Company / division: Microsoft
Microsoft Unifies its Minecraft Apps (Jun 12, 2017)
Alongside its Xbox One X announcement, one other big announcement Microsoft made at E3 is a unification of its Minecraft apps, such that several major versions will now be interoperable and available for social play between different platforms. Interestingly, the original PC version of the game is the one that will be left out from all this interoperability, but the mobile, Xbox, and VR, and even Nintendo Switch will all get it as a free upgrade to the current version. And in-game purchases (DLC) will also be available on each version. In many ways, it’s a quirk of the way the Minecraft apps have developed that they haven’t had this compatibility in the past – surely, many kids (and adults) have wanted to play these games on all their devices all along, and have had to make do with different incompatible versions instead. So this is at least a logical step, though the exclusion of the original PC version still feels a little odd.
The Trump administration is holding the first meetings of its American Technology Council, led by Trump son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner, later this month. Despite the recent contretemps between the tech industry and the administration, it appears most of the largest companies will still send senior leaders to the meetings, including CEOs or chairmen in many cases. Apple, Amazon, Alphabet, Microsoft, IBM, Oracle, Intel, Cisco, and others will all send at least one senior representative to the meetings. That’s a sign of the realism that still prevails at these companies despite broad opposition within their ranks to any kind of collaboration with the government. These companies still have policy objectives the government can and likely will help with, and disengaging entirely over those issues where there’s disagreement isn’t likely either to drive meaningfully different policies in those areas or achieve their broader goals. But that will make for some uncomfortable times for these leaders, most of whom looked pretty awkward at the first pre-inauguration meetings with Trump and his team. And these companies will face continued criticism from within Silicon Valley and elsewhere for their perceived compliance with the administration regardless.
Skype is one of those odd products – a fairly sizable communications property owned by a major tech company, and yet one which doesn’t make much money, isn’t growing much, and hasn’t really been focused on either messaging or social communication. It’s been clear, though, for some time that Microsoft would very much like Skype to be a big part of its consumer push and become more of a messaging- centric app, and the makeover it announced today seems like a big step in that direction. The new design, rolling out first on Android and later on other platforms, puts social sharing and messaging much more prominently in the app, but that’s no guarantee that people will actually use those features more or even see Skype as a natural place to do that kind of sharing. I only ever use Skype for work phone calls at this point, and others I’ve spoken to who use its messaging features use those almost exclusively for work communication too, so I’d be very curious to hear more from Microsoft about who is using messaging on Skype and what they’re using it for. My guess is that, for all the changes Microsoft is making here, it won’t be that much more successful than in the past in making Skype a mainstream consumer service or app for social communication and messaging. It doesn’t have the brand or the user base to make that objective work. It’s also adding in more bots, an effort that began with a bang at Build last year but has been quiet since, but again those will only be relevant inasmuch as people are spending a lot of time in Skype already and want and expect to find those interactions with brands and companies there. In the end, I don’t see anything here that makes me think Skype is going to become a radically different animal, even if it might look quite different after these changes. And that’s emblematic of Microsoft’s broader consumer challenges: it simply doesn’t have a broad-based consumer play at this point beyond productivity.
Microsoft Announces Dell, Asus, and Lenovo VR Headsets (May 31, 2017)
Microsoft Xbox Game Pass Will Launch in June (May 24, 2017)
Microsoft first announced the Xbox Game Pass subscription service back in February, but as I don’t seem to have covered it then it’s worth briefly talking about now, as the launch date has been announced today. The subscription is a sort of Netflix for Xbox games, featuring 100 games at any given time, though the specific titles will rotate in and out over time much as movies and TV shows do with Netflix’s library. It costs $9.99 per month and users will be able to download the games and play them as long as they remain available and the user remains a subscriber (Sony’s equivalent service merely streams games, so that’s one competitive differentiator). The service is notable mostly for the fact that it’s yet another example of a content category that’s traditionally been transactional moving to a subscription model, a trend captured in the Subscription Everything narrative here on the site. That’s both a better fit for many consumers who would rather pay a smaller amount monthly than big lump sums infrequently, and a more predictable revenue stream for Microsoft, which has already shifted to annuity models for other aspects of its business. From a consumer perspective, the subscription seems like a good deal – just the eight featured titles Microsoft highlights in the service at present are priced at an average of around $20, versus $10 to play all of them and lots more for a whole month. We’re going to continue to see more and more content consumption move to subscriptions, squeezing out those providers which continue to sell using only by-the-drink models, though there will always be those consumers who prefer to purchase at least some content that way.
via The Verge
Images Leak of New Microsoft Surface Pro (May 19, 2017)
Weekly Narrative Video – AR vs VR (May 12, 2017)
This week’s Narrative Video covers the “AR vs VR” narrative, and is available now to subscribers on the AR vs VR narrative page. In this video, I discuss the debate about terminology between AR, VR, and Microsoft’s preferred “Mixed Reality”. But I also talk about the current state of both VR and AR and how I see both playing out over the rest of the year. The narrative has been in the news this week, with Microsoft making announcements about mixed reality at Build, and Magic Leap both reaching out to developers and creatives and allegedly readying another round of funding. If you’re not yet a subscriber, you can sign up for a free 30-day trial to see this and other Weekly Narrative Videos, all this week’s posts and the narrative essays, which are exclusive to subscribers.
