Category Archives: Microsoft

Use Android? Get the Latest Outlook.com App Update

Android users rejoice, especially if you also use Outlook.com. Microsoft announced on April 16 via their Outlook Blog that they have updated their Android app for Outlook.com. The update is not an incremental update by any stretch of imagination. It is a complete overhaul, and it looks beautiful.

Outlook.com Android app
Outlook.com Android app

 

As you can see above, the first thing that you notice is the overhaul of the user interface. The look is now distinctively “Metro”, looking very much like the Windows Phone and Windows 8 mail apps as also Outlook.com on the web.

Besides the visual changes, some new features were also added to the app. Conversation view for messages is now introduced in the app. In addition, there is also a “mark as junk” label which, I am surprised was left out all this time. Finally, the app now allows for viewing messages by read/unread status and provides the ability to view only flagged messages.

Outlook.com Android app contetxtual menu
Outlook.com Android app contetxtual menu

 

It is worth noting that despite Android “supporting” Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) protocol, Microsoft were forced to build their own app for Outlook.com because, as per Microsoft, different versions of Android have different implementations of EAS. In order to provide a consistent experience across devices, it was felt necessary to build a separate app. This seems to fall in line with how Android works, given that their email client is not stellar, and how Google itself has chosen to build a GMail app for its own service.

If you use Hotmail/Outlook.com and have an Android device, this is a must-have. Download it here.

 

Images from the Office Blogs.

Outlook.com Calendar Finally Gets a Coat of Metro

If you have been using Hotmail/Outlook.com for email, you would have noticed that the email, contacts and SkyDrive interfaces are all uniform, designed along the Metro principles of letting the content stand out and moving all unnecessary chrome and controls out of the way. One service which was still bearing the old Hotmail/Live look was the Calendar.

The Calendar was left in the old format for some strange reason even after Outlook.com left preview and became “production” recently. One of the early comments made by Microsoft about Calendar was that they observed that most people use the Calendar on mobile devices or via desktop applications and not the website, and hence they prioritized the Calendar update lower.

However, for those who got used to using the Outlook.com web interface (partly because it is so beautiful and functional), started feeling the eyesore that was Calendar. Until April 2.

Over on Office Blogs, David Dennis announced the new Outlook.com Calendar was finally available at http://calendar.live.com. Some of the salient features of the new Calendar are:

  • The fresh/modern/Metro design. Finally in line with the email, contacts and storage services.
  • Easier navigation and usage. The web app works much like a desktop application with drag across time periods to create an event, incorporating tasks within the same page as calendar, clicking to add/edit events, etc.
  • If you connect your Microsoft account to Skype, LinkedIn and Facebook, you will automatically see birthdays (and other events) from those services in your calendar.
  • Granular (but easy to use) privacy controls for sharing calendars and parts of calendars.
  • Shared calendars with change notifications, enabling scenarios where parents share calendars and get notified when one or the other changes/adds events.
Outlook.com Metro Calendar
Outlook.com Metro Calendar

Overall, this is a much-needed and highly delayed change which finally makes the “Windows Services” consisting of Outlook.com email, Outlook.com Calendar, People and SkyDrive appear like a suite of services made by the same company.

There are still some features available in other services like Google Calendar that are missing from Outlook.com Calendar, but here’s hoping that with this “big” update out of the way, the Calendar team will get more resources to focus on adding functionality to the Calendar, and enhancing how it interacts with the rest of the products in the Microsoft portfolio like Bing.

Do you use Hotmail Calendar? Have you been upgraded to the new version? What are your thoughts?

 

Image courtesy Office Blogs.

Skydrive App Update on iOS Finally Live

On April 3, Mike Torres announced on Windows Blogs that the SkyDrive app for iOS was updated to v3.0 and was available in the iTunes store.

