HoloLens is the most exciting project to come out of Microsoft in years


I’m a jaded tech blogger, but Microsoft’s HoloLens project is without doubt the most exciting project to come out of Redmond in years. After years of talk about augmented reality, this may be the first project that actually lives up to the hype.

The first hands-on posts from those we were in Redmond talk about it as an almost magical experience (but then they only got to test it in a very controlled environment). It’s a bit of Google Glass and Occulus Rift — yet at the same time it’s nothing like it because they don’t do anything like what Microsoft showed today.

This being Microsoft, things could still go horribly wrong. We won’t know until the first units hit the market. But it’s nice to see some real innovation from Microsoft again.

4:59 pm

6 Million Downloads Later, Microsoft Photosynth Goes Global


Photosynth is, without doubt, one of Microsoft's more impressive mobile apps. The app lets you snap panorama pictures with your iPhone and then upload them to (and you can even get them featured on Bing Maps). While the mobile app doesn't give you quite as many features as the web app – which allows you to stitch together 3D panoramas by combining images from multiple perspectives – the app has proven to be quite a hit.

According to Microsoft, 6 million iPhone users have downloaded the app so far (though, as usual, it's not clear how many active users there currently are). More importantly, though, the company also today announced that Photosynth is now available worldwide (iTunes link).

Also new in the latest version is a tighter integration with Twitter (via iOS5's built-in Twitter capabilities). 

In case you are unfamiliar with Photosynth, here is Microsoft's description of the app's capabilities:

Capture Full-Sphere Panoramas: Look and capture in all directions more easily than what most of us can do with DSLRs and point-and-shoot cameras.

View immediately: With fast On-Device Processing, you can see the final panorama in a few minutes, without requiring an internet connection or data plan.  Very handy for those impromptu panoramas and immediate gratification that you captured the perfect shot. 

Save locally and on the cloud:  Your panoramas saved on your phone can also be saved and viewed online at

Share immediately:  Share your panorama immediately via Twitter, Facebook or Bing Maps.

View in browser or app: Zoom, pan, and rotate your panorama in any direction through the Photosynth app or through the mobile browser.

11:31 am

Sorry Microsoft, But My Desktop Isn’t a Tablet


Last week, Microsoft launched the consumer preview version of Windows 8 to the public. As I was at the Mobile World Congress, I didn't get to install it until the weekend, but I've now been able to put it through its paces for the last few days and been using it as my main operating system for most of that time. Its split personality is driving me absolutely bonkers, however, and I'm not sure I'll extend this experiment much longer.

Windows 8 is a beautiful tablet operating system, but on a desktop – and especially with a multi-screen setup – it just constantly gets in your way. Thankfully, this is just a preview version and Microsoft still has a few months to iron out the kinks, but unless it makes some radical changes, I'm not sure I'll be able to recommend Windows 8 anytime soon. Microsoft says Windows 8 will offer the best of both worlds and in a way it does. It's just that these two worlds aren't meant to be squished into one single operating system.

The Split Personality of Windows 8

At least in this preview, Microsoft makes no attempt to hide the split personality of its new operating system. There's the metro interface, which you can't avoid, as it also now doubles as the new start menu, and then there is the traditional desktop, which can be best described as Windows 7.5. The two user interfaces have nothing in common with each other and try as you want, you can't just use Windows 8 like a Windows 7.5 because the tablet interface constantly intervenes. To launch applications from the traditional desktop, for example, you always have to go back to the Metro-style start menu, which features a great design for tablets, but makes utterly no sense when you use a mouse and keyboard.

Oh, and what about those two different versions of Internet Explorer? There's the Metro version, which doesn't support Flash and has a very stripped-down interface – and then there's the regular browser that runs in the desktop. How do you explain that to a mainstream user?

