Author Archives: Peter Bright

Microsoft is putting together a Microsoft 365 subscription for home users

By | December 13, 2018
Big white clouds against an azure sky.

Enlarge (credit: Patty’s Photos / Flickr)

Microsoft has had success in the enterprise space with its Microsoft 365 subscription, which bundles Office 365, Windows 10, and remote management with Enterprise Mobility + Security. Its home-oriented Office 365 subscriptions have also been growing steadily, with 32.5 million subscriptions as of the company’s most recent financial reports. And now Microsoft is planning to bring these things together with a Microsoft 365 subscription aimed at non-corporate users, reports Mary Jo Foley.

Microsoft 365 Consumer would be a subscription bundle with a consumer focus. Foley notes that there have been job advertisements alluding to such a product, and the move would seem to be consistent with the company’s plan to re-engage with consumers. At its Inspire partner event earlier this year, the company said that it wanted to target “professional consumers” by offering software and services to enhance their “Modern Life and Devices.” The meaning of this is not entirely clear, but it seems to mean that the company will continue to make its services work better wherever you use them (greater support for iOS and Android phones). Syncing and replication will ensure that your work and current context moves seamlessly between devices.

Less clear is what a Microsoft 365 Consumer bundle would actually include. Office 365 is an obvious component; it’s already being sold to consumers, and it remains the heart of Microsoft’s productivity vision. But beyond that? Windows 10 is, for home users, functionally free already. There have long been fears/rumors/speculation that Microsoft will move to a monthly Windows subscription model for consumers, but there are no signs that this is happening. Given the way Windows 10 has been positioned—the “last version” of Windows that will be updated and upgraded indefinitely—it’s hard to imagine it ever happening.

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Intel promises big boost to integrated GPU, breaks teraflop barrier

By | December 12, 2018
64 little grey boxes means 64 execution units, up from 24.

Enlarge / 64 little grey boxes means 64 execution units, up from 24. (credit: Intel)

Intel is promising a huge improvement to the performance of its integrated GPUs. Its generation 11 (“Gen11”) GPU will more than double the execution units from (usually) 24 to 64, and in so doing boost the number-crunching performance to more than 1 trillion floating point operations per second.

Just as the current Gen9 GPUs, Gen11 is arranged into blocks combining execution units (EUs) with dedicated 3D hardware such as texture samplers. Gen9 parts have up to 8 EUs per block, and the most-common configuration found in Intel’s processors, GT2, has three such blocks for a total of 24 EUs (though there are designs with six or nine blocks, for 48 or 72 EUs). Gen11 has 16 EUs per block and will have configurations with four blocks. It’s all these extra execution units that enable that headlining 1TFLOPS performance figure.

The new GPU will use a tile-based rendering approach, which divides the image into tiles that are all rendered separately. This tends to reduce the amount of memory bandwidth the GPU needs, which is valuable in integrated GPUs, as they lack the high-performance memory found in discrete parts. The Mali GPUs designed by ARM, along with Qualcomm’s Adreno GPUs, both use tile-based rendering too.

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Intel unveils a new architecture for 2019: Sunny Cove

By | December 12, 2018
OK, it's not all that sunny, but it's a nice picture of a cove.

OK, it’s not all that sunny, but it’s a nice picture of a cove. (credit: Neil Williamson)

In 2019, Intel will release Core and Xeon chips built around a new architecture: the chips will add a bunch of new instructions to accelerate certain popular workloads such as cryptography and compression, with the company demonstrating 75-percent improvement in compression performance relative to prior-generation parts.

Since 2015, Intel’s mainstream processors under the Core and Xeon brands have been based around the Skylake architecture. Intel’s original intent was to release Skylake on its 14nm manufacturing process and then follow that up with Cannon Lake on its 10nm process. Cannon Lake would add a handful of new features (it includes more AVX instructions, for example) but otherwise be broadly the same as Skylake.

