Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Review: Windows: The Official Magazine Launch Issue

This is the first of several 'resource' reviews that will be appearing as part of my Week with Windows 8 series of blog posts. The week will officially kick off as soon as my new Dell hardware gets delivered (Dell say today, but....)

Background Information

The Week of Windows 8 Challenge

As a (recently disillusioned) developer in the Microsoft world I've been unimpressed with what I've seen of Windows 8 and have not not wanted to waste any time on something I perceive to be 'another Windows Vista - but worse!'. However I've accepted a challenge from journalist Tim Anderson to try Windows 8 EXCLUSIVELY for a week and give it a second chance. I'm not going to be using it in terms of developing specifically for the platform (that would require more time and a bigger learning curve), but in terms of switching to using it as the main Operating System for my day-to-day work.

I'm interested in approaching it as I think most of my application end users would rather than with my 'developer' hat on. After all if end users don't get a good experience then they'll likely migrate elsewhere (or avoid migrating altogether) and there won't be any clients for Windows 8 specific development anyway.

Windows: The Official magazine - Launch issue front cover

Why 'Windows: The Offical Magazine?'

I think Google/Bing and blogs have become a waste of time for learning new mainstream stuff like this. It seems like the only people who blog are those who like working at the 'bleeding edge', and experience has taught me that you google stuff like 'Windows 8' and end up with a bunch of outdated and inaccurate information based on early preview releases where the author has forgotten to point out that it was based on an early preview rather than what actually ended up shipping.

By the time a product goes 'RTM' the bleeding edge crowd have moved on to the latest alpha or beta product so nobody's blogging about the stuff people actually use day to day. For the man in the street the usual recourse is to pick up a 'starter' publication like this (with a cover promoting 'Windows 8 is here') or two of the other titles I hope to review before my week's up: The PC Pro Ultimate Guide to Windows which is a 'fat magazine' format available at many newsagents, and Windows 8 Step-by-Step a Microsoft Press book which I had to order from Amazon because for the first time I can remember local book stores don't seem to be selling Windows 8 books, at least if the large Waterstones in Southampton City Centre is typical. This is disappointing because several titles are already available.

To be honest, I would have preferred to have started with the PC Pro guide, but it doesn't seem right to review that until I can compare it with a typical book offering, and I'm still waiting on Amazon to deliver the Step-by-Step book. Windows: The Official Magazine is easier to review whilst I'm waiting for my new hardware to arrive because it's a 'standalone' product and the first issue of a monthly magazine that will be focussed entirely on Windows 8. The magazine title might lead you to believe it also covers Windows 7 and earlier releases, but it doesn't, if this first issue is anything to go by.

Full Disclosure

I have some 'prior history' with this publication (or more accurately, its predecessor, since this seems mainly to be a relaunch of the old Windows magazine, timed to coincide with the public launch of Windows 8).

A few years ago when I was 'between contracts' Craig Murphy forwarded me a request from Future Publishing for a reader to go to their offices in Bath to do a review comparison of four consumer video cameras. As the 'go to' guy for London-based user group video with some time on his hands Craig thought I might be interested. There was no money available, just expenses - ie the train fare and lunch. I never got the train fare because it took Future Publishing over a week to get the admin sorted to send me the tickets which arrived the day after they needed me on site. Promises to refund the money I had paid for the tickets never materialised despite several emails promising it would get sorted. I was kept waiting an hour in reception for reasons that were never really made clear and when I finally got access to the magazine's offices (actually an open plan area hosting many different Future Publishing magazines) at midday it turned out that one of the cameras for review had been 'lost' and they'd forgotten to actually charge the batteries for one of the others, so we had to wait until after lunch to start the 'full day' review. Lunch was a sandwich from the local Marks and Spencers so that was a bit disappointing too. An hour spent mostly posing with different cameras just outside the company offices with a freelance photographer who had to cope with endless rain, meant that I had about half an hour to sum up my findings and declare a 'winner' despite not having time to seriously analyse any of the footage I'd managed to get with the three cameras or to read through the user manuals that came with the cameras.

