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.

External Storage Support Coming to Xbox One in June Update

Do you have an Xbox One and would like to expand the total storage capacity for whatever reason, by adding external storage? Well, start counting down the days. In a blog post on Xbox Wire on May 21, Larry Hyrb (known more popularly as Major Nelson) announced that external storage feature is coming to Xbox One in the upcoming “June update”.

Xbox One External Storage
Xbox One External Storage

This is one of the few other features coming to Xbox One in this update. Others include:

Real names to identify friends: Until now, friends list and followers list only included gamertags. With the increased friend limits, it becomes hard to correlated gamertags with real names of friends. The real name won’t show up in games, and in terms of sharing, there will be full control on whether something is shared among friends, a subset of friends, friends of friends or nobody at all.

Xbox One Real Names
Xbox One Real Names

SmartGlass with full OneGuide and Universal Remote: The SmartGlass app for Xbox One will now have the entire OneGuide and Universal Remote experience. Per the post:

We’ve made a ton of changes to your SmartGlass app for Xbox One. After getting great feedback from our SmartGlass beta, we’re thrilled to be bringing the entire OneGuide experience and Universal Remote Control to SmartGlass. Now in supported markets you can view all of your TV listings on your SmartGlass device and set and view your favorite channels and app channels on your smart phone, tablet or PC. With the Universal Remote Control, you can also easily switch channels, set new recordings and select and control recorded content from your DVR. Another great companion feature now in SmartGlass is pin reordering. With the touch of your finger you can easily organize your pins in categories or favorites based on your preferences and have those changes refresh to your console.

Other improvements to SmartGlass will help you stay current on what you and your friends are up to, even when you’re away from your console. We’re bringing hero stats and activity feed front and center, and adding more ways for you to compare achievements via SmartGlass whether you’re on a friend’s profile or viewing a game from the activity feed. Just like on the console, you can choose to get notifications on your smart phone, PC or tablet when a favorite friend signs into their console or starts broadcasting a game. For many devices, you can even choose to start watching the broadcast wherever you are.

Expanded TV and OneGuide support: TV and OneGuide will now be available to all in Canada, UK, France, Germany, Spain and Italy.

Xbox LIVE Gold updates: As reported earlier, the updated Xbox LIVE Gold features will be finally made available in this update.

Here’s Major Nelson providing these updates in a video:

Good News: Xbox LIVE Gold Can Be Refunded after June If You Don’t Need It

As announced recently, the entertainment and communication apps on Xbox will not need the Xbox LIVE Gold subscription after an update rolls out in June 2014. That’s good news because more customers will be able to enjoy those apps without having to fork out an extra $60 a year.

But what happens if you already paid the Xbox LIVE Gold subscription fees, which are usually paid on an annual basis? Well, per a recent FAQ on Xbox support site, good news awaits. After the June update rolls out, you can contact Xbox support and request a refund.

Will I be able to cancel my Gold membership?

Yes. Once the Xbox One and Xbox 360 system updates become available in June, Xbox Live Gold members who purchased a paid membership before that day can cancel and receive a pro-rata refund of any unused remaining days between the date of cancellation and the date their paid Gold membership ends. Cancellation and pro-rata refund requests must be made by August 31, 2014 and require six to eight weeks for processing. Free or trial Gold memberships are not eligible for a refund. To request your pro-rata refund, please click http://support.xbox.com/contact-us after the system updates become available in June.

So, it is good news for consumers not just that Microsoft is lifting the requirement of Xbox LIVE Gold but also that they taking care of those who bought the subscription prior to this change.

As a reminder, here’s what the new structure will look like:

Xbox features with and without Gold membership
Xbox features with and without Gold membership

Are you a casual gamer or a non-gamer like me? Are you planning to cancel your Gold subscription once this feature rolls out? I have a concern that my refund won’t go through because I bought Gold via a prepaid card I bought from Amazon.com. Fingers crossed, though. :-)

Xbox One Will Be Sold Without Kinect and Entertainment Apps Now Free to All

Microsoft made a bold decision to sell their new console, Xbox One, bundled with the new Kinect hardware. It was a bold decision because its rival Sony decided to make their motion sensing accessory optional with their own new console Playstation 4. As a somewhat direct result, Xbox One was $100 more expensive at retail compared to the Playstation 4.

Directly or indirectly related to the sales price, Microsoft took a beating against Sony when it came to sales in the months since both consoles launched. Despite having more exclusive games and content, the Xbox One was unable to beat the Playstation 4. Then came the most anticipated exclusive game for the Xbox One, Titanfall. Despite selling reasonably well as a game, it was unable to push Xbox console sales to a point which made Xbox a clear “winner”.

