TIME apps

This Is Microsoft’s Trick to Make Office Way Better on Smartphones

Microsoft

The next generation of Word, Excel and PowerPoint are more thumb-friendly

Microsoft has a theory that your workday splits precisely into two categories: Those moments when you’re sitting still in front of a screen 10.2 inches or above, and those moments when you’re on the go, holding a screen 10.1 inches or below. One-tenth of an inch, Microsoft says, has a profound impact on the way you work.

Microsoft has kept that dividing line in mind when designing the next generation of Office apps for Windows 10, which launches this summer. TIME got an early look at the new Windows Phone apps this week, which will be released in preview mode for Windows Phone Insiders by the end of the month. The company hopes the software’s new interfaces will let workers switch seamlessly from desktops to tablets to smartphones without straining their eyes, fingers or thumbs.

In practice, the redesigns bring design tweaks that are subtle but deeply effective. For example, that ribbon of menu options in Word, typically entrenched at the top of the screen, flips to the bottom of the screen on smartphones. And why not? That’s where your thumbs are, after all.

The menus themselves pack a surprising number of features into the smartphone’s limited screen space. Flick up the menu in Word, for instance, and it displays a few of the formatting menu’s greatest hits – Italicize, Bold, and so on. One more flick of the thumb reveals a deeper list of all of those nit-picky buttons you might have waited to use at the desktop. Now they glide underneath your thumb for easy picking.

Excel, too, makes the leap to smartphones with hardly a loss in functionality. The 400 or so functions familiar to power users have been repackaged into larger groupings (Statistical, Engineering, etc.). Tap on any one grouping and nerd out at the mathematical possibilities.

PowerPoint slides are editable from the title bar down to table cells. One of the few functions that won’t be available on smartphones are precise manipulations of borders and objects — a thumb can only do so much on a touchscreen.

The question remains whether Office users pine for so many functionalities while on the go. Microsoft Office General Manager Jared Spataro said that many of the designs were self-evident to the team. “It’s almost a gut feeling in some cases,” he said, but each idea was carefully vetted by focus groups. Researchers traced their eye and finger movements across various screen sizes.

Still, there are more radical ways to redesign apps beyond thumb-centric designs. Microsoft offered a hint of how its apps could begin to anticipate users’ needs with the introduction of a new search bar in Microsoft Word. Type in a keyword, such as “strikethrough,” and the button appears automatically below the search bar, sparing users the trouble of finding it themselves. Even pushier apps like Sway can format an entire slide presentation automatically, changing fonts and backgrounds in one tap of a button. For now, though, Microsoft seems intent on porting familiar functionalities from the desktop to the tablet and smartphone, rather than overwhelm users with new tricks. It’s a fitting early step into the mobile era.

MONEY stocks

The Hidden Danger in Apple Stock

150409_INV_AppleDanger
China Stringer Network—Reuters

Apple's mountain of cash—which is generally considered a safety net—actually comes with risks.

Investing in Apple APPLE INC. AAPL 0.52% today seems like a smart bet by many measures.

The company broke records for the most profits for any business in a single quarter—ever—earlier this year. With nearly $180 billion in cash, management has plenty of cushion against setbacks—like, say, if the new Apple Watch doesn’t sell as well as projected. And while Apple has been criticized for not sharing that cash with shareholders as much as peers like Microsoft do, recent signals from company leaders suggest they may announce a hefty dividend hike as early as this month.

Certainly, there’s plenty of cause for investors to favor cash-rich companies like Apple, says Thomas McConville, co-portfolio manager of the Becker Value Equity fund, which holds Apple stock.

“A company having lots of cash is like a person having lots of savings,” McConville says. “If a person loses a job, savings help to weather the storm. Cash helps a company protect itself from shocks and keep investing in value-creating activities.”

But, he says, the devil is in the details of how exactly a company invests in activities—and whether those enterprises actually add value.

New projects and products can make or break a company, and it can be especially risky for a business to step out of its wheelhouse. Apple’s wheelhouse is making the best-looking and best-functioning advanced consumer tech products, says McConville.