Got Two Screens? Windows 8 Wasn't Made for You

Worst of all, when you use a dual-screen setup right now, the second screen always shows the Windows 7.5 desktop and you can't even run two metro apps side-by-side on the two screens. To make matter worse, Windows 8 right now assumes that your primary screen is always the one with the task bar on it, so you can't even start any apps on the other screen while you are in Metro mode (unless you opt to show the same task bar on both screens, which also makes no sense whatsoever).

Great Tablet UI – Pointless on the Desktop

Microsoft has decided to privilege the tablet use case over the traditional desktop and productivity one. At times, this leads to non-sensical decisions like a login screen you have to drag up to get to the password prompt (okay – you can just hit enter twice, too, I think – but it's not like you will accidentally start your desktop or laptop in your pocket).

And what about trying to put your PC to sleep or turn it off? In Windows 8 right now, you have to first log out as a user, then pretend you want to log in again and the hunt for the shutdown button, which is hidden under your user icon (or you can try to bring up the "charm" that appears when you hit the right side of the screen with your mouse – but that's a bit hard  when your main screen is on the left side and your mouse just moves over to the right screen).

Maybe there is an alternative universe out there where this makes sense.

Then, of course, there is also the question of why you would want to run these full-screen apps on your desktop in the first place. Apple pushed the same concept with its full-screen mode and just like Microsoft, it totally forgot about dual-screen users. I don't think I've ever run an OS X app in full-screen mode, as it just makes switching between apps too much of a hassle.

There's Still Some Time to Fix This…

Hopefully, Microsoft will continue to polish the edges of Windows 8 to the point where this disjointed experience becomes somewhat less disorienting and maybe even feel natural. I admit, I doubt it. And that's a shame. Microsoft made some really smart decisions with the Metro interface (including, for example, the ability to run two applications side-by-side). My desktop, however, isn't a tablet and instead of making things easier for me, Windows 8 just constantly gets in the way. Windows 7 does its best to get out of my way – Windows 8 instead throws some giant tiles onto my screen.

2:59 pm

Microsoft’s Last CES Keynote: Old Demos and Very Little News


Microsoft's keynote at CES this evening felt like a cruel joke. Hosted by Ryan Seacrest and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, the keynote was anticipated widely, especially because it was Microsoft's last appearance on the keynote stage for the next few years. Judging by today's performance, they won't be missed. Microsoft demoed Windows Phone, Windows 8 and Xbox on stage. Virtually nothing shown on stage was new. For close to one hour and fifteen minutes, Microsoft basically only showed us things that it had already announced in 2011.

In some way, the keynote felt like a huge middle finger to CES. It's almost as if Microsoft, which had already said that CES didn't quite fit into its rhythm of announcement anymore, wanted to drive this point home by announcing close to nothing. It's hard to imagine that anybody in the audience wasn't already familiar with Windows Phone and the Windows 8 interface, after all.

The Only Real Piece of News: Kinect for PC is Coming Feb. 1st

Only after the first hour was over did Microsoft give us something new: a launch date for Kinect for PC: February 1st. Of course, we already knew it was coming to the PC – we just didn't know the date.

All of the PCs and phones shown in the demos were already announced, the Windows Phone and Windows 8 demos were slick – but probably because the presenters had a chance to hone their skills over the last few months of giving virtually the same presentation over and over again.

And Here's Xbox – And a Tiny Little Bit of News

At one point during the Xbox demo, which included two other minor snippets of news – a partnership with News Corp. and a Sesame Street app – Microsoft decided that it was about time to show that you can play music videos on the Xbox… and to make it clear that this was really a music video, we got to see all of it (or at least the audience in the keynote hall did – the livestream cut out at that point because of copyright concerns). 

