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Microsoft's new voice-activated personal assistant, called Cortana, is expected in the upcoming Windows Phone 8.1 update and The Verge got its hands on a set of leaked images that reveal the Siri clone is a small, blue animated circle (nothing like the AI woman also called Cortana who features in the Halo game series).

Although many of Cortana's features won't be that different to Siri's, Microsoft's assistant will be able to suggest things to you throughout the day based on your preferences rather than waiting for you to ask questions. This may sound a little irritating, but Cortana also has access to a so-called Notebook, which contains all of the information about you it has access to - meaning you can pick and choose what's available to the little fella before it starts barking tips at you.

For those interested in cultivating a Her-style relationship with Cortana, you can also programme it to address you by any name or nickname you please to build a more meaningful connection.

Both Cortana and Windows Phone 8.1 should be with us sometime this Spring.



cavaliers.JPGAs you may have read there is a bit of spat going on in the US over whether bloggers love or hate Apple.

The source of the debate is conservative political pundit Rush Limbaugh who said on a radio show.

"'As you know, I spend a lot of time as a hobby reading high-tech and gadget blogs. I would venture to say that nine out of 10 bloggers writing high-tech hate Apple. Apple is the equivalent of the Republicans on these blogs, and Google, Android, and Samsung are the equivalent of the Democrats. They're perfect, they can't do anything wrong, they're ideal, and everybody hates Apple."

I am sure you have your own views on this and there are clearly some bloggers who feel that they are treated shoddily by the team from Cupertino. However some of this might be due to the way that Apple is rather secretive, unlike say Samsung which seems to be a lot more open with bloggers.

Still the comparing of consumer electronics companies to US political parties (even if Limbaugh doesn't really expand on his theory) does take me back to those endless analogies of what Apple, and its rivals represent. Here then is a quick, not too serious round up of how an Apple world view could be constructed in music, religion, coughs TV cooking programmes and more. Don't take it too seriously!

Religion - There have been plenty of articles over the years that have suggested that Apple and its devotees are more akin to Catholicism whereas Microsoft, Google and basically anyone who isn't Apple are more akin to Protestantism. In fact the first time this was outlined was way back in 1994! by the esteemed author Umberto Eco. He said then that

"Apple is cheerful, friendly, conciliatory, it tells the faithful how they must proceed step by step to reach - if not the Kingdom of Heaven - the moment in which their document is printed. It is catechistic: the essence of revelation is dealt with via simple formulae and sumptuous icons. Everyone has a right to salvation."

Throw in a devotion to worship things of beauty (for the Sistine Chapel it is is the iPhone) and emphasis on iconography (Jony Ive spending all that time on tweaking the graphics for the interface) and a Pope-like figure in Steve Jobs and you can update the case.

With Protestantism there are many different routes, though fairly similar routes to salvation (as there are phones, platforms etc) though all the makers seem to agree on the basics. There is more choice and freedom in Protestantism, though this renders it much more prone to splits and schisms, and the same is true in the non-Apple consumer electronics world.

Music - I wrote a while ago about how I felt that Apple were the Blur of the consumer electronics world, whereas Samsung were a bit more like Oasis. You can read the article here, but to sum up

Blur had an art school heritage, were highly conceptual in the music they produced (their three mid 90s albums weren't far off concept albums), had massive attention to the detail in the tunes they produced, yet somehow managed to capture the zeitgeist just by being so good and so marketable. If they needed to do populist they could turn their hand to it, but you always sensed a tension between their more obvious moves and their arty background.

Apple are also highly conceptual in everything they do - they don't just trot out smartphones like their rivals do they? They are much more considered than that. And the attention to detail that goes into creating their products is arguably the brand's strongest point.

Which then makes Samsung the Oasis of our story. Taking the ground work that Apple have done in phones and tablets Samsung have made the devices even more popular and connected with many people that Apple have passed by. Oasis were also a lot less precise than Blur and maybe had lower levels of quality control too. So Samsung are happy experimenting in public and not worrying too much so about how they are perceived, or if one of their many many phones doesn't work in the same way that their brand would hope for.

Ultimately just as Oasis ended up the bigger band so Samsung will beat Apple in the long run. They won't be a cooler brand than Apple, but they will become more ubiquitous.

TV chefs - I'd suggest that Apple are a bit Nigella. Sexy, in an old school way, rather precise and taking tried and trusted recipes to new heights. As for the Android mob they are Heston - ambitious, experimental sometimes sublime, but with a tinge of chaos too.

