Windows 8: Cloud and Windows Come Together

In my last post I talked about the dual user interface and how it helps Microsoft in the tablet market. Thin and light laptops like the Chromebooks and MacBook Air (or Ultrabooks as Intel likes to call them) are becoming popular, these computers don’t come with a lot of storage space. Cloud computing to stream media, store images or work on documents is what makes these lightweight computers more capable. (Google Docs, Office Web Apps, Live Mesh, Dropbox, iCloud, Pandora, Netflix, YouTube, Hulu, Spotify, Zune etc.)

One of my favorite Google Chrome feature is the account sync. Logging with my Google ID and I can get my Preferences, Bookmarks, Autofill, Apps etc. synced on any PC. Microsoft plans to offer users with similar possibilities. In Windows 8, connecting your Windows Live account, a user can have his Explorer, Mouse, Application settings etc. synced on another Windows 8 machine. The feature is referred to as Roaming profiles, something Windows Server based network users must have heard before. Roaming Profiles was introduced as part of the Server family of Windows. In Windows 7 Microsoft allowed users to connect  their Windows Live accounts and it added no value whatsoever. However, with Windows 8, Windows Live integration actually makes sense.

According to leaked images, Microsoft will be offering roaming profiles for Windows 8 through Windows Live.

Initial leaks also showed Windows Live profile picture next in the start bar next to the clock. The Explorer integration doesn’t stop here. As revealed by Windows enthusiasts Rafael Rivera and Paul Thurrott, sync and Web Sharing showed up as an option in the Explorer Ribbon. Windows Live Mesh is an evolution of Windows Sync, Live Mesh and SkyDrive. In Microsoft Office multi-author editing and saving to SkyDrive were introduced. Sync and Web Sharing in Windows 8 with SkyDrive as the back-end would offer seamless access across a Windows 8 tablet, Windows Phone any PC with a browser.

It is fascinating to see how Windows Live, projects like Live Mesh, Sync and implementations in Office are shaping in Windows 8.

Windows 8: The Best of Both Worlds

In the first post in Windows 8 series I pointed out that Windows 8 is influenced by Zune and the Windows Phone. Let’s take a look at the interface enhancements in Windows 8 before we go into the features.

Like I said, for Windows 7 Netbooks were the in-thing, now it is tablets. Microsoft isn’t new to tablet computing. In fact they’ve been doing Windows for tablets for a really long time. Unfortunately for Microsoft they were ahead of their time. There was no Gorilla Glass, capacitive screens weren’t there and multi-touch simply wasn’t commercial, SoC GPUs weren’t as powerful. Simply put, it wasn’t just Windows that led to Microsoft losing the tablet race. Cut to 2011, all these  peripherals  are in place and it is now on Microsoft to come up with an OS that is for tablets.

A few years ago Microsoft released their iPod competitor, the Zune media player. While the player wasn’t able to garner competitive sales, it gave birth to the design philosophy for Microsoft’s consumer products. Christened Metro, crisp typography, clean icons and sharp corners are quite different to iPhone’s bevels, gradient overlays and rounded corners. The Zune desktop interface was quite a stunner compared to Microsoft’s other products. Media Center came close but wasn’t remotely as gorgeous as Zune. We saw the sharp corners and tiles in Zune and many loved it.

The next iteration for Microsoft’s Windows Phone was expected when Zune HD was launched. Initial leaks showed an evolution of the ugly Windows Mobile. Microsoft did what nobody expected them to do. Engineers from the Zune team worked on the interface for Microsoft’s mobile platform and everybody was stunned at what they announced. A beautiful fluid UI with well thought-out social, communication and entertainment capabilities. In many circles, Windows Phone is also known as the next Zune.

One feedback for Zune and Windows Phone’s UX/UI was for Microsoft to bring the interface to the tablet, like Apple. Microsoft is well aware of the tablet market and their PC stronghold. For Microsoft, they could either bring the mobile OS to tablets (Android/iOS) or use the collective genius of the engineers to offer users the best of both worlds (PC and tablet). They went with the latter and we have a new start menu or shell for Windows on tablets. The new shell is based on Metro and uses the same principles. The interface brings some innovative features for tablet use, like a split keyboard for landscape mode that makes holding the tablet and typing with two hands quite easy.

(Image credit CNet)

The idea that Microsoft’s beautiful Metro UI will be masking the regular Windows UI, has been met with strong criticism. Unfortunately those who make that argument have sort of ignored the millions of Windows users. There are more desktops than tablets and Microsoft needs to cater to the market while they find footing in the tablet market (Netbooks : Windows 7 :: Tablets : Windows 8). I have written considerably on the topic and how enterprise is a huge factor in Microsoft’s decision.

The Metro UI from Zune to Windows Phone and now on Windows (for touch) along with Windows’ Explorer UI (for mouse) lets users switch seamlessly between intensive work and leisure activities. It is not scaling the phone OS to a tablet like iOS but bringing the phone’s interface elements to the desktop (like OS X Lion). The approach offers the best of both worlds.

Windows 8: Microsoft’s Next

Windows 7 succeeded where Windows Vista failed. The Windows team under Sinofsky was able to deliver a competitive product. Sinofsky came to the Windows division after delivering a controversial yet popular Office version—Office 2007.

Windows 8 will be released to manufacturing around August 2012. When Windows 7 was around launch, Netbooks were the fad. Vista’s footprint, system requirments and the Netbook fad was enough fodder for bloggers to announce Microsoft’s end, Windows’ death and soon-to-come Ballmer’s resignation. Nothing happened. Windows 7 delivered, sold several licenses ensuring Windows’ relevance in consumer and enterprise computing. Windows 7 was accompanied by Office 2010, the duo tag-teamed their dominance on Microsoft’s balance sheets.

For what it’s worth, Windows XP is now well on its way out. The transition from XP to Vista presented a challenge that made Microsoft and Windows look bad. Microsoft on their part was clear, changes in Vista were needed for better security and upcoming hardware transitions. They were right, Windows 7 runs on Vista’s hardware specs and offers robust security. Sinofsky has assured Windows 8 will support Windows 7 specs and go beyond by supporting the ARM architecture. For Microsoft and their OEM ecosystem, support for ARM architecture is a huge step forward. The Windows-everywhere dream lives on.

Windows 8 is an amalgamation of four successful* Microsoft products—Zune, Windows Phone, Office 2007 and Windows Vista/7. The design theme—Metro was introduced with Zune. Polished and refined, the typography differentiates Windows Phone from iPhone and Android. The Metro interface is Microsoft’s strategy against the iPad. The evolution of the interface from a media player to a phone and now to the desktop is also the company’s transition from desktops to mobile devices. The desktop OS has been around for a long time, with each iteration Microsoft has been able to introduce new features to keep it relevant, dominant and competitive; Windows 8 is no different. Starting today we will be writing a-post-a-day about what’s new in Windows 8 and in many cases how these features came to be.

Microsoft Awarded Patent On Adaptive Video Streaming. Beats Apple, Adobe To It

Multimedia streaming over the Internet has seen rapid user adoption. In the US, Netlfix overtook Comcast in subscription numbers. There are several services (other than the ones RIAA/MPAA doesn’t want you to use) that offer online streams for content. Youtube, Netflix and Hulu to name a few popular ones. Microsoft introduced Silverlight (their Flash alternative) a while back. One of the features Microsoft talked about with Silverlight was adaptive streaming. In simplest terms, it is a concept where the quality of stream automatically adjusts to your Internet connection speed—in real time. So if your Internet connection gets clogged during an ongoing stream, it will switch to a low resolution (low bitrate) version on its own.

Microsoft calls this Smooth Streaming and has a lot of technical magic in the background. Smooth Streaming has helped Microsoft clinch several live event streaming deals which in turn have resulted in Silverlight getting a considerable user base. I recently came across a patent titled Seamless switching of scalable video bitstreams. The patent claims are concepts behind Smooth Streaming. Excerpts from the claims:

A computer-implemented method executable on a processor for switching between a first bitstream and a second bitstream, wherein the second bitstream provides a higher data rate than the first bitstream, the method comprising: identifying a switching up period associated with the first and second bitstreams, the first bitstream comprising first encoded data for a plurality of frames within a video sequence […]

An apparatus suitable for encoding a first bitstream and a second bitstream, wherein the second bitstream provides a higher data rate than the first bitstream, the apparatus comprising: a memory; one or more processors; an interface, operable on the one or more processors, configurable to selectively output the first and second bitstreams; and logic operatively coupled to the interface and configured to selectively encode a plurality of frames of a video sequence […]

Given the importance of Intellectual Property as observed recently, Microsoft being awarded this patent is quite interesting. My quick not-so-in-depth searches show that neither Netflix nor Hulu have patents on online video streaming (I could be wrong though). I haven’t played a lot with Netflix but Hulu offers an option to Auto-select best quality for the bandwidth available. Although, I don’t see Microsoft going after Hulu.

