Tag Archives: Windows

Windows Phone Updates Coming via Phone Insider App?

As you may know, Windows 10 Technical Preview started off with an Insiders program which enabled Microsoft to send updates, software or otherwise, to those who selected to be in the program. As part of the program one was able to participate in forums and also, via a recent update, choose which “ring” to be a part of: fast ring implied updates as Microsoft makes them available to users outside the company, and slow ring implied updates delivered after the feedback from fast ring was incorporated.

Phone Insider App Details
Phone Insider App Details

 

Now, there is a Phone Insider app spotted in the Windows Phone Store. This app seems to be a replacement to the Preview for Developers app that launched in October 2013. The Preview for Developers app required one to be a developer in order to receive OS updates (no firmware updates) directly from Microsoft, not having to wait for carriers and OEMs. For the most part, this worked fine and except for the pain of waiting for OEMs and specifically, carriers, to deliver firmware, most enthusiasts were able to get the latest OS features like an improved Internet Explorer right away.

 

About Phone Insider App
About Phone Insider App

 

Phone Insider Train Chosen
Phone Insider Train Chosen

 

Phone Insider App Info
Phone Insider App Info

 

 

The Phone Insider app is not too functional at the moment, but from the text in the app description, it does look like a way for users (non-developers too) to sign up for a particular release channel and receive updates as and when Microsoft makes them available. It seems like there will be a link to the Windows Insiders program, so presumably once you sign up to be a Windows Insider, you could potentially also sign up to receive early Windows Phone updates.

The Phone Insider application provides registered Windows Insiders the ability to receive pre-release OS updates on their phone, directly from Microsoft. For more information about registering and becoming a Windows Insider visit http://insider.windows.com.

Ed: At this point, it looks like you can only log on with a Microsoft company domain account, so presumably this is enabled for employees only. It remains to be seen if this app is the actual delivery mechanism for Windows Insiders outside the company also, or it remains as an internal use app.

The timing is not unusual. On January 21, Microsoft has an all-day event for the press in Redmond, where they will be talking about the Windows 10 “consumer” story. Obviously, Windows 10 on phones and tablets will be a big portion of that story.

Could we see the mobile bits available that day, or soon after? Personally, I can’t wait to try out the next version of Windows “mobile”, or whatever the combination of Windows Phone and Windows RT OSes is called.

Skype Translator: Universal Translator Begins Preview (English-Spanish For Now)

Skype Translator UI

Skype Translator, the near real-time translation feature in Skype, which was announced in May and for which the preview sign up started in November of 2014, is now available. Those who signed up for the preview back in November, and those who are on Windows 8.1 (or Windows 10 Technical Preview), can now voice and video chat in English and Spanish in close to real time.

In addition to the voice translation between English and Spanish, more than 40 languages are available for IM conversations. A sample video provided by Skype:

Per Microsoft, this is a project that has been over ten years in the making:

Skype Translator is a great example of the benefit of Microsoft’s investment in research. We’ve invested in speech recognition, automatic translation and machine learning technologies for more than a decade, and now they’re emerging as important components in this more personal computing era. Skype Translator is the most recent and visible example.

On the Skype Garage blog, they explain how the Skype Translator technology works, simplistically:

It is interesting that the blog states how Microsoft has learnt colloquial language usage by being the translation service for social media sites like Facebook. It is clear that whatever deal Microsoft made with Facebook and Twitter to supply the translation services on those sites, was not just to be the translation service, but also to learn from the data and improve other products in their portfolio and fine tune products like Skype Translator.

Another nuance mentioned in the blog post is that the translation appears almost as a third person because based on research, they know customers “who are used to speaking through a human interpreter are quickly at ease with the situation”.

Although there will be kinks in the service, this is a bold new product that can truly help break barriers in communication around the world. Also, given that the service relies on machine learning which in turn gets better as there appears more data to work with, Microsoft and Skype urges everyone to try the service and provide feedback.

Sign up now at this page.

