Its all just Surface anyhow


Like many folks in IT, I have had a long love/hate relationship with Microsoft products. But I have also used many other computing products over the decades. A bit of background — I was introduced to computing when my stepmother, a librarian, facilitated my access to the adult book collections in the CPL. Among the many things my explorations took me to were the early books on computing. This was the days of computers designed for business that used base 10 fixed point bcd math and scientific computers that used binary floating point. Memory was spots of charge on storage ‘scopes’, acoustic pulses in mercury delay lines and of course magnetic cores and drums. Hard drives came along later.

My first hands on was a night school course in Fortran (WAT-IV, I recall), submitted to a remote IBM 360 via our schools’ card reader/punch and delivered by line printer. There was an online manual, but as it took two boxes of paper to print out, access by students was forbidden. Besides the paper the line usage would probably have been costly.

Over the years I have used HP 3000 and HP-UX, Decsystem 2060, Tandem, Sun machines of all sizes, Vaxen, PDP-11s, IBM 360, 370, System 38, AS-400, etc. My personal computer for many years was a PDP-11/03, the 11/23 built originally from a Heathkit, then grown from electronic salvage parts to quite the beast. To some extent I miss the old OS build from source — edit the assembler files then run the build. On the 11/23 updating the OS was an all day process — you did not want to make mistakes and did not change things very often.

And as for Windows — well, I first used it on PC Dos when it was loaded as an application. When I worked in financial services I had to switch back and forth between an IBM network (As400 & Sys38), Decnet and Novell. Did this with a command file that rewrite config and autoexec to change drivers and memory allocations — after a reboot. And had to move applications between machines, lacking the install disks, by copying files and editing the registry subtrees. Liked the idea that NT was modelled on VMS — traces still show in the internals that I learned about from writing device drivers and solving multi-user lock management problems.

As part of my consulting practice I have had a server-based personal network for many years. My first was BackOffice Server 4.5 but quickly replaced by SBS 2003. It was nice running my own Exchange server, local Sharepoint and file sharing. I migrated to 2008, then 2011 Essentials and currently 2012 Essentials. At each step some aspects worked better — the server runs central backup for all my machines and itself. And can FINALLY use and backup volumes larger that 2tb. Allows me to keep my personal media on the server — music, videos and images take a lot of room.

But a lot of stuff has gone downhill. I just finished removing a number of features from the server that I thought would be helpful. Windows Update services has been a feature of my server install since it became available — internet access is always a precious resource. It just made sense to download one copy of the updates and push them out to the half dozen machines here. And pretty much it always worked the same — enable it, wait for the software to inventory the network and change group policy. Start using it. But no more. After a few weeks of trying to get it to work I removed the feature — its there and active but uninterested in my connected machines. Lord knows why….

Lots of things are like this now. Remote admin tools find and connect to the server but don’t do anything.  I get error messages about missing drivers for non-existent devices, new virtual drives that need to be backed up but don’t exist. Best practice results that flag critical problems to configuration issues that quite frankly only Microsoft internals people would have access to (like TCP_Phase_Offset not having the right value is one I recall). Some of these go away as mysteriously as they came. Some do not.  Makes me think of a neurotic friend who complains incessantly about this or that but its really all about them — and they are not there for you. Be nice if stuff just worked — looks good on paper I am sure but the reality is a bit different. Superficially it is more turnkey than ever but fixing the broken bits is more like editing the old macro source — but there are no comments and what documentation is available reads increasingly like marketing fluff.

Perhaps the disastrous migration experience from Server 2011 Essentials to 2012 Essentials should have been a clue as to what was coming. With an AD forest of five machines I expected the migration to be fairly quick. And yes, I read and followed all the migration prep documentation. But after a day migrating I ended up with a target server that was unusable. What do do? Restore backups on the source server, wipe the target, rinse and repeat. After a few tries I contacted MS Partner support who ended up connecting me to a group in India. After a few weeks (!) of babysitting their remote dialin and being able to do nothing I threw in the towel and redefined the AD from scratch in the new install. Never found out what the problem was. Odd, because I prefer to stay pretty vanilla in house. If I had been doing this for a client I probably would have been kicked off the job and maybe sued.

Windows 8 and Server 2012 are pretty much the same. I was attracted to the technical features but repelled by the user interface. And for the life of me I cannot comprehend why my server needs an OS directory for custom ring-tones. And why with two 17″ screens the idea of a ‘modern’ application is a full screen with six lines of upper case 40 point text. What a waste of screen real estate — windows in my mind has always been about increasing information density, not decreasing it.  But the ponderousness of the UI was just too much, 3 steps to do everything  — at least Powershell brings back the old command line, but far too little usable online help.

Then Microsoft released 8.1. I tried it in a virtual machine and decided that it was pretty slick. So I bought a license and converted my principle PC to dual boot between Win 7 and Win 8.1. Dual screens are a bit weird — they are treated independently rather than as a single desktop spread across two monitors. And there is a duplicate task bar on each screen. I decided in the end that the start menu was not too bad, really, as I had already begin to have command group folders for desktop icons to declutter my Win7 screens. So topologically pretty much the same. And 8.1 finally resumes cleanly — so I can do things, wander away and let my machine go to sleep, come back and spin the track ball to wake it up, and do something else. Much better.

