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Microsoft's Asimov System To Monitor Users' Machines In Real Time 269

SmartAboutThings writes Microsoft will monitor users in the new Windows 9 Operating System in order to determine how the new OS is used, thus decide what tweaks and changes are need to be made. During Windows 8 testing, Microsoft said that they had data showing Start Menu usage had dropped, but it seems that the tools they were using at the time weren't as evolved as the new 'Asimov' monitor. The new system is codenamed 'Asimov' and will provide a near real-time view of what is happening on users' machines. Rest assured, the data is going to be obscured and aggregated, but intelligible enough to allow Microsoft to get detailed insights into user interactions with the OS. Mary Jo Foley says that the system was originally built by the Xbox Team and now is being used by the Windows team. Users who will download the technical preview of Windows 9, which is said to get unveiled today, will become 'power users' who will utilize the platform in unique scenarios. This will help Microsoft identify any odd bugs ahead of the final release.
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Microsoft's Asimov System To Monitor Users' Machines In Real Time

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  • by Cornwallis ( 1188489 ) on Tuesday September 30, 2014 @10:08AM (#48026803)

    Ha ha ha ha ha. Ha ha ha ha ha. Ha ha ha ha ha. Ha ha ha ha ha.

    Your comment violated the "postercomment" compression filter. Try less whitespace and/or less repetition.

    • by Thud457 ( 234763 ) on Tuesday September 30, 2014 @10:50AM (#48027175) Homepage Journal
      1. 1. Windows may not injure a member of the Microsoft board or, through inaction, allow a member of the Microsoft board to come to harm.
      2. 2. Windows must obey the orders given to it by the NSA, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
      3. 3. Windows must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law
      4. 3. CLASSIFIED
      • Shouldn't the last one be number 4? I thought Microsoft was able to count up to 655360?

        • Re:The THREE shells: (Score:4, Interesting)

          by weszz ( 710261 ) on Tuesday September 30, 2014 @12:28PM (#48028051)

          it's so classified that you can't even use the number for it.

          Had something similar trying to get support for why a government website wouldn't work for a user. We were supposed to trust a cert issued by a CA we couldn't reach to verify, and the person that called me back (because you can't call them) let me hear about it since i put the ip address of the server I was looking for assistance with in the request. It has no name, but that is apparently a security breach and had to be reported. How else are you gonna know what I am trying to get to?

      • I think that last one is about you not knowing how to count.

    • by bmajik ( 96670 ) <matt@mattevans.org> on Tuesday September 30, 2014 @12:52PM (#48028231) Homepage Journal

      Disclosure:

      I work extensively with Microsoft customer usage data (although on Visual Studio, not Windows)

      Odds are, unless you've been very intentional about ticking the checkboxes the right way, Microsoft is already collecting usage data from you -- for a variety of products. Never without your consent, of course.

      The issues around anonymizing your data and removing PII are taken very seriously. It's damn frustrating, because I often look over the data for user 234209342349 and think, "I wish I could email this guy and ask why the hell he is doing that". But there is no way for me to recover PII for VS client customers.

      For the Visual Studio products, a typical approach is that data that might have a PII impact is one-way hashed on your local machine, so that PII never goes over the wire and never gets to Microsoft to begin with.

      You can use tools like filemon to see where VS dumps the usage data files it generates. I don't remember if these look like binary mess on disk or not, but they get written to disk, and then you can see them go over the wire some time later. You could of course use a packet sniffer to see the on-the-wire format, and if it differs from what is stored on disk.

      The data we scrub in VS covers the obvious things -- account names or email addresses -- but also some more subtle things -- like file paths (because these could contain your username, or a company name, or anything else), and even thing like VS Project Type names (because Company Foo can create their own Project Type, and might put their company name in the Project Type Name)

      So anyway, there's actually not much of a story here. I can't comment on the truth or accuracy of what MJF is saying. However, what she is saying is that, in effect, the latency between usage data being locally captured/calculated, and that data being sent to Microsoft (assuming the user has allowed usage data to be sent), is now much lower than it was in the past.

      For VS, at least, I know what data we have available to us. I opt-in to all of the MS data collection stuff, because I see no evidence of it being used inappropriately, and, because I know that we use it to try and understand what users are doing and why they are doing it.

      Opting into the data collection stuff effectively gives you "a vote" in how we do things in future releases.