Here’s Xbox’s Yusuf Mehdi and Phil Spencer with the news:

Maybe that was the turning point for Microsoft officials to think about ways to juice the unit sales. A couple of direct cost cuts were announced on the Xbox Wire blog on May 13:

  • As of June 9, Kinect will not be bundled with the Xbox One, and the sale price of the console-only SKU will be $399 (the bundled price was $499 at launch, although there have been several promotions since then to make effective price lower).
  • Also as of June, Xbox LIVE Gold membership will not be required in order to enjoy all the entertainment apps that are part of the Xbox platform. Until now, in order to use Netflix on the Xbox, you not only paid Netflix for their service, you also had to pay Microsoft an annual fee of $60 in order to “unlock” that and all other entertainment and communication apps. The latter is no longer required to access services like Netflix, Hulu, NFL and utilities such as Skype and OneDrive.

The Kinect hardware will be available as a standalone SKU in the Fall in case someone wants to add it to the Xbox One after purchasing the console.

So, who would pay for the Gold membership if all the entertainment and communication features of the Xbox are now unlocked for everyone? Well, the blog post notes all the benefits of the Gold subscription:

  • Free games with the Games With Gold program: This is a continuation of the program launched for Xbox 360 and will now be applicable to Xbox One games.
  • Exclusive discounts with the Deals With Gold program: Promised savings for Gold members up to 50-75%.
  • Online multiplayer: Like now, if you want to play online multiplayer games you will need Gold.
  • Home Gold: Share the Gold membership with everyone in the household.
  • Smart Match: Algorithmic matching of players to make multiplayer less one-sided.
  • Parties and Party Chat: Enable viewing party and chat alongside parties.
  • Game DVR Cloud Storage: Your game recordings stay in the Microsoft cloud without storage limits. This feature will be a Gold-exclusive.
  • Xbox Fitness: A great “game” that tracks your fitness and provides guidance and follow ups.

Some may argue that the entertainment unlocking was long overdue and I am one of those doing so. I could not understand how Microsoft was able to get away with it, but am happy to see they have changed their ways, regardless of the reason to do so. However, in order to be a true entertainment option for most, the Xbox needs a “lite” version for those who like the entertainment options that Xbox provides and don’t care about the gaming aspects of the console. Could this and the unbundling of the Kinect hardware be a precursor to a potential XTV? Let’s hope so.

As for the Kinect, I don’t understand the move at all. One of the biggest deals for game and app makers with the Kinect bundled is that they are assured of the Kinect being present so there is no fragmentation (well, besides Xbox 360 vs Xbox One but that’s separate). Now with Kinect becoming optional, game makers have to take that extra step to handle Kinect’s presence as well as absence and adjust the interaction models accordingly. With development resources tight, I suspect most developers will go for the lowest common denominator and program with the assumption that Kinect is absent and only add voice and gesture controls as a bonus rather than making them the core interactions. That’s a pity.

It does look like Microsoft has made it a priority, much like their situation in Windows Phone and Windows 8.x tablets, to increase the installed base of the devices before thinking about “the right thing” or “the best thing”. I somewhat understand the point of view. It is no longer the huge tanker that needed years to change course. They hear the feedback, prioritize it internally, and make the changes necessary.

Xbox features with and without Gold membership
Xbox features with and without Gold membership

As a consumer, I am happy that I have a choice of buying the console with or without Kinect and am extremely delighted to have all those apps without an annual fee.

Are you more willing to buy the console now that it is $100 cheaper? Does Kinect with its voice controls appeal to you? Do you use Xbox One to control your cable box? Let me know in the comments!

Windows Phone Is Getting a File Manager App Soon

On Friday May 2, Joe Belfiore, VP in the Windows Phone team participated in a reddit Ask Me Anything (AMA). There were several good questions and more importantly, several good answers there. One of the revelations from the AMA was an upcoming File Manager app for Windows Phone 8.1.

The app’s existence, and the fact that it should hopefully land in the Store around the end of May, was revealed by Belfiore in response to a question about file management on the phone. In fact, in his response, he mentioned that it is a highly requested feature and that he was glad to announce that the app is coming.

WOO HOO! SOMEONE ASKED THIS QUESTION!! I’ve been waiting! in fact, I’ve avoided tweeting on this very topic just for all you redditors. Seriously.

in fact– you GET A CORTANA T-SHIRT FOR ASKING!! :) (PM me your size and we’ll get it to you.)

