Thom Holwerda Archive

Google is working to bring official Steam support to Chrome OS

Last week in Las Vegas while at CES, I spoke with Kan Liu, Director of Product Management for Google’s Chrome OS. In a wide-ranging discussion about the Chrome platform and ecosystem, Liu dropped something of a bombshell on me: the Chrome team is working—very possibly in cooperation with Valve—to bring Steam to Chromebooks. The next question, of course, is just what sorts of games would even be worth playing on a Chromebook when run directly on local hardware. Currently, most Chromebooks have extremely limited 3D acceleration performance, with only the most recent devices like Samsung’s Galaxy Chromebook possessing vaguely passable GPUs. Liu said we could expect that to change: more powerful Chromebooks, especially AMD Chromebooks, are coming. Liu would not explicitly confirm that any of these models would contain discrete Radeon graphics, but told us to stay tuned. This makes a lot of sense. Sure, you won’t be running the latest and greatest AAA titles on Chromebooks any time soon, but Steam has a massive library of less intensive games and older titles that would run just fine on any mid-range Chromebook. On top of that, this would open Chromebooks up to Steam’s streaming feature.

The PinePhone starts shipping – a Linux-powered smartphone for $150

Pine64 has announced that it is finally shipping the PinePhone, a smartphone that takes the rare step outside the Android/iOS duopoly and is designed to run mainline Linux distributions. The PinePhone starts shipping January 17 in the “Braveheart” developer edition. An interesting device for sure, and the dip switches on the motherboard that act has hardware kill switches for things like the microphone and camera are pretty neat. I do take issue with the “Linux-powered” as if that’s some unique quality or anything. Save for the odd iPhone, every single smartphone in the world runs Linux. Maybe not in a form that adheres to your no true Scotsman idea of Linux, but 100% Linux nonetheless.

The new Microsoft Edge is out of preview and now available for download

From this incredible momentum, today I’m pleased to announce the new Microsoft Edge is now available to download on all supported versions of Windows and macOS in more than 90 languages. Microsoft Edge is also available on iOS and Android, providing a true cross-platform experience. The new Microsoft Edge provides world class performance with more privacy, more productivity and more value while you browse. Our new browser also comes with our Privacy Promise and we can’t wait for you to try new features like tracking prevention, which is on by default, and provides three levels of control while you browse. The new Edge will also come to Linux, so this gives us yet another Chromium-based browser available on all platforms. Why, exactly, you’d choose Edge over Chrome, Vivaldi, or any others is still not entirely clear to me, however.

Opening up the Baseboard Management Controller

In 2011 Facebook announced the Open Compute Project to form a community around open-source designs and specifications for data center hardware. Facebook shared its hardware specs, which resulted in 38 percent less energy consumption and 24 percent cost savings compared with its existing data centers. What Facebook and other hyperscalers (Google, Microsoft, et al.) donate to the Open Compute Project are their solutions to the agonizing problems that come with running data centers at scale. Since then, the project has expanded to all aspects of the open data center: baseboard management controllers (BMCs), network interface controllers (NICs), rack designs, power busbars, servers, storage, firmware, and security. This column focuses on the BMC. This is an introduction to a complicated topic; some sections just touch the surface, but the intention is to provide a full picture of the world of the open-source BMC ecosystem, starting with a brief overview of the BMC’s role in a system, touching on security concerns around the BMC, and then diving into some of the projects that have developed in the open-source ecosystem. A good overview.

Google is seeking to deprecate Chrome’s User Agent string

Google intends to deprecate the user agent string in Chrome. According to the proposal, the first step is to deprecate the “navigator.userAgent” method used to access the User Agent string, suggested to start in March with Chrome 81. This change won’t have any visible effect for most people, and websites will continue to work completely as normal. However, web developers will be given explicit warnings in the Chrome development console that retrieving the User Agent string is no longer a good idea. Next, with the release of Chrome 83 in June, Google will begin to freeze, or stop updating, the User Agent string with each update to Chrome. At the same time, Chrome will also “unify” the information shared about your device’s operating system, for example meaning that two computers on slightly different Windows 10 updates should have the same User Agent. This will eliminate one more potential fingerprinting method. Finally, beginning in September’s Chrome 85 release, every Chrome rowser running on a desktop operating system, such as Windows, macOS, or Linux, will report the exact same User Agent string, eliminating all possible User Agent fingerprinting. Similarly, Chrome 85 will unify the User Agent on mobile devices, though devices will apparently be lumped into one of a few categories based on screen size. User agent strings have long outlived their usefulness, and today only serve to artificially restrict browser access in the stupidest of ways. I’m obviously not comfortable with Google spearheading this effort, so I’m counting on a lot of scrutiny from the web community and other browser makers.

