I knew something interesting was up when I saw a blog post from Adrian Kingsley-Hughes this morning entitled “Microsoft gets it right with Windows 8 on ARM, and why Apple should be worried.” I must also hasten to add that I’ve just been hired on as one of two authors for the upcoming Que book Windows 8 in Depth (due out at the same time as the new OS itself, probably sometime around the end of October 2012), so I’ve been getting increasingly interested in the whole “mobile side” of Windows 8 anyway.
Between yesterday’s Building Windows 8 blog post “Building Windows for the ARM processor architecture,” and Kingsley-Hughes’ ZDNet blog post this morning, my life and this particular job have just gotten a lot more tricksome. Although I’m still very much in “Huh?” mode — which is to say, still trying to figure out what’s been said, what’s going on, and how to understand these things properly — it is already obvious to me that Windows on Arm (aka WOA, which I choose to pronounce like the command you’d give to a horse: “Whoa!”) is going to mean major changes for Windows 8 but also major changes for the mobile device landscape in general, particularly iOS and Android.
Part of the appeal for this new Windows OS model is that you can use and work on at least some of the same data and applications on a mobile device, including a smartphone or low-end tablet device (like the iPad, with all due respect for its considerable good looks and capabilities) as well as any more conventional convertible tablets, notebooks, or desktop computers that might be running that same OS. Although Sinofsky himself writes that “WOA is new member of the Windows family, much like Windows Server, Windows Embedded, or Windows Phone” and that “…WOA builds on the foundation of Windows, has a very high degree of commonality and very significant shared code with Windows 8, and will be developed for, sold, and supported as part of the largest computing ecosystem in the world” I’m still not completely sure about what all of this really means.
That’s where Kingsley-Hughes’ blog post sheds some interesting light on the whole situation, after he got a sneak preview of WOA running on an ARM-based device in somebody’s test lab somewhere far, far away. He does a nice job of summarizing the high points of the BW8 blog post referenced a couple of paragraphs back. Interestingly the conventional Win8 and the WOA8 (if I can coin some version-based references here) have quite a bit in common, including UI look and feel (for Metro and even those parts of desktop that ARM will support), timing, MS Office support (at least, for Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote). The differences are also pretty telling, but are all strongly motivated by the limitations of ARM-based platforms, which are usually smaller, less memory-rich, and with fewer CPU cycles to burn: no virtualization or emulation, no support for native x86/x64 applications, and no software-only distribution (you must buy a device with WOA pre-installed is what I believe this means). Other key points: WOA PCs will use different labeling and branding to “avoid customer confusion” and WOA devices should feel more like consumer electronics rather than full-blown, traditional PCs.
So far, so good. When Kingsley-Hughes got to see a WOA device somebody else was driving, and he wasn’t allowed to take any photos or capture any screenshots, so obviously this stuff remains pretty loosey-goosey. But if this information is all correct, it’s not unreasonable to expect a WOA preview to get unleashed along with the consumer preview release scheduled for Leap-Day (February 29th) this year. He also saw MS Office 15 apps running on this WOA device, and reports that “…the ARM versions of Office appear to offer all the features of their desktop counterparts…” and that “they’re highly customized for touch.”
The notion that Windows remains solidly Windows, even on an ARM platform, is what drives Kingsley-Hughes to forecast potential worries for Apple (and if he’s right, I think they extend to Google and Android as well). Where Apple has maintained a deliberate separation between MacOS on stationary PCs and notebooks, and iOS on iPhones, iPads, and iPod Touch devices, it looks like Microsoft is going to do its best to deliver a completely consistent (if not application- and legacy-functionality complete) version of Windows across all platforms on which it runs. Quite rightly, I think he sees this as a potentially revolutionary move, one that has the potential to shake up the current order of things, and revamp the computing spectrum from mobile devices all the way to server clusters. Should be interesting to watch this unfold!
As I dig further into the touch requirements for Windows 8, I’m learning more and more about touch technologies along the way. Alas, I’m also learning how very few of the currently available touchscreens meet Windows 8’s touch requirements for a minimum of 5 simultaneous touch points (to support all those cool touch gestures we’ve come to know and love from smartphones and the iPad).