However, delays in getting its 10nm manufacturing process running effectively forced Intel to stick with 14nm for longer than anticipated. Accordingly, the company followed Skylake (with its maximum of four cores in consumer systems) with Kaby Lake (with higher clock speeds and much greater hardware acceleration of modern video codecs), Coffee Lake (as many as eight cores), and Whiskey Lake (improved integrated chipset). The core Skylake architecture was unchanged across these variations, meaning that while their clock speeds differ, the number of instructions per cycle (IPC) is essentially identical.

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Intel introduces Foveros: 3D die stacking for more than just memory

By | December 12, 2018
P1274 is Intel's name for its high performance 10nm process. P1222 is its 22FFL (22nm, FinFET, Low Power) process, which is optimized for much lower current leakage. As well as the Foveros connection between the compute and I/O modules, the product will use conventional stacked Package-on-Package memory.

Enlarge / P1274 is Intel’s name for its high performance 10nm process. P1222 is its 22FFL (22nm, FinFET, Low Power) process, which is optimized for much lower current leakage. As well as the Foveros connection between the compute and I/O modules, the product will use conventional stacked Package-on-Package memory. (credit: Intel)

In 2019, Intel is going to ship chips using a new 3D stacking technology the company is calling Foveros. Foveros allows complex logic dies to be stacked upon one another, providing a much greater ability to mix and match processor components with optimal manufacturing processes.

Package-on-package stacking is already commonplace in the system-on-chip world. Typically, this involves sticking a memory package on top of a processor, with perhaps a few hundred connections between the two. The size and performance of the connections has limited the application of this technique. With Foveros, the interconnect will use etched silicon (just as EMIB does) to enable many more interconnections, running at much greater speeds.

Foveros follows on from Intel’s EMIB (Embedded Multi-die Interconnect Bridge) tech. EMIB is found on the Kaby Lake-G processors that in a single package contain an Intel CPU, AMD GPU, and a chunk of second-generation High Bandwidth Memory (HBM). HBM achieves its high bandwidth by using thousands of interconnects between the GPU and its memory, in comparison to the several hundred used between a GPU and conventional GDDR. The Kaby Lake-G chips use EMIB to provide this connection.

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Latest Windows Insider build makes a major upgrade to, uh… Notepad

By | December 10, 2018
Image of a spiral notebook.

Enlarge (credit: g4ll4is / Flickr)

There’s a new Windows Insider build out today, and the biggest changes appear to be none other than Notepad, Windows’ venerable barebones text editor.

Notepad already received a significant update in the recent October 2018 Update: Microsoft added support for files with Unix-style line endings. But the work hasn’t stopped there. Oh no.

The new and improved Notepad now has better Unicode support, defaulting to saving files as UTF-8 without a Byte Order Mark; this is the standard way of encoding UTF-8 data, as it maximizes compatibility with software expecting ASCII text. The status bar will now show the encoding being used, too.

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Edge dies a death of a thousand cuts as Microsoft switches to Chromium

By | December 6, 2018
Edge dies a death of a thousand cuts as Microsoft switches to Chromium

Enlarge (credit: @AndreTelevise)

As reported earlier this week, Microsoft is going to use Google’s Blink rendering engine and V8 JavaScript engine in its Edge browser, largely ending development of its own EdgeHTML rendering engine and Chakra JavaScript engine. This means that Microsoft will be using code from—and making contributions to—the Chromium open source project.

The company’s browser will still be named Edge and should retain the current look and feel. The decision to switch was motivated primarily by compatibility problems: Web developers increasingly test their pages exclusively in Chrome, which has put Edge at a significant disadvantage. Microsoft’s engineers have found that problematic pages could often be made Edge compatible with only very minor alterations, but because Web devs aren’t using Edge at all, they don’t even know that they need to change anything.

The story is, however, a little more complex. The initial version of Edge that shipped with the first version of Windows 10 was rudimentary, to say the least. It was the bare bones of a browser, but with extremely limited capabilities around things like tab management and password management, no extension model, and generally lacking in the creature comforts that represent the difference between a bare rendering engine and an actual usable browser. It also had stability issues; crashes and hangs were not uncommon.

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Tumblr’s porn ban is going about as badly as expected

By | December 5, 2018
This image carefully avoids any "female-presenting nipples" which would otherwise land it on Tumblr's naughty list.

