Microsoft announces Windows 11, generally available by the holidays

After weeks of leaks and hype, Microsoft today officially announced Windows 11, the next version of its desktop operating system. While the company may have once said that Windows 10 was the last version of Windows, forgoing major point launches for a regular cadence of bi-annual upgrades, but it clearly believes that the changes — and especially the redesigned user interface — in this update warrant a new version number.

Microsoft plans to release Windows 11 to the general public by the holidays, so we can probably expect it sometime around late November. Before that, we’ll likely see a slew of public betas, starting next week. It’ll be a free update to Windows 10 users.

If you followed along with the development and eventual demise of Windows 10X, Microsoft’s operating system with a simplified user interface for dual- and (eventually) single-screen laptops, a lot of what you’re seeing here will feel familiar, down to the redesigned Start menu. Indeed, if somebody showed you screenshots of Windows 11 and early previews of Windows 10X, you’d have a hard time telling them apart.

Image Credits: Microsoft

As Microsoft Chief Product Officer Panos Panay noted in today’s announcement, the overall idea behind the design is to make you feel “an incredible sense of calm,” but at the same time, the Windows team has also worked to make it a lot faster. Windows Updates, for example, are supposed to be 40 percent faster, but Panay also noted that starting up your machine and even browsing should feel much faster.

Image Credits: Microsoft

One surprise feature here is that you will now also be able to run Android apps on Windows. These apps will seem like native apps that can be integrated into the taskbar, for example. These apps will be in the redesigned Microsoft Store, via — you want to sit down for this — the Amazon Appstore. Didn’t see that coming, did you?

Image Credits: Microsoft

Besides the new user interface, which makes copious use of translucency and shadows and new features for touch screen users, one of the core new UI features is what Microsoft calls Snap Layouts, which pops up a small widget when you hover over the icon that maximizes your window to allow you to move the window to any corner, something that previously involved dragging your window to the corner of your screen (which was often hard when you used multiple screens).

Image Credits: Microsoft

Another major new feature is that Windows 11 will come with Teams built-in from the outset. It’s no secret that Microsoft is bullish when it comes to Teams. It recently launched the consumer version of Teams, so it makes sense to now bring it to Windows 11, too. It’s worth noting that Microsoft never brought Skype to Windows, so this is quite a change, but it basically makes Teams Microsoft’s Facetime.

Image Credits: Microsoft

If you saw the Windows 11 leaks, you know that web widgets are one of the more visible new features. “Windows widgets is a new, personalized feed, powered by AI, serving you curated content,” Panay said. Widgets aren’t a new thing, of course, and in many ways, they make up for the removal of Live Tiles in the Start Menu. They’ll also give developers a new canvas to surface information from their applications.

Image Credits: Microsoft

This wouldn’t be a new Windows without Microsoft talking about gaming, of course. The company argues that Windows 11 will “deliver the best PC gaming experience yet,” but what else would they say?

Image Credits: Microsoft

Microsoft promises better graphics thanks to Auto HDR, a feature that’s already available on Xbox. Thousands of games, Microsoft says, will be automatically enhanced with Auto HDR on Windows 11. In addition, the company argues that thanks to a new storage API in Windows 11, games will be able to quickly load game assets without bogging down the CPU (but it’ll take a compatible PC to do so). Oh, and Microsoft’s Game Pass subscription will be built right into Windows 11, too.

Image Credits: Microsoft

As expected, there will be a new Microsoft Store, too, which Panay said was built from the ground up for speed (because speed was what people were complaining about?). Panay argues that Microsoft wants to help developers bring more of their applications to the store. One area where Microsoft is obviously trying to set itself apart from Apple is that it will allow developers to use their own commerce engine in their apps and that Microsoft will not take any cut from that.

Image Credits: Microsoft

Indeed, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said that he wants developers to have the opportunity to build their own platforms on Windows 11. “Windows is the stage for the world’s creation,” he said. “With this new version of Windows, we are unleashing the innovation and ingenuity inherent in each of us. […] Today, the world needs a more open platform – one that allows apps to become platforms in their own rights. Windows is the platform where things that are bigger than Windows can be born — like the web. That’s our aspiration with Windows 11.”

Microsoft moves its Windows 10 Insider Program from rings to release channels

For the last few years, Microsoft has given Windows enthusiasts the ability to opt in to early release “rings,” with the choice to pick between “fast” and “slow” rings, as well as a relatively stable “release preview” option. Today, the company announced a major change to this program as it is moving to release channels, similar to what you’re probably familiar with from most browser manufacturers.

“We are transitioning and converting our current ring model, based on the frequency of builds, to a new channel model that pivots on the quality of builds and better supports parallel coding efforts,” writes Microsoft principal program manager lead Amanda Langowski in a blog post today.

She notes that the result of the ring-based system was that in the middle of 2019, for example, Windows Insiders were running builds from three different releases, depending on which ring they chose.

“As we continue to evolve the way we release Windows 10 and the diversity of Insiders we serve is greater than ever, it is critical that Insiders have a flighting option that is tailored to their needs,” she adds. “We believe the best way to do this is to shift focus from frequency to quality.”

