Microsoft has a somewhat complicated history with ”mobile apps”. The Windows Phone platform promised much, and though many of the ideas were good, ultimately it went away. The Universal Windows Platform app model was a sound idea in some respects, but when the ‘Phone disappeared, its raison d’être ceased to be.
At one point, there were calls that Windows Phone should be able to run Android apps in emulation, or that Microsoft should embrace Android in other ways. Recent years have seen Microsoft publish a profusion of Android apps, including the excellent Launcher, which takes some of the ideas honed in the Windows Phone UI and makes them available to just about any Android phone.
When the dual-screen Surface Duo phone appeared, it was the first time Microsoft had shipped a device running Android as the base operating system. Recent speculation on the future of the Surface Duo 3 might point to a different form factor, but it’s still very likely going to be running the Android OS.
On the desktop, Windows 11 has been offering Android apps to many users for a little while. Similar in some ways to Windows Subsystem for Linux, which basically lets you run a fully-fledged Linux machine inside your Windows PC, the Windows Subsystem for Android means running Android in a virtual machine and allowing apps to appear in a window alongside native Windows apps.
To run Android apps on the WSA on Windows 11, you first need to install the Amazon Appstore. There are many apps in this store, but since it originally started as a walled garden for Amazon’s own Fire tablets, there are gaps. You won’t find many banking apps, for example, and aside from the thousands of garish games, many of the available apps could just be run in a browser on your PC instead.
The Amazon Appstore app itself is a bit crude – it doesn’t offer much opportunity to filter and sort the apps it presents, so it’s not easy to wade through the many stupid games to find real apps you might want to use. It’s maybe better to peruse what’s available through a browser, and then search specifically within the Appstore app for the app you want to add.
If you wanted to use Android apps that are not published through the curated Amazon store, you’d need to have access to the Google Play store, and that’s not officially an option with the Windows Subsystem for Android.
There are numerous hacks online to enable Google Play Services (and thus the Googley Store) but getting it installed and running is convoluted, and at least one script has already been subverted with malware, so might be a risky endeavour too. You might want to try running BlueStacks or another Android emulator, to get access to the Google Play store.
Leaving aside dewy-eyed recollections of Windows Phone, Android and iOS mirror Windows and MacOS in many ways – the latter being more closed and single-supplier while the former is relatively open and available from a large number of providers. Android has a far larger market share than iOS, even if the cognoscenti seem to flock to the Apple device.
One way of making your Android device more integrated to your Windows PC has just been refreshed and renamed – Phone Link.
Previously known as Your Phone, this app lets you access a variety of features of your phone from your PC; from reading and sending SMS messages and working with photos easily, to making and taking calls using your PC as a headset to the phone.
There are some things you can’t easily do with Phone Link, though – while it will mirror notifications you receive on the phone, it doesn’t necessarily allow you to interact with the app that generated them (eg a notification from Twitter won’t let you open the Twitter app to view the full thing). It does allow you to clear notifications though, so if you’re the type with loads of unacknowledged notification badges on your phone, this could be a good way to get rid of them.
While on the topic of mirroring, it is also possible to use WhatsApp on your PC – so you can type messages and paste photos etc into WhatsApp messages, without dealing with the vagaries of autocorrect on the phone.
The Windows Insiders program which, for a good many years, has provided a way for the product team to develop aspects and features of Windows with the help of millions of early testers, announced some changes in its focus recently. The distinction between Dev and Beta channels will blur to some degree, with A/B testing of new experimental features showing up in Dev before some may make it into future releases.
The path to how new features for Windows 11 will be rolled out is changing a little too. Having previously said that there would be only one Feature Update each year, rather than the spring/fall update cadence that has been with Windows 10 for some time, there are going to be intermediate feature experience packs which will deliver some updates, like the forthcoming Android subsystem which will allow Windows 11 users to install and run a subset of Android apps and games on their PC.
If you’re outside of the US, don’t get too excited about the Android apps – the initial preview needs both your PC region to be US and you need an Amazon account in the US, in order to use the Amazon Appstore (which is the home of the subset of available apps). Enterprising tinkerers have found ways to install the software without meeting said requirements – if you choose this rocky path, however, you’re on your own.
