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Microsoft today announced a slew of new products, but at the core of the release is a major change to how the company is marketing its tools and services to consumers.

Office 365, which has long been the brand for the company’s subscription service for its productivity tools like Word, Excel and Outlook, is going away. On April 21, it’ll be replaced by new Microsoft 365 plans, including new personal and family plans (for up to six people) at $6.99 and $9.99 respectively. That’s the same price as the existing Office 365 Personal and Home plans.

“We are basically evolving our subscription from — in our minds — a set of tools to solutions that help you manage across your work and life,” Yusuf Mehdi, Microsoft’s CVP of Modern Life, Search and Devices, told me ahead of today’s announcement.

Microsoft is making similar branding changes to its business plans for Office 365. They are a bit more convoluted, with Office 365 Business Premium now called Microsoft 365 Business Standard and Microsoft 365 Business now becoming Microsoft 365 Business Premium, but for the most part, this is about branding while prices stay the same.

These new Microsoft 365 Personal and Family plans will include access to Outlook and the Office desktop apps for Windows and macOS, 1 terabyte of OneDrive storage per person (including unlimited access to the more secure OneDrive Personal Vault service) and 50 gigabytes of Outlook.com email storage, Skype call recording and 60 minutes of Skype landline and mobile phone calls.

And since this is now Microsoft 365 and not Office 365, you can also get Windows 10 technical support with the subscription, as well as additional security features to protect you from phishing and malware attacks.

More than 37 million people currently have personal Office 365 subscriptions and chances are these lower prices will bring more users to the platform in the long run. As Mehdi stressed, Microsoft’s free offerings aren’t going away.

But with today’s release, Microsoft isn’t just changing the branding and launching these new plans, it’s also highlighting quite a few new capabilities in its various applications that are either launching today or in the coming months.

Microsoft Teams gets a personal edition

The highlight of this launch, especially given the current situation around COVID-19, is likely the announcement of Teams for consumers. Teams is already one of Microsoft’s fastest growing products for businesses with 44 million people using it. But in its efforts to help people bridge their work and personal lives, it will now launch a new Teams edition for consumers, as well.

Just like you can switch between work and personal accounts in Outlook, you will soon be able to do the same in Teams. The personal teams view will look a little bit different, with shared calendars for the family, access to OneDrive vaults, photo sharing, etc., but it sits on the same codebase as the business version. You’ll also be able to do video calls and shared to-do lists.

Microsoft Teams is coming to consumers — but Skype is here to stay

Better writing through AI

About a year ago, Microsoft announced that Word Online would get a new AI-powered editor that would help you write better. You can think of it as a smarter grammar checker that can fix all of your standard grammar mistakes but can also help you avoid overly complex sentences and bias in your word choices.

This editor is now the Microsoft Editor, and the company is expanding it well beyond Word. The new AI-powered service is now available in 20 languages in Word and Outlook.com — and maybe most importantly, it’ll be available as a Microsoft Edge and Google Chrome plug-in, too.

Free users will get basic spelling and grammar features, while Microsoft 365 subscribers will get a number of more advanced features like the ability to ask the editor to suggest a rewrite of a mangled sentence, a plagiarism checker, style analysis to see if your writing is unclear or too formal and access to an inclusive language critique to help you avoid unintentional bias.

If you’ve used Grammarly in the past, then a lot of this will sound familiar. Both services now offer a similar set of capabilities, but Microsoft may have an edge with its ability to rewrite sentences.

Better presentations through technology

In a similar vein, Microsoft also launched a presentation coach for PowerPoint as a limited test last September. This AI-driven feature helps you avoid filler words and other presentation no-nos.

This feature first launched in the online version of PowerPoint, with a basic set of features. Now, Microsoft 365 subscribers will get two new advanced features, too, that can help you avoid a monotone pitch that puts your audience to sleep and avoid grammar mistakes in your spoken sentences.

Currently, these are still available as a free preview to all but will become Microsoft 365-only features soon.