Amiga Java

Since Java Grinder (a Java byte-code compiler) already supports the Motorola 68000 CPU with the Sega Genesis I figured it shouldn’t be too hard to extend the MC68000.cxx class to support the Commodore Amiga computer. More specifically, the original Amiga 1000. Amazing.

Windows 7 is no longer supported beginning today

It’s the end of an era. Today’s date, January 14, has been on the books for years now, and it’s the day that support ends for Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008. More specifically, extended support is ending for Windows 7 Service Pack 1, and Windows Server 2008 R2 Service Pack 1 and 2. There are, of course, workarounds. Microsoft is offering Extended Security Updates (ESUs) for those willing to pay up, and it’s only available for Windows 7 Professional and Enterprise. The price is going to be per-machine, and it will double every year. In other words, if you’ve got a business with multiple Windows 7 PCs, it’s going to be costly to keep them on the legacy OS. ESUs will be available for three years. You can get ESUs through volume licensing or through Microsoft 365. Windows 7 is 11 years old by now, and moving the operating system strictly to paid maintenance seems acceptable – you can’t expect operating systems to be maintained forever. This means that unless they’re planning on being irresponsible, Windows 7 users will have to start moving to Windows 10. They might want to download one of the many debloat programs, followed by a a tool that gives them strict control over Windows 10’s leaky privacy settings. Or, you know, move to something else entirely.

Open letter from 50+ organizations want Google to do something about Android bloatware

Over 50 organizations including the Privacy International, Digital Rights Foundation, DuckDuckGo, and Electronic Frontier Foundation have written an open letter to Alphabet and Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai about exploitive pre-installed bloatware on Android devices and how they pose a privacy risk to consumers. Thus, the group wants Google to make some changes to how Android handles pre-installed apps a.k.a bloatware. They want the company to provide users with the ability to permanently uninstall all pre-installed apps on their devices. While some pre-loaded apps can be disabled on Android devices, they continue to run some background processes which makes disabling them a moot point. The open letter requests Google to ensure that pre-installed apps go through the same scrutiny as all the apps listed on the Google Play Store. They also want all pre-installed apps to be updated through Google Play even if the device does not have a user logged into it. Google should also not certify devices on privacy grounds if it detects that an OEM is trying to exploit users’ privacy and their data. With antitrust regulators from both the EU and the US breathing down their necks, I highly doubt Google will do what this open letter asks of them. And let’s face it – you can’t on the one hand lament Google’s control over Android, while on the other hand ask that they use said control against parties you happen to dislike. I hate bloatware as much as anyone else, but I’d be a massive hypocrite if, after years of advocating for user freedom when it comes to smartphones, computers, and other devices, I would turn around and ask Google to lock down Android devices even more to Google Play just because I happen to think carriers are the scum of the earth.

A look at Celerity’s second generation 496-core RISC-V Mesh NoC

For those who are not familiar with Celerity, this is a multi-university effort that has resulted in an open-source manycore RISC-V tiered accelerator chip. The project is part of the DARPA Circuit Realization At Faster Timescales (CRAFT) program which wants to drive the design cycle for custom integrated circuits to weeks and months from years. The Celerity team first presented the chip at Hot Chips 29. Last year, at VLSI 2019, Celerity was back to talk about the PLL and the NoC of its second-generation chip. The presentation was given by Austin Rovinski from the University of Michigan. I can read the words, but much of this is far too complicated for me to give any meaningful comment.

Microsoft is planning to phase out the Windows 10 Store for Business

To date, Microsoft hasn’t said anything publicly about what’s going to happen to any of its digital app stores. But privately, officials across various teams at the company have been trying to come up with a concerted strategy, I’ve heard. That strategy does not call for Microsoft to drop the Web version of the Microsoft Store. I’m not sure what will happen to the Microsoft Store client that’s built into Windows 10 right now; my contacts say its future is “uncertain” at this point. To say the Microsoft Store has been a failure might be a bit too harsh – it has allowed Microsoft itself to update some core Windows applications easier than ever before – but a raging success it is not. Windows developers don’t really care, and users keep installing applications the way they’re used to, so it only makes sense for Microsoft to reevaluate its strategy with regard to the various versions of its application store. I’m not sad about it.

