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!

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: