Before The Event, if you were an IT professional in the Microsoft ecosystem for any amount of time, you may have marked your calendar by conferences you were going to attend – PDC, WPC, maybe TechEd? The big ones always happened in the US, but some were followed up with regional replays.
All were replaced in time with rebranded but otherwise similarly targeted variants:
2020 saw a fast move to hosting everything digitally and for the most part got away with it. 2021 was always going to be different, and the first big do of the year took place this past week – a spring Ignite. When you don’t need to book a conference centre 12 months in advance and get thousands of people to fly in to attend, why not do some of the big events more often or a different time of year?
For a summary of what was being announced at Ignite 2021, check out the excellent Ignite Book of News.
Charles Lamanna’s keynote on Power Platform highlighted some news around Power Automate – one of the key components of the Power Platform and formerly known as Microsoft Flow, Power Automate began as an online service that could make workflows to stitch together actions that happened across multiple online applications –a new booking alert email to a hotel mailbox could add an appointment to a Google Calendar and send a notification to someone on Microsoft Teams, and so on.
This tool brings automation concepts right down to the desktop, allowing any end user to create flows that span multiple apps and services; it’s not unlike an advanced Macro Recorder, where the user can perform a task that is regularly repeated, and the software will keep track of the steps they’re making.
With PAD, however, it’s more than just repetition – they can go back and inject data into those steps, like take the email addresses from column B of this spreadsheet and send a specific email to each one, with logic determining what should be different for each message (so a lot more granular than a simple mail merge).
As well as some pretty advanced integration into all kinds of apps on Windows and services on the web, there are lots of tools to guide the flow of logic; while it might seem a bit scary to some, anyone who’s ever done some basic programming will be able to quickly figure out how to describe the logic without needing to break out a line of code.
The impact of RPA is explored when looking at how this technology could remove boring, repetitive tasks thus freeing up clever and creative people to do something better with their time and attention. On one hand, automating processes could be a threat as we’ll need fewer people to do the same things, but a more optimistic view is that it will increase productivity and satisfaction. If you have 17 minutes free, then check out a great TEDx talk on “White Collar Robots”.
One of the problems with free software and particularly free services, is that at some point, they might stop being free. The path of freely-provided online services is littered with companies who gave their service away to get the users, then grappled with the reality that more users means more costs to deliver the service – and if they don’t get enough income from whatever sources they can, the free ride will come to an end. Just look at Photobucket. And every web site that makes you whitelist them in your ad-blocker before you can continue.
The latest in a line of what-used-to-be-free but is now tightening its belt is LastPass, an excellent password manager that has a lot of users but may end up with a good few fewer. The day after the Ides of March, LastPass Free will only allow use on a single device type, so if you currently use it to sync passwords across desktops and tablets or mobiles, then you need to start paying (and maybe you should) or stick to either mobile or desktop.
As soon as the company announced its plans, the web sprung up many articles offering “what is the best alternative to…” type advice. Only a few weeks ago, ToW#561 espoused the virtues of cleaning up your passwords, featuring LastPass and also trailing some features that were coming to an alternative that you might already be using to provide 2 factor authentication on your phone – Microsoft Authenticator.
It’s fairly easy to switch to using Authenticator on your device to also sync passwords and to provide the Auto-Fill function which plugs in usernames/passwords not only to sites on your mobile browser but to other apps too. If you already have a load of passwords set up in LastPass or other locations, there are methods to export them and then import the data into Authenticator.
In the case of LastPass, you sign into the Vault (either through the browser plugin or directly on their website) and under Advanced Options, select the Export function. It will immediately drop a lastpass_export.csv file into your Downloads folder; be very careful with this file as it contains all your usernames & passwords in clear text.
You can get these passwords into Authenticator either by copying the file to your phone (Not a Good Idea) and importing from there, or by installing the Microsoft Autofill extension for Chrome into Edge (remember, Edge is a Chromium browser under the hood), then click on Settings and choose the Import data feature.
Now navigate to your Downloads folder and choose the lastpass_export file. It might take a little while to complete, but when it’s done, make sure you go back to the Downloads folder and hard-delete that CSV file (ie select the file, hold the SHIFT key down and press the Delete key – this makes sure it doesn’t go to the recycle bin). You definitely don’t want that file being left behind, or copied or synced anywhere that is not encrypted.
