Microsoft acquires education-focused version of ‘Minecraft’

microsoft, minecraft, gaming, education, notch, markus persson, mojang, schools, minecraftedu, teacher gaming, minecraft education edition, joel levin

Microsoft is doubling down on its Minecraft education initiative. The Redmond-based company on Tuesday announced it has acquired MinecraftEdu, a version of the game designed specifically for use in the classroom.

MinecraftEdu was created by Teacher Gaming, a startup co-founded by former computer teacher Joel Levin. His company licensed Minecraft from Mojang, the Swedish game developer that programmer Markus “Notch” Persson created to launch the game.

If you recall, Microsoft scooped up Mojang in 2014 to the tune of $2.5 billion; the company didn’t disclose how much it paid for MinecraftEdu. We do know that Minecraft is quite popular in schools with more than 7,000 classrooms across 40+ countries already using it for teaching purposes.

With the acquisition, Microsoft is investing in a new and expanded version of the game for the classroom called Minecraft Education Edition. The company said it plans to charge $5 per user, per year but will offer a free trial this summer. Conversely, Teacher Gaming charged a server license fee and a one-time fee based on the maximum number of students that would be using it at any given time.

Microsoft has already launched a website for Minecraft Education Edition where teachers and educators can access a wealth of resources including starter lesson plans, forums, check out frequently asked questions and more.

Ultra-high-end Surface Book, Surface Pro 4 models now available

microsoft, tablet, 2-in-1, surface pro 4, surface book, surface pen, gold surface pen

Microsoft hit a home run in the hardware department with its Surface Pro 4 andSurface Book. Unveiled in early October, the devices were offered in multiple configurations although the ultra-high-end models weren’t yet ready.

Now, three and a half months later, their time has come.

The top-end Surface Pro 4 packs a sixth generation Intel Core i7 CPU, 16GB of RAM and a 1TB solid state drive for $2,699. Similarly, the new high-end Surface Book features an Intel Core i7 Skylake processor, 16GB of RAM, a 1TB SSD and an Nvidia GeForce GPU for $3,199.

Neither configuration is easy on the wallet but that’s to be expected when you max out all options.

Microsoft says the high-end Surface Pro 4 will be available in Microsoft stores and through select retailers while the top-of-the-line Surface Book can only be had online via Microsoft’s store and select retailers. Both are on sale now in Canada and the US; no word yet on when they’ll be offered in other regions.

Microsoft is also launching a new gold-colored Surface Pen today. Color aside, it’s functionally identical to the standard Surface Pen and includes Microsoft’s Pen Tip Kit (a $10 value). Expect to pay $59.99 for the golden accessory in Canada, Denmark, Finland, Italy, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and the United States.

Microsoft built a datacenter that sat on the bottom of the Pacific ocean for three months

microsoft, datacenter, data center, sea, project natick, ocean, underwater data center, underwater datacenter, leona philpot

Our increased reliance on cloud-based services is forcing some in the datacenter industry to rethink their strategy. As you may know, it takes an incredible amount of energy to keep massive datacenters cool – so much so that companies like Facebook,Google and now Microsoft are experimenting with unconventional approaches to the common problem of heat.

Over the past year, Microsoft has been working on a research project known as Project Natick that involves operating a datacenter under water. In the case of the initial prototype, christened the Leona Philpot (named after a character from the Halo universe), Microsoft deployed it on the seafloor roughly one kilometer off the pacific coast.

The benefits of an underwater datacenter are aplenty. Aside from the obvious of using the cool ocean water to keep server temperatures under control, Microsoft says its underwater datacenters could be deployed within 90 days versus the two years it takes to build a datacenter on land.

What’s more, because much of the world’s population lives in urban areas near large bodies of water, latency could be delayed greatly compared to land-based datacenters that are typically built far away from populated areas.

As for the impact on the environment, Microsoft said they observed no heating of the marine environment beyond a few inches from the vessel.

Microsoft deployed Leona Philpot for a total of 105 days and said it was more successful than expected. One of the obvious concerns is a hardware failure as you can’t exactly send a technician out to the bottom of the ocean at midnight for a repair job. Fortunately, nothing went wrong during the trial. And with the slowing of Moore’s Law, servers will be replaced less often – another plus for the project.

Microsoft researchers are already designing a follow-up experiment that’ll be three times as large as Leona Philpot which measured eight feet in diameter.