I found the whole thing confusing and frustrating enough — a sensation my Mom used to call “confrusticating” — that I turned to my colleagues at the Internet Press Guild for some help and guidance. HDTV expert Alfred Poor was kind enough to share a contact with me to somebody who specializes in touch technologies and has been designing and consulting in this area since the late 1980s when he got involved with an early and very popular ruggedized PC platform for military and emergency services use. I’m talking about Geoff Walker, of Walker Mobile at www.walkermobile.com. He’s a long-time expert and full-time consultant and writer on mobile computing with a particular emphasis on touch technologies. Check out his Website, where you’ll find a wealth of valuable and informative materials on touch technologies of all kinds. Geoff has also been a guest editor on Touch Technology for Information Display magazine since 2007 (where a search on his name produces over 500 hits), and has contributed numerous stories on touch to other industry publications as well.
In a lengthy email reply to my request for guidance on touch technologies in the Windows 8 framework, Geoff identified no fewer than 14 different touch technologies that are currently available in some commercial form or fashion in the form of touch displays. Fortunately, he also identified those three technologies that he indicated were “…highly likely to meet the [Windows 8 Touch Logo] spec[ification].” These are as follows (please note that this post was edited heavily on 2/9/2012, the day after its original posting to incorporate extensive feedback that Geoff very kindly provided to me):
1. Projected Capacitive (aka “pro-cap” or “P-cap”): This is the type of touchscreen that is used on the iPhone (a type that uses two electrodes with a two-layer sensor). It’s both sensitive and accurate, but also a fairly costly technology (though devices of over 100″ are now available using this technology, they are fabulously expensive and most emphatically NOT consumer- or even casual business-class devices). There are a fair number of pro-cap displays available that work with Windows 7 right now, but the vendors typically don’t document the number of touch points they support in their technical specifications (Geoff points out that this is not a good sign, and indicates many OEM vendor’s somewhat lackadaisical attitudes toward touch technologies).
This hasn’t really been an issue until Windows 8 requirements came out; before that multi-touch simply meant “two or more simultaneous touch points” to all parties. But in phone calls to vendors like Planar, ELO, Acer, HP, and others who make pro-cap touchscreen displays, I’m learning that most of them currently support only two or three simultaneous touch points, somewhat short of the 5 that the Windows 8 Touch Logo requirements mandate (see pp. 25-35 of the “Windows 8 Device Requirements” download PDF). Still other makers, most notably Perceptive Pixel and 3M, do support 10 or more touch points already, and provide ample touch specification details for those devices, but they are much more expensive than run-of-the-mill touch screens. Most vendors have pro-cap systems under development to meet the Window 8 Touch Logo requirements and should have systems ready to meet those requirement by the time the OS goes into general availability (probably in October 2012, according to any number of rumors from usually informed sources). Pro-cap is likely to be quite important for tablets and convertible notebook PCs with touchscreens, because it is the most widely used technology for touch in portable and mobile devices; it is a mainstream technology for displays from 2-17″ in size (but again, primarily for devices that use only touch, or can convert to exclusive touch use; source: Geoff Walker).
2. Camera-based Optical(aka “optical touch”) uses two or more CMOS infrared cameras placed atop a display, pointed across the display surface. These detect and position the presence of a touch on the screen using mathematical triangulation techniques and backlighting to create shadows when a finger or stylus makes a touch at some particular on-screen location. Perforce the use of cameras makes this type of touch technology somewhat bulkier than those like pro-cap that rely the display itself to sense touch. Most such systems in use today have two to four cameras to support two or more touch points (though more than two is a challenge for today’s prevailing implementations, according to Geoff, though a new generation of six-camera systems is presently in development, with more touch points to match). Ongoing development should enable this technology to meet Windows 8 Touch Logo requirements when the OS becomes generally available late this year. Today, optical touch represents the most mainstream technology for stationary touch displays from 17-30″ in size (source: Geoff Walker). The very large SMART 800-series whiteboards use four integrated cameras to capture and analyze their user’s writing and drawing, for example, for a large-format application of camera-based optical.
