Category Archives: Windows

Cortana

Some technologies seem always to be just around the corner. Every few years, people get excited all over again, about 3D media, virtual reality, voice assistants, hoverboards, self-driving cars, flying cars, artificial intelligence, and other things that always turn out to be more hype than anything else.

I started writing the post below about Cortana way back in 2015, but never published it. I can’t even remember why it never got published, but presumably I just lost interest, and figured everyone else would as well.

For a while there, my main interest in Cortana was the ways in which it was making work difficult for IT staff. My favourite example of that is shown in this video of someone prepping a room full of new computers with Windows 10.

Now, all the excitement about Cortana, along with Amazon’s Alexa, has almost completely disappeared. Cortana is still around in recent versions of Windows, but much of its functionality has been stripped away. Alexa is being similarly sidelined, and increasingly viewed as a failure.

Why are voice control tools like Cortana and Alexa failing?

  1. Talking to your computer is amusing for a while, but once the novelty wears off, one can’t help noticing that it’s just as easy (and in many cases much easier) to use your mouse and keyboard.
  2. Privacy issues. Computers are really good at making our lives easier. And that’s good. But some technologies, to be truly useful, need to know about us — a lot about us. The most obvious example is Internet advertising: unless you’re blocking ads and related scripts and cookies in your web browser, the ads you see are based on what advertising networks know — or think they know — about you. And that’s just one example. A lot of what makes modern computers useful is based on this tradeoff between privacy and convenience. Computer ‘assistants’ like Cortana and Alexa rely on what they learn about you to improve their effectiveness. And of course they’re always listening.

Anyway, here’s what I wrote back in 2015:

Cortana limitations

Having a computer you can talk to is one of those things that most of us associate with science fiction. Cortana is Microsoft’s attempt to make that fantasy real. The extent to which they have succeeded depends on your point of view. There are loads of examples of cool things Cortana can do in response to your questions and commands, but they still feel very limited to me. Not to put too fine a point on it, there are some things Cortana is good at, and others it is not. If your idea of talking to your computer is to find out the weather, the time, and stock prices, or set up appointments in your calendar, you might find Cortana quite useful. To my way of thinking, unless I can debate philosophy or sports with a computer, I’m not really interested in talking to it.

That said, there are plenty of examples of useful ways to use Cortana (find some). (Editor’s note: I never found any, although admittedly I didn’t look very hard. I assumed if someone found a killer app for Cortana, I’d hear about it.)

Cortana is also region-dependent and may not be available in your country. If that’s the case, and you happen to be an English speaker (which I can assume given that you’re reading this), you can make Cortana work by configuring the Windows region settings to the US. I’m in Canada, and I’ve been using the US English Cortana for a while, and it works fine. The main difference between the versions is the speech recognition database, so the Canadian version is going to be pretty much identical to the US version. There may be other small difference as well, such as units of measurement. If you do decide to tweak the region settings to use the US Cortana, keep in mind that this will affect other apps as well. For instance, your web browser may tell search engines that you’re in the US, and your search results may be regionally skewed as a result. Still, most apps are more likely to use your location than your computer’s region configuration when doing their thing.

There are other problems. In my tests, the ‘Hey, Cortana’ feature worked for a few days, then stopped responding. Disabling and re-enabling the feature didn’t help.

Cortana is a fun feature, and it’s likely that many of the current issues will be resolved in the near future. It’s worth looking at, and anyone with Windows 10 should probably try it, but it’s not something that should figure prominently in deciding whether to use Windows 10 at all.

Den Delimarsky: Windows Needs a Change in Priorities

In a recent post on his blog, Den Delimarsky explains why he’s disappointed with the direction Microsoft is going with Windows.

Anyone who reads my own posts about Windows will notice that we complain about the same things. Inconsistent user interface elements, disappearing functionality, changes that nobody wants, advertising, and privacy issues all plague Windows 11, just as they do with Windows 10. But with each new Windows release, the problems are only getting worse.

It’s a good read, and I recommend it to anyone who is considering upgrading to Windows 11. It may also be helpful for people who are stuck using Windows 11, in business and education environments. If you’re using Windows 11 and are only vaguely aware that something is rotten in Denmark, this article may clarify things for you.

Microsoft updates still breaking things

Is it just me, or is Microsoft actually getting worse at this? It seems that every month there are more horror stories about problems caused by MS software updates. Given that Microsoft is still pushing hard for all Windows updates to happen automatically, this is very troubling.

In the latest instance, updates pushed out for January’s Patch Tuesday caused some Windows servers to reboot continuously. For server admins, this is a nightmare scenario.

One could argue that since the problem only affected a specific subset of Windows servers, this was less serious than something that affects all Windows 10 users. But affected servers were potentially used by hundreds or even thousands of people, which amplifies the scope of the problem.

