Jul
15
2020
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Gmail for G Suite gets deep integrations with Chat, Meet, Rooms and more

Google is launching a major update to its G Suite productivity tools today that will see a deep integration of Gmail, Chat, Meet and Rooms on the web and on mobile, as well as other tools like Calendar, Docs, Sheets and Slides. This integration will become available in the G Suite early adopter program, with a wider roll-out coming at a later time.

The G Suite team has been working on this project for about a year, though it fast-tracked the Gmail/Meet integration, which was originally scheduled to be part of today’s release, as part of its response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the core of today’s update is the idea that we’re all constantly switching between different modes of communication, be that email, chat, voice or video. So with this update, the company is bringing all of this together, with Gmail being the focal point for the time being, given that this is where most users already find themselves for hours on end anyway.

Google is branding this initiative as a “better home for work” and in practice, it means that you’ll not just see deeper integrations between products, like a fill calendaring and file management experience in Gmail, but also the ability to have a video chat open on one side of the window while collaboratively editing a document in real time on the other.

Image Credits: Google

According to G Suite VP and GM Javier Soltero, the overall idea here is not just to bring all of these tools closer together to reduce the task-switching that users have to do.

Image Credits: Google

“We’re announcing something we’ve been working on since a little bit before I even joined Google last year: a new integrated workspace designed to bring together all the core components of communication and collaboration into a single surface that is not just about bringing these ingredients into the same pane of glass, but also realizes something that’s greater than the sum of its parts,” he told me ahead of today’s announcement. “The degree of integration across the different modes of communication, specifically email, chat, and video calling and voice video calling along with our existing physical existing strength in collaboration.”

Just like on the web, Google also revealed some of its plans when it first announced its latest major update to Gmail for mobile in May, with its Meet integration in the form of a new bar at the bottom of the screen for moving between Mail and Meet. With this, it’s expanding to include native Chat and Rooms support as well. Soltero noted that Google thinks of these four products as the “four pillars of the integrated workspace.” Having them all integrated into a single app means you can manage the notification behavior of all of them in a single place, for example, and without the often cumbersome task-switching experience on mobile.

Image Credits: Google

For now, these updates are specific to G Suite, though similar to Google’s work around bringing Meet to consumers, the company plans to bring this workspace experience to consumers as well, but what exactly that will look like still remains to be seen. “Right now we’re really focused. The people who urgently need this are those involved in productivity scenarios. This idea of ‘the new home for work’ is much more about collaboration that is specific to professional settings, productivity and workplace settings,” Soltero said.

Image Credits: Google

But there is more…

Google is also announcing a few other feature updates to its G Suite line today. Chat rooms, for example, are now getting shared files and tasks, with the ability to assign tasks and to invite users from outside your company into rooms. These rooms now also let you have chats open on one side and edit a document on the other, all without switching to a completely different web app.

Also new is the ability in Gmail to search not just for emails but also chats, as well as new tools to pin important rooms and new “do not disturb” and “out of office” settings.

One nifty new feature of these new integrated workspaces is that Google is also working with some of its partners to bring their apps into the experience. The company specifically mentions DocuSign, Salesforce and Trello. These companies already offer some deep Gmail integrations, including integrations with the Gmail sidebar, so we’ll likely see this list expand over time.

Meet itself, too, is getting some updates in the coming weeks with “knocking controls” to make sure that once you throw somebody out of a meeting, that person can’t come back, and safety locks that help meeting hosts decide who can chat or present in a meeting.

Image Credits: Google

Apr
22
2020
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Google Meet launches improved Zoom-like tiled layout, low-light mode and more

Google Meet, like all video chat products, is seeing rapid growth in user numbers right now, so it’s no surprise that Google is trying to capitalize on this and is quickly iterating on its product. Today, it is officially launching a set of new features that include a more Zoom-like tiled layout, a low-light mode for when you have to make calls at night and the ability to present a single Chrome tab instead of a specific window or your entire screen. Soon, Meet will also get built-in noise cancellation so nobody will hear your dog bark in the background.

