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Who needs the Surface Pro?

01-22SurfaceTypecover_Web

(Image Copyright: Microsoft Corporation, not to be reproduced from here)

So the Surface PRO reviews are out and the pundits are all confused with what to do with it. I am having fun watching them trying to make sense out of the PRO and trying to like it. Those who don’t like Microsoft, just because it’s Microsoft, are having a field day hating on it.

After being heavily influenced by the pro-Apple brigade when I was in the States and having invested in a iPhone, MacBook Pro, iPod Touch and using an iPad that I got as a gift, it’s fair for me to say I have seen both sides of the PC story.

Today I use a self assembled Windows 8 Desktop for 90% of my work and it’s fair to say that in the last 10 months or so I’ve become a MS Shill. Now that I have given you the context, let’s see who I think needs a Surface PRO and why.

Let me start by saying I have a Surface RT already and even if the Surface PRO was available in India I wouldn’t be rushing out to exchange it for the PRO. But hey this is not about me, back to topic who is the Surface PRO for. Let me give you a little background first.

In my previous job I was a contractor with a Network Equipment company in the Bay Area (no not starting with C). It’s a mid-sized company big enough to have a fully staffed (over staffed?) IT department supporting the company’s core competency – Network Storage equipment design and manufacturing. I was a part of the IT dept. and for four years worked for a Team referred to as the Operations Team. If you considered the whole company a car, these guys where kind of the gearbox. Technically sound but rarely writing code. They used the Office Suite, Adobe Products and the browser (unfortunately saddled with IE6 thanks to Oracle but that story is for a different day) some had specific hardware design software on their machines. Essentially most of their work in office involved a computer. The company issued pretty decently configured Dell Latitudes to the Operations team and they could lug it home or keep it docked to their desk. Every employee’s desk was equipped with a docking station that had a keyboard a mouse and one or two Dell 19” 4:3 Monitor. Most people used the docking station to turn their setup into a dual monitor setup. Now 90% of the people hated their PCs. Why?

  1. Windows XP used to take 10 minutes to boot
  2. While docking if your PC was running it would BSOD, repeat step 1.
  3. While un-docking if your PC was not in sleep/hibernate it would BSOD, repeat step 1.
  4. Every once in a while people’s hard drives would crash resulting in a costly rebuild backup/restore process for IT.
  5. If Hard Drives worked the NVidia graphics chipsets would conk out resulting in what the IT referred to as ‘chassis swap’ where they would take the hard drive of the broken laptop and dump it into a working on with the same (or nearly similar) configurations.

Now these folks were always moving from meeting to meeting, conferences to conferences and would often travel to their factories in US, Mexico and China. The mobility offered by the ‘laptops’ were a hindrance more often that they would have liked. Result, people who could, ditched their office PCs and started purchasing MacBookPros. Was a small number but it started happening 2 years back, I can only assume that it progressed since then.

Does it start making sense as to who the Surface Pro is for?

Yes, the Surface Pro is for the above Operations Team. It’s perfect for them, runs all their software, dock it at office, take it home or travel with it or seamlessly move between meetings with it. You cannot ask for more. For the IT this will be heaven sent. No crashed drives, no loaner laptops, no cribbing users claiming their machine is crawling, all peace and quiet.

I think it was Mary Banscombe of ZDNet who got this first when she wrote Microsoft built the Surface for itself. It’s probably true, that they modeled it after their ‘Operations Team’ but as I see it Surface is a winner for all ‘Operations Teams’ in all medium to big sized companies and its Pricing is targeted for these very people. After all how many consumers go buy a Dell Latitude for home or a HP EliteBook? Surface Pro is taking aim at those devices and not at the iPad.

The SideShow of Dell’s ‘Privatization’

 

Dell going private is coincidental, given the poor quality of products they dished out, ‘PC Assemblers’ did better job of assembling computers than them. Hope they grow some guts and do something right to differentiate their products.

I’ll give them a few hints, build a wireless monitor that works with the Surface! Let Apple innovate all they want with $50 cables, one up them by taking wires out. I don’t see why it’s not possible. Think of devices beyond a single piece of equipment, think of an office desk, think of the entire office, think of a usage workflow.

Even with a wireless Desktop, Keyboard and mouse I have unimaginable ‘wire clutter’ on my desk. Go figure out a way to clean this up.

If you want to continue assembling stuff or putting labels on things assembled by others, might as well fold up and go home.

 

So bottom line, do I buy a Surface Pro or not?