After that experience I started to understand why reviews in magazines rarely seem to reflect reality, and Future Publishing titles in particular are infamous for being 'thin' on editorial content (although their Total Film magazine is excellent, being the exception which proves the rule). I got the impression on my visit that most Future Magazine titles in the building effectively employed three or four school leavers on very low salaries who spent their working day surfing the web for content, with one of the computer gaming titles being an exception in that they had a big plasma TV where games were noisily being played all day!

There is a funny postscript to this 'full disclosure' backstory. When I recounted my experience to a friend at the BBC she shook her head. 'We used to have to deal with them for some of our magazines years ago. The outfit down at Bath, yes? They were terrible and shambolic. Always have been. I'm amazed they're still around to be honest'

Suffice to say, my expectations going in were set to 'low'.

Target Audience

To be fair, I'm not the target audience. This is a magazine for the casual buyer looking for something to read on a flight or train ride. The emphasis is on being a light, easy read. The launch issue seems to be aimed at people looking to buy a new PC as it proudly boasts '33 pages of new gear', with the main splash being 'Windows 8 is here'.

What do you get for the money?

£5 gets you 116 very nicely designed glossy pages with an overall 'Metro' theme that reflects the look and feel of Windows 8 itself. 21 of these pages are adverts.

The advert breakdown is interesting in that 7 of the pages are 'Get More Out of Life' adverts encouraging you to subscribe to the magazine in different formats (digital, Zinio, paper trial subscription etc), whilst another 4 are for sister publications (T3, Nikon Photo, PC Gamer and an Xmas special offer on all Future Publishing titles). There are no big double-spread ads from the big PC makers here, with Dell just taking out a single page ad for the AlienWare X51. There are ads from FastHosts, Tesco (buy your Windows 8 retail box from us) and HMV (vote for our awards). The low advert page count comes despite the 'official magazine' tag which suggests to me the title will struggle to survive long term unless Microsoft are subsidising it to some extent.

Most of the reviews are just a few sentences and even when the hardware reviews get a full page or two the detail is extremely lacking. Most two page reviews are of the 'double-spread photo with just a small paragraph of type' variety. This makes the magazine look attractive and professional, but mean that it comes across more like a brochure than a proper magazine. I doubt it would take anybody more than half an hour at most to read the entire editorial content, and frankly it's hard to distinguish between the editorial and bland advertising copy. Look at the screenshot below and judge for yourself if this is a one page article about tech style and design or a paid for ad by Nokia (the page shown is the complete 'article').

Glorious Technicolor - Is it editorial or an advert? Hard to tell!

Diving into the 'reviews' there's little to see here other than a very crude basic feature list. None of the laptop reviews, for example, mention the screen resolution and there's an inconsistency of style (other than general vagueness) and quality of appraisal across the reviews! This is fluffy light brochure-ware rather than real editorial, despite the presence of a 'Verdict' box on each of the main laptop reviews. I found it hard to match up the verdicts, separated out with a star rating and a one-sentence summary, with the associated written main review. All of the PCs bar one get four out of five star verdicts, with many getting no real criticism at all! And yet the one five star review that appears criticises the unit (you'll have to go buy the mag to find out which unit it is) for its high price compared to its competition, before going on to complain about how it shows up fingerprints, has a 'dated design' and a 'cramped design and bulkier tablet'. Go figure!

Aside from the main reviews there are a lot of Windows 'introduction' articles along the lines of 'Here's a Metro screen overview', 'Here's a two page summary of the gestures you can use' etc which will be useful to those new to Windows 8. A three-page overview of the Bing Weather app is also of interest, if only for the fact it manages to make so little go such a long way. The longest article is '10 Ways to Become an overnight wine expert' which in truth could have been written for any smart phone or PC, or even no PC at all since it focusses on books as well as web sites.

Final Verdict

I'm not the intended audience, but I can't help feeling that for the asking price there isn't a big audience out there for this. It feels like a very glossy brochure advertising the Windows 8 ecosystem that should be given out at Windows launch events rather than something you should buy at a news-stand. I appreciate that home users want a general purpose magazine, but if I compare this to an equivalent like Mac Format from the same publisher, that magazine has much better editorial despite the 'lightness of touch' mandate, and is sufficiently interesting each month to make me subscribe to it. I can't say the same for this, although clearly it's very early days for Windows 8 and the 'new' magazine itself. For me, although I liked the slick, professional design and layout, the title lived down to my low expectations. If you've got money burning a hole in your pocket and a long journey ahead or a bit of time to kill, by all means pick it up and make up your own mind, but if you want to get to learn something useful about Windows 8 my advice would be to save your money for one of the other titles I'll be reviewing later this week.

