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Microsoft puts Office in the Loop, adds mixed reality tech to Teams • The Register

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Ignite Microsoft’s virtual Ignite event, aimed at IT admins, kicked off today with a focus on Office and Teams, among other cloudy news. Office is getting a new application called Loop, while Teams users get mixed reality meetings based on Microsoft Mesh.

Loop is an Office application based on what used to be called Fluid Components technology which has been under development for some time, being first previewed in May 2019. These components use the WebSocket API, designed for real-time communications. It addresses a flaw in Microsoft Office, that it is weaker than rival Google Workspace when it comes to online collaboration.

A Loop workspace - note that it is web-only

A Loop workspace – note that it is web-only

There are three elements in Loop. The components come first, as the building blocks, and currently include paragraphs, tables, task lists, voting tables and status trackers. These components are automatically kept in sync wherever they are surfaced. Loop pages are where users assemble components into what might be thought of as a document.

Loop workspaces are project sites which, judging from the previews we have seen, can include traditional Office documents as well as Loop components. According to Microsoft, Loop components in Teams, Outlook and OneNote will start rolling out this month, though the company would not commit to specific availability dates.

A Loop voting table being prepared collaboratively

A Loop voting table being prepared collaboratively

There is plenty of potential with Loop/Fluid but Microsoft has taken its time getting it into a production-ready state. The docs for Fluid Framework, the developer API, say that “the core technology powering Fluid Framework is mature and stable. However, the layers built on top of that foundation are still a work in progress.”

The company will be hoping the re-brand as Loop, along with the availability of something described as an application, will bring the technology to life.

There are some snags though, one of which is that Loop is a web technology, leaving users of desktop Office behind. Second, we suspect there will be confusion between Loop workspaces and things like Teams SharePoint sites, which seem superficially to have a similar purpose. The WebSockets-based Loop should provide a different user experience, with much better performance.

If it takes off, Loop might be the thing that persuades Office users to move outside the world of Word, Excel and Outlook; but in the past Microsoft has found new applications difficult to establish.

Teams is an exception to that rule, and its usage continues to grow despite persistent grumblings about underlying complexity, lack of key features, and troublesome connections. The top ask for Teams is full multi-tenancy support, so that users could be logged into more than one Teams account.

No, we are not getting this yet; Microsoft’s latest on the subject is that “given the complexity of this work, we are targeting the second half of calendar year 2022 to be able to support this.”

Mesh for Teams: users floating in space?

Mesh for Teams: users floating in space?

What we are getting is 3D mixed reality in Teams. Microsoft’s Mesh for Teams integrates the existing Microsoft Mesh, mixed reality meetings which are in preview for HoloLens 2 or “any Mesh-enabled app” on smartphone tablet or PC. Mesh for Teams will begin rolling out in the first half of 2022, the company said.

The technology will enable users to join a Teams meeting as a “customized avatar of themselves,” Microsoft said, in place of the usual static picture or live video.

It will also be possible to build virtual spaces for Mesh for Teams, which the company is calling metaverses, or “a persistent digital world inhabited by digital twins of people, places and things.”

It is perhaps unfortunate that Facebook has already hijacked the term “metaverse” for its own variant of what seems a similar concept.

Microsoft-watchers will recognise Mesh for Teams as based on the work of Technical Fellow Alex Kipman, who was also behind HoloLens and the discontinued Xbox Kinect. The technology is impressive but the company has yet to make Kipman’s mixed reality vision mainstream, with Mesh for Teams being its latest attempt. A Mesh press image puzzled us with avatars without legs and a strange pipe-like object under the virtual table, but it is preview after all.

Actual Teams users would prefer more mundane improvements. “Spent the last 25 minutes trying to get microsoft teams to let me into a microsoft ignite preview. so that was fun. still can’t get in,” complained Redmonk analyst James Governor on Twitter.

Philip Carter, formerly a .NET program manager but who left Microsoft in June, added that “you should see how hard it was on the inside to try and change tenants to get in the Q&A sessions so you could actually help people. Absolutely chaotic 12-step process that lots of folks just gave up on,” though he believes it is easier now.

