JON HONEYBALL

How can Sur­face prod­ucts be­come a suc­cess if Mi­crosoft fails to check up­dates on the hard­ware? Jon tuts in de­spair...

PC Pro - - November 2017 Issue 277 - jon@jon­honey­ball.com

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.

Folder ac­tions

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 edit the code, it’s easy if you have a pro­gram­ming mind. Just choose the folder and hit the Edit Script but­ton. It’s straight­for­ward stuff, like “on adding folder items to this_­folder af­ter re­ceiv­ing the­se_items”. Then “tell ap­pli­ca­tion ‘Finder’” to do a bunch of sim­ple tasks. You can use this Ap­pleScript, or even JavaScript if you pre­fer.

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.

App bloat

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.

@jon­honey­ball

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

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