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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TIME Video Games

The Surprising Reasons People Buy the PlayStation 4, Xbox One or Wii U

Sony Launches PlayStation 4 In Japan As Console Retakes U.S. Retail Lead Over Microsoft's Xbox One
Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images The first customer to purchase the PlayStation 4 (PS4) video game console holds the box at the launch of the PS4 console at the Sony showroom in Tokyo, Japan, on Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014.

New data offers a few head-scratching reasons why consumers buy

Infometrics guru Nielsen just published the results of an inquiry into why people are buying the latest game systems from Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo. The results are surprising in part.

Consider the following chart, which breaks the decision-making variables impacting each system into “factors” ranked by survey respondents:

Nielsen

The chart’s results are weirder than they appear at first. Take resolution, the number of horizontal by vertical lines output as video signal, and constitutive of the number of pixels onscreen. Several first-wave, multi-platform games ran at higher resolution on the PlayStation 4 than the Xbox One, owing, everyone in the media’s assumed based on anecdotal developer chitchat, to disparity between the two systems’ processing power.

The presumption is that slight visual differences shouldn’t matter, that you’re just being slavish to detail if you’re obsessed with subtle pixel differentiation. Yet there it is, the topmost reason for buyers of Sony’s console.

And what’s “Blu-ray Player” doing as PS4 factor number two? The Xbox One’s just as capable a Blu-ray system. Is this telling us something about a Microsoft messaging failure? Or wait—isn’t packaged media all but dead? Whether people are really watching scads of Blu-rays on their PS4s or this is just the psychological “want the option” factor is unclear.

“Game Library” is another head-scratcher. The Xbox One’s library is just as big and just as critically acclaimed as the PlayStation 4’s, while neither system offers native backward compatibility. Is this indication of a preference for the kinds of exclusives Sony’s system offers? And looking across the way at Nintendo, what’s the difference between “Game Library” (PS4) and “Exclusive Games/Content” (Wii U)?

I’m also a little confused about “Brand,” which tops the Xbox One’s factor column. Sony’s PlayStation-as-brand is, judging by platform sales across all systems, far better known than Microsoft’s Xbox—unless it’s more a Microsoft versus Sony (than PlayStation versus Xbox) thing.

And what does “Innovative Features” refer to? Xbox One Kinect, a peripheral the company yanked from the system before its first anniversary? SmartGlass integration? The bifurcated operating system (and Metro-styled interface)? Or the list of features the company wound up retracting in the wake of controversy over player privacy and digital rights management?

What this more likely confirms is that perception remains nine-tenths ownership.

TIME Social Networking

Microsoft’s New App Will Help You Stalk Your Friends

Microsoft

Location markers show who's around the corner in real time

Microsoft is reportedly working on a new app that can track the locations of your friends and family, displaying their movements across a map in real-time.

An early version of People Sense, which was unveiled by the Spanish-language news site Microsoft Place, overlays a select group of friends onto Bing Maps. The app mirrors the layout of Apple’s Find My Friends, which displays friends as roving markers inching through the streets.

But People Sense adds a number of features that makes communication a bit more seamless — tapping one of the markers will give the user options to message, call or pull up driving directions to the person of interest.

No release date has been set for People Sense, which is still under the development name “Buddy Aware.” A video review of the app, provided by Microsoft Place, shows an already robust set of features at work:

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TIME Companies

This Is Microsoft’s New Plan to Invade Your Smartphone

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 acquiring apps and quickly rebranding them as Microsoft products

Hardly a month passes these days where Microsoft hasn’t announced a new acquisition. In December it snapped up Acompli, a popular email app, for $200 million. Two weeks later it nabbed HockeyApp, a developer platform that shows how often a smartphone app crashes or bugs out. That was followed by the acquisition of Sunrise, a calendar app, for a rumored $100 million.

In total, Microsoft has gobbled up one to two young companies a month since November. It has all the appearances of a shopping spree.

In a way, this is just business as usual for the tech giant. Microsoft is an $86 billion-a-year enterprise. It doesn’t have to dig all that deep into its pockets to find a spare $100 million for an acquisition or two. Microsoft on average acquired 15 companies a year before 2009, according to data collected by market research firm CB Insights. That rate dropped to five a year around 2010 before picking up speed under CEO Satya Nadella, who took the reins in early 2014. If anything, Microsoft is just regaining its old appetite, which amounted to a whopping 149 acquisitions during Steve Ballmer’s 13-year tenure as the company’s previous CEO.

But what’s different about Microsoft’s latest acquisitions is the speed at which it’s turning them into new products for devices beyond those just running Microsoft’s Windows software. Microsoft has long struggled to make a dent in the mobile world, with more than nine out of 10 phones running either Android or Apple’s iOS. Nadella is now eager to make up for lost ground in mobile, and that’s meant a big change in Microsoft’s acquisition strategy.

“For a long time Microsoft’s strategy was embrace and expand, and everything was filtered through the lens of how this would advance Windows,” says Kevin Werbach, a legal studies and business ethics professor at University of Pennsylvania Wharton. But Nadella is more willing to make great apps regardless of which device is running them — he just wants Microsoft’s products in front of as many people as possible, and fast.

“Nadella is trying to reposition Microsoft into a faster moving and more nimble company,” says Werbach. “Showing that they can take an acquisition and turn it around quickly is indicative of that.”

Acompli is the best example of Microsoft’s new playbook: In a matter of weeks, Microsoft took Acompli’s popular email app and rebranded it as Outlook for iOS and Android, to rave reviews from the tech press. Before the Acompli move, Microsoft’s iOS and Android Outlook offering was nothing more than a clunky web portal disguised as an app. It’s a safe bet that Sunrise and similar acquisitions will reappear as Microsoft-branded offerings just as quickly.

Microsoft’s initial success with Outlook is a good omen for a company which many wrote off as having missed the boat on mobile. Its challenge moving forward will be ensuring that its apps are the absolute best offering for any particular task. Right now, Microsoft is benefitting from the app economy’s volatility: It’s easy for users to ditch one email app in favor of a new, better one. But that same characteristic could spell doom for Microsoft’s efforts down the road if the company gets too complacent — witness the unprecedented growth of Slack, a barely one-year-old office messaging app that hasn’t spent a cent on advertising, and yet has grown its user base 35% since the start of the year alone, much to the chagrin of its older rivals.

“A company like Slack, I don’t think anybody’s ever seen anything like this,” says Matthew Wong a research analyst at CB Insights. “The fact that companies especially in mobile can sort of achieve growth at the rate they are doing now is just too hard for companies like Microsoft to ignore.”

Microsoft will have to keep a vigilant watch over its apps. Its acquisition team will have to make quick and gutsy calls on which apps to bring in house, and which it can build better. The wrong call could also amplify criticism of its acquisition strategy — the company took a drubbing for its 2007 purchase of aQuantive, largely regarded as a $6.2 billion flop. A few killer apps that stay on top could help silence those critics once and for all.

TIME apps

Microsoft Buys a Well-liked Calendar App

The deal marks the latest in a string of acquisitions aimed at luring mobile users back to Microsoft

Microsoft acquired a widely praised calendar app Wednesday that works across iOS and Android devices, as part of a continuing campaign to lure anyone, regardless of their device, into using Microsoft’s growing suite of mobile apps.

The deal to purchase Sunrise comes roughly two months after Microsoft acquired Acompli, an email app that was quickly repackaged as Outlook email for mobile devices. Sunrise automatically connects to the majority of third-party calendars, hoovering up events and displaying them on an interface that tech critics have praised for its dual views, one showing events over the next two weeks, the other focusing on the next three days.

But perhaps the defining feature of the app is its ability to tap information from the web, including weather forecasts, Facebook events and head shots from LinkedIn. Users can also send emails and text messages in app, eliminating the nuisance of toggling between apps to get the word out about an event.

“This is another step forward on our journey to reinvent productivity and empower every person and organization to achieve more,”Rajesh Jha, Microsoft’s corporate vice president of Outlook and Office 365, said in a statement.

Whether every person and organization is willing to make the switch from their existing calendars, which come conveniently pre-installed on their devices, remains the an open question for Microsoft.

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