Windows: The Official Magazine subscription form

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Build 2012, Stockholm Syndrome and (upcoming!) A Week of Windows 8

Microsoft's annual developer conference Build (formerly PDC aka Professional Developers Conference) kicks off today.

Stockholm Syndrome

One Year On

It's a year since I posted about waking up and seeing the light, and not falling for the Windows 8 hype.

I announced, in a 'Reboot' blog entry, that I'd decided to focus my learning efforts elsewhere after more than 15 years as a developer dedicated exclusively to Microsoft technologies, most recently Silverlight.

Looking back, the truth is that when I wrote that blog post, after 15 years of endless unpaid hours outside of those I was paid to work for clients, spent learning and working on Microsoft rushed-to-market 'tactical' products in a world where the term 'legacy' is used to describe anything that's 3 months old, I was burnt out. Wiped out. Depressed.

Totally burnt out!

I won't say anymore on that subject but suggest you go Google 'Scott Hanselman' and 'burn out' for more on how prevalent this is in our industry. I would just add (as ever) to be a little careful with taking on board everything that you read there. There's something kind of ironic about someone complaining about the false 'drama' people create in our industry, while simultaneously tweeting endless snippy comments about products made by a rival company to the one that pays your salary!

So, it's a year since I promised to post about my 'reboot' experiences with iOS and HTML5 here. It's a promise I didn't keep because shortly after making those blog posts (in some all-too-familiar serious unpaid 'down time but work time' between Silverlight-based contracts) I started an intensive six month contract at a software start-up that needed Silverlight expertise to finish a demo product that was going to get the startup's first potential customer to sign on the dotted line (alas, for all kinds of reasons that have nothing to do with what was developed, still not signed at the time of writing, a full year later :-( )

We all know what start-ups are like: spare time to study and blog is never there because resources are limited and fires have to be put out on ridiculously short timescales in the name of survival. That last Silverlight contract was an exhillerating, if ultimately futile, six months of 'work' where I had a good time and learned to fall in love with my day job again. Good people. Fun work. Work that felt real instead of being yet another pointless vanity project or prototype for some big, bureucratic enterprise whose big chief had mandated the use of a very specific technology without doing even the most basic checks around that technology or how they could deliver the demands of his business (Silverlight on an iPad - yeah of course that works!)

Sadly, six months in, the startup realised the error of their ways in having selected Silverlight as the technology on which to base their vision (it's not like I hadn't told them at my interview!) and decided to go the route I'd told myself (and you) I would take six months earlier: adopting an HTML5 and iOS-based approach to client-side development (whilst sticking with Microsoft on the server side).

In truth, the iOS development path and learning curve has not been as easy as I had hoped. Not that iOS is bad - just that it's different. It's like being a toddler all over again because most of the training material has to walk you through complicated IDEs and software that you don't understand through lack of familiarity. IDEs and software that typically have already moved on from when the 'just do this without understanding it for now' training material was produced. As a toddler you have none of the usual tricks available to get you out of the lack of understanding and mess you find yourself in. I found myself hitting one brick wall after another and in a world of 'agile' where the word documentation is a nasty word to be sneered at, it's only forums that have gotten me out of some really tough scrapes. Plus I'm in my mid-50s now. Enthusiasm and the best will in the world aside, learning new stuff just isn't as easy as it was when I started out in this industry in the late 70s (as an IBM CICS mainframe programmer!)

More on that particular 'reboot' topic another day! In the meantime bills have to be paid and money earnt. Which can be tough when all you really have to sell that the market's interested in is a CV boasting of your existing Microsoft expertise. After all, we can't ALL just go and join Telerik ;-) Even the 'living on borrowed time' Microsoft option means having to keep your mouth shut when some naive Stockholm Syndrome sufferer at a big bank tells you at interview for a new contract that a complex Silverlight 4 enterprise application can simply be recompiled to run under Windows 8 as a C# XAML application. Obviously, where this particular scenario is concerned, I failed at the 'keeping my mouth shut' part, which is why I'm at home writing this blog post instead of earning silly money at a big plush office in Canary Wharf!

