Microsoft's 2018, part 2: Azure data centres heat up and Windows 10? It burns! It burns!

Remains of the year laid bare as we flay July to December

Where were we? Ah yes... it was the summer of GitHub committers' discontent – as many looked on in horror as Redmond swallowed it for $7.5bn in June. But things were about to heat up further...

July brings joy, junior Surfaces and jiggly financials

Hayfever season began well for Microsoft as the giant took another potshot at Google and Apple's device crown. Could the Surface Go take down Chromebooks and iPads? Or was another Surface RT disaster in the offing?

For the latter question, no – the Go is a far more capable device than Microsoft's unloved Arm effort. However, the former is also more of a wait-and-see, since the Go represents the worst of both worlds. It lacks an Arm CPU, meaning battery life could be better, and while the Intel silicon assures better compatibility, performance hardly set the world alight.

We reckoned it was best to think of the £379 (excluding keyboard) device as more like a netbook – cheap, cheerful and categorically not upgradable. A hardware runtime for Office aimed at students, if you will.

The Go, of course, runs Windows 10 (in S mode, if you wish) and the OS turned three in July, descended from a Windows NT codebase that itself celebrated its 25th anniversary this year. All that elderly code is one reason for the current woes of the OS. Not that it stopped sales of PCs running the thing rising for the first two quarters of 2018. With the end of Windows 7 support looming, the upgrade cycle gave PC makers some respite from the gloom surrounding the industry.

For its part, Microsoft registered a colossal fiscal 2018, claiming more than $110bn in revenues. While Azure and the cloud were trumpeted, with $9.6bn being trousered, that bit of Microsoft that gets less attention these days, personal computing (including Windows), clocked up more, registering $10.8bn.

How did Microsoft celebrate the bonanza? By handing out its Teams collaboration platform for free and, er, increasing adjusting prices for pretty much everything else.

Oh dear.

And as for jumping ship? Penguinistas were horrified to see the German state of Lower Saxony follow Munich's example and dump Linux in favour of Windows for a reported 13,000 users. Sometimes that Microsoft habit is hard to break.

August is the sunniest month

While Microsoft embarked on a summer vacation, reports rolled in from users of Surface Pro 4 fondleslabs that a July update had left the pricey devices struggling with power.

Microsoft remained deaf to their pleas, with some users resorting to legal threats to have their precious gadgets restored to working order.

While the Surface Pro 4 incident might have been accidental, Microsoft swung the axe once more at Windows Phone in a far more deliberate fashion. This time it was the Microsoft Store, with a warning that no more app submissions for version 8.x of the platform would be accepted after Halloween and, by July 2019, app updates would stop.

Windows 10 Mobile lives on for now, but if you are still clinging to your beloved Lumia, the time really has come to bid farewell.

Although the original vision of Windows on mobile devices is well and truly dead, Windows on Arm is alive and kicking.

Performance on the first generation of devices wasn't great (barely draining the battery but fully draining the will to live while waiting for Word to load), but the next wave of kit, based on the snappier Snapdragon 850 processor, made an appearance at August's IFA. Intel could only look on nervously.

September comes, but Windows 10 1809 doesn’t

Users hopeful of a fresh Windows 10 to soothe memories of the April 2018 Update, and thinking that the '09' of 1809 might signify a September release, were disappointed to learn that the thing would be called the "October 2018 Update".

In our naivety, we hoped the codebase had received more focus on quality. Certainly to the point where our suggestions for names such as "Crashy McCrashface" or "the one that won't set fire to the world" would be made redundant. Alas, in a few short weeks we would be referring to it as "the Update of the Damned", but that was still to come.

At the risk of a link that would make even the hosts of the BBC's One Show wince, while it was very much the calm before the storm on the Windows 10 front, a storm of an entirely different sort was about to hit Microsoft's Azure cloud.

The South Central US Facility in Texas dropped over after storms crippled the data centre's cooling systems. This should, in theory, have affected only a few unlucky users hosted out of the place, but showed up some flaws in the implementation of the Azure Active Directory service, which led to problems around the world.

Microsoft's engineers carefully brought servers back online, although Skype and Outlook still suffered data throttling as Redmond tried to spread the load with a borked authentication update.

It wasn't a good look, and an impressively open postmortem highlighted the issues, including the eye-opening admission that the Azure Service Manager did not support automatic failover and, er, used the affected data centre as its primary metadata storage site. Ouch.

The incident came at an unfortunate time, as Microsoft attempted to persuade users that it could handle all that grungy IT admin stuff for enterprises courtesy of its Microsoft Managed Desktop service. You could even shift your Windows OS (including Windows 7) and Office apps into the cloud using Windows Virtual Desktop. Assuming, of course, the target cloud isn't having a rainy day.

Some within Microsoft could learn from the open way in which the Azure team reported what happened. Yes, Windows, we are looking at you.

Microsoft also took an axe to its messaging platform, Skype, in September. The unloved interface of the latest version of the chatty client received a clearing of cruft, which was to be applauded. Less good news was that, having received a stay of execution, the old "Classic" version of Skype was really for the chop. The axe was due to fall in November, much to the distress of users.

