writing about tech

Tag: microsoft

A 2-minute review of 2 hours of using Windows 10

I’ve used Windows 10 for all of two hours total so far, on a single machine (a Bootcamped MacBook), so obviously I feel confident giving an overall review at this point.

I’m only being half-facetious, because it’s Windows, and you probably already love it or hate it or tolerate it at this point, and Windows 10 isn’t likely to change your mind all that much. Personally, I never had much issue with Windows 7 – it was just starting to feel long in the tooth. My experience with Windows 8 was pretty limited, suffice it to say, I never felt a need to install on my laptop or desktop, because Windows 7 was Fine™.

Windows 10 is basically Windows 7 + a (great) new coat of paint and polish + the best ideas from Windows 8 + a native package management tool for us nerds (finally!) + the Mission Control view from OS X + a fun virtual assistant.

Overall, I’m digging it so far.  Honestly, if I wasn’t somewhat dependent on Apple’s services like Continuity and iMessage, I would seriously consider running Windows 10 full-time,  even if it was just for the novelty of using something new. If Windows 10 represents Microsoft’s direction for the next 5-10 years, I’m actually pretty excited to see where things go.

Score:  Fine/10, would install again.

Windows 10 is a free upgrade for Windows 7 users. This is huge.

Microsoft just announced that Windows 10 is going to be a free upgrade for all Windows 7 users.

Photo courtesy of The Verge

This is a pretty big deal; Windows 7 -> 8 wasn’t free, but 7 -> 10 will be. It also sets a precedent going forward, though, that Windows will always be a free upgrade – it’ll be interesting to see if that remains true, or if this is a one-time deal to get as many people on the same platform as possible.

While this is an expensive decision, it’s almost certainly the right one – Microsoft already has a user base split between Windows 7 and Windows 8, and adding Windows 10 to that would’ve been unmanageable. Personally, I never upgraded my desktop to Windows 8, since it wasn’t free, and I didn’t see a benefit to doing so. Now, assuming Windows 10 isn’t a disaster, I won’t have any reason not to upgrade – and Microsoft is counting on millions of other users to view it the same way.

That’s the trick, of course – to make Windows 10 good enough that people want to upgrade. Hopefully, Microsoft can pull it off.

 

Not quite Fit for consumption: Google Fit impressions

When I shared my experiences with the Moto 360 and RunKeeper, my biggest frustration was that the valuable fitness data that was being collected by the device wasn’t actually going anywhere, and instead lived only on the device itself in the form of a card that gave me my daily step totals, and a notification that I’d hit my daily heart rate goal.   At the time, I figured Google Fit was the solution to this data-siloing.  Fortunately, it appears I was correct – Google Fit can, in fact, download data from my Moto 360.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear to do much else of value.

So what is Google Fit?  That’s…actually a frustratingly difficult question to answer. Ideally, it’s supposed to be a silo for all your fitness data – so the data gathered by my Moto 360 and RunKeeper could live in the same place as data gathered by my FitBit and Withings scale, all of that coming together in a glorious data-gasm that would, in theory, paint a fairly accurate picture of my personal activity.  Looking at their announcement, they claim:

You can also connect your favorite fitness devices and apps like Strava, Withings, Runtastic, Runkeeper and Noom Coach to Google Fit and we’ll surface all of the relevant data in one spot, giving you a clear and complete view of your fitness. No need to check one app to see your weight and another to review a run – with Google Fit, that data will all be surfaced in one, simple place.

Great, awesome, let’s do this thing.  What services are currently available?

Screenshot 2014-10-30 13.41.47

Oh, good, a list of Fit-friendly apps.  Let me just click on that link, and…

Screenshot 2014-10-30 13.43.52

…what the fuck?  When I first saw this, I ignored it as launch day hiccup, but as I sit writing this two days later, all I can think is…what the fuck?  I imagine no Google Fit-compatible apps are available just yet, but there’s still no reason to link to a dead page.  That shit is amateur hour.

