Wednesday 8 July 2015

Apple Stores will begin selling the first HomeKit-connected thermostat today

Apple's smart home platform is gaining another member: the Ecobee3 smart thermostat, the first connected thermostat to work with HomeKit. The Ecobee3 goes on sale today through Apple Stores across North America. It costs $249 and is essentially an alternative to Nest's thermostat: it detects a home's temperature and whether anyone is actually around and then adjusts heating and cooling accordingly, with the goal of saving homeowners some money. The thermostat can even be made a bit smarter by buying additional sensors (a pack of two costs $79) that can allow it to detect temperature and presence in other rooms of a house — one sensor is included with the thermostat itself.
A separate version of the Ecobee3 is already on sale, but this new version adds HomeKit support, which means it can be controlled by Siri. It's certainly not a reason to throw out an existing connected thermostat, but it's a nice convenience that becomes a lot more compelling as more HomeKit-connected products are added to a home. Any product that supports HomeKit can be controlled by Siri and grouped into scenes that allow a home to be quickly set into certain states, whether it's for arriving home, going to bed, or watching a movie. Right now, there aren't a whole lot of products available, but a number of additional devices should be coming out this summer and through the end of the year.

What sounds better: Apple Music, Tidal, or Spotify?

Sameness pervades all the major streaming music services these days, but there are still many, many differences once you look into the details: take Spotify's lack of Taylor Swift content, for instance, or Apple Music's substantial bet on reinventing the radio station with Beats 1. There's also the matter of audio quality — you might think that all of these services would deliver the exact same digital stream to your ears, but you'd be wrong. Tidal's claim to fame is that it delivers true lossless streams at 1.4Mbps — legitimate CD quality, for all practical purposes — while Spotify tops out at 320kbps. Apple Music runs at a slightly lower 256kbps, but it uses a better encoding scheme, AAC, than Spotify's Ogg Vorbis. (Note that in the video, I misidentify it as MP3, but the two sound very similar, especially at higher bitrates.)
But what does this all actually mean in the real world? We wanted to find out, so we put a bunch of Vox Media staff in front of the camera for a blind test between Spotify, Tidal, and Apple Music.
The methodology was straightforward: subjects listened to the same segment of the same song back-to-back on all three services set to their maximum streaming bitrates. We used Sony's MDR-7506 headphones — selected for their popularity, neutral sound, and non-outrageous price tag — paired to an iPhone 6 Plus. Subjects judged a total of three songs covering a spectrum of genres and audio characteristics: Kendrick Lamar's "Complexion (A Zulu Love)," St. Vincent's "Digital Witness," and Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man" off the Copland Conducts Copland compilation. After listening to each song, we asked them to just say whatever was on their mind — if one service sounded notably better, notably worse, or if all three were about the same. the results were very, very surprising to me. It was generally random across the board, though Spotify fared slightly worse than Apple Music and Tidal overall. In roughly 29 percent of the tests, subjects couldn't tell any notable difference at all. Tidal — which wants you to pay more for lossless quality — most definitely didn't take the crown, and in several cases, subjects actually identified it as the worst-sounding of the three.
What are the takeaways? Having been a longtime Tidal subscriber and run blind tests on my laptop between Tidal and Spotify in the past, it seems possible that the difference in quality is particularly irrelevant when you're using your phone — maybe it's one thing to use better components, headphones, and speakers, but a phone's hardware creates a baseline that renders Tidal's advantage totally useless. (That's good news if you mostly listen to streaming music on your phone, since Tidal's lossless service is $10 more per month.)

Microsoft introduces Tossup app to help plan group outings, poll friends

Microsoft introduced a new Android and iPhone app today called Tossup to help users quickly create polls and schedule group events. The new app comes via the Microsoft Garage, which is also responsible for some of Microsoft’s other recent forays into building apps for non-Microsoft platforms.
Tossup allows users to quickly build multi-question polls with contextual information pulled from Bing. Say you’re planning a day at the beach. You could create a poll asking what day works best the group, along with which beach is the best and where to go to lunch before the trip.
You can set up yes-or-no questions, available time slots, restaurant options or create your own options for each poll. The app automatically pulls in ratings, hours and locations for restaurants from Bing.
“Everyone has been through the tedious experience of planning a get-together which results in long email threads or text messages that go on and on without any resolution,” group program manager Ashok Kuppusamy said. “We’ve built an app that helps people in these everyday scenarios.”
However, the whole group needs to download the app before you can set up your next outing with it. There’s an easy way to send a link via SMS or email, but it can be just as hard to get your friends to download a new app as it is to plan the outing via email. An alternative app created as a side project by Microsoft engineers has a web-based portion that doesn’t require a download.
These Garage projects are an example of Microsoft’s broader efforts to change its culture, eliminating bureaucratic hurdles and becoming more nimble.

