Microsoft launches ‘Who’s In,’ a social event planning app for iMessage

Microsoft’s name isn’t exactly synonymous with social networking, though that hasn’t stopped the company from finding angles into this space – generally, with more of a focus on the business side of socializing, as with its LinkedIn and Yammer acquisitions. It’s own efforts in social, meanwhile, have failed, as with last month’s shuttering of its social network for students, Socl.

Now the company is giving social another shot with a new iMessage app called “Who’s In,” aimed at helping friends plan events and other outings, like movie dates, dinners out, visits to nearby attractions, and more.

The app, which just launched today on the iMessage App Store, does not have an iPhone or iPad version at this time – it can only be accessed via iMessage.

When you first launch the app, it asks you to select an activity: “Eat and drink,” “Watch a movie,” “Visit an attraction,” or “Create your own.”

After choosing one of the options, Who’s In then leverages Microsoft’s search engine Bing for its suggestions of things to do – like area restaurants or movie showtimes, for example. These appear after you consent to sharing your location with the app.

With a few more taps you enter the other details, like the event time, or – in the case of a custom event – the location, name, and a description.

The app will the create a custom card for your event, designed for texting, which includes a thumbnail image with the location and the time. The images the app uses are generic, however, as you can see in the above example. That’s disappointing in terms of the overall experience.

Recipients can tap on this card and then tap a thumbs up button to indicate they’re “in” or the thumbs down to indicate they’re “out.” (Hence the app’s name.)

 What’s also useful is that the app offers a way for the event’s organizer to enter in multiple dates/times, allowing Who’s In to serve as a sort of group polling app.

This addresses one of the common struggles of organizing outings via iMessage – there’s often a lot of back and forth chatter about what time everyone wants to do the thing being discussed. With Who’s In, you can instead send out the event’s card and collect votes.

 One funny thing to note about Who’s In is that Google years ago launched its own social app aimed at getting friends together to hang out. Its name? Who’s Down. That app was eventually shut down for lack of use.

That said, Microsoft’s app (also not to be confused with this indie app of the same name) seems like a handy addition for anyone who spends a lot of time in SMS and iMessage chats making plans with friends.

Unfortunately, with the way the app integrations in iMessage have been designed, it’s still overly cumbersome to find apps, and use them after installation. This has led to slowing growth in the store, according to one third-party report, as well as complaints from developers and pundits alike about the iMessage store’s design issues. These concerns are valid, and will likely impact the adoption of Microsoft’s Who’s In app, too.

We should note, too, that this is not Microsoft’s first entry into the iMessage App Store, nor even its first social app for iMessage.

The company already launched iMessage apps for OneDrive, Yammer, and Bing, plus a Halo stickers app, and a similarly focused event planning app, called #MovieDate. This latter app, as the name implies, is only for movies, and it has a dating focus.

Microsoft shelves all February security updates

Microsoft today took the unprecedented step of postponing an entire month’s slate of security updates for Windows and its other products just hours before the patches were to begin rolling out to customers.p1200405

“We discovered a last-minute issue that could impact some customers and was not resolved in time for our planned updates today,” Microsoft said in a post to the MSRC (Microsoft Security Research Center) blog. “After considering all options, we made the decision to delay this month’s updates.”

Today was set as Patch Tuesday, the monthly release of security fixes from Microsoft. Normally, Microsoft issues the updates around 10 a.m. PT (1 p.m. ET). Although Microsoft did not time stamp its blog post, the SAN Institute’s Internet Storm Center (ISC) pointed out the delay at 8:22 a.m. PT (11:22 ET).

As Johannes Ullrich, founder of the ISC, penned the post, he noted that today Microsoft was to replace detailed security bulletins with a searchable database of support documents dubbed the “Security Updates Guide,” or SUG. Some experts decried the end of the security bulletins, which since at least 1998 had provided copious information about the fixes, and the vulnerabilities that triggered the patches.

