Microsoft's 2018, part 1: Open source, wobbly Windows and everyone's going to the cloud
The Vulture picks over the remnants of January to June
It seems a lifetime (or two Windows 10 releases) ago, but 2018 started with Microsoft, and other software vendors, staring down the twin barrels of Spectre and Meltdown.
The Spectre of January's Meltdown
Flaws in Intel's silicon meant that Microsoft had to scramble to mitigate the vulnerability at the operating system level (having quietly seeded the fixes to its hardy crew of Windows Insiders towards the end of 2017). The flaw potentially allowed miscreants to read data from the operating system's protected kernel memory area of machines equipped with the broken chips. Stuff like passwords, for example.
The Intel bug could be found in a decade's worth of processors. And while the likes of AMD initially sat back smugly, they and other chipmakers were soon to find themselves joining Intel for a beating with the vulnerability stick.
Microsoft's scramble to protect Windows users against Chipzilla's vulns soon had unexpected consequences, and changes to how the OS managed its memory made some antivirus products very poorly indeed, with some triggering classic Blue Screen of Deaths for affected users.
And what of performance? At the time, slowdown figures of between 5 and 30 per cent were mooted. But the desktop was the least of Microsoft's problems. What of its cloudy Azure platform?
Getting the Intel bugs patched was critical since the nature of the flaw meant that users could potentially peer into the memory space of other customers on multi-tenant hardware. So Microsoft patched Azure.
At the time, Microsoft insisted that the virtual machine issues were isolated incidents as it completed its security update. It would, however, not be the last time customers experienced an Azure outage in 2018.
Microsoft also attempted to buff up its privacy halo a little (and fend off another shoeing from the authorities) by introducing the Diagnostic Data Viewer app to show users exactly what was being slurped from their Windows 10 PCs and squirted back to HQ.
The app was separate from the Windows Privacy Dashboard, an example of the confusing messaging that would return to bite the company in the behind towards the end of 2018.
Further harbingers of things to come in 2018 arrived in the form of the open-source PowerShell Core 6 for macOS and Linux fans. With the original Windows PowerShell command line interface no longer seeing active development, PowerShell Core is very much the future.
And as far as Redmond is concerned, it wants in on that future regardless of the platform you want to use. Even if it isn't Windows.
February's fond farewell to Phone
The bad news bus rolled into town for owners of Microsoft's premium fondleslabs as older Surface Pro 4 devices began exhibiting some distressing display characteristics. Users reported flickering or blurry screens, making the thing little more than an expensive bookend.
Microsoft finally acknowledged the problem and admitted by May that no, a firmware fix was not going to deal with it. Sadly, 2018 was not done with the devices and further borkages followed later in the year.
February was also the month that, as well as putting the boot into users stuck in the pre-Windows 10 days (no Office 2019 for you heathens), Microsoft stepped up efforts to stop the last two people on Earth still clinging to their elderly Windows Phone devices by killing off notification support for versions 7.5 and 8.0, effectively driving a stake into the heart of the long-dead platform.
March(ing) out of the Microsoft campus
There were ructions in the Windows world in March as Microsoft began the process of walking back the Windows 10 S experiment, starting with a debranding of the unloved take on a locked-down version of Windows that isn't RT.
The plan for Windows 10 S was that it would be stripped and locked down to help fight off the rise of Chromebooks. Microsoft's Surface laptop shipped with the thing pre-installed, but Microsoft never revealed how many customers clicked the option to switch to full Windows in order to make the thing usable.
In the absence of official figures, we'd suspect customers stayed away in droves.
Microsoft opted to make Windows 10 S a "mode" of all versions of Windows 10. Joe Belfiore, corporate veep of Windows, insisted that the majority of customers would "enjoy" the benefits of S mode. Presumably until they found the switch to turn the thing off in order to install Chrome.
It wasn't only Windows 10 S that did a vanishing trick in March. Windows head honcho Terry Myerson made the surprise decision to depart Microsoft in favour of a bit of family time. Myerson was somewhat of a fixture, having joined the company in 1997. He took on the Windows Mobile team in 2008 and, proving that abject failure is no barrier to success, moved to the Operating Systems team in 2013.
Airbus also slipped through Microsoft's fingers in 2018 and shifted 130,000 employees off the venerable Office suite in favour of Google's G suite. The company's chief information officer pointed to the collaborative goodness in the Chocolate Factory's office vision as opposed Microsoft's Office 365 product line.
With Windows 10, Myerson and Airbus on its mind, it is little wonder that Microsoft also urged users to cut out the swearing on its services with an updated services agreement threatening offenders with account closure.
Springtime for Redmond and Windows 10. Winter for Azure logins
With the naughty word ban not due to come into effect until May, April was an opportunity to get in some more swears. And goodness, there was plenty of material to get sweary about.
