Feb 292016
 

Microsoft’s Azure Search service is an incredible way to provide your users with a very powerful data navigation tool.  With its REST API and .NET library, it is platform agnostic, meaning that you can utilize it in your web app, mobile client, or desktop app.

Check out my series of posts on the East Five site for an introduction:  http://www.eastfive.com/2016/02/24/microsoft-azure-search-a-practical-introduction/

Dec 132015
 

I recently set up a project on Visual Studio Online.  After pushing the source code to a VSO-hosted Git repository, I went to set up the VSO-hosted CI builder.  Setting it up was a breeze.  Microsoft has really made this a great product.

The only problem that I found was that when the build ran, the project build failed because MSBuild couldn’t find a dll that I had referenced.

This all led to a StackOverflow Q&A post – one of those where you post a question and answer it at the same time.  Check it out here.

Jan 262015
 

Reticle with ComponentModelCache Folder

Several times in the past few months, I have experienced an error loading a solution in Visual Studio 2013 that goes something like:

“The ‘<packagename>’ package did not load correctly.”

Every time that I have had this error, the solution has been to go to the “C:\Users\<user>\AppData\Local\Microsoft\VisualStudio\12.0 folder and delete the ComponentModelCache folder.

I suspect that the contents of the cache folder get corrupted and/or out of sync when the OS shuts down unexpectedly while Visual Studio 2013 is up.  It’s annoying, but deleting the ComponentModelCache forces Visual Studio to load without the cache and fixes the problem every time.

May 202014
 
Microsoft Surface 3

Microsoft Surface 3

I keep looking for the perfect, convergent device that will meet all of my computing needs.  So far, I haven’t found that device, but Microsoft is getting closer with the new, Surface Pro 3.  It has the horsepower and usability I need and it might fit the bill for mobility as well.

I currently have a number of devices that I use.  There are the tinkering devices such as my old laptop, and that really horrible Acer Iconia W3 tablet that I picked up at the Microsoft Build convention a couple years back.  There are the hardcore, get-work-done devices such as my desktop machine with dual monitors.  Finally, I have the mobile devices that I love and use often, my iPhone 5 and my Microsoft Surface Pro.  Each one of these devices has its own purpose, but I would love to have a convergent device that would rule them all with its all-encompassing functionality.

The Microsoft Surface Pro that I have is a very powerful tablet.  It can do all the things that you want a tablet to do and then some.  I can use it to run Visual Studio and Word, while it will also do the not-so-work things like Netflix and games.  It can be used with the keyboard for work, while used as a tablet for play.  However, it lacks the ability to dock to dual monitors and it doesn’t have a cellular (LTE/4G) radio.  It is difficult to use as a laptop because of the screen angle and the floppy connected keyboard.  Its screen and pen capabilities are not quite there for taking notes.  If only there was a hybrid that would address these issues…

Can the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 fill in these gaps as the first, truly convergent device?  Possibly so.  It comes close.  It comes with an available Intel i7 processor, which would provide plenty of horsepower for all manner of applications, from software development tools to CAD packages to graphics-intensive games.  It has a 12″ screen, which brings it closer to the size needed to be a laptop replacement (BTW – this is Microsoft’s marketing scheme for this generation.  They intend for it to replace your tablet AND laptop).  Also, it has a new keyboard design, which seems to take care of the floppy keyboard syndrome, which I mentioned earlier.  You can run all of your legacy Windows apps as well as new, Metro/Windows Store apps.

The only 2 things that they didn’t address at this morning’s Surface 3 unveiling was whether or not the device will support multiple monitors and if it will have a cellular radio built in.  I have done some poking around on the Surface website and have found that the Surface 2 is to have support for up to 2 monitors:

Plug in an external monitor using the Mini DisplayPort. Multiple monitor support is coming soon to Surface Pro 2 (via DisplayPort 1.2 daisy chaining).

Of course, I’m assuming this would be available in the Surface Pro 3, so I’m assuming this as a win for the Surface Pro 3.

