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]

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!

//build 2014: One Windows Vision Coming Together For Microsoft

//build, Microsoft’s annual developer conference kicked off on April 2 and the marathon keynote included several announcements that finally bring Microsoft’s “One Windows” vision closer to reality.

Although it may not be an official or formalized mission, “One Windows” seems to be an ever-so-close possibility since the time Windows Phone moved to NT kernel to make it very similar to Windows 8 on PCs. First, the relevant announcements:

Windows Phone 8.1: The version number incremented by .1 would seem to imply an incremental change, but that is absolutely misleading. The number, and magnitude, of changes in Windows Phone 8.1 from Windows Phone 8 is perhaps far greater than the changes Windows Phone 8 itself introduced over Windows Phone 7. Consumer features like lock screen themes and Start Screen background image and enterprise features like VPN support are just a few. The biggest change perhaps, is the presence of digital personal assistant called Cortana, which seems to be a smart mix of Apple’s Siri and Google’s Google now.

Windows Phone 8.1 walkthrough by Joe Belfiore

Universal apps: Even though it is possible to create apps for Windows Phone and Windows 8 where a lot of code is shared between the two, Microsoft announced what they are calling “Universal apps“. These apps are actually built with the intention to be run on the phone as well as on tablet and PC. It is a single binary which potentially could render differently depending on the device on which it runs. In order to make this possible, developers would need to modify their apps and with the appropriate changes applied, have their customers purchase once and (optionally) use it on multiple devices. Until now, even though much of the code could be reused/shared, it was not possible to have a single binary nor was it possible to allow the customer to buy on a phone and use it on a tablet. That has now changed, and is a huge step in the unification of Windows. What’s more, in their “vision” part of the keynote, Microsoft executives also promised that the Universal apps would extend to the Xbox as well, thereby making these apps truly “universal”.

 

 

Universal app icon

Shazam Universal app icon

Windows Universal app icons

Windows for “Internet of Things”: Also as part of the vision, Microsoft introduced a new as yet unnamed version of Windows aimed at all other kinds of devices which are proliferating around us, and generically called it “Windows for the Internet of Things“. These devices, until now, have all been using Android or something else, but definitely not Windows, so it was clearly an opportunity Microsoft did not want to miss out on. The operating system will be released in preview form this Spring.
 

Intel Galileo
Intel Galileo board

 

Windows license cost of $0: Along with this announcement, Microsoft also took a bold step towards increasing interest in and adoption of Windows among developers by making all versions of Windows free for devices under 9 inches in size. Essentially, this signals that device makers making devices in this hugely growing category would have no barrier in terms of cost, to sell Windows in those devices. Given that Android indirectly costs money (potentially to use Google Mobile Services on top of Android Open Source Project, but additionally, surely for patent licensing fees), device makers will find themselves looking at Windows as the *cheaper* OS for their devices!

Shared experiences: In addition to announcing keyboard and mouse user-friendly updates to Windows 8.1, Microsoft also demonstrated how experiences will span Windows Phone and Windows on tablets and PCs. With Internet Explorer 11 on Windows Phone 8.1, users will now be able to share IE settings, tabs, passwords, favorites, etc. between the phone and tablets/PCs. Similarly, via their Microsoft account, customers will also be able to have the same theme across phone and tablet/PC along with several other settings that are already possible to be synced between Windows 8.1 devices.

 

 

Internet Explorer 11 on all Windows
Internet Explorer 11 on all Windows

 

There were several other announcements but the above items show the steps Microsoft has taken, listening to customer feedback as well as executing on their product roadmap, to make it seamless for customers to use Windows regardless of the device they use it on. The developer story therefore becomes even more compelling because it is not just phones or not just tablets that is the addressable market. Suddenly, any device that ships with Windows, will be able to consume the apps and games developers build and not just in theory. This has always been the advantage of the iOS ecosystem and Apple executed it well from the beginning because they were in a much better position to do so, having defined the entire path themselves. Google’s Android followed, although in a slightly different way – Android phone apps stretch out on a larger screen if there is no specific tablet version available. Microsoft’s vision is definitely more like iOS but at the same time, due to the excellent tooling in the form of Visual Studio, it also seems like it may be much easier to build a universal app targeting Windows. The devil of course is in the details and we will see how developers react to this vision by observing how many existing developers convert their apps to Universal apps and how many new developers enter the ecosystem with their creative ideas.

This is a solid move by Microsoft and while some (including yours truly) may say it was long overdue, it is also better late than never. Microsoft is doing its best to court all kinds of developers including many in the Silicon Valley and many with an affinity towards open source projects, and they will have to continue to do even more going forward. Nothing matters more though, than hard numbers. If Windows devices get a decent market share and continue to prove to be higher revenue generators than the competing platforms, developers will automatically flock to the ecosystem.

