Windows Phone

Windows Phone is a clean and modern mobile operating system created by Microsoft to rival the likes of Android and iPhone.

Using Windows Reading List

When Windows 8.1 came out it included an application called Windows Reading List, which used the Share functionality of Windows to bookmark articles which can be read later.

Any application that shares the right kind of information can be used with Reading List, but the applications I use most often are Internet Explorer, Flipboard and the Bing applications.

Reading List

When you share an article to Reading List it asks you which category to use. I have set myself up with categories for software development resources, health and fitness information and general inspiration for life and work.

Adding articles on either Windows or Windows Phone will use your Microsoft account to synchronise automatically. This is completely seamless in both applications – meaning there are no options to configure these settings at all. I’m quite happy with this, but I know that some power users would prefer the option to choose how the information is synchronised with their computers.

Reading List and Internet Explorer in Reading Mode

When you use the application on Windows, clicking on one of the articles will open up another window next to the snapped reading list. I love this feature, and it really goes to show the strengths of multitasking with the modern interface in Windows.

Doing the same on the phone just opens Internet Explorer, the related application, or prompts you to search the store if you pick something that is incompatible. For example the Bing Wikipedia app isn’t currently available on Windows Phone, so clicking articles from this app prompt you to search the store.

Reading List for Windows Phone

The addition of the Windows Phone version of this application has really increased its use for me, however it’s obvious uses are diminished when used with older versions of Windows.

At work I use Windows 7 for my development machine, and there’s no way I can share interesting links found here with my Reading List. While I’m not expecting Microsoft to create a desktop app, a simple bookmarklet or browser extension would certainly do the job for collecting new articles to be read later.

Hi, Cortana!

Cortana in Halo

More personality than Google Now and more personal than Siri. Cortana is Microsoft’s personal assistant, providing a natural language interface to Windows Phone 8.1. Even though Cortana is not available in the UK yet, I switched my regional settings to US to enable her.

If you don’t know already, Cortana takes her name from the AI computer in the Halo series of video games, published by Microsoft Studios for the Xbox. In the Halo universe, she assists Master Chief throughout their adventures – getting emotionally attached along the way.

Hi, Jules!

Today’s Cortana shares the same name, voice and some of the attitude, though the primary focus is for her to be a loyal employee. The development team went out and interviewed real personal assistants – the ones who look after calendars and communications for business executives. The aim was to build a personal assistant who is able to anticipate the needs of their boss – the user – before they know what they need.

Cortana Tile Animation

While Cortana doesn’t share the same visual appearance of her namesake, the abstract appearance is probably one of the smartest moves the development team could have made. Using animations to give emotion, Cortana will look pleased to see you when you load her up, as well as looking thoughtful when processing requests. It’s my understanding this will be expanded and improved upon as time goes on, allowing her to look sad when your favourite sports team has just lost a match.

“remind me to go running when I get home”

The speech recognition is really good, though you don’t have to speak to her every time you want her to do something. You can type in an instruction in the same way you would speak it “remind me to go running when I get home” and she’ll silently confirm that she understood your intentions. This is a great feature, and I can see a lot of potential for this text based interaction. If I can switch to Cortana while writing code and just type a request without taking my hands off the keyboard – I’d be very happy. (PowerShell module anyone?)

Go running when you get home

Reminders through Cortana are very powerful for me in many ways. I use my Office 365 calendar all the time – and Cortana can interact with that by creating and managing appointments, but she can also create what I like to call ‘disposable reminders’ which are essentially one-off reminders that are based on time or location.

The places Cortana knows are powered by the Bing Maps service, something I’ve already been using for years. From day-one I had the benefit of Cortana already knowing about the dozens of places around the world I’d previously marked as favourites.

Bing Maps for Windows 8.1

Cortana now lets me to go one step further by giving these places a nickname. This allows me to say things like “remind me to pick up eggs when I go to the shop” and she’ll know I mean my village shop.

If I want to be a little less specific, I can say “remind me to pick up eggs when I go to Tesco” and Cortana will ask me “which Tesco?” and I can reply “Any”. This is great for when you are traveling or staying away from home and just want to use any store. She’ll also tell you which one is closest, naturally.

Bing Maps for Windows Phone 8.1

Travel can also be tracked by Cortana, though I haven’t had the opportunity to try it yet. It’s my understanding that she can track flights as well as provide useful information like weather and currency exchange rates for your local destinations.

Cortana Diagram

Already I have gotten used to having Cortana around. For example, I often use my Surface in bed with a stylus. This lets me write down my thoughts in OneNote. When I’m using a pen like this in a full screen experience – I don’t want to switch the search app, bring up the on-screen keyboard, or type in a query to get results. I can just pick up my nearby phone and speak a query like “how large is mars” or “how old is Patrick Stewart”

Cortana Bing Search

Answers to queries like these are also powered by Bing – my search engine of choice. However she does get stumped at some things. For example, when I asked her the current phase of the moon, she didn’t know the answer.