As for the issue of the cellular radio, I’m not as excited…  The specs available for the Surface 3 show these as the connectivity options:

  • Wireless: Wi-Fi 802.11ac/802.11 a/b/g/n
  • Bluetooth® 4.0 Low Energy technology

It seems that only the non-pro devices have cell connectivity.  I see that the Surface 2 (but not the Surface Pro 2) has the ability to connect to cellular:

Also available with AT&T 4G LTE

Alas, this lack of cellular connectivity seems to be the case with the Surface Pro 3, as well.  To this, I have to ask “Why, Microsoft?  Why cripple the flagship tablet by removing connectivity?”  Perhaps I’m wrong and the Surface Pro 3 has cellular connectivity.  We shall see.  If it isn’t there, this was a bone-headed design decision.  If I were Steve Jobs and I worked at Microsoft (which is an odd leap), I would be kicking over a trash can or firing someone right now over this shortcoming.

Is the Surface Pro 3 the all-convergent, one-machine-to-rule-them-all device?  Possibly.  I wish that Microsoft had made this answer a “definitely” for me so that this device was on must MUST HAVE list.  I wish they had fully designed it as the always-connected device that its target market wants.  They were so close.  Still, this device is leaps forward from the Surface Pro 1 and it is a device that I will consider buying.  Let’s face it – it just seems odd that I’ll have to cellular-tether my Microsoft device to my Apple device to get all of the functionality that I would expect.

Apr 032014
 

I “virtually” attended both Microsoft Build keynotes this week and found myself neither wowed and impressed or completely bored and disappointed.  It seems that Microsoft is still playing the catch up game that they were playing at last year’s Build conference while simultaneously joining the larger community, which is a good thing.

On the catch up side of things, Microsoft unveiled “Cortana”, a new virtual personal assistant a la “Siri”.  I must say, though, Cortana has a great deal of potential and may even surpass Siri in usefulness.  Microsoft discussed that they interviewed actual personal assistants in the design of Cortana and that is borne out in the way that the software learns about users.  Cortana learns your habits and will even dig through your data (if you give the software permission) to provided relavent information, like times of upcoming flights.  Microsoft seems to be putting quite a few eggs in this basket as all search on phones seems tied back to the Cortana assistant.  Will this be available on the desktop sometime?  I hope so.

Microsoft also unveiled features of Windows Phone 8.1 and the new update for desktop, Windows 8.1 update.  I have liked Windows 8 since its initial launch and this latest refinement is welcome and very nice.  You could call this release, “The Nod to Desktop Mouse Users”.  They have added right-click context menus back and will detect if you don’t have a touch screen and have the UI respond more effectively.  Also, they showed an image of the traditional start menu coming back.  I’m not sure if that is in this release or not, but I (and about 100 million other Windows desktop users) are definitely hoping so.

One thing that I found very interesting was that it looks like Microsoft is trying to take their place at the table of internet giants, those giants who have already realized that the Internet is a cooperative venture.  I think Microsoft has finally broken out of their walled garden where they once managed the operating system, application software, development tools, and (in some cases) hardware.

Walled Garden - from Wikipedia

Walled Garden – from Wikipedia

There were several examples of Microsoft’s coming out of their shell.  They released WinJS (their Javascript library) as open source, as well as their Roslyn Visual Studio software.  More importantly, there were quite a few iPhones, iPads, and Android devices out on the stage.  This was very prominent in their keynote on Azure.  Microsoft is betting a lot of $$$ on their Azure cloud and they aren’t shy about their desire to be platform agnostic.  I’m not sure this was a sign of their “growing up” more than a realization that they have to follow the money.  Regardless of the motivation, I was glad to see the company breaking down their walls and further joining with the broader community.  That can only spell more opportunity for all of us who make software development our passion.

Mar 312014
 

Build

The Microsoft Build Conference last year was fairly enlightening for me in that it gave a peak into the direction Microsoft was intended to take their OS, cloud (Azure), and related products (Office, XBox). To me, it seemed that they were being quite reactionary in most all of their markets.

At the time, the Windows 8 OS was being revamped into Windows 8.1 in response to poor user perception. To their credit, Microsoft did their best to address user concerns, but it still seemed that they were trying to shoulder their way into the mobile space that, so far, has been dominated by Android and iOS. With tepid response and (still) unhappy desktop users, Microsoft seems poised to release Windows 8.1.1 with nods to the non-touchscreen crowd (which, arguably, would be most Windows users). I’m not sure that is going to generate much enthusiasm for the new OS, so I’m still a little confused as to where they are going to take Windows. Hopefully, they will release some information about Windows 9. Maybe it will herald the turnaround of Microsoft’s OS ship.

