Tech Tie In: Windows 10X, F-350 engines, and snow days

Hello, World!

It is a new year on the same planet, and there is a light at the end of the COVID tunnel.

Windows10X: an OS for budget devices

In this month’s Enterprise Dish episode, Aaron and Brad reconvened to discuss Windows 10X, which is looking less like a rumor and more like a fully-formed OS, even if it looks doubly familiar. Our hosts likened it to ChromeOS, for which it is a clear competitor, and certainly the most recent benchmark for a touch-focused, SaaS-focused OS. But it should be noted that this is not a new idea from Microsoft, but a continuation of an old one: Microsoft has gone down the path of a basic OS for low-powered devices before – initially with Windows Embedded (for thin clients, points of sale, and other embedded control systems), and later for the early 2010s generation of ARM-chipped tablets.

WindowsRT was an ARM-designed version of Windows 8, designed exclusively to run apps from the then-sparse Windows Store, and eventually a basic version of Office. During this period, I used two WindowsRT devices, and they were…not impressive machines, but they were fine for certain tasks. I used my Asus VivoTab RT for checking email and watching videos, particularly while traveling cross-country with its then-massive 16-hour battery life. But I didn’t use it for much else, and what’s changed in the meantime is that the full-powered Windows 10 laptops (briefly known as Ultrabooks, before that lost any specific definition) are a good deal smaller and lighter than they were in those days.

So, the use case for Windows 10X is not for a smaller or more compact device, but rather for a low-budget one. You can check out the Windows 10X demo video from WindowsCentral here, and whether you’ve used a previous tablet-focused version of Windows, or a ChromeOS tablet or notebook, I expect you’ll agree that this user experience has matured a bit. Granted, as Aaron noted, the video may or may not be a reasonable approximation of real-world performance on the upcoming low-priced, EDU-focused devices (expected to run between $185-$329) that Brad speculated this OS may be running on soon. Aaron noted that the demo is running on a Surface Pro 7. He likened that to an F-350 engine powering the drivetrain for a Honda Civic, which was a fair and entertaining metaphor, even if it seems most likely to resemble one of those off-roading car commercials that sends the driver bounding uncontrollably into the snowy woods.

Modern day SOS

Why yes, that was a segue! Because Brad and Aaron both ventured into the snowy woods and discussed the universal broadband connectivity that may eventually be found there. Their imaginations went to a similar place for this: Outdoor adventure, with Brad considering transoceanic sailing, and Aaron thinking of his experiences with back-country skiing and hiking. They both came to the same conclusion: If all someone needs is a solar-powered emergency beacon (or even a solar charger for any smartphone), which will be able to reach out to a low-priced (or perhaps even free and universal) satellite-based internet connection and call for help (with its exact location) at any time, the era of accidentally vanishing humans may soon be over.

Imagine, sixty years ago, if the hikers on Dyatlov Pass (a location in the Urals, so named for one of the nine hikers who died under mysterious circumstances there) could have simply called for help, and given the authorities their exact location, as well as an explanation of what had happened to them? I’ll admit, that was a tangent that I had in mind before watching this video, because the Dyatlov Pass incident, one of the biggest missing persons mysteries in the outdoor adventure world, has perhaps been solved! The explanation was found and published by a pair of Swiss researchers using some serious modern computing power, GM crash test data from the 1970s, and – of all things, animators and particle simulation modelers who worked on the Disney film Frozen. The whole story is worth a read over at Vice (with more details at National Geographic), because if Aaron and Brad’s predictions come true, such mystery tales may well and truly become relics of the past.

Improving technology to fuel remote learning

But what about the people back home? Aaron also discussed how the advancement of remote learning technology during the pandemic may have already done away with the “Snow Day” as we used to know it – the idea of schoolchildren unexpectedly being unable to travel to a school building and simply attending via videoconference instead is no longer just a plausible future, but a likely one – if we can do it right.

And doing it right means doing it equitably – making sure that access to both devices and broadband is universal, and that any remote-learning solution is designed to accommodate children and families which may not have IT knowledge, extra devices, decent internet connectivity at home, or extra rooms in which to set up a virtual classroom at home. Technology is a necessary but insufficient solution to this problem. And it cannot address parents struggling to direct their child’s attention while working from home, to say nothing of those caregivers who must leave the home to work essential jobs in person.

The prospect of expanding access to information technology and using it to empower the next generation’s education is exciting, but it is premature to regard the pandemic expansion in this area as a proven success. The results so far have been a mixed bag, as inequitable (along both racial and community wealth lines) as they were pre-pandemic. Education has been regarded as a human right for more than 70 years, and governments and NGOs around the world are gradually coming around to the view that broadband internet should be regarded as a human right as well.

Satellite constellations (including SpaceX’s Starlink) are gradually coming online to expand the potential footprint of those connections. As the resources expand, so too must the commitment to making sure that they find their way into every set of hands that needs them, with all appropriate guidance and support.

Test to fail

Brad and Aaron concluded with a user question about how to handle driver updates breaking things, like docks and external devices. Test, test, test is my mantra for this, but Aaron identified a potential difficulty here: For industries which use expensive, specialized equipment, for which they may only have one dedicated workstation, and for which downtime presents a serious threat to business continuity, this can be tricky.

Aaron correctly emphasized preparedness and backups: keep a known-good system image for that control workstation, which has known-good versions of whatever drivers may be required to run it. But even for this scenario, my mantra is still test, test, test. It just becomes a harder proposition, and one which requires scheduled downtime, and a collaboration between both IT and operational personnel. Someone has to be ready to reimage the control system, and someone (possibly a different someone) has to be ready to do a real-world test of that equipment to make sure it works in the way that it will routinely be used. They should be ready for the possibility of that test failing, and allow for extra time to roll back the system to a known-good state, after documenting the specific details of the error state (including any applicable screenshots, error codes, and logs) that may then be submitted to the manufacturer so they can fix the expensive thing they broke. More than likely, you won’t be the only one who has encountered this issue, but you can always choose to be the one who provides the best documentation so they can fix it fast.

That’s all for now – a belated Happy New Year, and onward into 2021!