Tip o’ the Week 419 – What’s the time?

clip_image002The subject of time has featured on a few occasions on ToW – #301, #314, #325, #388 … but there’s always more scope to talk about it.

Windows 10 tweaked the way time is clip_image004presented, from showing the calendar and the agenda (sourced from whatever is synced into the Calendar app), to the Alarms & Clocks app which offers visual wakeup alarms, daylight maps, and timer/stopwatch apps.

In the Windows Insiders builds of the last few weeks – currently 17101 (which is now in the Fast Ring), there have been changes that bring the clock further forward too – the Game Bar has been updated to include the clock on the clip_image006left of the bar, for one thing.

What is time?

Existentially, time is relative. If you ever find that your Windows PC isn’t keeping time accurately, you may want to check that you have it set to get its time automatically (check Settings -> Time & Language – > Date & time), or go into the old-fashioned Control Panel, search for time and look at the settings in there, especially under the “Internet Time” tab to see where it’s syncing the time from: time.windows.com is probably the default.

Windows Time is also a thing – the number of milliseconds since the machine was started up, and also the name of the clip_image008service that controls the time synchronisation. Unix time is also a concept, measuring the number of elapsed seconds since 1st January 1970, and may present another millennium bug style problem in 20 years, if anyone is still using 32-bit *nix by then.

Back to simple relativity, though – what is the actual, real “time”? If you have multiple clocks, watches, phones & PCs, it’s a fair bet that they’ll all be divergent, unless they’re all being synchronised by some external device (your broadband router, maybe). If you’d like to find out exactly what the time is and don’t have access to an atomic clock or similar, there are a few online resources that might help…  and you could even try asking Cortana, as she knows about time zones and stuff.

But the best time site is http://time.is. Try it from any device and you’ll get the time right now;  some allowances need to be made for network latency but the operators have tried clip_image010their best. It tells you the time in your location (or one of your choice), and calculates the offset between your computer’s clock and the time.is service.

For an illustration of what latency (as ultimately governed by the speed of light) means when accessing nearby vs far away websites, check out www.azurespeed.com, which measures the time to connect to storage services at Azure datacenters. Some variance could be explained by performance spikes and so on, but the main impact is network latency due to distance travelled. The results can sometimes be surprising.

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Tip o’ the Week 418 – Preview Apps on Windows 10

clip_image002The Insider Program for Windows 10 is one of the largest public beta program in software development history with over 10m active users. There are various options for how much on the bleeding edge you’d like to be (eg how much pain are you prepared to tolerate, in order to get to play with stuff long before everyone else?) – and the “hit me baby” version, called Skip Ahead, is already now testing the next update to Windows (RS5) that will come after the one that’s due for release in the spring (RS4), which is still in the rest of the test branches. Capiche?

Way down in the text of the latest announcement, there’s mention of a new “App Preview” program which lets the quick & the brave get access to cool but maybe unfinished updates to Apps they like, but maybe aren’t as dependent on, as the stability of the whole operating system.

The first wave of apps that are Preview-enabled, will let more cautious Insiders experience the latest versions of …

  • Feedback Hub
  • Microsoft Photos
  • Microsoft Sticky Notes
  • Viewer
  • Microsoft Tips
  • Paint 3D
  • Windows Alarms & Clock
  • Windows Voice Recorder
  • Windows Calculator
  • Windows Camera
  • Windows Mixed Reality

clip_image004… by opting in, through going into the Settings within the appropriate app and choosing to join the fun. The app will update in the background, and may change the app title & version number…

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There are regular updates to the core apps for every Windows user, not running an Insider build. If you’d like to check, just go into the Store, activate the “…” ellipsis on the top right, and choose Downloads and updates, and review the list to see what apps have been updated and when, or hit “Get updates” to check for published updates to other apps.

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The Photos app has a new opt-in feature, in conjunction with a test app that is designed to make it easy to share Photos from a phone to a PC; even if you’re not running an Insider build, you can turn on the mobile import…

The “Photos Companion” test app makes a point-to-point connection between phone & PC (ie they need to both be on the same network), and by going to the Import menu within the PC Photo app, a QR code will be displayed on-screen.

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clip_image010Start the app on your phone, point at the QR code and you’ll quickly be able to send the selected photos from phone to PC.

Of course, you could use OneDrive on your mobile device to automatically sync photos to a Camera Roll folder in your cloud storage location; it has a bit of latency, usually, so you might find it takes a few minutes before the photo you’ve just taken has uploaded and is ready to be accessed or shared.

The Import over WiFi feature is handy to share right away, or to share with PCs that aren’t set up with your OneDrive, such as a friend’s PC, or if you’re working on a project where you want to collect photos from a group of people in a short space of time – maybe doing a collaborative video or something similar?

Tip o’ the Week 417 – Resolving aliases in bulk

This might be a very old-Microsoft culture clip_image002thing, but alias names have always been a relatively big deal within the company; not an alias in the sense of a nom de plume or some alter ego, but a name curiously given to mean your login name.

Before enlightenment, Microsofties were emailed simply by sending to alias@microsoft.com – and still are, so even if the primary mail address is forename.surname@microsoft.com, you could still mail them at forenams@microsoft.com, or whatever their alias is.

clip_image004The alias, or logon name, at Microsoft was historically an up-to-7- or 8-letter moniker, based by default on surname|first-letter-of-forename, eg billg or steveb.

In a company with a handful of people, it was easy to remember such a name for when you wanted to drop them an email, but with hundreds of thousands of mail addresses, you might need more room – when Exchange Server came out in 1996, it supported 64 characters in the alias name, though oddly, Microsoft has never embraced longer than 8-character aliases.

Back in the day, your mailbox was a folder on a Xenix server, then an MS Mail postoffice, and the folder names were restricted by the 8.3 filename format. There are probably too many legacy systems that also have an employee name represented by their 8-letter alias, and it still kinda works.

Aliases – and the cultural phenomenon of calling people not by their name, but by their alias… eg “we had a billg review” – were a central part of the 1995 Douglas Coupland book, Microserfs.

clip_image006Some people at Microsoft still talk about an email distribution list as an “alias” – eg. “TAKE ME OFF THIS ALIAS!!” as a Reply-All (as opposed to a little “r”) to the occasional mail storms that amazingly still happen. They’re wrong – those are Distribution Lists (DLs) or maybe more correctly, Distribution Groups (DGs).

But the true “alias” lives on, even if the Skypey “Contact Card” UI in Outlook does its best to not show you what someone’s alias is (but you can usually still get to Open Outlook Properties, which shows you the traditional Outlook address book view, with alias in the very top section). Lots of reports from Microsoft’s internal systems will refer to an employee using their alias name, so it often helps if you can decipher an alias into the person behind it.

Resolving an alias to a name one-at-a-time is all very well, but when looking at a column of alias names in some spreadsheet, it’s a bit of a palaver to turn each of the FORENAMS into something meaningful.

Bulk alias resolver in Excelclip_image008

Fear not, worthy reader, for a solution is to hand.

  • Simply download this macro-enabled Excel workbook, and open it/save it somewhere locally
  • Click on the Enable Editing, then the Enable content button, so the macro can do its stuff
  • Now paste your list of chosen alias names in column A, then click the resolve button
  • The macro will now go through each alias in the first column, and resolve the name, then stick it in column B, if it can. If the name doesn’t work, then column B will just be the same as the alias in column A

This can be handy if you’re building Excel reports and want to add names to a table instead of aliases – you could sort the list of aliases alphabetically, run them through the resolver, and then reference the table with a VLOOKUP formula so you could hide the column of aliases from your report and show instead the derived real names.

Tip o’ the Week 416 – Teams Slash At Apps

clip_image001There’s a perennial tension amongst productivity evangelists, about how best to do it – from which methodology to use, to which tools to fulfil their hopes & dreams. Similar behaviour occurs amongst communications czars – don’t send attachments, put them in SharePoint!; email is the devil, we should use Yammer!; this time, it’s about the world of team-based collaboration platforms, pioneered by the likes of Slack/Fleep/Flock/Zoho and inhabited by the Microsoft Teams product set too. Some companies barely use email, instead turning to persistent chat offered by these kinds of apps.

Teams is part of Office 365 (well, for business users – it’s hard to think of a scenario where you’d need Teams for home use…), and in time will subsume the Skype for Business capabilities that O365 users access today. Some businesses will still have an on-premises Skype for Business installation, which means that product isn’t going away entirely, at least not for a good few years.

clip_image003There have been a bunch of updates to Teams in recent days, signalling the largest update to the Teams software so far. See more on what’s new here.

If you press / or @ in the command line at the top of the Teams site or app, you’ll see a list of commands you can use – like /whatsnew, to see a change log of recent releases.

Using apps (installed from an app store within the Teams UI – just type @ in the command line to see the list) lets you quickly embed content from another source, into the conversation stream within your Team channel. There are already over 120 apps available, from all kinds of third party publishers – it’s worth browsing the different categories within the store, rather than just the top picks you’re initially presented with.

clip_image005Instead of taking a screenshot or just pasting a URL to a story/place/whatever… you can embed a hot-linked summary of the real content and make it easy for people to jump to it.

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Tip o’ the Week 415 – Another right To-Do

clip_image002It’s been 9 months since the unveiling of Microsoft To-Do, the task manager app that will someday replace the much loved Wunderlist (see ToWs passim317, 376, et al); the celebrations were muted in the halls of Wunderlist superfans, though, as To-Do has a much reduced feature set, albeit with a mission to be clear and easy to use. “Maybe it’ll catch up quickly”, some said.

There has been very little noticeable progress on the features front, though there have been lots of minor upgrades and fixes to the Windows 10, iOS and AndroidMicrosoft To-Do” apps (note the hyphen and the design of the icon; the respective app stores are awash with inferior “todo” apps with a variety of tick logos).

Since publishing this tip internally at Microsoft (where some early builds of new functionality are available in test versions), Thurrott.com highlighted the quiet announcement that we’re working on shared lists and subtasks, as well as deeper integration to Outlook. Watch that space, basically.

Recently, though, the To-Do web app has been released in clip_image004the Office365 Portal (after a few months of opt-in preview), and a tantalizing teaser shows up on the “Your apps” page… though doesn’t really tell you a whole lot that isn’t immediately obvious.

To-Do can import tasks from your existing Wunderlist task list if you have one, and automatically syncs with Outlook Tasks, therein exposing a rub – most people will have signed in to Wunderlist with their Microsoft Account, but for To-Do and Outlook to get along well, you’ll need to be using Office365 and therefore a different set of creds.

There are various solutions, the practicality of which will depend on how many active items you have in Wunderlist – you could share your MSA-homed lists with your O365 credentials, then log in with the latter and copy the contents across. Laborious, maybe.

You could make a clean break, or else use the Outlook addin for Wunderlist to sync the list items into Outlook as Tasks, then install To-Do and sync them back out again.

clip_image006The To-Do / Outlook task sync is pretty quick – just add an item to your To-Do app and it will quickly appear in your Outlook tasks view, reminders, notes and all. See more here.

The reverse is also true, though if you add Outlook tasks without putting them directly in the folders created to mimic the To-Do structure, (such as Tasks that were created in OneNote), the new item will just be lumped in the general “To-Do” list at the top.

Dragging and dropping the item, either within Outlook (from the clip_image008“Tasks” list into on a suitable corresponding folder to your To-Do lists) or by doing the same within the To-Do app or web app itself, and you’ll keep things nicely arranged.

If you like the idea of being more task organised, find Outlook Tasks too cumbersome, then To-Do could be a great way of simplifying the junction. It may not be as functionally rich as Wunderlist, but the latter is still available for those who want it.

Tip o’ the Week 414 – So Quiet…. Shhhh! Shhhh!

“Redstone” is the internal Microsoft codename for the current branch of Windows 10clip_image002; numerous updates have arrived since the release of Windows 10 mid-2015, and each has carried its own codename – Threshold (TH1 and TH2), and the Redstone 1, 2 and 3 releases (RS1, RS2, RS3). The last update – Redstone 3 – was released as the Windows 10 Fall Creators Update, in October 2017.

If you’re at all confused by the nomenclature – the names of the updates rather than the codenames – then you’re not alone.

Redstone 4 is currently in development, is being pushed out to Windows Insiders and will arrive within a few months to everyone else, if all goes to plan. Petrolheads / Gearheads may be glad to know that an RS4 will be arriving soon, even in the USA – even if it’s a software update for Windows.

clip_image004One ofclip_image006 the nice things to look forward to when RS4 appears is the final release of the “Quiet Hours” feature, which has been essentially MIA for only the last 2½ years, since the same feature from Windows 8.1 disappeared.

ToW #343 covered how to replicate Quiet Hours – where you could set your PC to not blare stupid reminders in the middle of the night, should it still be switched on – but in RS4 this won’t be necessary as you’ll be able to choose when, and where, Quiet Hours will be enabled.

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Once you know you have a RS4 build of Windows with the Quiet Hours feature – 17074 or later – then just got into Settings, and search for Quiet. Now, shhhhh.

Tip o’ the Week 413 – Got Skills, they’re multiplying

clip_image002It’s not been a great time in the press for Cortana. The personal assistant software which appeared nearly 4 years ago on Windows Phone 8.1 and later Windows 10, has been eclipsed in the last year by hardware-based offerings from Amazon and Google. At gadget-fest show CES in Vegas this week, manufacturers were even showing Alexa on their PCs (presumably in exchange for $$ from the largest online retailer).

The personal assistant market (somewhat incorrectly referred to as “AI”s by the mass media) is being talked up as a new frontier, of voice control meeting smart language understanding and connectivity. Apple were first to the market in the public consciousness with Siri, but now that Amazon’s Echo and Google’s Home devices have been very sucessful (the Echo Dot being Amazon’s top selling bit of kit over the holiday season), the idea that people would use a phone as the main way to voice-interact with online services seems a little less assured than it was a couple of years back.

Alexa has led the way with integrating Amazon’s device and service, with other devices and services – just as the app made the smartphone useful and pervasive, the “skill” support of your chosen digital assistant seems set to make or break that ecosystem. Amazon has talked up having over 25,000 skills for Alexa – really impressive, though like smartphone appstores, there are a lot of “fart app” equivalents in there, amongst the good stuff.

clip_image004Meanwhile, Cortana has been showing up on other hardware and building skills, both at a slower rate. The Haman Kardon Invoke speaker – fairly well received as a music device and Bluetooth speaker as much as a smart assistant – is on sale at $99. The beautiful-looking JCI GLAS smart thermostat, powered by Windows 10 IoT Core, is on the way too.

The Cortana skills kit promises to make it really easy for developers to add Cortana support for their apps and services, though Cortana Skills are still officially “in preview”. Alexa and Cortana may yet get friendly – though it hasn’t happened quite in the timescale envisaged.

Despite reports, Cortana is not dead, yet – there are device partnerships being announced and due to be announced. And the Cortana assistant is available on Android and iOS; Samsung S8 users could even remap the Bixby button with Cortana, though unofficially.


clip_image006Skills on Windows 10

If you’ve a PC with the latest OS, you can get Cortana by pressing WindowsKey+Q, or even WindowsKey+C (to go straight to Cortana’s voice input), or even by saying “Hey Cortana” (check in Settings, look for Cortana). If you’re in the US, then you may be able to access Cortana Skills straightaway – there’s no installation or association required (like you’d need to do with Alexa skills), though you might need to configure or authorize the skill on first run.

Check out the list of supported Skills, here – there are quite a few fillers (yet more guff apps) making up the modest 250-odd skills available, but there are some good ones there too – see the featured skills for example.

clip_image008If you’re in the rest of the world, though, you may be disappointed – Cortana Skills are US only for now. To have a play, go into the “Talk to Cortana” settings page, and at the very bottom, set the language to English (United States). You’ll need to wait a few minutes for your PC to install the appropriate language support, but soon, you’ll be able to ask Cortana – on your PC – things like, “Hey Cortana, ask Dark Sky for today’s forecast”.

For previous coverage of Cortana on ToW, see #380, et al.