634 – M’aidez, m’aidez

Quick Assist logoThe internationally recognized distress signal “May-day!”, as used by pilots heading for trouble among other scenarios, was chosen as an anglicisation of the French “m’aidez”, or “help me”, due to difficulties of understanding other terms over poor quality radio.

With much less serious consequences, those of us with a technical bent might often be asked to help family or friends who have problems with their computer, and may turn to remotely taking over their machine –  from desktop sharing in Teams or Skype, to using software that should be simpler for the technologically challenged to initiate so you can help them out.

TeamViewer is one such bit of software that’s relatively easy to install and configure, so it’s unfortunately a fave of the scammers who prey on vulnerable people by phoning them up and warning that Microsoft has detected a problem with their computer, and they need to get help to fix it.

Microsoft will never proactively reach out to you to provide unsolicited PC or technical support.

Quick Assist updateIf you do want to get or give help from a Windows PC, a venerable in-box inclusion called Quick Assist could be worth a look – it has recently been updated and is delivered via the Microsoft Store, which now has support for any Windows app and not just UWP and PWA. More on that announcement from Build, here.

Sharing security codeThe gist with Quick Assist is that you over the phone, you could talk your victim friend through the process to start it up (Start -> type assist ENTER), then you do the same. The first screen gives an option to enter a code provided, or if you are the one doing the remote assisting, click the button to Assist another person, and you’ll be given a time-limited alphanumeric code to provide the other party.

They type this is to the dialog on their end, and a secure connection is established, whereupon they can choose to share their screen in view-only mode, or they can offer to give you control.

After a couple of prompts to validate that this is really what they want to do, you would see the recipient’s desktop in a window and have a variety of control icons around it, like a short cut to run Task Manager on their machine, shut it down or send messages back and forth between both of you. Unfortunately, the chat history is not preserved but it’s a good enough way to give short instructions.

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632 – New Old Things

old and new shoesMicrosoft veteran Raymond Chen has a great developer blog, The Old New Thing, which inspired the subject line for this week’s Tip, coming as it does, hot on the heels of the Build developer conference. There is also timely news around refreshment of old productivity applications.

OneNote has featured plenty in ToW previously, including a mention in the recent Journaling tip, with a nod in SteveSi’s ongoing historical missive which described members of the development team unhappy with the change of name from its code-name “Scribbler”, referring to the new “OneNote” app as “Onay-No-Tay.

A few years ago, OneNote was dropped from the Office suite and was due to be replaced by the new “modern” version in the Windows (now Microsoft …) Store. For a while at least, that shiny new one got all the innovation, even if its brand-new architecture meant it missed a lot of the old app’s functionality. In a somewhat surprising but welcome turn-around, old OneNote was reprieved, and both apps are going to converge at some later point – ie the desktop one will pick up features that only exist in the Store app, and eventually that version will cease to be.

New OneNote UIOld OneNote UIPending an eventual confluence of the two OneNote Windows apps, the desktop one is gradually getting new functionality and a visual refresh. The graphics bring it into line with Windows 11’s theme of rounded corners, subtle animations and a gentle 3D feel. To some, blink and you’ll miss them, but it does make the app look quite a bit smarter.

There’s a more prominent “Add Page” buttonSort and add, with the page sort function that was added back in February 2022 alongside. There are a few other tweaks in the refresh that has started to roll out, like some new Ink functionality with Ink-to-shape and handwriting-to-text like in other Office apps.

More is to come, including improved sharing capabilities and a neat dictation functionality that would allow you to record a spoken explanation for something while using Ink to highlight or illustrate; when another user plays back your monologue, the ink will be synchronised too. For more info on what’s coming, see here.

Results of OCRCopy Text from ImageOne handy feature that has been in desktop OneNote for years but never made it into the Store version, is the ability to use OCR magic to extract text from images. Try pasting an image into a notebook, then right-click on it to Copy Text from Picture into the clipboard. It does a surprisingly good job, even when the pic is not very clear and if the text on it is really small.

Copying screen-grabs when someone is doing a demo in a browser, so you can get the long and complex URL for the thing they’re showing is a particularly useful way of using this feature.

