Category: "Technology"

Gabe Newell and Windows 8

There's been a lot of silliness spreading across the internet over the last few days regarding Windows 8. Much of it written by people who a) haven't used Windows 8 and b) haven't bothered to do any research.

The latest flurry of criticism started when Valve boss Gabe Newell said Windows 8 would be a "catastrophe for everyone in the PC space". Notice he said for everyone in the PC space, not calling Windows 8 a catastrophe itself - how it was misreported around the internet echo chamber.

Valve: Windows 8 a 'catastrophe' - BBC
Valve's Gabe Newell calls Windows 8 "a catastrophe" - Tech Digest
Gabe Newell: "Windows 8 Is Kind of a Catastrophe" - IGN
Gabe Newell Predicts: "Windows 8 is a Catastrophe" - Gamespy

All of which slant it in such a manner to say Windows 8 is rubbish. When that's not quite what Gabe was saying at all.

He went onto say "I think we'll lose some of the top-tier PC OEMs, who will exit the market. I think margins will be destroyed for a bunch of people." Margins were destroyed by PC manufacturers racing to the bottom, squeezing every last cent out of a machine to get sales volume, all while sacrificing quality. There's a reason real PC gamers build their own systems, to avoid cheap low-end components and to avoid all the bloatware that OEMs have traditionally installed on their machines, in many cases reducing modern hardware to a crawl. Secondly even the largest OEM announced they would be leaving the PC space - before Windows 8 was announced. If Hewlett Packard, the world's largest PC manufacturer thinks about leaving - they shortly after announced they wouldn't exit the business - what chance do some smaller OEMs have? Not exactly prophetic vision by Gabe there.

PC makers would be going out of business with or without Windows 8. In my opinion they've got a much better chance of staying in business with Windows 8. Margins are reduced due to competition between each other, and Apple, not so much due to the Macintosh, whose sales fell below forecasts in the last quarter but because of tablets. Within a year or two, we could be in a situation where most personal computers sold are tablets. That's a trend many have been predicting, including Microsoft back in 2002, but now few would doubt that we're on the verge of a new shift in computing. The Windows desktop is fine on tablets for power-users, I've used it on tablets for over eight years, but it can't be considered a touch-first interface - something new was required.

What is Microsoft's response? To try and keep themselves in business by building Windows 8, either that or iOS (you won't be porting Steam to that now Gabe) and Android will run off with the tablet market. A half-hearted approach wouldn't work - they've tried that before, so Microsoft went all in.

What's Gabe's real motive? His own product Steam - the market leader in selling downloadable games on the PC, is at risk from Microsoft's new online distribution platform, the Windows Store. It's like Xbox Live Marketplace meets the App Store. Built into Windows 8, its where you'll be able to buy metro-style applications for Windows 8. When he's talking margins, is he talking Steam?

Of course Gabe Newell is open to lots of criticism himself, for years Steam was loathed by PC gamers, yet it was forcibly pushed upon users through Valve's own games which required it, EA are now pulling the same move by forcing Origin on us. It was always promised that digital distribution would make games cheaper for gamers. Is that true? Not when you compare the prices on Steam to online retailers selling boxed products, heck even High Street retailers are often cheaper. Games stay at their RRP on Steam far longer than other retailers. Sure that might keep Gabe's margins nice and wide, but what about good value for gamers?

After a decade, Steam is firmly established we don't see many games from Valve anymore. Remember the much delayed Half-Life 2? After Valve shipped it, they proudly said there would be no more five year waits between games, they were going to deliver episodic content. Episode 1 followed fairly shortly, Episode 2 however came in 2007, 3 years after the release of Half-Life 2. Frequent episodic content? Not exactly. The Half-Life 2 story-line remains unfinished to this day, with Valve seemingly uninterested in wrapping it up.

What happened to you Valve? You used to be cool.

You used to make quality games like Half-Life (the first one), and well you brought the Team Fortress guys. So err, but I suppose we could count TFC. Now what do you do? Sell other people's stuff, you're just a retailer out to defend their store from Microsoft's new store. Transparent Gabe, transparent.

Bing Desktop won't be automatically installed

Ian Bell over at Digital Trends caught my attention when he repeatedly claimed that some users who have Windows Update configured a certain way would get Bing Desktop automatically.

The article in question is a review of Bing Desktop - which is basically an application which places a search box on your desktop, along with the Bing image of the day as your wallpaper. Straight forward enough right, they take some pot shots at it - they're a pretty anti-Microsoft website. The author of the article however accurately stated that it is an "optional" update.

Digital Trends CEO, however commented several times on the article:

It's not optional for everyone. There is an option to have Windows automatically add ALL updates when they are available. Its the first thing Windows asked on a new computer. So some people are getting it installed whether they really want it or not.

The problem I have with this is how Microsoft is pushing it to users. Some people have Windows setup to automatically install ALL updates. Well, this isn't an update, its a new feature and it shouldn't be pushed to consumer desktops through this manner. Shame on Microsoft for getting desperate here.

Oh, and cant wait for some press release to come out next month saying that Bing has grown 2000% in the last month (since this update was pushed).

Nice.

And dead wrong. The guy lacks even the most basic understanding of how Windows Update works. Yet loudly proclaims his misconceptions as fact to further push his bias agenda.

Windows Update breaks updates into three categories.

Important - security fixes.
Recommended - bug fixes, updates to .NET Framework, etc.
Optional - extra things like language packs, Bing Desktop, updates to Zune, Windows Live Essentials and device drivers etc.

There are several settings which control how updates are installed and if they're installed automatically.

Windows Update settings

Microsoft, wisely recommend that important updates are installed automatically. You can also, if you opt-in, tell it to install recommended updates automatically. Considering this is usually for bug fixes in Windows, and to update various optional components of Windows, this is usually a good idea.

