08
Dec 16

Windows 10 on ARM. What does it mean?

Yesterday, when I heard the news from Microsoft’s WinHEC announcements stating, “Windows 10 is coming to ARM through a partnership with Qualcomm”, my brain went through a set of loops, trying to get what this really was, and what it really meant.

Sure, most of us have seen the leaks over the past few weeks about x86 on ARM, but I hadn’t seen enough to find much signal in the noise as to what this was.

But now that I’ve thought about it, most of it makes sense, and if we view the holistic Windows 10 brand as step 1, this is step 2 of blurring the line of what a Windows PC is.

Before we look forward, a bit of history is important. Windows RT was a complex equation to try and reduce – that is, why did it fail? The hardware was expensive, it wasn’t <ahem/> real Windows, it couldn’t run legacy applications at all, and the value proposition and branding were very confusing. Wait. Was I talking about Windows RT, or Windows on Itanium? Hah. Tricked you – it applies to both of them. But let’s let sleeping dogs be.

So if the lack of support for Windows legacy applications is a problem, and ARM processors are getting faster, how to best address this? Windows 10, the last version of Windows. Now available in a complex amalgam that will be ARM64 native, but run Win32 x86 applications through emulation.

Let’s take a look at a couple of things here, in terms of Q&A. I have received no briefing from Microsoft on this technology – I’m going to make some suppositions here.

Question 1: What is meant by x86 Win32 applications? Everything? How about 64-bit Win32 applications?

This is actually pretty straightforward. It is, as the name would imply, x86 Win32 applications. That means the majority of the legacy applications written during the lifetime of Windows (those capable of running on 32-bit Windows 10 on x86) should work when running on 64-bit Windows 10 on ARM. In general, unless there are some hardware shenanigans performed by the software, I assume that most applications will work. In many ways, I see this emulation behaving sort of like Win32 virtualization on AMD64 systems, albeit with very different internals.

Question 2: Ah, so this is virtualization?

No, this is emulation. You’re tricking x86 Win32 applications into thinking they’re running on a (low-powered) x86 processor.

Question 3: Why only 32-bit?

See a few of the next answers for a crucial piece of this answer, but in short, to save space. You could arguably have it add support for Win64 (x64, 64-bit) Windows desktop applications, but this would mean additional bloat for the operating system, and offer rapidly diminishing returns. You’re asking a low-powered ARM processor to really run 64-bit applications and make the most of them? No. Get an x64 processor and don’t waste your money.

Question 4: What is the intent here?

As I said on Twitter this morning, “This is not the future of personal computing. This is a nod to the past.” I have written far more words than justified on why Windows on ARM faced challenges. This is, in many ways, the much-needed feature to make it succeed. However, this feature is also a subtle admission of… the need for more. In order to drive Windows the platform forward on ARM, and help birth the forthcoming generations of UWP-optimal systems, there is a need to temper that future with the reality of the past – that businesses and consumers have an utterly wacky amount of time and money involved in legacy Windows desktop applications, and… something something, cold, dead hands. Thus, we will now see the beginning of x86 support on these ARM processors, and a unified brand of Windows that addresses “How do I get this?” For consumers, it will mean a lack of confusion. Buy this PC, and it will be a great tablet when you want a tablet, but it will also run all of that old stuff.

Question 5: Why not just use Project Centennial, and recompile these old desktop apps for UWP?

First, for this to succeed, it must be point-and-shoot. No repackaging. No certificate games. No weird PowerShell scripts. No recompilation. Take my ancient printer driver, and it just works. Take my old copy of MS Money that I shouldn’t be using. It just works. Etc. We’re talking old apps that should be out to pasture. On the consumer side, there is no code, and no ISV in their right mind will spend time going back and doing the work to support something like this. On the business side, there’s likely nobody around who understands the code or wants to break it. Centennial is a great idea if you are an ISV or enterprise and you want to take your existing Win32 app and begin transmogrifying it into a UWP application through the non-trivial steps needed. But it’s certainly not always the best answer, and doesn’t do the same thing this will.

Question 6: Wait. So won’t I be able to get ransomware too, then?

