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The biggest announcements from Microsoft Build 2020

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Microsoft’s annual developer conference has officially kicked off, the first yearly developer conference in the consumer tech world we’ve experienced online. The others are Google I/O and Apple’s WWDC. All three have obviously changed during the pandemic and watching what each company has chosen (or will choose) to do has been instructive.

Google straight up cancelled I/O entirely — perhaps playing it safer, as in the COVID timeline in the Bay Area Google had to make a call when things were looking particularly dire. There will be some sort of online unveiling for Android, at least. Apple’s is still “on” as an online-only event, and though you never know with Apple I suspect it will try to make a splash with new versions of iOS, iPadOS, and it might even remember to do something with macOS.

Faced with the same circumstances, Microsoft chose to do something remarkable with its developer conference: it put on a developer keynote.

Normally these keynotes try to strike a balance between appealing to consumers with new product news and to developers with new tools that will make their lives easier. Microsoft, which usually puts on the most technical conference, just went all in with developer-focused content.

The company’s presentation also savvily moved from house to house, treating its demonstrations more like a live meeting you were dialed into at work than a show you were just an audience member for.

It was less like a keynote and more like “hangin’ with the Micro…squad!” Do Microsoft’s presenters actually call themselves that? Of course not. Would I believe you if you told me they did based on the quality and quantity of adorably cringey dad-humor on display on Build’s video feed? Hell yes, and of course I loved it.

But Microsoft did make impactful news yesterday. I’m excited for some of the new stuff coming to the Microsoft Edge browser, mainly the new 3D view in the web inspector. As for the Pinterest integration, well, I like Pinterest, but I have doubts about the sidebar. Many have tried to make functional and persistent browser sidebars a thing.

As a former office temp put in charge of maintaining all sorts of random company information in an organized way, I am super glad to see this new Microsoft Lists app designed for Teams, SharePoint, and Outlook. It looks like it could be useful for all sorts of tasks that sit in between a spreadsheet and full-on database software.

The overarching thing that that struck me yesterday is that Microsoft has really started to figure out how to differentiate its strategy for building its platforms from its strategy for building products. Platforms are things like Windows, Azure, and increasingly Office or the Edge browser. Products are things like the Surface line, Xboxes, and Office apps.

Mixing up your strategy for making platforms and products leads you down the old Steve Ballmer path of just trying to make Windows the essential thing that matters when really Windows is just a path itself.

That sounds like a koan. Let me try again: unless you’re a total weirdo (and I’m nearly there so no judgement), you don’t get Windows for Windows. You get it for the things it enables you to do. That’s a platform. And this year at Build, Microsoft has made it abundantly clear it’s in the business of building platforms.

Microsoft to unify Windows desktop and UWP apps with new Project Reunion. It’s trying once again to lead developers out of the Windows app framework thicket with Project Reunion, which at a high level abstracts all the Win32 vs modern vs web problems away for developers. We’ll see how that one goes, but you gotta salute the effort.

Microsoft’s new PowerToys Run launcher for Windows 10 is now available to download. It’s building smart and useful new tools for Windows in PowerToys. Seriously the utilities in here are things I do on my machines all the time via third party tools.

Microsoft is bringing Linux GUI apps to Windows 10. It’s making Linux even better on Windows by make it possible to run Linux GUI apps without needing annoying workarounds. The company that once crusaded against open source has fully embraced it.

Microsoft’s new Fluid Office document is Google Docs on steroids. This is easily the biggest news of the show and Tom has the exclusive deep dive look at what it is and what it means.

What it is: an attempt to modularize everything you might put in an Office doc and make it available anywhere, in any app. It’s based on web technology and syncs in real time. And Microsoft is open-sourcing it in the hopes that other companies adopt its little snippets of spreadsheets and lists and docs and whatever else.

What it means: Tom’s got thoughts, read them. All I’ll add here is that Microsoft is trying to do a thing that many (including, ahem Bill Gates) have tried before in one way or another. When you’re about halfway through Tom’s feature, take a breather by watching this absolutely incredibly great and dated video from Apple on its OpenDoc standard, released on a CD ROM in 1995.

