Microsoft open-sources a crucial algorithm behind its Bing Search services

Microsoft today announced that it has open-sourced a key piece of what makes its Bing search services able to quickly return search results to its users. By making this technology open, the company hopes that developers will be able to build similar experiences for their users in other domains where users search through vast data troves, including in retail, though in this age of abundant data, chances are developers will find plenty of other enterprise and consumer use cases, too.

The piece of software the company open-sourced today is a library Microsoft developed to make better use of all the data it collected and AI models it built for Bing .

“Only a few years ago, web search was simple. Users typed a few words and waded through pages of results,” the company notes in today’s announcement. “Today, those same users may instead snap a picture on a phone and drop it into a search box or use an intelligent assistant to ask a question without physically touching a device at all. They may also type a question and expect an actual reply, not a list of pages with likely answers.”

With the Space Partition Tree and Graph (SPTAG) algorithm that is at the core of the open-sourced Python library, Microsoft is able to search through billions of pieces of information in milliseconds.

Vector search itself isn’t a new idea, of course. What Microsoft has done, though, is apply this concept to working with deep learning models. First, the team takes a pre-trained model and encodes that data into vectors, where every vector represents a word or pixel. Using the new SPTAG library, it then generates a vector index. As queries come in, the deep learning model translates that text or image into a vector and the library finds the most related vectors in that index.

“With Bing search, the vectorizing effort has extended to over 150 billion pieces of data indexed by the search engine to bring improvement over traditional keyword matching,” Microsoft says. “These include single words, characters, web page snippets, full queries and other media. Once a user searches, Bing can scan the indexed vectors and deliver the best match.”

The library is now available under the MIT license and provides all of the tools to build and search these distributed vector indexes. You can find more details about how to get started with using this library — as well as application samples — here.

Microsoft unveils a Cortana-powered thermostat

 The latest addition to the smart thermostat space is a product that includes Microsoft’s Cortana virtual assistant. We’re all familiar with the rise of the internet-enabled thermostats, thanks to the development of companies like Nest, and now Microsoft is entering the space after it partnered with Johnson Controls to develop a product called GLAS. The rather stunning looking… Read More

Microsoft offloads Nokia feature phone business to Foxconn for $350M

Nokia mobiles Microsoft is selling the feature phone business it acquired from Nokia back in 2013 to a subsidiary of Chinese manufacturer Foxconn for $350 million, it announced today. At the same time former owner Nokia said it has inked a deal to license its brand to HMD Global, a new Finnish company run by ex-Nokia and Microsoft devices staff, to “create a new generation of Nokia-branded mobile… Read More

Microsoft’s Surface phone is now reportedly coming in 2017

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We’ve known for a long time that Microsoft’s Surface team is toying with the idea of building a premium smartphone. The latest rumor claimed such a device would arrive in the second half of 2016, but that timeframe has reportedly been pushed back to early 2017.

This tidbit comes from sources close to Microsoft’s plans cited by Windows Central, which is also claiming there could be up to three models of the Surface phone. The early plans allegedly point to a consumer model, a business model, and an enthusiast model.

But details are unsurprisingly still scarce. How the three models, if there really do end up being three, would be differentiated is not clear, but they would likely be offered at various price points depending on their specifications.

Coupled with the speculation that the Lumia 650 is the last Lumia phone, this rumor would point to Microsoft moving away from the budget mobile market and focusing on high-end phones. Surface devices are all about the high-end, so this is not much of a surprise.

The Surface phone is supposed to be built by the same Microsoft engineering team that built the Surface and Surface Book, led by Panos Panay. This team is responsible for Microsoft’s “premium” devices.

Given the constantly strengthening Android-iOS duopoly, and the fact that Windows 10 Mobile is essentially the last mobile operating system left standing, there is a lot of excitement surrounding a potential Surface phone. Earlier this year, there was a lot of hype surrounding a simple domain name, for example.

Microsoft has a very slim chance of turning Windows 10 Mobile into a serious contender. It doesn’t help that the Lumia 950 and Lumia 950 XL, released in October 2015, were simply not very exciting devices.

But that doesn’t mean Microsoft can’t still see some kind of success in mobile. A serious flagship phone with a strong brand would certainly help.