Microsoft Corporation vs. Google Inc: Let The Android Wars Begin!

Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) recently took an awkward step backwards in app design by adding splash screens to its apps. In the past, Google discouraged the use of splash screens, which caused apps to load more slowly.
So why would Google bring these back now? The answer is simple -- to remind users who "owns" Android and the Google ecosystem. It also indicates that Google might be worried that Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) recent efforts to "colonize" Android with cross-platform apps could disrupt its ecosystem of services and apps.
The problem with AndroidEarly on, Android had two core advantages: it was free and open-source. This enabled smartphone makers to install Android quickly and tweak the OS for their specific needs. Smartphone makers then tethered their devices to Google's services, which enabled Google to monetize search, mine data, and take a cut of Google Play app sales.
But as the Android smartphone market matured, smartphone makers' margins contracted due to the commoditization of the market. Meanwhile, Google added so many services to Android that critics accused the company of turning it into a closed-source OS. To make matters worse, Android device makers started pre-installing first-party "bloatware" to their devices to generate more revenue per device.
Companies also started "forking" Android and completely removing Google services from the OS. Amazon did this to create Fire OS, which uses the company's own app store and cloud services instead of Google's. Chinese smartphone makers did the same, since most Google services remained blocked across China. ABI Research estimates that forked devices accounted for 29% of all Android smartphone shipments in the fourth quarter of 2014.
Ripe for disruptionMicrosoft, which controls less than 3% of the global smartphone market with Windows Phone, recognized a way to capitalize on that chaos -- by launching Android versions of its productivity apps to compete against Google's. OneDrive would compete against Google Drive, Word would tackle Docs, Outlook would challenge Gmail, and so on. Microsoft even brought its Cortana virtual assistant to Android and iOS, which could steal users (and their data) away from Google Now.
Since many Android users were using Google apps because they were pre-installed on smartphones, Microsoft asked Android OEMs to pre-install apps like Office, OneDrive, and Skype on their devices. To date, over 30 handset makers -- including SamsungLG,Sony, and Dell -- agreed to pre-install Microsoft's apps on their new Android smartphones and tablets.
The pre-installation of those apps on Android is a major threat to Google, because of the automation of cloud-based apps. For example, both OneDrive and Google Drive prompt the user to automatically upload photos to the cloud. Since users don't need all their photos being uploaded to two services, they'll likely choose one over the other. If the user picks OneDrive instead of Google Drive, Google loses the ability to mine user data for targeted ads from those services.
How Microsoft could hijack AndroidThe beauty of Microsoft's plan is that is has little to lose in colonizing Android with its apps. It's simply letting its apps hitch a ride on some of the most popular Android handsets on the market.
As for its own Windows Phones, the upcoming upgrade to Windows 10 could convince Android and iOS app developers to port their apps over for two reasons. First, Microsoft will make it easier for iOS and Android developers to bring their apps to Windows 10 with a security container subsystem. Second, Windows 10 apps will be cross-compatible with phones, tablets, PCs, and Xbox Ones -- enabling developers to reach a massive market beyond mobile devices. On top of all that, Microsoft is reportedly developing a first-party emulation platform for Android apps on Windows 10 devices.
This means that with Windows 10, Microsoft could eventually close the "app gap" between Windows Phone's 385,000 apps and Google Play's 1.5 million apps.
Google needs more than splash screensGoogle's introduction of splash screens, which Forbes' Ewan Spence calls a "mind share" play, seems to be a weak response to Microsoft's aggression. Yet it's all Google can really do right now. It can't boot Microsoft's apps without being hit by anticompetitive accusations, and it doesn't want to antagonize handset makers by telling them which companies they can partner up with.
Investors should remember that although Android powers nearly 80% of smartphones worldwide, those devices only generate revenue for Google if users use its search engine, ecosystem apps, and make digital purchases from its Play Store. If Google gets cut off from that ecosystem by challengers like Microsoft, Android will simply become a free mobile launcher for other companies' apps.
3 Companies Poised to Explode When Cable Dies
Cable is dying. And there are 3 stocks that are poised to explode when this faltering $2.2 trillion industry finally bites the dust. Just like newspaper publishers, telephone utilities, stockbrokers, record companies, bookstores, travel agencies, and big box retailers did when the Internet swept away their business models. And when cable falters, you don't want to miss out on these 3 companies that are positioned to benefit. Click here for their names.  Hint: They're not the ones you'd think!