Enlarge / This image carefully avoids any “female-presenting nipples” which would otherwise land it on Tumblr’s naughty list. (credit: zharth)

In the run-up to its total ban on pornography, Tumblr is using “algorithms” to determine if current posts are pornographic at all.

For some reason, the blogging site hopes that people running porn blogs will continue to use the site after the December 17th ban but restrict their postings to the non-pornographic. As such, the company isn’t just banning or closing blogs that are currently used for porn; instead, it’s analyzing each image and marking those it deems to be pornographic as “explicit.” The display of explicit content will be suppressed, leaving behind a wasteland of effectively empty porn blogs.

This would be bad enough for Tumblr users if it were being done effectively, but naturally, it isn’t. No doubt using the wonderful power of machine learning —a thing companies often do to distance themselves from any responsibility for the actions taken by their algorithms—Tumblr is flagging non-adult content as adult content, and vice versa. Twitter is filling with complaints about the poor job the algorithm is doing.

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Microsoft continues its quest to embrace every developer with Visual Studio 2019

By | December 4, 2018
Visual Studio 2019 has a new icon; the left one for the release version, the right one for previews.

Enlarge / Visual Studio 2019 has a new icon; the left one for the release version, the right one for previews. (credit: Microsoft)

Microsoft today made a number of developer-oriented announcements that continue its theme of the last few years: the company wants its tools—and ultimately its platforms, especially Azure—to be the choice of every developer, no matter which languages and tools they use and no matter what platform they ultimately deploy on.

The centerpiece of Microsoft’s developer tools remains Visual Studio, and a first preview of its 2019 edition is now available to download. It integrates the awesome Live Share feature first demonstrated last year and expands IntelliCode, a machine-learning-driven extension to the IntelliSense developer assistance that’s been a part of Visual Studio for ages. IntelliCode examines source code repositories to build models of a range of different things, from code formatting preferences to library usage and development patterns.

Currently, IntelliCode works with C# in Visual Studio and Python in Visual Studio Code. It does so by using GitHub’s open source repositories as its training data. Visual Studio 2019 expands this to enable analysis of private repositories. It also increases the language compatibility; Visual Studio will add C++ and XAML support, while Visual Studio Code will pick up JavaScript, TypeScript, and Java support.

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Report: Microsoft is scrapping Edge, switching to just another Chrome clone

By | December 4, 2018
Report: Microsoft is scrapping Edge, switching to just another Chrome clone

Enlarge (credit: Getty / Aurich)

Windows Central reports that Microsoft is planning to replace its Edge browser, which uses Microsoft’s own EdgeHTML rendering engine and Chakra JavaScript engine, with a new browser built on Chromium, the open source counterpart to Google’s Chrome. The new browser has the codename Anaheim.

The report is short on details. The easiest thing for Microsoft to do would be to use Chromium’s code wholesale—the Blink rendering engine, the V8 JavaScript engine, and the Chrome user interface with the Google Account parts omitted—to produce something that looks, works, and feels almost identical to Chrome. Alternatively, Redmond could use Blink and V8 but wrap them in Edge’s user interface (or some derivative thereof), to retain its own appearance. It might even be possible to do something weird, such as use Blink with the Chakra JavaScript engine. We’ll have to wait and see.

Since its launch with Windows 10, Edge has failed to gain much market share. The first iterations of Edge were extremely barebones, offering little more than a basic tabbed browser—no extensions, little control over behavior. Early releases of Edge were also not as stable as one might have liked, making the browser hard to recommend. Three years later on and Edge is greatly—but unevenly—improved. The browser engine’s stability seems to be much better than it was, and performance and compatibility remain solid (though with the exception of a few corner cases, these were never a real concern).

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Verizon takes aim at Tumblr’s kneecaps, bans all adult content

By | December 3, 2018
Verizon takes aim at Tumblr’s kneecaps, bans all adult content

Enlarge (credit: Getty / Aurich)

Oath, the Verizon subsidiary that owns the Yahoo and AOL digital media brands, has announced that as of December 17, all adult content will be banned from the Tumblr blogging site. Any still or moving images displaying real-life human genitals or female nipples and any content—even drawn or computer-generated artwork—depicting any sexual acts will be prohibited.

