Windows Weekly 447: Catty Monkey Copy

Hosts: Leo Laporte, Mary Jo Foley, Paul Thurrott
The latest news from CES in Las Vegas, Windows 10 has been activated on more than 200M devices, Microsoft refines auto strategy, and more.

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What’s ahead for Windows 10: Needed upgrades, forced updates, and developer love

By | PCWorld

Windows 10 was the biggest news story out of Microsoft in 2015, and looking forward to the coming year, it’s slated to continue as one of the pillars of the company’s business.

To recap: Microsoft first announced its new operating system in late 2014, skipping over Windows 9 and showing the world what it wanted to see: a version of Windows that kept some of the key innovations of Windows 8, while smoothing out some of the jarring or rough edges of its predecessor that drove people to stick with Windows 7 (or worse, Windows XP).

That strategy has been remarkably successful for Microsoft, which reported in November of this year that there are 110 million devices running Windows 10 after its launch at the end of July. Of those devices, 12 million are already running in a business setting, which is a good sign for the business prospects of Microsoft’s new operating system.

One of Microsoft’s big changes with its new operating system is that it will be regularly updated with new features and fixes, rather than the company holding back key features for a service pack release. That’s a double-edged sword, since Microsoft is also pushing out cumulative updates in an effort to ensure that all of its users are running (roughly) the same version of Windows 10—this means that administrators don’t have control over which update packages they install.

That’s where the operating system has been. So what’s coming next?

A more forceful push for upgrades

Microsoft will keep offering consumers free upgrades to Windows 10 until the end of July in 2016. Expect the company to do more to encourage businesses and consumers alike to pick up the new operating system. Case in point: Microsoft has already revealed that it will start automatically downloading the Windows 10 installer on some Windows computers as a recommended update.

As part of that, the installer will run automatically, though users will have to choose to go forward with the upgrade process themselves. The good news in all of this is that Windows 10 is reaching a point of maturity that Microsoft believes it can get away with downloading an installer on users’ devices that automatically runs. It also means that some people may end up upgrading to Microsoft’s new OS before they’re ready.

On the enterprise side of things, expect a lot of companies to start rolling out Microsoft’s new OS, especially after their experiences with replacing Windows XP.

Gartner analyst Steve Kleynhans expects that half of all enterprises will have at least started their roll-outs of the new operating system by January 2017. That’s a marked difference from the uptake of Windows 7 and Windows 8, and bodes well for the operating system’s long-term prospects.

Enhancements to Cortana, Microsoft Edge and more

When Windows 10 launched, Microsoft focused an awful lot on what was available right then, without giving too many details about what was coming next. That makes sense—the company wants to make sure that users are focused on cool features that are out now, rather than waiting for something that they want in order to upgrade. But there are a couple things the company has said are coming, and more that we can intuit from past upgrades.

If there’s one big thing that Windows 10 users can look forward to in the new year, it’s support for extensions inside Microsoft Edge, the replacement for Internet Explorer that Microsoft shipped with the new OS. Right now, Edge’s feature set is fairly bare bones, and it shipped without extension support, which is a standard feature on all of its competitors.

Earlier this year, Microsoft promised support for extensions inside Edge before the end of 2015, but ended up postponing the feature’s launch. There’s a silver lining in all that, though: accidentally released details about Edge’s extension support suggest that it should be easy for developers to convert existing extensions for Google’s Chrome browser to work on Microsoft’s new software.

Owners of old Windows Phone devices also have to wait until 2016 until Microsoft publicly releases a version of Windows 10 Mobile for them, too. The company revealed last week that it isn’t quite ready to release a consumer version of its new operating system for smartphones that currently run Windows Phone 8.1.

On top of those awaited launches, we can also expect some other surprises. According to Tom Warren at the Verge, an upcoming update to Windows 10 will allow the virtual assistant to leave the Windows 10 taskbar and float around the screen. Given the cadence of Cortana updates thus far, which have included integrations with Uber and Microsoft’s Power BI service, it’s likely that Microsoft’s virtual assistant will remain a focus of its future feature releases.

An appeal to developers

If there’s one thing that Microsoft is banking on with Windows 10, it’s hoping that developers will believe in the new operating system enough to build applications for the Windows Universal App Platform, which lets people make one app that runs across any device running the new OS.

