Microsoft Teams is coming to consumers — but Skype is here to stay

Microsoft today announced that later this year, it will launch what is essentially a consumer version of Teams, its Slack-like text, audio and video chat application. Teams for your personal life, as Microsoft likes to call it, will feature a number of tools that will make it easier for families and small groups to organize events, share information and get on video calls, too.

As Google has long demonstrated, there can never be enough messaging applications, but it’s interesting to see Microsoft preview this direction for Teams when it has long solely focused on Skype as its personal chat, audio and video call app. But as Yusuf Mehdi, Microsoft’s corporate VP for Modern Life, Search and Devices, told me, Skype isn’t going away. Indeed, he noted that over half a billion people are using tools like Skype today.

“Skype continues,” he said when I asked him about the future of that service. “We remain committed to Skype. Skype today is used by a hundred million people on a monthly basis. The way I think about it is that Skype is a great solution today for personal use. A lot of broadcast companies use it as well. Teams is really the more robust offering, as you will, where in addition to doing video and chat calling, we also bring in rich communications and templates […], we have things like dashboard and it also helps you pull in a richer set of tools.”

With the more personal Teams only launching later this year, Skype remains Microsoft’s main consumer chat service for the time being. Indeed, about 40 million people current use it daily, in part because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the company is seeing a 220 percent increase in Skype-to-Skype call minutes.

While Microsoft thought about giving this new personal take on Teams a different brand, the company decided that Teams had pretty broad brand awareness already. In addition, the focus of today’s updates was very much on bridging the gap between work life and home life, so it makes sense for the company to try to combine both enterprise and personal features into the same application.

Microsoft Edge is getting smart copy and paste, a password monitor and vertical tabs

Microsoft announced a ton of new features for its productivity apps today, but it also used today’s release to highlight a few new features that are coming to its Chromium-based Edge browser in the near future.

Most of these are pretty straightforward and expected, like its Collections bookmarking feature coming to mobile later this year, but some are quite a surprise. Edge is getting vertical tabs, for example. A lot of browsers have experimented with this in the past but it has often been seen as a niche feature for advanced users. Microsoft clearly doesn’t think of it that way. But you’ll have to wait a bit to try this out, as it’s currently scheduled to roll out to the preview channels in the next few months (or to get a taste of it today, you could try an alternative browser like Vivaldi, which has a number of other advanced tab management features, too).

Also coming to an Edge browser near you in the next few months is Smart Copy. If you’ve ever tried to copy and paste a table from a website in the past, you know that the result is always messy. With Smart Copy, Edge can preserve the formatting when you paste the table into a document. It’ll launch in the Edge Insider channels in the next month.

Also coming in the next few months is a new Password Monitor in Edge, which Microsoft built from the ground up. Like similar features in other browsers and extensions like Google’s Password Checkup, Password Monitor constantly scans the web to make sure your credentials haven’t been stolen. One nifty feature here is that you don’t just get a notification but that this notification will also take you right to the respective service’s site for changing your password.

It’s no secret that Microsoft is very excited about collections in Edge. You can think of them as a tool for bookmarking related sites, images and even text snippets. That’s a useful feature for when you are planning a trip, organizing a dinner or researching anything online. It’s a bit more ephemeral than bookmarks yet more durable than simply keeping a bunch of tabs open. As Microsoft today announced, Collections are coming to the mobile version of Edge, too, and users will be able to sync their Collections between devices.

Microsoft brings Teams to consumers and launches Microsoft 365 personal and family plans

Microsoft today announced a slew of new products, but at the core of the release is a major change to how the company is marketing its tools and services to consumers.

Office 365, which has long been the brand for the company’s subscription service for its productivity tools like Word, Excel and Outlook, is going away. On April 21, it’ll be replaced by new Microsoft 365 plans, including new personal and family plans (for up to six people), at $6.99 and $9.99 respectively. That’s the same price as the existing Office 365 Personal and Home plans.

“We are basically evolving our subscription from — in our minds — a set of tools to solutions that help you manage across your work and life,” Yusuf Mehdi, Microsoft’s CVP of Modern Life, Search and Devices, told me ahead of today’s announcement.

Microsoft is making similar branding changes to its business plans for Office 365. For the most part. There, they are a bit more convoluted, with Office 365 Business Premium now called Microsoft 365 Business Standard and Microsoft 365 Business now becoming Microsoft 365 Business Premium, but for the most part, this is about branding while prices stay the same.

These new Microsoft 365 Personal and Family plans will include access to Outlook and the Office desktop apps for Windows and macOS, 1TB of OneDrive storage per person (including unlimited access to the more secure OneDrive Personal Vault service) and 50G of Outlook.com email storage, Skype call recording and 60 minutes of Skype landline and mobile phone calls.