3. Vision-based optical (like the Microsoft Surface product introduced in 2007) which uses infrared detection of diffused surface illumination on a touch panel through a camera that captures an image of the entire screen in use, then subjects what it “sees” to various forms of image and gesture analysis to determine what kinds of touches are occurring. Early versions of this technology require a camera with a vantage point of the entire screen, and will usually be mounted below or above the display to capture that data (and explains what makes it different from camera-based touch, which uses cameras mounted around the edges of the display itself). Modern versions use in-cell optical sensors (up to 2 million of them, says Geoff, in some implementations) instead of a camera, or multiple wide-view cameras integrated into display backlights. This technology is expensive and is primarily used on large displays of 30″ or bigger . Today, vision-based touch is an emerging technology, rather than a mainstream one, and is not likely to impact typical end-user desktops or mobile devices even for Windows 8 (except for conference room or very large-format displays). SMART’s touch tables use vision-based touch, and Geoff says “SMART has probably sold more vision-based touch than any other company in the world because of this application.”
Interestingly, the vendors I contacted about their touch displays — for both camera-based and pro-cap touch technologies — indicated that their current Windows 7 touch displays work with the developer preview version of Windows 8, at least to some extent. They also indicated that so far, the gestures that the OS itself supports don’t require more than two touch points, and that no applications that require more have yet appeared. Geoff comments on this observation as follows:
Yes and no. (1) Win7 limits its built-in gestures to two points, but Win7 also includes a well-developed gesture-processing library that an application can call to decipher gestures using any number of touches up to about 50 or so. The limitation is that these gestures can only be used within a custom application – you can’t apply them on the desktop or to off-the-shelf Win7 commercial applications. (2) There ARE applications already available that use more than two points. The two best-known categories are 3D CAD applications, which use three or four points to control movement in three planes, and two-player games such as air hockey that use two points for each player. If a touchscreen supports it, the “air hockey” game that’s included in the Win7 TouchPack can be played with four touch points. That’s something you should try once you get a good 10+ touch pro-cap monitor. You’ll find that the game itself is too slow and laggy to be that much fun, but it DOES work on Win7 with four touch points.
Obviously, I have to believe this is going to change with the upcoming “customer preview” (aka “customer beta”) release schedule for later this month (February 2012). It will be interesting to see if the OS itself will introduce gestures that involve three or more touch points at that time, and even more interesting to see how developers make use of more complex multi-touch gestures in their tools and applications. But for now, this represents uncharted territory where guesses and suppositions are the only forms of data available about how multi-touch will play out in the Windows 8 environment.
So where does this leave developers who want to create a multi-touch experience, or early adopters who want to realize such an experience? For the time being, it looks like some will choose to purchase — and settle for — devices with two touch points to get started on development, testing, and pilot studies, understanding that a new generation of 5-point touch devices will soon become available, necessitating purchase of more hardware sometime soon in the future. And, some will decide to shoulder the costs, and pay bigger bucks to get more capable touchscreens right away. Sigh: kind of a Hobson’s choice, but that’s life on the bleeding edge of technology!
OK, so I’m getting onboard for an upcoming “day and date” book on Windows 8 (this means we have to have the book finished far enough in advance of the ship date for Windows 8 that it can be sent to bookstores to arrive in time to be stocked and waiting the day the OS goes into general availability, or GA status). That means I’m starting to dig down into the tools and technology so my co-author and I can get our systems and our acts together to exercise and document its functionality while waiting pensively for the release of the “consumer preview” or “beta release” of Windows 8 that’s due out later this month.
This means I’ve ordered a new-generation Intel-based system (with SLAT and UEFI) to host the new OS, and am looking at my options for touchscreens to enable the touch-based Metro interface to do its thing properly on my test machines. I’m also reaching out to various PC manufacturers to lay hands on their all-in-one (touch-based) systems, because I’m learning that the aftermarket for touchscreen monitors starts pretty expensive ($340 -$620 for a 15″ touchscreen monitor, $508-697 for 17″, $549-980 for 19″, and so forth) and is full of “interesting deals” such as an Acer 23″ HD resolution touchscreen for only $329.