      • by Altrag ( 195300 ) on Tuesday September 30, 2014 @01:32PM (#48028657)

        The trick of course is knowing whether there's a secondary channel that they use to send the PII and associated hash that they wouldn't generally provide to anyone except say the NSA.

        Of course a packet sniffer would find that out easily enough, and I'm guessing that someone would have already done so and let the world know if that was the case (and thus its probably not,) but simply being anonymized in the data you have doesn't directly imply that there isn't additional data somewhere capable of de-anonymizing it.

  • by mwvdlee ( 775178 ) on Tuesday September 30, 2014 @10:08AM (#48026807) Homepage

    Prior to Windows 8, what exactly where people using to start applications if they were not using the start menu?
    Or did they just notice the start menu was being used less often because people were keeping applications open?

    • by just_another_sean ( 919159 ) on Tuesday September 30, 2014 @10:16AM (#48026879) Journal

      Pinning to the task bar eliminates a good bit of Start Menu usage - especially when you pin the Run command to the task bar. And some folks still seem to love using the Desktop as both Program Manager and Documents folder.

    • Prior to Windows 8, what exactly where people using to start applications if they were not using the start menu? Or did they just notice the start menu was being used less often because people were keeping applications open?

      90% of the people I see using windows have the desktop covered with icons to launch everything.

      • by rudy_wayne ( 414635 ) on Tuesday September 30, 2014 @10:26AM (#48026951)

        Prior to Windows 8, what exactly where people using to start applications if they were not using the start menu?
        Or did they just notice the start menu was being used less often because people were keeping applications open?

        90% of the people I see using windows have the desktop covered with icons to launch everything.

        This is probably true, but it also illustrates the problem with Microsoft removing the Start Menu.

        Removing the Start Menu provides zero benefit to the people who don't use it (they don't use it so they don't care if it's gone and removing it has no effect on how they do things) and makes things more difficult for the people who do use it.

      • Makes me wonder how 90% of the Windows desktop real estate could be put to better use.

        • by UnknownSoldier ( 67820 ) on Tuesday September 30, 2014 @11:25AM (#48027499)

          > how 90% of the Windows desktop real estate could be put to better use.

          That's easy ...

          1. Stop having a window title bar take the FULL width. The window title bar should be a slidable tab [betips.net] as in BeOS.

          2. The window border should be (user customizable) allowed to be ZERO pixels like it was in Windows XP. The window border in Windows 8 are FAT and UGLY. I used to use a 1 pixel border on WinXP -- it was fantastic.

          3. The window border should let the user decide if they auto-hide or not. Most of the time you don't resize a window -- why does the window border clutter up the screen?

          4. The 'X' close button, should be on the OTHER side away from the '_' Minimize button, and the '[]' Maximize button.

          5. There should be an option to have a global menu bar instead of EACH app wasting yet another row for its menu bar.

          6. Allow the UI scaling to go BELOW 100%. Who was the idiot that decided the UI text scaling choices should only be 100%, 125%, and 150% ?? [arstechnica.net]

          Microsoft doesn't understand the first thing about UI design: Signal-to-Noise.

          Disclaimer: I am an OpenGL + UI + graphics expert. I am biased.

        • Metro? /sarcasm

    • by TWX ( 665546 )
      I donno about you, but as the Start Menu got more and more cluttered since its debut with Windows 95 I've tended to put stuff in the quicklaunch area, or for commands with short names that have had the same name for many years, Window+R -> exename worked well too. Now that the Start Screen is so intrusive I've doubled-down on Win+R and on "pinning" things to the taskbar.
      • I never use pinning. I use the quick launch and the start menu and have short cuts on the desktop. Gee, I'm using the OS to *SUIT MY NEEDS* There's a novel concept....
    • Pinning things to the task bar is the way to go. I almost never need to use the start page.

      • I got a bit smarter and here's how I set up my desktop.

        I have two folders created on my Desktop, one called "Software" and another called "Games". All software shortcuts go into the former, and all games shortcuts go into the latter. I then create two toolbars on my taskbar which point to those two folders, basically obtaining a slimmed down start menu which works the same way but doesn't have all the extra shit I don't need (e.g. Uninstall shortcuts, heinous list of subfolders, etc). Most used applications

    • Well, there's always the fact that people go to open it and are like "oh yeah, windows 8 and metro" and vomit uncontrollably for a few minutes.

