Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Windows 10 TH2: What's new, screen reader development strategies, do not trust all information regarding release dates and such

Hi,
Welcome to another episode of Windows 10 articles by yours truly. Those who are regular visitors to my blog might be familiar with a series of articles describing state of accessibility of Windows 10, advisories on screen readers and so on.
As Windows 10 Fall Update (AKA Threshold (th) 2, Fall Refresh and so on) is just around the corner, I'd like to take you on a tour of what's new and changed in Windows 10 Fall Update from screen reader point of view. I would also like to take a moment to talk about predictions for Windows 10 adoption, implications of Windows as a service for screen readers, key things distinguishing public release builds of Windows 10 and my attitude on forwarding news sources to email lists.
What to expect in Windows 10 Fall Update
Windows 10 TH2 (Fall update) brings exciting features. In addition to multimedia casting in Edge, things Cortana can do now and other changes, it includes various changes to state of accessibility. Compared to RTM (10240), it is more refined, slightly faster and looks more polished.
The features introduced or changed in Fall Update can be categorized into three broad areas: more integration and socialization, deep and subtle tweaks, and responses to feedback. In terms of integration and socialization, Skype is now integrated into the operating system in the form of three new apps: Skype phone (voice calls), Messaging (IM's) and Skype Video (video calls). Cortana is better at understanding input from "digital pens" (stylus), as well as providing event reminders and offering Uber rides to attend an event. It is also possible to stream games and other multimedia content through Xbox and Microsoft Edge, respectively.
In terms of deep and subtle tweaks, TH2 includes a much better way to tweak environment variables (a series of global settings used by operating systems for certain operations such as executable path search). Previously, if you had to edit things such as path used to look for programs, one had to use an edit field which was prone to mistakes, whereas in TH2, it is organized as a list and an edit field. Also, you can now tell Windows to use the last printer used regardless of network location, and Hyper-V allows running virtual machine guests inside guests (termed "nested virtualization"). Other tweaks include making the operating system respond faster, particularly in memory management and in areas where UI Automation (UIA) is used (slightly faster than RTM build).
In regards to responding to feedback, TH2 includes ability to specify accent colors in title bars, refined context menus and other tweaks in response to feedback received from users, Insiders, developers and enterprises. As far as accessibility and screen readers are concerned, it is great to see Microsoft willing to work with screen reader vendors to make the oS better respond to accessibility queries from screen readers.
So when will we get a chance to play with Windows 10 Fall Update and what will be the build number?
Throughout 2015, some news sources claimed that there will be a minor update to Windows 10 after it is released to the general public, and we're about to see this claim come to pass in a near future. In October 2015, reputable sources such as Windows central, Win Beta and others reported that TH2 will be released sometime in November, and it appears Microsoft is on track this time (based on frequency of Insider build releases and according to these sites). In addition, some sites claim that it'll be out in early November (some articles claimed November 2nd as the release date, but we've passed that point; some of the sites now claim November 10th or 12th as the big day when TH2 will hit the air).
However, I'd like to question some of these claims:
* Build number: Although some sources such as Windows central say Microsoft has signed off Windows 10.0.10586 as the official TH2 build, there's no official confirmation from Microsoft that November 12th will indeed be the big day.
* Build revision: RTM or public releases of Windows usually have a four-part version identifier: major (Windows NT kernel) version, minor release, build number, and build revision. For example, the RTM build of Windows 10 has the build string of 10.0.10240.16384. Similarly, Windows 8.1 general distribution release (GDR) sent out in April 2014 has the build string of 6.3.9600.17031. Technically, this four-part version string denotes the revision of Windows NT hardware abstraction layer (HAL), a part of the operating system that allows Windows to talk to motherboard and other fundamental hardware of a computer system. Because the latest publicly disclosed build of Windows 10 reported to sites such as Build Feed have "0" as the build revision, we cannot say build 10586 is indeed the TH2 release version for now (in order for this to happen, the fourth part (build revision) must be something other than 0).