Maybe the oddest moment of the show, though, was an appearance of the "Tweet Choir." Writing this a good hour after their appearance, I'm still not sure what they were singing about…

Even Ryan Seacrest seemed to be getting impatient towards the end of the show: "Steve, you know something we don't know yet. What's coming next?" Ballmer's answer: "Windows 8." You can't make this stuff up…

7:49 pm

Microsoft Launches Windows 8 Blog Ahead of its BUILD Conference


While it’s no secret that Microsoft is working hard on getting Windows 8 ready for a beta launch and while the company has shown a few snippets of the new user interface here and there, exact details about its internals and what the full experience will look like remain rare. Today, however, Microsoft’s president of the Windows and Windows Live division Steven Sinofsky announced the launch of a new company blog that will keep consumers and customers updated about the state of Windows 8.

Sinofksy: “Windows 8 reimagines Windows for a new generation of computing devices”

As Sinofsky notes, Microsoft wants to use this blog to have an “open dialog with those […] who will be trying out the pre-release version over the coming months.” It’s widely expected that Microsoft will make an early beta version of Windows 8 available to its developers at its Windows-centric BUILD conference next month.

There isn’t too much that is new in Sinofsky’s blog post. He mostly reiterates what Microsoft has already publicly stated about Windows 8. Here are some of the highlights: [list]

  • Microsoft is “100% committed to running the software and supporting the hardware that is compatible with over 400 million Windows 7 licenses already sold and all the Windows 7 yet to be sold.”
  • “Computing is much more focused on applications and on people than on the operating system itself or the data. These changes in the landscape motivate the most significant changes to Windows, from the chips to the experience”
  • “In the next weeks we will just start talking specifics of features, since there is no obvious place to start given the varying perspectives. From fundamentals, to user interface, to hardware support, and more, if something is important to you, we promise we’ll get to it in some form or another.”
  • “Our focus on performance, reliability, compatibility, security, and quality is now baked into our engineering process even as we change Windows for a new generation. With these changes come new ways of doing work on Windows PCs as well as continual investments in hardware, software, and peripherals.” [/list]

Still, it’s good to see that Microsoft is ready to talk more openly about Windows 8 now. This will help it to keep rumors in check and potentially build some excitement around Windows 8. The early glimpse at the UI we got earlier this year was promising, but also still felt more like a skin on top of Windows 7 than a new operating system. This early demo also focused strongly on the touch screen experience and barely touched upon what the regular interface would look like on a mainstream desktop.

After the launch of Windows 7, Microsoft was widely criticized for soliciting feedback from users during the beta phase without taking a lot of it into account. Hopefully, things will be a bit different this time around.

9:32 pm

Microsoft Launches Kinect SDK for Windows


Kinect, Microsoft’s motion tracking device for the Xbox, is among the greatest hits to come out of Redmond in recent memory. While there have been many projects that used the Kinect device with regular PCs, those were always hacks. Now, however, Microsoft is making a beta version of an official software development kit (SDK) for the Kinect available for those who want to get easier access to the Kinect’s features on Windows 7 PCs. This SDK is not open-sourced and isn’t licensed for commercial uses (yet).

With this SDK, developers will get access to virtually all of the Kinect’s advanced hardware, including raw sensor streams, skeletal tracking for up to two people and access to the device’s audio which can be integrated with Microsoft’s speech recognition API.

Non-Commerical Only – For Now

For now, the SDK only allows for non-commerical usage. This means you won’t see Kinect-enabled PC games or gesture-based interface for sale anytime soon. Microsoft is currently aiming the SDK at academics and students who want to use the SDK for research and classroom teaching and those who want to simply explore the possibilities of using the Kinect for building new natural user interfaces.

While the SDK only allows for these non-commerical uses, though, Microsoft explicitly notes that developers can distribute their demos, though users who just want to test these apps will have to install the SDK as well.

Microsoft also plans to allow for commercial uses of the SDK soon, but hasn’t disclosed a timeline yet. Talking to ZDNet’s Mary Jo Foley, Microsoft Research Distinguished Scientist Anoop Gupta said that he expects to see Kinect-based apps for “telepresence/teleconferencing, manufacturing, retail billboard, automotive and lots of other categories to be big among Kinect developers as the SDK moves from non-commercial to commercial.”


