Tag Archives: XBox

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

music-deals-header

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

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

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

Music Deals Promotions
Music Deals Promotions

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

Music Deals Free Albums
Music Deals Free Albums

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

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

Music Deals Windows Phone
Music Deals Windows Phone

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

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

Microsoft Introduces Work & Play Bundle: Office 365, Xbox Music Pass, Xbox LIVE Gold, Skype Unlimited World for $199

Microsoft has introduced a unique blend of “dual use” products in a single subscription, called Work & Play Bundle. This is a subscription to four of its popular subscriptions services, combined into a single bundle.

The products included are:

  • Office 365 Home (which includes 1TB of OneDrive space today, which is soon going to become unlimited storage, for 5 users)
  • Skype Unlimited World and Skype WiFi
  • Xbox LIVE Gold
  • Xbox Music Pass

As you can see, this is not a “consumer” bundle, nor is it a “business” bundle. In keeping with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s mantra, this is a product made for someone who wants to access productivity tools like Office and OneDrive as well as fun stuff like Xbox gaming and listening to unlimited music on demand. Of course, Skype calling applies naturally to both work and play scenarios.

Of course, being a bundle, the selling point is that the combined price of $199/year is better than buying all those subscriptions individually. Also, if you already subscribe to one or more of these products, adding this bundle will simply extend the subscription to those products by a year. Finally, in terms of actual delivery, each product is delivered as a $50 redemption code so potentially, you could give the stuff you don’t care about to friends and others.

This bundle shows that Microsoft is pushing even harder in the direction of making all their services into a recurring revenue model business. There have long been wishes for Xbox LIVE Gold to include the Xbox Music Pass and now we can see that Microsoft is making it a little bit easier to digest by combining these popular services together.

One thing to note, as is stated in the footnote on the site, the Xbox Music Pass is only for streaming on Xbox and the web. I wonder why they made that restriction, implying it won’t be available on mobile devices or Windows modern Music app.

At $199 per year, it is not a slam dunk choice for consumers to jump to, but there is a lot of value in the bundle if you use even three of the four services included here. Are you interested in this bundle? Would you consider buying it?

Minecraft Maker Mojang Joins Microsoft

The rumors were true. Microsoft announced on September 15, that they have agreed to acquire Mojang, the makers of Minecraft. Mojang, based in Sweden, announced that the founders Notch, Carl and Jakob will be leaving as part of this acquisition.

This acquisition has naturally created a lot of noise because on the one hand, many fear that Microsoft will ruin the company and in the worst case scenario, pull the cross-platform nature of Minecraft and make it Windows-only. On the other, there are saner minds who have spelled out that, if done right, this would be a good bet for Microsoft to invest into the next generation of makers and therefore, potential developers.

Minecraft, for those who are not aware, is an online game very popular among kids, where players build environments much like using LEGO to build structures and things. There is a level of interactivity because of the online nature of the game, so for example, cousins across the world could be building stuff together. There is no limit to what you can build and there have been crazy examples of stuff built in Minecraft including an actual functioning hard drive!

The company is profitable, and Microsoft expects to be net positive for the deal by FY 2015. For Microsoft, since Mojang is based in Sweden, it helps them use some of the offshore cash which they would not have brought back to the US anyway, due to tax liabilities.

Phil Spencer, the head of Xbox, has made it clear that nothing is planned to change. MINECON, the Minecraft conference will continue as planned. Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft, said they are looking forward to the new opportunity this will bring to Microsoft:

“Minecraft is more than a great game franchise – it is an open world platform, driven by a vibrant community we care deeply about, and rich with new opportunities for that community and for Microsoft.”

Notch, the nickname of Markus Persson who created the game, said he is leaving Mojang because he could not handle the company now that it has become such a massive, global initiative. He wants to focus on software development and given the close working relationship he formed with Microsoft in the process of bringing Minecraft to Xbox, he thought it was best that Microsoft continues supporting and investing in Mojang.

It will be interesting to see how Microsoft handles the obviously different culture that Mojang brings. We have seen them handle Yammer and Skype, both companies with a similar potential culture clash problem, by keeping them independent. Game makers are perhaps one step farther in terms of having a non-corporate culture, so besides keeping them independent, it will be important to see how the company is nurtured.