*** YES *** We are doing a File Manager for WP8.1! I know a LOT of you are looking for this (thanks for the tweets, I’ve read them all). In fact, I’ve been running a build of it on two of my phones for the last week or so and it’s getting to pretty good shape.

Here’s what it looks like: http://imgur.com/a/hvqGD#nRuOFXp

We are expecting to get it into the store HOPEFULLY by the end of May.

Some screenshots that he linked to:

Windows Phone 8.1 File Manager File Listing
Windows Phone 8.1 File Manager File Listing
Windows Phone 8.1 File Manager Folder View
Windows Phone 8.1 File Manager Folder View
Windows Phone 8.1 File Manager Create New Folder
Windows Phone 8.1 File Manager Create New Folder
Windows Phone 8.1 File Manager Locations
Windows Phone 8.1 File Manager Locations
Windows Phone 8.1 File Manager Folder Multi-select
Windows Phone 8.1 File Manager Folder Multi-select
Windows Phone 8.1 File Manager Transfer to SD Card
Windows Phone 8.1 File Manager Transfer to SD Card

The app by itself is nothing special. All the functionality that you expect from a file management application seems to exist. The design is quite consistent with the Windows Phone design language, with the large tiles for folders and the large names of files making them easy touch targets.

However, my first reaction was of disbelief, that there were in fact many requests for such an app:

 

An interesting use case though, was brought up by Belfiore himself, on twitter (and the last screenshot above shows this use case in action):

 

Right, so normal users shouldn’t and wouldn’t care about managing files on the phone. However, Windows Phone supports external storage and with Windows Phone 8.1, even apps can be installed on the external storage. With microSD card storage capacities going up and the push to lower cost of phones making on-board storage minimal, it may very well be that most Windows Phone users will need a way to move files back and forth between the device storage and external storage.

Hence, this app deserves the attention it has apparently got. However, it is a good sign that Microsoft is pushing all such functionality to apps and making several things possible as a result: make it optional for customers to use this app or not; make it easy for Microsoft to update the app based on features and functionality requested by the customers; keep the OS size smaller so that phones will low on-board storage don’t end up using much of it for the OS itself, and not have to wait until the next version of OS to deliver this functionality.

I like the fact that Belfiore chose to reveal this app on reddit. I suspect most of the requests for such an app would have come from the “power users”, and those are the type of users who would be on reddit to hear what he may have to say.

My phone (Lumia 920) does not have external storage so this app is not for me yet. I may get one of the upcoming Windows Phone 8.1 devices and if they have expandability, I will most surely get an external card and will need this app. Looking forward to it regardless.

Are you?

Smart Search on Windows 8.1 Gets Smarter

On April 30, Microsoft’s Bing Relevance Team announced on the Search Blog some of the updates they are making to Smart Search in Windows 8.1.

In essence, Smart Search is getting smarter. Today, Smart Search is called so because it searches everything and not just one domain like the computer’s file system or the web. Searching for something via the Search Charm enables search across files, emails, apps, web, etc.

Now, with the power of Bing, one can enter natural language queries as shown below (from the blog post), and get relevant suggestions for things like PC settings. This may seem like a small and obvious update but it is actually quite nifty that customers don’t need to know which exact setting to look for, to change screen brightness, for example. Settings like the Control Panel have always been confusing and to most customers, intimidating. Making it easy to “get things done” as opposed to finding the right place to change settings, will help in reducing the confusion.

Smart Search Printer
Smart Search Printer
Smart Search Brightness
Smart Search Brightness
Smart Search Store
Smart Search Store
Smart Search Uninstall
Smart Search Uninstall

As the blog post goes on to say, the beauty of these updates is that because it is powered by Bing, all the benefits gained by Bing across all the end points can be funneled back as features into all other end points. Hence, Bing has stopped being a “search engine” a long time ago and for Microsoft, it is a machine learning platform.

This update will be rolling out this week, so it does not look like it needs an OS or app update. Happy searching!

OneDrive for Business Now Offers 1TB per User

OneDrive For Business
OneDrive For Business

On April 28, Microsoft announced some updates to OneDrive for Business, the service formerly known as SkyDrive Pro. According to the blog post on Office Blogs:

 

First, we will be increasing OneDrive for Business storage from 25GB to 1TB per user.

Second, all Office 365 ProPlus customers will get 1TB of OneDrive for Business storage per user as part of their Office 365 ProPlus subscription.