Some of the changes and additions in this update are:

  • Support for iPhone 5 and iPad Mini
  • Updated app icons and user experience
  • Works better with your photos:
    • Download full resolution photos to your iPhone or iPad
    • Control the size of photos you upload and download
    • Photo metadata is retained when you upload to SkyDrive
  • Opening and saving files to SkyDrive works better with other apps on your iOS devices
  • Many other small changes, bug fixes and performance improvements
SkyDrive on iPhone 5
SkyDrive on iPhone 5

Given that the last update to the app was about a year ago, this news is very welcome for those who use SkyDrive.

What was not mentioned in the change log was that the option to buy additional storage on SkyDrive has been removed. This is because as per Apple’s App Store policies, if any app provides such functionality or even a link to their own site, the company has to pay 30% fee to Apple.

In fact, it is widely believed that the app was held back from being released because the negotiations between Microsoft and Apple were not going anywhere. Microsoft was trying to convince Apple that this is a special case and they should not be charged the 30% fee for the functionality. Clearly, Apple did not budge and Microsoft had to remove the link.

However, the silver lining here is now that Microsoft has published the SkyDrive app, we may not be too far away from Office on iOS making its appearance. The generally believed theory among those who watch Microsoft is that Office on iOS (specifically, iPad) is going to be free apps with read-only functionality unless a user has a Office 365 subscription. If they sign in with their Microsoft account tied to the subscription, they will be able to edit the Office files on iPhone and iPad. Given how important the “real” Office is for consumers and enterprises alike, it is natural that Microsoft would not want to pay 30% of the entire Office 365 subscription fee to Apple. Here’s hoping there was a good deal worked out between Cupertino and Redmond so end users like us can finally see Word, Excel, PowerPoint (and wishfully thinking, Outlook) on the iPad.

Do you use SkyDrive? Do you use it on iPhone/iPad? What do you think of the latest update? Let me know!

 

Image courtesy Microsoft from the Windows Blogs

Microsoft’s “Keep The Cash” Developer Incentive Program Is Appalling

Screen Shot 2013-03-21 at 11.55.36 PM

One of the major issues plaguing the Windows Phone platform as a whole is the lack of quality apps, primarily the various popular ones that are currently thriving on iOS and Android. But simply porting these apps a few months — or more — to Windows Phone from their release won’t solve the problem. Microsoft needs to improve the platform’s mindshare amongst both developers and consumers.

When developers — big and small — work to release their apps as quickly as possible on Windows Phone, and treat the platform as an equal to iOS and Android, then Microsoft will have succeeded. Obviously, the issue isn’t just the lack of existing awesome apps. It’s the fact that now, when a hypothetical developer of what, unbeknownst to him, will soon be an incredibly popular app sits down to build it, he’ll prioritize getting the app on iOS and Android.

Maybe initially, due to the lack of resources and the need to ship, he’ll select one of these platforms to initially launch on. But then, in most cases, the next priority will be shipping an app on the other. After a year of hit sales on both of these platforms, maybe rumors will surface that a Windows Phone app is in the works.

This is the obvious problem with Windows Phone, and it’s why I’m perplexed as to how Microsoft could think that its latest incentive for people to develop on Windows Phone was a good idea at all.

The program, — aptly named “Keep The Cash” — encourages developers to create and submit up to 10 apps to the Windows Phone Store, offering $100 for each qualifying app. The program is also accepting Windows Store apps, allowing you to submit another 10 apps. That’s a total limit of $2000 in app submission.

Evidently, this drastically favors quantity over quality. The copy on the registration form blatantly encourages developers to make multiple apps. Can we seriously expect nothing less but shitty apps from developers who are developing multiple apps from March 8th to June 30th?

The program boasts that developers can earn up to $2000 per qualifying app. That’s a whopping 20 apps in roughly three months. And yes, the Terms and Conditions makes it clear that you cannot submit apps that have been previously submitted to the store.

Sure, some apps from developers who technically take advantage of this may be good; in that timeframe, developers who are wrapping up apps that have been in the works for some time could enter their creations in this program and claim the reward.

