525 – Day nnn in the Big Brother House

clip_image002As the developed world stays in and starts to go a bit stir crazy, life beginning to feel like an episode of Big Brutha, we’re increasingly turning to streaming and video conferencing apps typically used for business, to keep in touch with friends and family, go dating, virtually visit a museum and many other things.

When you’re only allowed one walk a day and you can’t go for a drive, turn to virtual tours and motoring videos instead. Allez!

Captain Slow is hosting an online pub quiz and there are plenty of others you can join or even run your own quiz offline.

Online conferencing app Zoom has seen huge take-up over recent weeks, though its security has been questioned & tested by Zoom Bombing, leading the company to quickly release updates to give more control.

Microsoft Teams has announced some feature updates too – though there’s still more to do. Custom Backgrounds will be rolled out very soon, so users can replace their messy kitchen backdrop with a scene of serenity.

clip_image004clip_image006It’s getting easier to schedule and join Skype video meetings, too – from within the Skype app or even in a browser, you can Meet Now and quickly generate a URL that can be shared with others, who can join as a guest without needing to have an account or signing in.

Skype still has a huge user base, with over 40 million daily users of late.

Teams and Skype have started interoperating more, too, though it’s a limited experience at the moment. Expect Teams for Consumer, due to arrive later this year, to have tighter integration – and perhaps may eventually replace Skype.

524 – I read the news today, oh boy

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With most of the world in lock-down and everyone staying at home, it’s easy to be fixated with the news, even though there’s really only one topic.

clip_image004You could look at Microsoft News – a recently-updated app and website that serves up a mixture of curated news from 3rd party sources that you can define, along with annoying click-bait adverts for sometimes dubious products that you clip_image006are seemingly unable to block or hide.

The same guff pollutes the otherwise excellent new-tab experience in the new Edge browser, assuming you aren’t seeing the Office 365 tab.

There’s an FAQ that explains the rationale behind the advertising, though if you have time on your hands, you could always make your feelings known through the Feedback Hub app (here’s how), add your voice to the reviews tab on the Store, or join up to the Microsoft Old Timers group on Facebook and gripe about it while sharing photos of old t-shirts and stuff.

In the “good old days” theme, a new beta “News bar” app has been released, offering to display the same curated and presumably ad-filthy content on a sidebar reminiscent of a Vista gadget, or a ticker running along the top of the task bar like a 1990s website. Though it may be geo-locked so you can only get it in certain countries for now, read more on the News bar app here.

Whilst cooped up inside, spending your life on conference calls or Teams meetings, spare a thought for those who are new to the whole experience, and shed a tear for the technology they’re using. They could be Skyping.

523 – Raise your hand

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As more of the world is in lock-down and pretty much everyone who can is working at home, apps like Teams have taken a more central role in many lives. Alongside adding 12m users the other week, there was a substantial increase in resources dedicated to running the back-end – millions of additional CPU cores were provisioned to the Teams service.

clip_image004Mobile Teams users are getting some new functionality, and the blog post about the 40% growth in usage teased some features that are coming later in the year, notably background noise-cancelling (to supress the tap-tap-tap of the typical team-mate’s typing), and a new action which lets attendees ask for help or offer to contribute by “raising their hand”. That might help avoid people talking over each other.

This feature is in test currently and is expected to appear a little later this year, along with a raft of other improvements, like having custom backgrounds (in addition to blurring of the existing background), and the ability to break out chats into separate windows rather than have everything in one.

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clip_image008When the hand-raising feature is rolled out, assuming you can see the People pane to the side of the Teams window, anyone who has their hand raised will be listed with a hand icon, meaning the organiser could ask them to chime in.

On the COVID-19 pandemic – the WHO publishes a view of the spread of the disease, with the help of Microsoft’s ISV partner ESRI, using their ArcGIS platform. See the global WHO dashboard, or look at the county-by-county map of the US, here. It’s all very sobering. There’s a Coronavirus Tracker on Bing and a load of other resources on Microsoft.com.