Third, we’ll help organizations migrate data from their existing solutions to OneDrive for Business

The first update is huge. Not too long ago, SkyDrive Pro was providing only 7GB per user. When Microsoft announced the standalone OneDrive for Business offering, they also bumped up the default storage to 25GB per user. Now perhaps based on pressure from competitors like Google, they have made the default to 1TB. As always when there is competition, we as customers ultimately win.

Office 365 ProPlus is a service that provides always-up-to-date Office software to customers on a subscription basis. Until today’s announcement, it was purely an Office subscription. Now, it also comes with a truckload of storage space and more importantly, a sync solution that ensures that files are always in sync across devices.

The third item was not detailed but I suspect Microsoft will have some utilities to help migrate data from Google Drive, Dropbox, Box and others to OneDrive for Business. We shall see.

The blog post goes on to describe the benefits OneDrive for Business offers in addition to pure storage amount and sync:

Native integration with Office documents: Enables people to discover content and collaborate with others in real time with efficient synchronization of changes and real-time co-authoring using Office Online.

Connected to what you need, when you need it: As cloud services like Office 365 get smarter and more personalized with Office Graph, OneDrive for Business becomes part of a connected productivity solution where content is discoverable, sharable and personalized for individual users, helping to increase personal and organizational responsiveness.

A trusted service: OneDrive for Business provides enterprise content management, compliance and admin controls, financially backed by the industry-leading Office 365 Service Level Agreement. We’ve made investments in manageability, security, auditing and information protection including rights management, data loss prevention, auditing, eDiscovery, legal holds, etc. and more that can work for OneDrive for business but also across SharePoint and Exchange.

Deep investment in certifications and infrastructure: We’ve invested heavily already in areas that are important for doing business in major vertical industries and geographies, such as FISMA, the EU Model Clauses, CJIS and more, many of which are detailed on our Trust Center.  Microsoft has industry-leading, cloud reliability and security and has made a massive investment in physical datacenters around the world, enabling us to deliver high availability and robust disaster recovery capabilities.

Scale through partners: Our 400,000 partners around the world can help customers get up and running quickly with OneDrive for Business as a standalone solution or with Office 365.

As you can see, OneDrive for Business is not a “dumb storage” service but it is in fact the center of a collaborative solution that is protected by certifications and service level agreements. Along with the huge partner network, which enables building innovative solutions on top of the storage layer, OneDrive for Business is now a serious contender for businesses of any size to move their data into the cloud.

Windows Phone 8.1’s Action Center is a Winner

On April 14, Microsoft made their latest update to Windows Phone, Windows Phone 8.1, available as a preview. I have been using it on my Lumia 920 since then, and definitely one of the top features I love in this update is the Action Center.

I recently gave up Windows Phone for an iPhone 5s, and one of the reasons was lack of a notification collection system, so it goes without saying that I am really happy to see it come to Windows Phone finally. Hopefully, being last to implement this feature means that the team at Microsoft is able to get the best of all the worlds. At its core, the Action Center is much like the notification mechanism found on Android and iOS. It resembles the Android implementation more because on iOS, the notifications are split from the “quick controls”. I like all of the things Action Center does (and can do, based on developer implementation in apps) and one big request to make it even more awesome.

Just Settings or entire Action Center: The way to invoke the Action Center is by dragging your finger from the top and swiping it down, much like Android and iOS. However, what’s cool with Action Center is that if you drag the finger slowly and stop about a third of the way down, you get access to just the quick settings area and not expose the entire notification area. This is cool, because if you just want to turn WiFi or Bluetooth on/off, you don’t need to necessarily open the entire Action Center. This is a good example of learning from the competition and doing better.

 

Windows Phone 8.1 Action Center: Quick View
Windows Phone 8.1 Action Center: Quick View
Windows Phone Action Center: Full Notifications
Windows Phone Action Center: Full Notifications
Windows Phone Action Center: Full Notifications (contd)
Windows Phone Action Center: Full Notifications (contd)

 

Settings are customizable: The quick settings area shows 4 (or 5 if you have a larger screen with 1080p, like a Lumia 1520) icons to represent settings which you may want to quickly access. You can change any of the icons to some other settings easily. So if you do a lot of tethering and are always on WiFi, you may not want the WiFi icon and may be better off with the tethering icon so you can turn it on or off quickly. Of course, there is also a link to open all settings, which nicely eliminates the need to have the settings app pinned to the Start Screen like I always have had to do.

