In a blog post on Office Blogs on October 1, Microsoft announced the launch of a new design-focused app in the Office family, called Sway. In keeping with the new “mobile-first, cloud-first” mantra at Microsoft, this app is built for the web and for all kinds of devices from the ground up. It is not a desktop application which was fine tuned to run on mobile devices, but instead it was built keeping a multi-device world in mind.
Sway can be thought of as another “storytelling” app which makes it easy for anyone to tell a story. This is done in a beautiful interface which scales itself to fill screens of all sizes, and leverages popular cloud storage and services like OneDrive, Facebook and YouTube. It blends text, images, embedded video and search in a variety of formats and layouts and makes creating projects (or “telling stories”) a fun exercise. The layouts get adjusted according to the content that keeps getting added to the canvas, which itself is called a Sway, and this is thanks to the work done by Microsoft Research.
An introduction video posted on the Office Blogs shows many different devices used to create the story:
Interestingly, much like PowerPoint’s Mix app/feature, Sway lets the stories be interactive so it enables collaboration among teams, friends and family. Currently, it looks like it supports many consumer services but the Office team promises increased business functionality in the form of support for OneDrive for Business and SharePoint, integration with the Office Graph and more.
Sway is currently in preview and one can request an invite at Sway.com.
At a small press gathering on September 30, Microsoft showed what is an early version of the next edition of Windows, and tricked everyone by calling it Windows 10 instead of the chronologically appropriate Windows 9.
As this event was catering to the enterprises, there was emphasis mostly on the features that will make existing Windows XP and Windows 7 customers not hesitate to move to the next version of Windows. Microsoft officials admitted that Windows 8, and even Windows 8.1 and Windows 8.1 Update are too different from Windows XP and Windows 7 and customers are staying away from upgrades because they will need a lot of training hours to train their users.
Along with revealing some of the key updates to Windows, and in a big departure from the past, Microsoft also announced that technically savvy users as well as IT Pros in enterprises can enroll in a Windows Insider program which will allow them to download the Windows 10 bits starting October 1. These Windows Insiders will then have access to the latest bits and will be able to provide feedback directly to Microsoft during the preview.
Windows 10’s consumer features will be discusses in early 2015, the developer story will be discussed at //Build, Microsoft’s developer conference, in April. The final version of Windows 10 is expected to be available later in 2015.
Let’s look at what was revealed in terms of Windows 10 at the event:
Perhaps one of the most wanted (and missing) features in Windows 8.x was the ever-familiar Start Menu. The Start Menu is back, but instead of simply being a Windows 7-style Start Menu, it is now going to have some Live Tiles next to the list of programs and folders. In addition, the Start Menu’s “shape” is customizable so if you desire a flatter and wider Start Menu, you can simply drag its boundaries and make it flat.
The search functionality in the Start Menu is back, and in addition to searching for files and folders on the local PC, the feature will search the web too, just like the main search feature that exists in Windows 8.x today.
Windowed Metro Apps
Another very highly requested feature from non-touch device users and users with large screens is the ability to run Metro apps in their own windows instead of defaulting to full screen. Despite improvements in snap mode in Windows 8.1, it wasn’t enough and by making Metro apps work seamlessly in their own windows which can be resized without affecting the usability of the Metro apps, Microsoft is taking care of the power users.
Windows 8’s Snap mode has made incremental improvements over time. With Windows 10, it gets even better so it will now be possible to snap up to 4 apps on one screen. The screen is now going to be divided into quadrants and each snapped app can occupy a quadrant or two. In addition, Snap Assist enables the best utilization of the screen real estate by snapping apps to appropriately fill the screen space.
A new button will be present on the Taskbar which will enable viewing open apps/applications as well as any virtual desktops in use.
In Windows 10, one will be able to create multiple “desktops” much like Mac OS X and Linux, to isolate the work based on any organizational aspect like work vs home, projects, etc.
One Store, One App Model
Microsoft also said that with Windows 10, it won’t be truly “one operating system” but it will be one product family with a common app development model and a common store. This way, Windows 10 will be able to run on “things” (from the Internet of Things) to ruggedized embedded systems, to phones and phablets to tablets and 2-in-1 devices to PCs up to 85″ in screen size.