Microsoft Previews New Bing Maps, Puts Focus On Travel Planning

Microsoft may have sold off some of its mapping assets to Uber last week, but almost as if to show that it’s still taking Bing Maps seriously, the company today announced a new preview release of Bing Maps for the web.
The redesigned Bing Maps puts more emphasis on travel planning than routing, which makes sense, given that looking for directions is now something most people probably do on their smartphone (though I hear some people still print out their MapQuest directions like it’s 2003).
I always thought Bing Maps was one of the underappreciated highlights of Microsoft’s Bing portfolio and with this update, the company is launching a couple of new features that show there’s still some room for (at least a bit of) innovation in this market.
Because Bing Maps now organizes your searches in cards and remembers your last searches, it’s easy to switch back and forth between results. But Bing Maps also keeps those different searches plotted on the map, so it’s easy to see where places are in relation to each other (maybe you are looking for a sushi restaurant next to a movie theater, for example).
Because chances are you will still look at your travel route on Bing Maps before you leave on your trip, the service now also tries to predict the best time to leave based on your travel time and the historical data it has about traffic (this is probably the same data that also powers a similar Cortana feature).
In addition, Bing Maps can now also now highlights hotels, restaurants and gas stations near your route. That’s a nifty little feature and something that’s sorely missing in Google Maps.
2015-07-06_1002Even though Microsoft sold off some of its image collection assets, the new Bing Maps still highlights the company’s Streetside project (which is basically a copy of Google’s Street View). The tool now features a useful split-screen mode that shows the map at the bottom of the screen with the street-side view on top.
Microsoft also says that it has made the new layout more touchscreen-friendly and that sharing your searches is now easier.
While Bing Maps still features Microsoft’s usual high-res bird’s-eye view and satellite imagery, one feature that seems to be missing in this preview is Microsoft’s 3D maps, which were one of the highlights of the Bing Maps desktop preview for Windows 8.

Microsoft dropped the Xbox Music name because it was confusing

Microsoft surprised everyone by rebranding its Xbox Music service to Groove yesterday. While many had expected the company to drop the Xbox Music naming, the Groove replacement won over alternatives like Microsoft Music and others that the company had been considering. The new Groove music service will be very similar to Xbox Music, so why the new name?
Microsoft’s Joe Belfiore revealed on Twitteryesterday that the old brand was simply too confusing. "Lots of people were saying ‘I don't have an Xbox, why would I use Xbox Music?’" said Belfiore. That appears to be a common complaint around the service, and Microsoft also started dropping the Xbox naming from its Music and Video apps for Windows 10 back in March.
Microsoft’s official reason for picking Groove is because "Groove describes what people feel and do with music," but the final name also provides the company the ability to spin it off in the future if it’s unsuccessful. A name like Microsoft Music would make that possibility more difficult. Microsoft is currently rebranding Xbox Music and the first signs of Groove will start showing up in a new Windows 10 build that will be distributed to testers this week.

Microsoft Rolls Out The Latest Windows 10 Build To Its 5 Million Testers

Late last week, Microsoft kicked out another Windows 10 build, numbered 10162, to the ‘fast ring’ of its testing community.
The larger Windows Insider program has two groups, fast and slow, allowing people to select how raw they want their code. The build was rolled out to the larger group of testers today, those in the slow ring. Given that Windows 10 is now just 23 days out, it’s worth taking a moment to dig into what is being released.
The 10162 build, according to Microsoft’s Gabe Aul (see below), isn’t focused new features, but instead contains “bug fixing and final polish.” The company has released a number of builds in recent weeks that were of similar ilk, aimed at beating the operating system into shape, instead of expanding its capabilities.
The code was first pushed to the ‘fast ring’ of testers on the second of this month.
Someone owes this guy a drink.
So, consider this to be a build akin to done, but not quite. That means that if you are currently testing Windows 10, regardless of what group you are in, you can now use Windows 10 in a nearly-normal capacity. How polished it is remains your own judgement.
Microsoft recently explained to the public how it will roll out Windows 10. The company intends to deploy the final build to its testing community on the 29th of this month. Following, in waves, other groups will be brought into the fold.
Earlier this morning, The Verge’s Tom Warren reported that Microsoft intends to RTM Windows 10 and distribute it to equipment manufactures (OEMs) later this week. That makes it not too surprising that the software company is working to get fresh code out into the hands of its community.
The long Windows 10 dance is nearly to its first conclusory benchmark. Microsoft has made noise for some time now that it will continue to update the code in perpetuity. But all races, even those that don’t end, have a day one.