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Monday, March 25, 2013

Major Windows 8 built-in app updates due Tuesday, Google Calendar sync will be disabled

Microsoft major event 
Microsoft is preparing some major updates to its built-in Windows 8 applications on Tuesday. The company is refreshing its communication apps: mail, calendar, and people. In our review of Windows 8 we found that the new built-in apps were significantly lacking functionality, and the performance of them on the Surface RT tablet was poor. Microsoft is attempting to address both of these issues this week.


The focus is really on mail with this round of updates. Speaking with The Verge, Windows user experience program manager Kip Knox explained that Microsoft recognises the importance of mail, calendaring, and contacts. "Since we shipped Windows 8 we've been working hard on this update," he reveals. The update includes some features and functionality that really should have been part of the original release, but at least Microsoft is starting to correct that. Folder creation, deletion, and renaming is now supported, alongside a filter that brings up unread messages.


Mail should sync a lot faster and more reliably says Knox, with a new feature to let users to mark mail as spam. With Gmail this will move the message to the spam folder, but with it will do the same and also alert Microsoft's spam filter about the mail to ensure a similar one isn't placed in the inbox in future. Flagging is now supported too, with a filter to view all flagged messages. One of the bigger improvements is search. You can now search all mail on the server, which brings up results regardless of the amount of email you have synced with your device.

Mail finally gets decent draft support and speed improvements

Microsoft has also improved the compose messages part of mail. Surface RT users will be able to create messages a lot quicker, and the mail client will now automatically provide contact suggestions based on the number of times you email certain people. Draft messages has also been greatly improved. When you back out of an email message, mail will automatically save a draft and show it inline with the rest of your messages. There's no way to turn this behaviour off, but you can go through the drafts folder to delete individual drafts. You'll also be able to paste in formatted charts a lot more reliably, and edit bulleted or numbered lists more easily. Adding, editing, and deleting hyperlinks is now supported too.


Other minor improvements include the ability to delete all messages in a folder or mark them as read, an option to save senders as new contacts, and support to send email from an alias. Microsoft is also building in information rights management email support for business users, allowing them to securely send email attachments and read encrypted ones.


On the calendar side, Microsoft has made some tweaks to the UI to improve readability. Font sizes and colors have been improved, and a new work week view lets you focus on Monday to Friday to find appointments. Calendar now includes the current time in day and week view that's displayed inline against your appointments. You can also forward meeting invitations and check the availability of attendees. Recurrence options for meetings have also been improved, with the ability to set end dates for recurring events.


Microsoft is removing Google Calendar support

One major change in calendar is the removal of Google sync support. "As of this update we will switch all Gmail accounts over to IMAP, we have to," says Knox. Microsoft currently supports Exchange ActiveSync for Google accounts in mail, calendar, and people, but Google has dropped this support for new devices. The app update will remove calendar support for Google, but Windows 8 users will still be able to add Gmail contacts to the people hub. Knox refused to comment on any plans for CalDAV support, which Windows Phone will soon support, so it looks like Windows 8 users will be left out in the cold if they want Google Calendar support natively in Windows 8. It's a disappointing result for users, regardless if you blame Google for the support removal or Microsoft for not implementing CalDAV and CardDAV support sooner.


The people app isn't getting any significant improvements with this round of updates, but Microsoft is taking the opportunity to tweak some parts. A new filter will let you control the content of the "what's new feed" by picking social networks, and navigation has been improved with clearer options when the app bar is enabled. A new change on the Facebook integration side lets you post directly to a friend's wall, handy if you use the app for Facebook at all. Finally, Microsoft is also building in support for its Active Directory Global Address List (GAL) for business users.

Solid improvements, but still more required

Overall the changes are major for mail users, with a host of improvements and performance enhancements that make the app a lot more usable. Although Messenger is part of the core communications apps, Microsoft isn't updating this app at all. It's unclear how the company plans to manage its Skype and Messenger merger, but given the Messenger app seems redundant now we'd expect it to disappear in time. Skype now supports Messenger conversations and having two apps support identical scenarios seems confusing and unnecessary.