If you want some groovy new features for your PC without grubbing around in the command line or waiting for a future update to arrive, do check out the recently-refreshed PowerToys package. The tl;dr history is that PowerToys started as a collection of side projects built during the Windows 95 days, shipped as freebies for power users to play with. The name was dusted down a couple of years ago to collect up similar skunkworks projects for Windows 10 (and now, 11), and has been updated fairly regularly – though the release version is still way off v1.0.
The New PowerToys comprises a collection of addons which will be of varying interest to your average Windows user, but some are so neat on the occasions you need them that you’ll be glad of having installed the package. Image Resizer, for example, is a File Explorer extension to kick off resizing a large picture to a more manageable size – handy for the kind of website where you need a thumbnail or a profile picture that’s of restricted dimensions. There are other file-related tools like Power Rename, as well as power usage, window-handling and a whole lot more.
Of particular interest (and most recent) are utilities to do with your mouse – how many times have you tried to find the location of your pointer (especially if you have multiple screens) by waggling the mouse or tickling the trackpad? Press CTRL key twice to Find My Mouse and the screens go dark, except for a spotlight that shines on the current pointer location. There’s a Mouse Highlighter which – when activated via a configurable shortcut key – leaves a little short-lived blob on-screen where you clicked the mouse; great if you’re recording a training video or doing a demonstration.
Finally, there’s the somewhat more dramatic Mouse Pointer Crosshairs, which puts a big cross centered on wherever your pointer is, and follows it around. This might be hugely distracting to leave it on all the time, but fortunately, a quick press of the shortcut key will turn it off.
The PowerToys use a lot of different shortcut keys – some configurable – and also have a handy Shortcut Key guide, which displays common Windows shortcuts; none of those used by the PowerToys themselves, though.
If you’re an iPhone user, the connected experience is somewhat watered-down and achieved in a different way, and is mostly about syncing content and continuing web browsing from your phone to your PC. Thank the differences in Android vs iOS ecosystems for that…
For various Samsung phones and the Surface Duo, you can also control and mirror apps from your phone on the PC as well as transfer content. If you have a phone with the shiniest of shiny Android 11, you may be able to treat mobile apps just as if they are Windows apps – pin them to Start menu, run them in their own window on the PC etc. See more here.
For most other Android devices, you can’t yet do the mirroring within the Your Phone experience, but you do get to share app notifications on your PC (so you’ll get “toasts” in Windows for WhatsApp etc), exchange photos and files quickly and easily, manage messaging and even, should you want to, take and make calls on your PC.
To get it up and running, start the Your Phone app on your PC, and the pre-installed Link To Windows app if you have a supported Samsung or Surface device; if not, then install the Your Phone companion app on the phone to get everything set up.
It can be handy getting notifications on your PC that originate on phone apps, especially if your device isn’t next to you – but there may be limited use if all the notification on the phone would normally do is make you tap on it to read the story or interact with the app.
If you’re going to enable notifications, be careful – you’ll want to go through the list of apps that are on your phone, and only allow the ones you really need, or you’ll be getting a blizzard of unwanted toasts on your PC, assuming you’re not in Focus Assist mode.
Perhaps the best feature on Your Phone is the rapid ability to copy photos – without having to send them by email or wait for OneDrive to sync them. Using Your Phone, you can copy the file immediately to your PC, or just browse the photos on a larger screen and possibly screen grab bits of interest to insert into documents or emails. Sadly, what it won’t let you do is manage the photos easily, like delete the garbage…
Still, it’s free and it’s potentially useful for anyone with a Windows 10 PC and an Android phone – so definitely worth a look. For more info on how to use and troubleshoot Your Phone, see here.
If you’re a car-owning Android phone user, it’s worth looking into the Android Auto ecosystem. At a high level, Android Auto is like Apple CarPlay – a way of projecting apps from your phone to a screen in your car, and interacting with them through the car’s own UI – be that touch, buttons or speech. Some cars will allow your phone to connect wirelessly, while others may require it to be plugged in.
If you have an older car – or you didn’t fork out on the options list to add CarPlay/Android Auto to your more recent one (like the £3K option price on a £170K Ferrari) – it’s still possible to run Android Auto on your phone while in the car.