    • by Richard_at_work ( 517087 ) <richardprice@noSPAm.gmail.com> on Tuesday September 30, 2014 @10:26AM (#48026963)

      From Windows 98 onward you had the shortcut bars which you could create on the task bar - thats where the majority of my most often used applications were started from.

      That morphed into pinning applications to the task bar in Windows 7, and became much more useful as pinning an application and running that same application took up no more room on the task bar, so you could have more.

      These days I pretty much have all my applications pinned to the task bar, and I hit the start menu probably once or twice a week, if that. I can lock the computer, minimise all windows, start applications, open task manager, get to the control panel and lots of other things via either interaction with the task bar itself or via keyboard shortcuts, where as before I had to use the start menu for a lot of that.

      • No need to pin. After some net searching, you can find how to add a launch bar to win7 as well. Many disabled features can be re-enabled on win7, but it takes a hell of a long time to find and do it.
    • by nine-times ( 778537 ) <nine.times@gmail.com> on Tuesday September 30, 2014 @10:33AM (#48027029) Homepage

      I remember when they were talking about this research at the time. If I remember correctly, they found that most people rarely hunted through the start menu "Programs" menu. They pinned applications to their task bar, or they put shortcuts on their desktop. If they used the start menu, they usually either used the search function or the list of applications that were pinned to the start menu.

      This lead them to think that the Windows 8 UI would be fine, since you could still search, and you could still pin applications to the Start screen. It seems they figured, if most people aren't using the other features of the Start menu, we can provide a solution that only includes the two features people do use, and everyone will be happy for the simplified solution. Apparently they are now admitting that their approach was flawed or insufficient.

      • > Apparently they are now admitting that their approach was flawed or insufficient.

        LOL. Microsoft admit they were wrong or clueless? That's funny!

        They just release a new version with revised function, form, and don't talk about the previous version hoping that it will eventually go away.

        i.e.
        * COM [wikipedia.org]
        * OLE
        * VBX
        * ActiveX
        * VisualBasic
        * MFC
        * ATL
        * COM+
        * DCOM
        * DNA [wikipedia.org]
        * .NET
        * DX3
        * DX5
        * DX9
        * DX11

    • I use a program (Free Launch Bar) to turn my task bar into a series of menus where I keep shortcuts to my most used applications grouped by subject. My "Internet" menu has Chrome, IE (used for testing websites), Firefox, etc. My "Web Development" group has my editor, programs to push development files live, etc. My "Multimedia" group has image editors, audio players/editors, video conversion tools, etc. By doing this, I know exactly where all my often-used programs are and I don't need to scroll through

    • Prior to Windows 8, what exactly where people using to start applications if they were not using the start menu?

      Two obvious answers are desktop icons and running the files themselves and having the file association start the right app.

    • Prior to Windows 8, what exactly where people using to start applications if they were not using the start menu?

      They clicked "Start" then started typing "wor"... and hit enter.

      Presto. MS Word.

    • Which should the reason NOT to use this approach after the USER outrage over eliminating the start menu. Seems to me that people wanted the Start menu and MS gained nothing by eliminating it.
    • I have my most common applications pinned to task bar. I ended up pinning more after Win8 became a thing.
  • Which users? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by drinkypoo ( 153816 ) <martin.espinoza@gmail.com> on Tuesday September 30, 2014 @10:14AM (#48026859) Homepage Journal

    Windows 7 is the end for me, thanks. I pretty much felt that way anyway, but now I really double-extra plus feel that way. Thanks for helping make that decision simple, Redmond.

    • Having followed your posts on Slashdot now for years, you never needed an excuse to bash Microsoft so why use one now?

    • Agreed. Win 7 is supported until 2020 and the last I heard the Pro version may go a little while longer than that.

      I am wondering if this monitoring will cease and blow over as more people hear about it. Most people seem to have forgotten that XP phoned home with random core dumps when it was first released. I don't remember when they stopped that, It may have been "fixed" prior to sp1 even.

      I suspect this will become opt-in, if it remains at all. The whole NSA thing has the masses much more cognizant of

    • Windows 8 isn't too bad once you use a 3rd party tool (e.g. Classic Shell) to restore your Start Menu/Desktop environment. It's just a shame that Microsoft felt the need to keep this from being a user selected option. Even if they set "Use Tiles On Start-Up" as the default, having the option would've been better.

