Monthly Archives: June 2012

Microsoft announces Internet Explorer for Xbox 360, makes bid for living room

At the E3 conference in Las Vegas Microsoft has made a series of announcements focused on its Xbox 360 games console, but also relating to Windows Phone, Windows 8, and even Apple iOS and Google Android.

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Xbox SmartGlass is a free app for Windows Phone, Windows 8, iOS and Android which links communicates with the Xbox. Examples include:

  • Watching a movie on a tablet while travelling, getting half way through, and automatically resuming on the Xbox at home.
  • Seeing related content on your tablet such as team members, maps, game inventory, and so on, while the TV or game action takes place on the main Xbox screen.
  • Using the tablet to navigate web pages that are also displayed in Internet Explorer on the Xbox, tapping links and using pinch and zoom.

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Yes, IE is now promised for the Xbox “this fall”, and there will be a new web hub. No word yet about Adobe Flash, but with a strong focus on multimedia in this context, it would certainly make sense to include it, as Microsoft has done for Metro-style IE in Windows 8. In fact, the browser shown at E3 on Xbox looked reminiscent of the Windows 8 Metro version.

Other major consoles also have web browsers, so what is special about Microsoft’s late inclusion of the same feature? The company says that web browsers on other consoles are little used because they are hard to navigate, and is counting on a combination of Kinect voice control and SmartGlass to make it work better on Xbox.

Another problem though is that most web sites are simply not designed for viewing from twelve feet back. A second awkward question: if you have your tablet out, why not just use the tablet’s own web browser?

It makes little sense for general web browsing, but can work for playing videos or viewing images, which I guess is the main idea here.

Microsoft has also announced Xbox Music, which sounds like a replacement for Zune and its subscriptions. You will be able to download and/or subscribe to 30 million tracks, and the service will work seamlessly, according to Microsoft, on Windows Phone, Xbox and Windows 8.

Watching the E3 press event was an odd experience. Xbox games are still dominated by macho fighting titles like Halo, Splinter Cell, and Black Ops, all of which were demonstrated complete with bone-crunching violence, death and mayhem. At the same time, Microsoft is trying to make the console the entertainment hub for the whole family, and for movies and sport as much as for games, so we also got Dance Central 3, and exercising with Nike plus Kinect.

One thing not mentioned was Xbox vNext. The 360 was released in November 2005, an eternity ago in technology terms. The hardware has held up well, but even so, if Apple pulls out something TV-related soon (perhaps even at its WWDC event next week) then it will have the advantage of being able to release something based on up to date hardware.

Getting started with Windows 8: Four things new users need to know

Today I upgraded a laptop from Windows 7 to Windows 8 Release Preview and watched the owner’s first steps with the new operating system – a bit like the Chris (or Joe) Pirillo experiment, except this was an in-place upgrade so a somewhat familiar environment.

Nevertheless, the user struggled to get going. Microsoft could (and I hope will) make this easier by spelling out the use of four simple features which are needed in order to navigate and control Windows 8 successfully.

Note: this is for users with keyboard and mouse. If you have a touch screen or even a new laptop with a trackpad designed for Windows 8, it is easier.

1. How to open the Start menu. There are several ways:

a) Move the mouse down to the bottom left corner or just beyond. A Start button appears.

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b) Move the mouse down to the bottom right corner or just beyond (tablet users swipe from the right edge). The Charms bar appears and you can click Start.

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c) Press the Windows key, or Ctrl-Esc if you do not have one. Seems obvious; but my victim did not think to do so. It appears that the Windows key is not that popular with users.

2. How do you close or exit a Metro-style app? Easy – see above – bring up the Start menu. This is not obvious though. My user instinctively pressed Esc, which did not work.

3. How do you control a Metro-style app? There are two key things to learn:

a) Right-click the mouse (swipe up on a tablet) to summon app menus and controls. For example, in the Music app this gets you play controls.

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b) Mouse to bottom right corner or just beyond and click Settings. In Windows 8 the Settings on the Charms bar are dynamic. App settings appear here. For example, in the Music app you can get at your account settings and other preferences, or even change the volume.

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4) How do you switch between apps? Answer: Alt-tab is your friend. This is the most reliable way to see all running desktop and Metro-style apps and switch between them.

Another thing to try is to move the mouse to the top left corner or just beyond until a thumbnail appears, then drag down. Touch users swipe from the left and immediately back out. This shows thumbnails of running Metro-style apps, plus one for the desktop. Right-click a thumbnail for options including Close.

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There are a couple of problems with this feature. First, the gesture or mouse movement is not obvious. Second, it does not show all running apps, since the desktop shows as a single thumbnail.

The big question: how will Microsoft get users past the initial hump of not finding the Start menu or other essentials? I have seen even highly technical users slip up. for example someone who thought Metro-style Mail was broken because it opened as a mainly blank screen with the word Mail and no obvious way to get it working. The solution is Charms and then Settings, but this kind of problem is frustrating.

A human guide is ideal, but failing that what can Microsoft do? Users often ignore introductory tutorials, so I would suggest on-screen help like pointing arrows for those critical first minutes.

The deeper question: are these problems a sign of something wrong in the Windows 8 design, or is it to be expected when radical changes are made to a familiar system? My instinct is that Microsoft could have done more to make it discoverable, but I do not see it as a showstopper. Users will learn.