The main Android Auto app can either be run manually or set to start automatically when the phone connects to your car’s Bluetooth system.
The app displays a simplified arms-reach or voice-driven UI, showing navigation, telephone and music apps, and the settings allow for a good amount of choice – Waze or Google Maps, Spotify or Amazon Music etc.
Assuming you’re going to cradle it, you’d treat it like you might use a fitted satnav system – albeit one which uses the phone’s network to show real-time traffic news, updates maps dynamically and freely rather than the eye-watering prices to update software and maps on installed systems.
There are 120-odd Android Auto compatible apps, so even if you don’t see their UI on the main menu, you could respond (with voice) to incoming messages on WhatsApp, or choose to listen to podcasts with Stitcher as one of several interchangeable “music” apps.
If your car does support Android Auto (check compatibility here) then it might take a bit of experimenting to understand how to connect it and how to get the car’s display to show the app outputs, though the results are largely the same as what you’d see if you just ran the host Android Auto app on your phone screen directly.
You might be able to replace the satnav system in an older car with one which does support Android Auto – see here for some ideas – as aftermarket satnavs are increasingly simple, ditching a CD/DVD player and maybe not even having a radio tuner – perhaps all you need in your car stereo is a 7” screen to which your phone connects, and an amplifier. Some retro-fit satnav systems use Android as their own OS, and offer a whole host of Carlos Fandango features for little more than the cost of a maps update for an older in-car system.
Optical Character Recognition is one of those technologies which has gone from being just-about-possible at great expense and hassle, to so mainstream that people just assume it will work flawlessly, all in a relatively few years. Numerous companies offer OCR services or addins to line-of-business systems which help to prepare printed data for easier consumption – scanning invoices for example.
Consumers tend to use OCR in other ways; combined with language translation, you can point your phone at a foreign menu or sign and it may be able to help you understand. In OneNote, if you have captured an image (maybe through the clipper addin from your browser), then it can extract the text from that picture – not always perfectly, and not necessarily well-formatted, but it’s probably quicker than re-typing everything.
A recent addition to the iOS version of Excel is the ability to scan a table of printed data and use OCR plus a bit of tweaking, to import the data into the spreadsheet. See more here. The same functionality was first made available on Android a couple of months earlier …
Start with the grid capture icon on the toolbar of a new spreadsheet, and then use the camera to highlight the area of a document that you’re interested in – the UI will be familiar to anyone who uses Office Lens, as the same anti-skewing technology is used to prepare the “document” for importing.
Then the OCR goes to work and tries to lay out the data as closely as possible to its source – obviously, your accuracy will be improved by having a well-lit and clear original document, and you’ll get to tweak the contents in context of seeing the OCR’d data and the scan at the same time, before committing to insert it.
Microsoft fangrlz and fanbois, shed a tear for the Windows Phone platform, which relaunched with some fanfare just over 8 years ago as “Windows Phone 7 Series” (recalling the Microsoft redesigns the iPod packaging spoof?). The original idea with the new platform was that you didn’t need to jump in and out of apps all the time, since apps surfaced their info on the home screen and to a series of Hubs. Check out the original 2010 advert that painted the vision (fairly) clearly…
The hastily-renamed Windows Phone 7 showed up in November 2010, and came with a comparatively lavish marketing budget, bring some quite edgy and memorable adverts – like the Season of the Witch, or Really? (try not to boke at the scene where the guy drops his phone…)
A year later, and almost 7 years ago to this day, Canadian DJ and electro-music producer Deadmau5 played an amazing light show in London to celebrate the launch of the first Nokia Lumia phone; the fact that his track “Bad Selection” was the one that showcased what the phone looked like did raise a snigger at the time. He was back a year later with another event to celebrate the launch of the Lumia 820 with Windows Phone 8.
Now that Windows Phone has been in the ground for more than a year, it’s worth celebrating its somewhat spiritual successor – the Microsoft Launcher for Android (see ToWs passim, #345 and #438). One of the upsides of the Android platform is the fact you can effectively re-write the main UI, and most phone manufacturers ship their own variants of common apps (like Contacts, Phone, Messaging etc), so it’s ripe for customizing.
The Launcher brings some of the design elements of Windows Phone to Android, while building in great new ideas – like the swipe right to the “Glance” screen, Bing visual search, Timeline integration with Windows PCs and more.