Image Credits: MicrosoftSo starting later this month, the “fast” ring will become the Dev Channel, the “slow” ring the Beta Channel and the “release preview” will now be known as the Release Preview Channel.

The Dev Channel is meant for users who want to get very early access to new features, which isn’t all that different from fast rings, but what’s important here is that this channel isn’t tied to any specific release. New features in this channel will make their way into releases once they are ready, whether that’s as part of a major update or a servicing release. Because of its unstable nature, Microsoft says this release is mostly meant for highly technical users.

As for the Beta Channel, the main difference here is that it is really the beta version of a specific release and meant for early adopters. And the Release Preview is exactly what you would think, and meant to test relatively stable builds before they get shipped to the wider Windows 10 user base (and with that, IT admins can also test those releases ahead of their release to a company’s employees, too).

If you’re part of the Windows Insider program, those changes will be automatic and start with builds that are set to launch later this month.

Microsoft says video calls in Teams grew 1,000% in March

With the COVID-19 pandemic making work from home the default for those companies that are able to do so, it’s no surprise that we are seeing a massive rise in the usage of video chat tools like Zoom, Google Meet and Teams . We’d already heard some updates from Zoom and Google, but today Microsoft joined the parade with a new report on how its Teams users have adapted to the rise of remote work.

Back on March 16, the company reported 900 million meeting minutes in Teams . Now, less than a month later, it says that it saw a new daily record of 2.7 billion meetings in one on March 31. During those meetings, more users than ever also turn on their video cameras. Overall, the number of users who go on camera has doubled since before this crisis began and the overall number of video calls in Teams grew by over 1,000 percent in March.

That’s a lot of time spent in meetings that could’ve probably been used in more productive ways, but it sure is a lot of Teams meetings.

The Microsoft team also looked at where people use video most, with Norway and the Netherlands leading the pack. There, 60 percent of calls include video. In the U.S., that number is 38 percent. Microsoft says this may be due to the availability of fast broadband.

Microsoft also found that its users are also spending more time of the day with Teams. In March, the average time between when somebody first used teams and the last use of the service increased by over an hour. The company argues that this doesn’t mean that people are working longer hours, “rather that they are breaking up the day in a way that works for their personal productivity or makes space for obligations outside of work.”

No matter the service a company uses for remote work, it’ll be interesting to see how many of these new habits will stick once this crisis is over. In China, where some employees are now returning to work, the number of daily active Teams users continues to grow according to Microsoft but there will surely also be regions where usage will decline quickly once things get back to something resembling normal.

Microsoft starts testing a new news reading experience in Windows 10

Microsoft announced its latest Windows 10 preview build today and while that is a pretty routine affair these days, the company also used today’s announcement to also launch the beta version of a new news consumption experience that anybody on a Windows 10 device can try out today. The Microsoft News Bar aggregates news from the 4,500 publishers in the Microsoft News network and then displays those as a semi-persistent bar on any side of your screen.

Windows 10 has long featured the Microsoft News app, which is more of a fully-features news reading experience (though I admit I always forget it even exists). The idea behind the News Bar is to give you a news ticker that is either always visible or that you can hide away at will. In order to make sure you don’t forget it, you can choose to have it pop back up in either two or eight hours — or never, if you’re seriously tired of the news right now. Nobody would blame you.

Right now, this is a pretty barebones affair, without the ability to really personalize the news you see beyond the country you are in. What you can do is select some stocks you want to monitor and over time, Microsoft will add weather and sports options (hopefully with the ability to turn off sports news, because who cares, right?). It’d be nice to at least get some sense of what’s breaking news in the news bar, but as of now, there are no timestamps attached to the updates.

If you’ve been around long enough, you may remember Windows Active Desktop, PointCast and Wired’s (in)famous Push cover story. Somehow this Microsoft News Bar feels a bit reminiscent of that and it seems a bit old-school to have a moving ticker on your desktop in 2020. But if that’s your style, you can now give this new experience a try by downloading the application from the Microsoft Store.

Windows 10 now runs on over 900M devices

So you thought there were 800 million Windows 10 Devices that will get Microsoft’s most recent out-of-band emergency patch? Think again. As the company announced on Twitter today, Windows 10 now runs on over 900M devices.

That’s a bit of bad timing, but current security issues aside, the momentum for Windows 10 clearly remains steady. Last September, Microsoft said Windows 10 was running on 700 million devices and by March of this year, that number had gone up to 800 million. That number includes standard Windows 10 desktops and laptops, as well as the Xbox and niche devices like the Surface Hub and Microsoft’s HoloLens.

As Yusuf Mehdi, Microsoft’s Corporate Vice President of its ‘Modern Life, Search and Devices’ group, also noted, the company added more Windows 10 devices in the last twelve months than ever before.

Come January 2020, Windows 7 is hitting the end of its (supported) life, which is likely pushing at least some users to move over to a more modern (and supported) operating system.

While those numbers for Windows 10 are clearly ticking up, Microsoft itself famously thought that Windows 10 would get to 1 billion devices by the middle of 2018. At this rate, Windows 10 will likely hit 1 billion sometime in 2020.

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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