If all of this sounds a bit familiar, it’s probably because G Suite exec Javier Soltero already talked to Reuters about these features last week. Google PR is usually pretty straightforward, but in this case, it moved in mysterious ways. Today, though, these features are actually starting to roll out to users, a Google spokesperson told me, and today’s announcement does actually provide more details about each of these features.

For the most part, what’s being announced here is obvious. The tiled layout allows web users to see up to 16 participants at once. Previously, that number was limited to four and Google promises it will offer additional layouts for larger meetings and better presentation layouts, as well as support for more devices in the future.

For the most part, having this many people stare at me from my screen doesn’t seem necessary (and more likely to induce stress than anything else), but the ability to present a single Chrome tab is surely a welcome new feature for many. But what’s probably just as important is that this means you can share higher-quality video content from these tabs than before.

If you often take meetings in the dark, low-light mode uses AI to brighten up your video. Unlike some of the other features, this one is coming to mobile first and will come to web users in the future.

Personally, I’m most excited about the new noise cancellation feature. Typically, noise cancellation works best for noises that repeat and are predictable. Think about the constant drone of an airplane or your neighbor’s old lawnmower. But Google says Meet can now go beyond this and also cancel out barking dogs and your noisy keystrokes. That has increasingly become table stakes, with even Discord offering similar capabilities and Nvidia RTX Voice now making this available in a slew of applications for users of its high-end graphics cards, but it’s nice to see this as a built-in feature for Meet now.

This feature will only roll out in the coming weeks and will initially be available to G Suite Enterprise and G Suite Enterprise for Education users on the web, with mobile support coming later.

Mar
11
2020
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AWS launches Bottlerocket, a Linux-based OS for container hosting

AWS has launched its own open-source operating system for running containers on both virtual machines and bare metal hosts. Bottlerocket, as the new OS is called, is basically a stripped-down Linux distribution that’s akin to projects like CoreOS’s now-defunct Container Linux and Google’s container-optimized OS. The OS is currently in its developer preview phase, but you can test it as an Amazon Machine Image for EC2 (and by extension, under Amazon EKS, too).

As AWS chief evangelist Jeff Barr notes in his announcement, Bottlerocket supports Docker images and images that conform to the Open Container Initiative image format, which means it’ll basically run all Linux-based containers you can throw at it.

One feature that makes Bottlerocket stand out is that it does away with a package-based update system. Instead, it uses an image-based model that, as Barr notes, “allows for a rapid & complete rollback if necessary.” The idea here is that this makes updates easier. At the core of this update process is “The Update Framework,” an open-source project hosted by the Cloud Native Computing Foundation.

AWS says it will provide three years of support (after General Availability) for its own builds of Bottlerocket. As of now, the project is very much focused on AWS, of course, but the code is available on GitHub and chances are we will see others expand on AWS’ work.

The company is launching the project in cooperation with a number of partners, including Alcide, Armory, CrowdStrike, Datadog, New Relic, Sysdig, Tigera, Trend Micro and Waveworks.

“Container-optimized operating systems will give dev teams the additional speed and efficiency to run higher throughput workloads with better security and uptime,” said Michael Gerstenhaber, director of Product Management at Datadog.” We are excited to work with AWS on Bottlerocket, so that as customers take advantage of the increased scale they can continue to monitor these ephemeral environments with confidence.”

 

Mar
02
2020
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Google cancels Cloud Next because of coronavirus, goes online-only

Google today announced that it is canceling the physical part of Cloud Next, its cloud-focused event and its largest annual conference by far with around 30,000 attendees, over concerns around the current spread of COVID-19.

Given all of the recent conference cancellations, this announcement doesn’t come as a huge surprise, especially after Facebook canceled its F8 developer conference only a few days ago.

