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Microsoft begins rolling out its Scheduler meeting service, plus more Outlook voice features on iOS

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Credit: Microsoft

Microsoft has been working on creating a meeting-scheduling service since at least 2016. Today, June 8, officials said they are starting to roll out this Scheduler service in English for Microsoft 365.

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Microsoft’s Scheduler enables Cortana to act as the front end for scheduling meetings with people outside of a user’s organization. Microsoft is rolling out some other Cortana-branded capabilities on the voice front for Outlook on iOS, as well, starting today.

Scheduler got its start as an AI-powered bot called Calendar.help. Microsoft rebranded that technology as a “Scheduler” in 2019. Microsoft’s goal was to release the Scheduler service in 2020, but that date was pushed back due to the pandemic.

Scheduler uses Cortana to negotiate a meeting time. The service allows users to use natural-language queries, such as “Find a time for me and Paul to meet for breakfast next week,” to schedule their meetings. The backend service looks up attendee availability and goes back-and-forth over email before sending calendar invitations. Scheduler can also reschedule and cancel meetings.

In cases where technology isn’t enough to complete a meeting-scheduling request, Microsoft is going to rely on humans to figure out inconsistencies or required clarifications. “The human assistance that supports Cortana are a part of Microsoft’s Supplier Privacy & Assurance Standards and are bounded by our Privacy statement,” said officials in today’s blog post. They emphasized that even though human assistants will have access to full email conversations, Graph data, and other information, they won’t have access to links or attachments. Scheduler will not process encrypted mail sent to the Cortana mailbox.

Admins need to enable Scheduler using a PowerShell commandlet in order to create a custom mailbox and configure it to process the meeting requests. Users can purchase Scheduler through the Microsoft 365 Admin Center. Even if an organization already has Cortana for Windows 10 and/or the Cortana briefing email enabled, users still need to purchase and enable Scheduler separately.

Scheduler will be available as an add-on to most Microsoft 365 licenses with a Microsoft Exchange Online plan. Scheduler costs $10 per user per month with an annual commitment and $12 per user per month if paid month-to-month. Volume and partner discounts are available and the 30-day standard free trial is available for Scheduler.

If you’re wondering whether Scheduler will replace the FindTime feature in Outlook, the answer is no. Microsoft officials said FindTime is still considered to be an “active” feature in Outlook, though it requires more manual organization and intervention.

Microsoft also is starting to roll out some new voice features for Outlook for iOS, starting today. Microsoft announced these features back in February, stating they’d be coming soon. June 8, today, is the actual kick-off of that rollout.

These new features allow users to use voice to schedule meetings and compose emails in Outlook Mobile. Users need to hold down the plus sign in Outlook mobile, then hit the microphone icon to “Use Voice” and tell Cortana what they want to do. They can ask Cortana questions, such as “When’s my next team meeting?” or request Cortana add more meeting invitees.

The enhanced Outlook Mobile voice features also let users do things like say “attach the latest budget to the meeting invitation,” and the Microsoft Graph will attach the appropriate document, officials said. And the Dictation feature that’s available already in Word or Outlook, also is now available for iOS with Outlook Mobile.

Conversational AI technology with Cortana is something Microsoft highlighted back at its Build 2019 conference. At that time, company officials showcased how users would be able to get Cortana to understand and respond to “turn-by-turn” kinds of interactions. That capability will begin rolling out in Outlook for iOS ” for email, calendar, and search in the coming weeks,” officials said. 

Officials described the ability for users to manage their time, schedule events and meetings in Outlook, add participants to meeting invitations, and compose messages all using just their voice as “our first step towards a full conversation experience.” Execs said a lot of these kinds of Cortana-voice-assisted capabilities would become real thanks to advances from its Semantic Machines acquisition

Microsoft officials said the advanced voice capabilities re-announced today are all “coming soon” to Outlook Mobile for Android. In related news, Microsoft Office for Android has a new voice-capture feature for live speech-to-text transcription, which is available for testing by Office Insiders. 

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Source: https://www.zdnet.com/article/microsoft-begins-rolling-out-its-scheduler-meeting-service-plus-more-outlook-voice-features-on-ios/#ftag=RSSbaffb68

ZDNET

Customer experience now the top technology priority, but organizations aren’t quite ready

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These days, everyone dreams of superior customer experience (CX), especially customers. Next in line are business leaders, who have finally started to see the light. Of course, that means the renewed pressure to pump up CX to, yeah, you guessed it — IT managers and professionals. However, getting everyone on the same page to deliver the goods is the hardest part of all.