So, unfortunately, at this point, all Google Fit really seems to do is gather data from my 360 and sync it to the web.  Poorly.

So close, but so far.  Wait, not close at all.

Yesterday: So close, but so far. Wait, nope, not close at all.

Today: Better, but still pretty terrible.

Today: Better, but still pretty terrible for a modern web service.

Perhaps I’m coming across as overly harsh here, but it’s important to remember that this isn’t a start-up company with their first fitness product, this is Google, and web services are kind of their whole thing.  There’s absolutely no reason for my phone app and the website to be so outrageously out of sync.

The good news: my Nexus 5 and Moto 360 get along great.  The Steps card has been replaced with more health info, as seen here:

2014-10-30 13.30.10
2014-10-30 13.30.23 2014-10-30 13.30.34 2014-10-30 13.31.00 2014-10-30 18.42.12

 

Nothing to complain about here, and as I’ve mentioned before, I continue to be impressed by the fact that the Moto 360 (and thus Google Fit) can track bike rides and runs, something my FitBit can only do if I wear it at the bottom of my bike shorts, near the knee.  I believe it’s forward-motion based, however, which means it doesn’t work on my stationary bike, and I’ve heard reports of people driving incredibly slow in traffic and having Google Fit log that as cycling minutes. Whoops.

Unfortunately, that’s about where the positive section ends.  I mentioned running and bike rides…and those are two of the three activities Google Fit can track, the third being walking.  That’s it – even if you add an activity manually:

Screenshot 2014-10-30 18.12.45

Yup, that’s all anyone ever does! No other type of workout is possible.

It probably goes without saying at this point, but by-far the biggest problem with Google Fit is that it just doesn’t do anything of value.  It asks for my height and weight, but doesn’t give me any sort of calorie burn.  It lets me manually enter activities, but I better hope I didn’t go hiking or swimming.  I can view charts, but those charts provide me very little of value:

Screenshot 2014-10-30 18.16.26

What value does that data have?  Why does this chart even exist?

Compare it to the charts I get from FitBit’s website:

Holy shit! Useful data!

Holy shit! Useful data! Literally every one of these is more useful than what Google Fit tried to stuff into their single graph.

The only thing I can think of is that this was rushed out the door to go along with the Android 5.0 release, but there’s still no excuse for such a low-quality, barebones product from a company like Google.  The fact that none of the partner apps are even ready just underscores the lack of care and polish in this release.

It’s not that Google hasn’t stumbled before, but usually they at least bring something new and exciting to the table.  Android Wear is still basically beta software, but it also does things other wearable software doesn’t, and it has so much potential.  Meanwhile, Google Fit, at least inn its current form, seems to exist just for the sake of existing, and that’s not enough in a world with Apple HealthKit and, more recently, Microsoft Health.  Health, in particular, seems to basically be everything Google Fit should be, but somehow isn’t:

Microsoft Health is a cloud-based service that helps you live healthier by providing actionable insights based on data gathered from the fitness devices and apps that you use every day. Activity-tracking devices like the new Microsoft Band, smart watches, and mobile phones plus services like RunKeeper or MyFitnessPal connect easily to Microsoft Health. Using this fitness data and our Intelligence Engine in the cloud, Microsoft Health provides valuable, personal insights so you can reach your fitness goals.

Microsoft Health is designed to work with you, no matter what phone you have, device you wear, or service you use. The power of the cloud platform lies in its ability to combine the data from all the devices and services you use to give you a more holistic and insightful picture of your fitness.

Google Fit’s only real use for me is that it interfaces with Android Wear, and now, it looks like Microsoft Health might do that, too.  There’s absolutely no reason that Google Fit couldn’t have been this, but Microsoft has beaten them to the punch in a dramatic way.

know Google can do better than this, and that’s perhaps why this frustrates me so much.  It’s not that they did their best, strived for something new and exciting, and then failed – that, at least, would have been an admirable failure.  Instead, Google has done something I’ve never seen them do – release a product with almost no potential value to my life, and while I acknowledge that it will almost certainly get better in the next year, as they add more functionality and more partner apps come onboard, that’s no excuse for releasing it in the state it’s in today.

