Microsoft upgrades Outlook Mobile, but restricting personal email may be one of the changes

If you’ve been using Microsoft Outlook’s mobile apps to straddle both your company and personal email accounts, be aware: at Microsoft Ignite, Microsoft announced changes that will help lock down Outlook Mobile as an enterprise-first solution.

Though nominally designed as a corporate email client, Outlook’s simple interface and relatively lax attitude to the accounts it’s connected to has made Outlook a good choice as a personal email app. Microsoft’s improving it, adding features normally associated with desktop Outlook, like shared calendars and (finally!) business-card scanning. But there may be a cost: Admins are gaining the right to lock out personal accounts, and have greater controls over who may receive sensitive information via email.

If you use Outlook Mobile for iOS or Android, here’s what you need to know:

Corporate account restrictions: Microsoft is rolling out the ability to restrict what accounts you can add to the app. Depending upon how serious your company’s administrator is about such things, this may mean that your personal or Gmail account may be banned from Outlook Mobile. It’s not clear what will happen if you already have a personal account connected, or if you’ll be able to install a second Outlook Mobile app that you can configure to a personal account. (We’ve asked Microsoft, and we’ll update this post if we hear back.)

Microsoft outlook mobile no personal accounts


Admins now have the option of locking out personal email accounts from Outlook Mobile.

”Company confidential” labels, and more: What Microsoft calls Microsoft Information Protection means that you or a coworker will be able to “stamp” an email with labels such as “General” or “Company Confidential.” The latter will enforce restrictions on who you can send the email to, so that confidential information isn’t sent outside the company.

Admin-specified options: Can you sync contacts to a corporate server? Log in using a fingerprint reader or TouchID? Do you like Focused Inbox? If you work in a company, these options may become the decision of your admin, not you.

In addition to the restrictions above, though, Microsoft is adding some new features that you’ll probably appreciate.

Business card scanning via Office Lens: Microsoft’s always struggled with implementing basic scans of a business card, and importing them into the Outlook mobile app. (Companies like Samsung, meanwhile, have included that capability in some Galaxy phones, and Adobe Scan has too.) Microsoft’s finally figured it out: You’ll be able to snap a picture of the card, and Outlook Mobile users on Android (sorry, iPhone users) will be able to import it as an Outlook contact. This feature will arrive in the “coming months.”

”Favorite” notifications: Wouldn’t you like to be notified when your boss sends you an email, but not someone on the other side of the building whom you contact a few times a year? You’ll be able to set notifications to prioritize chosen “Favorites” in your pop-up notifications.

Calendar sharing: Many organizations include informal calendars that can include company events, which workers are out of the office, which conference rooms are booked, a team’s roadmap planning sessions, and more. Commercial customers of Office 365 will see this new feature today, Microsoft promised.

Microsoft outlook mobile shared calendars


Calendar sharing will arrive within Outlook Mobile.

Calendar search: Microsoft has promised this feature before. Search already covers contacts, files, deliveries, and reservations (like flights), and will add calendar events in the coming months.

Teams connections: Microsoft continues to push Teams, and online Teams meetings will become part of calendar events in 2019.

Worried that your personal email may be quashed by your company, and you’d like an alternative? Check our list of the best email apps for your phone.

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Voice assistants will probably let us down

Voice assistants will probably let us down

Since Amazon Echo shipped in late 2014, smart speakers and voice assistants have been advertised as the next big thing. Nearly four years later, despite the millions of devices sold, it’s clear that like many other visions of the tech industry, that perception was an overstatement. Testament to the fact: Most people aren’t using Alexa to make purchases, one of the main advertised use cases of Amazon’s AI-powered voice assistant.

Voice assistants have existed before the Echo. Apple released Siri in 2011 for iOS devices. But Echo was the first device where voice was the only user input medium. And the years have made the limits of voice more prominent.

The future of voice is the integration of artificial intelligence in plenty of narrow settings and tasks instead of a broad, general purpose AI assistant that can fulfill anything and everything you can think of.

