7 Days: A week of Android things, Microsoft updates, and developers, developers, developers

7 Days is a weekly roundup of the Editors' picks of what's been happening in the world of technology - written with a dash of humor, a hint of exasperation, and an endless supply of (Irish) coffee.

After the excitement and mayhem of last week's Mobile World Congress, this week wasn’t quite as mad – but there’s still been no shortage of intriguing news and spicy developments across the tech world in recent days. But don’t worry if you think you might have missed something, for 7 Days is here to walk you through the week’s top tech news once more.

Ask away - but don't expect the answer to be correct

Our journey begins this week in the United States, where Google's Home speaker hub was found to be spewing bizarre conspiracy theories in response to various enquiries. The root of the problem is Google's 'Featured Snippets', which employs algorithms to try to provide a single, direct answer to any enquiry - but some of these responses have been drawn from the most unreliable of sources.

Image via BBC News

Over in the UK, Facebook has been severely criticized for its bizarre response to a BBC News investigation into the social network's failures to crack down on child pornography. Facebook reported the BBC to the police after journalists complied with the company's demand to present evidence of the illegal content being shared on its site.

UK telecommunications giant BT has been ordered by industry regulator Ofcom to reduce its bills for customers who only use its landline phone services. The move is expected to make a big difference to low-income and elderly customers.

WikiLeaks published a range of documents and files which it claimed to have sourced from a secure CIA network, revealing details of the intelligence agency's efforts to use technology to covertly monitor unsuspecting users around the world. The leaks revealed the CIA's use of remotely activating cameras and microphones on smartphones, listening in on smart TVs, and interception of communications on devices before they're sent over encrypted services.

Google said that it had dealt with 'many' of the exploits detailed in the leaks, and Apple added that many of the exploits had been patched on its devices too.

Chinese manufacturer ZTE admitted that it had violated US sanctions in selling hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of equipment to Iran and North Korea. The company agreed to pay fines totalling $1.19 billion, and its exports will remain under close international scrutiny for three years.

Chinese search giant Baidu has built on Google's DeepMind Wavenet technology, and created a version of the algorithm that can be trained in a matter of hours and perform faster than real-time human speech.

IBM has been working on improving its speech recognition technology, bringing its word error rate down to just 5.5%, overtaking Microsoft's recent rate of 5.9%.

Elsewhere, IBM researchers published details of a remarkable achievement this week: the ability to store a bit of data on a single atom, compared with modern hard disk drives, which use around 100,000 atoms to store each bit.

Image via Shutterstock

IDC published its latest projections for the global smartphone market, forecasting an increase in shipments this year, with over 1.5 billion shipments per year expected by 2021.

comScore's latest data for January 2017 show that Apple is the largest smartphone vendor in the US by a considerable margin, but Android remains the top smartphone platform in overall use.

Apple quietly launched a new version of its three-year-old iPhone 6 for select carriers in Asian markets. The 'iPhone 6 (2017) 32GB' is intended to offer a more affordable option for those wishing to buy an Apple device, but who can't justify spending far larger amounts on the newest models.

Elsewhere, a report claimed that Apple's tenth-anniversary iPhone, due later this year, won't be called the iPhone 7s or iPhone 8, but rather the 'iPhone Edition'.

Microsoft finally launched Cortana for iOS in the UK on Friday, coinciding with the release of the app's 2.0 update, which introduces a new look similar to that introduced on Android several months ago.

The Motorola brand was phased out last year in favor of new 'Moto by Lenovo' sub-branding. But it seems Lenovo has now had a change of heart, and is preparing to reintroduce the iconic Motorola name.

UK retailer Carphone Warehouse said that interest in the new Nokia 3310 - a more modern interpretation of the much-loved classic phone - has been "astonishing". The 3310 is expected to launch in the UK alongside the 3, 5 and 6 smartphones in May.

However, future Nokia handsets, developed by HMD Global, will not use the Carl Zeiss optics that were used in many of Nokia's excellent smartphone cameras.

On Friday, two months after its announcement, HTC began shipping its new U Ultra flagship in the United States, priced at $749.

And in India, Samsung launched the 2017 editions of its mid-range Galaxy A5 and Galaxy A7 handsets.

Samsung has reportedly pushed back the retail launch of its still-unannounced Galaxy S8 flagship by a week. The device - which has been extensively leaked in recent weeks - will be officially unveiled on March 29.