Looking Forward to Windows Phone in 2015

windows-phones

As 2014 winds down, Windows Phone is at a crucial stage in its lifecycle. Again. Earlier in 2014, Microsoft closed the acquisition of Nokia’s hardware division and Windows 10 was launched in a Technical Preview form. Nokia’s acquisition, combined with the upcoming Windows 10-based version of the phone operating system, has perhaps resulted in a slight pause in release of true flagship devices that can compete with the latest versions of competing platforms, the iPhone and Android/Nexus lineup.

So, as we look forward to the early 2014 look at the combined Windows RT and Windows Phone OS based on Windows 10, what can Microsoft do to preserve and grow its share, both market share as well as mind share? Recently, some prominent writers have written in detail about why they are no longer using Windows Phone as their primary device. Key takeaways there were lack of proper support of the platform by the largest mobile network in the US, Verizon Wireless, as well as lack of key apps on the platform. Apps that include the likes of Slack, Trello, Snapchat, Tinder, etc.

I have my own reasons why I switched to using iPhone 5s as my primary device last year. I know Windows Phone 8.1 added Notification Center but many of the problems are still valid issues for those who care about top-end Windows Phone experience. For example, adding Action Center to store all notifications is a great start, but in order to take action on those notifications, you have to tap it which opens the app, and then you take action within the app. Android, and now even iOS to a certain extent, have actionable notifications and those need to be implemented on Windows Phone.

The broader issue with Windows Phone is that for the third year in a row, enthusiasts are made to wait for “the next version” for feature parity with iOS and Android. Meanwhile those two platforms, due to the incredible ecosystem which creates a great virtuous cycle, have implemented next-generation features that move the goal posts for Windows Phone. Also, this wait for the next version of Windows Phone only takes care of part of the problem plaguing the platform; app developers are still not flocking to the platform because in the US, where most of the innovative apps have been created in the recent past, Windows Phone is still languishing around the 3% market share. Forget Windows Phone, even choosing Android as the second platform to be supported by small developers, is hard (although that Android situation is changing slowly).

Here are some things to look forward to as yet another chapter opens for Windows phone (yes, the “p” is lower case, because rumors suggest that Windows Phone operating system will be merged with Windows RT and just called Windows 10):

Windows 10

There’s a lot of hope for Windows 10’s ARM-based OS version, the merger of Windows RT and Windows Phone. How will apps built for Windows Phone work on Windows 10? What about additional features in the OS which will create an unforeseen appetite both on the consumer side as well as on the developer side? Cortana has rightly won accolades for how well she works, but it has not moved the needle much for device sales. Granted, it is not fully launched yet, but still. Also, what else can Windows 10 do that iOS and Android don’t do, and more importantly, can Microsoft find something that Windows 10 can do which iOS and Android *won’t* be able to do?

Windows 10 Product Family
Windows 10 Product Family

Flagships

One of the issues I had with Windows Phone when I got my iPhone 5s was the increased (and justifiable) focus by Microsoft on the lower end. They see their best market potential in markets which haven’t achieved smartphone saturation yet. In those markets, Microsoft has been able to sell their entry-level devices quite well. So Microsoft making “affordable flagship” a term for mid-range devices with some high-end specifications is completely understandable.

However, many customers in the developed markets would love to get a true high-end phone that competes well with the flagship iPhone and Android devices. The Lumia 1020, for example, has no successor yet. Yes, the Lumia 1520 is a great phone but there needs to be a non-phablet version of that device to make it appealing to the larger customer base.

Lumia 1520
Lumia 1520
Lumia Icon
Lumia Icon

Updates

Yes, Microsoft did create a bypass of sorts by making it possible for any “developer” to get direct updates of the software from Microsoft. Pretty much anyone can sign up to be a “developer” by signing into App Studio online, thereby making sure any enthusiast who cares about latest OS versions, will get it directly from Microsoft. That has helped reduce the angst among the enthusiasts but it is only one part of the updates customers need; firmware that makes devices work better, is delivered by the OEMs and via the carriers. Carriers have no real urgency to complete (or in some cases, even start!) testing and delivering the firmware to Windows Phone devices.

Could Microsoft come up with a way to deliver even more firmware directly? I mean, Windows on PCs get all updates delivered directly, and if Windows 10’s mobile version is going to be like “big Windows”, then I am optimistic that most of the updates could be delivered directly by Microsoft. Having said that, could Microsoft find a way, Windows 10 or otherwise, to deliver it without the need for the device to be a developer device?