PowerPoint is also getting an updated Designer to help you create better presentations. It can now easily turn text into a timeline, for example, and when you add an image, it can present you with a set of potential slide layouts.

Microsoft 365 subscribers now also get access to over 8,000 images and 175 looping videos from Getty Images, as well as 300 new fonts and 2,800 new icons.

Excel + Plaid

For you spreadsheet jockeys out there, Microsoft also has some good news, especially if you want to use Excel to manage your personal budgets.

In partnership with Plaid, you can now link your bank accounts to Excel and import all of your expenses into your spreadsheets. With that, you can then categorize your spend and build your own personal Mint. This feature, dubbed “Money in Excel,” will launch in the U.S. in the coming months.

In addition, Excel is getting a lot more cloud- and AI-driven data types that now cover over 100 topics, including nutrition, movies, places, chemistry and — because why not — Pokémon. Like some of the previous features, this is an extension of the work Microsoft did on Excel in the last few years, starting with the ability to pull in stock market and geographical data.

And just like with the previous set of features, you’ll need a Microsoft 365 subscription to get access to these additional data types. Otherwise, you’ll remain restricted to the stock market and geography data types, which will become available to Office Insiders in the spring and then Personal and Family subscribers in the U.S. in the coming months.

Outlook gets more personal

Even though you may want to forget about Outlook and ignore your inbox for a while, Microsoft doesn’t. In Outlook on the web, you can now link your personal and work calendars to ensure you don’t end up with a work meeting in the middle of a personal appointment, because Chris from marketing really needs another sync meeting during your gym time even though a short email would suffice.

Outlook for Android can now summarize and read your emails aloud for you, too. This feature will roll out in the coming months.

Family Safety

While most of the new features here focus on existing applications, Microsoft is also launching one completely new app: Microsoft Family Safety. This app is coming to Microsoft 365 subscribers on iOS and Android and will bring together a set of tools that can help families manage their online activities and track the location of family members.

The app lets families manage the screen time of their kids (and maybe parents, too) across Windows, Android and Xbox, for example. Parents can also set content filters that only allow kids to download age-appropriate apps. But it also allows parents to track their kids in the real world through location tracking and even driving reports. This, as Mehdi stressed, is a feature that kids can turn off, but they’ll probably have to explain themselves to their parents then. Indeed, he stressed that a lot of what the app does is give parents a chance to have a dialog with their kids. What makes the service unique is that it works across platforms, with iOS support coming in the future.

This app is launching as a limited preview now and will be available in the coming months (I think you can spot a trend here).

Partner benefits

Mehdi noted that Microsoft is also partnering with companies like Adobe, Bark, Blinkist, Creative Live, Experian, Headspace and TeamSnap to provide Microsoft 365 subscribers with additional benefits like limited-time access to their products and services. Subscribers will get three months of free access to Adobe’s Creative Cloud Photography plan, for example.

At the core of today’s updates, though, is a mission to bring a lot of the productivity tools that people know from their work life to their personal life, too, with the personal edition of Teams being the core example.

“We’re very much excited to bring this type of value — not increase the price of Office 365 — take a big step forward, and then move to this,” Mehdi said. “We think now more than ever, it is valuable for people to have the subscription service for their life that helps them make the most of their time, protects their family, lets them develop and grow. And our goal or aspiration is: Can we give you the most valuable subscription for your life? I know people value their video subscriptions and music subscriptions. Our aspiration is to provide the most valuable subscription for your life via Microsoft 365 Personal and Family.”

Read more: https://techcrunch.com/2020/03/30/office-365-becomes-microsoft-365-and-gets-new-personal-and-family-plans/

In early December, Spotify launched its annual personalized Wrapped playlist with its users’ most-streamed sounds of 2019. That has become a bit of a tradition and isn’t necessarily anything new, but for 2019, it also gave users a look back at how they used Spotify over the last decade. Because this was quite a large job, Spotify gave us a bit of a look under the covers of how it generated these lists for its ever-growing number of free and paid subscribers.