 

I can’t say for you, but I can say what I think for myself. My current Desktop is working fine and the MBP with the Bootcamped Windows 7 scrapes through for my mobile needs (which are few at the moment). So I am not rushing out to get a Pro. I got the RT because I needed Windows RT to test my Windows 8 Store apps and it’s good enough for me at the moment. Here are the (only two) things I’ll wait for in the Surface Pro.

  1. The next generation Intel Haswell processors that kick butts with respect to battery life. If the Pro can run as long (at least upto 85%) as the RT with the next gen processors count me in baby!
  2. Established reliability of the Surface Pro, specifically the Wireless connectivity

Other good to have stuff

  1. Maybe a drop in the Type Keyboard’s price. The touch keyboard with my RT just isn’t working for me.
  2. More memory and hard drive space/bigger hard drive at ‘reasonable’ price increments. $100 per 64 Gb is rather steep!!!

Last Wish

A much leaner Windows OS, but that’s probably a pipe dream!!!

So given all the factors it’s more or less certain my next mobile computer will the nth incarnation of the Surface Pro.

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Surface RT – The adventure continues

Hi Folks, I am back with some more information on my experience with my 5 days old RT.

I have been trying to use it as much as possible and the best opportunities I’ve got have been when I am in my Drawing Room or late at night when I don’t want to sit at my (home) office chair no more.

Today it’s mostly about software.

Surface as a Remote Terminal

The whole of Sunday I spent in my Drawing/Dining room sitting at my dining table remote desktop(ed) into my Desktop machine working on Visual Studio. Except for the oddity of the Touch Keyboard I was pretty productive. In fact during this session I was able to nail a long standing feature.

I noted lots of connection drops but I attribute that to the tiny wifi receiver dongle that I am currently using for my desktop as well as the crappy WiFi hub + Modem provided by my ISP. I’ll change both in the future. Till such time I only have a niggling suspicion that Windows 8 may have a Wifi related bug somewhere but I highly doubt that.

Word as a Blogging Tool

As I briefly mentioned in the last Post I moved to Word (RT) after WordPress lost my post twice. Well, Word is no LiveWriter and strangely if you are writing into a Docx file using the Normal template and then choose to publish it to a blog it creates a new Document and then gives it a Docx extension again. So this time I started with the blog template. It’s not installed by default but easy to lookup using the template search function in the File->New screen.

The blog template has only three ribbon tabs, File, BLOG POST and INSERT.

It can connect to any blogging engine that can communicate of xmlrpc so from a connectivity point of view it’s pretty good though I’ve tested it against WordPress only.

Unlike LiveWriter it cannot get the existing theme down from your blog so you have to second guess what the post will look like. It can be mitigated by using the Publish as Draft.

All in all, it’s an acceptable tool for the ‘occasional’ blogger like me. Planning to do my first technical post later in the day today.

One Note

One Note has been sitting as a shortcut on my desktop even since I installed Office 2013 Preview but ol’ habits die hard and I never really bothered firing it up to see what it does. I kind of preferred the Stickies application for my scrap work and note taking. And I have lots of Stickies. Problem with them is you can’t minimize a single sticky on its own. Anyway, I was initially a little disappointed that Windows RT didn’t include Stickies. But yesterday I fired up OneNote and was pleasantly surprised that it not only was as easy as stickies but it had certain organizational aspects that makes it a nifty tool. I have recently been smitten by the ‘sync everything over the cloud’ feature and love the fact that notes written in one machine is available to all my machines.

Side Note: I really hope Microsoft keeps the price of Office 2013 family pack affordable when it comes out of Preview.

Xbox Music

Xbox music is really cool, I haven’t used the service before and I am discovering it, but it’s got some nice titles. I am totally out of sync with English music for the last one year but I found quite a few titles that like. I’ll continue discovering.

The App sometimes stops without asking, and sometimes it shows a toast popout confirming if I was still around listening to music (which I find neat). The stopping without asking maybe to do with my WiFi or broadband also.

[UPDATE] Okay this happened while I was typing this blog. I wanted to go away from the Surface so I hit the Pause button on the keyboard and it made a LOUD buzzing sound for almost two seconds before pausing. The sound is like the one you hear when you are plugging in speakers into a receiver that’s not grounded properly. This is new. I clearly remember using the pause earlier without this ‘side effect’. Hope it’s a software fix.

Dhingana Music

Dhingana.com is a music service focused on Music from India and I have followed their service ever since they went live. I like their service, I even bought their iPhone app early on. I was happy to see their app on the app store and have got it as my source for Hindi music. Pretty cool service and works as well as my Broadband will allow.