Mind share

This is a really tough nut for Microsoft to crack. Much of the mind share these days is delivery via the Microsoft-averse tech blogosphere which has settled down on Apple and Google as being the only two players worth caring about. In order to win them over, Microsoft has to climb a virtually impossible mountain but as we have seen in the enterprise/cloud space, it is not impossible. A few crucial strategic moves on the Azure/Visual Studio side have made Microsoft somewhat of a darling in the same tech press, and Microsoft has to find a similar set of moves to make on the consumer side in order to increase their mind share. I say this because even Windows Phone 8.1 is an excellent operating system and there is a lot to love there, but if the writers who write at prominent tech blogs don’t care to use it, and worse, dismiss it, it does not help. I am not sure what those strategic moves could be, but Microsoft does need to make those moves so that the tech press actually cares about writing about Windows devices.

I am optimistic about Windows 10. I like the fact that there will be one OS for phones and tablets and I look forward to seeing some of the well-established Windows Phone apps get upgraded to be Universal and work on small tablets as well. But most importantly, I want to see how Microsoft expands Windows 10 to work as one OS across phones, tablets and PCs. There are many interesting applications of having one OS work across devices of all form factors and I am curious to see how today’s excellent phone applications work on my Windows tablets. On the phone side, I am looking forward to some nice high-end devices and some marquee apps releasing their Universal versions soon.

Here’s looking forward to another exciting year for Microsoft and Windows!

Microsoft’s Music Deals App: Huge Selection of Free and Inexpensive Music

music-deals-header

In October of this year, Microsoft released the Music Deals apps for Windows 8.x and Windows Phone 8.1 but not with much fanfare. As it turns out, this app is a treasure trove of free and inexpensive music.

The way this app works is, there is a time-limited set of promotional deals for various types of music. Typically, there is one popular single listed very inexpensively ($0.99) and then there are three sets of themes for free or inexpensive albums. All of these promotions run for a variety of time periods, ranging from a week to fifteen days.

For example, last week there was a sale for fifty boxed sets, each at $2 only. These boxed sets typically sell for anywhere from $15 to sometimes even over $100, so these were fantastic steals. Last week also saw fifty free albums, all by popular artists.

Music Deals Promotions
Music Deals Promotions

This week the promotions continue and the discounted albums are popular rock albums and popular soundtracks, and the free albums include albums by artists like Ellie Goulding, ABBA, Imagine Dragons, etc.

Music Deals Free Albums
Music Deals Free Albums

The way this works is the Music Deals listing opens up the album in the Xbox Music app (or simply, Music app) on Windows or Windows Phone, and the discounted price is shown. Once you click on buy (or “get it free” when the album is free), depending on your settings, the music will start downloading or be marked as owned and available in the cloud for your use anytime in the future.

The beauty of this setup is that the music content is DRM-free and can be played on any device or software. So you don’t have to feel compelled to use Windows and Windows Phone’s music apps, you can use iTunes or pretty much any other software to play these tunes.

Music Deals Windows Phone
Music Deals Windows Phone

I am unclear what is the end game for Microsoft here. I know it will increase usage of the Music app, and maybe create more Microsoft accounts which can then be used to upsell premium services like paid storage or Office 365, but those seem like poor returns for the potential cost of the discounted music.

Regardless, this is a great deal for consumers and you should absolutely take advantage of these deals. Get the Music Deals apps here: Windows and Windows Phone.

Microsoft Band Is Almost Here

It sure looks like Microsoft is very close to announcing and releasing their fitness band, simply called Microsoft Band. Their smartphone and Mac apps are available in respective stores ahead of a formal announcement.

Based on the details listed in the app description, an updated health privacy policy and screenshots, it does look like the band will work with all platforms and will be, as is normal with Microsoft these days, powered by a cloud service called Microsoft Health.

The band will apparently track heart rate, steps, calories burned and sleep. The band will also work with your smartphone and show notifications, and in the case of Windows Phone, integrate with Cortana. Among the type of notifications that the Band will be able to show are email messages, calendar reminders, phone calls received, text messages social updates like those from Twitter and Facebook, weather and finance. The band will use the smartphone’s location services to determine your location, in order to show the weather, for example.