The technology underlying voice assistants

sound waves.jpg

To better understand the extent of the capabilities of voice assistants, we need to understand the technology that underlies them. Like many cutting edge software, voice assistants are powered by narrow artificial intelligence, the kind of AI that is extremely efficient at performing specific tasks, but unable to make general, abstract decisions like the human mind.

To be more specific, voice assistants leverage two specific branches of AI: voice recognition and natural language processing (NLP). When a user utters a command to Alexa, the voice recognition part converts the sound waves into to written words. The NLP part then takes those words and processes the commands they contain.

Both voice recognition and NLP have existed for quite a while. But advances in machine learning, deep learning and neural networks in recent years have fundamentally changed the way voice recognition and NLP work.

For instance, when you provide a neural network with thousands and millions of voice samples and their corresponding words, it learns to create the underlying software that can turn voice commands into written text.

This is a major shift from the traditional way of creating software, where developers had to manually write the rules to parse sound waves, a process that is both very arduous and error-prone.

Likewise, NLP uses the same learn-by-example approach to parse the different nuances of human language and understand the underlying commands. This is the technology that powers many of today’s powerful applications such as chatbots and Google’s highly accurate translation engine.

The problem with integrating too many commands into smart speakers

SignpostImage credit: DepositPhotos

Voice recognition is a relatively narrow field. This means given enough samples, you can create a model that can recognize and transcribe voice commands under different circumstances and with different background noises and accents.

However, natural language processing is the challenging part of smart speakers, because it’s not a narrow field. Let’s say you have a voice assistant that can perform three or four specific commands. You provide its AI with enough samples of different ways that a user might utter those commands, and it develops a nearly flawless model that can understand and execute all the different ways those commands are sent.

This model works as long as the smart speaker can perform those three specific tasks and its users know that those are its only functions. But that is not how Amazon Echo and its counterparts, the Google Home and Apple HomePod work.

For instance, Amazon enables developers to create new skills for its Alexa-powered devices, and since its release, the Echo has created a vast skills market around itself with more than 30,000 skills.

The problem with adding too many skills to a voice assistant is that there’s no way for the user to memorize the list of voice commands it can and can’t give the AI assistant. As a result, when an AI assistant can perform too many tasks, users will expect it to be able to understand and do anything they tell it.

But no matter how many functions and capabilities you add to an AI assistant, you’ll only be scratching the surface of the list of tasks that a human brain can come up with. And voice assistants suffer from the known limits of deep learning algorithms, which means they can only work in the distinct domains they’ve been trained for. As soon as you give them a command they don’t know about, they’ll either fail or start acting in erratic ways.

An alternative is to create a general-purpose AI that can do anything the user tells it. But that is general AI, something that is at least decades away and beyond the capabilities of current blends of AI. With today’s technology, if you try to tackle a problem domain that is too broad, you’ll end up having to add humans to the loop to make up for the failures of your AI.

The visual limits of voice assistants

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The skills problem is something that you’re not faced with on desktop computers, laptops and smartphones. That’s because those devices have a display and a graphical user interface (GUI) which clearly defines the capabilities and boundaries of each application.

When you fire up a Windows or Mac computer, you can quickly see the list of applications that has been installed on them and get a general sense of the tasks you can perform with them.

On a smart speaker, you can use a computer of mobile device to see the list of skills that have been installed on the speaker. But that means you have to go out of your way and use a second device that can probably already perform the task you wanted to accomplish with your smart speaker in the first place.

An alternative would be to add a display to your smart speaker, as the Echo Show and the Echo Spot have done. But when you put a display on your smart speaker, you will probably add touch screen features to it too. The next thing you know, the main user interface becomes the display and touch screen, and the voice function becomes an optional, secondary feature. That’s exactly how Siri is on iOS and MacOS devices.

Another problem with voice is that it’s not suitable for complex, multistep tasks. Take the shopping example we mentioned at the beginning of the article. When shopping, users want to be able to browse among different choices and weigh different options against each other. That is something that is hard to do when you don’t have a display.

