Tag Archives: Windows

Microsoft’s female workforce shrank 2 percent last year

The company’s diversity efforts suffer a setback due to cuts at overseas factories where a high percentage of women held jobs.

Despite Microsoft’s efforts to increase employee diversity, women make up a smaller percentage of the company’s workforce than they did a year ago.

Women made up 26.8 percent of the company’s global workforce at the end of September, a drop from 29 percent a year earlier, Microsoft said in a diversity report released Monday.

The decline was due to layoffs from the restructuring of the phone businesses Microsoft acquired from Nokia last year, Gwen Houston, Microsoft’s general manager of global diversity and inclusion, wrote in the report. As part of the restructuring, the company eliminated many manufacturing jobs at factories outside the US. Those jobs were held by a high percentage of women, she said.

“We are not satisfied with where we are today regarding the percentage of women in our workforce,” she wrote. “Our senior leaders continue to be deeply committed to doing everything possible to improve these numbers.”

Like most large tech companies, Redmond, Washington-based Microsoft continues to grapple with how to increase diversity in its workforce. From Facebook to Google to Twitter, some of the largest technology companies in the world have confronted the problem by starting programs aimed at increasing the number of women and minorities in the workplace.

On average, 30 percent of the tech industry workforce is female, even though women make up 59 percent of the total workforce and 51 percent of the population, according to US Census Bureau data. Microsoft is among a handful of major tech companies participating in initiatives unveiled in August by President Barack Obama to close that gap.

In a new company mission statement released in June, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella noted the company’s ongoing diversity initiatives, a topic that made headlines last year when the CEOimplied female employees shouldn’t ask for raises but should instead trust karma.

“We will be open to learning our own biases and changing our behaviors so we can tap into the collective power of everyone at Microsoft,” Nadella wrote in the new mission statement. “We don’t just value differences, we seek them out, we invite them in. And as a result, our ideas are better, our products are better and our customers are better served.”

Despite the decline in the percentage of women employed at Microsoft, there are signs the company’s diversity efforts are paying off. Microsoft said that women now make up 27.2 percent of senior leadership team, the highest it’s ever been. The company also said that 30.6 percent of hires from universities are women, up from 27.7 percent the previous year.

“While certain leading indicators are trending up and we are starting to see signs of progress, systemic challenges remain when it comes to increasing the presence of women and minorities at all levels of the workforce,” Houston wrote.

Minorities also saw modest increases in the company’s makeup. Of the 115,905 people employed by Microsoft worldwide, blacks made up 3.5 percent of the workforce compared with 3.4 percent a year ago. Latino employees increased to 5.4 percent from 5.1 percent a year earlier, while Asians made up 29.3 percent of the company, up from 28.8 percent.

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Microsoft to open first UK data centres for cloud computing business

Satya Nadella announces expansion amid competition from Amazon and growing scrutiny of personal data storage

Microsoft has announced a major investment in UK data centres that will allow the software giant to offer its cloud computing service from Britain for the first time.

The company plans to build two centres in the UK next year, its chief executive Satya Nadella announced at the Future Decoded conference hosted by Microsoft on Tuesday.

The investment, worth hundreds of millions of pounds, will allow the businesses and government bodies that use Microsoft’s online computing services, Azure and Office 365, to ensure data about customers and citizens is kept in the UK. Previously, businesses would have applications powered by data centres in Ireland or the Netherlands.

Microsoft’s move comes amid growing international scrutiny of data practices and the European Court of Justice’s recent decision to invalidate “Safe Harbour”, a transatlantic treaty that had allowed the unfettered transfer of personal data from the EU to the US.

Microsoft, Amazon and Google are directly competing around the world to sell on-demand cloud services, which allow businesses to outsource functions such as data storage and IT software without upfront hardware costs. The market is estimated to be worth £3.4bn in the UK alone and growing rapidly.

Microsoft Dublin data centre - microsoft cloud computing, cloud based hub, computing, it, storing data, information technology, virtualisation, hybrid cloud infrastructureMicrosoft’s cloud data centre in Dublin

Amazon announced last week that it planned to build data centres for its cloud computing business in the UK. Liam Maxwell, the Government’s chief technology officer, said the two companies were investing $3bn (£2bn) between them. Microsoft has invested more than $2bn in cloud infrastructure across Europe.

Mr Maxwell said the Government spends more than £1bn on data centre hosting because data protection rules force it to keep some personal data in the country, and that Microsoft and Amazon building UK data centres would help it save “a lot of money” by outsourcing operations.

Scott Guthrie, the head of Microsoft’s cloud and enterprise division, said the decision to open data centres in the UK was not a response to the Safe Harbour treaty being scrapped, but that “data residency” is an increasingly important issue.

He said one data centre was likely to be built near London, with another on the other side of the country, and that Microsoft now has data centres in twice as many territories as Amazon and Google combined.

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Windows 10 Build 10586: ‘gold disk’ release for the big Fall Update?

With less than a week to go until the speculated November 10 release day for Windows 10 (codename) Threshold 2, Microsoft has released build 10586 to participants in the Windows Insider Program. I updated my Dell Venue 8 Pro and noticed that there isn’t a build number displayed in the lower right corner of the desktop as there was for previous preview builds. It looks like build 10586 may be released as what will be officially called the Windows 10 Fall Update. This will be the first major update since Windows 10 launched on July 29.

