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Main article: Operating systems

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Google launches the first developer preview of Android 11

21:35 | 19 February

With the days of desert-themed releases officially behind it, Google today announced the first developer preview of Android 11, which is now available as system images for Google’s own Pixel devices, starting with the Pixel 2.

As of now, there is no way to install the updates over the air. That’s usually something the company makes available at a later stage. These first releases aren’t meant for regular users anyway. Instead, they are a way for developers to test their applications and get a head start on making use of the latest features in the operating system.

With Android 11 we’re keeping our focus on helping users take advantage of the latest innovations, while continuing to keep privacy and security a top priority,” writes Google VP of Engineering Dave Burke. “We’ve added multiple new features to help users manage access to sensitive data and files, and we’ve hardened critical areas of the platform to keep the OS resilient and secure. For developers, Android 11 has a ton of new capabilities for your apps, like enhancements for foldables and 5G, call-screening APIs, new media and camera capabilities, machine learning, and more.”

Unlike some of Google’s previous early previews, this first version of Android 11 does actually bring quite a few new features to the table. As Burke noted, there are some obligatory 5G features like a new bandwidth estimate API, for example, as well as a new API that checks whether a connection is unmetered so apps can play higher resolution video, for example.

With Android 11, Google is also expanding its Project Mainline lineup of updatable modules from 10 to 22. With this, Google is able to update critical parts of the operating system without having to rely on the device manufacturers to release a full OS update. Users simply install these updates through the Google Play infrastructure.

Users will be happy to see that Android 11 will feature native support for waterfall screens that cover a device’s edges, using a new API that helps developers manage interactions near those edges.

Also new are some features that developers can use to handle conversational experiences, including a dedicated conversation section in the notification shade, as well as a new chat bubbles API and the ability to insert images into replies you want to send from the notifications pane.

Unsurprisingly, Google is adding a number of new privacy and security features to Android 11, too. These include one-time permissions for sensitive types of data, as well as updates to how the OS handles data on external storage, which it first previewed last year.

As for security, Google is expanding its support for biometrics and adding different levels of granularity (strong, weak and device credential), in addition to the usual hardening of the platform you would expect from a new release.

There are plenty of other smaller updates as well, including some that are specifically meant to make running machine learning applications easier, but Google specifically highlights the fact that Android 11 will also bring a couple of new features to the OS that will help IT manage corporate devices with enhanced work profiles.

This first developer preview of Android 11 is launching about a month earlier than previous releases, so Google is giving itself a bit more time to get the OS ready for a wider launch. Currently, the release schedule calls for monthly developer preview releases until April, followed by three betas and a final release in Q3 2020.

 


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Flip raises $4M to pounce on the growing sector of employee messaging

15:46 | 13 February

By now we’re all familiar with text messaging groups for multi-person co-ordination. I’ve lost count of how many WhatsApp, Telegram and Facebook messenger groups I’m on! Other apps like Threema have started to be used in a business context and startups like Staffbase have decided to become full-blown ‘workforce messaging’ platforms. The thinking now amongst investors is that messaging is about to explode in all sorts of verticals and that it’s a rich seam to mine.

In that vein, Flip, a Stuttgart, Germany-based employee messenger app, has now raised €3.6M ($4M) from LEA Partners and Cavalry Ventures, together with Plug and Play Ventures and Business Angels such as Jürgen Hambrecht (Chairman of the Supervisory Board BASF), Prof. Dr. Kurt Lauk (Chairman of the Supervisory Board Magna International), Florian Buzin (Founder Starface) and Andreas Burike (HR Business Angel). The capital raised will be invested primarily in the expansion of the team and the development of further markets.

Founded in 2018, the start-up offers companies a platform that connects and informs employees across all levels in a legally compliant manner.

That last part is important. The application is based on a GDPR-compliant data and employee protection concept, which was validated jointly with experts and works councils of several DAX companies. It also integrates with many existing corporate IT infrastructures.