One year on from my long series of ranty posts about the fakeness of all the 'rah! rah! rah!' Build 2011 nonsense from the usual suspects (MVPs and those desperate to brown-nose Microsoft to ensure their MVP renewals or lucrative 'partnership' deals), it seems apt to do a quick review of the technologies that got over-hyped at the Build conference this time last year, if only so that people (including me!) don't fall for the same tricks this year.

Let's have a look at the current state of play, shall we?!...

Microsoft 'Truth at Build' Scorecard

Silverlight 5


Last year was the beginning of the end and the recognition (finally) from the 'Microsoft echo chamber' aka 'circle jerk' aka 'community' crowd that maybe those saying Silverlight was a 'dead man walking' had been right all along. In fact the launch around Build time was so low key nobody really noticed.

One year on nobody even mentions Silverlight any more, except to make bad jokes about Microsoft's new tablet supporting its main rival (Flash) but not its own product having originally used the Flash weaknesses to explain why it was killing off Silverlight on Windows 8, the RT variant. Kudos to Microsoft - this shows the power of announcing you have a 'new release' (Silverlight 5) at the eye of the backlash storm, even if you don't have anybody actually working on it when the press start to move in with those 'They're killing it off and have screwed you all' scare stories. It still makes those who pointed out what was happening at the time 'haters' though, right?! (all together now: 'Yeah. Haters! Burn them. Burn them. They turned me into a cynic' (It's OK. I'm inflammable ;-))

Windows Phone

Two years ago this was going to kill the iPhone and Android phones etc. A year on it had failed miserably with pitiful sales and lack of any kind of consumer awareness. But this time last year there was nothing to worry about because after a year of incompetence and zero sales Nokia were announcing their sexy new Lumia 800 phones and it was going to trash all the competition and have all the marketing Microsoft couldn't be arsed to do the year before behind it which would make everybody see the light. A real iOS and Android killer at last. Hoorah! (echo to rapidly diminishing fade: Rah! Rah!) The usual echo chamber devotees happily ignored all the basics (like the fact the new hardware spec was a good two years behind what the competitors were currently offering), and promoted it as proof there was still life left (and a migration path for developers) in that old dead horse, Silverlight upon which Windows Phone 7 was based. Hoorah! Ignore the haters. Developers! Developers! Developers! Say no to negativity and cynicism! Hoorah!

One year on, those phones are already obsolete. Not that they were much cop in the first place, having suffered a whole ton of problems around rushed design and release and terrible battery life. With Windows Phone 8 announced just a few months after their release, and offically launched yesterday, it became clear that the new 'version' of the phone operating system requires completely new hardware with no upgrade path for those who bought into the lies. I'm sorry, but I refuse to call it 'marketing' any more - it's lies and deception, pure and simple, and was and always has been deliberate on Microsoft's part. Microsoft don't care how much time and money their 'customers' waste on development of 'tactical' solutions whilst they lumber from one strategic and PR marketing disaster to another. Why should they? They're not the ones paying the cost! In a repeat of the Silverlight 5 'let's stop the bad press by making an announcement about a new release for those who bought into this Windows 7 Silverlight-based development crap and are now angry' story Microsoft attempted to placate angry developers and the media with the 'We have a new release for those who believed what we said a few months ago and committed to the hardware story: Windows Phone 7.8'.

This 'new release' (snort!) promised some enhancements to the now 'dead in the water' Windows Phone 7 software and hardware. So there's no need to panic folks. Please ignore those 'haters' pointing out it's the same old smoke and mirrors always pulled out of the hat when the company gets caught in a boatful of spin. By the time the reality hits they'll have forgotten what we promised.

At yesterday's launch of 'the new Windows Phone' not a single mention was made of Windows Phone 7.8. Was anybody surprised? Really? My guess is that the intern who gave up working on Blend for Silverlight 5 and left it in 'Preview Release' mode for a year is the guy who's now been assigned to do that Windows 7.8 stuff, assuming there's anyone at all doing it now that the smoke screen appears to have done its job! Too cynical? Let's wait and see!