 

Windows Phone 8.1: Quick Settings icons
Windows Phone 8.1: Quick Settings icons
Windows Phone 8.1: Quick Settings icons 2
Windows Phone 8.1: Quick Settings icons 2

 

Notifications can be dismissed individually or as a group: Another feature I like within the notifications area is that I can dismiss an individual notification without dismissing the entire group. So if I have received a few new email notifications, and I want to keep some in the notifications area as a pseudo-reminder but unclutter the area in general, I can dismiss some of the email notifications that I don’t particularly care to keep. This is not how iOS behaves, and I do think it is a good benefit to have. Of course, one can dismiss the entire group too.

Dismissing notifications resets the tile counter: I really, really like to keep my tile counter (or badges, in iOS) down to zero. So in iOS it annoys me that clearing a notification does not also clear the badge on the app’s icon. It is good to see that in Windows Phone 8.1, at least for the first-party apps like Mail, Messages, etc., clearing notifications also clears the tile counter. I know that third party apps like Facebook and Twitter don’t clear the counter, but I am hoping it is a feature that those apps need to implement and not private APIs that Microsoft is using in their apps. Assuming it is a feature all developers can use, I do hope that all devs take advantage of it and help obsessive-compulsive folks like me rest easy :-)

Developer choices: Another neat improvement over the competition in Windows Phone 8.1 is that developers have the choice of silently updating the notification center, without updating tiles or showing any banners or playing sounds. This is good because in some scenarios, just adding a notification to the notification area is enough and a user’s attention need not be taken away from whatever they are doing. Giving this choice to the developer and perhaps in turn, the developer offering these type of configurations to the user, means potentially more satisfaction with the device on the customer’s part.

 

Windows Phone 8.1: List of apps with notification settings
Windows Phone 8.1: List of apps with notification settings
Windows Phone 8.1: Tile count
Windows Phone 8.1: Tile count
Windows Phone 8.1: Setting custom notification sound
Windows Phone 8.1: Setting custom notification sound
Windows Phone 8.1: Notification settings
Windows Phone 8.1: Notification settings

 

Having said all that, there is of course one really important feature that is missing from Action Center, which does exist on Android. It is actionable notifications. This is where if there is a notification about a tweet reply, you could potentially reply to the tweet from the notification center itself, without having to open the app. If this choice is given to the developers, it would make the Action Center even more awesome.

Regardless though, this addition is immensely useful, and I am now seriously tempted to start using my Lumia 920 more than I use my iPhone 5s.

 

Windows 8.1 Update: Mouse Users Now Welcome to Use Windows 8.1

At its annual developer conference //build/ on April 2, Microsoft announced an update to Windows 8.1 simply called Windows 8.1 Update. This update will arrive via Windows Update on April 8 and is available via msdn from April 2.

As the name suggests, this is an update to the operating system but as you will see, the changes implemented in this update are all made to make it easier for mouse users to navigate and use Windows 8.1. Windows 8 and Windows 8.1 are obviously touch-friendly so tablet usage is not a concern. Also, there are tons of keyboard shortcuts including power user shortcuts like Winkey+X which allow heavy keyboard users to navigate their way around. Mouse users, especially on larger displays, had to move their mice too much in order to get things done. Not anymore. Some key user experience changes:

Adding common controls to Start Screen: A power button and a search icon get added to the top, right next to the user name/photo on the Start Screen, making it easier to shut down the computer and intuitively search the computer. Similarly, a PC Settings tile gets added by default to open up Control Panel. These are small changes but given that these actions are taken quite frequently, it makes a lot of sense that they are bubbled up to the Start Screen rather than having the users try to find them or stumble upon them accidentally.

Start Screen Update in Windows 8.1 Update
Start Screen Update in Windows 8.1 Update

 

Title bar in Modern Apps: The action to “close” a Modern App today is to take the mouse to the top of the screen and drag down the app in a single motion from top all the way to the bottom until the app disappears. That action, to say the least, is mouse user-unfriendly. On a small tablet, it would seem ok since taking a finger from the top of the tablet to the bottom is simple enough of a gesture.

In order to simplify this task, Windows 8.1 Update introduces a small (auto-hidden) title bar at the top of all Modern Apps and that title bar includes a minimize and a close button just like today’s Windows desktop applications. This makes a lot of sense, since a mouse user would normally go to look for those actions where they are used to seeing them in pre-Windows 8 operating systems.

Windows 8.1 Update Title Bar in Modern Apps
Windows 8.1 Update Title Bar in Modern Apps

 

Right-click context menu on Modern Apps: Another setting that completely makes sense. In non-Windows 8 environments and even in Windows 8’s desktop realm, anytime a mouse user wants to do something to an item, they would right-click. But in Modern Apps, a right-click does not pop up a menu where the cursor is, but instead it opens up the App Bar which could be at the bottom and/or at the top. By making the same Windows 7-style context menu now pop up where the mouse cursor is, Microsoft is making it easier for Windows XP and Windows 7 users to transition to Windows 8.

