Tag Archives: windows

Microsoft’s best Windows 8 apps

Microsoft’s Windows 8 apps are a decidedly mixed bag so far. But one group of apps shows how the new environment can shine with the right software.

I haven’t been too impressed with many of the apps Microsoft has created for Windows 8. Some, such as Music and Video, are designed mostly to get you to buy stuff from the company, offering only minimal support for playing your own songs and videos.

Others apps, such as Mail, People, and Messaging, aren’t bad but still seem half-baked and in need of further refinements. Mail, for example, still doesn’t support POP3 accounts. The People app throws all of your social-network contacts onto one single screen with no way to organize or separate them.

But there’s one group of Windows 8 apps that Microsoft got just right. This group includes News, Weather, Sports, Finance, and Travel. Nicely designed, easy to use, and chock full of details, these apps show off Windows 8 at its best. Their purpose is to deliver the news and other updates, much of the info based on your own location and interests. And the apps do that quite well.

Drawing on information from Bing and other sources, all five apps work more or less the same way. Clicking on the Start screen tile displays the latest stories with nice visuals. The News app shows current news stories, the Weather app brings you the weather in your area, and the Finance app tells you what’s going in with the stock market and economy.

From the opening screen, you can scroll to the right to view more information and visuals. For example, the News app breaks down additional news stories by category, while the Sports app reveals the scores and schedules for current season games.

Clicking on any headline, image, or other item displays the full story. So clicking on the scores to last night’s Yankee game brings up a page where you can catch up on all the action. You can search for specific items in each app, such as the weather in Los Angeles or the latest stock price for Apple. Or you can simply wander around each app, discovering all that it offers but never feeling lost.

The apps also make good use of the app bar.

Right-click on any screen in any of the five apps, and icons appear on the bottom and top, giving you access to more features and locations. The app bar in the Travel app points you to pages where you can book a flight or reserve a hotel room. The Sport app’s app bar displays links to different categories of sports, including baseball, football, basketball, and hockey. Each app bar also includes a Home button so you can quickly jump back to your starting point.

You can customize the information in each app based on your preferences. The Finance app lets you choose which stocks you want to follow and then add them to a special watch-list. The Weather app pinpoints your location to serve up the local weather, but you can also add other cities to watch.

Taking full advantage of Windows 8, each app can be set up as a live tile, displaying the latest headlines right on the Start screen. Some apps also let you create separate live tiles. Through the Weather app, you can create a live tile for each city you want to monitor. Through the Sports app, you can create a live tile to display the latest scores for your favorite team. And through the Finance app, you can create a live tile of your watch-list, displaying the latest prices of all the stock you follow.

Beyond their usefulness, the apps are visually appealing, relying heavily on photographs. The Travel app displays amazing pictures and panoramas of cities around the world.

These apps all tap into the theme of conveying information. So it’s natural for them to share a common look and feel.

But if Microsoft could apply the design savvy from these five programs to other Windows 8 software, users would face an easier time working with the mixed bag of new apps.

Can Windows 8 Win Over Game Developers?

It all started with these stark words from Gabe Newell of the gaming company Valve: “Windows 8 is a catastrophe for everyone in the PC space.”

Newell, who has emerged as a voice for openness in the realm of gaming, was speaking at the Casual Connect game conference in Seattle (and his words were reported by the BBC and others). It’s Newell’s belief that the success of Valve, which incidentally has produced the greatest video game of all time, is largely due to the open nature of PCs and the internet. We’ve been a free rider, and we’ve been able to benefit from everything that went into PCs and the internet,” he reportedly said. “And we have to continue to figure out how there will be open platforms.”

Newell’s concern appears to go something like this. Mobile platforms, and especially iOS, have been wildly successful. Windows 8, with its iOS-y “Metro” interface and its reliance on a Windows Store within the OS, is imitating iOS and its lucrative but limiting “walled garden.” This may be good for Microsoft, but arguably bad for gamers and game designers, who thrive on the creativity enabled by an open platform. “There’s a strong temptation to close the platform,” Newell reportedly said, “because they look at what they can accomplish when they limit the competitors’ access to the platform, and they say, ‘That’s really exciting.'”

This week, other game designers chimed in and piled on Newell’s criticisms, according to TheNextWeb. “If Microsoft manage to close Windows and get to the point where every app has to be approved and certified by them, it’s game over for a lot of indies including Introversion,” said the creative director of Introversion Software on a Reddit thread. Rob Pardo of Blizzard Entertainment likewise tweeted that Windows 8 would be “not awesome for Blizzard either.”

Meanwhile, Newell has reportedly expressed an interest in getting into hardware manufacturing himself, should it come to that (see “Is Valve Making a Console?”)

