All posts in “Microsoft”

Without its own phone OS, Microsoft now focuses on its Android Launcher and new ‘Your Phone’ experience

Microsoft may have retreated from the smartphone operating system wars but that doesn’t mean it has given up on trying to get a foothold on other platforms. Today, at its Build developer conference, the company announced three new services that bring its overall cross-platform strategy into focus.

On Android, the company’s Trojan Horse has long been the Microsoft Launcher, which is getting support for the Windows Timeline feature. In addition to that, Microsoft also today announced the new “Your Phone” experience that lets Windows Users answer text messages right from their desktops, share photos from their phones and see and respond to notifications (though that name, we understand, is not final and may still change). The other cornerstone of this approach is the Edge browser, which will soon become the home of Timeline on iOS, where Microsoft can’t offer a launcher-like experience.

There are a couple of things to unpack here. Central to the overall strategy is Timeline, a new feature that launched with the latest Windows 10 update and that allows users to see what they last worked on and which sites they recently browsed and then move between devices to pick up where they left off. For Timeline to fulfill its promise, developers have to support it and as of now, it’s mostly Microsoft’s own apps that will show up in the Timeline, making it only marginally interesting. Given enough surfaces to highlight this feature, though, developers will likely want to implement it — and since doing so doesn’t take a ton of work, chances are quite a few third-party applications will soon support it.

On Android, the Microsoft Launcher will soon support Timeline for cross-device application launching. This means that if you are working on a document in Word on your desktop, you’ll see that document in your Timeline on Android and you’ll be able to continue working on it in the Word Android app with a single tap.

Kevin Gallo, Microsoft’s head of the Windows developer platform, tells me that if you don’t have the right app installed yet, the Launcher will help you find it in the Google Play store.

With this update, Microsoft is also giving enterprises more reasons to install the Launcher. IT admins can now manage the Launcher and control what applications show up there.

On iOS, Microsoft’s home for the Timeline will be the Edge browser. I’d be surprised if Microsoft didn’t decide to launch a stand-alone Timeline app at some point in the future. It probably wants to encourage more use of Edge on iOS right now, but in the long run, I’m not sure that’s the right strategy.

The new Your Phone service is another part of the strategy (though outside of Timeline) and its focus is on both consumers and business users (though there is often no clear line between those anyway). This new feature will start rolling out in the Windows Insider Program soon and it’ll basically replicate some of the functionality that you may be familiar with from apps like Pushbullet. Besides mirroring notifications and allowing you to respond to text messages, it’ll also allow you to move photos between your phone and Windows 10 machines. Oddly, Microsoft doesn’t mention other file types in its materials, though it’ll likely support those, too.

Going forward, we’ll likely see Microsoft embrace a wider range of these experiences as it looks to extend its reach into third-party platforms like Android.

How to watch Microsoft’s Build keynotes this week

A Microsoft Experience store in a shopping mall.
A Microsoft Experience store in a shopping mall.

Image: zhang peng/LightRocket via Getty Images

Microsoft is about to kick off Build, its annual developer conference. 

In addition to routine updates to Windows 10, the company is expected to announce new AI features and integrations, new tools for business applications using its Azure cloud-computing platform, and progress reports on last year’s announcements, including its Fluent Design interface. 

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella will lead Monday’s keynote, in addition to executive VP Scott Guthrie and CTO of Microsoft Azure Mark Russinovich. Tuesday’s keynote will feature the engineers behind Intelligent Cloud and Intelligent Edge. 

Both keynotes will take place at 8:30 a.m. PT / 11:30 a.m. ET at the Washington State Convention Center in Seattle.

You can watch Microsoft’s official livestream on the conference website. Mashable’s Raymond Wong will be sharing live updates before and during the event. 

Meanwhile, keep an eye on our Microsoft page for more news and coverage of the conference.

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Following Gmail’s makeover, Outlook rolls out new features focused on business users

Microsoft announced a series of new features for Outlook across desktop, mobile and web to take a big of the focus off of Gmail’s massive redesign. Some of the features highlight Outlook’s usefulness in the workplace – like new meeting room suggestion capabilities and RSVP tracking. But others, particularly on mobile, are more innovative – like Quick Reply which turns email replies into chats – or Office Lens, which enhances attached photos.

Office Lens was already available in a standalone mobile app that does things like straighten out photos of paper documents, whiteboards and business cards. But this sort of image correction technology has made its way to other apps, as well – like Microsoft Pix’s camera app, which now lets you scan business cards to find people on LinkedIn.

In Outlook, Office Lens can automatically trim and enhance a photo of a whiteboard, document or photo, then embed it in your message. The feature is arriving first to Android later this month.

