microsoft-build

Few things done right, Cortana could be a game changer

The keynote for BUILD 2014 was all good news for the Windows platform. Especially for Windows Phone; with a major Windows Phone 8.1 update filling some crucial holes in the mobile operating system. Of all the new and upcoming, the most looked forward to feature was no doubt – Cortana.

Cortana on Windows Phone gives a completely new meaning to the search button. Personally, I haven’t been a huge fan of the integrated Bing search on Windows Phone. Not that it isn’t a great search engine, but Google has had the benefit of my preference for a long time and I have always felt comfortable that way. But with Cortana – the search button will find more meaning in the lives of Windows Phone users like me and help create a lot more activity on Bing.

Now it is upto Microsoft to exploit this meaning in new and better ways – and on more platforms. Before I make my point a few features discussed at the keynote.

  1. Universal Windows apps
    Apps that can build to run on Windows Phone, Windows RT and Xbox.
  2. Windows and Internet of Things
    Windows for every device that can connect to the Internet.
  3. Cortana API provider
    APIs that help apps merge with the Cortana experience.

Cortana keeps a notebook to aggregate all the information she collects about her chief (user). She is designed to learn more about the user (location, social circles, etc.) and suggest the most relevant information. This also helps her become socially intelligent and understand where your contacts stand in your social life. Adapting to a single user’s individuality will help Cortana stay highly personalized for every user.

This makes it even more fascinating to see Cortana running as an integral part of the Windows ecosystem in the near future. The Natural Language Processing and ability to carry out actions in an app makes Cortana a lot more powerful.

If Microsoft plays it right and manages to converge the 3 points mentioned above, we could have multiple instances of Cortana running on devices hooked to the users identity. The possibilities can only be more and more engaging for users.

“Wouldn’t it be fun to tell Cortana on my phone to stream a movie from Netflix to my Xbox or Windows machine?”

The above use case might seem a little far-fetched to some, but can only be made possible with the Windows ecosystem being closely tied up. Of all platforms, I feel Microsoft has the right ground work laid to make this happen.

Moreover, if Windows for Internet of Things is done right; I’d like to see how Cortana can be linked. In short, if Microsoft steers this right, Cortana has the potential to bring Bing back in business and blow life into its Windows platform to create a more immerse experience for its users.

“Cortana, please turn off the lights. Good night!”

 

Links:
https://channel9.msdn.com/Events/Build/2014/2-511
http://techcrunch.com/2014/04/15/microsoft-announces-new-tools-bringing-the-cloud-to-the-internet-of-things-uniting-hadoop-and-sql/

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Dear Google, why so evil?

Around 8 months ago, Google officially removed support for Exchange and ActiveSync which is used by almost all Microsoft enabled devices to sync with services like Calendar, Contacts and Email. Microsoft was given a good 6 months before the support ended to shift to the new protocols (CalDAV and CardDAV) for its calendar and contact services and IMAP for Email. Microsoft complied and pushed support for new protocols in further updates.

Clean, right? Well, no so much.

I use a Windows Phone, and use 2 Gmail accounts with it. I prefer to maintain a zero-inbox policy, which prompts me to either delete or archive an email as soon as I am done with it. A few months back when Gmail switched to the new tabbed UI a lot of spam started crawling into my inbox. These mails conveniently hide behind the tabs on Gmail’s browser interface. But I do see an awful bunch of those when using the phone. I didn’t have so much of a problem deleting them from my phone, until I noticed that it hardly worked.

After the switch of protocols, emails deleted from the phone do not sync with Gmail by default due to IMAP. They only get deleted from the phone.

I looked up and found a dozen other people ranting about Windows Phone not being able to sync Gmail deletes, and how inconvenient the phone would be for people who primarily use Gmail. There is a way to correct this with little effort. A sync setting to sync deleted emails from a mobile device to trash. But apparently Google didn’t want it to be so easy for Windows Phone.

Visiting http://m.google.com/sync on a mobile device opens options to sync Google Calendar, Contacts and Gmail on a mobile device. This URL does not work on the Windows Phone. Trying to do so takes you to the desktop version of the site which does not have any access to the settings. The only option Windows Phone users are left with is so use another mobile device (iOS, Android) to open the URL, login to the Google account and change the settings. Ridiculous!

This isn’t much of a problem for the initiated and enlightened who tweak the user-agent on a desktop browser to view the mobile site and apply settings. But the general audience who does not have access to iOS or Android is left clueless.

What compelled the angel of the Internet plant such a well crafted bottleneck for no apparent reason? One might say IE the default browser on Windows Phone is to blame. But is a browser specifically requesting a mobile site so difficult to identify?

Productivity and Indian IT

The business with IT services in India is great. The fact that close to 25% of exports in India are from this very Industry matters a lot. This impact of the IT services sector in India grew to 7% of the GDP in 2008, and has been growing ever since. But has it been productive enough?