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If you haven’t been following Microsoft’sWindows Experience Blog, here’s a summary of what it has announced as notable changes or new features since build 10547 on September 18:

Build 10547

  • Maximum Start menu columns up from 3 to 4;
  • Maximum Start menu tiles increased from 512 to 2048;
  • In Task View, apps can be snapped to left and right, can replace a previously snapped app with another, and you can swipe down to close an app;
  • Many Windows Store apps updated, including Photos, Xbox, Groove Music, Mail, Calendar, and Maps;
  • Text Input Panel improvements, including not having it automatically open when in Desktop mode (versus Tablet mode).

Build 10565

  • Skype messaging, calling, and video capabilities added through the Messaging, Phone, and Skype Video universal Windows apps;
  • The Edge browser gained a tab preview mode that displays a preview of the web page when hovering over the tab;
  • The Edge browser could synchronize Favorites and Reading Lists;
  • Cortana could interpret inked notes and then set reminders based on locations, times, and numbers from digital annotations;
  • Title bars could be set to more vibrant colors;
  • Device Activation began accepting activation keys from Windows 7, 8, or 8.1.

Build 10576

  • Microsoft Edge browser can cast video, picture, and audio content to any Miracast- or DLNA-enabled device on your network;
  • Cortana gained the ability to search for information from text selected in a PDF document;
  • The Xbox beta app could find and add Facebook friends on Xbox Live to play games, chat, and share clips;
  • The Xbox beta app also gained the ability record voiceovers using the Game DVR.

Build 10586

This latest build release does not add any new features. However, it provides fixes to a number of annoying issues:

  • Surface Pro 3 owners can use the Power button to sleep the PC instead of shutting it down;
  • The random flashing of a disksnapshot.exe command prompt was fixed. I saw this for the last time during the upgrade to build 10586!
  • Small form-factor devices, like the Dell Venue 8 Pro, that boot with rotation or virtual mode screen size set larger than the physical screen size should no longer experience a blue screen on upgrade. I’m one of the Windows Insiders who uses a Dell Venue 8 Pro as my text PC, so this one is much appreciated;
  • Apps and games should download from the Store more reliably. This remains to be seen. I did not see any Windows Store App updates available immediately after upgrading.

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The only oddity I’ve noticed in the short time I’ve have to test build 10586 is that after switching from Tablet mode to Desktop mode and then back again, all the Start Menu tiles that had a blue background changed to a light gray background. However, that doesn’t seem like a showstopper bug, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see this build released shortly as the Fall Update.

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Can HP’s split help it beat the PC slump?

As HP prepares to split into two companies, the company’s president of Personal Systems tells Sophie Curtis it plans to be at the forefront of creating new product categories

On the first day of next month, Hewlett-Packard (HP), the American technology giant that was famously founded in a garage in Palo Alto in 1939, is splitting in two. The company’s data centre infrastructure business – comprising servers, storage and networking – will become HP Enterprise, and its PC and printer business will become HP Inc.

It is arguably the biggest upheaval in the company’s history. While HP has bought and spun off many subsidiaries in its 76 years – from 2001’s $24bn acquisition of Compaq to the $12bn purchase of Autonomy in 2011 that turned into a major corporate scandal – it has never overhauled its core structure in quite such a dramatic fashion.

The two companies will be of practically equal size: HP estimates that HP Enterprise will have revenue strength of $58bn and operating profits of $6bn, while HP Inc will have revenues of $57bn and operating profit of $5bn.

The man responsible for the lion’s share of the latter is Ron Coughlin. Under the new structure he will be president of HP Inc’s Personal Systems business, putting him in charge of PCs, tablets, accessories and their related services – a unit that currently brings in $35bn of revenues. Coughlin will report to Dion Wesler, HP Inc’s new chief executive, with HP’s current chief, Meg WhHewlett-Packarditman, taking over the other side of the company when the two split.

“What makes us most excited about the new HP Inc is the ability to have the creativity and speed of an entrepreneur and the scale of a Fortune 100 company,” said Mr Coughlin. “This means that when we have a great idea, we’re going to move fast, and we’re going to create new categories, but at the same time, when we get that idea, we can put it in every country, every city, every province in the world.”

Some argue that the split is long overdue. Former chief executive Leo Apotheker proposed spinning off the company’s PC business in 2011, but the plan was dropped following pressure from shareholders, which ultimately led to Apotheker’s departure.

Meg Whitman, who took over as HP's chief executive in September 2011, has warned investors about the scale of HP's challenges.

Ms Whitman led a reorganisation of the company in 2012 that saw the PC business combined with the Imaging and Printing Group, helping to pave the way for the current separation plan.

HP is now taking a big leaf out of the book of IBM, another major IT supplier, which realised years ago that it was never going to be a one-stop shop for corporates, and started to sell off “non-core” businesses such as printers, PCs and servers. Rather than gradually divesting businesses though, it is splitting, which offers several advantages. Existing shareholders will get shares in both companies, and the two have agreed not to compete with each other for three years after the split. They will partner to buy supplies, jointly sell products to customers, and share patents and other intellectual property.

Mr Coughlin said part of the reason that the previous attempt to spin off the PC business was unsuccessful was because of “brand dis-synergies”. In other words, HP had decided that the PC business would suffer if it was not able to use its famous brand to sell its products.

This time, both companies will get to keep HP in their name, which Mr Coughlin said “took a lot of the dis-synergy out, and really unlocked the value”.