Notifications and other settings will be configured via the Microsoft Health app which is now available on all platforms.

It is unclear if the following tweet from Microsoft Store has any connection to the Microsoft Band, but it is quite a coincidence, if not:


I don’t know about you, but I am more excited about the cloud-powered service Microsoft Health, than the band itself. As a cross-platform consumer, I would love to have something that works across all my devices, and it looks like Microsoft may have the answer.

Some screenshots from the various apps follow below:

Mac App Store

Microsoft Band - Mac App
Microsoft Band – Mac App
Microsoft Band - Mac App
Microsoft Band – Mac App
Microsoft Band - Mac App
Microsoft Band – Mac App

Android Google Play

Microsoft Band - Android App
Microsoft Band – Android App
Microsoft Band - Android App
Microsoft Band – Android App
Microsoft Band - Android App
Microsoft Band – Android App
Microsoft Band - Android App
Microsoft Band – Android App
Microsoft Band - Android App
Microsoft Band – Android App

Windows Phone Store

Microsoft Band - Winows Phone App
Microsoft Band – Winows Phone App
Microsoft Band - Winows Phone App
Microsoft Band – Winows Phone App
Microsoft Band - Winows Phone App
Microsoft Band – Winows Phone App
Microsoft Band - Winows Phone App
Microsoft Band – Winows Phone App
Microsoft Band - Winows Phone App
Microsoft Band – Winows Phone App

Windows 10 Technical Preview: 1 Million Users, 200,000 Pieces of Feedback

On October 13, Joe Belfiore announced on Windows Blogs that since the October 1 availability of Windows 10’s Technical Preview for Enterprises, it has been downloaded by 1 million users.

Given that there are almost 1.5 billion Windows users, it may seem like a very small percentage of the user base. However, this is a very early preview of the software and it required users to go sign up for it and download it. More importantly, per Microsoft, these 1 million users have provided 200,000 pieces of feedback. Here’s Belfiore:

Over 200,000 pieces of user-initiated feedback have been submitted to us via the Windows Feedback app from Windows Insiders like you. (BTW, we have a TLA—“three letter acronym”–for these: “UIFs”.) Matt Goldstein is a Windows Insider and actually developed a script that looks at the top feedback that has been sent in so far – see this article from Paul Thurrott for the rundown. This showcases how helpful it is for you to click the “me too” button when you see someone else’s feedback that you agree with or are experiencing yourself.

In the article referenced below, Thurrott summarized that many of the top requested features are very minor in nature, which shows that despite the label, this operating system is highly usable and mostly reliable. Another data point from Belfiore:

Wondering whether people are running this on actual PCs or just “trying it out” for a few minutes in a VM (Virtual Machine)? Well, only 36% of installations of the Windows 10 Technical Preview are in VMs. The remaining 64% are all on actual PCs. This makes us confident that a lot of the feedback is based on “medium-term” use and not just a few minutes of experimentation. (If you’re running the Windows 10 Technical Preview in a VM that’s cool too.)

Microsoft has always been big on software telemetry which provides them inputs of actual usage which helps them tweak and update their next version of the software to make it better for users. This preview is even more proactive in collecting feedback. There are times when the system prompts the users to provide quick updates on how they completed a recent task. For example, it could be something like “Would you like to provide input about how you discovered the print function?” and if one agrees to provide that input, it opens up the Windows Feedback app which gives users a quick way to provide feedback directly to the Windows teams.

Here’s how you can provide feedback:

Signed up as a Windows Insider? Tell us your Windows 10 likes, dislikes and bugs using the Windows Feedback app built into the Tech Preview software. This is the best way to get us your opinion on Windows 10 Tech Preview builds.

You can ask questions and talk with us and other Windows Insiders through the Windows Technical Preview Program forum. We have people reading the forum all the time and we’re forwarding questions, conclusions, discussions, stats around the team.

If you’re not a Windows Insider, you can still tell us what you’d like to see in Windows. We now have a Windows Suggestion Box on UserVoice which is open to anyone who wants to send us ideas and suggestions for Windows. For example – if you think it would be awesome if Windows natively supported some file format it doesn’t support today, submit it through the Windows Suggestion Box!