PS4’s Share Play is, perhaps, the first truly “next-gen” feature

While I’m still waiting for the long-promised Standby/Resume functionality of the PS4, Share Play is coming tomorrow, and I think this could be way bigger deal than people are giving it credit for.

What exactly is Share Play? In Sony’s own words:

As we’ve said before, the best way to think about Share Play is like a “virtual couch.” PlayStation 4 will create an online local co-op experience by allowing you to invite a friend to join your game for up to one hour at a time — even when they don’t own a copy of it.

Those last nine words are where the magic happens.  PS Now, Sony’s game streaming service, has been praised for the technology, but rightfully panned for the pricing.  This takes what is, presumably, that same core functionality, and leverages it in a much more consumer friendly way.

Does your friend own a game that you want to try?  Ask them if you can try it.  Do you own the (incredibly entertaining) indie fencing game Nidhogg, but your friend across the country doesn’t?  Now they can play it with you, without having to download a thing. Thanks in large parts to indie games like Nidhogg, TowerFall, and Sportsfriends, the PS4 is already on the way to becoming a local co-op powerhouse – and now Share Play will take that understated strength and bring a next-gen twist to it.

It’s also an important platform differentiator in a way that I don’t think we’ve yet seen this generation.  Sure, Sony and Microsoft fans can argue back and forth over the relatively minor differences between their consoles – even more minor now that Kinect is basically out of the picture – but thus far, there have been very few, if any, console-defining, gaming-centric features.  Suddenly, we have a piece of functionality with no cross-platform equivalent.  If your most of your friends own PS4s instead of Xbox One’s – and let’s face it, the way sales are going, that’s probably the case – this is just another way you’ll be able to play games with them.  I’ve always said that perhaps the most important factor in choosing a console is to figure out what console your friends are using, and Share Play is Sony doubling down on that aspect of social gaming.

Hell, I just downloaded Nidhogg this weekend, and come tomorrow, I’ll download an update, and suddenly anyone I know with a PS4 and PS Plus will be able to play it with me. That’s pretty damn cool – and, I would argue, the first truly “next gen” feature I’ve seen from either platform.   At the very least, it’s certainly the most gaming-centric one.

Of course, a lot of this hinges on Sony getting the tech right – from my limited experience with PS Now, I’m pretty optimistic, but there’s still certainly a chance for this to fail in a spectacular manner.  Of course, we’re early in this console generation, so there’s plenty of time to get it right, even if they stumble out of the gate.

Perhaps even better, having a differentiating feature like this means Microsoft has to respond in some form, sooner or later – and when they do, it’ll make that platform better, and the cycle of improvements will continue.  I haven’t been this excited about gaming in a long time, and I can’t wait to see where it goes next.

The power of competition: The Xbox One drops to $349 for the holidays

Going into the holiday season, the Xbox One is going to be $349including a game.  You can also get a game and Kinect for $449. Considering that, just 9 months ago, the Xbox One with Kinect and no game was $499, this is a remarkably solid deal – though it also shows just how much Sony has been beating them over this last year.

As someone who still remembers the early PS3 vs. 360 days – and bought a 360 last time around for the same reason I bought a PS4 this time around – it’s remarkable how much this generation has started off like the last one.  The major difference seems to be that Microsoft is responding to market realities way faster this generation than Sony did last generation. I didn’t get a PS3 until years after release, because the price point and exclusives just weren’t there, and the 360 was already my multi-platform box.

The Xbox One is in the same boat for me at the moment, and I hope Microsoft can win me over. They definitely seem to be on the fast track towards doing so.

The next Tomb Raider is an Xbox Exclusive, because Money.

Polygon writes:

Rise of the Tomb Raider, the next game in the reboot of the storied franchise, will be an Xbox exclusive, Microsoft corporate vice president Phil Harrison announced at Gamescom today.

