New Office 365 Plans Coming For Small Businesses

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As part of the evolution of Office 365, the service is going to see three new plans this October, per a post on the Office Blogs on July 9.

The three new plans, catered towards small businesses (from 1 user to 300 users), will eventually replace the existing Small Business, Small Business Premium and Midsize Business plans.

 

Office 365 Small Business Plans
Office 365 Small Business Plans

The new plan details are as follows:

Office 365 Business

This plan is more in line with the Office 365 Personal and Office 365 Home in that it is essentially the desktop Office suite available on a subscription basis. Compared to the consumer edition of OneDrive that comes with Office 365 Personal and Home, Office 365 Business will come with the 1TB of OneDrive for Business. The applications included in the desktop suite are Outlook, Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote and Publisher. Curiously, no mention of Access.

This plan will cost $8.25 user per month.

Office 365 Business Essentials

This plan includes Exchange Online, SharePoint Online and Lync Online and Yammer, but there is no desktop software subscription included. It will also have the 1TB of OneDrive for Business.

This plan will cost $5 per user per month.

Office 365 Business Premium

This is somewhat of a combination of the above two, so it comes with the desktop suite as well as online versions of Exchange, SharePoint and Lync along with the 1TB of OneDrive for Business.

This plan will cost $12.50 per user per month.

Office 365 Small Business Plans ComparedOffice 365 Small Business Plans Compared
Office 365 Small Business Plans Compared

 

Some overall benefits include the ceiling of these plans being raised to 300 seats, as well as being able to upgrade to Enterprise plans if the growth of the company goes beyond that number. Additionally, since the new Business Premium plan replaces a plan that currently costs more ($15 per user per month), current customers on that plan will see the reduced cost applied at the next renewal. All of these plans of course unlock the ability to edit documents on Office apps for iPad.

This announcement comes days before the annual Worldwide Partner Conference, with a clear intent to incentivize partners to sell these plans to small businesses, which should be the most likely candidates to move to the cloud given their limited IT resources.

Are you an existing small business Office 365 customer? Do these plans sound interesting to you? Let us know in the comments.

 

Images courtesy Office Blogs

App Developer Focused On Music? Use Xbox Music API and Make Money!

The folks over at Microsoft’s Xbox Music Developer group announced on July 3 that they were extending the Xbox Music API more generally to all third party developers. This REST-based API, announced at //Build earlier this year, encompasses metadata, deep linking, playback and collection management.

This means, a developer with any interest in pulling up information or content related to music, can now use the Xbox Music catalog and resources and integrate them into their apps. There are various possibilities like a video editor being able to use background music, video game makers allowing custom soundtracks, or something as simple as a band’s fan page pulling up metadata from their catalog on Xbox Music.

 

Xbox Music API Features
Xbox Music API Features

The more interesting news in the blog post comes later, where they announce an affiliate program:

Every user you redirect to the Xbox Music application can earn you money on content purchases and Xbox Music Pass subscriptions. You currently will earn a 5 percent share on purchases and as the Xbox Music pass is at the core of our service, 10 percent on all music pass payments for the lifetime of the subscription.  In the US for example, that’s one dollar, per user, per month!

That’s no small change, if you ask me. The Xbox Music Pass is a pretty good deal as it is, and if a developer can lead someone to that vastly underrated product and their customer is able to sign up, a 10% commission is pretty sweet.

 

Xbox Music Affiliate Program
Xbox Music Affiliate Program

The headwinds are strong for Xbox Music because established players like Spotify have also opened up their catalog to developers in a similar fashion. It remains to be seen if the developers find the API and/or the affiliate terms strong enough of an incentive to build against the Xbox Music API vs the others.

 

Integrate Xbox Music API Everywhere
Integrate Xbox Music API Everywhere

One thing to bear in mind is the new Microsoft is not going to remain uni-platform anymore. They have shown all signs of being completely platform-agnostic to prepare for the new normal where Windows becomes just another platform that Microsoft services support.

Are you a developer building apps which require music? Are you using Spotify or anything else? Would you sign up for Xbox Music Developer program? Let me know below.

 

[All images courtesy Microsoft/Xbox blogs; header image is from the author’s computer]

Powerful and Inexpensive Lumia 635 Available on T-Mobile and MetroPCS in July

Lumia 635
Lumia 635

The extremely affordable Lumia 521 (a variant of the Lumia 520, made for T-Mobile) has a successor. Microsoft announced on July 1, that the first Windows Phone 8.1 device for the US will be arriving on T-Mobile/MetroPCS soon.

The schedule is a bit hairy, so here goes:

  • From July 5, this phone can be purchased via the Home Shopping Network
  • From July 9, it can be ordered online at t-mobile.com
  • From July 16, it will be available at T-Mobile stores
  • From July 18, it will be available at select MetroPCS stores

The pricing is $0 down and $7/month for 24 months or a promotional price of $99 off-contract.