But we all know that this isn’t who the promotion is targeting. Everything is clearly targeted to appeal most to people who will try to pump out apps in this timeframe to gain as much money from the promotion as possible.

The negative image that this gives Windows Phone far outweighs anything positive that can come out of it. A good developer with taste from any platform — including existing Windows Phone developers — will scoff at the program.

With this program, Microsoft actually discourages quality developers from wanting to create Windows Phone apps while encouraging those who wish to make some cash as quickly as they shit out their apps to build on Windows Phone. On top of that, it can look like an incredibly desperate, “we’ll take all the apps we can get” program.

Even the registration form to participate looks sleazy. It’s reminiscent of those Monopoly promotions by McDonald’s, or even those cash for gold ads we occasionally see on TV. It’s aesthetically unpleasing and only serves as foreshadowing to the quality of the apps that will come as a result of it.

And, finally, this shows a lack of focus and awareness from Microsoft in regards to Windows Phone’s true problem, despite the fact that they’re definitely well aware of it.

In fact, Microsoft issued the following comment to AllThingsD regarding this:

We believe the best apps come from those partners who are invested in the platform and own their experience now and in the future. Of course, we are always working to spark creativity with new developer audiences and sometimes try limited incentives or contests, like Keep The Cash. However, it is not representative of an ongoing program.

Except it doesn’t spark creativity, it scares it away.

I largely wrote this article with emphasis on the impact of this program on Windows Phone, but it’s worth once again mentioning that the program also seeks out up to 10 Windows Store apps. The complete disregard of quality that’s projected through this program also impacts one of the company’s most valuable products.

In conclusion, I hope that Microsoft stops hosting programs like this and instead offers incentives that favor quality and innovation. As Long Zheng points out, that is something that the company is no stranger to doing.

Outlook.com is out of Preview, Said to Have 60 Million Users

In a blog post (and in interviews), Microsoft announced on February 18th that their new webmail service Outlook.com is coming out of preview. Microsoft claims Outlook.com has 60 million users, which makes it the fastest growing service.

In an interview with The Verge, Dharmesh Mehta, Senior Director of Outlook.com said that about a third of Outlook.com users came from GMail. While this number does not include true switchers, it does show that the service did pique the interest of many GMail users. The real success of the service will be determined by how it is able to retain those users who came from GMail, as well as of course attracting users from other services.

Another point made by Mehta was that all the time while Outlook.com was in preview, they were focused on scaling and tuning the performance so that they can handle the loads which would inevitably come when they start migrating existing Hotmail users over to the new service. This is going to start from the 19th and after sending emails and alerting the users, at some point the migration will happen automatically. Microsoft expects this process to complete by the end of summer.

Now that they are out of preview, Mehta said that they will focus on enhancing the features of the service. I look forward to some of the missing pieces in the service like:

  • Calendar: The beautiful interface (inspired by Metro design principles, and made for touch-friendly devices) extends from email, to contacts (People) to SkyDrive. The one service which has not seen the new coat of paint is Calendar and boy does it stick out like a sore thumb. The calendar needs to be updated quickly.
  • 2-factor authentication: When Outlook.com launched in preview mode, the team did some interviews and even a Reddit Ask Me Anything. When asked about 2-factor authentication like GMail and many other services use, the Outlook team said they don’t have it because most normal users don’t use 2-factor authentication because it makes sign in too complex. Instead, they claimed, they have a one-time password that gets sent via SMS, to use when accessing the service at an unknown PC. I don’t think that is a great substitute for 2-factor authentication. If Microsoft feels it is too complex, they should have an equivalent solution so that hackers cannot easily hack into email accounts.
  • Logged in activity: Continuing with the security trend, GMail also offers a nice snippet of IP addresses which are logged in to the GMail account at any given time, with the feature to remotely log any of those connections out. There is no such feature in Outlook.com. Another very nice feature available in GMail is a notification upon login that there was activity from places like China on the GMail account, potentially signalling an impending hacking attack. These days, it is better to have such measures in place than regret a hacking later, so it would be very nice if Outlook.com can adopt some of these security features in the service.
  • Spam filtering: While Outlook.com’s spam filter is great, I am not a big fan of blocking senders to mark an email as spam. This is especially true when there is a limit on how many senders can be in the blocked sender list. Instead, a message should be marked as spam and the anti-spam engine can then make an intelligent guess about the sender *and* the content of the message for future use. Similarly, moving a message to the Junk folder should trigger the same action as marking a message as Junk does, and that is not happening today.
  • Mobile apps – “Send email as”: What I love about Outlook.com among many other things, is the ability to collect emails from multiple accounts and use it as the only email service. On the web, I am able to decide which of the email addresses I want to use to send messages from, but that is not true with mobile apps. Even on Windows Phone, the email app is unable to send a message from a sender which is different from my Outlook.com/Hotmail account. Hence, when I want to send a message from my GMail address via my phone, I am unable to. I know part of this problem lies with the Windows Phone team, but since Outlook.com and Windows Phone are both from the same “team”, I as a user of both those services should expect things to just work. They don’t.

Let’s see how quickly these (and other) features get included in the service. I am looking forward to the massive marketing campaign for the service that is about the start soon. Unlike the negative Scroogled campaign, this one seems to target all the things that are great about Outlook.com, which is always a nice way to get your message out. See some of the upcoming ads below.

This one talks about Sweep feature:

This one is “Get Going”:

Microsoft Office 2013 Launched with Cloud Integration

We have already written a fair amount about Microsoft Office 2013, including an in-depth review. However, until now, the latest iteration of one of Microsoft’s biggest money-spinners was available only to a select group of users. That changes today with the public release of Office 2013.

Microsoft-Office

Office 2013 is a significant step forward for Microsoft in more ways than one. The biggest change is not in the product itself, but in how it is sold. In an attempt to counter the threat possessed by Google Apps and other similar cloud based productivity suites, Microsoft is offering a subscription model for Office. Office 365 Home Premium, as the cloud service is being called, will cost home users $10 per month. Users will have the flexibility to turn it off any time they feel like. Alternatively, users can also signup for an annual account, and get access for $100. Office 365 includes all the popular Office tools including Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, Outlook, Publisher and Access. Additionally, it also comes with 20 GB of SkyDrive cloud storage and 60 minutes of Skype calls per month. On top of this, the subscription model offers allows access to Office apps on 5 PCs or Macs. If cloud is not your thing, you can purchase individual Office apps for $110, or purchase the Office Home & Student for $140, Office Home and Business for $220, and Office Professional for $400. Each of these installations are restricted to a single PC.

In terms of features, the biggest talking points include support for touch, roaming profiles with documents, dictionaries, and settings being automatically stored in the cloud, and full PDF editing. Check out this list for a brief quick overview of what’s new in Office 2013.

MSE Fail’s AV-Test Certification; Microsoft Challenges the Testing Methodology

Microsoft’s antivirus product, Microsoft Security Essentials has once again failed AV-Test’s criteria for Certification. MSE was able to garner a score of 10 out of a possible 18, while a score of at least 11 was needed to obtain the certification.

The area where MSE failed was on detecting zero day attacks. MSE detected only around 78% of the attacks, whereas the industry standard is 91%. The test included 24 other security solutions out of which two other products also failed to obtain the certification. While Bit Defender Internet Security, Kaspersky Internet Security and Norton Internet Security got the highest ratings, AhnLab and PC Tools Internet Security failed.

Obviously, Microsoft was not happy with the test results and challenged AV-Test’s results in a blog post,

Our review showed that 0.0033 percent of our Microsoft Security Essentials and Microsoft Forefront Endpoint Protection customers were impacted by malware samples not detected during the test. In addition, 94 percent of the malware samples not detected during the test didn’t impact our customers.

