As Broadwell trickles into the mainstream, prices on 4th-gen Core i7 laptops are better than ever – even on normally costly models like touchscreen convertibles. Today you can pick up the versatile Flex2 with a Core i7 processor for just $599, the lowest we’ve seen yet.
This Flex2 config packs a power-sipping Core i7-4510U processor, which will deliver excellent performance during even complex office or multimedia use. It also sports a 14-inch 1920×1080 touchscreen display that can be flipped 300 degrees, letting you use it like a standard laptop with a keyboard or convert it to stand mode for touch applications and video chats.
A solid 8GB RAM are included standard here, giving you plenty of memory for running multiple programs at once. A 500GB hybrid hard drive with an 8GB SSD cache helps you easily store your data while cutting down your boot and resume times.
A set of three USB ports (two USB 3.0) can be found on either side of this laptop, along with HDMI, a card reader, and an Ethernet port – but note that there’s no optical drive. As for wireless networking, there’s 802.11bgn WiFi as well as Bluetooth 4.0 to get you connected.
Thanks in part to that ULV processor, this laptop manages a respectable six hour battery life, making it well suited for taking on the road or on flights. On top of that it’s just 4.2lbs, 0.87-inches thin, and has a backlit keybard, making it even easier to take and use anywhere. Grab this flexible multi-mode Ultrabook today and get the best price we’ve found when you apply our coupon code.
In these days of nonstop hacking, phishing and data breaches, it’s easy to forget that regular old burglars are still lurking around to steal from your home. That’s why I’m a big fan of home security systems, especially ones that let you watch your home from a distance and alert you when someone breaks in.
Of course, you don’t always need a security system that covers an entire house. Maybe you want to watch a specific drawer or jewelry box, your cubicle at work, the door to your room (if you have roommates or a snooping contractor) or what’s happening in your hotel room while you’re out. In those and similar cases, you might be able to set up a quick security system for free with the right tools.
The main thing you need is a smartphone (a tablet with a rear camera can work, too), a stand to keep the gadget upright and a monitoring app. Set up your gadget on the stand and point the camera in the direction you want to watch. Then start the app. If the app detects movement, it will alert you via email or text, take pictures of the thieves and even sound an alarm to scare them off.
If you already have an old smartphone or tablet lying around, you can be up and running in no time. You can also use your main smartphone if you want to guard something overnight while you’re sleeping, like a hotel room door.
So, let’s take a look at the apps that turn your smartphone into a security camera. At the moment, few monitoring apps work for both Android and Apple, so I’ll tell you about one for each.
Android users first
Android users can grab the free Salient Eye app. The name is a little odd, but the features are top-notch.
It uses your phone’s camera to sense motion and alerts you via email or text. Then it starts capturing photos of the thief and uploads them online to a free cloud storage account. A few seconds later, it triggers an audible alarm that, hopefully, scares the thief away. You need a password to shut off the alarm.Click here for a demonstration video.
For the notification and uploading features, you will need to have your gadget connected to a cellular or Wi-Fi network. Salient Eye can still capture images and sound the alarm without a connection, but if the thief steals the gadget, then it doesn’t do as much good, aside from the fact that he’ll be running around with a smartphone that’s blaring an alarm.
In situations where you know someone is coming in, like a cleaning person, you can turn off the alarm so you can see what they’re doing but not alert them. You can also turn off notifications if you just want to use it as a motion-activated alarm.
The developer claims Salient Eye can work up to 10 hours on battery alone, so it will work even in places where you can’t access an outlet, like a drawer or jewelry box, or on a camping trip. There’s also a paid remote-control app that lets you turn it on and off from a distance.
For Apple folks
Apple users will want to download the free Manything app to both their old iPhone and new iPhone or iPad. Like Salient Eye, Manything uses your gadget’s camera to detect motion and trigger an alert.
Unlike Salient Eye, it can capture video in addition to still photos, and it streams video live to the iPhone or iPad you have with you. It also stores up to 12 hours of video in a free cloud account.
Manything has other fancy features, like adjustable motion sensitivity, programmable motion zones so it can watch very specific areas, easy time-lapse creation and a built-in remote control. If you’re feeling really adventurous, Manything has IFTTT support for triggering updates to social media or even triggering Internet-connected home appliances like some LED light bulbs.
Your only limit is your imagination. Use Manything to record activity around a bird feeder or know when a child leaves her room at night. Or just stick to using it for security.
As I said, Manything is free, but it has some paid options that let you use it with more than one gadget at a time or get more than 12 hours of video recording storage in the cloud.
As I said, a smartphone security camera is good for quick security or a limited area. If you want to upgrade your home security, though, I recommend wireless security cameras.