And since this is now Microsoft 365 and not Office 365, you can also get Windows 10 technical support with the subscription, as well as additional security features to protect you from phishing and malware attacks.

More than 37 million people currently have personal Office 365 subscriptions and chances are these lower prices will bring more users to the platform in the long run. As Mehdi stressed, Microsoft’s free offerings aren’t going away.

But with today’s release, Microsoft isn’t just changing the branding and launching these new plans, it’s also highlighting quite a few new capabilities in its various applications that are either launching today or in the coming months.

Microsoft Teams gets a personal edition

The highlight of this launch, especially given the current situation around COVID-19, is likely the announcement of Teams for consumers. Teams is already one of Microsoft’s fastest-growing products for businesses, with 44 million people using it. But in its efforts to help people bridge their work and personal lives, it will now launch a new Teams edition for consumers, as well.

Just like you can switch between work and personal accounts in Outlook, you will soon be able to do the same in Teams. The personal teams view will look a little bit different, with shared calendars for the family, access to OneDrive vaults, photo sharing, etc., but it sits on the same codebase as the business version. You’ll also be able to do video calls and shared to-do lists.

Better writing through AI

About a year ago, Microsoft announced that Word Online would get a new AI-powered editor that would help you write better. You can think of it as a smarter grammar checker that can fix all of your standard grammar mistakes but can also help you avoid overly complex sentences and bias in your word choices.

This editor is now the Microsoft Editor, and the company is expanding it well beyond Word. The new AI-powered service is now available in 20 languages in Word and Outlook.com — and maybe most importantly, it’ll be available as a Microsoft Edge and Google Chrome plug-in, too.

Free users will get basic spelling and grammar features, while Microsoft 365 subscribers will get a number of more advanced features like the ability to ask the editor to suggest a rewrite of a mangled sentence, a plagiarism checker, style analysis to see if your writing is unclear or too formal, and access to an inclusive language critique to help you avoid unintentional bias.

If you’ve used Grammarly in the past, then a lot of this will sound familiar. Both services now offer a similar set of capabilities, but Microsoft may have an edge with its ability to rewrite sentences.

Better presentations through technology

In a similar vein, Microsoft also launched a presentation coach for PowerPoint as a limited test last September. This AI-driven feature helps you avoid filler words and other presentation no-nos.

This feature first launched in the online version of PowerPoint, with a basic set of features. Now, Microsoft 365 subscribers will get two new advanced features, too, that can help you avoid a monotone pitch that puts your audience to sleep and avoid grammar mistakes in your spoken sentences.

Currently, these are still available as a free preview to all but will become Microsoft 365-only features soon.

PowerPoint is also getting an updated Designer to help you create better presentations. It can now easily turn text into a timeline, for example, and when you add an image, it can present you with a set of potential slide layouts.

Microsoft 365 subscribers now also get access to over 8,000 images and 175 looping videos from Getty Images, as well as 300 new fonts and 2,800 new icons.

Excel + Plaid

For you spreadsheet jockeys out there, Microsoft also has some good news, especially if you want to use Excel to manage your personal budgets.

In partnership with Plaid, you can now link your bank accounts to Excel and import all of your expenses into your spreadsheets. With that, you can then categorize your spend and build your own personal Mint. This feature, dubbed “Money in Excel,” will launch in the U.S. in the coming months.

In addition, Excel is getting a lot more cloud- and AI-driven data types that now cover over 100 topics, including nutrition, movies, places, chemistry and — because why not — Pokémon. Like some of the previous features, this is an extension of the work Microsoft did on Excel in the last few years, starting with the ability to pull in stock market and geographical data.

And just like with the previous set of features, you’ll need a Microsoft 365 subscription to get access to these additional data types. Otherwise, you’ll remain restricted to the stock market and geography data types, which will become available to Office Insiders in the spring and then Personal and Family subscribers in the U.S. in the coming months.

Outlook gets more personal

Even though you may want to forget about Outlook and ignore your inbox for a while, Microsoft doesn’t. In Outlook on the web, you can now link your personal and work calendars to ensure you don’t end up with a work meeting in the middle of a personal appointment, because Chris from marketing really needs another sync meeting during your gym time even though a short email would suffice.

Outlook for Android can now summarize and read your emails aloud for you, too. This feature will roll out in the coming months.

Family Safety

While most of the new features here focus on existing applications, Microsoft is also launching one completely new app: Microsoft Family Safety. This app is coming to Microsoft 365 subscribers on iOS and Android and will bring together a set of tools that can help families manage their online activities and track the location of family members.