 

Lumia 635
Lumia 635

The phone has a 4.5” screen combined with a quad-core Snapdragon processor, and unlike its predecessor, it works on the fast 4G LTE speeds. The phone will come pre-loaded with Windows Phone 8.1 and its personal digital assistant Cortana.

It is also one of the first phones to include software-based buttons on the front as well as SensorCore, the technology which enables low-power tracking of various sensors in the phone.

Here’s an official hands-on video:

I am a big fan of these low-cost Windows Phone devices, and I love my Lumia 520. Most apps work flawlessly on my 520 (subject to the 512MB RAM limits) and I am sure the same will be true for the Lumia 635. Another improvement in this phone over the 520 is that the microSD card slot can accept cards up to 128GB, and Windows Phone 8.1 allows apps and media to be stored on the expansion slot, so the 8GB default storage is no longer a concern.

Windows Phone has not picked up any steam in the US market and while in the rest of the world has shown a fondness for the low-cost Windows Phone, it remains to be seen if the Lumia 635 can change any of that. I am considering swapping out my 520 for the 635. Are you thinking about getting one?

Windows Store and Windows Phone Store: Website Apps “Problem”

I have noticed a slightly disturbing trend in Windows (and Windows Phone) apps, and that is “big brand” apps being released as a website wrapped in an app. I am going to refer to three specific examples I stumbled upon recently, but please note these apps are not the only ones with this issue.

Let’s take a look at United Airlines app to start with. Here’s the app’s opening screen:

 

United Airline App Home
United Airline App Home

Even at the first glance you can tell this is the website being rendered inside the app. I don’t have a problem with HTML inside apps, but just throwing the website as is into the app makes for terrible user experience especially on touch. For example, you can see that the links are so dense that they will make it hard to tap:

 

United Airlines Travel Info Page
Travel information page

Even some other “pages” in the “app” where the density is not so high, the layout does not feel native at all:

 

United Airline Products Page
United Airline Products Page

Finally, compare the screenshots above to the United Airlines website:

 

United Airline website
United Airline website

So yes, the Windows Store team can claim we have a genuine and official app for United Airlines, but as a user I’d much rather just go to the website than use the app.

It gets worse in the evite app, whose main screen is shown below:

 

Evite App Home
Evite App Home

When I tapped the header image in the app, I was brought to the details page. So far, so good. The touch targets are big enough, the layout does not look like a website but it is because evite’s website is designed that way.

 

Evite App Section
Evite App Section

However, the issue arises when I tap something in the details page, it launched the evite website! That is terrible, because the app itself is the website, so why should it throw me out of the app and open the website?

 

Evite App Clicks To Website
Evite App Clicks To Website

For comparison, here’s the evite website:

 

Evite website
Evite website

Finally, the Orbitz app, where you will see a link to their mobile apps!

 

Orbitz App Home
Orbitz App Home

See the Orbitz website below, which looks exactly like the app:

 

Orbitz website
Orbitz website

Starting from scratch as a distant third in the mobile ecosystem wars, Microsoft is in a bad situation when it comes to breaking the Catch-22 of users not buying Windows devices because of lack of apps and developers not building apps for Windows because of low volume of Windows devices sold. I have seen other desperate attempts by Microsoft, like encouraging student developers to submit apps without much regard to quality of the apps. We have also seen Microsoft getting caught submitting web wrappers in their own name, for popular products and services like Southwest Airlines. This could very well be another such attempt to get big brands in the Windows and Windows Phone Stores, but I am unclear how it benefits the end users. The fact that several such apps have been released recently points to some level of green lighting by Microsoft, even if they are not the ones making it.

The least Microsoft can do now, is to make sure the layouts are modified to make them touch-friendly. Don’t get me wrong though, there are a lot of good, big brand apps coming to both Windows and Windows Phone lately, and I am really happy about that as a user in that ecosystem. Also, increasingly the apps are being released as “Universal” where you buy/download on Windows and it becomes enabled on other Windows/Windows Phone devices (and vice versa). This trend is also great news for the ecosystem.

Do you agree that these apps are close to “junk”? Are you ok seeing such “apps”? Let me know in the comments!

OneDrive Increases Free Storage and Office 365 Gets 1TB Free

On June 23, Microsoft announced several updates related to its OneDrive consumer-oriented online storage service including bumping up the free storage tier, reducing costs for purchasing storage dramatically, and adding 1TB to Office 365’s non-business plans.

OneDrive 1TB with Office
OneDrive 1TB with Office

Free Storage

While OneDrive (then called SkyDrive) offered 25GB free long time ago, Microsoft changed the free tierto be a then reasonable 7GB around the time of Windows 8 launch. The reasoning then was 7GB was higher than the competition at the time. Of course, as cost of storage has gone down, and as cloud services become more essential for ecosystems, Google and even Apple, have announced very inexpensive plans for their respective online storage services. Now, Microsoft matches some of the recent competitive updates by making the free tier to be 15GB.

