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Microsoft Weekly: Fixing flaws, Cortana crisis, and Windows watching

Howdy Neowinians. This is our new weekly column that rounds up all the latest news from the Microsoft campus and throws it on a page with a bit of observation and commentary.

Microsoft was quite busy this week, having to deal with three new processor vulnerabilities that could make life difficult for users. There were also some developments with the Cortana personal assistant that could raise some alarm bells. And finally, we'll round up the Windows 10 news.

So, without further ado, here's a look at the week that was for December 30 to January 5.

The big news of the week was the revelation that most processor chips had critical flaws making them susceptible to hacking, mainly because of the particular process they use to increase performance. Chip makers Intel and AMD, as well as ARM's architecture, were potentially affected, forcing them to work with hardware and software partners in coming up with fixes.

For its part, Microsoft rushed out a patch to fix potential cloud problems and issued security updates to protect Windows 10 users. Updates were issued for the Fall Creators Update, the Creators Update and the original version of Windows 10, although Insiders had many vulnerability fixes for a few months. While the issues aren't likely to totally close the holes created by the Spectre vulnerability, the mitigations should help a great deal with the Meltdown issue peculiar to all Intel chips and at least one ARM chip. It is worth noting that the flaws were deemed so severe that Microsoft did not wait for Patch Tuesday to send out the update.

Microsoft also revealed a series of UEFI updates for its Surface products, which are basically coming from Intel since the Surface devices use Intel processors. The Surface Pro, Surface Pro 2, and Surface 3 are not on the list as the Surface Hub has "implemented defense in depth strategies" that don't require UEFI updates.

If that wasn't enough, Microsoft also made two changes to its Edge and Internet Explorer browsers to mitigate potential exploits by attacks through JavaScript. The "speculative execution side-channel attacks" could have accessed the CPU cache through during the browser process, and the changes will make that substantially more difficult.

It is likely that ramifications from these flaws will be felt for weeks and even months as hackers are now intimately aware of the flaws. Both hardware and software companies have been scrambling since the news broke, but word is they had already been working on fixes for months, so they only had to force up their timetable by about a week. Originally, fixes from everywhere would have been rolling out on January 9, a Patch Tuesday. Ironically, that would also have happened during CES, which would have been a benefit to these companies - especially the chip makers - as most eyes would be focused elsewhere as the updates happened.

In Halo 4, Master Chief's trusted AI Cortana reveals that she is closing in on the end of her seven-year "life" cycle. The ending is rather poignant before she fades away - only to be resurrected for a weird story arc in Halo 5.

Unfortunately, it appears that the real world application of Cortana is having a bad week as well. While it is unlikely that Microsoft is performing an assistant suicide of sorts, the company's answer to Alexa and Google Assistant had a few of its own rampancy issues.

First, the attempt by Microsoft to integrate Cortana with Amazon's Alexa is going about as well as her video game integration with the Domain. The culmination of the Cortana-Alexa integration was supposed to have happened by the end of last year, but no word on progress has been heard. Microsoft promised an update soon, but there is no guarantee we will actually get any details of a status.

However, Cortana's lifespan in one product ended with the briefest of goodbyes. The company unceremoniously has removed the assistant from its CRM service Dynamics 365 preview with no explanation. The move is even more unusual given that Microsoft pointed to Cortana as a key differentiator for Dynamics from its competition. Her disappearance is a mystery and does not bode well, especially given that Alexa is crushing Cortana in the skills department 100 fold.

In more understandable news, Cortana's faced rampancy issues with her music recognition abilities after Microsoft killed its Groove music service. The problem was not unexpected, as Microsoft said that Cortana's skill for identifying your favorite songs had been "retired."

With Cortana slowly fading from several areas, there is news that she has been reincarnated as a thermostat. Now that's just cold.

In addition to the emergency Windows 10 update rollout mentioned above, there was plenty of other news about the OS, most notably that you can still get a free upgrade to Windows 10 for another few days. The assistive technology upgrade of Windows 10 was supposed to end on December 31, but Microsoft has extended the deal to January 16. No more extensions after this, however. If you don't upgrade now, pay $119 later.

Also this week, Windows 10 S Fast ring Insiders thought they had received an unexpected boon when their new versions were showing as Windows 10 Pro. It appeared to be just a naming issue as Microsoft said that the version Insiders received was actually S. However, this caused update problems for those really wanting a Pro version. Apparently, they could not grab the update because of the glitch, making it harder for Surface users to take advantage of a free upgrade offer from S to Pro. The company is looking into the issue.

And finally, the holiday break gave Insiders more of a chance to test Redstone 4 build 17063, as Microsoft has added six more known issues to the list of problems.

One of the quirkier pieces of news from the week was that the Microsoft Store actually lists more Android devices than Windows phones. Yes, you read that correctly.

Two Acer Windows phones dropped off the store, leaving only two other Windows phones available. The news isn't that surprising, given that Microsoft has said that Windows 10 Mobile is on its last legs. That leaves only Android for now, at least until the rumored Surface phone makes its debut.

So that was the week. Check back next Saturday for a new installment. And as always, give us your feedback in the comments below. In the meantime, TTFN (look it up).

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