The app lets families manage the screen time of their kids (and maybe parents, too) across Windows, Android and Xbox, for example. Parents can also set content filters that only allow kids to download age-appropriate apps. But it also allows parents to track their kids in the real world through location tracking and even driving reports. This, as Mehdi stressed, is a feature that kids can turn off, but they’ll probably have to explain themselves to their parents then. Indeed, he stressed that a lot of what the app does is give parents a chance to have a dialog with their kids. What makes the service unique is that it works across platforms, with iOS support coming in the future.

This app is launching as a limited preview now and will be available in the coming months (I think you can spot a trend here).

Partner benefits

Mehdi noted that Microsoft is also partnering with companies like Adobe, Bark, Blinkist, Creative Live, Experian, Headspace and TeamSnap to provide Microsoft 365 subscribers with additional benefits like limited-time access to their products and services. Subscribers will get three free months of access to Adobe’s Creative Cloud Photography plan, for example.

At the core of today’s updates, though, is a mission to bring a lot of the productivity tools that people know from their work life to their personal life, too, with the personal edition of Teams being the core example.

“We’re very much excited to bring this type of value — not increase the price of Office 365 — take a big step forward, and then move to this,” Mehdi said. “We think now more than ever, it is valuable for people to have the subscription service for their life that helps them make the most of their time, protects their family, lets them develop and grow. And our goal or aspiration is: Can we give you the most valuable subscription for your life? I know people value their video subscriptions and music subscriptions. Our aspiration is to provide the most valuable subscription for your life via Microsoft 365 Personal and Family.”

Security lapse exposed Republican voter firm’s internal app code

A voter contact and canvassing company, used exclusively by Republican political campaigns, mistakenly left an unprotected copy of its app’s code on its website for anyone to find.

The company, Campaign Sidekick, helps Republican campaigns canvass their districts using its iOS and Android apps, which pull in names and addresses from voter registration rolls. Campaign Sidekick says it has helped campaigns in Arizona, Montana, and Ohio — and contributed to the Brian Kemp campaign, which saw him narrowly win against Democratic rival Stacey Abrams in the Georgia gubernatorial campaign in 2018.

For the past two decades, political campaigns have ramped up their use of data to identify swing voters. This growing political data business has opened up a whole economy of startups and tech companies using data to help campaigns better understand their electorate. But that has led to voter records spilling out of unprotected servers and other privacy-related controversies — like the case of Cambridge Analytica obtaining private data from social media sites.

Chris Vickery, director of cyber risk research at security firm UpGuard, said he found the cache of Campaign Sidekick’s code by chance.

In his review of the code, Vickery found several instances of credentials and other app-related secrets, he said in a blog post on Monday, which he shared exclusively with TechCrunch. These secrets, such as keys and tokens, can typically be used to gain access to systems or data without a username or password. But Vickery did not test the password as doing so would be unlawful. Vickery also found a sampling of personally identifiable information, he said, amounting to dozens of spreadsheets packed with voter names and addresses.

Fearing the exposed credentials could be abused if accessed by a malicious actor, Vickery informed the company of the issue in mid-February. Campaign Sidekick quickly pulled the exposed cache of code offline.

One of the Campaign Sidekick mockups, using dummy data, collates a voter’s data in one place. (Image: supplied)

One of the screenshots provided by Vickery showed a mockup of a voter profile compiled by the app, containing basic information about the voter and their past voting and donor history, which can be obtained from public and voter records. The mockup also lists the voter’s “friends.”

Vickery told TechCrunch he found “clear evidence” that the app’s code was designed to pull in data from its now-defunct Facebook app, which allowed users to sign-in and pull their list of friends — a feature that was supported by Facebook at the time until limits were put on third-party developers’ access to friends’ data.

“There is clear evidence that Campaign Sidekick and related entities had and have used access to Facebook user data and APIs to query that data,” Vickery said.

Drew Ryun, founder of Campaign Sidekick, told TechCrunch that its Facebook project was from eight years prior, that Facebook had since deprecated access to developers, and that the screenshot was a “digital artifact of a mockup.” (TechCrunch confirmed that the data in the mockup did not match public records.)

Ryun said after he learned of the exposed data the company “immediately changed sensitive credentials for our current systems,” but that the credentials in the exposed code could have been used to access its databases storing user and voter data.

After a brief pause, Google restarts Chrome and Chrome OS releases

It was only a week ago that Google said it would hit pause on Chrome and Chrome OS releases “due to adjusted work schedules” in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Today, however, the company announced that it would resume releases — but with an adjusted schedule.