Genitals and female nipples will only be permitted within the context of breastfeeding, childbirth, and in health-related subjects such as gender confirmation surgery. Written erotica will also remain on the site.

Nowadays, pornography represents a substantial element of Tumblr’s content. A 2013 estimate said that around 11 percent of the site’s 200,000 most-visited domains were porn, and some 22 percent of inbound links were from adult sites.

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Microsoft Office has pretty new icons but they have a fatal flaw

By | November 30, 2018

Microsoft has even made a video to introduce the new icons

Microsoft has unveiled a new set of icons that the Office apps will start using. Office 365 customers will see their apps switch to the new icons over the next couple of months, as Microsoft continues to refresh the look and feel of its core productivity suite.

The last time the Microsoft Office apps got new icons was 2013, with the same set of icons also used by Office 2016 and the perpetually licensed Office 2019. Since then, Office has got a great deal more mobile with apps for iOS and Android, it gained a bigger Web presence, it added a bunch of collaboration features, and it has seen many of its users switch from the perpetual licenses to the continuously updated Office 365.

The new icons are meant to somehow reflect these changes. The letters adorning each icon have been reduced in size, with the remainder of the space used to show a highly stylized representation of the application. The colors are a bit brighter, too. Oddly, there are already some inconsistencies in the designs; OneDrive doesn’t have a letter at all (it’s just a cloud), and Skype uses the old proportions, with a letter that’s much bigger than any of the others.

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Microsoft wins $480 million military contract to bring HoloLens to the battlefield

By | November 29, 2018
HoloLens from above, showing the visor and the headband.

HoloLens from above, showing the visor and the headband. (credit: Esy Casey)

Microsoft has won a $480 million contract to develop an augmented reality system for use in combat and military training for the US Army.

Called Integrated Visual Augmentation System (IVAS), formerly Heads Up Display (HUD) 3.0, the goal of the project is to develop a headset that gives soldiers—both in training and in combat—an increase in “Lethality, Mobility, and Situational Awareness.” The ambitions for the project are high. Authorities want to develop a system with a goggle or visor form factor—nothing mounted on a helmet—with an integrated 3D display, digital cameras, ballistic laser, and hearing protection.

The system should provide remote viewing of weapon sights to enable low risk, rapid target acquisition, perform automated or assisted target acquisition, integrate both thermal and night vision cameras, track soldier vitals such as heart and breathing rates, and detect concussions. Over the course of IVAS’s development, the military will order an initial run of 2,550 prototypes, with follow-on production possibly in excess of 100,000 devices.

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Windows 10 1809: iCloud incompatibility fixed, but other blockers remain

By | November 28, 2018
Windows 10 1809: iCloud incompatibility fixed, but other blockers remain

Enlarge (credit: Patty’s Photos / Flickr)

While the rollout of Windows 10 version 1809 (the October 2018 Update) has been problematic, Microsoft really does try to avoid sending the update to configurations that it knows just won’t work properly.

One of these situations involved PCs with Apple’s iCloud client. The system would break when trying to sync or update Shared Albums when used on Windows 1809, and, accordingly, Microsoft blocked installation of the update on systems with iCloud installed. Similarly, the iCloud client could be installed on Windows 1809 because Apple had a broken version check that didn’t recognize that version 1809 was indeed the current Windows version.

Both issues appear to be fixed now. Apple has released iCloud for Windows version 7.8.1, which resolves both the crash and the bad version check. After upgrading to this version, the Windows 10 Update will no longer be blocked and will install in the normal way.

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Microsoft explains one Azure authentication outage as another one happens

By | November 27, 2018
Microsoft explains one Azure authentication outage as another one happens

Enlarge (credit: followtheseinstructions)

In a stroke of bad timing that would be comical if it weren’t so annoying, Microsoft’s multifactor authentication (MFA) system, used for Azure, Office 365, and Dynamics, has gone down for a second time this month, just hours after the company published its findings into a 14-hour outage on November 19.

