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.

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.

Lenovo Launches The Yoga Tablet 2 Series In India Starting At INR 20,990

Lenovo recently launched four new Yoga Tablet 2 devices in India. The Yoga Tablet 2 (8 inch), Yoga Tablet 2 (10 inch) and the Yoga Tablet 2 Pro (13.3 inch) runs on the Android 4.4 (KitKat) Operating System. These devices comes with the new Intel Atom Z3745 quad-core processor, 8 megapixel rear camera, long battery life and so on. Apart from that, Lenovo has also launched another variant of the Yoga Tablet 2 (10 inch) which runs on the Windows 8.1 OS and comes with 1 year subscription of Office 365.

Yoga Tablet 2 series features a new Hang mode along with the existing stand, hold and tilt modes. This devices will be exclusively available at Flipkart in India. Yoga Tablet 2 (8 inch) and Yoga Tablet 2 Pro (13.1 inch) comes with a price tag of INR 20,990 and INR 47,990 respectively, while the Yoga Tablet 2 (10 inch) Android and Yoga Tablet 2 (10 inch) Windows is available for INR 28,990 and INR 34,990 respectively.

lenovo_yoga_tablet_2

“As the world’s leading PC+ player, Lenovo is ahead of the game in terms of consumer centric design and technology that adapts to users. We are aiming to achieve global sales to the tune of 100 million PC+ devices, including tablets this financial year. Owing to our increasing focus on digital millennials, India as a youth market forms a crucial part of our PC+ strategy. Yoga Tablet 2 coupled with this association will help us in further strengthening our position in the tablet category.”

– Rohit Midha, Director, Tablet Business Unit, Lenovo India

Lenovo Yoga Tablet 2 (8 inch) Specifications:

  • 8 inch IPS display
  • 1920 x 1200 pixels resolution
  • 1.86 GHz Intel Atom Z3745 quad-core processor
  • Android 4.4 (KitKat) Operating System
  • 8 megapixel rear camera
  • 1.6 megapixel front camera
  • 2 GB RAM
  • 16 GB internal memory
  • microSD card slot
  • 4G LTE Connectivity
  • Voice-calling
  • Wi-Fi
  • Bluetooth
  • 6400 mAh battery

Lenovo Yoga Tablet 2 (10 inch) Specifications:

  • 10 inch IPS display
  • 1920 x 1200 pixels resolution
  • 1.86 GHz Intel Atom Z3745 quad-core processor
  • Android 4.4 (KitKat) OS / Windows 8.1 OS
  • 8 megapixel rear camera
  • 1.6 megapixel front camera
  • 2 GB RAM
  • 16 GB internal memory
  • microSD card slot
  • 4G LTE Connectivity
  • Voice-calling
  • Wi-Fi
  • Bluetooth
  • 6400 mAh battery

Lenovo Yoga Tablet 2 Pro Specifications:

  • 13.3 inch IPS display
  • 2560 x 1440 pixels resolution
  • 1.86 GHz Intel Atom Z3745 quad-core processor
  • Android 4.4 (KitKat) Operating System
  • 8 megapixel rear camera
  • 1.6 megapixel front camera
  • 2 GB RAM
  • 32 GB internal memory
  • microSD card slot
  • 4G LTE Connectivity
  • Voice-calling
  • Wi-Fi
  • Bluetooth
  • 9600 mAh battery

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:

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

Windows Phone Podcasts App: So Close Yet So Far

When Windows Phone 8.1 was announced, we learned of a separate Podcasts app which was going to be made available as a pre-installed app, and instead of relying on the Zune back-end, it was going to be powered by Bing.

Having installed the Developer Preview of the Windows Phone 8.1 on my Lunia 920, I wanted to check out the podcasts app. After all, in order to become my daily driver, a phone has to be able to provide me a superb podcast experience. There is much to like in the app, but much more to dislike.

First off, some of the things I like:

International support I haven’t tried this myself but it is well-known that this new app is now made available everywhere Windows Phone is available, which is a boon to all international customers. Given that the back-end is not Zune’s, I suspect that the US-only nature of the earlier podcast functionality may have something to do with the database. Still beats me, but regardless that is a thing of the past now. All Windows Phone customers are now welcome to use podcasts “natively”.

Database maintenance Since the discovery and addition of podcasts is powered by Bing, there is usually no issue with addition of a new podcast feed. I did find it odd that a popular Windows-related podcast, Windows Developer Show was found but had no content. I know in this specific case that the podcasters changed their feed a few weeks ago but it is a bad sign that the feed was not updated even after so long. Regardless, at least it is not a person or a team that has to manage the database, which is a good thing.

Missing content in Windows Phone Podcasts app
Missing content in Windows Phone Podcasts app

Playback speed Yay, yay, yay. Finally, we can speed through podcasts with a 1.5x and a 2x setting.

