Google is famous for its “20 percent time” policy, which encourages employees to spend time working on long-shot passion projects.
Since 2014, Microsoft Garage has tackled a similar idea: employees are given hardware and office space to work on whatever software projects they want in their off-duty time. This week, Microsoft Garage released its latest iOS app, a curated news reader called News Pro.
News Pro works similarly to Flipboard and the Apple News app that’s already built in to all iPhones and iPads. Users choose topics they’re interested in, such as finance or architecture, and News Pro displays articles on those topics in a colorful format. It also takes users’ job titles (gleaned from LinkedIn or Facebook) into account in trying to predict what stories they might find most interesting. News Pro also includes a “Speedy” view that shows the text of an article without ads or additional website formatting.
Is News Pro objectively better than Flipboard or Apple News? Probably not, but that doesn’t mean it won’t appeal to some people who prefer its layout and personalization options.
I found News Pro visually appealing, but was a little confused by its initial assumptions about me. From my Facebook profile, the app learned that I was a graduate student, but it used that single data point to show me stories about distance education, physics, health science, and public speaking – none of which I’m particularly interested in. It was easy to change the topics manually, but News Pro didn’t make a great first impression on me.
Microsoft Garage is a place for the company to test apps, such as News Pro, that may or may not catch on with users. If an app catches on, it may become an official Microsoft product down the road. The previous Garage release was Mimicker, a devious alarm clock that can only be shut off by performing one of several unusual tasks, such as saying a tongue twister aloud or mimicking a particular facial expression. It’s a clever way to help make sure that a person is truly awake, not just dismissing their alarm in a haze. Mimicker is powered by Microsoft’s Project Oxford library of machine learning services, which allow the app to understand speech and facial expression with a high degree of accuracy.
Microsoft has rolled other apps out of the Garage as well, include an Android contact manager called Connections and a scheduling app called FindTime, which synchronizes calendars across services so it’s easy to find meeting times that work for everyone in a group. The Verge’s Nick Statt points out that Garage apps “are often one-off projects put out in the wild and forgotten” and are seldom updated for additional platforms. But News Pro, Mimicker, and other Garage apps – or features of them – could become official Microsoft products if users really like them.