Microsoft

Google’s latest hardware innovation: Price

Posted by | Amazon, Apple, apple inc, Assistant, computing, electronics, Gadgets, Google, Google Hardware Event 2018, iOS, iPad, iPhone, Kindle, Microsoft, oled, PIXEL, RAM, Samsung, smartphone, smartphones, Sony, tablet computers, technology, video conferencing | No Comments

With its latest consumer hardware products, Google’s prices are undercutting Apple, Samsung and Amazon. The search giant just unveiled its latest flagship smartphone, tablet and smart home device, all available at prices well below their direct competitors. Where Apple and Samsung are pushing prices of its latest products even higher, Google is seemingly happy to keep prices low, and this is creating a distinct advantage for the company’s products.

Google, like Amazon and nearly Apple, is a services company that happens to sell hardware. It needs to acquire users through multiple verticals, including hardware. Somewhere, deep in the Googleplex, a team of number-crunchers decided it made more sense to make its hardware prices dramatically lower than competitors. If Google is taking a loss on the hardware, it is likely making it back through services.

Amazon does this with Kindle devices. Microsoft and Sony do it with game consoles. This is a proven strategy to increase market share where the revenue generated on the back end recovers the revenue lost on selling hardware with slim or negative margins.

Look at the Pixel 3. The base 64GB model is available for $799, while the base 64GB iPhone XS is $999. Want a bigger screen? The 64GB Pixel 3 XL is $899, and the 64GB iPhone XS Max is $1,099. Regarding the specs, both phones offer OLED displays and amazing cameras. There are likely pros and cons regarding the speed of the SoC, amount of RAM and wireless capabilities. Will consumers care that the screen and camera are so similar? Probably not.

Google also announced the Home Hub today. Like the Echo Show, it’s designed to be the central part of a smart home. It puts Google Assistant on a fixed screen where users can ask it questions and control a smart home. It’s $149. That’s $80 less than the Echo Show, though the Google version lacks video conferencing and a dedicated smart home hub — the Google Home Hub requires extra hardware for some smart home objects. Still, even with fewer features, the Home Hub is compelling because of its drastically lower price. For just a few dollars more than an Echo Show, a buyer could get a Home Hub and two Home Minis.

The Google Pixel Slate is Google’s answer to the iPad Pro. From everything we’ve seen, it appears to lack a lot of the processing power found in Apple’s top tablet. It doesn’t seem as refined or capable of specific tasks. But for view media, creating content and playing games, it feels just fine. It even has a Pixelbook Pen and a great keyboard that shows Google is positioning this against the iPad Pro. And the 12.3-inch Pixel Slate is available for $599, where the 12.9-inch iPad Pro is $799.

The upfront price is just part of the equation. When considering the resale value of these devices, a different conclusion can be reached. Apple products consistently resale for more money than Google products. On Gazelle.com, a company that buys used smartphones, a used iPhone X is worth $425, whereas a used Pixel 2 is $195. A used iPhone 8, a phone that sold for a price closer to the Pixel 2, is worth $240.

In the end, Google likely doesn’t expect to make money off the hardware it sells. It needs users to buy into its services. The best way to do that is to make the ecosystem competitive though perhaps not investing the capital to make it the best. It needs to be just good enough, and that’s how I would describe these devices. Good enough to be competitive on a spec-to-spec basis while available for much less.

more Google Event 2018 coverage

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Microsoft announces an Xbox game streaming service

Posted by | Gaming, Microsoft, xbox | No Comments

A week after Google launched a game streaming service Project Stream in beta, Microsoft’s touting its own take on the category. Project xCloud is, naturally, an Xbox game streaming service, designed to  bring the console’s titles to a slew of different platforms.

Outlined via blog post, the service is the latest offering to offer gamers the promise of cross-platform autonomy, bringing CPU-heavily titles to the PC and mobile devices. Public trials of the service will kick off next year. For now, the company is busily recruiting developers to bring content to the service and testing in private beta.

Those tests involve running titles on smartphones and tablets, played with bluetooth Xbox controllers or via touch. The latter, naturally, presents its own sorts of challenges. Games developed for complex consoles don’t necessarily translate to touch.

