Microsoft’s Latest Workplace Tech Demos Creep Me Out

Image: Alex Cranz/Gizmodo

If you’re an employee under the heel of a giant corporation you should probably be terrified by the vision of the future of connected gadgets that Microsoft just revealed at its Build developer conference here in Seattle.

Two demos from today’s keynote stood out, both for being entertaining and for revealing a potentially frightening future for anyone working for a big employer with the will to micro-monitor its employees.

The first featured cameras watching employees on a construction worksite. The cameras are tied into the cloud, where artificial intelligence monitors everything in real time, noting identities of employees as well as identifying almost every single piece of equipment on the worksite.

That is undoubtedly cool, especially as the AI can instantly notice when someone is on the worksite that shouldn’t be, or identify when someone is using dangerous equipment in an ill-advised fashion.

It is also, you know, terrifying. Microsoft’s demo purposely focused on a construction worksite, where accidents are too common, and a smart AI overseer sort of makes sense. Spotting OSHA violations or trespassers quickly and then relaying that information to an employer via mobile notifications could genuinely save limbs and lives.

But my brain immediately started conjuring a scenario that was much more oppressive—One where these cameras were in some open office where people come to work in skirts or button downs from Dillard’s. Not a place where security or safety is a primary concern, but instead, a place where employers obsessively monitor employees in some misguided attempt to maximize profit by chewing up and spitting out the fleshy cogs in their machine.

With a surveillance system like this you couldn’t invite your friend to stop by for lunch because your boss would know, a notification instantly appearing on their phone. There’d be no long lunches or grabbing extra office supplies from the closet. Take a too smoke breaks or have a bout of indigestion that leaves you on the toilet longer than usual? The AI would be able to notice so quickly that your boss could meet you in the hallway with a bottle of Pepto Bismol.

In this screenshot an employer is getting a notification because this guy hasn’t set a jackhammer down correctly. (Image: Screenshot)

The little bit of autonomy many employees still have in the office would be eradicated if this system were moved away from construction worksites and into more traditional offices.

This further illustrated by the other big demo of Build’s Day 1 Keynote. It focused on Cortana, and how it could now be everywhere, instead of just lashed to your laptop or phone. The demo shows a woman chatting with a Cortana-powered Invoke speaker in a set intended to represent her home. Then it reminded her she had a meeting, so she hopped in the car, where it promptly told her traffic was going to make her late and notified her workplace, then slotted her into a meeting already in progress.

Image: Screenshot

This sounds wildly cool and convenient, but there was one thing Microsoft left unsaid. This woman was logged into her home and car with her workplace ID, which means potentially her employers could now have access to data from her home and car life. If work-life balance is of any concern to you, the fact that your home speaker system might one day tell you to hurry up and get to the office because you’re late and you’re chronically late should be alarming.

These demos illustrate the trade-offs inherent in a world in which we use more and more connected gadgets. You have to give up some of your privacy in order to reap the benefits of a network of devices tuned to you and your whims. But the realities of these trade-offs start to feel worse with Microsoft because despite its array of consumer products, like the Surface Pro and Microsoft 10 Home, Microsoft is in the business of working with businesses. Those are its primary clients, and it’s very much who Microsoft spent the majority of today’s keynote speaking to. You are not the business model, your company is. Asking consumers to give their data to a big faceless corporation like Google so it can sell ads is one thing—but asking them to also give all that data to the people who sign their checks is another.

[“source-gizmodo”]

Microsoft’s new education push plays to its strengths, the cheap and familiar

 

Microsoft never mentioned Chromebook by name, but it’s clear that Google’s browser-based hardware offering was at the front of everyone’s mind at today’s education event in New York City. The company has managed to control much of the market internally, but the Chromebook has swiftly eroded marketshare here in the States.

Microsoft’s solution is playing into the company’s strengths of low cost hardware running familiar software. That’s precisely what Windows 10 S is all about. Unlike recentl education plays from the company that centered around the Surface, Microsoft has returned to its roots, focusing on what made it a hit during the rise of netbooks: the low barrier of entry.

The company’s focus on Surface in education was a rejection of that appeal. Microsoft clearly learned from the rise of the iPad in education that the best solution was a premium one, hoping the highest end experience would be a lasting one that students would take with them as they graduated and entered the real world.

That focus allowed Google to sneak in. Much maligned at launch, Chromebooks have ultimately proven a hit in education due in no small part to their extremely low barrier of entry, coupled with software features focused at the IT departments that make many of the purchasing decisions for schools and districts.

When the company announced Intune for Education paired with hardware systems starting at $189 back in January, it was clear that the company had learned its from its missteps. The percentage of schools that can afford a truly premium one-to-one hardware solution is limited to small private schools and the like. And those school often opt for the iPad for its premium hardware/software solution.