Google acknowledged complaints about microphone issues from some owners of its flagship Pixel and Pixel XL handsets. It's recommended warranty replacements - but some users have reported experiencing the same issues on replacement units.

After TCL unveiled the high-end BlackBerry KEYone last week, another new BlackBerry-branded handset was unveiled on Thursday. The Aurora has a large 720p display, Snapdragon 425 processor, 4GB RAM, 32GB storage and 13MP rear camera.

On Tuesday, Google published its latest monthly breakdown of Android version usage. Android 7.x Nougat has more than doubled in usage since last month - but it's still on only 2.8% of active devices, almost seven months after its release.

The Nougat update continues to slowly make its way to more devices:

Google released its March security update for Android on Monday, along with new Pixel and Nexus factory and OTA images. Verizon wasted no time in bringing the new patches to the Pixel and Pixel XL, and BlackBerry was quick to bring the updates to its devices too.

Google announced a range of new security improvements for its Cloud Platform this week, including Identity-Aware Proxy, Data Loss Prevention, a new Key Management System, and more.

Google Drive picked up numerous features aimed at improving the service for business and enterprise customers too.

Google pushed ahead with its plans to transition Hangouts into a business-focused platform, with two new services - Meet and Chat - designed for organizations.

And after announcing Jamboard - a competitor to Microsoft's Surface Hub - in October, Google revealed that its 55-inch collaboration display will be priced at $4,999 when it launches in May. Unlike the 55-inch Surface Hub, which only has a 1080p display, the Jamboard will get 4K resolution at the same size.

Google released a stable version of Android Studio 2.3, the latest version of its integrated development environment (IDE). The new build brings a ton of improvements and significant tweaks for Android software developers.

But for many developers, the biggest news of the week was Microsoft's release of Visual Studio 2017, which it calls the "most productive" version of the developer tools in their 20-year history. The new edition brings a huge range of improvements and new features, which Microsoft says offer "unparalleled" support for "any dev, any app, and any platform".

Microsoft also launched Visual Studio Preview, offering early access to new upcoming features in its IDE. And alongside those announcements, it also rolled out Visual Studio for Mac Preview 4, with all sorts of enhancements and bug fixes.

Microsoft introduced a preview of 'Playable Ads' for developers too. The name is a bit of a misnomer, given the impressions that it immediately conjures up. Essentially, it uses an ad for an app to stream the app to a user's device for up to three minutes, allowing them to get a taste of its functionality and design before deciding whether or not to install it.

Microsoft announced that it's shutting down its experimental social network, Socl, next week, five years after its launch. Officially, Socl remained a research product throughout its existence.

Microsoft's 'chat-based workspace', Teams - which will compete against popular collaboration platform Slack - will officially launch on March 14.

Qualcomm announced a new partnership with Microsoft to bring "next-generation cloud services" to its Centriq 2400 platform, the chip-maker's first server processor built on ARM architecture. The collaboration includes a new version of Windows Server optimized for ARM processors.

However, Microsoft later clarified that Windows Server for ARM is for its own internal use only.

Meanwhile, Microsoft's .NET Core is coming to the Raspberry Pi 3, and an official .NET 2.0 Core release, adapted to run on ARM devices, is coming later this year.

Microsoft delivered its first firmware update for four months to the Surface Book, along with new Surface Pro 4 firmware too. And it should come as no surprise that, yet again, the company is offering discounts on both devices in the US, with $200 off many models.

Curiously, Microsoft has dropped the entry-level Core m3 model of the Surface Pro 4 that includes the Surface Pen in the US, so if you want to buy that particular device, you'll have to purchase the Pen separately.

In another unusual decision, Microsoft launched a new Surface Book model, priced at $2,999, with a Core i7 processor, 16GB RAM and 1TB storage, but no discrete GPU. If you're willing to pay that kind of money for such a high-performance device, wouldn't you just pay the extra $200 for the otherwise identical dGPU model?

Microsoft's Surface Studio all-in-one PC, priced from $2,999, remains exclusively available in the US. But the company confirmed that it will go on sale in France in July - around nine months after it was first announced. By that time, the graphics card in the 'entry-level' Studio will be two and a half years old.

HP announced a new range of all-in-ones and other desktop PCs aimed at business customers, including some rather stylish models.