What are your thoughts? Crazy move for Microsoft? Crazy move for Mojang? Or mutually beneficial to both?

 

 

Xbox One August Update Rolling Out Generally Now

xbox-one-august-update-header

As announced on the Xbox Wire blog, the latest update to Xbox One (“August Update”) is now generally available and is being rolled out to consoles. This update continues the monthly cadence in which updates are being rolled out to Xbox One. This is presumably made easier due to the fact that Xbox One is essentially a Windows 8 machine so updates are applied to the console like Windows updates are applied to PCs on a monthly basis.

The features made available in these Xbox One updates are now primarily driven by the user feedback provided over at the Xbox UserVoice site at Xbox Feedback.

Some of the new features added in this month’s update:

Mobile Purchase

Much like Windows Phone, Xbox One now allows you to buy games and other add-on content from xbox.com or Xbox SmartGlass app and have it remotely download to the console. This way, the content can download while you are away and it is ready when you get to your console. No more waiting for gigabytes of downloads.

Activity Feed Updates

Several updates to the activity feed are included in this update. The list is now a single column and it enables more viewable content. Now, one can post to the feed, comment or like content in the feed. Sharing anything is now possible, and that sharing can be made public by adding to the stream, or private by sending as a message. One will now see a notification for new comment, like, etc. Finally, SmartGlass now lets you see what friends have shared on their activity feed, and “like” the same.

Low Battery Notification

The controller’s low battery indicator is now available as a notification on the screen.

Disable Notifications During Video

Now it is possible to disable notification pop-ups when playing video.

3D Blu Ray

This update enables 3D Blu Ray playback on the Blu Ray player.

Last Seen Online

Based on user feedback, this feature shows how long it has been since a friend was online.

This is a lot of stuff to be applied in a monthly update, but like much of Microsoft, this is now expected of the Xbox team. They have picked several items directly off the feedback site, and are serious about making sure the console remains fresh in terms of the functionality and features. Unlike the past consoles where updates were at best annual, this incremental update process makes customers see changes happen more frequently.

A quick video overview of this update by Xbox’s Major Nelson (Larry Hyrb)

What features are you waiting for? Anything in this month’s update that you were looking forward to? Let me know in the comments below.

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]

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)

External Storage Support Coming to Xbox One in June Update

Do you have an Xbox One and would like to expand the total storage capacity for whatever reason, by adding external storage? Well, start counting down the days. In a blog post on Xbox Wire on May 21, Larry Hyrb (known more popularly as Major Nelson) announced that external storage feature is coming to Xbox One in the upcoming “June update”.

Xbox One External Storage
Xbox One External Storage

This is one of the few other features coming to Xbox One in this update. Others include:

Real names to identify friends: Until now, friends list and followers list only included gamertags. With the increased friend limits, it becomes hard to correlated gamertags with real names of friends. The real name won’t show up in games, and in terms of sharing, there will be full control on whether something is shared among friends, a subset of friends, friends of friends or nobody at all.

Xbox One Real Names
Xbox One Real Names

SmartGlass with full OneGuide and Universal Remote: The SmartGlass app for Xbox One will now have the entire OneGuide and Universal Remote experience. Per the post:

We’ve made a ton of changes to your SmartGlass app for Xbox One. After getting great feedback from our SmartGlass beta, we’re thrilled to be bringing the entire OneGuide experience and Universal Remote Control to SmartGlass. Now in supported markets you can view all of your TV listings on your SmartGlass device and set and view your favorite channels and app channels on your smart phone, tablet or PC. With the Universal Remote Control, you can also easily switch channels, set new recordings and select and control recorded content from your DVR. Another great companion feature now in SmartGlass is pin reordering. With the touch of your finger you can easily organize your pins in categories or favorites based on your preferences and have those changes refresh to your console.