Quick Reply, meanwhile, keeps your message in view, but then adds a new reply box at the bottom of the screen. This makes the reply experience feel more like using a chat app. This is also hitting Android this month, and will come to Mac this summer. It’s already live on iOS.

The mobile version of Outlook will also gain a way to flag key contacts (iOS and Android in June); sync draft folders across desktop and mobile (iOS in May. Already live on Windows, Mac and Android); view Office 365 Groups’ events in Outlook and OneNote (Outlook for iOS in June); block email tracking like those from marketers (Android in May): and new features for enterprise customers to protect sensitive data.

Outlook Mail adds a few tweaks like BCC warnings when you’re the blind copy, proxy support, and the ability to view organization information if you’re connected to Azure Active Directory.

Calendar is getting a number of features, including bill pay reminders, suggested event locations and meeting rooms, meeting RSVP tracking and forwarding, and expanded support for multiple time zones for meetings and appointments (so you can set up your travel start in your current zone, and then set up the arrival with the local time at the destination, e.g.).

None of these features, however, are significant upgrades on the scale of the Gmail overhaul, whose focus wasn’t just on business user needs, like Outlook, but on additions that both corporate users and consumers can leverage – like self-destructing messages, snooze buttons, and a handy new sidebar for accessing your calendar, tasks, and notes.

Facebook moves to shrink its legal liabilities under GDPR

Facebook has another change in the works to respond to the European Union’s beefed up data protection framework — and this one looks intended to shrink its legal liabilities under GDPR, and at scale.

Late yesterday Reuters reported on a change incoming to Facebook’s T&Cs that it said will be pushed out next month — meaning all non-EU international are switched from having their data processed by Facebook Ireland to Facebook USA.

With this shift, Facebook will ensure that the privacy protections afforded by the EU’s incoming General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) — which applies from May 25 — will not cover the ~1.5BN+ international Facebook users who aren’t EU citizens (but current have their data processed in the EU, by Facebook Ireland).

The U.S. does not have a comparable data protection framework to GDPR. While the incoming EU framework substantially strengthens penalties for data protection violations, making the move a pretty logical one for Facebook’s lawyers thinking about how it can shrink its GDPR liabilities.

Reuters says Facebook confirmed the impending update to the T&Cs of non-EU international users, though the company played down the significance — repeating its claim that it will be making the same privacy “controls and settings” available everywhere. (Though, as experts have pointed out, this does not mean the same GDPR principles will be applied by Facebook everywhere.)

Critics have couched the T&Cs shift as regressive — arguing it’s a reduction in the level of privacy protection that would otherwise have applied for international users, thanks to GDPR. Although whether these EU privacy rights would really have been enforceable for non-Europeans is questionable.

At the time of writing Facebook had not responded to a request for comment on the change. Update: It’s now sent us the following statement — attributed to deputy chief global privacy officer, Stephen Deadman: “The GDPR and EU consumer law set out specific rules for terms and data policies which we have incorporated for EU users.  We have been clear that we are offering everyone who uses Facebook the same privacy protections, controls and settings, no matter where they live. These updates do not change that.” 

The company’s generally argument is that the EU law takes a prescriptive approach — which can make certain elements irrelevant for international users outside the bloc. It also claims it’s working on being more responsive to regional norms and local frameworks. (Which will presumably be music to the New Zealand privacy commissioner‘s ears, for one…)

According to Reuters the T&Cs shift will affect more than 70 per cent of Facebook’s 2BN+ users. As of December, Facebook had 239M users in the US and Canada; 370M in Europe; and 1.52BN users elsewhere.

The news agency also reports that Microsoft -owned LinkedIn is one of several other multinational companies planning to make the same data processing shift for international users — with LinkedIn’s new terms set to take effect on May 8, moving non-Europeans to contracts with the U.S.-based LinkedIn Corp.

In a statement to Reuters about the change LinkedIn also played it down, saying: “We’ve simply streamlined the contract location to ensure all members understand the LinkedIn entity responsible for their personal data.”

One interesting question is whether these sorts of data processing shifts could encourage regulators in international regions outside the EU to push for a similarly extraterritorial scope for their local privacy laws — or face their citizens’ data falling between the jurisdiction cracks via processing arrangements designed to shrink companies’ legal liabilities.

Another interesting question is how Facebook (or any other multinationals making the same shift) can be entirely sure it’s not risking violating any of its EU users’ fundamental rights — i.e. if it accidentally misclassifies an individual as an non-EU international users and processes their data via Facebook USA.

Keeping data processing processes properly segmented can be difficult. As can definitively identifying a user’s legal jurisdiction based on their location (if that’s even available). So while Facebook’s contract change for international users looks largely intended to shrink its legal liabilities under GDPR, it’s possible the change will open up another front for individuals to pursue strategic litigation in the coming months.