In the meantime Nokia have announced their shiny new Windows Phone 8 hardware in the form of the Lumia 920, and in a classic case of Stockholm Syndrome the usual suspects spent weeks after the initial announcement shouting about how this kills Apple's iPhone and Google's Android phones before any devices are even on sale. Honestly, life in the Microsoft developer world feels like a continual re-run of Groundhog day! All that needs pointing out here is that Nokia were so confident in this new hardware that they used professional Red camera gear to shoot video that they then pretended originated from their phone, and did something similar with their still photo's too. But heh, if you're suffering from the Stockholm Syndrome that constitutes being a member of Microsoft 'community' now what does that matter? Ignore history, make a wisecrack about how a fifth row of icons on a phone is hardly 'innovation' and maybe nobody will notice, eh? More cash/MVP awards/special favours please Microsoft. Job done. I'm earning a great living here.

Early reports have indicated that there is little to no mention of Windows Phone 8 sessions at the Build conference that kicks off today. Surely they haven't given up on it already?!!

Microsoft's Surface Tablet

Ah yes, the 'iPad killer'. It lets you run Office! Hoorah! 'Microsoft gets its mojo back with slick hardware and killer apps'. Hoorah! (Rah! Rah!)

Except there aren't many apps and the hardware performance is almost universally being described as 'laggy'. Over the weekend my Twitter stream has been chock-full of UK Stockholm Syndrome sufferers complaining that the ordering process has been a disaster and nobody in the UK knows when they'll get their new toys. These are people who got excited even before the battery life and pricing (the same price as an iPad - for something that has no apps and is clearly an early beta product? You're joking, right?!) were revealed so I have little sympathy.

But over the weekend the first reviews appeared and guess what?! The performance sucks! It's described in review after review as 'laggy'. Even the Stockholm Syndrome sufferes are complaining that video and audio stutter. Nobody's quite sure if it's the hardware or rushed-to-market Windows 8 software. Can't be the software because Microsoft have decades of experience with that, right?!

But at least it's got Office!

Ah yes, Office ... and in partcular Word. The product that had one MVP publicly blogging (isn't negative blogging about Microsoft products a sackable offence for an MVP?) about returning his Surface tablet because the words he tried to type were taking several seconds before they appeared on screen, with video attached to the blog post to prove it. It's subsequently been claimed that it was the MVP's fault because he foolishly hadn't worked out a last minute (as in 'the day the hardware went on sale') hard-to-find update that wasn't automatically loaded was needed to paper over the cracks of this early beta release. Oh dear! The Microsoft software update facility sure doesn't sound like 'iPad killer' functionality to me. Does it to you?

The Surface is the same 'iPad killer' design that forgets most of us are right-handed not left-handed, has a power connection lead that is a nightmare to fit, and a 'home' button that can't be reached with your thumbs because the tablet's too long.

But it's 'amazing', 'awesome' and 'superbly designed' according to... Steve Ballmer and Steve Sinofsky. So that's alright then. My carping aside, it's sold out so I doubt they care. Is now a good time to point out that the phrase 'sold out' is completely meaningless without any figures indicating how many units were actually made (Heh! I want to know how many Stockholm Syndrome sufferers there are out there in the world ;-))

Windows 8

Ah. The biggie. The one that really needs to make up for all the disasters since Apple first introduced the iPhone and started on its path that has changed the entire industry. My views on Windows 8 are well known: I think it's a Frankenstein's monster of an operating system. Two competing, completely disparate, operating systems trying to pretend they're one and marry desktop and tablet worlds, continually throwing you from one world to the next, seemingly at random: a complete nightmare that I've advised any and all friends and family to studiously avoid. I'm not prepared to deal with all the 'Help' falllout phone calls!

Windows 8 has officially launched now as a product you can buy. The reviews have been mixed but not terrible. They are certainly no worse than the Vista reviews were at the time of its release (funny how history's rewritten that launch as a failure when in fact it was heralded as a good release at the time, before real users got hold of it and started to express their opinions).