Cloud Next was scheduled to run from April 6 to 8. Instead of the physical event, Google will now host an online event under the “Google Cloud Next ’20: Digital Connect” moniker. So there will still be keynotes and breakout sessions, as well as the ability to connect with experts.

“Innovation is in Google’s DNA and we are leveraging this strength to bring you an immersive and inspiring event this year without the risk of travel,” the company notes in today’s announcement.

The virtual event will be free and in an email to attendees, Google says that it will automatically refund all tickets to this year’s conference. It will also automatically cancel all hotel reservations made through its conference reservation system.

It now remains to be seen what happens to Google’s other major conference, I/O, which is slated to run from May 12 to 14 in Mountain View. The same holds true for Microsoft’s rival Build conference in Seattle, which is scheduled to start on May 19. These are the two premier annual news events for both companies, but given the current situation, nobody would be surprised if they get canceled, too.

Jan
21
2020
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Canonical’s Anbox Cloud puts Android in the cloud

Canonical, the company behind the popular Ubuntu Linux distribution, today announced the launch of Anbox Cloud, a new platform that allows enterprises to run Android in the cloud.

On Anbox Cloud, Android becomes the guest operating system that runs containerized applications. This opens up a range of use cases, ranging from bespoke enterprise apps to cloud gaming solutions.

The result is similar to what Google does with Android apps on Chrome OS, though the implementation is quite different and is based on the LXD container manager, as well as a number of Canonical projects like Juju and MAAS for provisioning the containers and automating the deployment. “LXD containers are lightweight, resulting in at least twice the container density compared to Android emulation in virtual machines – depending on streaming quality and/or workload complexity,” the company points out in its announcements.

Anbox itself, it’s worth noting, is an open-source project that came out of Canonical and the wider Ubuntu ecosystem. Launched by Canonical engineer Simon Fels in 2017, Anbox runs the full Android system in a container, which in turn allows you to run Android application on any Linux-based platform.

What’s the point of all of this? Canonical argues that it allows enterprises to offload mobile workloads to the cloud and then stream those applications to their employees’ mobile devices. But Canonical is also betting on 5G to enable more use cases, less because of the available bandwidth but more because of the low latencies it enables.

“Driven by emerging 5G networks and edge computing, millions of users will benefit from access to ultra-rich, on-demand Android applications on a platform of their choice,” said Stephan Fabel, director of Product at Canonical, in today’s announcement. “Enterprises are now empowered to deliver high performance, high density computing to any device remotely, with reduced power consumption and in an economical manner.”

Outside of the enterprise, one of the use cases that Canonical seems to be focusing on is gaming and game streaming. A server in the cloud is generally more powerful than a smartphone, after all, though that gap is closing.

Canonical also cites app testing as another use case, given that the platform would allow developers to test apps on thousands of Android devices in parallel. Most developers, though, prefer to test their apps in real — not emulated — devices, given the fragmentation of the Android ecosystem.

Anbox Cloud can run in the public cloud, though Canonical is specifically partnering with edge computing specialist Packet to host it on the edge or on-premise. Silicon partners for the project are Ampere and Intel .

Nov
04
2019
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Microsoft launches the first public preview of its Fluid Framework for collaborative editing

One of the most interesting (and confusing) news announcements of Microsoft’s Build developer conference earlier this year was the first public demo of the company’s Fluid Framework. Fluid is meant to make building collaborative real-time editing experiences easier for developers, but Microsoft is also building it into some of its own tools, like Office and Outlook. It’s nothing less than a re-imagining of what documents should look and feel like.

Today, at its Ignite conference in Orlando, Fla., Microsoft launched the first public preview of the Fluid Framework end-user experience, as well as a private preview for developers.

As Microsoft notes, the Fluid Framework has three main capabilities: the multi-person co-authoring features, the componentized document model and the ability to plug in intelligent agents that can, for example, translate text in real-time or suggest edits. To some degree, this isn’t all that different from Google Docs or even Microsoft’s own collaboration features in Office. But what’s new is that Microsoft is opening this up to developers and that it is looking at the Fluid Framework as a new way to deconstruct and componentize documents, which can then be used across applications.