Despite everything, Teams is popular because it integrates with Microsoft 365 and brings together virtual meetings and video calls, instant messaging and document collaboration. The technology is improving and organizations find benefit in being able to manage security and identity through Active Directory and Azure AD; though it is also this deep integration that makes it challenging for Microsoft to give it the multi-tenant flexibility users demand.

Mesh aside, Microsoft has introduced other Teams enhancements at Ignite. These will be rolled out at various times from the near future to mid-2022. Microsoft Teams Connect enables shared channels, giving the ability to create meetings with individuals and teams across multiple organizations. The Teams App Store is getting a revamp, and the platform extended to allow third party applications to be embedded in Teams “collaborative surfaces” such as meetings. It will also be possible to embed Teams chat into Dynamics 365 and applications built with Power Apps.

Virtual events based on Teams are also getting new features, including a virtual “green room” for organizers and presenters to chat, manage attendee settings, and share content. There will be enhanced controls for managing what attendees see, and a co-organizer role that can be assigned to up to 10 individuals.

An updated Q&A in Teams will have features including marking best answers, moderate questions, and pin posts. Isolated audio feeds will enable producers to create a mix using feeds from each individual, making Teams recordings potentially less cacophonic. There is also integration with the third-party Cvent platform.

Teams Chat is being enhanced with the ability to send messages to yourself, intended as a reminder feature, customize the number of messages on the screen, and to delay the delivery of messages.

Admins will be getting an improved Admin Center with a device analytics dashboard, including metrics and troubleshooting tips, and a workspace view covering all the meeting room devices in a particular building or location. There is also a boss prioritisation feature, enabling an admin to “closely monitor the collaboration experiences” of specified users, according to Microsoft.

There is more Office news than just Loop, as well. Notable is PowerPoint Recording Studio, which builds on the existing ability to record a PowerPoint presentation including an embedded video of the speaker. The new feature allows a custom background, slide annotation, and the ability to re-record individual slides. Recording Studio is currently Windows-only, with Mac users still on the old Record Slide Slow feature. “We are looking to align these two experiences in future,” the company told us.

Excel is getting an updated JavaScript API including custom data types and the ability to create functions using them. AI in Office will be enhanced with a new set of predictive suggestions called Context IQ. Microsoft gives as examples: suggesting which file to insert in an email; recommending suitable times for a meeting in an Outlook email; suggesting which people to tag in a comment or email; pulling in Dynamics 365 data as a loop component; and other as-you-write suggestions, such as adding a frequent flyer number to a flight booking. These features will be surfaced in the existing Microsoft Editor feature.®



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Video analytics platform RugbySmarts named ‘most investable’ at SportX

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The Galway tech start-up was one of two winners at the sport-focused pre-accelerator programme.

A start-up developing real-time video analytics for sports has been named ‘most investable’ at SportX, a new pre-accelerator in Ireland for founders with sports and wellness business ideas.

RugbySmarts took the title at the inaugural SportX showcase last week, securing a cash prize.

The Galway-based start-up aims to automate and simplify sports analytics using AI,  machine learning and computer vision, helping coaches to improve player and team performance with a platform that could also be transferred to other sports.

RugbySmarts was founded last year by CTO William Johnstone, who has previously worked with Connacht Rugby, and CEO Yvonne Comer, who is a former Ireland international rugby player.

Meanwhile, the award of ‘best impact on sport’ was given to TrojanTrack. This start-up, founded in 2021 by Dublin-based Stephen O’Dwyer, is looking to combine quantitative biomechanical analysis with deep neural network tech in the equine industry.

The aim is to gain feedback on a horse’s injury or gait imbalance without using invasive technology, such as motion-tracking software that requires markers to be attached to the animal’s skin.

‘Next-gen sports-tech entrepreneurs’

SportX was launched earlier this year by advisory firm Resolve Partners, Sport Ireland and ArcLabs – the research and innovation centre at Waterford Institute of Technology.

