Posts Tagged‘microsoft’

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.

 

NOKIA BRICKS

Microsoft Buys Nokia: That’s Great, For One of Them.

If you’re old enough to remember a time when mobile phones weren’t common place you also likely remember the time when Nokia was the brand to have, much like Apple is today. I myself owned quite a few of them with my very first phone ever being the (then) ridiculously small Nokia 8210. I soon gravitated towards other, more shiny devices as my disposable income allowed but I did find myself in possession of an N95 because, at the time, it was probably one of the best handsets around for techno-enthusiasts like myself.  However it’s hard to deny that they’ve struggled to compete in today’s smartphone market and, unfortunately, their previous domination in the feature phone market has also slipped away from them.

NOKIA BRICKSTheir saving grace was meant to come from partnering with Microsoft and indeed I attested to as much at the time. Casting my mind back to when I wrote that post I was actually of the mind that Nokia was going to be the driving force for Microsoft however in retrospect it seems the partnership was done in the hopes that both of their flagging attempts in the smartphone market could be combined into one, potentially viable, product. Whilst I’ve praised the design and quality of Windows Phone based Nokias in the past it’s clear that the amalgamation of 2 small players hasn’t resulted in a viable strategy to accumulate a decent amount of market share.

You can then imagine my surprise when Microsoft up and bought Nokia’s Devices and Services business as it doesn’t appear to be a great move for them.

So Nokia as a company isn’t going anywhere as they still retain control of a couple key businesses (Solutions and Networks, HERE/Navteq and Advanced Technologies which I’ll talk about in a bit) however they’re not going to be making phones anymore as that entire capability has been transferred to Microsoft. That’s got a decent amount of value in itself, mostly in the manufacturing and supply chains, and Microsoft’s numbers will swell by 32,000 when the deal is finished. However whether that’s going to result in any large benefits for Microsoft is debateable as they arguably got most of this in their 2011 strategic partnership just that they can now do all the same without the Nokia branding on the final product.

If this type of deal is sounding familiar then you’re probably remembering the nearly identical acquisition that Google made in Motorola back in 2011. Google’s reasons and subsequent use of the company were quite different however and, strangely enough, they have yet to use them to make one of Nexus phones. Probably the biggest difference, and this is key to why this deal is great for Nokia and terrible for Microsoft, is the fact that Google got all of Motorola’s patents, Microsoft hasn’t got squat.

As part of the merger a new section is being created in Nokia called Advanced Technologies which, as far as I can tell, is going to be the repository for all of Nokia’s technology patents. Microsoft has been granted a 10 year license to all of these, and when that’s expired they’ll get a perpetual one, however Nokia gets to keep ownership of all of them and the license they gave Microsoft is non-exclusive. So since Nokia is really no longer a phone company they’re now free to start litigating against anyone they choose without much fear of counter-suits harming any of their products. Indeed they’ve stated that the patent suits will likely continue post acquisition signalling that Nokia is likely going to look a lot more like a patent troll than a technology company in the near future.

Meanwhile Microsoft has been left with a flagging handset business, one that’s failed to reach the kind of growth that would be required to make it sustainable long term. Now there’s something to be said about Microsoft being able to release Lumia branded handsets (they get the branding in this deal) but honestly their other forays into the consumer electronics space haven’t gone so well so I’m not sure what they’re going to accomplish here. They’ve already got the capability and distribution channels to get products out there (go into any PC store and you’ll find Microsoft branded peripherals there, guaranteed) so whilst it might be nice to get Nokia’s version of that all built and ready I’m sure they could have built one themselves for a similar amount of cash. Of course the Lumia tablet might be able to change consumer’s minds on that one but most of the user complaints around Windows RT weren’t about the hardware (as evidenced in my review).

