Memoirs and autobiographies are the top selling non-fiction books for good reason, as people like to recall past events through the words and thoughts of someone who was there, in the room or even in the driving seat. World leaders who write their tell-all book on what happened 20+ years ago, better have great memories or perhaps a trove of notes and diary entries from the time. If they are fans of journaling, they would have of-the-moment musings, written down to help clear their minds at the time – on committing thoughts to her diary, Anne Frank wrote, “I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.”
Turning to technology and looking back to relatively near-term history brings up all kinds of product that was ahead of its time or was ultimately overtaken by other developments that nobody saw coming. Sometimes, the perfect blend of genius, timing, execution and luck combines and creates a durable and wildly successful category – like the Smartphone and the plethora of services and apps that were created.
Inversely, one of those tech innovations that was just a bit ahead of its time was the Tablet PC; a fully-functional Windows PC that was blessed with a pen and touch screen so you could take notes by hand just like on paper, yet by flipping it around it could be used to run Office apps and all the other stuff you’d need a PC for, 20 years ago.
In hindsight, the idea of the Tablet PC was 10-15 years ahead of the technology that was needed to really make it work – the pen and screen digitizer were a bit too low-res; the processing power and memory was not up to the mark of providing the kind of user experience that the vision hoped for. The battery life was too poor while the whole thing was too heavy. Nowadays, with devices like the Surface Go and the iPad Pro, the reality is much closer – even if the dream of writing meeting notes by hand has been made somewhat obsolete by transcription and the fact that fewer people use a pen to write any more.
One new app that was built for the Tablet PC to take advantage of its pen, was Windows Journal, a relatively simple yet effective note-taking app, with surprisingly good handwriting recognition built in.
To read more from someone who was in the room – figuratively and, at times, literally – around the time of Tablet PC, the Journal software and the Office app originally called Scribbler which went on to become OneNote, check out Steven Sinofsky’s Hardcore Software post. It’s a fairly long but fascinating read.
Using pen and paper for taking meeting notes might be less popular now, but many of us will still jot down reminders or lists on Post-it notes, perhaps doodling on paper to help creativity and flow. If you have a pen-capable computer now, the newly released Microsoft Journal app is worth a look.
Billed as an app for digital ink enthusiasts, this new Journal presents a modern take on the original Windows Journal idea – an infinitely scrollable canvas for jotting down anything, though with AI capabilities in the app providing quiet yet powerful functionality. Journal started as a research project (from the “Garage”), but has now graduated into a fully-fledged, supported app. Read more about it here.
Many products evolve due to exposure to their competitors – adopting and refining the best features, and sometimes that evolution even starts to overtake the original. Many traditional desktop applications moved to online variants or were supplanted by newer concepts, such as shifting to mobile apps. Experiences that were clunky – like banking – moved to sometimes lower-functionality but more convenient apps, just as consumers adopted mobile payments and contactless cards.
Having blazed a trail with email in Hotmail and later Outlook Web Access, in 2010 Microsoft launched the first version of the Office web applications, meaning you could run lightweight Word, Excel and PowerPoint in your browser, as a companion or even as an alternative to the full-fat desktop versions.
A few years earlier, Google Docs released as an online word processor (and later, other types of productivity apps, rebranding as G Suite and now Google Workspace). There are pros and cons of the browser-only experience; you tend to sacrifice some functionality compared to the desktop applications in favour of ubiquitous availability, though web clients can be updated more easily and sometimes new features appear there first – as ToW #605 covered, with snoozing email.
Check out What’s new in Excel for the web or look for the summary covering Visio, Forms, Words and more, here.
If you like being browser based rather than desktop bound, you could start a new document from the address bar by simply entering word.new, excel.new or powerpoint.new. Others include docx.new, ppt.new, teams.new, sway.new …
You could add such links to your browser favourites; therefore, a new doc is but a single click away. There are many more .new shortcuts – Google’s in-house domain registry launched the service a few years ago, so not unsurprisingly, Mountain View hoovered up a lot of the relevant ones if you’re of a Googly persuasion. See docs.new, sheets.new or slides.new, mail.new …
One thing we all miss about having physical team meetings, is the delight of trying to read an enthusiastic participant’s attempt at getting their thought process across by scribbling on a whiteboard. Often with pens that have too little ink left to be legible. Charts with arrows always point up and left and bullet-point, capitalized text that may just be readable, but can anyone remember what it meant by the end of the meeting? At least you can take a picture to decipher later.
Fortunately, there are digital equivalences – you could be in a Teams meeting and co-authoring a document, where multiple people are editing at the same time and marking up comments. You could be watching someone share their 4K screen so they can walk through only a few dozen PowerPoint slides, or you might even have had a play with the shared Whiteboard app that’s been around and been part of Teams for a while now.