The aim of the pre-accelerator programme was to build on tech and business ideas for the sport and wellness industries, giving founders access to academic, clinical and commercial resources.

The six-week programme involved workshops and engagement with advisers, entrepreneurs, subject experts and investors. Participants also had the opportunity to pitch to the US-based Techstars Sports Accelerator.

At the SportX showcase last week, nine teams had five minutes each to pitch their business ideas to a panel of judges.

The two winners were selected by the panel, which featured Gary Leyden of the ArcLabs Fund 1 GP, Sport Ireland’s Benny Cullen and Niall McEvoy of Enterprise Ireland.

At the launch of SportX earlier this year, Leyden said the goal of the programme was to find “the next generation of sports-tech entrepreneurs who can leverage the amazing enterprise and sports-related supports within the south-east of Ireland”.

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Christmas gifts: the best tech gadgets for all the family | Consumer affairs

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If you are stuck for ideas for Christmas gifts this year and looking for something more exciting than socks, here are some gadgets that might be just the ticket.

From folding phones, headphones and VR headsets to smart speakers and eco-friendly phone cases, all of these great gadgets are excellent, built to last and won’t end up languishing in a drawer or, worse, the bin.

Fairphone 4 smartphone

fairphone 4
The Fairphone 4 is a modern 5G Android phone that is ethically produced and repairable at home. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

RRP: £499

The most ethical, repairable smartphone you can buy someone has had a big upgrade for 2021 and has a more modern design, 5G and faster chips. The Fairphone 4 is built to last, with software support until 2027 and a five-year warranty.

It still contains plenty of recycled and ethically sourced materials, has modular parts you can replace yourself with just one small screwdriver, and a removable battery, which is good for about two days.

The camera is still a work in progress, there’s no headphone jack and it isn’t the fastest smartphone you can get but it does the job with little fuss. Fairphone will recycle an equivalent device for each unit sold, making the phone e-waste neutral, too. You are paying about £200 more than for a comparable phone from the company’s rivals but that helps pay the factory workers who make the Fairphone a real living wage.

Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 3 smartphone

samsung galaxy z flip 3
The Galaxy Z Flip 3 has one long screen that folds in half like a makeup compact. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

RRP: £949 – deals from £799

Not only is the Z Flip 3 a cutting-edge piece of technology but it’s a great phone to boot. Samsung’s reinvention of the flip phone puts a 6.7in flexible screen in the centre of a classic clamshell design, giving it the best of both worlds: a big, luscious screen to rival superphones and a compact size, which means you can actually fit it in your pocket when folded up.

Good cameras, top performance and good software with at least four years of updates, plus water resistance mean you are not losing anything compared with normal phones that cost just as much. Plus, there is something very satisfying about closing the phone to hang up on a call.

If you need an even bigger display, Samsung’s Galaxy Z Fold 3 puts a folding tablet screen in your pocket, too.

Apple iPad (9th gen) tablet

apple ipad 9th generation
The 10.2in iPad is all the tablet most need for watching TV, browsing the web and viewing photos. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

RRP: £319

When it comes to a tablet for watching TV, playing games and reading the Guardian, Apple’s basic iPad is the best option for most people. The recycled aluminium body is solid, the 10.2in screen is good and the speakers are decent. The powerful chip, long battery life and 64GB of storage will be enough for apps and games. Very long software support means the tablet will last years, too.

The brilliant new 12-megapixel “Centre Stage” camera automatically pans and scans to keep you in view for video calls. Apple’s App Store has all the media and tablet apps you could want, and accessories such as keyboards and cases are widely available if you want to use it more as a computer.

Apple MacBook Air M1

apple macbook air
The MacBook Air is thin, light, powerful, lasts a long time on battery and is made out of recycled aluminium. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

RRP: £999 – deals from £850

Apple’s switch from Intel processors to M1 chips of its own design has transformed the MacBook Air from a low-power thin and light machine into the best consumer laptop you can buy. The M1 chip is superfast and powerful but enables gamechanging battery life in excess of 16 hours of work – multiple days away from the charger are now possible.