Office 365 Personal, Home and University plans join the 1TB party

Microsoft had already announced that Office 365’s business editions would be getting 1TB of included storage (although that would be under OneDrive for Business, which is not the same product as OneDrive). With this announcement, Office 365’s non-business editions, which is Personal, Home and University, also get 1TB of included storage.

This makes Office 365 a pretty fantastic deal if you have the need for desktop Office, or if you want to be able to edit Office documents on the iPad. Not only does Office 365 now come with 1TB of storage, it always included 60 minutes of free Skype worldwide calling and of course desktop version of the Office suite, as well as edit rights for iPad version of the Office apps. If you have more than one person who needs Office, then Office 365 Home is a killer deal @ $99 per year for 5 users.

Office 365 Consumer Plans
Office 365 Consumer Plans

Reduced prices for additional storage options

Of course, as storage costs have gone down, each of the online storage providers have kept cutting their prices. OneDrive will no longer have the 50GB option since the $100GB option is now at $1.99 per month, down from $7.49 per month. An additional 200GB will be $3.99 per month, down from $11.49 per month.

These are great updates to an already useful storage service. As a reminder, OneDrive has a presence on all platforms, making it a truly universal online storage service: Windows 7, Windows 8.x, Windows Phone, iPhone, iPad, Android, Mac OS. The price changes were not completely unexpected because it is much easier for a larger company with scale, to keep lowering costs to meet the competition’s prices. I wonder what this means to the likes of Dropbox and Box, especially the former, since it has long been the darling of consumers for being so easy to use, sync and share. With OneDrive (and Google Drive and soon, iCloud) being so front-and-center in those various ecosystems, it will be interesting to see how many consumers will decide to switch away from the smaller companies. We shall see.

Edit: An earlier version of this article stated that OneDrive is perhaps the only service with apps across all platforms. Dropbox and Box also have apps across all platforms. Author meant to say, only one among the big ecosystem providers, but the sentence has been modified to refer to OneDrive by itself.

(Images courtesy OneDrive blog and Office Blogs)

Microsoft launces Internet Explorer Developer Channel

On June 16, Microsoft announced that Internet Explorer will now have a Developer Channel release which can run side-by-side with the production/GA version of Internet Explorer on Windows 7 and Windows 8.x. This feature, which has long been available in Google’s Chrome browser and Mozilla’s Firefox, is a pleasant surprise to those who use Internet Explorer.

This release is a continuation of the effort Microsoft, and especially Internet Explorer team has started, to become developer-friendly by being proactive in communication about the roadmap and the features. This release, unlike the previous developer previews Microsoft created, not only runs side-by-side with the existing version of Internet Explorer but also includes changes to the UI as they are made.

Some of the key updates in this release include:

Updates to F12 developer tools

An enhanced debugging experience with event breakpoints that help you get to your event-driven bugs faster.

Richer analysis capabilities throughout the Memory and UI Responsiveness profilers, which support further reduction of noise through multi-dimensional timeline filter, while further increasing the semantic value of the data being reported by lighting up performance.measure() based instrumentation and dominator folding.

An improved navigation experience that provides more keyboard shortcuts (ctrl+[ and ctrl + ]), as well as new header notifications, which allows you to quickly determine whether any of the profiling tools are running or how many errors your page has.

The complete list of updates are on MSDN here.

IE Dev Channel F12 Tools
IE Dev Channel F12 Tools

Support for WebDriver standard

IE Developer Channel also comes with support for the emerging WebDriver standard through which Web developers can write tests to automate Web browsers to test their sites. It’s a programmable remote control for developing complex user scenarios and running them in an automated fashion in your Web site and browser. See how you can setup WebDriver in the IE Developer Channel, and try out this sample WebDriver project.

Support for Gamepad API standard and improved WebGL support

IE Developer Channel comes with support of the emerging Gamepad API standard that lets you use JavaScript to add gamepad support to your Web apps and games.

IE Developer Channel also improves WebGL performance and adds support for instancing extension, 16-bit textures, GLSL builtin variables, and triangle fans. This release improves our Khronos WebGL Conformance Test 1.0.2 score from 89% to 94%.

Status.modern.ie Gamepad Status
Status.modern.ie Gamepad Status

The team is promising frequent updates to the Developer Channel and we shall see how frequent that is. Given the pace and cadence across various other groups at Microsoft, it could be anywhere from two weeks (Xbox Music) to a month (Xbox One, Power BI) or three-four months (Windows, Windows Phone). Whatever it is, for developers this is much better than anything Internet Explorer has done in the past.

You can download the Developer Channel release from here.

Here’s Charles Morris introducing the Developer Channel IE:

Summary: Microsoft’s Power BI Team Does an AMA

One June 10, the Power BI team at Microsoft conducted an Ask Me Anything (AMA) on Reddit, and there were some standard non-responses, but there were also some interesting insights into what the team is thinking about the product and the direction it is planned to be taking.

