#32: Microsoft Designer gets everywhere

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Assuming you haven’t woken from cryonic stasis (leaving aside all the practical difficulties of doing that) then you’ll already know of the hallucinatory ChatGPT and its image-creating sidekick, DALL-E, which will spit out a computer generated image from a text-based description of what you want.

Predictably, there are many memes on whether AI is a good thing or not, along with worries that it’s coming for your jobs/freedom/happiness etc. In many ways, it’s just another wave of technology which is certainly impactful, but its benefit will be seen by how we creatively embrace it.

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Also doing the rounds is the trope of “I want AI to do my laundry” which is poignant if not really a new thing (see Keynes c1930, or Bertrand Russell’s “In praise of Idleness”, c1932). Technology is invented to supposedly give us more time but often displaces one form of work for another. Now, AI prompt engineering will be a creative skill, to a degree replacing the need for designing, drawing or painting skills.

Meanwhile, Microsoft has been busy embedding DALL-E technology into other apps and services, broadly packaged under its “Designer” branding. You can generate images for embedding into LinkedIn articles, for example …

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… though with some mixed level of success, depending on what you want…

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Alternatively, just go straight to the Copilot prompt…

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Even the venerable Paint has gotten a new Image Creator function which does much the same thing, though annoyingly defaults to a 1:1 aspect ratio, regardless of the orientation of the canvas. In the main Copilot/Designer UI there is a little icon to change the ratio of your image from square to landscape, however it ends up generating a new image entirely.

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Restyle it out

Remember all those early 2000s makeover TV shows which gave frumpy looking people another view on what to wear? Well, there’s a Restyle capability in Designer that’s so much fun to play with, you could easily spend the rest of the day mucking about with pictures to see what selfies look like in art style, how the dog would be if made of Plasticine, and so on…

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Take your source image…

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…then choose one of a variety of styles, and be prepared for outright weirdness or outright flattery…

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Right, that’s enough of the day wasted. Get on with your work!

#31: Easy and Excel-lent Data sources

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Most people who have spent time using Microsoft Excel will realize that it probably has more capabilities than they’ll ever understand, much less use. There are so many functions used to collate, display and interpret data that it’s no wonder people turn to using it for all sorts of things.

There have been numerous attempts to make user-friendly data tools for Excel, from web-scraping 3rd party sites to the short-lived Money in Excel for American users which bit the dust before it was barely out of diapers.

More recent releases of Excel include several Linked Data Types which can retrieve and manipulate data from “reputable sources of data, such as Bing”… (which, incidentally, had its 15th birthday recently). Companies with suitable data governance can expose internal info for analysis, or regular end users can get started with share prices, currency conversions and geographical data.

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In the Data tab in the current versions of Excel on multiple platforms, you’ll see 3 or 4 types of data that can quickly be inserted – they will perform a lookup on external information and return a data set in the background which can be displayed and otherwise interacted with using formulae, lookups and other standard data tools in Excel.

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Getting real-time data is pretty straightforward – create a blank table with a single column in which you’ll enter your key data items that you want to expand on – for currency conversions, it would be a pair of currency symbols (USD:EUR or GBP/USD etc) that you then select and mark as Currency from the data tab. That then lets you easily add other columns for specific lookup data, and that can be referenced itself through other formulae too.

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Stock lookups work similarly, by entering the ticker symbol in one column and potentially going through a matching exercise to find the right one. Handy, if you have a workbook for calculating when you can stick it to the man and retire to a patch in the Tuscany hills: you can automatically look up the stock values and convert their currencies too, if required.

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There’s some location stuff as well, invoked by entering city or area names; it’s more text-based reference info which is returned, though it might be possible to feed some of the data into a Map Chart for further visualization.

#30: Snipping Smarter

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Wclip_image004indows’ Snipping Tool, used to capture an area of the screen, has been around for a long time in various guises, even threatened with cancellation at least once. Invoking the tool by pressing SHIFT+WindowsKey+S or just hitting the PrtScn button (if you have one) now displays a small dialog at the top of a dimmed screen.

You can choose to capture a static image (of a part of the screen, or the whole thing) or a record a video of a marked section of the screen, optionally with your own commentary – useful for sharing a quick “how to” video.