Microsoft plans to build the Fluid Framework into lots of experiences across Microsoft 365, including Teams, Outlook, SharePoint, OneNote and Office. If you want to see it in action, you can now try the public preview to see what editing documents with it feels like.

Nov
04
2019
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Cortana wants to be your personal executive assistant and read your emails to you, too

Only a few years ago, Microsoft hoped that Cortana could become a viable competitor to the Google Assistant, Alexa and Siri . Over time, as Cortana failed to make a dent in the marketplace (do you ever remember that Cortana is built into your Windows 10 machine?), the company’s ambitions shrunk a bit. Today, Microsoft wants Cortana to be your personal productivity assistant — and to be fair, given the overall Microsoft ecosystem, Cortana may be better suited to that than to tell you about the weather.

At its Ignite conference, Microsoft today announced a number of new features that help Cortana to become even more useful in your day-to-day work, all of which fit into the company’s overall vision of AI as a tool that is helpful and augments human intelligence.

Screen Shot 2019 10 31 at 3.25.48 PM

The first of these is a new feature in Outlook for iOS that uses Microsoft text-to-speech features to read your emails to you (using both a male and female voice). Cortana can also now help you schedule meetings and coordinate participants, something the company first demoed at previous conferences.

Starting next month, Cortana also will be able to send you a daily email that summarizes all of your meetings, and presents you with relevant documents and reminders to “follow up on commitments you’ve made in email.” This last part, especially, should be interesting, as it seems to go beyond the basic (and annoying) nudges to reply to emails in Google’s Gmail.

2019 11 01 0914

Nov
04
2019
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You can now ask Excel questions about your data

Microsoft today announced an update to Excel that brings natural language queries to the venerable spreadsheet tool. Available now to Office Insiders, this new feature allows you to talk to Excel like you’re talking to a person, and get quick answers to your queries without having to write a query.

“Natural language query is another step toward making data insights and visualization more approachable and accessible to users with various levels of Excel experience,” Microsoft explains. “Novice users will not need to know how to write a formula to gain useful insights from their data, while power users will be able to save time by automating the data discovery process by simply asking the right questions and quickly adding charts and tables they need for better and faster decisions.”

It’s worth noting that Google already offers similar features in Google Sheets. In my experience, Google sometimes does a pretty good job at finding data but also regularly fails to find even a single relevant data point, so it remains to be seen how good Excel is compared to that.

Today’s announcement is one in a series of recent launches for Excel that brought a number of new machine learning smarts to the spreadsheet. Among those is Excel’s ability to better understand your entries and provide you with additional information about stocks, geographical data and more.

Oct
16
2019
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Autify raises $2.5M seed round for its no-code software testing platform

Autify, a platform that makes testing web application as easy as clicking a few buttons, has raised a $2.5 million seed round from Global Brain, Salesforce Ventures, Archetype Ventures and several angels. The company, which recently graduated from the Alchemist accelerator program for enterprise startups, splits its base between the U.S., where it keeps an office, and Japan, where co-founders Ryo Chikazawa (CEO) and Sam Yamashita got their start as software engineers.

The main idea here is that Autify, which was founded in 2016, allows teams to write tests by simply recording their interactions with the app with the help of a Chrome extension, then having Autify run these tests automatically on a variety of other browsers and mobile devices. Typically, these kinds of tests are very brittle and quickly start to fail whenever a developer makes changes to the design of the application.

Autify gets around this by using some machine learning smarts that give it the ability to know that a given button or form is still the same, no matter where it is on the page. Users can currently test their applications using IE, Edge, Chrome and Firefox on macOS and Windows, as well as a range of iOS and Android devices.

Scenario Editor

Chikazawa tells me that the main idea of Autify is based on his own experience as a developer. He also noted that many enterprises are struggling to hire automation engineers who can write tests for them, using Selenium and similar frameworks. With Autify, any developer (and even non-developer) can create a test without having to know the specifics of the underlying testing framework. “You don’t really need technical knowledge,” explained Chikazawa. “You can just out of the box use Autify.”

There are obviously some other startups that are also tackling this space, including SpotQA, for example. Chikazawa, however, argues that Autify is different, given its focus on enterprises. “The audience is really different. We have competitors that are targeting engineers, but because we are saying that no coding [is required], we are selling to the companies that have been struggling with hiring automating engineers,” he told me. He also stressed that Autify is able to do cross-browser testing, something that’s also not a given among its competitors.

The company introduced its closed beta version in March and is currently testing the service with about a hundred companies. It integrates with development platforms like TestRail, Jenkins and CircleCI, as well as Slack.

Screen Shot 2019 10 01 at 2.04.24 AM

Sep
30
2019
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Microsoft’s Windows Virtual Desktop service is now generally available

Microsoft today announced that Windows Virtual Desktop (WVD), its Azure-based system for virtualizing the Windows and Office user experience it announced last September, is now generally available. Using WVD, enterprises can give their employees access to virtualized applications and remote desktops, including the ability to provide multi-session Windows 10 experiences, something that sets Microsoft’s own apart from that of other vendors that offer virtualized Windows desktops and applications.

In addition to making the service generally available, Microsoft is also rolling it out globally, whereas the preview was U.S.-only and the original plan was to slowly roll it out globally. Scott Manchester, the principal engineering lead for WVD, also told me that more than 20,000 companies signed up for the preview. He also noted that Microsoft Teams is getting enhanced support in WVD with a significantly improved video conferencing experience.

Shortly after announcing the preview of WVD, Microsoft acquired a company called FSLogix, which specialized in provisioning the same kind of virtualized Windows environments that Microsoft offers through WVD. As Microsoft’s corporate VP for Microsoft 365 told me ahead of today’s announcement, the company took a lot of the know-how from FSLogix to ensure that the user experience on WVD is as smooth as possible.

Brad Anderson, CVP of Microsoft 365, noted that just as enterprises are getting more comfortable with moving some of their infrastructure to the cloud (and have others worry about managing it), there is now also growing demand from organizations that want this same experience for their desktop experiences. “They look at the cloud as a way of saying, ‘listen, let the experts manage the infrastructure. They can optimize it; they can fine-tune it; they can make sure that it’s all done right.’ And then I’ll just have a first-party service — in this case Microsoft — that I can leverage to simplify my life and enable me to spin up and down capacity on demand,” Anderson said. He also noted, though, that making sure that these services are always available is maybe even more critical than for other workloads that have moved to the cloud. If your desktop stops working, you can’t get much done, after all.

Anderson also stressed that if a customer wants a multi-session Windows 10 environment in the cloud, WVD is the only way to go because that is the only way to get a license to do so. “We’ve built the operating system, we built the public cloud, so that combination is going to be unique and this gives us the ability to make sure that that Windows 10 experience is the absolute best on top of that public cloud,” he noted.

He also stressed that the FSLogix acquisition enabled his team to work with the Office team to optimize the user experience there. Thanks to this, when you spin up a new virtualized version of Outlook, for example, it’ll just take a second or two to load instead of almost a minute.

A number of companies are also still looking to upgrade their old Windows 7 deployments. Microsoft will stop providing free security patches for them very soon, but on WVD, these users will still be able to get access to virtualized Windows 7 desktops with free extended security updates until January 2023. Anderson does not believe that this will be a major driver for WVD adoption, but he does see “pockets of customers who are working on their transition.”

Enterprises can access Windows 10 Enterprise and Windows 7 Enterprise on WVD at no additional licensing cost (though, of course, the Azure resources they consume will cost them) if they have an eligible Windows 10 Enterprise or Microsoft 365 license.

 

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