The whole UI has been given an overhaul in line with the latest colourful design ethos, and there are lots of neat new features like the automatic shape recognition for mouse-driven drawing. Hold the Shift key down while you’re drawing with a mouse pointer or a Surface pen, and it’ll straighten lines for you.
It’s available in a variety of guises; there’s a web UI (app.whiteboard.microsoft.com) and it shows up in the menu on the top left of Office 365 web applications, such as subscribers would find by going to office.com and signing in with your ID. It’s on iOS and Android, though updates may flow through at different rates to other platforms.
Of course, it’s as a Microsoft Store app too; if you’re already a Windows 11 user, you may want to check out the new Store and look for the Library icon on the lower left, showing you what you’ve installed previously and also which apps have been most recently updated (and am Update button to kick off that process). Sadly, looking at an app’s page in the Store (still) doesn’t tell you what the current version is or when it was last updated.
You can pin whiteboards to Teams channels or chats too; just add a Tab, select Whiteboard from the app list, and the content will persist within that context rather than a point-in-time meeting.
Emojis can trace their roots back to the first 🙂 from September 1982. Originally knows as emoticons or simply smileys, many of us have adopted these icons like a form of punctuation, especially in social media / Yammer / Teams type comments. This topic was last visited 4 years ago in ToW 391.
Emojis are mostly agreed and defined by the Unicode Consortium, which controls the Universal Coded Character Set, adopted by many systems to maintain compatibility between each other. When a user sends a symbol in a text message, the phone of its recipient needs to know which character was being sent or confusion may occur. Interpreting what the actual emoji symbol means is still down to the end user, and there are many pitfalls to avoid.
Once both sender and recipient of a message or comment agree which emoji to display, the application or platform they’re each using still has to decide what it will look like, and sometimes the iconography – and therefore the subtext – will have changed over time; see the Pistol Emoji (emojipedia.org) as just one example.
Microsoft decided to adopt a “flat” emoji look in the Windows 10 timeframe, but that is starting to change again with the upcoming release of Windows 11 and the evolution of Microsoft 365 – as Art Director and “Emojiologist” Claire Anderson previewed, we’re going 3D and Fluent, due late this year. Oh, one more thing…
ToW reader Paul Robinson draws attention to the shortcut way of inserting emojis in Windows – it’s been a feature for a while now – just press WindowsKey + . and it will allow you to insert emojis into pretty much anywhere that accepts text.
The UI for the emoji panel is changing in Windows 11 too, with GIFs and other types of symbol being included and the whole thing is easier to search. A useful tooltip shows you what the symbol represents, though as said before, be careful with the potential interpretation of some of them. Peachy.
In Windows 10, the same keystroke brings up a simpler yet slightly more confusing UI. Both old and new (under the Symbols grouping) provide a neat way of finding and inserting other special characters; arguably quicker than fishing about in the Office menu, and certainly better than faffing around with typing in ANSI codes.
Paul likes to start Teams channel names with an emoji, and if you want to illustrate one difference between old world and new, try using them in email subject lines and see just how they appear in Outlook versus Outlook Web App…
Following last week’s missive on Notepad, including the obscure tip on how to create a log file, the topic of inserting and handling dates in other applications is worth a (re-)visit. Each individual app may choose to offer different methods and formats, but for common Office applications there are a handful of memorable tricks and shortcuts.
In Word, there are plenty of ways to insert and manage dates – perhaps the most useful way to remind the reader when the document was last updated (manually showing when a document was last reviewed or published). On the Insert tab, you’ll find Date & Time on the right-hand side, letting you add appropriate info in the format of your choice. You can also tick a box to update the field automatically, though that simply means every time the document is opened, it will show today’s date… which feels a bit pointless.
More useful could be to tell the reader when the document was created or last saved, by referencing the actual properties of the document (though be careful; auto-save might mean someone opened an old document, realised it was irrelevant, but had inadvertently saved it back).
On the Insert tab / Quick Parts, look under Field, then pick the doc property and format you’d like to show.
It is worth pointing out that showing a date as 10/1/21 (or similar) is ambiguous given that a few hundred million people will expect it be month-day-year while many of the remaining 7 billion will assume the day comes first, with a couple of billion presuming the format should normally start with the year, such as yyyy-mm-dd (which is arguably the most sensible of all; and it sorts properly, too).
A more daily usable short format like dd-mmm-yy (ie 13-Aug-21) should perhaps be the norm, especially when the date is appearing as text in a document. Pressing SHIFT+ALT+D in Word will insert the current Date as a field (so you can edit the format to remove ambiguity) and SHIFT+ALT+T inserts the current time too. In PowerPoint, both of these combos bring up the “Date & Time” dialogue to add the chosen content and format as plain text.