In the age of rapid-release schedules for browsers, the exact details of the new release schedules won’t actually matter all that much in practice.

I’m sure most Chrome users have no idea which version they are actually using. In case you do, though, the most noteworthy change here is that version 82 has been canceled. Version 80 is currently in the stable release channel, with version 81 in the beta channel. Around April 7, version 81 will become the stable version and then version 83 will launch a few weeks ahead of schedule in mid-May, while version 82 has gone the way of the dodo. You can find the detailed Chrome release schedule here.

In the end, the important news here is that Chrome and Chrome OS releases are back from their very short update hiatus. That, in and of itself, is a bit of a surprise given that Google’s update from last week made it seem like we were in for a longer pause and would only see security updates for a while.

Twitter pulls The Federalist’s dangerous ‘pox’ coronavirus tweet

A tweet by conservative online magazine The Federalist, which suggested people should deliberately infect themselves with the coronavirus strain COVID-19, has been pulled after it “violated” Twitter’s rules.

The infringing tweet, posted on Wednesday morning, said: “It is time to think outside the bod and seriously consider a somewhat unconventional approach to COVID-19: controlled voluntary infection.”

A spokesperson for Twitter confirmed the tweet violated its rules, but did not say why.

The article focuses on “pox parties,” where parents would historically gather their young children together in order to infect their children with the common childhood disease. The theory goes that the child obtains the immunity and doesn’t suffer from the illness later in life, which can have far more serious medical implications. The article goes on to suggest this same principle should be used for the coronavirus strain, COVID-19, which to date has killed more than 20,000 people.

Governments, both federal and local, have unified behind mandating that people stay at home and self-isolate in the hope of slowing the spread of the virus to prevent overrunning the health systems.

Experts were quick to dispel the theory. Eugene Gu, a doctor and chief executive of Cool Quit, called the article “dangerous” and “irresponsible.” The article also used a racist term in its headline to describe the coronavirus, which Gu called the “racist cherry on top of dangerous and fake medical advice.”

One Twitter user said that sharing the link to The Federalist’s article was blocked because it was “potentially harmful.”

A spokesperson for The Federalist did not comment.

Twitter has taken an aggressive approach to misinformation by proactively verifying known experts to improve the flow of accurate information. It’s also doubled down on its efforts to prevent disinformation by updating its policies to prohibit new tweets that “could place people at a higher risk of transmitting COVID-19.”

Twitter pulls The Federalist’s dangerous ‘pox’ coronavirus tweet

A tweet by conservative online magazine The Federalist, which suggested people should deliberately infect themselves with the coronavirus strain COVID-19, has been pulled after it “violated” Twitter’s rules.

The infringing tweet, posted on Wednesday morning, said: “It is time to think outside the bod and seriously consider a somewhat unconventional approach to COVID-19: controlled voluntary infection.”

A spokesperson for Twitter confirmed the tweet violated its rules, but did not say why.

The article focuses on “pox parties,” where parents would historically gather their young children together in order to infect their children with the common childhood disease. The theory goes that the child obtains the immunity and doesn’t suffer from the illness later in life, which can have far more serious medical implications. The article goes on to suggest this same principle should be used for the coronavirus strain, COVID-19, which to date has killed more than 20,000 people.

Governments, both federal and local, have unified behind mandating that people stay at home and self-isolate in the hope of slowing the spread of the virus to prevent overrunning the health systems.

Experts were quick to dispel the theory. Eugene Gu, a doctor and chief executive of Cool Quit, called the article “dangerous” and “irresponsible.” The article also used a racist term in its headline to describe the coronavirus, which Gu called the “racist cherry on top of dangerous and fake medical advice.”

One Twitter user said that sharing the link to The Federalist’s article was blocked because it was “potentially harmful.”

A spokesperson for The Federalist did not comment.

Twitter has taken an aggressive approach to misinformation by proactively verifying known experts to improve the flow of accurate information. It’s also doubled down on its efforts to prevent disinformation by updating its policies to prohibit new tweets that “could place people at a higher risk of transmitting COVID-19.”

Stocks blast higher on expectation of sweeping federal action

There are no free market fanatics on corporate boards the moment the economy wobbles. Today makes the point, with stocks shooting higher on the back of news that a sweeping federal package of aid and stimulus should soon pass Congress. The goal of the financial package is to blunt the impact of COVID-19-related market disruptions that have led to mass layoffs, and an economy expected to slip into recession.

Today in regular hours the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) led American indices by climbing over 10%. It was the best day for the venerable Dow since the 2008 crisis in percentage terms, though the index has posted sharper declines in percentage terms in recent days.