The startup has now secured customers including Porsche, Bauhaus, Edeka, Junge IG Metall and Wüstenrot & Württembergische. Parts of the Sparkasse and Volksbank are also among the customer base. It also counts Deutsche Telekom as a partner.

Flip founder and CEO, Benedikt Ilg, said in a statement: “Flip is the easiest solution for internal communication in companies of all sizes.”

Bernhard Janke from LEA Partners said: “As a young company, Flip has been able to attract prestigious clients. The lean solution can be integrated into existing IT systems and existing communication processes, even in large organizations. With the financing round, we want to further expand the team and product and thus support the founders in their vision of making digital workforce engagement accessible to all companies.”

Claude Ritter of Cavalry Ventures said: “We are convinced that Flip is setting new standards in this still young market with its safe, lightweight and extremely powerful product”.

 


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Opera and the firm short-selling its stock (alleging Africa fintech abuses) weigh in

09:12 | 23 January

Internet services company Opera has come under a short-sell assault based on allegations of predatory lending practices by its fintech products in Africa.

Hindenburg Research issued a report claiming (among other things) that Opera’s finance products in Nigeria and Kenya have run afoul of prudent consumer practices and Google Play Store rules for lending apps.

Hindenburg — which is based in NYC and managed by financial analyst Nate Anderson — went on to suggest Opera’s U.S. listed stock was grossly overvalued.

That’s a primer on the key info, though there are several additional shades of the who, why, and where of this story to break down, before getting to what Opera and Hindenburg had to say.

A good start is Opera’s ownership and scope. Founded in Norway, the company is an internet services provider, largely centered around its Opera browser.

Opera was acquired in 2016 for $600 million by a consortium of Chinese investors, led by current Opera CEO Yahui Zhou.

Two years later, Opera went public in an IPO on NASDAQ, where its shares currently trade.

Web Broswers Africa 2019 Opera

Though Opera’s web platform isn’t widely used in the U.S. — where it has less than 1% of the browser market — it has been number-one in Africa, and more recently a distant second to Chrome, according to StatCounter.

On the back of its browser popularity, Opera went on an African venture-spree in 2019, introducing a suite of products and startup verticals in Nigeria and Kenya, with intent to scale more broadly across the continent.

In Nigeria these include motorcycle ride-hail service ORide and delivery app OFood.

Central to these services are Opera’s fintech apps: OPay in Nigeria and OKash and Opesa in Kenya — which offer payment and lending options.

Fintech focused VC and startups have been at the center of a decade long tech-boom in several core economies in Africa, namely Kenya and Nigeria.

In 2019 Opera led a wave of Chinese VC in African fintech, including $170 million in two rounds to its OPay payments service in Nigeria.

Opera’s fintech products in Africa (as well as Opera’s Cashbean in India) are at the core of Hindenburg Research’s brief and short-sell position. 

The crux of the Hindenburg report is that due to the declining market-share of its browser business, Opera has pivoted to products generating revenue from predatory short-term loans in Africa and India at interest rates of 365 to 876%, so Hindenburg claims.

The firm’s reporting goes on to claim Opera’s payment products in Nigeria and Kenya are afoul of Google rules.

“Opera’s short-term loan business appears to be…in violation of the Google Play Store’s policies on short-term and misleading lending apps…we think this entire line of business is at risk of…being severely curtailed when Google notices and ultimately takes corrective action,” the report says.

Based on this, Hindenburg suggested Opera’s stock should trade at around $2.50, around a 70% discount to Opera’s $9 share-price before the report was released on January 16.

Hindenburg also disclosed the firm would short Opera.

Founder Nate Anderson confirmed to TechCrunch Hindenburg continues to hold short positions in Opera’s stock — which means the firm could benefit financially from declines in Opera’s share value. The company’s stock dropped some 18% the day the report was published.

On motivations for the brief, “Technology has catalyzed numerous positive changes in Africa, but we do not think this is one of them,” he said.