It’s part of the company’s strategy to boost the number of applications available for Windows smartphones and tablets, which have been hurting for native applications. Those new apps will be sold to users through the Windows Store, a digital goods marketplace that includes apps, movies and music.

What remains to be seen is whether that marketplace will actually be profitable for developers. Right now, Microsoft’s app store sits at a crossroads: it could turn into something akin to the iOS App Store, or the Mac App Store. If it’s the latter, that’s bad news for the company’s smartphone plans in particular.

Next year, we’ll get to see how the plans that Microsoft set in motion for Windows 10 this year actually hold up when put into action. Making an aggressive push for upgrades could result in more people making the move to Windows 10, or a sizable backlash, and it won’t be possible to determine the outcome until 2016 is under way.

Chrome to drop support for Windows XP, Windows Vista, and older Mac OS X versions in 2016

By | Neowin

Google Chrome, by some estimates the world’s third most popular desktop web browser, will cease to support older versions of Microsoft’s Windows and Apple’s OS X operating systems.

In a recent blog post, Google announced that it intends to discontinue support for Chrome on Windows XP, Windows Vista, and Mac OS X versions 10.6, 10.7, and 10.8 by April 2016 because “these platforms are no longer actively supported by Microsoft and Apple.” Google did not release a specific date when for when it intends to discontinue support.

The recent blog post follows the company’s previous announcement made earlier this year that it would continue to support Windows XP by providing updates to its Chrome web browser in spite of Microsoft’s discontinuation of support for that operating system in 2014. Google stated that this was because Windows XP had substantial market share.

While Microsoft intends to support Windows Vista until April 11, 2017, Google’s previous reprieve for Windows XP clarifies its recent decision to discontinue support for Chrome on Windows Vista before that date: the operating system does not have substantial market share.

Google notes that current versions of Chrome “will continue to function on these platforms” after support for Chrome is discontinued, but the company encourages users to upgrade to newer operating systems so that they may continue to use the latest versions of the web browser.

Microsoft may block SHA1 certificates sooner than expected

While about one-in-four encrypted websites are still using weak security certificates, Microsoft is considering taking matters into its own hands.

With the possibility of an attack becoming ever more possible, the software giant said in a blog post that it may consider moving up its deadline of deprecating old SHA1-based security certificates to June 2016.

That means sites running old certificates will be inaccessible, or difficult to access, from modern browsers.

Kyle Pflug, a program manager on Microsoft’s Edge browser team, said the software giant “will continue to coordinate with other browser vendors to evaluate the impact of this timeline based on telemetry and current projections for feasibility of SHA1 collisions.”

Fellow browser maker Mozilla said last month that it may also deprecate support for older SHA1-based certificates as of July 2016.

The reason companies are getting increasingly concerned about the state of the cryptographic algorithm, which has been widely used across the encrypted web for years, is because some fear it could be cracked by the end of the year. That would essentially make the algorithm useless, weakening security for millions of users.

Research published last month said a well-resourced attacker, such as an intelligence agency, could successfully create an SHA1 collision attack by the end of the year. That would mean a country like the US, Russia, or China — or even a well-funded hacker — could impersonate seemingly secure websites.

Researchers previously believed that an SHA1 collision was at least two years away.

The good news is that SHA2, the newer and far stronger cryptographic algorithm, makes up about 75 percent of the encrypted web, and that figure is growing every month.

Certificate authorities said they will respond by no longer issuing SHA1 certificates from 2016, opting instead for SHA2 certificates.

However, many of those in developing nations who are running older software and devices — including the candy-bar cellphones that have basic mobile internet — will face a brick wall, because their browser or device will be unable to read the new, more secure certificates.

“We’re about to leave a whole chunk of the internet in the past,” said CloudFlare chief executive Matthew Prince.

New Windows 10 beta build is all about bug fixes

| PCWorld

Microsoft on Thursday launched another beta build of Windows 10 to public testers that’s crammed full of bug fixes and performance improvements.

Build 10586 is going out to people who have signed up to get bleeding-edge updates through the Windows Insider Program, and is supposed to smooth out some of the bugs that Microsoft introduced into the operating system. The biggest change is a fix that allows small form-factor devices that run in a resolution larger than their screen size (like the Dell Venue 8 Pro) to upgrade to the latest build. In a few recent beta builds, the system crashed and downgraded those devices instead.

Surface Pro 3 users can now safely push their tablets’ power buttons to put them to sleep, now that Microsoft has squashed a bug that would accidentally shut down the device instead. The company also fixed a bug that caused audio to drop by 75 percent for a time after a notification showed up.