In all this discussion about Start Menu and full-screen apps, the lines between a normal non-touch PC user and a tablet user are clearly drawn. However, what happens when someone uses a hybrid or 2-in-1 device like the Surface or one of the many detachable or convertible devices? In such situations, Windows 10 will invoke Continuum. This feature detects a touch screen usage and converts the use to a tablet use and if a keyboard or mouse is then detected, it prompts to switch to a PC use (and vice versa).
This is nicely demonstrated by Joe Belfiore in the video below (courtesy The Verge):
Here’s Joe Belfiore from the Windows team, walking through the new features:
And here’s a walkthrough of Windows 10 provided by Microsoft to Geekwire’s Blair Hanley Frank:
On September 23, Microsoft detailed some of the new features delivered through the latest update of the Bing app on iPhone. With iOS 8, Apple did bulk up and two of the many features added were extensibility through sharing between apps as well as widgets on the notification screen.
The updated Bing app utilizes both of these features:
With Bing Translator feature of the app installed as a supported shareable app in Safari, you can now instantly translate any web page in Safari. This feature is also of course available inside the Bing app itself, so if you need to translate search results it can be done within the app itself.
Today and Trending Topics widget
In addition to the translator, the Bing app now lets you choose Bing Today as a lock screen widget. This widget shows the Bing Image Of The Day, as well as three top trending topics. Clicking on the image leads to the front page inside the Bing app and clicking on any of the trending topics leads to the news items about those trending topics.
Microsoft has moved Bing’s value from a pure desktop web search engine to a vast pool of entities and relationships which get better as more people use the service. The more “end points” Bing has, the better the quality of the engine becomes. With this background it is easy to see why the Bing team would improve the Bing app for iPhone and jump on the latest technologies supported by the latest features of iOS.
Although most users who need to search on iOS can now use iOS 8’s updated Spotlight, it is still nice to use an app that lets you search not just the web, but also news, images, photos, videos, etc., and that’s what the Bing app lets you do.
Do you use the Bing app on iOS? Do you like the updates?
The rumors were true. Microsoft announced on September 15, that they have agreed to acquire Mojang, the makers of Minecraft. Mojang, based in Sweden, announced that the founders Notch, Carl and Jakob will be leaving as part of this acquisition.
This acquisition has naturally created a lot of noise because on the one hand, many fear that Microsoft will ruin the company and in the worst case scenario, pull the cross-platform nature of Minecraft and make it Windows-only. On the other, there are sanerminds who have spelled out that, if done right, this would be a good bet for Microsoft to invest into the next generation of makers and therefore, potential developers.
Minecraft, for those who are not aware, is an online game very popular among kids, where players build environments much like using LEGO to build structures and things. There is a level of interactivity because of the online nature of the game, so for example, cousins across the world could be building stuff together. There is no limit to what you can build and there have been crazy examples of stuff built in Minecraft including an actual functioning hard drive!
The company is profitable, and Microsoft expects to be net positive for the deal by FY 2015. For Microsoft, since Mojang is based in Sweden, it helps them use some of the offshore cash which they would not have brought back to the US anyway, due to tax liabilities.
Phil Spencer, the head of Xbox, has made it clear that nothing is planned to change. MINECON, the Minecraft conference will continue as planned. Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft, said they are looking forward to the new opportunity this will bring to Microsoft:
“Minecraft is more than a great game franchise – it is an open world platform, driven by a vibrant community we care deeply about, and rich with new opportunities for that community and for Microsoft.”
Notch, the nickname of Markus Persson who created the game, said he is leaving Mojang because he could not handle the company now that it has become such a massive, global initiative. He wants to focus on software development and given the close working relationship he formed with Microsoft in the process of bringing Minecraft to Xbox, he thought it was best that Microsoft continues supporting and investing in Mojang.
It will be interesting to see how Microsoft handles the obviously different culture that Mojang brings. We have seen them handle Yammer and Skype, both companies with a similar potential culture clash problem, by keeping them independent. Game makers are perhaps one step farther in terms of having a non-corporate culture, so besides keeping them independent, it will be important to see how the company is nurtured.