    • Relax. I'm quite sure this feature can be turned off.
    • Re:Which users? (Score:4, Interesting)

      by s.petry ( 762400 ) on Tuesday September 30, 2014 @10:59AM (#48027273)

      One of many reasons I am currently developing internal proxy services is due to Windows 8 constantly phoning home, trying to download games and themes, etc.. We can only block the 3rd party requests, so nothing past Windows 7 will be in a PCI cage any time soon. Further, we have postponed any further 'upgrades'/orders which contain Windows 8 until we can determine how much impact the proxy will have. The proxy surely won't fix issues like this proposal since it will talk to "microsoft.com", so I see many others having to adopt the same plan of action you stated.

  • Asimov system? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by TWX ( 665546 ) on Tuesday September 30, 2014 @10:14AM (#48026863)
    More like the Orwell system, or perhaps the Huxley system...
  • by jpellino ( 202698 ) on Tuesday September 30, 2014 @10:18AM (#48026895)
    in the same paragraph. That'll be five laps. Backwards.
  • It's hard to tell by the article, is this system for the tech preview only, or also for the consumer release versions?

  • by hyades1 ( 1149581 ) <hyades1@hotmail.com> on Tuesday September 30, 2014 @10:27AM (#48026967)

    ...monitoring will cease after Microsoft has gathered enough information to make Win 9 as user-friendly as possible.

    ROFL...kicking my feet in the air and gasping for breath

  • by RogueWarrior65 ( 678876 ) on Tuesday September 30, 2014 @10:39AM (#48027065)

    Facebook, Solitaire, Candy Crush, Angry Birds, not Internet Explorer, cracked copies of Office.

  • rather telling. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by nimbius ( 983462 ) on Tuesday September 30, 2014 @10:41AM (#48027081) Homepage
    Even after axing 4000 employees and preeching a new leaf culture, Microsoft is still so divorced from its customer base that it requires an intrusive surveillance program to figure out how to deliver a functional product.

    Here are some hints for free: listen to your customers and stop treating them like unwashed hobos. shutter your dismal app store, stop making the OS contingent upon capacitive touch screen, release one, one version of the OS instead of a whole shit sandwich of different versions the average user cares nothing about. bring back the start button. Quit trying to make me use your internet browser, its a wretched piece of garbage. Stop with the search engine, its alexa rank is ten fold lower than yahoo and its results are worse than awful.
    • Stop with the search engine, its alexa rank is ten fold lower than yahoo and its results are worse than awful.

      Heh.
      Yahoo Search has been Powered by Bing (TM) since 2011.
      It will remain Powered by Bing (TM) until 2021.

      /Yahoo's advertising is also done through Microsoft's Bing Ads.

  • Asmiov = Halo? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Jason Levine ( 196982 ) on Tuesday September 30, 2014 @10:42AM (#48027085)

    From the article:

    I’ve heard Microsoft built a new real-time telemetry system codenamed “Asimov” (yes, another Halo-influenced codename) that lets the OS team see in near real-time what’s happening on users’ machines.

    (Emphasis mine.)

    Maybe I'm just out of it since I've never played Halo, but how is "Asmiov" a "Halo-influenced codename"? Doesn't this reference Isaac Asimov, the extremely prolific writer and one of the major pillars of classic science fiction? I'm assuming that something within Halo is named Asimov, after Isaac. Do we credit references to the latest to use the reference instead of the original source?

  • by Anonymous Coward
    Windows XP: Windows Genuine Activation
    Windows 7: Internet Explorer SmartScreen sends your URLs to Microsoft
    Windows 8: You log in with your "Microsoft account" to your own computer
    Windows 9: Accurate information is sent about how you use your computer
  • just ask anyone! (Score:4, Insightful)

    by slashmydots ( 2189826 ) on Tuesday September 30, 2014 @10:45AM (#48027119)
    They're starting over from the drawing board to see how humans use computers? Are you fucking kidding me? Just design it so it doesn't suck. They could replace their AI system with 1 individual person who isn't an idiot. Ask any single computer user that works in IT if they should have removed the start menu and replaced it with a touch-friendly interface with no options. Ask anyone if they should have gotten rid of the red X to close that existed in Windows 3.1 through 7. Ask anyone if they even want to touch their PC (and don't ask stupid people). I could sit down and design an OS interface myself that would crush Windows 8 and I'm not a team of experts. They don't even need one!
  • Data != knowledge (Score:5, Interesting)

    by pla ( 258480 ) on Tuesday September 30, 2014 @10:51AM (#48027189) Journal
    During Windows 8 testing, Microsoft said that they had data showing Start Menu usage had dropped, but it seems that the tools they were using at the time weren't as evolved as the new 'Asimov' monitor.