522 – Teams best practices for WFH

clip_image002In these uncertain times, many organisations are scrambling to enable their workers to be able to carry on even when the rest of the world is seemingly losing control. At least the meme creators are busy.

Ex-Microsoftie Allister Frost has some wise words to share about Working From Home, and given that he was Chief Puppy Controller for a well-known marketing team, he knows things that are currently relevant.

Microsoft Teams may have had a couple of bumps since the Covid-19 virus started to cause people to stay at home; early in the week there were a couple of outages that have been swiftly resolved, but it’s since been announced that the service added 12 million daily active users in the last 7 days – that’s a 40% increase in usage, so it’s no surprise if the infrastructure creaked a little as it grew.

There are many tips for making good use of Teams –

Stay at home, stay safe, and follow Buzz Aldrin’s advice.

521 – Earth mapping

The last couple of decades have seen a revolution in user apps which offer location awareness and guidance. clip_image002 Automotive sat-navs were available some years ago, dating back to Honda’s electro Gyro-cator (now that’s a name) in 1986. CD and HDD based satnavs in cars became available over the years since, but typically were many thousands of dollars/pounds/etc as an option.

clip_image004Google Earth was first launched in 2001 as a desktop app, and Google Maps followed in the browser, a few years later. Microsoft launched “Virtual Earth” shortly after that, though it was initially more like “Virtual North America” as its global coverage was very lacking. Over time, Bing Maps launched a bunch of innovative services, like Birds Eye, which used licensed 3rd party images from spotter planes to stitch together a “45 degree” view rather than the typical straight-overhead aerial view.

clip_image006The source data for Birds Eye is a little out of date in some areas – though is still being updated in, er, North America (eg. see here and here), and maybe in other areas over time too. Point Birds Eye at Microsoft’s UK campus, and it shows Building 5 under construction, so the images are at least 8 years old, though since they no dates other than “© 2020”, there’s no obvious way to tell.

Google’s Street View shows the dates of images if there are multiple – click the down arrow next to “Street View” in the top left to view the history.

Meanwhile, as well as rowing back some of the nagging to get Edge browser users to move to Chrome, Google released Google Earth in the browser – it’s maybe not quite so smooth as the desktop app, but it’s quick to use – https://earth.google.com/web/ … see Microsoft UK’s TVP campus, here.

The Washington Post reports that Google changes the view of maps depending on the country the user is in, removing disputed borders and the likes – so it’s a complicated world. According to that same article, Bing Maps is a very minor player in map usage, with Apple Maps (after an inauspicious start) has grown to be the second-most-used mapping platform, due to mobile usage, either on the Maps app directly or via other 3rd party apps which use location-awareness from the mobile device.

clip_image008Bing Maps is used in many online services and other apps, however – like Microsoft’s forthcoming reboot of Flight Simulator, which supposedly features every airport in the world and uses data from Bing Maps, real-time weather reports and rendering in Azure, to provide a realistic flying view. There are some amazing videos on the Flight Simulator channel.

520 – You have the Power

clip_image002When Windows 95 launched nearly a quarter of a century ago, it brought a whole new way of interacting with the windowing environment on users’ PCs. The Start menu was introduced (and the grand launch event had the execs “dancing” to ‘Start Me Up’ by the Rolling Stones – chosen because of its “Start” association, presumably, rather than the lyric “you make a grown man cry”), and after a short-term diversion in Windows 8, the Start menu reappeared in Windows 10, and is still evolving.

After the Win95 initial release, the development team behind the Windows Shell came out with a bunch of useful utilities; things that at one point might have shipped as Resource Kit tools, but were aimed at a slightly broader user base – and so the Power Toys family was born.

There were often capabilities in the OS which could be enabled or disabled by the flick of a setting in the Registry (also new in Windows 95, in an attempt to put all the settings stuff in one place rather than having INI files everywhere). Telling an end user to go an start Registry twiddling is a potential recipe for disaster, so the Power Toys included utilities like TweakUI, which exposed some of the settings.