People have complained that the Speakers are really soft, this is true, even in a mildly noisy environment you probably won’t be able hear them, but I find them sufficient in my small office room. As a Personal device it’s more than sufficient. Also a big shout out to Microsoft for the Stereo speakers and their placement. You CAN make out the difference and it’s really nice.

Skype

After I installed Windows 8 on my Dad’s laptop I installed Skype App on it and I think finally we can say good bye to out video chatting woes using Google Chat in the browser. I haven’t used it for any serious calls yet. Will try it out soon.

Missing Software

DropBox

As I type this DropBox’s Windows 8 version is in the AppStore approval process as per a tweet by Derek Larkin and it couldn’t come to the store fast enough. Dropbox and Office are an important part of my workflow. RT has office already all I need is DropBox. Till such time I’ve Remote Desktop ;-).

Others

Well can’t think of anything at the moment but you can except and update or a new post when I come across something.

Hardware

Keyboard Woes

I am still not used to the Touch Cover. (So in Steve Jobs terms ‘I am holding/typing it wrong’). I am afraid I might never get hang of it and I’ll tell you why, I keep switching between the Touch Keyboard and a real keyboard and muscle memory is a bad thing. It is very similar to the switching between desktop keyboard and a laptop keyboard, except that you don’t have any tactile feedback making it even more difficult to adjust.

Second issue is the imprecise responsiveness. The touch keyboard’s responsiveness or rather consistency of response is rather poor! I often have to slam the spacebar to get it to work but then again it works just fine with minimal effort on other occasions. For keys like a or s or w that you hit with your pinkie the last effort that induced a keystroke may not be enough the next time so you’ll find some keystrokes missing as you type.

The Trackpad is quirky with respect to the left and right click buttons, they are a pain to get right all the time.

Finally the down arrow key works even if you press well below the etched out area, though this is not a major hassle it’s an indicator of the ‘impreciseness’.

Overall, I would still suggest people go for the type cover. I plan to get one when available in India. Till such time I’ll continue to ‘adapt’.

Battery Life

Well, what can I say? It is the first all day battery PC for me. I can work on it all day. However I have a gut feeling the iPad (1 gen) that I have may outlast it. Again I’ll never know for sure because I can’t do any work with the iPad without spending more money on apps. In a few months when I start letting my son play games on it, I’ll actually figure out how it compares to the iPad when it comes to games. For now, it’s the best PC with respect to battery life and productivity. Allows me to be wireless for a full day if I start the day with it being fully charged.

The Screen and Capacitive sensor matrix

Well I am impressed with the screen but I have not seen a Retina iPad so my comparison standards are against PPI densities that are much lower that what I have on the Surface and needless to say it looks awesome. However I noted a couple of things

  1. The Capacitive Matrix is visible below the glass. When the screen is off if you hold the device at a particular angle you can see the neat matrix of capacitive sensor. This does not cause any aberration when the screen is on, it’s just that I never noticed it for my iPad and that could be to do with the fact that my iPad had a screen protector from day 1 and my Surface is still to get one. Having said that if you look at the screen from an impossible-to-use-normally angle of about 170 degrees in the landscape mode you’ll see rainbowish banding that probably is due to the sensor matrix.

    Assuming what I see is the sensor matrix, it being closer to the glass is NOT A BAD THING. In fact Apple started doing the same to reduce the thickness of its laptops and iDevices so I guess it’s a part of ‘advancement’ in touch technology.

  2. Second thing evident about the screen is an apparent distortion at the bottom (near the Windows 8 logo), again only evident if the screen is off. If you take a fluorescent tube light on the ceiling and watch it’s reflection on the glass of the Surface I can see it slightly deform at one place. This could be a deformity in the glass or the sensor matrix, nearly impossible to tell. It is probably an indication of the maturity of Microsoft ODMs production line compared to Apple’s. Again both these things are really non-issues and could very well be one-off cases. Nothing changes for me.

Ode to Apple Fanboys

With the Surface Microsoft has put a lot of heart and soul into building a nice reference device that other OEMs can lookup-to and challenge. But there is no pleasing the Apple fanboys. I seriously don’t understand why Micrsoft even tries. Put a Surface next to a MacBook and bash it for any and all reason you find. Yesterday was the height, ZDNet produced a piece where it was stated that Microsoft Surface is the Tin Man without a heart from Alice in Wonderland. Reason? The $56 replacement charger, that the author had to buy because HE lost his original charger, has a nice box on the outside but poor packaging on the inside!!! I mean really??? Really Really? How much more stupid shit can you write??? If it was so bad, could you please back it up with a picture of how it looks? No, I just want to write crap so I’ll write it. WTF! Needless to say the article started with image of a MacBook next to a Surface and went on and on and on about God knows what! What happens next, hordes of Apple fanboys descend on the comments section and write up crap about something they haven’t seen or used for real. To those hordes of idiots here is a picture of my setup.