Not the same thing exactly, but not entirely different. One way of looking at Fluid is that Microsoft is trying to kill the file — or at least decouple them from apps. Instead of there being a Word file or an Excel file, there’s just the text or the spreadsheet, accessible in whatever app you want.

It’s a very nice dream, but it’s also one that’s dream-like in its logic, at least compared to how we’re used to thinking about files and text and spreadsheets. If you want to wrap your head around it, take a tour of the buzzy Notion app, which just made its note-taking function free. It’s like a little mini version of the grand vision Microsoft is touting with Fluid. And until you sort of let your mind laterally drift into its way of organizing things, it feels very strange and vexing to use.

I bring all this up not to say that I think Fluid will definitely fail, but that it’s hard. And also that it’s abstract in just the right way: that’s what platforms are, computing abstractions. The desktop, the home screen, app icons, task bars, and windows themselves are just a set of metaphors you use to think about how you do stuff on your computer, metaphors made real and useful through code and design. At a basic level, that’s what Fluid is too.

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Joe Rogan’s podcast is becoming a Spotify exclusive. This is massive, massive news. It’s a huge hit on Apple, yes, but also potentially bad news for the world of podcasting. Openness for the have-nots, deals and exclusivity for the haves.

Chrome is getting a ton of big safety and security updates soon. The next version of Chrome will be the biggest one in a long while.

OnePlus will temporarily disable ‘X-ray’ camera filter that sees through plastic and clothes

TikTok has a new CEO — now he has to deal with music labels, competing apps, and angry senators. Julia Alexander:

Mayer is a bulldog executive who excels under the pressure of stiff competition, and that should help the platform as the biggest social media companies start to come for TikTok’s audience. TikTok saw a 97 percent growth in users within the United States in 2019, going from 18.8 million to 37.2 million, according to eMarketer data shared with The Verge.

Walmart is shutting down Jet after spending $3 billion on it in 2016. Shot.

Facebook launches Shops to bring more businesses online during the pandemic. Chaser.

Sony’s upcoming ZV-1 looks like an RX100 customized just for vlogging

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Samsung’s Galaxy Note 20 Ultra may try to be the Xbox Phone

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Samsung’s Note 20 Ultra, which is expected to launch on August 5th at the next Samsung Unpacked event, may be highly optimized to stream Xbox games over xCloud, according to a new report from WinFuture.

While that might come as a surprise, Samsung and Microsoft have actually gotten pretty cozy over the past year. Last August, at the last Galaxy Note launch event, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella appeared onstage to recognize an increased partnership between the two companies, and the two companies announced that Samsung would preinstall Microsoft’s Your Phone app, Office apps, LinkedIn, and OneDrive on the Galaxy Note 10.

The two companies also announced they would be partnering on a cloud-based game streaming service in February. A Microsoft-made game streaming service would also fill a hole for Samsung, which shut down its own PC-to-phone game streaming service in March. More than 90 games will apparently be available to stream on the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra over xCloud, according to WinFuture.

WinFuture’s report also included details about Samsung’s new flagship Note. The phone is expected to have a 6.9-inch screen with a 3200 x 1440 resolution, and will apparently be capable of a variable refresh rate of up to 120Hz, similar to the Galaxy S20 Ultra. The phone may also be the first to have Corning’s Gorilla Glass 7.

The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is expected to have three cameras on a huge camera bump — which we’ve seen on previous leaks of the phone — and WinFuture mostly corroborates other rumors about those cameras. WinFuture says the phone will have a 108 megapixel main camera, a 12 megapixel ultrawide camera, and a 12 megapixel periscope lens (though leaker Ice Universe reported it would be 13 megapixels) that can magnify up to 50X. That zoom would a step down from the Samsung S20 Ultra’s hyped 100X zoom, but that turned out to be gimmicky in real-world use, so perhaps the reduced zoom will result in better photos. And the hole-punch front camera is 10 megapixels, reports WinFuture.