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Microsoft explains what you will lose by upgrading to Windows 10 Mobile

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Microsoft today finally started rolling out Windows 10 Mobile to 18 devices running Windows Phone 8.1. As we noted, there is a lot to gain by upgrading to Windows 10 Mobile, though some features are dependent on your hardware. But you may also lose some features, according to the Windows 10 specifications page.

First of all, your contact tiles will not show notifications for missed calls, messages, and emails. The Me Tile and Me Card are also no longer supported, while group tiles can’t be used to receive status updates from social networks.

While Cortana should work better overall, she can no longer search for apps, setting, email, text messaging, contacts, and QR Codes on the device. Cortana can also no longer open apps through voice commands, and the “Hey Cortana” trigger will no longer work on some upgraded devices.

Other small feature losses include Indoor Maps not working anymore for some locations, the Outlook Mail app not being able to open .EML attachments, and Outlook Calendar not supporting Tasks. Businesses should also be aware that certain enterprise features, including Data Protection Under Lock, are not available and that the MDM capability to prevent saving and sharing Office documents is not supported.

As we noted earlier, because Windows 10 Mobile is part of Windows 10, it is automatically updated. Microsoft explains what this means:

Windows 10 Mobile users will receive updates automatically during the support period when they are available. Windows 10 Mobile Enterprise users will have the ability to postpone updates. Additional requirements will apply over time for updates, and availability may vary by device, carrier, and market. The amount of time that Windows 10 Mobile users can postpone updates is limited. Support may vary by device and other factors.

This is generally a good thing, though there are always those who do not like automatic updates. Microsoft also warns that while your apps, in-app purchases, files, and settings will migrate as part of the upgrade, some may not make it.

All in all, Windows 10 Mobile is worth upgrading to if your device supports it, but it should be your choice. Like with any upgrade, you should know what you’re getting into, and weigh the option of simply buying a new device altogether.

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Microsoft, Nokia, and the burning platform: a final look at the failed Windows Phone alliance

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When Microsoft acquired Nokia’s Devices and Services division in late 2013 and began integrating the storied Lumia brand into its offerings, it was hailed by Microsoft’s then-CEO Steve Ballmer as “a bold step into the future — a win-win for employees, shareholders, and consumers of both companies.” Since then, Microsoft has folded much of its $7.5 billion acquisition into other divisions of the company, laid off thousands of former Nokia employees, slashed its output of smartphones per year, and eventually wrote off the entire purchase in a $7.6 billion impairment charge. Fast forward to early 2016, when we will soon see a quiet launch of what’s widely believed to be the final Microsoft Lumia-branded handset, the Lumia 650.

(According to Microsoft watcher Paul Thurrott, what remains of the Lumia division has been shifted over to the Surface team, but the eventual branding of their final products is unknown.)

It’s easy enough, with the benefit of hindsight, to lament that many of these billion-dollar acquisitions end up failing to deliver shareholder value or operational synergy. But unlike other failed mergers — and despite Ballmer’s rosy assessment of the situation — this was a corporate coupling that many observers correctly predicted would fail. Rather than being done to achieve some shared vision, at the time both Nokia and Microsoft were backed into a corner and saw the other as their only potential savior.

Why did this happen? Both companies could have avoided such a point of desperation — but once Microsoft and Nokia tied their fates together in a wide-ranging 2011 partnership, failure was all but inevitable. How these two stalwarts developed an ultimately fatal codependency offers yet another cautionary tale about billion-dollar corporate mergers. As in life, there are no sure things.

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A Trojan horse?

Some critics have likened former Nokia CEO Stephen Elop to the mythological Trojan horse, in the aftermath of Nokia’s failed efforts to employ Windows Phone (and only Windows Phone) to boost sales. After all, Elop was a Microsoft executive from 2008 through 2010 before taking over the helm at Nokia, and his relationships there very likely paved the way for Nokia’s big gamble on a platform with tepid market share.

Make no mistake: Despite Nokia’s then-declining market share, it was Microsoft that was, strategically, in the relatively worse position. Windows Phone was not performing nearly as well as it had hoped, and the conventional wisdom stated that a tie-up with a popular handset maker could give it the necessary cachet, and jump-start, that it so desperately needed.

As it turned out, a situation more akin to the opposite of that conventional wisdom is how things actually transpired.

Even though Windows Phone is a well-regarded operating system, it faced a chicken-or-egg conundrum when it came to apps. Developers don’t want to devote resources to a platform without a significant user base, but consumers don’t want to invest in devices until they can offer a minimum threshold of popular applications.

