Microsoft Band: Fitness Friend or Bandwagon Bluff?

Recently, Microsoft announced their entry into the smartwatch/fitness tracker market: The Microsoft Band.  As the name implies, this product leans more towards the fitness band end of that spectrum.  Smartwatches seem to be all the rage these days, but only time will tell whether they’ll actually catch on or if they’re just another tech fad.  Still, for the time being, people are definitely interested in smartwatches, and getting into this market is a good move for Microsoft.  From what I’ve seen on Microsoft’s website, I actually think they have a shot with this one.  Ultimately, the product’s success will come down to whether or not it actually performs well, but Microsoft has taken several preliminary steps that will definitely help its cause.

Fitness First
As I said, the Microsoft Band is a fitness tracker first, and a smartwatch second.  This strategy directly contrasts with the Apple Watch.  For the time being, I think that this is a good play for Microsoft, even if it is a safe one.  The smartwatch market is young, and we’re still figuring out exactly how much you can, and can’t, do on such a tiny little screen.  This means that any smartwatch that attempts to do too much might end up frustrating users.  Microsoft has given the band a fitness focus, including features such as step counting, GPS run tracking, and heart rate monitoring.  The band does pair with a smartphone and give you push notifications, but from what I can tell that’s about all it does as far as smartwatch features go.  This may be enough however; any additional functionality may be so cramped that it’s not worth the saved effort of pulling out your phone.

Partnerships
I didn’t actually hear about the Microsoft Band from Microsoft; RunKeeper told me.  Microsoft has partnered with what are arguably the three most popular fitness apps: RunKeeper, MapMyFitness, and MyFitnessPal.  I like this approach.  It says, “We’re a technology company and we admit that we’re not exactly experts on fitness.  Therefore, in order to give you a good product, we’re partnering with people who do know about fitness.”  The best way for a tech company to shoot themselves in the foot is to create a poorly executed knock off of a service people already use and like.  By humbling themselves and partnering with others, Microsoft has avoided this problem.

Cross Platform
I’ve saved my biggest point for last.  The Microsoft Band will work with both iOS and Android, in addition to Windows Phone.  This is hugely different from other smartwatches on the market.  There are certainly benefits to a company only allowing their watch on their platform.  Most important is the fact that doing so will give your users a more coherent experience.  However, for someone like Microsoft, whose smartphone platform isn’t as popular as others, making their watch cross platform is definitely a good move.  Microsoft was also smart enough to use the Microsoft Band as a hook for the rest of their platform.  In the same way that the Apple Watch has Siri, the Microsoft Band has Microsoft’s personal assistant, Cortana.  Cortana does about what you would expect it to do, but there’s a catch.  Cortana is only available if you have a Windows Phone.  This approach, “Sure, this product works with what you’ve got, but it works really well with our other products,” is a good one in my opinion.  Worst case, people keep pulling out their iPhones to use Siri.  Best case, the Microsoft Band becomes another reason for people to use Windows Phone.

All this discussion leaves one question: How much does this thing cost?  The answer?  $199.  This seems just a little steep to me; I was hoping it would be in the $100-$150 range like the Pebble.  However, compared to the $349 Apple Watch, it’s not bad.  I don’t see myself buying a Microsoft Band (since I already have a fitness tracker that I like), but I do think Microsoft could have a winner here.  Only time will tell, but until then, I’d like to hear your opinion.  Let your voice be heard in the comments below!  Thanks for reading!  ••