Says Microsoft,

Cloud game-streaming is a multi-faceted, complex challenge. Unlike other forms of digital entertainment, games are interactive experiences that dynamically change based on player input. Delivering a high-quality experience across a variety of devices must account for different obstacles, such as low-latency video streamed remotely, and support a large, multi-user network. In addition to solving latency, other important considerations are supporting the graphical fidelity and framerates that preserve the artist’s original intentions, and the type of input a player has available.

For now, the service is far from public. Microsoft certainly has the hardware/gaming/enterprise expertise to pull it off, but execution is still a ways off, unlike Google’s recent Assassin’s Creed Odyssey demo, which is currently being offered in public beta. 

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The Windows 10 October 2018 Update is now available

Posted by | Android, computing, Microsoft, microsoft windows, New York, smartphones, TC, Windows 10, Windows Phone, windows phone 8.1, Windows Update | No Comments

Microsoft today announced that the Windows 10 October 2018 update is now available. The company made the announcement at a small press event in New York, though it’s obviously no surprise that Microsoft decided to roll out the October update in the month that gave it its name.

As usual, these rollouts take a while. You can force the update now, but for those who want to wait, Microsoft will start the automatic updates on October 9.

Like most recent Windows updates, the October release isn’t going to blow you away with a new interface or crazy new features. Most of these updates now are incremental, but overall, the new release offers a number of interesting new features.

The most interesting of these is probably the new “Your Phone” app, which allows you to text from your PC using an Android phone that also runs Microsoft’s mobile companion app. In later iterations, that app will also sync notifications to your desktop, but for now, that’s not an option. There also are tools for continuing your workflow as you switch from your phone to PC (or vice versa). These features work for iOS users, too.

As far as syncing between devices goes, it’s worth noting that the update also will allow you to share your clipboard between PCs.

Since everybody likes a dark mode these days, the Windows 10 File Explorer now also includes a dark theme. There’s also a revamped search experience, as well as a new screenshot tool.

While the release includes plenty of other tweaks, both in terms of functionality and design, the most anticipated feature, Sets, didn’t make it into this release. Sets is probably the biggest change to the overall Windows user experience since the release of Windows 10, so maybe it’s no surprise that Microsoft is trying to perfect this. And perfection takes a while.

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SwiftKey on Android now has two-way translation baked in. Qué bien

Posted by | Android, Apps, artificial intelligence, keyboard apps, machine translation, Microsoft, microsoft translator, SwiftKey, Translation, Translator | No Comments

The Internet is of course amazing if you want to send messages across borders. But different languages can still put a wrinkle in your conversational flow, even with all the handy translation apps also on tap to help turn zut alors into shucks!

So Microsoft -owned SwiftKey is probably still onto something with a new feature launching today in its Android app that bakes two-way translation right into the keyboard — which should save a lot of tedious copy-pasting, at least if you’re frequently conversing across language barriers.

It’s not clear whether the translation feature will be coming to SwiftKey on iOS too (we’ve asked and will update with any additional details).

Microsoft Translator is the underlying technology powering the core linguistic automagic. So SwiftKey’s parent is intimately involved in this feature addition.

Microsoft’s tech does continue to exist in a standalone app form too, though. And that app is getting a cross-promotional push, via the SwiftKey addition, with the company touting an added benefit for users if they install Microsoft Translator — as the keyboard translation feature will then work offline.

(SwiftKey had some 300M active users at the time of its acquisition by Microsoft, three years ago, so the size of that promotional push for Translator is potentially pretty large.)

The translation option is being added to SwiftKey via a relatively recently launched Toolbar that lets users customize the keyboard — such as by adding stickers, location or calendar.

To access the Toolbar (and the various add-ons nested within it) users tap on the ‘+’ in the upper left corner.

With translation enabled, users of the next word predicting keyboard can then switch between input and output languages to turn incoming missives from one of more than 60 languages into another tongue at the tap of a button, as well as translate their outgoing replies back the other way without needing to know how to write in that other language.

Supported languages include Italian, Spanish, Germany, Russian and Turkish, to name a few.

And while the machine translation technology is doing away with the immediate need for human foreign language expertise, there’s at least a chance app users will learn a bit as they go along — i.e. as they watch their words get rendered in another tongue right before their eyes.