* Watermark still present in public Windows Insider builds: As many other Windows Insiders can testify, desktop watermark (displaying the version of Windows one is testing) is still present in the latest publicly available Insider build (10576). One sure way to test if the claims of November 12th release date is true is if Microsoft releases a build of TH2 with the watermark removed (last time it happened, it was released to both fast and slow ring fliers, with two weeks to go before general availability of the RTM build).
There are two key evidences that may support the above claims made by Windows Central and other sites:
* Insider build release frequency: Just before RTM build was released in July 2015, fast ring Windows Insiders had a chance to play with up to three builds in a single week, with one of them eventually landing at the doors of slow ring fliers via Windows Update. We saw a similar activity within the past few weeks: two fast ring Insider builds released just a few days apart, with one of them eventually going out to slow ring Insiders.
* The identity of the new Windows 10 update: The version of Windows reported by windows Version (winver.exe) has changed. Instead of saying "Windows version 10.0", it now says "Windows version 1511" (build 10576), confirming earlier rumors that TH2 will be released in November 2015 (yymm, similar in format to Ubuntu's version identifier of yy.mm).
Until Microsoft (or at least Terry Myerson or Gabriel Aul) gives official confirmation, I'd not trust some of these sources, nor should be something that should be forwarded to mailing lists, especially ones dealing with screen readers.
As a side note, one of the questions you might have is if TH2 is a service pack. No, it is not. Some journalists (such as Mary Jo Foley and Paul Thurrott, two influencial and reputable reporters) wrote earlier in 2015 that there will be a series of huge updates codenamed Redstone, with the first one scheduled for June 2016, bringing Microsoft Edge extensions. I'm hoping that Microsoft would step up to the game, as it'll give people second thoughts about taking the free upgrade offer (one concern critics raised, which I agree somewhat, is privacy and collection of some data to improve the user experience).
Windows as a service: what does this mean to screen reader users, developers and observers
A few months ago, Microsoft proclaimed that Windows 10 will become an example of "software as a service". Software as a service means a given software product will receive continuous refinements, with some products using subscriptions (Source: Wikipedia). In other words, instead of a big release every two to three (and sometimes, five) years, Windows 10 will receive ongoing updates (serviced). As for a claim that Microsoft may debut a subscription-based Windows version, I don't know (Microsoft did try this approach a few years back with Windows XP in certain countries).
As a user, developer and an observer of screen readers and their landscape, I'm concerned that screen reader vendors might not be prepared for this change of strategy. Continuous refinement opens a possibility that future Windows 10 builds may break existing functionality, especially if it involves a workaround that has worked in previous builds (a good example is toast/Action Center notifications not announced for some JAWS 17 users). Thus, it is more important now for screen reader vendors, users, observers and Microsoft to work together to come up with a long-lasting strategy of partnership, feedback loop and understanding in order to make Windows 10 the truly universal operating system for many, including for those depending on screen reading solutions.
Windows 10 adaption: A hyperbola of thoughts, setbacks, recommendations and second thoughts
According to Microsoft and other sources, Windows 10 powers over 120 million devices today. Although the first weeks saw sharp rise in Windows 10 adaption, privacy concerns and a potentially major mistake by Microsoft (Windows 10 update mistakenly selected in Windows Update for some) signaled decline in Windows 10 adaption rates. However, I think the adaption rate for Windows 10 will rise sharply again next summer when end of gree upgrade offer approaches, and I hope Microsoft will do something fantastic with Redstone 1 to make that happen.
In conclusion, I think Windows 10 TH2 (Fall Refresh/Update) is quite an improvement compared to TH1 (Build 10240). New capabilities offered by Cortana, Edge and other features opens up new possibilities,and I'm glad to see Microsoft taking feedback seriously, including ones dealing with accessibility and performance. Although it has room for improvement, it appears to be a fine operating system, and I hope screen reader users, developers and observers would use this time to think about future development strategy when it comes to Windows 10 support.
If I'm to give a grade to TH2 as currently stands, I would give this a solid B: exciting, has lots of potential yet needs some more polishing such as improved accessibility of some Skype features and apps. Time will tell if TH2 will receive a better grade and embraced by many, including users of screen readers. Looking forward to using TH2 and the Redstone update with various screen readers next year.
//JL

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