Not that you'd notice it's been officially released. I went into my local Waterstones on the day of release. In previous Windows launches there's been big stands promoting the new books to cover the new operating system. On Friday: nothing. The titles are there (on Amazon) but the stores know nobody's rushing to buy them so aren't stocking them.

The harsh reality is that nobody cares! Nobody (if my friends and family are typical) even knows. Aside from a 'launch' on the BBC flaghship 6 o'clock news which essentially pointed out that Microsoft had screwed up for the last 5 years, there's been none of the usual brouha in the mainstream press. Oh dear! Just bear that in mind as you attend this year's Build conference and get the usual lies - sorry I mean marketing spin - about how there are hundreds of millions of PCs out there running this stuff waiting for you to pour hours, days, weeks into development to make a pile of cash (the same pile of cash you were promised for your Windows Phone 7 development?).

The truth is it's only Stockholm Syndrome sufferers who've rushed to buy and install Windows 8. It turns out that most of Joe Public aren't as stupid as the average Microsoft developer after all. Who knew?!

OK, the above is pretty harsh, but entirely born out by the facts, and if nothing else this post is an attempt to say to all my fellow Stockholm Syndrome sufferers "when Microsoft talk about 'haters' and negativity and cynicism at this year's Build Conference (as they undoubtedly will), just try looking at the facts and reality of the last few years" before swallowing total bullshit as fact! Remember what Microsoft have said at each previous conference or launch event of the last few years and then compare it to the reality of what actually happened!

OK. I'll Try and be more objective

I do have one nagging doubt about what I've written above about Windows 8

A couple of people that I really admire and respect (and really it is only a couple - how sad a statment is that on the current state of Microsoft 'community'?!) seem to like Windows 8.

They tell me that it's a good quality product, albeit a flawed one, and one that needs time invested in it to prove itself.

One of those people is journalist Tim Anderson. Tim is one of those few journalists who doesn't give in to PR and spin and 'tells it like it is'.

And he's a Windows 8 fan (also a Windows Phone fan too - yikes! Actually I would be too if it were out of beta and the hardware were a lot better)

Earlier this week on Twitter Tim challenged me to 'try Windows 8 exclusively for a week' before I rushed to dismiss it. There was a hidden implication that I would be convinced of the error of my ways if I spent a week using the O.S. all day every day instead of 'evaluating' it in isolation.

Needless to say, I'm sceptical, but the tagline on this blog is 'Brutal but honest' and whilst I doubt anybody reading this would question the veractiy of the first part of that tagline, many inside and outside Microsoft are publicly questioning the last part, like I have some weird sort of vested interest in Microsoft failing, when actually the opposite is true.

The Windows 8 development story alone has me shouting 'alpha product, missing APIs, a world of pain and 2 years of hell until Windows 9 fixes things when it will be too late because the competition will have moved the goalposts even further'. And that's before we even get into the Application Store story.

But in truth, the developer story is kind of irrelvant where Windows 8 and Microsoft survival is concerned.

It's the 'end user' story that will make or break Microsoft.

I respect Tim enough to question my early dismissal of Windows 8, based on a few days playing with the preview and looking at the Windows RT APIs, reading between the lines on endless blog posts and tweets from those dealing with the pain as part of their 'partnership' agreement with Microsoft on which they're totally reliant, and over a decade of specialising in Microsoft technologies.

I owe it to myself and others to take up Tim's challenge and see if I am being as objective as I think I am, instead of succumbing to rage about five years of what I see as deliberate lies, deciet and utter incompetence from Microsoft. It is possible that I'm dismissing it unfairly, based solely on my previous experience with Microsoft and limited Windows 8 exposure.

At the weekend (when the Build rah! rah! rah! conference nonsense is over) I will dedicate a week to using 'Windows 8 exclusively' to see if Tim's right and I'm wrong. I'm accepting his challenge!

I'll give Windows 8 a fighting chance by doing so on hardware that's preconfigured to show the best of Windows 8 (a Dell XPS One which, by common consent, is currently the best Windows 8 offering out there, with a big touch monitor, very high resolution, a beefy CPU and plenty of RAM). And I'll post here on my experience at the end of it, if not daily on how I'm getting on.

Dell XPS One - a Touch screen All-in-one PC that is supplied with Windows 8

Stay tuned!