The LastPass browser extension (like other password managers) remains potentially useful on the desktop as it can help to sync passwords between profiles (eg the Work and Personal profile of Edge, if both have the extension installed and logged in using the same LastPass account), or even between browsers – in the cases you might want to use Chrome for some things and Edge for others.
Edge on the PC does have password sync capabilities, though not quite with the same level of flexibility –
Edge will let you sync passwords, favourites etc if you’re using a Microsoft Account (eg outlook.com) for your Personal profile, and it may do if you have a Microsoft 365 account for your Work Profile.
In a twist of fate, if you pay for a Microsoft 365 Family or a small business environment rather than using the free Microsoft Account, your subscription lacks the Azure Information Protection feature that is required to allow syncing. In which case, a 3rd party password sync feature may be your best option, even if you choose to use Authenticator on your mobile device, and perhaps do a periodic export/import from LastPass to keep your mobile passwords in sync.
Nearly 60 years ago, JFK announced the intention to go to the moon, and the huge effort – at one point employing over 400,000 people – had to invent a load of technology to make it happen. The guidance computer on the Eagle module, for example, was the first digital portable computer, without which it would have been impossible for the landing to take place. Then there’s the old myth about how the Americans spent millions inventing a zero-gravity pen, whereas the Russians used a pencil…
The “space race” continued for some years afterwards (the US had Skylab in the 1970s and built the Shuttle, while the USSR built Mir, the first proper space station), before numerous countries decided to pool resources and build the International Space Station.
After unveiling Azure Space in late 2020, the 20th February 2021 – 35 years to the day after the first Mir mission – saw the launch of the ultimate in Edge devices, ensuring Azure reaches the ISS with HPE’s Spaceborne Computer-2. That will be furthest Cloud-Edge computing node until we finally become an interplanetary species, and once again leave the confines of low-Earth orbit.
Edge back on Earth
If you want to make the most of the space on your screen, you should try moving your Windows taskbar to the side rather than the bottom of the screen – follow the science – as it makes more efficient use of the screen real estate, especially if you have a big widescreen monitor. Open Taskbar settings here and choose Taskbar location.
If you’re a vertical taskbar fan, then you’ll like a new feature in the Edge browser, also designed to maximise the use of space – vertical tabs.
By enabling the vertical tabs feature, a single click will show them to the side of the browser window. Click the < caret to the top right of the tab list and they’ll collapse to icons only until you mouse over again, and the full width will be shown.
If you’re using the beta or dev version of Edge, you’ll be able to show the Vertical Tabs button in the Appearance section of the settings:
To enable vertical tabs on the current public release, enter edge://flags/#edge-vertical-tabs into the address bar of the browser and switch on the “experimental” feature; you’ll have to restart the browser for it to take effect, but after that point you’re free to try switching the arrangement.
The Power Platform – an umbrella term that encompasses a load of technology most often associated with business applications like Microsoft Dynamics – has some capabilities that are being increasingly surfaced to more end users, and which could see new ways of interacting with data and functionality that have traditionally been siloed in monolithic back-end applications.
The artist formerly known as Common Data Service was given a jazzy new name at Inspire 2020, before a sudden realisation that somebody else already owned that trademark, whereupon it was swiftly rebranded Dataverse. In essence, this makes it easy to provide access to a centralised, well-managed, secure data store for pretty much any kind of data, accessible to pretty much any type of app.
If you used Power Apps and Dataverse to build line-of-business applications, accessible via browser or mobile clients, there are licensing requirements you’d need to fulfil – but if you want to make a more simplified application that uses Teams as its front-end, then you could use Dataverse for Teams (briefly known as Project Oakdale, using Power Apps under the covers). Licensing for Dataverse for Teams is included in many Microsoft 365 subscriptions – for more details on licensing and what some of the limitations of its use are compared to a full-blown Dataverse environment, see here.
As discussed in last week’s ToW, there is already a Viva Insights Teams app available and there will be more coming soon – in fact, there’s a dogfood Viva Connections app already, which shows the MSW homepage within Teams, under the app name “Microsoft”. If you’re in the “Microsoft” app and click again on its logo, a shortcut menu of supposedly commonly-accessed information services appears.