October. The cruellest month

It all began so well. Microsoft cheerfully announced during its Ignite event that Windows 10 had hit 700 million devices and followed it by reminding us of simpler, happier times with an upload of early MS-DOS source code to GitHub.

The warm glow of command line nostalgia could not, however, be sustained as Panos Panay took to a New York stage before a select audience (no, oddly we weren't invited) to unveil updates to the company's Surface line.

So far, so unsurprising. What took us aback was the arrival of the Windows 10 October 2018 Update. The code had bypassed the Windows Insider Release Preview ring entirely, going directly to general availability. In a tweet that has aged particularly well, one of the Windows managers, Brandon LeBlanc, insisted that everything would be fine.

A day later, it became clear that things were not OK. Not at all. Issues with Intel drivers left CPUs thrashed and batteries drained. The unloved Edge browser struggled with connections.

By day two, things took a lurch for the sinister, as reports rolled in of the update actually wiping user documents during installation, something that had been picked up by Windows Insiders but, er, ignored.

By day four, the humiliation was complete, and Microsoft pulled the update with a (now deleted) tweet from Insider supremo Dona Sarkar announcing the build was no longer available. The tweet was light on detail and light on the word "sorry".

While we experienced few problems ourselves (other than a broken brightness control that left our laptop illuminating a darkened conference hall like a miniature sun) others who had managed to get the update installed complained of Blue Screens of Death thanks to broken keyboard drivers and problems with Intel audio drivers.

Microsoft issued a statement on the technical details of the data deletion bug but stopped short of explaining how it had been allowed to get to production. As for making sure it won't happen again? The gang will add a severity flag so it wouldn't miss the feedback next time.

Suffice to say, we weren't impressed and called the situation a QA crisis of the Windows giant's own making. As for the Update of the Damned, it would remain MIA.

The Windows 10 incident took the shine off another bumper set of financials, which set Microsoft on a course that would see it snatch Apple's crown of the World's Most Valuable Company (depending how you measure it). More significant for the tech world was Microsoft joining the Open Innovation Network and bringing with it 60,000 or so of its patents.

Corporate veep Erich Andersen reckoned the move would mean "Microsoft will be able to do more than ever to help protect Linux" from patent assertions. Crikey.

A far cry from yesteryear.

Putting the woes of Windows 10 and the October tottering of Office 365 into perspective, however, was the passing of Microsoft's co-founder Paul Allen at 65 following another bout of cancer.

Remember, remember the re-release of November

The Windows 10 October 2018 Update remained missing until mid November, when a gun-shy Microsoft gingerly released the thing once again.

There were no excitable emissions from the Insider team this time around as the update was made available to a very, very select number of devices. By the end of the month, Ad Duplex barely registered the update's presence in its metrics.

Quite a change from the excitement of April, or even a few short weeks before in October.

Sadly, while Microsoft lavished attention on its flagship operating system, other product lines continued to wobble. Windows 10 Pro users saw themselves downgraded to mere Home users as the Windows Activation service suffered a memory lapse, while OneDrive took the morning off (for EU users at least).

UK users also got a wave of the fuck-up fairy's wand as an Exchange online failure left their Outlook apps unable to connect on a Monday morning, an issue that continued into the next day.

The star of the show, however, was Azure Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA), which dropped over at the start of a working week (demonstrating that Microsoft's cloud dislikes Monday as much as the rest of us). Users around the world found their accounts secured to the point where they were unable to log in.

Oops.

The issue was resolved by applying a hotfix and, er, turning everything off and on again. Azure had struggled back to its feet by the following day, although Office 365 needed a little more attention from Microsoft's engineers.

We've become accustomed to a full and frank account of such incidents from the Azure team, and the MFA fiasco was no exception. Microsoft assured customers it wouldn't happen again. Within hours, the service fell over again and engineers were forced into "cycling the relevant back-end services".

Oops.

A dark December Christmas wish. The death of Edge

While more ill-advised updates to Windows 10 broke Microsoft's premium Surface Book 2, the year was rounded out with more open-source goodness and some tough love.

At its annual Connect(); event, Microsoft announced the open-sourcing of key frameworks needed for the development of Windows desktop applications, including Windows Forms and the Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF).

Or rather, as far as WPF was concerned, the beginning of an open-source journey.

While the move raised eyebrows, it was nothing compared to Microsoft deciding to pull the plug on the unloved Edge browser.

Although Edge was rarely used for more than downloading Chrome and had remained resolutely in single digits in terms of market share, the move was surprising.

Microsoft went further, and said the layout engine used in Edge, EdgeHTML, would be replaced by the open-source Chromium (also used by Google's rival browser Chrome).

It was quite a dramatic flourish to end a year that has seen Windows 10 stumble and CEO Satya Nadella's gamble on the cloud begin paying off, in spite of the tottering of Azure. With the purchase of GitHub and the ramping up of the company's commitment to open source, Microsoft has continued to surprise those who remember the Beast of old.

For 2019 we'd just like to see some of those billions of revenue head into the QA department, OK? ®

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