Right-click Actions in Windows 8.1 Update
Right-click Actions in Windows 8.1 Update

 

Pinning Modern Apps to taskbar: Yet another step towards making it easy for users to transition from Windows XP and Windows 7 is the ability to pin Modern Apps to the taskbar. That way, if someone spends most of their time in the desktop environment, they are not “cut off” from the Start Screen. Also, in a move to increase interest in the Modern Apps, Microsoft also announced that the Windows Store app will be auto-pinned to the taskbar on a default Windows installation. This, they hope, will prompt more visits to the Store because of the nature of being defaulted in Windows, thereby increasing the chances of someone downloading Modern Apps.

Pin Modern Apps to Taskbar
Pin Modern Apps to Taskbar

 

As you can see, the trend in the key updates coming as part of Windows 8.1 Update is to make the OS more welcoming to those migrating from Windows XP and Windows 7. If the transition is eased, more users will end up not wanting to avoid or being afraid of Windows 8, and thereby increasing the installed base and the developer opportunity. An introduction to the update in the video embedded below:

 

Are you looking forward to this update? Anything you had wanted to see that they did not include? Sound off in the comments!

//build 2014: One Windows Vision Coming Together For Microsoft

//build, Microsoft’s annual developer conference kicked off on April 2 and the marathon keynote included several announcements that finally bring Microsoft’s “One Windows” vision closer to reality.

Although it may not be an official or formalized mission, “One Windows” seems to be an ever-so-close possibility since the time Windows Phone moved to NT kernel to make it very similar to Windows 8 on PCs. First, the relevant announcements:

Windows Phone 8.1: The version number incremented by .1 would seem to imply an incremental change, but that is absolutely misleading. The number, and magnitude, of changes in Windows Phone 8.1 from Windows Phone 8 is perhaps far greater than the changes Windows Phone 8 itself introduced over Windows Phone 7. Consumer features like lock screen themes and Start Screen background image and enterprise features like VPN support are just a few. The biggest change perhaps, is the presence of digital personal assistant called Cortana, which seems to be a smart mix of Apple’s Siri and Google’s Google now.

Windows Phone 8.1 walkthrough by Joe Belfiore

Universal apps: Even though it is possible to create apps for Windows Phone and Windows 8 where a lot of code is shared between the two, Microsoft announced what they are calling “Universal apps“. These apps are actually built with the intention to be run on the phone as well as on tablet and PC. It is a single binary which potentially could render differently depending on the device on which it runs. In order to make this possible, developers would need to modify their apps and with the appropriate changes applied, have their customers purchase once and (optionally) use it on multiple devices. Until now, even though much of the code could be reused/shared, it was not possible to have a single binary nor was it possible to allow the customer to buy on a phone and use it on a tablet. That has now changed, and is a huge step in the unification of Windows. What’s more, in their “vision” part of the keynote, Microsoft executives also promised that the Universal apps would extend to the Xbox as well, thereby making these apps truly “universal”.

 

 

Universal app icon

Shazam Universal app icon

Windows Universal app icons

Windows for “Internet of Things”: Also as part of the vision, Microsoft introduced a new as yet unnamed version of Windows aimed at all other kinds of devices which are proliferating around us, and generically called it “Windows for the Internet of Things“. These devices, until now, have all been using Android or something else, but definitely not Windows, so it was clearly an opportunity Microsoft did not want to miss out on. The operating system will be released in preview form this Spring.
 

Intel Galileo
Intel Galileo board

 

Windows license cost of $0: Along with this announcement, Microsoft also took a bold step towards increasing interest in and adoption of Windows among developers by making all versions of Windows free for devices under 9 inches in size. Essentially, this signals that device makers making devices in this hugely growing category would have no barrier in terms of cost, to sell Windows in those devices. Given that Android indirectly costs money (potentially to use Google Mobile Services on top of Android Open Source Project, but additionally, surely for patent licensing fees), device makers will find themselves looking at Windows as the *cheaper* OS for their devices!

Shared experiences: In addition to announcing keyboard and mouse user-friendly updates to Windows 8.1, Microsoft also demonstrated how experiences will span Windows Phone and Windows on tablets and PCs. With Internet Explorer 11 on Windows Phone 8.1, users will now be able to share IE settings, tabs, passwords, favorites, etc. between the phone and tablets/PCs. Similarly, via their Microsoft account, customers will also be able to have the same theme across phone and tablet/PC along with several other settings that are already possible to be synced between Windows 8.1 devices.