Microsoft’s approach to testing changed with the release of Windows 10, and they now rely on reports from regular users who have opted in to pre-release versions of Windows. It’s clear that this kind of testing is much less useful than proper, methodical testing. Whether Microsoft will eventually go back to proper testing remains unclear. Meanwhile, we all suffer. And wonder whether the next Patch Tuesday is going to be a day of disaster.

Ars Technica and The Verge have more.

Patch Tuesday for December 2021

Time for another thrilling game of I Hope These Critical Security Updates Don’t Break Anything On My Computer with your permanent host, Microsoft.

This month’s edition includes approximately thirty-seven updates, with fixes for eighty-eight vulnerabilities, in Office, Defender, Edge, SharePoint, Visual Studio, Visual Studio Code, and Windows.

The challenge of counting the number of updates and vulnerabilities each month isn’t getting any easier, as some Microsoft applications (especially Edge) now update themselves outside of the monthly cycle. The source of both information and confusion about Microsoft updates is the Security Update Guide.

Microsoft isn’t showing any signs of giving up their ultimate power over your PC, and will continue to install updates pretty much at their whim, for the foreseeable future. Those of us still running Windows versions that are unsupported (7, XP), and soon-to-be-unsupported (8.x) are starting to seem like the last holdouts in a battle that’s already lost. The battle for control over our own computers.

Or maybe that’s just hyperbole.

Regardless of the status of automatic updates on your version of Windows, at this time of the month it’s a good idea to head over to the Windows Control Panel (or Settings), find Windows Update, and check for new updates.

Patch Tuesday for November 2021

To paraphrase butcher Oscar Wilde: the only thing worse than having to install security updates every month is having no security updates at all. If you’re not getting a steady supply of security updates, your software is probably no longer being developed or supported. If you’re just choosing not to install the available updates, you’re asking for trouble. Either is bad, but at least you can do something about the latter.

It’s my duty to inform you that — at least by my count — Microsoft has made available this day approximately twenty-nine updates for Windows, Office, Edge, Visual Studio, Exchange Server, SharePoint, Visual Studio Code, and Windows Server. A total of fifty-five vulnerabilities are fixed by the updates.

The source of this information is Microsoft’s Security Update Guide (SUG). It’s a sluggish and weirdly complicated system to navigate, but does seem to contain the necessary information.

As usual, this month’s collection includes updates for Windows 7, but those updates remain tantalizingly out of reach for most Windows 7 users, because obtaining them involves entering into a special agreement with Microsoft that’s way too expensive for regular folks.

Windows 10 systems get the updates automatically, and Windows 8.1 users — if automatic updates are disabled — should navigate to the Windows Control Panel and Windows Update to install them.

Patch Tuesday for October 2021

Like clockwork, Microsoft has once again provided us with a month’s worth of new security updates.

According to Microsoft’s Security Update Guide, this month there are patches for one hundred and seven vulnerabilties, in Office (2013, 2016, and 2019), Edge, Exchange Server, SharePoint, Visual Studio, System Center, Windows (7, 8.1, 10, and 11) and Windows Server.

As usual, Microsoft is taunting Windows 7 users with updates for that O/S, because most of us regular folks can’t afford them.

Windows 8.1 users — of which I’m one of the very few remaining — can either enable automatic updates, or navigate the Start menu to Windows Update to install available updates manually.

Windows 10 users can still delay updates, though just how long a delay is allowed depends on the flavour of Windows 10 you’re running. Windows 10 Home doesn’t give you much to work with in that respect.

Since Windows 11 isn’t even officially released yet, it’s difficult to predict exactly how updates will be handled for that O/S. However, it’s a safe bet that updates will be shoved down our throats as they are with Windows 10.

Windows 11 workarounds

Windows 11 hasn’t even been released yet, and people are already looking for ways to work around some of the changes Microsoft has decided we really need.

First up, it’s the venerable Start menu, which for some reason Microsoft has decided to move from its traditional place at the bottom left of the display, to the bottom center. Perhaps because that’s the way macOS does it?

I have no problem with Microsoft making changes like these, as long as there’s a way to revert those changes. In this case, there’s no obvious way to do that, but helpful folks have found a workaround.

Next, it’s the incredibly annoying prompts, taskbar icons, alerts, and other associated distractions generated by Microsoft Teams. That software isn’t included with Windows 11, but Microsoft has packed the new O/S with what amounts to advertising for Teams. Again, helpful folks have figured out how to get rid of this crap.

Meanwhile, Mozilla has discovered how to get past the hurdles Microsoft erected to prevent Firefox from making itself the default web browser automatically. You’ve no doubt seen what is normally required to change the default browser on Windows 10 (which now affects Windows 11 as well): you’re forced to make the change manually.

Forcing the user to intervene in changing the default browser (and other applications) was added to Windows as a security measure, because otherwise malicious software could more easily take over affected applications. But Microsoft’s applications don’t seem to be affected by this restriction, making the whole thing seem more like Microsoft giving itself an unfair advantage.