The S Pen stylus in the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra may only have a latency of nine milliseconds, according to WinFuture. And YouTuber Jimmy Is Promo revealed that the Note 20 Ultra could have a new “pointer” mode that will let you use an on-screen cursor by pointing the S Pen at the phone, as shown in a video posted earlier this month.

Rounding out the specs, WinFuture reports the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra will work on 5G networks, comes with either 256 or 512 GB of storage that can be expanded via microSD, and has 12GB of RAM, Wi-Fi 6, and a 4,500mAh battery.

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Mixer is getting a big Fortnite tournament series hosted by Ninja

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Microsoft’s Mixer streaming platform is making a bigger splash in the live event game with a new tournament series starting this week featuring Fortnite player Tyler “Ninja” Blevins. Called Ninja Battles Featuring Fortnite, the weekly tournament series will take place starting this week on May 28th and lasting every Thursday through July, reports Deadline.

The event will be hosted on Ninja’s Mixer channel, which is the platform’s most popular channel since the streamer left Twitch last August to join Microsoft’s competitor as part of a lucrative multiyear streaming deal. Ninja’s high-profile departure, orchestrated in part by his management team at the talent agency Loaded, inspired a wave of new contracts spanning the entire live-streaming ecosystem. In the months after Ninja left Twitch, several popular gaming entertainers followed him and signed new deals with other streaming platforms.

Just in the last few months alone, Twitch and YouTube have locked down popular creators like Imane “Pokimane” Anys and YouTube megastar Felix “Pewdiepie” Kjellberg to their respective platforms.

Ninja Battles Featuring Fortnite will feature $400,000 in prize money and bring together 60 Fortnite pros and other big names in the Twitch and broader live-streaming world, including Nicholas “Nick Eh 30” Amyoony, Fortnite World Cup champion Kyle “Bugha” Giersdorf, and Faze Clan streamers Nate Hill and Soleil “Ewok” Wheeler. Everyone will be streaming from the comfort of their home during the pandemic.

Ninja will of course be a centerpiece of the event, which is being co-produced by Ninja himself and his management team Loaded. He’ll participate in the competitions, while popular community members “BallaTW” and “MonsterDface” will commentate. Notably, Ninja was the first streamer to host a live and in-person Fortnite tournament in early 2018, just months after the game first came out and long before developer Epic Games formed an official esports circuit for the title.

“I joined Mixer to push boundaries, create different types of streaming content and interact with fans in new ways,” Ninja said in a statement. “Ninja Battles brings a new kind of gameplay to the community. I am excited to share this competitive experience with my fans as well as have my fellow gamers and friends participate.”

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Cortana now lets you schedule meetings by voice inside Outlook

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Microsoft is adding new abilities to Outlook’s “Play My Emails” feature, allowing you to use voice control to organize your emails and day-to-day schedule. The company originally released Play My Emails for Outlook last November, letting Microsoft’s AI assistant Cortana read emails out loud to users.

With the new features, Cortana will allow you to accept or decline meetings as well as set up a meeting with someone. If someone emails you regarding important or time-sensitive information, it will suggest setting a meeting during the next available 30-minute time slot on your calendar. Cortana will also give you an option to view your schedule and select a time to set up a meeting, and it’ll allow you to add emails to your task list.

Use Cortana to join a Microsoft Teams meeting, too.
Image: Microsoft

The new update will also include support for the recently released Microsoft Surface Earbuds, allowing owners to use Outlook voice commands and navigate their emails by swiping back and forth on the surface of the earbuds. Additionally, Cortana will soon allow you to quickly join a Microsoft Teams meeting if you’re behind on your schedule, so you can join the meeting within a minute before it’s slated to start or join once it’s in progress.

Microsoft is releasing this feature first on iOS devices, though Android support is slated to roll out “in the coming weeks,” according to the company.

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