Nokia got stuck in the middle of this tug-of-war. The Finnish handset manufacturer, under Elop’s leadership, adopted Windows Phone but soon proved unable to sell enough devices to convince app developers to contribute to the Windows Phone platform. Eventually Nokia itself became a victim of the apps tug-of-war.

As Nokia’s fortunes fell and Microsoft grew more anxious about Windows Phone, a tie-up took on urgency. Nokia had one foot out the door, tentatively exploring entry-level Android-powered phones in a bid to stay afloat after bleeding cash for several years in a row.

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Microsoft needed its only major hardware partner to stay faithful if it hoped to remain in the mobile platform business, and was willing to pay $7.5 billion for fidelity. Almost overnight, Steve Ballmer became the white knight Nokia needed. But there was more to the deal. One unusual aspect to the arrangement: Instead of Nokia waving goodbye to its division, CEO Elop moved over as well, returning full circle to his former employer as the new chief of Microsoft Devices.

The burning platform

In 2011, market share of Android surpassed that of Nokia’s Symbian OS, despite being launched just two years earlier. During that same time frame, Apple enjoyed explosive growth of its iPhone OS, whose 2007 introduction roiled an industry caught off-guard by its arrival.

Nokia was slow to react to the newfound competition. In his now infamous “Burning Platform” speech, delivered to employees just prior to announcing the Microsoft partnership in early February 2011, Elop acknowledged that the company’s traditional strategy of competing device-to-device at various price points had failed.

The battle of devices has now become a war of ecosystems, where ecosystems include not only the hardware and software of the device, but developers, applications, ecommerce, advertising, search, social applications, location-based services, unified communications, and many other things. Our competitors aren’t taking our market share with devices; they are taking our market share with an entire ecosystem. This means we’re going to have to decide how we either build, catalyze, or join an ecosystem.

Elop’s chosen ecosystem was, of course, Windows Phone. Nokia launched its first two handsets — the Lumia 800 and Lumia 710 — in late October 2011, nearly a year after adopting the platform. Microsoft, too, had forced its fans to wait 8 months (February to October 2010) between announcing Windows Phone 7 and the release of the first wave of compatible devices.

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Both gaps would prove to be problematic, especially for Microsoft, due to the fact that Windows Phone apps would not be compatible with the Windows Mobile handsets that it had been promoting up to that point. Perhaps the shift from a handset way of thinking to a broader ecosystem model was a larger undertaking than both companies anticipated.

The road not taken

So, might things have turned out differently for Nokia if it had picked another route? Windows Phone was far from its only option, of course. Android should have been an obvious candidate. Nokia, at the time, was familiar with the operating system. Android would eventually power its short-lived line of Nokia X devices.

However, there were other possible directions. MeeGo, a homegrown Nokia OS that made it to retail on a single phone — the N9 — would have been the fan favorite. However, despite generally positive reviews in the press and from owners, its release after the “Burning Platform” inflection point relegated it to being merely a curiosity. And Symbian Series 60, which had powered the vast majority of the company’s smartphones, had virtually no market share in the U.S. — by that point considered a critical mobile market for the company.

So, let’s assume that instead of Windows Phone, Nokia had become an Android partner instead. It’s far from given that adopting the Android OS alone could have righted the ship; after all, many Android OEMs — and there are a lot of them — struggle to make a profit as commoditization overtakes the industry. Still, I have to believe that they could have sold more Android handsets than they did Windows Phones. How many more is unknown, but simply going by the market share that each platform has had over the past five years, I suspect it would have been a pretty healthy increase.

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In the end, Nokia hoped that Windows Phone would make it stand out in a sea of Android and iOS devices — and it did, but not in the fashion it had wanted. Instead, Nokia customers watched their once-mighty brand slowly fade into irrelevance, eventually getting consumed by its ill-chosen partner.