It has no fan, so runs totally silently, the screen is great, the keyboard and trackpad are first class, the sleek body is made out of recycled aluminium and it contains recycled tin and plastic, too.

The webcam isn’t the best and it only has two USB-C/Thunderbolt ports but you have to spend a significant amount more to beat the M1 MacBook Air.

Ikea Symfonisk picture frame wifi speaker

Ikea Symfonisk picture frame
This picture frame hides an excellent Sonos wifi speaker behind a piece of art. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

RRP: £179

Ikea’s partnership with the wifi-speaker maker Sonos has created some novel devices. Following on from a shelf and a lamp that double as speakers, comes the Symfonisk picture frame, which hides a speaker behind art on your wall – and it sounds surprisingly good.

It can be hung or leant against the wall, streams music over wifi from almost any music service available and can even be linked up wirelessly as a pair with another or as part of a seamless multiroom audio system. It still needs a power cable running down your wall but you get a choice of white or black frames and the art print can be swapped out easily for a choice of others – though not yet your own print.

Sonos Roam speaker

sonos roam
The Sonos Roam is a portable speaker that sounds so good you will want to use it at home, too. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

RRP: £179

Most Bluetooth speakers are fine on the road but are immediately relegated to a drawer when you get home. Not so the Sonos Roam, which works so well you’ll want to use it in the house, too.

It has wifi for directly streaming music at home, supporting practically every music service under the sun and Alexa or Google Assistant voice control. It has Bluetooth, too, for hooking up your phone on the road. It is water-resistant, durable, light and compact but packs a big, quality sound. It lasts 10 hours on battery, charged via USB-C or wireless charging in the base. It can even be part of a multiroom audio setup with other Sonos speakers. Sonos promises to support the Roam for at least five years after it stops being sold but has a history of doing so for much longer and you can get the battery replaced if it wears out.

Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones

sony wh-1000xm4
Sony’s top noise-cancelling headphones are available in a range of colours, not only grey. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

RRP: £259 – deals from £249

Sony’s top wireless headphones have an unwieldy name but are absolutely fantastic. They are superlight and comfortable even for extended listening sessions, have 30+ hours of battery life, are available in a choice of colours and fold up neatly for travel.

They have extremely effective noise-cancelling that works equally on flights or a commute. They also sound brilliant, producing the kind of sparkling audio that will have you discovering new details in well-worn tracks. They have a great set of touch controls for playback and volume, plus they can connect to two devices simultaneously via Bluetooth but have a cable, too. They are even repairable and you can replace the battery if it wears out, which is rare in the world of headphones.

Audio-Technica ATH-M50x headphones

Audio-Technica ATH-MX50x
Available in black or a series of special colours including metallic orange, these headphones are studio legends for a reason: they sound great. Photograph: Audio Technica

RRP: £130 – deals from £105

If you want to give a set of wired headphones that sound great and will go the distance, you can’t go far wrong with these. Super comfortable with spacious ear cups and a well-padded headband, they sound brilliant with neutral, balanced audio that has made them extremely popular with music producers. Crank up the music and enjoy. Their closed-back design stops everyone else from being able to hear what you are listening to but they can only block a small amount of outside noise. They fold up fairly compactly and feel as if they can take a beating.

The cable is removable and the headphones are generally repairable, so if something does break you don’t have to bin them. Audio-Technica also makes a version with Bluetooth for a little more money.

Samsung Galaxy Buds 2 headphones

samsung galaxy buds 2
The Galaxy Buds 2 are Samsung’s best true-wireless earbuds yet. Photograph: Samsung

RRP: £139 – deals from £99

Samsung’s latest true wireless earbuds are its best yet. They don’t skimp on features, with a solid Bluetooth 5.2 connection, good active noise-cancelling for blocking out the commute and great sound. They have good touch controls for playback, last for up to five hours of music and charge fully three times in the compact case.

The app for updates is only available on Android and they are only splashproof. But they are more repairable than most true wireless earbuds, so it is possible to replace the battery and fix them if something does go wrong.