The Azure Active Directory Multifactor Authentication services went offline just before 05:00 UTC and remained nonfunctional until just before 19:00 UTC. The servers initially affected were those servicing the Europe and the Middle East region and the Asia-Pacific region; as those regions woke up and tried to authenticate, the servers overloaded and went down. Microsoft tried to redirect some authentication attempts to US servers, but this merely had the effect of overloading those, too.

The company’s subsequent analysis has shown that three individual bugs came together to cause the problems. On November 19, a code change that had been progressively deployed over the previous six days provoked a cascade of failures. Above a certain traffic level, the new code caused a significant increase in latency between front-end servers and cache servers. This in turn revealed a race condition in the back-end servers, causing them to reset the front-end servers over and over. That then revealed a third issue: the back-end servers would create more and more processes, eventually starving themselves of resources and leaving them unresponsive.

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Latest Windows 10 update breaks Windows Media Player, Win32 apps in general

By | November 26, 2018
Part of the group Cydnidae, these are a type of shield bug. These two are apparently on the verge of producing a number of additional shield bugs.

Part of the group Cydnidae, these are a type of shield bug. These two are apparently on the verge of producing a number of additional shield bugs. (credit: jacinta lluch valero (jaclluch at Flickr))

The important data loss bug that interrupted the rollout of the Windows 10 October 2018 Update, version 1809, may be fixed, but it turns out there are plenty of other weird problems with the release.

As spotted by Paul Thurrott, the update also breaks the seek bar in Windows Media Player when playing “specific files.”

This is the kind of bug that leaves me scratching my head, wondering what changed to break such a thing, and why. The various old and new Windows media stacks are certainly complicated beasts, but it’s not clear what the October 2018 Update even changed in this area. At least this time around, it doesn’t seem that the bug was reported before 1809 actually shipped, though it’s hard to be definitive about this given the difficulty in finding anything in the Feedback Hub bug reporting tool. Microsoft does promise to fix the bug, but the timeframe is vaguely open-ended: it will be “in an upcoming release.”

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Mac mini review—a testament to Apple’s stubbornness

By | November 23, 2018
The 2018 Mac mini.

Enlarge / The 2018 Mac mini. (credit: Peter Bright)

This is probably not the byline you were expecting for a review of some Apple hardware. It comes as a bit of a shock to both of us, to be honest, but here we are: I have a Mac mini on my desk, along with a Magic Trackpad and Magic Keyboard. It’s all hooked up to an LG 4K 21.5-inch display, all supplied by Apple.

To set your minds at ease; this isn’t the first Mac I’ve used. I have owned a few MacBook Pros over the years, and there was a time a few years go where I was seriously considering giving up Windows and switching entirely to Mac OS X. For now, it suffices to know that if I were to get back into using macOS as my daily driver, the Mac mini is probably the machine I’d want to get.

With the newest Mac mini, gone is the two-core, four-thread 28W Haswell processor with up to 16GB soldered RAM. This machine boasts Coffee Lake processors, either a four-core, four-thread Core i3 base model or the six-core, 12-thread Core i7 chip as found in my review system. This processor is paired with up to 64GB socketed, user-serviceable RAM. Storage has also been shaken up. Instead of a range of hybrid and SSD options, the new Mac mini is all SSD, from 128GB to 2TB. There are four Thunderbolt 3 ports, one wired Ethernet port (usually gigabit, but optionally upgraded to 10 gigabit), an HDMI 2 port, two USB 3.1 generation 1 ports, and a 3.5mm headset jack.

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Microsoft joining Qualcomm and Google to bring Chrome to Windows on ARM

By | November 21, 2018
The Asus NovaGo is one of the first generation of Windows 10 on ARM systems, using a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor.

Enlarge / The Asus NovaGo is one of the first generation of Windows 10 on ARM systems, using a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor. (credit: Asus)

A couple of Microsoft engineers are contributing code to Google’s Chrome browser to help make it a native Windows on ARM application, as spotted by 9to5google.