British History - Apple are clearly the Cavaliers with their slavish-like addiction to art, design and dandy-ism. Which makes Google, Samsung et al Oliver Cromwell and his New Model Army. A disparate band united against the Cavaliers but with some rather radical views bubbling under the surface.

Kids TV shows - And to really stretch the analogy here's one for the pensioners. Apple are definitely Swap Show - an innovative and stylish take on an established format. I even seem to remember Noel sporting the odd Jobs-like turtleneck.

Which then makes Google and Samsung a bit more Tiswas. Fun, anarchic and likely to descend into chaos at any time.

Can you think of any others? Are Apple Man United and Google Chelsea? Mmm.


nokia-lumia-625-2.jpgAnd yet another new Windows-powered smartphone from Nokia. Yet the Lumia 625 which was unveiled today, is interesting for a couple of reasons.

Firstly it is a budget-ish smartphone which has plenty of features by coming in at around £200 isnlt that pricey. Secondly it is the biggest Nokia Lumia phone to date with a near-Phablet sized 4.7inch screen.

However its resolution of 480 x 800, is a little below some of its rivals. Other features include a dual-core 1.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4, a five mega pixel camera, 8GB of storage and HSPA and LTE (4G) compatibility.

"With our largest smartphone screen to date, the Nokia Lumia 625 is a perfect example of how Nokia is delivering leading smartphone innovation and experiences at every price point," said Jo Harlow, executive vice president, Nokia Smart Devices.

The phone will be widely available in the UK with EE, Vodafone, O2, Phones4U and Carphone Warehouse all saying they will have it in stock come early September.

Now Microsoft preps a smart watch

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It appears that smart watches are like buses... For after rumours emanating from Apple, an announcement from Samsung and a big hint from LG, Microsoft is now also reportedly working on an intelligent smartphone friendly watch.

A story in The Wall Street Journal, which quotes 'anonymous execs' suggests that company exces have been chatting to Asian suppliers about a potential watch.

One source even said that he had a meeting with Microsoft's research and development team at its Redmond, Wash. headquarters.

The source also said that 'for its potential new watch prototype, Microsoft has requested 1.5-inch displays from component makers.

We have been here before ewith Microsoft. The company arguably invented the smart watches format with the SPOT watches it developed with Fossil, and several other companies, a decade or so ago. Those watches though didn't link to mobile phones, but delivered weather, news and sport updates etc by using FM - in a similar way to how some GPS systems get traffic alerts.

The watches were only available for a few years before the company pulled the plug.

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Trend alert. Desktop PCs that can moonlight as tablets. Well it had to happen and ASUS claim to have got there first.

They have just released the Transformer AiO, which it is billing as the world's first All-in-One PC with a detachable display that can also be used as a standalone tablet.

So for money your get a desktop PC Station with a 3rd generation Intel® Core™ desktop processor and a detachable 18.4-inch display with its own NVIDIA® Tegra® 3 quad-core processor that can be used as a self-contained tablet that runs both Android 4.1 and Windows.

When the user takes the display out of the PC it morphs into a tablet that can be used in two different ways.

Firstly as a wireless Remote Desktop mode for Windows 8. But also as a standalone tablet with Android 4.1.

The tablet has a batter life of five hours and comes with a stand and carrying handle.

It goes on sale soon though there is no news on price yet.

kinect-play-fit-large.jpegMicrosoft has launched a new feature for the Xbox console today called Kinect PlayFit, which collects data about your activity and the calories you've burned playing a whole host of popular titles, such as Dance Central 2, Your Shape Fitness Evolved 2012 and even Kinect Star Wars (yeah, really), as well as a number of other games.

Those interested in tracking their fitness will be able to earn different kinds of medals and achievements too, work their way up leaderboards so they can compete with other Xbox Live members and share their results among social networks, making them more inclined to really push themselves as they dance around, bend into yoga positions and fight off stormtroopers.

The Kinect PlayFit is only available to Xbox Live members in the US at the moment and it'll apparently be launching to those in other countries as soon as next week. Finger's crossed the UK is next on the list.

Related: Nike+ introduces Kinect training at E3

[Via Connected Health Via Engadget]

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New details have been released today about Xbox Music, a digital streaming service that's set to rival Spotify and will run on an Xbox 360 console.

We first heard about Microsoft's music offering at the E3 conference and now it's emerged that it's set to launch later this year along with an annual subscription model that's similar to Spotify.

According to sources, Microsoft is currently at the negotiation stages with a number of major record labels, including Warner Music Group, Universal Music Group, Sony and EMI in order to secure licensing agreements.