I would have to assume the answer to that is… yes. However, it is important to note that Terry showed off Windows 10 Enterprise edition in yesterday’s demo. Why does that matter? Because there, you have the option to use DeviceGuard to lock down the device, on these PCs that will ship with OEM Windows. That is one step, for orgs willing to pay for Enterprise. I also assume that there will be the option to turn off the Win32 layer through configuration and GPO.

Question 7: So this is like Virtual PC on PowerPC Macs?

Not exactly. That’s a fine example of emulation, but that was Windows stacked on top of the Mac OS. This looks to be, as it should be, a more side-by-side emulation. Run a UWP app, and all of your resources are running on the ARM side natively.  Run a legacy app, and all your resources are running on the x86 side. Again, the experience should be much like running 32-bit applications on 64-bit Windows, without directory tricks to do it. That’s certainly what I saw in Terry’s demo. Importantly, this means a couple of things. First, you service the whole thing together. This isn’t a VM, and doesn’t require additional steps to service it. Second, where Terry mentions “CHPE = Compiled Hybrid Portable Executable” here, unless I’m misunderstanding, he’s saying that Windows 10 on ARM is basically running fat binaries. It’s two, two, two OS’s in one.

Question 8: Wait. What does that mean?

Well, if I’m understanding their direction correctly, the build includes resources for A64 and x86 in one binary. Meaning that you only need to service one binary to service both… modes? of the OS. Significantly, this also means some on-disk bloat. You’re going to need to have more space for this to work, as you’ve basically got two installs of the OS glued together. Significantly, this is also why you don’t have x64 support too. Because if my theory above holds, adding Win64 would… do amazing things to your remaining disk space.

Question 9: Ah, so UWP is dead?

Heck no. If anything, as I said earlier, this helps UWP in the long run, by reestablishing what Windows is. UWP is still what developers must target if they care about selling anything new, designing for touch, or reaching the collection of devices that Microsoft is driving UWP forward on. I also can envision that this functionality only works when a device is Continuum’d. That is, when you’re docked and ready to work at your desk. This is all about legacy, and your desktop.

Question 10: Ah, so Intel processors are dead?

LOLNO. This is an ARM processor running x86 software. No x64 support. Performance may wind up being fair, but an ARM system will hardly be your destination if you want to do hardcore gaming, data work, development, run VMs… and then there’s the server side, where ARM still has a huge uphill battle ahead of it. This will fill a hole for consumers and low-mid tier knowledge workers. If you cared that the new MBP didn’t have more than 16GB of RAM, well… I digress.

Question 11: Ah, so Windows Mobile is dead?

No. At least not yet. Windows Mobile won’t include this layer, which will likely mean that it also won’t require the storage space. In the long run, a Windows-based ARM64 phone could indeed run Windows 10, and finally blur the line as to what is a Windows phone and what is a Windows PC – and also make Continuum incredibly useful.

 


27
Jun 16

Compute Stick PCs – Flash in the pan?

A few years ago, following the success of many other HDMI-connected computing devices, a new type of PC arrived – the “compute stick”. Also referred to sometimes as an HDMI PC or a stick PC, the device immediately made me scratch my head a bit.

If Windows 10 still featured a Media Center edition, I guess I could sort of see the point. But Windows, outside of Surface Hub (which seemingly runs a proprietary edition of Windows), no longer features a 10′ UI in the box. Meaning, without third-party software and nerd-porn duct tape, it’s a computer with a TV as a display, and a very limited use case.

Unlike Continuum on Windows 10 Mobile, I’ve never had a licensing boot camp attendee ask me about compute sticks (almost none ever asked us about Windows To Go, the mode of booting Windows Enterprise edition off of USB on a random PC).

The early sticks featured 2GB of RAM or less, really limiting their use case even further. With 4GB, more modern versions will run Windows 10 well, but to what end?

I can see some cases where compute sticks might make sense for point of service, but a NUC is likely to be more affordable, powerful, and expandable, and not suffer from heat exhaustion like a compute stick is likely to.

I’ve also heard it suggested that a compute stick is a good potential for the business traveler. But I don’t get that. Using a compute stick requires you to have a keyboard and pointing device with you, and find an AC power source behind a hotel TV or shared workspace. Now I don’t know about you, but while I used to travel with a keyboard to use with my iPad, I don’t anymore… and I never travel with a spare pointing device. And as to finding AC power behind a hotel TV? Shoot me now.