AV-Test reports on samples hit/missed by category. We report (and prioritize our work) based on customer impact.

AV-Test’s test results indicate that our products detected 72 percent of all “0-day malware” using a sample size of 100 pieces of malware. We know from telemetry from hundreds of millions of systems around the world that 99.997 percent of our customers hit with any 0-day did not encounter the malware samples tested in this test.

AV-Test’s test results indicate that our products missed 9 percent of “recent malware” using a sample size of 216,000 pieces of malware. We know from telemetry that 94 percent of these missed malware samples were never encountered by any of our customers.

You can read the full response here.

Microsoft Minesweeper Arrives on Windows RT

When we first saw Windows RT devices like the Surface with Windows RT in the market, we noticed that Microsoft’s own games like Microsoft Minesweeper, Microsoft Solitaire and Microsoft Mahjong were not available for the ARM-based OS. It was a strange situation because the games, even though classic, are excellent to play on Windows 8, and there is no “third party” to blame. Those games are from Microsoft Studios, available on Windows 8 but not on Windows RT.

However, the first of the three, Microsoft Minesweeper is now available on Windows RT. I took it for a spin and here are some of my observations.

Live tile updates with some bits about highest score:

Microsoft Minesweeper Live Tile
Microsoft Minesweeper Live Tile

 

There are different levels, and also some daily challenges and an adventure mode

 

Microsoft Minesweeper Game Levels
Microsoft Minesweeper Game Levels

Oh, there are some ads too!

 

Microsoft Minesweeper Ad
Microsoft Minesweeper Ad

Daily challenges are mini-games

 

Microsoft Minesweeper Daily Challenges
Microsoft Minesweeper Daily Challenges

 

The more you win, the more Achievement, Medals and Badges you collect

 

Microsoft Minesweeper Rewards
Microsoft Minesweeper Rewards

There are monthly rewards, so you can go back to previous days’ challenges to get more rewards

Microsoft Minesweeper Monthly Challenge Calendar
Microsoft Minesweeper Monthly Challenge Calendar

The game is touch-friendly, but the performance is absolutely horrible. No wonder this game was not released on Windows RT on day one. Clearly, the code needed to be optimized, and it seems it is not there yet. I noticed very long refresh times for example, when I went to see the entire month’s challenge calendar view.

Besides the performance, which I am hoping gets tuned via updates quickly, the game is fun and the daily challenges keep the interest alive in this “classic” game.

It is interesting to note that those daily challenges are “sponsor-supported” and in one case I was even made to watch a 30-second commercial before I started the challenge. Some feathers were recently ruffled by ads in the Bing apps like News, Finance, etc. and I am sure this will only add to the ruffling of those feathers :-)

Have you tried this game? What do you think?

Surface with Windows RT: Dislikes

After an agonizing wait, I finally got a chance to play with my new Surface with  Windows RT, or simply,  Surface. It has been a few days, and I thought instead of writing a full-fledged review, I’d focus on some key likes and a long list of dislikes. Nits that I picked. I discussed the likes in an earlier post. This post goes into the small annoyances and issues that I have encountered in my daily use of the device.

Mind you, I really love the device. It has almost replaced my iPad and the kids love it too. With that background/disclaimer, here are the issues, in no particular order or priority:

Speakers: One of the things I have done quite a lot of on my Surface, is play music and video. Xbox Music with unlimited streaming and on-demand playback of not just my music but anything from their huge catalog is nice, but the speakers are not loud enough. Either it is their placement (they point out from the sides towards the top of the device) or just the lack of good amplification, but regardless the sound output is not good. I don’t mean the “quality” of the sound, which may actually be good, but just the volume.

Volume buttons: Speaking of volume, I have inadvertently pressed the volume button so many times as I try to type in landscape mode. When you hold the device in landscape mode, as it is clearly built to be used, the volume buttons are on the left near your index finger. As you reach out to type (or tap), there is a good chance you will hit the button by mistake. It may be that my hands are big (long is more appropriate), but still doesn’t take away from the fact that I have to constantly be aware of the buttons so that I don’t press them mistakenly.