About a month ago, while early at work one of my colleagues brought this issue. The kind of revenue Infosys and TCS bring in. Apparently TCS had reported a $10 billion revenue which brought big smiles across the Indian IT services industry. Pretty impressive, yes! But we still do not sum up to the kind of productivity the ‘valley’ in U.S flaunts.

I am not a professional at calculating productivity or anything, but here’s a layman’s approach at it. As simple as it could get, I considered just a set of 2 numbers from each company’s Wikipedia page.

1. Annual Revenue

2. Number of Employees

That is straight math. My attempt to get – Revenue per Employee. Now before we proceed, this is my very own layman’s perspective. I liked the idea of doing this math and looking at the results. These do not indicate any hard conclusions. That made clear, here’s a Google Spreadsheet link.

Productivity Sheet

(I’ll be updating the sheet, as and when I get time or come across some interesting numbers)

Note that companies like Accenture, though in the Service sector show exceptional results. Companies headquartered in India have failed to do so. The kind of talent being brewed in India and the markets we target are a cause of worry. We have very few players in niche markets that could pay more in the long term. We might be geographically challenged, but we could do a lot more with the talent we have.

I’m no pro at finance or economy, just that I sense a room for improvement and find very few reasons to be happy with the Indian IT business. One reason could be the focus on services. Services are basically risk free. There is a sure shot revenue; so most companies (even startups) do not risk getting into the innovation business. This kills the ecosystem. We won’t be self-sufficient in the long run without a good product ecosystem. On the same note, Services are not as productive on the revenue/employee chart as well. This is quite clear from the sheet. Numbers for product oriented companies are at least twice as that of services. Services cannot be ignored, but the Innovation sector should not be ignored either.

While I was drafting this article, I came across this post from PuneTech that does a good job at studying the Indian IT scenario as well. @akkiman (Akshay Damle) points precise factors that affect Indian IT. The Indian talent pool and its manufacturing unit (Universities) is to blame. We have good amount of talent, but far few risk takers. Students in India do not aspire to work on break-through technologies, as much as they do aspire to work in any company that can be classified as an MNC. I have personally met folks who  asked me to suggest skillsets that create immediate entry points in these so called MNCs. That’s the sad part of the story. The talent pool that sticks to India is basically looking for a 9-5 (read 11-8) job, that provides enough security to obtain credit cards and housing loans.

For India to stay competitive, it has to focus on

1. Talent pool
Students should be made responsible to keep themselves updated. I believe Universities can do less in these terms, but they can cut some slack for students to go outside and get in touch with what matters most.

2. Infrastructure
The Indian Infrastructure for IT should be more habitable. One that encourages research and innovation. Fab-labs are a must. Technology is pacing in terms of Hardware. Products fabricated within the borders will promote innovation at a higher scale due to lower costs of production.

3. Productivity
Businesses should understand the ROI in terms of productivity – and not just capital. Indians often ignore the fact that effort put in saving a penny if focused on the right task could yield 10x. Care for employees. A good employee/employer relationship goes a long way in terms of productivity. Hold a workshop for freshers on expense management, tax savings, etc. Also, an IT company, compelling its employees to fill excel sheets for an hour, could definitely be more efficient by purchasing a good ERP solution for a few grands. Spend to make their lives easier, instead of treating them as just “resources”.

There’s more that should be done, but I’d say – these 3 are fair to being with.

The Google Glass Impression

You have to agree to the fact that – technology has been penetrating our day to day lives at unbelievable speeds. The moment we get used to an intrusion on one end of our social space (real social – not facebook/twitter social), another frontier of it seems to have faced a breach. There is an intense competition between brands to get their products on the top shelf of our lives.

Companies constantly expand their boundaries, create new markets with technologies that promise to power our lives with ease of communication, easy creation of data, seamless access to the same data, and much more. Google Glass – is a product from one of these expansions. A company dominant in the internet space, created a strong hold on the Mobile market and now breaching the not-so-existent market of “Always connected” devices. Google Glass is a giant leap. Not so much from a technology perspective as much as the experience. Experience for both – the user, and the people around the user.

There has been a long debate over how Google Glass will be received; if it will ever fit into our daily social interactions, or will it simply reflect as just another too ahead of it’s time technology. I believe that Google Glass will slowly blend into our society, as a general tool of convenience (or luxury) with just the right kind of execution. If Google Glass does succeed – it wont be the first one of its kind.

glass

We have obviously seen atleast one such technology that could make one look dorky to the untrained eye. Glass shall blend smoothly in our daily lives, provided that it makes a debut in the market with a sufficiently wide customer base. It has be there around us enough for us to adjust to it quickly.

“If an untrained eye, spots a person wearing Google Glass – and that person remains to be the only one wearing Glass around for more than a week or two, he is subject to being viewed as a dork.”