Why More People Don’t (But Should) Use Windows Phone

I don’t think it’s any secret on this blog that I like the iPhone.  However, picking a smartphone is a matter of personal preference.  Obviously, Android is also popular choice.  Blackberry, not so much anymore.  There is, however, one more smartphone platform that doesn’t get a lot of attention, Windows Phone.  I think the reason some people are put off by Windows Phone is the fact that it’s very similar to Windows 8.  Many people do not like Windows 8 on their computers.  To a large extent, I agree with them.  The reason for this is because Microsoft designed Windows 8 primarily for tablets, and it just doesn’t work as well on a PC.  Honestly, though, I like what I see from Windows tablets, and, by extension, Windows Phone.  I’ve never owned a Windows Phone, but from the little bit I’ve seen, it looks like a pretty impressive platform.  The user interface is unique, the OS seems responsive, and the phones themselves have good specs.  There’s just one thing left: apps.  Windows Phone has a definitive lack of apps.  It’s really a shame too, because right now, Windows Phone is stuck in a feedback loop.

Why don’t more people use Windows Phone?  Because there aren’t many apps for it.  Why don’t app developers take the time to make Windows Phone apps?  Because there aren’t many users.  Like I said, this is too bad, since I think the platform has a lot of potential.  Fortunately, Microsoft has one thing going for them: deep pockets.  If Windows Phone is going to catch on, it appears it’s going to catch on slowly.  If any company can afford to wait this one out, it’s Microsoft.  Microsoft has tons of money coming in from sales of Windows PCs (which people continue to buy, whether they like Windows 8 or not), Microsoft Office, and the Xbox.  If Microsoft can continue to support the Windows Phone long enough for people to adopt it, they just might have a hit here.

This is exactly what I hope will happen, maybe it will, maybe it won’t.  I’m curious as to what kinds of phone you guys use.  iPhone, Android, Windows Phone?  Something else?  Feel free to leave a comment and participate in the polls below.  Thanks for reading!  ••

Dropbox vs. Microsoft OneDrive

I’ve been a Dropbox user for 3 years now.  I think most people have heard of Dropbox; it’s the most well known cloud storage service available.  Up until a couple of months ago, Dropbox was the only cloud storage I used.  In July, however, I got a Microsoft Office365 subscription (I got a really good deal as a college student), and as part of that I get 1tb (not a typo) of space in Microsoft OneDrive (formerly SkyDrive).  At the time, I mostly used Dropbox for photos and documents, and I had worked my way up to almost 6gb of space.  Upon getting 1tb, my first thought was “I’ll never have to clear out my cloud storage ever again!”  Six weeks later, however, I’ve moved my photos back to Dropbox, leaving the documents in OneDrive.  As I found out, each service has its pros and cons.

Desktop Client
As the leader of the cloud storage industry, Dropbox really knows its stuff.  It has a certain “it just works” feel to it; a polish that’s come simply from being around for so long.  I used to think that this was a given, but after using the (slightly less polished) OneDrive, I’ve really come to appreciate it.  For instance, there are times when I need to get a file from my iPad to my computer.  Sitting in front of both devices, I watch the iPad until it says the upload is complete, then I look up at the computer, and the Dropbox client is already downloading the file.  I took speed like this for granted.  However, when doing the same thing using OneDrive, I look up from my iPad and… OneDrive isn’t doing anything.  I click the little icon, and OneDrive proudly tells me that it “Last updated 8 minutes ago.”  What has it been doing for the last 8 minutes?  OneDrive just sits there, waiting patiently for what is apparently a timed update cycle.  There’s no manual refresh button; the only thing you can do is reboot the client.  This is really frustrating.  The OneDrive client seems slower and less efficient in general, too.  Other than that, though, it is a serviceable client, and it works well enough.

iOS Apps
I can’t speak to Android apps here, but I did use both Dropbox and OneDrive on my iPad and iPod Touch.  Both apps have features to automatically upload photos, and the OneDrive app seems better at keeping up with this in the background.  However, the Dropbox upload algorithm has one or two clever touches.  For example, the most recent photos upload first.  This way, if you take a photo and want to share it via Dropbox, then find there’s 30 photos that didn’t upload yesterday, you don’t have to wait.  Videos upload last for the same reason.  The OneDrive app is also missing a way to save files for offline use (as someone who doesn’t have an iPhone, this is a feature I missed).  Again, though, both apps work well.  One other important point is that Office Mobile apps can connect directly to OneDrive.  Sure, there are plenty of productivity apps that link with Dropbox, but when you use a third-party productivity app alongside Word you usually get little formatting bugs in your document (not that I care too much about these, but if you’re doing something important for work or school, they’re not good).

