After Aerogate, Vista’s Aero partially returns for Windows 10

Windows 10 build 10125, featuring touches of the dark Windows Vista Aero glass on the Start menu and the notification center.
Windows 10 build 10125, featuring touches of the dark Windows Vista Aero Glass on the Start menu and the notification center.

When Vista debuted, one of the first things people noticed was the beautiful user interface, assuming they had a graphics adapter capable of rendering it. Glass windows, a frosted glass Start menu and taskbar, insanely huge and detailed icons, Flip 3D, and several other enhancements. All of these made the move to Windows 7, sans the black Start menu and taskbar, which changed to a basic glass style.

However, Windows 8, which retained the technology behind this UI, dumped the glassy windows but kept the icons and taskbar, presenting a jarring mixture of 2006 and 2012. The UI was largely flattened, while retaining many Vista elements on the desktop. This was the beginning of what I call Aerogate, with users of the new OS upset that it didn’t look like Windows 7.

With Windows 10, beta testers and tech media have been clamoring for Aero Glass to fully return, with Windows 7 often cited as the prefered appearance, and Microsoft has taken note. But rather than looking to Windows 7, Microsoft has reached back to Windows Vista for the color of the taskbar, Start menu, and the notification center.

Several of the new icons which had originally been seen in early builds have now been replaced with updated Windows Vista icons, with a few notable exceptions. Ironically, the current Recycle Bin icon debuted on Earth Day to much fanfare. The faux outrage over the icons which arrived in early Windows 10 builds was what I refer to as Icongate, which has now been largely resolved.

Even with these concessions, I think it is safe to assume that Aero Glass will not resurrected in full, and I’d even argue that Aero Glass would look awful alongside the Metro Design Language. Kudos to Microsoft for finding the middle ground.

After Aerogate, Vista’s Aero partially returns for Windows 10

Screenshots from the latest Windows 10 Tech Preview build for phones.

I briefly installed the latest Windows 10 Technical Preview for phones on my Lumia 1520 today, but has to revert to 8.1 because the OS has no MMS settings yet, rendering my handset useless. Here are a ton of screenshots I snapped before blasting the OS off my phone. Keep in mind, this is more of an alpha than a beta, and much work remains to be done. A few universal apps make an appearance, but NFC payments (zNFCPayments) is missing from this build.
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Screenshots from the latest Windows 10 Tech Preview build for phones.

Spartan arrives in latest Windows 10 build, with Cortana hitching a ride.

Cortana leaps forth on Project Spartan.
Cortana leaps forth on Project Spartan.

A new Windows 10 build has landed for Windows Insiders who are in the Fast ring, keeping Microsoft’s promise of a much more rapid build release cycle. Not much has changed, but there have been bug fixes, a revamped Calculator, and a new browser.

A new Calculator app is included in the latest build, and it keeps a history of your calculations.
A new Calculator app is included in the latest build, and it keeps a history of your calculations.

The new browser is currently called Project Spartan, continuing Microsoft’s trend of using Halo codenames for new products, such as Threshold, and Cortana. An official name for the browser has not yet been decided, but it will have “Microsoft” somewhere in the name.

This version of Project Spartan is far from complete, with many features still missing or only partially implemented, but I took it for a spin anyway, on a tablet and on a desktop too.

The UI is minimalist, with the tabs residing on the application bar rather than below it, which provides a larger viewing area over existing browsers. The browser is a Windows App (e.g. Metro or Modern), enabling more flexibility for the UI than traditional Win32 apps. Windows Apps are being updated to support drag and drop and other more traditional features, so any awkwardness which was present in Windows 8 should be ironed out by RTM.

Cortana is present as well. Typing search phrases into the address bar invokes Cortana and she will provide an answer without needing to venture out to a search engine or another site.

Reading view in Project Spartan, with the Actions menu invoked.
Reading view in Project Spartan, with the Actions menu invoked.

Reading mode is a nice touch, something which Chrome lacks, and provides more options than Internet Explorer does on Windows 8.x. The Actions menu is to the point, with no confusing or pointless options crowding it.

Google Chrome and Microsoft's Project Spartan displaying results on the HTML5 test.
Google Chrome and Microsoft’s Project Spartan displaying results on the HTML5 test.

Performance of the app over all is a little sluggish, but that’s understandable, as this is more of an alpha than a beta. On touch, it lagged a lot, but such lag was not as noticeable with a mouse and keyboard.

I have not encountered any broken websites with Spartan, but rendering takes a little longer than on Chrome, likely because I have an ad blocker installed on Chrome, which helps with loading times.

On the HTML5 test, Chrome scores 523, while Spartan comes in with 375. Not show stopping, but definitely something Microsoft will continue to work on.

Over all, I feel it’s a solid start, and I look forward to seeing further builds of Project Spartan.

Spartan arrives in latest Windows 10 build, with Cortana hitching a ride.

Native NFC wallet arriving with Windows 10? A beta app exists, so maybe.

A slide showing how tap to pay will function on Windows 10 phones.
A slide showing how tap to pay will function on Windows 10 phones.

A recent story revealed that Windows 10 on phones will be receiving an overhaul for NFC transactions. The Secure Element in SIM cards from some carriers will continue to be supported, but users will no longer be forced to use such a SIM in order to use NFC payment terminals.

Microsoft will be implementing something call Host Card Emulation with Windows 10 on phones. Google added support for HCE in Android 4.4, removing a carrier requirement that phones be equipped was a Secure Element or an Enhanced SIM. HEC supports credit, debit, loyalty cards, smart cards, and transit passes. Essentially any card which can be read via NFC can be emulated by software, without special SIM cards needing to be present in the device.

There are no details as to how this will be implemented however. The above slide indicates that the native Wallet will function on its own (as it was supposed to have done in 2012 with Windows Phone 8) while also supporting the non-existent third party payment apps, such as CurrentC (which uses a QR code system rather than NFC) or Apple Pay, should it ever expand from Apple devices.

Unless Microsoft fully implements their own solution, all of this means nothing, aside from the requirement that consumers are able to obtain a special SIM card which most carriers around the globe do not use, nor do they have any intention of adding it unless they have to in order to support a new iPhone. Microsoft will not hand just anyone the APIs for creating an NFC wallet, only select partners receive that access.

Further adding to my initial confusion is this video, which appears to show a third party app on a Lumia 1520 being used for tap to pay. At first glance at least.

Wait… Let us take a closer look.

An app called zNFCPayments is seen running on Windows 10 for phones.
An app called zNFCPayments is seen running on Windows 10 for phones.

zNFCPayments? What on Earth is this? If you have used Windows 10 Technical Preview, the first few builds had an app called zStore, which is now labeled as Store (beta). This means Microsoft is not only overhauling the APIs in the OS and adding HCE, it is also building an app, which may be included in a future Tech Preview build on the phone side.

However, it’s possible that carriers will derail this, making it an app that only some have access to, but not others, much like the Google Wallet debacle played out until Google bought SoftCard (and snatched away the only Windows Phone app for making NFC payments). We should know more about this soon.

Native NFC wallet arriving with Windows 10? A beta app exists, so maybe.

Windows 10 ROMs for Android handsets could be the perfect Trojan horse for Microsoft.

Microsoft and the world’s third largest smartphone manufacturer, Xiaomi, have announced an upcoming program which will allow current owners of the Mi 4, which runs Android KitKat, to try Windows 10 on their handsets via a ROM which will replace Android. Microsoft will be running this program independently of Xiaomi, which implies that other phones from other companies could be on Microsoft’s conversion list.

Microsoft did not announce that the ROM will be available to more than one specific phone, but it is impossible for me to imagine this ROM staying put for long. Hackers will get this ROM into any phone with similar hardware pretty quickly I imagine. Microsoft and OEMs can already drop the OS onto Android phones (HTC M8), so this move shouldn’t come as a real surprise.

But what if Microsoft itself releases a generic ROM for Android users to flash onto their handsets? The Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge are off the table due to the Samsung CPU, but the LG Flex 2 and HTC One M9 could run the ROM with ease, as could basically any other Qualcomm based handset. This opens up a whole new user base for Microsoft.

Releasing a ROM for most Android handsets has several implications, not the least of which being that anyone who flashes this onto their phones will be voiding their warranty and potentially losing support for custom hardware features, such as fingerprint scanners and heart rate monitors.

On the flipside, many modding enthusiasts would likely leap at the chance to put Windows on their Android phone, and people feeling disheartened with Android could leap to Microsoft’s OS while keeping their existing handset.

Microsoft could also buy flagships in bulk and flash Windows 10 onto them itself and sell the phones in its own stores, or offer free conversion services for select phones.

Cyanogenmod likely won’t be happy with this news, but I imagine Google is even more upset. Here is Microsoft, with its scrappy third place OS, already sneaking itself onto Android phones with Office, OneDrive and a host of other apps, soon including Cortana, making a play to grab the entire phone away from Google. It could go nowhere, or it could be a very clever move to steal more market share from Google.

Windows 10 ROMs for Android handsets could be the perfect Trojan horse for Microsoft.

Google and Pebble troll Windows Phone users.

CaptureIf you use a Windows Phone, you were trolled today. Twice.

Imagine, if you will, Microsoft suddenly yanking Minecraft from Google’s Play Store. They offer no public explanation, the apps are just gone and there’s no refund either. It’s a $10 app! This would be Microsoft saying, “Fuck you too, Google.”

Okay, this isn’t going to happen, ever. But something similar it is about to happen on the Windows Phone Store, with Google playing the role of the dick waving lunatic.

softcard

Google hates Microsoft. They hate Windows Phone even more. Their refusal to allow Microsoft to make an official Youtube app, and refusing the write one themselves, is the finest example of this. They don’t mind trolling Windows Phone users.

This week, Google, realizing that Apple Pay is a threat, bought the “technology” behind Softcard, an NFC wallet app for Android and Windows Phone, which only debuted in late 2014. Google is wasting no time rolling that infrastructure into its existing Wallet app, which is available on both Android and iOS. Softcard, as a company, still exists, but just what it’s doing is anyones guess at this point.

It was revealed today, as part of that sell off, that Softcard will be removing its app from the Windows Phone Store and also from the Play Store, because the best of the app and its backend are being merged into Google Wallet. This isn’t an issue for Android users, as carriers will now stop blocking Google Wallet as part of the deal, and the iOS app will benefit from these new additions as well.

On the Windows side however, this is a major middle finger. Getting the Softcard app already involved several hurdles. You have to have an Enhanced SIM. You also need a third-party app installed on the phone to act as the NFC wallet.

Microsoft’s native Wallet app has technically supported NFC payments since the launch of Windows Phone 8 in 2012, but it’s never been implemented because Microsoft saw the carriers blocking Google Wallet when it appeared on the scene. Microsoft opted to wait for Softcard, which didn’t arrive until late 2014.

In fact, other NFC wallet apps, like Google Wallet, Apple Pay, and CurrentC could function on Windows Phone, but those apps are not coming. Softcard, made by the carriers, was the only option for American users.

Once the Softcard app is gone, Windows Phone users will once again be without an NFC wallet solution. They won’t be tapping to pay for the foreseeable future. With the success of Apple Pay, perhaps Microsoft will just raise its middle finger to the carriers on this one and build out its existing Wallet app to support NFC. We can only hope.

Pebble

But, the trolling didn’t stop there. Several people, myself included, reported that a Pebble app may be coming to Windows Phone. This was hours before the Softcard announcement, so technically, Pebble got the first and last lulz of the day.

Shortly after the Softcard announcement, Daniel Rubino published a bombshell of a story on Windows Central. It’s really a must read. He reported that Microsoft wrote an app for Pebble, with Pebble’s blessing. Not just an app, but they wanted to partner with Pebble just like they have recently done with Fitbit. There are Fitbit bands in every Microsoft Store, on their webstore, and Fitbit bands are even being given away with Lumia phones.

Imagine the surge in publicity the already moderately known Pebble would get. Their watches would be on TV, at AT&T, in Microsoft’s stores.

Microsoft was even offering to update and maintain the Pebble app, on their own dime, like they already do for Facebook’s app on Windows Phone. Mark Zuckerberg likes Microsoft though. He likes them a lot. Microsoft even invested an obscene amount of money into Facebook back when it was basically just another wouldbe Myspace killer. Facebook had no qualms with Microsoft doing as they wished with the Facebook app on Windows Phone.CaptureSo, Pebble was going to get the Fitbit and the Facebook treatment from Microsoft. How could they say no? All Microsoft wanted some preferential treatment, so maybe some Pebble updates and apps arrive on Windows Phone first. No big deal.

Pebble said no. Pebble said no even when Microsoft’s own CEO asked Pebble’s CEO, Eric Migicovsky, to enter into this partnership. Eric Migicovsky does not like Microsoft, but he does believe that there must be three smartwatch platforms.

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Minecraft creator, Notch, and Steve Jobs, made it cool to hate Microsoft, and now some people are all too happy to stick it to the software giant.

Microsoft poured thousands of dollars into the Pebble endeavour, only to walk in on Pebble dick riding Apple and Google.

And it’s only safe to assume that Microsoft went through similar hoops to woo Snapchat onto the platform, only the catch Snapchat in the act of dick riding too. At least Nokia was able to drag Vine and a beta version of Instagram to the maligned OS.

Need some salve? Ello, that plucky upstart that had everyone talking last September, has expressed interest in making a Windows Phone app. Yeah, I just trolled some of you, sorry.

More trolling.

Oh yes, there’s more. Several media outlets, including Yahoo! have been loudly pounding the nails into the Windows Phone coffin over the last two days, and some even have latched onto Windows 10, declaring the mobile version of the OS dead on arrival, even though it’s hardly a beta yet. Windows Phone just can’t catch a break. Not from the media, and not from dick riding CEOs. And standing between Microsoft and the hail of bullets? Windows Phone users.

Google and Pebble troll Windows Phone users.

Pebble snubs Windows while talking up need for three smartwatch platforms.

The Pebble Time.
The Pebble Time.

The Verge posted a video yesterday which is a review and interview mashup covering the new Pebble smartwatch – Pebble Time. The watch landed on Kickstarter yesterday for pre-order with a $40 discount off the retail price of $199. The original Pebble smartwatch landed on Kickstarter in April of 2012, and in two hours the project met the $100,000 goal Pebble had set. By the sixth day, Pebble made history, raising around $4.7 million, more than any other project had up to that point. At the end of that Kickstarter campaign, Pebble had netted over $10.2 million.

In fact, to this day, the original Pebble remains the second most funded project ever to hit Kickstarter. However, it appears that the Pebble and the “Coolest Cooler” (which is currently number one) are going to be dethroned by Pebble Time, which has raised over $8.8 million in the first 24 hours.

My impressions of the watch are almost entirely positive. A 64 color electronic paper display, nearly seven days of battery life, a slick and attractive UI, and a complete rewrite of the phone’s operating system. A recent update to existing Pebble watches also adds Android Wear support, assuming you have an Android phone. The Pebble smartwatch has been a product I have admired since they appeared in 2012, although I have never owned one.

I would love to order a Pebble Time, and almost did so. But there’s a catch. Pebble does not support Windows 8.1 or Windows Phone 8.1. Why? Initially, Windows Phone did not support background processes, which would effectively render a smartwatch into a dumb watch. You would have to manually open an app and leave it in the foreground with the display on in order for notifications to be pushed to the phone. Microsoft’s desire for a secure OS has hindered many potential apps, mostly utilities that rely heavily on hardware access.

Windows Phone 8.1 fixed the issue of wearables however, and now users of the third place OS can use a Fitbit or a Microsoft Band with their devices, and even have official apps to work with.

Pebble has expressed interest in implementing support for Windows Phone, and Microsoft was even helping them implement support, but this has not yet materialized. Microsoft appears to be making an app of their own to implement at least some support, but this is not currently available to the public, and looks less than optimal. Go on, just try to install it.

Capture1
Microsoft’s internal app for Pebble smartwatches.

So, what’s worse than this “underdog” smartwatch snubbing the “underdog” smartphone OS? This:

The Verge: Do you think there is room for a third smartwatch player once Apple and Google hit their stride?

Pebble CEO Eric Migicovsky: I think the answer is one hundred percent yes. I think it would be a disservice to the world to say that there’s only going to be two smartphone operating systems, and by definition those are the two smartwatch operating systems as well.

Not only does he not mention Windows once, he also contends that there has to be three dominate smartwatch platforms, all while discussing the iOS and Android tie-ins. If Pebble was working on an app, you’d think the CEO would trot that news out there while announcing the Pebble Time, right?

I think only supporting iOS and Android is a flawed approach, because the Microsoft Band is the only thing resembling a smartwatch available to the platform, meaning a virtual monopoly over the OS should Pebble support it.

I am left with the impression that either Windows Phone development is difficult because of how the OS functions, or that the OS has just been written off by most developers.

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Pebble snubs Windows while talking up need for three smartwatch platforms.