“This report identified issues relating to one company, but what we think will soon become apparent is that in the absence of effective local regulation, predatory lending is becoming pervasive across Africa and Asia…proliferated via mobile apps,” Anderson added.

While the bulk of Hindenburg’s critique was centered on Opera, Anderson also took aim at Google.

“Google has become the primary facilitator of these predatory lending apps by virtue of Android’s dominance in these markets. Ultimately, our hope is that Google steps up and addresses the bigger issue here,” he said.

TechCrunch has an open inquiry into Google on the matter. In the meantime, Opera’s apps in Nigeria and Kenya are still available on GooglePlay, according to Opera and a cursory browse of the site.

For its part, Opera issued a rebuttal to Hindenburg and offered some input to TechCrunch through a spokesperson.

In a company statement opera said, “We have carefully reviewed the report published by the short seller and the accusations it put forward, and our conclusion is very clear: the report contains unsubstantiated statements, numerous errors, and misleading conclusions regarding our business and events related to Opera.”

Opera added it had proper banking licenses in Kenyan or Nigeria. “We believe we are in compliance with all local regulations,” said a spokesperson.

TechCrunch asked Hindenburg’s Nate Anderson if the firm had contacted local regulators related to its allegations. “We reached out to the Kenyan DCI three times before publication and have not heard back,” he said.

As it pertains to Africa’s startup scene, there’ll be several things to follow surrounding the Opera, Hindenburg affair.

The first is how it may impact Opera’s business moves in Africa. The company is engaged in competition with other startups across payments, ride-hail, and several other verticals in Nigeria and Kenya. Being accused of predatory lending, depending on where things go (or don’t) with the Hindenburg allegations, could put a dent in brand-equity.

There’s also the open question of if/how Google and regulators in Kenya and Nigeria could respond. Contrary to some perceptions, fintech regulation isn’t non-existent in both countries, neither are regulators totally ineffective.

Kenya passed a new data-privacy law in November and Nigeria recently established guidelines for mobile-money banking licenses in the country, after a lengthy Central Bank review of best digital finance practices.

Nigerian regulators demonstrated they are no pushovers with foreign entities, when they slapped a $3.9 billion fine on MTN over a regulatory breach in 2015 and threatened to eject the South African mobile-operator from the country.

As for short-sellers in African tech, they are a relatively new thing, largely because there are so few startups that have gone on to IPO.

In 2019, Citron Research head and activist short-seller Andrew Left — notable for shorting Lyft and Tesla — took short positions in African e-commerce company Jumia, after dropping a report accusing the company of securities fraud. Jumia’s share-price plummeted over 50% and has only recently begun to recover.

As of Wednesday, there were signs Opera may be shaking off Hindenburg’s report — at least in the market — as the company’s shares had rebounded to $7.35.

 


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Canonical’s Anbox Cloud puts Android in the cloud

21:09 | 21 January

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 app 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 .

 


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Browsers are interesting again

23:18 | 3 January

A few years ago, covering browsers got boring.

Chrome had clearly won the desktop, the great JavaScript speed wars were over and Mozilla seemed more interested in building a mobile operating system than its browser. Microsoft tried its best to rescue Internet Explorer/Edge from being the punchline of nerdy jokes, but its efforts essentially failed.

Meanwhile, Opera had shuttered the development of its own rendering engine and redesigned its browser with less functionality, alienating many of its biggest fans. On mobile, plenty of niche players tried to break the Chrome/Safari duopoly, but while they did have some innovative ideas, nothing ever stuck.

But over the course of the last year or so, things changed. The main catalyst for this, I would argue, is that the major browser vendors — and we can argue about Google’s role here — realized that their products were at the forefront of a new online privacy movement. It’s the browser, after all, that allows marketers to set cookies and fingerprint your machine to track you across the web.