HP Spectre x2

HP Inc will focus on three key areas – “core”, which is about using HP’s clout and scale to offer high-end features at the lowest possible cost, “growth”, which is about focusing on fast-growing categories like all-in-one PCs and convertibles, and “future” – creating new product categories.

At its consumer event in Barcelona this week, the company unveiled a slew of new devices with this new strategy in mind, including the Spectre x2, a elegant lightweight tablet with a detachable metal keyboard, an all-in-one PC with a huge 34-inch curved display, and a range of colourful HP Stream cloud-based Windows laptops.

The company is also looking to the future with its recently launched Sprout computing platform, which combines an all-in-one desktop computer with two touch displays along with a scanner, depth sensor, high-resolution camera and projector, to create a 3D computing experience – or in HP’s parlance, “Blended Reality”.

“We have been on a drumbeat of innovation. It started in October 2014, when we launched our Blended Reality,” says Mr Coughlin. “It was a vision last October, it’s becoming a reality now. Today if you go on HP.com, we sell Sprout. We also sell Sprout bundled with a 3D printer – 40pc of Sprout sales come bundled with a 3D printer.”

HP Sprout

However, splitting the company into two comes at a price. HP stands to lose $400m to $450m during the split. The company hopes its cost-cutting efforts will help offset that number. Last month, HP said it expects to cut about 33,300 jobs over the next three years, on top of the 55,000 layoffs previously announced. The latest cuts represent a 10pc reduction in the company’s total workforce.

Revenue from the PC and printer business – what will become HP Inc after the split – fell 11.5pc in its fiscal third quarter, which ended on July 31. HP has said it expects the market for PCs and printers to remain tough for “several quarters”: the growing popularity of smartphones and tablets, as well as sluggish business investment, has meant both corporate customers and consumers holding back on buying computers.

Despite this, Mr Coughlin is optimistic about the future of the PC market, and confident of HP’s place within it. The addressable market for personal systems – hardware ranging from PCs to printers to mobile devices – is worth $340bn, he said, with half of that market growing at nine per cent.

“We have a scale market with significant growth pockets, and we’ve proven we can gain share in the PC category,” he said. “I’m also optimistic because we have momentum. We are blessed with being able to go public with one of the world’s strongest brands. Our marketing engine has never revved stronger.”

On the whole, analysts tend to agree that HP Inc has an opportunity to take a lead in the development of innovative hardware, in partnership with Microsoft, which under its chief executive, Satya Nadella, is undergoing something of a revolution focused on its new Windows 10 software. However, many believe that it has to look beyond its traditional markets, having seen the smartphone revolution pass it by almost completely.

The growing “internet of things” industry – connecting everyday devices to mobile or Wi-Fi connections to improve efficiency – could be one of these, especially given HP’s reputation among enterprises.

Coughlin says that operating as a separate company will allow HP Inc to invest more money in new categories as well as creating its own, rather than simply pouring all of its research and development budget into improving its existing technology. This is not only an intent but has been built into the new company’s framework, he says, highlighting how Mr Wesler was announced as HP Inc’s new chief executive when the company unveiled its next-generation Sprout technology a year ago.

“It’s not by chance,” Coughlin says. “It highlights the fact that innovation is going to be a centrepiece of the company under his leadership.”

Forrester analyst Peter Burris said that HP Inc will need to “place some big bets” and “run like the wind” if it hopes to play a role in shaping the consumer device and services industry. However, Mr Coughlin said that HP Inc will only play in markets where it can add value, both in terms of experience and from a shareholder perspective.

“Our focus is commercial mobility. In January we launched eight new devices in four vertical focus areas – retail, field service, education and healthcare. A great example is our healthcare tablet that is antimicrobial, it has a camera to scan the patient’s tag, so the whole idea is mobilising work flows, and that’s our focus. We can add value there, we believe there’s a need, we don’t believe our competitors serve that market well and we believe that there’s profit pools there,” he said.

“We don’t chase share for share’s sake. We don’t believe that we can do well in the $79 tablet market. I don’t think that anybody is going to do well there. In commercial, the good news is that the whole category has profit, and is such that you can offer great experience and great return for shareholders.”

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Best of luck Microsoft, but the Surface Book isn’t going to save the PC

Microsoft has unveiled the pinnacle of laptop design as the format faces a terminal, and possibly unstoppable, decline

Three things happened in the space of two days last week that explain perfectly the state of the market for personal computers.

On Wednesday morning, at a glamorous Apple-style event in New York,Microsoft unveiled its first laptop, a breathtaking combination of design and function called the Surface Book that the company, without a hint of humility, dubbed “the fastest laptop on any planet”.

Then just a few hours later, it emerged that Dell, a computer hardware giant with its better days behind it, was in talks with data storage company EMC over a $60bn deal that would be the biggest technology takeover in history.

And finally on Thursday, IDC, a research company that tracks worldwide sales of tech products, said that sales of PCs in the third quarter of the year had fallen 10.8pc against the same quarter a year ago, a much worse decline than expected.

To understand these events, it is best to look at them in reverse-chronological order. First, the IDC figures. Sales of PCs – laptops and desktop computers combined – have been on a downward trend since 2012 after a decade of unbroken growth, and now sit at roughly 2007 levels.

Reasons for this include stretched corporate IT budgets, diminishing returns from upgrades and Microsoft’s lacklustre software releases, but the main factor has been the rise of mobile. Touchscreen smartphones and tablets have redefined personal technology, combining the internet with portability and ease-of-use to become the dominant platform.