Windows 10 on ARM, Microsoft’s second attempt at creating a line of PCs that run on ARM processors, does something important that Windows RT, Microsoft’s first attempt, did not. It can run x86 programs in an emulator, greatly expanding the range of software that it can use. But this has a performance penalty, so where possible, it’s better to have native ARM applications.

One of the biggest sticking points here is Chrome; Google’s browser is the most widely used third-party application on Windows. While Chrome does of course run on ARM systems (both Android phones and Chrome OS laptops), it doesn’t currently compile properly as a Windows-on-ARM application. The contributions made by the Microsoft developers are addressing these various issues—adding ARM64 build targets, specifying the right compilers and Windows SDK versions, providing alternatives to x86-specific code, and so on.

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Now it’s Office’s turn to have a load of patches pulled

By | November 20, 2018
Now it’s Office’s turn to have a load of patches pulled

Enlarge (credit: Benjamin)

After endless difficulties with the Windows 10 October 2018 update—finally re-released this month with the data-loss bug fixed—it seems that now it’s the Office team’s turn to release some updates that need to be un-released.

On November’s Patch Tuesday two weeks ago, Microsoft released a bunch of updates for Office to update its Japanese calendars. In December 2017, Emperor Akihito announced that he would abdicate and that his son Naruhito would take his role as emperor. Each emperor has a corresponding era name, and calendars must be updated to reflect that new name. The Office patches offer updates to handle this event.

Two of these updates, KB2863821 and KB4461522, both for Office 2010, are apparently very broken, causing application crashes. The company has suspended delivery of the patches, but the problem is so severe that Microsoft is recommending that anyone who has installed the updates already should uninstall them pronto (see instructions for KB2863821 here and for KB4461522 here).

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To complement the new Windows 10 dark theme, Microsoft is adding a light theme

By | November 14, 2018
The new Windows 10 light theme.

Enlarge / The new Windows 10 light theme. (credit: Microsoft)

While end users have been customizing the color schemes of their computers for decades, we’ve lately seen operating system developers follow their users’ lead with built-in, first-party support for dark themes. The dark theme was a big part of the appeal of macOS Mojave, and dark theme support in applications such as Windows Explorer was no less welcome.

With the next feature update of Windows 10, codenamed 1H19 and likely to ship in April next year, Microsoft is going a step further, with the introduction of a light theme. The light theme also comes with a new wallpaper (an iteration of the default Windows 10 wallpaper), and it will brighten up certain areas of the operating system that have always tended be dark regardless of the theme being used.

If the screenshot is anything to go by, it’s going to be a good-looking theme, too.

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Microsoft wants Azure to be the multiplayer server solution for every platform

By | November 14, 2018
<em>Sea of Thieves</em> is a game already using Azure for its server hosting and scaling.

Enlarge / Sea of Thieves is a game already using Azure for its server hosting and scaling. (credit: Rare)

Microsoft today launched a preview of PlayFab Multiplayer Servers, a new Azure-based service giving game developers dynamic, on-demand scaling of multiplayer servers.

Microsoft bought Seattle-based PlayFab earlier this year with a view to using it to expand Azure’s reach in the gaming world. PlayFab is building all the cloud-based infrastructure needed for today’s games: matchmaking (using the same algorithms as Xbox Live to try to group players of similar skill together), leaderboards, server hosting, player identity/profile management, commerce, and so on. Broadly speaking, the intent of PlayFab is to let games developers focus on their games, taking care of the server-side work for them. PlayFab’s services are platform agnostic, and Microsoft has preserved this aspect: there are SDKs for Xbox, Windows, PlayStation, Switch, iOS, and Android.

At the time of the purchase, PlayFab ran atop Amazon’s AWS. Some parts still do, but others have moved to Microsoft’s own Azure. The Multiplayer Server feature, released in preview today, is one of the services on Azure. Microsoft has more Azure data centers in more parts of the world than Amazon or Google, which in turn means that Azure servers should generally be closer to where the players are. This should ensure lower latency and a better gaming experience for games on those servers.

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