The argument around Glass, was that it gave out a negative impression about the user. People, not being used to seeing a person with a miniature screen hovering over his face, are prone to judge. But this is not the first wearable technology we have come across. We have easily accepted headphones as wearable devices. Bluetooth headsets have penetrated our social interactions well enough. The dork factor on a bluetooth headset is debatable, but they have found their own place, and can definitely not be termed as a failure. For people who compare Segways and Google Glass; there is not valid argument here. Segways have a far less utility/dork-factor ratio than what Glass does. I’ll leave the the explanation of Segways to @paulg; he has done it better – Paul Graham on why Segways didn’t make it big.

Headphones, or Bluetooth headsets both were found around the market for a price payable by most. This affects the acceptance a lot. You get to see it all around you – and you tend to accept it, because everyone agrees with it. Once they become a normal sight, people barely notice it. In layman’s terms – the first kid to wear prescription glasses at school usually appears to be odd to the peers (Don’t judge me – I have had prescription glasses since early in school), and possibly subjected to bullying. As more of them come in, it becomes a regular sight and you barely notice it. My analogy might not perfectly fit in, but it runs close to the case here.

To sum it up, what matters is – how frequently will you see a person wearing Glass around you? If people around you don’t get a sufficient enough dose of Glassware Glasswear you might risk being framed as a dork. In that case, you might want to move to a Glass friendly neighborhood.

 

Windows Phone 8 – a Win!

Today, Microsoft announced the Windows Phone 8 and its features at a Windows Phone Developer Summit in San Francisco which is due to launch this fall. The much awaited update to the Windows Phone does bring in some really cool features.

To being with, Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 come together now – a shared core! The Windows Kernel is being used by 1.3 billion people, while the shared kernel will help Windows 8 developers port their apps to Windows Phone easily. There are 8 basic feature updates with Windows Phone 8 – let me sum it up in brief.

1. Latest and Greatest Hardware
WP8 will have 3 screen resolutions. So along with 800×480, we’ll now have 1280×768 and 1280×720 as well. Removable microSD cards will be supported. Even though Windows Phone 7 worked great on a single core processor, Windows Phone 8 will be shipped on multi-core devices to take advantage of superior hardware and quality.

2. Internet Explorer 10
IE10 will built in with Windows Phone 8. So HTML developers can code once and let it work the same on the PC, Tablet and Phone. Classic!

3. Native Code support
They had this one coming. It was pretty difficult to convince game developers on other platforms to get their game on WP for one big reason. A major shift in technology. XNA. Native Code support will let game developers adopt to the platform easily, based on DirectX. Same game for Windows 8 and Windows Phone.

4. Better sharing with NFC
NFC on Windows Phone – they call it Tap + Share. This feature is integrated deep into the OS such that it allows transferring app sessions from one phone to another. Aimed at Android, and Bulls-eye!

5. The complete Wallet Experience
Windows Phone wallet aims to take at the Passbook app in iOS6. Holds Credit/Debit card details, Loyalty and Membership cards, Saved details. Also supports NFC – “Tap to Pay”. Partnering with Telecomms around the globe can make wallet an elite application on Windows Phone.

6. Nokia Maps with Windows Phone 8
Nokia Maps technologies will be brought to Windows Phone. This will make the map business more competitive with a recent update on iOS with its own versions on Maps.

7. Enterprise Ready!
This is very Microsoft is always interested. The Enterprise market – and for good reasons, this market does love it back. Encryption, Secure Boot and Device management made available to Microsoft IT admin. Big thing – Sharepoint servers will also be included in the enterprise system.

8. The Start Screen
Adds customizable tile sizes. Tiles, which define you and you phone can now be customized to a newer level. :)

You can view the whole keynote here
http://channel9.msdn.com/Events/Windows-Phone/Summit

And now, the bitter part – Windows Phone 8 won’t be coming to old devices. There is not upgrade path to Windows Phone 8! Bummer. I literally imagined a bunch of Nokia Lumia 900 owners hurl their devices in the air. I’m certain, that the few who have bought a device in the last 30 days will opt for a money-back. I’d think otherwise, because there’s more to the news. Current devices will get the new Start screen update with Windows Phone 7.8. The current marketplace has 100k apps, and the count still be rising and developers will ship apps for WP7 for a reasonable period even after WP8 launch because of the large user base, and legacy support on WP7. Considering the stats, you can still own a Windows Phone 7 for atleast 8 months from now.

People rant about WP8 not coming to old devices – I’d say, it was inevitable. The hardware requirements are too demanding for the older phones. For now WP8 seems promising – once again, the execution of the device matters.

All in all – too soon to predict the outcomes before we see the devices. Windows 8 will be launched late in August, we can expect Windows Phone 8 by November. <Fingers Crossed>