Mailbag: July 18, 2010

This week in the mailbag:

Windows Phone plus Zune, Zune Pass, Zune Marketplace Outside the US
Windows Live Photo Gallery Beta and Windows 7 Libraries Integration
Hotmail Plus and Ads
Office Web Apps on iPad (or iPhone)
Windows Phone and Zune HD Questions
Reporting Bugs to Windows Live

Have a question? I can't guarantee an answer, but I'll try. Drop me a note! (And let me know if you'd prefer not to have your name published.)

Windows Phone plus Zune, Zune Pass, Zune Marketplace Outside the US

With Windows Phone 7 barreling towards a Q4 release, and Micrsoft prepping the delivery of prototype Windows Phone devices running a near-final version of the OS, the questions are starting to pile up. Coincidentally, I'm currently in the manic phase of writing a book about Windows Phone, called Windows Phone Secrets. So I'm in it up to my neck at the moment, almost drowning in questions and praying I'll have all the answers before my quickly approaching deadline expires. But enough about my problems. The number one question I've gotten about Windows Phone this past week, by far, is some variation on:

Microsoft plans to support Windows Phone with a number of online services, and on the digital media (and mobile app) front that means Zune, which includes the Zune Pass subscription and the Zune Marketplace. However, these services are both available only in the US at the moment. With Windows Phones launching into multiple markets simultaneously this fall, surely Microsoft has some plan to provide Zune Pass and/or the Zune Marketplace to customers outside the US.

Surely.

I've asked Microsoft about this, of course, and have been told to hold, please. They do have a plan (and while I can't say much, it will be good news), but they'll announce it on their own schedule sometime before the launch. Thinking about it logically, they'll have to do something: Today, the excellent Zune HD is sold only in the US, and those two services, Zune Pass and Zune Marketplace, are US-only as well. To support a device that will be sold internationally, Microsoft will, at minimum, need to open up Zune Marketplace to sell apps in those markets. But that is, of course, the minimum. Stay tuned.

Windows Live Photo Gallery Beta and Windows 7 Libraries Integration

I received a surprising number of related questions this week about the way that the new Windows Live Photo Gallery Beta (part of the Windows Live Essentials 2011 release, see my review) interacts with the folders on your PC. This application is part of a growing number of new apps that foregoes manually managing monitoring folders and instead uses the Windows 7 Libraries feature (see my overview) to determine which file system locations to monitor. (The latest versions of the Zune PC software do this as well.) While the questions seem diverse, they all basically fall into the same category, which is this:

Is there a way to "remove" a folder from Windows Live Photo Gallery? I want to keep that folder inside of the Pictures (or Videos) library. But I don't want it to be monitored by Windows Live Photo Gallery?

To understand why this is a problem, consider the way things work in Windows 7. We now have virtual folders called Libraries that replace the "special shell folders" from older Windows versions (My Documents, My Pictures, and so on). These virtual folders look and work much like "real" folders but instead can aggregate content from multiple locations and provide a single view of it all. So, by default, Windows 7 aggregates image content from two locations, your own My Pictures folder, and the Public Pictures folder, and presents it as a single view called Pictures. This "folder" is in fact a virtual folder, similar to a database View. (If you're familiar with SQL-style databases, "real" folders are like Tables in this comparison.)

Previous to Windows 7 and Libraries, applications that needed to monitor folders for content and content changes all had to manually provide this folder monitoring functionality. Windows Media Player did this for media files, for example. (So did Zune.) And previous versions of Windows Live Photo Gallery did this for photos (and videos, since many PC-based videos were taken with a digital camera). Because Windows 7 now provides folder monitoring capabilities--well, really "content monitoring," I guess--these applications no longer need to individually recreate the same functionality. They can simply use what Windows 7 provides and not reinvent the wheel, so to speak.

Problem solved, right?

Not exactly, and not according to the email I get. Because Windows Live Photo Gallery simply links to the Pictures and Videos libraries in Windows 7, it will display every single picture--and every single video--that is contained in the folders monitored by those two libraries. And while that may be fine for shell display purposes, it's not necessarily what you want in a photo management solution. In fact, it's conceivable that you may want this application to display only a subset of the content that's aggregated by those libraries. Two of the common threads in my email have involved the Videos library stuff--some people don't want that in Photo Gallery at all, while others just want a subset of it--while others are asking why this application can't just arbitrarily monitor specifc folders, as it (sort of) did before.