As it turns out, Adobe has a similar feature called Dynamic Streaming that they use in Flash and Apple uses a similar implementation for streaming their events to iOS and OS X powered devices. According to the patent, Microsoft filed for it back in 2005.

Other than Silverlight based streaming, Microsoft offers video streams on the Xbox too. A demo of Smooth Streaming over IIS is available here.

The Patent

Skype Buying GroupMe Isn’t for Windows Phone

Microsoft buys Skype and Skype buys GroupMe. Using a=b and b=c; Microsoft effectively bought GroupMe. Which sounds plausible and fine. As the news spread Windows Phone 7 integration possibilities were being thought. I decided to wait it out hoping either companies would explain their strategy. Unfortunately, neither have. So here’s my theory…

Windows Phone 7 has a lot of thought and focus on what phones are for—communication. Clubbing contacts into groups and sending group emails or texts is a Windows Phone 7 Mango feature. In this scenario, GroupMe’s purchase looks out of place for Windows Phone (and Microsoft). Secondly, Microsoft’s cozy relationship with Facebook and the tight Windows Phone 7 integration would suggest Facebook Messenger on WP7 to come out soon.

GroupMe has a Windows Phone 7 client, as a result, any immediate platform integration or even Skype integration for the phone won’t be happening. Reading Michael Arrington’s article on TechCrunch, it is clear that Skype was already eyeing GroupMe while talks of acquisition with Microsoft were happening. Skype introduced group video chats not long ago and has phone calling. It makes a lot of sense for Skype as a platform to add text messaging in addition to voice communication. Putting all of this together it suggests:

  • Skype bought GroupMe for the Skype platform (and it doesn’t have anything to do with WP7)
  • It’s a good old talent acquisition
The New York based GroupMe team has individuals who’ve worked with products like Tumblr and the growing Gilt Groupe. Though this deal has to have Microsoft’s blessings, it’s a Skype deal for Skype as a platform. Not Microsoft and Windows Phone.


5 Apps That Add More Functions To Windows Phone 7 Features

For any new platform to succeed, it needs user adoption, developer acceptance and company resources. As I wrote in my last piece, Windows Phone 7 has Microsoft’s complete attention and developers have started considering it as a competent platform. While Windows Phone 7 is quite a complete platform in itself, however, there are some gaps that developers have started filling up. Over the several months with the phone I’ve found a few apps that integrate with the existing features of the phone to offer some additional functions.

1. Lyrics (Free)

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The app once installed can be accessed from within Zune and will pull in lyrics of the song currently playing. The app   can be launched from the Music hub and also allows you to control playback. Some salient features of the app:

  • Lyrics are displayed in a big font size
  • The app pulls in Artist bio and lyrics to more songs by the same artist
  • Lyrics can be shared on social networks or via Email

The app lets you have your own little karaoke on the phone.

2. Tweet This Song (Free)


With the launch of Spotify there’s been a debate around which music service is more social. Is it iTunes with Ping; Turntable.Fm or Spotify. Zune is not counted and for good reason. Other than having a network of your friends and the ability to see what they are listening to, there isn’t much. I sometimes like to share what I’m listening to with my friends and Zune on WP7 doesn’t let me do that. RogueCode’s app Tweet This Song!fixes at least part of the limitation for me. Once you’ve set your Twitter account, the song being played Zune will be tweeted. The app allows you to customize the tweet under settings. You can share a link to the song on Zune Marketplace as well.

Personally, I find Spotify to be complete social music service. It allows me to subscribe to playlists curated by my friends, share songs and playlists. (Though I would Pandora with Spotify-like Facebook friends and their playlists integration.) Zune does not allow me to share a song I’m listening to.

2.1 NowPlaying (Paid with Free)

Nirmit, the developer of NowPlaying pointed me to his app that does the same and having tried it, I think I like it better than Tweet This Song. NowPlaying has Facebook and Twitter integration, the app also has custom messages with preconfigured meta options which makes it easy to create your own messages. The app has a free and paid version. The free version does not have any restrictions on sharing and is pretty good!

3. Where Did I Take That (Free)

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You can add location data to photographs taken using WP7. On the phone, there’s not a lot you can do with the geodata; that is unless you install Where Did I Take That. The app launches Bing Maps and you can select photographs from your phone and the app will plot them on the map. Photographs from social networks (Windows Live and Facebook) don’t seem to have geodata. Nevertheless, the app is fun.

4. Album Art Wallpaper (Free)

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The app will pull out album art from your songs and let you create a WP7 lock screen wallpaper. The app is simple with some level customization. You can choose the albums you want and the number of tiles in the wallpaper. The app allows you to share the image over SMS or email too.

5. Here Is My Info ($1.99 with Free Trial)

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I am disappointed when it comes to apps around the amazing People’s hub. Microsoft has implemented a well thought-out contact card with LinkedIn, Twitter, Windows Live and Facebook integration. Unfortunately, so far, there is no app that lets you share all this information easily. I cannot forward a contact’s complete details automagically filled with data fetched from these social networks. The closest free app that lets you share your contact information and forward a contact card is Here Is My Info.

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You can fill out your details and forward this as an email or select a contact from the People’s hub and share their information. What annoys me is that I have to manually point the app to the contact for adding the fields. However, the app is still better than all the alternatives in the Marketplace as of now. The lack of dedicated field for Twitter is a downer.

Microsoft Heavily Recruiting For Windows Phone Divisions Globally, Targeting Startups Too

As  my job search continues, I came across several job openings in Microsoft’s Windows Phone division. Across the globe, Microsoft is looking to hire from developers to managers for their mobile platform.

The statistics might claim abysmal market presence but when a company decides to recruit in bulk for a division, it means the company is more serious than many realize. Windows Phone 7 is off to a positive start. I wrote about Brandon Watson’s open challenge to web celebrities and Molly Wood who took up the challenge is quite pleased with what she sees. The platform is seeing growing adoption from developers as well.

Back in May, after visiting TechCrunch Disrupt,  I wrote that Microsoft should target incubators and startups to develop apps for Windows Phone. This is crucial since, unlike early Windows days, developers are releasing their apps first for iOS, followed by Android and then consider Windows Phone. The result is when the app gets all the initial hype, Windows Phone is missing from the action and it doesn’t look good for the platform.

According to a job posting I came across, this might change. Charlie Kindel, General Manager for the Windows Phone Developer Experience left Microsoft to be part of the startup community. His departure attracted a lot of attention. When Todd Bishop at GeekWire asked him about his choice of mobile platform for a potential app, here’s what he said:

Hypothetically, if my new company were to build mobile apps, we’d target WP7 first. You know the old saying Code Talks:   I know I can build a beautiful and functional WP7 app in afraction  of the time it would take to build an iOS or Android app. Startups are about executing quickly. But I’m sure we’d quickly take what we learned there and apply it on all the popular devices.

Several Microsoft employees are developing useful and beautiful Windows Phone 7 apps and interacting internally has helped Microsoft with their app platform – AppHub. If Microsoft can convince  entrepreneurs  to consider Windows Phone as a first-release platform they can mitigate one of the biggest negatives against the platform. The silver lining for Microsoft is that developers are considering, in some cases, Android instead of iOS as a first-release platform. This means they are open to alternatives.

Business Development is crucial for companies and a key role for one of the candidates is:

Engage the Industry. Engage with industry counterparts and influentials to proactively identify emerging opportunities, including engagement with the VC community, start-ups, corporate leaders, and thought leaders.

Spotting emerging trends and going after them is important for both Windows and Windows Phone. A quick search for new jobs has led me to several Interaction Designers, Software Development and Test, Managers and Marketing executive positions. Among these is a Portfolio Manager position Microsoft is looking to fill in Chile, Taiwan and UK. These individuals will be responsible for working with OEMs and partners to get more devices out to as many users as possible. (Another positive sign when it comes to Microsoft’s global intentions for Windows Phone.)

Excuse me while I go and apply.

At Google, Left Hand Unaware Of What Right Hand’s Doing

Today morning, the anti-Microsoft and anti-patent teams joined voices in slamming Microsoft (and Apple) for strangling Android with patents. We wrote about how Google tried to take the moral high ground and ride on their high horse of (non-existent) openness into the bliss of community love.

Google’s David Drummond implied Microsoft and Apple were working together to make it difficult for OEMs to use Android using patent lawsuits as leverage. Google’s Eric Schmidt has made bold challenges  that competition is not innovating and instead using patents against Android. As it turns out, Microsoft invited Google to join them in the bid for Nortel patents and Google’s lawyer (Kent Walker) declined. Yes, they said that they didn’t want to be a part of the consortium. Now, with that in mind, a long blog post, slamming Microsoft and Apple with the title “When patents attack” seems rather intriguing. Why would you first say that you don’t want to be a part of the team and then accuse the team of not playing fair? They asked you to join, you declined, your loss.

What makes this saga interesting is that the anti-Microsoft feeling was quite evident. Tech reporters pointed their guns at Microsoft calling them evil when in fact Microsoft presented Google with an olive branch that Google arrogantly declined. And in attempt to score brownie points ended up making a PR blunder by presenting skewed version of the story.

Microsoft’s General Counsel Brad Smith remarked on Twitter:


Microsoft’s corporate communications lead shared with the Internet the screenshot of Kent Walker’s (Google Attorney) email:

kent walker

GmailMan no deliver mail, Google?

Exporting Your Social Graph (Google+ vs Facebook)

As we reported earlier today, Facebook has made some changes to the Account Settings dashboard. The option to export (or backup) your profile is now in the center of the screen making it more visible. While going through the dashboard, I decided to give the export option a try.

Clicking on the Export account option will initiate the backup which once completed will be available to download. (An email notification will be sent.) The size of the backup generated in my case was 130MB, not surprising given the number of images I’ve uploaded since 2007. The Facebook backup is essentially an offline version of your profile. It has all your Messages, Notes, Wall posts, Pictures, Videos, Friend list and even the events. All of this information is presented as an offline HTML website, screenshot:


(You can export your Facebook Profile from the “Download a copy” link in your Account Settings.)

The archive has 3 folders, with your albums in their own sub folders. Launching the index.html file one can browse through his profile. I came across my first wall post that dates back to April 2007!

Google has been making a lot of noise about your data being your datawith Google+ so I decided to test the option. My Google+ profile is a meager 3MB. (I am not a Picasa user.) However, Google+ creates .vcf files of your circles. The .vcf file can be imported into Outlook, Gmail or any contact management application. This is much better than the static friend list prepared by Facebook. Besides this, the backup option is Google+ isn’t nearly half as good as the one from Facebook. Here’s a screenshot of Google+ backup folder:

google  export

The folder segregation is pretty good but inside plus_one is a HTML file of the links you +1-ed. The Buzz and Stream folders have several HTML files of the links and posts you shared. This representation is pretty useless offline. The Google+ backup does not create an offline HTML version of your profile. And here’s where I realized Facebook is much better.

(To get a backup of your Google+ profile, head over to Google Takeout.)

Microsoft’s Cloud OS To Streamline Experience Across Your Phone, Desktop & TV

I decided to skip writing about these patents because gesture patents don’t really excite me since I don’t think they should be granted. However, now that Tom at Winrumors has taken the trouble of sharing the information, I thought I’d share some details.


Gesture patents having cloud in their descriptions get my attention. Last time around, I came across a patent that explained custom Kinect gestures as roaming profiles (it is as cool as it sounds). Reading through patents I found the relevant cloud part that explains some very intriguing possibilities. Microsoft is rumored to be working towards a one-codebase across the Xbox, Windows Phone and Desktop/Tablet after Windows 8 and these patent applications fit in that vision. (I wouldn’t be surprised if 4 years from now I tell someone that I knew about this feature.)

The engineers try to explain how Natural User Interfaces are now being used to interact with the television (Xbox Kinect), touch phones and tablets. These screens have different user interaction experiences and so does the desktop. Microsoft hopes to have all your devices connected to a cloud server farm. This server farm will push out gesture profiles based on the device you are using (or something like that).

the central computing device is a “cloud” server farm […] this interconnection architecture enables functionality to be delivered across multiple devices to provide a common and seamless experience to the user […] Each of the multiple devices may have different physical requirements and capabilities, and the central computing device uses a platform to enable the delivery of an experience to the device that is both tailored to the device and yet common to all devices.

The cloud is illustrated as including a platform for web services. The platform abstracts underlying functionality of hardware (e.g., servers) and software resources of the cloud and thus may act as a “cloud operating system.”

For example, the platform may abstract resources to connect the computing device with other computing devices.

Accordingly, in an interconnected device embodiment, implementation of functionality of the gesture module may be distributed throughout the system. For example, the gesture module may be implemented in part on the computing device as well as via the platform that abstracts the functionality of the cloud.

As I said, the possibilities described are exciting. Nilay Patel wrote about the one Windows for all screens and the patent explains the benefits of the concept – load balancing, malware protection and performance scalability.

Microsoft’s patent also explains how they plan to implement stylus and finger touch working together in their multi-touch products. Based on the spread-size of the object touching, the system will be able to distinguish between the stylus and the fingers.

Patent Application