Browser Client
I actually think I’m going to give this category to OneDrive.  The interfaces are very similar, but I like OneDrive’s better, especially for photos.  Also, OneDrive has Office Online integration, so clicking a Word document opens it up right there in a new tab for editing.  The one leg up Dropbox has is that newly uploaded files automatically appear, without you having to refresh the page.  On OneDrive, you’re going to have to reach for your browser’s refresh button.

Storage Space
Dropbox starts you off with 2gb of storage space.  This might have been a lot five or six years ago, but these days, it’s pretty small.  OneDrive starts with 15gb, so does Google Drive, and Box gives you 10gb.  As you can see, 2gb is really small.  Granted, there’s lot of things you can do to earn more space (use their photo uploader, refer friends, connect with Twitter and Facebook, etc.), but OneDrive offers many of these bonuses as well.  I’m really hoping that, sometime soon, Dropbox will increase their starting space to something more competitive.  Hopefully, this will also apply retroactively to old accounts.  I know that sounds unlikely, but when Dropbox upped their referral bonus from 250mb to 500mb, they applied the extra space to retroactive referrals as well.

Sharing
Both services allow you to send file links to other people (even if they don’t use the service), as well as created shared folders (with those who do use the service) for collaboration.  When you get a shared link from either service, you have an option to download the files as a .zip.  However, when you get a Dropbox link, you also have the option to “Add to My Dropbox.”  This is easy and quick, and can also be done from a smartphone.  Even if OneDrive were to add this feature, it would be less useful, because less people use OneDrive.

So what is each service good for?  Well, as I said, I decided to move my photos back to Dropbox, because it just works better (even though I wish I had more space).  I did decide to keep my documents in OneDrive though, mostly because of the aforementioned Office Mobile integration.  Finally, I’m going to continue to use Dropbox to share files.

So that’s my future plan, but what are your thoughts? How (and why) do you use different services? Feel free to leave a comment about your preferences. Thanks for reading!  ••

Update 11/6/14: Microsoft Word for iOS now has native Dropbox support!  This is fantastic, and it works really well.  Dropbox also announced that they will continue to work with Microsoft to incorporate Office Online into Dropbox.com.  That being said, I have now moved my documents back to Dropbox, and plan to keep them there.

July App Review: The New Skype for iPhone

App: Skype (v. 5.1)
Developer: Microsoft
Price: Free
Platform: iOS (iPhone only, iPad coming soon)

There’s been a Skype iPhone app for a long time now.  However, over the years, it hasn’t changed much.  Sure, it got a slight iOS 7 facelift, and a few new features here and there, but honestly there hasn’t been much going on for about two years now.  All that changed a few weeks ago.  Microsoft has completely redesigned their messenger app for the iPhone (a redesigned iPad version is coming soon).  Microsoft has acknowledged that there are lots of messenger apps out there, and that they want to be competitive.  Skype for iPhone has gotten a huge cosmetic redo, as well as some cool new features.

Let’s start with the look and feel.  Before, the Skype app didn’t really feel special.  It didn’t feel too dated, but it wasn’t super neat either.  All that has changed.  Microsoft has given it a modern makeover, and in my opinion they scored a home run.  The app has the flat look that seems to be trendy right now, but it doesn’t exactly look like iOS 7 either.  Instead, the bolder colors just scream Microsoft, and I mean that in only the best way.  Through Windows 8 (and other recent products), Microsoft has crafted a new look, and props to them for successfully branding their software.  There are also a lot of nice new animations in the app.  When you tap on a conversation, for example, the new screen slides in quickly, then sort of “bounces” off the edge, then finally stops in place.  It’s a cool feel, and you can tell someone at Microsoft put plenty of thought into little details like this.