In addition to streaming video to you on the go and sending motion alerts, these have additional features like night vision, two-way audio and sometimes even pan and tilt control.
There are plenty of options on the market, and I even sell a range of indoor and outdoor models that I’ve personally selected to give my readers the most security for their dollar. Click here to see the selection in my store.
On the Kim Komando Show, the nation’s largest weekend radio talk show, Kim takes calls and dispenses advice on today’s digital lifestyle, from smartphones and tablets to online privacy and data hacks. For her daily tips, free newsletters and more, visit her website at Komando.com. Kim also posts breaking tech news 24/7 at News.Komando.com.
A cursory search under “headphone management” will bring up virtually hundreds of products. Spoolee’s novel contribution to the category is a twig adrift in an ocean of competition. This seems like a small and unusual product for us to cover but there are three things that make this product stand out and that are worth mentioning:
The industrial designer who created it—Ray Walker—quit a lucrative day job to go after this startup dream of his. That’s mostly what I want to talk about.
It is pretty clever…definitely filed under “holy crap, why didn’t I think of that.”
It mostly works as advertised.
But first the basics: what is it and how does it work. According to Ray, the idea for Spooleecame pretty quickly as he was solving a problem mentioned to him by his wife: her headphones kept getting knotted up and that was annoying. We’ve all been there.
So Ray created Spoolee—which recently completed it’s Kickstarter for funding—to solve this problem. Spoolee is a neoprene loop that fits on your finger, like a ring, and makes it super easy to roll your headphones around it until it’s fully wrapped. A Velcro loop, keeps it from unwinding.
The best part is unwinding it, which consists of pulling on the headphones and watching the whole thing smoothly unwind, rotating around your finger. That’s really all there is to it, but it pretty much works and solves one of the more frustrating (first world) problems of the earbud generation. Actually this problem existed in the technological Precambrian era of Walkman headphones too but alas, we of that ancient era were forced to suffer.
You can wash Spoolee. You can squash it. It’s durable. Even in the prototypes, the quality is good and gives it—as they teach you in business school—a solid sand cone foundation. It seems like a random product but I have to admit, Ray really thought this thing through.
His design is interesting and effective. The materials are right (and we can look to my high school pal John Roscoe Swartz’s company BUILT to see what kind of runway there is for neoprene…quite a bit actually). The price seems about right. The need is actual, albeit not critical. This all makes sense.
But what doesn’t make sense is what it is that drives a person give up a good, stable job in order to make little neoprene rings? It seems like a big risk for something so small.
I’ve been thinking about it since I met Ray and we talked about this many weeks ago. What are the contributors to this little bit of irrationality that fuels action of this sort?
Part of it is probably the same force that made this guy become an industrial designer in the first place—a need to create. There has to be more to it than that, though…more than just a need to create and solve problems. What is the intangible force that caused this enterprise become a startup? Where did that transition to entrepreneur happen? What pushes a person over the edge to burn the ships on the shore and commit?
I’m sure not having any kids or dependents mixed in with an alternate income helps, but I’m betting the real culprit is the quest for discomfort that seems to accompany so many entrepreneurs and I’m thinking that likely contributed the final push. Let me explain.
Steve Siebold described the wealthy in his contentious and possibly mistitled story for Business Insider, by saying that “the wealthy are comfortable being uncomfortable” and “the wealthy dream about the future”. His hypothesis, while generalized and simplistic, is still interesting to me somehow and resonated more as a story about entrepreneurs than anything else.
As was echoed in many of the comments of his story, I instead like to think of those points in terms of entrepreneurship—restating them as “[entrepreneurs] are comfortable being uncomfortable” (read: capable of embracing uncertainty) and “[entrepreneurs] dream about the future.” When I think of Ray’s enterprise from that standpoint and within the context of those two modified statements, it sort of all makes sense to me and answers my question about why many people become entrepreneurs.
I’m sure there is probably a bigger product picture in Ray’s mind. Undoubtedly, there are bazillion products he could make and this is surely the beginning. And he may be thinking “if not now…when” as the future is always swiftly becoming the present.
Or I could be massively overthinking this and Spoolee is a one-off. There’s no doubt though that Ray really put in some effort to make this thing come to life: prototyping and producing it in China, investigating domestic production, funding a successful Kickstarter campaign. It’s a little piece of hardware but it takes a ton of time and effort to bear it forth as a business.
I think once an effort like this gets started—even something super simple like Spoolee—that effort is obviously infectious. We wouldn’t see so many startups out there if it weren’t.
Has Microsoft suddenly pushed us into the age of “Star Trek” and “Minority Report”? For those confused about what’s actually going on with the company’s new head-mounted gadget, here’s the rundown.
Microsoft has a vision for the future, and it involves terms and technology straight out of science fiction.
But are we actually glimpsing the future? Yes and no.
Microsoft’s HoloLens, which the company unveiled at its Redmond, Wash., headquarters on Wednesday, is a sleek, futuristic headset with transparent lenses. You can see the world around you, but suddenly that world is transformed — with 3D objects floating in midair, virtual screens on the wall and your living room covered in virtual characters running amok.
Technology companies have long promised to bring us the future now, reaching ahead 5 or 10 years to try to amaze consumers with the next big breakthrough. Hollywood, on the other hand, has shown that tech in action (or at least simulations of it).
In “Minority Report,” for instance, Tom Cruise’s character used sweeping, midair hand gestures and transparent screens to do police work. Five years later, Apple unveiled the iPhone, and with it, a touchscreen operated by hand and finger gestures. Microsoft in turn served up its Kinect gesture-control device, which tracks people’s movements through space and feeds the data into an interface.
Going further, “The Matrix” showed hackers plugging computers into people’s brains to transport them to imaginary cities. And in “Star Trek,” computers used energy fields and visual tricks to create worlds people could touch and feel.
We’re not even close to those scenarios yet, but we’re taking tiny steps in that direction. Companies like Facebook, Google and Microsoft are now attempting to move that fiction toward reality, and the public is beginning to see those visions of tomorrow take form.
So how does the HoloLens measure up against other reality-altering gadgets?
What’s a HoloLens, and how does it work?
Microsoft’s HoloLens is not actually producing 3D images that everyone can see; this isn’t “Star Trek.”
Instead of everyone walking into a room made to reproduce 3D images, Microsoft’s goggles show images only the wearer can see. Everyone else will just think you’re wearing goofy-looking glasses.
Another key thing about HoloLens is what Microsoft is trying to accomplish.
The company is not trying to transport you to a different world, but rather bring the wonders of a computer directly to the one you’re living in. Microsoft is overlaying images and objects onto our living rooms.
As a HoloLens wearer, you’ll still see the real world in front of you. You can walk around and talk to others without worrying about bumping into walls.
The goggles will track your movements, watch your gaze and transform what you see by blasting light at your eyes (it doesn’t hurt). Because the device tracks where you are, you can use hand gestures — right now it’s only a midair click by raising and lowering your finger — to interact with the 3D images.
There’s a whole bunch of other hardware that’s designed to help the HoloLens’ effects feel believable. The device has a plethora of sensors to sense your movements in a room and it uses this information along with layers of colored glass to create images you can interact with or investigate from different angles. Want to see the back of a virtual bike in the middle of your kitchen? Just walk to the other side of it.
The goggles also have a camera that looks at the room, so the HoloLens knows where tables, chairs and other objects are. It then uses that information to project 3D images on top of and even inside them — place virtual dynamite on your desk and you might blow a hole to see what’s inside.
Ford Motor on Thursday announced the opening of its Research and Innovation Center Palo Alto, a 25,000 square foot facility that will help it accelerate the company’s innovation in connectivity, mobility, autonomous vehicles, customer experience and big data.
This is the latest addition to the automaker’s global network of R&D centers, which include its hometown facility in Dearborn, Michigan, where Ford has continued to focus on advanced electronics, human-machine interface, materials science and analytics.
Next-generation powertrain research, driver-assist technologies and active safety systems are now handled through its facility in Aachen, Germany.
“At Ford, we view ourselves as both a mobility and an auto company, as we drive innovation in every part of our business,” said Ford Motor President and CEO Mark Fields, pictured above speaking at CES 2015.
“This new research center shows Ford’s commitment to be part of the Silicon Valley innovation ecosystem — anticipating customers’ wants and needs, especially on connectivity, mobility and autonomous vehicles,” Fields added. “We are working to make these new technologies accessible to everyone, not just luxury customers.”
The Big Valley
This isn’t Ford’s first incursion into Silicon Valley. Its first Silicon Valley office opened in 2012. The new center, which is located in the Stanford Research Park, has a staff of 21 engineers, app developers and scientists; Ford expects that number to grow to 125 by the end of the year. Its presence in Palo Alto puts it near tech giants Google, Apple and Yahoo.
Ford is not the only auto maker that has set up shop in Silicon Valley as a way to be closer to these tech players.
“If you look at the Valley as a whole, car makers have been there for a while,” said Mark C. Boyadjis, senior analyst and manager for infotainment and HMI (human-machine interface) at IHS Automotive.
“Daimler and BMW set up shop in the 1990s,” Boyadjis told TechNewsWorld, “and Honda came to the Valley in 2003, the same year Tesla was founded.”
Even through the years of the great recession, automakers located their respective R&D facilities in the region to be closer to those tech companies, noted Boyadjis.