These are valid concerns. In some ways, by picking up this Windows 7 functionality, Photo Gallery has become dumbed down.

Unfortunately, short of creating more Libraries--which is certainly an option, though it requires you to do a bit of work--I don't see a good way to fix this issue. (If you attempt to change which locations Photo Gallery monitors, you're simply provided with the underlying, Windows 7-based Library management dialog.) I'm all ears if you have a better solution. For now, if you feel strongly enough about this, you're going to want to separate the photos (and videos) you want monitored by Photo Gallery from those you do not. Then, create and/or configure the libraries to see (or not see) the various physical folders accordingly. It's kludgey, and dumb. But it will work.


Hotmail Plus and Ads

Mark M. asks:

If I sign up for Hotmail Plus, will the ads go away for all of the WIndows Live services, or just the Hotmail window?

The ads go away across the board, not just on Hotmail.

Microsoft makes it difficult to sign-up for Hotmail Plus for some reason, so here's a direct link. The cost is $19.95 a year in the US, which is reasonable only if you'll be using Hotmail as your primary email address or you intend to actively use the web interface (and not a Windows application) for mail, calendar, and contacts management or are active online with various Windows Live web services. I pay for Hotmail Plus specifically because of the ad removal, and this works across various Windows Live web properties, including Live Home, Hotmail, Calendar, Contacts, Profile, Office/SkyDrive, Photos, and more.

Office Web Apps on iPad (or iPhone)

Robert M. asks:

What is the best way to use Microsoft's Office Web Apps on the iPad?

Right now, there is no way to use Office Web Apps (see my review) on the iPad (or other iOS-based devices like the iPhone). And it's not just Safari, apparently this won't work in other iOS-based browsers--Opera, Atomic, etc.--either.

That said, Microsoft has of course made versions of native Office Mobile 2010 applications for Windows Mobile and the upcoming Windows Phone 7, and a version for various Nokia smart phones in the works as well. After that, Microsoft plans to port Office Mobile to "other leading smart phone platforms." Key among these, of course, is the iPhone (and related products, like the iPad). I don't think it will be long: Microsoft would be crazy to ignore this huge market for its products, and you have to think that iOS users would embrace Office immediately. Even on the Mac, which has been historically anti-Microsoft, Office is a best-selling product (within the confines of that market).

Windows Phone and Zune HD Questions

There apparently arent't that many Zune HD users out there, which is too bad because the device is so exceptional, but understandable because Microsoft never made any attempt at selling it outside the US. (Some would argue that they've not marketed it properly inside the US either, but that's another story.) Those people who do own Zune HDs, however, tend to be very evangelical about the device, and with Windows Phone looming, there are a number of questions around the fate of the Zune HD. Some of the key questions include:

What will happen to the Zune HD once Windows Phone arrives?

I've asked Microsoft this and gotten a "no comment." My guess is that the company will continue to sell the Zune HD, but that's only a guess.

Will Microsoft make a new Zune HD that is essentially a Windows Phone without the phone bits (i.e. Microsoft's version of an iPod touch)?

See the previous question; I don't know. But I hope so. Apple sells more iPod touches than iPhones, I believe, making it the best-selling iOS device currently. This is a great way for Microsoft to push its Windows Phone platform in a cost-effective way; customers could get all the media and app stuff, and Wi-Fi-based Internet connectivity, without paying a monthly fee. That way, people could jump on board before their wireless contract is up, or just as an additional device.

Will the Zune HD ever be upgraded so that it can run Windows Phone games (or other applications)?

No. Windows Phone devices must meet very specific hardware requirements, and the Zune HD hardware platform is completely incompatible. That said, it's possible--but very unlikely--that game and app makers could port Windows Phone titles to the Zune HD. But why would they? It's just not a volume market, and Microsoft hasn't opened up the Marketplace for Zune HD, allowing developers to target that platform publicly.

Reporting Bugs to Windows Live

Shawn L. writes...

I cannot find the location for reporting bugs for the new Windows Live Mail beta program.

I couldn't find a way to do this either, so I asked. Microsoft tells me you should use the Windows Live Solution Center web site for bug reporting and feedback on all Windows Live products, including the recently released Windows Live Essentials Beta (of which the Windows Live Mail beta is a part). Why this isn't clearly linked to from all Windows Live products and services--especially those in beta--is unclear.

More next week...