Notice the MacBook Pro? Yes it’s closed, I don’t need it anymore at work, since I got Windows 8 on my Desktop. Even when I open it, it runs Windows 7. So please take your condescending attitude towards anything that has Microsoft on it and shove it!!!

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Web Software Devs – Don’t build a Galloping Gertie

Woke up today morning (afternoon) to the news that Microsoft Store India’s site had been hacked and it’s plain text user passwords put up for everyone’s benefit!

Now I don’t approve of that action, but I am really appalled and flabbergasted that in 2012 we still have databases that have plain text password stored.

Being a staunch MS loyalist, first thing I did was lookup the default aspnetdb which any n00b developer would use as the starting point. Thankfully even the sample aspnetdb does not store passwords in plain text. That made me even more mad. So the danged n00b who did it, didn’t know/care about the out-of-the-box security framework available. For me this is a bloody failure of the entire s/w development process, the developer, the QA and the gawd-danged manager who managed this freaking project!!!

Going back to the title of the article if you don’t know what the Galloping Gertie was, please check this out. If your site gets hacked (and I am not asking you to build an un-hackable site just don’t present it on a platter), and it turns out your users’ email and password were compromised and they were in plain text, your creation just collapsed like the Galloping Gertie. That single civil engineering ‘mistake’ is still upheld as how not to design a suspension bridge. It happened in the 1940’s and since then there have rarely been such spectacular bridge failures. But every second month we hear how a high profile site getting hacked and plain text passwords getting dumped for everyone to see. We don’t just seem to learn from our mistakes. Instead we crib, we crib about how little time we have to build/qa/test/gather requirements or how it is the platform’s fault blah blah blah! It’s always someone else’s mistake! STOP passing the buck it’s NOT someone else’s fault!!!

Sometime back I was reading in a blog (don’t remember the exactly where probably Hanselminutes), where it was said, health of a software development process is judged by how well the management knows about the code. Yes, you heard that right, the code. Unfortunately in the last twelve years I have seen people in software development, so eager to become managers so that they don’t have to look at code, that’s its sad! It’s beyond sad actually. When you have managers who don’t care about code, you have code that’s not the best it could have been because at the lowest level either the developer is too frustrated with writing the correct code or doesn’t care because they are in a hurry to become a manager too!!!

This happened closely in heel of the Path fiasco,  where a startup thought it was okay to upload the user’s entire address-book without asking and then pretended that it was a mistake. Free web, leaching out information from you in form of cookies was bad enough, now it is claimed that if a framework doesn’t stop me from reading other’s personal info it is an ‘industry-best-practice’ WTF!!! That’s like saying I built a virus because the OS allowed me to and I should be a hero!!!

Software Devs, it’s time we grew up and acted like grown ups. Take security and personal information more seriously. Be up-front about your actions to your end users, else software as a branch of engineering will be scarred irreparably!!!

Update June 6, 2012: It would seem another ‘Galloping Gertie’ has collapsed. LinkedIn‘s database got compromised and revealed plaintext passwords. I guess going forth I’ll just maintain this as a ‘dis-honor roll’ of sites getting hacked and being found to contain plaintext passwords. BTW according to their blog  they have ‘recently’ upgraded to salted hash passwords!

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Why are .NET Devs in knots after Windows 8 demo?

Okay, I had to throw my hat in the ring/shit storm/tornado that’s hit the .NET world after Microsoft demoed Windows 8. At the eye of the storm is the remark made during the demo implying HTML5 and Javascript tooling would be made available to developers to develop for Windows 8.

Now, if you take a bird’s eye view of this statement, you can look at it in all sorts of positive ways like

1. Javascript was finally becoming mainstream in MS world
2. We would have another ‘language’ in our repertoire to develop windows applications on.
3. IE engine was replacing the static desktop with dynamic desktop (fact that it’s been around since IE4 can be set aside for a moment) for Windows and heck they managed to put both (IE and classic desktop) side by.

Beyond this everything else is conjecture. However you put it, except for people working for MS in Windows and .NET team, no one knows any better. Then why this shit-storm and name calling and juvenile behavior from so many .NET devs?