The UK National Health Service and many other corporate and government systems around the world are being attacked by ransomware which is enabled by NSA hacking tools for targeting Windows leaked earlier this year. Though Microsoft issued a patch for the affected vulnerability in March, many organizations haven’t applied those patches, which is not uncommon especially in large distributed organizations with many computers not “owned” by a particular end user or subject to any blanket policy on such updates. Though the motive appears to be financial – the hackers are demanding bitcoin in return for unlocking the affected machines – its immediate impact has been disruption, as operations have been canceled and medical centers closed, among other things. It’s a salutary lesson on the importance for both individuals and business of applying OS upgrades and patches in a timely fashion, but also of the vast reliance on aging machines and software across the corporate world. It’s also the kind of thing that’s dramatically less likely to affect web-based or more locked down systems like ChromeOS, Apple’s iOS or macOS, or even Microsoft’s new Windows 10 S. But given the prevalence of older versions of Windows in enterprises and government departments, that’s not going to help much anytime soon.
Microsoft Announces Details Around Windows 10 on ARM (May 12, 2017)
I’m at Microsoft’s Build developer conference this week, and got a little preview of some of what’s being announced in a private session for analysts yesterday. Today’s day 1 keynote is focused on Microsoft’s broad vision for this year’s event and its cloud and AI business. Many of the things I cover most closely will actually be in tomorrow’s keynote, which will cover more of the consumer-facing parts of the business. But there were still several notable announcements today that are worth talking about, even on a site like this that’s more consumer tech-focused. Firstly, it’s worth noting CEO Satya Nadella’s philosophical intro, which emphasized the ethical and other responsibilities tech companies have as well as the limits of tech in solving the world’s problems. That’s an admirable stance and a theme we’ve seen more from Nadella than any other tech leader in recent years.
Secondly, Microsoft’s big push this year is a shift from Nadella’s earlier mobile-first, cloud-first vision to a new vision around intelligent cloud combined with intelligent edge. What that means is that Microsoft sees the cloud as being less centralized and more distributed, including in edge devices, and its new Azure IoT Edge concept takes cloud computing functionality and puts it in potentially tiny devices at the edge of the network. That’s a somewhat unique vision for the cloud, especially from a company that’s also strong in the core cloud context. If Microsoft is right about this vision, and I suspect it is in the industrial world especially, then that raises interesting questions for other vendors and their ability to push that capability into edge devices, where operating system companies are strong but others tend not to be.
Thirdly, Microsoft is pushing what it calls its Graph, which is a sort of backend for its own services but also opens up to developers, and began as an agglomeration of data about users and is expanding to include those users’ activities in apps and across devices. The idea is that this Graph will power continuity between apps and other activities for users through both first-party and third party features. It’s a good concept and in some versions is reminiscent of what Apple does with Handoff and Continuity in its operating systems. But the big challenge for this vision at Microsoft is that it’s got a huge gap in its Graph around mobile, because people spend the vast majority of their mobile time outside Microsoft devices, operating systems, and apps. I can’t see it changing that, and that’s going to reduce the value of the Graph significantly, especially in the consumer world. I’ll have more commentary on some of the consumer-focused announcements in tomorrow’s keynote.
Lastly, one kind of consumer-focused announcement today, which has been subtle on stage but covered somewhat in the press regardless based on pre-briefings is Cortana Skills, which were announced way back in December but are now going more generally available to developers. What’s interesting here is that unlike Amazon’s Alexa Skills, at least some of these third party capabilities will be built in even if users haven’t explicitly installed or enabled the apps, including weather app Dark Sky and Domino’s Pizza. We’re still in the very early days here, but it will be interesting to see how skills on a PC-centric assistant like Cortana evolve differently from those on speaker- or phone-centric assistants like Alexa or Siri.
via Techmeme (and about a thousand articles on different announcements made today which you’ll find linked there)
The Verge has been talking about a future Windows feature called HomeHub since December, but this week has some images that are designed to show how HomeHub will work in practice, and it’s likely we’ll see this revealed officially at Build this week. HomeHub is a somewhat family-centric virtual assistant for Windows 10, which will combine Cortana voice features and more visual features on a sort of always-on home screen. It looks like Microsoft sees this feature both as something that PCs will offer and as something that will be available on dedicated devices. The Verge is that it suggests Microsoft sees all these devices being effectively full Windows 10 PCs, which feels like a huge mistake given how streamlined these devices can and should be. Even though Microsoft has evolved in its culture and strategy in very positive ways over recent years, things like this make you realize how tied to its past strategy of putting Windows everywhere it still is. At the very least, this ought to be running the more streamlined Windows 10 S it announced last week. But I’m all for tech which helps families stay organized – something I’ve argued more tech companies need to be working on. Given the launch of Echo Show this morning, Microsoft will have a concrete competing example of the same concept to go up against, which will likely raise the bar for whatever it announces. It’s also possible we’ll have Apple’s version of this to look at by the time the next version of Windows ships in the fall, further raising the stakes.
via The Verge