Here is a quick summary of the items discussed:

Power BI in Office 365 Home

As you may know, Power BI is only supported with Office 365, and only with certain higher-end editions of the service. Many customers and potential customers who have interest in analytics and business intelligence but simply cannot afford a higher-end Office 365 edition. So the question about being able to access Power BI in a Home edition is legit, and I am glad the team responded to it and the good news is that it is a highly-requested feature, and we may see something on that soon. From the answer here:

Customers have asked for some subset of Power BI functionality be available in other versions of Office and it is something we actively discuss. We are hoping to have great news in the coming months. (Carl Perry, PM)

Power BI On-Premises

Power BI currently only works with Office 365 and SharePoint Online. One of the reasons is that with cloud-based services, Microsoft is able to release quickly and release often. Hence, the response here is that it won’t happen at least until the next version of SharePoint is released. From the answer here:

For Power BI on-prem, the earliest you’ll see this is in the next major release of SharePoint. (As of today we don’t have dates to share/discuss for this release.) We’re taking advantage of the capabilities of Office 365 cloud services to release early and often in Power BI, but on-prem SharePoint is releasing on a more traditional on-prem schedule. [Matthew – Data Catalog PM]

Duplication of languages/interfaces

Microsoft now has several ways of doing the same thing, across client and server. For example, in Power Query they are using the “M” language to transform and shape data, whereas their SQL Server Integration Services, their Extract/Transform/Load tool has its own expression language. They are aware of this, which is a good thing, but there will always be overlap in functionality across their tools. Similarly, Power Query and Power Pivot offering similar ways to manipulate data. From one response here:

We are working hard on making sure we remove as much overlap as possible in the UI, for example we want to have a single place to import data in future updates of the product. The overlap between M and DAX is a very interesting as in nature they serve very different purposes. DAX is very analytical in nature, meaning optimized for business problems / aggregations. M is optimized is a functional language optimized for data transformations. I agree there is some overlap between DAX calc. columns and M and we are thinking about optimizing the overlap here. (K de Jonge, AS team)

Another response here:

We are definitely working on our relationship, as with any marriage it’s a lot of hard work. No, seriously, you will some of the more annoying issues fixed in the current version of Office and we are looking into how to optimize our two products for future versions. (K de Jonge, SSAS team)

We’re actively working on improvements in Power Query that will address the most common causes of this type of “destructive change” problem. We release a new version of Power Query each month, so be sure to stay up to date. [Matthew – Data Catalog PM]

And another one here:

Although both “M” and SSIS expressions are tools for manipulating data, the contexts in which they operate are different enough that it’s pretty unlikely that M will replace SSIS expressions.

But with this said, we are actively looking at ways to make Power Query and SSIS play better together. Prior to Power BI GA we separated the Power Query engine (the part that executes queries) from the Power Query add-in UX, and are looking at a variety of scenarios where that engine can be hosted in different processes. SSIS is an obvious one. [Matthew – Data Catalog PM]

Power BI for Android

This was bound to come up, and per Microsoft the fact at the moment is that Android has tremendous reach in consumer space, but not much in the enterprise. As a result, the focus has been on Windows and iOS. From their response here:

We decided to initially focus on Windows and iOS first. Android does have a big market share in the consumer space but its growth in the enterprise was less initially. We are actively monitoring the trends and Android support is definitely on our roadmap. (Cindy S. – Mobile BI PM)

Power BI with Dynamics? Maybe a Salesforce connector hint?

While Power Query can pull from a variety of data sources, there is no connector to Dynamics CRM. Power BI officials said that they have friends in Dynamics team and something should happen soon. At the same time they seem to hint that something else in the CRM space may happen soon too. Could that be a hint that a salesforce.com connector is coming soon, given the recently announced partnership between the two companies? See here:

We have some really good friends in the Dynamics team and are pushing to make getting that data in to Power BI as seamless as possible – And, as we generally like to make new friends, we’re working on some new CRM capability provider friendships as well.

Feedback

Feedback for Power BI is being collected via Connect, and it goes straight to the team’s Visual Studio Team Server. They use the votes up/down as a factor to prioritize the backlog of features. See here:

Challenge accepted: http://connect.microsoft.com And as proof yo: http://imgur.com/BHmZTh7

Connect items go straight into our VSTS instance so they really do get looked at! We track the up/down votes and that goes into our planning cycles. You can also give feedback through the product now! There are links and smiley faces in the products that you can use to give us feedback. Also: http://social.technet.microsoft.com/Forums/en-US/home?forum=powerview%2Cpowerbimobileapps%2Cpowerqanda&filter=alltypes&sort=lastpostdesc

(Will T – British Power View PM)

Third party visualizations

On the topic of allowing third party visualizations, Microsoft said that they are focused right now on getting the HTML5 version to be on parity with the Silverlight version. Once that happens, they plan to add many more visualizations and maybe even open it up to third parties. That’s promising! See here:

Currently the Power BI team is working on bringing the new HTML5 version to parity with Silverlight with respect to visuals and also adding some new important visuals. We will then be adding lots of new visuals and during that process, we will take a look and see how to open up the platform to third party custom visualizations.. Stay tuned! [Ajay, Power View PM]

It is very easy to duck questions in an AMA, especially when it is product roadmap type of questions. I think the Power BI team did a good job of taking the important questions, and responding fairly openly. I am most interested in the addition of Power BI in Home edition. What about you?

