How can Surface products become a success if Microsoft fails to check updates on the hardware? Jon tuts in despair...
It’s Microsoft vs Microsoft this month, as the Skype for Business team “upgrades” its software with terrible results for companies that have invested in the Surface Hub.
Microsoft makes a number of products under the Surface brand name. Without question, these have been a huge success for the company, gaining considerable traction and kudos in the market. It hasn’t been plain-sailing, mind: some of the devices have required ongoing firmware patching, and I swing between admiration and anger at my Surface Book that frustrates and delights in equal measure. Aspects of its engineering delight me every time I use it. But its ability to botch its Wi-Fi connections when returning from power save – especially if I’ve moved location – drives me nuts, requiring yet another unnecessary reboot and restart.
One member of the Surface family that gets little attention is the Surface Hub, probably because of its niche design and high price of around six grand. Basically, it’s a 55in or 84in TV that you can hang on your office wall. But it has a Windows computer built in, and supports whiteboard drawing directly on the screen. It has cameras, too, which support videoconferencing via Skype for Business. It’s a nice piece of kit to have in a conference room, and I hear nothing but delight about it from friends in Microsoft. Obviously any opportunity to reduce the amount of travel for business meetings is a good thing. I shudder to think how much of my life has been sacrificed to the Great God of Heathrow over the years.
So imagine my surprise on receiving an email from Chris Cadge of MTech solutions in Leeds ( mtech.uk.com). The email thread made my eyes pop, and it’s worth repeating here. He said:
“We bought a Surface Hub, as did a couple of our customers on our recommendation. They’ve been great for Skype for Business calling and have saved a lot of time in meetings. A while back they stopped being able to call each other (even in the same tenant); it turns out that the Skype team made a change that wasn’t supported by the Surface team.”
Of course, MTech contacted Microsoft for support. It took six weeks to receive a response. Peter Dempsey, a principal escalation engineer at Microsoft, replied:
“I understand the frustration with the issue and that it has been a problem for some time now. There was a change in the back-end made by the Skype for Business team that changed how SIP address look-ups are presented to the Surface Hub. When you type an external SIP into the client on the Surface Hub, it tries to look up that SIP in the address book. Due to the changes made on the back-end, the Surface Hub isn’t able to call an external SIP address in some cases. There’s currently no workaround. We are dependent on the Skype for Business team to release and roll out the fix for the issue.”
MTech replied in a not surprisingly robust fashion:
“Microsoft’s very expensive Surface Hub, which cost my client £6,000 (£12,000, actually; one of the key reasons for buying was so they could conference call between two sites, 200 miles apart, thus saving on fuel costs over the year) currently does not work for its main purpose. Why? Because Microsoft’s Skype For Business no longer works on a Microsoft Surface Hub because of changes made by Microsoft. No-one else involved, just you guys. You’ve got the money for the hubs, you’ve got the 365 subscription money. It’s now been two months. Any chance you could therefore make this work?”
Another senior escalation engineer at Microsoft, Dan Pandre, came back with the following reply, which
should at least get points for honesty.
“We completely agree. This is a problem caused solely by Microsoft’s changes in SfB Online that weren’t tested with Surface Hubs (and other mobile clients) beforehand. The functionality is basic to the Hub, and will eventually be back to working as it was up through May. There is a fix on the SfB Online service side that’s still going through various rounds of testing, to change how search results for SIP federation are returned. That fix is still 6+ weeks out before it makes it to production tenants in SfB Online.
“In the meantime, we also pushed for the Hub’s client to not be so dependent on results from the service, and to always allow for dialing the SIP address exactly as entered into the search box, even if the results don’t have it. That client fix is tentatively scheduled for release in the September 12th cumulative update for Windows. I do apologise, this should never have broken in the first place, and it’s unbelievable that it did.”
So a major piece of functionality that was broken in May might have a resolution tentatively scheduled for mid-September. Is it any surprise that MTech is fuming?