A great place to check out what’s available (and the number and range of offerings have exploded since the last time I checked on this in December, 2011, so the market’s obviously getting ready for Windows 8 ) is at Newegg, where they actually have a product category called “Touchscreen monitors.” Here, you can filter those monitors by size (under 15″ (3 total), 15-17″ (55 total), 19-24″ (29), 26-42″ (8), and over 42″ (1)), price, manufacturer, and even by type: 5-wire resistive, AccuTouch, Acoustic Pulse, Capacitive, CarrolTouch, and IntelliTouch [see Note 3 at the end of this blog posting for comments on this terminology; taken straight from the Newegg touch monitors listings, it includes numerous trade names and isn’t really descriptive of the touch technology landscape. This will be my one and only use of these terms].
At this point, I can see I will have lots of options from which to choose. I now understand I need to learn more about the types of touch technology and how best to integrate touch into a desktop system for easy access and use. I’ll keep you posted as I zero in on some good choices and let you know about such deals as I can find. I can’t be the only person who needs to figure this stuff out! I’m also casting about for hardware recommendations and war stories in making touchscreen monitors work with Windows 8, so please let me know if you know of or have any to share!
New Material Added on 2/9/2012
Since this blog originally posted on 2/6/2012, I have been in repeated contact with Geoff Walker, of Walker Mobile at www.walkermobile.com. He’s a long-time expert and full-time consultant and writer on mobile computing with a particular emphasis on touch technologies. Check out his Website, where you’ll find a wealth of valuable and informative materials on touch technologies of all kinds. Geoff has also been a guest editor on Touch Technology for Information Display magazine since 2007 (where a search on his name produces over 500 hits), and has contributed numerous stories on touch to other industry publications as well. Geoff has very kindly provided copious feedback for both Episodes 1 and 2 of this blog posting, and I will now recast his remarks here in somewhat abbreviated form, in the form of a series of numbered Notes to follow. They are primarily quoted verbatim or merely shortened in the interests of brevity; where I provide pricing or other information, it’s in square brackets to identify my presence, not Geoff’s.
Note 1: The best touch monitor in the world today comes from Perceptive Pixel: though expensive, it’s without question the very best [$6,000.00!]. The next best is from 3M [around $1,400.00]. The touch performance is phenomenal, as good as Perceptive Pixel, just smaller with a few more limitations. It’s not as expensive as the Perceptive Pixel, but it’s not cheap.
Note 2: In the Newegg listing, the Acer T231 bmid is a typical consumer-level Win7 touch monitor. It uses camera-based optical touch (2 cameras) from Quanta. It’s limited to two not-very-robust touches (in other words, it barely works on Win7, much less Win8 – read my article on optical touch and you’ll get some hints of why that is). But it’s still a very valid test platform, since almost all of the consumer multi-touch monitors sold for the past two years have used a similar touch system, and all those owners will want to know what to expect when upgrading to Win8. Note that there is NO information whatsoever in the Acer specs about touch! That’s a big red flag, indicating that touch is not something that Acer (or any of the PC OEMs) really cares that much about. Compare Acer’s lack of touch specs with the touch specs of the other monitors I’ve mentioned so far – big difference! The HP L2105tm and the Viewsonic VX2258wm are basically the same as the Acer – all of their touchscreens are camera-based optical from either Quanta or NextWindow.
Note that what I’m saying is that there are NO monitors in the Newegg list that are capable of meeting the Win8 5-touch specification because doing that requires either (a) projected capacitive, which is too expensive for a consumer monitor today, or (b) improved camera-based optical (with at least six cameras), which won’t be ready for another six months or so. [The emphasis on NO in the preceding text is Geoff’s.]