Apple Watch Series 7

apple watch series 7
The Apple Watch Series 7 is the best smartwatch but only works with an iPhone. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

RRP: £369

The best smartwatch you can get for an iPhone. Its big screen, comfortable fit, 50m water resistance and slick performance are unrivalled. It doesn’t hurt that it has some of the most comprehensive health and fitness tracking features available, including the ability to take an ECG. It is made of recycled aluminium and has a reasonable selection of third-party apps, too, including Spotify with offline music downloads. If you don’t want the ECG or an always-on screen the Watch SE is cheaper at £249.

Samsung’s Galaxy Watch 4 is the best smartwatch for Android and is about 80% as good as the Apple Watch, with most of the same health-tracking features and a more traditional round watch shape for £219.

Oculus (Meta) Quest 2 VR headset

oculus quest 2
There’s nothing quite like the PC and cable-free experience of VR in the Quest 2 for escapism. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

RRP: £299

The Oculus Quest 2 from Meta (AKA Facebook) is a breakthrough in virtual reality headsets that jettisoned the need for cables and a powerful PC to create a simple, immersive set of goggles you can just strap on to enter a completely different world. The headset is powerful enough to make the experience smooth and convincing. It is pretty light and comfortable. The battery lasts about three hours, and there’s an ever growing library of games and experiences, including from big-name brands such as Star Wars, Beat Saber and Resident Evil.

The recipient will need a Facebook account and enough space to walk and swing their arms around but there’s nothing quite like it for escapism.

Google Nest Hub 2

Google nest hub 2
The Nest Hub 2 tracks sleep using radar rather than a gadget on the wrist and makes a great photo frame. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

RRP: £90 – deals from £54

Google’s second-generation Nest Hub puts the company’s voice assistant in a good-looking 7in smart display made from 54% recycled plastic. With no camera to worry about, it makes a good alarm clock. It can wake you with a sunrise effect and sound, and you can silence alarms by waving your hand at it. It also features radar-based sleep tracking with no need to wear a gadget. The screen can be a brilliant digital photo frame for all your favourite snaps.

Google Assistant is useful, and the speaker’s pretty good, able to play radio including BBC, Spotify and others, or stream music via Bluetooth from your phone, making it just as good in the lounge or kitchen.

Amazon Echo Dot

amazon echo dot
The fourth-generation Echo Dot is available with or without an LED display for the time. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

RRP: £49.99 – deals from £29

As a small smart speaker to play music and the radio, set timers and answer questions, the cute ball-shaped Echo Dot is great. Simply ask Alexa for BBC or commercial radio and you’re away. The speaker is better than competitors’ and loud enough for small rooms. You can turn two into a stereo pair. It supports most common music services over wifi, or you can connect your phone via Bluetooth or the 3.5mm analogue jack on the back.

It comes with or without a hidden LED display for the time or alarms, and contains recycled fabric, plastic and aluminium.

Logitech MX Keys Mini keyboard

logitech mx keys mini
Attractive and with excellent typing and key feel, there aren’t many slimline keyboards better than the MX Keys Mini. Photograph: Logitech

RRP: £99 – deals from £87

Working from home can be a bit of a drag, so adding a little bit of luxury to the computer your loved one is stuck in front of for hours on end can make it a little more bearable for them. Logitech’s latest rechargeable Bluetooth keyboard is a compact version of its brilliant MX Keys. With some of the best laptop-style typing you can get, it makes every key-press responsive and satisfying, while not taking up too much room on a desk.

It is made from up to 30% recycled plastic, works with multiple platforms and can pair to up to three devices at once, quickly switching between them at the press of a key, has an automatic backlight and plenty of customisation options, too.

Microsoft Ocean Plastic Mouse

microsoft ocean plastic mouse
This Bluetooth mouse is made from recycled plastic bottles taken from the ocean. Photograph: Microsoft

RRP: £25

The Ocean Plastic Mouse is a special edition of Microsoft’s Bluetooth Mouse, which is made with 20% recycled plastic cleared from the ocean and given a cool speckled look. It will last up to 12 months on an AA battery (use a rechargeable) and you can mail an old mouse to Microsoft for recycling.