Windows Phone Podcasts app: 1.5x playback
Windows Phone Podcasts app: 1.5x playback
Windows Phone Podcasts app: Normal speed playback
Windows Phone Podcasts app: Normal speed playback

Manual refresh Repeat after me: yay, yay, yay. Prior to this app, there was really no way to detect when the phone checked for new episodes and more importantly, there was no way to trigger a check. As a result we were forced to resort to hacks like unsubscribing and re-subscribing, connecting to power and WiFi and waiting, etc. Not an issue anymore, since each podcast now has a setting to refresh which checks for new episodes.

However, there are a bunch of major annoyances which I am hoping get fixed before Windows Phone 8.1 (after all, it is still in a developer preview state!) becomes final.

Episodes to keep In default series settings as well as for a specific series settings, for how many episodes to keep, I see none for streaming-only as well as discrete numbers from 1-5, 10, and “all”. However, my usual setting is to keep x number of unplayed episodes, including “all unplayed”. There is no way to have a series keep the latest unplayed episode (daily news podcast, for example, where archive is not important) or keep all unplayed episodes in case of podcasts that are not too frequent but are generally not-to-be-missed. I would love to see that selection change from how many episodes to keep, to what type of episodes to keep based on unplayed status.

 

Windows Phone Podcasts app: Episodes to keep
Windows Phone Podcasts app: Episodes to keep

Playback speed setting I will chalk this up as a bug, where the speed setting is not remembered between app launches. In other words, after I exit the app and resume, it gets switched back to 1x, or the normal speed. This one is highly annoying, and hopefully gets squashed before general release.

View only new episodes Under collection, there are two sections, one for audio and one for video. Unfortunately, once you tap into one of those sections, there is no way for you to see only the new (or “unplayed”) episodes. In fact, even on the main screen where the app shows favorites, there is no indication which series has new episodes. So I am forced to browse all the podcasts and view under the icon if it says there are new episodes. This is very annoying and I don’t think it is a bug. It seems like it is functionality that was left out, perhaps due to time constraints. Hope a setting is included under “audio”, to see only new episodes across all podcasts. Also, hoping some indicator is made available in the favorites section, to show which podcasts have new/unplayed episodes waiting to be consumed.

Windows Phone Podcasts app: Collection view
Windows Phone Podcasts app: Collection view

Played episodes not removed After I set up several favorite podcasts, I had to naturally and understandably go through each podcast and mark everything except the recent few episodes as played. That went fine, but unfortunately, the played episodes were not removed from the view. As a result, after tapping into a podcast and swiping over to the list of episodes, I have to scroll through all the played episodes in order to get to the unplayed episodes.I could use the filter and choose just “downloaded” episodes, which is what I essentially need, but that filter does not retain its setting :-(

(Side note: if I am going into the podcast from the favorites area, why show me the podcast information screen and make me swipe left in order to see the episodes? Why not just land me directly to the list of episodes? I would understand if the landing spot is the information screen if it is launched from a search but if it is from favorites or collection, I don’t need to see the information, right?)

Windows Phone Podcasts app: Scroll to find new episodes
Windows Phone Podcasts app: Scroll to find new episodes
Windows Phone Podcasts app: View options
Windows Phone Podcasts app: View options
Windows Phone Podcasts app: View only downloaded episodes
Windows Phone Podcasts app: View only downloaded episodes

 

Universal, please Finally, now that we know of Universal Apps and shared settings and configurations, I cannot see why this app cannot exist on Windows 8.x as well. I would love to continue listening to my podcasts on my PC/tablet and get the play position and subscription settings sync-ed across my devices via my Microsoft account. Hope that also happens around the time the app becomes final.

As you can see there is much to love in the app, but some key functionality is missing and needs to be present in order for this power user to truly embrace it.

Are you happy with the app? Any pluses or minuses I may have missed? Let me know!

 

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)

Smart Search on Windows 8.1 Gets Smarter

On April 30, Microsoft’s Bing Relevance Team announced on the Search Blog some of the updates they are making to Smart Search in Windows 8.1.

In essence, Smart Search is getting smarter. Today, Smart Search is called so because it searches everything and not just one domain like the computer’s file system or the web. Searching for something via the Search Charm enables search across files, emails, apps, web, etc.

Now, with the power of Bing, one can enter natural language queries as shown below (from the blog post), and get relevant suggestions for things like PC settings. This may seem like a small and obvious update but it is actually quite nifty that customers don’t need to know which exact setting to look for, to change screen brightness, for example. Settings like the Control Panel have always been confusing and to most customers, intimidating. Making it easy to “get things done” as opposed to finding the right place to change settings, will help in reducing the confusion.

Smart Search Printer
Smart Search Printer
Smart Search Brightness
Smart Search Brightness
Smart Search Store
Smart Search Store
Smart Search Uninstall
Smart Search Uninstall

As the blog post goes on to say, the beauty of these updates is that because it is powered by Bing, all the benefits gained by Bing across all the end points can be funneled back as features into all other end points. Hence, Bing has stopped being a “search engine” a long time ago and for Microsoft, it is a machine learning platform.