In all honesty I have no idea why Microsoft would think this would be a good move, let alone a move that would let them do anything more than they’re currently doing. If they had acquired Nokia’s vast portfolio of patents in the process I’d be singing a different tune as Microsoft has shown how good they are in wringing license fees out of people (so much so that the revenue they get from Android licensing exceeds that of their Windows Phone division) . However that hasn’t happened and instead we’ve got Nokia lining up to become a patent troll of epic proportions and Microsoft left $7 billion patent licensing deal that comes with its own failing handset business. I’m not alone in this sentiment either as Microsoft’s shares dropped 5% on this announcement which isn’t great news for this deal.

I really want to know where they’re going with this because I can’t for the life of me figure it out.

 

IMG_3901

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.

IMG_3901

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.

xbox-One

Microsoft Still Playing Catch Up With Policy Updates.

It’s been a rough few months for Microsoft’s gaming division with them copping flak from every angle about nearly all aspects of their next generation console, the Xbox One. I’ve tried to remain mostly neutral on the whole ordeal as I had originally put myself down for both consoles when they both released but that changed when I couldn’t find a compelling reason to get both. Since then Microsoft has tried to win back the gamers it alienated with its initial announcements although it was clear that the damage was done in that respect and all this did was helped to keep the loyalists happy with a choice they were never going to make. Since then it’s been all quiet from Microsoft, perhaps in the hopes that silence would do more to help than anything else they could say at this point.

xbox-One

However a recent announcement from Microsoft has revealed that not only will Microsoft be allowing independent developers to self-publish on the Xbox One platform they’ll also be able to use a retail kit as a debug unit. Considering that traditionally development kits were on the order of a couple of thousand dollars (the PlayStation3 one was probably the most expensive I ever heard of at $20,000 on release day) this announcement is something of a boon for indie developers as those looking to do cross platform releases now don’t have spend a significant chunk of change in order to develop on Microsoft’s console. On the surface that would seem to be a one up on Nintendo and Sony but as it turns out Microsoft isn’t doing something truly notable with this announcement, they’re just playing catch up yet again.

Sony announced at E3 that they’d allow indie developers to self publish on the PlayStation4 however you’ll still need to get your hands on a development kit if you want to test your titles properly. This presents a barrier of course, especially if they retain the astronomical release day price (I wouldn’t expect that though), however Sony has a DevKit Loaner program which provides free development kits to studios who need them. They also have a whole bunch of other benefits for devs signing up to their program which would seem to knock out some of the more significant barriers to entry. I’ll be honest when I first started writing this I didn’t think Sony had any of this so it’s a real surprise that they’ve become this welcoming to indie developers.

Similarly Nintendo has a pretty similar level of offerings for indies although it wasn’t always that way. Updates are done for free and the review process, whilst still mandatory, is apparently a lot faster than other platforms. Additionally if you get into their program (which has requirements that I could probably meet, seriously) you’ll also find yourself with a copy of Unity 4 Pro at no extra charge which allows you to develop titles for multiple platforms simultaneously. Sure this might not be enough to convince a developer to go full tilt on a WiiU exclusive but those considering a multiplatform release after seeing some success on one might give it another look after seeing what Nintendo has to offer.

Probably the real kicker, at least for us Australians, is even despite the fact that indies will be able to self publish on the new platform after testing on retail consoles we still won’t be able to see them thanks to our lack of XBLIG. Microsoft are currently not taking a decisive stand on whether this will change or not (it seems most of the big reveals they want to make will be at Gamescon next month) but the smart money is on no, mostly due to the rather large fees required to get a game classified in Australia. This was supposed to be mitigated somewhat by co-regulation by the industry as part of the R18+ classification reforms and it has, to some extent, although it seems to be aimed at larger enterprises currently as I couldn’t find any fee for service assessors (there was a few jobs up on Seek for some though, weird). Whilst I’m sure that wouldn’t stop Australian indie devs from having a crack at the Xbox One I’m sure it’d be a turn off for some as who doesn’t to see their work in their own country?

I’m getting the feeling that Microsoft has a couple aces up its sleeve for Gamescon so I’ll hold back on beating the already very dead horse and instead say I’m interested to see what they have to say. I don’t think there’s anything at this point that would convince me to get one but I’m still leagues away from writing it off as a dead platform. Right now the ball is in Microsoft’s court and they’ve got a helluva lot of work to do if they want their next gen’s launch day to look as good as Sony’s.

Internet Disconnected

Why Gamers Are “Stuck” In The Disc Era.

There was an awful lot of noise last month around the whole XboxOne DRM/features/whatever debacle that ended up with Microsoft doing a 180 on their often-on DRM stance. Ostensibly it was reactionary due to the amount of praise that Sony was getting at Microsoft’s expense, even though they’d managed to hold fast during the initial PR stampede. There were a few though, certainly not the majority but a non-zero amount, who lamented this change by Microsoft, saying that they had capitulated to the crowd and were essentially keeping gaming services in the dark ages. There’s a little meat to this story as the removal of the daily check-in requirement meant that some of the features that came along with it had to go away. Initially the things people were talking about didn’t require a daily check-in to achieve (like worlds that “live on” between game sessions, I think Animal Crossing had that covered pretty well) but there was one that was so revolutionary that I thought people were just making it up.

That was the ability to sell your digital only games.

Internet Disconnected

Now as someone who’s got a massive library of these kinds of games on Steam (last count was in the realm of 300+) the ability to sell, or even just transfer, these games would be a pretty great feature. It’s possible that residents of EU countries might end up getting this by default thanks to a 2012 CURIA ruling but the idea that this could come to the XboxOne, regardless of territory, would be very appealing to a lot of gamers. The often on check is then required to make sure you haven’t sold the game through one channel and then continue to play it offline, which makes some sense in context, although I’d argue that the number of people who’d do such things would be in the minority (and you could just check whenever they did eventually get online anyway). However all that still has the one enormous caveat that I think was the crux of the issue for everyone: you have to rely on a service that may or may not be there in the future.

“Ah ha”, I hear you say, “but that’s the same for Steam and everyone just accepts it there!” and you’re right, to a point. That was probably the biggest thing that Steam had going against it at the time as PC gamers were most certainly not welcoming of it, I know I certainly wasn’t. However once the value proposition became very attractive, mostly through the sales, ease of use and increasing broadband penetration we started to warm to the service. There was also the assurance from Gabe Newell (although trying to source a direct quote relating to this is proving elusive) that should Steam have to shut down there’ll be a patch issued that would free your game library from its decaying hands. With Microsoft’s announcement there wasn’t, or at least it wasn’t communicated well, an equivalent assurance that would allow gamers to continue to play such games past the time when the Xbox Live service disappeared.

Indeed this problem faces all gamers as many titles move towards a more connected model which could mean that core features become unusuable the second the developer can no longer support running the back end infrastructure. For some times, ones that are traditionally multiplayer only, this is kind of expected but the difference between Diablo and Diablo III for instance is that in 20 years I can almost guarantee the former will still be able to be run by anyone with the disc, the latter I’m not sure will see the end of this decade. Sure the number of people doing this might not be in the majority but they’re a vocal one and the sole reason why services like GoG exist. Had Microsoft given some assurances to the contrary they might not be in the position they are today and those features might still be available to Xbox customers.

It may seem like we’re just being backwards Luddites bent on keeping the status quo but it’s far more than that, we just want to be able to play our games long into the future like we can do with so many titles we grew up on. I see no technical reason why systems can’t be built to enable both sides of the equation, one that allows us to sell/trade digital games whilst also giving the opportunity to play offline whenever we want, but the reasons are far more likely business in nature. It’s a real shame as Microsoft could have really outdone Sony on this particular front but it seems like they’re instead gearing up for being second place, capitulating just enough so they don’t end up competing with the Wii U for scraps of market share.

TechNet Subscription

Cancelling TechNet is a Bad Move, Microsoft.

It’s no secret that I’m a Microsoft guy, owing much of my current career to their products which have been the staple of my computing experience since I was 5 years old. In that time I’ve gone from a simple user, to a power user who tweaked his system for the ultimate gaming experience to the administrator I am today, one who has seen almost everything Microsoft has to offer. I won’t lie, much of that foundational experience was built on the backs of pirated software but once I had a proper job that gave me access to all the software I needed I found myself not often needing much more than they provided. That was until I became a contractor which necessitated some external learning on my part.