Belfiore also hinted that an update is expected soon for the Windows 10 Technical Preview.

Finally, Belfiore introduced Gabriel Aul (Gabe) who is running the Data & Fundamentals team. This is the team which analyzes and synthesizes the feedback they receive from the various sources and then route them to the various teams inside Windows, so that features get added, functionality gets addressed and it all happens quickly so that by the time Windows 10 ships, it will have all major issues addressed. Aul is on twitter at @GabeAul.

I had noted earlier on twitter, that while it is great for Microsoft to collect feedback this way, I wonder how closely will this enthusiast group match the broad spectrum of Windows users. In other words, is it a good idea to shape the Windows features based on early adopter/enthusiast’s inputs?

 

 


Have you downloaded Windows 10 Technical Preview? Are you liking it?

Windows 10: The Next Version of Windows, Made for Any Device

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:

Start Menu

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.

Windows 10 Start Menu
Windows 10 Start Menu

Search

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 10 Windowed Metro App
Windows 10 Windowed Metro App

Snap Assist

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.

Windows 10 Snap
Windows 10 Snap

Task View

A new button will be present on the Taskbar which will enable viewing open apps/applications as well as any virtual desktops in use.

Windows 10 Task View
Windows 10 Task View

Virtual Desktops

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.

Windows 10 Virtual Desktops
Windows 10 Virtual Desktops

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.

Continuum

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:

The New MSN is Here. Bing Content Apps Re-branded.

msn-main-page-without-signin

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.

New msn main page
New msn main page

 

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.

New msn: Other sections
New msn: Other sections

 

New msn: Remove or move section
New msn: Remove or move section

 

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.

New msn: Services access
New msn: Services access

 

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.

 

New msn: Maps dropdown
New msn: Maps dropdown
New msn: OneDrive dropdown
New msn: OneDrive dropdown
New msn: Twitter dropdown
New msn: Twitter dropdown

 

Bing Favorites

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 :-)

 

New msn: Favorites imported from Bing
New msn: Favorites imported from Bing

 

Actionable items

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.

 

New msn: 3D Human Body
New msn: 3D Human Body
New msn: Symptom checker
New msn: Symptom checker

 

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.

Have you set preview.msn.com as your home page?

GlassWire is a Beautiful Network Monitor and Firewall for Windows

One trait that’s a rarity among Windows applications is beauty. However, every once in a while there comes an app that stands out and makes you take notice due to its well thought out design and interface. GlassWire is one such app.

Cracking

GlassWire is a free network and bandwidth monitor and firewall. There’s no shortage of similar apps for Windows; however, almost all of them are a confusing mess of complexity that would scare away anyone who is not tech-savvy. GlassWire on the other hand is brilliant in its simplicity.

There are only four tabs – Graph, Firewall, Usage, and Alerts. The Graph section shows a continuous stream of your network activity. You can see your total internet activity or drill down on type of traffic and application.

GlassWire - Graph
GlassWire – Graph

The Firewall tab allows you to quickly block an app from using your internet connection. It lists all apps that are connected or have connected to the internet, along with details about the host that it is connecting to. If you see something that you don’t like you can instantly bock that app by clicking on the fire icon next to it. GlassWire itself doesn’t have a Firewall engine. Instead, it sits on top of the Windows Firewall and provides an interface to control the Windows Firewall.

GlassWire - Firewall
GlassWire – Firewall

The Usage tab gives a detailed report on the internet usage pattern of every app. You will be able to see exactly who your app has been communicating with and how much data they are sending out. GlassWire also has an Incognito Mode for the times when you don’t want your activity to be recorded. It’s also pretty straight forward to delete reports, in case you want to keep some stuff off the books.

GlassWire - Usage
GlassWire – Usage

Finally, there’s a pretty versatile Alerts feature, which provides you a wide range of alert including first network activity, excessive bandwidth usage, host files modification, and suspicious host connection. There’s also an option to remotely observe another system’s activity.