 

 

Internet Explorer 11 on all Windows
Internet Explorer 11 on all Windows

 

There were several other announcements but the above items show the steps Microsoft has taken, listening to customer feedback as well as executing on their product roadmap, to make it seamless for customers to use Windows regardless of the device they use it on. The developer story therefore becomes even more compelling because it is not just phones or not just tablets that is the addressable market. Suddenly, any device that ships with Windows, will be able to consume the apps and games developers build and not just in theory. This has always been the advantage of the iOS ecosystem and Apple executed it well from the beginning because they were in a much better position to do so, having defined the entire path themselves. Google’s Android followed, although in a slightly different way – Android phone apps stretch out on a larger screen if there is no specific tablet version available. Microsoft’s vision is definitely more like iOS but at the same time, due to the excellent tooling in the form of Visual Studio, it also seems like it may be much easier to build a universal app targeting Windows. The devil of course is in the details and we will see how developers react to this vision by observing how many existing developers convert their apps to Universal apps and how many new developers enter the ecosystem with their creative ideas.

This is a solid move by Microsoft and while some (including yours truly) may say it was long overdue, it is also better late than never. Microsoft is doing its best to court all kinds of developers including many in the Silicon Valley and many with an affinity towards open source projects, and they will have to continue to do even more going forward. Nothing matters more though, than hard numbers. If Windows devices get a decent market share and continue to prove to be higher revenue generators than the competing platforms, developers will automatically flock to the ecosystem.

Until then, Microsoft can only hope that “One Windows” matters to a developer as much as it is necessary for Microsoft.

Simplifying Windows: Windows 8, Windows RT and Windows Phone 8

Microsoft Surface
Microsoft Surface

If you were disconnected from the world for the past several months, you wouldn’t know that Microsoft is going to release the next version of their operating system for personal computers, called Windows 8. Let me rephrase that: Microsoft is going to release an operating system for mobile, highly-connected devices, with touch input at the front-and-center, and along with that operating system, it is also providing an upgrade to their existing Windows 7 operating system.

The look and feel of Windows is very different from earlier versions of Windows, and as a result there has been a lot of uncertainty and (unfair) judgement about it being circulated in the tech press. Instead of writing yet another article about how this whole thing is confusing, my goal here is to make it simple for someone who wants to know more about “The Big Launch” that Microsoft is undertaking at the end of October.

Windows 8

First and foremost, there is Windows 8. It is the operating system that will ship on most PCs and it is also something that you can upgrade from virtually any previous Windows version. This operating system runs the new “Start Screen” with Live Tiles, and will allow you to install apps (yes, there are now Windows Apps) from the Windows Store. Additionally, Windows 8 has a “desktop” environment that may seem familiar to users of Windows, especially Windows 7/Vista. Here, you can install applications outside of the Windows Store, for example CutePDF and Winrar. There is no restriction on what you can install in Windows 8 “desktop” environment. For apps on the other hand, unless you work at a company that supports it, or if you are a developer with the correct settings, you cannot install them from anywhere else except the Windows Store.

Windows RT

Windows RT is the radical new operating sytem that Microsoft is introducing for the first time along with Windows 8. It will not ship as standalone software, and instead, it will only be available as part of devices that ship with this operating system. Think of it as the software that runs your appliances like a DVD player or your car navigation system. Windows RT also has the same “Start Screen” as Windows 8 and you can install apps from the Windows Store just like Windows 8. It also has a “desktop” environment but you cannot install anything there. Yes, you read that right. Microsoft has locked the desktop environment so customers cannot install any software on the device except the apps you can get from the Windows Store.

Microsoft does ship Windows RT with a version of Office 2013 for free. It is called Office Home & Student 2013 RT which includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote. Think of Windows RT as Windows 8 with only the Windows Store Apps along with Office. (Yes, I know there are more “desktop” applications that come with Windows RT, but at a high level, this should suffice.)

All the apps you purchase from the Windows Store will work on Windows RT devices as well as Windows 8 devices.

Windows Phone 8

Microsoft also makes operating system software for phones, called Windows Phone. The next revision of this software, called Windows Phone 8, is also due to be released at the end of October. Windows Phone 8 is built on the same core as Windows 8 so application developers can reuse their logic between a Windows 8 app and a Windows Phone 8 app.