When formatting dates, incidentally, the convention is that two letters refer to the short number (eg dd = 13), whereas 3 d’s or m’s will use the short form of spelling the day or month, with 4 meaning the whole thing (ie Friday, August). Try formatting a cell in Excel as Custom, and you can preview what the format would be, by typing in a variety of letters.
While in Excel, it’s worth learning the short cut key to insert the date and time – CTRL+; and SHIFT+CTRL+; respectively (no doubt there’s a reason why Excel has a different shortcut to other Office apps – some legacy of Lotus 1-2-3 perhaps?).
OneNote fans will want to remember that SHIFT+ALT+D / T combo as it inserts the date/time into the notebook; really handy when taking notes of a phone call or similar. SHIFT+ALT+F puts both day and time, something that Word doesn’t offer. In both Desktop OneNote and users of the Windows Store version, it’s just plain text that gets added, so you’re on your own when it comes to formatting.
OneNote pages will typically have a date & time showing under their title – on the Desktop version, it’s possible to change that so as to mark a page as having been recently updated. No such luck on the lame duck Store version.
At least when stalwarts insist on writing – or worse, saying – a short-form date as something like “ten one”, there’s more than half of each month where one number in the date could only mean “day” – starting with the thirteenth (as in, 8/13 can never by the 8th of a month, but 8/12 could be a few days before Christmas to Europeans, or the date when tweedy Americans start looking for grouse in the Yorkshire moors and Scottish Highlands).
|Most people don’t really think too much about which font they’re using in written works. The novelty of having different font designs, weights and sizes soon wears off, especially if you like to try all of them in the same document.
Some strange choices do persist, though – Comic Sans on a warning sign at an electricity substation?
Yet, there is a lot of thought which goes into creating a font, especially when considering how it’s likely to be used. Typeface design goes back to the earliest days of printing, with fashions changing from heavy and elaborate block type to lighter and perhaps easier to read lettering. To serif or to sans?
The author Simon Garfield has written extensively on the subject of typography, including articles on What’s so wrong with Comic Sans? or The 8 Worst Fonts In The World and his really excellent book, Just My Type, which delves into the history behind lots of common typefaces and how or why they came about. It really is fascinating.
Even the design of the text used on road signs was a hot topic in the 1950s, with the UK facing a need to choose a standard for the upcoming motorway network, which could be easily read at speed. Designers Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert came up with many road signs and the typeface design still used today (theorising that at 70mph, a driver looking for Birmingham won’t actually read the letters, but will recognise the shape of the word). Trials were done by fixing words to the top of a Ford Anglia and driving it past a group of seated, bemused volunteers, to test the fonts’ efficacy.
A lot of technology we take for granted today has its roots in the 1970s at Xerox’s PARC research establishment or was materially advanced there – ethernet, bitmapped displays, laser printers, the mouse, the GUI, object orientation, distributed computing and so much more – and the two founders of Adobe, who went on to define PostScript, started their work together there. This font-rendering software – along with the Apple Macintosh & LaserWriter and the Desktop Publishing software PageMaker – laid the way to revolutionise the printing industry.
Most fonts used until the 21st century had been designed to look good in print, but 14 years ago, Microsoft shipped a new font in Office 2007 and Windows Vista. Designed specifically to be easy to read on-screen, presuming that most documents and emails will be read on a display rather than printed out, that font was Calibri. It became the default font used in Office applications and has remained so since.
Five of the Cloud Fonts collection are being considered to be the new default font for Office apps in the future… which would you choose?
The word “accessibility” has been used for decades as a catch-all for how people of differing abilities can interact with their surroundings, and often applies to technology which can help to overcome barriers. It’s very easy to go about your day with no thought to how others could be affected by things that you don’t even notice, whether as a result of actions you do or just objects you encounter. Design plays a big part in helping people who have disabilities or who may find certain things more difficult, and good design means that assistive technology does not get in the way of anyone who doesn’t need it.
These technologies often spawn wider usage in unforeseen ways, and in many cases are developed not for goals of making a fortune or having global influence, but to help a particular individual:
Microsoft has a long history in pushing accessibility technology – Windows 95 was the first operating system to ship with accessibility options built in, and has developed a variety of tools and platform services aimed at developers. Windows 10 has many built-in options, grouped mainly under the Settings | Ease of Access applet.
You can jump straight to many of the settings applets by running ms-settings:easeofaccess-keyboard or ms-settings:easeofaccess-speechrecognition and so on.
If you don’t need to use assistive technology yourself, it’s good practice to think about how your work might impact people who do – and there’s a tool built into Office applications which will give you tips to make sure your document or email is suitable for users with accessible needs, such as having the contents read out by the machine, or making sure there’s adequate contrast in text colours, for improved reading ease.