Things will no doubt get better though, and I already think she’s become a valuable asset to me in the pursuit of getting things done, and being productive.

Hi, Cortana! I hope we can be friends.

It’s a great time to be a Microsoft-focused software developer

The Build 2014 conference took place in San Francisco last week, where thousands of developers and designers came together to learn all the latest information about what it means to use Microsoft development tools, and build solutions that run on Microsoft platforms.

I have over 137 GB of videos yet to watch, but I can already say that it has been one of the best Microsoft developer conferences to date.

Here are my thoughts so far, with a few links to some of my highlights.

.NET is alive and well – and becoming more open

build-2014-4

There was a general feeling that .NET developers had been left behind in recent years. A strong push to using HTML and JavaScript really got some people worried when Windows 8 was announced – but at Build 2014 the message was loud and clear. The .NET platform is alive and well.

It’s almost as if they asked .NET developers what would make them really happy, and set about doing all those things. For me, personally, I was most excited by the promise of open-sourcing even more of the framework, including the brand-new compiler platform (Roslyn) that has been years in the making.

Initiatives like .NET Native will allow applications built with C# and Visual Basic to get much closer performance to applications created with C++. Starting first with Windows Store apps, these architecture specific binaries will increase performance at runtime without losing the productivity of developing with the architecture-agnostic .NET Framework.

Roslyn and .NET Native are in preview, and won’t be completed until the next version of Visual Studio. But there have also been a wide range of updates to the ASP.NET web platform, MVC, Entity Framework and way more – most of which are either available now with Visual Studio 2013 Update 2, or can be downloaded using packages from NuGet.

You can tell Windows is under new leadership

build-2014-1

Cortana – the new assistant built into Windows Phone 8.1 – was the highlight of the show. There had been rumours of Microsoft’s answer to Siri and Google Now for quite some time, so a lot of the information had already come out. But still, it was great to see Joe Belfiore talking to her publicly for the first time, confirming what Halo fans were waiting for: yes she is called Cortana, and yes, she sounds like Cortana.

As Cortana is such a huge step for Microsoft, I’ll be going in depth on what I think over the next few weeks.

Cortana wasn’t the only addition to Windows Phone 8.1, there were hundreds of new features and tweaks to the UI that will take weeks to be documented – the new calendar is just one of these. I’ve tried it in the emulator and it’s really great. The developer preview is due this month.

As a developer, the news of Universal Apps was very welcome. This allows high amounts of code sharing between applications designed for both Windows and Windows Phone. I can’t wait to try this stuff out, especially with the new JavaScript support.

Windows 8.1 has some new features too. The much-leaked Windows 8.1 Update includes changes to how the operating system behaves with a keyboard and mouse – though these changes are only the start of the improvements that are coming.

Azure is the future, and already here

build-2014-3

Microsoft’s cloud platform has improved tremendously over the last few years and this year was no exception – in fact, there were so many new features I can’t even begin to go through them all. Some I probably won’t even use (Java? No thanks.) but I know the option is there, which will inform my decisions for cloud hosting in the future.

Scott Guthrie and his team talked at great length about new features that will improve productivity for ‘DevOps’ tasks significantly. For example, the new Azure Portal includes the ability to view statistics, create new infrastructure, build new virtual machines, deploy websites and even do code changes with Git source control – all from one UI.

I already use Azure as part for my personal projects, as well as Visual Studio online as my source code repository. I plan on using it even more in the future – so I’m pleased to see Microsoft lead in this area. And they really are leading.

It doesn’t have to be Windows & .NET

build-2014-2

Times have certainly changed, and PCs that run Windows are no longer the most popular computing devices. As a predominantly Microsoft developer, this makes me wonder about the future. This year’s Build has continued the recent trend of Microsoft supporting other platforms in new ways – plus with partnerships with like likes of Xamarin, I see no reason to even contemplate switching over to Android (the most popular platform) in the foreseeable future.

While I was hoping that there would be the announcement of a Xamarin acquisition, they didn’t disappoint. It was great to see Maguel even joining Anders on stage during the keynote. Both of these guys are very smart, and I look forward to what else the partnership can bring. Being able to develop universal apps that also target iOS and Android is not very far away at all.

What’s your every day carry? 2014 Edition

In 2012 I did both what’s in your bag and what’s your every day carry posts, and this year I have decided to revisit both.

Also check out What’s in your bag? 2014 Edition

What's your every day carry?