546 – Flying back to Chicago

clip_image002Many visitors to Microsoft UK’s TVP campus over the years will have been in the auditorium for some kind of event. When the first three buildings at TVP first opened in September 1997, they each had different themes for their meeting room names – B1 had inventors (like Babbage, Turing etc), B2 were local place names (Henley, Bisham and so on) and B3 had old Microsoft code names, like Hermes, Olympus, Xenon, Memphis (whatever happened to that guy?) and the biggest room got the biggest code name of them all: Chicago.

clip_image004Yes, just over 25 years ago, the largest product launch Microsoft had ever done – following the widest beta program to date – took place, and Windows 95 was released. Listen to some of the background history on the run up to Win95 with Raymond Chen, (who’s been involved with Windows pretty much his whole career) on the Windows Insider podcast. Raymond even got his name on the Win95 Easter Egg.

clip_image006Windows 95 really was a big deal in a whole lot of ways – it made computers easy enough for even ordinary people to use (leaving aside the holy wars of Mac vs PC – remember that in 1995, Apple was in a very different place from where the Mac went in the second Jobs era). An advertising blitz got the message across that this new Windows was different – you could connect to the internet with MSN, and do all sorts of other stuff, powered by the Stones’ Start Me Up and a Jay Leno-run glitz launch with some groovy dancers.

The IT gutter press had a field day with the choice of launch music – rumoured to have cost $millions, though according to Windows Weekly’s Paul Thurrot, instead of “you make a grown man cry”, Win95 could have been launched to the “end of the world”

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A more recent product launch has its roots even further back, though – Flight Simulator has been brought up to date, having been largely on the shelf for 13 years. The very first PC release was in 1982, initially as a port from an Apple II version, and done to showcase the power of 3D graphics, and the last major update was in 2007.

The new version is quite a different spectacle – using AI in Azure and Bing mapping to render the world at large, reviews are glowing – a spectacular technical achievement and a deeply inspiring experience, filled with glorious possibilities.Real-time weather makes for some extremely impressive photos – like Hurricane Laura.

Flight Simulator 2020 is huge. Think, 100+Gb download – and you’ll need a meaty PC to run it, though a version is on its way for Xbox. So, set aside a long time to download it…

The Standard Edition is available to buy from the Microsoft Store or to play as part of the Xbox Game Pass, along with a variety of other PC games.

Flight Simulator is already the most-played game using the Game Pass system on PC – with over 1 million players over the last few weeks, racking up over a billion miles – the equivalent of flying around the world 40,000 times.

Finally, a link back to Chicago – in early versions of Flight Simulator, the default airport was Meigs Field at Chicago, a single-runway downtown airport on an artificial peninsula on Lake Michigan. Flight Simulator 2004 was both the last version to run on Windows 95/98, and was the last to feature Meigs Field after that airport was suddenly closed in 2003. Here it is, in the latest version – good luck landing there.

The Mayor at the time sent in bulldozers during the night to incapacitate the runway, against FAA law, rather than go through the time consuming and costly process of closing the airport through normal channels. Politicians, eh?

Tip o’ the Week 472 – Update Store & Office apps

clip_image001[4]We’re all used to Windows Update or other software automatically downloading and installing updates (on phones, TVs, cars…). Sometimes the updates are at more of a leisurely pace than keen users might want though occasionally the recipients demand to hold back the updates until they elect to install.

The Windows 10 October 2018 is now being pushed to (nearly) everyone, though business users will have the option of pausing Windows Updates in case they want to enact a temporary delay for some particular reason – you’re about to go on a trip, for example – though it’s not meant as a centralised policy control: IT departments have other ways to do that. Windows 10 Homes users will soon get the ability to defer updates for up to 35 days, too.

How often applications update themselves is largely down to the publisher, clip_image003[4]but it’s usually possible to give the apps a prod to see if there are published updates before they get pushed out to you.

clip_image004[4]In the Microsoft Store app, for example, go to the ellipsis menu on the top right. You’ll see Downloads and updates, which will force the check for updates for all your installed Store apps. Even if you’ve turned on the automatic app update checks, it’s worth taking a look periodically as some of the apps you use most often might have updates pending.

clip_image006[4]If you find that most of the stuff you’re offered is updates to boring apps that you don’t use, then you could just wait for them to fetch their own in time. If, however, you spot an individual update to an app that you know you want to have the latest version of, then click the down arrow to the right to get it right away, or click the app name to look at its page in the Store and see what’s new.

clip_image008[4]Of course, non-Store apps may still offer their own updates directly – to check for updates to the Microsoft Office suite, for example, try going into Word (or Excel or PowerPoint if those are your most-used Office apps) and from the start screen that offers a few previously-opened files, templates you’ll never use etc, look to the bottom-left and you’ll see Account.

clip_image009[4]Click Account to go to the product information page, which will let you check for updates, show you the current installed version number of the the application, and maybe even let you sign up for more updates through the Insider program.

clip_image011[4]After you’ve installed any pending updates, the What’s New option will be active and will show you a summary of what has changed, in a pane within the app itself.