The stick PC has some use cases, sure. Home theater where the user is willing to assemble the UX they want. But that’s nerd porn, not a primary use case, and not a long-term use case (see Media Center edition).

You eventually reach a point where, if you want a PC while you’re on the go, you should haul a PC with you. Laptops, convertibles, and tablets are ridiculously small, and you don’t always have to tote peripherals with you to make them work.

In short, I can see a very limited segment of use cases where compute sticks make sense. (Frankly, it’s a longer list than Windows To Go.) But I think in most cases, upon closer inspection, a NUC (or larger PC), Windows 10 tablet or laptop, or <gasp/> a Windows 10 Mobile device running Continuum is likely to make more sense.

 


03
Feb 16

Surface Pro and iPad Pro – incomparable

0.12 of a pound less in weight. 0.6 inches more in display area.

That’s all that separates the iPad Pro from the Surface Pro (lightest model of each). Add in the fact that both feature the modifier “Pro” in their name, and that they look kind of similar, and it’s hard to not invite comparisons, right? (Of course, what tablets in 2016 don’t look like tablets?)

Over the past few weeks, several reports have suggested that perhaps Apple’s Tablet Grande and Microsoft’s collection of tablet and tablet-like devices may have affected at holiday quarter sales of tablet-like devices from the other. Given what I’ve said above, I’ve surely even suggested that I might cross-shop one with the other when shopping. But man, that would be a mistake.

I’m not going to throw any more numbers at you to try and explain why the iPad Pro and Surface devices aren’t competitors, and shouldn’t be cross-shopped. Okay, only a few more; but it’ll be a minute. Before I do, let’s take a step back and consider the two product lines we’re dealing with.

The iPad Pro is physically Apple’s largest iOS device, by far. But that’s just it. It runs iOS, not OS X. It does not include a keyboard of any kind. It does not include a stylus of any kind. It can’t be used with an external pointing device, or almost any other traditional PC peripheral. (There are a handful of exceptions.)

The Surface Pro 4 is Microsoft’s most recent tablet. It is considered by many pundits to be a “detachable” tablet, which it is – if you buy the keyboard, which is not included. (As an aside, inventing a category called detachables when the brunt of devices in the category feature removable, but completely optional keyboards seems slightly sketchy to me.) Unlike the iPad Pro, the Surface Pro 4 does include the stylus for the device. You can also connect almost any traditional PC peripheral to a Surface Pro 4 (or Surface 3, or Surface Book.)

Again, at this point, you might say, “See, look how much they have in common. 1) A tablet. 2) A standardized keyboard peripheral. 3) A Stylus.”

Sure. That’s a few similarities, but certainly not enough to say they’re the same thing. A 120 volt light fixture for use in your home and a handheld flashlight also both offer a standard way to have a light source powered by electrical energy. But you wouldn’t jumble the two together as one category, as they aren’t interchangeable at all. You use them to perform completely different tasks.

The iPad Pro can’t run any legacy applications at all. None for Windows (of course), and none for OS X. There is it’s Achilles heel; it’s great at running iOS apps that have been tuned for it. But if the application you want to run isn’t there, or lacks features found in the Windows or OS X desktop variant you’d normally use (glares at you, Microsoft Word), you’re up the creek. (Here’s where someone will helpfully point out VDI, which is a bogus solution to running legacy business-critical applications that you need with any regularity.)

The Surface Pro offers a contrast at this point. It can run universal Windows platform (UWP) applications, AKA Windows Store apps, AKA Modern apps, AKA Metro apps. (Visualize my hand getting slapped here by platform fans for belaboring the name shifts.) And while the Surface Pro may have an even more constrained selection of platform-optimized UWP apps to choose from, if the one you want isn’t available in the Windows Store, you’ve got over two decades worth of Win32 applications that you can turn to.

Anybody who tells you that either the iPad Pro or the Surface Pro are “no compromise” devices is either lying to you, or they just don’t know that they’re lying to you. They’re both great devices for what they try to be. But both come with compromises.