This update will be rolling out this week, so it does not look like it needs an OS or app update. Happy searching!

Windows 8.1 Update: Mouse Users Now Welcome to Use Windows 8.1

At its annual developer conference //build/ on April 2, Microsoft announced an update to Windows 8.1 simply called Windows 8.1 Update. This update will arrive via Windows Update on April 8 and is available via msdn from April 2.

As the name suggests, this is an update to the operating system but as you will see, the changes implemented in this update are all made to make it easier for mouse users to navigate and use Windows 8.1. Windows 8 and Windows 8.1 are obviously touch-friendly so tablet usage is not a concern. Also, there are tons of keyboard shortcuts including power user shortcuts like Winkey+X which allow heavy keyboard users to navigate their way around. Mouse users, especially on larger displays, had to move their mice too much in order to get things done. Not anymore. Some key user experience changes:

Adding common controls to Start Screen: A power button and a search icon get added to the top, right next to the user name/photo on the Start Screen, making it easier to shut down the computer and intuitively search the computer. Similarly, a PC Settings tile gets added by default to open up Control Panel. These are small changes but given that these actions are taken quite frequently, it makes a lot of sense that they are bubbled up to the Start Screen rather than having the users try to find them or stumble upon them accidentally.

Start Screen Update in Windows 8.1 Update
Start Screen Update in Windows 8.1 Update

 

Title bar in Modern Apps: The action to “close” a Modern App today is to take the mouse to the top of the screen and drag down the app in a single motion from top all the way to the bottom until the app disappears. That action, to say the least, is mouse user-unfriendly. On a small tablet, it would seem ok since taking a finger from the top of the tablet to the bottom is simple enough of a gesture.

In order to simplify this task, Windows 8.1 Update introduces a small (auto-hidden) title bar at the top of all Modern Apps and that title bar includes a minimize and a close button just like today’s Windows desktop applications. This makes a lot of sense, since a mouse user would normally go to look for those actions where they are used to seeing them in pre-Windows 8 operating systems.

Windows 8.1 Update Title Bar in Modern Apps
Windows 8.1 Update Title Bar in Modern Apps

 

Right-click context menu on Modern Apps: Another setting that completely makes sense. In non-Windows 8 environments and even in Windows 8’s desktop realm, anytime a mouse user wants to do something to an item, they would right-click. But in Modern Apps, a right-click does not pop up a menu where the cursor is, but instead it opens up the App Bar which could be at the bottom and/or at the top. By making the same Windows 7-style context menu now pop up where the mouse cursor is, Microsoft is making it easier for Windows XP and Windows 7 users to transition to Windows 8.

Right-click Actions in Windows 8.1 Update
Right-click Actions in Windows 8.1 Update

 

Pinning Modern Apps to taskbar: Yet another step towards making it easy for users to transition from Windows XP and Windows 7 is the ability to pin Modern Apps to the taskbar. That way, if someone spends most of their time in the desktop environment, they are not “cut off” from the Start Screen. Also, in a move to increase interest in the Modern Apps, Microsoft also announced that the Windows Store app will be auto-pinned to the taskbar on a default Windows installation. This, they hope, will prompt more visits to the Store because of the nature of being defaulted in Windows, thereby increasing the chances of someone downloading Modern Apps.

Pin Modern Apps to Taskbar
Pin Modern Apps to Taskbar

 

As you can see, the trend in the key updates coming as part of Windows 8.1 Update is to make the OS more welcoming to those migrating from Windows XP and Windows 7. If the transition is eased, more users will end up not wanting to avoid or being afraid of Windows 8, and thereby increasing the installed base and the developer opportunity. An introduction to the update in the video embedded below:

 

Are you looking forward to this update? Anything you had wanted to see that they did not include? Sound off in the comments!

Microsoft: Windows Blue Will Be a Free Update Downloadable from Store as Windows 8.1

Windows-Blue Microsoft doesn’t exactly have the best of reputations when it comes to keeping cards close to its chest. Windows Blue is turning out to be no exception. We have had tips from insiders, leaks from partners, and even functional builds available for download on torrent websites. Now, Microsoft has finally opened up about its plans for the next iteration of the Windows operating system.

Speaking to shareholders, Tami Reller — who is the new Windows CFO, confirmed at the JP Morgan Media & Telecom Conference that Windows Blue indeed exists, and will hit the market by the end of this year. He also revealed that the operating system will be officially known as Windows 8.1. The best piece of news for current Windows 8 users is that the update will be available as a free download from the Windows 8 Store. Reller didn’t provide any insights into the expected enhancements in the next edition of Windows. However, the good news is that a public beta will be released on June 26th at the Build conference.