4:50 pm

Google, Bing and Yahoo Team Up to Improve Search Listings With More Structured Data


Google, Bing and Yahoo today launched a new initiative that will introduce a common vocabulary for adding additional markup and structured data to websites and – by extension – search engine listings., as this new markup is called, allows website owners to give search engines better ways to understand the content on their sites. With, you can, for example, ensure that a search engine knows that something on your site is a recipe, a movie review with a rating, a listing for a local business or that a specific page is about a product. In total, the hierarchy knows of a few hundred different content types that can be described through its vocabulary.


6:14 pm

Microsoft Streetside Isn’t Just a Google Streetview Clone Anymore


Microsoft today released a number of major updates to the Streetside feature in Bing Maps. Streetside used to be very similar to Google’s Streetview, but Microsoft just mixed things up a bit and included an important twist. Instead of showing you the street from a car driver’s perspective, Streetside shows you pictures of the buldings on the right or left side of the street. Using Streetside now feels a bit more like walking down a city block than driving down a street. Until today, users jumped from one bubble with a 360 degree view to the next. Now, however, you can smoothly move up and down any street, choose which side of the street you want to see with just one click and also switch to another street at an intersection. (more…)

6:10 pm

Social Search: Deeper Facebook Integration Pushes Microsoft Past Google


Microsoft today announced a deeper integration of Facebook’s ‘like’ data with its Bing search engine. This data now powers a number of new features that don’t just make Bing’s social search competitive but actually better and more useful than Google’s current efforts in the social search arena.

While Google is able to pull in data from Twitter and a number of other services (including its own recently launched +1 and public Facebook fan pages), Microsoft is the only major search engine with access to Facebook’s firehose. Thanks to this, Bing now shows you whenever a friend has ‘liked’ a site that appears on your search results page and pushes these results to the top of the page, too.

bing facebook integration

Collective IQ

In addition to these highly personalized results, Bing now also takes aggregate ‘like’ data into account while ranking search results. Thanks to this, Bing will now surface recipes on cooking sites that were ‘liked’ by a certain number of other Facebook users or which books on Amazon are currently popular.

Besides these major additions, Bing also launched a number of other features, including the ability to build a “travel wish list” that also shows you which of your friends live or have lived in a given city and the ability to receive notifications of flight deals when you ‘like’ a Bing flight search result.

Like vs. +1 and the Twitter Firehose

With the millions of ‘like’ buttons on the Web today, there can be little doubt that having access to this data firehose allows Bing to present more relevant data to mainstream users than Google currently can with its Twitter integration (there are, after all, far more users on Facebook than on Twitter). Google simply doesn’t have access to this data, which is likely one of the reasons why it started its +1 initiative. With +1, though, Google is far behind Facebook. Indeed, +1 is still just a labs product and the company will only launch +1 buttons for third-party sites in the next few weeks.

2:44 pm

Bing is Slowly Gaining Traction in UK


Bing, Microsoft’s upstart search engine, hasn’t quite been able to replicate its success in the U.S. in the European market. The latest data from Hitwise includes some good news for Microsoft, however. While every other search engine in the UK lost market share in the last year, Bing actually managed to increase its share of searches in March by 1.4% compared to one year ago. Now that’s now a huge change by any means – and its overall share of searches is still just 4.4% compared to Google’s 90%. As Hitwise’s Robin Goad points out, though, “this translates to a lot of extra searches occurring in Bing.”

It’s worth noting that Yahoo UK still powers its own search engine and – unlike the Yahoo mothership in the U.S. – doesn’t get its search data from Bing yet. The timetable for Bing’s integration into the UK version of Yahoo isn’t clear yet, but the total share of searches for a combined Bing/Yahoo would currently be just under 8%. Year-to-year, Bing was the only major search service in the UK that gained market share.