“Ford was actually late to the game, only opening the office in 2012,” he pointed out. “Many other automakers had opened offices before that, but that isn’t to say that Ford wasn’t actually working with those companies.”
Convergence of Auto and Tech
Ford’s expanded presence in Silicon Valley is just the latest signaling of the increased convergence of the auto industry and the high-tech world. This has been increasingly evident in the presence of the major automakers at CES, which this year took place a week before the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. In many ways, CES has become the new first auto show of the year.
“There is no denying the impact that CES has had on the auto industry, and Ford has had a presence at CES for some time,” said Ken Washington, vice president for research and advanced engineering at Ford Motor.
Ford Smart Mobility, introduced at CES 2015, aims to accelerate innovation in connectivity, mobility, autonomous vehicles and the customer experience. The Palo Alto team will lead its R&D efforts in those areas.
“Our presence there enables us to work collaboratively on these projects with the best in the tech world,” Ford’s Washington told TechNewsWorld. “If you look around at the tech ecosystem in cars, many have had their genesis in Silicon Valley — and much of this is changing the way people interact with their vehicles.
“We’re approaching a point where this is happening at a rapid pace, as the cost for electronic devices is coming down,” he added. “This allows for greater analytics within the car that can tell us how the customers are using their cars.”
Cars Are the New Consumer Electronics
The Ford Research and Innovation Center will work with various universities and other research facilities on a variety of applications that could allow users to communicate with their homes from their cars, or even have cars that one day drive themselves.
The result could be that Ford — and other automakers — will continue to see an increased presence at events such as CES.
“When we think of the connected car or the autonomous car, we need to realize these vehicles are really consumer electronics,” said Boyadjis.
“There is now more horsepower in the process than under the hood,” he quipped.
“The powertrain engineers might debate me on but that, but the innovations we’ve seen with this convergence just show that automobile and high-tech are normalized,” Boyadjis maintained. “The automakers want to be in the Valley for the cooperation they can get with Apple and Cisco and other high-tech firms, and they’re not likely to leave any time soon.”
The Taiwanese company, which supplies mobile chips in Asia, is gearing up for an expansion into the US. That could mean more affordable smartphone options.
MediaTek hopes it can upend the way you think about buying your next smartphone.
The Taiwan-based chipmaker, which dominates China’s low- and mid-tier mobile phone markets, wants to make affordable phones more attractive to consumers — and become a global mobile player in the process. Last year, it opened offices in India and Finland, but perhaps its most important — and most challenging — new target is the US. Looking to gain exposure to that market, it opened a space last year in San Diego, Calif., home of the world’s biggest mobile-chips maker, Qualcomm.
At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this month, MediaTek executives said they have big plans in the US, adding that if they can succeed in North America, they’ll be able to succeed just about anywhere.
“If you intend to be the most global [player] in the mobile business you should be selling a chip in North America,” MediaTek President Ching-Jiang Hsieh said in an interview at the company’s CES booth.
MediaTek is a distant second to Qualcomm in mobile chips, and many others, including Intel, have been trying to pull market share from Qualcomm with little success. If MediaTek can gain traction in the US — on Qualcomm’s home turf — that could make the company a more viable competitor and contribute to more choices when it comes to affordable mobile devices. But there’s a long way to go.
Today, high-end phones from Apple and Samsung hold the majority of the US smartphone market, with Apple’s iPhones mainly using both Apple and Qualcomm chips and Samsung’s flagship devices using Qualcomm. MediaTek executives see a catalyst for change in US wireless carriers moving away from subsidies and toward monthly installment payments. That trend exposes the true cost of a smartphone, such as the full $650 price tag for a basic iPhone 6, and may drive some consumers to search for cheaper options.
There are already a number of smartphone manufacturers attacking this area, where customer demand is just starting to grow. Microsoft earlier this month unveiled the Lumia 532 and Lumia 435, which both sell for under $100 without a contract. Motorola’s Moto G is less than $200, while upstarts such as ZTE and Alcatel are eager to cater to penny pinchers.
MediaTek, however, has little exposure or name recognition in the US. So far, it’s gained certification from only T-Mobile and snagged design wins for just a handful of lesser-known US phones, including the Alcatel OneTouch Fierce, Evolve and Evolve 2.
“The US is an opportunity for them, but it’s certainly going to be a challenge to displace Qualcomm there,” Gartner research director Jon Erensen said, adding that MediaTek could find an opening as smartphone makers look for alternatives to Qualcomm.
Still, its progress has reportedly drawn the interest of Intel, which is rumored to be considering the purchase of MediaTek — a publicly traded company valued at about $28 billion — to bolster its own struggling mobile efforts.
MediaTek executives said no deal discussions are going on with Intel and it’s doing well as a standalone firm. Intel declined to comment.