However, Microsoft refuses to comment on its plans for the Windows 8 Messenger app. The built-in Windows 8 apps will all be available in the Windows Store by Tuesday, but If Google Calendar support is essential to you then you might want to hold off updating. The unclear CalDAV support situation leaves users in limbo, so Microsoft needs to reveal its plans before people are left with questions. Despite this, the mail improvements are significant enough make an update worthwhile, and we're hopeful that Microsoft will continue to improve the rest of its apps very soon.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Microsoft blames overheating datacenter for 16-hour Outlook outage

Microsoft's webmail service suffered 16-hour long issues yesterday after a firmware upgrade at the company's datacenter went wrong. In a blog post detailing the outage, Microsoft reveals some customers couldn't access parts of SkyDrive, Hotmail, and Outlook. Although Microsoft has updated its datacenter firmware successfully previously, the regular process "resulted in a rapid and substantial temperature spike in the datacenter" due to an unspecified reason. The overheating was significant enough to activate Microsoft's safeguard process for a number of servers in the datacenter, preventing access to certain mailboxes.

A 16-hour outage is unusual for such a high scale web service, and Microsoft admits it required some human intervention to bring the services back online, thus delaying the restoration attempt.

"Requiring this kind of human intervention is not the norm for our services and added significant time to the restoration," says Microsoft's Arthur de Haan. The company doesn't provide numbers for the amount of users affected, but during the outage period we found that the majority of our own mailboxes were unaffected.

Microsoft is in the middle of transitioning its Hotmail user base over to its new Outlook service. The company has suffered a number of outages since the start of the year, also impacting its Office 365 business service. With three significant outages over the course of 2013, Microsoft promises that it's "hard at work on ensuring this doesn't happen again." At a time when it's investing millions of dollars to market, the company can ill afford to suffer long periods of outages, especially when it's on the attack.


Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Intel Capital makes a big bet on Android with investment in Bluestacks

Add Intel Capital to the growing list of companies eager to work with Bluestacks.

Intel has invested an undisclosed amount in the startup, BlueStacks told VentureBeat today.

BlueStacks “LayerCake” technology runs Android apps on any Windows PC and Mac, bridging a gap between mobile and the desktop that neither Google or Apple have tackled yet.

Primarily, Intel wants to make sure that BlueStacks’ software is optimized for its chips. The investment could also be a major help for Intel’s smartphones, like the Europe-only Motorola Razr i, which run its x86-based mobile processors instead of the ARM-based processors that power most other Android phones. Intel claims its mobile chips can run 95 percent of Android apps due to the chip architecture difference with its phones.

“Intel has an extremely powerful PC ecosystem, and they are looking to move into mobile in a big way,” said John Gargiulo, the vice president of marketing and business development at Bluestacks in an interview with VentureBeat. “There are more and more Intel chips on Android phones, so I think the alignment is clear.”

Intel just recently announced a new dual-core Atom mobile processor, but it’s at a severe disadvantage since it only started focusing on mobile chips a few years ago. Meanwhile, competitors like Qualcomm, Samsung, and Nvidia have had years to hone their mobile chips.

BlueStacks forged a deal with AMD to power its AppZone back in September, so Intel likely felt the need to step up its relationship. The news also comes on the heels of BlueStacks’ largest deal yet with Lenovo, a similar partnership with Asus, and the launch of a Surface Pro-optmized app.

“Consumers expect to have similar experiences across all devices, and that includes having access to the same popular apps,” Dave Flanagan, a managing director at Intel Capital, said in a statement. “Bluestacks technology is a key catalyst for us in enabling mobile apps to run on any type of device.”
Intel also relies on Bluestacks for its AppUp app store. Twenty-three apps on AppUp, like the popular news reader Pulse and Talking Tom, are listed as coming “via BlueStack Systems,” according to a Google site search. BlueStacks’ client powers those apps when you download them to your PC. It’s a particularly helpful partnership for Intel, since it brings popular apps to its fairly barren app store.
The Campbell, Calif.-based BlueStacks has also raised $15 million so far from Andreessen Horowitz, Ignition Venture Management, Citrix Systems, and others.