There’s a quote explaining “why” from Crystal Dynamics, but it may as well read: “You know what we like?  Money, sweet, sweet Microsoft money.  Thanks for buying our last game though, suckers!”.

I can understand why some people feel betrayed, as I think there’s a difference between securing a brand-new IP like Sunset Overdrive, and making the sequel of a successful multi-platform game (a game which, apparently, sold better on the PlayStation) available exclusively on the Xbox. At the end of that day, though, that’s business, and Crystal Dynamics must have been written a pretty huge check to both make the game exclusive and potentially alienate any number of fans.  It’s a gamble and it’ll be interesting to see if it pays off in the long run.

It seems like an especially weird business decision, given that the last Tomb Raider game sold better on PlayStation systems, but I guess Microsoft can write some pretty huge checks.  Either way, I guess Winter 2015 is going to boil down to Uncharted vs. Tomb Raider, and I know who gets my money in that equation.

Next-gen gaming is becoming a service-based industry

Today, Polygon announced:

Hotline Miami on PS4 is cross-buy compatible with is PS3 and PS Vita versions — if you own one of these versions already, then you can download Hotline Miami on PS4 at no extra charge.

This relatively small bit of news today served to highlight something that I think has become more and more obvious in the past few months:

Next gen gaming isn’t about hardware, it’s about software services.

“Software services” don’t sound terribly sexy on the surface, but let me explain.  A couple weeks ago, I went out of town, and that trip happened to line up perfectly with the release of Rogue Legacy on the VitaRogue Legacy (a fantastic game, by the way) supports both cross-buy and cross-save, meaning that when I bought the Vita version, I also got a copy for my PS4.  Not “for an additional fee” – the same game, available on all my Sony platforms, at one price.  While I’ve known of this feature for awhile, I’ve rarely had a chance to leverage it.

Gaming, at its core, is about delighting the user, and let me say – being able to seamlessly resume my game of Rogue Legacy on my PS4 when I got back from the trip was delightful. I’ve used the Kinect, I’ve used the Wii U gamepad, and I’ve used a 3DS, but none of those hardware gimmicks impressed me as much as that.  It feels “next-gen” in a way that those haven’t.

The beautiful thing is, games like Rogue Legacy are becoming more of the rule than the exception.  I purchased Hotline Miami on the Vita a couple years ago, and now I get it on PS4 for free.  Just like that.  When I bought my PS4, there was a copy of Flower waiting for me, because I’d bought it on PS3 five years ago.  Just.  Like.  That.  Every time I see another game announced as cross-buy, it makes me feel, every so briefly, like a company is treating me like a human being, and not just a potential dollar sign.  It’s a fleeting feeling, to be sure, and I know it’s just fiction – but it’s a nice one.

It stands out in stark contrast to Nintendo’s strategy; Shovel Knight, another great game, was released for both the 3DS and the Wii U…but you’ll pay full price if you want to play on both platforms, and there’s no benefit to owning both.  Currently, owning a 3DS gives me no real reason to own a Wii U – and that’s a damn shame, because a few tweaks behind the scenes and Nintendo could easily change that.

Also in stark contrast, unfortunately, are the way AAA games are handling cross-generation titles.  The Last of UsGrand Theft Auto 5, and Sleeping Dogs are all expecting you to double-dip for the privilege of playing them on a new system, leaving it up to retailers themselves to offer you some sort of “upgrade deal”.  Unfortunately, it’s hard to see this changing in the immediate future – but one can hope.

I think the industry has hardware figured out; we know the equation to make a great console, and the PS4, Xbox One, and Wii U are all the result of that equation – now it’s time for the battlefield to move to software and services.  Already we’re seeing that, with PlayStation Plus and Games with Gold both offering great games for free every month, and now EA Access joining the fray.  If Nintendo can work out a similar deal with their own back catalogue, well, then we’d have a real interesting fight on our hands, as I think it’s a largely untapped resource that no other gaming company can truly match.