Enter TechNet subscriptions.

TechNet Subscription

They’re essentially a golden ticket to Microsoft’s entire software library. Back when I first bought into them there was only one level which got you everything but Visual Studio (that privilege is reserved for MSDN subscribers) and came with a handful of licenses for every Windows version out there, and I do mean every version as you could get MS-DOS 1.0 should you be so inclined. I, like most TechNet subscribers at the time, got it because the cost was roughly equivalent to the Windows desktop licensing cost to cover all my home machines at the time and the added server OSes and business software were an added bonus that’d help me professionally. I didn’t end up renewing it, mostly because I then got a MSDN account through work, but I know several people who are still subscribers today, usually for the same reasons I was.

It was with mixed feelings then that I read today’s announcement that Microsoft was going to stop selling the program effective August 31st, 2013. If you’re so inclined you can buy yourself a subscription (or renew your current one) all the way up to this date so you can continue to use the service for another year after that, putting the end date of the service at late 2014. After that your only option to get a similar level of access to Microsoft’s catalogue will be to go through MSDN which at current pricing levels is out of reach for infrastructure professionals like myself. Whilst the price difference is justified by a lot of the extra features you get (like the super cheap Azure pricing) those benefits aren’t exactly aligned with the current TechNet crowd.

The suggested replacement for TechNet is now the Evaluation Center which provides access to time limited versions of the same software (although how comprehensive the library is in comparison isn’t something I can comment on). Ironically there’s still a text blurb pointing you to buy a TechNet subscription should you want to “enjoy software for longer” something which I’m sure won’t remain there for long. In all honesty the reason why TechNet was so useful was the lack of time and feature limitations, allowing you to work freely with the product without having to consider some arbitrary limitation. For people like me who like to evaluate different bits of software at different times this was great as I could have an environment set up with all the basics and just install that application on top of it. Time limited software doesn’t provide this functionality, making evaluation done at the individual professional level essentially pointless.

The rationale is that people are looking more towards free services for evaluation and deployment. Now no one but Microsoft has the stats to back that argument up so we’ll just have to take their word for it but I get the feeling this is more about them trying to realign their professional network more than anything else. Sure I’m in the camp that admins will need to skill themselves up on dev related things (PowerShell and C# would not go astray) but semi-forcing them onto MSDN to do so isn’t the right way to go about it. Sure they’ve committed to expanding the services offered through the evaluation center but I doubt the best feature of TechNet, the no time and feature limitations, will ever come to it. Perhaps if they were to do a TechNet cloud edition, one where all the software had to be run on Azure, I might sing a different tune but I doubt that’ll ever happen.

As much as I praise Microsoft here I can’t help but feel this is a bad move on their part as it will only help to alienate a dedicated part of their user base that serves as the front line advocates for their products. I may not be a subscriber anymore, nor will I likely be one in the near future thanks to the benefits granted by my job, but I know many people who find a lot of value in the service, people who are de facto product evangelists because of it. I can only hope that they revamp the MSDN subscriptions to provide a similar level of service as otherwise there’s really only one place people will turn to and I know Microsoft doesn’t approve of it.

Xbone Your Feedback Matters

Microsoft Backtracks on DRM Stance.

Whilst its easy to argue to the contrary Microsoft really is a company that listens to its customers. Many of the improvements I wrote about during my time at TechEd North America were the direct result of them consulting with their users and integrating their requests into their updated product lines. Of course this doesn’t make them immune to blundering down the wrong path as they have done with the XboxOne (and a lot would argue Windows 8 as well, something which I’m finding hard to ignore these days) something which Sony gleefully capitalized on. Their initial attempts at damage control did little to help their image and it was looking like they were just going to wear it until launch day.