It’s no secret that Spotify is a big Google Cloud Platform user. Back in 2016, the music streaming service publicly said that it was going to move to Google Cloud, after all, and in 2018, it disclosed that it would spend at least $450 million on its Google Cloud infrastructure in the following three years.

It was also back in 2018, for that year’s Wrapped, that Spotify ran the largest Google Cloud Dataflow job ever run on the platform, a service the company started experimenting with a few years earlier. “Back in 2015, we built and open-sourced a big data processing Scala API for Apache Beam and Google Cloud Dataflow called Scio,” Spotify’s VP of Engineering Tyson Singer told me. “We chose Dataflow over Dataproc because it scales with less operational overhead and Dataflow fit with our expected needs for streaming processing. Now we have a great open-source toolset designed and optimized for Dataflow, which in addition to being used by most internal teams, is also used outside of Spotify.”

For Wrapped 2019, which includes the annual and decadal lists, Spotify ran a job that was five times larger than in 2018 — but it did so at three-quarters of the cost. Singer attributes this to his team’s familiarity with the platform. “With this type of global scale, complexity is a natural consequence. By working closely with Google Cloud’s engineering teams and specialists and drawing learnings from previous years, we were able to run one of the most sophisticated Dataflow jobs ever written.”

Still, even with this expertise, the team couldn’t just iterate on the full data set as it figured out how to best analyze the data and use it to tell the most interesting stories to its users. “Our jobs to process this would be large and complex; we needed to decouple the complexity and processing in order to not overwhelm Google Cloud Dataflow,” Singer said. “This meant that we had to get more creative when it came to going from idea, to data analysis, to producing unique stories per user, and we would have to scale this in time and at or below cost. If we weren’t careful, we risked being wasteful with resources and slowing down downstream teams.”

To handle this workload, Spotify not only split its internal teams into three groups (data processing, client-facing and design, and backend systems), but also split the data processing jobs into smaller pieces. That marked a very different approach for the team. “Last year Spotify had one huge job that used a specific feature within Dataflow called “Shuffle.” The idea here was that having a lot of data, we needed to sort through it, in order to understand who did what. While this is quite powerful, it can be costly if you have large amounts of data.”

This year, the company’s engineers minimized the use of Shuffle by using Google Cloud’s Bigtable as an intermediate storage layer. “Bigtable was used as a remediation tool between Dataflow jobs in order for them to process and store more data in a parallel way, rather than the need to always regroup the data,” said Singer. “By breaking down our Dataflow jobs into smaller components — and reusing core functionality — we were able to speed up our jobs and make them more resilient.”

Singer attributes at least a part of the cost savings to this technique of using Bigtable, but he also noted that the team decomposed the problem into data collection, aggregation and data transformation jobs, which it then split into multiple separate jobs. “This way, we were not only able to process more data in parallel, but be more selective about which jobs to rerun, keeping our costs down.”

Many of the techniques the engineers on Singer’s teams developed are currently in use across Spotify. “The great thing about how Wrapped works is that we are able to build out more tools to understand a user, while building a great product for them,” he said. “Our specialized techniques and expertise of Scio, Dataflow and big data processing, in general, is widely used to power Spotify’s portfolio of products.”

Read more: https://techcrunch.com/2020/02/18/how-spotify-ran-the-largest-google-dataflow-job-ever-for-wrapped-2019/

TikTok, the fast-growing user-generated video app from China’s ByteDance, has been building a new music streaming service to compete against the likes of Spotify, Apple Music and Amazon Music. And today it’s announcing a deal that helps pave the way for a global launch of it. It has inked a licensing deal with Merlin, the global agency that represents tens of thousands of independent music labels and hundreds of thousands of artists, for music from those labels to be used legally on the TikTok platform anywhere that the app is available.

The news is significant because this is the first major music licensing deal announced by TikTok as part of its wider efforts in the music industry. Notably, it’s not the first: I’ve confirmed TikTok has actually secured other major labels but has been restricted from going public on the details.