Or check the View Updates option at any time, and it’ll take you to the web to see what the latest updates contain.

Tip o’ the Week 455 – Pin your PMAs

clip_image002Progressive Web Apps were covered some months ago in ToW 426, and are seen by many as the next generation of mobile apps. They provide a handy way of meeting the needs of a website suitable for mobile browsers as well as a way of delivering an app-like experience to multiple devices of varying sizes, without needing the developers to target specific platforms individually.

Microsoft published a bunch of 3rd party PWA apps directly into the Microsoft Store (eg start with SkyScanner then click on “Microsoft Store” when opened with the Store app itself rather than the web UI), though there haven’t been any new ones for a while.

Google is also throwing its weight behind PWAs – so much so, that version 70 of the Chrome browser has support for PWAs that can be installed to look like a desktop app on Windows, so when the PWA is running it hides the browser UI and is launched from either within Chrome directly, or from the traditional Windows app UI.

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clip_image007When installed, eg https://app.ft.com, via the Chrome browser, the PWA behaves a lot like a desktop app – it can be found by typing its name on the Start menu, and can be quickly pinned to the Start menu or taskbar.

clip_image009That said, Edge browser users can treat pretty much any website in that way – if you browse to a PWA or simple page you like, as well as adding it to favourites/toolbars etc, you can pin it to your taskbar or start menu by going to the settings menu in the top right. Otherwise, when opening PWAs in Edge they look and behave the same as in other ways, though the Edge toolbar remains.

To look for dedicated PWA resources, check out this list, or look here, here or here.

Tip o’ the Week 443 – Starting modern apps

Power Users often like to start applications quickly, without recourse to grubbing around with a mouse or a trackpad. Super Users might even want to write scripts that automate all sorts of things that mere mortals with less time on their hands are happy to do manually. Regardless of your penchant for automation, here are a few short cuts you can take to quickly start apps that you use often.

Apps pinned to taskbar

The taskbar in Windows obviously shows you what’s currently running, but can also be used to pin frequently accessed apps or – by default at least – those that Windows thinks should be frequent (Edge, Store, etc – right-click on them to unpin if you disagree). You’ll see a highlight line under the apps that are running, so those without the line are simply pinned there.

If you start typing the name of a favourite app at the Start menu, then right-click on it in the list, you can choose to pin it. So far, so good.

If you drag the pinned apps around, they’ll stay in that position relative to each other, and new apps will always start to the right (or underneath, if you use a vertical taskbar, as you really should). Now, if you press WindowsKey+number, you’ll jump to the app that is n along the line, and if that app isn’t running, then Windows will start it. So in the picture above, pressing WindowsKey+2 would start Edge, or WindowsKey+3 would bring Outlook to the fore.

Shortcut to desktop

You could try an old-skool method, by creating a desktop shortcut to apps that are already on your Start menu – press WindowsKey+D to show the bare desktop itself, then press Start to show the actual Start menu.

Assuming your Start menu isn’t full screen then you’ll be able to drag icons or tiles from the menu to the Desktop, and if you right-click the shortcut and look at Properties, you’ll see a Shortcut key: option… just press some key sequence that makes sense to you and press OK to save.

This method differs from the taskbar one above, because each press of the shortcut you set might start a new instance of the app (if it supports that) – which may or may not be desirable. If you end up with several windows of OneNote, for example, you could cycle through them by repeatedly pressing the appropriate WindowsKey+n as above.

Keep on Running

There’s no better mark of being a real PC deity than by launching your apps through running the executable name… you know the drill? WindowsKey+R to get the Run dialog (it’s so much faster than pressing Start), then enter the app’s real name and you’re off to the races. winword, excel, calc, notepad… they’re for novices. The genuine hardcases might even dive into the (old fashioned, obvs) Control Panel applets like ncpa.cpl rather than navigating umpteen clicks.

Looking at the shortcut to OneNote’s modern app above, though, it’s clear there isn’t a simple executable to run – onenote will launch the on-life-support OneNote 2016 version.

Many modern apps do, however, let you launch them from the Run dialog by entering a name with “:” at the end…

Examples include:

onenote: Modern OneNote (annoyingly, you may get prompted to open in OneNote 2016 – just hit cancel and it goes away)
ms-settings: The new-fangled control panel. You can tag on other commands like ms-settings:display or ms-settings:windowsupdate but you might be quicker clicking the icon than typing all of that.
bingmaps: A good bit quicker than launching the browser and navigating to the maps URL, even if you do press ALT-D to set focus to the address bar, and type bingmaps <CTRL-ENTER> to auto-fill the www. and the .com
outlookmail: Even though it’s not real Outlook, this launches the Mail part of the Mail & Calendar store app. outlookcal: does the other bit.
ms-windows-store: For when you can’t wait to check out all the great new apps in the Microsoft Store.
fb: If you feel the need to do a personality test or look at other people’s holiday photos.