So, in the case of shopping, a smart speaker or a voice assistant might be suitable for buying the usual household items such as detergent and toilet paper, but not clothes or electronic devices, where there is a lot of variety and difference.

Other tasks such as making reservations, which would require going back and forth between different screens or menu items when performed on a screen-based device would be equally challenging when ported to a voice assistant.

For most users of smart speakers, playing music, setting timers and calendar schedules, turning on the lights and other simple tasks constitute the majority of their interactions.

The future of AI and voice assistants

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All this said, I don’t see voice assistants going away any time soon. But they will find their real use in environments where users want to perform simple tasks. Instead of seeing single devices that can perform many voice commands, we will probably see the emergence of many devices that can each perform a limited number of voice commands.

This will become increasingly possible as the cost of hardware drops and the edge AI processor market develops.

Take the smart home, for instance. According to many experts, soon, computation and connectivity will become an inherent and inseparable characteristic of most home appliances. It’s easy to imagine things like light bulbs, ovens and thermostats being able to process voice commands either through a connection to the cloud or with local hardware.

Unlike a smart speaker sitting in your living room, there are very few commands you can give to a light bulb or an oven, which means there’s little chance that users might become confused about their options or start giving commands that the voice AI doesn’t understand.

I expect voice-based AI to be successful in hotels, where clients want to perform a limited range of functions. I can also imagine users being able to plug their AI assistant, such as Alexa or Cortana, into their hotel room, which will be able to better parse their voice commands and have a digital profile of their lighting and air conditioning preferences, which it can apply autonomously.

Cars are also another suitable environment for voice assistants. Again, the functions a user performs inside a car are limited (open trunk, lock doors, play music, turn on the windshield wipers, set navigation course…), and it’s a setting where many users would enjoy the handsfree experience of a voice assistant and prefer it to the manual performance of tasks.

But the true potential of AI and voice assistants can manifest itself in AR headsets. In augmented reality settings, users must accomplish different complex tasks while also interacting with the physical world, which means they won’t be able to use input devices such as keyboards and mice.

With the help of other technologies such as eye tracking and brain-computer interfaces (BCI), AI assistants will enable users to interact with their virtual and physical environments in a frictionless way.

Voice recognition and voice assistants are very promising branches of AI. But their potential might be a little different from our expectations.

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Microsoft launches Azure-based Windows Virtual Desktop for running Windows in the cloud

Microsoft glass building logo

Microsoft has announced Windows Virtual Desktop, a way to run virtualized instances of Windows and Office in the cloud.

Running on Azure, Windows Virtual Desktop offers multi-user supports and enables several people to remotely log into the same Windows 10 virtual machine. Microsoft says that the service is also optimized for Office 365 ProPlus and notes that it includes free Windows 7 Extended Security Updates.

While there are numerous services that provide access to virtual machines in the cloud, Windows Virtual Desktop is the only one that supports multiple users. It also offers Windows Store compatibility and the inclusion of Extended Security Updates for Windows 7 means that companies still to transition to Windows 10 will be able to use legacy apps.

Microsoft claims that deployment of Windows and Office on Azure can take just minutes, and touts the security and compliance support as major plus points for a range of businesses.

In a post on the Microsoft 365 blog, Microsoft points out a number of benefits including:

  • The most scalable service to deploy and manage Windows virtual machines, using Azure for compute, storage, rich diagnostics, advanced networking, connection brokering, and gateway. You no longer need to host, install, configure, and manage these components yourself — so you can deploy and scale in minutes.
  • The most flexible service allowing you to virtualize both desktops and apps, meaning you can choose between providing your users the entire desktop experience or delivering only specific apps. When you deliver virtual apps to a Windows 10 endpoint, they are integrated seamlessly into the user experience.
  • Deeply integrated with the security and management of Microsoft 365. The Microsoft 365 conditional access, data loss prevention, and integrated management are natively built in — providing the most secure and simplest solution for protecting and managing all your apps and data.