Note 3: [About these terms “…5-wire resistive, AccuTouch, Acoustic Pulse, Capacitive, CarrolTouch, and IntelliTouch” (these appear in my original blog, and came straight from the Touchscreen Types category on the Newegg Touchscreen Monitors page).] I strongly recommend that you stop using the Elo brand names for generic touch technologies. It’s confusing to everyone and does nobody any good. Even Elo would like to get rid of them, but it’s very hard to change that kind of thing once you start. Use only the generic technology names, and use them consistently. [Will do, Geoff, and thanks for pointing this out! Fortunately, that was already the case by the time I got to Episode 2.]
Trends don’t always translate into facts, as a quick glance at this “Desktop Top Operating System Share Trend” graph for March 2011 through January 2012 illustrates.
I must confess that I (and numerous other pundits and online panjandrums) interpreted this graph to mean that Windows 7 would surpass XP last month, but that’s not how it turned out. Instead of each line following its long-established trend, numbers for XP actually jumped a little in the period from December 2011 to January 2012, from 46.52% to 47.19%, while the numbers for Windows 7 dipped slightly from 36.99% to 36.40% in the same period. Go figure!
Thanks to the editors at Tom’s Hardware for bringing this to my attention, in their February 2, 2012, story entitled “Report: Windows XP is Still The Dominant OS.” They speculate — and I agree — that still-lagging economies (especially in Europe, sorely best by the Greek debt crisis and the Euro melt-down) can easily account for the recent stall in the XP-to-Windows-7 cut-over that’s been chugging along for the past two years or better. Likewise, they observe that the pending release of Windows 8 in the third or fourth quarter of 2012 will further complicate matters, and should probably cause the trend lines for both of those OSes to decline further and faster.
One thing’s for sure: it’s still impossible to write off Windows XP, and it’s still around in huge and substantial numbers. With the “absolute retirement date” of this venerable OS slated for April 2014, it’s amazing it’s been able to cling to life and major market share for such a long, long, long time!
About the “latest version” of the Intel Chipset Software
Intel proffers a Web page entitled “Do I need to upgrade to the latest version” under the general head of Intel Chipset Software Installation Utility. This page suggests an “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach to updating the Intel chipset software and its associated collection of drivers. Here’s what that information says, verbatim:
Intel® Chipset Software Installation Utility
Do I need to upgrade to the latest version?
Upgrade to the latest version if you are experiencing an issue listed under Issues Resolved in the latest release notes. The latest version of the Intel® Chipset Software Installation Utility and the release notes are available in Download Center.If you upgrade to the latest version, follow the have-disk installation instructions. The utility cannot install using setup.exe if another version is already installed on your system.
Finding the “latest version” of the Intel Chipset Software
In the Intel Download Center, specify the selections “Chipsets” (Product Family), “Chipset Software” (Product Line), and “Intel Chipset Software Installation Utility” (Product Name) on the initial Find Downloads by product name window that appears. This produces a Find downloads by categorywindow where you can specify your operating system (Windows 7 (32-bit) in my case) and Download Type (I picked “Utilities, Tools, and Examples” because that’s what provides the INF update utility that automatically updates Windows drivers for those willing to bypass the preceding instruction to “follow the have-disk installation instructions” (the chipset driver itself isn’t accessible through Device Manager in any case).
This is where things start getting interesting. Intel’s label for “Latest” driver applies to the file they’ve updated most recently NOT to the file with the highest version number (which actually indicates the most current driver). Here’s a screen shot that illustrates this potential point of confusion very nicely:
Notice that the utility with the higher-numbered version (220.127.116.112 versus 18.104.22.1680) also has the more current date (8/27/2011 versus 4/21/2011). It’s essential to pay close attention to all of this information if you want to override the recommendations of the Intel Driver Update Utility, and choose the right version to download and install on your PC.
[Note in response to reader comment: You MUST identify the chipset in your PC and search on that particular chipset model to find the drivers and installation software that match it. I don’t mean to suggest that the version numbers mentioned in this or the previous posting are prescriptive for all PCs and all readers. Rather, they were meant only as illustrations of the various version numbers that I encountered for the various chipsets on different PCs. Thus, for example the X38 chipset on my production PC gets version 22.214.171.1242 mentioned elsewhere in this post. OTOH, my D620 Latitude notebook has a Mobile Intel 945 Express chipset and gets version 126.96.36.1999 instead. As they say on the Internet, YMMV, so be sure to grab only what’s relevant for your particular chipsets.]