MediaTek surges into the mobile market
MediaTek was created in 1997 as a spinoff from United Microelectronics and got its start offering chips for digital TVs, CD drives and DVD players. Google has become a regular customer for its TV and audio chips. The company moved into mobile devices about 10 years ago, now the biggest part of its sales. It’s since built a dominant position in China, helping power low-priced phones with high-end specifications from upstart local vendors including Xiaomi, Oppo and Alcatel (now a brand of China’s TCL), as well as established brands like ZTE.
The rise of these entry-level smartphones has been very good for business. For the latest quarter, the company posted a 47 percent rise in revenue to about $1.8 billion and 58 percent higher profit. In comparison, Qualcomm’s latest quarterly revenue was about $6.7 billion, up 3 percent, with profit up 26 percent.
As a number of Chinese handset makers try expanding from their local market, MediaTek has an opportunity to grow along with them. Still, the company continues to generate just about all its revenue from Asia, according to Morningstar, so it has to start looking elsewhere — and fast — if it hopes to diversify.
MediaTek is working to get certifications with Verizon and AT&T, the two largest US wireless carriers, so smartphones using its chips will pass the famously rigorous carrier testing process. It hopes to come out with new devices on their networks starting late this year or early next year, said Mohit Bhushan, head of US business development for MediaTek.
“That’s well within our reach,” he said, adding that a long-term trend away from phone subsidies is “playing to our advantage.”
While competing on price will be important to growing in the US, company executives emphasized that they are spending more money on research and development to make their chips more competitive with Qualcomm’s products. Hsieh said MediaTek plans to capture consumers’ attention by using its long-term experience in TVs to help it provide higher-end video features in affordable phones.
But he admitted his company’s modem chips are still several years behind Qualcomm, so it’s ramping its development work to catch up. The company has increased R&D spending to 19 percent of sales in 2013, from 8 percent in 2006, according to Morningstar analyst Kai Bi.
“They’re addressing some of those gaps in their product portfolio to make themselves more attractive in the US market,” Gartner’s Erensen said.
Qualcomm goes after MediaTek’s territory
At the same time that MediaTek is working to grow into higher-end devices by creating more sophisticated chips, Qualcomm is making more low-end designs in hopes of challenging MediaTek’s core business in emerging markets. For now, though, Qualcomm has faced challenges in China, with a long-standing antimonopoly investigation there interrupting its plans. “It’s not our concern,” Hsieh said about Qualcomm’s push in low-end chips, saying his company can provide better specs at a better price.
Qualcomm products executive Raj Talluri disagreed. “I think we’re extremely competitive,” he said of Qualcomm’s lower-end offerings. “We’ve seen a lot of good designs, so I think the customers like our products.”
In the US market especially, Talluri said, customers have high expectations for their smartphones, with buyers wanting a long-lasting and fast-charging battery life, with top-of-the-line video, audio and display quality. He said Qualcomm is especially good at offering those features across its portfolio, from high to low end, instead of what may end up being a cheaper but “good enough” product.
“I think the user experience is what sells phones and we spend a lot of time on that,” he said.
The next few years will be critical for MediaTek as it works to establish itself in the US and elsewhere. MediaTek’s Bhushan said the rise of affordable phones with high-end specs “will be felt” in the US.
“But it’s not going to happen overnight,” he said.
Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss are known to have invested millions in the virtual currency.
Currently the value of each bitcoin is approaching $200 (£133) – far below the $1,200-high it hit in November 2013.
Development work on software underpinning the exchange is being carried out at the Bitcoin start-up founded by the Winklevoss twins. In addition, they have been lobbying New York financial regulators to drum up support for the idea and have signed up banks to handle deposits and transfers.
Work on the exchange began after New York’s financial services watchdog last year encouraged virtual currency entrepreneurs operating in the state to apply for formal recognition. This, said the watchdog, was the first step towards full regulation of such exchanges.
The twins won a $65m payout from Mark Zuckerberg after accusing him of stealing their idea for a college-based social network.
Bitcoin is a virtual currency built around a complicated cryptographic protocol and a global network of computers that oversees and verifies which coins have been spent by whom.
Exchanges, through which virtual money can be traded for real cash or to other owners, have been one of the weak points in the whole Bitcoin ecosystem. Some have gone bust leaving traders out of pocket, many have been robbed of all their deposits and now more and more nations are seeking to impose strict controls on how they operate.
The value of each bitcoin has fluctuated widely over the last few years but has been on a steady downward path since late 2013 even though many more online stores and companies accept them in exchange for goods and services.
The “Windows Phone” OS will be no more, as the version of Windows 10 tailored for smaller devices will be called simply Windows 10. Will that help improve Microsoft’s lot in the smartphone market?