The Merlin deal is therefore a template of what TikTok is likely signing with others: it includes both its mainstay short-form videos — where music plays a key role (the app, before it was acquired by ByteDance, was even called “Musically”) — as well as new music streaming services.

Specifically, a source close to TikTok has confirmed to TechCrunch that the licensing deal covers its upcoming music subscription service Resso.

Resso was long-rumoured and eventually spotted in the wild at the end of last year when ByteDance tested the app in India and Indonesia. ByteDance owns the Resso trademark, so it’s a good bet that it will make its way to other markets soon. (Possibly with features that differentiate this later entrant from others in the market? Recall ByteDance acquired an AI-based music startup called Jukedeck last year.)

“Independent artists and labels are such a crucial part of music creation and consumption on TikTok,” said Ole Obermann, global head of music for TikTok, in a statement. “We’re excited to partner with Merlin to bring their family of labels to the TikTok community. The breadth and diversity of the catalogue presents our users with an even larger canvas from which to create, while giving independent artists the opportunity to connect with TikTok’s diverse community.”

Music is a fundamental part of the TikTok experience, and this deal covers everything that’s there today — videos created by TikTok users, sponsored videos created for marketing — as well as whatever is coming up around the corner.

A music streaming app, which TikTok has reportedly been gearing up to launch for some time, is one way that the company could help generate revenue. Despite being one of the most popular apps of 2019, monetisation has largely eluded the company up to now.

One reason why monetising may happen is because of the lack of deals at the other end of the chain. As of December, TikTok reportedly had yet to sign any deals with the “majors” — Sony Music, Warner Music and Universal Music. From what we understand, Merlin is the first big deal of its kind announced by the company, but others are already in place.

In any case, the company is ramping up its bigger music operation.

Obermann, who was hired away from Warner Music last year, in turn hired another former Warner colleague, Tracy Gardner, who now leads label licensing for the company. And just yesterday, the company opened an office in Los Angeles, the heart of the music industry.

The move to bring more licensed music usage to TikTok (and other ByteDance apps) is significant for other reasons, too.

On one hand, it’s about labels trying to evolve with the times, collecting revenues wherever audiences happen to be, whether that is in short-form user-generated video, in advertising that runs alongside that or in a new music service capitalising on the new vogue for streamed media.

“This partnership with TikTok is very significant for us,” said Jeremy Sirota, CEO, Merlin, in a statement. “We are seeing a new generation of music services and a new era of music-related consumption, much of it driven by the global demand for independent music. Merlin members are increasingly using TikTok for their marketing campaigns, and today’s partnership ensures that they and their artists can also build new and incremental revenue streams.”

Times are changing in the music industry. Sirota himself only joined Merlin earlier this month, after working on music efforts at Facebook for the last couple of years (and before that at Warner Music, like TikTok’s two key executives).

On the other hand, the deal is significant also because it underscores how TikTok is increasingly working to legitimise itself in the wider tech and media marketplace.

While ByteDance’s acquisition of TikTok continues to face regulatory scrutiny, the company has been working on ways to assert its independence from China’s control, which has included many clarifications about where its content is hosted (not China! it says) and even a search for a new U.S.-based CEO. On another front, more licensing deals should also help the company with the many legal and PR issues that have been hanging over it concerning how it pays out when music is used in its popular app.

Updated with clarification that Obermann works for TikTok, not ByteDance, and the news that there are other music deals in place that have yet to be announced.

Read more: https://techcrunch.com/2020/01/23/tiktok-inks-licensing-deal-with-merlin-to-use-music-from-independent-labels-in-videos-and-new-resso-streaming-service/

Most in tech would agree that following the launch of Alexa and Google Home devices, the “Voice Era” is here. Voice assistant usage is at 3.3 billion right now; by 2020, half of all searches are expected to be done via voice. And with younger generations growing up on voice (55% of teens use voice search daily now), there’s no turning back.