An interesting rumor popped up on SlashGear this morning, in an article from Chris Davies entitled “Windows 8 on ARM stable release in February tip developers.” It seems that despite earlier issues with the stability of the developer preview for Windows 8 on ARM CPUs, another, much more stable release of Windows 8 will be released in February — again for developers — to coincide with the “customer preview” release of Windows 8 for x86 CPUs that heralds another milestone in the march to RTM (release to manufacturing) and GA (general availability).
Citing sources from CNET, Davies said “…there’s no obvious reason that [an] ARM-vesion of Windows 8 … should be ‘staggered’ from the traditional x86 build.” Furthermore, the same sources opined that “…ARM alternatives to Intel and AMD based Windows 8 machines could ‘undercut them by hundreds of dollars…'” Given the popularity of chips from Texas Instruments and Qualcomm, among others (these two companies showed Windows 8 prototypes at this year’s CES), for smartphones, this could be a huge coup for Microsoft in finally making a dent in that non-PC marketplace.
Should be very interesting to see how all this plays out. Stay tuned!
The Intel Driver Update Utility(IDUU) is a handy-dandy software tool that depends on a “Systems Requirements Lab” active widget from Husdawg to scan PCs for Intel components, and to report on their current update status. It’s pretty useful, and has become part of my normal maintenance routine for checking driver status on the PCs I manage. I also use DriverAgent (though other tools like RadarSync, Driver Detective, Drive Guide, and so forth also do pretty much the same thing) but I’ve observed that Intel is often better at keeping up with its own drivers than third parties, so I’ve come to depend on IDUU to help me keep my Intel drivers as current as can be.
But recently, I noticed something subtle about the language that the IDUU uses to report on drivers it finds, that in turn led me to realize that Intel apparently doesn’t care if a driver is the most current in every case. Rather, it appears to care only that some drivers are “valid,” even when newer drivers may be available. Notice this report block on the Intel Chipset Software Installation Utility:
Now, compare this to the language used for the built-in Realtek RTL8013EL Ethernet GbE adapter on that same motherboard:
In the chipset case, the version is valid, but in the Ethernet adapter’s case the driver is current. “Hmm…” I wondered, “Is there a difference between valid and current?”
The answer turns out to be “Yes.” By researching the most current Series 3 Chipset Driver through a manual search on Intel’s Download pages, I was able to determine that the highest numbered version available was 188.8.131.522. My machine was happily running version 184.108.40.2066 instead. A quick download and install took care of that issue as the preceding chipset screen capture now attests, but this leaves me wondering why the IDUU doesn’t tell its users that a more current version is available. My best guess is that it waits until some critical feature gets introduced in a newer update, and only then instructs its users to update their drivers. That would be a reasonable approach to driver updates where “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” often prevails as a guiding principle. I can only imagine that’s why Intel also labels the 220.127.116.112 version as valid, even though it’s also the most current as well.
But if, like me, you want at least some machines to always be running the absolute latest and greatest Intel drivers, if only for test purposes, it’s good to know that when you see “valid” in this tool you should probably go looking for something more current, just in case it’s out there for downloading.
The latest entry in the Building Windows 8 blog is called “Supporting Sensors in Windows 8,” and it comes from Gavin Gear, one of the Microsoft Product Managers on the Windows 8 Device Connectivity team. It tells a fascinating story of how (and why) the basic Windows 8 hardware requirements include so many sensors (an accelerometer, a magnetometer, and a gyroscope, among others) so that application and service developers can count on basic system capabilities when building next generation software of all kinds. The following diagram helps to illustrate how combining such hardware devices together can support smoother and more capable physical functions, not just for the usual purposes (screen rotation and orientation) but also to support lots of other interesting capabilities as well (including game controllers, smart remotes, measurement and data acquisition, and so forth):
Mr. Gear follows up his explanation and discussion with some data traces from an accelerometer to depict why straightforward use of such data doesn’t always produce the best user experience. From there he goes on to explain how MS has worked with hardware manufacturers and device makers to create a single Microsoft driver that can “…work with all Windows-compatible connected over USB and even lower power busses…” The upshot is that any sensor company can construct a Windows 8 compatible package by adhering to “…public standard USB-IF specifications for compliant device firmware.”