Another way of capturing the entire screen is to press WindowsKey+PrtScn, which can be useful when trying to grab menus and things that might disappear if you tried to interact with them – like the first image above, since the screen grab menu itself will disappear as soon as you click the mouse button.

As well as copying the snipped area to the clipboard, an updated Snipping Tool from about 18 months ago also saved them to a Screenshots folder, so it’s easy to go back and fish them out later. See 665 – Mind your screenshots for more details; it’s worth keeping an eye on that Screenshots folder so it doesn’t get overly large and/or contain stuff that you might not want to keep.

REDACT THE gggg TEXT

Some further updates to Snipping Tool have been happening of late; there’s some nice functionality which lets you extract text from the grabbed area to the clipboard (as paste-able text rather than an image), or to redact certain bits of the screen so as to preserve potentially confidential info.

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The Quick redact feature tries to identify some data types, but to manually scratch it out, just select the text you want to hide, right-click and choose Redact.

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When you’re happy, click the Copy button on the top right

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And that will put the fully redacted version into the clipboard, either replacing what was there before or adding it to the list if you have Clipboard History turned on.

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Another newish addition is the quick ability to feed your screen grabbed image to the Visual Search in Bing, effectively doing a reverse image lookup – just look in the menu on the top right.

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#29: The power of CTRL

Designer (7)The familiar computer keyboard has evolved over decades, even though some languages have obstinately different layouts; Germans have QWERTZ and French users have AZERTY, while Brits used to their usual keyboard might struggle to find the backslash on an American machine, and accidentally hit Enter when looking for the hash key.

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Most keyboards feature control keys on the bottom corners; designed as a “modifier” to be used in conjunction with other keys to activate certain commands, there are some well-known combos like CTRL+C and CTRL+V for copy and paste. There are outliers – German keyboards have Strg instead of Ctrl, and even an obsolete ISO standard says the key could be marked “”.

There are some occasions when the Control key is not just a straightforward modifier; aside from using Sticky Keys to keep it pressed, one somewhat hidden feature in the Edge browser turns Ctrl to good effect, for opening an image in a zoomable overlay window.

Many images embedded in web pages are much bigger than you might think; the source picture could be something like 2000×1500 pixels in size, but when displayed on the site, it’s reduced to 640×480. In such cases, you can use the CTRL key to magnify the original image without having to navigate away from the current page.

If the Edge window is in focus, move your mouse cursor over an image and try tapping CTRL twice; if the site can support it, you’ll see the image displayed in a pop-up window that lets you zoom in out (with the mouse scroll wheel or by stroking your laptop touchpad).

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If you have the PowerToys addon pack installed, you may also have Find My Mouse enabled, and that too uses one of the Control keys as its activator. Happily, if a little confusingly perhaps, both can co-exist so you’ll expand the highlighted image while temporarily spotlighting where your pointer is.

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#28: Recalling history

tl;dr – press WindowsKey+V on your Windows 10 or 11 PC. If you don’t have Clipboard history turned on, enable it. You’re welcome.

Microsoft unveiled a new range of Surface laptops recently; the foghorn headline is they’re not just PCs, they’re Copilot+ PCs with lots of AI goodness. There was also a lot of news from the Microsoft Build conference this week – Copilot might have mentioned once or twice, but I think they got away with it.

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The really big news for PC watchers is concerning the most recent attempt by Microsoft to move away from Intel to ARM processors; tried before with the Windows RT and Surface RT cul-de-sac, then later the Windows 10X project and the Surface Pro X which was ultimately superseded by an Intel-powered replacement.

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Apple showed that it was not only possible but desirable to move from power-hungry Intel to lightning fast ARM chips, delivering huge improvements in battery life at minimal expense of application compatibility. The new Surface Laptop 7 purports to deliver power and performance that will finally take the fight to Apple in-house ARM silicon.

As well as flashing the new hardware, Microsoft also announced a bunch of new capabilities coming to Windows, delivered by snazzy new hardware and the Copilot Runtime which will allow advanced AI computation to take place locally on the device, without having to round-trip to the cloud.

One such AI-powered feature is “Recall”, which captures what the user is doing on the PC over time and will use a local AI model to analyse the data, so you can ask it to bring back whichever document, web page or app you might have been using when you were doing or thinking about something.

So far, the use cases being discussed are a little basic (like “I saw a recipe for a goat’s cheese pizza but can’t remember where it was”) but it could prove really useful when in the wild.

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Remembering history

There are plenty of other places where history is recorded as you do your thang on a PC. Office apps remember documents you’ve been using in the past either by presenting the Most-Recently Used (MRU) list or letting you search across common document areas.

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Outlook will cache the email addresses you’ve sent to before, browsers like Edge have an extensive and searchable history of pages you’ve been to, and even Windows Explorer’s Home tab shows you all the documents you’ve opened recently alongside ones you might have pinned as favourites.

One history feature which is presumably switched off by default due to some sort of privacy worry, is one where when you start using it, you wonder how you’ve lived your life to date without it: Clipboard history. In a nutshell, CTRL+C and CTRL+V have been widely-used shortcut keys for copy & paste since before Windows was an apple in its creators’ eyes. Using WindowsKey+V to initiate a Paste, will present you a list of the last few things you put on the clipboard.

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It was covered in Old Testament ToW #670.

Remember Windows Timeline? It was a feature which recorded what the user was doing across many apps, browser sessions and different devices (even on mobile), synched to the cloud and presented in a logical, searchable timeline view. While it still exists in Windows 10, it wasn’t part of Windows 11 and since it relied on Cortana (RIP), the feature which remains has very much had its wings clipped.

“Recall” Chicken Licken

The old fairy tale of the chicken thinking the sky is falling (originally an Indian story about a hare, not a hen, and known by a variety of names around the world) was revisited in relation to Microsoft’s “Recall” feature which is part of this new range of Copilot+ PCs, enabled by the additional NPU chips (and not to be confused the Outlook’s “Recall” feature which purports to un-send a message but rarely works as expected, especially if sending to a lot of people).

The story behind the new Recall is that the PC will keep a history of everything the user does by screen-grabbing every few seconds, so that the user can later ask Copilot for help in remembering what they’ve done previously.

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Cue, heavy breathing from all sorts of commentators who’ve never even laid eyes on this thing being used. The UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office – the Gov data watchdogissued a short statement and was widely reported as “looking into” the potential privacy concerns, however Microsoft was clear to point out that:

  • Recall will (initially) only work on these new (ARM) Copilot+ PCs and is in preview. Other PCs with Intel CPUs and Neural Processing Units (NPU) hardware will get the feature in time.
  • Recall will be enabled on initial PC or user setup, but can be switched off using the Settings menu and sys admins can centrally disable through policy; ditto, the length of time Recall will store data for can be tuned (and the amount of storage it uses).
  • Specific apps (and InPrivate browser windows) can be excluded from the screen-grabbery
  • It holds all the data in an encrypted store on the local PC and is only accessible by the user (i.e. not synced to the cloud, not readable by Microsoft or by any company administrator).

#27: Lookup Image Reverse Using

With all the fuss about AI in recent months (the latest being OpenAI teasing some futures with GPT-4o, and potentially raining on Google’s I/O parade that followed the next day), it’d be easy to overlook that elements of artificial intelligence have been infusing the software and services we all use every day, for years. Google are even revisiting an old Microsoft brand too

Text, handwriting and speech recognition, language translation, cognitive understanding – they’re all milestones to what people might think represents true AI, and using elements in conjunction with massive amounts of data has given us some incredibly useful capabilities.

One such is being able to do a reverse image search – the idea that if I have a thing, or a picture of it, how can I find out more about it, or where it’s being used elsewhere online? Copyright holders might want to search for unauthorised use of their materials, or we can even use the technique to tell us more about what our phone camera is looking at.

clip_image002Visual Search

The Bing search engine has had a visual search feature for many years – that’s right, some people do still use it, even by choice rather than because it’s the default or due to a nag screen.

The simplest way to use Visual Search (if you’re using Edge browser and Bing is your search default) is to right-click on an image and choose the Search the web for image option, which feeds the picture into the visual search page.

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This will show you other places on the web that feature the exact same image (and in different sizes, too) as well as displaying other, similar images.

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If the pic you started with is a recognizable place or person, it may offer a suggestion of what/who it is, with links to further info..