The service won't just be all about streaming music, it'll provide users with a way to buy tracks through Microsoft's Zune store and even Apple's iTunes and the Amazon MP3 store. There purchases will then be accessed through a kind of "digital locker", which will sync up accounts with any other devices that are running Windows 8, Microsoft's upcoming desktop and tablet operating system.

[Via Tech Digest Via Bloomberg]

doctor-kinect.jpgThe last place you'd expect to see a Kinect is on an operating table, but the device could be the ideal way for doctors to consult medical images during complicated procedures.

Last week a surgeon at the Guy's and St Thomas' hospital in London started using a new system that relies on an Xbox Kinect camera. The surgeon was able to wave his arms, or make other simple gestures, in order to quickly and easily browse through medical images, instead of asking his colleagues to find them for him.

According to New Scientist, surgeons generally need to stop what they're doing and look through detailed images anywhere from once an hour to every few minutes during a procedure. Many depend on assistants and nurses to hold up images or use a computer to find the information they need, but we can imagine this is a lengthy and rather frustrating process.

Tom Carrell, a consultant vascular surgeon working at Guy's and St Thomas', who helped lead the operation, said:

"Up until now, I'd been calling out across the room to one of our technical assistants, asking them to manipulate the image, rotate one way, rotate the other, pan up, pan down, zoom in, zoom out [...] I had very intuitive control".

Carrell was able to use the Kinect to look at a 3D model, which was then projected as a 2D live image-feed onto the patient. This way the doctor can see what's happening inside the patient and look at the 3D model simultaneously.

In order to make the whole process as quick and easy as possible, Carrell and his colleagues have been working with the Microsoft team to develop gestures that they can perform in small spaces during an operation. So, medical professionals can now use simple gestures with one hand at the same time as a voice command to access the information they need.

[Via New Scientist]

Related: The Kinect is being used to detect signs of autism in children

kids-playing.jpgKinect motion sensors are being used by a school in Minneapolis to identify the early signs of autism in young children.

Over the past few years we've seen the Kinect's innovative technology being hacked in countless ways, whether it's to make your room a touchscreen, talk to your pet when you're away, create a robot that dances around, flush a toilet so you don't have to or even to peel off your own skin and take a peek at what's underneath.

Now although we don't doubt some of these hacks are pretty damn clever and handy (who wants to flush a toilet themselves when a computer can do it for them?!), the Kinect has also been put to work on a number of projects that could have a positive impact on healthcare, treatment and the way we diagnose illnesses in the future.

Over the past few months a school in Minneapolis has been using a number of Kinect motion sensors to watch the movements children make as they play and learn in an attempt to work out whether they may show early signs of autism.

Researchers at the Shirley G. Moore Laboratory School have positioned the gaming sensors all around the classroom in order to record the children's movements as they play. These recordings are then combined with a series of computer-vision algorithms, that are specially designed to detect abnormalities and flag up the individuals that are moving and behaving differently to the rest.

Although it's still in its infancy, the system could help us identify behavioural problems in children much earlier than we would using modern day methods, meaning teachers and parents can give them the care they need right away.

Guillermo Sapiro, who along with a larger team has helped to develop the system, said:

"The idea is not that we are going to replace the diagnosis, but we are going to bring diagnosis to everybody [...] The same way a good teacher flags a problem child, the system will do automatic flagging and say, 'Hey, this kid needs to see an expert'."

[Via New Scientist Image via Emily Goodstein]

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Users of Skype are having problems using the phone service again this morning. This is the second time this has happened in just one month.

A number of Skype customers are finding that they cannot sign in, with the process getting stuck at the 'connecting' stage. The same thing happened about two weeks ago, when the solution was eventually to delete a file called "shared.xml" on each individual user's machine. This file had somehow become corrupted, but as this was a fiddly process to explain to each user, Skype has now automated the solutions process of this particular glitch.

Skype says it is in the process of looking into what's causing the problem this time, and says on its website: "A small number of you may have problems signing in to Skype. We're investigating the cause, and hope to have more details to share soon."

Microsoft bought Skype for $8.5 billion last month. At the time of Skype's last outage, just days after the takeover announcement, there were suggestions the problems were related to Microsoft and transfer processes to the .Net framework. If that's true, it would be a shame for Microsoft, which is already accused of having overpaid for Skype. If it ain't broke, try to keep it that way.


We really liked the new features in the Windows Phone Mango. We grabbed some on-the-fly screenshots of the key updates..