This brings us to Dell. Once the world’s biggest PC manufacturer, whose low-cost manufacturing and fashionable designs allowed it to disrupt lumbering giants such as Compaq in the 1990s, it has suffered more than most from the decline of the industry. In 2013, its founder, Michael Dell,took it into private ownership, saying a radical strategy to turn it from a hardware company into an enterprise-focused services group would be easier out of the public glare.

Buying EMC, a move that reports suggest could be announced this week, is the clearest manifestation of this. “Selling PCs isn’t working for us, we need to try something else,” the company is saying.

Similar things are happening at HP, which is splitting into two next month to free its growing data and infrastructure unit from its declining hardware operation, and Lenovo, which bought Motorola’s mobile business from Google last year. In other words, the world’s PC manufacturers are getting ready for the demise of the PC.

This brings us on to Microsoft, and the company’s first PC. The company never really had to make hardware. Its ludicrously-profitable software made it the biggest company in the world at one point, and its founder, Bill Gates, is still the world’s richest man. It could rely on Dell et al to compete away their margins and promote the hell out of computers running Windows.

The Surface Book isn’t Microsoft’s first physical product – its Surface tabletis now in its fourth generation, and it makes a wearable fitness device called the Microsoft Band – but it is the first in the category that made the company such a success.

Why is it making such a bet on hardware, just as the rest of the industry is pulling back? Well, that’s exactly why – when the PC was on the rise, Microsoft never needed to be its champion: Dell, HP and so on did it for them, with Microsoft simply taking all the profit. Now, as computer sales fall into decline and PC manufacturers ask whether they really want to be PC manufacturers, Microsoft has to carry the flag itself.

It can’t afford to watch the PC fade into obscurity: Microsoft has missed out on mobile almost completely, despite a few costly but ultimately futile attempts to break Apple and Google’s hegemony. Satya Nadella, its chief executive, has made admirable attempts to make Microsoft more relevant, putting its software into rivals’ smartphones and tablets, but the company does, and probably always will, rely on PC software for the bulk of its profits.

In making the Surface Book, which by all accounts is the pinnacle of laptop engineering, Microsoft is screaming: “Hey, PCs are still exciting, look at this one!” It is also sending a message to other computer manufacturers that they need to up their game if they want to keep a slice of what is left of the market.

Can it save the PC? Probably not. Consumers are unlikely to give up using their ever-more capable smartphones just because a slightly-better PC comes along. One could argue that laptop and desktop computers will always have to exist to get “real work done”, but it is becoming increasingly apparent that this is not really the case.

Slack, an office collaboration tool that works just as well on mobile as on computers, is replacing email in many workplaces. Last month, Apple unveiled the iPad Pro, a high-powered tablet with a laptop-sized screen and keyboard that many will see as a realistic alternative to buying a new computer. Google has a similar proposition with its new Pixel C.

But history has few instances of a declining technology being saved by a spectacular version of it – Sony’s decision to develop higher-capacity MiniDiscs in response to the iPod never really paid off, to give one example.

Microsoft is doing everything it can to keep the industry that has defined it alive. But it’s probably too late.

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Exclusive: Microsoft exec responds to Windows 10 privacy backlash

At long last, Microsoft is trying to set the record straight on the information that Windows 10 collects about you.

Ever since Windows 10 debuted in July, there have been nonstop reports about how Microsoft is using its new operating system to covertly collect data about its customers.

Microsoft has been accused of lacking transparency in how it logs your keystrokes, shares access to your Wi-Fi network, uses your Internet connection to help other Windows 10 customers download updates, and forbids you from turning off all information sharing.

Meanwhile, Microsoft has remained mostly tight lipped, generally denying it was doing anything nefarious while referring people to its convoluted privacy statement.

On Monday, Microsoft delivered its first comprehensive response.

In a blog post, Windows chief Terry Myerson acknowledged that Windows 10 is collecting personal information about its customers to enable some of its best features, including the Cortana virtual assistant. It also collects information about your computer’s performance to detect and correct potential bugs.

But he said Windows 10 users have the ability to control what information they share with Microsoft.

“We’re learning how to explain all this to customers,” Myerson told CNNMoney in an exclusive interview. “Our privacy principles are good … now we need to keep listening and learning.”

Microsoft: We need info to make Windows 10 run better

In an attempt to win back customers’ trust, Microsoft provided examples of the kind of information Windows 10 sends back to Microsoft’s servers. It also detailed why it uses that information.

Microsoft said it collects some of what you type so it can provide personalized autocorrect. And it shares access to your Wi-Fi network (only if you click a button) to help automatically log your friends into your network (or you into theirs).

Microsoft (MSFT, Tech30) also explained how to shut those features off — and how to avoid turning them on in the first place when you set up your computer.

Myerson confirmed to CNNMoney, however, that consumers will not be able to turn off Windows 10’s “safety and reliability” data sharing. That sends anonymous information about how your PC responds to Windows 10. Microsoft needs that information to fix problems with Windows 10, he said.

‘We’re not reading your emails’

Much of the angst over Windows 10 privacy started because the new operating system uses many more cloud services than previous versions of Windows. By holding your data on its servers, Microsoft requires more permissions than in the past.

But privacy is also inherently confusing. Windows 10’s privacy statement says Microsoft needs to have access to your emails so it can deliver them to you — but Myerson denied that anyone at Microsoft has the ability to read your emails.

“We’re not reading your email, but we have custody of your email,” he said. “How do you distill those two things?”