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If you’re not using Edge and/or Bing isn’t your default, you can use it by copying the image you want to the clipboard (or grabbing a portion with the Snipping Tool), the go to the Bing homepage and click on the Image search icon.

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Just paste your image in from the clipboard (press CTRL-V, or if you’ve switched on Clipboard history, WindowsKey-V will let you choose from previous ones too) to run it through image search. You can, if need be, adjust the area being searched for, by clicking the Visual Search icon towards the bottom of the main image, then dragging the handles to crop the area you want – picking out a single person in a group photo, for example.

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Google offers the same kind of functionality, too – from Chrome with Google search as the default, choose Search image with Google,

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… or try search by image from the homepage…

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… and paste the selected image in there.

You’ll see slightly different results from the different search engines, so it’s definitely worth trying both out. The Bing user interface is arguably nicer than Google’s but in the end, it’s the results that count.

Mobile apps

When it comes to dealing with the real world rather than online photos, smartphones clearly provide a great starting point. The main Google app has the same initial image search UI as the web site but lets you point your phone camera at something and extract text from it, identify what it is and find out more. The Bing mobile app (and Microsoft launcher on Android, if you use that) does similar things but nowhere near as effectively, judging by the results it returns.

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There are many specialist mobile apps for identifying specific things, like differentiating between a plant or a weed, but it’s worth trying the Google app first.

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The Bing mobile app purports to do similar things, too…

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Nul points

Coming back to looking for pictures, if you don’t get any meaningful results from search engines when trying to match an image, there are specialist services like TinEye, which offer deeper reverse image search.

Take this image from a blog post many years ago, before mobile video calls were really a thing*. Searching Bing/Google for it brings nothing of note, but TinEye found various sites which took part of the image and repurposed it – various nutjobs used the image in “news” that the next gen iPhone was going to have video conferencing capabilities, neatly overlooking the fact that the main subject of the photo had a curly-wired handset to his ear…

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* in fact, Orange launched the SPV M5000 smartphone – aka HTC Universal – in 2005,

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and it was the first 3G “phone” which had a front-facing camera for doing video calls. It wasn’t very good.

#26: Further Outlook Calendar Fun

Following on from last week’s tip on New Outlook and its addition of the “In-person” switch to designate a meeting as taking place in actual 3D, here’s a quick look back at another calendary thing that’s been in Exchange and Outlook since the year dot – the meeting status.

When you create an entry in your calendar, you can set whether it shows you as busy or not – the original status choices being free/tentative/busy/OOF. Microsoft added the new “Working elsewhere” more than a decade ago, though it never really took off. It wasn’t helped by the lack of support on some clients, and an initial gnarly bug in Exchange 2013 which meant Working Elsewhere appointments sometimes disappeared. It does work pretty well now, though – Think of it like a soft Out of Office which doesn’t get in the way of people booking time with you, but it does signify that you’re not physically in the office. That’s a lot more likely these days than it was 11 years ago.

Showing your actual availability is a bit more nuanced than it was when Outlook was launched in 1997; you might be technically Out of Office but still able to be contacted in some ways. You could set a status message in Teams to add context to where you are or how available you might be.

Of course, making sure other people can see your calendar (at least sharing the high level view of where you are and what you’re doing) will help, and do tell people to use the scheduling assistant in Outlook when trying to book meetings with you. Maybe also set your Work Hours to make it clear if you habitually work at different times to your colleagues, take Friday afternoons off etc.

If you have a group of people who work closely together, you could try using a variety of other tools to track whereabouts and make it easier to meet – check out TeamLink, a free Power App that runs inside of Teams, or perhaps the supposedly forthcoming feature set formerly introduced as Microsoft Places.

Finally, there are two stages of Out of Office – there’s the automatic message you might set to respond to emails to say you’re away; the best OOF messages might just apologize that you’re gone so will probably never read these emails. Alternatively, you could set the status of your appointment to show OOF and then people who can see your calendar will know you’re just gone for a while, such as away for the afternoon, but you haven’t gone to the extent of setting up an auto-response.

