Microsoft To Replace Zune With Cross Platform Music Service

For a while we’ve all known that Zune as a brand is on its way out. Top officials stopped using the name in the presentations and interviews trying not to remind people of it. Yesterday on the Windows Team Blog Microsoft put another nail in Zune’s coffin—Windows Phone Marketplace won’t be available via Zune. The software is still the tool to update Windows Phone devices on Windows but that’ll change too.

Anyway, Zune’s rite of passage will mark the introduction of a new subscription based entertainment service. The new service codenamed Woodstock will be a part of the Xbox brand. According to exclusive information obtained by Tom Warren here’s what we know about Woodstock:

  1. Woodstock is a Spotify-like service
  2. Browser-based player that requires no plugins (IE10 Metro in Windows 8 won’t support plugins so it makes sense)
  3. Deep Facebook integration—group playlists etc., the timeline integration
  4. Cross-platform service available on Android, iOS and Windows

The last point will be the key in Microsoft’s possible success. With Zune and Xbox, Microsoft has been working with labels and production houses, it’s not a new domain for Microsoft. As a cross-platform service, Microsoft will have a better sell to both end-consumers and labels/producers.

Microsoft is expected to announce this service at the upcoming E3 conference.

Windows 8 Release Preview Set For Early June

At Japan’s Windows 8 Dev Days, Windows boss Steven Sinofsky dropped the news that the next preview release of Windows 8 — dubbed the Release Preview — will touch down a little more than a month from now in the first month of June.

We currently know little about what the RP will bring to the table, but having spent a few additional months in the oven compared to the Consumer Preview, which was released in February, here’s hoping that various stability and UI bugs have been ironed out in this release. One thing we do know however is that Microsoft will be adding 33 more countries to the Windows Store, hopefully diminishing the amount of people exiled to the “Rest of World” part of the Windows Store.

This news suggests that Windows 8 development is well on-track for an RTM by October, as rumors have suggested. Which is a great thing, as Windows RT tablets will then be able to get their foot right in the door of the holiday market.

Just last week, Microsoft revealed that it had simplified the SKUs of Windows 8 to just two which regular consumers can purchase, and three if you count the WOA SKU, Windows RT. The other two SKUs are for developing markets and the enterprise space.

Microsoft Introduces New SkyDrive For Common Man; Paid Storage, Sync & More

Microsoft is all hands on deck to compete with Google’s upcoming Google Drive. In a massive SkyDrive upgrade that launched today, SkyDrive now behaves like Dropbox while integrating well with iOS, OS X, Windows and WP7. Here’s the important stuff first:

  • Desktop app for Windows & Mac (in addition to Windows Phone & iOS app)
  • 7GB free storage and sync
  • Updated mobile apps (Windows Phone 7 & iOS)
  • Retina display compatible iPad app
  • Remote browsing into your desktop from the browser

Let’s take a closer look at the pivotal feature—the desktop app:

The app is aimed at Windows desktop & OS X allowing users to have one folder, the contents of which are available on all desktops, within the SkyDrive folder. As a Live Mesh user I don’t like feature but Microsoft this was clearly an engineering challenge. Maintaining the folder paths on different machines was a challenge that Microsoft could do without. And since everyone understood how Dropbox works, it made sense.

So here’s how the OS X app looks like:

The app is simple and like Dropbox, there’s a SkyDrive folder in my favorites list. However, the part I don’t like is, SkyDrive downloading everything I have on SkyDrive to my desktop. I use cloud storage to free space on my desktop and still have access to my content.

Unfortunately on Windows, the app needs UAC access (unlike Dropbox) that limits me from installing it on campus PCs but then I have web access so who cares.

Paid Storage:

In simple terms here’s what has happened:

Till yesterday every SkyDrive had 25GB free storage with 5GB of sync. From today, the default free is 7GB and here are the paid tiers:

The good folks at Microsoft are offering a limited-time free upgrade to 25GB for existing users. So go get it here:

Updated mobile apps:

Yesterday Microsoft announced an update to their SkyDrive mobile app for Windows Phone 7. The update brought some nifty feature additions:

  • Batch selection
  • Manage sharing permissions
  • People Hub integration

Today, there’s an update to the iOS SkyDrive update bringing these features to Apple’s ecosystem and supporting the iOS Retina display resolution for the iPad.

Remote browsing:

This will soon become my favorite feature. Announced and demonstrated a while back, SkyDrive on the web now sports a Metro meets Explorer interface. You can now see your Computers that have SkyDrive installed within the browser and remotely access your content, even stream media. Here’s what the interface looks like:

I still love Live Mesh as the desktop client and would prefer it continued to live for those who know about it.


White Nokia Lumia 900s Hit The Shelves

Today, the white Nokia Lumia 900 flagship Windows Phone has officially gone on sale at AT&T stores.

Some stores did sell the device a day early, according to reports. AT&T stores were allegedly allowed to begin selling the phone a bit earlier than expected at their own discretion, and clearly some stores did just that. If you didn’t go to one of the early bird AT&T stores, however, then now is your chance.

When it comes to phones, people seem to be mesmerized by white. This was most clearly demonstrated in the case of the iPhone 4, when many held out waiting for the white version of the device which didn’t ship for quite some time. Some have other reasons behind their choices to purchase white phones, such as Rafael Rivera, who bought his so that he could use the green bumper.

The Nokia Lumia 900 is pretty much the flagship Windows Phone devices. It’s being heavily promoted by AT&T as a flagship device, as they greatly covet a third ecosystem. Even Verizon expressed a desire for a third ecosystem, claiming that they wish to throw as much support behind Windows Phone as they did for Android.

Skype for Windows Phone 1.0 Released, No Longer In Beta

Following a particularly long wait — leading up to a private beta in February of this year, during which the product version was 0.2 — Microsoft has finally released Skype for Windows Phone 1.0 to the Marketplace.

The new release packs some optimizations and improvements, according to WPCentral, including the ability to search for and add contacts and call landlines. However, the unfortunate limitation that prevents you from leaving a call running in the background while “out” of the app, performing other tasks on your phone persists.

We can only hope that this issue will be rectified come Windows Phone 8, perhaps with deeper OS integration of Skype to boot. Microsoft explained the limitation to The Verge, saying that it is due to “a combination of how Skype works and how the Windows Phone OS works.” This is quite unfortunate, really, as those on iOS and Android will be able to enjoy Skype calls running in the background on their devices. Considering Microsoft acquired the company, it isn’t exactly thrilling to see such an important feature working on every platform but their own.

Nevertheless, it’s still good to hear that Skype for Windows Phone has now been released. Let’s just hope that they aspire to resolve this issue with — or maybe even before — Apollo.

Is Verizon Feeling A Bit More Enthusiastic About Windows Phone?

Out of all the U.S mobile carriers, Verizon is probably the one to demonstrate the least amount of enthusiasm for the Windows Phone platform. While AT&T and T-Mobile have began to embrace the platform — particularly with the addition and heavy promotion of Nokia devices, especially from the former carrier — the old, pre-Mango HTC Trophy is the only Windows Phone available on Verizon.

However, it appears that the company may be interested in changing this attitude towards the platform. During its Q1 2012 earnings call on Thursday, the company stated that it is looking to do the “same thing” that it does with Android with Windows Phone, going on to stress the importance of a third ecosystem:

“It is important that there is a third ecosystem brought into the mix here,” said Verizon CFO Fran Shammo. “We are fully supportive of that with Microsoft. … We helped create the Android platform from the beginning and it is an incredible platform today, and we are looking to do the same thing with a third ecosystem.”

Considering the fact that the company still sells only one — first-generation at that — Windows Phone device, surely they intend to add newer Windows Phones to their portfolio. But which device(s)? Surely they will go the route of a Nokia Lumia. But when? I wonder if they’re going to wait until Apollo before beginning to heavily back the Windows Phone platform.

Still, it’s nice to see that the company is at least slightly interested in Windows Phone. I just hope that their actions soon begin to back the bold statement issued at the earnings call.

Will Apollo Allow For Additional OEM and Carrier Customization?

Thus far, Microsoft hasn’t really opened up Windows Phone for OEM customization. Apart from some apps which may come pre-installed with a device from a carrier — which can be easily uninstalled should you not want them — Windows Phone is pretty much stock. This may change, however, as the company may be opening up the platform for additional “customization and differentiation”.

Netbook News obtained the agenda of an Apollo summit that the company is hosting in Reading, UK, and one of the primary topics that will be discussed is “customization and differentiation opportunities”. While the report doesn’t reveal anything beyond the topic titles themselves, this topic in particular is highly suggestive of more carrier/OEM customization to come.

Tom Warren thinks that the integration will be seamless and executed well enough to not be interpreted as bloatware by the user. One implementation he notes is the integration of Rich Communication Suite-enhanced services within Windows Phone 8. He reported that Microsoft will allow operators to integrate their own (or third party) voice and messaging solutions seamlessly into the OS within the People hub. VOIP may even be integrated, with VOIP calls looking like normal voice calls when received over Windows Phone 8.

I wouldn’t mind seamless integration of that nature. However, if this allows for even more bloatware, or perhaps customization that makes Windows Phone look like an OS developed by AT&T, that would be terrible. Here’s the complete list of topics that Microsoft will reportedly be touching on during the summit:

  • Apollo Review
  • Windows Phone Schedules and release plans/processes
  • Customization & Differentiation opportunities
  • New Windows Phone 8 application development capabilities
  • What’s new feature review of Apollo
  • Connectivity and APN management
  • Better together with Windows 8

Windows Store Coming To New Markets

When Microsoft dropped the Windows 8 Consumer Preview, it included of course a preview version of the new Windows Store as well. However, users residing anywhere but France, Germany, India, Japan, and the United States were greeted with the somewhat condescending “Rest of World” catalog. Microsoft has announced that they will be expanding the global coverage of the Windows Store come the next significant preview release of the store (in the next pre-release version of Windows).

33 additional app submission locales for developers will be added — Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Columbia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Hong Kong, Hungary, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Korea, Luxembourg, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Russia, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, and United Kingdom — bumping the total number of those up to 38. The number of market-specific app catalogues will also be raised from 5 to 26.

Microsoft proudly notes that this expansion is all being done within the pre-release timeframe of Windows. It’s about time that the company focus on launching a service (mostly) worldwide come the final launch of a product. It is 2012, after all.

Microsoft Seeking Skype For Xbox Software Engineer

Ever since Microsoft acquired Skype last year, there has been speculation that the company was going to bring Skype to the Xbox. And a new job posting on Microsoft Careers that Enconnected spotted pretty much confirms that this is the case. The listing is seeking a Software Engineer to join a dedicated Skype Xbox Engineering team in London, particularly one who has a great startup mentality:

Skype is seeking a motivated Software Engineer with an unrelenting drive for working on and solving customer-based issues. As a member of the Skype Xbox Engineering Team in London, you will have a strong technical background developing client and/or embedded software. Success in this role will likely be driven by your technical understanding, passion for shipping product, a user focus and an Agile approach to software development. The ideal candidate loves software and has a passion for writing code that addresses real customer issues and needs.

We didn’t exactly need confirmation that Skype was headed to the Xbox; ever since the acquisition, it was kind of a given that Microsoft would try to bring Skype to all of its products for the most part. Microsoft has already brought Skype to the Windows Phone in the form of a beta, but it could use quite a fair bit of work. For example, you cannot leave a call running in the background while performing actions on the device.

Microsoft Simplifies Windows 8 Versions To Two Primary SKUs

Microsoft has now officially confirmed the versions of Windows 8 that will be available to consumers, OEMs and enterprise customers. In a huge attempt to simplify things, Microsoft will now be offering just two flavors of Windows 8 for end users in the US. As opposed to the several versions with Windows Vista and Windows 7, the versions available for Windows 8.

For the end customer in the US and generally across the world there are two versions of Windows 8:

  • Windows 8
  • Windows 8 Pro

There is no Home Basic, Home Premium, Business, Ultimate as of now. These editions will be available for off-the-shelf buying and for OEMs to bundle. The other version available to OEMs will be Windows RT; this is the Windows on ARM specifically for tablets. Windows RT will NOT be sold at shops and end-users CANNOT upgrade from Windows 7 to Windows 8 RT.

The difference between Windows 8 and Windows 8 Pro is essentially that of business features such as BitLocker, VHD Boot, Hyper-V, Group Policy. Windows RT won’t have the business features either, in addition to no Windows Media Player and no support for legacy x86/x64 apps. Microsoft has a very simple and useful chart explaining the differences.

The same blog post does however mention that there will be another SKU for markets like China and some emerging economies. This version will be a local language version unlike Windows 8 and Windows 8 Pro that will let users switch languages.

Coming to enterprise, Microsoft will offer Windows 8 Enterprise that will have all features of Windows 8 Pro and some IT administration specific additions. In a follow-up blog post on the Windows Team Blog, Erwin Visser detailed what Windows 8 Enterprise will offer. The SKU will be available only for Microsoft’s Software Assurance customers. The IT administration specific features that Software Assurance customers get with Windows 8 Enterprise are:

  •  Windows To-Go
  • Companion Device
  • Windows RT Virtual Desktop Access
  • MDOP (Desktop Optimization Pack)
  • Windows InTune

Companion Device and Windows RT VDA are very interesting. The blog post explains the features as:

Windows RT Virtual Desktop Access (VDA) Rights: When used as a companion of a Windows Software Assurance licensed PC, Windows RT will automatically receive extended VDA rights. These rights will provide access to a full VDI image running in the datacenter which will make Windows RT a great complementary tablet option for business customers.

Companion Device License: For customers who want to provide full flexibility for how employees access their corporate desktop across devices, we are introducing a new Companion Device License for Windows SA customers. For users of Windows Software Assurance licensed PCs this optional add-on will provide rights to access a corporate desktop either through VDI or Windows To Go on up to four personally owned devices.

So, while technically Microsoft will have 5 SKUs of Windows 8:

  1. Windows 8
  2. Windows 8 Pro
  3. Windows RT
  4. Local language version of Windows 8 for emerging markets and China
  5. Windows 8 Enterprise

…there are just 2 for most users.