Various other Microsoft products embraced the idea of Power Toys, but the whole thing was killed off in the wake of the intensive code reviews required as part of the Trustworthy Computing (TwC) initiative in 2002. See more of the history here (though the page is 15 years old so pretty much all the links are dead).

In late 2019, it was announced that PowerToys was coming back – this time, as an open source project supported by the dev team but ultimately driven by a wider community. The goals for v1.0 have been published and recently the 0.15 release was made – get the latest version here.

So far, possibly the most useful app in the current build is FancyZones, which allows you to have more control over window layouts than simply snapping to the left or right – handy if you have a massive monitor or two, and want to tile multiple windows side by side.

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519 – Browser battles revisited

clip_image002The “Browser Wars” happened in the late 1990s, and marked a time of intense, er, “competition” between different web browsers. Since then, Google’s Chrome has rather cleaned up and established a seemingly unassailable lead in browser market share.

Still, Edge’s recent release using the Chromium rendering engine – designed to make it comparable with Chrome from a compatibility point of view, yet allowing Microsoft developers to remove Google-services-specific stuff (and replace them, sometimes, with Microsoft-services-specific stuff, many of which will be checked in to the Chromium open-source project.

The Edge browser built on Chromium was released in January, and updates are flowing through to add more functionality – which, exactly, depending on whether you’re running the normal release or you’re on one of several preview or developer (“canary”) versions. Some features are things that were ideally intended to make it to the public release – like synchronizing extensions installed across multiple PCs.

The Edge update won’t be forced out to existing non-Chromium-Edge users (hello, out there!) – or at least there will be a way of stopping it from being pushed out, if you’re an enterprise IT controller who’d rather not have to manage change and things like that.

One of the benefits of Edge being on Chromium is that the extensions which third parties build for the browser should be compatible – and since Google has 2/3rd of the total market, there are more of them than for other browsers.

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There’s an Edge “addons” page which shows a curated list of extensions known to work well with the new Edge, but if you want, you can install anything that’s listed on the Google site.

If you enable the ability to install Chrome extensions into Edge, then refresh/browse to the Chrome store again, you’ll be met with scary warnings, however…

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Google has started alerting of a security issue – namely, if the extension is somehow added to the Chrome store and subsequently found to be of dubious intent and posing a security risk, then Google can remotely knobble it on installed machines. They are now warning that if you happen to use a Chromium but-not-Chrome browser – like Edge – then they won’t do this. It seems the extension security scare banner isn’t the only one to try to make Edge users install and switch to Chrome.

Tsk, Tsk.

Also, the Edge browsers published for Android and iOS are receiving updates to make them work more seamlessly with desktop Edge. (See more for Android & iOS)

518 – The App(s) of Office

clip_image002Once upon a time, there were Microsoft Office mobile apps, for Windows.

Ever since the demise of Windows Mobile and the collateral damage caused to Microsoft’s previous Universal Windows Platform apps strategy by not having a universal platform any more, their future has been in some doubt. In fact, since late 2018, it was reported that the Office “Mobile” apps for Windows were being de-prioritized in favour of the desktop variants (with the exception of OneNote), and separate mobile apps for the surviving mobile platforms.

clip_image004If you search the Microsoft Store app on PC, you won’t find any trace of the Office mobile apps for Windows PCs any more but if you want to see what the future looked like from a point 5+ years in the past, you can still access the direct links get the UWP apps for Word, Excel and PowerPoint.

In these enlightened days, Microsoft builds quite a lot of apps for iOS and Android, more especially the latter since it has a larger number of users (and seems to be growing its share in key markets) as well as being more open when it comes to the both the end-user and developer experience (though Apple may be changing its tack a little).

Recently, the Office team has shipped a whole new, unified Office app for Android and for iOSmore details in the team’s blog, here.

The app brings together Word, Excel and PowerPoint, but also adds a bunch of other related things – like Sticky Notes, and some related and useful technology like the ability to manage PDF files, extract text from an image and more.

Back in Oct 19, MJF wrote about this strategy and more recently has suggested more features are on their way.