As tech magic goes, translation is hard to beat. Even though machine translation can often still be very rough round the edges. But here, for helping with everyday chatting on mobiule messaging apps, there’s no doubt it will be a great help.

Commenting on the new feature in a statement, Colleen Hall, senior product manager at SwiftKey, said: “The integration of Microsoft Translator into SwiftKey is a great, natural fit, enhancing the raft of language-focused features we know our users love to use.”

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Microsoft Azure bets big on IoT

Posted by | ambient intelligence, Android, api, Azure, Azure IoT, cloud computing, Google, Internet of Things, IoT, Java, Microsoft, Microsoft Ignite 2018, TC | No Comments

At its Ignite conference in Orlando, Florida, Microsoft today announced a plethora of new Internet of Things-focused updates to its Azure cloud computing platform. It’s no secret that the amount of data generated by IoT devices is a boon to cloud computing services like Azure — and Microsoft is definitely aiming to capitalize on this (and its existing relationships with companies in this space).

Some of today’s announcements are relatively minor. Azure IoT Central, the company’s solution for helping you get started with IoT, is now generally available, for example, and there are updates to Microsoft’s IoT provisioning service, IoT hub message routing tools and Map Control API.

Microsoft also today announced that the Azure IoT platform will now support Google’s Android and Android Things platform via its Java SDK.

What’s more interesting, though, is the new services. The highlight here is probably the launch of Azure Digital Twins. Using this new service, enterprises can now build their own digital models of any physical environment.

Think of it as the virtual counterpart to a real-world IoT deployment — and as the IoT deployment in the real world changes, so does the digital model. It will provide developers with a full view of all the devices they have deployed and allows them to run advanced analytics and test scenarios as needed without having to make changes to the actual physical deployment.

“As the world enters the next wave of innovation in IoT where the connected objects such as buildings, equipment or factory floors need to be understood in the context of their environments, Azure Digital Twins provides a complete picture of the relationships and processes that connect people, places and devices,” the company explains in today’s announcement.

Azure Digital Twins will launch into preview on October 15.

The other major announcement is that Azure Sphere, Microsoft’s play for getting into small connected microcontroller devices, is now in public preview, with development kits shipping to developers now. For Azure Sphere, Microsoft built its own Linux-based kernel, but the focus here is obviously on selling services around it, not getting licensing fees. Every year, hardware companies ship nine billion of these small chips and few of them are easily updated and hence prone to security issues once they are out in the wild. Azure Sphere aims to offer a combination of cloud-based security, a secure OS and a certified microcontroller to remedy this situation.

Microsoft also notes that Azure IoT Edge, its fully managed service for delivering Azure services, custom logic and AI models to the edge, is getting a few updates, too, including the ability to submit third-party IoT Edge modules for certification and inclusion in the Azure Marketplace. It’s also about to launch the public preview of IoT Edge extended offline for those kinds of use cases where an IoT device goes offline for — you guessed it — and extended period.

more Microsoft Ignite 2018 coverage

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Answering its critics, Google loosens reins on AMP project

Posted by | Advertising Tech, AMP Project, Apache Software Foundation, Apple, Apps, cloudflare, Google, Microsoft, Mobile, mobile web, Mozilla, open source, Policy | No Comments

Accelerated Mobile Pages, or AMP, has been a controversial project since its debut. The need for the framework has been clear: the payloads of mobile pages can be just insane, what with layers and layers of images, JavaScript, ad networks, and more slowing down page rendering time and costing users serious bandwidth on metered plans.

Yet, the framework has been aggressively foisted on the community by Google, which has backed the project not just with technical talent, but also by making algorithmic changes to its search results that have essentially mandated that pages comply with the AMP project’s terms — or else lose their ranking on mobile searches.

Even more controversially, as part of making pages faster, the AMP project uses caches of pages on CDNs — which are hosted by Google (and also Cloudflare now). That meant that Google’s search results would direct a user to an AMP page hosted by Google, effectively cutting out the owner of the content in the process.

The project has been led by Malte Ubl, a senior staff engineer working on Google’s Javascript infrastructure projects, who has until now held effective unilateral control over the project.