Here is a video talking about Power BI for Office 365:

iOS Bulks Up with iOS 8

On June 2, at its Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC), Apple unveiled the next version of its iOS mobile operating system among many other announcements. iOS 8 will introduce a bevy of features, many of which have huge platform implications.

Many of the new features, both consumer-facing and developer-oriented, seem to be pointed squarely at the “power users”. Such users are the ones who may have switched to or prefer Android because of a lot of capabilities in that operating system which iOS did not have or allow until now. But let’s just consider it the natural evolution of the iOS platform, now at over 800 million users (a stat Apple CEO Tim Cook stated in his keynote at the event).

Let’s take a look at some of the key features that Android and to a lesser extent, Windows Phone offer, which lure customers to those platforms, and how iOS 8 has responded to those.

  • Third party keyboards
  • Actionable notifications
  • Widgets
  • App-to-app communication and sharing
  • Google services, including the contextual Google Now
  • Larger choice of devices of various form factors, mostly larger screens

Keyboard improvements

Windows Phone introduced Word Flow, which is to this day, the best predictive keyboard I have used. It is a way by which the system can provide the next few words that you may be about to type, based on what you start typing. For example, if you type “how are”, there is a good chance you want to type “you” next, and the predictive nature of the keyboard will prompt “you”, and maybe a couple of other options like “things” or “the”. iOS gets such a feature finally. It is very similar in nature to Word Flow but obviously it is something the iOS keyboard has missed all this time. No more.

iOS 8 Predictive Keyboard
iOS 8 Predictive Keyboard

Third-party keyboards

In what I thought was a surprising move, Apple also announced that they are going to let third parties provide their keyboards so customers can replace the system keyboard with a third-party keyboard. That is huge because the likes of Swiftkey and Swype have made a name for themselves in the Android world, and users of those keyboards claimed it is a big enough reason for them not to move back to iOS. Already, several key names have announced their keyboards are coming to iOS 8, which is not surprising at all.

iOS 8 Third Party Keyboards
iOS 8 Third Party Keyboards

Interactive notifications

Apple’s Notification Center, while a decent imitation of Android’s notification center, is a bit clunky. Even the upcoming Action Center in Windows Phone 8.1 does a better job managing notifications. So it is no surprise that Apple decided to make some changes and one of the big changes is the interactive notifications. Android has this feature already, where quick actions can be taken on notifications that land in the notification center, without opening the apps. Interactive notifications aim to do the same, and more importantly, Apple has decided to open it up to third parties from day one. That means, developers can enable quick actions like Facebook’s Like and Comment, Twitter’s Retweet and Replies, etc. directly in the Notification Center. Obviously it is a big deal on Android because of the productivity gains, and it was about time iOS implemented the same. (As a part-time Windows Phone user, I do hope this feature is on its way on that platform as well. It is badly needed.)

iOS 8 Interactive Notifications Calendar
iOS 8 Interactive Notifications Calendar
iOS 8 Interactive Notifications Mail
iOS 8 Interactive Notifications Mail
iOS 8 Interactive Notifications Messages
iOS 8 Interactive Notifications Messages
iOS 8 Interactive Notifications
iOS 8 Interactive Notifications
iOS 8 Interactive Notifications 3rd Party
iOS 8 Interactive Notifications 3rd Party

Widgets

The other big improvement in the iOS Notification Center comes in the form of widgets. This has been another ding against iOS until now because Windows Phone first introduced Live Tiles which enable quick information that app developers can provide to customers via the app icon(s) flipping and updating. Android later added widgets which were sub-sections of the apps that could be placed on a home screen and provided snippets to live information to the customers. With Widgets, iOS 8 somewhat addresses this “gap” by enabling developers to provide live updates, although in the Notification Center, not in the app icon or on the home screen like the competition. So the widget will look like a notification but it will have more real estate and will be able to take more forms vs. a text update. For example, score updates during a game could show the two team names and scores by quarter.

iOS 8 Widgets
iOS 8 Widgets

This is hugely welcome news, for customers and developers alike. For customers, it means more than just text updates and for developers, it is somewhat of a parity with other platforms as well as another way to keep their customers engaged with the app.

As for app-to-app communication, Apple has made it possible for apps to communicate and share data with each other. Although the details are more important than the announcement in terms of how useful this feature is, it is remarkable that after so many years of keep each app limited to itself, Apple has decided to enable inter-app communication which has been a stable in Android as well as Windows 8 and Windows Phone.

When it comes to Google services, they are already available on iOS in the form of various apps, including Google Now. Although this has prompted many customers to consider Android, where the integration with the phone is even tighter, I suspect it will also make it easier for them to make the return trip going from Android back to iOS.