The build also includes a number of enhancements. Windows 10 now remembers what method people use to log in, so they don’t get prompted to enter a password if they chose to log in with a PIN. Apps also download more reliably from the Windows Store — something that’s important as Microsoft continues to push its online storefront as a way to get applications for Windows 10.

Gabe Aul, a general manager at Microsoft who has been the public face of the Windows Insider Program, said in a blog post that the build is something Microsoft engineers have been loving internally, because of how fast and smooth it is. (Users’ mileage may vary, of course.)

That’s not to say that this build is without bugs. Users will find that if they upgrade from another preview build, their Skype contacts and messages will disappear from the Messaging and Skype apps. It’s not a new bug — users had to deal with the same issue with the last build that Microsoft released. Here’s how to get them back, according to Aul:

You can get Skype messages and contacts back by navigating to “C:\Users\<USERNAME>\AppData\Local\Packages\Microsoft.Messaging_
8wekyb3d8bbwe\LocalCache” in File Explorer and deleting or renaming the “PrivateTransportId” file. After deleting or renaming that file, go to the Skype video app and sign out of Skype and sign back in.

The bug fix-focused build isn’t surprising, considering that Microsoft is supposed to be gearing up for its first major update to Windows 10 this month after launching the operating system at the end of July.

Major Windows 10 PC update tipped to land in November

By | @ianpaul

Microsoft is getting ready for its next major update to Windows 10, dubbed Threshold 2, and to hear Paul Thurrott tell it we’ll be getting the update next month. We’ve been hearing about a major update to Windows 10 this fall, which will be followed by the major ”Redstone” updates in 2016.

Thurrott doesn’t specify a date for the Threshold 2 release—although Zac Bowden over at WinBeta says it’s coming Monday, November 2. Whatever the exact date is, Threshold 2 is almost upon us.

The new update will be a cumulative release, meaning you can jump straight to it if you’re already on Windows 10 even if you’ve put off a few updates. The build itself is called Windows 10 Fall Update, Thurrott says, although when you see the update in the Settings app it will be called “Windows 10 November 2015.”

The build number will reportedly be 1511 (year/month), which may confuse some considering the current build number is 10240. At least we know that Microsoft’s staggering ability to give one thing multiple, confusing names is still intact.

Threshold 2 should include the newer features from the recent fast ring Windows Insider builds that are ready for prime time. That should mean items like the new Messaging app, improvements to Cortana, and Windows 10 Mobile integration. One thing we apparently won’t see, however, is Edge browser extensions, which are now expected in 2016.

The Windows 10 Fall Update should also include the ability to activate Windows 10 with Windows 7, 8, and 8.1 product keys.

Why this matters: Microsoft is making good on its promise to deliver regular, timely updates to Windows 10 users. While you need to be on the fast ring to see the new features as they come out, we’re already expecting three major Windows 10 updates in the next twelve months. That’s not bad for an operating system that’s merely three months old.

Microsoft says Edge browser extensions will arrive in 2016

Microsoft has never said when to expect extension support for its Edge browser, but now we have a timeframe: 2016.

As news begins to leak out about when the so-called ”Threshold 2” Fall Update to Windows 10 is expected, one component that won’t be included is support for Windows 10 Edge extensions. Microsoft said in a statement that that capability won’t be available until 2016.“We’re committed to providing customers with a personalized web experience, which is why bringing extensions to Microsoft Edge continues to be a high priority,” a Microsoft representative said in an email.

“We’re actively working to develop a secure extension model to make the safest and most reliable browser for our customers, and look forward to sharing more in a future Windows 10 update in 2016.”

The news comes as no surprise, given that most of the new features expected in the fall update have or are being pushed out to users in the ongoing preview builds of Windows 10 that have continued past its official “release.” Build 10565 of Windows 10, for example, includes the Cortana text integration that is now in Windows 10 (for Mobile) build 10572 — making it pretty obvious that those messaging features will be part of the Threshold 2 update as well as the Windows 10 Mobile rollout in November.

In May, however, Microsoft’s Edge developer conference in May didn’t exactly put a stake in the ground as to when extension support would be rolled out. And, oddly enough, the company’s Edge roadmap doesn’t seem to list extensions in its proposed feature list.

Microsoft isn’t the only browser developer working to secure its extensions. Beginning with the publicly available Firefox 41, which launched in September, Mozilla began blocking all unsigned extensions to stop ad injections and malicious scripts.

However, extensions are one of the most popular ways of customizing a browser, and extension (or add-on) support has been built into Google Chrome, Opera, and Firefox. (Here are ten productive extensions for Chrome, for example.) That’s part of the reason we picked Chrome as our best browser of 2015.

Why this matters: It’s perhaps telling that while Windows 10 has captured 6.6 percent of all PCs according to NetMarketShare, the same firm claims that only 2.4 percent of those PCs run Edge. One reason has to be support for extensions, which won’t be part of the browser as more people turn to Windows 10.

Source: Microsoft says Edge browser extensions will arrive in 2016 | PCWorld

Leaked screenshots of upcoming Windows 10 Mobile build give us a clue about what’s next

Screenshots of a Windows 10 Mobile build that is being tested internally at Microsoft have been leaked. While the screenshots do not point to any massive changes, there are some new features that users will be pleased with.

Different Text Sizes

The first of these is the ability to change the size of text, apps and items on the display. This is similar to DPI scaling on the desktop and can be very useful in making the OS more accessible as a number of devices with different form factors, screen sizes and resolutions become more common. For example, Microsoft plans to use some form of Windows 10 Mobile on all tablets below 8 inches and, thus, it seems wise to allow those users to have a different scaling than a 4-inch smartphone.

It must be noted, that text size can decreased or increased through the setting Ease of access > More options > Text scaling in the current Windows 10 Mobile Insider build.

The change will also allow users to increase the number of tile columns in the Start screen, as reducing the on-screen size of the dpi scaling increases the available real estate.

The second change observed in the new build is the addition of extra options when developer mode is turned on.

The build is also supposedly more stable and faster than previous builds, with the lock screen and the Notification Centre both being far more optimised and showing less lag than current builds. It is still not clear, however, if this build is a release candidate and nor has the source been able to corroborate the version number of the build. Thus, the likelihood of this build making it to your device is very much up in the air.

WinBeta’s Zac Bowden has also claimed in an article that they are in possession of a newer build which uncovers the aforementioned features, but are not revealing the build number at this time.

Source: @tfwboredom via Plaffo and WinBeta

Didn’t ask for Windows 10? Your PC may have downloaded it anyway

Whether you want Windows 10 or not, Microsoft says it may download the files to your PC regardless.

In a statement to the Inquirer, Microsoft confirmed that it automatically downloads Windows 10 installation files on eligible PCs, provided automatic updates are enabled through Windows Update. The download occurs even if users haven’t opted in through the Windows 10 reservation dialog.

“For individuals who have chosen to receive automatic updates through Windows Update, we help upgradable devices get ready for Windows 10 by downloading the files they’ll need if they decide to upgrade,” Microsoft told the Inquirer.“When the upgrade is ready, the customer will be prompted to install Windows 10 on the device.

”When reached for comment, Microsoft told PCWorld that the downloads occurred around the time of Windows 10’s July 29 launch.

Why this matters: Microsoft appears to have crossed a line in its zeal to move people onto its latest operating system. Several reports indicate that the Windows 10 files take up as much as 6GB of storage in a hidden folder, potentially hamstringing machines that don’t have much free space left. Even worse, users who have strict data caps could face hefty overage charges for a massive download that they didn’t even ask for.

Bye-bye bandwidth

PCWorld has also heard from several readers on this issue, including one whose data plan has been affected by the automatic download. The reader, who runs a small computer repair shop, did not reserve Windows 10, yet recently noticed 6GB missing from his main desktop.

Upon further investigation, the reader’s daughter—who lives in an area without wired Internet and relies on Verizon Wireless for connectivity—had also automatically downloaded the installation files. “They do not wish to upgrade at this time, as they prefer to stay with Windows 7,” the reader said. “But they’re four days into their wireless plan, and have used more than half of their allowance because of the Windows 10 download.”

The Inquirer also spoke to a reader who said Windows 10 tries to install itself every time the machine is booted. It’s unclear if this is typical behavior for those who haven’t opted into the upgrade.

This isn’t the only instance where Windows 10 has gotten users into trouble with data caps. By default, the system also uses peer-to-peer networking to distribute Windows 10 updates, potentially eating up bandwidth without users’ knowledge.