Pretty slick already, but MS also worked to control power consumption and sensor performance as well by enabling sensor processing to occur at the hardware level without involving the CPU, and by building filtering mechanisms to restrict data flow (and event rates) to speeds that won’t exceed the processing stack’s handling capacity (this also helps reduce consumption of CPU cycles).
The blog concludes with a discussion of how sensors can play into Windows 8’s new “Metro-style” apps, using a new sensor API included as part of the Windows 8 runtime environment (aka WinRT). Code examples show the APIs to be simple and straightforward, making them easy for developers to put to work. It should be interesting to see how easy access to sensors and location data helps raise the bar for Windows 8 apps over the years and months ahead. There’s even a product reference to a specialty sensor part built into last year’s Windows 8 Developer Preview slate PC from Samsung, now that developers can purchase such parts on the open market, to help get this phenomenon rolling.
As part of my daily due diligence in writing this blog, I keep up with the postings on Microsoft’s Born to Learn blog. A recent post (1/17/2012) from Andrew Bettany entitled “Have MSTS/MCITP exams got easier?” caught my eye this morning, as much or more because of the comments to this post as for the post itself. Be sure to check it out if you’ve got a Microsoft exam in your near-term future.
But what really got my wheels turning were the concepts of “fairness” and “challenge” raised in a comment by Microsoft’s lead psychometrician, Liberty Munson, especially in light of my recent brokering of contact between herself, an exam developer, and a friend and colleague who had taken the 70-662 Microsoft Exchange Server 2010, Configuring exam no less than four times without managing to pass it on any attempt. As somebody who’s actively engaged in consulting with major Fortune 1000 companies to help them transition hundreds of thousands of email users into Exchange 2010, I have trouble accepting the notion that he simply doesn’t understand the platform and its capabilities. In that light, consider what Ms. Munson has to say in this posting:
Thanks for great post! It shouldn’t surprise anyone that people who pass exams tend to think they are easy while those that fail believe that they are too hard. The key is to make sure that those who fail also believe that they were “fair assessments” of their skills while those who pass also found them to be “challenging” (or “easy but challenging”). That’s nuance of “easiness” that is often overlooked by candidates and hiring managers. Exams should be “easy” for qualified candidates because we’re assessing skills that they have, but they should also be “challenging” and fair assessments of skills. We rarely get past the “it’s too easy” part of the conversation to understand the deeper nuance…Was it challenging? Was it fair? Does it differentiate you as someone who knows the technology? It’s possible that our exams haven’t been challenging–that this is assumed in the “it’s too easy” statement–but there’s a deeper question here that needs to be asked.
Enough with the philosophical aspects of this conversation :)…over the last year, we’ve made changes to our item writing guidelines and use of item types to increase the percieved difficulty of our exams because we understand that the conversation generally stops at “it’s too easy”…certain item types and item writing strategies can be leveraged to make exams feel more challenging without requiring more skills or knowledge. However, as we introduce new certifications, you’ll find that we’ll be requiring deeper knowledge and higher level skills to address comments that “it’s too easy.” Psychometrically, I regularly monitor the difficulty of the exams and ensure that it’s at an appropriate level for the target audience and programmatic goals/definitions of what it means to hold the credential. Changes are made when and where necessary to meet these targets.
I’d love to start hearing people talk about our exams as “challenging and fair assessments” as we continue to improve the ability of our certifications to differentiate people who really know their stuff from those who don’t or just sorta do. Andrew–Thanks for starting to get the word out!