 

For everyone else, cost is paramount. Windows 10 S is an acknowledgement of this fact. Due out this summer on a slew of systems from hardware partners like Dell and HP, the streamlined OS plays into this, and by delivering a familiar software experience, it may well maintain some of the market abroad, as it delivers familiar productivity solutions like Office, coupled with new additions like mixed reality and 3D content creation.

And, of course, the company will be able to maintain a fuller offline experience than many Chromebooks, which are still largely browser based. With more complete offline functionality, these devices can help the company stay ahead in other parts of the world where school WiFi is a luxury, rather than a given.

Sure, Surface will continue to be part of the company’s solution in education. The company even used today’s event to announce a new device in that space. But if that system has success in education, it will be of the higher variety – high school, perhaps, but even more likely college.

If the company is really going to retain and regain classroom desk space, it’s going to do so with the simple, the familiar and the affordable.

 
[“source-ndtv”]

Microsoft’s Email Insights finally adds some useful search smarts to Outlook

email insights search

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Credit: Microsoft

Email Insights, a new experimental app from the Microsoft Garage, is the answer to a problem Google’s Gmail solved more than a decade ago: how to search Outlook and find exactly what you want.

Google’s Gmail gained enormous traction in part because it allowed a quick, convenient way to search emails. Today, you can search Outlook, but it arranges the results in order with no real preference given to what might be most relevant.

Email Insights works with both your Microsoft Outlook desktop application as well as Gmail, and attempts to bring the three most relevant results to the top of your inbox via an “intent pane.” The tool also provides contextual autocomplete, spelling correction and a fuzzy name search that will pull up the name of a contact, even if you’re not entirely sure how to spell it.

email insights intent pane

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Microsoft

The “intent pane” within Email Insights brings up relevant search results to the top of your inbox.

Users can open tabs within Email Insights to perform multiple searches. The search box can also be used to fire off a quick, one-line email to a contact, or even set up a quick meeting—functions that are becoming more common in the notifications window within smartphones.

If you’d like, you can even “detach” the Email Insights toolbar from Outlook itself and drag it down to your taskbar, Microsoft said.

Why this matters: Let’s face it: Gmail is still easier to use than Outlook, at least where everyday email searches are concerned. If Email Insights proves as useful as it sounds, maybe Outlook will incorporate it into a future release. The problem, though, is that this app is being published via Microsoft Garage, Microsoft’s online home for app experiments. If you like Email Insights, encourage others to download it, too. Otherwise, Microsoft could kill it, as it recently did with Cache, its erstwhile Google Keep killer.

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[“source-smallbiztrends”]

Microsoft’s First Digital Assistant, Cortana, Is Here

Sometime ago buzz began about a new digital assistant that would be available with the unveiling of Windows Phone 8.1.

Now, Microsoft’s first assistant, Cortana, is here. Microsoft has made the new Windows Phone 8.1 available to developers which means your carrier will have the phone available very soon.

The name Cortana apparently comes from a holographic character in Microsoft’s video game franchise, Halo.

Whatever the inspiration, the Cortana assistant acts much like Apple’s digital assistant Siri and Google Now. It’s designed to be your personal assistant keeping track of things that are important to you and searching for information on your Windows Phone. Cortana will be able to set your alarms and even reserve a table at a restaurant. She will remind you of meetings in your calendar and even tell you how long it will take you to travel to your next business meeting.

Cortana works inside just about every other app on Windows Phone 8.1, too. Tapping on a magnifying glass inside the app you’re running allows you to multitask. So, if you’re listening to music while on the road, you can tap to activate Cortana to also set a reminder or alarm, schedule a meeting, or run a Bing search.

Here’s a look at how Cortana works, from Windows Phone Central:

Outside of Cortana, Windows Phone 8.1 features new live tiles that you can customize with a unique skin. The Verge also notes that the update improves support for dual SIM cards, calendar views, and app updates.

“On one hand, Windows Phone 8.1 is a push toward the future, full of new things and new ways to do old things. But it’s also simply Microsoft’s biggest effort yet to bring its mobile platform closer in line with iOS and Android, to make it seem less alien to those who might switch.”

There is actually a way to get access to the updated mobile operating system. But be aware, this process will void the warranty on your device until your carrier releases the operating system update, according to The Verge in a different post.

If you’re not an app developer and are too anxious to wait for your mobile carrier to release the update, here’s how you can get Windows Phone 8.1 now.

First, go to the Windows Phone App Studio and sign in with your Microsoft account. The next step is to create a project. If you already have Windows Phone 8, you can download a free preview app. When you sign in to the app, your phone will detect the Windows Phone 8.1 update.

Image: Xbox

[“source-smallbiztrends”]