July 9, 2013

The Black Underbelly of Windows 8.1 Blue

As Windows 8.1 Milestone Preview testers push and prod their way into the dark corners of Windows 8.1 "Blue," they're finding a bunch of things that go bump in the night. From new and likely unwelcome features, to nudges into the Microsoft data tracking sphere, to entire lopped-off pieces of Windows 8, it looks like Microsoft is changing Windows to further its own agenda.

I'm not talking about the well-documented gotchas with the Win 8.1 Preview -- Microsoft makes no bones about the fact you won't be able to upgrade directly from the Preview to the final, shipping version of Windows 8.1, for example, and it warns repeatedly that you can't uninstall the Milestone Preview. I'm also not talking about typical beta blues -- clicking on a Metro app button and getting dumped back on the Metro Start screen kind of comes with the beta-testing ride. Nor am I talking about the updates to the Preview that have already shipped: I count 10 installed on my 64-bit test machine through Windows Update (not bad for a beta that's only been out for a couple of weeks).

The changes I'm seeing are more ... inscrutable. Some people think they're sinister. Few of them have even a wisp of documentation. We potential Windows 8.1 customers are left trying to figure out what Microsoft intends to do and how the changes will affect the way we work.

Microsoft Accounts bare its fangs
With Windows 8, you're encouraged to set up every new Windows user with a Microsoft Account-- which is to say, it's easy to set up a new user by employing an email address that's been registered with Microsoft. It's possible to create a new Win8 user without providing a Microsoft Account, but you need to click a few rather obscure links in the setup routine to get around the restriction.

On the other hand, it's very difficult to install Windows 8.1 "Blue" Preview without using a Microsoft Account. While there are some clever workarounds to bypass the forced Microsoft Account login, you have to be quite persistent to get the Preview installed without linking your installation -- your computer's unique ID -- to your Microsoft Account.

Microsoft says that the Microsoft Account requirement will be lifted for the final release:

In order to use Windows 8.1 Preview you must sign in to your PC with a Microsoft account. The option to create a local account will be made available at the final release of Windows 8.1.

But there are no details about how the requirement will be lifted or whether the same hoops that worked with Windows 8 will work with the final version of Windows 8.1

Microsoft can track your local searches
If you use Microsoft Bing or Google search -- or almost any other search engine -- you already know that Microsoft and/or Google can and do keep track of your searches. That's why a casual Web search for "flugelhorn" will result in you seeing targeted ads for flugelhorns on almost every site you visit for the following month.

But running a search on your computer for "flugelhorn" through the Windows 8 Search charm doesn't increase your chances of seeing online ads for flugelhorns -- I think. Although I can't find a suitable legalistic disclaimer anywhere, Microsoft doesn't appear to be scraping, storing, and regurgitating local computer search strings to, uh, enhance your shopping experience.

That's changing by default in Windows 8.1. The new Win8.1 Smart Search -- invoked by default through the Windows 8.1 Search charm -- not only searches your computer for the string you specify. It also, all by itself, gathers up the terms and runs them through a Bing search. Making this cool new feature all the more lovable, Microsoft has officially announced that advertisers will be able to dish up advertising to your computer, based on the searches you perform on your computer.
Bing Ads will be an integral part of the new Windows 8.1 Smart Search experience. Now, with a single campaign setup, advertisers can connect with consumers across Bing, Yahoo, and the new Windows Search with highly relevant ads for their search queries. In addition, Bing Ads will include Web previews of websites and the latest features like site links, location, and call extensions, making it easier for consumers to complete tasks and for advertisers to drive qualified leads.

Unless you make Smart Search dumb, you not only hand Microsoft a complete history of all of your local computer search terms, you open your machine up to even more lovely ads, doled out on the Search results pane. If you search for "flugelhorn" on your local computer -- not on the Web, mind you, but on your own computer -- the results that Windows 8.1 shows you will include advertisements for flugelhorns on eBay and Amazon (no, I'm not joking -- try it), local flugelhorn manufacturers, flugelhorn party consultants, and no doubt some day flugelhorn addiction services.

You can turn Smart Search off by bringing up the Settings charm, clicking or tapping Change PC Settings, then choosing Search and Apps, and moving the Use Bing to Search Online slider off.