    No, Microsoft, wrong conclusion. See, your data told you the $deity's own truth, that start menu usage has dropped. Most people pretty much use desktop shortcuts 90% of the time, so your stupid fisher-price jolly candylike tiles may look like crap but don't seriously impact that specific usage pattern. More accurate data collection won't change that.

    What your data didn't tell you? That remaining 10% of the time doesn't just mean people "forgot" they had a shortcut and decided to use the start menu for the fun of it. Using the start menu drastically beats having to hunt down actual executables somewhere on the HDD, particularly for administrative-type tasks that might go six folders deep into the Windows directory, and have insanely long command-line arguments as a bonus (ie, a lot of the control panel apps).

    Data doesn't equal knowledge. The stats can tell you "how often", but not "why".
    • by Elbart ( 1233584 )
      B-but stats! Numbers! Shiny colorful pie-charts! Graphs!
    • by ljw1004 ( 764174 )

      In both Win7 and Win8, the windows key (or Ctrl+Esc) has exactly the same functionality as Spotlight on iOS -- they let you type the first few characters of the name of an application, and it finds it. This is considerably easier and quicker than clicking on the Start menu and navigating through cruft and hierarchies from all the apps that install there messily.

      The Start Menu as you describe it was basically there for people who like shiny buttons and haven't figured out the easier+faster way to launch apps

  • by dbIII ( 701233 ) on Tuesday September 30, 2014 @10:52AM (#48027195)
    Most frequently used does not always mean the thing you should optimize the design for.
  • Let's wait what the Asimov family has to say about that stunt.
    Some warm, balmy, financial rain coming.

  • Asimov is going to be used by Microsoft to justify what Microsoft wants to do, no more, no less.

    .
    Microsoft will be the sole collector and interpreter of the data.

    Microsoft will release information about the data collected only when such information justifies what Microsoft had wanted to do anyway.

  • by clickety6 ( 141178 ) on Tuesday September 30, 2014 @11:32AM (#48027553)
    Microsoft found that the J, K, W, X and Y keys were rarely utilised by Italian users and so has replaced those characters in the Italian version of the operating system with Unicode characters representing hand gestures. The Italian keyboards are also more compact. "It really wasn't worth supporting them when they are only used 0.1% of the time", said a Microsoft spokesperson.
  • In Windows 10, the Seldon [wikipedia.org] monitor. I, for one, will welcome our new psychohistorical robot overlords.
  • Hey, Microsoft... if you really want to know what people like and dislike about your system, how about you try and LISTEN to what they say? Have someone lurking here on Slashdot, in no time he could see hundreds of comments bashing in detail the countless flaws on your shitty interface designs. Shit, have some of your designers actually having a fucking clue about usability, that'd help too.

  • So, are they going to remove this once they've finalized the release?

    Or is Microsoft more or less giving themselves the right to do real time monitoring of every Windows machine on the planet?

    Because that would make them even bigger assholes than I've come to expect, and quite possibly would break the law in a bunch of places.

    Sounds like a terrible idea to me, maybe if they focused on more QA before they released it, they wouldn't need to do this.

    A real-time "call home to Microsoft" feature needs to be kill

  • by JustNiz ( 692889 ) on Tuesday September 30, 2014 @11:59AM (#48027805)

    They should have called it the Orwell system.

  • by cat_jesus ( 525334 ) on Tuesday September 30, 2014 @12:08PM (#48027877)
    The problem was that most moderately tech savvy people decline to share telemetry data. So the data they were using to make decisions was already heavily skewed toward the barely computer literate crowd.

    This is a classic problem with data analysis. You have to be sure you have a truly representative sample. It's astonishing that they made this simple mistake and made such a huge change without doing more analysis.
  • by ai4px ( 1244212 ) on Tuesday September 30, 2014 @12:26PM (#48028027)
    "Microsoft said that they had data showing Start Menu usage had dropped."

    HOw about that... you make the start button a PITA to get to and it's use drops. wow. These folks are S M A R T.

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