The Microsoft Launcher has had more than 10 million downloads and has a rating of 4.6 / 5, with over 750,000 reviews – and it’s recognised by many commentators as one of the best Android launchers, even in such a crowded market.
If you’re up for trying out a new release, sign up to be a tester for the Microsoft Launcher Beta – currently offering a major update (5.1) that includes better Cortana functionality, To-Do and Sticky Notes synch from PCs and more. See details here. Join the community here (Google+ is still a thing – who knew?)
The beta even has a new “Screen time” function that promises to tell you how often and how long you use the phone, and with which apps. Google has shipped a “Digital Wellbeing” feature for its latest Android release (v9 aka Android “Pie”), but many phones won’t get that release for ages, if at all. Microsoft Launcher works on Android 4.2 and later.
If you’re an Android user, and a Windows Insider, then you can get a preview version of the Your Phone app for the PC; after starting the app on the PC, it will ask for your mobile number and text you a link to download an updated version of the Microsoft Apps app (ya falla?). Download the update, sign in as appropriate, and suddenly your photos on the phone will start appearing in near real-time on your PC.
The Your Phone app actually uses a Wi-Fi connection on the phone to sync content with the PC – they don’t need to be on the same network but they do need to be able to talk to the back end service that coordinates things. For now, it just does photos (and only on Android), but in time, more services will be added. See more details here. And here.
The photo sharing capability is pretty cool – if you ever find yourself taking a photo on your phone and then immediately wanting to use it on your PC, then your alternatives are either to wait for OneDrive to sync your new pic from phone to cloud (and then back down to your PC)… or plug the phone in on a USB cable and root about in its file system to find the photo. Or the worst, but probably most used: you email the photo from your phone, to yourself…
For some time now, there’s been a collective of off-the-wall projects and experiments (which may or may not become part of more fully-fledged Microsoft products) called the Microsoft Garage. In an homage to the semi-stereotypical Silicon Valley startup idea (a few techies hacking away in the garage to make stuff, as gave life to both Apple and HP among many others), the Garage has some projects that will live fast and die young, while others persist as long-term experiments on the periphery of maturity.
One of the more interesting developments – for Microsoft, at least – over the last year or two, has been the number of Garage projects which not only come out first for non-Microsoft platforms, but which may even be exclusive to other environments. The Word Flow Keyboard for iPhone, for example, has been getting rave reviews, yet doesn’t have an immediate equivalent for Windows or any other OS.
There’s a concept in Android of the “launcher”, the software that presents the main UI to the end user for navigating installed apps. In desktop OSes, it might be called the shell or GUI; with Windows and Mac, you basically get what you’re given, but with Linux, there’s usually a choice of shells and UIs that you can pick from.
Well, Microsoft’s Arrow is a launcher (said to be the best, no less) aimed at the kind of user who wants to put their most useful content at the fore; whether that’s the apps you use the most, or widgets that summarise information that you care about. It’s nowhere near as good as the Start screen and live tiles environment on Windows Mobile, but it’s a step in the right direction.
Arrow has recently been updated (to v2.3.x.xx…) and now, as well as showing you Bing wallpaper of the day, lets you quickly search using Bing, from the home screen (just swipe up from the panel at the bottom of the screen as if you wanted to expand it vertically, and the Bing search box appears at the top).
The new release includes Wunderlist integration too, as well as some abilities to dial-down the animation if you’re a particular speed freak or you have an old device that struggles with modern window movements.
As with iOS, there is a plethora of other Microsoft apps available, too – from OneNote, OneDrive, Cortana, various MSN content-rich apps… and the Arrow launcher provides a neat and fast way of navigating the stuff you care about. Check it out on the Google Play store.
This is part 2 of a series of articles exploring the Internet of Things, starting with the first post, What is this “Internet of Things” thing, anyway?
The secret sauce, the Holy Grail, the raison d’être for Internet of Things is data. That much is pretty obvious to anyone with more than a passing interest in the field – why would you go to the bother of deploying a load of sensing devices and the infrastructure to manage and communicate with them, unless the data they provide is particularly interesting?