Both of these can also help with voice messaging, either external telephone calls if you’re using Teams Phone or just “calls” directly into Teams from colleagues or other external contacts. Look in Teams settings, and you can set up how you want to handle calls that go unanswered. You can record your own greeting, or just type in a message and have the system say that to the caller.

Note the granularity where you could have a message played only during times when your calendar is showing Out of Office.

#25: Where shall we meet again?

Designer (4)

If you are of the 400 million or so users of Microsoft 365, you probably use email as one of the key services, provided by Exchange Online. A little more than 28 years ago, Microsoft released Exchange Server, its first proper server product* and a key progenitor of Active Directory, an enabler of pervasive use of email in business and even standardising the means to deliver mail to your mobile.

Though its main usage is email and calendaring, Exchange was designed in an era when “groupware” was the next big thing; the idea was that the server would be a database of loosely structured data that end users would interact with using forms to display and edit those data. As it happens, an email message is just a bunch of data items like the recipients’ names, the subject and a whole load of hidden fields used in routing, storing and managing that message. When you open that message in Outlook, it uses a form which looks like an email to interpret the fields.

clip_image002Outlook 97 and its numerous successors all feature a form editing capability – right-click on the toolbar, choose Customize then on the resulting dialog, you’ll see a hidden “Developer” tab.

Tick that box to unveil it and you’ll see a new ribbon tab with all kinds of functions, one of which is to choose a form from various libraries, or even design a new one (based on an existing form, such as an email or a contact card).

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A relatively simple use of this kind of thing would be to add a custom field or two to an existing form; it might be easier to use categories but if you wanted to include some more structured information to a contact form, for example, you could put additional data fields with validation logic behind them. Essentially what you’d be doing here is adding some custom fields to the database, and you’d also be customizing the form which is used to view and edit that newly extended data structure.

For one practical application of this technique, see ToW 259, which shows you how to track who you sent and received Christmas cards to/from, by modifying your contacts form.

The downside of customizing a form is that you need to distribute the newly extended form otherwise people won’t be able to see the additional fields – that’s essentially an automatic process when using Exchange and Outlook within a single organization (the form is published on the server), but it becomes a whole lot messier when dealing with external parties. And it doesn’t work at all on web, or mobile, or the “New Outlook” (which is basically the web client wrapped up to look like an app). So, it’s super useful these days.

New Outlook, new Meetings

clip_image006One of the subtle changes that New Outlook introduces to anyone who switches from Old Outlook, is a change in name to a key part of its functionality. In Outlook, you have appointments (which are things you put in your own diary) and meetings (which are appointments to which you invite other people or resources – or have been invited by the organizer – and that changes the form which is used to interact with the calendar entry).

New Outlook simply has “Events”, which essentially combines the previous two concepts in one. As well as a different UI, New Outlook adds some other functions, like the “In-person event” button, which lets you make the point that a meeting is taking place IRL rather than only virtually.

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This same functionality is not available in Old Outlook or in mobile versions, only in Web App and New Outlook – but that doesn’t really matter too much, as all the “in-person” switch does is to append “[In-person]” to the end of the Title line.

Clearing the switch removes the text, though it’s just searching for that string and hacking it out (set a Subject line of I like people [In-person] [In-person] [In-person] and then toggle the switch back and forth a couple of times to observe). A more elegant way of building this would have been to make a new field on the Appointment / Meeting object called “in-person” and then had Outlook et al flip that switch, rather than just tagging a bit of text on. Oh well

If you’d like to explore what lies beneath your favourite Outlook form, try opening the item (Contact, message, Task etc) in Old Outlook, and if you don’t see a Developer tab, repeat the exercise from earlier and right-click / customize / enable Developer. You’ll then see a “Design This Form” option, which flips your current item into developer mode, exposing hidden regions. Look in the “all fields” tab, and you’ll find every property that has been set on the item.

This trick can be useful for finding out when an appointment has really been created in someone else’s calendar (if they share their calendar) – if they are suddenly unavailable to meet, you could see if they had that blocking appointment in there already or just created it after you’d asked…

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APPENDIX

Email was first invented in 1971, and by the mid 1990s it was in common use amongst people who worked on terminals or desktop computers as a large part of their job. While standards like X400 and SMTP existed for exchanging email with other entities, you weren’t going to be emailing your bank manager or booking a doctors appointment. For some reason, X400 never really took off as intended – who knows why? Most companies which used email relied on it for internal communications – IBM’s NOSS internal system (a PROFS implementation) had over 350,000 users by the end of the 1980s, with no easy way to send email to external parties.

