Tech Retrospect: Microsoft Build highlights and a space race update

Miss a few stories this week? We'll bring you up to speed with this rundown of all the tech news.

Big developer conferences held by big companies like Microsoft and Apple were once exclusively, and appropriately, the realm of developers. Coders from around the world would fly in and exchange information, while representatives from the hosting company in question would get on stage and talk about developer-related stuff -- APIs, software distributions, that sort of thing. These days many of those expos have taken a rather more consumer-focused tact, at least for their opening keynotes.

This week it was Microsoft's Build developer conference, and at the keynote we certainly got plenty of news intended for a rather more broad audience than just the code jockeys in the audience. One of the biggest is the unveiling of the Windows 8.1 Update, a bit of a refresh for the operating system with the intent of making it far more keyboard and mouse friendly. Major changes include the return of a title bar for apps (complete with minimize and close buttons), a power button on the Start interface, and a persistent task bar at the bottom -- just like Windows 95. To get a little more perspective on why the OS is evolving like it is, I spoke with Chaitanya Sareen, the guy behind the last few major versions of Windows. The impression I got is that Microsoft simply didn't expect users to spend as much time in the desktop as they have been.

This update to Windows will be available on April 8, but it was far from the only one. Microsoft also showed off Windows Phone 8.1, adding a series of niceties including a more-customizable Start interface, better looking calendar and email apps, and, most notably, Cortana. Yes, the sassy AI from Halo is becoming a reality in Microsoft smartphones, basically combining the functionality of Siri with the predictive nature of Google Now. She'll be able to do Web searches, enter reminders and alarms, get you directions to a restaurant, and lots more. Cortana, and Windows Phone 8.1, will be available as an update to most Windows Phone 8 devices over the next few weeks.

Microsoft also made a series of other announcements (like an updated Kinect for Windows and the ability for Windows 8 apps to run on Windows Phone and even the Xbox One), but the biggest of the rest in my opinion was Microsoft making Windows and Windows Phone free -- though for the former it's only on tablets that are smaller than nine inches. This eliminates one of the major expenses in developing small, cost-conscious devices like this and could result in a huge flood of low-cost small tablets running Windows RT. All the better to battle the Android horde.

Google Lunar XPrize competition revs up

It's become increasingly apparent that the US government isn't particularly interested in funding major missions to space any longer. Thankfully, there's a rapidly expanding commercial space industry to fill in the gap. The Google Lunar XPrize is helping to make that happen, with a $30 million purse of prizes for the first team to land a rover on the moon and drive around, sending back high-definition photos to those of us still stuck here on Earth. Five teams have been selected for $6 million in milestone prizes, awarded for completing successful tests over the summer of 2014. Two of the teams are from the US, and you can be sure we'll be bringing you more coverage of how these tests progress through the year. For now, check out the video above.

Amazon unveils $99 Fire TV

Amazon Fire TV
CNET

If your Apple TV or Chromecast doesn't have enough firepower (sorry), maybe you need to upgrade to Amazon's new Fire TV, which the company unveiled this week in New York. The box sadly lacks HBO Go, but hits all the other important marks, including YouTube, Hulu Plus, Netflix, and Disney. And yes, Amazon Instant Video, too.

It's not radically different than the competitors' products, except that this little box is intended to be a bit of a gaming machine. There's a $40 optional game controller and enough horsepower under the hood to do a compelling job of running 3D Android-based games. Game availability will be the key here, but with Amazon making some key acquisitions in the game development space, its intentions are clear.

New USB connector works both ways

USB Type C
USB Implementers Forum

There are few things more annoying in the world than trying to plug in a USB cable only to discover that it's flipped the wrong way. It is the epitome of the first-world problem, and thankfully for us, it's soon to be fixed. The USB Implementors Forum has agreed on the new USB 3.1 Type-C connector, which appears to take some inspiration from Apple's Lightning connector that debuted on the iPhone 5. The new USB connector is slightly larger than a current micro-USB connector, found on most phones, but works regardless of what orientation it is plugged in. It will also make an audible click when connected and make our lives infinitely better. Expect for it to start appearing on devices by the end of this year, and expect to start shopping for adapters soon thereafter.

Apple announces WWDC 14 dates

Apple WWDC 14
Apple

Speaking of developer conferences, Apple confirmed the dates for its own. The Worldwide Developer Conference kicks off in San Francisco on June 2, which is good news for we tech journalists as it's well clear of the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles, the annual bastion of gaming goodness. Apple is widely expected to unveil the iPhone 6 at this year's WWDC, and maybe even the iWatch.

Mozilla's controversial CEO resigns after two weeks

sm-lowers-brendan-eich.jpg
Stephen Shankland/CNET
Brendan Eich, co-founder of Mozilla and its new CEO, has resigned after just two weeks on the job. Since taking over, Eich has been hit on all sides by fallout from a political contribution in support of Proposition 8, a California anti-gay marriage bill that was passed in 2008 and, ultimately, ruled unconstitutional in 2010. Eich's appointment resulted in a series of protests, both from within the company and without, a storm of controversy that seemed to be intensifying, not abating.

 

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