The mobile landscape is littered with manufacturers who lost their way, from Palm to BlackBerry to HTC to Danger. No company is too big to fail, and those that react too slowly to shifts in tastes and preferences can quickly find themselves struggling to catch up. Often, the only path forward requires choosing from a set of unpalatable options. Thanks in part to Stephen Elop’s Rolodex, Nokia’s storied handset division wound up in the arms of Microsoft, a fatal embrace.










comScore: Apple ends 2015 with 42.9% of U.S. smartphone share, Samsung at 28.4%; BlackBerry OS falls under 1%

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Apple’s dominance as the top smartphone maker in the U.S. continued throughout last year, growing slightly from 41.6 percent in December 2014 to 42.9 percent of the pie at the end of 2015. Samsung meanwhile slipped a bit, from 29.7 percent in December 2014 to 28.4 percent in December 2015. Rounding out the top five were LG (up), Motorola (flat), and HTC (down).

In the mobile OS wars, Google’s Android kept the U.S. crown with 53.3 percent, moving up 0.2 percentage points year over year, while Apple held second with iOS, also moving up the same 1.3 percentage points as a smartphone maker. Microsoft’s Windows Phone dropped 0.5 points to 2.9 while BlackBerry OS halved its share from 1.8 percent to 0.9 percent.

The latest data comes from comScore, which estimates 197.4 million Americans owned smartphones (79.3 percent mobile market penetration) during Q4 2015. Here is how the top five smartphone makers fared last quarter:

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Over the last three months of the year, Apple lost share while Samsung capitalized. As we already mentioned though, Apple actually fared better when looking across the whole year. Everyone else in the U.S. market is still very far behind, though LG almost managed to hit double digits. The bigger changes will likely come when the January figures arrive, as that’s when the impact of holiday sales will become apparent.

On the software side, Google ended 2015 very strongly. In December, Android was the undisputed winner once again while Apple’s iOS held on to second without issue:

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While Microsoft’s Windows Phone fails to gain traction but it’s BlackBerry that has managed to hit a new low. BlackBerry OS fell below 1 percent, a low it hasn’t seen for decades in the U.S. Given its Android ambitions, this is hardly surprising.

At the end of 2014, the Android-iOS duopoly in the U.S. hit 94.7 percent market share. At the end of 2015, it had hit 96.2 percent. We expected that something would give, but Windows 10 Mobile was the only real hope, and it has been plagued with delay after delay, among other issues. Right now at least, it doesn’t look like 2016 will break Apple and Google’s mobile stranglehold.










How Apple, Google, and Microsoft used each others’ app stores in 2015

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Apple, Google, and Microsoft have very different app development strategies, in alignment with their respective business models. Last year, we took a look at the trio’s app stores to see how the three develop for each others’ competing platforms. We’re doing it again this year to see what, if anything, has changed.

Up until last year, Apple didn’t bother making apps for Android at all. The company now has three apps on Google Play (Move to iOS, Beats Pill+, and Apple Music). That said, Apple continues to ignore the Windows Store.

Google brings almost all of its major apps from Android to iOS, offering solid experiences on both. The company also shuns the Windows Store, with the exception of Google Search.

Microsoft, meanwhile, continues to develop apps for all three platforms, though, of course, the company still prefers its own. As in 2014, Microsoft this year offered more iOS apps than Google. And once again, both Microsoft and Google offer more iOS apps than Apple does in its own store.

Without further ado, here’s a snapshot of how many apps the three companies had made available in each store at the end of 2015:

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To compile this chart, we tallied up the number of apps published by these companies in each of the three app stores. We’re counting apps listed in the stores, not those that come preloaded on devices (and we’re counting just one app for iOS, instead of one for iPhone and one for iPad, just like on Android and Windows). Remember that not all apps are available in every market, so you may see fewer apps, depending on which regional store you are accessing. Also keep in mind that these companies build software that doesn’t reside on app stores and acquire apps with different names — neither is being counted here.

Microsoft has many entries on its own Windows Store because we’re counting those published by “Microsoft Mobile” as well as games published by “Microsoft Studios.” Google’s numbers are also inflated a bit by the inclusion of very similar apps (such as Chrome and Chrome beta), since we’re counting individual entries in the store.

All in all, though, the above chart gives a rough idea of how the three tech companies currently interact with the three big app stores. The landscape has shifted a bit since 2014, but not significantly.

At the end of last year, we didn’t predict that Apple would release any apps on competing platforms, and yet that’s exactly what happened. Next year could easily bring more such surprises.

With the Windows Store succeeding the Windows Phone Store, thanks to the debut of Windows 10, the big question for 2016 will be whether Google starts to take Microsoft’s platform a bit more seriously. That will largely depend on how quickly Windows 10 grows its market share and whether the store sees more use than it has until now. We’ll check back at the end of 2016.










