All posts in “Software”

Microsoft Whiteboard is the virtual collaboration tool we’ve been dreaming of

It's Whiteboard collaboration time!
It’s Whiteboard collaboration time!

Image: Lance Ulanoff/Mashable

One of the highlights of Microsoft’s freshly announced Surface Pro tablet is new Surface Pen.

It looks exactly like the old pen, but Microsoft reengineered it to amp up the pressure sensitivity, add tilt awareness, and radically reduce latency so the digital ink looks as if its flowing right out of the real pen tip.

“People wanted to write as accurately and small as on paper,” said Steven Bathiche, distinguished scientist, Microsoft Applied Sciences, who showed me how all the new technology translates to a more effective pen experience.

However, nothing showcases the pen’s new capabilities like Microsoft’s new collaboration tool Whiteboard, which I saw in action at a private demo at Microsoft’s Redmond campus.

“It’s a limitless, real-time collaboration canvas,” said Ian Mikutel, Senior project manager lead, digital ink experiences.

As I watched, Mikutel opened the Whiteboard app, which look like a moistly blank white board, on a Windows 10 Surface Studio. Beside it, Mikutel had another Surface Studio and a Surface Pro. They were also running Whiteboard.

Mikutel started writing on his Whiteboard and then Bathiche did the same on the second Surface Studio and Han-yi Shaw, Group Program Manager, Office Hardware Innovation Team, picked up the Surface Pro.

What Bathiche and Shaw were writing appeared simultaneously on Mikutel’s screen. He told me the instant sharing of ink strokes is part of a new, patented technology called “Live Ink.” In addition, each participant’s lines were accompanied by tiny avatars (small, round picture of their faces). This is called “local ink identity.” 

When I asked Mikutel how many people could collaborate at once he said, “up to a lot of people,” though the typical collaboration group size is between five and seven people.

‘No more taking photos of the whiteboard at the end of the meeting.’

The app is built specifically for Surface devices and the Surface Pen. In developing it, the Microsoft team focused on ink intelligence, speed and inker identity. The system also includes shape recognition. Draw a circle and it will turn into a cleaner and more manipulable one.

“No more taking photos of the whiteboard at the end of the meeting,” smiled Mikutel who added that users can output the Whiteboard image in a variety of formats.

The only issue I saw in Whiteboard is that, because the Whiteboard canvas is truly limitless, collaborators can get a bit lost in it. At one point Shaw was drawing on the same Whiteboard as Mikutel, but we couldn’t see it on the main board because Mikutel was zoomed in while Shaw’s writing was a significant virtual distance away.

I noticed that Mikutel’s drawing color was a rainbow color. It is, apparently, a very popular inking color and one that was suggested by a seventh grader. Mikutel said he was in a classroom asking, if they could have any Ink feature, what would they want. One girl piped up, “I think it would be really cool if Ink looked like a rainbow.”

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Harman Kardon’s Cortana-powered speaker leaks ahead of launch


Microsoft wants in on the Google Home and Amazon Echo party. This Echo-lookalike is made by Harman Kardon and it’s powered by Microsoft’s Cortana voice platform. The device apparently launches this fall and could be officially revealed later this week.

Update: Microsoft and Harman Kardon have now confirmed this. The device will go on sale in the fall of 2017.

Called the Invoke, the product page for the unannounced product was discovered by Thurrott.com before it was pulled. According to Thurrott’s report the cylinder speaker has a light ring on top, 360 degree sound and supports Skype calling and the ability to ask Cortana questions.

If the device launches as advertised, Skype calling could be Microsoft’s big ticket. Neither the Google Home or Amazon Echo currently supports voice calls in any fashion though there have been rumors that the Echo would eventually gain the ability.

It’s highly likely that Microsoft will reveal the full feature set of this platform later this week at its developer’s conference, Build. There’s also a good chance that other hardware partners are on board and the Invoke will launch alongside other Cortana-powered speakers later this year.

The OverLord ProPlus is a 3D printer for making really tall objects


Most 3D printers have a fairly small build envelope. The Makerbot, which is one of the biggest for home use, offers 29.5 L X 19.5 W X 16.5 H CM and others hover around that range. The $499 OverLord ProPlus, on the other hand, has a cylindrical build volume of 17 by 26 cm which means you can print surprisingly long and surprisingly tall objects with this wacky delta arm printer.

A delta arm printer uses three belts that drive the print head on all axes. A central filament spool hangs out on top of the machine and you print onto a round heated bed. It prints gcode files which means you have to use a program like Cura – an open source modeller – to spit out the right code. Ordinarily this would be a deal breaker for me as I like to have a dedicated piece of software for each printer but, thanks to the work of the 3D printing community, tools like Cura have become increasingly easier to use.