More on this, later…

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Tip o’ the Week 437 – Mapping of Minds

clip_image001Like just about every other productivity technique, “Mind Mapping” has vociferous proponents and those who’ve tried it but never quite made it stick. The general idea is to try to represent a complex but related series of thoughts and topics onto a diagram that helps to organise them, and to aid recall. Mind maps are perhaps more useful for the person doing the mapping as a way of sorting their own brain out, than as a means of communicating to other people or even to record those thoughts for much later consumption.

Like writing a status report, the act of doing the report or compiling the map prompts valuable activity more than the resulting artefact which might never be read. Research has shown that more visually oriented people are likely to get more out of mind mapping, and using a mind map to try to remember stuff has a fairly short shelf life.

If you’ve not tried mind mapping, the simplest way is to start with a blank sheet of paper and a pen. Read some more here about the concepts. Or here, realising that the site is basically trying to sell you mind mapping software. There’s a more balanced view of different software packages, here.

You don’t need to pay for your mind mapping software, though… OneNote could be a great way of doing it, especially if you have a PC with a stylus. There are a few 3rd party addins to OneNote (desktop version) that provide additional functionality for mind mapping, though the same don’t necessarily work with the Modern App version – something that’s been picked up on the User Voice forums.

clip_image002If you’ve got Visio on your PC, you could try the Brainstorm template, using Visio’s core strength of creating and associating shapes, moving them around, hyperlinking between them as appropriate and so on.

This functional approach can be a bit too structured and formal, some people preferring a much more freehand, flowing kind of mind map to basically do a brain dump. Maybe a good way of publishing an already-sketched mind map?

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Here’s a step-by-step guide (originally written for Visio 2010). Watch this 10-minute tutorial video if you’d like a more visual approach.

There are some more brainstorming tips and tricks for Visio 2016 here.

clip_image005Another option is to try some specific mind mapping software – there are some very good examples of such in the Microsoft Store. One particularly good app is Mind Maps Pro, which is free for a few days (as of end of June 2018 – install it now; even if you don’t try it right away, it’ll save you a good few £/$/€/etc as and when you give it a go).


The app has simple hierarchical mapping features, and some freehand support – including Ink – with easy additions of structure, auto-layout and the like – it’s a great way to creating a mind map on Windows. It can automatically sync your maps to OneDrive, too, and export to PDF/PNG.

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Tip o’ the Week 426 – You’ve been PWAned

clip_image002Both the Windows/Microsoft Store app marketplace and the kinds of apps it contains have had a number of generations, from phone apps (designed for Windows Phone), through Windows 8’s so-called “Metro” apps, to the later Universal Windows Platform apps ushered in by the Windows 10 platform. The goal of UWPs is to allow a single code-base to run on multiple Windows 10 based environments, such as tablet/PC, phone, HoloLens and Xbox One.

clip_image004The inconvenient truth with the UWP model is that, for most people, apps are used primarily on their phone and on smaller tablet devices. With the demise of Windows Phone, and the tablet market consisting largely of cheap Android tabs, expensive iPads, and Windows “2 in 1” detachables rather than straight-up Windows 10 tablets, there are arguably few compelling reasons for app developers to support UWPs, unless they feel a particular need to also target relatively niche devices like HoloLens, Surface Hub and Xbox.

Devs could turn to an app framework like Xamarin, which would let them support multiple device types and OSes, generating UWP apps alongside their Android and iOS counterparts.

When the vast majority of their addressable market is someone sitting in front of a PC, not a phone, if you’re an app developer who already supports Windows, then it might be easier to wrap your existing PC app using the Desktop Bridge, allowing for distribution through the Store but without needing to completely rewrite the app as a UWP one, as both Spotify and Amazon Music have shown.clip_image006

One tell-tale of an app that’s probably been packaged with the Desktop Bridge, is that if you look at it in the Store, you’ll see that it’s available on PC only.

The latest chapter in the Store story, though, is that of PWAs, or Progressive Web Apps.