Finally, although perhaps it may be an even more compelling reason for normal users to try Android, there is this thing about larger screen phones. It is rumored and by now almost a given that Apple will be introducing phones with larger screens this Fall, which is usually when they update their hardware. A larger screen iPhone will almost certainly be a hit, if the popularity of large screen devices running Android are any indication. It will be interesting to see how Apple handles the application UI. When they introduced the iPad, they had an elegant (although ugly) option of a “2x” mode. It will be interesting how they handle the larger real estate and yet, make developers’ work to address the larger screen, minimal.

Some other important updates from Apple with regard to iOS, not so much related to Android, but definitely showing signs of bulking up:

iCloud Photo Library

Until now, the Photostream feature backed up photos from all our iDevices automatically, but it was limited in storage. Apple also announced at WWDC that they are moving to an “iCloud Photo Library” which would store all photos *and* videos in full resolution, from all our iDevices. The first 5GB is free but instead of the currently expensive storage purchase options, Apple is also introducing inexpensive storage that can be purchased for what they refer to as iCloud Drive. Effectively, much like SkyDrive camera Roll in the Windows world, and Google+ Photos in the Google/Android world, the iCloud Photo Library is the entire photo library, always available in the cloud and all the Apple (Mac and iOS) devices and Windows 8 PCs. All edits made on one device are instantly available on all other devices. For a company that has not been at the forefront of well-implemented cloud services, the proof of the pudding will lie in the tasting, but as of now, it seems like Apple gets it and is on the right track. Also, in another move that shows Apple is opening up in a way they have not done traditionally, they have enabled other apps to integrate their editing tools and filters within the new Photos app.

iCloud Photo Library
iCloud Photo Library
iCloud Photo Library
iCloud Photo Library

Messaging updates

In what seems like a carpet bomb attack on WhatsApp, Facebook messenger and Snapchat all at once, Apple’s iMessage will now support audio messages, video messages, group messaging and automatically disappearing messages. Apple also added the ability to share location which is very handy when coordinating meetups with groups. So instead of relying on several different apps (and therefore, different logins, different address books, etc.), you can do the same with the default messaging app, only as long as everyone you communicate with is on iPhone :-) But that has been the modus operandi for Apple from day one, so there is nothing out of the ordinary in that strategy.

iOS 8 Messaging Voice
iOS 8 Messaging Voice
iOS 8 Group Messaging Details
iOS 8 Group Messaging Details
iOS 8 Group Messaging
iOS 8 Group Messaging
iOS 8 Share Location
iOS 8 Share Location
iOS 8 Expiring Messages
iOS 8 Expiring Messages
iOS 8 Messages Record Video
iOS 8 Messages Record Video

iOS 8 is claimed to be a bigger update than when Apple announced the mobile App Store and it certainly seems like there are many huge changes coming in iOS 8 for iOS developers which may end up increasing the app quality gap between iOS and Android even more than it is today. iOS is still usually the first platform for mobile developers to build their innovative solutions and experiences. With these changes, despite the rocketing market share of Android devices, Apple is poised to make it even more worthwhile for developers to build for their platform(s).

 

(All images via Apple’s website)

Windows Phone Podcasts App: So Close Yet So Far

When Windows Phone 8.1 was announced, we learned of a separate Podcasts app which was going to be made available as a pre-installed app, and instead of relying on the Zune back-end, it was going to be powered by Bing.

Having installed the Developer Preview of the Windows Phone 8.1 on my Lunia 920, I wanted to check out the podcasts app. After all, in order to become my daily driver, a phone has to be able to provide me a superb podcast experience. There is much to like in the app, but much more to dislike.

First off, some of the things I like:

International support I haven’t tried this myself but it is well-known that this new app is now made available everywhere Windows Phone is available, which is a boon to all international customers. Given that the back-end is not Zune’s, I suspect that the US-only nature of the earlier podcast functionality may have something to do with the database. Still beats me, but regardless that is a thing of the past now. All Windows Phone customers are now welcome to use podcasts “natively”.

Database maintenance Since the discovery and addition of podcasts is powered by Bing, there is usually no issue with addition of a new podcast feed. I did find it odd that a popular Windows-related podcast, Windows Developer Show was found but had no content. I know in this specific case that the podcasters changed their feed a few weeks ago but it is a bad sign that the feed was not updated even after so long. Regardless, at least it is not a person or a team that has to manage the database, which is a good thing.

Missing content in Windows Phone Podcasts app
Missing content in Windows Phone Podcasts app

Playback speed Yay, yay, yay. Finally, we can speed through podcasts with a 1.5x and a 2x setting.

Windows Phone Podcasts app: 1.5x playback
Windows Phone Podcasts app: 1.5x playback
Windows Phone Podcasts app: Normal speed playback
Windows Phone Podcasts app: Normal speed playback

Manual refresh Repeat after me: yay, yay, yay. Prior to this app, there was really no way to detect when the phone checked for new episodes and more importantly, there was no way to trigger a check. As a result we were forced to resort to hacks like unsubscribing and re-subscribing, connecting to power and WiFi and waiting, etc. Not an issue anymore, since each podcast now has a setting to refresh which checks for new episodes.

