Monthly Archives : July 2015

Windows 10: An exciting OS aiming to reinvent the way we think about the PC

Now that the final version of Windows 10 is out, we revisit our early impressions of Microsoft’s new operating system from back in January. Has it lived up to the promise?

When Microsoft first announced Windows 10 last year, there were a lot of questions about how it could deal with the perceived failure of Windows 8. The initial preview left many questions unanswered and while the releases that have come through the Windows Insider program have shown progress, the most exciting features stayed as rumours.

Now Microsoft has confirmed that yes, the Cortana voice assistant will be in Windows 10, and it’s shown how well it’s integrated, giving you both voice control and dictation plus an improved interface for local and web search.

The rumoured Spartan browser is coming as well, although it’s not the new system some have expected – think of it more as a fresh way of presenting the same rendering engine with the most problematic legacy features stripped away, and the best of phone browsing (both Cortana and the clean layout of reading mode) and OneNote integrated.

We’ve also had a better look at the touch Office apps, especially the version of Outlook that puts email and calendar on both PCs and phones, and it’s a clean design with powerful tools that are clearly influenced by the recent Microsoft acquisition of Accompli.

Common sense

There’s a lot of common sense in the Windows 10 features Terry Myerson and Joe Belfiore demonstrated in Redmond. Microsoft has made the modern apps like Photos, Messaging, and Maps into the simple but powerful tools they should have been when Windows 8 launched. It has also presented a credible compromise for touch that drops confusing elements – like an app switcher that ignored the programs running on your desktop – but keeps useful features like dragging apps to the bottom of the screen to close them.

If you love Windows 8.1 just the way it is, you’ll still miss features in Windows 10 – but talking to various members of the Windows 10 team, it’s clear that there’s still a lot of discussion going on about which features may return, as well as steady progress on building features like Cortana.

Microsoft also showed a lot of common sense regarding phones and small tablets. Yes, they’ll run the same OS, Windows 10. No, it won’t have a different name. Small tablets look very much like Windows 10 phones, but they have the desktop because they’re PCs and you might plug in a keyboard and screen, but you don’t have to use it if you don’t want to.

And yes, there will be flagship Windows handsets CEO Satya Nadella confirmed – when Windows 10 ships. That will be later this year – when it’s ready – and hopefully in time for the holidays, Terry Myerson confirmed.

Put it all together with the free upgrade for Windows 7, 8.1 and Windows Phone 8.1 users for the first year (and no, Microsoft isn’t saying what happens after that year – mainly because it’s still figuring it out) and Windows 10 is something of a no-brainer for most users.

Loving Windows

But while this is an utterly pragmatic move (getting users on the most recent version of Windows has big advantages for Microsoft in terms of security and how many old versions it has to support), Microsoft doesn’t want you to use Windows because it’s free, or even because it does what you need it to do.

“We have bigger hopes, higher aspirations for Windows,” Satya Nadella said. “We want to move from people needing Windows to choosing Windows to loving Windows. That is our bold goal with Windows.”

Getting there will require a lot more than the table stakes of making Windows 10 a compelling upgrade, and a way of continuing to get new features in the future, because Windows will get them as regular updates. It’s more than making Windows and Windows Phone and Xbox One work together and pass your information back and forth seamlessly – again, if Microsoft can’t do that, it shouldn’t be building operating systems.

It’s not even enough that Windows becomes the “home for the very best of Microsoft experiences” where Cortana and OneDrive and the Microsoft account are “seamlessly harmonis[ed]” and the interface “as well as the applications, come together in the most seamless, delightful, personal way for users.” Microsoft needs its apps and services on all devices, but if it can’t make them great on Windows, then why would it even bother.

What Microsoft really needs Windows 10 to do is reinvent the way we think about the PC – and the tiny PC that is the phone. That will need more than flagship handsets and PC makers coming up with new and interesting designs (and we saw the second of those at CES at least). Microsoft needs us to think about PCs as exciting again, and that’s what Surface Hub and HoloLens do.

Exciting developments

Surface Hub is a giant PC – a gorgeous 80in 4K screen with a pen that produces ink as smooth as Surface Pro 3, offers great but really simple videoconferencing using Skype for Business, and a whiteboard that you can walk up to, draw on and then mail to yourself before it wipes itself clean for the next meeting.

It’s both clever and easy to use and it’s exactly what businesses need to get people working together rather than messing around with cables and projectors for half of the meeting. It’s a PC that doesn’t work like a PC.

And HoloLens is a PC you have to keep reminding yourself is a PC. It’s far from finished and maybe it will turn out to be a gimmick, but if Microsoft can deliver what it showed yesterday, it will have an engaging, immersive, delightful way of putting digital information into the real world where it’s really useful. When you use Skype or build a 3D design in Holostudio, nothing is further from your mind than the Start menu or the desktop or any other Windows features. But you’re using a Windows 10 PC – just one like no PC you’ve ever imagined.

HoloLens is one of the most inventive, exciting things Microsoft has done in years. If a PC running Windows can be this, rather than a box on the desk or just another tablet, then maybe we can all get excited about PCs and Windows the way Nadella is hoping.

The iPad mini 4 will be a lot like a smaller iPad Air 2

It’s usually the iPhone that dominates Apple’s earnings reports but let’s not forget about the iPad: if new reports out of Asia are to be believed we might get three new fruit-flavoured slates before Christmas.