That’s at least partly why some critics are skeptical about whether the rumored Apple car is the right new venture for the company.

“As an investor, I want to see that any product extension they announce fits under their umbrella,” McConville says. “If they get into vehicles, creating onboard technology and displays is a good fit, since visual appeal and functionality are top concerns. But if they were going to try to design seat brackets? Well, that’s probably not the perfect fit.”

That makes sense. Then again, traditional automakers already seem enthusiastic to team up with Apple—and with all that cash, the tech giant could easily just buy a company with more experience creating car parts like seat brackets. So what could go wrong?

Well, cash-rich companies have lots of buying power, says Don Wordell, portfolio manager of the RidgeWorth Mid Cap Value fund. And, as the saying goes, with power comes responsibility.

“Companies that are simply too big to grow organically can grow inorganically by buying others,” he says. “But that creates risk. Cash can be as much of a liability as an asset.”

So, for example, it worked out well when Disney bought Pixar for $7.4 billion nine years ago. That acquisition led to a spate of successful movies, a stronger brand, and happy investors who have seen total returns of more than 300% since 2006.

But when Quaker bought Snapple for $1.7 billion in 1994, it bungled the brand’s marketing campaigns and relationships with distributors; after just 27 months, Quaker sold Snapple to a holding company for about $300 million—less than a fifth of its purchase price. The whole affair left Quaker with a damaged credit rating and dragged its stock price flat during a period when the rest of the market was on fire.

Hindsight is, of course, 20/20. But a key quality investors should watch for is how patient and thoughtful a company’s leaders seem to be before deploying resources.

“Too much cash can burn a hole in management’s pocket and cause them to make a bad acquisition,” says McConville.

Apple’s record of acquisitions and product launches is not without flops. Among other failed products, there was Apple’s 2007 Bluetooth headset, which was discontinued after two years because it couldn’t compete with third-party devices. And although the company has invested millions over the years in acquiring mapping companies, like Placebase and Poly 9, Apple has still not succeeded in creating a mapping application that competes with the likes of Google Maps.

Of course, Apple’s top executives have made plenty of successful moves on behalf of the company in recent years, and sales of core products like the iPhone are still breaking records. But strong is not invincible, and if its new wristwatch doesn’t take off, Apple will soon be looking to throw cash at developing its next big product.

Investors would be wise to keep an eye on how, exactly, that cash is spent.

 

TIME Video Games

The 15 Biggest Video Games Coming Out This Spring

Check out our springtime list of PC, console and handheld video games to keep an eye on

These are the biggest games for PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Wii U and Nintendo 3DS out this spring, including Bloodborne, Mortal Kombat X, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and Xenoblade Chronicles 3D.

  • Mario Party 10

    Nintendo’s jamboree four-player Mario Party series comes to the Wii U, harboring its peculiar melange of boardgame-like mini-games, with this particular batch crafted to avail itself of both the Wii U’s unique second-screen controller and Nintendo’s wirelessly programmable Amiibo figurines.

    Wii U

    March 20

  • Bloodborne

    The popular line on developer From Software is that the studio makes counter-culturally punishing hack and slash games. That’s too easy. Once you isolate each game’s patterns, they’re relatively simple to crack. The difficulty’s in sussing the patterns, it’s true, but these games trade as much on their ambience, and Bloodborne‘s no different: an abattoir of the arcane that’s as gratifying to rubberneck as unravel, piece by bloody piece.

    PlayStation 4

    March 24

  • Pillars of Eternity

    A bona fide old-school PC roleplaying escapade inspired by several popular turn of the century Dungeons & Dragons computer gaming hits, Pillars of Eternity resurrects bygone staples like isometric (top-down, off-center) camera angles, round-driven tactical combat and an almanac’s worth of statistical esoterica. But it’s all thoroughly modernized here, and as friendly as this sort of world-building exercise is likely to get.

    PC

    March 26

  • Axiom Verge

    Give Petroglyph (Command & Conquer) developer Tom Happ five years to fiddle in his spare time with a side-scrolling platformer, and you get Axiom Verge, an homage to games like Metroid and Castlevania, but one that layers in its own curiosities and inventions, adding to a growing chorus of recent, deceptively throwback games that bristle with progressive surprises.

    PC, PlayStation 4, PS Vita

    March 31

  • Story of Seasons

    A Harvest Moon-like (developer Marvelous Entertainment is known for its work on the long-running Harvest Moon series), Story of Seasons lets players raise ye olde crops and livestock, but in this case you can peddle your wares in an online market composed of various “countries,” each with unique trade-related demands.

    Nintendo 3DS

    March 31

  • Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin

    Another Sisyphean From Software ordeal, Scholar of the First Sin packages last year’s Dark Souls II with all of its expansion content, upgraded for the latest consoles and sporting new enemies, items as well as support for more simultaneous players in online sessions.

    PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One

    April 2

  • Etrian Mystery Dungeon

    The dungeon-exploring Etrian Odyssey series meets the roguelike Mystery Dungeon games. It’s not clear yet how that mashup’s going to distinguish itself, but it presumably involves random-generated dungeons, three-dimensional environments and chess-like (I go, you go) combat.

    Nintendo 3DS

    April 7

  • Affordable Space Adventures

    2015’s list of Wii U games feels worryingly sparse with The Legend of Zelda slipping to 2016. While you’re waiting, there’s Affordable Space Adventures to think about, a clever-sounding Wii U exclusive that hands you control of a tiny spaceship with discretely playable and granular systems, allowing friends to crew aspects of the ship like thrust, stabilization or scanning in concert.

    Wii U

    April 9

  • Xenoblade Chronicles 3D

    One of the smartest roleplaying games in the genre’s history comes to the New Nintendo 3DS (and only to the New 3DS–it’ll be the first that taps the new handheld’s souped up processor). This is your chance to play what by all accounts looks to be the definitive version.

    Nintendo 3DS

    April 10

  • Grand Theft Auto V

    It’s a shame a studio as stately as Rockstar’s made players on the most popular and generationally resilient video game platform around wait a full year and a half to play the company’s 2013 magnum opus. If you’re one of PC gaming’s many slighted, however, the Windows version appears to be definitive (that is, if you have a PC powerful enough to crunch it).

    PC

    April 14

  • Mortal Kombat X

    It’s another Mortal Kombat for the latest-gen hardware, meaning a compendium of even more graphically intricate carnage erupting from the business end of whips, chains, bows, swords, hats, hammers and various weaponized limbs.

    PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One

    April 14

  • Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China

    Assassin’s Creed Unity was the first critical misstep in Ubisoft’s annual stealth-parkour franchise, in part because the company oversold it as its boldest rethink since the series debuted in 2007. Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China, a downloadable 2.5D platformer (it’s a 2D side-scroller with 3D elements), will be the first in a trilogy of diversions designed to fill the space between Unity and the series’ next installment, ostensibly due this year and reportedly set in Victorian London.

    PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One

    April 21

  • Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor 2 Record Breaker

    Sporting the world’s weirdest name and likely bound to scare off anyone not in the tactical roleplaying Tensei-series know, Devil Survivor 2 Record Breaker revisits the acclaimed 2012 Nintendo DS game (of the same name, sans the “Record Breaker” appendage) by way of a new scenario that picks up where the original game left off.

    Nintendo 3DS

    May 5

  • Wolfenstein: The Old Blood

    You won’t need a copy of Wolfenstein: The New Order (reviewed here) to play developer MachineGames’s standalone prequel expansion, which takes series protagonist William “B.J.” Blazkowicz back to Hitlerian climes circa 1946, canvassing two pivotal alternate history events leading up to the last game’s break with World War II and Man in the High Castle-ish leap forward.

    PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One

    May 5

  • The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

    You may want to take the rest of the year off to play The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Polish developer CD Projekt Red’s apparent bid to eliminate every other game from your playtime schedule. Imagine Skyrim multiplied by Skyrim and you’re in the ballpark of this East European-inspired fantasy-verse. And if hundreds of potential hours of freeform gameplay isn’t enough to sate your Heisenbergian appetites, the studio just announced two expansions due for release over the course of this year into early next, totaling some 30 hours of additional content.

    PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One

    May 19

TIME Microsoft

Microsoft Has a Clever Plan to Get You to Love Bing

Bing
Microsoft

Bing search will be a huge part of the next Windows

There’s a good chance you’ve used Microsoft’s Bing search engine without even realizing it.

Ask your iPhone’s Siri to search the web, and Microsoft’s search engine fetches the results. Ditto Amazon’s Kindle Fire. Up until last year, Facebook searches were powered by Bing. Or maybe you prefer Yahoo! search — again, that’s Bing humming under the hood. It’s the Rodney Dangerfield of search engines: It can’t get no respect, but it has an unexpected vitality. In fact, Bing powers nearly one-third of all the world’s searches, according to statistics gathered by web analytics firm comScore — meaning Google search isn’t as dominant as you might think.

This summer, Bing is poised to claim an even larger share of the search market, when 1.5 billion Windows users will have an opportunity to upgrade to Windows 10. The upgrade, which will be free to anyone running Windows version 7 and up, will embed Bing-powered search bars on millions of desktops and home screens. Microsoft hopes that the convenience of these searches may finally break users of the habit of typing “Google.com” for all of their search needs.

“We fundamentally believe that as search evolves, it will move well beyond the point where I launch a browser and type a query into a search box,” says Bing’s general manager Ryan Gavin.

In Windows 10, the search bar will be ever-present at the bottom of the screen. It won’t just search the web, but also personal information saved to the device or floating in the cloud. All of the results will be bundled into a single menu. That means anytime Windows 10 users search for a file, they’ll see Bing search results as well, a constant reminder that web searches are only a click away — or less. Windows 10 users will also be able to search via voice query thanks to Cortana, Microsoft’s digital assistant that listens to spoken commands and personalizes search results according to what the user is doing in that moment.

“Say I’m using an Excel spreadsheet and I’m immersed in what I’m doing,” says Mike Calcagno, director of engineering for Cortana, “I can say, ‘Hey Cortana, what’s 69 times pi?'”

Cortana will spare the user from opening a separate window or launching a calculator app, and it will know that by “pi,” the user is not referring to a dessert. That may sound like a minor improvement, but Microsoft is wagering that a few less clicks can make all the difference in user adoption. When Cortana launched last year, spoken word searches increased ten-fold, according to Calcagno. “We do see behavior change, which is really exciting,” he says.

This fluidity opens a new terrain in the search wars. The standard keyword search has become a bit of a commodity. Run a side-by-side search of Google and Bing, and the results themselves are often indistinguishable. The next big battle in search, then, will involve subtly nudging users to information in seamless ways they might not expect — and in some cases, without users processing which search engine they’re even using.

For instance, searches will constantly run in the background of Microsoft’s new web browser for Windows 10. Type “weather” into the address bar, and the forecast will automatically appear beneath it, before you’ve hit “enter.” Visit a restaurant’s webpage, and a sliding side-panel will display the restaurant’s phone number, driving directions and reviews.

“It’s really about task completion at the end of the day,” says Gavin, “because we have this intelligence platform, because you can talk to your PC without having to wake it up or clicking on a face of the UI.”

But to intercept users on their way to Google, Microsoft will have to beef up its system of call and response. Early builds of Windows 10 show that Cortana does an admirable job with scripted searches for the weather or stocks, but tends to fumble on more open-ended questions, or as one PCWorld reviewer found, ignores commands entirely.

Then there’s the sheer inertia of Googling, a habit so ingrained that any alternative search can feel downright unnatural. When Peter Parker used Bing in 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man, fans pounced on the scene as a brazen example of product placement. By the sequel, Spider-Man had switched back to Google. Maybe by the web-slinger’s next sequel, the search results will automatically come to Spider-Man, and neither he nor the audience will know where the results came from.

 

TIME viral

Watch Four Pranksters Try to Sell Microsoft Products in an Apple Store

"Have you ever tried the Microsoft tablets?"

A surefire way to get fired from an Apple Genius position would be to start recommending Microsoft products to customers. These four guys did just that — good thing they don’t actually work for Apple.

Well known YouTube pranksters NelkFilmz dressed-up in Apple uniforms, walked into a what appears to be an Apple store, and began making unhelpful suggestions to shoppers like “An iPhone? Honestly, like, I wouldn’t get an iPhone.”

Inevitably, managers and staff discovered them — but not before plenty of hilarious awkwardness took place.

Read next: The Next Windows Is Coming Way Sooner Than We Thought

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TIME Innovation

Microsoft Is Getting Close to Perfecting a Universal Communicator

Some 40,000 people are using software program Skype Translator in hopes of achieving real-time translation

Gurdeep Pall was confident Skype’s automatic translation program would work. But as Microsoft’s corporate vice president in charge of Skype prepared to hold the first public demonstration of the program last May, Pall found himself worrying about the room itself. “Any sound that goes into the microphone, you basically have logic running trying to figure out what the sound said,” he says. “You can have feedback or you can have somebody coughing faraway that the mic picked up, somebody shifting far away, the squeak from their foot.”

Pall’s anxiety was for naught. An audience of several hundred reporters and industry insiders watched on as Pall and a native German speaker held a nearly flawless conversation through the company’s prototype of Skype Translator. Roughly a second after Pall Spoke, subtitles in German and English appeared at the bottom of the screen, and a synthetic Siri-like voice read the words aloud to the German caller. The audience murmured in astonishment, but the program didn’t falter as it shot back a translation from German to English. Pall, on the other hand, was flustered as his jitters about the room metastasized to two presenters who were whispering to one another nearby throughout the demonstration. “I’m thinking, ‘Get out of here!’” Pall recalls, laughing.

Researchers working on automatic translation technology like this are familiar with this blend of hope and anxiety. The concept of a universal translator has long been a fixture of science fiction, not to mention a dream of inventors and linguists since long before computers existed. The granodiorite slab announcing the kingly reign of Ptolemy V in Egypt circa 196 BC, better known as the Rosetta Stone, might be considered an early stab at the idea. In the 1930s, two inventors filed patents for “mechanical dictionaries” promising to translate words in real time. And in more recent decades, firms ranging from NEC to Jibbigo have periodically tried to crack the problem. But as practical reality, the idea has been perennially delayed.

Now, advances in so-called machine learning—computer programs that can essentially self-teach with enough exposure to spoken language—hope for a universal translator is increasingly replacing anxiety. What has changed from previous generations is that the underlying technology thrives through use, trial and error, recorded and reviewed, ad nasueam. The current crop of translation software gets smarter, researchers and programmers say, the more it absorbs. “The more data you have, the better you’re going to do,” explains Lane Schwartz, a linguistics professor at the University of Illinois.

Which is why Microsoft released a preview version of Skype Translator to a limited number of users last December. (The Redmond, Washington-based tech giant bought Skype for $8.5 billion in 2011.) The program is expected to reach a major milestone near the end of March. Late last year, Google announced its translation app for text would include a “conversation mode” for the spoken word. Baidu, the so-called Google of China, has had a similar feature available in its home market for several years. And the forthcoming release of the Apple Watch, a powerful computer with echoes of Dick Tracey’s famous wrist wear, has some speculating that near-instant translation might be the nascent wearables market’s killer app.

That leaves a handful of search giants—Microsoft, Google and Baidu—racing to fine-tune the technology. Andrew Ng, Baidu’s chief scientist likens what’s coming next to the space race. “It doesn’t work if you have a giant engine and only a little fuel,” he says. “It doesn’t work if you have a lot of fuel and a small engine.” The few companies that can combine the two, however, may blast ahead.

So Many Fails

There’s no shortage of false summits in the history of translation. Cold War footage from 1954 captured one of the earliest machine translators in action. One of the lead researchers predicted that legions of these machines might be used to monitor the entirety of Soviet communications “within perhaps 5 years.” The demonstration helped generate a surge of government funding, totalling $3 million in 1958, or $24 million in present-day dollars.

But by the 1960s, the bubble had burst. The government convened a panel of scientific experts to survey the quality of machine translations. They returned with an unsparing critique. Early translations were “deceptively encouraging,” the Automatic Language Processing Advisory Committee wrote in a 1966 report. Automatic translation, the panel concluded, “serves no useful purpose without postediting, and that with postediting the overall process is slow and probably uneconomical.”

Funding for machine translation was drastically curtailed in the wake of the report. It would be the first of several boom and bust cycles to buffet the research community. To this day, researchers are loath to predict how far they can advance the field. “There is no magic,” says Chris Wendt, who has been working on machine translation at Microsoft Research for nearly a decade. But he admits that the latest improvements resulting from artificial intelligence can, at times, be mystifying. “There are things that you don’t have an explanation for why it works,” he says.

Wendt works out of Building 99, Microsoft’s research hub on the western edge of its Redmond campus. The building’s central atrium is wrapped by four floors of glass-walled conference rooms, where Microsoft engineers and researchers can be seen working on pretty much any project they please. The open-ended aspect of their work is a point of pride enshrined in the lab’s mission statement. “It states, first and foremost, that our goal as an institution is to move the state of the art forward,” said Rick Rashid in 2011, twenty years after he launched the lab, according to a Microsoft blog post celebrating the milestone. “It doesn’t matter what part of the state of the art we’re moving forward, and it doesn’t say anything in that first part of the mission statement about Microsoft.”

In other words, if Microsoft’s researchers want to tinker with strange and unproven technologies, say motion-sensing cameras or holographic projectors, nobody is likely to stop them. In the mid-2000’s, there were few technologies quite as strange and unproven as “deep neural networks,” algorithms that can parse through millions of spoken words and spot the underlying sound patterns. Say, “pig,” for instance, and the algorithm will identify the unique sound curve of the letter “p.” Expose it to more “p” words and the shape of that curve becomes more refined. Before long, the algorithm can detect a “p” sound across multiple languages, and exposure to those languages further attunes its senses. “P” words in German (prozent) improves its detection of “p” words in English (percent).

Those same lessons, it turns out, apply to volume, pitch or accents. A lilt at the end of the sentence may indicate that the speaker has asked a question. It may also indicate that the speaker talks like a Valley girl. Expose the deep learning algorithm to a range of voices, however, and it may begin to notice the difference. This profusion of voices, which used to overwhelm supercomputers, now improves their performance. “Add training data that is not perfect, like people speaking in a French accent, and it does not degrade overall quality for people speaking without a French accent,” says Wendt.

The results of deep neural network research in language applications stunned Microsoft’s research team in 2011. Error rates in transcription, for instance, plummeted by 50%—from one out of every four words to one out of eight. Until then, the misunderstood word was one of the most persistent and insurmountable obstacles to machine translation. “The system cannot recover from that because it takes that word at face value and translates it,” explains Wendt. “Employing deep learning on the speech recognition part brought the error rate low enough to attempt translation.”

Speaking into Skype Translator, the commercial face of all of Microsoft’s linguistic research, shows how far things have come. The sound of your voice zips into Microsoft’s cloud of servers, where it is parsed by a panoply of software developed by the company. The team that developed those green squiggly lines under grammatical errors in Word documents laid the groundwork for automatic punctuation, for example. The team that created Microsoft’s translation app, which is currently used to translate posts on Facebook and Yelp, provided the engine for text translation. The team that developed the voice for Cortana, Microsoft’s voice-activated personal assistant similar to Apple’s Siri, helped develop the voice for Skype.

When Microsoft’s researchers debuted a prototype of Skype Translator at the company’s version of an annual science fair, they enclosed it in a cardboard telephone booth, modeled after the time-traveling machine from the Dr. Who television series. Co-founder Bill Gates stepped inside and phoned a Spanish speaker in Argentina. The speaker had been warned that when the caller said, “Hi, it’s Bill Gates,” it wasn’t a joke. It really would be Bill Gates. What did Gates say? Pretty much what everyone says at first, according to the team: “Hi. How are you? Where are you?”

My Turn

I posed the same questions to Karin, a professional translator hired for a hands-on demonstration at Microsoft’s Building 99. She answered in Spanish, and paused as Skype’s digital interpreter read a translated reply: “Hello, nice to meet you. Now I’m in Slovakia.”

The program has the basic niceties of conversation down cold, and for a moment, the Star Trek fantasy of a “universal translator” seemed tantalizingly within reach. But then a few hiccups emerged as the conversation progressed. Her reason for visiting New York was intelligible, but awkwardly phrased: “I want to meet all of New York City and I want to attach it with a concert of a group I like,” from which I gathered that she wanted to see a concert during her visit. I asked her if the program often faltered in her experience. “In the beginning,” came the translated reply, “but each time it gets better. It’s like one child first. There were things not translated, but now he’s a teenager and knows a lot of words.”

With some 40,000 people signed up to use Skype Translator, it has been getting a crash course in the art of conversation, and those words could work wonders on its error rates. An odd quirk of machine translation systems is that they tend to excel at translating European Union parliamentary proceedings. For a long time the EU produced some of the best training data out there: a raft of speeches professionally translated into dozens of languages.

But Microsoft is rapidly accumulating its own record of casual conversations. Users of the preview version are informed that their utterances may be recorded and stored in an anonymous, shuffled pile that makes it impossible to trace the words back to their source, Microsoft stresses. The team expects the error rate to drop continuously as Skype Translator absorbs slang, proper names and idioms into its system. Few companies can tap such a massive corpus of spoken words. “Microsoft is in a good position,” says Wendt. “Google is also in a good position. Then there’s a big gap between us and everyone else.”

For now, the Skype team is focused on adding users and driving down error rates, with the long-run goal of releasing instant translation as a standard feature for Skype’s 300 milllion users. “Translation is something we believe ought to be available to everybody for free,” says Pall.

That raises an awkward question for professional translators like Karin. “Do you feel threatened by Skype Translator,” I asked her through the program. “Not yet,” was her translated reply, read aloud by her fast-developing, free digital rival.

Read next: Here’s Why Microsoft Is Giving Pirates the Next Windows for Free

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TIME Microsoft

Here’s Why Microsoft Is Giving Pirates the Next Windows for Free

Satya Nadella Delivers Opening Keynote At Microsoft Build Conference
Justin Sullivan—Getty Images Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella delivers a keynote address during the 2014 Microsoft Build developer conference on April 2, 2014 in San Francisco, California.

It's all about getting a bunch of users hooked on Windows

Bill Gates was famously sanguine about the rampant theft of Microsoft’s intellectual property in China. “As long as they’re going to steal” software, he said during a 1998 town hall at the University of Washington, “we want them to steal ours.” He predicted that Microsoft would convert the free riders into paying customers within a decade.

Not quite. By 2011, Chinese software piracy had so thoroughly undermined Microsoft’s sales that former chief executive Steve Ballmer revealed that the Netherlands, population 17 million, was a greater source of revenue than China, population 1.3 billion, the Wall Street Journal reported at the time.

Ballmer has since stepped aside, and now it’s CEO Satya Nadella’s turn to take a whack at the piracy problem. His strategy is an offer bootleggers can’t refuse: The chance to upgrade from an unlicensed, outdated version of Windows to the latest version for free.

“We are upgrading all qualified PCs, genuine and non-genuine, to Windows 10,” Microsoft executive vice president Terry Myerson said in an interview with Reuters Wednesday. Windows 10 should be out this summer as a free download for anyone with Windows 7 or newer already installed on their computer.

Why the sudden freebie? In part, it’s because Microsoft is making a strategic play to get as many users hooked on the Windows 10 platform as possible. Once on board, users can be lured into paying for premium services, such as apps at the Windows Store or a subscription to Office 365, Microsoft’s productivity suite. The more users Microsoft gets now, the more services it can sell downstream — and it’s hoping even pirates can be flipped into paying customers.

It’s a gutsy play for a company that has historically relied on Windows licensing fees for roughly a quarter of its revenue, totaling $18 billion in 2014. Shareholders tend to get antsy at any sign that historic cash cow might be faltering. A 13% drop in Windows licensing sales last quarter prompted a panicked sell-off of Microsoft stocks. It’s hard to predict how patiently investors will wait for Microsoft to accumulate new users without collecting payment up front.

In any case, Microsoft will only gamble on this experiment in the short-run. The Windows 10 giveaway ends within one year of its release, and Microsoft has made clear that pirates who have upgraded to the new operating system will not be considered legitimate customers.

“If a device was considered non-genuine or mislicensed prior to the upgrade, that device will continue to be considered non-genuine or mislicensed after the upgrade,” a Microsoft spokesperson wrote in a statement to TIME.

In other words, pirates can take advantage of a temporary amnesty from licensing fees — but Microsoft will extract payment eventually.

Read more: Here’s What It’s Like to Use Microsoft’s Amazing New Holographic Headset

TIME Companies

The Next Windows Is Coming Way Sooner Than We Thought

Microsoft's Windows 8.1 Goes On Sale
Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images The logo for Microsoft Corp.'s Windows operating system is displayed at a launch event for the Windows 8.1 operating system in Tokyo, Japan, on Friday, Oct. 18, 2013.

Microsoft will launch Windows 10 in 190 countries as early as this summer

The next generation of Microsoft’s operating system, Windows 10, will launch as early as this summer, executives revealed during a developers’ summit in Shenzhen, China Tuesday.

“We continue to make great development progress and shared today that Windows 10 will be available this summer in 190 countries and 111 languages,” said Microsoft executive vice president Terry Myerson.

Myerson added in a separate interview with Reuters that Microsoft would take the unprecedented step of making the upgrade available for free, even to “non-genuine” Windows users, he said, in an oblique reference to pirated versions of the operating system.

Myerson framed the decision as an attempt to “re-engage” users in China, where lax copyright protections have created a massive market for unlicensed versions of the software. Upwards of three-quarters of commercial software in China is unlicensed, according to a global survey by industry analysts at BSA.

TIME Video Games

The Best Thing to Happen to Xbox 360 Owners in Years

Xbox 360
Junko Kimura—Getty Images Visitors play with the XBOX 360 at the Microsoft booth during the Tokyo Game Show 2009 press and business day at Makuhari Messe on September 24, 2009 in Chiba, Japan.

Microsoft is introducing a preview program on Xbox 360

Microsoft is launching a preview program for Xbox 360 owners that allows users to test new features, a move that follows the success of the company’s Xbox One preview program.

Specially selected Xbox 360 owners will be invited to join the program through a message from Xbox Live, allowing them to sign up and enroll into the program. An initial update will add better network connectivity tests, The Verge reports.

Offering updates is a surprising move considering the age of Xbox 360, which was first released a decade ago.

Microsoft is also allowing Xbox 360 owners to build an Xbox One game library from their existing Xbox 360 console, encouraging users to switch to the latest iteration of the gaming system.

[The Verge]

TIME Gadgets

Microsoft Reinvented the Keyboard — Yes, the Keyboard

It folds down the middle and uses Bluetooth

For heavy-duty writing on the go, regular keyboards are too big, while touchscreen keyboards are too small. But Microsoft is betting that is new, foldable keyboard will be just right.

Microsoft unveiled the Universal Foldable Keyboard on Monday, a thin, lightweight keypad that folds down the middle. Unfold the keyboard and it automatically powers on and connects wirelessly to Bluetooth-enabled phones or tablets. The battery lasts upwards of three months on a single charge, according to Microsoft.

The keyboard will go on sale at the Microsoft Store and various retailers this July for $99.95.

Read next: See Why Samsung Needs the Galaxy S6 To Be a Massive Hit

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