Placing the cursor in a word: Windows Phone has a neat feature to place the cursor inside a word (to correct typos, for example) where you long press anywhere and then navigate to the letter you want to change. Unfortunately, I haven’t found a way to get to the middle of a word. A long press in Windows 8/RT results in a context-sensitive menu (copy/paste for example). Try as I might, I simply couldn’t get the cursor to be placed exactly where I wanted it to be. I am sure there is a different way, but I could not discover it myself and that is a problem.

Update: Thanks to JPG in the comments, I know how to get to a part of the word – the small arrow keys next to the spacebar. Nice. Thanks!

Screenshots: It is great that Windows 8/RT has the ability to take screenshots natively. It has helped me quite a lot when capturing what I see on the screen and share with others. However, the key combination on the Surface (Windows key + volume down button) involves a capacitive key which makes it hard to synchronize the simultaneous press of those buttons. Invariably I end up touching the Windows key before pressing the volume button, or vice versa, ending up in frustration. I don’t know how this can be fixed, to be honest, but it is a cause for unnecessary pain for me so far.

Update: As Williams mentions in the comments below, I can keep the Windows key pressed for however long I want and be able to register a screenshot by pressing the volume down button. Thanks!

Soft keyboard launch: While the Surface works quite well with the keyboard cover (I have the Touch Cover), I tend to use the device mostly without the keyboard, in a pure tablet form. So I depend on the on-screen keyboard a lot. I have noticed that in certain cases, even though it is natural to launch a keyboard for data entry, like a URL field or a text entry form, the keyboard does not launch. I have to tap in the field once before the keyboard launches. On the desktop side, the keyboard has to be forced to launch by clicking on the keyboard icon in the system tray. Both of these should be automatic when the Surface does not detect the external keyboard connection, but they are not.

Mail app: While this is not a specific “system” or “device” issue, I do use the mail app quite a lot and am extremely annoyed that the selected message automatically gets marked as read. Now, I understand why that happens – the mail is after all “opened” in the reading pane – but I don’t want that to automatically happen. In Outlook for example, there is a setting that will mark the message as read after a certain number of seconds, or when moving from one message to the other. If such a setting does get into the app in a future update, I would be a happy camper.

Grouping apps, restoring Start Screen layout, Windows Store web: These items are sort of related to the “management of apps”, so I clubbed them together. I find it a pain to group apps and keep maintaining those groups as I install new apps. I have already installed 100+ apps and especially the first time around, it is very difficult and time-consuming to move the tiles around, and set their shape (wide or narrow) on the Start Screen. More importantly, if I have done it once on one PC, I find it hard to understand why it is not a choice at least, when setting up a new PC, to replicate the layout. One of the beautiful features (as I noted in my “likes” post earlier) of Windows 8 is the ability to sync settings across PCs via the cloud and if “Start Screen layout” is added to the list of settings, it will go a long way in reducing the pain.

Secondly, whenever a new app is installed, it should offer a choice of which group to add it to, if at least one group is created (and named). That way, whenever I install an app I know I am sending it to the right group rather than drop it at the end and then make me move it.

Finally, I personally discover a lot of apps when I read about them on Twitter and websites that cover apps. It would be nice if I got a chance to remotely install these apps from the Windows Store web page that each app gets. If I am browsing the page on one of my Windows 8/RT devices, I get a chance to go to Windows Store from that web page, but I am not always at a PC with Windows 8 (my work PC, for example, is Windows 7) so it would be nice if Windows Store worked like Windows Phone Store.

I care about the device a lot, which is why I went through the trouble of listing things that need to be fixed, so that my experience with it goes from awesome to super-awesome. Do you have any suggestions or any other annoyances besides these? Let me know!