Several people have also said that the iPad Pro is a “companion device”. But it depends upon the use case as to whether that is true or not. If you’re a hard-core Windows power user, then yes, the iPad Pro must be a companion device. If you regularly need features only offered by Outlook, Excel, Access, or similar Win32 apps of old, then the iPad Pro is not the device for you. But if every app you need is either available in the App Store, you can live within the confines of the limited versions of Microsoft Office for Office 365 on the iPad Pro, or your productivity tools are all Web accessible, then the iPad Pro might not only be a good device for you, but it might actually be the only device you need. It all comes down to your own requirements. Some PC using readers at this point will helpfully chime in that the user I’ve identified above doesn’t exist. Not true – they’re just not that user.

If a friend or family member came to me and said, “I’m trying to decide which one to buy – an iPad Pro or Surface Pro.”, I’d step them through several questions:

  1. What do you want to do with it?
  2. How much will you type on it? Will you use it on your lap?
  3. How much will you draw on it? Is this the main thing you see yourself using it for
  4. How important is running older applications to you?
  5. How important is battery life?
  6. Do you ever want to use it with a second monitor?
  7. Do you have old peripherals that you simply can’t live without? (And what are they?)
  8. Have you bought or ripped a lot of audio or video content in formats that Apple won’t let you easily use anymore? (And how important is that to you?)

These questions will each have a wide variety of answers – in particular question 1. (Question 2 is a trap, as the need to use the device as a true laptop will lead most away from either the iPad Pro or the Surface Pro.) But these questions can easily steer the conversation, and their decision, the right direction.

I mentioned that I would throw a few more numbers at you:

  • US$1,028.99 and
  • US$1,067.00

These are the base prices for a Surface Pro 4 (Core m3) and iPad Pro, respectively, equipped with a stylus and keyboard. Just a few cups of Starbucks apart from each other. The Surface Pro 4 can go wildly north of this price, depending upon CPU options (iPad Pro offers none) or storage options (iPad Pro only offers one). The iPad Pro also offers cellular connectivity for an additional charge in the premium storage model (not available in the Surface Pro). My point is, at this base price, they’re close to each other, but that is a matter of convenience. It invites comparisons, but deciding upon these devices based purely on price is a fool’s errand.

The more you want the Surface Pro 4 (or a Surface Book) to act like a workstation PC, the more you will pay. But there is the rub; it can be a workstation too – the iPad Pro can’t ever be. Conversely, the iPad Pro can be a great tablet, where it offers few compromises as a tablet – you could read on it, it has a phenomenal stylus experience for artists, and it’s a great, big, blank canvas for whatever you want to run on it (if you can run it). But it will never run legacy software.

The iPad Pro may be your ideal device if:

  1. You want a tablet that puts power optimization ahead of everything else
  2. Every application you need is available in the App Store
  3. The are available in an iPad Pro optimized form
  4. The available version of the app has all of the features you need
  5. All of your media content is in Apple formats or available through applications blessed by Apple.

The Surface Pro may be your ideal device if:

  1. You want a tablet that is a traditional Windows PC first and foremost
  2. Enough of the applications you want to run on it as a tablet are available in the Windows Store
  3. They support features like Snap and resizing when the app is running on the desktop
  4. You need to run more full-featured, older, or more power hungry applications, or applications that cannot live within the sandboxed confines of an “app store” platform
  5. You have media content (or apps) that are in formats or categories that Apple will not bless, but will run on Windows.

From the introduction of both devices last year, many people have been comparing and contrasting these two “Pro” devices. I think that doing so is a disservice. In general, a consumer who cross-shops the two devices and buys the wrong one will wind up sorely disappointed. It’s much better to figure out what you really want to do with the device, and buy the right option that will meet your personal requirements.


18
Aug 15

Continuum vs. Continuity – Seven letters is all they have in common

It’s become apparent that there’s some confusion between Microsoft’s Continuum feature in Windows 10, and Apple’s Continuity feature in OS X. I’ve even heard technical people get them confused.

But to be honest, the letters comprising “Continu” are basically all they have in common. In addition to different (but confusingly similar) names, the two features are platform exclusive to their respective platform, and perform completely different tasks that are interesting to consider in light of how each company makes money.