What are your thoughts? Crazy move for Microsoft? Crazy move for Mojang? Or mutually beneficial to both?
OneDrive, Microsoft’s cloud storage service, is getting better thanks to some top requested features being added to the service and its sync apps. In an announcement on the OneDrive Blog on September 10, Microsoft announced the following updates:
Large Files Support
Until now, OneDrive supported files up to 2GB in size but now customers can store files up to 10GB in size. This can be done through the desktop sync clients, mobile apps as well as from the web app. There are not too many “normal” uses where files would be more than 2GB in size, but some examples could be if you have digital downloads of HD movies or digitally downloaded software or Outlook PST files as examples.
Sharing directly from Windows Explorer
Dropbox has long had the ability to share a file stored in Dropbox from the computer directly, all reflecting correctly back to Dropbox service as a shared file. With OneDrive, until now, you would need to share it from OneDrive.com, unless you simply attach the file from the PC in which case it is not the same use case.
With the latest update, when you right-click on a file in Windows 7 and Windows 8, you get one more option which is to “Share a OneDrive link” which will create a link to the file and copy it to the clipboard. Once the link is created, it will be registered on OneDrive.com’s file properties as a shared file with the link. Curiously, Windows 8.1 and Mac updates are not ready yet, but will be coming soon.
Upload folders from OneDrive.com
With this update, OneDrive.com now supports uploading folders from the web app instead of just files. This includes dragging and dropping an entire folder in the web app to automatically upload it to OneDrive.
Through some parallelization, Microsoft claims file sync (upload and download) improved threefold in their internal testing. Any improvement is welcome, so this is good news for those relying heavily on desktop sync clients.
As usual, these are good improvements and additions to an already excellent service. Do you have files more than 2GB which you could not sync until now? What were those files? Let us know in the comments below.
That’s right, folks. You have not woken up in the 90’s all of a sudden. In a post on September 7 on the Official Microsoft Blog, officials at the company announced a new preview of their MSN portal. In addition, a big re-branding is planned, where all the Bing apps on Windows and Windows Phone will be renamed to corresponding MSN versions. Finally, these MSN apps will also expand to iOS and Android, reflecting the new philosophy at Microsoft where their own platform is just another platform.
The new MSN
The new site at preview.msn.com is a cleaner, fresher and adjusts according to the screen size (“responsive design”). The busy front page is gone and is now replaced with a main “top stories” panel with large pictures along with a few smaller units for other top news. Of course, there is a big ad space to the right.
As you scroll down, you see the normal sections for content: News, Entertainment, Sports, Money, Lifestyle, Health & Fitness, Food & Drink, Travel, Autos, and lastly, a section for Video. These sections can be moved up or down, or removed completely. Other sections can be added, from the following: Movies, TV, Music, World, US, Tech & Science and Politics.
Services strip and sections
Along the top, there is a strip of information, with quick access to various Microsoft and non-Microsoft services. This includes Outlook.com email, Office Online documents, OneNote notebooks, OneDrive storage, Maps, Xbox Music, Skype and optionally, Facebook and Twitter. For Facebook and Twitter, you have to not just sign in to Microsoft account, but also link your Facebook and Twitter accounts. I am not sure why this information is not derived from the existing Microsoft account, where at least in my case, I already have a link established to Facebook, Twitter and others. Below the services strip is a simple navigation link to access sections in your page directly and quickly.
When you mouse over the various services, you get a quick preview of what’s appropriate for the service, like the top 3 emails from your Outlook.com inbox, or recently used Office Online files, OneNote notebooks, and as you will see below, a map of the current location, files and folders from OneDrive, or latest tweets from Twitter.
As mentioned above, the Bing content apps that exist today on Windows and Windows Phone are going to be re-branded to MSN. As a first step in that process, the new msn has Favorites from Bing imported automatically, based on the Microsoft account used. So for example, my favorite sports teams showed up as Favorites in the Sports section, my watch list showed up under Finance, etc.