Let’s delve a little deeper but continue with the positive stream of thought. Microsoft has been giving mixed signals about Silverlight and I would consider ONLY Bob Muglia’s comment to Mary Jo Foley (here) regarding what MS thinks of SL’s placement as a development platform – LoB and Mobile. Anything outside this, like posts, by Scott Barnes (@Mossyblog) or Mary Jo Foley (@maryjofoley) proclaiming death of SL or WPF is still conjecture. They may have ‘inside sources’ but unless MS officially declares ‘End of life’ for any of the products/tools in debate, it’s nothing but hot air.

However, it’s not hard to imagine in a huge bureaucratic company like MS (again that’s my assumption, I don’t know anyone personally in MS who could tell me so) there will be power struggles and duplication of work and more power struggle. So let’s for a minute assume Windows 8 team didn’t like the existing client development tools and decided to roll a new platform, I would say SO WHAT! They are still Microsoft, if one team gets an upperhand in a power-struggle then the other team will have to fall in line sooner or later. What does that mean? Well that means if HTML5 and Javascript is the new mantra, the developer tools will follow.

That brings us to the arguments – ‘what happens to my investment in SL/WPF/.NET’? I find this question silly, and here are the reasons why:

1. If you made an investment in SL/WPF/.NET stick with it, MS didn’t say they are pulling plug on SL or WPF or .NET in Windows 8 or anytime soon. Now let’s see what type of investment you made:

  • You built an enterprise app on SL that works great, it will work for the next 10 years probably but I doubt your business will need the same app for 10 years.
  • You built 5 Windows Phone apps, great, keep them in SL till a mature HTML 5/JS platform appears that can do more that what your SL app can do.
  • You built a LoB app, great, keep it around till Business doesn’t need it anymore.
  • I really don’t see where your investment is going! Much less going down the drain!

2. Software Development has always ‘evolved’ and software developers have evolved with it. Crying about why SL/WPF is not a ‘first class’ platform in a future OS falls in the ‘spoilt-brat’ or ‘lazy-ass’ category. GROW UP and improve your skills as and when required!

3. What makes you think Microsoft’s development products division won’t come up with creative ways to continue to use all your existing front end/UI and .NET knowledge to serve up native Windows 8 apps (that are actually HTML and JS)?  In fact today there is a mono compiler that converts IL to JS (https://github.com/kevingadd/JSIL).

4. Are we cribbing just because it’s HTML and javascript? That’s snobbish behavior best left to ‘others’. OMG JavaScript! is just not an argument and one who is making it doesn’t know javascript, period!

A lot of us (so called loyal MS fans) have often cribbed how MS always rolls it’s own, never follows standards and acts like a bully! If that’s true, then hey, this time they got it bang on target right? Then why this hullaboo?

Personally, I started my career as a VB6 developer (mind you all VB6 and rich client and no ASP). Three years down I moved on to C#, since then I’ve tried Java and VB.NET for ‘non UI’ development. But sometime around 5 years ago I realized Rich Client platform wasn’t going to ‘cut-it’ and started on ASP.NET skills, rolled my own MVC framework using ASP.NET Webforms and didn’t feel a bit dis-concerting when MS came out with MVC framework themselves. In fact I couldn’t be happier. Did I throw out my work overnight? No, the app still works on the custom framework I built for it, but when I need it to do something that’s much easier or already handled in the new framework I’ll move to the new one. I have done very little work on WPF (only a couple of prototypes, one of which is available for download on this site) and minimal work with SL (built a multiple file upload and preview control in the above web app). I have been leaning towards learning/using Javascript better and using some of the existing javascript libraries, because just like I felt ‘Rich-client’ wasn’t cutting it, I can now see the ‘server-side’ event model and post-backs on web apps aren’t cutting it. Partial postback and async is the name of the game. Doing it without plugins is an added bonus. If MS just upped the ante on that front, by enabling windows applications using HTML/javascript, I would go for it… Just don’t forget to ‘show me the dev-tools baby’ because I don’t want to work with any other dev tools…

To conclude, the .NET devs should just quit being juvenile or just quit. They are making a mockery out of not just themselves but the entire .NET community. I was initially confused at @Pete_Brown’s comments on twitter till he pointed us to the silverlight forum where I found a long list of comments that he had to moderate. Feel sorry for you Pete, indeed your employers have put you between a rock and a hard place. Don’t worry there are plenty of us, eagerly waiting to see what comes out of //Build/

Finally to MS, keep your in-fighting to yourselves just show us a happy face everytime and we’ll continue put faith in your OS and Dev tools. Last but not least, super awesome demo of Windows8. Let’s kick some competitors’ butts with it.

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