Microsoft Opens App Hub To New Markets

As announced around two weeks ago, Microsoft has expanded its Windows Phone App Hub to new markets, according to an official blog post on Thursday. The App Hub is now available in the following 23 additional markets this month: Bahrain, Bulgaria, China, Costa Rica, Croatia, Estonia, Iceland, Iraq, Israel, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Qatar, Romania, Saudi Arabia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Thailand, Turkey, UAE, Ukraine, Venezuela, and Vietnam.

As you can see, this was a required move in the various markets where Windows Phone was only recently introduced — especially China and certain Middle Eastern countries — as Windows Phone would be quite bare without third-party applications. While submitting apps to the entire world is pretty easy (as explained in this step-by-step guide), certain countries — Bahrain, China, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE — will be subject to additional app certification approval due to local laws.They also note that app approval times — which are approximately 7 days on average — may also increase.

Nevertheless, it is quite exciting to see the App Hub make its way to more and more regions. With entry-level phones such as the ZTE Orbit and Lumia 610 hitting the shelves in these emerging markets, Windows Phone is sure to at least get its foot in the door of the developing world’s smartphone market.

Microsoft Kicks Off Widespread ‘Smoked by Windows Phone’ Contest

During CES, the ‘Smoked by Windows Phone’ competition was born. In it, a user would try to perform a task on their Android or iOS device in less time than the Windows Phone (which, at the time, was handled by ‘Softie Ben Rudolph.) If they beat the Windows Phone, they receive $100, and if they didn’t, they’d have to acknowledge that their smartphone was smoked by Windows Phone. Since this competition’s inception, it’s gained quite a fair bit of traction, recently becoming a widespread digital ad campaign.

Microsoft is continuing to cultivate the popular competition. For a limited time, Microsoft has brought the Smoked by Windows Phone challenge to their brick-and-mortar stores, and the stakes have been raised. Now, if you do manage to smoke the Windows Phone, you’d win a Hunger Games Special Edition HP Folio 13, valued at around $1,000. And if you lose? You’ll have the opportunity to swap your current smartphone for a Windows Phone (but, unfortunately not a Lumia 800.)

So, in both cases it’s a win-win for participants. But, of course, this is limited to brick-and-mortar Microsoft Stores, which are currently sparse.

Rovio CEO: Angry Birds Space Coming To Windows Phone

According to a statement issued by Rovio CEO Mikael Hed during an interview with Reuters, Angry Birds Space is headed to Windows Phone after all. This directly conflicts with a statement previously issued by Rovio CMO Peter Vesterbacka, in which he originally stated that there were no plans to bring Angry Birds Space to Windows Phone when speaking to Bloomberg.

Here are their two statements:

CMO: “We’re the No. 1 app in the Windows Phone app store, but it’s a big undertaking to support it, and you have to completely rewrite the application […] If you look at activations, Apple’s iOS and Android are clearly bigger than any other platform,” he said. “We want to be on all screens, but we have to consider the cost of supplying the smaller platforms. With Windows Phone it’s a lot of work to technically support it.”

CEO: “We are working towards getting Angry Birds Space to WP7 […] We are working closely together with Nokia to bring our games to their platforms,” Hed said. “Our mutual goal is to bring the best possible experience to our fans, including all fans using Windows Phone devices.”

Internal miscommunication? A split-second decision change? Whatever the case, it’s embarrasing. But, if word from the Rovio CEO stands true, then it seems that Windows Phone users will be able to enjoy Angry Birds Space after all. Definitely a good thing for the platform: The last thing that Windows Phone needs is the unavailability of a high-profile, popular app. Windows Phone needs as many of those as it can get.

Nokia Is Paying AT&T So Employees Can Exclusively Use The Lumia 900

Since the dawn of Windows Phone, its relatively slow sales in contrast to other platforms is largely attributable to those on the front lines. Salespeople are unfamiliar with the platform, and thus naturally push Android and iOS devices to consumers far more than Windows Phone devices. To help solve this problem, it appears that Nokia and AT&T may strike a deal in which front-selling AT&T employees will have the ability to receive a Lumia 900 (for ‘Company Use’) at no cost.