When it comes to Windows Phone, Microsoft is hoping less is more.
The less, in this instance, is the “Phone” bit of the Windows Phone name. Microsoft confirmed that it plans to drop “Windows Phone” in favor of the name of its next-generation operating system, Windows 10.
By dropping the Windows Phone distinction and going with Windows 10, Microsoft wants to reinforce the idea that all its devices — no matter what shape or size — will run on a single platform. The company thinks this family approach will be critical to driving consumer awareness and interest for Windows-powered products, particularly on the mobile end, where Microsoft lags far behind larger rivals Google and Apple.
It couldn’t hurt. Microsoft’s Windows Phone operating system held a paltry 2.9 percent of the market in the third quarter of 2014, according to IDC. In comparison, Android dominated with 84 percent of the market, and Apple was second with a nearly 12 percent slice.
“I think using the Windows 10 name is the right move,” said Carolina Milanesi, an analyst at Kantar Worldpanel. “It is one Windows with one experience that adapts to the format but remains consistent.”
“It’s designed to go with your PC as a great companion,” said Joe Belfiore, vice president of the operating systems group.
Despite improvements and new features coming to smartphones with Windows 10, broader problems still plague Windows Phone. Its breadth of apps, though steadily improving, still lags behind that of Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS, with developers hesitant to invest in the platform. Aside from the former Nokia mobile-devices division, now part of Microsoft, support from the handset manufacturers is minimal. The smartphones that do run on Windows Phone suffer from limited distribution and visibility in stores.
Raising the awareness level of a phone-centric Windows 10 might go a long way toward solving those problems. Milanesi said that Microsoft’s strategy of pushing Windows services in PCs and desktops could eventually have people looking at smartphones too.
“We want to move from people needing Windows to choosing Windows to living Windows,” Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said at the event.
Banking on the wrong OS
Does this one-Windows strategy sound familiar? It’s similar to a tactic employed by Microsoft around the launch of Windows Phone 8 in October 2012. That was supposed to be the start of the company’s big push in mobile. Microsoft planned a large marketing effort around the Windows family of devices, from PCs running on Windows 8 down to smartphones using Windows Phone 8.
The problem was that few people liked Windows 8. Microsoft’s decision to focus on a touch-friendly user interface that centered on active tiles turned consumers off, and any planned “halo” effect from Windows 8 to Windows Phone 8 — which also utilized the same tile system — fizzled before it began.
As of December, only 13.5 percent of desktops use Windows 8 or Windows 8.1. A majority of PCs — 56.3 percent — still employWindows 7, according to Net Applications, which tracks activity through analyzing the browser hits of specific websites.
The cool reception to Windows 8 meant there would be no boost to the perception of Windows Phone, even after a major update in 2014 that included the introduction of a virtual assistant, Cortana. Furthermore, it was unclear what the distinctions were between the phone, tablet and desktop.
“Windows 10 will help with both apps and awareness, which is what we had hoped Windows 8 would do but never materialized,” said Milanesi.
The one area where Windows Phone has had success has been with its more affordable smartphones. Microsoft pressed its low-end advantage further at its Build developer conference last April by eliminating licensing fees for devices under 9 inches in screen size and by working with device manufacturers on reference designs for cheaper phones.
But the company’s efforts in this area haven’t really helped. After a few years of growth, the platform began to ebb in 2014. Its third-quarter share of 2.9 percent actually fell from a year ago, when it held 3.6 percent of the market, according to IDC.
Furthermore, by focusing on less-flashy devices, Microsoft hasn’t had a genuine flagship Windows Phone product. The last true smartphone to launch with a splash was the Lumia 1020.
Microsoft could be waiting for Windows 10 to officially launch before going big with a flagship device. The company has said it intends to compete in both the high and low end of the market with a complete portfolio of products.
“We are a portfolio company,” Jo Harlow, vice president of phones at Microsoft, said in an interview earlier this month. “We were one at Nokia, and we continue to be one at Microsoft.”
She declined to provide specifics.
Fresh start with Windows 10
Microsoft has a chance for another do-over with its mobile ambitions once Windows 10 launches. The reception to the early versions of the operating system has been positive, thanks largely to the company’s decision to go back to old favorites like the original Start screen. The company is alsojazzing up the desktop experience by bringing Cortana to the PC.
Over time, that goodwill could carry over to the smartphone realm.
But Microsoft needs to step up its game when it comes to the marketing push. The company has been making a smartphone OS for years, but most consumers are either unaware of the Windows option on the phone, or are reluctant to jump ship from their current device.
Microsoft can’t expect to change their minds with a short but loud marketing blitz touting one smartphone.