I escalated the issue via senior staff in Skype, and here’s the official reply from “a Microsoft spokesperson”:
“We’ve identified an isolated issue that customers may experience when using Skype for Business on Surface Hub to communicate with devices outside of their organisations. We’re actively working on the solution, which we’ll release via our standard Windows servicing in the coming weeks. Any customers experiencing this issue should contact our support centres.”
To be honest, I prefer the emails from the senior escalation engineers. What can be done? Basically, nothing. If you’ve bought a Surface Hub and rely on the Skype for Business
functionality, which is widely claimed and advertised on its product page ( microsoft.com/microsoft-surface
hub/en-gb), then you’re screwed. Why it’s taking so long to fix remains unclear. Either this isn’t particularly high priority, because the reality is that Microsoft has sold few units outside of Microsoft itself, and if it works for them then who’s going to care about mere customers? Or, the original implementation was some nasty lash-up that got broken and it will take more than a few lines of code-munging to fix. At the very least, you’d have expected Microsoft to issue a roll-back for the device to allow it to continue to function.
But that’s the problem when you buy the entire stack from one vendor and it decides you’re no longer important. And let’s not forget that this is a pricey device. The “rolling floor stand” is listed at one UK vendor as costing over three grand. The “Microsoft Surface Hub 55in 3-year Complete for Business Warranty” is £1,288 plus VAT at another. You’d think that some of that money could be spent on testing.
I await with baited breath to receive news that this is fixed in the mid-September Windows update. I’m not holding my breath, and I suspect MTech will have gone nuclear by then. Anyone thinking of buying into this platform might want to think twice.
The Microsoft knob
In last month’s magazine ( see issue 276, p130), you may have read about my experiences in the Microsoft store in Boston. It wasn’t pretty. Two of the Surface Studio devices had mice that simply froze for a second or more, every so often, for no good reason. As for the firewalling of Google – well, you can imagine my thoughts.
One item I wanted to try is the Microsoft Dial, a small rotating knob that you place on the screen of the Studio and then use for interactive adjustments – maybe to change colour palette, or zoom in and out. It works when placed directly on the screen of the Studio device, bringing up a menu that wraps around the Dial itself. This apparently also works on a Surface Pro 4, but I haven’t tried it yet. It doesn’t work on-screen with the Surface Book, which is a disappointment, especially when the screen is undocked into tablet mode. Instead, I had to use it on a desk.
This aside, does it work? Yes, and quite well. Such pucks aren’t new; they’ve been around for some time as input devices, mostly aimed at the audio and video-editing worlds, where a “scrubbing” tool allows you to rapidly move backwards and forwards through content. I’ve had a Griffin PowerMate for years, and it works very well.
“Microsoft has sold few outside Microsoft itself, and if it works for them then who’s going to care about mere customers?”
Obviously, it works best if your app is designed to support it. Some are, but don’t expect there to be a huge uptake here by software vendors. There are the tools built into the OS that allow you to program keystrokes to the various functions of click, twist and so on, however. These let you inject the commands you want into any app. From that point of view, it will work with any app if you care to put the effort into setting it up.
It’s built well, feels solid and has a usefully sticky rubber base plate. However, even this stickiness wasn’t quite enough to prevent it slowly sliding down the screen of the Surface Studio screen, even when it was placed as horizontal as possible. I suspect much use of the device will come with it placed on the desk, used to the left of the keyboard with the touchpad to the right (for righthanded users, of course).
Downsides? Well it was $99 in the US store, which is expensive enough, but Microsoft’s British online store sells it for £90. I like it, but even if it did work on-screen with the Surface Book there’s nowhere to store it, nor anywhere to store the Pen. It’s tempting to just leave both the Dial and the Pen behind when you go to a meeting. And at that point surely the value becomes less?
Worse still, on looking at it while I was using it with the Surface Book, one of my staff promptly named it the “Microsoft knob”. Unfortunately, the name has somewhat stuck.
There’s a much-overlooked feature in the macOS file system that I wish was replicated in Windows. It’s overlooked because it’s somewhat hidden away, so it isn’t surprising that few have spotted it. Right-click on a folder, choose Services and then choose Folder Action Setup. A window appears that gives you a default set of script actions to attach to the folder.