Clearly, some of the ongoing renovation of existing MS exams and development of new ones incorporates great concepts and intentions on the part of the people who work with SMEs to put those exams together, and to measure and monitor them for statistical relevance to the populations being tested. But “fairness” is a difficult concept to get right, especially when exam questions veer into the realms of what my aggrieved friend and colleague perceived as mostly “administrivia” that real-world admins would simply look up if they had to deal with such seldom-used (or rarely-needed) features and functions. In his case, he’d readily concede that the 70-662 exam is challenging, but also vehemently claims that it’s grossly unfair.
I symthpathize with both parties in this kind of encounter. On the one hand, having created hundreds of practice tests for the certification exams covered in my many Exam Cram and study guide certification books, I get how difficult it is to create sound, meaningful and relevant exam items for candidates to ponder and learn from. On the other hand, I also really feel for my friend’s situation where his consulting company requires him to pass the 70-662 exam so he can present the “right credentials” to his many clients, but where he feels that the exam is more of a random check on obscure or little-used Exchange features and functions, than a meaningful assessment of his skills and knowledge of the platform.
This is a tough situation, and one that requires not only that both sides recognize each other’s motivations and priorities, but also that the testing party provide enough information to testees to let them understand what they must learn to get past the exam, and that testees take this seriously enough to make a concerted effort to learn and master the necessary skills, knowledge, and even administrivia details to get over the hump. Usually, taking a Microsoft Official Curriculum class, reading the books, and acing numerous practice exams is enough to guarantee a good result. But when this tried-and-true method fails, it’s time to start asking why and trying to reason one’s way into the proper information set to figure out what’s wrong. My colleague also believes that MS should provide testees with more detailed feedback about questions answered incorrectly rather than simply flagging certain concept areas where the test-taker failed to meet minimum score requirements.
All this goes to show that certification exams really aren’t easy to create, and sometimes can be incredibly difficult to pass as well. It should be interesting to see how this situation plays out, and how the two parties will find some kind of rapprochement.
In his most recent monthly column for WindowsITPro entitled “The Rigor of Windows 8 Hardware Certification Requirements, …” Windowsmeister Paul Thurrott provides a snapshot of the current requirements that Microsoft intends to levy on those seeking to put the Windows 8 logo decal on their PCs, notebooks, tablets, and smartphones. It’s an interesting and detailed collection of info, based in turn on Rafael Rivera’s equally interesting WithinWindows blog entitled “Windows 8 Secrets: PC and Device Requirements.” Both are worth reading in their entirety; here I’ll summarize some of the most interesting high points.
- 5-point digitizers: Windows 8 touch PCs must support at least 5 touch points (five fingers’ worth, guaranteeing support for complex multi-touch swipes and gestures).
- NFC “touch marks”: Near field communications lets devices interact with each other when they’re so close as to be nearly touching, and are key to emerging technologies for payment transfers especially from smartphones to cash registers (or computers acting like same).
- 5 required hardware buttons: devices must provide buttons for power, rotation lock, the Windows key, and volume up/down controls. Also, devices that belong to a domain that lack keyboards must support Windows Key + Power as an alternative to the Ctrl+Alt+Del key sequence (the infamous “three-fingered salute” for those who remember DOS and early Windows versions).
- Minimum component requirements include 10 GB of free storage space after Win8 is installed, support for UEFI (see my 9/23/2011 blog for more info), WLAN, Bluetooth and LE networking, Direct3D 10 graphics with a WDDM 1.2 driver, 1366×768 screen resolution or better, 720p camera, an ambient light sensor, a magnetometer and an accelerometer, a gyroscope, at least one USB 2.0 controller and exposed port (or better), and audio speakers. Sounds like a decent smartphone or tablet, eh?
- Graphic drivers must be upgradeable without requiring a reboot (easier to do thanks to dropping XDDM drivers and keeping only WDDM drivers for Windows 8).
- 2-second resume(does not apply to ARM-based devices yet) from Standby (S3) to “resume complete” status. Rivera speculates “Microsoft simply doesn’t have enough data in this space” to impose the same restriction on ARM as on x86; Thurrott speculates that “it will be added in a future release, such as Windows 9.”
Veeeeeeeeeeeeeeery interesting. Be sure to check out the original posts, too!