As dial-up services like AOL and ComuServe started gaining popularity amongst home users, and those walled-garden opened up and allowed exchange of email over the internet, companies began to adopt email more widely and people would start to put their email address on their business cards (alongside their fax number).

*Exchange was arguably Microsoft’s first proper server product, apart from Windows NT Server on which it ran. There were other back-end products which pre-dated Exchange, like SMS (systems management software), SNA server (for communicating with mainframes) and the early NT variants of SQL Server which had been based on Sybase’s SQL Server. These and Exchange had been bundled together as Microsoft BackOffice for a while. Exchange was the first Microsoft server product that most end users would interact with.

#24: Googly Embalmer

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Late last century, when the big tech firms of the day were often led by sometimes spiky characters (McNeally, Gates, Ellison etc), one such luminary famously wrote about the two helmsmen of Microsoft’s push into corporate computing. Ray Noorda, erstwhile CEO of PC networking pioneer Novell famously referred to Bill and Steve as “the Pearly Gates and the Emballmer: one promises you heaven, the other prepares you for the grave”. Thankfully, they didn’t always take themselves too seriously (and here’s the original).

Modern day technology firms have a ruthless attitude to preparing their own products to go 6 feet under. Rapidly killing off failing projects or taking sometimes unpopular and abrupt changes in strategy are the underside of rapid innovation and shifting business models. Two of the most popular posts in the old Tip o’ the Week archive were Tip o’ the Week 350 – Killing me Softly, part I and 353 – Killing me Softly, part II, celebrating some of the old tech that has been and gone.

Apple somewhat aggressively moved the Mac from the Motorola 68000 CPU architecture to Intel X86 and then ARM (at the expense of backwards compatibility – you’re holding it wrong), though hindsight shows both shifts were smart when it came to the ensuing products. Microsoft tried to adopt ARM with Windows 8 and the Surface RT. And we all know how that worked out.

There have been several other attempts at shifting Windows from Intel to ARM architecture, and none have really taken hold – but reports have emerged of a forthcoming Surface Laptop which promises to take the fight back to the MacBook in terms of performance and battery life.

All about the Pod

The term “podcast” (a fusion of iPod and broadcast) might be 20 years old, but the last few years have seen an explosion of content as well-known faces take to putting out regular shows to be streamed, downloaded and listened-to on phones or watched on screens.

Some of the most popular podcasts are depressingly formulaic, but there are so many joyous, informative and hilarious ones that are worth seeking out. It’s no wonder that traditional media is both embracing the format at speed while presumably figuring out how to monetize it.

Google announced last year that they were deep-sixing their popular Google Podcasts mobile app (describing it as a “turndown” like they’re tucking it in for the night rather than euthanising it), in favour of the expanded YouTube Music offering. In some ways, this makes sense as popular podcasts are increasingly using YouTube to also publish video (mostly of headphone-wearing people speaking into a giant mic while looking at 45 degrees to their camera).

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Why miss the opportunity to unify the podcast and video publishing process, while also finding ways to sell more adverts to the listeners?

US users had the rug pulled in April but the reprieve for international listeners has recently been announced as coming to an end, and Podcasts will retire for everyone in June 2024.

So what next? The lead contender for iOS users is probably Apple Podcasts, but for Android users or if you’re an existing Google Podcast user then you might want to try other alternatives. YouTube Music is clearly the preferred option in Google’s eyes, but there are many options – Spotify & Amazon Music both have podcasting support and might push fewer ads at paid-for subscribers.

Free podcasting apps and services abound but run the risk of suddenly disappearing or retreating behind a subscription paywall – current front runner is probably Pocket Casts.

For more fun looking at all the other product Google has binned, see Google Graveyard – Killed by Google and check out Microsoft Graveyard – Killed by Microsoft too.

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#23: Licensing the overlords

People might be using AI to create new art and for writing but most would prefer it to take the drudgery out of their life; and that doesn’t just mean summarizing your emails. One day, technology might fulfil that Keynesian idyll of having more leisure time than we know what to do with, but for now we’re reduced to automating a few tedious tasks while replacing them with new ones.