Don’t judge me, I liked the 49ers until they hired Harbaugh. That’s perhaps because I like USC and he has a history when he was at Stanford with the then USC coach whom I liked. And that’s going to explain why I like the Seahawks :-)
In addition to serving content from a variety of sources, the new msn also includes sections where you can gain some actionable insights. For example, there is a symptom checker in Health & Fitness, as well as a 3D Human Body in the same section.
Top-tier sources and iOS/Android
Per the announcement, the content on the new msn comes from a variety of top-tier sources.
We’ve partnered with the world’s best to deliver on this goal:
In the US, some of our premier partners include The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, CNN, AOL (including TechCrunch and Huffington Post) and Condé Nast (including Vanity Fair, Epicurious, Bon Appétit).
Worldwide, we’re excited to include The Yomiuri Shimbun and The Asahi Shimbun in Japan; Sky News, The Guardian and the Telegraph in the UK, NDTV and Hindustan Times in India, Le Figaro and Le Monde in France, and many more.
Along with the new preview, Microsoft is also preparing to launch iOS and Android apps like the ones that exist on Windows and Windows Phone. These iOS and Android apps will roam Favorites and keep content in sync much like the connectedness of Windows and Windows Phone apps. This way, Microsoft is ensuring that no matter which device you use at any time of the day, you have the premier experience with consuming and using the msn content.
I like the new msn, except for the brand name itself. I am not sure the negativity around “msn” is as much as it is around “Internet Explorer” and we know how badly Microsoft and IE teams are trying to paint a brighter image of the latter. It is unclear why the “msn” brand is the one that Microsoft chose to continue with rather than coming up with a new brand or reusing the Bing brand. In any case, time will tell if the branding is right or not.
Among many other announcements at IFA 2014 on September 4, Microsoft announced the latest update to the Windows Phone OS. As is usually the case with Nokia’s Lumia updates, this update, called Lumia Denim, is essentially a combination of updates delivered via Windows Phone 8.1 Update (let’s just call it Windows Phone 8.1.1, shall we?) and firmware updates. These firmware updates add some new features and functionality and also improve the overall performance of Lumia devices and pre-loaded apps.
To start with, the newly announced Lumia 730, Lumia 735 and Lumia 830 will come pre-loaded with Lumia Denim. The other Windows Phone 8 Lumia devices will receive this update over the air in Q4 2014 after appropriate partner and carrier testing.
4K-quality video recording at 24FPS now available on Lumia devices. You can invoke this by long pressing the camera button. Since each frame is 8.3 megapixels, each individual frame can be shared as a still image too.
Auto-HDR and Dynamic Flash are now included in the images taken. This way, it will be possible to take a picture and then adjust the camera settings later, to get the perfection in the shot.
Cortana, the impressive personal digital assistant included first with Windows Phone 8.1, can now be invoked by just saying “Hey Cortana”. Similar to Google Now’s “OK Google”, this feature enables even quicker access to Cortana. As a side, this is enabled by the SensorCore technology, so it won’t be available on Lumia devices which do not have SensorCore.
Glance screen (on eligible devices) can now show additional information from Bing Health & Fitness and Bing Weather in addition to notifications, time and date, and application data.
Lumia Camera is the updated name of the application formerly known as Nokia Camera. Updates to this app make it faster and more intuitive.
Speed and improved image processing
It is now even faster to invoke the camera, and there have been speed improvements made in going from shot to shot. In addition, new image processing algorithms make lowlight images even better than before.
These non-core OS updates show again why Lumia devices are still the best bet if you want to own a Windows Phone. Unless and until we see such innovation come from HTC, Samsung and the others, it is hard to see why you would think of using a non-Lumia Windows Phone device.
Cortana, Microsoft’s personal digital assistant introduced in Windows Phone 8.1, has had the ability to predict outcomes of some events. Most recently, she did a near-perfect job of predicting World Cup results.
In an announcement on September 3, Microsoft says they have added NFL to the list of events that Cortana can predict. The American football season starts on September 4, so it is timely. In order to use this feature, just ask Cortana: “Who will win, team A or team B?”
Cortana’s prediction feature is based on Bing’s prediction engine. Bing on the desktop has enabled such predictions for reality shows on TV like the singing competition The Voice before.
Microsoft has earlier explained how Bing Predicts works, and how it is able to predict with a high level of accuracy. It is natural that they use all the signals and the data they have, to take it to one of the most popular sporting events in the American calendar.
For NFL predictions, Walter Sun from the Bing Predicts team says:
For pro football, we model the respective strengths of the teams by examining outcomes from previous seasons including wins, losses, and the very rare tie outcome (two games since 2009), factoring in margin of victories, location of contest, playing surface and roof cover (or lack thereof), weather and temperature conditions, scoring by quarters, and multiple offensive and defensive statistics. In addition to this prior model, we identify fans on Web and Social sites and track their sentiment to understand the aggregate wisdom of this expressive crowd. This introduces data which statistics alone cannot capture, providing real-time adjustments which surprisingly can capture injury news and other substantive factors in win probabilities.
I understand these things are more fun than useful, and I am not sure anyone who gambles will rely on this to make any bets, but it is good to see Microsoft showing off their machine learning prowess through normal use cases like predictions of NFL games.
If you are on Windows Phone 8.1, you can start asking right away. The beauty of most of Cortana’s features is that they are all web services-enabled, which means it does not require any client or app updates. Once Microsoft turns that feature on from the server side, it is available for everyone to use.
Let us know how you like the feature in the comments below!
The OneDrive team at Microsoft announced in a blog post on August 28, that among other updates across platforms, the OneDrive app for Android now lets users access OneDrive as well as OneDrive for Business accounts in the same app.
Android App Updates
The Android app update is the first across platforms where one can access work and personal documents and files in a single app. This means, within a single app, you have access to all your files and will be able to share them appropriately with friends and family or co-workers.
Additionally, the app will clearly show which account is active so there is no mistake in terms of auto-uploads of pictures or sharing of work files with people outside work.
Additionally, the Android app now allows setting up a 4-digit PIN to secure the app and its contents in addition to the phone’s main locking method.
There are speed and reliability improvements in terms of photo backup, as well as the ability to have other apps open the files from OneDrive.
iOS App Updates
The iOS update now includes a native search. Much like the iOS system-wide search, within the OneDrive app you can pull down to reveal the search box and the search will be conducted across the entire OneDrive.
The iOS update also introduces an All Photos view (which curiously includes videos too, which I don’t mind, but may seem misleading). The All Photos view is similar to the one on the web, and an important consideration here is that screenshots are automatically removed from this view. If one wants to see uploaded screenshots, they can always navigate to the Camera Roll folder within the OneDrive app and see the screenshots.
I think this screenshot elimination from the main view is a good move. I take a lot of random screenshots and while I like that they are automatically uploaded to OneDrive (unlike the native Windows Phone photo backup), I don’t necessarily want them to pollute my main photos view. So, props to the product manager who made this decision!
Windows Phone App Updates
The Windows Phone app update actually showed up a few days ago and besides bug fixes, it includes the ability to see the OneDrive Recycle Bin. This way, one can always go back and see deleted files and restore them if necessary.
Good to see updates across all the platforms, and looking forward to seeing the OneDrive for Business update show up on iOS and Windows Phone apps too.
The OneNote team claims the ability to print pages was the number one requested feature. This feature has been added in this update and it allows printing your notes. In addition, this update allows print previews, allowing portrait and landscape orientations, and the usual printing options like multiple copies and two-sided printing.
In a subtle move away from strictly using Charms for peripherals, printing is supported via Charms, App Bar as well as the conventional Ctrl+P keyboard shortcut.
Another highly requested feature added was the ability to insert files into notes. If you have an external document you want to add to your notes, you can now insert the document via the radial menu’s insert command. This adds the document into the note and makes it available as-is, and when opened, it opens as a read-only version of the document.
Unlike inserting files directly, inserting them as a PDF printout “prints” the file out to OneNote as a PDF. This way, the entire document shows up inside OneNote and then can be annotated inside the note. Both the file attachment and PDF printout were added recently to the iPad and Mac versions of OneNote recently.
Highlighting with ink
Much like the Android and iOS updates, this feature allows ink highlighting. This can be done via a stylus/pen or a finger. The radial menu now shows multiple colors of “pens” for highlighting and inking.
The update is now available in the Store. Let us know how you like it.