It’s still early days for GlassWire, and there’s undoubtedly room for improvement. The Firewall tab simply lists all the processes that are transferring data over the internet. It will be a lot more useful it also integrated with something like ProcessLibrary to show more information about each app/process. There are also a few UI glitches that show up at various resolutions.

GlassWire - Alerts
GlassWire – Alerts

The absence of advanced features found in most third-party firewalls might put off power users, but GlassWire does just enough to be useful to a large section of users, who might get annoyed or confused by a full-fledged firewall. GlassWire does a good job at keeping things simple and exposing a lot of useful information without being confusing.

[ Download GlassWire ]
Image Credit: Crackers by elhombredenegro

One Windows: Forget Single OS, Can We Get Some Feature Parity?

one-windows

This week, we have seen some news items about Microsoft and its OS strategy. Based on CEO Satya Nadella’s remarks in the post-earnings conference call, many were led to believe that Microsoft is going to create a single version of Windows. That is of course not true, and what’s happening is also not new information. What is in fact happening is that from an engineering perspective, Microsoft is hard at work to make a single “core” of the OS which will then power devices of various types: phones, phablets, tablets, laptops, PCs, Xbox, and even “things” in the “Internet of Things”. Again, this is not new, because Microsoft has said in very clear language that they want to get there sooner than later.

It is also clear that Microsoft wants to unify the commerce side (Stores) so that you can buy apps for various devices all from one place. They have also announced the concept of Universal apps which let developers share code among various form factors they would like to target, and also enable their customers to buy once on one device and freely download it on other types of devices. Some apps have already taken advantage of the “linkage” so when one downloads the app on Windows tablet, the message on the phone says the app is already “owned” and can be downloaded for free on the phone.

Effectively, what Nadella was implying in his remarks was they are working to unify the engineering and back-end side of things as opposed to the end product itself, when it comes to “One Windows”.

With that backdrop however, I would like to highlight some customer-facing changes that are badly needed in Windows 8.x which already exist in Windows Phone 8.1. These are now glaring deficiencies in Windows as compared to Windows Phone.

Action Center

As you may have read in my earlier article, the Action Center is a well-implemented and a much-needed addition to Windows Phone. It is coming to phones via the latest Windows Phone 8.1 update (rolling out now). It is great to see notifications pile up in the Action Center as opposed to disappearing after showing up as toasts.

Well, guess what. Windows 8.x now feels ancient because the notifications there are never collected anywhere. On the PC, I especially miss this feature for things like calendar and appointment reminders. The Action Center is badly missed on Windows 8.x.

Windows Phone Action Center: Full Notifications (contd)
Windows Phone Action Center: Full Notifications (contd)

Install apps from web

Windows Phone has had the ability to install from the website windowsphone.com to any device attached to a Microsoft account since a long time. It is very convenient because apps are discovered from a variety of sources, and I imagine a bulk of that discovery would come on a desktop PC, browsing technology sites. When you read of an interesting app on a site, you could quickly send it to your phone so you don’t forget about it when you are at the phone.

The Windows Store on the other hand does not support such functionality yet for Windows 8 apps. I can imagine the experience to be very similar to the phone app install, because Windows 8.x devices which use the Store have to have a Microsoft account tied to the Store. So when you browse to the app’s web location, you could click on the install button much like Windows Phone apps’ web locations, and then choose the device you want that install to be on.

Windows Phone Install App from Web
Windows Phone Install App from Web

Keyboard

This one is at the top of my personal wish list because of how bad the situation is on Windows 8.x. I was impressed with Windows Phone keyboard from the day Windows Phone 7 launched. The predictive nature of the keyboard (Word Flow) was miles ahead of the competition, and with Windows Phone 8.1, they added the gesture-based input on the keyboard to make it even more impressive.

On the other hand, I have nothing but frustration to report when using the keyboard on Windows 8.x. It not only cannot do predictive input as well as Windows Phone, it actually does not seem to be learning as I change auto-corrected words. Even after using it for so long, my PC still corrects my name from “Romit” to “Remit” (yes, despite the capitalization).

Windows Phone 8.1: Wordflow with gestures
Windows Phone 8.1: Wordflow with gestures

I know, patience is the answer

I know all of these are natural additions which may be in the works already. I don’t know when they are coming, but it can’t come soon enough because it makes the difference between using Windows Phone and Windows that much more stark.