As we’ve reported, the voice-based ad market will grow to $19 billion in the U.S. by 2022, growing the market share from the $17 billion audio ad market and the $57 billion programmatic ad market.

That means that voice shopping is also set to explode, with the volume of voice-based spending growing twenty-fold over the next few years due to voice-based virtual assistant penetration, as well as the rapid consumer adoption of home-based smart speakers, the expansion of smart homes and the growing integration of virtual assistants into cars.

That, combined with the popularity of digital media — streaming music, podcasts, etc. — has created greenfield opportunities for better brand engagement through audio. But brands have struggled to catch up, and there have not been many ways to capitalise on this.

So a team of people who co-founded and worked at Zvuk, a leading music streaming service in Eastern Europe, quickly understood why there is not a single profitable music streaming company in the world: subscription rates are low and advertisers are not excited about audio ads, due to the measurement challenges and intrusive ad experience.

So, they decided to create SF-based company Instreamatic, a startup which allows people to talk at adverts they see and get an AI-driven voice response, just as you might talk to an Alexa device.

Thus, the AI powering Instreamatic’s voice-driven ads can interpret and anticipate the intent of a user’s words (and do so in the user’s natural language, so robotic “yes” and “no” responses aren’t needed). That means Instreamatic enables brands which advertise through digital audio channels (streaming music apps, podcasts, etc.) to now have interactive (and continuous) voice dialogues with consumers.

Yes, it means you can talk to an advert like it was an Alexa.

Instead of an audio ad playing to a listener as a one-way communication (like every TV and radio ad before it), brands can now reach and engage with consumers by having voice-interactive conversations. Brands using Instreamatic can also continue conversations with consumers across channels and audio publishers — so fresh ad content is tailored to the full history of each listener’s past engagements and responses.

An advantage of the platform is that people can use their voice to set their advertising preferences. So, when a person says “I don’t want to hear about it ever again,” brands can optimize their marketing strategy either by stopping all remarketing campaigns across all digital media channels targeted to that person, or by optimizing the communication strategy to offer something else instead of the product that was rejected. If the listener expressed interest or no interest, Instreamatic would know that and tailor future ads to match past engagement — providing a continuous dialogue with the user.

Its competitor is AdsWizz, which allows users to shake their phones when they are interested in an ad. This effectively allows users to “click” when the audio ad is playing in the background. One of their recent case studies reported that shaking provided 3.95% interaction rates.

By contrast, Instreamatic’s voice dialogue marketing platform allows people to talk to audio advertising, skipping irrelevant ads and engaging in interesting ones. Their recent case study claimed a much higher 13.2% voice engagement rate this way.

The business model is thus: when advertisers buy voice dialogue ads on its ad exchange, it takes a commission from that ad spend. Publishers, brands and ad tech companies can license the technology and Instreamatic charges them a licensing fee based on usage.

Instreamatic has now partnered with Gaana, India’s largest music and content streaming service, to integrate Instreamatic into Gaana’s platform. It has also partnered with Triton Digital, a service provider to the audio streaming and podcast industry.

This follows similar deals with Pandora, Jacapps, Airkast and SurferNETWORK.

All these partnerships means the company can now reach 120 million monthly active users in the United States, 30 million in Europe and 150 million in Asia.

The company is headquartered in San Francisco and London, with a development team in Moscow, and features Stas Tushinskiy as CEO and co-founder. Tushinskiy created the digital audio advertising market in Russia prior to relocating to the U.S. with Instreamatic. International Business Development head and co-founder Simon Dunlop previously founded Bookmate, a subscription-based reading and audiobook platform, DITelegraph Moscow Tech Hub and Zvuk.

Read more: https://techcrunch.com/2019/12/19/instreamatic-signs-deals-to-allow-people-to-talk-to-adverts-on-streaming-services-like-an-alexa/

Alphabet-backed UnitedMasters, the music label distribution startup and record label alternative that offers artists 100% ownership of everything they create, launched its iPhone app today.

