All posts by Romit Mehta

Romit writes about mobile news and gadgets, and is currently a Windows Phone owner (Nokia Lumia 920). Find him on twitter @TheRomit. Personal site is http://romitmehta.com.

Bing Pulse Comes to the State Of The Union Address

Bing Pulse, the real-time viewer polling and feedback tool from Bing, is going to be part of CNN and MSNBC’s coverage of the upcoming State of the Union address by United States President Mr Barack Obama.

The way it worked in the past is analysts and pundits across networks and publications would try to make sense of the variety of feedback channels they get their data from, and then try to provide the updates to the viewers. Naturally that took some time and the final analyses would take hours and days, if not weeks.

Instead, Bing Pulse will enable MSNBC and CNN to provide real-time voting capabilities along several points within the President’s speech on Tuesday January 20. The results of these votes will be available in real time to the networks, which can then send it back to the viewers in a way that will make most sense.

Per the blog post by Bing:

 

Easy to activate and simple to use, Bing Pulse lets viewers make their voices heard from the convenience of a web-enabled device, on any platform. With a click of the mouse or tap of the screen, audiences can “pulse,” or weigh in, on how they feel as often as every five seconds. Bing values your privacy, so voting is anonymous.

To participate in the CNN’s debates/questions, go to bing.com/CNN and to participate in the MSNBC coverage, go to pulse.msnbc.com.

Have you used Bing Pulse before, either as a publisher or as a participant? Please share your feedback in the comments below.

Skype for iOS Updated, Pre-release Program Announced

Skype has been updated for iOS on January 14, and per a blog post on Skype Blogs, they have now made it possible to quickly search for contacts and start conversations quicker via an update to the chat picker.

According to the post, the following two enhancements are part of the latest update:

In Skype 5.9 for iPhone, when you start typing a phone number in the dial pad, Skype will suggest contacts with matching phone numbers, making it faster to find who you want to talk to.

We’ve also updated the new chat picker to make starting conversations easier. Once you’ve chosen who you want to talk to, tap the phone or video icon at the top to start your call. (To open the chat picker, tap on the message icon on the bottom navigation bar when in the recents, favorites or people view.)

In other news from Skype, they announced a pre-release program for Skype enthusiasts. This program, for which you have to sign up here, gives access to early release of the software. This of course in based on the assumption that the enthusiasts will provide feedback so Skype developers can tweak the functionality before releasing to a wider audience.

You can help us shape your skype experience by:
* Trying out some new or upgraded features (don’t worry we’ll let you know what’s new) and tell us about your experience after doing so
* Giving us feedback and suggestions on what you would like to see in the app in the future
* Letting us know of any issues that you run into while using this previewed version

Per the blog post, there program has a limited number of spots, so if you are a Skype enthusiast, hurry up and enroll.

OneDrive Updates Coming: Single Sync Engine for Consumer and Business, Shared Folder Sync, Selective Sync Everywhere, Mac Client for OneDrive for Business

OneDrive For Business
OneDrive For Business

Microsoft, in a post on the OneDrive blog, has made a bunch of roadmap related announcements for OneDrive (and OneDrive for Business). This is refreshing because until about a year ago, this kind of information was almost impossible to get unless you relied on insider information and rumors.

The background for this honest and direct blog post could be several reasons:

  • Enthusiasts who loved Windows 8.1’s OneDrive behavior with the placeholder files who are disappointed that Windows 10 Technical Preview does away with it.
  • OneDrive for Business users who have no choice but to sync their entire collection or nothing.
  • OneDrive customers who have been clamoring for a shared folder sync a la Dropbox.
  • Overall, OneDrive customers who see slight differences in how files sync across the variety of platforms OneDrive is on, which is pretty much every platform today.

So here are the changes coming to OneDrive, and timelines wherever Microsoft has provided:

  • Single sync engine across all platforms. This will be built based on the current Windows 7 and Windows 8 sync engines, which means users have to select which folders they want to sync at the time of setting up OneDrive app. Of course, this can be changed later, but this is in contrast to Windows 8.1’s sync engine which takes the entire OneDrive and creates placeholder files whenever the cloud-based file is not available locally.
  • Unified OneDrive app for consumer and business users on iOS (this is already available on the Windows Phone and Android apps). This is coming later in January.
  • Preview of Mac client for OneDrive for Business, coming later in January.
  • Sync shared folders, coming “by summer”.
  • Shared folders and support for consumer and business in a single client on Windows 10, coming in the first Windows 10 release.
  • Reliable and comprehensible replacements to the placeholder feature will come to Windows 10 later in the calendar year.