The printer will cost $1,059 after Early Bird pricing.

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To print you simply download a model, set up Cura with the OverLord’s specific site and height, and then run the slicer. Simple shapes take about an hour to print and a massive Tower of Pi I downloaded took about 27 hours.

Crowdfunded printers like this one have often gotten a bad rap which is why I asked to see it before the end of the campaign. The model I tested worked perfectly out of the box with minimum setup and no calibration and I was able to print a few objects from the included 1GB SD card. At $499 this printer is definitely a bargain – similar ones can be had for about as much but none with the tall, wide build envelope of the OverLord. The units will ship in June if they hit their goal of $50,000 in 13 days.

I can’t attest to the support or reliability of this machine yet but the company has produced a delta arm model before with positive results. Again, buyer beware but I haven’t seen much here not to like.

Who should buy this? I could see this as a good printer for artists who are trying to make longer, taller things like candlesticks and vases or for folks who are trying to model buildings or other long spiky things. The next thing I’ll print on this is some kind of light saber handle and then maybe a copy of the Eiffel Tower. It is, after all, always a party in my attic workshop.

Dropbox really wants us to know its finances are healthy


We’re healthy enough to IPO but we’re not going to just yet — that was the subtext of an interview that Dropbox CEO Drew Houston had on Bloomberg earlier this afternoon. Houston asserted, for the first time, Dropbox is profitable on an EBITDA basis.

EBITDA (earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization) is a financial metric typically used to compare businesses. It strips away financial variables like taxes to give a clearer picture of performance.

Dropbox has repeatedly dropped financial breadcrumbs to set the tone for conversations about the unicorn’s health in advance of an S-1 filing for IPO. Back in January, Houston claimed a $1 billion revenue run rate and even bragged that an analyst report showed Dropbox’s growth outpacing that of Salesforce.

A late-2017 Dropbox IPO has been rumored for some time now, though 2018 would not be out of the question. Bloomberg reported back in March that Dropbox had secured a $600 million credit line from JPMorgan, Bank of America, Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs, Macquarie and Royal Bank of Canada.

Taking on debt was yet another healthy financial sign for the cash flow positive company. Houston was able to get cash without giving up equity, a statement of financial confidence from all of the banks involved.

Adding profitability on an EBITDA basis is a good thing, but the company still has a pretty big mountain to summit. Dropbox was valued at $10 billion back in 2014, a figure that is universally contentious. Even at $1 billion in revenue, that valuation is difficult to justify.

Healthy financial milestones sugarcoat the conversation temporarily, but eventually Houston is going to have to step into the public markets. At that point nobody will care how fast Dropbox grew its revenue back in the day. The question will be whether Dropbox is a company that can eventually sustain $10 billion in yearly revenue.

Featured Image: Bloomberg / Contributor/Getty Images

Airbnb’s new open source library lets you design with React and render to Sketch


Today, Airbnb’s design team open sourced its internal library for writing React components that easily render directly to Sketch. Instead of trying to get Sketch to export to code, the Airbnb team spent its time on the opposite — putting the paintbrush in the hands of the engineer.

Everyday engineers and designers have the luxury of operating without design systems, but large companies ignore them at their own peril. Airbnb, for one, has dumped a lot of resources into developing design components that can be applied across the company. But despite the requisite planning, Airbnb was still struggling to keep its iterative design system in sync with Sketch templates, holding up development.

If you’re not familiar with design systems, they’re the design DNA of any company that has multiple teams designing products. Imagine if the Airbnb team working on the listing page had no communication with the team working on the reviews feature. The result would be design amateur hour and it would be obvious that two teams didn’t communicate when building the app experience.

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For any product, whether it be Airbnb or Facebook, it’s easy to see how a single new design rule could change the appearance of more things than you’d be able to reasonably keep track of. If Sketch renderings could be updated instantly with only modifications to code, that bottleneck can be lessened. This is where the React-Sketchapp library comes in.

In the GIF above, Airbnb is implementing its React-Sketchapp library to render variations of text in different languages, with the same design, using the Google Translate API. The benefit of rooting all this work in React is that its a paradigm that most engineers are already familiar with.

The library is available over on GitHub. Though it was intentioned as a tool for reducing overall design and development time at Airbnb, a lot more is possible when engineers can interact with designs the same way they typically interact with code.

Featured Image: pressureUA/Getty Images