You could look at Microsoft News – a recently-updated app and website that serves up a mixture of curated news from 3rd party sources that you can define, along with annoying click-bait adverts for sometimes dubious products that you are seemingly unable to block or hide.
There’s an FAQ that explains the rationale behind the advertising, though if you have time on your hands, you could always make your feelings known through the Feedback Hub app (here’s how), add your voice to the reviews tab on the Store, or join up to the Microsoft Old Timers group on Facebook and gripe about it while sharing photos of old t-shirts and stuff.
In the “good old days” theme, a new beta “News bar” app has been released, offering to display the same curated and presumably ad-filthy content on a sidebar reminiscent of a Vista gadget, or a ticker running along the top of the task bar like a 1990s website. Though it may be geo-locked so you can only get it in certain countries for now, read more on the News bar app here.
Whilst cooped up inside, spending your life on conference calls or Teams meetings, spare a thought for those who are new to the whole experience, and shed a tear for the technology they’re using. They could be Skyping.
As more of the world is in lock-down and pretty much everyone who can is working at home, apps like Teams have taken a more central role in many lives. Alongside adding 12m users the other week, there was a substantial increase in resources dedicated to running the back-end – millions of additional CPU cores were provisioned to the Teams service.
Mobile Teams users are getting some new functionality, and the blog post about the 40% growth in usage teased some features that are coming later in the year, notably background noise-cancelling (to supress the tap-tap-tap of the typical team-mate’s typing), and a new action which lets attendees ask for help or offer to contribute by “raising their hand”. That might help avoid people talking over each other.
This feature is in test currently and is expected to appear a little later this year, along with a raft of other improvements, like having custom backgrounds (in addition to blurring of the existing background), and the ability to break out chats into separate windows rather than have everything in one.
When the hand-raising feature is rolled out, assuming you can see the People pane to the side of the Teams window, anyone who has their hand raised will be listed with a hand icon, meaning the organiser could ask them to chime in.
On the COVID-19 pandemic – the WHO publishes a view of the spread of the disease, with the help of Microsoft’s ISV partner ESRI, using their ArcGIS platform. See the global WHO dashboard, or look at the county-by-county map of the US, here. It’s all very sobering. There’s a Coronavirus Tracker on Bing and a load of other resources on Microsoft.com.
Shoppers around the world might go a bit crazy for special deals, and this weekend is likely to be one of the busiest ever for the online emporia too. Not all retailers play the game, though – in the past, some worthy chains have publicly opted out, though every one of them will have some kind of sale or special offer roster on, FOMO and all that.
There are plenty of bargains to be had, of course; retailers will have been planning their sales for months and many now start a week or more before Thanksgiving, and continue well into December.
The Microsoft store has some good deals – in the UK, you can grab £hundreds off new Surface gear, and there’s probably never been a cheaper time to buy a new Xbox One – and with Project Scarlett arriving next year (along with Surface Neo and Duo), maybe it’s the best time to be buying a current Xbox. There’s a fire sale on the disc-less Xbox One S “All-Digital Edition” – £129 means a third off the usual price, with some rumours that it might be the last chance to buy such a device.
The world’s largest bookseller has some great offers too, especially if you want to festoon your house with Alexa stuff or other first-party surveillance gear. If you’re an Amazon shopper, consider supporting homeless charity, Launchpad, by using Microsoftie Fraser Murrell’s affiliate link which he uses to collect a few hundred pounds every year: all you need do is click through to open up the site, go about your shopping as normal, and a slice will go to a good cause.
Scourge of Fakebook, the Money Saving Expert, has a pretty comprehensive list of other UK offers that apply right now – check out their special page for maximum distraction.
Finally, another ‘Softie, Darren Adams, has a great solution if all of this brings out the Grinch in you:
Edinburghers will know of the term, “Gardyloo” – perhaps a corruption of a French warning that “water” was about to need avoiding, like dodging the gutters in Blackadder. As well as regarding the loos, it’s in everyone’s interest to make sure your source of news is clean and fresh. Not fake.
A startup called NewsGuard hit the, er, news recently, after launching a service that uses real journalists to assesses sources of news, and scores them on various criteria on how they source, handle and attribute the stories they report.