Apple’s Continuity functionality, which arrived first, on OS X Yosemite late in 2014, allows you to hand off tasks between multiple Apple devices. Start a FaceTime call on your iPhone, finish it on your Mac. Start a Pages document on your Mac, finish it on your iPad. If they’re on the same Wi-Fi network, it “just works”. The Handoff feature that switches between the two devices works by showing an icon for the respective app you were using, that lets you begin using the app on the other device. Switching from iOS to OS X is easy. Going the other way is a pain in the butt, IMHO, largely because of how iOS presents the app icon on the iOS login screen.

Microsoft’s Continuum functionality, which arrived in one form with Windows 10 in July, and will arrive in a different (yet similar) form with Windows 10 Mobile later this year, lets the OS adapt to the use case of the device you’re on. On Windows 10 PC editions, you can switch Tablet Mode off and on, or if the hardware provides it, it can switch automatically if you allow it. Windows 10 in Tablet Mode is strikingly similar to, but different from, Windows 8.1. Tablet mode delivers a full screen Start screen, and full-screen applications by default. Turning tablet mode off results in a Start menu and windowed applications, much like Windows 7.

When Windows 10 Mobile arrives later this year, the included incarnation of Continuum will allow phones that support the feature to connect to external displays in a couple of ways. The user will see an experience that will look like Windows 10 with Tablet mode off, and windowed universal apps. While it won’t run legacy Windows applications, this means a Windows 10 Mobile device could act as a desktop PC for a user that can live within the constraints of the Universal application ecosystem.

Both of these pieces of functionality (I’m somewhat hesitant to call either of them “features”, but I digress) provide strategic value for Apple, and Microsoft, respectively. But the value that they provide is different, as I mentioned earlier.

Continuity is sold as a “convenience” feature. But it’s really a great vehicle for hardware lock-in and upsell. It only works with iOS and OS X devices, so it requires that you use Apple hardware and iCloud. In short: Continuity is intended to help sell you more Apple hardware. Shocker, I know.

Continuum, on the other hand, is designed to be more of a “flexibility” feature. It adds value to the device you’re on, even if that is the only Windows device you own. Yes, it’s designed to be a feature that could help sell PCs and phones too – but the value is delivered independently, on each device you own.

With Windows 8.x, your desktop PC had to have the tablet-based features of the OS, even if they worked against your workflow. Your tablet couldn’t adapt well if you plugged it into an external display and tried to use it as a desktop. Your phone was… well… a phone. Continuum is intended to help users make the most of any individual Windows device, however they use it. Want a phone or tablet to be a desktop and act like it? Sure. Want a desktop to deliver a desktop-like experience and a tablet to deliver a tablet-like experience? No problem. Like Continuity, Continuum is platform-specific, and features like Continuum for Windows 10 Mobile will require all-new hardware. I expect that this Fall’s hardware season will likely continue to bring many new convertibles that automatically switch, helping to make the most of the feature, and could help sell new hardware.

Software vendors made Continuity-like functionality before Apple did it, and that’ll surely continue. We’ll see more and more device to device bridging in Android and Windows. However, Apple has an advantage here, with their premium consumer, and owning their entire hardware and software stack.

People have asked me for years if I see Apple making features that look like Continuum. I don’t. At least not trying to make OS X into iOS. We may see Apple try and bridge the tablet and small laptop market here in a few weeks with an iOS device that can act like a laptop, but arguably that customer wouldn’t be a MacBook (Air) customer anyway. It’ll be interesting to see how the iPad evolves/collides into the low-end laptop market.

Hopefully if you were confused about these two features, that helps clarify what they are – and that they’re actually completely different things, designed to accomplish completely different things.


03
Jun 15

Windows 10 and free. Free answers to frequently asked questions.

I keep hearing the same questions over and over again about Windows 10 and the free* upgrade, so I have decided to put together a set of frequently asked questions about the Windows 10 promotion.

Who gets it?

Q: Is Windows 10 really free?

Yes. It is free. Completely free. But only if you meet the qualifications and take Microsoft up on the offer from a qualified PC before July 29th, 2016.

You must have Windows 7, 8, or 8.1 installed on your x86 or x64 system, and it cannot be an Enterprise edition of Windows (only Home, Pro/Professional, Ultimate, or similar. See the bottom of this page for a significant disclaimer.