The Windows Experience Index bites the dust -- or does it?
If you look for the Windows Experience Index in the Windows 8.1 "Blue" Preview, you won't find it. While nobody ever took WEI too seriously -- it's a bit preposterous to think that you can distill a PC's performance down to a single number -- I've long used WEIs to quickly compare computers while I'm out shopping. They're also useful to double-check on new drivers, to see if they've boosted or strangled processing speeds.

Nobody knows for sure -- and Microsoft hasn't commented at all -- but it appears the WEI is dead. Nazmus Khandaker on the McAkins Online blog puts it this way:
Microsoft removed the Experience Index from Windows RT but kept it on the original release of Windows 8 in October 2012. However with Windows 8.1, Microsoft has decided to kill off the Experience Index completely. I have tested this on several PCs (touch and nontouch). Before upgrading my PCs, I was able to view the Experience Index on Windows 8.0. After upgrading to Windows 8.1, they were no longer present.

One possible reason for its sudden disappearance: The lofty and expensive Microsoft Surface Pro gets a 5.6 on the WEI scale. That would've been a good score three or four years ago on a middle-of-the-road PC. I have an old single-core i3 machine with a Windows 8 WEI of 7.0.

The Metro Photos app loses its connections
The Windows 8.1 Metro Photos app that's circulating at the moment is a mess. While it sports a few new features -- crop, rotate, auto slideshows, red-eye removal, all the features you would've expected from a photo app 10 years ago -- the current app can't even access photos stored on a network share or on SkyDrive. Clearly, it was rushed out the door.

The reason for the trampled release appears to be Microsoft's canning of its Facebook and Flickr links.

Windows 8 had automatic connections to your local pictures library, network shares, SkyDrive, Facebook, and Flickr; Win8 combines photos from all of those sources and offers them up with one, unified view. The Windows 8.1 "Blue" Preview can only get at local pictures. It uses the cumbersome-but-finger-friendly "file picker" metaphor for selecting files and folders. Barb Bowman, community moderator for Microsoft's Answers forum and a Microsoft MVP, took Microsoft to task:
Photos App in 8.1 loses most of its best features, e.g., Facebook/Flickr support, network/homegroup support. I've just installed the 8.1 Preview on a desktop. The Photos App has changed:

1. No longer includes the ability to show images from Facebook, Flickr, SkyDrive

2. No longer allows images from other computers or the network

Microsoft hasn't responded officially to the burgeoning complaints, although a person who identified herself as Microsoft employee CarmenZ posted this in response:
In Windows 8, we wanted to provide a way for folks to view their photos on other services knowing there would be few (if any) apps in the store at launch that would do so.  Now there are many apps in the store that offer ways to view photos on other services and soon there will even be a Facebook app from Facebook. We’re confident Facebook will offer great ways to view and engage socially with photos on Facebook.  We welcome Flickr to do the same. In addition, the People app still offers the ability to socially engage with your friends and even your own photos.

Undeterred, Bowman fired back:
This morning I was sending a tweet in a Windows 8[.1] App and when I used the image button, the Photos App opened (and not Windows Explorer, which is what happens on RTM W8) and was able to attach a file from a networked computer. This is more evidence that the Photos App is part of the OS and not an app ... Since the navigation is there, as evidenced by my experience, the question remains as to why there is no support for network folders in the Photos app itself. Microsoft has responded on the Facebook issue on the original thread, but has pointedly not answered the other questions.

If I were to speculate, I'd say that Microsoft ripped out the Facebook and Flickr parts of Metro Photos and, in a hurry, took out SkyDrive and network folder support. It's inconceivable to me that Microsoft would release a Metro Photos app without copious connections to SkyDrive -- if only to sell more SkyDrive space.

About the same time this observation hit the fan, Microsoft announced, quite unexpectedly, that Facebook would finally build a Metro Facebook app.

I think we're seeing a quid pro quo in action -- Facebook finally agrees to join the Windows Store and, in exchange, Microsoft agrees to drop Facebook integration from Metro Photos. If true, might other Microsoft Metro apps follow suit? And where's the Metro Flickr app?

Times really have changed if Facebook can arm-wrestle Microsoft into submission.

(Thanks for the heads-up, AR.)

This story, "A look at the black underbelly of Windows 8.1 'Blue'," was originally published atInfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.