“If Microsoft wants this to succeed, they will have to support this with a year-round campaign,” said Roger Entner, a consultant with Recon Analytics. “You have to make it look like a winner; you have to make it look like it’s easy.”
For now, he said, “consumers don’t take it seriously as a viable option.”
One second, you’re looking at the flat surface of a real wooden table. Then, you’re gazing straight through it, past small trees, tiny confused zombies, and layers of earth into a deep hole filled with animated lava.
In this case, it was a 3-D game of Minecraft taking place, on, over, under, behind and inside real furniture and walls. As you move your head and body around, the illusion moves completely with you in 3-D, remarkably affixed to the real world objects.
Microsoft previewed the brand new piece of hardware on Wednesday. HoloLens is Microsoft’s foray into the virtual reality market. In its unique spin on VR, Microsoft has developed goggles that offer an augmented — or “mixed” — reality experience. UnlikeFacebook’s (FB, Tech30) Oculus Rift, which completely blocks out the outside world to fully immerse the wearer in another reality, HoloLens keeps one foot (and both eyes) firmly planted in the real world.
The lenses of the goggles are transparent, your view of the space around you only selectively blocked by digital images that can mingle with real objects. For example, an interior designer can move around a real room and rearrange 3-D pieces of furniture too see how they will look, even placing a virtual vase on a real shelf.
To manipulate something in the HoloLens world, you use hand gestures, which are picked up by cameras on the front of the device. The single wiggle of an index finger can drop a flag on the surface of Mars or select a color for your 3-D sculpture. The cursor is always at the center of your view, moving when you move your head. Microphones pick up voice commands that bring up menus.
The goggles are wireless and don’t need to be tethered to any device, so while they’re meant for home or office use, they wearer is able to roam freely. The speakers play “spacial” sound, so a noise might seem like it’s coming from behind or beside you, adding to the virtual reality experience.
After an on-stage demonstration of the sleek, wraparound black glasses, Microsoft gave reporters four hands-on demos of the device at its Redmond, Washington headquarters. (Notably, the goggles I tested were not the finished product Microsoft demonstrated on stage — they had jumbles of exposed electronic elements connected to a box that hung around my neck).
The demonstration scenarios attempted to show real examples of practical uses for the technology.
Video games. Gamers tend to be enthusiastic early adopters of experimental immersive technology, and the stunning Minecraft demo seemed like the most natural and realistic use case. I do not usually play Minecraft but would absolutely start, and maybe forget to stop, if I had a HoloLens.
Customer service. A Skype call demo was to walk me through fixing a broken light. The person on the other end of the call could see what I saw (real wires, tools, a hole in the wall) and could annotate my view with colorful lines and arrows. She even doodled a little diagram on a patch of blank wall. Remote customer support is a commonly imagined use for smart glasses, including Google Glass. While a neat thing to have, it’s nothing a phone or PC running video chat wouldn’t be able to accomplish.
Design. HoloStudio is a creative app that is designed for anyone to easily tinker with, like a beefed up MS Paint. A palette of colors and shapes floats in front of the artist who can create simple or complex 3-D models. Final designs can be ordered online, and a printed version of your 3-D purple skyscraper will be delivered to your door.
Virtual reality. At NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, scientists regularly dig through images of Mars collected by the Curiosity Rover. They’ve collaborated with Microsoft to create a program that places them inside a 3-D rendering of Mars using HoloLens. Whether you look up or down, turn left or right, or walk forward or back, the landscape shifts accordingly so you feel like you’re taking a stroll on the red planet.
The Mars demo was one of the few times I wished I was using full virtual reality goggles. They had reasons for wanted to keep reality involved — JPL scientists are working not playing, and they need to use other tools like computers at the same time. But as impressive as it was, the mixed-reality version of Mars looked thin and desaturated.
Full and partial virtual reality look different because of the underlying technology. HoloLens doesn’t display images on any screen, but projects light directly onto the retina, imitating the way light travels from real objects. The augmented view is contained in a rectangle directly in front of your face. Oculus Rift shows its images on a screen in front of the eyes and extends farther out and around for a more encompassing view.
The virtual reality space is still mostly filled with buzz and not-ready-for-prime-time products. But VR has been anointed the next big thing by a tech industry hungry for something fresh and exciting to woo customers.
Overlaying digital 3-D creations onto the real world is cool, but are there practical uses are there for this type of technology?
Microsoft hopes so. HoloLens was by far the most interesting announcement at a daylong event for Windows 10, and one Microsoft believes can help get customers excited about its products again.
Wednesday’s Windows event was the flashiest to grace Redmond in years. The company pulled a number of projects, like HoloLens, out of its skunk works in an effort to convince finicky geeks it isn’t out of ideas.