Thankfully, when you need to perform your weekly check on which policies have been updated – or which ones you may have breached this time – they’re only a couple of clicks away.
It’s also possible to pin your favourite apps to the Teams sidebar, either by opening from the Apps function and then right-click the icon when it shows underneath the others on your side bar, or by simply dragging the icon to be higher on the bar – the assumption being that if you want to move that icon up the list, you’re probably looking to Pin it for the future.
The Bulletin and Milestones apps are available now.
Just over a year ago, the new release of the Edge browser with the Chromium engine was released, and lots of functionality has been shipped since. Much effort has been to differentiate the Edge browser from others, because it integrates better with Microsoft services and other offerings. From synching settings, history, favourites, extensions… to adding protections around passwords and having a great multi-profile experience… it’s been getting better all the time. But 88 updates? That’s crazy!
(it doesn’t necessarily have 88 updates – that was just a ploy to get in the Crazy 88 link above)
The latest version of Edge shipped to mainstream users recently; release 88 is named after the core engine version, so Google shipped Chrome 88 at the same time. Some of the “what’s new” in Chrome will be consistent with Edge, since the rendering engine is the same – like the deprecation of a couple of features; Chrome & Edge no longer have FTP support natively, and they finally killed Flash.
Back to Edge 88 – go to the … menu, then settings | about to find which version you have – there are a bunch of cool things to try out or investigate:
Themes – there are some really nice pre-built themes packaging background images and colour schemes; see them here. You can apply a theme to a specific user profile, which might help you differentiate them from each other – so a Forza or Halo theme applied to your personal profile would change the colour scheme for that one, making it easier to spot which profile you’re using. You can also add themes from the Chrome web store.
Sleeping Tabs – helping to reduce system resource demands, Edge can now make tabs go to sleep if they haven’t been used for a while. You need to switch it on (the plan being that it will be a default in a later version) by going to edge://flags and search for sleep.
If you regularly use websites that fire notifications – like mail, or news readers – then be aware that they will not show when the tab is asleep. Work is underway to report back which sites should not be put to sleep, so Edge will be able to know when it’s a help and when it would be a nuisance.
Passwords – as discussed previously when it was in dev mode, the password monitoring and strong password suggestion features are now generally available. Edge can look for common username/password combinations that are in your cached credentials, but which are known to have been leaked.
If you get a report of such a leak, you should change all of the passwords on affected sites as soon as possible. Looking under Edge Settings / Profile / Passwords, you should see the options to enable both Password Monitor and suggestion. For more info on how the Password Monitor works, check out this MS Research note.
PWAs and Profiles – Progressive Web Apps are increasingly being seen as the way to take a site and treat it like an app; it can show up in Start menu, can be pinned to task bar, will run with a specific icon and name, and won’t have all the UI of a browser, so it looks just like a native app.
To install a PWA on Edge, just go to the … menu on the top right when you’re browsing to a site, and you should see Apps > Install … as an option. You get to give the “app” a name, and it will then look and feel much like a native application.
If you install the PWA in more than one Edge browser profile, there’s a new function that means when you start the app – from the Start menu etc – then you can switch between which profile it should run in (scoping identity, passwords etc within).
One of the features in Office apps that has come to the fore in recent years is the concept of @mentions – something that started in the early days of Twitter. The use of the @ before someone’s name lets you quickly tag them to a piece of content, and in some cases gives them a proactive notification that you’re trying to reach them.
Exactly how the notification occurs differs slightly depending on the medium – in Yammer, for example, starting to type someone’s name after an @ sign will give you a picker to choose which person you might want to tag; pressing TAB will accept the name at the top of the list, and cc: that person to the specific post you’re making, so they’ll be notified in Yammer and possibly by email too. If you know someone’s alias then you can quickly type @aliasTAB to tag and accept them. You can also use mentions in comments within Office documents.
The same behaviour is commonly available in Teams as well, though it may be more limited as to who you can mention – in the chat for a meeting or in a Teams channel, you’ll typically only be able to @mention the people who are taking part or who are already members of the team. Like other uses of the @mention idiom, tagging someone will insert their full Display Name, as defined in the Microsoft 365 environment (or the address book if you like) – which can make mentioning people in a chat feel a little directorial or formal, especially if the format of their display name is something like FamilyName, GivenName (DEPARTMENT).