The company says it hears what customers are saying. One change that’s coming soon to Windows 10 is a family privacy setting built with teenagers in mind, rather than just one setting for younger children.

Privacy concerns are not stopping people from upgrading to Windows 10, mind you. Windows 10 was downloaded 75 million times in its first month, which is the fastest upgrade rate in Windows history. Myerson said customers are overwhelmingly pleased with their Windows 10 experiences.

Acknowledging that the privacy conversation is not over, Myerson wrote that he and his team “look forward to the next round of questions and feedback on these new posts.”

“Trust is a core pillar of our ‘More Personal Computing’ vision, and we know we have to earn it,” Myerson wrote. “I assure you that no other company is more committed, more transparent and listening harder to customers on this important topic than we are.”

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Microsoft makes Baidu a big piece of Windows 10 in China

Microsoft announced today that it has partnered with Chinese web giant Baidu — the country’s answer to Google — as it continues its quest to push Windows 10 in the market. The deal will make Baidu.com the default homepage and search option for users of the Microsoft Edge browser in the country, will add an easy way for Baidu’s 600 million-plus users to upgrade to Microsoft’s new operating system, and will introduce universal Baidu search, video, cloud, and map apps to Windows 10.

Chinese customers will be able to upgrade to an official version of Windows 10 through Baidu’s “Windows 10 Express” distribution channel. Microsoft says it’s already got 10 million Windows 10 users in China, but the company has many hundreds of millions more using older or pirated versions of its operating systems. The company has tried a few methods to lure these users over to its newest OS — earlier this year, Microsoft offered Chinese pirates the chance to upgrade to (an unlicensed version of) Windows 10 for free, a move the company said was designed to “re-engage” with users in the country.

The deal means that Microsoft will be forgoing Bing as its default search and homepage options in its Edge browser in China, but it’s indicative of the company’s strategy in the eastern market, in which it has deferred to home-grown leaders. The American company had previously brokered partnerships with a number of China’s biggest companies, including Tencent, Lenovo, and Xiaomi. This latest deal with Baidu continues that trend, giving it a reach in the lucrative Chinese market that Google — which largely pulled out of the country in 2010 — can’t yet match.

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Asynchronous compute, AMD, Nvidia, and DX12: What we know so far

Ever since DirectX 12 was announced, AMD and Nvidia have jockeyed for position regarding which of them would offer better support for the new API and its various features. One capability that AMD has talked up extensively is GCN’s support for asynchronous compute. Asynchronous compute allows all GPUs based on AMD’s GCN architecture to perform graphics and compute workloads simultaneously. Last week, an Oxide Games employee reported that contrary to general belief, Nvidia hardware couldn’t perform asynchronous computing and that the performance impact of attempting to do so was disastrous on the company’s hardware.

This announcement kicked off a flurry of research into what Nvidia hardware did and did not support, as well as anecdotal claims that people would (or already did) return their GTX 980 Ti’s based on Ashes of the Singularity performance. We’ve spent the last few days in conversation with various sources working on the problem, including Mahigan and CrazyElf at Overclock.net, as well as parsing through various data sets and performance reports. Nvidia has not responded to our request for clarification as of yet, but here’s the situation as we currently understand it.

Nvidia, AMD, and asynchronous compute

When AMD and Nvidia talk about supporting asynchronous compute, they aren’t talking about the same hardware capability. The Asynchronous Command Engines in AMD’s GPUs (between 2-8 depending on which card you own) are capable of executing new workloads at latencies as low as a single cycle. A high-end AMD card has eight ACEs and each ACE has eight queues. Maxwell, in contrast, has two pipelines, one of which is a high-priority graphics pipeline. The other has a a queue depth of 31 — but Nvidia can’t switch contexts anywhere near as quickly as AMD can.

NV-Preemption

According to a talk given at GDC 2015, there are restrictions on Nvidia’s preeemption capabilities. Additional text below the slide explains that “the GPU can only switch contexts at draw call boundaries” and “On future GPUs, we’re working to enable finer-grained preemption, but that’s still a long way off.” To explore the various capabilities of Maxwell and GCN, users at Beyond3D and Overclock.net have used an asynchronous compute tests that evaluated the capability on both AMD and Nvidia hardware. The benchmark has been revised multiple times over the week, so early results aren’t comparable to the data we’ve seen in later runs.

Note that this is a test of asynchronous compute latency, not performance. This doesn’t test overall throughput — in other words, just how long it takes to execute — and the test is designed to demonstrate if asynchronous compute is occurring or not. Because this is a latency test, lower numbers (closer to the yellow “1” line) mean the results are closer to ideal.

Radeon R9 290

Here’s the R9 290’s performance. The yellow line is perfection — that’s what we’d get if the GPU switched and executed instantaneously. The y-axis of the graph shows normalized performance to 1x, which is where we’d expect perfect asynchronous latency to be. The red line is what we are most interested in. It shows GCN performing nearly ideally in the majority of cases, holding performance steady even as thread counts rise. Now, compare this to Nvidia’s GTX 980 Ti.

vevF50L

Attempting to execute graphics and compute concurrently on the GTX 980 Ti causes dips and spikes in performance and little in the way of gains. Right now, there are only a few thread counts where Nvidia matches ideal performance (latency, in this case) and many cases where it doesn’t. Further investigation has indicated that Nvidia’s asynch pipeline appears to lean on the CPU for some of its initial steps, whereas AMD’s GCN handles the job in hardware.