The Windows Virtual Desktop platform has been designed so that it can be extended through the Azure marketplace with partners including Citrix, CloudJumper, FSLogix, Lakeside Software, Liquidware, People Tech Group and ThinPrint.

The company adds:

We’re excited to offer this service to Windows 10 Enterprise and Windows 10 Education customers. Once you sign up for Windows Virtual Desktop, you only need to set up or use an existing Azure subscription to quickly deploy and manage your virtual desktops and apps. The only additional cost to you is for the storage and compute consumption from the virtual machines themselves, which will live in your Azure subscription. You will be able to take advantage of any of your existing Azure compute commitments, including Azure Virtual Machine Reserved Instances (RI).

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Microsoft launches Office 2019 for Windows and Mac, promises it won’t be the last

Among the many improvements is a Morph and Zoom effect in PowerPoint that enables users to create “cinematic presentations,” plus new data analysis tools in Excel, new formulas in PowerPivot, and improved inking features like pencil case, pressure sensitivity, and tilt effects. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, of course — Word 2019 and Outlook 2019 boast Focus Mode, which blocks out distractions, and Focused Inbox, which automatically highlights important emails. And the list goes on.

Microsoft Office 2019

Above: PowerPoint 2019

Image Credit: Microsoft

On the IT side of the equation, Office 2019 sees updates to usability, voice, and security, and taps Microsoft’s Click-to-Run (C2R) deployment solution for monthly security updates, app installs, and reduced network consumption through Windows 10’s download optimization tech. Also in tow is support for in-place upgrades for customers upgrading from older Office products

“Office 2019 is a valuable update for customers who aren’t yet ready for the cloud,” Spataro wrote in a blog post. “While the cloud offers real benefits in productivity, security, and total cost of ownership, we recognize that each customer is at a different point in their adoption of cloud services. We see the on-premises version of Office as an important part of our commitment to give customers the flexibility they need to move to the cloud at their own pace.”

If an upgrade isn’t in your organization’s cards at the moment, don’t fret — Microsoft recently extended support for Office 2016 and Office 365 backend services to October 2023, with an optional two additional years of paid support. Office 365 ProPlus on Windows 8.1 and older operating systems, meanwhile, will be supported through January 2023.


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How to back up your desktop, documents, and pictures with Microsoft OneDrive

In Microsoft OneDrive, you can back up and protect three important folders from their default locations. Learn how by following this step-by-step guide.


Image: juststock, Getty Images/iStockphoto

Microsoft OneDrive is an effective way to back up, sync, and share specific folders and files, but the service has been hampered by one limitation: Any folders or files you want to back up and sync must be moved to and stored in the OneDrive folder under your Windows profile. As such, certain unmovable folders couldn’t be included in your OneDrive backup. Well, that restriction has been removed for three important folders.

With the new folder protection feature in OneDrive, you can back up your desktop, documents, and pictures folders from their default locations. These folders are not only backed up to your online OneDrive space but are also synced, so you can access them from any OneDrive-enabled computer. Folder protection is available for OneDrive personal and business accounts. Let’s look at how to set up and use OneDrive’s new folder protection.

The folder protection is still in the process of rolling out, so you may not have it just yet. When the feature reaches your computer, a prompt should pop up to ask you to set up folder protection—you can click that prompt to get started. If you miss it, no problem. Right-click the OneDrive icon in the Windows system tray and select Settings. Click the Auto Save tab. Click the Update Folders button. If you don’t see this button, then you aren’t yet eligible for folder protection and will have to wait until the feature rolls out to your account (Figure A).

Figure A


By default, Desktop, Pictures, and Documents will be included in the backup—deselect any of the three folders that you want to exclude. Click the Start Protection button (Figure B).

Figure B


OneDrive sets up the folder protection. A window appears to tell you that OneDrive is starting to protect your files. You can now close the OneDrive window while the folders are backed up, or you can click the View Sync Progress Button to watch the folders and files as they’re backed up (Figure C).