Add to that Microsoft’s move to the Chromium engine, which is finally giving Microsoft a seat at the browser table again, plus the success of upstarts like Brave and Vivaldi, and you’ve got the right mix of competitive pressure and customer interest for innovation to come back into what was a stagnant field only a few years ago.

Let’s talk about privacy first. With browsers being the first line of defense, it’s maybe surprising that we didn’t see Mozilla and others push for more built-in tracking protections before.

In 2019, the Chrome team introduced handling cookies in the browser and a few months ago, it launched a broader initiative to completely rethink cookies and online privacy for its users — and by extension, Google’s advertising ecosystem. This move centers around differential privacy and a ‘privacy budget’ that would allow advertisers to get enough information about you to group you into a larger cohort without providing so much information that you would love your anonymity.

At the time, Google said this was a multi-year effort that was meant to help publishers retain their advertising revenue (vs their users completely blocking cookies).

 


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Volvo invests in autonomous vehicle operating system startup Apex.AI though its VC arm

18:00 | 5 December

Volvo is making an investment in Palo Alto-based Apex.AI, a startup working on developing a robotic operating system qualified for use in production automobiles. Apex.AI, founded by automated systems engineers Jan Becker and Dejan Pangercic, raised $15.5 million in a Series A last November, and revealed that its focus is on developing an enterprise-focused version of the Robot Operating System open-source middleware.

Apex.AI currently lists two products on its home page: Apex.OS and Apex.Autonomy. The former aims to provide a set of simple-to-integrate APIs that can give automakers and others access to fully certified autonomous mobility technology, while the latter is more focused on specific elements and components for those looking to make use of specific elements of autonomous technology, including perception, localization, path planning and more.

Volvo Group Venture Capital acting CEO Anna Westerberg, who is also the automaker’s SVP of Connected Solutions, said in a press release announcing the news that Volvo Group is “excited to invest in a company that enables easier development of safety-certified systems.” In providing systems that comply with industry-standard safety requirements, Apex.AI could potentially help speed the process of getting autonomous driving systems into production vehicles, across both its commercial and consumer offerings.

The financial details of the investment were not disclosed, with publicly traded Volvo Group saying only that it “has no significant impact” on the overall company’s “earnings or financial position,” which doesn’t mean much, except that it’s not material enough to require a detailed disclosure just now. That still could mean a lot of money coming in for Apex.AI, given the relative yardstick of “material” for a huge multinational automaker, and a two-year-old Silicon Valley startup.

 


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Volvo unveils its first electric car, the XC40 Recharge

21:07 | 16 October

Volvo Cars introduced Wednesday the XC40 Recharge, its first electric car under a new EV-focused brand that kicks off a company-wide shift towards electrification.

“It’s a car of firsts and it’s a car of the future,” CTO Henrik Green said. T

he Volvo XC40 Recharge is the first electric vehicle in the automaker’s portfolio. It’s also the first Volvo to have an infotainment system powered by Google’s Android operating system as well as have the ability to make over-the-air software updates.

This is also the first vehicle under Volvo’s new Recharge brand. Recharge, which was announced this week, will be the overarching name for all chargeable Volvos with a fully electric and plug-in hybrid powertrain, according to the company.

The all-electric vehicle is based off of Volvo’s popular XC40 small SUV. However, this is not a retrofit of a gas-powered vehicle.

The XC40 Recharge is equipped with an all-wheel drive powertrain and a 78 kilowatt-hour battery that can travel more than 400 kilometers (248 miles) on a single charge, in accordance with WLTP. The WLTP, or Worldwide Harmonised Light Vehicle Test Procedure, is the European standard to measure energy consumption and emissions, and tends to be more generous than the U.S. EPA estimates. The EPA estimates are not yet available, but it’s likely the XC40 Recharge will hit around the 200-mile range.

That would put the range of the Volvo XC40 Recharge below the Tesla Model 3, Chevy Bolt EV, Kia Niro and Hyundai Kona.