I like this post because it makes clear that Microsoft is aware of the customer pain points and are not only working on the features to reduce the pain, but also know when approximately they will make those features available to the customers.

If you want to provide feedback on OneDrive, you can conveniently go to their UserVoice site.

Windows Phone Updates Coming via Phone Insider App?

As you may know, Windows 10 Technical Preview started off with an Insiders program which enabled Microsoft to send updates, software or otherwise, to those who selected to be in the program. As part of the program one was able to participate in forums and also, via a recent update, choose which “ring” to be a part of: fast ring implied updates as Microsoft makes them available to users outside the company, and slow ring implied updates delivered after the feedback from fast ring was incorporated.

Phone Insider App Details
Phone Insider App Details

 

Now, there is a Phone Insider app spotted in the Windows Phone Store. This app seems to be a replacement to the Preview for Developers app that launched in October 2013. The Preview for Developers app required one to be a developer in order to receive OS updates (no firmware updates) directly from Microsoft, not having to wait for carriers and OEMs. For the most part, this worked fine and except for the pain of waiting for OEMs and specifically, carriers, to deliver firmware, most enthusiasts were able to get the latest OS features like an improved Internet Explorer right away.

 

About Phone Insider App
About Phone Insider App

 

Phone Insider Train Chosen
Phone Insider Train Chosen

 

Phone Insider App Info
Phone Insider App Info

 

 

The Phone Insider app is not too functional at the moment, but from the text in the app description, it does look like a way for users (non-developers too) to sign up for a particular release channel and receive updates as and when Microsoft makes them available. It seems like there will be a link to the Windows Insiders program, so presumably once you sign up to be a Windows Insider, you could potentially also sign up to receive early Windows Phone updates.

The Phone Insider application provides registered Windows Insiders the ability to receive pre-release OS updates on their phone, directly from Microsoft. For more information about registering and becoming a Windows Insider visit http://insider.windows.com.

Ed: At this point, it looks like you can only log on with a Microsoft company domain account, so presumably this is enabled for employees only. It remains to be seen if this app is the actual delivery mechanism for Windows Insiders outside the company also, or it remains as an internal use app.

The timing is not unusual. On January 21, Microsoft has an all-day event for the press in Redmond, where they will be talking about the Windows 10 “consumer” story. Obviously, Windows 10 on phones and tablets will be a big portion of that story.

Could we see the mobile bits available that day, or soon after? Personally, I can’t wait to try out the next version of Windows “mobile”, or whatever the combination of Windows Phone and Windows RT OSes is called.

Skype Translator: Universal Translator Begins Preview (English-Spanish For Now)

Skype Translator UI

Skype Translator, the near real-time translation feature in Skype, which was announced in May and for which the preview sign up started in November of 2014, is now available. Those who signed up for the preview back in November, and those who are on Windows 8.1 (or Windows 10 Technical Preview), can now voice and video chat in English and Spanish in close to real time.

In addition to the voice translation between English and Spanish, more than 40 languages are available for IM conversations. A sample video provided by Skype:

Per Microsoft, this is a project that has been over ten years in the making:

Skype Translator is a great example of the benefit of Microsoft’s investment in research. We’ve invested in speech recognition, automatic translation and machine learning technologies for more than a decade, and now they’re emerging as important components in this more personal computing era. Skype Translator is the most recent and visible example.

On the Skype Garage blog, they explain how the Skype Translator technology works, simplistically:

It is interesting that the blog states how Microsoft has learnt colloquial language usage by being the translation service for social media sites like Facebook. It is clear that whatever deal Microsoft made with Facebook and Twitter to supply the translation services on those sites, was not just to be the translation service, but also to learn from the data and improve other products in their portfolio and fine tune products like Skype Translator.

Another nuance mentioned in the blog post is that the translation appears almost as a third person because based on research, they know customers “who are used to speaking through a human interpreter are quickly at ease with the situation”.

Although there will be kinks in the service, this is a bold new product that can truly help break barriers in communication around the world. Also, given that the service relies on machine learning which in turn gets better as there appears more data to work with, Microsoft and Skype urges everyone to try the service and provide feedback.

Sign up now at this page.