What you can do

It’s worth noting that Windows Update provides users with a few auto-install options. Enabling “Important” updates provides security and stability fixes, while “Recommended” updates are meant to improve non-critical issues. There’s also a “Microsoft Update” option for other software such as Office. We’ve reached out to Microsoft to see which of these tiers enables the auto-download of Windows 10 files.

In the meantime, some users have reported success at removing the files and Windows 10 update prompts by entering the following into command prompt as an administrator:

WUSA /UNINSTALL /KB:3035583code>

This should at least remove Windows 10’s update notifications, but we haven’t confirmed whether it removes the installation files and prevents further downloads.

Source: Didn’t ask for Windows 10? Your PC may have downloaded it anyway | PCWorld

Microsoft accused of adding spy features to Windows 7, 8

By  | Ars Technica

Windows’ network activity continues to be scrutinized amid privacy concerns. Windows 10 was first put under the microscope with both new and old features causing concern. With its Cortana digital personal assistant, Windows 10 represents a new breed of operating system that incorporates extensive online services as an integral part of the platform. But its older predecessors haven’t escaped attention, and questions are now being asked of Windows 7 and 8’s online connectivity.

Windows 8 included many of the same online features as are now raising hackles around the Internet. While it had no Cortana, it nonetheless integrated Web and local search, supported logging in and syncing settings with Microsoft Account, included online storage of encryption keys, and so on and so forth. While a few privacy advocates expressed concern at these features when the operating system was first released, the response was far more muted than the one we see today about Windows 10. But a new addition has led to accusations that Windows 8 now mimics one of Windows 10’s more problematic features: it reports information to Microsoft even when told not to.

Back in April, Microsoft released a non-security update for both Windows 7 and 8. This update, 3022345, created a new Windows service called the Diagnostics Tracking service. Microsoft describes this service as doing two things. First, it increases the amount of diagnostic data that the Customer Experience Improvement Program (CEIP) can collect in order to better diagnose problems. Second, it collects data for third-party applications that use the Application Insights service. Application Insights is a preview that allows app developers to track performance issues, crashes, and other problems of their applications. The Diagnostics Tracking service collects this data and sends it to Microsoft.

The update that added this service has itself been superseded at least twice with updates 3068708 and, most recently, 3080149. While this latter update was pushed out as an optional update—and hence only installs if chosen from the list of available updates—the earlier 3067808 update was deployed as a recommended update, installing automatically with the normal Windows Update settings.

Separate from this, another update, 3075249, enhanced the User Account Control (UAC) feature to enable it to collect more information from the elevation prompts.

The concern with the new Diagnostic Tracking service is much the same as with Windows 10’s tracking: it’s not clear what’s being sent, and there are concerns that it can’t be readily controlled. The traffic to Microsoft’s servers is encrypted, sent over HTTPS, so it can’t be easily examined. While the knowledge based articles describing the new service list the DNS names of the servers that the service connects to, there are reports that the service ignores the system HOSTS file. As such, a traditional and simple method for redirecting the traffic doesn’t work.

However, we’re not sure just how big an impediment this is in practice; in our testing of Windows 8, the builtin Windows Firewall, for example, is more than capable of blocking the traffic, and this appears to be working entirely as it should. Disabling the service is also effective for those who don’t trust its behavior.

Additionally, most or all of the traffic appears to be contingent on participating in the CEIP in the first place. If the CEIP is disabled, it appears that little or no traffic gets sent. This may not always have been the case, however; the notes that accompany the 3080149 update say that the amount of network activity when not part of CEIP has been reduced. It’s possible that with older versions of the service that data is sent even for opted out users.

As with the other privacy concerns around Windows, our feeling is that the major issue at stake here is not that Windows is collecting data, but that it put the user in control. Collecting information about application errors and the way the operating system is used is reasonable. Having an accurate picture of how people use the operating system is likely to produce a better platform in the future; knowing which applications crash, and why, is obviously invaluable if those apps are to be fixed.

But we continue to believe that people who do not wish to be a part of such data collection should have a clear and unambiguous way of opting out, and these opt-outs should be rigorous. Disabling CEIP, for example, should not only prevent systems from sending CEIP data, but it should also prevent systems from retrieving even configuration data from Microsoft’s own systems. We would also argue that these settings should be made simpler; at the moment there are many individual controls each governing a particular behavior. Some kind of global control to supplement these fine-tuning switches would be an improvement. We like cloud connectivity and online features, but these should be paired with clear user control.