Microsoft fails Windows Phone fans again by delaying Windows 10 Mobile

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Windows Phone fans and fanboys have a tough job. They have to stand by an operating system with a new name every few years, significantly fewer apps than the competition, and a distant third place spot in the market. The latest news out of Microsoft isn’t making their lives any easier.

This week, Microsoft failed to deliver on its promise of rolling out Windows 10 Mobile devices to existing Windows Phone devices in December. The new target date? 2016.

“The Windows 10 Mobile upgrade will begin rolling out early next year to select existing Windows 8 and 8.1 phones,” a Microsoft spokesperson told VentureBeat. That means not a single Windows phone will be upgraded to Windows 10 Mobile in 2015.

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In October, the promise was different. “Broad availability of Windows 10 on other devices, including mobile phones, will begin rolling out in December.”

Delay after delay.

To be fair, Microsoft did manage to release the Lumia 950 and Lumia 950 XL, the first Windows 10 Mobile devices, this November. But the phones didn’t generate much excitement. Furthermore, the company limited carrier availability, almost as if it didn’t want the new phones to reach maximum sales potential.

If you’re a Windows Phone fan looking to get the latest and greatest from Microsoft, your best bet is to become a Windows Insider and help the company test new builds (the latest cumulative update came out on December 17). Looking to buy a new device? Your only choices are the Lumia 950 and Lumia 950 XL (if you can find them). Looking to get Windows 10 Mobile on your existing device and take advantage of the free upgrade from Windows Phone 8.1? You’ll have to keep waiting.

The Nokia Lumia 950 and 950 XL phones.

Above: The Nokia Lumia 950 and 950 XL phones.

Image Credit: Microsoft

Many of course expected to be waiting a while before they could get Windows 10 Mobile on their phone. After all, not all Windows Phone devices will be supported on day one (Microsoft still hasn’t released a list), and certainly not all at once. Carriers will, of course, slow down the upgrade process. Furthermore, Microsoft explained that Windows 10 was coming to PCs before phones, and the release gap made a lot of sense.

Windows naturally has a much bigger user base on the PC than on the phone, so Microsoft focused on getting users to upgrade there first, especially given its goal of hitting 1 billion devices running Windows 10 “in two to three years.” Test builds of Windows 10 Mobile were always behind their PC counterparts in terms of features and stability, largely because Windows 8 was released before Windows Phone 8, so the latter simply got a late start. On top of all this, add that Windows 10 Mobile has to go through carrier testing, something Microsoft naturally has little control over in various parts of the world.

But the part that Microsoft did have control over, it failed to get out the door. Had the company released Windows 10 Mobile upgrades for a handful of existing Windows Phone devices, it could claim there was no delay. Just a rolling release. Hell, even upgrades for two phones would have been a start.

Remember, Windows 10 for PCs was released in July. December already meant a five-month gap.

The worst part is that Microsoft is no longer committing to a month. “Early next year” roughly translates to Q1 2016, which could be January, February, or March. So anywhere from six to eight months after Windows 10 for PCs rolled out. And again, that will just be a handful of devices. Let me put this another way: Many Windows Phone owners will be waiting for Windows 10 Mobile through the most of 2016.

And the next two months won’t be easy for Windows Phone 8, ahem Windows 10 Mobile, fans. They will have to ignore all the new hardware coming out of CES and Mobile World Congress. Assuming they aren’t buying a Lumia 950 or Lumia 950 XL, which received lukewarm reviews at best, they will have to tell themselves it’s not worth looking at what other platforms are showing off, because their Windows 10 Mobile update is coming.

Eventually. Soon. Maybe next month on my device?

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The silver lining in all this comes to us from the rumor mill. Microsoft may release a Surface phone in the second half of 2016. And unlike Lumia, the Surface is much more successful.

But either way, more waiting.










Microsoft Releases New Windows 10 Mobile Build, Promises Free Upgrades For 8.1 Users In 2016

A Windows 10 sign on Microsoft's campus. Two quick hits from the world of Microsoft before you head off and plunge your upper body in eggnog: A new Windows 10 Mobile build is out for users on both the Fast and Slow rings of the Insider program, and, if you are a regular Windows Phone user running 8.1, you won’t get new code until the new year, a retread of prior timing promises. In sequence, I think. Out today is the… Read More