The iPhone app works like the service they used to offer, only via the web, giving artists the chance to upload their own tracks (from iCloud, Dropbox or directly from text messages), then distribute them to a full range of streaming music platforms, including Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal and more. In exchange for this distribution, as well as analytics on how your music is performing, UnitedMasters takes a 10% share on revenue generated by tracks it distributes, but artists retain full ownership of the content they create.

UnitedMasters also works with brand partners, including Bose, the NBA and AT&T, to place tracks in marketing use across the brand’s properties and distributed content. Music creators are paid out via PayPal once they connect their accounts, and they also can tie-in their social accounts for connecting their overall online presence with their music.

UnitedMasters

Using the app, artists can create entire releases by uploading not only music tracks but also high-quality cover art, and by entering information like whether any producers participated in the music creation, and whether the tracks contain any explicit lyrics. You also can specify an exact desired release date, and UnitedMasters will do its best to distribute across services on that day, pending content approvals.

UnitedMasters was founded by former Interscope Records president Steve Stoute, and also has funding from Andreessen Horwitz and 20th Century Fox. It’s aiming to serve a new generation of artists who are disenfranchised by the traditional label model, but are seeking distribution through the services where listeners actually spend their time, and using the iPhone to manage the entire process definitely fits with serving that customer base.

Read more: https://techcrunch.com/2019/07/04/unitedmasters-releases-iphone-app-for-diy-cross-service-music-distribution/

The spat between Spotify and Apple is going to be the focus on a new investigation from the EU, according to a report from the FT.

The paper reported today that the European Commission (EC), the EU’s regulatory body, plans to launch a competition inquiry around Spotify’s claim that the iPhone-maker uses its position as the gatekeeper of the App Store to “deliberately disadvantage other app developers.”

In a complaint filed to the EC in March, Spotify said Apple has “tilted the playing field” by operating iOS, the platform, and the App Store for distribution, as well as its own Spotify rival, Apple Music.

In particular, Spotify CEO Daniel Ek has said that Apple “locks” developers and their platform, which includes a 30 percent cut of in-app spending. Ek also claimed Apple Music has unfair advantages over rivals like Spotify, while he expressed concern that Apple controls communication between users and app publishers, “including placing unfair restrictions on marketing and promotions that benefit consumers.”

Spotify’s announcement was unprecedented — Ek claimed many other developers feel the same way, but do not want to upset Apple by speaking up. The EU is sure to tap into that silent base if the investigation does indeed go ahead as the FT claims.

Apple bit back at Spotify’s claims, but its response was more a rebuttal — or alternative angle — on those complaints. Apple did not directly address any of the demands that Spotify put forward, and those include alternative payment options (as offered in the Google Play store) and equal treatment for Apple apps and those from third-parties like Spotify.

The EU is gaining a reputation as a tough opponent that’s reining in U.S. tech giants.

Aside from its GDPR initiative, it has a history of taking action on apparent monopolies in tech.

Google fined €1.49 billion ($1.67 billion) in March of this year over antitrust violations in search ad brokering, for example. Google was fined a record $5 billion last year over Android abuses and there have been calls to look into breaking the search company up. Inevitably, Facebook has come under the spotlight for a series of privacy concerns, particularly around elections.

Pressure from the EU has already led to the social network introduce clear terms and conditions around its use of data for advertising, while it may also change its rules limiting overseas ad spending around EU elections following concern from Brussels.

Despite what some in the U.S. may think, the EU’s competition commissioner, Margrethe Vestager, has said publicly that she is against breaking companies up. Instead, Vestager has pledged to regulate data access.

“To break up a company, to break up private property would be very far-reaching and you would need to have a very strong case that it would produce better results for consumers in the marketplace than what you could do with more mainstream tools. We’re dealing with private property. Businesses that are built and invested in and become successful because of their innovation,” she said in an interview at SXSW earlier this year.

Read more: https://techcrunch.com/2019/05/06/eu-will-reportedly-investigate-apple/