And then they did this:

Xbone Your Feedback Matters

Essentially it’s a backtrack to the way things are done today with the removal of the need for the console to check in every day in order for you to be able to play installed/disc based games. This comes hand in hand with Microsoft now allowing you to trade/sell/gift your disc based games to anyone, just like you can do now. They’re keeping the ability to download games directly from Xbox Live although it seems the somewhat convoluted sharing program has also been nixed, meaning you can no longer share games with your family members nor can you share downloaded titles with friends. Considering that not many people found that particular feature attractive I’m not sure it will be missed but it does look like Microsoft wanted to put the boot in a little to show us what we could have had.

I’ll be honest and say I didn’t expect this as Microsoft had been pretty adamant that it was going to stick around regardless of what the consumers thought. Indeed actions taken by other companies like EA seemed to indicate that this move was going to be permanent, hence them abandoning things that would now be part of the platform. There’s been a bit of speculation that this was somehow planned all along; that Microsoft was gauging the Market’s reaction and would react based on that but if that was the case this policy would have been reversed a lot sooner, long before the backlash reached its crescendo during E3. The fact that they’ve made these changes shows that they’re listening now but there’s not to suggest that this was their plan all along.

Of course this doesn’t address some of the other issues that gamers have taken with the XboxOne, most notably the higher cost (even if its semi-justified by the included Kinect) and the rather US centric nature of many of the media features. Personally the higher price doesn’t factor into my decision too much, although I do know that’s a big deal for some, but since the XboxOne’s big selling points was around it’s media features it feels like a lot of the value I could derive from it is simply unavailable to me. Even those in the USA get a little bit of a rough ride with Netflix being behind the Xbox Live Gold wall (when it’s always available on the PS4) but since both of them are requiring the subscription for online play it’s not really something I can really fault/praise either of them for.

For what it’s worth this move might be enough to bring those who were on the fence back into the fold but as the polls and preorders showed there’s a lot of consumers who have already voted with their wallets. If this console generation has the same longevity as the current one then there’s every chance for Microsoft to make up the gap over the course of the next 8 years and considering that the majority of the console sales happen after the launch year it’s quite possible that all this outrage could turn out to be nothing more than a bump in the road. Still the first battle in this generation of console wars has been unequivocally won by Sony and it’s Microsoft’s job to make up that lost ground.

PlayStation 4 Console and Controller

This Isn’t Sony Winning, It’s Microsoft Losing.

If the deafening outcrying from nearly every one of my favourite games news sites and social media brethren is anything to go by the console war has already been won and the new king is Sony. Whilst the fanboy in me would love to take this opportunity to stick it to all the Xboxers out there I honestly believe that Sony really didn’t do much to deserve the praise that’s currently being heaped on it. More I feel like the news coming out of E3 just shows how many missteps Microsoft took with the XboxOne with Sony simply sitting on the sidelines, not really changing anything from what they’re currently doing today.

PlayStation 4 Console and ControllerThe one, and really only, point that this all hinged on was the yet unknown stance that Sony would take for DRM on the PlayStation4. It was rumoured that they were watching social media closely and that spurred many grassroots campaigns aimed at influencing them. The announcement came at E3 that they’d pretty much be continuing along the same lines as they are now, allowing you to trade/sell/keep disc based games without any restrictions built into the platform. This also means that developers were free to include online passes in their games, something which has thankfully not become too common but could go on the rise (especially with cross platform titles).

There wasn’t much else announced at E3 that got gamers excited about the PlayStation4 apart from seeing the actual hardware for the first time. One curious bit of information that didn’t receive a whole lot of attention though was the change to Sony’s stance on free multiplayer through the PlayStation Network. You’ll still be able to get a whole bunch of services for free (like NetFlix/Hulu) but if you want to get multiplayer you’re going to have to shell out $5/month for the privilege. However this is PlayStation Plus which means it comes with a whole bunch of other benefits like free full version games so it’s not as bad as it sounds. Still it looks like Sony might have been capitalizing on the notion that there will be quite a few platform switchers for this generation and thus took the opportunity to make the service mandatory for multi.