There's also the option, again opt-in, for getting updates from Microsoft Update. If checked this allows other Microsoft software like Office, Zune, Windows Live Essentials and Bing Desktop in this case to use/appear on Windows Update to get their own updates seamlessly too or present themselves to end-users.

Under no circumstances are these optional updates ever installed automatically, nor is there any setting which in the slightest implies they are. The FAQ in Help and Support clearly states this:

You can set Windows to automatically install important and recommended updates, or to install important updates only. Important updates provide significant benefits, such as improved security and reliability. Recommended updates can address non-critical problems and help enhance your computing experience. Optional updates are not downloaded or installed automatically. For more information, see Turn automatic updating on or off and Change how Windows installs or notifies you about updates.

Quite clear. No Windows user will wake up one morning and have Bing Desktop sneakily installed on their computer, you need to make at least seven mouse clicks to tell Windows to download it, not counting the clicks required to finish installing it.

So pack it in with the baseless anti-Microsoft rhetoric.

A look at the Windows "8" Task Manager

Quick video run through of the new Task Manager in Windows "8".

Windows "8" on an old school Tablet PC

Long term readers will know I've long been a fan of the Tablet PC. Having owned two and certainly would have owned a few more if the budget had been more favourable. My first was a Toshiba Portege M200, and my most recent has been a Motion Computing LE1700. Windows XP SP2 was really great at making a PC usable with a pen. Windows Vista took that a step further and really developed a lot of the things we take for granted today, a handwriting recognition engine that learns and of course pen flicks. Enabling you to make quick gestures to scroll up and down a page, or navigate back and forward, among others.

Windows 7 however - bar slightly better performance on low end systems - took a massive step backwards with Internet Explorer 8. Pen flicks which by then we had all grown to love broke, badly. Scrolling up and down just didn't work in IE8 when using standards modes, that remained the case with IE9 despite me almost constantly hassling the IE team over it. You had to move over and grab the scroll bar. Urrggh.

Now however with the "touch-first" focus on Windows 8. I'm pleased to say pen flicks work properly in Internet Explorer 10, and it has really brought new life back to my LE1700. Unfortunately neither of my tablets support hardware accelerated graphics in Internet Explorer - so many of the Metro style apps run with near-unusable performance if they run at all, the LE1700 only has an Intel 845 which only ever supported WDDM 1.0. But at least we've got a browser that works properly again on Tablets (before Firefox or Chrome fanboys start, neither of those have ever worked properly on Tablets).

I've got one of the lower-end original LE1700s, Core Solo @ 1.2Ghz w/ 2GB of RAM. But it has the higher resolution 1440x1050 screen. Day to day operations work great, like they did on Windows 7. Start up time is much faster and having a picture password is a welcome improvement, and in many ways works faster than the finger-print reader.

However out of the box I ran into an issue where the CPU was being pegged at 100% by NT Kernel & System, which I successfully tracked down to be an issue with the "Standard Enhanced PCI to USB Host" driver - which I've now disabled. The classic desktop stuff works as great as it ever has, and better in many ways. Not having to go all the way down into a corner to get at the Start menu is a nice feature since my pen lives in my right hand often at the right-side of the screen.

There are consistency issues and general usability issues with the new Metro UI however. It isn't possibly to scroll the Start screen by dragging with the pen at all, nor by flicking the pen. In fact flicking left and right actually moves the currently selected tile. You have to use the scroll-bar instead. Kind of annoying, but then some applications behave differently, some you can click and drag, while others you can hold the right-button to bring up the scroll functionality, and some you just can't seem to move at all without the arrow keys or page up or page down. This is an area I hope they'll be looking at. As it is kind of a breaking deal if you're using an active-digitiser based tablet, although I understand that isn't exactly the key market they're after any more.

Using the original Remote Desktop Client in Windows "8"

An issue a few people are running into while they're getting to grips with Windows "8" is the remote desktop application, the new dare I say it "Metro-style" doesn't seem to be all that great. I personally can't get it to do anything - it's also pretty rare I'd be using Remote Desktop fullscreen, I'm usually doing something else at the same time.

Nevertheless it is of course possible to just use the original Remote Desktop client.

There's a couple of ways you can launch it. You can hit the Start button and start typing mstsc (which can be easily remembered as Microsoft Terminal Services Client) and hitting enter - just make sure you're searching applications, as by default the new Start search doesn't seem to search all categories at once.

Or you can just open Explorer and make your way to Windows\System32\mstsc, you can right-click on that and pin it to the Task bar if you use it a lot.

Hybrid shut down in Windows "8"

As revealed in the latest Buildings "Windows 8" blog post, half of all users shut down their computers rather than putting them sleep/standby.

Shocking statistics in my opinion. No doubt compounded by the fact that in Windows 7, the power button, would shut the system down rather than put it to sleep by default like it would in Windows Vista.

Windows Vista introduced the new hybrid sleep mode, that writes the contents of memory to disk, like if the system was hibernating but would then suspend the system like it was sleeping. This was a great development, it meant that if the system lost power, the state was still stored on disk and could be resumed as normal, but if the system maintained power it would boot up in a couple of seconds like it would as if it was sleeping. Windows 7 continued with this approach, but made Shut down the easy to find option and as we can see many people continue to use it, and waste millions of hours waiting for their systems to boot needlessly in my opinion.

Windows "8" however is introducing what I'm calling a hybrid Shut down. Importantly it is now the default option, although can be changed or the old style shut down can be achieved with a command line switch.

Essentially what this does is hibernate the system, while shutting down the user session. This is a great step forward and should cut boot times in half on many systems. So rather than the system starting drivers and services they're all read into RAM from the hibernate file.

Here's an example:

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