being able to run since .NET will be ported to the ARM and SOC infrastructures, won’t have been designed for the tablet environment. They’ll still be usable in a pinch of course but you’d still want to rewrite them if a large number of your users were moving to the tablet/smartphone platform.

Looking at all these changes you can’t help but think that they were all done in reaction to Apple’s dominance of the tablet space with their iPad. It’s true that a lot of the innovations Microsoft has done with Windows 8 mirror those of what Apple has achieved in the past year or so however since Windows 8 has been in development for much longer than that not all of them can be credited to Microsoft playing the me-too game. Realistically it’s far more likely that many of these innovations are Microsoft’s first serious attempts at realizing their three screens vision and many of the changes in Windows 8 support this idea.

A lot of critics think the idea of bringing a desktop OS to a tablet form factor is doomed for failure. The evidence to support that view is strong too since Windows 7 (and any other OS for that matter) tablet hasn’t enjoyed even a percentage of the success that the dedicated tablet OS’s have. However I don’t believe that Microsoft is simply making a play for the tablet market with Windows 8, what they’re really doing is providing a framework for building user experiences that remain consistent across platforms. The idea of being capable of completing any task whether you’re on your phone, TV or dedicated computing device (which can be a tablet) is what is driving Microsoft to develop Windows 8 they way they are. Windows Phone 7 was their first steps into this arena and their UI has been widely praised for its usability and design and Microsoft’s commitment to using it on Windows 8 shows that they are trying to blur the lines that current exist between the three screens. The potential for .NET applications to run on x86, ARM and other SOC platforms seals the deal, there is little doubt that Microsoft is working towards a ubiquitous computing platform.

Microsoft’s execution of this plan is going to be vital for their continued success. Whilst they still dominate the desktop market it’s being ever so slowly eroded away by the bevy of curated computing platforms that do everything users need them to do and nothing more. We’re still a long time away from everyone out right replacing all their PCs with tablets and smart phones but the writing is on the wall for a sea change in the way we all do our computing. Windows 8 is shaping up to be Microsoft’s way of re-establishing themselves as the tech giant to beat and I’m sure the next year is going to be extremely interesting for fans and foes alike.

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A City I Hadn’t Yet Discovered.

I have to admit whilst I admired the spectacle of New York I didn’t much care for the fast paced city. The consent hard sell from street merchants, the inattentive people on the streets that would make no attempt to give way to anyone else and the constant unpleasant smells hadn’t really endeared it to me. Couple that with constant pain and I had a rather grim view of the city, slowing my rise from slumber this morning. Still I’m not about to waste my time over here so after spending way too much time getting ready we headed out for a really late breakfast at a nice french restaurant with an art deco finish.

We were still without a proper internet connection in our hotel room even after I had found a good plan on T-Mobile that would solve all our problems. For some reason it was refusing to tether to my laptop meaning that the lovely unlimited Internet connection I had acquired was trapped inside the confines of my iPhone. One solution was to get a wireless broadband modem that I could put my SIM card into and I saw that Office Depot stocked them. We headed over there to see if they had one but all I could find were the contract ones, leaving me to try and track one down somewhere else. We hopped over to a Radioshack to see if they had one but it was pretty much the same deal so I decided to leave it for now.

Wanting to tick off a couple of the attractions we’d bought into we had set our sites on the statue of liberty. Not wanting to trek the entire way down there on foot we tried to figure out the maze that is the New York subway system. After plotting the route on Google maps I noticed that it had a train option which did both the train transfer as well as the departure times. 20 minutes later we were at our destination and heading towards the dock that would take us out to the island. Before we could board we had to go through an airport style security scan where they announced we’d be the final boat for the day. We knew we’d taken our time getting here but we thought we’d still have some time up our sleeves, obviously not. The trip over and the island itself were pretty uneventful but it’s still immensely popular with the island teaming with people even this late in the afternoon. I got some choice photos of the monument before sitting down to enjoy the sunset on our boat ride back to Manhattan island.

By the time we got back it was almost night time so we decided to go to the Empire State Building so we could see New York City lit up at night time and get some good pictures while we were at it. It didn’t take us long to find it after exiting the metro station we came out of with the building tower over everything with its electric blue luminescence. The book had told us to come back after 9pm to beat the crowds but no less than 20 minutes later we were up at the top level. From every side of the building we could see city lights stretching out to the horizon, providing a stunning canvas for me to work my camera on.

With that out of the way we set about looking for a place to have dinner. I had found a korean barbecue place on Yelp that we started walking to but no less than 2 minutes into the walk did we find a microbrewery with an attached restaurant. The prices were good and the food sounded amazing so the estimated 15 minute wait was well within our limit. Whilst we waited I grabbed us some drinks from the bar with Rebecca selecting a long island iced tea and I grabbed one of their oatmeal stouts. It was a nice thick beer with a distinctly coffee aftertaste providing an ample distraction whilst we waited for our table. The dinner that followed was well worth it too with Rebecca getting exactly what she expected (doesn’t happen often) and I enjoying a 12 oz new york strip steak with a blue cheese dressing. Our walk back to the hotel was one of satisfaction and happiness without the pain I had suffered the day before.

I opened this post saying how I hadn’t really cared much for this city but that all changed today. Whilst anything mired in pain will always have a grim look to it today proved that there were many redeeming features for all the small bothers that got to me. Once I solve the small problem of tethering my iPhone I will have worked out all those little problems that have been gnawing at me since I landed here and hopefully I can get that done early tomorrow morning. With us mastering the subway system (thanks to Google) so much more of the city has opened up for us and I can’t wait to take advantage of it.