Notably:

- Bing image search

- The Voice control service

- The new Groups feature

- The new Threads feature

See a write-up of key features in our 10 Things You Need To Know post.

34-mango.jpgThey will only keep repeating the name of the fruit when you press them. "It's Mango! It's Window Phone Mango".

In response to a question about whether this was genuinely a new release, or just a few nice little tweaks one Microsoft rep said: "You tell me - you've seen all the features? does that look like a new release?".

Well - no, you tell us! It's your mobile operating system! We're not quite sure what media strategy has inspired this refusal to name anything. But anyway we're in favour of their move towards calling things after food.

It's a borrow from Google (all Android updates are named after desserts) - and a nice one. Calling an update after a pleasant food is a good idea. It's cute, people remember it, customers like it.

We got the impression from another Microsoft rep that Mango might be given a clearer name on it's full release in the autumn.. something along the lines of Windows Phone 7.5.

But that was quickly retracted.

See features of Windows Phone 7 here

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Only 7 months after Windows Phone 7 was released, comes Windows Phone Mango. Their vow to base the phone around: communications, apps and web is not mind-blowing but we really liked what we saw. In many ways it dots the is on Windows Phone & and delivers a really polished top-of-the-market mobile OS.

Key feature is intelligent integration. Read on ---

1) Available this autumn as a free update for everyone who has a Windows Phone 7.

2) Nokia will be a major partner, launching new Mango devices, but not announcing a handset until the summer.

3) Windows Mango will organise your phone around the people on it, rather than the apps you use to connect to them. Contact-centric organisation rather than app-centric.

4) Integration between native apps is smooth: for example the email and calendar apps connect up and let you sync events with emails. Similarly there's a smart email box - it threads your inboxes into different sections: all / unread / important, and will associate emails with phone contacts.

5) Facebook integrations. Microsoft must have done a deal with Facebook..
- Facebook events sync into calendar
- Facebook chat syncs into the group chat application

6) Photos - upload straight to social network AND you can use a face tagging service to tag friends and add them to the person hubs that Windows Phone has already set up.

7) Apps - Microsoft introduces some more sophisticated third party apps. Including complex British Airways flight booking app which offers swanky visualisations of seat choosing. There's a deep integration into the phone - eg. can pin boarding cards to the home screen.
Windows native apps like Office get an update - can collaborate with people on documents in the phone, share easily and sync quickly to your PC.

8) Multitasking - intuitive and fresh. Games pause in mid flight. Designed so as not to drain the battery.

9) Internet Explorer on Mobile - a more full-on experience giving richer visual experiences taking advantage of the graphics chip on Windows phone. IE9 promises to be fast - faster than iPhone.
Bing search takes advantage of inbuilt sensors on the phone to bring location and time-relevant results.

10) Voice control - compose and send text messages by voice control. Swanky. Seemed to work in the demo.

More coming soon....

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It's not final yet, but speculation has it Microsoft is close to bringing onboard calling service Skype. The deal would set Microsoft back $8.5 billion, and it would be its biggest acquisition to date.

Skype has 124 million monthly users, although many of them do not pay for their usage. Overheads are low, though, as most of the costs of bandwidth and computer processing are covered by the users.

eBay tried its luck as guardians of Skype in the past, but suffered losses as it failed to incorporate the VoIP group into its operations. eBay paid $3 billion for Skype before selling it on for $1.9 billion. Skype fits into the Microsoft business model, but still there has been speculation Microsoft is overpaying.

Skype is profitable but not massively so, meaning much of the value lies in the potential. It's now up to Microsoft to tap into this potential. Google or Facebook may well have been a better business match for Skype in the longer run, but they probably wouldn't have paid as much.

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Only days after new Nokia CEO Stephen Elop issued that damning comment about the company standing on 'a burning platform', the mobile group has confirmed a 'strategic partnership' with Windows.

'A new mobile ecosystem' will be the result, if the companies are to be believed. No tall order, then. The Windows Phone 7 OS will become Nokia's platform of choice, as both companies will put their best efforts to release handsets that can compete with Apple's iPhone and Google's Android.

Nokia will use Microsoft adCenter in its mobile devices, and Nokia Maps will become part of Microsoft's Bing search engine. In further collaboration, Nokia's application and content store will be integrated into Microsoft's Marketplace.

'We each bring incredible assets to the table. Nokia's history of innovation in the hardware space, global hardware scale, strong history of intellectual property creation and navigation assets are second to none. Microsoft is a leader in software and services,' Nokia CEO Elop and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said in a joint statement.