Looking Forward to Windows Phone in 2015

windows-phones

As 2014 winds down, Windows Phone is at a crucial stage in its lifecycle. Again. Earlier in 2014, Microsoft closed the acquisition of Nokia’s hardware division and Windows 10 was launched in a Technical Preview form. Nokia’s acquisition, combined with the upcoming Windows 10-based version of the phone operating system, has perhaps resulted in a slight pause in release of true flagship devices that can compete with the latest versions of competing platforms, the iPhone and Android/Nexus lineup.

So, as we look forward to the early 2014 look at the combined Windows RT and Windows Phone OS based on Windows 10, what can Microsoft do to preserve and grow its share, both market share as well as mind share? Recently, some prominent writers have written in detail about why they are no longer using Windows Phone as their primary device. Key takeaways there were lack of proper support of the platform by the largest mobile network in the US, Verizon Wireless, as well as lack of key apps on the platform. Apps that include the likes of Slack, Trello, Snapchat, Tinder, etc.

I have my own reasons why I switched to using iPhone 5s as my primary device last year. I know Windows Phone 8.1 added Notification Center but many of the problems are still valid issues for those who care about top-end Windows Phone experience. For example, adding Action Center to store all notifications is a great start, but in order to take action on those notifications, you have to tap it which opens the app, and then you take action within the app. Android, and now even iOS to a certain extent, have actionable notifications and those need to be implemented on Windows Phone.

The broader issue with Windows Phone is that for the third year in a row, enthusiasts are made to wait for “the next version” for feature parity with iOS and Android. Meanwhile those two platforms, due to the incredible ecosystem which creates a great virtuous cycle, have implemented next-generation features that move the goal posts for Windows Phone. Also, this wait for the next version of Windows Phone only takes care of part of the problem plaguing the platform; app developers are still not flocking to the platform because in the US, where most of the innovative apps have been created in the recent past, Windows Phone is still languishing around the 3% market share. Forget Windows Phone, even choosing Android as the second platform to be supported by small developers, is hard (although that Android situation is changing slowly).

Here are some things to look forward to as yet another chapter opens for Windows phone (yes, the “p” is lower case, because rumors suggest that Windows Phone operating system will be merged with Windows RT and just called Windows 10):

Windows 10

There’s a lot of hope for Windows 10’s ARM-based OS version, the merger of Windows RT and Windows Phone. How will apps built for Windows Phone work on Windows 10? What about additional features in the OS which will create an unforeseen appetite both on the consumer side as well as on the developer side? Cortana has rightly won accolades for how well she works, but it has not moved the needle much for device sales. Granted, it is not fully launched yet, but still. Also, what else can Windows 10 do that iOS and Android don’t do, and more importantly, can Microsoft find something that Windows 10 can do which iOS and Android *won’t* be able to do?

Windows 10 Product Family
Windows 10 Product Family

Flagships

One of the issues I had with Windows Phone when I got my iPhone 5s was the increased (and justifiable) focus by Microsoft on the lower end. They see their best market potential in markets which haven’t achieved smartphone saturation yet. In those markets, Microsoft has been able to sell their entry-level devices quite well. So Microsoft making “affordable flagship” a term for mid-range devices with some high-end specifications is completely understandable.

However, many customers in the developed markets would love to get a true high-end phone that competes well with the flagship iPhone and Android devices. The Lumia 1020, for example, has no successor yet. Yes, the Lumia 1520 is a great phone but there needs to be a non-phablet version of that device to make it appealing to the larger customer base.

Lumia 1520
Lumia 1520
Lumia Icon
Lumia Icon

Updates

Yes, Microsoft did create a bypass of sorts by making it possible for any “developer” to get direct updates of the software from Microsoft. Pretty much anyone can sign up to be a “developer” by signing into App Studio online, thereby making sure any enthusiast who cares about latest OS versions, will get it directly from Microsoft. That has helped reduce the angst among the enthusiasts but it is only one part of the updates customers need; firmware that makes devices work better, is delivered by the OEMs and via the carriers. Carriers have no real urgency to complete (or in some cases, even start!) testing and delivering the firmware to Windows Phone devices.

Could Microsoft come up with a way to deliver even more firmware directly? I mean, Windows on PCs get all updates delivered directly, and if Windows 10’s mobile version is going to be like “big Windows”, then I am optimistic that most of the updates could be delivered directly by Microsoft. Having said that, could Microsoft find a way, Windows 10 or otherwise, to deliver it without the need for the device to be a developer device?