Right now, the best available evidence suggests that when AMD and Nvidia talk about asynchronous compute, they are talking about two very different capabilities. “Asynchronous compute,” in fact, isn’t necessarily the best name for what’s happening here. The question is whether or not Nvidia GPUs can run graphics and compute workloads concurrently. AMD can, courtesy of its ACE units.

It’s been suggested that AMD’s approach is more like Hyper-Threading, which allows the GPU to work on disparate compute and graphics workloads simultaneously without a loss of performance, whereas Nvidia may be leaning on the CPU for some of its initial setup steps and attempting to schedule simultaneous compute + graphics workload for ideal execution. Obviously that process isn’t working well yet. Since our initial article, Oxide has since stated the following:

“We actually just chatted with Nvidia about Async Compute, indeed the driver hasn’t fully implemented it yet, but it appeared like it was. We are working closely with them as they fully implement Async Compute.”

Here’s what that likely means, given Nvidia’s own presentations at GDC and the various test benchmarks that have been assembled over the past week. Maxwell does not have a GCN-style configuration of asynchronous compute engines and it cannot switch between graphics and compute workloads as quickly as GCN. According to Beyond3D user Ext3h:

“There were claims originally, that Nvidia GPUs wouldn’t even be able to execute async compute shaders in an async fashion at all, this myth was quickly debunked. What become clear, however, is that Nvidia GPUs preferred a much lighter load than AMD cards. At small loads, Nvidia GPUs would run circles around AMD cards. At high load, well, quite the opposite, up to the point where Nvidia GPUs took such a long time to process the workload that they triggered safeguards in Windows. Which caused Windows to pull the trigger and kill the driver, assuming that it got stuck.

“Final result (for now): AMD GPUs are capable of handling a much higher load. About 10x times what Nvidia GPUs can handle. But they also need also about 4x the pressure applied before they get to play out there capabilities.”

Ext3h goes on to say that preemption in Nvidia’s case is only used when switching between graphics contexts (1x graphics + 31 compute mode) and “pure compute context,” but claims that this functionality is “utterly broken” on Nvidia cards at present. He also states that while Maxwell 2 (GTX 900 family) is capable of parallel execution, “The hardware doesn’t profit from it much though, since it has only little ‘gaps’ in the shader utilization either way. So in the end, it’s still just sequential execution for most workload, even though if you did manage to stall the pipeline in some way by constructing an unfortunate workload, you could still profit from it.”

Nvidia, meanwhile, has represented to Oxide that it can implement asynchronous compute, however, and that this capability was not fully enabled in drivers. Like Oxide, we’re going to wait and see how the situation develops. The analysis thread at Beyond3D makes it very clear that this is an incredibly complex question, and much of what Nvidia and Maxwell may or may not be doing is unclear.

Earlier, we mentioned that AMD’s approach to asynchronous computing superficially resembled Hyper-Threading. There’s another way in which that analogy may prove accurate: When Hyper-Threading debuted, many AMD fans asked why Team Red hadn’t copied the feature to boost performance on K7 and K8. AMD’s response at the time was that the K7 and K8 processors had much shorter pipelines and very different architectures, and were intrinsically less likely to benefit from Hyper-Threading as a result. The P4, in contrast, had a long pipeline and a relatively high stall rate. If one thread stalled, HT allowed another thread to continue executing, which boosted the chip’s overall performance.

GCN-style asynchronous computing is unlikely to boost Maxwell performance, in other words, because Maxwell isn’t really designed for these kinds of workloads. Whether Nvidia can work around that limitation (or implement something even faster) remains to be seen.

What does this mean for gamers and DX12?

There’s been a significant amount of confusion over what this difference in asynchronous compute means for gamers and DirectX 12 support. Despite what some sites have implied, DirectX 12 does not require any specific implementation of asynchronous compute. That aside, it currently seems that AMD’s ACE’s could give the company a leg up in future DX12 performance. Whether Nvidia can perform a different type of optimization and gain similar benefits for itself is still unknown. Regarding the usefulness of asynchronous computing (AMD’s definition) itself, Kollock notes:

“First, though we are the first D3D12 title, I wouldn’t hold us up as the prime example of this feature. There are probably better demonstrations of it. This is a pretty complex topic and to fully understand it will require significant understanding of the particular GPU in question that only an IHV can provide. I certainly wouldn’t hold Ashes up as the premier example of this feature.”

Given that AMD hardware powers both the Xbox and PS4 (and possibly the upcoming Nintendo NX), it’s absolutely reasonable to think that AMD’s version of asynchronous compute could be important to the future of the DX12 standard. Talk of returning already-purchased NV cards in favor of AMD hardware, however, is rather extreme. Game developers optimize for both architectures and we expect that most will take the route that Oxide did with Ashes — if they can’t get acceptable performance from using asynchronous compute on Nvidia hardware, they simply won’t use it. Game developers are not going to throw Nvidia gamers under a bus and simply stop supporting Maxwell or Kepler GPUs.

Right now, the smart thing to do is wait and see how this plays out. I stand by Ashes of the Singularity as a solid early look at DX12 performance, but it’s one game, on early drivers, in a just-released OS. Its developers readily acknowledge that it should not be treated as the be-all, end-all of DX12 performance, and I agree with them. If you’re this concerned about how DX12 will evolve, wait another 6-12 months for more games, as well as AMD and Nvidia’s next-generation cards on 14/16nm before making a major purchase.