So like a fool I decided to buy a Surface to play with. A Pro was too expensive and the Surface 2 with 8.1 RT and Office was an attractive bundle. With the folding, detachable keyboard cover…

Well, it has turned out quite like the 2012 server. Looks pretty and sometimes is very nice. But sleep doesn’t seem to work — if I suspend it the battery consumption acts like I did nothing. And all too often when one tried to wake it up it wouldn’t unless I connected it up to external power. The support website gives a half dozen recovery processes for this one. I have tried pretty much all of them. Sometimes they work. Shutting it down and rebooting is more reliable — but not always. External power is sometimes the only way to wake it up — even if the battery says its full.

Same weird problems with the keyboard typing cover. Good key feel, built in illumination, magneticly attached to the device so it can be removed or folded under. But it is erratic and can stop working in mid-sentence. Remove the keyboard and reattach it and sometimes it will start working. But not always. But a hard reboot works… so far.

Swipes that should close an application don’t — the form moves, starts to shrink and then pops back. On the PC implementation I am always in ‘desktop’ with START a keyclick away. The Surface is a bit different. One has both ‘modern’ applications that consume the whole screen or ‘desktop’ applications that have the traditional ‘close’ button. There is no way to actually exit a ‘modern’ application — the START takes you back to the menu but the application lingers on. And I gather that in future the desktop is going to be removed. So the user aggravation level will  be even more enhanced. Meanwhile, my Android tablet (and phone) have a back key that lets me escape from what I am doing.

And the walled garden approach to only allow applications that are bought from the Microsoft store is a nice idea in a corporate environment where control is everything. But for a personal productivity tool it adds cost and complexity to every application developer — and one suspects some hidden costs. I have looked at the process, being highly technical, but it is just too much hassle and cost for moving a small number of tools to a dubious platform. Essentially every application I use regularly on desktop 8.1 is unavailable for the RT. And the vendors I have asked no plans to go there, because unlike Android, the potential market is very small. Now I understand why…

But the Surface does do remote desktop very well indeed. So it lives in my briefcase when I go to do support at the local radio station. But as a general purpose tool I am increasingly regretting having spent the money. Flirted with selling it on eBay but there are lots already there and the discounts are deep. And I hardly ever use it for other things as it is just too erratic. I use my phone, Nexus 7 and of course paper to supplement the desktop. My advise to others is to simply avoid it, especially if they need a device to do real work. It could have been great but between the designed in constraints and the flaky implementation in my judgement it is pretty broken. Too bad…

Just to add to the mirth and merriment, the MAIL, CONTACTS and CALENDAR applications collapsed on both my Surface RT and desktop 8.1 within a few days of each other. The Microsloth online support is full of advice that suggests its really your problem — firewall, network stack, antivirus and so forth. The fix is of course ultimately remove and reinstall. Did that on the desktop — worked for a couple of hours. Problem has been reported since early 2013, no fixes, no acknowledgement. Windows error log suggests that some common database process has problems — but search turns up nothing on these errors. Typical. I fell back to Thunderbird on the desktop, then made Win7 the default boot, not 8.1. Too bad I cannot do anything like that on the Surface. At least Outlook.com on android works.

And who do you complain to? The support line says many words but in the end won’t do anything. And unlike a retail store or normal online merchant, when you buy something from the Microsoft Store you are stuck with it forever. There is no return or exchange mechanism for folks who must, by reasons of geography, shop through the Internet. When I bought this thing I got the wrong keycover ($128) and thought, after a few hours on the phone with the store support, that I could send it back for the other — but they transferred me to another person who after a few minutes shifted from English to French and stopped understanding me. I suspect it was deliberate.

I have concluded that building a quality product is no longer important. The ‘Surface’ is aptly named in that it is all appearances with spotty substance. That mirrors my experience with Server 2012 Essentials. Some stuff works, some doesn’t. No one really cares anymore — its all just posturing, appearances and marketing.  Things should be in the Cloud anyhow they seem to say… regardless of whether that was appropriate, economically viable or even possible. Looked at putting my server backup in the Cloud, concluded almost $1,000/month (according to the calculator) was not affordable — even when I was making the big consulting bucks and not a thinly financed retiree. And my Internet service has limits with steep charges associated with going over my monthly quota of data transfers. And don’t even mention my cell phone data costs.

Problem is that I still make decisions based on function, benefit and affordability — the classical capital budgeting model.  After years of working with Microsoft I have concluded that they are drifting increasingly towards playing at making products for an increasingly imaginary customer base. At least around here there is still lots of need for the old Small Business Server that provided a lot of functionality in a small, reliable package. Cloud services are great if you have cheap, reliable network service — not here, not really, maybe not ever.

What I have works in a minimal way. I have another server running the free version of VMWare ESX to play with future solutions to my needs. Sure, Microsoft VMs were almost nicer, but would really only want to run Microsoft stuff. If I wanted to load Solaris or Linux I was mostly out of luck. Fortunately there were alternatives.

I guess what I am grumbling about is that computing is more like Facebook — all puffery and superficialities. Hard core business processing is just not as important as the appearances of doing something. And shiny new stuff is always more important than making the core product reliable. Looks like the end of the road for some vendors as they run out of ideas and try to create new cash cows to sustain their bonuses into the future. But at least from where I sit this is more of an illusion than ever. But then its only the ‘Surface’ …

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