Its kin also rose, if less. Here’s the day’s results:

  • DJIA: rose 11.37% to 20,704.91
  • S&P 500: rose 9.38% to 2,447.33
  • Nasdaq composite: rose 8.12% to close at 7,417.86

SaaS shares, as tracked by the BVP Nasdaq Emerging Cloud Index, rose about 7.2% on the day. Bitcoin saw its value jump by 5% in the last 24 hours, and is worth about $6,600 as of the time of writing. The day may not meet the criteria for a market melt up, but it certainly was a welcome respite from recent weeks’ declines.

The next test for the American public markets comes tomorrow. After posting huge gains today, can they be retained? In the past dozen trading sessions, there has been a market habit worth noting in which any sharp action — up or down — was met with a similar, opposite result the following day. Call it Newton’s third law of stonks.

Ride-hailing get a boost

Lyft and Uber were lifted by the broader gains across all major indices. Lyft rose 19.68% to $27.06, while Uber shares increased 17.81% to $27.38. The companies saw increases even as the ride-hailing industry faces continued pressure amid the spread of COVID-19. Both companies have seen a decline in demand, prompting a shift towards delivery and partnerships with non-profit organizations to provide transportation services to health care workers and others who need it during the pandemic.

On Monday, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi sent a letter to the White House, asking lawmakers to include protection and financial support for gig workers in the COVID-19 stimulus packages. Khosrowshahi also argued that there needs to be a third employment classification for gig workers that “would update our labor laws to remove the forced choice between flexibility and protection for millions of American workers.”

Stocks broadly fall as Nasdaq dips modestly, SaaS gains on the day

The stock market’s movements in recent weeks have often felt like unified action. When one American index fell, the others were generally right there with it, rising and falling in concert. Today wasn’t like that.

Indeed, in regular trading today the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) was down sharply. The S&P 500 dipped a little less, but was mostly in line. The tech-heavy Nasdaq, however, was not. And perhaps even more surprising, a key subset of the technology world wasn’t down at all — it was up.

Here’s how today’s trading left us:

  • DJIA: -582.05, -3.04% (-37.12% from 52 week highs)
  • S&P 500: -67.52, -2.93% (-34.07% from 52 week highs)
  • Nasdaq: -18.84, -0.27% (-30.27% from 52 week highs)
  • BVP Nasdaq Emerging Cloud Index: +21.43, +2.12% (-28.03% from 52 week highs)

The day’s declines did not stem from a single fundamental cause. Some financial publications highlighted congressional inaction as the reason. You could easily add rising COVID-19 infections to the list. (Notably while the public markets continue their dive, private investors are still putting nine-figure capital rounds together, which feels contrarian.)

Let’s narrow more. While the Cloud Index tracks SaaS companies — a key startup niche for the venture class — other industries are making interesting moves as well. Let’s take a peek at Uber and Lyft, which enjoyed a surge late last week on the back of Uber promising not to die, following market concerns about its health.

Uber saw shares rise 3.99% to close at $22.40. Lyft shares also rose 6.3% to $22.61 at market close. The two companies are still below their highs in 2020. Lyft and Uber hit year-to-date highs on February at $53.94 and $41.27 respectively.

Other mobility related companies such as automakers saw mixed results. Ford shares took a hit and fell 7.18% to close at $4 after Fitch Ratings downgraded the automaker to a skosh above non-investment grade with a negative outlook driven by the COVID-19 pandemic. Ford is now rate BBB-.

GM shares also fell 2.98% to $17.60. Meanwhile, Tesla shares rose 1.58% to $434.29 a share.

 

Google hits pause on Chrome and Chrome OS releases

Google today announced that it is pausing upcoming Chrome and Chrome OS releases “due to adjusted work schedules.”

The company confirmed that we will still see security updates, though, which will get merged into version 80, the browser’s current stable release version. “We’ll continue to prioritize any updates related to security, which will be included in Chrome 80,” the team writes in today’s brief announcement.

Don’t expect any new feature updates anytime soon, though. Chrome version 81 is currently in beta testing and will likely remain in this channel for now. Like so much in this current situation, it’s unclear when Google plans to resume regular updates.

Earlier this week, Google also noted that Android app reviews will likely now take longer as the COVID-19 pandemic has reduced in-office staffing levels. The same holds true for YouTube. As YouTube is taking measures to protect its staff, it says it’ll rely more on its AI algorithms to moderate content (which in turn will likely lead to more false positives and YouTube taking down more videos that weren’t actually violating its terms).

With most of Google (and other tech companies) now working from home, we’ll likely see more of these announcements in the future as the impact of this crisis becomes clearer in the coming weeks.