Q: Can I get the free upgrade if I have some version of Windows RT?

No free upgrade for you. Microsoft has indicated there’s a little something coming in the pipeline for you at some point, but haven’t indicated what that would be. It won’t be Windows 10, and won’t be the full Windows 10 for smartphones and small tablets either. MHO: Expect something more akin to Windows Phone 7.8.

Q: Can I get it for free if I have Enterprise edition of Windows 7, 8, or 8.1?

No. Enterprise edition must be purchased through the Volume Licensing channel, as it always has had to be. Talk to the people in your organization who handle Windows volume licensing.

Q: Can I get it for free if I’m in the Windows Insider program?

No. There’s no magic program rewarding Windows Insiders with a completely free full product. You have to have upgraded the system from a valid license for 7, 8, or 8.1. (See this tweet from @GabeAul.)

Q: Can I get it for free if I have Windows XP or Windows Vista?

No. You’ll need to either buy a legal copy of Windows 7, 8, or 8.1, or just purchase Windows 10 when it becomes available at retail, supposedly in late August, 2015. Your install of Windows does not qualify for the offer.

Q: Can I get it for free if I pirated Windows 7, 8, or 8.1?

Not really, no. If it was “Non-Genuine” before your upgrade, or Windows 10 recognizes it as such, it will still be Non-Genuine after the fact. You may be upgraded, but expect to be nagged. Your OEM might also be able to help you get legit… Or you could always buy a copy.

Q: Can I perform a clean install of Windows 10?

Yes, but you’ll have to do it after you’ve upgraded from a qualified install of Windows 7, 8, or 8.1 first. Then you can perform clean installs on that device at any time. (See yet another tweet from @GabeAul.)

Q: Can I upgrade all of my PCs for free?

Yes, if they each have a qualifying OS version and edition installed. But installing on one device doesn’t give you rights to run Windows 10 on any other system, or move an OEM install to a virtual machine.

Q: Can I upgrade my phone?

This is all about Windows 10 for your x86 or x64 PC, not your Windows Phone. Microsoft will have more details about Windows for phones at some point later this year, when they talk about it being released. It won’t be available at the same time as Windows 10 for PCs and tablets.

 

What edition do I get?

Q: I have Media Center, K, N, Ultimate, or some other transient edition – what do I get?

Check out “What edition of Windows will I get as a part of this free upgrade?” on this page. If you have a K or N install, you will be upgraded to the parent edition for the K or N OS you are licensed for.

Q: When will I get the upgrade?

See “What happens when I reserve?” on this page. In general, once you reserve on that device, it’ll download automatically and you’ll be notified when it is ready to install, on or about July 29th, 2015.

 

What breaks if I upgrade?

Q: Can I still run Windows Media Center after I upgrade to Windows 10?

No. According to this page, if you upgrade a system that is running Media Center software to Windows 10, it will be uninstalled. If you use/love Media Center on a given system, I would strongly advise not upgrading to Windows 10 on that system, as it will be deleted.

Mass hysteria

Q: Is this thing running in my system notification area malware?

You might have malware, but the little flag running over there isn’t it. It’s just Microsoft working to get every qualified Windows install that they can to Windows 10 within a year’s time. Enjoy your free lunch.

Q: How do I stop users in my organization from installing Windows 10 on systems I manage?

If it’s a domain-joined Windows Pro system, or a Windows Enterprise system, have no fear. They aren’t getting prompted.

Q: How do I stop users in my organization from installing Windows 10 on BYOD systems I don’t manage?

If it is a system running Windows Home (or similar, like “Windows 8.1” with no suffix), or a Windows Pro/Professional) system that isn’t joined to the domain, and you don’t manage it in any way, you’re kind of up the creek on this one. This article provides info on KB3035583, which needs to be uninstalled to stop the promotion, and you’ll need to figure out a way to remove it on each of those systems.

 

Q: Microsoft will charge me in a year for updates, won’t they?

No. They won’t. Microsoft has stated that they will not charge for “free, ongoing security updates for the supported lifetime of the device.” Microsoft may well charge for a future upgrade to some other version of the OS. But I don’t see them going back on this as stated.