In March 2019, Microsoft introduced the public preview of a new cloud-based form of the Windows Operating System. It is called Windows Virtual Desktop, or WVD. It is a desktop and application experience that runs in Microsoft’s Azure cloud. Now, after a full year of pandemic use, Microsoft has improved the overall aspects of building and maintaining the desktop for IT Solutions Providers. For those who use the desktop, that experience has been significantly overhauled as well. You wouldn’t know you are using a cloud-based virtual desktop if you didn’t click a unique icon to run it.

What does all this futuristic technology mean? Well, for one thing, by the end of this year, I hope to offer WVD as an alternative to full-fledged desktop solutions along with Azure as a server replacement. In a few years, the typical five-year desktop and seven-year sever hardware refresh may fall by the wayside for small businesses. That’s because it will no longer be about how much RAM or the version of the CPU in a physical computer. Instead, it will be about the number of IOPS (input-output operations per second) and the overall internet speed at your business location.

The primary advantage of WVD is that you can access your business desktop from any device with a web browser. The login process uses multi-factor authentication for security. You connect to your business’ Active Directory server, which contains your user profile information. You get access to the full range of Office applications via Microsoft 365 and standard desktop applications like Adobe Reader and even QuickBooks.

One of the primary tasks Microsoft had to face at the start of the pandemic was to provide a “near-desktop” experience for millions of people suddenly working from home. They implemented new technology to enable fast access to user profiles via a recently purchased company called FSLogix. At sign-in, a user profile container is dynamically attached to the computing environment. The user profile is immediately available and appears on the system exactly like a typical native user profile. (In English: your desktop, files, and favorites are all there, just the way you expect.)

The one drawback to deploying all this cloud-based functionality is, the smaller the business, the higher the monthly cost per person. That’s because to use WVD, you need an Azure server — and that cost is the same whether you have two people in your office or ten. However, the monthly cost for a two-person office could be $200 per person, while at a ten-person office, that cost could go down to $50 per person. Note these figures are examples, and actual prices require careful calculation.

There is a vast educational factor involved in implementing this new technology stack. Previously, I would go to the Dell web site, configure a server with minimal specifications and have it shipped to my office for about $1,000. I would then use my Windows Server licenses (courtesy of my Microsoft partnership) to load up a base system. I’d create virtual versions of the servers and desktops to develop various end-user scenarios, implement the appropriate security settings, and thoroughly learn how things worked before deploying any of them at any client site.

Microsoft will let me do something similar with Azure and WVD. Still, it requires using their facilities to spin up the environment, build the desktops, create the simulated users, and test how everything hangs together. I am already in contact with a leading vendor that is willing to assist building the requisite cloud structures in this new format and help me price and deploy environments to clients. I would much rather work with a Sherpa to climb a mountain like this than do it on my own.

Over time, I envision many small business owners who want to keep their staff working from home will switch to using WVD to provide Windows desktops in those remote locations.

The “black screen” problem in Windows 10 shows how nothing sometimes matters quite a lot. Seeing nothing except a black screen where the desktop and its icons usually appear is disconcerting because you don’t know what the computer is — or isn’t — doing.

I am an experienced Windows user, and when I encounter a black screen, I know at least two things immediately. First, just like you, I know that something is wrong with my computer. And second, because nothing is visible, I can assume something is not quite right with the graphics interface and the operating system.

As a start, that may be enough, but what most of you want is to get your desktop back. In this article, I’ll guide you through the methods I’ve found to fix this annoying problem.

Occasionally, you’ll start Windows and end up with what’s called a “black screen with a cursor.” Just as it sounds, this means the display is entirely black, except that the mouse cursor appears on that black background. The cursor might track your mouse’s movement even though it’s moving over a completely black screen.

In my personal experience, the black screen with a cursor occurs far more frequently than a black screen by itself (no cursor). The presence of a cursor that responds to your mouse’s movement is a good sign — even in the midst of a bad situation. It indicates that Windows is still working (partially) behind the scenes, and that the mouse driver can still track the cursor position on the screen. This means there’s an excellent chance that the desktop can be restored to regular operation using a few well-known key combinations.