The leaked tips centre around the iPad mini 4, which sources say will be a shrunken iPad Air 2, complete with an A8 processor and an 8MP iSight camera. The dimensions will be the same as the iPad mini 3 except for the thickness, dropping to 6.1mm from 7.5mm.

You may remember the rather underwhelming launch of the iPad mini 3, where Apple added Touch ID and very little else. This time around the upgrade looks much more substantial.

Three’s a crowd

The report also mentions the iPad Pro, the super-sized iPad that Apple has been rumoured to be building for several years. Apparently it will come out alongside the iPad Air 3 and the iPad mini 4.

That rebuffs earlier speculation that the iPad Air refresh would be skipped this year to give suppliers more time to focus on the iPad Pro. If you’re in the market for a new tablet then you’ll have plenty to choose from.

New iPads are usually announced in October and this year should be no different. The arrival of Force Touch is another good bet, as it’s spreading to more and more of Apple’s products.

Microsoft’s phone business is dying, but everything else is booming

We all knew Microsoft was going to report a rough fiscal 2015 after recently laying off 7,500 employees and writing off more than $7.6 billion due to its failed Nokia investment. But that doesn’t mean they’re sobbing in Redmond, Washington.

In fact, Microsoft announced that its Surface business grew 117% to $888 million in sales during 2015, thanks in large part to the Surface Pro 3 and Surface 3 hybrid laptops. Microsoft’s Office 365 business was also booming this year, up 3% as the company introduced an additional 15 million users to the productivity suite.

Even the company’s oft-ridiculed search advertising business, Bing, increased revenue 21% during the fiscal year and now has a 20% market share in the US, trailing the obvious likes of Google for possession of first place.

Gearing up for 2016

All of this good news comes a little more than a week away from Microsoft’s grand unveiling of the Windows 10 operating system.

Windows 10, which has received largely positive reviews, will replace the critically lambasted Windows 8, and should improve Microsoft’s hardware and software sales with consumers and businesses.

As will new products like the Hololens and Surface Hub, which should help Microsoft gain an even deeper foothold for entertainment and business users, respectively.

However, Windows Phones fanatics will probably continue to lament their allegiance, even into fiscal 2016. Microsoft announced that phone hardware revenue decreased 38% to $748 million in 2015.

Although Microsoft is expected to launch Windows 10 Mobile in September, it’s unlikely the operating system will help dig the company out of such a massive hole in terms of public perception and consumer adoption.

The cloud business

Microsoft’s commercial cloud revenue increased 88% to more than $8 billion during the fiscal year. This business includes Office, Dynamics CRM and Azure.

This is a huge coup for CEO Satya Nadella whose three main points of focus have been the Internet of Things, Mobility and Cloud, since he took over the company in February of last year.

Even though Microsoft is making a big push for the cloud, it isn’t abandoning businesses with on-premise data centers. “We fundamentally think of our servers as the extension of the cloud,” Nadella said in a call with analysts. “I even describe it architecturally as the edge of our cloud.”

Nadella said that server revenue rose 4%.

The big picture

Overall, Microsoft’s revenue decreased 5% this year to $22.08 billion, compared with $23.382 billion in fiscal 2014.

Amazon could be delivering groceries in the UK very soon

Don’t worry if you’re not too clued up on AmazonFresh, the grocery delivery service from Amazon that brings food and essentials to your doorstep – it’s only available in a limited number of US cities at present.

According to the Times, that’s about to change in the near future, with Amazon plotting a global expansion of the service. The UK launch is “imminent” according to the publication.

It works very much like the rest of Amazon, only you’re buying stuff you would usually get from the supermarket, and deliveries arrive later the same day or the day after you place an order. The service has in fact been going since way back in 2007.

Supermarket squeeze

At the moment, you get a free 30-day trial and then Fresh sets you back $300 (roughly £190) for a year’s worth of deliveries (plus whatever you spend on food and other goods of course). Amazon Prime is included in that price.

The UK already has door-to-door delivery services available from most of the big name supermarkets, including Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Waitrose. These retailers are already under pressure and the arrival of AmazonFresh won’t do anything to alleviate it.

Amazon has also recently launched a couple of products to help you shop more easily: the Dash barcode scanner and the Dash button. Again, these are only available in the US in limited numbers, so we’ll have to wait and see whether they make the jump across the Atlantic.

Google is bringing back Map Maker edits, but it wants you to behave

A few months ago, Google was having some problems with vandalism on its Maps getting through the Map Maker auto-approval process

“We have been experiencing escalated attacks to spam Google Maps over the past few months,” Pavithra Kanakarajan, Google product manager, had said at the time.

It led to the search giant turning off the custom map editing feature, or Map Maker, back in May, but it has now announced that Google will reopen it in August.

A call for help

In a post on Google’s product forum page, Kanakarajan explained that as they open up Map Maker again, their new method of capturing vandals will be the use of volunteer moderators.

“The reason for this change is that every time we observed someone attempting to vandalize the map, many of you acted quickly to remove the offending feature and demonstrated real ownership for maps within your region,” she said.

“We have come to the conclusion that of all the defenses available to keeping our maps clean, the interest of a community of well-intentioned users, is among the most reliable and fast.”

With the new system, edits will take longer to be approved, as regional Leads will be in charge of approving the majority of edits in their region, while Google’s own moderators will jump in occasionally.

Google is hoping this will help will their vandalism issue, but only time will tell.