In the wake of all of this criticism, the AMP project announced today that it would reform its governance, replacing Ubl as the exclusive tech lead with a technical steering committee comprised of companies invested in the success in the project. Notably, the project’s intention has an “…end goal of not having any company sit on more than a third of the seats.” In addition, the project will create an advisory board and working groups to shepherd the project’s work.

The project is also expected to move to a foundation in the future. These days, there are a number of places such a project could potentially reside, including the Apache Software Foundation and the Mozilla Foundation.

While the project has clearly had its detractors, the performance improvements that AMP has been fighting for are certainly meritorious. With this more open governance model, the project may get deeper support from other browser makers like Apple, Mozilla, and Microsoft, as well as the broader open source community.

And while Google has certainly been the major force behind the project, it has also been popular among open source software developers. Since the project’s launch, there have been 710 contributors to the project according to its statistics, and the project (attempting to empathize its non-Google monopoly) notes that more than three-quarters of those contributors don’t work at Google.

Nonetheless, more transparency and community involvement should help to accelerate Accelerated Mobile Pages. The project will host its contributor summit next week at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, where these governance changes as well as the technical and design roadmaps for the project will be top of mind for attendees.

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The Boring Company proves life can be a video game

Posted by | Gadgets, Microsoft, Sony, The Boring Company | No Comments

The Boring Company just posted a video on Twitter showing its latest digging machine can be controlled by an Xbox One controller. Because, if you’re going to dig holes, why not make it a bit of fun?

Software makes it easy to map PC controls to an Xbox pad. Instead of developing and fabricating a custom controller, using an Xbox gamepad is a cost-effective alternative for a lot of organizations. The military services agree. In its latest subs the US Navy tapped the Xbox 360 controller to maneuver submarine periscopes and the Army’s anti-drone laser uses an Xbox controller. They’re used to control robots and drones, too.

The reasoning is simple: A lot of research goes into game controllers. Microsoft reportedly spent over $100 million on the Xbox One controller, which, is just an updated version of the Xbox 360 controller. More than that, these controllers, whether of the Microsoft or Sony variant, are already familiar to most users. Operators do not have to learn a new set of controls. They can pick up a controller and be familiar within seconds.

And if the Xbox or Playstation controller doesn’t offer enough buttons, companies could always look to repurposing Steel Battalion controllers.

Best video game ever pic.twitter.com/DlGFsji76l

— The Boring Company (@boringcompany) September 8, 2018

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You can now use Alexa and Cortana to control your Xbox

Posted by | Alexa, console, Cortana, Gaming, Microsoft, TC, voice, voice assistant, xbox | No Comments

You can now control the Xbox from Alexa and Cortana. Microsoft announced his morning it’s introducing a new way to interact with Xbox One using voice commands, by way of an Xbox Skill that works with both Alexa and Cortana, across platforms. The skill will allow users to launch games, adjust the volume, start and stop their broadcasts to Mixer, capture screenshots and more.

For example, players will be able to say to their Echo speaker, “Alexa, start Rocket League,” and the console would power on, sign them in, and launch the game.

To use the new feature with Alexa, players will first have to sign in with their Amazon account then link their Microsoft account to the skill. With Cortana, users will instead have to first sign into the Xbox they want to control, then sign in with their Microsoft account to link the skill on their Windows 10 PC.

They could then say something like “Hey Cortana, tell Xbox to open Netflix.”

 

Microsoft says the skill will work across a range of voice-powered devices, including Windows 10 PC, Amazon Echo devices, Harman Kardon Invoke, Sonos One, or the Cortana and Alexa apps for iOS and Android.

A full list of its commands will be posted to the Xbox Insiders Reddit. 

The Xbox Skill, at launch, will be rolling out gradually to U.S. Xbox Insider rings (Alpha Skip Ahead, Alpha, Beta) as the company takes in feedback from its early adopters. To see if you have the option available, you’ll need to look in Settings –> Devices on your console to see if the “Digital Assistant” setting is visible.

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Skype rolls back its redesign by ditching stories, squiggles and over-the-top color

Posted by | Apps, Microsoft, Mobile, Skype, Social, stories | No Comments

Just over a year after Skype introduced a colorful, Snapchat-inspired makeover which included its own version of “stories,” the company says it’s now going to refocus on simplicity – and it’s ditching stories along the way. The redesign had been met with a lot of backlash. Skype had clearly wanted to appeal to a more youthful demographic with its update, but in doing so, it cluttered the user experience with features no one had asked for or needed.