Robotics pioneers dreamt of having autonomous domestic servants. Aside from pervasive advancement made in manufacturing, most have been somewhat underwhelming, despite some amazing looking machines. Boston Dynamics recently unveiled the frankly terrifying new Atlas humanoid robot…

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… as a replacement to the previous variant which had been the star of many videos (including the “Do You Love Me” viral hit)…

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… even if its cost and complexity meant it was good for little more than making fancy videos. Why make a machine that looks and acts vaguely like a human if all it needs to do is move things around, where a machine dedicated to that specific task could be built more simply and with less money?

If the rise of AI and robots is giving you cause for concern, allay some of those fears with the Reddit group, /r/sh**tyrobots, which showcases epic fails of people with perhaps too much time on their hands. (The same could be said of much of Reddit but that’s another topic altogether).

One aspect of AI and robots that is conveniently overlooked is the huge cost of doing them well; don’t expect future technologies to do everything and answer all your questions without something in return, whether that’s sharing all your information with them or handing over all your money and other stuff.

Software robotics

In current times, using software to take care of tedious tasks imposed by other software can bring immediate benefits without costing the earth. Collectively known as RPA or Robotic Process Automation, the field varies from simple If-This-Then-That type logic which can knit different systems together, to altogether more engineered solutions that are part of a much bigger development.

Microsoft’s own Power Automate – formerly known as “Microsoft Flow” – starts off with an easy-to-use editor not unlike IFTTT but can encompass web-based logic or can be run on a PC to help automate repetitive tasks within installed applications. There’s a Copilot for Power Automate (of course) and AI can help to figure out what you’re trying to automate locally too.

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Keep up to speed with what’s new in Power Automate on the Release Wave documentation or on the fairly frequently updated blog.

Licensing for dummies

Power Automate is free for some things, but costs money for others. Some external systems are free to connect to, while others need you to pay directly or have an existing license. If you were designing a licensing scheme, you certainly wouldn’t start from here, in fact you could make a profession out of understanding Microsoft licensing.

Dynamics 365 pricing is going to rise pretty significantly in October 2024, though it’s the first such hike in 5 years. Still, the recent Business Applications Launch Event showed where some of the money is going; the tl;dr summary is, “Ooooh, isn’t Copilot GREAT!”.

Sometimes, Microsoft’s licensing complexity is due to external factors, though. Various competitors have also been complaining about how unfair it is that Redmond has bundled Teams in with Office 365 rather than making customers pay for it separately, and the EU pressured Microsoft to remove it from Office suites sold in Europe.

Remember the EU forcing Microsoft to ship separate versions of Windows that didn’t include a media player, because Real Networks complained? Consumers all over the world must have rejoiced.

Rather than offer a specific version to EU customers alone, Microsoft has decided to revamp the M365 suite worldwide into “with Teams” and “without Teams” versions. What this means in practice is that if you do use Teams already, you can carry on running for the same money – for now at least – depending on how you license your M365. Details are set out here.

Some customers might welcome that they can now buy their M365 subscriptions for a few $/user less than before, if they don’t currently use Teams and especially if they do subscribe to Slack, Zoom, Webex (yes, it’s still there) etc. For anyone currently using Teams it either makes no difference, or it raises the prospect of one day having to pay a $/user fee on top of the core M365 suite, and at least on the plans for M365 Enterprise for new subscribers, that will cost them more than they’d pay today.

Currently, personal/family plans are unaffected, and “business” subscriptions for M365 are available as previously or newly-discounted without Teams. Enterprise users will need to get to grips with the idea of paying for Teams separately unless they’re existing subscribers, in which case for a while, at least they don’t need to. Easy as that.

Someone has to pay the ferryman.

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No automated wirting here. If you enjoy the process of writing and the creativity it can unleash, the last thing you’d want is to have it machine-generated. AI drafting is for boring documents which will probably only get summarized by AI at the point of consumption, so who cares if they are dry and dull? Tip of the Week remains a 100% hand-crafted endeavour. Well, apart from some of the banner images because, you know, DALL-E et al can draw some groovy stuff.