Until then, Microsoft can only hope that “One Windows” matters to a developer as much as it is necessary for Microsoft.

Simplifying Windows: Windows 8, Windows RT and Windows Phone 8

Microsoft Surface
Microsoft Surface

If you were disconnected from the world for the past several months, you wouldn’t know that Microsoft is going to release the next version of their operating system for personal computers, called Windows 8. Let me rephrase that: Microsoft is going to release an operating system for mobile, highly-connected devices, with touch input at the front-and-center, and along with that operating system, it is also providing an upgrade to their existing Windows 7 operating system.

The look and feel of Windows is very different from earlier versions of Windows, and as a result there has been a lot of uncertainty and (unfair) judgement about it being circulated in the tech press. Instead of writing yet another article about how this whole thing is confusing, my goal here is to make it simple for someone who wants to know more about “The Big Launch” that Microsoft is undertaking at the end of October.

Windows 8

First and foremost, there is Windows 8. It is the operating system that will ship on most PCs and it is also something that you can upgrade from virtually any previous Windows version. This operating system runs the new “Start Screen” with Live Tiles, and will allow you to install apps (yes, there are now Windows Apps) from the Windows Store. Additionally, Windows 8 has a “desktop” environment that may seem familiar to users of Windows, especially Windows 7/Vista. Here, you can install applications outside of the Windows Store, for example CutePDF and Winrar. There is no restriction on what you can install in Windows 8 “desktop” environment. For apps on the other hand, unless you work at a company that supports it, or if you are a developer with the correct settings, you cannot install them from anywhere else except the Windows Store.

Windows RT

Windows RT is the radical new operating sytem that Microsoft is introducing for the first time along with Windows 8. It will not ship as standalone software, and instead, it will only be available as part of devices that ship with this operating system. Think of it as the software that runs your appliances like a DVD player or your car navigation system. Windows RT also has the same “Start Screen” as Windows 8 and you can install apps from the Windows Store just like Windows 8. It also has a “desktop” environment but you cannot install anything there. Yes, you read that right. Microsoft has locked the desktop environment so customers cannot install any software on the device except the apps you can get from the Windows Store.

Microsoft does ship Windows RT with a version of Office 2013 for free. It is called Office Home & Student 2013 RT which includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote. Think of Windows RT as Windows 8 with only the Windows Store Apps along with Office. (Yes, I know there are more “desktop” applications that come with Windows RT, but at a high level, this should suffice.)

All the apps you purchase from the Windows Store will work on Windows RT devices as well as Windows 8 devices.

Windows Phone 8

Microsoft also makes operating system software for phones, called Windows Phone. The next revision of this software, called Windows Phone 8, is also due to be released at the end of October. Windows Phone 8 is built on the same core as Windows 8 so application developers can reuse their logic between a Windows 8 app and a Windows Phone 8 app.

Although the apps are not the same across Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8, a lot of app developers are using the cloud to power native experiences across multiple platforms and devices. Evernote, for example, will have a Windows 8 app as well as a Windows Phone 8 app (in addition to other platforms), both delivering native experiences for the screen sizes, keeping most of the data and logic in the cloud so it is easily portable.

From a “devices” perspective, it is important to keep Windows Phone 8 in mind, but if the discussion is about “computers”, you only need to consider Windows 8 and Windows RT.

Windows takeaways

Having discussed the software at a high level, here’s the quick overview of Windows:

  • Windows RT is the new mobile operating system built for increasingly popular simpler devices like tablets and slates. It comes bundled with Office and the only way to get more apps is via the Windows Store. It cannot be bought in the store, it comes pre-installed with devices like tablets and hybrids.
  • Windows 8 is Windows RT combined with the ability to install any application that you can buy off the shelf today. It is built for more powerful computers, but retains all the advantages of mobility-focused Windows RT. It introduces many upgrades in that “desktop” environment over its predecessor Windows 7 and is generally installable on any PC that runs Windows 7 today.

Form factors

The second complexity that will come in terms of increased choice is via the increased form factors of devices that are going to hit the market. Windows 8 being a touch-focused operating system, has led OEMs to ship many PCs with touch capabilities. So in addition to the simple desktop, laptop and tablet form factors, we have touch-screen laptop, devices with detachable screens/keyboards, laptops that convert to slate with a flip or a twist, and touchscreen all-in-ones. Additionally, PC makers as well as component makers have promised much better trackpad/touchpad technology in new devices and Windows 8 gesture support.

You don’t need to worry too much about the increased choice – just know that you can take advantage of touch, via direct touch on the screen or via indirect touch on the touchpad on laptops or separate trackpads that will ship with PCs, especially all-in-ones.