Do you have any other nifty features you like in Windows Phone which you’d like to see on Windows 8?

Header image from Windows Blogs

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

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

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

 

Xbox Music API Features
Xbox Music API Features

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

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

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

 

Xbox Music Affiliate Program
Xbox Music Affiliate Program

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

 

Integrate Xbox Music API Everywhere
Integrate Xbox Music API Everywhere

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

United Airline App Home
United Airline App Home

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

 

United Airlines Travel Info Page
Travel information page

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

 

United Airline Products Page
United Airline Products Page

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

 

United Airline website
United Airline website

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

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

 

Evite App Home
Evite App Home

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

 

Evite App Section
Evite App Section

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

 

Evite App Clicks To Website
Evite App Clicks To Website

For comparison, here’s the evite website:

 

Evite website
Evite website

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

 

Orbitz App Home
Orbitz App Home

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

 

Orbitz website
Orbitz website

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

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

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

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

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

Surface Pro 3
Surface Pro 3

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

 

Where is Windows RT?

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

 

No room for Surface Mini

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

Surface Pro 3 Numbers
Surface Pro 3 Numbers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Torch Browser: An All-In One Browser with Video Downloader and Torrent Client

Web browsers have come a long way over the past decade. They’ve morphed from being applications that displayed static content to being applications which enable other applications to run. Whether it is TweetDeck or Gmail or Aviary, the web apps of today are as powerful as many of its desktop counterparts. However, even as browsers have become more capable than ever before, they’ve also been trimmed down. In keeping with the trend of minimalism, web browsers have focused on becoming lighter and faster and cleaner than ever before. Even Opera, which once aimed to be the complete web productivity suite, changed tactics and killed of several features – IRC client, RSS client, Mail client, Torrent client Unite, and Widgets to name a few. Modern day browsers aim to include only what they believe is essential, and offer the rest through third-party extensions. However, if you want a browser, which does a little bit more out of the box, you’re not entirely out of options. Among the most promising new options is a little-known browser from Israel called Torch Browser.

Torch-Browser
Torch Browser

Torch Browser is based on Chromium, and looks and feels like pretty much Google Chrome. Once you login with your Google account, it will sync all of your Chrome settings, including your extensions. At the time of writing, the latest version of Torch is based on Chromium 29, while the latest stable channel release is Chromium 34. This difference might leave the Torch Browser vulnerable to security and performance issues that Google might have already patched. So, this is definitely something you should weight before opting for Torch.

Unlike Opera, Torch doesn’t try to cater to the power users by adding niche features like IRC clients and web servers. Instead, all of the stuff that it adds are stuff that almost everyone will find useful. Chances are, you already have a dedicated, third-party app or extension for doing the same.

Easy Sharing

Torch provides out of the box sharing through a button that allows you to push content to Facebook and Twitter. There’s also another less-obvious, but way more useful way to share links, images, text, or and other content on the page. Just grab hold of the object you want to share, and drag left. It will display buckets where you can just drop the object. If you drag to the right, something similar happens. However, instead of getting options to share, you’ll be provided options to search for the selected content on Wikipedia, Google, Google Images, and YouTube.

Torch-Browser-Sharing-Button
Torch Browser: Sharing Button
Torch-Browser-Drag-Drop-Share
Torch Browser: Drag and Drop Share
Torch-Browser-Drag-Drop-Search
Torch Browser: Drag and Drop Search

Media Grabber

The media grabber allows you to download embedded videos from YouTube, Dailymotion, and other websites. Torch also ships with an audio extractor, which can just extract the audio from a video.

Torch-Browser-Media-Grabber
Torch Browser: Media Grabber

Download Accelerator

The download manager in Torch seems to be exactly the same as that in Chrome, but it claims to speed up the download rate of your media files with a powerful download accelerator. I didn’t find any noticeable difference during my testing, but your mileage might vary.

Torrent Client

Torch comes with a fully featured torrent downloader, that’s tightly integrated with the browser. Explaining torrents to your grandparents is never easy, but having it integrated with the browser does help things.