“It is possible that this change in process caused the delay,” Ullrich said today.

Another possible cause could have been the monolithic updates Microsoft now issues to all its supported operating systems, except for the soon-to-be-retired Windows Vista.

In August, Microsoft announced that it would offer only cumulative security updates for Windows 7 and 8.1, ending the decades-old practice of letting customers choose which patches they applied. The new maintenance model for the older editions was a direct transplant from Windows 10, which has relied on cumulative updates since its mid-2015 launch.

By “cumulative,” Microsoft meant that each update included the contents of all previous releases, along with new fixes. But the label also referred to the structure of updates: They were unified entities that could not be broken into their parts.

Previously, Microsoft could delay a single patch—when, for example, that patch had been previously announced but had not been completed in time—without impeding the company’s ability to release all other fixes. That occurrence, while uncommon, was not extraordinary.

But as soon as Microsoft began packaging all patches into single item—as it did with Windows 7 and Windows 8.1 in November—it lost the power to postpone one fix while still releasing others. Although Microsoft security updates have become all-or-nothing affairs for customers, who must accept every patch or none, without any middle way, the same holds true for the Redmond, Wash. company as well: It must release all its scheduled patches, or none of them.

Today, Microsoft choose the latter.

“We apologize for any inconvenience caused by this change to the existing plan,” Microsoft said on the MSRC blog. The firm did not say when it would issue February’s security updates.

This story, “Microsoft shelves all February security updates” was originally published by Computerworld.

Microsoft’s mysterious ‘Windows Cloud’ could be the second coming of Windows RT

Windows Cloud: That name has appeared in system files deep within some of the most recent Windows 10 Insider builds. While a few experts guess it could be a new version of Windows, what it actually is remains a mystery. Microsoft Surface 2

As far as evidence goes, it’s pretty slim pickings. Two names, “Windows Cloud” and “Windows Cloud N,” appear in a list of Windows versions as early as the recent Windows 10 Insider Build 15002, as originally reported by the Walking Cat Twitter account.

ZDNet’s Mary Jo Foley, however,unearthed one other key bit of information: Instead of an operating system that lives in the cloud, as the name suggests, “Windows Cloud” is actually an operating system that can only run Microsoft’s own UWP apps, downloaded from the Windows Store. Foley draws the obvious conclusion: Windows Cloud is essentially the second coming of Microsoft’s unpopular Windows RT.

Windows RT was the operating system that powered the original Surface tablet as well as the Surface 2. Users criticized it for its inability to run anything but a limited number of apps directly from the Store. (At the time, Microsoft’s “universal” apps were in their infancy, while the vast majority of Windows applications were coded for the Win32 environment.) Though Windows RT had its fans, most customers quickly turned to the more advanced, Windows 8-powered Surface Pro tablets, and the Surface 2 quietly died  in 2015.

Windows Cloud, though, may actually prove to be useful in specific applications, including schools. Foley reasons that Microsoft developed Windows Cloud to fend off the wave of Chromebooks sweeping across schools. Over half of American classrooms use Chromebooks, according to a Futuresource study released last fall, and their simplicity has made them attractive to school administrators.

That hasn’t gone down well with Microsoft, which is working to recapture the classroom for Windows. Microsoft believes that its recent Intune for Education device and app management software is an important part of that. Further locking down those PCs with a dedicated OS would make a Windows 10 PC even more attractive, while offering digital inking and other features that Chromebooks lack.

Microsoft has already indicated that a partnership between itself and Qualcomm will allow Windows 10 (and Win32) apps to run on Qualcomm’s ARM chips—the processor that some Chromebooks already run on. One might think that Windows Cloud might be the name of the new, Windows on ARM OS—but if Microsoft plans to lock it down to UWP apps, then its Win32 compatibility would be effectively nullified.

So is Windows Cloud actually Microsoft’s bid to take over the classroom? Microsoft declined to comment, so we’ll have to wait and see.

