Microsoft Weekly: Ignite 2018, updates on your screen, game library's evergreen

You might be aware that at the top of this past week Microsoft Ignite 2018 happened. Unlike what its name would suggest, this is not a conference about setting things on fire, but one geared towards IT pros and developers. As you can imagine, the news stream was dominated by announcements from this event, but there were some nice news bits from divisions unrelated to Ignite. You can find all of that below, in your Microsoft digest for the week of September 22-28.

Ignite 2018

For fans of Azure, Server 2019, and an assortment of other Microsoft productivity solutions, this section should be of interest. Given that Ignite is such a large event, the sheer volume of announcements will be split into a couple relevant categories for easier reading.

Office and productivity

I think it’s prudent to start this sub-section with SQL Server 2019, the preview for which is available now. The latest iteration of this database management solution brings the ability to manage both relational and non-relational databases in one offering. Like its predecessor, it runs either on-prem, on Azure Stack or in the cloud. No release date has been mentioned.

In related database news, the Cassandra API is now generally available, as is Cosmos DB’s multi-master at global scale. This, of course, means improved scalability and availability for services relying on Cosmos DB.

Also bearing the 2019 mark is Server 2019, the Long Term Servicing Channel variant which should be made available at the beginning of October. Alongside it in October we’ll also see Windows Server 1809, which is the Semi-Annual Channel equivalent. For managing all of this, Windows Admin Center 1809 is out now.

In terms of Office 365, it is getting new data types in Excel – along with an ‘Insert Data From Picture’ feature -, a deeper LinkedIn integration with the core Office apps, and a new feature called Ideas. Coming first to PowerPoint and Excel, it seeks to use AI to help give “intelligent recommendations”.

Speaking of AI, Teams is going to leverage artificial intelligence to blur out the background (if you so choose) and meeting recording with attached transcription – the latter of which is searchable. Both these features will be available later this year.

In other Office news, customers and commercial clients wishing to buy Office 2019 (Office 365’s perpetual license variant) will have to wait a few more weeks for availability, but those with a volume license agreement can get it right now for either macOS or Windows 10. In terms of included features, there are inking improvements across the board, there’s also the ability to draft emails and schedule them to be sent later plus Focused Inbox, as well as the Morph feature in PowerPoint (rotation of 3D objects between slides). A rather big feature that’s not in this standalone version is real-time co-authoring, which is obviously only available in the subscription variant.

There is one thing both the subscription and non-subscription versions of Office are going to have in common going forward: by default, the 64-bit versions of the Office apps will be installed, instead of the 32-bit ones as it happens currently.

Capping off this sub-section is Cortana, specifically the Skills Kit for Enterprise. Seeing that the “personal digital assistant” approach didn’t really work, Microsoft is repositioning Cortana as a “productivity assistant”, hence the push for this more business-oriented kit.

Azure and services

Also at Ignite 2018, Microsoft announced a slew of new Azure services and improvements to existing offerings.

On the one hand there’s Azure IoT Central, the Software-as-a-Service solution for IoT, which is now generally available. Alongside it, the company also announced an October 15 Azure Digital Twins public preview. Digital Twins is an IoT platform that allows the creation of a comprehensive digital model of any physical environment – essentially a simulation.

Tagging along also in general availability is Azure Data Box, a tamper-resistant appliance for offline transport of data to Azure if online connections are spotty. Along with the 100TB base variant, there’s also Azure Data Box Heavy, which comes with 1 Petabyte of storage. Complementing it is an upgrade to Azure Stack, which now allows you to extend a single stack to 16 nodes as opposed to 12.

In Azure infrastructure news, there are new SSD managed disks in both Standard and Ultra capacities – targeted at latency-sensitive and data-sensitive workloads. In conjunction with those, there’s Azure ExpressRoute Direct and ExpressRoute Global – both of which target the networking aspect of the cloud.

Another generally available product is the self-explanatory Azure Firewall, coupled with two new N-series GPU-optimized VMs. The ND and NV-series are geared towards graphics-intensive workloads.

To wrap things up on the Azure side, a number of new services have entered either private or public preview. In private preview is VM Image Builder – for the migration of image creation pipelines -, joined by the public previews of Kubernetes on Azure Stack, Azure Cost Management within the Azure Portal, Blueprints, Resource Graph and Policy for DevOps, as well as Azure Front Door Service and Azure Sphere. Blueprints, Resource Graph and Policy are centered on data governance, while Front Door Service aims to accelerate microservice-based webapp creation, and Azure Sphere is a hardware and software solution for IoT.

Finally, joining the N-series VMs is a pair of H-series ones (HB and HC), which are positioned as High-Performance Computing solutions for weather forecasting, risk analysis, and other such cases.