It could also be partly to offset the extremely low (relative) price of the PlayStation4 with it clocking in at $399. Considering its specs it’s hard to believe that they’re not using the console as a loss leader yet again, something which I thought they were going to avoid for this generation. If the life of these consoles remains relatively the same that means they’ll at least get the console’s price back again in subscription fees, plus any additional revenue they get from the games sales. At least part of it will have to go to the massive amount of online services they’re planning to release however, but overall it seems that at least part of that subscription cash will be going to offset the cheaper hardware.

The thing to note here is that the differences between Sony’s current and next generation console are far smaller than those for Microsoft. This is the same Sony who were ridiculed for releasing the PSN long after Xbox Live, pricing their console way above the competition and, even if it wasn’t for games specifically, had some of the most insane DRM known to man. The fact that not much has changed (they have, in fact, got objectively worse) and they’re being welcomed with open arms shows just how much Microsoft has dropped the ball.

Whether or not this will translate into lost sales though will have to remain to be seen. The consumer market has an incredibly short memory and we’ve got a good 5 months between now and when the XboxOne goes on sale. It’s entirely possible that the current conversation is being dominated by the vocal minority and the number of platform loyalists will be enough to overcome that initial adoption hump (something which the Wii-U hasn’t been able to do). I’m sure that anyone who was on the fence about which one to get has probably made their mind up now based on these announcements but in all honesty those people are few and far between. I feel the majority of console gamers will get one, and only one, console and will likely not change platforms easily.

The proof will come this holiday season, however.

[UPDATE]: It has come to my attention that Sony has stated that they will not be allowing online passes from anyone. Chalk that up to yet another win for them.

DSC_0148

Microsoft’s Internet Connection is the Least of Your Worries.

After spending a week deep in the bowels of Microsoft’s premier tech conference and writing about them breathlessly for Lifehacker Australia you’d be forgiven for thinking I’m something of a Microsoft shill. It’s true that I think the direction they’re going in for their infrastructure products is pretty spectacular and the excitement for those developments is genuine. However if you’ve been here for a while you’ll know that I’m also among their harshest critics, especially when they do something that drastically out of line with my expectations as one of their consumers. However I believe in giving credit where its due and a recent PA Report article has brought Microsoft’s credentials in one area into question when they honestly shouldn’t be.

DSC_0148

The article I’m referring to is this one:

I’m worried that there are going to be a few million consoles trying to dial into the home servers on Christmas morning, about the time when a mass of people begin to download new games through Microsoft’s servers. Remember, every game will be available digitally day and date of the retail version, so you’re going to see a spike in the number of people who buy their Xbox One games online.

I’m worried about what happens when that new Halo or Call of Duty is released and the system is stressed well above normal operating conditions. If their system falls, no matter how good our Internet connections, we won’t be able to play games.

Taken at face value this appears to be a fair comment. We can all remember times when the Xbox Live service came down in a screaming heap, usually around christmas time or even when a large release happened. Indeed even doing a quick Google search reveals there’s been a couple of outages in recent memory although digging deeper into them reveals that it was usually part of routine maintenance and only affected small groups of people at a time. With all the other criticism that’s being levelled at Microsoft of late (most of which I believe is completely valid) it’s not unreasonable to question their ability to keep a service of this scale running.

However as the title of this post alludes to I don’t think that’s going to be an issue.

The picture shown above is from the Windows Azure Internals session by Mark Russinovich which I attended last week at TechEd North America. It details the current infrastructure that underpins the Windows Azure platform which powers all of Microsoft’s sites including the Xbox Live service. If you have a look at the rest of the slides from the presentation you’ll see how far that architecture has come since they first introduced it 5 years ago when the over-subscription rates were much, much higher for the entire Azure stack. What this meant was that when something big happened the network simply couldn’t handle it and caved under the pressure. With this current generation of the Azure infrastructure however it’s far less oversubscribed and has several orders of magnitude more servers behind it. With that in mind it’s far less likely that Microsoft will struggle to service large spikes like they have done in the past as the capacity they have on tap is just phenomenal.