Cloud was a big, big deal last year. Microsoft demonstrated some pretty interesting applications of Azure, including a lot of support for mobile devices, authentication, and other support services. They demonstrated edits to a document on multiple platforms, which was so 2010 (can you say Google Docs?), but it showed well. Perhaps the best demo they had was one of Project Spark, where a world created on a Surface tablet was available for play on XBox One. It was really slick, but I think the wow factor was in Spark and XBox One, not in the cloud. Azure is pretty slick and the web UI is great, but there is nothing there that Amazon and Google haven’t been into for a while now. This will be another area where it will interesting to see if they show any innovation versus their competitors.

To Microsoft’s great credit, they did acknowledge the death of Silverlight and they even embraced newer (and older) technologies. Javascript got a lot of session time and the .NET platform updates were nice to see.

I look forward to see what the next few days hold at the Microsoft Build 2014 conference. All of the sessions can be streamed and you can find them all at the Channel 9 site.

Jul 182013
 

I attended the Microsoft Build Conference a couple weeks ago in San Francisco.  I was very impressed with the keynote presentations, the depth of knowledge of the presenters at the technical sessions, and the manner in which the conference was run in general.  A few themes kept emerging throughout the conference.

1. The Computing World is Changing

The first of these was that the computing world is changing.  This is pretty obvious, but the clip at which things are changing is staggering.  Check out these stats from Gartner:

WorldwideDeviceShipmentsBySegment

Microsoft finds themselves in a world where PC sales are declining, while portable device sales (phones and tablets, most notably) are on the rise.  If Gartner’s predictions hold true, it shows that consumers are going to be interacting less and less with traditional Windows PCs.

Another set of numbers from Gartner that plays into the reactionary mood at Microsoft is that Windows is no longer the dominant OS for computing devices:

WorldwideDeviceShipmentsByOS

To quote Ms. Milanesi, from Gartner,

“The trend towards smartphones and tablets will have much wider implications than hardware displacement,” said Ms. Milanesi. “Software and chipset architecture are also impacted by this shift as consumers embrace apps and personal cloud.”

2.  Microsoft is Playing Catch Up

It was clear to all attendees that Microsoft is well aware of these trends and is doing its all to catch up with the wave that has, in some cases, passed them by.   Steve Ballmer described the new “One Microsoft” initiative, where he said that function will take precedent over organization.  To quote from Ballmer’s “One Microsoft:  Company realigns to enable innovation at greater speed, efficiency” memo:

“We are rallying behind a single strategy as one company — not a collection of divisional strategies. Although we will deliver multiple devices and services to execute and monetize the strategy, the single core strategy will drive us to set shared goals for everything we do. We will see our product line holistically, not as a set of islands.”

They are playing this strategy out in spades in their mobile division.  They are cutting prices on their Surface tablets and working across divisions to bring function to users by providing apps on the tablet that play through the Azure service with other devices, like phones, PCs and the XBox.  They are courting developers who work in Java and Javascript by creating way for them to enter the ecosystem.  As Ballmer stated, Microsoft is developing with a “rapid release cadence” to try to more quickly bring content to the market.  I think this is great and can only help us as developers and help spur competition and innovation in the market in general.

One interesting thing of note is that they seem to be trying to buy market share.  I spoke with developers from Hulu, Jeppessen, and NBA online and they were all there on Microsoft’s dime.  In fact, they all discussed that Microsoft has been funding their development efforts, to one extent or another, to bring their apps to the Windows 8/Windows RT platform.

3.  Microsoft Has A Lot Riding on Azure

The second keynote was spent going into detail about the Azure platform and the benefits of implementing solutions in IaaS, PaaS, and SaaS using Azure.  Discussion was made about how Azure is used by Microsoft for XBox gaming, SkyDrive, Skype, Outlook.com, and Office 365.  They stated that Azure storage and compute size doubles every 6 months and that there has been a 3x growth in the use of Hyper V virtualization.  Demos were given of the Azure Portal interface and I have to say that it is very slick.  I have since set up a website, a Windows Server VM, and an Ubuntu VM through the Azure Portal and can attest that it is very well done.  It is apparent that Azure is a big part of Microsoft’s future strategy and that as developers, we are long overdue to be embracing the cloud.

Microsoft seems to be turning the ship and is doing what it can to lure us as developers into its mobile ecosystem.  Given the large embedded user base, the number of line-of-business apps that run on Windows, and given the company’s obvious commitment to change with the industry, I think they will be a safe bet for a long time to come.