Windows Phone

My Windows Phone of choice at the moment is the Nokia Lumia 920. If I had to pick a new one today I’d go for the 1020 because of the impressive camera – however I’m going to continue to use the 920 until the next generation of phones powered by Windows Phone 8.1 hit the market. (Very soon!)

Wallet

I am still using an All-Ett wallet, and this one – the small leather ‘sports’ version – is still going strong after getting it in June 2012.

Keys

I carry two keys with me all the time, and I’m still keeping it as simple as possible. I am also still carrying the Swiss Tech Utili-Key, because you get so much for such a small package.

Fitbit

I’ve recently started carrying a Fitbit One with me all the time. This passively records statistics like number of steps and calories burned. It has quickly become an essential item for keeping track of my health and fitness – and I even purchased a second device immediately when I realised I had lost my original one.

Pro-tip: Don’t lose it!

What's your every day carry?

What’s changed?

I no longer carry earphones with me, as I keep a pair in the office and I have a pair at home. Both are the Nokia Purity in-ear type. I like them.

The addition of the Fitbit One is something pretty recent, and I’ll be keeping an eye on other wearable devices that are compatible with Windows moving forward – I love getting all the statistics.

Last of all, I’d like to mention that while this is the minimum I carry, it’s not the only things – when I’m out doing astronomy I have a set of items I take with me, and I recently got a new bag to carry my personal computers around when visiting friends and family.

Tracking Health & Fitness with Windows

Running Shoes

These days I use a combination of software and hardware to keep track of my health and fitness in a way that I never have been able to previously. There’s no one vender that covers everything I want, but the software I’m using all works fairly well with my Windows devices.

Bing Health & Fitness is an application for Windows and Windows Phone which – as you may have guessed from the name – helps people with tasks related to health, and fitness. This is probably the most used software I have for actively recording information, and I use it every day.

Entering diet information in to Bing Health & Fitness is fairly easy, there are a number of foods built into the database which you can select, or you can add your own with information about carbs, protein and fat – as well as calories. I have been using this on the Windows 8.1 app since it came out, but on the release of the Windows Phone app I’ve started entering the information on my Lumia more often than my Surface. Being able to enter this information on the phone itself is a lot more convenient and the live tile shows me the numbers, which also serves as a reminder for when I haven’t done it.

Health and Fitness apps on Windows Phone

Another feature that the Windows Phone version introduced is the GPS Tracking. Previously I’d have to enter in data about exercises into the Windows app with guess work as to how far I’d gone. The GPS Tracking feature lets you simply start and stop exercise activity, and provides a map as well as statistics on the speed and estimated calories burned. I use this as well as my Fitbit statistics so that I can see the difference between actual exercise effort against normal day-to-day activity.

Talking of the Fitbit – most of the data collected by this device is done with very little input from me. I walk a lot more than I used to thanks to the statistics, but I don’t manually enter any information through the Fitbit app itself – as mentioned above, all the non-passive food and activity data is handled by Bing Health & Fitness. I’m very pleased to say that the Fitbit does a great job of collecting my information without me having to do anything at all.

Fitbit

It doesn’t really matter which app I use though, as all of my information is stored in Microsoft’s HealthVault – an online service which allows secure storage of health and fitness information, which can be shared with friends, family or health care professionals. There are HealthVault apps for both Windows and Windows Phone which allow entry of information directly, as well as a website which allows some pretty comprehensive data exports – if you need them.

Basic information like my height and weight are entered directly into HealthVault itself using the apps, and these measurements are currently done using ‘dumb’ methods – in other words, normal bathroom scales. Maybe in the future I might look at getting wireless scales – or even something more advance than that – though I see very little point at the moment. Every other bit of information collected by both Bing Health & Fitness and Fitbit are synchronised with HealthVault automatically.

Another application that integrates with HealthVault is Health Choices, an app that’s also available on both Windows and Windows Phone devices. It acts as a front-end to the NHS Choices content provided by the National Health Service. This includes details about hospitals, surgeries and other places that are useful to keep track of. When saving these places, the contact and address information will also be saved directly into HealthVault.

Health Choices also induces a A-Z of various treatments and conditions which can also be saved onto HealthVault – I’ve found these extremely useful in keeping track of medical history and medications taken.

I’ve always had an interest in metrics and statistics anyway, and thanks to the technology available today with the Windows platform I’ve been able to really take control of these things. I’ve seen improvements in fitness and motivation, and the information in these applications has helped me make important decisions about where to get treated when I have been unwell.

Obviously, none of this stuff would be as effective as having a personal trainer, nor does it replace having a professional doctor – but being informed definitely helps.

Now that I’ve started keeping track, I’m not going to stop. In fact, I think it’s only going to get more comprehensive over time.