Meltdown and Spectre continued to haunt the halls of Redmond as the Windows gang tried and tried again to patch the operating system. Third time lucky? "Not quite," said harassed administrators trying to update recalcitrant Windows 7 and Server 2008 R2 boxes. But the pain was nothing compared to what was coming down the line.
To celebrate the 20th anniversary of Windows 98 blowing up live on stage, hints began to appear that all was not well in the Windows 10 world. The 1803 update was expected to arrive in March because, well, that was what the numbering suggested. However, as April trundled on there was no sign of the OS update.
It transpired that a showstopping Blue Screen of Death bug had been caught late in the day and the Windows team had opted to delay things. A close call, but as we continued our Windows 10 Springwatch we wondered if there was something amiss with Microsoft's quality control, and perhaps too much emphasis had been placed on the testing done by its free army of Insiders. We'd have to wait until the second half of the year to learn just how bad things had become.
As if to distract us all from the MIA Windows 10, Microsoft continued to flex its open-source muscles by first indulging our penchant for nostalgia with the code for the classic Windows File Manager (MS/DOS would follow soon after) before causing us to pass beer through our noses at the arrival of its own flavour of Linux. Azure Sphere, which also includes blueprints for Arm-based system-on-chips for manufacturers to follow, is part of Redmond's IoT pitch (where the company has splurged $5bn of R&D cash).
But still – Microsoft's own flavour of Linux. How things change.
While Microsoft announced some bumper financials, the cloud CEO Satya Nadella bet the company's future on developed a distinct wobble, despite revenues from the commercial cloud (Office 365, Azure and so on) hitting $6bn.
In what became a depressingly regular occurrence, bits of Azure dropped from the sky in April. Azure Active Directory took the day off, causing problems for users logging into email. It caused problems for us too, as we found ourselves having to devise ever more creative backronyms for TITSUP while things went sideways.
But still, the Windows 10 April 2018 Update squeaked in at the end of the month. What could possibly go wrong?
As it happened, so many things.
While Microsoft would go on to insist that everything was hunky-dory and this was the least complained about version of Windows ever, the experience on the ground was quite different.
The loudness of the shrieking may have had something to do with the velocity at which Microsoft unleashed the April 2018 Update. Half of users had received the thing by the end of the month, according to Ad Duplex (in the absence of any official statistics). After being delayed at the last minute, the pace seemed a little brave (or foolhardy), but there was no stopping the gang at Redmond.
And my, how the issues rolled in. Some SSDs made by that obscure hardware outfit Intel turned out to be incompatible with the OS, problems were reported with that little-known browser Chrome, and if you were still clinging to the outdated SMB1 networking protocol, well, Windows 10 1803 probably wasn't for you. And, of course, the bogeyman of third-party antivirus incompatibility reared its ugly head, leaving some users having to reinstall the OS from scratch after their desktops went AWOL.
But Microsoft pressed on regardless, eventually issuing fixes while patting itself on the back for the speed at which the April 2018 Update had been rolled out. That confidence would come back to haunt the Windows giant in the latter half of the year.
While Windows 10 grabbed the headlines, Microsoft's Build conference looked forward to a future beyond the OS. The commitment to open source was again demonstrated as 2019's .NET Core 3.0 framework was trailed and Microsoft declared its most successful SQL Server product was (drumroll) the one that runs on Linux. At least in terms of downloads.
Finally, Azure was green-lit for use by the US Intelligence agencies, indicating that while Windows might be wobbly, the gamble on cloud computing was starting to pay off. A run at the Pentagon's multibillion-dollar JEDI cloud computing contract would surely follow.
June is a time for spending big
As hacks at Vulture Central looked forward to a summer hiding from the Sun, Microsoft doubled down on its determination to get developers back on board by snapping up code behemoth GitHub. The $7.5bn deal raised more than a few eyebrows and had some developers running for cover at the likes of GitLab.
Of course, some elements within Microsoft are well aware of the contempt in which the company is held by segments of the developer community and have taken open-source strides to assure devs that this it isn't the beast of old. Nadella was wheeled out and asked coders to "judge us by our actions".
Judgmental? Devs? Surely not.
Soon-to-be CEO of GitHub, former boss of mobile developer darling Xamarin Nat Friedman also chimed in, stating that the company was aware it would lose a generation of developers if it screwed up GitHub. Friedman's AMA session went over well, and was an indication of an openness at Microsoft that had been sorely lacking in previous eras.
GitHub aside, Microsoft's cloudy ambitions took more knocks as Azure went down in Northern Europe for the best part of half a day. Things took a lurch to the surreal when the company fingered warm weather in Ireland as the culprit while Dublin basked in temperatures of, ooh, 18°C. Oops.
As the dust began to settle after the Windows 10 April 2018 Update, Microsoft announced it was stripping functionality from the upcoming Autumn release. The window grouping technology, Sets, was for the chop. At the time, we hoped that this was a sign of the Windows team focusing on quality rather than keynote-pleasing features.
Alas, as the second half of 2018 was to show, our hopes were to be dashed. ®
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