In most uses of the mention, you can edit the full name of the person, though it’s not quite consistent how to do it – in Teams, for example, merely pressing backspace (after the display name has been resolved) will remove the last word … so if you want to tag a colleague and their display name is Jane Doh, then a quick tap will reduce that to simply Jane. If they were Doh, Jane (IT) then it’s a little more complex to lose the formality – holding CTRL+SHIFT while pressing the left arrow will select a word at a time, so you could ditch the last part of the name then simply CTRL+Left arrow would skip the middle part, then CTRL+SHIFT+Left arrow/Delete will remove the first part again.
Lesser platforms might allow a user to set a nickname that is used in place of their display name; that’s not (yet) an option in Teams etc, though in Outlook when you mention someone, you could insert a nickname in-between other names then remove the original ones, leaving only the short name you’ve added, but still hot-linked to their contact card etc. It’s a bit clumsy but might be preferable to calling them by their more formal name.
You can’t sort by that special field, but you can filter the inbox to only show you the mails where you are being called out. Handy when people have a habit of assigning you tasks in an email, assuming that you’ll read it…
Just click the sort/filter option found to the top right of your Inbox or other folder, and choose Mentioned Mail to show only messages where you are mentioned.
For a long time, storage was relatively expensive so it was a good idea to spend time and money reducing the amount you would needed to use. In 1990, PC hard disks would cost about $0.20 per megabyte, and capacity would be in the 2-3 figure MB range. So, compression software could be used to delay the day you’d need to buy a bigger disk, even if there was a slight impact on performance (through decompressing and re-compressing data while reading from and writing to the disk).
As storage got cheaper, the tendency to just keep old data gained prevalence, though some systems imposed limits due to the relative complexity and expense of managing their data, providing resiliency and backup services.
Corporate email quotas were measured in Megabytes, and tools like the Outlook Thread Compressor helped people reduce the amount of space their mail took up. In time, people used it to simply reduce the number of messages they needed to read, rather than worrying about the space they’d save – and it inspired the Clean Up Folder function in Outlook today.
When Google launched Gmail in 2004 with a staggering mailbox limit of 1GB – 500 times that which was offered by Hotmail – the rules on what was expected for email quotas were re-written, with an expectation that you would never need to delete anything, and could use search to find content within.
Leaving aside corporate policy on data retention, keeping piles of stuff indefinitely causes its own set of problems. How do you know which is the right version? Can you be sure that you have copies of everything you might need, in case the data is lost or damaged? If you have a backup, do you know that it’s a full copy of everything, and not a partial archive? Having multiple copies of the same content can be a headache too, if you’re not sure which is the true original and which might be later copies or partial backups.
Applications might create their own duplicate content – perhaps through bugs, or through user activity. There was a time when syncing content to your phone or to another machine might risk duplication of everything – like having multiple copies of contacts in Outlook, for example. A variety of hacky resource kit utilities were created to help clean up mailboxes of duplicate contacts, appointments etc; you might want to check out a more modern variant if you’re worried that your mailbox is cluttered up.
The curse of duplication can be a problem at home, too, especially when it comes to photographs. Have you ever taken a memory card from a camera, or a backup of an old phone, and copied the whole lot just to be sure you have everything?
Cleaning up the dupes can help make sense of what remains. You could spend money on proper photo archiving and management tools like Adobe Lightroom, or you could roll your own methodology using a mixture of free and low-cost tools – tech pundit Paul Thurrott recently wrote about his approach.
There are many duplicate-removing tools out there – just be sure you’re getting them from a reliable place, free from adware and other nasties. Be wary of anything that purports to “clean” your PC (registry cleaners etc), watch out when accepting T&Cs and don’t allow the setup routine to install any other guff you don’t need. Make sure you have the right protection on your machine, too.
One recommended tool is Duplicate Sweeper – free to try but a princely £15 to buy, but worth the peace of mind that comes with a tidy photo library or Documents folder.