Mind share

This is a really tough nut for Microsoft to crack. Much of the mind share these days is delivery via the Microsoft-averse tech blogosphere which has settled down on Apple and Google as being the only two players worth caring about. In order to win them over, Microsoft has to climb a virtually impossible mountain but as we have seen in the enterprise/cloud space, it is not impossible. A few crucial strategic moves on the Azure/Visual Studio side have made Microsoft somewhat of a darling in the same tech press, and Microsoft has to find a similar set of moves to make on the consumer side in order to increase their mind share. I say this because even Windows Phone 8.1 is an excellent operating system and there is a lot to love there, but if the writers who write at prominent tech blogs don’t care to use it, and worse, dismiss it, it does not help. I am not sure what those strategic moves could be, but Microsoft does need to make those moves so that the tech press actually cares about writing about Windows devices.

I am optimistic about Windows 10. I like the fact that there will be one OS for phones and tablets and I look forward to seeing some of the well-established Windows Phone apps get upgraded to be Universal and work on small tablets as well. But most importantly, I want to see how Microsoft expands Windows 10 to work as one OS across phones, tablets and PCs. There are many interesting applications of having one OS work across devices of all form factors and I am curious to see how today’s excellent phone applications work on my Windows tablets. On the phone side, I am looking forward to some nice high-end devices and some marquee apps releasing their Universal versions soon.

Here’s looking forward to another exciting year for Microsoft and Windows!

Office Online: Now with Bing Integration in Insights For Office

Office Online, specifically Word Online, has a new feature which is rolling out now, which features tight integration with Bing. This new feature, announced on December 10, is called Insights for Office.

If you remember “Research” pane in earlier versions of Office, this may be familiar. Of course, Insights for Office is supposedly much more powerful because it is very contextual, and utilizes Bing to provide the best possible way to surface web content right inside Word.

The way it works is this: as you write something in Word Online, you can start searching for a word or phrase within the text (by right-clicking) and Bing’s various results are shown in a nice panel. You can see results from Bing Snapshot, Wikipedia, Bing Image Search, Oxford Dictionary, and the whole web. You can avoid switching windows in order to run the searches in a separate tab/window of the browser and instead, see the content right beside your text, thereby reducing workflow disruption.

Insights for Office - Amazon
Insights for Office – Amazon
Insights for Office - Abraham Lincoln
Insights for Office – Abraham Lincoln

Insights for Office will also be triggered through the TellMe search box since that is the other obvious place where someone may enter content-related queries.

The Bing Blog goes on to explain more about how this works:

Bing indexes and stores entity data from around the web representing real world people, places and things. Insights for Office utilizes Bing’s ability to index the world’s knowledge and our machine learned relevance models to semantically understand the most important content in a user’s document and then return the most relevant results. This capability is derived largely from patterns of text analysis developed in collaboration with Microsoft Research. The results deliver the most relevant web links, images, etc. for a given request in the form of entity cards – a quick overview of the most important attributes (description, date of birth, etc.) about a real world person, place or thing. In many cases, the entity card may provide enough information for the user’s query intent to be fulfilled without requiring any additional exploration.

This is yet another integration of Bing into a Microsoft product, further confirming that Bing cannot be spun off from Microsoft, if that thought is still in some investors’ minds. The tight coupling of Bing into a variety of other Microsoft products like Sway, Xbox, Cortana personal digital assistant, etc. solidify Microsoft’s positioning of Bing as a platform rather than a search engine.

Microsoft Now Accepts Bitcoin for Digital Purchases (U.S. Only)

In a surprise move, Microsoft has quietly started accepting Bitcoin as a way to add funds to your account which can be used to purchase digital content like apps, movies, TV shows, games, etc. from Windows, Windows Phone, Xbox Games, Xbox Music and Xbox Video stores.

In a FAQ on the Microsoft billing site, one can see how Bitcoin can be used to add money to your Microsoft account:

To add money to your Microsoft account with Bitcoin:

  1. Sign in to Microsoft account – Billing with your Microsoft account
  2. Select Payment options > Microsoft account > redeem bitcoin
  3. Select the amount you want to add, then click Next
  4. Review the amount of Bitcoin needed and use your digital wallet to complete the transaction within 15 minutes:
    • On your computer – select Pay with Bitcoin and then pay from your Bitcoin wallet on the same device.
    • On your smartphone – scan the QR code displayed on the page to pay from your mobile wallet app.
    • If your wallet is on another device, you can copy the receiving address and BTC amount to the wallet on your device or the Web and then make your purchase.