 Because consumers soundly rejected Windows RT, it stands to reason that Windows Cloud will be a pretty niche offering—assuming all the reporting about Windows Cloud is accurate, of course. One thing to keep in mind: While we all value Windows’ complexity for general-purpose computing, the capability to lock it down to a single app or focus can be extremely useful. That’s why several versions of Windows offer “kiosk mode,” where Windows 10 can be locked down to a single app. The new Intune locks down Internet access during test mode. It sounds like Windows Cloud might offer just a bit more flexibility while still maintaining control.

Updated on Feb. 1 with additional details.

Microsoft’s custom voice recognition service hits public beta

Companies building applications that leverage speech recognition have a new machine-learning based tool to improve their work. Microsoft is opening the public beta for its Custom Speech Service, the company said Tuesday.starship-commander-cris

The service, formerly known as CRIS, allows customers to train a speech recognition system to work in a specific scenario, allowing it to produce more accurate results. For example, the Custom Speech Service can be trained to provide better results in a noisy airport or set up to work better with voices from a particular group, like kids or people with different accents.

Right now, the Custom Speech Service works with English and Chinese, but one of its advantages is that it can be trained to work with accents from non-native speakers.

Microsoft is making it available as part of its suite of Cognitive Services, a set of cloud-based tools aimed at opening up the fruits of the company’s artificial intelligence and machine learning research to the rest of the world.

Right now, there are eight such cognitive services generally available, and an additional 17 in beta. More than 424,000 developers have tried the services since they launched, Microsoft said. Developers all over the world can access the services, many of which are available for purchase through Microsoft Azure.

Each of the services has a free tier with heavy limits on its use, so developers have the freedom to test the APIs out without spending a cent. The Custom Speech Service has a complicated, tiered pricing model that includes a subscription fee along with charges based on the number of voice samples fed into the system and the amount of acoustic adaptation training.

The Custom Speech Service is a key tool in the arsenal of Human Interact, a small game development shop using voice commands as the sole means of interaction for its forthcoming game Starship Commander. Custom speech recognition, along with Microsoft’s Language Understanding Intelligent Service (LUIS), makes up key parts of the voice recognition and understanding system that players use to guide their ship.

The service allows Human Interact to create its own dictionary specific to Starship Commander, which means the system can understand players when they ask about the Ecknians, the game’s alien antagonists. After players’ speech has been translated into machine readable text, LUIS processes it and translates it into game commands.

Both systems are important to the core gameplay of Starship Commander. Human Interact set out to make an interactive experience for virtual reality that was broadly accessible to a wide range of players, not just those who have been playing video games for years, creative director Alexander Mejia said.

“The answer was stupidly clear,” Mejia said. “What if you just talk to somebody? I mean, if we put a person in front of you, and they start talking to you, would you talk back?”

To that end, the company opted to use the microphones that are built into the Oculus Rift and Gear VR systems and create a game that feels like a much more open-ended and immersive choose-your-own-adventure book.

Microsoft is far from the only company providing machine learning-based cloud voice recognition, but its services were the best for what the team is doing, Mejia said. The services provide what the team needs for not only custom dictionaries, but also fast response times and the ability to see and validate the results that the voice recognition system puts out.

Two other cognitive services from Microsoft will reach general availability next month. The Content Moderator service is designed to automatically block objectionable content in text, videos, and images while allowing for human review of questionable cases. It can detect profanity in more than 100 languages and allows customers to include custom lists of objectionable text as well.

The Bing Speech API is designed to give developers an easy, generalized way to convert speech to text and vice versa. It supports voice recognition from 18 languages and dialects from 28 countries, including German, French, Chinese, Spanish, and Arabic. Developers can also use the API to do text-to-speech work in 10 languages with support for dialects from 18 countries.

Microsoft is battling with a number of other cloud companies in this area, including Google, Amazon, and IBM, which each have their own set of machine intelligence-based tools.