Whether this gambit was successful is hard to say (the Twittersphere seems impressed), but in a few weeks it will also be irrelevant. Microsoft’s problem has always been execution, not imagination. Kinect, Courier and even Windows 8.1 are examples of ideas getting ahead of reality.
Yet this event wasn’t entirely about concepts and prototypes. Alongside holograms and room-sized tablets, the company also displayed a number of improvements and innovations that could once again give Windows an edge. Practicality, not pizzazz, will win back the confidence Windows 8 lost.
We’ve got your feedback right here
The Windows 10 Technical Preview is only the latest in a long line of beta builds used to test out new editions, but its rollout has been different than those prior. Built-in feedback tools have helped users direct their concerns to the people in Redmond who can actually fix them.
It’s easy to see the results. At the event, we witnessed a refined Start Menu that works better with tablets, an easy way to switch between tablet and desktop mode, and a blending of the control panel and Metro settings menu that finally resolves a core conflict between the old-fashioned desktop and the modern Windows interface.
Harsh critics might say such changes have been too long in coming, and they wouldn’t be wrong. Still, these seemingly minor additions make a big difference in everyday use. Windows users spend way too much time navigating awkward menus in an attempt to live with the desktop and Metro side-by-side.
Windows 8 flopped not only because it failed to connect with tablet buyers, but also because it actively alienated desktop loyalists. Microsoft is determined to rectify that mistake with its new operating system, and it’s doing so by listening to the subtle tweaks hardcore users care about. HoloLens is cool, to be sure, but implementing a properly designed Start Menu is by far more important to Microsoft’s future in the world of consumer electronics.
Not everything that’s coming to Windows 10 is subtle. There’s also several all-new headline features that could very well earn Microsoft a title it’s not enjoyed for some time; innovator.
Cortana is the spearhead of this effort. OK, sure, Siri has been around for a while, but Apple’s voice assistant has never come to the desktop. It’s also, as a result of that, more limited than Microsoft’s vision. Cortana aims to be a complete virtual personal assistant that can plan trips, dictate emails and alert you to foul whether. Users will be able to customize the assistant’s settings and it will learn over time to understand each user’s habits.
Microsoft isn’t developing Cortana in isolation from the rest of the operating system. It’s a core feature, one that will work with applications like the new Spartan Web browser, an important effort to streamline the online experience. While other companies, including Apple, heap feature after feature into browser releases, Redmond’s engineers have gone back to basics in hopes to creating a quicker, more intuitive package.
Seem regressive? It would be if not for Cortana, the glue that holds it all together. The goal seems to be an all-new Web browsing experience that abandons add-ons, menus and bookmark lists for a new form of interface made simple by a digital assistant.
Speaking of integration, Microsoft’s universal apps deserve far more attention than they’re receiving. A true cross-platform experience is something that no other company has mastered. Both Apple and Google have decided to not even try, opting for cross-platform services that connect similar but not identical software in different operating systems.
Redmond’s approach is bolder, riskier, and likely what should’ve been tried from the start (instead of wasting time on the sorta-similar but not-quite-right Windows RT). The Photos app in Windows 10 will be technically the same on a 4-inch smartphone as on a 27-inch all-in-one, but its underlying design will let the app scale dynamically between devices.
Calendar, People and Maps do the same, and then there’s the 900-pound Gorilla of Microsoft software: Office. Word, Excel and PowerPoint will not only work across the spectrum of Windows 10 devices, they’ll be free with phones and tablets. Need to adjust a presentation while you’re on the bus? No problem!
We’re sure this is a difficult dance for the company’s engineers to manage, but just think – what if it works? What if you really could use the same app, with access to the same data, on any device you own? That might be enough to finally make a Windows Phone look appealing.
Building the platform
Almost everything that Microsoft said at its Windows 10 event sounded great. The original reveal in late 2014 was disappointing in some ways because it made the new OS feel like an awkward step back towards Windows 7. Now the company has outlined how the latest edition will be stepping into the future.
That’s not to say the problems are over, though. Far from it. In addition to nailing execution, Microsoft must find a way to make Window phones and tablets more appealing to consumers. The greatest strength of Apple’s OS X is arguably iOS; hundreds of millions of people already have an iPhone and love it, so integrating mobile into the Mac makes instant sense.
Microsoft, though, has no such base of loyal mobile enthusiasts, and that potentially makes the appeal of some new features less interesting. Who cares about improving the Start Menu’s usefulness with tablets if no one uses a Windows tablet in the first place?
Fixing that problem is the next piece of the puzzle that must be placed, and Windows 10 won’t entirely come together until it’s explained. For now, though, the company has at least crushed our concerns that the new Windows would be a product of fear and regressive design. There’s true innovation here, and it could result in the biggest upgrade to the desktop computer since Windows XP.