However, Volvo did make a vehicle with impressive horsepower and fast charging capability, which could attract buyers. The vehicle’s electric motors produces the equivalent of 408 horsepower and 442 pound-feet of torque that allows the vehicle to go from zero to 60 mph in 4.8 seconds. The battery charges to 80% of its capacity in 40 mins on a fast-charger system.

Volvo XC40 Recharge 1

Android-powered infotainment

The infotainment system in the all-electric Volvo XC40 will be powered by an automotive version of Android OS, and, as a result, bring into the car embedded Google services such as Google Assistant, Google Maps and the Google Play Store.

This Android-powered infotainment system is the product of a years-long partnership between the automaker and Google. In 2017, Volvo announced plans to incorporate a version of its Android operating system into its car infotainment systems. A year later, the company said it would embed voice-controlled Google Assistant, Google  Play Store, Google Maps and other Google services into its next-generation Sensus infotainment system.

The Android-powered infotainment system is fully integrated with Volvo On Call, the company’s digital connected services platform.  Plug-in hybrid drivers using the Volvo on Call will be able to track how much time they spend driving on electric power.

Volvo XC40 infotainment system

The infotainment system in the Polestar 2, the new vehicle from Volvo’s standalone performance brand, also is powered by Android OS.

Android Automotive OS shouldn’t be confused with Android Auto, which is a secondary interface that lies on top of an operating system. Android Automotive OS is modeled after its open-source mobile operating system that runs on Linux. But instead of running smartphones and tablets, Google modified it so it could be used in cars.

Volvo isn’t the only automaker to partner with Google to bring Android OS into its vehicles. GM began shipping vehicles with Google Android  Automotive OS in 2017, starting with the Cadillac CTS and expanding to other brands. GM said in September that Google will provide in-vehicle voice, navigation and other apps in its Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet and GMC vehicles starting in 2021.

Over-the-air software updates

The electric XC40 is also the first Volvo that will receive software and operating system updates over the air. Over-the-air, or wireless, software updates were popularized by Tesla, which has used the capability to improve its vehicles over time. Tesla has used the OTAs to fix software bugs, rollout new features in its infotainment system and improve performance.

Volvo intends to use OTAs for the operating system and other software inside the vehicle, Green said. Other automakers, with the exception of Tesla, have slowly inched towards OTAs, but have minimized its use, and limited it to the infotainment system.

“So now the XC40 will stay as fresh as your phone or tablet, and no longer will a car’s best day be the day it leaves the factory,” Green said.


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Twitter admits it used two-factor phone numbers and emails for serving targeted ads

00:03 | 9 October

Twitter has said it used phone numbers and email addresses, provided by users to set up two-factor authentication on their accounts, to serve targeted ads.

In a disclosure Tuesday, the social media giant said it did not know how many users were impacted.

The issue stemmed from the company’s tailored audiences program, which allows companies to target advertisements against their own marketing lists, such as phone numbers and email addresses. But Twitter found that when advertisers uploaded their marketing lists, it matched Twitter users to the phone numbers and email addresses users submitted to set up two-factor authentication on their account.

The issue was addressed as of September 17, the disclosure said.

Twitter finds itself in the same boat as Facebook, which last year was caught using users’ phone numbers and email addresses, which they gave Facebook for securing their accounts, for targeted advertising.

For its part, Twitter said its ad targeting was “an error” and apologized.

It’s the latest in a number of security lapses at Twitter in the past year. Last year, the company admitted to storing passwords in plaintext, disclosed a phone number leak bug despite knowing about it for two years, and confirmed a location data leak in May.

In August, Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey had his own account hacked.

 


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Opera’s desktop browser gets built-in tracking protection

11:00 | 8 October

Browser maker Opera today announced the launch of version 68 of its flagship desktop browser. The marquee feature of the launch is the addition of a tracker blocker that will make it harder for advertisers and others to track you while you browse the web — and which has the additional benefit of speeding up your browsing session. Indeed, Opera argues that turning on both the tracking protection and the built-in ad blocker can speed up page loads by up to 23 percent.