Two keyboard combinations can (usually) restore normal operations

Both combinations involve pressing multiple keys simultaneously. This means using one finger to press the first key and holding it down, using a second finger to press the second key and doing likewise, then more of the same for a third key — and one of these two combinations requires adding a fourth and final key as well.

Attempt 1: Restart the graphics driver

This four-key combination tells Windows 10 to stop, then restart any graphics drivers that happen to be running. For your first attempt, do this: Windows key + Ctrl + Shift + B. I usually do the first three keys with my left hand, then press the letter B with my right index finger.

If you see the rapid flashing of the disk activity light, that’s a good sign. Sometimes the screen will return to regular operation a few seconds later, showing that the driver has reloaded and is now running successfully. Sometimes, nothing else will happen after the disk activity light stops flashing, so it is on to the second attempt.

Attempt 2: The three-fingered salute

This is a familiar key combo to anyone who has used Windows for a long time: Ctrl + Alt + Delete.

Even when the first attempt gets the graphics driver going, it still won’t light up the screen. And sometimes, when that’s the case, this key sequence will repaint the screen to show you the secure log-in options. If that screen does appear, click “Cancel,” and your desktop should reappear.

Attempt 3: Forced restart

If the cursor is absent, these key combos often won’t help (and sometimes they don’t help even when the cursor is present). In those cases, there’s only one thing to do next: forcibly turn off your computer. This means holding down the power button – for at least the count of 10 – until the device completely shuts down.

After a moment, press the power button again to turn on your computer. It should typically start with no black screen. If the screen remains black after you’ve gone through these steps, you need to call me!

Nobody wants to see a black screen on Windows 10

If you ever encounter this disturbing situation, you now have a pretty good idea of how to fix it yourself. In most cases, reloading the graphics driver or restarting the computer will do the trick. In other cases, there’s no choice except to let me know so that I can work through some of the more advanced troubleshooting sequences.

In mid-January 2020, Microsoft issued advisory ADV200001 warning of a vulnerability in the scripting engine of Internet Explorer.  Yes, I know, that’s gibberish to most of you.  It means that there could have been an attempt to execute code in attack mode via that browser.   How?  You could have received an email with a link that explicitly opened Internet Explorer (even if it wasn’t your default browser) and been sent to a malicious web site specifically designed by bad guys.   If exploited successfully, the attacker could have gained access rights to your computer.  As Microsoft put it at the time: “An attacker could then install programs; view, change, or delete data; or create new accounts with full user rights.”

That’s very bad (I’d segue into the Ghostbusters “don’t cross the streams” theme about the definition of the word “bad,” but I’m sure you get the idea).

At the time, Microsoft did not have an immediate fix.  As of February’s “patch Tuesday,” they announced one with the heading “Security Advisory CVE-2020-0674.”  Microsoft will be patching desktop operating systems from Windows 7 clear through the latest version of Windows 10, plus a slew of server operating systems.

The Network Operations Center will be testing this set of updates for the next seven days.  If the patches pass those tests, then the updates will be available for all of you by the end of next week.  In the interim, I have only one thing to say:  DO NOT USE INTERNET EXPLORER, USE ANOTHER BROWSER!  There are several to choose from, for example, Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome, Opera (which I didn’t recall as being around, but it still exists) or Brave (which I’m sure you’ve never heard of), heck there are probably some of you who use Edge in Windows 10 (heaven help you).  If you’re not sure what browser is your default, write to me and I’ll let you know.

But let’s get down to the meat of this:  If Microsoft announced the problem on January 17 and only released the solution on February 11, the bad guys had a considerable amount of time to take advantage of the vulnerability, and yet the world didn’t come to a screeching halt.  But I don’t – for one minute – want to suggest that you not patch a known vulnerability.  What I recommend, instead, is a moderate amount of common sense.  And the best way to implement that would be to stop using the problem-plagued browser, even after your computer receives the patches.

Bottom line:  this exploit is explicitly for IE – so to avoid any possible unpleasantness, don’t use it.  Simple really.

Thanks and safe computing!

There is a feature of Windows 10 that some people might find useful. It is called Task View, and it has the ability to create multiple desktops.

To activate Task View, click its icon — a large rectangle with two smaller rectangles flanking it — in the Windows Taskbar just to the right of the Search box. When you do, Task View (and its associated feature Timeline) opens.

At the very top of the screen you’ll see a “New desktop” button, and beneath that, thumbnails of all of your currently running applications arrayed against the desktop so you can quickly see what you’ve got running. You can click any thumbnail to switch to that application or press the Esc key to leave Task View and return to where you were.

Beneath that you’ll see Timeline, with thumbnails of documents you’ve worked on over the last thirty days. For all businesses and most home users, I have disabled this feature to afford you more privacy. Microsoft tracks this information, and I do not feel comfortable providing them with more telemetry than necessary. However, if you think this could be useful, let me know and I can tell you how to reactivate it.

Now, if you were used to using the Alt-Tab key combination to cycle through open applications in Windows 7, you can still do that as well, but Task View adds a couple of extra twists. If you hover your mouse over any thumbnail, a small X appears in its upper-right corner. You can click the X to close that application.

Task View also lets you create multiple virtual desktops, each with different Windows applications running on them. To create a new desktop, open Task View and click “New desktop” at the upper left of the screen. You can run a different set of Windows applications inside the new desktop. For instance, you could dedicate one desktop to your Microsoft Office applications, like Word, Outlook, and Excel, and another desktop to handle your various browser applications, and another for your accounting software.

To switch among these virtual desktops, click the Task View icon and click the desktop to which you want to switch. You can keep creating new desktops this way and switch among them.

Let me know your reactions to using this new Windows 10 feature by posting a Comment.

I used to consult for Fortune 100 companies, and it never ceased to amaze me how management could make some of the moves it did. Sometimes plans that were identified as “not well thought out” (i.e., half-baked) saw the light of day — and projects failed. So when Microsoft announced it was changing the way in which Windows 10 semi-annual updates were going to be released, it got my attention.

When Windows 10 was released in July 2015, Microsoft said that it was working towards the concept of “Software as a Service.” It established a strategy of twice-a-year Feature Updates; one in the spring and one in the fall, which were tagged “yymm” (e.g., 1809 or 1903). Each Feature Update had an 18-month lifespan before support would no longer be available, and the computer would be forced to jump to the then current version. For the first couple of iterations, that worked (sort of).

Apparently, it took some time before Microsoft realized that it couldn’t maintain the drumbeat of an update feature every six months. Instead, they are going to implement one Feature Update a year, and another form of update — what used to be called a “service pack.” This is still two major updates a year, but they have not indicated if they plan to change the 18-month support restriction.

I realize that this will be revealed in time, but right now, before the end of July’s Microsoft worldwide partner conference, things are still very much up in the air. Every IT support organization that has tuned the Windows Update settings to protect computers from unexpected updates is going to have to find out what the new settings are and reconfigure them. Every IT support organization is also going to have to figure out how to go from one Feature Update to another without adversely affecting the computer. And everyone is going to have to decide if they want to remain on a merry-go-round where the conductor keeps changing the speed of the carousel.

This month Microsoft will start to gently remind Windows 7 users that it is time to consider switching to Windows 10. According a blog post by Matt Barlow, a Microsoft marketing executive:

“Beginning next month, if you are a Windows 7 customer, you can expect to see a notification appear on your Windows 7 PC. This is a courtesy reminder that you can expect to see a handful of times in 2019. By starting the reminders now, our hope is that you have time to plan and prepare for this transition. These notifications are designed to help provide information only and if you would prefer not to receive them again, you’ll be able to select an option for “do not notify me again,” and we will not send you any further reminders.”