Other improvements to SmartGlass will help you stay current on what you and your friends are up to, even when you’re away from your console. We’re bringing hero stats and activity feed front and center, and adding more ways for you to compare achievements via SmartGlass whether you’re on a friend’s profile or viewing a game from the activity feed. Just like on the console, you can choose to get notifications on your smart phone, PC or tablet when a favorite friend signs into their console or starts broadcasting a game. For many devices, you can even choose to start watching the broadcast wherever you are.

Expanded TV and OneGuide support: TV and OneGuide will now be available to all in Canada, UK, France, Germany, Spain and Italy.

Xbox LIVE Gold updates: As reported earlier, the updated Xbox LIVE Gold features will be finally made available in this update.

Here’s Major Nelson providing these updates in a video:

Good News: Xbox LIVE Gold Can Be Refunded after June If You Don’t Need It

As announced recently, the entertainment and communication apps on Xbox will not need the Xbox LIVE Gold subscription after an update rolls out in June 2014. That’s good news because more customers will be able to enjoy those apps without having to fork out an extra $60 a year.

But what happens if you already paid the Xbox LIVE Gold subscription fees, which are usually paid on an annual basis? Well, per a recent FAQ on Xbox support site, good news awaits. After the June update rolls out, you can contact Xbox support and request a refund.

Will I be able to cancel my Gold membership?

Yes. Once the Xbox One and Xbox 360 system updates become available in June, Xbox Live Gold members who purchased a paid membership before that day can cancel and receive a pro-rata refund of any unused remaining days between the date of cancellation and the date their paid Gold membership ends. Cancellation and pro-rata refund requests must be made by August 31, 2014 and require six to eight weeks for processing. Free or trial Gold memberships are not eligible for a refund. To request your pro-rata refund, please click http://support.xbox.com/contact-us after the system updates become available in June.

So, it is good news for consumers not just that Microsoft is lifting the requirement of Xbox LIVE Gold but also that they taking care of those who bought the subscription prior to this change.

As a reminder, here’s what the new structure will look like:

Xbox features with and without Gold membership
Xbox features with and without Gold membership

Are you a casual gamer or a non-gamer like me? Are you planning to cancel your Gold subscription once this feature rolls out? I have a concern that my refund won’t go through because I bought Gold via a prepaid card I bought from Amazon.com. Fingers crossed, though. :-)

Xbox One Will Be Sold Without Kinect and Entertainment Apps Now Free to All

Microsoft made a bold decision to sell their new console, Xbox One, bundled with the new Kinect hardware. It was a bold decision because its rival Sony decided to make their motion sensing accessory optional with their own new console Playstation 4. As a somewhat direct result, Xbox One was $100 more expensive at retail compared to the Playstation 4.

Directly or indirectly related to the sales price, Microsoft took a beating against Sony when it came to sales in the months since both consoles launched. Despite having more exclusive games and content, the Xbox One was unable to beat the Playstation 4. Then came the most anticipated exclusive game for the Xbox One, Titanfall. Despite selling reasonably well as a game, it was unable to push Xbox console sales to a point which made Xbox a clear “winner”.

Here’s Xbox’s Yusuf Mehdi and Phil Spencer with the news:

Maybe that was the turning point for Microsoft officials to think about ways to juice the unit sales. A couple of direct cost cuts were announced on the Xbox Wire blog on May 13:

  • As of June 9, Kinect will not be bundled with the Xbox One, and the sale price of the console-only SKU will be $399 (the bundled price was $499 at launch, although there have been several promotions since then to make effective price lower).
  • Also as of June, Xbox LIVE Gold membership will not be required in order to enjoy all the entertainment apps that are part of the Xbox platform. Until now, in order to use Netflix on the Xbox, you not only paid Netflix for their service, you also had to pay Microsoft an annual fee of $60 in order to “unlock” that and all other entertainment and communication apps. The latter is no longer required to access services like Netflix, Hulu, NFL and utilities such as Skype and OneDrive.

The Kinect hardware will be available as a standalone SKU in the Fall in case someone wants to add it to the Xbox One after purchasing the console.

So, who would pay for the Gold membership if all the entertainment and communication features of the Xbox are now unlocked for everyone? Well, the blog post notes all the benefits of the Gold subscription:

  • Free games with the Games With Gold program: This is a continuation of the program launched for Xbox 360 and will now be applicable to Xbox One games.
  • Exclusive discounts with the Deals With Gold program: Promised savings for Gold members up to 50-75%.
  • Online multiplayer: Like now, if you want to play online multiplayer games you will need Gold.
  • Home Gold: Share the Gold membership with everyone in the household.
  • Smart Match: Algorithmic matching of players to make multiplayer less one-sided.
  • Parties and Party Chat: Enable viewing party and chat alongside parties.
  • Game DVR Cloud Storage: Your game recordings stay in the Microsoft cloud without storage limits. This feature will be a Gold-exclusive.
  • Xbox Fitness: A great “game” that tracks your fitness and provides guidance and follow ups.

Some may argue that the entertainment unlocking was long overdue and I am one of those doing so. I could not understand how Microsoft was able to get away with it, but am happy to see they have changed their ways, regardless of the reason to do so. However, in order to be a true entertainment option for most, the Xbox needs a “lite” version for those who like the entertainment options that Xbox provides and don’t care about the gaming aspects of the console. Could this and the unbundling of the Kinect hardware be a precursor to a potential XTV? Let’s hope so.

As for the Kinect, I don’t understand the move at all. One of the biggest deals for game and app makers with the Kinect bundled is that they are assured of the Kinect being present so there is no fragmentation (well, besides Xbox 360 vs Xbox One but that’s separate). Now with Kinect becoming optional, game makers have to take that extra step to handle Kinect’s presence as well as absence and adjust the interaction models accordingly. With development resources tight, I suspect most developers will go for the lowest common denominator and program with the assumption that Kinect is absent and only add voice and gesture controls as a bonus rather than making them the core interactions. That’s a pity.

It does look like Microsoft has made it a priority, much like their situation in Windows Phone and Windows 8.x tablets, to increase the installed base of the devices before thinking about “the right thing” or “the best thing”. I somewhat understand the point of view. It is no longer the huge tanker that needed years to change course. They hear the feedback, prioritize it internally, and make the changes necessary.

Xbox features with and without Gold membership
Xbox features with and without Gold membership

As a consumer, I am happy that I have a choice of buying the console with or without Kinect and am extremely delighted to have all those apps without an annual fee.

Are you more willing to buy the console now that it is $100 cheaper? Does Kinect with its voice controls appeal to you? Do you use Xbox One to control your cable box? Let me know 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.

XBOX ONE: Can Microsoft Own the Living Room?

On May 21, Microsoft revealed the next generation of their gaming-cum-entertainment console, Xbox. Dubbed XBOX ONE, officials made it a point to talk up the non-gaming aspects of the new console as much as, if not more than, the gaming aspects. Given that the reveal event was limited to an hour, and that this is a console that has not been updated for years, there were many questions raised than answers provided.

Some of the key questions, at least among the tech media revolve around the gaming aspects of the console, and whether it or the upcoming console from Sony, the Playstation 4 (PS4) would be the better device for gamers. The other aspect that has been questioned a lot is the live TV feature revealed by Microsoft. Eyebrows were raised when everyone realized that the live TV feature would be provided via HDMI input and IR blaster as opposed to TV tuners or cable cards.

This is typical of tech media nowadays. For whatever reason, they make anything that Microsoft does seem silly. Here’s my take on what the Xbox One represents for Microsoft and how some of the things that are in the console may make sense.

First, this was the first of many events where the Xbox team will talk about the various aspects of the console. Naturally, since there is so much information to disseminate, it would be too much to do all at once and in a reasonable amount of time. Remember how the Sony event went on for hours because they went into too much detail at a “launch” event? I think, Microsoft learned the lesson and kept it short and left it simply as a reveal event without going into too much (or any) detail with regard to the developer story, the policy for used games, etc. There are at least two known events in June where they will get a chance to talk about the Xbox One as well as Xbox 360: the E3 expo in early June, and the Microsoft developer conference, BUILD, in late June. The timing of the reveal event absolutely makes sense given that they can follow up on the story within weeks of the reveal.

As for gaming aspects, Microsoft did talk about the specs of the console which are a significant upgrade over the Xbox 360. They also talked about how the three OSes in the console work in a way to make it possible to instantly switch between apps and games without having to wait for the game to reload. Some have rightly pointed out that by pure specs, the Xbox One is inferior to the PS4. However, as we know, there is no point in having a higher spec gadget where the software or content cannot or does not take advantage of the higher spec. For example, the iPad with Retina Display had an issue when it shipped, where many of the popular apps were not Retina-ready and looked worse than they looked on the non-Retina iPads. So, we will have to wait and see how much better the graphics look on the PS4 before concluding that it is “better” than the Xbox One.

As for the games themselves, they showed some of the exclusives that are coming to Xbox One from large development shops like EA. Naturally, E3 is the more appropriate venue to talk more about the games that will be coming to the console when it launches, both from large shops as well as indie developers. Also, BUILD is the best venue to discuss the developer story, especially how Xbox plans to accommodate indie developers especially if the “guts” of the console are based on Windows 8. Can a developer, for example, build an app or a game for Windows 8 tablet and with minor modifications (like maybe Kinect support), publish it to the “Xbox Store”? I am of course making the assumption that there will be an Xbox Store, which has not been confirmed by Microsoft but again, between E3 and BUILD we should know for sure.

Now, regarding live TV and wasted resources (hardware and software) to support it via a combination of HDMI passthrough and IR blaster. The argument made is that these methods are backward and it was tried by Google TV and did not succeed at all. Let me just say that Google TV, among many other flaws, did not support voice like Xbox One is supposed to support. The demo at the reveal event showed how you could simply talk to the Xbox and switch from playing a game to watching a channel or a show just by voice. Google TV had a clunky remote that was really hard to use and perhaps the failure of Google TV was not the IR blaster as maybe the user experience itself.

Coming to the choice they made by not including TV tuners or cable cards, the same pundits complaining about these are also claiming that more and more entertainment is viewed without cable. There is evidence that at least in the US, many households are “cutting the cord” and living without cable. These households have not stopped watching TV, they just use services like Netflix, hulu, etc. to consume their content. If that is the case, and knowing that the Xbox console is built for at least a 7-10 years lifecycle, what is the point in supporting a dying technology? Why should the Xbox have the incremental cost bundled into it now, knowing that in maybe 3 years most of the content won’t be consumed via the cable box? The Xbox One has done the right thing by providing the equivalent of a USB dongle for floppy drives when floppy drives were eliminated from laptops. The HDMI-in and IR blaster will help transition away from the cable box. Even though they have to plan for the future, they still have to support the present and that’s what these ports allow them to do. The only issue I see so far, and we don’t know everything about it in detail yet, is the lack of a DVR in the console itself. That too could be a non-issue if the voice commands could bring up the DVR content from the cable box too.

The Xbox 360 has sold 76 million consoles in its lifetime so far, but I am sure Microsoft wants that to expand dramatically. Why wouldn’t they expect to have one in each household? In order to appeal to “non-gaming households”, Microsoft will have to make the console appealing to the casual gamers and non-gamers via their entertainment story as well as the ecosystem story. There is, after all, a potential to see apps written for Windows Phone that may work on Windows 8 and Xbox One (with code modifications to suit each device appropriately, of course). Pure gaming console market is surely on the decline, so targeting just the gamers by simply making the most powerful console on the market would be a waste of R&D resources. Instead, by making it reasonably competitive with the PS4 for gaming, and dramatically improving the other experiences like live TV, snapping two apps, Skype video conferencing in HD, completely overhauled Kinect with wide-angle 1080P camera that can see in the dark, exclusive partnership with the NFL, etc., Microsoft has a shot at becoming a permanent fixture in the living room.

Personally speaking, I am at best a casual gamer. I liked what I have seen so far. I do want to know how they are going to fit the developer pieces together and what are the chances of seeing a spurt in apps as well as the integration within the Windows ecosystem. By the end of June, I will know enough to decide if I am going to buy the console right away or not.

Are you excited about Xbox One? Sound off in the comments!

#XboxReveal: Next Xbox Coming on May 21

As was rumored, Microsoft announced an event on their campus scheduled for May 21, where they promise to talk about the next generation of the Xbox. Larry Hyrb, more popularly known as Xbox LIVE’s Major Nelson, announced the event on his blog.

#XboxReveal

Timing-wise, it works out very well for Microsoft. They can reveal the console and its capabilities along with the story of how it ties into the rest of the Microsoft ecosystem, especially around Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 in May. This reveal is then followed up 19 days later by the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) where Microsoft traditionally has had a major presence and a big keynote. This is where they show off the games that would accompany the launch, which is widely expected to by this Holiday season.

Finally, at the end of June comes //build, Microsoft’s developer conference where they could tell a deeper story to the rest of the developers (besides the launch partners, which are expected to be big game developer houses) and put the developer pieces together for not just game developers but perhaps all developers. If the rumors are true and the next Xbox is really “Windows 8 Inside”, there could be a lot of possibilities for all kinds of applications to be made available on the large screen. Combined with the power of the next version of Kinect, developers would have a great way to take their code from a Windows Phone 8 app or a Windows 8 app and tweak it for use on a large screen with gestures, voice and indirect touch via SmartGlass.

As for the #XboxReveal event itself, some of the media has been invited to the Xbox campus, but Microsoft is also live streaming the event on xbox.com, on Xbox LIVE on the console itself and on SpikeTV in the US and Canada. The event is on Tuesday, May 21st at 1pmET/10amPT/1700GMT.

As for the rumors, there have been a ton of them already about the specs of the console and the architecture. Much like Sony’s PS4, the Xbox is believed to be running on AMD architecture. Additionally, a more precise version of Kinect is expected to be on-board. There were initially rumors of an entertainment-only version of the console, to align with Apple TV, Roku and others, but recent updates suggest that it may have been postponed for now.

Among the unknowns of course are what the console looks like (there have been no leaks of the renders), the pricing and of course whether the current Xbox 360 would be kept in the market and if so, at what price.

I am excited about this, but not so much for the gaming on next generation hardware. I am more interested in the non-gaming parts of the next Xbox. How about you?

Microsoft’s New ‘holodeck’ Turns Your Room into a Giant Screen

Microsoft shows off its “Holodeck” system to recreate your room into a more intense cinematic experience. Microsoft has refused to revel details on how this works until it is presented in Paris at the CHI conference on human-computer interaction this April.

Imagine your game spilling off from your screen onto your entire room wall. That should make things more interesting for sure. It will move gaming to a whole new level. Microsoft has submitted a patent application in the US Patent Office. Patent application ‘Immersive Display Experience‘ was filed by Gritsko Perez on behalf of Microsoft on 2 March 2011.

The idea has been sketched out shows that the foal point of the game will be seen on the screen, but the surrounding area will fill your room walls.

Microsoft has described the Holodeck as,

It augments the area surrounding a television screen with projected visualizations to enhance the traditional living room entertainment experience.

User enjoyment of video games and related media experiences can be increased by making the gaming experience more realistic. Previous attempts to make the experience more realistic have included switching from two-dimensional to three-dimensional animation techniques, increasing the resolution of game graphics, producing improved sound effects, and creating more natural game controllers.

Again, this seems to be a counter to Apple’s iGlasses, except that this is more multi-viewer than single viewer. The peripheral image would be created by a 360-degree projector and would adjust as the gamer moved around in the game, and in the room. Eye-tracking tech would ensure that the scene shifts as the user looks around it. A special built in mechanism would avoid shining light into the user’s eyes.

Perez’s application also suggests that the image could be adjusted to the shape and even color of the room to optimize the experience.

(Source: theregister.co.uk)

Microsoft Minesweeper Arrives on Windows RT

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

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

Live tile updates with some bits about highest score:

Microsoft Minesweeper Live Tile
Microsoft Minesweeper Live Tile

 

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

 

Microsoft Minesweeper Game Levels
Microsoft Minesweeper Game Levels

Oh, there are some ads too!

 

Microsoft Minesweeper Ad
Microsoft Minesweeper Ad

Daily challenges are mini-games

 

Microsoft Minesweeper Daily Challenges
Microsoft Minesweeper Daily Challenges

 

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

 

Microsoft Minesweeper Rewards
Microsoft Minesweeper Rewards

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

Microsoft Minesweeper Monthly Challenge Calendar
Microsoft Minesweeper Monthly Challenge Calendar

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

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

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

Have you tried this game? What do you think?