Although the apps are not the same across Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8, a lot of app developers are using the cloud to power native experiences across multiple platforms and devices. Evernote, for example, will have a Windows 8 app as well as a Windows Phone 8 app (in addition to other platforms), both delivering native experiences for the screen sizes, keeping most of the data and logic in the cloud so it is easily portable.

From a “devices” perspective, it is important to keep Windows Phone 8 in mind, but if the discussion is about “computers”, you only need to consider Windows 8 and Windows RT.

Windows takeaways

Having discussed the software at a high level, here’s the quick overview of Windows:

  • Windows RT is the new mobile operating system built for increasingly popular simpler devices like tablets and slates. It comes bundled with Office and the only way to get more apps is via the Windows Store. It cannot be bought in the store, it comes pre-installed with devices like tablets and hybrids.
  • Windows 8 is Windows RT combined with the ability to install any application that you can buy off the shelf today. It is built for more powerful computers, but retains all the advantages of mobility-focused Windows RT. It introduces many upgrades in that “desktop” environment over its predecessor Windows 7 and is generally installable on any PC that runs Windows 7 today.

Form factors

The second complexity that will come in terms of increased choice is via the increased form factors of devices that are going to hit the market. Windows 8 being a touch-focused operating system, has led OEMs to ship many PCs with touch capabilities. So in addition to the simple desktop, laptop and tablet form factors, we have touch-screen laptop, devices with detachable screens/keyboards, laptops that convert to slate with a flip or a twist, and touchscreen all-in-ones. Additionally, PC makers as well as component makers have promised much better trackpad/touchpad technology in new devices and Windows 8 gesture support.

You don’t need to worry too much about the increased choice – just know that you can take advantage of touch, via direct touch on the screen or via indirect touch on the touchpad on laptops or separate trackpads that will ship with PCs, especially all-in-ones.

What will be tricky to decide and can only be done after trying a few PCs, are the convertible PCs. An Ultrabook-sized laptop, i.e., thin and light, that flips completely to convert to a touch slate, or a similar laptop where the screen detaches and becomes a standalone slate. I happen to prefer the convertible laptop (specifically, the Lenovo IdeaPad YOGA) but those detachables also sound quite interesting. Again, since we have not seen these form factors before, it is best to try them out before making a decision. (Yes, I know these existed in the Tablet PC era, but remember, Windows XP and even Windows 7 were not touch-first like Windows 8 is, and those PCs were thick and heavy. Besides, there was no app ecosystem like the Windows Store to enhance functionality in the PC.)

Of course, if you end up buying a pure slate form factor, Windows 8 and Windows RT both support Bluetooth so you can always slap an external keyboard and a mouse if you don’t see yourself always needing them.

Final thoughts

Windows 8 is dramatically different from Windows 7. It also adds the mobile OS Windows RT. It is bound to create snap judgements from tech press used to “old Windows way of doing things” or those enamoured with anything that Apple produces. Having used Windows 8 over the past few months constantly on a very old PC with keyboard and mouse, I can assure you that for most people, it is going to be a significant ugprade over whatever else they have been using. It is fast, it is efficient and with the move towards an app-centric world, its functionality will constantly get enhanced by third-party developers building innovative apps and distributing them through the Windows Store. It will add some learning curve, especially for folks with muscle memory, but as we have seen with touch OS like iPhone/iPad’s iOS, it is much easier to learn navigating via touch than navigating via keyboard and mouse.

Don’t base your opinion on what’s being written by tech writers, especially those who have not really used the operating system. Certainly they have not used it on “Windows 8 hardware” so their opinions are either based on conjecture, or fear of change, or simply with a motive to get more pageviews because that pays the bills. I am sorry I had to create this disclaimer but having read the stuff that has been written about Windows 8, I can’t help but shake my head.

Having said all that, I must say, Microsoft’s efforts to educate what is Windows 8 and how it is different from Windows RT and which form factors are available and how to choose, has been abysmal. They may be able to train Microsoft Store employees in the last week before launch but how about the many other stores that are going to sell Windows 8 PCs and Windows RT devices? How are those employees going to guide the customers in the right direction? It would be a pity if customers see a beautiful ad on the TV showing “Windows 8″, go the store and happen to find a Windows RT tablet to be the cheapest, and go home and find out that they cannot use Quicken or Photoshop on it.

Windows 8 is too good for Microsoft to throw it off the rails like this. Hope they do enough in the “last mile” to guide customers in the right direction. They can’t rely on people like yours truly to keep demystifying and simplifying for them.

Are you sold on Windows 8? Do you plan to get a Windows RT device? Let me know in the comments!