In a nutshell, PWAs are web sites built to behave more like dedicated mobile apps, with features like caching, notifications & more, so a mobile version of an existing web site could obviate the need for building an app as well. Developers could build a specific app for the remaining mobile platforms (natively, or with frameworks like Xamarin or – check out this excellent intro – Google’s Flutter), alternatively they just put their efforts into a PWA, which can run on any modern browser, mobile or otherwise. There’s a lot of love for PWAs in some quarters of the mobile developer world.

It’s still a relatively new frontier, but there are already various collections of PWA apps that can be quickly sampled.

clip_image008As highlighted by Windows Central, PWAs are now appearing in the Microsoft Store, potentially giving top tier app developers a way of supporting Windows, even if they haven’t decided to specifically build a dedicated Windows app.

clip_image010To quickly find the list of all Microsoft-published apps, start with Skyscanner, and you’ll see the publisher is “Microsoft Store” itself – scroll down to the Additional information, click on that link and you’ll find the others that have been published at the same time. Or search the web.

Of course, publishers may well choose to proactively put their own apps into the Store, or if they publish PWAs elsewhere, then the best of them may get hoovered up and added to the Microsoft Store on their behalf.

Tip o’ the Week 399 – What’s in Store?

clip_image002The Windows Store was/is a key part of Windows 8 and 10, it being a place to distribute apps that conform to the “new” model (originally known as “Metro”apps, after the codename given to the design ethos that typified the redesign of apps and the OS itself, though thatname was later dropped in favour of the much duller “Microsoft Design Language” (MDL), and the term given to “Metro Apps” was “Windows Store Apps” or “Modern Apps”).

The original idea behind the Apps that were to be distributed via the Store was that they would be easy to install and share, but perhaps most importantly, heavily sandboxed so they couldn’t hog the performance of the machine, couldn’t be a vector for attack by spreading malware and the likes or drain the battery of the laptop (or phone) through excessive background execution.

Anyone who’s ever looked in Task Manager on their PC and seen Runtime Broker run amok might disagree that it’s worked out, but ‘tis still a noble aim. The idea of Windows Store apps evolved into Universal Windows Platform apps in Windows 10, the plan being that the same app could run on PCs, Hololens, Surface Hub, phones, Xbox…

clip_image004It seems the Windows Store is being rebranded, though. As its remit grew from an app store to include music, games and TV/movie distribution as well, this makes a deal of sense. Expect to see the change percolate to Windows 10 users as an update is rolled out to the Store app, starting with Insiders for now. The same rebranding is supposedly happening to Windows Mobile (who knew?) and also on Xbox.

There’s nothing obviously new in the Store app yet, but MJF reports that Progressive Web Apps will be featured in the catalogue of apps in future.

In other news, the bricks’n’mortar Microsoft Store is coming to London.

Tip o’ the Week 360 – Seasonal online goodies

clip_image001If you’re still planning on completing your holiday gift-buying towards the end of the shopping period, you may want to turn your attention to some online offers that will go down well with some – if not all – members of your extended family.

EMEA-based ‘softies can get an online equivalent of the North American retail Microsoft Store “Doorbusters” and the now-finished online “12 days of deals”, through their online employee store. The shelves are looking pretty empty, if truth be told, but you might still snag a 12- or 24-month Xbox Live Gold subscription for a bargain; you just get emailed the code, and it can be added to either a new (free) Xbox Live account to upgrade to Gold, or can be used to extend an existing one.

If you’re not an Xbox Live subscriber already, you could get the first month for only £1, and then apply the above code later should you wish. The public-facing “Countdown” promotion (running as of 22nd December all the way through to the other side of the festivities) has a load of other offers available, especially if you’re also an Xbox Live Gold member. Remind yourself how rubbish 1970s arcade games were for only £3, for example.

clip_image002Various other goodies are available from the online Microsoft Store website, and the other Microsoft Store – the one with apps, games and entertainment – has a roster of daily deals and other discounts worth checking. Christmas isn’t Christmas until you’ve seen Hans Gruber fall off a skyscraper (act quickly – deal running out).

There’s a Countdown sale on digital content, too, for when you realise the Christmas telly schedules are full of stuff you don’t want to watch, and your Sky Q box is up the swannee and taking an hour to reboot.

clip_image003Sadly, there are no Groove Music Pass deals to be had this year, unless you’ve never used A Zune, Xbox or Groove Music Pass previously. You can try it for free (for a month), and you’ll be sent a promo code to grab another 3 months free – so well worth a go, especially since the Groove apps for PC and Xbox One have been updated with support for Music videos, and the iOS and Android mobile apps have been given a refresh to keep pace with the UWP versions too.

Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, see you all in January!