The good news: You will be nagged, but you will be able to turn off the alert. The bad news: I suspect that by November or December, that will no longer be the case. After January 14, 2020, I am certain that if you continue to use Windows 7, you will receive a larger banner regarding the end of support. What that means is your computer, along with Office 2010, will no longer receive any updates, including security updates — and this could expose your computer to potential security threats.

I have written several times that I aim to replace all older computers between now and the end of the year. Anyone who has a newer computer (say, three years old or less) that is running Windows 7 can simply upgrade “in place.” Starting in June, I plan to contact you to schedule this. It entails backing-up your files, downloading Windows 10, and installing the new operating system without replacing your computer. The whole process takes a little over four hours and can be done via remote session.

Thanks and safe computing!

After years of creating almost a dozen versions of Internet Explorer, in 2015, Microsoft introduced a new browser called Edge. This was released concurrently with Windows 10. The following year Microsoft announced that there would be no further development (meaning enhancements) to Internet Explorer (IE); only security updates would be issued.

At the start of 2019, according to Net Applications, a company that measures browser usage around the world, almost no one uses the Edge browser (4%) and use of IE has plummeted to 11%. It comes as a stark reminder to realize that only five years ago, IE had almost 85% of the market share.

You are probably asking, “What does this have to do with me?”

I’m getting there, I promise.

As many web developers have discovered, it is increasingly hard to code a web site to support a browser that doesn’t know about the latest features and techniques for displaying web pages. So a number of sites have simply said they are no longer going to run on IE. If you want to view or use their web sites, you’ll have to use another browser. I found this out with one client when she couldn’t get to her AOL mail using IE!

All Windows 10 computers come with the Edge browser by default. But also contained in the operating system is the code to run IE 11. It has been my standard operating practice to remove the Edge icon from the taskbar and replace it with the one for IE. But if Microsoft is not going to issue anything other than security updates, and more web sites decide not to code for IE, I am making a mistake in providing it for you.

So I took a closer look at the Net Applications statistics. To my amazement, my personal favorite browser, Mozilla Firefox has a 10% share – even lower than IE! And to my surprise, Google Chrome has a 64% share. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I need to update my standard deployment task for new computers.

Going forward, I will install Google Chrome on all Windows 10 computers, and set that to be your default browser. I will port over your bookmarks (favorites) and saved information so that you can continue to use this browser instead of Internet Explorer.

I will caution you that that Chrome is slightly different than IE. To help make this transition a little easier, if you want to start using it now, I will offer to install it on your current Windows 7 computer. That way you can compare and contrast how your favorite web sites appear with both browsers, and take at least a few months to wean yourselves away from IE.

PS — After I wrote this article, Microsoft announced that they will be using the Google Chrome framework for future versions of the Edge browser. Notwithstanding that development (which won’t be released until later in 2019), I’m still going to install Chrome.

Microsoft will be ending support for Windows 7 in January 2020, which means there will be no further updates. Shortly thereafter, I will stop support as well. While that date may seem far in the future, I can assure you that’s not the case! It is less than a year and a half away, and the majority of my clients will need new computers (along with associated hardware and software) between now and that deadline. I am affected by this as well; because I have to replace my desktop and laptop.

This early reminder is designed to let you begin planning a budget for a refresh. Based on the current political talk and potentially looming trade tariffs, it is possible that computers could cost more for consumers and businesses before next year. However, I have no idea when (or if) price increases will take place, nor by how much. You can use the following approximate numbers: $800 for a computer, $200 for a monitor, $150 for a printer, and $500 for me to do the necessary work (assessment, procurement, system set up, installation, and file transfer).

I have a chart with the warranty information for each of my clients’ computers. I will send you a letter 60 to 90 days in advance of its expiration to find out how you would like to proceed. Some of you may decide you want to move to an Apple Mac, others may opt for Ubuntu Linux, and still others Google Chromebook. We can discuss those options in the coming months.