At Microsoft, we work with lots of partner companies who use our technology to build their own products and solutions. This often puts us into contact with people and organisations who are doing things we’d never expected or even imagined they’d do, and that is one of the reasons why it’s such a great place to work and an amazing ecosystem to be part of.
As part of this working with companies that are beginning to inhabit this growing Internet of Things niche, a special interest group sitting in Microsoft UK has drawn a few interesting, and sometime controversial, observations:
- No one technology or technology provider will own the IoT, and a lot of systems will use a smorgasbord of standards and components
- Scaling a system that manages a few hundred gadgets to one dealing with hundreds of thousands of sensors is very hard, as is managing and analysing a massive quantity of data
- There are “stacks” within IoT
- Sensors: the “things” in the IoT, massive in number but small in compute power
- Hubs: the concentrators which harvest data from sensors, provide some degree of control, logic and processing and ultimately pass the information up the chain
- Comms: many incompatible but functionally similar wireless standards will connect sensors to hubs, and hubs to the…
- Cloud: the place where the data is brought back to, where analysis can take place on it and where insights can be passed on to other systems or even back to the devices
- The real value will come from “latent data”
What is “latent data”?
To a large degree, the IoT is an emerging set of technologies, protocols and patterns for the collection, aggregation, analysis and actioning of intrinsic, latent data, and the management of this process.
Data is ubiquitous and inherent is all environments, be it an outside space, an ecosystem, a manufacturing complex, a supply chain or a city. This data can be regarded as “latent data” or “potential data” in the physical world – the data exists but is not accessible, or if it is accessible then it is of limited use since it is not combined with other, relevant data (such as historical readings, or data from complementary systems). Maybe the data is being accessed by some silo’ed system which uses that data for its own purposes but was never designed to provide any wider access to it.
Every physical thing has properties and attributes which may be discernable but are probably not being measured. A mechanical thermostat has intrinsic data on the temperature of a room and its own state, but this data remains in the physical world. A light bulb could be measured to see if it’s on or off, but this only becomes truly interesting when we could measure all the bulbs in a building, or a facility, or a city. If we can sense when all the bulbs need replacing, or alter their individual brightness depending on other conditions, that’s even more interesting.
For the avoidance of doubt, “Latent Data” is also a legal term applied to deleted files that need special forensic tools to extract… we’re talking about a more ethereal concept here, that there is data all around us in everything, but it’s untapped – and therefore, latent – unless we specifically decide to measure it and do something with it.
We believe that IoT is fundamentally about bringing this latent intrinsic data into the digital world in a way that allows the creation of value. This value is due to the aggregation of collected data, its analysis, and the use of that insight to drive decision-making and actions. The Cloud is the place where this data will be collected, where the data is likely to be stored in the long term, and where data aggregation and analysis will (mostly) occur.
The IoT patterns, the technologies and protocols that allow for this aggregation of latent data, are similar in a way to the OSI 7-layer networking model – the stacks which encompass devices, communications and Cloud. There are differing degrees of abstraction between these stacks and their constituent layers which means the IoT is inherently (and to the benefit of everyone within it and using it) a heterogeneous world.
Microsoft’s role in the Internet of Things
Microsoft has developed embedded systems that run in billions of devices already, and some of these could be considered part of an “intelligent system” that forms part of the IoT. Microsoft also has a hugely scalable and low cost cloud computing system in the Microsoft Azure cloud platform, where IoT applications can be quickly deployed and where the data that results from them can be securely kept and worked on.
Almost all IoT applications are likely to generate large volumes – petabytes, even more – of data, which will only become valuable when it is cost effective to keep it for a period of time and to perform large-scale computational analysis, both of which are difficult to do or economically unviable without the availability of public cloud computing.
If you’re an IoT developer building devices with Arduino or using systems like Raspberry Pi, and you’re writing your code in Python or Java and storing your data in some form of NoSQL database… that’s just fine by us. We think we have just the cloud service you need to let you concentrate on doing the stuff you started in this business for in the first place – writing your applications, building your devices and consuming your data.
With Microsoft Azure providing the backplane for these billions of devices to communicate – whether they are running Microsoft software or not – and to store and analyse their data, there is an opportunity for us and our partners to enable and monetize far-reaching change.
Some further reading: