Windows 10's open-source PowerToys: Video meeting mute tool hit by pandemic, says Microsoft

The pandemic has stalled an open-source tool to help Windows 10 users quickly mute video calls when home working.

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Microsoft has released a new update for its retro program PowerToys, but once again it doesn't include a utility to let users quickly kill audio and video in an online meeting while working remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The open-source project is working to bring back the Windows 95 utility PowerToys to Windows 10. Microsoft open-sourced PowerToys late last year as a nod to people with fond memories of computing on Windows at the dawn of the internet.  

PowerToys relaunched a few months before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, and the community behind it moved ahead with multiple updates throughout the first lockdown in early 2020. 

SEE: Cheat sheet: Windows 10 PowerToys (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

The first release from September included FancyZones, a utility that lets users create their own zones for dragging windows into neat arrangements on the screen. The Shortcut Guide utility offers a full-screen display of all the keyboard shortcuts associated with the Windows key.

During the initial phase of the pandemic, the project released a Windows launcher akin to Apple's macOS Spotlight search and additional tools like a color picker for front-end developers. Members were also working on bringing PowerToys to the Arm-based Surface Pro X.   

The Microsoft team behind PowerToys in June started playing with the idea of a video-conferencing mute utility to help people who were working under lockdown conditions and wanted to mute audio and kill video in a conference call with a single keystroke.    

It was a good idea back then and still is today, but the utility has missed all releases since then because contributors haven't had the time or energy to deliver the product. 

At the October 29 release of version 0.25.0, Microsoft PowerToys developer Clint Rutkas noted the release focused on "stability, localization and quality of life improvements for both the development team and our end users".

Rutkas said at the time the utility would be delivered "in about a week's time" because the team needed more time to ship a workable video-conference mute utility. 

A month later, the story is the same for version 27 of PowerToys. The quick mute feature for video conference will be "coming in about a week's time".

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"Our goals for 0.27 release cycle was to focus on end-user experience, stability, accessibility, localization and quality-of-life improvements for both the development team and our end users," he wrote. 

"We need additional work done here to ship this out. It will be 0.28 Experimental and will be 0.27 + The video-conference utility. We skipped 0.26's release for higher priority work." 

However, the team has been working on general improvements for PowerToys, including a dark mode for the installer, fixes for accessibility issues, and localization improvements. 

FancyZones now has an improved experience for setups with multiple monitors, and should remember zones better after a restart. 

Rutkas explained to ZDNet some of the constraints and challenges his team and the PowerToys community of voluntary contributors have been facing in recent months. 

"Open source software (OSS) really forces us to think about how we communicate and have a willingness to adapt and change due to community contributors. A work item we may have de-prioritized, a community member may submit a PR against," said Rutkas.  

"So being sure we help influence work we want done but can't resource yet is critical. Also being sure we highlight community and community work to the best we can.  

"Knowing this is someone's time being spent on … is why we try to make sure the problem is fully understood as well as the implementation is agreed on before any work as been done."

Rutkas said his team's end goal for PowerToys is to help people be more productive. 

"We are in awe of the community's willingness to help out. Hopefully people will continue to."

Rutkas also pointed out the video conferencing mute feature is well on its way as can be seen in recent commits to the PowerToys feature on GitHub. The team currently trying to figure out whether it's possible to build the feature without a virtual device driver. 

"As it is an approach we don't know will work, it is something that has to be coded up and tested in all video conferencing scenarios," said Rutkas.