While I am certainly excited for the potential hardware advances, especially in the world of VR, I am undoubtedly more excited by the potential of software services, at least with regard to its broad impact on the industry.  This generation has the potential to be the most interesting – and, perhaps most important, the most gamer-centric – one yet.

What’s next for Microsoft in a world where Android is everywhere?

Yesterday, Google showed us a vision of a world where Android touches every area of your life.

Going for a run? Android on your wrist.

Going for a drive? Android in your car.

Having a party? Android on your TV.

What’s the hub for your smart life?  Android on your phone.

This is the world Microsoft has been aiming for, in some respects, since the introduction of their Metro design language.  Windows Phones look like Windows Tablets look like Windows Laptops look like the Xbox One – and that’s great.  Thanks to Microsoft’s cloud services, much of it plays nicely together, too – the problem is, right now, it doesn’t play nice enough together.  I can’t view or respond to my phone’s notifications on my tablet or PC, I can’t download the same app on my tablet and my phone and my TV, and there’s absolutely no sign of Windows on my wrist with only hints of Windows in my car.  Microsoft was perhaps the first to imagine a world where their products, services, and design give you a single, continuous experience regardless of your device and location (three screens and a cloud!), but at the current rate of iteration, Google is going to be first to realize that dream.

Microsoft didn’t have to let this happen; they’ve had all the puzzle pieces for awhile, they’ve just been too slow about putting them together.  Windows RT has been available since late October 2012, but I still can’t run Windows Phone apps on my tablet.  That feature is coming, but features are always coming – and this won’t be a new, unique feature to the platform, but another example of Microsoft reaching feature parity with its competitors.  They haven’t been been fast to iterate on Windows Phone, either; as great as the Windows Phone 8.1 update is, there was a year and a half between release of WP8 and WP8.1, which is an eternity in tech years.  Even then, WP8.1 is mostly about bringing feature parity, rather than bringing something new to the mobile world.  The execution on some ideas may be better (Cortana), but those ideas are all still things we’ve seen before.  Microsoft is busy playing catch-up with its phone OS, while Google is getting ready to put their “phone” OS everywhere.

Android’s development pace, in comparison, has been breakneck; look at how much Android changed in any given year and a half period since its release.  Now, some of that was out of necessity; for the first few years, Android needed drastic improvements to its design and performance, whereas Windows Phone 8 came out the door fast and stable.  Regardless of the reasons, though, it creates a mobile landscape in which Microsoft appears to be standing still next to Google’s dead-sprint, and Apple’s steady, relentless jog.

The only place Microsoft has the definitive advantage is in laptops and hybrids; Google can trumpet the success of Chrome OS all they want by pointing at the Amazon sales rankings, but Microsoft can point to actual sales figures.  There’s a long, long way to go before Chrome OS is a serious threat to Microsoft’s desktop world – but that desktop world is where Google has its trojan horse in the form of the Chrome browser.  Much of what Chrome OS is doing with Android can be done almost as well by the browser – just look at MightyText, which already lets me see and respond to text messages, or PushBullet, which already mirrors my phone and tablet’s notifications.  Google may never own the desktop, but with their strategy, they don’t really have to.  Their vision of Android being everywhere doesn’t require you buy a Chrome OS machine; it just requires you download the Chrome browser.

Apple, for what its worth, seems to have seen much of this coming, and have countered Google’s strength of open software and cloud services with their own strength – vertical platform integration.  iOS in the car was announced before Android Auto.  iOS8 and OS X 10.10 will bring iOS and OS X closer together with Continuity.  The iWatch has been rumored to exist by basically every tech site in existence, and something is almost certainly coming, hopefully this year.  Apple has been on the TV for years, and the only real missing piece of the puzzle for them now is to get the App Store on their TV solution.

So, we know Google’s next moves, and we know Apple’s, but what are Microsoft’s?  Satya Nadella seems to be saying all the right things; mobile first, cloud first certainly the direction the world is moving in.  We’ve already seen moves of a more open Microsoft, as Office has finally made its way to iOS and Android, and though the seeds for that were almost certainly planted in Ballmer’s days, it’s possible Nadella was the one who finally decided to push it out the door.