Figure C


If you chose to view the sync progress, the OneDrive window displays the name of each file being backed up and synced (Figure D).

Figure D


After the backup has completed, sign into another computer or mobile device on which OneDrive is active. You’ll now see the folders that you included in the folder protection (Figure E).

Figure E


If you ever wish to turn off folder protection for any or all folders, return to the Auto Save tab for OneDrive settings and click the Update Folders button. If you turn off folder protection, any files in that folder stay in OneDrive. You can move the local files to a different folder, but any new files you add won’t be protected by OneDrive. Click the link to Stop Protection on the folder you wish to remove from the backup. Click the button to Stop Protection (Figure F).

Figure F


Restrictions to folder protection in OneDrive

Folder protection is a handy and effective option for OneDrive, but there are restrictions. You can’t back up certain files, such as Microsoft Outlook PSTs and Microsoft OneNote files that aren’t already being stored in OneDrive. You can’t use a personal OneDrive account to protect files on PCs connected to a domain. The entire path name of a file that you want to back up this way must have fewer than 520 characters in Windows 10 and fewer than 260 characters in Windows 7. You can’t sync files larger than 20 GB. The folders themselves must be in their default locations.

If you have any questions or bump into any problems, Microsoft’s support page on folder protection is an excellent resource.

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Scam alert: Fake Microsoft rep hijacks woman’s computer, charges $3K to ‘fix’ it


A 66-year-old West Chester Township, Ohio, woman is out about $3,300 after someone claiming to be a Microsoft representative allegedly took over her computer, caused a problem and charged her to fix it.

Township spokeswoman Barb Wilson explained how the scam worked.

“It appears as if the victim bought something off the internet which was not a legitimate Microsoft product,” Wilson said. “From this transaction, the individual gained her contact information and access to her computer. The ‘rep’ said the computer issue could be fixed with payment made with Google gift cards, which she provided.”

The incident is still under investigation.

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Tim Cook says the new iPhones are so expensive because they replace most other gadgets you’d need

  • Apple’s newest line of iPhones — the iPhone XR, XS and XS Max — cost as much as $1,449 for the most expensive model.
  • Apple introduced a more affordable iPhone X model, the XR, starting at $749.
  • Tim Cook told ABC’s “Good Morning America” that “it’s the most advanced iPhone we’ve ever done.”

Sara Salinas | @saracsalinas

Published 9:41 AM ET Tue, 18 Sept 2018 Updated 1:08 PM ET Tue, 18 Sept 2018

Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, speaks on stage for the start of an Apple Inc product launch event at the Steve Jobs Theater in Cupertino, California, September 12, 2018. 

Stephen Lam | Reuters

Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, speaks on stage for the start of an Apple Inc product launch event at the Steve Jobs Theater in Cupertino, California, September 12, 2018.

Apple CEO Tim Cook defended the highest-priced new iPhones, telling ABC’s “Good Morning America” that “it’s the most advanced iPhone we’ve ever done” and replaces every other gadget consumers might need.

“The phone has replaced your digital camera. You don’t have a separate one anymore. It’s replaced your video camera. It’s replaced your music player. It’s replaced all of these different devices,” Cook said. “And so arguably the product is really important. And we’ve found that people want to have the most innovative product available and with that, it’s not cheap to do.”

Should you upgrade your iPhone? Tech columnists debate

Apple’s newest line of iPhones — the iPhone XR, XS and XS Max — cost as much as $1,449 for the most expensive model. That’s more than some Mac computers.

“The way most people pay for these, as it turns out, is they do a deal with a carrier and they pay so much per month. So if you look at even the phone that’s priced over $1,000, most people pay about $30 a month for it. So it’s about $1 a day,” Cook said.

Apple introduced a more affordable iPhone X model, the XR, starting at $749. It also dropped the starting price of the iPhone 7 to $449, and of the iPhone 8 to $599.

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