Microsoft’s new Android alarm app won’t stop until you’re super awake

Did someone ever try to wake you up by singing or opening the blinds or doing something equally annoying? My Mom was partial to singing a song about birds and the sun, and I hated it as a teenager. Now, thanks to Microsoft, there’s an app that will annoy you into waking up. Meet the Mimicker Alarm app for Android, released through the Microsoft Garage.

After the alarm goes off, the app forces you to play a game to ensure that you’re wide awake at the end of it. There are three options: “Express Yourself” (where the app gives you an emotion and you have to take a selfie that matches it), “Color Capture” (where the app gives you a color and you have to take a photo of something that’s the same color), or “Tongue Twister” (where you have to say a, you guessed it, tongue twister.) There are also different options for the alarm sounds like with most alarm apps.

There is an option to snooze, but once you dismiss the alarm there are only 30 seconds to play one of the games. “And if you don’t complete that game in time, we assume you’ve fallen back asleep and then the alarm will start ringing again,” says Allison Light, a program manager on a team that develops apps for Project Oxford. Luckily, just playing one game (not all three) is enough to shut off the alarm. Then you can go about your morning and not think about having to repeat the demented cycle again the next morning.

This alarm might sound like my personal nightmare, but really it’s just a fun app to show off the cool stuff Microsoft’s machine learning can do. “We are showcasing several different Project Oxford APIs,” Light says. “Since we’re open sourcing all of the code, we thought an alarm app would be easy for other developers to read the code and see how we used the APIs.” Fun for developers, maybe not so much for the peacefully slumbering folks who don’t want to wake up just yet.

Microsoft Edge’s InPrivate browsing may not be very private

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When Microsoft’s Edge browser arrived last summer alongside Windows 10, it was hailed as a massive improvement over the much-derided Internet Explorer that it was replacing. But the lack of cross-platform and extension support has meant that most people who try Edge don’t stick with it. Now, it looks as if another reason to avoid the browser has been discovered: its private browsing feature may not be very private at all.

According to an investigation by security researcher Ashish Singh, instead of wiping browsing data as soon as the InPrivate-enabled window is closed, the information is stored in the browser’s WebCache file. Any sites that the user visited while in private mode can be found in the same “Container_n” table that stores tab history from conventional browsing, the investigation found.

“Plenty of artifacts are maintained by the browser, which makes examination quite easy. However, there are stages where evidence is not so easy to find. The not-so-private browsing featured by Edge makes its very purpose seem to fail,” Singh wrote inForensic Focus.

Singh’s discovery dates back to October 2015, but Microsoft has only just confirmed that it’s aware of the issue. “We recently became aware of a report that claims InPrivate tabs are not working as designed,” a Microsoft spokesperson told The Verge, “and we are committed to resolving this as quickly as possible.”

This isn’t the first instance where a browser’s private mode hasn’t kept a user’s web searches very secret. Earlier this month, it was reported that Chrome’s Incognito mode can stop working properly if used with a Nvidia GPU on a Mac. The graphics card maker responded by saying that the issue is related to memory management in the Apple OS, not Nvidia graphics drivers.

Microsoft’s Surface division grows in strong Q2

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Microsoft’s financial results for the second quarter of their fiscal 2016 (Q4 of calendar 2015) are in, and the company has reported GAAP revenues of $23.8 billion ($25.7 billion non-GAAP) for profits of $5.0 billion ($6.3bn non-GAAP), beating estimates.

The Surface division was one of the highlights of Microsoft’s most recent quarter. While it’s still far from the company’s largest business, revenue from Surface devices grew 29 percent year on year to $1.35 billion on the back of good Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book sales.

On the flip side, Microsoft’s phone division is tanking. The company only managed to sell 4.5 million Lumias in the last quarter, with revenues down 49 percent year on year. Part of this can be attributed to a lack of compelling device launches in 2015, and a change of strategy revolving around Windows 10 Mobile.

The star of the show for Microsoft was its cloud business. Azure revenues are up 140 percent in constant currency, with the entire server division growing by 10 percent. Office 365 is also doing well, with subscribers now topping 20.6 million with revenue growth of 70 percent in constant currency.

The “More Personal Computing” division saw revenues decline by five percent, due partly to declines of five percent in the Windows OEM division, which Microsoft say has “outperformed the PC market”.

News of Microsoft’s strong Q2 results led to an spike in their share price during after hours trading, although CEO Satya Nadella hasn’t provided forward guidance just yet.