The new tracking protection feature is off by default (as is the existing ad blocker). The tracking feature uses the EasyPrivacy Tracking Protection List, which has been around for quite a few years now.

“We consider the tracker blocker to be a browser feature which can be kept on at all times, “writes Opera PC product manager Joanna Czajka. “Our browser, however, also has plenty of extended privacy features which come in handy when someone feels the need to increase the privacy of their browsing even further.”

In addition to the new tracking protection, which is increasingly becoming standard among browser vendors (and which is surely putting some additional pressure on Google and its Chrome browser), Opera is also introducing a new screenshotting feature with this update. That’s not an unusual feature, but it’s a pretty full-featured implementation, with the ability to blur parts of a page and draw on the screenshots.

opera screenshot

 

 


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Microsoft introduces Windows 10 X for dual-screen devices

18:30 | 2 October

At its annual Surface hardware event in New York, Microsoft announced the expected set of updates to its existing hardware lineup. The biggest surprise, though, was surely the announcement of the company’s dual-screen Surface Neo, which will go on sale before the 2020 holiday season. To make this kind of dual-screen device possible, Microsoft also built a new version of Windows 10: Windows 10 X.

Microsoft says it’s announcing the hardware and software today in order to get it into the hands of developers ahead of the launch.

Just like the HoloLens, Surface Hub and Xbox use the core technologies of Windows 10, the dual-screen Surface, too, will run this new version, as will dual-screen devices from Dell, HP, Lenovo and other partners. Unsurprisingly, these devices — and Windows 10 X — will feature improved pen support (and a virtual keyboard).

Windows 10 X is the result of Microsoft’s work on making Windows 10 more modular so that it can take pieces of the operating system and use them as needed. As Microsoft told us ahead of today’s announcement, Windows 10 X is essentially the continuation of the architecture changes it made to Windows 10 that allowed it to make the HoloLens, Surface Hub and Xbox versions possible.

The company stresses that this is not a new operating system but takes Windows 10 as you know it today and makes it more adaptable to other form factors. This also means that you won’t be able to buy yourself a stand-alone copy of Windows 10 X. The only way to get it is on these new dual-screen devices.

Screen Shot 2019 10 02 at 8.16.10 AM

By modularizing the Windows 10 core technology, including the user interface, Microsoft can do things like taking the Start menu and display that in HoloLens. Windows 10 X does similar things and will allow you to put the taskbar or start menu on either panel as needed. Similarly, you’ll be able to use the Start menu on either panel, depending on what’s happening on the other panel.

The overall design doesn’t look all that different from the Windows 10 you are probably familiar with already, but it obviously has all of the functionality to move applications between devices — or span them across screens. The device reflows it automatically, no matter how you hold the device. Windows 10 X also makes affordances for the Neo’s keyboard cover, which covers about half of the screen and then reveals what Microsoft, for some reason, calls the ‘WonderBar,’ with a virtual trackpad.

But this modularization effort also allows Microsoft to do some smart things under the hood. So while a regular PC will boot up and immediately run all of the services necessary to run a Win32 application, for example, Windows 10 X won’t load this subsystem until it’s needed. This, the company argues, allows it to be very efficient with the resources available on the machine and extend its battery life significantly.

Screen Shot 2019 10 02 at 8.11.55 AM

Unlike efforts like Windows 10 S, which took Windows 10 and only allowed you to run a small set of applications, Windows 10 X will let you run any application you want, no matter whether that’s a web app, UWP or Win32 application. Microsoft says that developers won’t have to do anything specific to make their applications ready for Windows 10 X. Windows 10 X will do that for them.

Some of this work will surely flow back into the mainstream PC version of Windows 10. In some way, this has already happened with some of the work Microsoft did on the graphics capabilities of Windows 10 for Xbox flowing back to the PC.

 


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