Microsoft restores transfer rights for retail Office 2013 copies

Summary: As part of its shift to a subscription model, Microsoft introduced a controversial "no transfer" restriction with Office 2013. Now, after an intense outcry from customers, the company has reversed course and agreed to allow users to transfer retail Office licenses between devices.

Office 2013 might be brand new, but its license agreement is already getting a significant upgrade. The new language represents a welcome change for buyers who prefer traditional licenses that don't require ongoing payments.

Bowing to “feedback from its customers,” Microsoft is changing the terms of the license agreement for the three retail “perpetual license” versions of Office 2013, restoring the terms that had been present in the corresponding agreement for Office 2010.
See also:
The company announced the changes in a formal statement and in a post on the Office blog.
Based on customer feedback we have changed the Office 2013 retail license agreement to allow customers to move the software from one computer to another. This means customers can transfer Office 2013 to a different computer if their device fails or they get a new one. Previously, customers could only transfer their Office 2013 software to a new device if their PC failed under warranty.
While the licensing agreement text accompanying Office 2013 software will be updated in future releases, this change is effective immediately and applies to Office Home and Student 2013, Office Home and Business 2013, Office Professional 2013 and the standalone Office 2013 applications. With this change, customers can move the software to another computer once every 90 days. These terms are identical to those found in the Office 2010 software.
If you purchase and install a retail copy of Office Home and Student 2013, Office Home and Business 2013, or Office Professional 2013, you will be able to transfer the license from one PC to another. As with previous Office versions, the new terms say you can make this sort of transfer no more than once every 90 days. The license allows only a single installation: the original copy must be uninstalled from the first device before activating it on the second computer. The license terms for OEM copies of Office that are purchased with a new PC remain unchanged; OEM copies cannot be transferred except with the PC itself.

In the original agreement for “perpetual license” versions of the new Office, Microsoft had specifically prohibited licensees from transferring the software, using unambiguous language: "You may not transfer the software to another computer or user."
That policy raised howls of protests from would-be Office buyers wondering what would happen if their computer failed. In a first attempt at damage control, on February 19, Microsoft took to its corporate blog, adding a footnote to a comparison chart that said: “An exception [to the no-transfer rule] is granted when the software is on a PC that is replaced under warranty.”

As I noted at the time, that attempt at placating customers fell short. And apparently someone at a senior level in the Office team was listening, because today’s announcement is a complete rollback of that controversial set of terms. Technically, in fact, the new terms for Office 2013 are looser than those that applied to Office 2010, because the new Office will be available to retail buyers only via Product Key Cards (PKCs). In Office 2010, the PKC license contained a no-transfer clause.
The new terms read, in part:
Can I transfer the software to another computer or user? You may transfer the software to another computer that belongs to you, but not more than one time every 90 days (except due to hardware failure, in which case you may transfer sooner). If you transfer the software to another computer, that other computer becomes the "licensed computer."
(It’s also worth noting that anyone who wants the freedom to use Office on multiple devices should really consider one of the Office 365 subscription editions, which include the rights to install the software on up to five PCs or Macs, with a one-click deactivation process and no pesky 90-day limit.)
By the way, if all this seems familiar, it’s not your imagination. Microsoft tried a similar tactic with Windows Vista in October 2006. The original license agreement imposed a new limit of one transfer on retail copies of Windows. At the time, I called it “a sneaky change in Windows licensing terms.” After a similar outcry from Microsoft customers (a Microsoft executive acknowledged having received "lots of e-mail and other feedback" on this issue), Microsoft rolled back the changes and restored the original license terms less than a month later.

Although the change is effective immediately, the changes in the license agreement itself won’t be published immediately. (It takes several months for those sorts of legal changes to roll out.) It will also take a few months for the public activation servers to reflect the new policy, which means until then anyone who wants to transfer an Office 2013 license, regardless of the reason, will need to call customer support to make the change.

Microsoft’s Jevon Fark, a senior marketing manager on the Office team, tells me that those customer support agents are “ready and onboard, and the back-end activation system will be ready for them.”
I heard from dozens of potential customers who were put off by these terms initially. It will be interesting to see how many of them change their minds and decide to upgrade after all.