Can data science save social media?

The unfettered internet is too often used for malicious purposes and is frequently woefully inaccurate. Social media — especially Facebook — has failed miserably at protecting user privacy and blocking miscreants from sowing discord.

That’s why CEO Mark Zuckerberg was just forced to testify about user privacy before both houses of Congress. And now governmental regulation of Facebook and other social media appears to be a fait accompli.

At this key juncture, the crucial question is whether regulation — in concert with Facebook’s promises to aggressively mitigate its weaknesses — will correct the privacy abuses and continue to fulfill Facebook’s goal of giving people the power to build transparent communities, bringing the world closer together?

The answer is maybe.

What has not been said is that Facebook must embrace data science methodologies initially created in the bowels of the federal government to help protect its two billion users. Simultaneously, Facebook must still enable advertisers — its sole source of revenue — to get the user data required to justify their expenditures.

Specifically, Facebook must promulgate and embrace what is known in high-level security circles as homomorphic encryption (HE), often considered the “Holy Grail” of cryptography, and data provenance (DP). HE would enable Facebook, for example, to generate aggregated reports about its user psychographic profiles so that advertisers could still accurately target groups of prospective customers without knowing their actual identities.

Meanwhile, data provenance — the process of tracing and recording true identities and the origins of data and its movement between databases — could unearth the true identities of Russian perpetrators and other malefactors, or at least identify unknown provenance, adding much-needed transparency in cyberspace.

Both methodologies are extraordinarily complex. IBM and Microsoft, in addition to the National Security Agency, have been working on HE for years, but the technology has suffered from significant performance challenges. Progress is being made, however. IBM, for example, has been granted a patent on a particular HE method — a strong hint it’s seeking a practical solution — and last month proudly announced that its rewritten HE encryption library now works up to 75 times faster. Maryland-based ENVEIL, a startup staffed by the former NSA HE team, has broken the performance barriers required to produce a commercially viable version of HE, benchmarking millions of times faster than IBM in tested use cases.

How homomorphic encryption would help Facebook

HE is a technique used to operate on and draw useful conclusions from encrypted data without decrypting it, simultaneously protecting the source of the information. It is useful to Facebook because its massive inventory of personally identifiable information is the foundation of the economics underlying its business model. The more comprehensive the data sets about individuals, the more precisely advertising can be targeted.

HE could keep Facebook information safe from hackers and inappropriate disclosure, but still extract the essence of what the data tells advertisers. It would convert encrypted data into strings of numbers, do math with these strings, then decrypt the results to get the same answer it would if the data wasn’t encrypted at all.

A particularly promising sign for HE emerged last year, when Google revealed a new marketing measurement tool that relies on this technology to allow advertisers to see whether their online ads result in in-store purchases.

Unearthing this information requires analyzing data sets belonging to separate organizations, notwithstanding the fact that these organizations pledge to protect the privacy and personal information of the data subjects. HE skirts this by generating aggregated, non-specific reports about the comparisons between these data sets.

In pilot tests, HE enabled Google to successfully analyze encrypted data about who clicked on an advertisement in combination with another encrypted multi-company data set that recorded credit card purchase records. With this data in hand, Google was able to provide reports to advertisers summarizing the relationship between the two databases to conclude, for example, that five percent of the people who clicked on an ad wound up purchasing in a store.

Data provenance

Data provenance has a markedly different core principle. It’s based on the fact that digital information is atomized into 1s and 0s with no intrinsic truth. The dual digits exist only to disseminate information, whether accurate or widely fabricated. A well-crafted lie can easily be indistinguishable from the truth and distributed across the internet. What counts is the source of these 1s and 0s. In short, is it legitimate? What is the history of the 1s and 0s?

The art market, as an example, deploys DP to combat fakes and forgeries of the world’s greatest paintings, drawings and sculptures. It uses DP techniques to create a verifiable, chain-of-custody for each piece of the artwork, preserving the integrity of the market.

Much the same thing can be done in the online world. For example, a Facebook post referencing a formal statement by a politician, with an accompanying photo, would have provenance records directly linking the post to the politician’s press release and even the specifics of the photographer’s camera. The goal — again — is ensuring that data content is legitimate.

Companies such as Walmart, Kroger, British-based Tesco and Swedish-based H&M, an international clothing retailer, are using or experimenting with new technologies to provide provenance data to the marketplace.

Let’s hope that Facebook and its social media brethren begin studying HE and DP thoroughly and implement it as soon as feasible. Other strong measures — such as the upcoming implementation of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, which will use a big stick to secure personally identifiable information — essentially should be cloned in the U.S. What is best, however, are multiple avenues to enhance user privacy and security, while hopefully preventing breaches in the first place. Nothing less than the long-term viability of social media giants is at stake.