Not everyone agrees with Newell. On a lengthy comment thread over at TheNextWeb, a man named Martin Walsh–a former head of marketing for Microsoft, it should be noted–called Newell’s comments “the dumbest.” (Newell is also an ex-Softie, interestingly). Walsh claims that platforms like Steam can still distribute games through Windows 8, and he contests the idea that a “full-blown game” is likely to be purchased through an app store. Walsh sees the expanded reach of the Windows Store as nothing but a blessing for game designers. Other commenters on the site disagree with Walsh.

It’s difficult to pronounce on this, of course, until we actually see Windows 8, the Windows Store, and how gamers and game makers interact with the platform. One thing’s for sure, though: Newell has been one of the most influential and innovative figures in the history of video games, and if he’s worried, I’m worried.

Microsoft to share more details on its Windows 8 app store

Microsoft plans to share more about the Windows 8 app store at a two-hour preview event in San Francisco on December 6.

Microsoft has invited select developers and local press to hear more details on the Windows Store. The spokesperson declined to share more details prior to the event.

December 6 also happens to be the day when Microsoft will be rolling out its new Xbox 360 dashboard. Testers who’ve been working with a test version of the dashboard (under non-disclosure-agreement terms) have mentioned in passing new app store functionality in the dashboard. Facebook, Hulu, Netflix and Twitter are listed under apps in the preview, testers have said.

Microsoft officials shared some high-level details about the Windows Store at the Build conference in September, even though the Store isn’t operational in the Windows 8 Developer Preview build. They said all Metro-style apps would be available only via the Windows Store. Metro apps will be protected by an account-based (not a machine based) licensing model that is limited to a set number of machines (5). Users will be able to access app trials, buy/download Metro-style apps, license them, have them serviced through the Store.

Desktop (non-Metro-style) apps will be able to be promoted in the Windows Store if they meet Microsoft’s Desktop App certification requirements, and will be discoverable via the Windows 8 store. Windows 8 Desktop Apps will be neither licenesable nor downloadable (i.e., able to take advantage of the Windows 8 “fulfillment service”) from the Store. Instead, Microsoft will only provide a link to the Windows Store for Desktop Apps on Windows 8 on x86/x64 and ARM.

Will there be any overlap between the Xbox 360 dashboard apps section and the Windows Store in Windows 8? Hopefully we’ll hear more next week…

In other Windows 8-related news, there are reports (from WinUnleaked.tk, which I saw via WinRumors.com) that Microsoft has begun using the name “ReFS” to refer to the Protogon file system that was spotted by hackers in early leaked Windows 8 builds. There was speculation earlier this year that Protogon might be a new file system, possibly supplementing or replacing the current NTFS in Windows. Since that time, Windows 8 enthusiasts have moved on to thinking that Protogon is more of a content/metadata file system.

And TheNextWeb is reporting that the Windows 8 beta won’t be out until “late February” 2012. I have been hearing it would be a post-Consumer Electronics Show thing, but have not heard any further date information beyond that….

HTML5, Silverlight headed to WP7 browser

Microsoft released on Wednesday a Firefox browser add-on extending HTML5-based video on the company’s Windows 7 OS.

The plugin enables Firefox users to play H.264-encoded video on HTML5 by using built-in capabilities of Windows 7, said Claudio Caldato, principal program manager for Microsoft’s interoperability team, in a blog post. Mozilla Firefox is a principal competitor to Microsoft’s own Internet Explorer browser.

Microsoft has already been offering a Windows Media Player plugin for Firefox, for watching Windows Media content, Caldato said. “This new plugin, known as the HTML5 Extension for Windows Media Player Firefox plugin, is available for download at no cost. It extends the functionality of the earlier plugin for Firefox and enables Web pages that that offer video in the H.264 format using standard W3C HTML5 to work in Firefox on Windows. Because H.264 video on the Web is so prevalent, this interoperability bridge is important for Firefox users who are Windows customers.”

HTML5 is an ongoing update to the HTML specification that adds capabilities for multimedia.

The extension is based on a Firefox add-on that parses HTML5 pages and replaces video tags with a call to the Windows Media Player plugin, enabling content to be played in the browser. Firefox in some cases might fail to play a video even if the add-on is correctly installed, because a page might use a call to canPlayType to determine if the browser can play H.264 content, Microsoft said in release notes for the extension. “Typically the check is done either using createElement(‘video’) or getElementsByTagName(‘video’) and then call canPlayType(‘video’mp4’). In both cases, the call will return empty string even if the Add-on is installed and the browser could play H.264 videos,” Microsoft said.

Also, the current version of the add-on uses Windows Media Player Plugin APis to control video playback, thus creating differences between methods and properties defined in the HTML5 standard and those in the Windows Media Player plugin. The company seeks to fix these limitations in the next limitation of the add-on.