The Mobile version of Edge browser was updated in January 2019, to include the NewsGuard plugin (though it wasn’t enabled by default), and at the time it was widely reported that their vetting had decided the UK’s Daily Mail, a popular newspaper and at one time the largest newspaper website in the world, was not to be trusted. (Screenshots above & right were taken on 24 Jan 2019).
More people probably read about the warning that was gleefully propagated by the Mail’s competitors, than there are actual users of the Edge mobile browser itself (if you use Edge on your PC, give it a try on your phone – it’s really rather good).
If you’d like to add the NewsGuard addin to the Edge browser on your PC, go to the Settings menu (…) on the top right of the Edge toolbar, and look under Extensions – then find NewsGuard in the Store to add it to the browser from there.
NewsGuard has since worked with the Daily Mail and decided that it’s not quite as bad as all that, so has backtracked and removed the klaxon warning.
It’s still not giving a completely clean bill of health – see the “nutrition label” – but the feedback NewsGuard has shared with some other news websites may well help to improve the quality of their output.
Oh boy. Sometimes, the news is so troubling that you wonder if it’s worth trying to keep up-to-date at all, and instead only read and watch the stuff you know you’re interested in, that you’re going to like. This is the dichotomy of online news – since the dawn of the widely-used web, the end of the traditional news media as we know it (and particularly, print) has been forecast. Editorial skill gives way to sensationalism so as to attract the reader’s eye: headline writers have been doing this for years, but in an ad-funded online world, the need to turn eyeballs into clicks is even worse.
The upside of snacking on a smörgåsbord of news sources is that the reader gets to choose the topics (and the providers of content too), so they can filter out the rubbish they’re not interested in, excluding the media outlets they don’t want to read. The flipside, of course, is that confirmation bias will tend to guide people to read and watch stuff that reinforces their existing opinions; so they’ll pick sources of news according to their political beliefs, and may not read about topics they know nothing about, to the detriment of balanced reporting of “news”.
Anyway, news apps are one of the most used categories on mobile devices – rather than shuttling around between several web sites, aggregator apps consolidate the content and can alert the reader to breaking news.
Google has a News app for iOS and Android, and is investing in AI technology to help curate compelling packages of news content that people don’t necessarily know they want to read. Apple has their own app, for fruity devices only, not as widely available and not quite as curated.
Meanwhile, MSN News has been around for years, too, both as a service that shows tiles on the Edge browser’s start page and the MSN.com site, and as apps for Windows, iOS and Android. Well, the whole thing is getting a rebrand and the back end is being sharpened up; see coverage here, and here, and the official announcement.
The Windows version of MSN News is still known as such in the Store, though once installed (as it is by default), it’s simply “News”. If you sign in with your Microsoft Account, you can select specific topics and sources, and those preferences will be stored and roam across other devices.
Mobile versions are available from Apple’s App Store or Google’s Play, and offer the same kind of news customisation experience if you also sign in with your MSA. The naming convention can be a little confusing… but at least the “Microsoft” name doesn’t get in the way of the app when it’s installed, as it’s just listed as “News”.
There’s a light or dark theme, and the content is displayed clearly and it’s easy to navigate by swiping left or right; the “My News” category is a summary of the categories you like, whereas “Top Stories” is curated by an editorial news team rather than using AI alone. Much is made of the partnerships established with the real news sources that provide the content, and it’s probably the Microsoft News service’s biggest strength.
The personalisation of the mobile apps function much the same as the Windows one; various categories of your choice presented in summary and with the ability to flick between them at your leisure, though the
Even without the warning in the headline, it’s pretty easy to spot sponsored content; headlines like Content Providers Are Furious About This… Something You Don’t Need Exciting People In <town you’re not in>, Hotels Don’t Want You To Know About This Secret Discount Trick, etc, etc.
If any “story” Capitalises Every Headline Word, Even Mundane Ones… then maybe don’t open it. Still, the funding collected from sponsored stories is shared with the real news sources that provide the actual content, so it pays for everything else.
If you don’t like the news presented in one app, then try another – like weather apps, it never does any harm to have a few on the go, so you can find something that makes you feel better.