Patch Tuesday for September 2021

Summer is winding down, young folks are risking their health going back to school, and anti-vaccination cretins are revealing to the world how incredibly stupid they are by protesting at hospitals.

The good news is that you can easily distract yourself from the bad news for a few minutes by doing something straightforward and comfortable. I’m referring, of course, to installing Microsoft updates on your Windows computers.

If you’re looking for detailed information about the updates being made available by Microsoft today, the best place to start is the official source: the Security Update Guide (SUG). I’m not saying you’ll find it easy to navigate (you likely won’t). But it is the official source.

For those of you not inclined to risk a migraine by looking at the SUG, I’ve done my usual analysis of this month’s offerings, based on data downloaded from the SUG and viewed in a spreadsheet application (any one will do).

This month’s patches address a total of ninety-three security vulnerabilities, in Office, Edge, SharePoint, Visual Studio, Visual Studio Code, Windows Server, Windows 10, Windows 7, and Windows 8.1.

The Windows 7 patches are not available to regular folks, and can only be obtained (legally) by paying Microsoft a large amount of money. Windows 7 users are encouraged to upgrade to, well, I guess Windows 10, which is currently somewhat less terrible than it was when it was released.

Windows 8.1 users — the few of us who remain — have the luxury of deciding whether and when to install updates via Windows Update.

Windows 10 users can only delay updates, and then only if you’re running the Pro (not Home) version.

Patch Tuesday for August 2021

It’s another Patch Tuesday, which these days matters less and less, given that software makers are increasingly forcing updates onto us.

There are still plenty of people running Windows 7 and Windows 8.x: almost 20%, with Windows 10 taking the rest, at close to 80%. That’s according to Statcounter.

Sadly for Windows 7 users, official patches for that O/S are few and far between, with Microsoft only releasing Windows 7 updates to the general public when the vulnerability being addressed is particularly nasty.

That leaves Windows 8.1, for which we continue to receive updates, and for which the process has not changed much since the O/S was introduced in 2013.

The updates

This month, Microsoft is making available updates that address a total of eighty-seven security vulnerabilities in .NET, Office, Edge, SharePoint, Visual Studio, and Windows. That count is based on my interpretation of the official Security Update Guide, and it may differ from totals provided by others, because counting these things is not as simple as it sounds.

If you’re running Windows 10, hold onto your britches as Microsoft installs the new updates remotely on your computer, and hopefully doesn’t break anything this time.

Windows 8.1 users can either enable automatic updates, or head to the Control Panel and fire up Windows Update.

Windows 7 and XP users are basically out of luck. If you are using those systems, I strongly recommend that you don’t also use them for email or web browsing.

Patch Tuesday for July 2021

It could be argued that Microsoft has done us all a favour in making Windows 10’s updates unavoidable. Certainly, as long as nothing goes wrong, it’s less work than futzing around with Windows Update on every computer. And forced updates mean that Windows computers used by less tech-savvy folks stay up to date with security fixes, which makes everyone safer.

It’s also true that increasingly, software and firmware updates for all our devices happen whether we want them or not. By default, mobile devices update themselves. Other electronic equipment, like smart televisions, digital video recorders, amplifiers, and even some network equipment are now doing the same.

But I just can’t shake the feeling of discomfort I get when I think about my computer being messed with at the whim of some Microsoft flunky. Perhaps some day I’ll be more comfortable with it. In the meantime, as long as Microsoft continues to screw up updates, sometimes breaking thousands of computers worldwide, I’ll continue to feel this way.

This month’s Microsoft updates

According to my analysis of the data available from Microsoft’s Security Update Guide, we’ve got updates for Edge, Office, Exchange Server, SharePoint, Visual Studio Code, Windows (7, 8.1, and 10), and Windows Server, addressing a whopping one hundred and thirty-three vulnerabilities in all.

As usual, Windows 10 updates will be installed automatically over the next few days, although you may — depending on your version of Windows 10 — be able to delay them for about a month. You can check for available updates and install them right away by heading to Start > Settings > Update & Security > Windows Update.

Windows 8.1 users also have the option of using automatic updates, but if that’s disabled, you’ll need to go to Start > PC Settings > Update & Recovery > Windows Update.

There seem to be one or two updates that are freely available for all Windows 7 computers, so it’s worth checking Windows Update. When Microsoft releases free updates for Windows 7, you know they’re important. Go to Start > Control Panel > Windows Update to check.

Adobe Updates

Adobe joins the fun again this month, with an updated version of the free and still ubiquitous Adobe Acrobat Reader. Version 2021.005.20058 of Reader includes fixes for thirteen security bugs.

Reader normally updates itself, but you can make sure, by navigating its menu to Help > Check for updates...

Firefox 90

Perhaps coincidentally, there’s also a new version of Firefox today. Firefox 90 addresses nine security vulnerabilities in earlier versions.

By default, Firefox will update itself, but you can encourage it by clicking its ‘hamburger’ menu at the top right, and navigating to Help > About Firefox.