Surface with Windows RT: Likes

After an agonizing wait, I finally got a chance to play with my new Surface with Windows RT, or as I will call it for sanity’s sake, Surface RT or simply, Surface. It has been a few days, and I thought instead of writing a full-fledged review, I’d focus on some key likes and a long list of dislikes. Nits that I picked. I discuss the likes here, and dislikes in a second post.

Surface RT

Overall, I really like the device. I was determined to evaluate its use as an iPad replacement in my house. To be clear, in our house, the iPad is used for Facebook, Twitter, web browsing (between my wife and I), and some Netflix/PBS Kids/kid games (our kids, 4 and 6 years old). We are not using the iPad as a computer, or a “creation device”. It is a pure consumption device, unless you call writing a tweet, “creation”.

In that use case, the Surface has ably fit in place of the iPad for the kids. The kids have enough games that they know of, and enough games that are new, that they actually like using the Surface. My wife has not used it much, but that is because at this point of time, she considers the Surface “my baby” so she is almost afraid to some extent, of using it. However, it is only a matter of time :-)

Last night, I saw my kids fight to get to use the Surface. Mind you, we got our second iPad 2 just so they can both have their own. So, despite having two iPads, they preferred to use the Surface. Granted, it could be a novelty thing, but still, it bodes well for me that they are actually liking the device with all its oddities, like the 16:9 aspect ratio.

I replaced my iPad too, almost

As for me, the Surface has almost replaced the iPad. The big gap at this point? Twitter app! I like Tweetro, but because of their recent issue with API token limit, I was unable to sign in on the Surface despite having used it (extensively) on my Windows 8 desktop. The other two big names, Rowi and MetroTwit are both far behind what I would call a basic Twitter experience, so to me they are unusable. I am forced to use the People app and Twitter website meanwhile, and that makes for a highly sub-optimal experience for a “power user” like yours truly.

The other small issue which makes me use the iPad when the PC is not being used, is access to my work email and calendar. My work has an app which allows me to access Exchange with native iOS mail, calendar and reminders apps. They haven’t yet provisioned it for Windows 8/RT.

Besides those two missing pieces, I am extremely happy with the device. I haven’t yet experienced some of the performance issues that many others have experienced, nor have I found any major app missing. It is thin enough, and light enough for me to use it like I used my iPad. (Important to note, my iPad has a strong Speck case which makes the iPad feel heavier.)

Windows 8 (and Windows RT)

Some part of why I like the Surface so much is due to Windows 8. For example, all my settings including my lock screen image, theme, pinned websites, favorites, web history, etc. automatically came through as I signed in with my Microsoft account. This is because I had set up my account and settings on my desktop PC earlier and set it up so all those settings were synced across devices via the cloud.

Also, thanks to Xbox Music Match, a service that is yet to officially roll out but works anyway, all my music was available on the Surface as soon as I signed in with my Microsoft account. This includes some playlists I created just the day before. Again, this is because my music was matched from my desktop PC (which in turn is connected to my home server where all my music, photos and videos are stored). In addition, I was able to impress some of my family members by searching for and playing a bunch of songs on-demand via the Xbox Music subscription service. While I have the Xbox Music Pass, the unlimited streaming (with some, ahem, limits) is automatically included with all Windows 8 and Windows RT devices.

The last thing I want to mention why I love the Surface and why I replaced my iPad with it? Office. I use Excel and Word in addition to OneNote, for various purposes. Things like tracking expenses, creating birthday lists, sending formal letters, etc. are all done on Excel, Word and OneNote. Having “real” Office on my tablet with a constant sync to SkyDrive (which allows me to collaborate with my wife for some of those items) is a huge benefit. Not what I would call the #1 reason to buy a Surface, but definitely a huge plus when considering a Surface over an iPad.

Suffice to say, I really like my Surface. I think it is money well spent, for my use of such a device. Having said that, there are issues I have with the device and I list them in my next post.