Memoirs and autobiographies are the top selling non-fiction books for good reason, as people like to recall past events through the words and thoughts of someone who was there, in the room or even in the driving seat. World leaders who write their tell-all book on what happened 20+ years ago, better have great memories or perhaps a trove of notes and diary entries from the time. If they are fans of journaling, they would have of-the-moment musings, written down to help clear their minds at the time – on committing thoughts to her diary, Anne Frank wrote, “I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.”
Turning to technology and looking back to relatively near-term history brings up all kinds of product that was ahead of its time or was ultimately overtaken by other developments that nobody saw coming. Sometimes, the perfect blend of genius, timing, execution and luck combines and creates a durable and wildly successful category – like the Smartphone and the plethora of services and apps that were created.
Inversely, one of those tech innovations that was just a bit ahead of its time was the Tablet PC; a fully-functional Windows PC that was blessed with a pen and touch screen so you could take notes by hand just like on paper, yet by flipping it around it could be used to run Office apps and all the other stuff you’d need a PC for, 20 years ago.
In hindsight, the idea of the Tablet PC was 10-15 years ahead of the technology that was needed to really make it work – the pen and screen digitizer were a bit too low-res; the processing power and memory was not up to the mark of providing the kind of user experience that the vision hoped for. The battery life was too poor while the whole thing was too heavy. Nowadays, with devices like the Surface Go and the iPad Pro, the reality is much closer – even if the dream of writing meeting notes by hand has been made somewhat obsolete by transcription and the fact that fewer people use a pen to write any more.
One new app that was built for the Tablet PC to take advantage of its pen, was Windows Journal, a relatively simple yet effective note-taking app, with surprisingly good handwriting recognition built in.
To read more from someone who was in the room – figuratively and, at times, literally – around the time of Tablet PC, the Journal software and the Office app originally called Scribbler which went on to become OneNote, check out Steven Sinofsky’s Hardcore Software post. It’s a fairly long but fascinating read.
Using pen and paper for taking meeting notes might be less popular now, but many of us will still jot down reminders or lists on Post-it notes, perhaps doodling on paper to help creativity and flow. If you have a pen-capable computer now, the newly released Microsoft Journal app is worth a look.
Billed as an app for digital ink enthusiasts, this new Journal presents a modern take on the original Windows Journal idea – an infinitely scrollable canvas for jotting down anything, though with AI capabilities in the app providing quiet yet powerful functionality. Journal started as a research project (from the “Garage”), but has now graduated into a fully-fledged, supported app. Read more about it here.
The Windows Insiders program which, for a good many years, has provided a way for the product team to develop aspects and features of Windows with the help of millions of early testers, announced some changes in its focus recently. The distinction between Dev and Beta channels will blur to some degree, with A/B testing of new experimental features showing up in Dev before some may make it into future releases.
The path to how new features for Windows 11 will be rolled out is changing a little too. Having previously said that there would be only one Feature Update each year, rather than the spring/fall update cadence that has been with Windows 10 for some time, there are going to be intermediate feature experience packs which will deliver some updates, like the forthcoming Android subsystem which will allow Windows 11 users to install and run a subset of Android apps and games on their PC.
If you’re outside of the US, don’t get too excited about the Android apps – the initial preview needs both your PC region to be US and you need an Amazon account in the US, in order to use the Amazon Appstore (which is the home of the subset of available apps). Enterprising tinkerers have found ways to install the software without meeting said requirements – if you choose this rocky path, however, you’re on your own.
If you want some groovy new features for your PC without grubbing around in the command line or waiting for a future update to arrive, do check out the recently-refreshed PowerToys package. The tl;dr history is that PowerToys started as a collection of side projects built during the Windows 95 days, shipped as freebies for power users to play with. The name was dusted down a couple of years ago to collect up similar skunkworks projects for Windows 10 (and now, 11), and has been updated fairly regularly – though the release version is still way off v1.0.
The New PowerToys comprises a collection of addons which will be of varying interest to your average Windows user, but some are so neat on the occasions you need them that you’ll be glad of having installed the package. Image Resizer, for example, is a File Explorer extension to kick off resizing a large picture to a more manageable size – handy for the kind of website where you need a thumbnail or a profile picture that’s of restricted dimensions. There are other file-related tools like Power Rename, as well as power usage, window-handling and a whole lot more.
Of particular interest (and most recent) are utilities to do with your mouse – how many times have you tried to find the location of your pointer (especially if you have multiple screens) by waggling the mouse or tickling the trackpad? Press CTRL key twice to Find My Mouse and the screens go dark, except for a spotlight that shines on the current pointer location. There’s a Mouse Highlighter which – when activated via a configurable shortcut key – leaves a little short-lived blob on-screen where you clicked the mouse; great if you’re recording a training video or doing a demonstration.