Torch-Browser-Torrent-Downloader
Torch Browser: Torrent Dowloader

TorchMusic

Torch even has built a Spotify-like online music streaming service called TorchMusic. It seems to be using videos available on YouTube to power its service. All the basic features including music discovery, tending section, music library, and playlists are available. And, it works everywhere in the world.

Torch-Browser-Music-Client
Torch Browser: Music Client

Facelift

This tool basically allows you to apply user styles to Facebook. You can chose from several existing themes, or create your own yourself by changing colours, editing fonts, and adding a background image. The theme that you apply, will only be visible to you, and other people who visit your profile using Torch browser.

Torch-Browser-Facebook-Skin
Torch Browser: FaceLift

Hola for Torch

This is essentially the Hola Unblocker extension, which allows you to access region restricted websites like Hulu.

Torch Browser promises to respect your privacy, and has been certified as 100% safe by Softpedia. However, I did find it installing an extension called Torch Shopping without explicitly asking me. I’m not sure what it does, but I’d recommend removing it before using Torch Browser. There’s also a malware named Torch Toolbar, but Torch Browser seems to have no connection with it. The only other annoyance that I’ve discovered while using Torch is that the omnibar (the address bar), is not resizable. This means that most of the extensions I’ve are hidden behind a drop-down list.

Torch-Browser-Shopping-Extension
Torch Browser: Shopping Extention

On the whole, Torch is a pretty interesting package. It retains almost all of the benefits of Chrome, and cleverly packages a few neat goodies of its own. A power user will probably have dedicated utilities or third-party extensions that they prefer for a lot of the stuff that Torch offers. However, I’m sure there are plenty of folks who would appreciate having all the essentials integrated within the browser itself.

[ Download Torch Browser ]

3 Free Windows Utilities to Reclaim Disk Space and Boost System Performance

Hard disk prices have plummeted over the years, and within a remarkably short span of time we’ve progressed from talking about storage space in gigabytes to terabytes. Recovering every little megabyte of disk space from the operating system is no longer as crucial as it might have been a few years back. Nevertheless, it still makes sense from a performance point of view to give your system a little spring cleaning. Of course, if you have shelled out the big bucks to get a Solid State Disk, disk space might still be a scarce resource for you. SSDs are now more affordable than ever before, but still expensive enough for storage space to be a constraint. Here are three free utilities to help you remove junk from your system.

CCleaner

There are plenty of junk cleaners, but CCleaner is probably the most popular and trusted one. I’m not going to dwell a lot on this tool, because chances are that you already know about it. Piriform CCleaner cleans up temp files, junk files, log files, memory dumps, and other unnecessary system files as well as temporary files left behind by third party apps. It supports over a dozen third party applications including Adobe Acrobat, WinRAR, Nero, Microsoft Office, and all popular browsers (Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, Safari, Flock, Rockmelt, Maxthon, Avant, and more).

CCleaner-Windows

[ Download CCleaner ]

DiskMax

DiskMax is another disk clean-up tool. I reserve this for the times when I’m really short on space. It cleans up stuff that CCleaner leaves behind. They say that with more power comes responsibility, and that’s definitely applicable for DiskMax. The Detailed Scan deletes unused hibernation and page files, Microsoft Office installer cache, logs, .sav files, memory dumps, windows update backups, and more. If you want to reclaim even more space, it even offers a Deep Scan mode which cleans up files based on extension from all folders. However, I would advise against employing Deep Scan unless absolutely necessary. Even without Deep Scan I often end up reclaiming several gigabytes of storage space with DiskMax. You can find an earlier review here.

DiskMax

[ Download DiskMax]

Should I Remove It

If the sheer number of installed apps overwhelm you, then this tool is for you. It identifies and highlights apps that you can and should remove from your system. It lists all installed apps along with an average user rating and the percent of users that have decided to remove it. This can be really handy in identifying crapware, malware, and even apps that are just not very good or necessary. There’s also a “What is it?” button which opens up a webpage with more detailed information about a program, including the features offered by it and the risks presented. Here’s a sample information page. ‘Should I Remove It’ also supports real time monitoring. Once enabled, it will quietly run in the background, and alert you as soon as you try to install an app with a low rating.

Should-I-Remove-It

[ Download Should I Remove It]