If AMD cards have an advantage in both hardware and upcoming title collaboration, as a recent post from AMD’s Robert Hallock stated, then we’ll find that out in the not-too-distant future. If Nvidia is able to introduce a type of asynchronous computing for its own hardware and largely match AMD’s advantage, we’ll see evidence of that, too. Either way, leaping to conclusions about which company will “win” the DX12 era is extremely premature. Those looking for additional details on the differences between asynchronous compute between AMD and Nvidia may find this post from Mahigan useful as well.  If you’re fundamentally confused about what we’re talking about, this B3D post sums up the problem with a very useful analogy.

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Microsoft Spiffs Up Skype Mobile Apps

Skype faces stiff competition across the board. Facebook terminated its Skype partnership this spring, when it added free video calling to its Messenger app. Other competitors for instant messaging include WhatsApp, QQ Mobile, WeChat and Viber. WhatsApp was the most popular global messenger app in August, with 800 million monthly active users, according to Statista. Messenger came in second.

Microsoft last week rolled out versions of Skype 6.0 for iOS and Android. The company redesigned the applications to be more natural and intuitive, and it added new features.

Skype 6.0 for Android now has a floating action button, which makes it easy to start a new conversation. Its navigation is more streamlined, too. It’s compatible with Android 4.0.3 or later.

Skype for Android

The new version for iOS incorporates swipe gestures and makes it easier to share photos, Web links, emoticons and users’ locations while on a voice or video call, as well as to start a group chat or a group voice call on the iPad. It runs on iOS 7 or later.

Skype for iOS

Both Skype for Android and Skype for iOS have enhanced search to simplify finding messages and contacts.

Going With Nadella’s Mobile Vision

Microsoft apparently focused on uniformity when redesigning the app for iOS and Android.

“Typically, Microsoft designs the UI to match the OS, but in looking at the two versions, both are very similar to the one I have on my Windows phone, suggesting Microsoft focused at least as much on keeping them largely consistent across mobile devices,” remarked Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group.

“You should be able to move to any version of Skype on any device and pick it up pretty quickly as a result,” he told TechNewsWorld.

That’s in keeping with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s vision of competing in a mobile-connected world.

Microsoft didn’t have to do too much to customize Skype for Android and iOS as the two operating systems are “actually pretty close to each other in apps across the board,” Enderle said. The differences “have to do with interfacing with both platforms’ stores, but Skype doesn’t need to do that.”

Skype’s Position in the Market

Skype faces stiff competition across the board. Facebook reportedly terminated its partnership with Skype this spring, when the social network added free video calling to its Messenger app.

Other competitors for instant messaging include WhatsApp, QQ Mobile, WeChat and Viber.

WhatsApp was the most popular global messenger app in August, with 800 million monthly active users, according to Statista. Facebook Messenger was next with 700 million. QQ Mobile came in third with 603 million, and WeChat was close on its heels with 600 million. Skype ranked fifth with 300 million, and Viber was sixth with 249 million.

WhatsApp offers free voice calling on iOS, Android and Windows Phone; QQ Mobile offers video calling; WeChat offers audio and video calling; and Viber offers video calling on Android over smartphones with an ARMv7 processor.

While Skype users can call each other for free, they have to pay to connect with nonusers on mobile phones and landlines.

However, free voice and video calling apps may have hidden charges. Unless the users are on WiFi networks, they guzzle data.

WhatsApp sucks down 800 KB a minute for calls made on 4G/LTE networks, AndroidPit found. Its verdict: Go with WiFi.

Who Will Use Skype?

Skype is not likely to make much headway in the market because “it depends on the demographics,” said Susan Schreiner, an analyst at C4 Trends.

Skype is “still a major brand internationally, but kids and millennials are all looking for free,” she told TechNewsWorld. “It’s more likely that Skype will be used for business.”

Skype’s “pretty easy to use, and cuts across platforms, including PCs — but at the moment, few people use it heavily,” Enderle said.

Expect Microsoft to continue working on Skype, though, he suggested. “It’s one of their key cross-platform products which can be used to pull people into the Microsoft family of products, and it’s their key communications offering.”

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How the Windows Phone Could Rise Up and Dominate

Last week marked the 20th anniversary of the launch of Windows 95. What people often forget about Windows 95 is that it not only kicked Apple’s butt, but also kicked IBM’s — and it wasn’t even a complete product. The thing was an operating system. Most of us can see lining up to buy a complete product, but lining up to buy the software that makes a product complete would be kind of like lining up to get the latest software patch for your car or TV.

It’s especially hard to imagine now that these things typically are downloaded from the Web, and there’s no need to stand in line. However, if a company can do something once, that suggests it could do it again. Apple clearly spanked the entire cellphone market when it released the iPhone, through a process very similar to the one Microsoft used for Windows 95. I’m not saying Microsoft will do this — I’m just pointing out that it could (and looking back on Windows 95, just a little bit).

I’ll close with my product of the week: from Logitech, a nice small office/home office conferencing product that won’t break the bank.

The Windows 95 Lesson

What is funny and just a tad ironic about the success of Windows 95 is how quickly everyone, including Microsoft, seemed to see it as kind of an accident. Apple with the iPad, iPhone, and iPod actually used some of the same skills, but Microsoft never again — well, with the possible exception of the first Xbox — showcased the kind of marketing brilliance that the Windows 95 launch demonstrated. What is kind of funny is, when you look at the Apple Watch, it looks as though Apple may have forgotten this now too.