The Check Accessibility option on the Review tab in Office apps like Word and Outlook, should be run just as you’d check the spelling of a document when you think it’s finished. The tool will give you a series of recommendations with guidance as to why it may be better to change aspects of the document. Not every one will be viable – you may want to have images in a particular place on the page, for example, rather than just in-line with text – but many are quick to correct.
If you’ve inserted graphics or charts, for example, then it’s worth adding “Alt Text” to describe what it is, so screen-reading software can read your description of what it is. Right-click on your image to add the text, or have the PC generate a description for you – sometimes with amusing results…
Thanks to Jon Morris for providing feedback on ToW #554, about email signatures – Jon rightly points out that many of us have tiny logos (Twitter, LinkedIn etc) or other icons in our email .sig, but don’t have Alt Text on them.
One call to action would be update your own sig to add Alt Text, or to mark the images as decorative so screen reader software ignores them.
For more tips on how to write documents which are more accessible, see guidance from Microsoft or from the University of Washington. Some resources for developers or web page designers from the UK Gov, with plenty of links to other sources – Testing for accessibility – Service Manual – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk).
Ever since the demise of Windows Mobile and the collateral damage caused to Microsoft’s previous Universal Windows Platform apps strategy by not having a universal platform any more, their future has been in some doubt. In fact, since late 2018, it was reported that the Office “Mobile” apps for Windows were being de-prioritized in favour of the desktop variants (with the exception of OneNote), and separate mobile apps for the surviving mobile platforms.
If you search the Microsoft Store app on PC, you won’t find any trace of the Office mobile apps for Windows PCs any more but if you want to see what the future looked like from a point 5+ years in the past, you can still access the direct links get the UWP apps for Word, Excel and PowerPoint.
In these enlightened days, Microsoft builds quite a lot of apps for iOS and Android, more especially the latter since it has a larger number of users (and seems to be growing its share in key markets) as well as being more open when it comes to the both the end-user and developer experience (though Apple may be changing its tack a little).
The app brings together Word, Excel and PowerPoint, but also adds a bunch of other related things – like Sticky Notes, and some related and useful technology like the ability to manage PDF files, extract text from an image and more.
The Microsoft To Do desktop and mobile applications and services (all available from https://todo.microsoft.com/) had a major update recently, which included being slightly renamed. Instead of “Microsoft To-Do”, the core app is now simply “Microsoft To Do”, and it has a new logo (well done if you noticed)… instead of a blocky light-blue and white tick on a blue background, it’s a slightly rounded and shaded blue tick on white background.
Still, To[-]Do’s functionality has stepped forward greatly since its first release a couple of years back, taking more than a few leaves from the Wunderlist app that preceded it. The new v2 of the To Do app includes background images that can be shown behind task lists, including one of the Berlin Television Tower which was synonymous with Wunderlist.
After Microsoft’s acquisition of 6wunderkinder (the company that made Wunderlist), it was announced that, at some stage, the Wunderlist application would be retired but still there’s no confirmed date or anything, with back-end engineering apparently taking a good bit longer than was first expected.
When the To-Do app was launched, it was a somewhat poorer cousin. Now, the story is that To Do v2 has enough of the functionality of Wunderlist, and lots of new capabilities (such as Cortana integration), that it’s time for Wunderlist users to transition.
The founder of 6wunderkinder has taken to Twitter to offer to buy back Wunderlist before Microsoft shuts the service down. It remains to be seen if the offer is being considered or not…
Back in the olden days of computing, wage slaves sat in front of terminals with black backgrounds and lurid green text writing. The advent of the graphical user interface relieved this tyranny with a paper-white background from a bitmapped screen to write your WYSIWYG text, to showcase colourful graphics (and Fonts!).
Fast forward 30+ years and it seems every app and OS is running away from black text / white backgrounds, and heading for monochrome graphics and oppressive white text on a black background again.
Using Dark Mode, either in apps or in the operating system on your computer or phone, promises a variety of benefits – less noticeable flickering, reducing eye strain, avoiding bright lights in a dark environment, perhaps better readability and therefore productivity, and even lower energy costs.
Dark Mode has existed in Windows for a while – but ultimately, apps need to support the theme, too, and more and more are doing so – like new Edge browser, or Office apps (where you can set the Office Theme).
The announcement on Microsoft 365 functionality adds for August 2019 highlighted additional Dark Mode support coming to Outlook mobile apps and Outlook.com, saying, “Dark Mode is not only easier on the eyes and may extend battery life, it also enables you to comfortably continue using your device in places where the default bright mode isn’t appropriate, like darkened airplanes and movie theaters.”
So kids, next time you want to go and watch a movie & catch up on your email, make sure you’ve Dark Mode on!