One of these was “Highlights,” a feature that was very much Skype’s own take on Snapchat’s or Instagram’s Stories. With Highlights, Skype users were able to swipe up to pull up their smartphone’s camera, then snap a photo or record a video that could be decorated with typed or handwritten text, as well as with Skype’s own set of stickers. This could then be shared with individual Skype users, groups, or posted to the Highlights section of the app.

Above: Skype on mobile

The company had argued at the time that the rise of stories across social media meant it was something that all social apps would adopt. And because it was the way people were used to interacting now, Skype needed to include the feature in its own app, too.

But stories, as it turns out, may not be as ubiquitous or as in-demand as a “news feed” interface – there are places it makes sense, and those where it does not. Skype is the latter.

In its announcement, Microsoft admitted that the changes it had introduced weren’t working.

“Calling became harder to execute and Highlights didn’t resonate with a majority of users,” wrote Peter Skillman, Director of Design for Skype and Outlook.

Instead, the app is introducing a simpler navigation model where there are now just three buttons at the bottom of the mobile app – Chats, Calls, and Contacts. Highlights and Capture are both gone. (If you actually used Highlights, you have until September 30 to download them to save them before the feature is removed).

There were already some hints Microsoft was planning to dial back its design changes. It recently announced it was keeping Skype Classic (Skype 7) around for an extended period of time, after its plans to shut the app down was met with overwhelming user outcry. It said then that it would gather more feedback to find out what it is that people wanted before forcing the upgrade to Skype 8.0.

With the new desktop version of Skype, the company now says it’s moving the Chats, Calls, Contacts, and Notifications to the top left of the window to make it easier for long-time Skype users to understand.

Skype also toned down its over-the-top use of color in the app and introduced a Skype “Classic” blue theme adjusted for contrast and readability. It yanked out some of its goofier decorative elements, as well, like the notifications with a squiggle shape cut out, which it admits “weren’t core to getting things done.” (Ya think?)

Below: Squiggles 

While it’s good that Skype is now listening to users – it says it’s testing new prototypes across global markets and it launched a UserVoice site – it’s concerning that it had not done enough listening beforehand. If it had, it wouldn’t have released a version of its app that bombed.

Skype should embrace its “classic” status, and not feel the need to play catch-up with teen chat apps like Snapchat, or social media trends like stories. People use Skype to get things done – calling faraway friends, placing work calls, and even recording podcasts. Being a simple and stable voice and video calling app is one that can retain loyal users over time, and attract those who need to communicate across platforms without all the fluff found elsewhere.

The latest design is available in Skype version (8.29) for Android, iOS, OS X, Linux, and Windows 7, 8 & 8.1 operating systems.

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Microsoft no longer taking new enrollments for its Surface Plus financing program

Posted by | Gadgets, Klarna, Microsoft, Surface, Surface Plus, TC | No Comments

Microsoft has quietly ended its Surface Plus financing program about a year after it launched. In a message on its site, the company said it stopped taking new enrollments on August 31 “after much thought and consideration.” The change does not affect existing customers, however, who will still be covered by their current financing plans.

Financed by Klarna, a Stockholm-headquartered online financial services provider, the Surface Plus financing program launched in August 2017. It targeted students and other people who wanted an affordable way to own a Surface device, allowing them to spread payments over 24 months. The Surface Plus plan also enabled customers to upgrade to the latest device after 18 months, as long as they returned their previous device in good working condition.

In a FAQ, Microsoft said existing customers will still be able to upgrade their Surface under the plan’s terms. The program’s end also does not affect existing warranty plans.

Microsoft’s Surface Plus for Business payment plans launched around the same time as the Surface Plus program and it looks like it will continue. TechCrunch has contacted Microsoft for more information. Update: A Microsoft representative sent the following statement:

“We are always looking for ways to improve the Microsoft Store shopping experience and provide our customers with the best options to meet their needs. While we have nothing to share at this time, we will continue to provide our Surface Plus customers with the same level of service and support that we extend to all of our customers. If you have any additional questions, you can visit the Surface Plus website to review the FAQ and Terms and Conditions.”

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