Targus EcoSmart laptop bag range

Targus Cypress Security EcoSmart
The Targus Cypress Security EcoSmart is made from 17 recycled plastic bottles. Photograph: Targus

RRP: £49.99

When it comes to bags to truck gear around there are plenty of options but few have quite such a storied history as Targus – the inventor of the first personal computer carrying case in 1982. The latest EcoSmart range of Targus laptop bags includes backpacks, cases and sleeves, which are made from up to 26 recycled plastic bottles each.

Pela phone cases

pela pink peaks iPhone case
Pela cases come in a variety of coloured and clear designs for a large range of smartphones and other gadgets. Photograph: Pela

RRP: £28 and up

Pela makes good-looking cases that add grip and drop protection to your phone – and don’t have to end up as landfill once you’re done with them. The cases look and feel like fancy regular plastic cases but are made from a starch-based polymer mixed with flax straw, which makes them more environmentally friendly to produce and compostable at the end of their life.

Cases are available for a large range of phones, with various clear and arty designs to choose from.

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EU needs more cybersecurity graduates, says ENISA • The Register

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The EU needs more cybersecurity graduates to plug the political bloc’s shortage of skilled infosec bods, according to a report from the ENISA online security agency.

The public sectors of EU countries should “support a unified approach” to infosec-focused higher education, it says, addressing an issue that is by no means unique to the bloc.

In a new report titled “Addressing the EU Cybersecurity Skills Shortage and Gap Through Higher Education”, academics Jason Nurse and Konstantinos Adamos, together with ENISA’s Athanasios Grammatopoulos and Fabio Di Franco, said the European Union needs to get more students signing up for cybersecurity degrees.

The report found that the majority of cybersecurity degrees offered across the 27-states – 77 per cent – are at master’s degree level. Just under a fifth (17 per cent) are undergraduate degrees while 6 per cent are at “postgraduate” level.

Professor Nurse, of the University of Kent, told The Register that infosec degrees are a valuable method of training new professionals for the industry: “A multi-tiered approach stands a much better chance at a long-lasting solution.”

He added: “Professional certifications are valuable but these often only come into play for professionals already in industry. By developing the skills of students in higher education, it raises the base level of future professionals and develops a more sustainable pool of individuals that can work in – and are initially trained for – the infosec sector.”

The UK has a small but growing infosec degree programme of its own, with the National Cyber Security Centre sponsoring degree programmes at similar academic levels. A list of those degrees is on its website.

Nurse said of the ENISA research that while degree programmes in EU universities broadly meet the EU infosec industry’s needs, the “less technical” sides of cyber security need more focus.

“The reality,” he told us, “is that cyber is not purely technical and topics like governance, risk, compliance and law will become more important in the future.”

Cybersecurity education is a hot topic in the West with demand for skilled infosec personnel rising higher and higher amid weekly attacks on the public and privatew sectors.

While industry has a bewildering array of certifications available for infosec personnel, many of them are aimed at people who already have professional experience in the workplace.

Yet the quality of education offered through cybersecurity degrees is vital, even if they’re not always a method of breaking into the industry for people with minimal tech skills.

Nurse said: “In my opinion, the prominence of master’s programmes as compared to undergraduate degrees is not necessarily because of the prerequisite need for a great degree of computing skills. This may be more an artefact of how a majority of existing masters courses have been developed – and the harsh truth is that unfortunately, many people still view cybersecurity as just an extension of computing.”

Back in September Britain’s Chartered Institute of Information Security recommended giving existing staff professional accreditations to promote loyalty and retention. A few years ago the UK government launched its Cyber Skills Immediate Impact Fund, trying to tempt Britons into retraining with cyber security skills – but that was mainly focused on funding vocational skills courses and certifications, rather than academic education.

Perhaps a mix of hands-on British knowledge and EU theoretical grounding is what will pave the way for future successful cybersecurity ventures? ®

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