The biggest loser in the UK is Google, however, which lost 0.61% of the share of searches in March when compared to last year and 0.66% compared to February.


8:39 am

Bing Gets Self-Serve Deals and Coupons for Small Business Owners


Bing, Microsoft’s increasingly popular search engine, just launched a new product for business owners today that not only allows them to claim and edit their profiles on Bing’s local search feature, but also introduces a new self-serve platform for offering deals and other offers to their users. These offers can appear on Bing, as well as the business owner’s own website and Facebook pages. The service replaces Bing’s Local Listing Center.

The deals feature allows business owners to create discount coupons and advertise promotions (by one, got one free etc.) and enter a description of the deal (including images).

It’s worth noting that Google is offering a similar service on its Place Pages.

The new platform also allows small businesses to update their listings with up-to-date menus, for example, and links to their other web properties, including their Facebook and Twitter profiles.

Bing Business Portal


12:40 pm

As FarmVille’s Crops Wither, Microsoft Messenger Takes Aim at CityVille


FarmVille’s star is slowly fading. Zygna’s former flagship game is now only the third-most popular app on Facebook. Even as more and more crops wither due to their owners’ neglect, over 20 Million Internet users added to Zynga‘s bottom line yesterday by getting into the virtual construction business with the current #1 on Facebook: CityVille.

In between these two, though, is a surprise: Microsoft Messenger with close to 14.5 million users yesterday according to AppData’s stats, Messenger, an app that most early adopters never think about, allows its users to easily chat with both their Messenger and Facebook friends. Looking at the daily user numbers, Messenger is currently the most popular app on Facebook that is not a game.

Top Apps Leaderboard Facebook

I first took a look at the state of Messenger on Facebook last November and called its arrival in the Facebook top 3 (by daily active users) a “surprise.” Since then, though, Messenger has settled in the #2 spot nicely and continues to grow rapidly.

Messenger’s daily user numbers are up by over 300,000 over the last week. CityVille, on the other hand, lost 600,000 daily users over the same period, while FarmVille lost almost 500,000. With regards to fans on Facebook, Messenger only trails CityVille by just about 250,000 (9.8 million vs. 1.05 million likes)

Microsoft, of course, has also integrated Facebook into its desktop version of the Messenger app, which is likely a factor behind how well Messenger is doing on Facebook. Over 18 million Messenger users have already connected their chat accounts to Facebook. Facebook, of course, is all about communication at its core, so it makes sense that an app like Messenger would do well there, but given the might of Zynga’s social gaming empire, it’s still quite a surprise to see Microsoft in this group.

As I’ve said before, though, I also think that this speaks to how the mindset at Microsoft has changed over the last few years. Instead of building its own Facebook clone (and likely failing badly at it), the company has embraced working with market leaders in other areas, be that integrating other social networks deeply into Microsoft Live or working with Kayak to integrate better flight data into Bing.

10:05 am

Internet Explorer 9 RC: 2 Million Downloads in 6 Days


Even though some argue that Internet Explorer 9 is about two years late, there is clearly still a lot of interest in Microsoft’s newest browser. Since its launch on February 10, the release candidate of IE9 has been downloaded 2 million times. This number only includes user-initiated downloads, as Microsoft has not pushed automatic updates to current IE9 beta users.

It’s worth noting that the IE9 beta saw 2 million downloads within the first two days after it launched. The difference here, though, is that the first beta also marked the first time Microsoft showed the IE9 interface to the public. Many users likely just downloaded it just to see what the new interface looked like. The beta release was also heavily covered in mainstream media outlets.

One of the reasons to be interested in the IE9 release candidate is the fact that this the first version of IE9 to include Microsoft’s interpretation of a “do not track” feature. This allows Internet users to tell online advertisers and search engines that they want to opt out of behavioral tracking. Mozilla and Google have also launched their own versions of this feature in the last few weeks. For the time being, though, none of these systems are compatible with each other.

10:49 am