What will be tricky to decide and can only be done after trying a few PCs, are the convertible PCs. An Ultrabook-sized laptop, i.e., thin and light, that flips completely to convert to a touch slate, or a similar laptop where the screen detaches and becomes a standalone slate. I happen to prefer the convertible laptop (specifically, the Lenovo IdeaPad YOGA) but those detachables also sound quite interesting. Again, since we have not seen these form factors before, it is best to try them out before making a decision. (Yes, I know these existed in the Tablet PC era, but remember, Windows XP and even Windows 7 were not touch-first like Windows 8 is, and those PCs were thick and heavy. Besides, there was no app ecosystem like the Windows Store to enhance functionality in the PC.)

Of course, if you end up buying a pure slate form factor, Windows 8 and Windows RT both support Bluetooth so you can always slap an external keyboard and a mouse if you don’t see yourself always needing them.

Final thoughts

Windows 8 is dramatically different from Windows 7. It also adds the mobile OS Windows RT. It is bound to create snap judgements from tech press used to “old Windows way of doing things” or those enamoured with anything that Apple produces. Having used Windows 8 over the past few months constantly on a very old PC with keyboard and mouse, I can assure you that for most people, it is going to be a significant ugprade over whatever else they have been using. It is fast, it is efficient and with the move towards an app-centric world, its functionality will constantly get enhanced by third-party developers building innovative apps and distributing them through the Windows Store. It will add some learning curve, especially for folks with muscle memory, but as we have seen with touch OS like iPhone/iPad’s iOS, it is much easier to learn navigating via touch than navigating via keyboard and mouse.

Don’t base your opinion on what’s being written by tech writers, especially those who have not really used the operating system. Certainly they have not used it on “Windows 8 hardware” so their opinions are either based on conjecture, or fear of change, or simply with a motive to get more pageviews because that pays the bills. I am sorry I had to create this disclaimer but having read the stuff that has been written about Windows 8, I can’t help but shake my head.

Having said all that, I must say, Microsoft’s efforts to educate what is Windows 8 and how it is different from Windows RT and which form factors are available and how to choose, has been abysmal. They may be able to train Microsoft Store employees in the last week before launch but how about the many other stores that are going to sell Windows 8 PCs and Windows RT devices? How are those employees going to guide the customers in the right direction? It would be a pity if customers see a beautiful ad on the TV showing “Windows 8″, go the store and happen to find a Windows RT tablet to be the cheapest, and go home and find out that they cannot use Quicken or Photoshop on it.

Windows 8 is too good for Microsoft to throw it off the rails like this. Hope they do enough in the “last mile” to guide customers in the right direction. They can’t rely on people like yours truly to keep demystifying and simplifying for them.

Are you sold on Windows 8? Do you plan to get a Windows RT device? Let me know in the comments!

Skydrive Updates: Timeline View, Faster Uploads, Thumbnails

On May 13, Omar Shahine announced a collection of updates to SkyDrive on the Inside SkyDrive blog.

The most visible update is of course a new view of your SkyDrive content — Timeline View for photos. With this view, which was going to be rolled out over 48 hours, you can see all your photos across all folders and sub-folders in a timeline view. This is very handy because you may have created many photo albums and if you are looking for a certain picture from a certain time in the past, now it is really easy to click through to find the said picture.

SkyDrive Timeline View
SkyDrive Timeline View

The timeline view allows you to see a general timeline listing and then, by clicking on a month name you can quickly browse through the various months where there are pics in your SkyDrive collection. Clicking on a month name will show all the photos with a timestamp of that month.

SkyDrive Timeline View - Month
SkyDrive Timeline View – Month

 

In addition, Microsoft also announced that they have improved the performance of the SkyDrive desktop application. They claim, per their internal tests, that the upload times are now 2-3x faster than before.

Another minor update was made to the thumbnail layout in SkyDrive, and also, new support now for PowerPoint and Word files.

SkyDrive Thumbnail Layout
SkyDrive Thumbnail Layout

 

Finally, related to SkyDrive, earlier they announced that from Windows Phones, the auto-uploading of full-resolution pictures and videos is now going to be possible in all markets and not just the US. It is quite astounding actually, that the auto-upload was not yet in place for most of the world. Anyway, it is better late than never.

It is very clear that the Outlook.com/SkyDrive teams are on a rapid release schedule of some sort because we have seen consistent updates from them over the past several months. Now that the transition from hotmail to Outlook.com is complete, I am hoping we will see some key missing features (music support on SkyDrive, video support in the timeline view, etc.) also implemented in short time.

What do you think of the SkyDrive updates?

 

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.