Farmers are buying 40-year-old tractors because they’re actually repairable

When a brand new John Deere tractors breaks down, you need a computer to fix it. When a John Deere tractor manufactured in 1979 breaks down, you can repair it yourself or buy another old John Deere tractor. Farming equipment—like televisions, cars, and even toothbrushes—now often comes saddled with a computer. That computer often comes with digital rights management software that can make simple repairs an expensive pain in the ass. As reported by the Minnesota StarTribune, Farmers have figured out a way around the problem—buying tractors manufactured 40 years ago, before the computers took over. I wonder if we’ll ever reach that state with computers – a point where they become so locked-down, unrepairable and impossible to fix that we will be forced to keep older hardware around just to retain control over our own devices.

Linus Torvalds: “Don’t use ZFS”

Don’t use ZFS. It’s that simple. It was always more of a buzzword than anything else, I feel, and the licensing issues just make it a non-starter for me. The benchmarks I’ve seen do not make ZFS look all that great. And as far as I can tell, it has no real maintenance behind it either any more, so from a long-term stability standpoint, why would you ever want to use it in the first place? ZFS could be the fastest file system in the world and randomly disperse kittens and I still wouldn’t touch it with a ten metre pole if I were Linus. Oracle is a colony of snakes led by the biggest snake of them all, and adding their code – even through shims or interfaces – should be a complete non-starter for any project.

BeOS: the alternate universe’s Mac OS X

You’re likely familiar with the old tale about how Steve Jobs was ousted from Apple and started his own company, NeXT. Apple then bought NeXT and their technologies and brought Jobs back as CEO once again. However, Jobs’ path wasn’t unique, and the history of computing since then could’ve gone a whole lot different. In 1990, Jean-Louis Gassée, who replaced Jobs in Apple as the head of Macintosh development, was also fired from the company. He then also formed his own computer company with the help of another ex-Apple employee, Steve Sakoman. They called it Be Inc, and their goal was to create a more modern operating system from scratch based on the object-oriented design of C++, using proprietary hardware that could allow for greater media capabilities unseen in personal computers at the time. Not much new information in here for the regular OSNews reader – and these articles get published about once a year – but it’s always nice to see the best operating system of all time get some love.

Inside Intel’s Ghost Canyon NUC, the incredibly small modular desktop PC

Today, you can upgrade a desktop PC’s gaming performance just by plugging in a new graphics card. What if you could do the same exact thing with everything else in that computer — slotting in a cartridge with a new CPU, memory, storage, even a new motherboard and set of ports? What if that new “everything else in your computer” card meant you could build an upgradable desktop gaming PC far smaller than you’d ever built or bought before? Last week, I visited Intel’s headquarters in Santa Clara, California so I could stop imagining and check out the NUC 9 Extreme for myself. The linked The Verge article is a decent overview, but for more information, I’d suggest watching Gamers Nexus’ Stephen Burke’s (praise be upon Him) video, to get an even better idea of what Intel is trying to do here. It’s certainly a very fascinating product, and I’m very happy to finally see a major player trying to do something new to combine small form factors with easy expandability and upgradeability. I still have many questions, though, most importantly about just how open this platform – if it even is a platform to begin with – really is. The bridge board that the processor PCIe card and GPU slot into looks quite basic, and there already seem to be multiple variants of said board from different manufacturers, so I hope AMD could just as easily build a competing module. If not, buying into this platform would tie you down to Intel, which, at this point in time, might not be the optimal choice.

Sonos, squeezed by the tech giants, sues Google

On Tuesday, Sonos sued Google in two federal court systems, seeking financial damages and a ban on the sale of Google’s speakers, smartphones and laptops in the United States. Sonos accused Google of infringing on five of its patents, including technology that lets wireless speakers connect and synchronize with one another. Sonos’s complaints go beyond patents and Google. Its legal action is the culmination of years of growing dependence on both Google and Amazon, which then used their leverage to squeeze the smaller company, Sonos executives said. “Google has been blatantly and knowingly copying our patented technology,” Mr. Spence said in a statement. “Despite our repeated and extensive efforts over the last few years, Google has not shown any willingness to work with us on a mutually beneficial solution. We’re left with no choice but to litigate.” Sonos executives said they decided to sue only Google because they couldn’t risk battling two tech giants in court at once. Yet Mr. Spence and congressional staff members have discussed him soon testifying to the House antitrust subcommittee about his company’s issues with them. I’ve said it many times before – companies like Google and Amazon have simply become too large, too powerful, and too invulnerable, and this is simply yet another example in a long string of examples. Break them up.