Commentators will be watching this one closely to see whether Nokia can reclaim the ground lost to Apple and Android. But at least now Nokia should be in with a fighting chance.

Google Cloud Connect for Microsoft Office plug-in

A few months ago after my hard drive died, I made the switch to Google Docs. At the time it was mainly so that I would never have to worry about losing all my work again. But now, having written well over 200 documents in it, I don't think I will be making the switch back to Microsoft Office anytime in the foreseeable future.

However, the majority of people still using Office, if only for work. So to help encourage others to make the move over to Google Docs, they have launched the aptly named "Google Cloud Connect for Microsoft Office plug-in". This simple plug-in effectively turns Microsoft Office into a front-end for Google Docs so that everything you do in Word, Excel and Powerpoint ends up synced and backed up in your Google Doc account.

This not only means you don't have to worry about your work disappearing, but gives you the ability to collaborate with other Google Docs users. The only negative at the moment is that this plug-in only works on Windows.

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The real psychic octopus is dead, but a new tentacled future-seer has sprung up in his place. Where Paul (may he rest in peace) correctly predicted the result of the 2010 World Cup, his cousin Ollie turns his mind and tentacles to more pressing matters - most in-demand gadget for Christmas 2010.

Gadget-sellers Kelkoo have somehow enlisted the help of Ollie who reckons that the Sony Playstation Move will outsell the Microsoft XBox Kinect.

There's a video of Ollie making his choice here. We quote their description of the judgement:
"Unfortunately for Microsoft, Ollie didn't 'connect' with the Xbox, but was 'moved' by the PS3, tipping Sony's motion controller wand to win the battle for gaming supremacy this Christmas."

So there you have it - from an Octopus. According to a survey published yesterday, the iPad is the most wanted gadget this Christmas, with the Sony Move clearing up in the console field. God-damn the octopus may be right.

I think the real winner here though is the octopus.

You may have noticed Microsoft's spiel when they were advertising their Windows 7 phones - that with normal smartphones people are too engrossed in their complicated handsets that they forgot to live in the real world and consequently they fall over, get slapped by their girlfriend, run into trees and generally embarass themselves.

The thing is that Windows phones have all their useful information on the home screen so you just need to glance at it to know what's going on etc etc.

Well Sony Ericsson have just released a set of ads where the opposite happens. Where men are so engrossed in their phones that they have to get dragged around the supermarket/airport by their wives becasue their phones are just like soooo interesting.

Can't find the ad, but the product page for the ESPN goal app is here

Odd that two companies both trying to sell phones take the exact opposite approach. On balance I'm going to swing with Windows 7 as being the better ad here. It's just a bit more inventive.

I think the fact we can all agree on is that people spend loads of their time engrossed in their phones.

Launched this month, with a sexy live tile design and smooth user interface, the new Windows 7 phones look like Microsoft technology that people will actually want to buy.

The user interface is pretty, the handsets are nice - five available in the UK - but what about the apps? Faced with the competition from iTunes and the Android store, Windows Marketplace is uh several tens of thousands behind.

The Microsoft official line is that they don't want to compete with iTunes in a my-app-store-is-bigger-than-yours game which is why they designed hubs around user experience - see Windows Phone 7 on the inside: apps versus hubs & tiles

But for all their talk of replacing the apps model with hubs and user experience journeys, Microsoft do want their phones to have apps, and they want them to be good. Here are ten of the best. See our favourite train app ever, the postcard thing and the genuine must-haves for Win 7 users..

browse all apps on the Zune store


1251starbucks_cupthumb.jpgSo you'd think Starbucks wouldn't have much to teach Microsoft except for um, you know, how to make better lattes for the office cafeteria.

But Starbucks does have an interesting little bit of information to give the tech giants... as Robert Scoble picked up earlier this week. Starbucks gets data on who uses the wifi in their stores and what devices they are using to access it on: whether it's a PC, a Mac, a smartphone or whatever.

Okay it's not comprehensive, but it's an interesting barometer of how the public use technology.

And the big finding? - laptop use is actually declining in Starbucks cafes, while the use of mobile devices, including tablets, has rocketed up. Scoble also reports that the Starbucks CIO told him that iDevices from Apple are used more in its stores than any others.

Okay there's definitely a distortion here- perhaps Apple customers are just more likely to work in coffee shops (I make no comment), but it skewed as it may be, it does show a trend.

Gadget sales are important of course, but how people use their gadgets is perhaps even more interesting, though hard to quantify. The Starbucks data just gives a little insight into the future... and the future is mobile.

[via Scobelizer]

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