 

Of course, this feature has caveats besides the fact that this form of payment is supported only in the United States version of the various stores:

  • Bitcoin funding is non-refundable.
  • While the Bitcoin-funded account can be used to purchase digital goods, it cannot be used to purchase Microsoft products and services directly.

This move is another big endorsement for Bitcoin. Per Coindesk, this funding option is enabled by the integration between Microsoft and BitPay, a Georgia-based Bitcoin processor.

Are you excited about this move? Will you be funding your Microsoft account with Bitcoin? Let us know in the comments below.

 

Microsoft’s Music Deals App: Huge Selection of Free and Inexpensive Music

music-deals-header

In October of this year, Microsoft released the Music Deals apps for Windows 8.x and Windows Phone 8.1 but not with much fanfare. As it turns out, this app is a treasure trove of free and inexpensive music.

The way this app works is, there is a time-limited set of promotional deals for various types of music. Typically, there is one popular single listed very inexpensively ($0.99) and then there are three sets of themes for free or inexpensive albums. All of these promotions run for a variety of time periods, ranging from a week to fifteen days.

For example, last week there was a sale for fifty boxed sets, each at $2 only. These boxed sets typically sell for anywhere from $15 to sometimes even over $100, so these were fantastic steals. Last week also saw fifty free albums, all by popular artists.

Music Deals Promotions
Music Deals Promotions

This week the promotions continue and the discounted albums are popular rock albums and popular soundtracks, and the free albums include albums by artists like Ellie Goulding, ABBA, Imagine Dragons, etc.

Music Deals Free Albums
Music Deals Free Albums

The way this works is the Music Deals listing opens up the album in the Xbox Music app (or simply, Music app) on Windows or Windows Phone, and the discounted price is shown. Once you click on buy (or “get it free” when the album is free), depending on your settings, the music will start downloading or be marked as owned and available in the cloud for your use anytime in the future.

The beauty of this setup is that the music content is DRM-free and can be played on any device or software. So you don’t have to feel compelled to use Windows and Windows Phone’s music apps, you can use iTunes or pretty much any other software to play these tunes.

Music Deals Windows Phone
Music Deals Windows Phone

I am unclear what is the end game for Microsoft here. I know it will increase usage of the Music app, and maybe create more Microsoft accounts which can then be used to upsell premium services like paid storage or Office 365, but those seem like poor returns for the potential cost of the discounted music.

Regardless, this is a great deal for consumers and you should absolutely take advantage of these deals. Get the Music Deals apps here: Windows and Windows Phone.

Microsoft Introduces Work & Play Bundle: Office 365, Xbox Music Pass, Xbox LIVE Gold, Skype Unlimited World for $199

Microsoft has introduced a unique blend of “dual use” products in a single subscription, called Work & Play Bundle. This is a subscription to four of its popular subscriptions services, combined into a single bundle.

The products included are:

  • Office 365 Home (which includes 1TB of OneDrive space today, which is soon going to become unlimited storage, for 5 users)
  • Skype Unlimited World and Skype WiFi
  • Xbox LIVE Gold
  • Xbox Music Pass

As you can see, this is not a “consumer” bundle, nor is it a “business” bundle. In keeping with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s mantra, this is a product made for someone who wants to access productivity tools like Office and OneDrive as well as fun stuff like Xbox gaming and listening to unlimited music on demand. Of course, Skype calling applies naturally to both work and play scenarios.

Of course, being a bundle, the selling point is that the combined price of $199/year is better than buying all those subscriptions individually. Also, if you already subscribe to one or more of these products, adding this bundle will simply extend the subscription to those products by a year. Finally, in terms of actual delivery, each product is delivered as a $50 redemption code so potentially, you could give the stuff you don’t care about to friends and others.

This bundle shows that Microsoft is pushing even harder in the direction of making all their services into a recurring revenue model business. There have long been wishes for Xbox LIVE Gold to include the Xbox Music Pass and now we can see that Microsoft is making it a little bit easier to digest by combining these popular services together.

One thing to note, as is stated in the footnote on the site, the Xbox Music Pass is only for streaming on Xbox and the web. I wonder why they made that restriction, implying it won’t be available on mobile devices or Windows modern Music app.

At $199 per year, it is not a slam dunk choice for consumers to jump to, but there is a lot of value in the bundle if you use even three of the four services included here. Are you interested in this bundle? Would you consider buying it?