Intel announces its first discrete DG1 GPU

Intel has dominated the CPU game for decades, and at CES 2020, the company officially announced its first discrete GPU, the codenamed “DG1”, marking a big step forward for Intel’s computing ambitions. There were almost no details provided on the DG1, but Intel did showcase a live demo of Destiny 2 running on the GPU. Rumors from Tom’s Hardware indicate that the DG1 is based on the Xe architecture, the same graphics architecture that will power Intel’s integrated graphics on the upcoming 10nm Tiger Lake chips that it also previewed at its CES keynote. The market for discrete GPUs is in desperate need of a shake-up, especially at the higher end. Nvidia has had this market to itself for a long time, and it’s showing in pricing.

AMD Ryzen 4000 mobile APUs: 7nm, 8-core on both 15W and 45W

At last year’s CES, AMD showcased its then Ryzen 3000 mobile processors as part of the announcements. In what is becoming a trend, at this year’s CES, the company is doing the same in announcing its next generation Ryzen 4000 mobile processors. This year is a little different, with AMD showing off its manufacturing strategy at TSMC 7nm for the first time in the mobile space. There’s a ton of options on the table, both at 15W and 45W, offering some really impressive core counts, frequencies, and most importantly, design wins. Here are all the details. Let’s hope we’re getting choice and competition back in the laptop space.

Chrome OS has stalled out

Of course, that was also a very different time. In 2010, Wi-Fi wasn’t nearly as ubiquitous as it is today. Tethering was something I would only do under the most urgent of circumstances, given my (rooted) phone’s measly data plan allowance. The Chromebook was here, but the world wasn’t quite ready for the Chromebook. In 2019, a public space, restaurant, or even a shopping center without free Wi-Fi is basically unconscionable. Tethering using your smartphone is easier and more practical than ever. Connectivity is all around us, and technologies like Bluetooth and mesh networking have made our lives the most wire-free they’ve been since, well, wires were a thing. We live in a world where the Chromebook, and Chrome OS, should be thriving. But increasingly, it looks like Google’s cloud-first laptop platform has hit a dead end, and I’m not sure there are many available detours that can get it back on track. I haven’t yet used Chrome OS for any appreciable amount of time other than a short stint after getting it running on my Surface Pro 4 – a fun side project – but a good Chromebook has been on my list for a long time. I gave my aunt one a few years ago, set it up, and never heard any tech help question from her ever again – the device has been rock solid, zero issues, and she loves it. A radical departure from her Windows laptop before that, for sure, which was a support nightmare. In any event, I find it difficult to say anything meaningful about the linked editorial, since I simply lack the long-term experience as a user of the platform. I do think Chrome OS’ slowing development – if that is actually taking place – might simply be because the platform has grown up, has found its niche, and is content settling there. I don’t think Chromebooks have it in them to truly break into the wider PC market, since Windows and Apple PCs have that pretty well locked down.

The polygons of Another World

Another choice would be Eric Chahi’s 1991 critically acclaimed” title “Another World”, better known in North America as “Out Of This World” which also happens to be ubiquitous. I would argue it is in fact more interesting to study than DOOM because of its polygon based graphics which are suitable to wild optimizations. In some cases, clever tricks allowed Another World to run on hardware built up to five years prior to the game release. This series is a journey through the video-games hardware of the early 90s. From the Amiga 500, Atari ST, IBM PC, Super Nintendo, up to the Sega Genesis. For each machine, I attempted to discover how Another World was implemented. I found an environment made rich by its diversity where the now ubiquitous CPU/GPU did not exist yet. In the process, I discovered the untold stories of seemingly impossible problems heroically solved by lone programmers. In the best case I was able to get in touch with the original developer. In the worse cases, I found myself staring at disassembly. It was a fun trip. Here are my notes. The first article in this series deals with Another World in genera, while two follow-ups dive deep into the Amiga version and the Atari ST version. Another article about the DOS version will be published over the weekend.