If you’re an iPhone user, the connected experience is somewhat watered-down and achieved in a different way, and is mostly about syncing content and continuing web browsing from your phone to your PC. Thank the differences in Android vs iOS ecosystems for that…
For various Samsung phones and the Surface Duo, you can also control and mirror apps from your phone on the PC as well as transfer content. If you have a phone with the shiniest of shiny Android 11, you may be able to treat mobile apps just as if they are Windows apps – pin them to Start menu, run them in their own window on the PC etc. See more here.
For most other Android devices, you can’t yet do the mirroring within the Your Phone experience, but you do get to share app notifications on your PC (so you’ll get “toasts” in Windows for WhatsApp etc), exchange photos and files quickly and easily, manage messaging and even, should you want to, take and make calls on your PC.
To get it up and running, start the Your Phone app on your PC, and the pre-installed Link To Windows app if you have a supported Samsung or Surface device; if not, then install the Your Phone companion app on the phone to get everything set up.
It can be handy getting notifications on your PC that originate on phone apps, especially if your device isn’t next to you – but there may be limited use if all the notification on the phone would normally do is make you tap on it to read the story or interact with the app.
If you’re going to enable notifications, be careful – you’ll want to go through the list of apps that are on your phone, and only allow the ones you really need, or you’ll be getting a blizzard of unwanted toasts on your PC, assuming you’re not in Focus Assist mode.
Perhaps the best feature on Your Phone is the rapid ability to copy photos – without having to send them by email or wait for OneDrive to sync them. Using Your Phone, you can copy the file immediately to your PC, or just browse the photos on a larger screen and possibly screen grab bits of interest to insert into documents or emails. Sadly, what it won’t let you do is manage the photos easily, like delete the garbage…
Still, it’s free and it’s potentially useful for anyone with a Windows 10 PC and an Android phone – so definitely worth a look. For more info on how to use and troubleshoot Your Phone, see here.
As most of us look to put 2020 firmly behind us and take some down-time over the festive season, there may be a list of jobs which get left to this time of year – filling out the annual tax return, maybe, or clearing out that drawer with miscellaneous stuff in it.
You could set your sights higher, even – like gathering all the papers scattered throughout your house (user guides, receipts, utility bills etc etc) and putting them in one place, as recommended by Getting Things Done guru, David Allen.
Or just scan them all in then recycle…
Maybe it’s time to finally sort out all the passwords you use for different websites. Even though Multi-Factor Authentication is gradually replacing the need to enter a username & password every time you access a resource, there’s still often a need to create a username and password combo when you sign up for something. If you’ve used Edge or Chrome to remember your passwords, you might find there are many hundreds of them, and being weak carbon-based lifeforms, we’re quite likely to use the same ones for many sites. Naughty!
There are browser addins and other tools you can use to remember the passwords you use, and (using LastPass as an example) can give you the option of generating something strong and unique at the point of signing up on a site, then syncing that username and password back to a central service so you don’t need to re-enter it next time (or remember something truly unmemorable). LastPass recently announced their 2020 stats – they’ve generated 94 million secure passwords and been used to log in more than 10 billion times.
Microsoft Edge offers some password management capabilities – as well as being able to remember passwords within the Edge browser, and sync them between different machines or mobile devices, Edge is also getting to be capable of suggesting and storing complex passwords for new sign-ups.
Edge is beefing up its password security in other ways, offering proactive warnings if your passwords have shown up in databases of leaked credentials (at the moment, this is a test feature in the dev builds). One-by-one, you can use Edge’s “fix leaked passwords” function to check what the existing password is for each site, and then click a button to jump to the site to reset it – in some cases, going straight to the change password part of the site.
Finally, the password sync feature is getting some extra legs – using the Microsoft Authenticator app on your phone and it’s new beta Autofill feature, you can use that app to provide the username/password for website or even mobile app logins. There’s a Chrome extension too, so if you want to switch back and forth between Edge & Chrome on a PC, your passwords will be available to both.
In some senses, storing passwords and allowing them to be automatically filled in feels like a security risk – anyone with access to your unlocked computer or phone could potentially access your online services. Using Autofill and Authenticator, though, the default setup is to require biometric authentication – so you’ll need a fingerprint or camera, or unlocking with a PIN, before the auto-fill will happen.
Also, it’s more important to have complex passwords that are hard to break or guess, and to have different ones for each and every site or app you use.
This is the final ToW for 2020. Let’s hope ’21 brings us all better luck.