The coming year or two will hopefully see the Xbox One running the same apps as their Windows tablets and PCs, and those same tablets and PCs running many of the same apps as Windows Phone.  Microsoft has demonstrated Windows in the car, but questions remain about when it will be available and who will support it when it is available.  It also relies, at least partially, on developers updating their apps for the car – and given how much trouble Microsoft has historically had getting developers to make apps for Windows Phone, I have to wonder how much support Windows in the car will get.  Finally, though there have been rumors of a multi-platform Microsoft smartwatch, but no further information has materialized.  Microsoft will certainly move into the wearable space, in some form, but no one really knows what form it will be in and how long it will take.

So what should Microsoft do next?  As I see it, they have several options, not all of which are mutually exclusive:

  • Stay the course.  Keep pushing Windows Phone, Windows RT, Windows 8, and Xbox One closer and closer together.  This may actually work, they just need to start pushing faster.  Microsoft can’t afford iterate as slowly from 2014 to 2016 as they did from 2012 to 2014.  Hopefully, with Nadella at the helm, the next two years will be very exciting.  The biggest problem with all of this may be customer’s perception of Windows 8, which seems to be mixed at best.
  • Continue to make their software more available.  Office is basically everywhere now – why not do the same for IE?  I use Chrome on my laptop because it syncs with my phone; if IE was on my phone, then I’d have one less reason to use Chrome.  Push for a world where using Microsoft doesn’t necessarily mean using Windows, just like using Google doesn’t necessarily mean using Android.  Google wants to put Android everywhere, but its open nature means Microsoft can put all of their software and services on Android and ride that same wave. If Google is the open cloud company, and Apple is the vertically-integrated hardware company, the place for Microsoft might be somewhere comfortably in the middle.
  • Drop Windows Phone and shift their phone strategy to Android.  Now that Microsoft has their own in-house phone team, they could develop first-party Android phones.  This is probably the least likely strategy in the short-term, but you never know what will happen in the next few years.  There was a time when the idea of Apple hardware running Windows was laughable, too.  This would allow them to leverage things like Android Wear and Android in the car without having to invest in those strategies internally. Still, this is my least-preferred option; as much as I’d love to see Nokia’s old hardware design team make a fantastic Android device, I’d rather see a more competitive mobile landscape with at least three major players.
  • Stay the course with Windows Phone and develop a first-party Android phone.  Continue developing Windows Phone and great Windows Phone hardware, but spin-off a piece of Nokia’s old design team to push out an Android-running, Microsoft-developed smartphone – like the Nokia X line, but without the customized build of Android.  This may come across as unfocused, but if anyone has the resources to hedge their bets like this, its a company the size of Microsoft.  If they start this project now – even if they don’t release it – they’d be ready for a worst-case scenario where Windows Phone, Windows in the car, and their wearables don’t get the kind of traction they want.
  • Figure out what the next big tech shift is, and beat everyone there.  Apple beat everyone else to the first modern smartphone, and now it looks like Google will beat everyone else when it comes to a single experience on all platforms.  Rather than chasing Apple and Google, ideally Microsoft will forge their own path to…whatever it is we haven’t thought of yet.  This may lead back to the idea of yielding the mobile space to Android and developing their own Android hardware, so that they can at least have a strong mobile presence while they work on whatever is coming next.

Regardless of what Microsoft does going forward, I desperately want them to succeed.  A mobile world dominated primarily by Android and, to a lesser extent, Apple, might be good in the short-term for consumers, but in the long-run, innovation will stagnate without enough competition.  Google was forced to sprint with Android for so long because Apple had such a big head-start; for them, it was iterate-quickly-or-die.  I don’t know what Microsoft will do next, but I hope for their sake and ours that they do it much, much faster than they have been.  The time for caution is over.

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