517 – Try the preview…

clip_image002Several of Microsoft’s standard apps within Windows ship updates regularly, and increasingly are offering willing early adopters a peek at what’s coming through a  “Try the preview” clip_image004or “Coming Soon” option, usually in the top right of the main screen.

clip_image006You might need to force an update on your apps to get the latest version; go into the Store app and in the ellipsis menu on the top right, select Downloads and updates then hit the Get updates button. If you don’t like clicking menus, you could jump straight there by opening a run dialog with Win+R and entering ms-windows-store://DownloadsAndUpdates/

To find the name of any installed Store app, so you can run it from a command line or dialog, fire up powershell (just press the Start button and type that) then paste:

foreach ($p in $(get-appxpackage)) { foreach ($n in (Get-AppxPackageManifest $p).package.applications.application.extensions.extension.protocol.name) { $p.packagefullname + “`t `t `t -=- ” + $n } }

… and enter that. You’ll get a list of long app names followed by a one-word name that can be used to invoke the app. To run a Store app from a Run dialog or the Start menu directly, use that one word with a colon at the end – to start the Store version of OneNote try typing Win+R onenote: (for example).

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clip_image012The Calendar app – improbably named outlookcal: even though it has nothing to do with the desktop Outlook, other than it too can display a calendar – has recently received an opt-in preview which adds a funky new UI with background graphics reminiscent of Wunderlist, and nice icons to help you quickly switch between different calendar sources.

The preview will only show up (for now) if you’re a Windows Insider. Fortune favours the brave

516 – More Teams Sharing

clip_image002[4]When you use online meeting technologies, there are usually ways to share content with attendees. Even years and years ago, lots of people felt the easiest way to present a PowerPoint slide deck was to “share their screen” while running the PowerPoint application.

Some folk have the good sense to “present” clip_image004[4]that PPT fullscreen while screen-sharing, whereas others would merely flick through the slides within the PowerPoint app, consuming 30% of the screen real estate with menus, slide sorter, and other visual detritus of not only the app, but their host operating system as well.

Top tip – when you’re presenting, don’t be a doofus – please present, don’t share your screen then move through slides.

PowerPoint itself, OCS, Lync, Skype for Business – they’ve all tried to provide easy ways to present content online or through a meeting. Not wanting to throw in the towel to the screen-sharing crowd just yet, Teams has a few more tricks up its sleeve too.

clip_image006[4]clip_image008[4]Try for yourself – go to the Calendar node (remembering that you can switch between them by pressing CTRL+ the number from the top, so CTRL+4 in this case will jump to Calendar – though current versions of the Teams client will allow you to reorder the nodes by dragging & dropping them), and on the top right of the screen, click Meet now. This will give you a one-person playground to try stuff in. Read more here.

When you’re in a meeting, if you wave your mouse around or click/tap on a blank area within the main window, you’ll see the meeting controls toolbar, which you’ll use to control your audio/video, look at the text chat or participants list within a meeting, and also the Share option.

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clip_image012[4]clip_image014[4]Rather than sharing Desktop or Window, check out PowerPoint – if you don’t see the slide deck you want to present in the list of the most recently used ones, click on Browse and you’ll be able to navigate to it throught Teams channels and libraries (if your content is already in there), or you can upload it from your elsewhere.

The Teams client will render your presentation on each viewer’s machine, using less network bandwidth than screen-sharing does, and allowing more seamless multi-user control – so if you have multiple presenters in a single meeting, they can take over presenting the deck without having to be given overall control of the original presenter’s computer.

clip_image016[4]If you decide to put your PowerPoint file into a Teams channel and share / present it from there, it’s worth double-checking the formatting though; under the covers the Teams client will use the same rendering as if were previewing the file in a web browser.

You may find some slide transitions, animations or even some text layout will be a little different to how you’d see it in full-blown PowerPoint – to check that everything is OK, just navigate to the file within the Teams channel, and preview it from there.

If you do find the slides get mangled, you may be able to tidy them up within the Teams preview, or else you have permission to do the dastardly desktop sharing method.

For more information on sharing content within Teams meetings, see here.