Sticking to VMs a tad longer, there’s also Windows Virtual Desktop, which allows you to run Windows 10 in the cloud – obviously on Azure. The service should enter a preview stage later this year.

In an effort to manage what it calls “an explosion of data”, the Redmond giant has also announced Microsoft Search, a search experience which should be made available across the company’s products. Powered by the Microsoft Graph, this upgraded approach to search is available now on Bing, Office.com, as well as the SharePoint and Outlook mobile apps. Office and Windows 10 users will get this same experience in the first half of next year, most likely with the 19H1 feature update.

And since Outlook mobile was mentioned, business that make use of the aforementioned app will now be able to take restrict users from adding a personal email or OneDrive account to the app on company devices. Furthermore, there’s the ability to push out specific configurations, the ability to join Teams meetings from within the Outlook app, and more.

Adding to the long chain of updates above is some good news for OneDrive users on macOS, as Insiders can now try out the Files On-Demand feature. It’s likely that general availability isn’t too far away, but in the meantime, you can check out our hands-on with the feature right here. Oh and while you’re adding things to look forward to on macOS, a dark theme for OneDrive is something else that’s coming soon.

In terms of what’s available for OneDrive across the board, there’s improved camera roll handling and camera upload is finally coming to OneDrive for Business. Furthermore, also for business users, is video transcription (which is searchable too). More collaboration features, mobile enhancements, and link handling improvements are also coming.

Other announcements

Besides software, some hardware news was also revealed at Ignite. Avocor unveiled its Windows collaboration displays the 65-inch variant of which is priced at $6,995 and will arrive in December. If this Surface Hub alternative intrigues you, be sure to check out our hands-on with it at this link.

And while we’re on the subject of the Hub, the second generation – unveiled abruptly a few months back – was detailed at the conference. The Surface Hub 2S and 2X are the models available for the second generation, and will be made available in 2019 and 2020, respectively. Though confusing, the 2S and 2X aren’t actually different machines, but rather the 2X is an upgraded version of the 2S. Specifically, a business can buy the Hub 2S and essentially upgrade to a 2X via a removable processor module. Be sure to check out our hand-on with the device here.

Those looking to pre-register for Ignite 2019 can do so now, but be advised that next year’s conference will take place November 4-8. This is a bit of a departure from the company’s usual time frame of late September. It will still be held in Orlando, though.

Updates on your screen

Updates are pretty integral to modern software, and as expected, there’s been a bunch of them pushed out this week.

First in line is the Sticky Notes 3.0 for PCs running the April 2018 Update, which brings dark mode support, cross-device sync, and more. Also firmly in the update category is .NET Core, which has a bunch of new features like the Windows Compatibility Pack, updated Bootstrap and Angular templates for ASP.NET Core, and more.

Flipping over to the upcoming updates, there’s Skype v8, which was meant to replace v7 at the beginning of the month, but Microsoft pushed the date back. The rollout of the new version is expected to progress in waves, starting November 1. Depending on the update wave, there will be a smaller or bigger delta in terms of the forced upgrade.

The Microsoft Whiteboard app is now available for iOS users, with the webapp version being in preview, while Office Mobile on both iOS and Android will be updated for Insiders with a bunch of inking improvements, the Insert Data from Picture feature in Excel, and the ability to have Word documents read aloud. Also gearing up for a feature upgrade is the Outlook mobile app on iOS, which should receive a major redesign along with support for shared inboxes, a new swipe experience, the ability to favourite contacts, a better filtering system, and more. This should all be available by the end of the year, with a subset of these features making their way to the Android variant.

Unfortunately for fans of the Office Mobile apps on Windows 10, these are essentially considered legacy, which means they won’t be updated anymore.

What is and will continue to be updates is the Insider Program for Windows 10 proper. The Skip Ahead ring got another taste of 19H1 with build 18247. There are no new features however, just bug fixes for Narrator, invisible app icons in the taskbar, and WebView controls not responding to keyboard inputs. That incorrect CPU usage reporting in Task Manager is still there, and File Explorer’s context menu may have an unexpectedly thick white border.

In the non-Insider camp, a couple of Windows 10’s many versions got updates as well:

  • April 2018 Update (1803): KB4458469, build 17134.320 – fixes a laundry list of bugs ranging from Edge issues, multi-monitor support, Universal CRT issues, the Device Guard lockdown policy, another Local Security Authority Subsystem Service (LSASS) issue, as well as Windows 10S PIN log-in issues, Task Scheduler, Windows Help, and more. There are no known issues.
  • Fall Creators Update (1709): KB4457136, build 16299.699 – fixes issues with Remote Desktop Session Host Server, SCM and Netlogon crashes, logging of negative events when Device Guard is in audit mode, printer bugs, and more. There are no known issues in this update.