Of course this doesn’t alleviate the issues with the always/often on DRM or the myriad of other issues that people are criticizing the XboxOne for but it should show you that worrying about Microsoft’s ability to run a reliable service shouldn’t be one of them. Of course I’m just approaching this from an infrastructure point of view and it’s entirely possible for the Xbox Live system to have some systemic issue that will cause it to fail no matter how much hardware they throw at it. I’m not too concerned about that however as Microsoft isn’t your run of the mill startup who’s just learning how to scale.

I guess we’ll just have to wait and see how right or wrong I am.

Windows Server 2012 Local Server Manager

First Foray Into Server 2012: Setting Up a VPN.

All of my previous posts concerning Server 2012 (including those ones on LifeHacker) have been rather…high level focusing more on what you can achieve with it rather than some concrete examples. I’ll admit this can be almost wholly attributed to laziness as I’ve had Server 2012 running on my home machine for quite some time now and just haven’t bothered installing any additional features on it. However one of my close friends is in the throes of setting up his own aerial photography business (using UAVs, super cool stuff) and offered up his home server as a guinea pig for a Server 2012 install, provided I give him a working VPN in return.

Challenge accepted.

Windows Server 2012 Local Server Manager

Initially I thought that I’d install DirectAccess for him as it’s a pretty awesome piece of technology and implementing it appears to be a hell of a lot easier than it was on 2008¹. However the requirements for this were quite high for a VPN setup that would have at most a couple users, requiring a whole bunch of infrastructure that would serve no other purpose. In a rather strange coincidence one of my favourite Microsoft blogs, 4SysOps, wrote a post detailing the installation method for a SSTP VPN (one that tunnels over HTTPS) mere days before I was slated to go out and do the install for him.

Installing Server 2012 went incredibly smoothly and apart from a strange graphics card issue (the NVIDIA card he had in there didn’t seem to be able to regulate its fan without drivers, leading to it to lock up when it overheated) there were no problems. Following the guide was for the most part successful with everything going the way you’d expect it to. However there were a couple gotchas that we ran into along the way that I thought I’d detail here in case anyone got snagged on them.

We had several routing issues thanks to DNS entries taking far too long to expire, something we could have avoided with a little bit of forward planning. You can test the VPN internally by just using the local IP address however you probably won’t be able to get in as the SSL cert won’t match, but it is handy to test if all the plumbing is set up. However the most frustrating issue was that everything would seem to connect but would then immediate drop us out. Thankfully there were some events generated that allowed us to research this problem further but I’m not a big fan of the solution.

The error we were getting was something like “Error 720: The user <username> connected to port <server> has been disconnected because no network protocols were successfully negotiated”. There are numerous posts detailing this exact error and after trying many of the solutions the only one that worked was this one. Essentially it looks like, at least with SSTP VPNs, relaying DHCP requests doesn’t seem to work at all which is what causes this error. Setting up a static pool of IP addresses, and excluding it on the DHCP server, allowed us to connect in without a hitch.

It appears that this issue is a hangover from previous versions of Windows Server as the Routing and Remote Access console looks like it’s straight out of 2003 without much modification to it (apart from the Network Policies section). Now I’m not going to say that it needs a revamp, indeed once we got around that particular issue it worked perfectly, but it could use a little love.

Overall I’m pretty happy with my first real world Server 2012 install as I was able to get a technology that I had no previous experience with (VPNs) up and running in a matter of hours with little more than patience and a whole bunch of Googling. I’m now tempted to give DirectAccess a go at home as I’ve been meaning to set up a lab for a while now and being able to demonstrate some of Server 2012′s capabilities anywhere I have an Internet connection would just be plain awesome. That might be a little while off though as next week I’ll be in New Orleans, knee deep in TechEd goodness.

¹I can remember reading about it when it was first released and thinking I’d give it a go but nearly every install guide had DO NOT USE IN PRODUCTION plastered all over it. This doesn’t seem to be the case anymore as there are many production ready guides available and they’re all pretty easy to follow.