What Microsoft did right was to keep it very focused on the user/consumer, make it comparatively simple, and get folks talking about it as revolutionary months before the launch. Apple’s closest emulation of this was actually the iPhone, which it showcased months before its release. It didn’t actually work when it was shown, but promised to do a few things other phones didn’t do well — music and entertainment — and set the market on fire.

After Windows 95’s release, Microsoft brought out Windows NT and then gave the NT team control over everything. Given that Windows NT was the clean room copy of OS/2, the product that Windows 95 obliterated, it was kind of like the guys with the fastest car in the race copied the slowest and then wondered why they weren’t winning races anymore.

That’s pretty much what we are seeing now with the Apple Watch. The surprise isn’t that it’s not selling well — it’s that it is selling as well as it is. It showcases that there are a lot of people conditioned, like Pavlov’s dogs, to buy Apple stuff.

One Plus

There’s an amazing little company in China that’s doing with phones what Visio does with TVs and Hyundai does with cars. It bundles in a mix of top components that folks care about and releases the phone at an aggressive price — and then make it hard to get, so it comes off as exclusive.

There are millions of people standing in a virtual line to buy its latest phone. Microsoft would kill to have nearly 4 million people lined up to buy its next Windows phone. One Plus shows it’s possible, even in an Apple-dominated world.

Opportunity Knocks

One of the biggest reasons the opportunity to pull a ton of share from Apple is so high is that it now seems to have forgotten its winning model — the one Microsoft forgot after Windows 95. The Apple Watch doesn’t have the “iWatch” name, and it doesn’t do a few things really well. Instead, it does a lot of things — many of them really poorly.

Apple seems to be emulating a PC-company-like strategy, throwing tons of features at the market in the hope that customers like some of them. While the Apple brand makes it the most successful smartwatch in the market, it certainly isn’t a revolutionary product like the iPod, iPhone and iPad were.

Another problem for Apple is that most countries either have killed subsidies or are in the process of killing them. Subsidies worked particularly well for Apple, because they concealed how crazy that phone’s price has become. Without them, the phone goes from a few hundred dollars to nearly a thousand bucks. That is a huge perceived price jump and one of the reasons the far cheaper One Plus Two is suddenly so attractive.

So, Apple is unusually vulnerable at the moment, and Samsung is having trouble holding Android momentum — both are showcased by One Plus’ success. Finally, smartphone technology is looking a tad unexciting at the moment. I mean — at some point, all of the phones kind of look like each other.

Windows 10 Phone

There are five things that I think could make a good chunk of the folks currently buying Android and iOS products think about moving to a Windows phone.

First is to come up with a forward-looking phone design: sturdier and more flexible; more carbon fiber than aluminum or steel; maybe a transflective display for outdoor use; far better battery life in a next-generation battery with higher capacity and faster charge time.

Second, wrap it with a set of features and services that will allow it to replace office and home hard wired phones completely. Flip it into a virtual PBX or key system, so both consumers and companies could see fast cost savings.

Third, take Cortana to the next level — either by using real people, like Facebook is, or using something like Watson, which we expect Apple to do.

Finally, create an application bridge through emulation, virtualization, or common APIs either on the device (we actually are starting to reach a point where there is performance headroom on phones like we have on PCs) or in a cloud service, so that folks can keep their favorite apps.

The funny thing about this is that Apple started out with a plan to put its apps into the cloud, but connectivity just wasn’t where it needed to be. Things have improved a lot over the last decade, and it’s time to revisit that approach.

Wrapping Up

One other way Microsoft could take the market is by evolving HoloLens far more quickly and making the smartphone obsolete. If you can put a display anyplace, and create a technology you wear like glasses — without looking like a glasshole, clearly an issue with Google’s Glass — you could flip the market, much like Apple did with the iPod, iPhone and iPad. Just make smartphones obsolete.

In the end, Windows 95 reminds us that Microsoft is capable of magic — it’s just been a really long time since it’s demonstrated that capability. Maybe we are coming up on its time. On the other hand, nothing says Apple and Google can’t do the same thing, and whoever connects the next set of dots will own the market. That’s something to think about as we approach the next iPhone launch.

Rob Enderle's Product of the Week

At under US$500, the Logitech ConferenceCam Connect is actually a pretty amazing little product. It starts out costing about half what you’d pay for the least expensive room conferencing system I’ve yet tested.

It can fit in a backpack and some larger purses; it has full zoom and scan capability; it is almost fully self-contained (the power supply is separate). Further, it is wicked-easy to set up and use. As you would expect, it has twin noise-cancelling microphones and a decent clear speaker. The camera is Zeiss HD-level 1080p.

I’ve tested it with a CNBC Asia crew, and they loved it. It has a built-in three-hour battery and will connect to your laptop with Bluetooth, so you could do a conference call from the airport or your hotel room really easily.

Logitech ConferenceCam Connect

Logitech ConferenceCam Connect

It supports screen mirroring, and you can connect it to a TV with the included HDMI cable for a full-room video conferencing experience. (I’m using mine through my Dell 34-inch curved desktop monitor.)

Moving from Silicon Valley to Bend, Oregon, has made doing TV news far harder, but with the Logitech ConferenceCam and Skype, I appear to be back in the game. Plus, it is saving me from having to drive two-and-a-half hours to the closest studio I know of, in Eugene. Because the Logitech ConferenceCam saved my butt, it is my product of the week.

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