Finally, there’s the somewhat more dramatic Mouse Pointer Crosshairs, which puts a big cross centered on wherever your pointer is, and follows it around. This might be hugely distracting to leave it on all the time, but fortunately, a quick press of the shortcut key will turn it off.
The PowerToys use a lot of different shortcut keys – some configurable – and also have a handy Shortcut Key guide, which displays common Windows shortcuts; none of those used by the PowerToys themselves, though.
A long time ago in a different era, a young engineer and his friend founded a company called Winternals, which cooked up some tools to look inside the way Windows operated. The utilities were used to understand the way things really worked and went on to provide technologists a variety of ways to troubleshoot issues and optimize performance.
Early and popular tools, which went on to be published on the sysinternals.com website, included RegMon – which monitors what was happening in the Windows Registry – and FileMon, which kept an eye on the file system. Both of these tools could help a user figure out what an application is doing, maybe to check it’s not misbehaving, or seeking undocumented settings where the app might be looking to see if a particular file or registry key existed. Sysinternals made the tools free, and since Winternals was acquired by Microsoft in 2006, they still are.
Co-founder Mark Russinovich wrote lots of other fun and useful stuff. For giggles, he built the first BSOD screensaver and a means to remotely deploy it on someone else’s PC, making them think it had crashed, probably causing them to turn it off and on again. Or the ZoomIt tool that he used to great effect in his keynote speeches which were always a highlight at events like TechEd or Ignite. Watching thousands of geeks queueing for an hour to make sure they can get a seat near the front almost invites Jobs-ian comparisons. For what can be relatively dry content, Mark has a great way of talking about how the technology really works and manages to be quite interesting: even if half of the concepts fly straight over your head, the rest is generally worth listening to – like a Brian Cox lecture.
After joining Microsoft, Mark continued to build SysInternals tools and replaced RegMon and FileMon, with Process Monitor aka ProcMon. Another big utility, Process Explorer, is a kind of shibboleth amongst Windows techies… if you’re still using TaskMan to look under the hood, then you’re just not hard enough.
Despite moving to becoming the CTO for Azure and being a member of the most Technical Fellows, he still has a hand in with Sysinternals, culminating recently in a celebration of the 25th anniversary of the first set of utilities. The day-long virtual conference gave deep dive sessions into a few of the most popular tools, along with an interesting fireside chat with Mark and an overview of Sysinternals tools for Linux. See the recording here.
Oh, and one more thing. The Sysinternals Suite is now available in the Windows Store – so you can grab the latest versions of all the core tools (70 of them… yes, that’s right, 70, and for how much?) with just a few clicks.
Back when some execs danced badly to a highly-priced tune, “Start” was the menu button you’d press to get to the programs and settings on your computer. The Start menu begat the Start button on your keyboard, whose logo evolved with different versions of Windows.
Now, Start is a new thing – a relaunch of Microsoft News.
Users of Windows 11 in preview – due to release soon – can see the widgets for news on their task bar, or any users can go to MicrosoftStart.com. If you feel ` reducing the clickbait and garbaj, you can tune the sources and types of news you’ll receive and save the settings with your Microsoft Account.
Apps are available for iOS and Android, on the web, the Windows taskbar / widgets, and on the new tab page on Microsoft Edge (like it or not).
One notable absence from the announcement?
The Microsoft News app for Windows. Install it while you still can.
2004 was a momentous year in many respects. The first crewed private spaceflight took place, NASA flew a Scramjet at nearly 10x the speed of sound, there was an election in the US and an Olympics took place. Not entirely like 2020, then. Windows XP was the world’s most-used operating system, and Microsoft’s Trustworthy Computing (TwC) initiative brought forth Windows XP SP2, which added a ton of security updates brought forward from the Longhorn project.
In a tenuous segue, this leads us to Windows and 2004 in the year 2020 – namely, the release of “2004” build, otherwise known as the Windows 10 May 2020 Update. This is the 10th major update of Windows 10 – updates which, not unlike the service packs of old, roll-up the fixes of known issues while introducing new features and improving existing ones.
There are quite a few new features and lots of incremental improvements in the May 2020 update; some are fairly minor, others could be more significant – like the many accessibility improvements or improving security with the PUA-blocking feature which could stop the end user from unwittingly installing an app which is not exactly legit but is not exactly malware.
UK users – after installation, you’ll need to wait for an app update to arrive via the Store, as the Cortana app initially says it’s not available in the UK – though ironically, one of the examples asks for the weather and gets the answer for London… in Fahrenheit…
It might take a little while for 2004 to arrive via Windows Update – it’s a staged rollout, and there have been some reported issues with incompatible drivers, so it may be held back from certain machines until the drivers are updated. See more info on blocked machines.
If you want to force the update to 2004 rather than wait for Windows Update, you can go to the Download Windows 10 page and hit the Update Now button. You might find that the update process goes through a load of downloading and processing, only to tell you that your machine is in a “compatibility hold” because of known driver issues. So you’ll just have to wait…