They will, however, have to hand in their current ‘Company Use’ handset — which is either an iPhone or one of the flagship Android devices — in order to participate. So, it isn’t forced exclusivity, but the ability to receive the device completely free of charge may sway some employees to give Windows Phone a shot. Nokia expects that around 80% of Nokia employees will be using the Lumia 900.

So, how much will Nokia be paying AT&T to conduct this promotion? Up to $25 million, according to WPCentral. However, I think that it will be a sound investment. With employees genuinely interested and passionate in the Windows Phone OS, their ability to actually sell the handsets will be far better than if it continues to be something obscure that they don’t pay much mind to.

As a quality piece of hardware, the Lumia 900 is pretty much the perfect device to make people fall in love with the OS. Apparently, it is aptly a “hero” device, which, in carrier-speak means that it would be a heavily-promoted phone (think to the level of the iPhone and some flagship Android handsets), and will be touted significantly in stores. It will be the first Windows Phone to receive this status.

Perhaps with the iPhone available through other carriers, AT&T wishes to find a new platform to push to make itself truly unique from the competition. Whatever the case, this can only lead to good things for the Windows Phone platform.

Minecraft: Xbox 360 Edition Launching May 9

Earlier this week, we reported that Microsoft was going to announce the release date for the much-anticipated release of Minecraft on the Xbox 360. Aptly dubbed Minecraft: Xbox 360 Edition, the game will debut on May 9th as part of a promotion called Arcade NEXT, during which a new downloadable Xbox LIVE Arcade title will launch every Wednesday from April 18th through May 9th.

Trials Evolution, Bloodforge, and Fable Heroes are the other three titles launching as part of the promotion. Each game will be available for 1200 Microsoft Points, 1200 Microsoft Points, and 800 Microsoft points, respectively. Minecraft will be the most expensive of the four, priced at 1600 Microsoft Points (which is actually relatively cheap in the gaming world; in dollars, 1600 Microsoft Points is $20).

Adapted to the console, Minecraft: Xbox 360 Edition will feature split-screen multiplayer support, a new crafting interface that’s tailored for console/controller gameplay, a Tutorial mode, and Xbox LIVE multiplayer support. We were hearing earlier that Minecraft: Xbox 360 Edition will be featuring some sort of cross-platform functionality, allowing Xbox players to play with PC players; this functionality is yet to be detailed, but it should be exciting to see how it is implemented.

Here’s a promotional trailer showing off the games that will launch as part of this promo:

HTC Triumph Windows Phone Hits The Shelves In China

Earlier this month, we reported that the HTC Triumph would be the very first Windows Phone device to go on sale in China. And, following its stint of being available for pre-order, it has now actually gone on sale, fully validating its status as the first Windows Phone to enter the Chinese market. With the Triumph, HTC has beat Nokia, LG, and ZTE to being first in the area, who all expressed interest in releasing Windows Phones in China.

Before I proceed, let me just clear up some of the confusion around the Eternity/Triumph branding. Eternity is an English codename for the device, while Triumph is a rough translation of what the device is called in Chinese. The official Chinese name for the device is HTC凯 旋X310e.

Moving on. As a rebranded Titan, the HTC Triumph has the same guts and chassis as its Western counterpart: A 4.7″ capacitive touchscreen, an 8MP LED flash camera, accelerometer, gyro, proximity, and compass sensors, a 1.5GHz Scorpion processor, and an Adreno 205 GPU.

On the software front, the phone is launching running a special version of Windows Phone 7.5 “Tango” that’s optimized for the Chinese market with specific Chinese apps — for example, the social networking integration has been re-gutted to utilize Chinese social networking solutions — and the Chinese language itself, which does look quite nice and clean on the Metro UI.

It’s quite a big day for the platform; with a rapidly-growing economy, China has quickly become a ripe emerging market with plenty of consumers who may be interested in both low and high end mobile phone offerings. We reported earlier that China has overtaken the US as the world’s largest market for iOS and Android activations.

Short: Microsoft Push Out Minor Windows Live Essentials Update

On Tuesday, Microsoft released an update for the Windows Live Essentials 2011 suite of software: Windows Live Messenger, Mail, Photo Gallery, Movie Maker, Family Safety, Writer, and Mesh. While the update doesn’t introduce much in the way of features, it is pretty important to update. Microsoft stated in a blog post that the update “contains critical fixes”, and, as a result, Windows Vista SP2 and Windows 7 users will see a notification prompting them to update.

The update is available in 48 languages, so pretty much all Windows Live Essentials users will be able to take advantage of it. While we don’t know much of what this update actually does, we do at least know the build number for those of you keeping count: 15.4.3555.0308. I do wish they released a changelog, I’m genuinely curious about what the update has to offer now. Various commenters on the announcement blog post concur.

Whatever the case, though, you should just update because it seems important.

Microsoft To Announce Minecraft For Xbox 360 Release Date Tomorrow

While we’ve known for some time that Minecraft for Xbox will be launching sometime this year, no official release date has been released by either Mojang or Microsoft. That will all change tomorrow, however, as Microsoft will be announcing the release date of Minecraft: Xbox 360 Edition. Aptly named to differentiate it from the PC version, we know little about it apart from what was announced at E3 last year: There will be some Kinect functionality, and there would be some sort of cross-functionality between the Xbox 360 console version and the PC.

It will be interesting to see how this cross-platform functionality will be implemented. Will there be a specific server setting, or server type that is open to both Xbox 360 and PC players? How will communication work? Surely they’d have to implement voice chat as most Xbox gamers won’t have a keyboard. I’m sure that these concerns will be resolved with the release though; if they’re selling the game on the Xbox with any kind of multiplayer functionality, I don’t think people would be too happy if they can’t play with friends on the PC.

PlayXBLA, the Microsoft blog that’s tailored towards Xbox Live Arcade games will be publishing the release date first. And to celebrate the launch, they will also be giving away two custom Minecraft-styled Xboxes.

If the Xbox version of the game really is fully-functional with cross-functionality, perhaps I may bring my Minecraft escapades to the big screen.

Microsoft Cuts Back On TechNet Product Keys (Again)

Once again, within a two year period, Microsoft has diminished the amount of product keys available to subscribers of the service. In the past, TechNet Professional subscribers had access to 10 product keys for every version of Windows and Office. However, in September of 2010, Microsoft lowered the amount of issued keys to five due to piracy concerns.

Now, it would appear that they’ve further lowered the amount of allocated keys to TechNet subs. Ed Bott from ZDNet spotted an announcement on the TechNet Subscriptions website which states that, effective in mid-March of 2012, TechNet Professional subscribers can access a maximum of three keys for Office and Windows Client products with their subscription, while Standard subscribers have access to two keys per product.

On top of this, Microsoft also will impose limitations on how many keys can be claimed in a day. A TechNet Subscriber will be allowed to only claim 44 keys in a 24-hour period. Granted, despite these limitations, TechNet is still an awesome deal for what you gain access to. For $349 a year, you basically have access to most versions of Windows, Office, and some other Microsoft products. The licensing dictates that they can only be used for evaluation purposes, though.

That being said, it’s clear why Microsoft would seek to prevent abuse of the service. While it certainly is still an awesome service, veterans of TechNet probably aren’t too thrilled to see the amount of allocated product keys shrink throughout time.

Microsoft Doesn’t Want Sales And Marketing Employees Purchasing Apple Products With Company Funds

Whenever a Microsoft employee is photographed using Apple products, it usually leads to lighthearted humor. The most recent instance of this that I can recall was when a photo of Bill Flora, a leader on the team that worked on Microsoft’s Metro UI was spotted using exclusively Apple products in his office. Now, it seems like Microsoft may want to decrease this, at least on its Sales, Marketing, Services, IT and Operations Group (SMSG), which encompasses around 46,000 employees worldwide.

According to a leaked internal email sent out from Alain Crozier, CFO of SMSG, that ZDNet’s Mary-Jo Foley got her hands on, the company plans to revise its policy to prevent employees from purchasing Apple products (Macs and iPads, as specifically mentioned in the email) using company funds. They will be removing Apple products from the internal Zones Catalog, which is the appropriate channel for making these purchases.

When MJF asked a Microsoft Spokesperson about this, they had no comment (neither confirmation or denial). It’s worth noting that this isn’t a ban against using Apple products at all in the workplace — employees can still purchase them with their own cash — it’s simply put in place to prevent them from buying the products from the company’s funds.

It’s an interesting move by Microsoft. Perhaps the company is trying to signal that the teams working on sales and marketing should use the very products that they wish to promote, as one ZDNet commenter points out.