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Jul 31 2016

Windows 10: Happy Anniversary, Pt. 2

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As noted in Part 1 of this article, Tuesday's update (or rather upgrade) of Microsoft's latest desktop OS will add a number of enhancements and modifications that did not make it into the first two versions. Today we'll take a look at what's under the hood.

With all the criticism heaped on its immediate predecessors, it's easy to see why many observers would consider Windows 10 to be a 'victory for traditionalists.' The problem with this observation is that – just like many other Microsoft-related statements from recent years – it sticks with the blatantly obvious and ignores how many of the functionalities that first became available with Windows 8 and 8.1 were actually carried over into and ameliorated in Windows 10.The most prominent features to fall in this category are probably Storage Spaces and File History, which made data protection and backups a whole lot easier than before, and therefore naturally show up in Microsoft's latest desktop OS.

Low-Level or What?
In recent years, authors who write about software updates tend to differentiate between changes that affect the general user experience and so-called "low-level" modifications that will only be of concern to a chosen few, read: admins, developers and power users of various flavors. For the most part, this separation makes a lot of sense. However, given the many ways in which hidden features can impact the handling of Windows 10 (and most other operating systems), the lines tend to get blurred. So as far as we're concerned, it's enough to distinguish between visible and less visible changes. It also must be noted here that most of the features described below are only available with editions of Windows 10 Pro and upwards – so SOHO users and freelancers who want to improve data and device security or who must access confidential resources are more or less forced to upgrade. (Granted, that's not news per se, but with the general worries about Windows 10's 'communicativeness,' this move deserves new consideration.)

With that out of the way, let's now look at some of the changes one by one. The first one that appears on our radar has in fact to do with security – and thankfully appears in all editions: an overhauled Windows Defender can now search your PC for malware when it's offline and will cooperate with third-party products, allowing users to charge them with different tasks, such as periodic scans vs. real-time protection. The change was obviously deemed necessary because in previous versions Defender did not get along very well with software from other vendors, leading to system freezes and occasionally rendering devices unusable after an otherwise unproblematic installation. With the Anniversary Update (AU for short) that problem should be solved.

Users of tablets and PCs optimized for touch/pen input will welcome the arrival of Windows Ink, a modernized version of the traditional pen support that uses its own "Workspace" to serve as a central hub for stylus-enabled applications and apps. What's more, it also adds a pen version of Sticky Notes plus two new tools named Sketchpad and Screen Sketch. Aside from support for the new input method, the new Sticky Notes doesn't differ too much from the old one: opening the app creates a new canvas on which you can scribble whatever you like, such as reminders about meetings or colleagues' birthdays. Upon closing the app, the note stays on your desktop until you shelve it; however, in some cases you might still forget about those appointments and dates, which is why Cortana can keep tabs on them and inform you when they're due – provided, of course, you use Microsoft's digital assistant at all and let it access your scribblings. Sketchpad works in a similar fashion, only this time you're expected to draw up forms and figures rather than take notes. Sketchpad supports touch and pen input and comes with a selection of colors and tip sizes as well as an eraser tool and a ruler, plus undo/redo, crop, copy and share functions; in other words, it's basically a miniaturized digital whiteboard that comes in handy when you just want to float ideas. Screen Sketch for its part offers the same set of functionalities, only this time you get to work on screenshots of your desktop or opened apps. Prior to the AU release, these apps tended to be works in progress, but Microsoft will eventually cure that during upcoming patch days.

Under the Hood
As noted before, Windows Ink will only be active on touch- or pen-enabled devices; on other hardware, it's blocked and therefore won't affect the user experience. This brings us to a set of 'restricted' features that only exist within the Enterprise and Education Editions of Windows 10. Like their Home Edition counterparts, many of these enterprise-class functionalities (such as AppLocker, DirectAccess or Windows to Go) first appeared in Windows 7, 8/8.1 or earlier versions of Windows 10, and a good chunk of them eventually made it into the professional editions – the most prominent example would be BitLocker. The problem is that Microsoft pretty much adds and removes such features at random, so users can't know for sure whether they'll be able to use them after the next update. In keeping with this tradition, AU kills off Application Virtualization (App-V) and User Environment Virtualization (UE-V) in Windows 10 Pro. That's particularly unfortunate for self-employed customers or those working for SMBs, who could previously access demanding applications from their home office or have their desktop 'follow' them on all devices. As a result, these end users and their employers will either have to upgrade to the Enterprise or Education Edition, which makes licensing more complex and expensive, or apply for one of Microsoft's support programs directed at specific user groups.

Aside from this annoyance, Windows 10 AU introduces a couple of features that should appeal to admins and developers alike. One is the Desktop App Converter, formerly known as Project Centennial, which allows developers to automatically transform existing applications written for/with Win32, .NET, Windows Forms, and COM into apps that comply with the new Universal Windows Platform (UWP) standard and may thus run on tablets or smartphones as well. The resulting apps will run in some kind of sandbox that prevents them from tampering too much with the operating system; in addition, they also provide clean install and uninstall mechanisms so as not to leave any residues, which is a clear benefit for sysadmins. Another quite radical innovation is "Bash on Windows" – officially dubbed Windows Subsystem for Linux – which was co-developed by Microsoft and Canonical and basically emulates a Ubuntu userspace in a Windows environment. At its core is a function that translates Linux into Windows syscalls, which means that Ubuntu binaries may now run natively on a Windows machine. The plan behind this appears to be twofold: on the one hand, the new function will make it easier to write code that complies with Azure requirements, so that Ubuntu fans may develop directly for Microsoft's cloud platform and admins may re-use scripts that help them manage and maintain 'their' Linux installation(s). On the other hand, the cooperation between the two firms may be instrumental in soothing the decades-long and mostly fruitless conflict between Microsoft and the open source developer community, thus allowing both factions to collaborate and benefit from one each other's experiences.

 
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