Game library’s evergreen

Despite the best of efforts, your backlog seems to be ever larger. Microsoft has accepted this, and as such is continuing its push for its Xbox Game Pass subscription and connected services.

There’s some great news for Fallout fans, as those on the Microsoft console will be able to play the Fallout 76 B.E.T.A a week early, starting on October 23. In further great news, Sea of Thieves’ largest update yet, Forsaken Shores, is now finally available bringing volcanoes, rowboats, geysers, and more.

Folks with an Xbox Live Gold subscription can look forward to grabbing Overcooked! (Xbox One, October 1-31), Victor Vran (Xbox One, October 16 – November 15), Stuntman: Ignition (Xbox 360, October 1 -15), and Hitman: Blood Money (Xbox 360, October 16 -31) for free next month.

Also next month, Wolfenstein: The New Order will be making its debut on Xbox Game Pass on October 1, along with Metro 2033 Redux, Westerado: Double Barreled, LEGO Indiana Jones: The Original Adventures, Shantae: Hal-Genie Hero and Split/Second, while Forza Horizon 4 will be made available on October 2. Speaking of, you can check out our extensive review of Horizon 4 right here.

If you’ve been watching the Backward Compatibility List closely, you’ll be happy to know that two more titles have been added this week: Call of Juarez: The Cartel, and Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood. Oddly enough, the first one isn’t available for purchase, while the second can be had for $19.99.

If the latest battle royale craze is what you’re into, and specifically Fortnite, Microsoft now has a 1TB Xbox One S bundle which comes with the game as long as a number of in-game exclusives. These include 2,000 V-Bucks, as well as other in-game items, plus one-month trials of Xbox Game Pass and Xbox Live Gold. It’s available now in the U.S. from the Microsoft Store or Best Buy for $299.99, and will make its way to the UK and Ireland in early October priced at £249.99.

Minecraft players received some good news too, as Minecraft: Dungeons was announced at MineCon 2018. The game keeps the same blocky art-style, but transitions into the action-adventure genre with cues taken from classic dungeon crawlers. You’ll be able to play it either on your own or with a group of up to four friends, and it’s coming to PC in 2019. No further details were released.

Ending on some rather fantastic news, partnering with Razer, Microsoft has announced that it’ll finally bring mouse and keyboard support to the Xbox One in the coming weeks. Of course, this will currently be limited to Insiders, but it shouldn’t take too long before it’s generally available. After all, it’s been about three years since this feature was promised.

And yes, Microsoft has said that most USB and Bluetooth mice and keyboards will work, but that it’s partnering with Razer for the best experience.

The Fast ring

Hot corner

Hot corner is a section of The Fast ring dedicated to highlighting five Microsoft-related stories that haven’t been covered over here, but might be of interest.

  • Microsoft is rolling out a new feature to Forms called Ideas, meant to make it easier to analyze data gathered through surveys.
  • An updated Polly integration with Microsoft Teams is now available.
  • A more unified labeling management process is available now in the Security & Compliance Center.
  • The Windows Kernel team intends to share a wealth of information regarding the OS’s internals via a newly created blog.
  • If you’re updating a 64-bit version of Windows 10 1703 (Creators Update), 1709 (Fall Creators Update) or 1803 (April 2018 Update) via SCCM or WSUS, you’ll now be able to choose a smaller download package.

Logging off

To cap this rather long edition of Microsoft Weekly, we take a look at some recent stats concerning Windows 10.

First off is the April 2018 Update (or 1803), which according to AdDuplex is now installed on 89.6% of Windows 10 devices. As a reminder, 1803 had the fastest adoption of any Windows 10 feature update to date, though it’s not likely the needle will move past 90% too much.

The reason for 1803’s likely stagnation is 1809, or the Fall 2018 Update. The last of the Redstone-codenamed updates, this is rumored to be made available on October 2 – barring any last minute mishaps similar to what had befallen 1803.

Last but not least, Microsoft has finally confirmed that its flagship operating system is now installed on 700 million devices. While this is still impressive, it’s quite a ways off from the company’s initial one billion device target 2-3 years after Windows 10's launch. As it was outlined in Terry Myerson’s presentation back at the Windows 10 reveal event in 2015, Microsoft was eyeing the billion device mark across its ecosystem, meaning everything from phones, convertibles, desktop PCs, consoles and, perhaps most importantly, Internet of Things. However, in 2016, it stated that it won't hit its one billion devices target, due to its failing phone business. Even though the company didn't reach this particular figure in its initially allotted time frame, a strong demand for IoT could end up pushing the software giant closer to the one billion mark.

Missed a column? Don’t worry, you can find them all here.

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