But the new Skype isn’t all about looks either.  There are lots of other new features.  For as long as I’ve used Skype, it has supported both one-on-one and group messaging.  iMessage also supports group threads, but most of my friends hate them.  Why?  Once you’re in a group, you’re stuck.  Then, as other people have a conversation (which may or may not be relevant to you at all), you keep getting notifications for every single message.  Skype not only allows you to leave a group (this feature has been there for awhile), but now you can also turn off notifications for specific groups or even specific contacts.  (To be fair, iOS 8 will allow you to leave or mute group messaging, so Apple is fixing their problem.)  The other new feature of Skype that I was really excited about is offline photo sharing.  In older versions of Skype, whenever you sent a file, both you and your recipient had to be online in order for the transfer to complete.  With the new app, this isn’t the case anymore – as long as both people are using the app.  App to app photo transfers are seamless.  However, when you send a photo from the app to someone on a computer, they get a link.  When they click on the link, they can see the photo.  Technically, this is “offline sharing,” but it’s hardly seamless.  I was hoping that there wouldn’t be any difference on the receiving end.  Unfortunately, it seems this is only the tip of the iceberg.  Unbelievably, when someone on a computer sends a photo to the app, you can’t get the photo at all.  Instead you get a message saying that this version of Skype doesn’t support file transfers yet.  I’m sure this will get fixed, but meanwhile Microsoft could make a lot of people upset by removing a feature that they’ve had for two years.

Call quality on the new Skype is still pretty good (although Skype call quality can be hit or miss sometimes).  Overall, I like the direction Microsoft is going.  There are certainly some oversights, but if Microsoft is paying as much attention to its user base as it claims to be, hopefully these will get fixed soon.  As someone who uses Skype on the computer every day, it’s nice to have a fresh version for my mobile devices.  I just hope Microsoft is able to learn from this first version and make later ones even better.  ••

Update 10/12/14: Microsoft has updated both Skype for Windows desktop and Skype for Mac to include the new photo sharing features.  Oddly enough, Skype for Mac can both send and receive photos the new way, but Skype for Windows only receives them (still sending photos the old way).  Skype for iPad has not been updated yet.

That Rock and Hard Place Comfy, Microsoft?

Is Microsoft in trouble?  If you follow the tech world, I’m sure you have an opinion on this.  Long story short, not many people like Windows 8.  They don’t like the fact that Microsoft made huge changes to the Windows interface.  The problem is, Microsoft didn’t have a choice.  Don’t believe me?  Here’s the scoop.

The Rock…
Opponents of Windows 8 say that they liked Windows the way it was.  For the most part, this is true.  But it won’t stay that way forever.  The iPad is becoming more and more popular, and with it, touch interfaces in general.  However, when it comes to computers, people like their mice and keyboards, so why would Microsoft mess that up?

…and the Hard Place
Eventually, the way I see it, tablets will take over, and many people won’t care about traditional Windows at all anymore.  As the iPad gets more capable, Microsoft’s clock ticks closer to the end.  Microsoft had to change Windows to meet the new norm: touch.

This is the sad part.  I think Microsoft could have done better.  Microsoft had the opportunity to really blow us out of the water, truly bridging the gap between desktop and tablet, but they didn’t (or couldn’t?).  Instead, they gave us two interfaces, one new, one old, awkwardly bolted together.  (Public Service Announcement: Make Windows 8 work like Windows 7 for $5.  You’re welcome.)  What’s in store for Microsoft?  I don’t know.  What I do know is that if they want to stay around, or at least stay relevant, they’re going to have to pull together and ship something good, something that looks beautiful and really works.

Fortunately, Microsoft is good at supporting products for a long time, so as for me and my desktop, we will use Windows 7.  ••