However, there are a bunch of major annoyances which I am hoping get fixed before Windows Phone 8.1 (after all, it is still in a developer preview state!) becomes final.

Episodes to keep In default series settings as well as for a specific series settings, for how many episodes to keep, I see none for streaming-only as well as discrete numbers from 1-5, 10, and “all”. However, my usual setting is to keep x number of unplayed episodes, including “all unplayed”. There is no way to have a series keep the latest unplayed episode (daily news podcast, for example, where archive is not important) or keep all unplayed episodes in case of podcasts that are not too frequent but are generally not-to-be-missed. I would love to see that selection change from how many episodes to keep, to what type of episodes to keep based on unplayed status.

 

Windows Phone Podcasts app: Episodes to keep
Windows Phone Podcasts app: Episodes to keep

Playback speed setting I will chalk this up as a bug, where the speed setting is not remembered between app launches. In other words, after I exit the app and resume, it gets switched back to 1x, or the normal speed. This one is highly annoying, and hopefully gets squashed before general release.

View only new episodes Under collection, there are two sections, one for audio and one for video. Unfortunately, once you tap into one of those sections, there is no way for you to see only the new (or “unplayed”) episodes. In fact, even on the main screen where the app shows favorites, there is no indication which series has new episodes. So I am forced to browse all the podcasts and view under the icon if it says there are new episodes. This is very annoying and I don’t think it is a bug. It seems like it is functionality that was left out, perhaps due to time constraints. Hope a setting is included under “audio”, to see only new episodes across all podcasts. Also, hoping some indicator is made available in the favorites section, to show which podcasts have new/unplayed episodes waiting to be consumed.

Windows Phone Podcasts app: Collection view
Windows Phone Podcasts app: Collection view

Played episodes not removed After I set up several favorite podcasts, I had to naturally and understandably go through each podcast and mark everything except the recent few episodes as played. That went fine, but unfortunately, the played episodes were not removed from the view. As a result, after tapping into a podcast and swiping over to the list of episodes, I have to scroll through all the played episodes in order to get to the unplayed episodes.I could use the filter and choose just “downloaded” episodes, which is what I essentially need, but that filter does not retain its setting :-(

(Side note: if I am going into the podcast from the favorites area, why show me the podcast information screen and make me swipe left in order to see the episodes? Why not just land me directly to the list of episodes? I would understand if the landing spot is the information screen if it is launched from a search but if it is from favorites or collection, I don’t need to see the information, right?)

Windows Phone Podcasts app: Scroll to find new episodes
Windows Phone Podcasts app: Scroll to find new episodes
Windows Phone Podcasts app: View options
Windows Phone Podcasts app: View options
Windows Phone Podcasts app: View only downloaded episodes
Windows Phone Podcasts app: View only downloaded episodes

 

Universal, please Finally, now that we know of Universal Apps and shared settings and configurations, I cannot see why this app cannot exist on Windows 8.x as well. I would love to continue listening to my podcasts on my PC/tablet and get the play position and subscription settings sync-ed across my devices via my Microsoft account. Hope that also happens around the time the app becomes final.

As you can see there is much to love in the app, but some key functionality is missing and needs to be present in order for this power user to truly embrace it.

Are you happy with the app? Any pluses or minuses I may have missed? Let me know!

 

The Surface Family Evolves: Where Does It Go from Here?

On May 20, Microsoft officials announced the latest entry in the family of Surface devices, the Surface Pro 3. This device is a larger form with many updates to the existing pro device, the Surface Pro 2, and comes only eight months since the launch of the Surface Pro 2. So now, Microsoft has launched three generations of Surface in the span of less than two years, being incredible for a company which only recently pivoted to devices and services from software.

Surface Pro 3
Surface Pro 3

The launch of Surface Pro 3 however raised several questions: why isn’t there a Surface 3 (the ARM-based version) to complement the Surface Pro 3? Why also, didn’t the much-rumored Surface Mini launch alongside the Surface Pro 3? What is the goal of these Surface devices, according to Microsoft?

 

Where is Windows RT?

The first two questions have a common thread, and that is Windows RT. The ARM-based version of Windows has had very little success both from OEM adoption as well as sales perspectives. OEMs have slowly been pulling out of making such devices, and with Nokia’s devices group now a part of Microsoft, Microsoft is the only company that makes Windows RT devices. The operating systems group at Microsoft is undergoing some level of consolidation and transformation, and there is a possibility of some fundamental changes coming to the Windows RT OS as it merges with Windows Phone OS. It would be somewhat silly to offer a Windows RT device that may need some major updates in a few months when the operating system makes potentially big underlying changes. Also, let’s not forget that Nokia also makes a Windows RT device (Lumia 2520) which may now become a contender to be the only Windows RT device Microsoft produces. Hence, the lack of ARM-based Surface at this point in time.

