Microsoft is adding some clever AI-powered image recognition, search, and automation features to the latest version of its Windows Photos app. It doesn’t sound like there’s anything here that will exceed the functionality of existing apps from Google or Apple, but just achieving parity would be a big step forward for Microsoft, which has always been bafflingly slow in addressing people’s needs to manage their photo libraries. Given how many people must store their photos on Windows computers, this is something Microsoft should have addressed long ago. Nokia was another company that always emphasized photography and yet never gave people a great way to manage the pictures they took on their phones, so the fact that Microsoft didn’t jump on the opportunity when it acquired the devices business from Nokia was another odd omission. At any rate, Microsoft now seems to be taking some of these advanced consumer features more seriously, as evidenced by the fantastic video creation tools in the forthcoming version of Windows, and these Photos changes are another positive move in this direction. This is low-hanging fruit as Microsoft looks to burnish its consumer and creativity credentials.
Snapchat Introduces More Flexible Stories Feature (May 23, 2017)
Instagram Launches Selfie Filters (May 16, 2017)
It’s hard to avoid the sense that Facebook is trying to rain on Twitter’s parade here. It’s announced that Instagram now has 700 million monthly active users, up from 600 million in December, which means it’s added 100 million users in just a little over the time it took Twitter to add nine million. It previously announced that Instagram Stories has 200 million users, up from the 150 million it had shared earlier, and attributed the growth in the core Instagram user base in part to an improved signup flow. But Instagram has also benefited from strong adoption in emerging markets, including Brazil, which is its second largest market after the US, with 45 million users. That’s in marked contrast to Snapchat, which has emphasized primarily mature markets on the basis that emerging markets users have more constrained and expensive bandwidth and would be less likely to use a visually intensive app like Snapchat. And of course Facebook’s other apps continue to grow rapidly too: Messenger and WhatsApp are now both over 1.2 billion, while the core app will likely hit 2 billion in the next quarter or two.
Apple Enables Web Embedding of Live Photos for Developers (Apr 20, 2017)
I’m at Facebook’s F8 today and one of the two big announcements from the first day keynote is this Camera Effects Platform, which is Facebook’s first big push into AR. That’s a good thing, because Facebook has so far made its big bet on its narrower cousin, VR, through Oculus. AR has the potential to be much bigger, and Facebook getting into this space will only accelerate adoption and awareness. Sensibly, though, I don’t think any of this will be described as AR in most user-facing settings – it’ll have more user friendly names like Camera Effects, Frames, and so on. But building a platform for AR experiences including some pretty sophisticated ones means Facebook is finally serious about AR both from a first-party and developer perspective, which is a good thing. The stuff shown off on stage today looked much cleverer than what Snapchat launched this morning, and although it won’t all be available right away I suspect Facebook is actually going to be ahead here, especially when it comes to the rear-facing camera. In fact, there’s a possible scenario in which Snapchat continues to do AR better for the selfie camera, while Facebook provides better AR experiences for the outside world. More broadly, this means Facebook will now be a serious player in a field which includes not just itself an Snapchat but also Microsoft, and will soon include Magic Leap, Apple, and many others too. There are therefore big questions to ask about who will be able to attract developers and help them get a return on their investment with good monetization. I would expect to see some similar stuff from Apple at WWDC in June and possibly even more in September with new iPhone hardware too.
Apple’s Clips app offers promising & fun editing features, but confusing & difficult UI – 9to5Mac (Apr 6, 2017)
Apple announced the Clips app a couple of weeks ago along with the new iPad and other announcements, and when I commented on that announcement I said the proof would be in the pudding with regard to how well the app performed. We now have reviews (and the app itself is out now too), and it looks like a bit of a mixed bag. The app looks clever, with some nifty new features, but it looks like it may suffer from the same problem as some other Cook-era Apple product releases, in that it seems like it may try to do too much, and therefore can be confusing to use. Here, as with the Apple Watch, Apple Music, and other recent efforts from Apple, it looks like it may have been better served by starting simpler and adding functionality over time. The real test will be whether we start seeing Clips-generated videos showing up in a big way on Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook, because since this app lacks its own social features the output needs to be shared elsewhere. I still suspect, as I said in my first comment, that this is a better fit for the older Facebook generations than the Snapchat and Instagram generation, but we’ll see.
Microsoft launches Sprinkles, a silly camera app powered by machine learning – TechCrunch (Apr 4, 2017)
As I mentioned recently in the context of Microsoft’s Indian AI chatbot, the company appears to be in an experimental mood as regards AI, trying lots of things in lots of separate spaces, without pushing all that hard in any particular direction. There’s nothing wrong with experimentation, but there is a worry that Microsoft both spreads itself a little thin and risks diluting its brand, which has become more focused of late around productivity. There’s an argument to be made that this Sprinkles app fits its other, newer focus on creativity, but it’s probably a bit of a stretch given the minimal ties into any of its other offerings. On the consumer side, Microsoft’s biggest challenge continues to be not just producing compelling offerings but finding ways to monetize them.
This is a great example of the practical benefits of machine learning, which is where the focus should be as companies tout their AI/ML credentials. On-stage demos of new capability at the research level are impressive but ultimately meaningless unless they lead to real-world benefits for end users such as this image processing technique which can reduce file sizes by 75%.
Apple’s iCloud website has been the solution for users of its products who don’t own a Mac, but it’s often been a poor second class citizen to the Mac experience (arguably deliberately). This is an interesting change in a key area, and it’s possible that it portends more robust iCloud.com offerings for other products and services.