I use “Duplicate as JPEG”, which is useful for getting JPEG versions of PNG files, for example. I simply drag and drop a file onto the folder, and a little miracle occurs: a new subfolder called “Original Images” is created into which the PNG file is moved. A “JPEG Images” folder is created where the JPEG converted versions are placed.
If you want to go further, fire up the Automator application and dive into that. This allows you to write your own folder actions, or full workflows or services. You can write a Print Plugin that lets it accept PDF files from the printing engine, and the plugin itself is available within the print dialog box.
There’s a whole host of things you can do with Script Editor and Automator, and I suggest you search for some of the excellent tutorial sites on the web. I’d love such simple functionality in Windows, even to allow for easy file conversions by drag and drop. The beardy types will tell me that I can set up PowerShell workflows, and they’re correct. But PowerShell is a different scope of system level complexity, and is certainly far more scary for a beginner than a simple “mark this folder to automatically make JPG files”– which is what Apple offers us.
If you want to read more, head over to pcpro.link/277script for information about scripting, and even how you use the Swift programming language to expose items into the Script Editor to allow end users to automate an application you might be developing.
I’m becoming increasingly concerned about the size of some apps, especially those on the App Store. Chrome at 89.4MB probably isn’t outrageously big, but the Gmail app is 195MB. Netflix comes in at 113MB, while the Uber app is a bloated 281MB.
I can cope with Google Maps being 117MB, but can someone explain why the official Twitter app is 195MB? The rather lovely and highly secure Telegram messenger app comes in at a sprightly 71.6MB, but Facebook’s Messenger app is 256MB. Quarter of a gig for a messaging app? Someone is having a laugh. Probably those same developers who have managed to bulk out Facebook to a weighty 359MB. And the extremely good Barclays Mobile Banking app weighs in at a heavyweight 231MB.
There’s no great correlation between product type, either: Spotify is 130MB whereas Tidal is 57MB. Hats off to 3CX for getting its full-function soft SIP phone application into a trim 20MB,
compared to Skype for iPhone taking four times as much space. Excel comes in at 219MB, Word at 230MB and PowerPoint at 223MB, compared to Apple’s Numbers at 302MB, Pages at a whopping 433MB and Keynote at a truly giant 629MB.
Is it any wonder that we’re filling up our phones and tablets when apps are getting this big? All the more surprising when Apple was making such bold noises about stripping out stuff that wasn’t relevant to your device, on doing streamlined installs and so forth. Maybe we should be taking more notice of these app sizes when considering what to install.
And maybe it’s time Apple did a Top Charts listing of Big Daddy apps. Clearly, some need to come with a storage health warning.
Windows 10 S
You can now get hold of the Windows 10 S ISO images if you want to have a play. However, there’s quite a hurdle to get over: the lack of drivers. You might think you can splat 10 S onto a spare computer, or (more likely) drop it into a virtual machine. And you can, up to a point. The problem comes when you try to install drivers for hardware. Unfortunately, 10 S comes with few, and almost all the setup programs out there for Windows drivers are Win32 executable apps. Allow me to state the obvious: Windows 10 S can’t run Win32 apps.
Vendors are having to scrabble to get their drivers available for the 10 S world, where Win32 native apps are banned. If this doesn’t work smoothly, then customers will hit the “just give me the full Windows 10 experience” button – and the whole point of 10 S will be lost.
Jon is the MD of an IT consultancy that specialises in testing and deploying hardware
BELOW The Surface Hub is a great bit of conference room kit...
LEFT ... and could save you many travel hours in business meetings – when it works!
ABOVE To be truly useful, the Microsoft Dial needs some form of on-device storage
BELOW Messenger is 256MB in size! Is it any wonder our devices are running out of space?
ABOVE Windows would do well to mimic macOS’s Folder Actions
ABOVE Windows 10 S is pretty bare when it comes to drivers