 

No room for Surface Mini

Surface Mini on the other hand, has a bigger issue. The rumors were that it would be an 8” device and regardless of whether it was going to be an Intel-based device or an ARM-based device, it would really offer no differentiation from the several other 8” Windows devices in the market today. All of the existing devices are Intel-based and as a result, are able to run old Windows desktop programs just fine. Most of these existing devices are also priced at the very low end and as a result, Microsoft would have to start competing on the low end which I am not sure they want to do. There are also rumors that Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and the new devices chief Stephen Elop decided to remove that device from the announcement for precisely that reason – it offered no differentiation from whatever else is out there in the market. If that is in fact the case, I commend them for doing so since it is not easy to change directions this way and at the last moment.

 

Who is the Surface for? What does Surface mean for Microsoft?

That brings us to the last question – what is the role of Surface devices? Microsoft executives have constantly said that Surface is not meant to compete with the OEMs but instead be a reference design for OEMs. However, the huge write-off Microsoft took at the end of the past fiscal year related to excess inventory of the original Surface shows that at least someone at Microsoft expected to sell these devices in larger volumes.

The Surface Pro 3 is indeed unlike anything else in the market today, both from a Windows devices perspective as well as the competition’s devices. There are Android tablets of all shapes and sizes that are selling quite well, but they are limited to a maximum of 10” form factor, and while there have been rumors of an “iPad Pro” sporting a larger display than the current iPad, those have been simply rumors. At the launch event, Microsoft made the point that the Surface Pro 3 is aimed squarely at the laptop user (there were a *lot* of MacBook Air comparisons) rather than the tablet user. The viewpoint they provided was that most of the iPad customers also have or buy a laptop, so why not make a device that can do both the tasks well? The Surface Pro 3 specifications are obviously more “computer”-like than “tablet”-like, starting with the processor which is not an Atom variant but in fact, it is a Core processor. At the same time, it is so much lighter than a laptop – even MacBook Air that they compared to at the event – that you could see yourself using it as a tablet every so often.

The Surface Pro 3 pricing is in line with a mid- to high-end laptop, depending on the configuration you choose. You could get the entry-level model with a Core i3 processor and 64GB storage for $799 and the highest-end model with a Core i7 processor and 512GB storage for $1,949. Both the ends of that spectrum are higher than the average for a Windows laptop with similar specifications.

Another example to understand where Microsoft is going with this family of devices is the included (and completely re-done) pen. There is a deep integration built into the pen which enables the customer to launch OneNote even when the screen is locked. The OneNote emphasis shows not just the integration aspects but also the intended, or expected, use of the device.

 

Surface Pro 3 Numbers
Surface Pro 3 Numbers

The screen at an excellent 2160×1440 resolution, the aspect ratio which is a much better 3:2 than 16:9, the higher power processor and the pricing all point to a realization at Microsoft that it is better to compete with the laptop than with the iPad. Think creative professionals like artists, medical professionals, or the “information worker” in corporations. Think students on a budget, who have the funds to buy only one device which needs to be their television, book reader as well as productivity tool. These are the customers Microsoft seems to be aiming at with their Surface Pro devices now.

So Microsoft is clearly going for the laptop user and giving that user the choice of using that device as a tablet. They know that the OEMs are able to compete at the low-end, especially with the recent announcement of making Windows free for 9” and lower screens. Knowing that Apple has consistently outsold Windows in the PC sales for the past several years, it makes sense for Microsoft to address the high margin area so they don’t have to sell extremely large volumes in order to justify the business.

I still expect Microsoft to release the mini tablet, and there are multiple possibilities there too: a productivity mini tablet which would have the upcoming touch version of Office (codename Gemini); a larger phablet-style device like the Lumia 1520 and of course, a gaming-oriented mini tablet with some type of Xbox brand and tie-in. All of those have dependencies that need to be addressed before these products can come to market in order to differentiate themselves from the competition.

There is an empirical truth to Microsoft products: by version 3, they perfect the product. Surface Pro 3 surely looks like a “perfect” product, we will see if the market agrees with Microsoft or not. The Surface business has steadily grown in volume and with Windows 8.1, Microsoft may have enough to get CIOs interested in upgrading to Windows 8.1. If so, there is a large-sized market opportunity that is for Microsoft to dominate, given their past relationships and reputation in the enterprise. If that happens, it may create the virtuous cycle that Microsoft has been able to create in the past with Windows and even now with Office. Many will use these devices in school and workplace and would like to continue that experience at home.

Microsoft certainly seems to demonstrate that it is in the devices market for the long run. Naturally, mastering manufacturing cannot happen overnight. It is now up to the customers to decide if all of that is worth it, by speaking with their wallets.

Are you interested in the Surface Pro 3? Were you disappointed by the absence of the Surface Mini? Sound off in the comments below.

(All images and the video, courtesy Microsoft’s official websites)