HP also teased a new, larger version of the notebook-style Lap Dock accessory for its Elite x3 Windows 10 Mobile flagship. At Mobile World Congress last week, it briefly showed a revised version of the handset itself too.

Perhaps clearing inventory for the new model, Microsoft slashed 25% off the Elite x3 and Desk Dock bundle in the US, reducing its price to $599 in a deal lasting several weeks.

Shazam became the latest high-profile brand to ditch its app on Microsoft's Windows phones and PCs.

Microsoft confirmed that its upcoming Windows 10 Creators Update will be released for PCs first, coming to Mobile devices later. How much later remains to be seen, although the gap between PC and phone releases for last year's Anniversary Update was two weeks.

Microsoft also rolled out Windows 10 Mobile Insider Preview build 15051 to the Slow ring on Friday, along with build 15055 to PCs and phones in the Fast ring. You can see the fixes and known issues for PCs here, and those for Mobile here.

Incidentally, build 15055 is also the first Windows 10 preview to be released that identifies its version number as 1703, replacing the Anniversary Update's 'Version 1607'.

Microsoft's Sticky Notes app on Windows 10 picked up a few new features for Insiders in the Slow ring...

...who also got some nice additions (pun intended) to the OneNote UWP app.

The Groove Music app on Windows 10 got some new features and some minor UX tweaks for Insiders as well. But the Movies & TV app got a much bigger overhaul, with a completely redesigned interface, and new features to enhance content discovery.

Insiders got their first taste of the new 'Compact Overlay' feature in the Skype Preview app on Windows 10 this week. The Skype Preview app also made its debut on the Xbox One and Xbox One S for Insiders in the Alpha ring - but Compact Overlay isn't yet included on the consoles.

The Alpha ring got updated to Xbox One Insider Preview build 15051, and while it was light on new features and fixes, there were plenty of known issues to be aware of.

Months ahead of its launch, Microsoft's Project Scorpio - which it calls the "most powerful console ever" - made its debut in the Microsoft Store on Thursday. While Scorpio will include support for native 4K gaming, a report also claimed that the new console will bring big improvements to how games appear on 1080p TVs.

Some new games launched on the Xbox One this week, including LEGO Worlds...

...Ultimate Marvel vs Capcom 3, which was released on the Xbox 360 five years ago...

...and a real blast from the past: The King of Fighters '94.

However, after Xbox One and Windows 10 exclusive Scalebound was cancelled this year, another game has now reached the end of the road before it even launched. Ion was first revealed at E3 2015, but its developers confirmed that work on the game has now ended.

In happier news, Gran Turismo Sport will begin its closed beta on March 17 for PlayStation 4 gamers.

Sony released its 4.50 system update for the PlayStation 4 this week, bringing Boost Mode, Voice Chat for Remote Play, and more.

Crowdfunding platform Indiegogo suspended fundraising efforts by the developers of the Spectrum ZX Vega+ computer, after shipping delays, and a failure by Retro Computers to adequately communicate with backers and keep them update on the ongoing wait.

Game-streaming service Twitch launched its own social stream called Pulse this week, and also announced plans to release a new desktop app.

Nintendo published a new video overview for Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, which will launch on its Switch console next month.

Our odyssey across the tech world this week ends with a ton of news about the new Nintendo Switch - so feast your eyes on this:

Bonus content

Before we wrap things up for another week, let me first highlight a couple of extra bits around the site that I hope you’ll enjoy reading.

Nintendo has been touring North America giving gamers a chance to get some hands-on time with the Switch. If you won't be able to make it, Neowin's Timi Cantisano attended one of the events to show you what you're missing.

Timi also published his review of the ZTE Blade V8 Pro, which was introduced at CES 2017. It offers great build quality, solid performance and strong battery life, along with some very keen pricing - but there are some significant downsides too...

And finally, if you've been reluctant to buy a Windows phone, we're eager to hear why. Whether it's the app selection, the range of devices, the features in the OS, or some other reason, join in the discussion and share your thoughts with us!

Stay tuned to Neowin in the days ahead for what’s sure to be another exciting week, filled with official news, lots of updates, and plenty of insights from around the world of technology.

For now, though, there’s lots more to read across the site – including all sorts of interesting discussions over on our forums.

From all of us
on the Neowin team,
have a great weekend!

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