Please note that recently purchased Windows 7 computers are eligible to upgrade to Windows 10 for free. I will contact Lenovo to obtain the software update for you. Other Windows 7 computers may not be eligible for free software, but could still run Windows 10 (an additional purchase). Again, I will discuss these options with you as well.

Look for more frequent reminders, along with Windows 10 usage tips, in future editions of this blog.

Microsoft issues its monthly updates on “Patch Tuesday,” the second Tuesday of the month. Since the beginning of this year it has tried to fix the critical issues associated with the Spectre and Meltdown problems. But in a totally unexpected turn, the March 2018 monthly update knocked Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2 systems offline because the network drivers get clobbered after the computers were restarted.

As a result, for the past two months I have blacklisted the updates; meaning I prevented them from being installed. In cases where I missed that phase and the computer had not been rebooted, I ran a script to uninstall the update. And in some cases, I was altogether too late and had to manually reinstall the network drivers.

Unfortunately, the May 2018 monthly update was wrapped up with a critical security patch, so it was inevitable that I had to release it. And I regret it, because this last episode has pretty much worn me out – and I’m not done with it yet.

Of all the vaunted software tools I have at my disposal, the most valuable one is remote access. However, when a client’s computer cannot connect to the internet that tool becomes useless; and I am forced into “break/fix” mode.

So the second Thursday of the month has now become a day of running around to client sites and manually reinstalling drivers, getting internet access again, updating the drivers and fixing other elements that are listed as “Unknown” in the Windows Device Manager.

Knowing that I’m shouting into the wind, I’m going to make this plea anyway. “Hey Microsoft! Could you please figure out a way to get this update to work properly without any extraordinary measures on my part?” I would thank you, and my clients would thank you.

“Beware the Ides of March” is a well-known phrase for this time of year. Who knew that it would apply on Wednesday March 14, 2018? That was the day after Microsoft released KB4088875, which had the uncanny ability to remove the network card drivers from Windows 7 Professional and create ghost network cards in Windows Server 2008 R2.

Clients called to tell me they could not connect to the Internet, and asked if I could remote in to fix the problem? Seriously? (Sometimes there is a little bit of humor in IT support.)

No, I am sorry, but I cannot remote in to your computer if you can’t get a network connection. I had to tell a number of clients that I was going to deputize them as “special assistant junior level 1 technicians” for the life of the phone call. In some cases it was a mere 15 minutes; whereas in others it clocked in at closer to 45.

The major saving grace in all of this is that I deploy Lenovo computers to my clients. Fortunately the factory-installed network drivers are available for detection and installation directly from Windows (Device Manager > Unknown Device > Update drivers > Browse my computer), or indirectly via the C:\SWTOOLS\DRIVERS\NETWORK\INTEL folder (requires the user to click on the appropriate EXE file).

Once the network card was re-installed and activated, it was a simple matter of gaining remote control to do two important tasks. The first was to uninstall KB4088875; that absolutely had to go. The second was to run Lenovo’s System Update utility to update the network driver to the current version, and to reinstall (or update) any other software that was removed.

The most worrisome aspect of this little escapade: I’m not sure that all of my clients rebooted following Tuesday’s patch. So this issue is going to crop up again and again over the next few weeks as clients shut down and restart their computers.

I have already run a script to uninstall the patch from those computers, but I may not have caught all of them in time. Similarly, I have blocked the patch from being distributed to the rest of my client base to prevent an onslaught of phone calls and irate clients.

Ubuntu doesn’t seem to have these horrific issues on a regular basis.  Although January’s attempt to fix the Meltdown issue did qualify as truly awful. So if a client only needs to browse the internet and obtain mail via a web browser, I am now, more than ever, inclined to move them to an easier to manage desktop operating system.

Therefore, let me offer “Thanks!” to Microsoft for enabling me to break out of the Windows-only rut and consider an alternative desktop experience for my clients. Ubuntu puts a nice glossy coat on Linux, virtually eliminating the mystery of using a different operating system.

Thanks and safe computing!