The challenge was surfaced in a survey of 1,420 IT decision-makers released by RackSpace Technology, which found that focusing on CX implementations helps companies see greater rewards. Organizations that adopt a CX-led focus enjoy 1.6x higher brand awareness, 1.5x more employee satisfaction and nearly double their rates of customer retention, repeat purchases, average order values and customer lifetime value. “The research underscores the impact that modernizing applications to provide better customer experience can have on competitiveness and growth,” the survey’s authors add.

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Photo: Joe McKendrick

The rub, of course, is that building better CX systems is the easy part. Half of the IT executives in the survey, 50%, report that it can take weeks to gain consensus before implementing technology changes, such as deploying new applications or launching a transformation project. Another 42% say it takes months. “This lag in consensus building negatively impacts time to market. If teams can’t move agile and fail fast, they’ll be beaten to the punch by competitors who can move through concept, development and release faster,” the researchers report.

Even when people and strategy are aligned, CX technology teams still face technology-related barriers, the survey shows. As is common with adopting new technology, legacy IT (26%), budget (24%), skills gaps (22%) and expertise (18%) rank as top barriers. Cultural issues also weigh heavily in the list as represented by resistance to change (16%), lack of buy-in (16%) and lack of leadership support (13%). 

Emotions dictate technology initiatives, and this survey confirms it. The top barrier reported was the fear of negatively impacting existing customer experience (28%), the survey also finds. “Organizations recognize that technology is needed to improve the customer experience but are still nervous about changing the existing customer experience by implementing new technology,” the survey’s authors state. “Despite the push to innovate and transform, respondents are aware that the learning curves of customer experience improvements can cause friction.”

The good news is that no one is objecting to the employment of tech to improve CX — 52% report little to no resistance to technology changes. Only 23% report resistance. “IT leaders can gather from this that stakeholders are interested in change where there’s a specific business case, such as customer experience, and that interest could translate into less resistance when it’s time to implement programs.”

For IT leaders, the results also confirm that CX is a main strategic priority (48%), ahead of IT security, compliance (45%) and IT strategy (41%), and that technology is the key to driving customer experience. Over half (55%) of survey respondents credit applications with enhancing customer experience. Moreover, almost all organizations surveyed understand the importance of CX, with 94% reporting that some form of user experience initiative is underway within their organization. Only a small percentage (6%) report having no CX strategies or initiatives in place.   

Technology-Related Barriers to CX Development

  • Fear of negatively impacting existing CX     28%
  • Legacy IT systems     26%
  • Limited budget     24%
  • Complexity     23%
  • Lack of staff with the appropriate skill sets     22%
  • Lack of expertise to lead transformation activities     18%
  • Unclear digital transformation strategy     18%
  • Lack of a trusted partner/advisor to work on digital transformation activities     18%

Modern technology initiatives are prevalent, which ultimately is seen in smoother CX delivery. Six out of ten (63%) respondents are using technology to drive automation efficiencies and over half (51%) are using it to drive IoT and cloud native initiatives. Even more directly, technology initiatives focused on real-time data analysis (44%) and customer engagement (30%) are prevalent.  

How Does Technology Drive your Corporate Strategy?

  • Driving corporate strategy     63%
  • Use intelligent automation to drive efficiencies     51%
  • Leverage innovative technologies such as IoT and cloud native applications     46%
  • Greater employee collaboration     44%
  • Real-time data analysis/customer ‘pulse’     40%
  • Simplify decision making     30%

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Source: https://www.zdnet.com/article/business-benefits-of-modernizing-applications-to-improve-customer-experience/#ftag=RSSbaffb68

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ZDNET

This app teaches you how to make your iPhone secure

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A big part of making security work is educating users about the importance of it, and how quickly (and usually effortlessly) the bad guys can take advantage of our mistakes.

This is exactly what iVerify does.

Must read: I just found my lost AirTag… you’ll never guess where it went

2021-06-11-16-31-44.jpg

First and foremost, iVerify is a security scanner that makes sure you are making use of the basic security features such as Face/Touch ID, Screen Lock, and are running the latest iOS version. It also runs a device scan that looks for security anomalies and gives you a heads up if something seems out of place.

It can be very hard to spot if an iPhone has been hacked, so having a tool installed that keeps an eye out for the telltale signs of intrusion offers piece of mind.

iVerify is also packed with guides that looks at the many different security features built into iOS, and how you can take advantage of them to secure your iPhone (or iPad).

There’s also a whole raft of other cool stuff, from information on securing your Apple, Facebook, Google, Instagram, Linkedin, and Twitter accounts, information on activating DNS over HTTPS, a periodic reboot reminder (a simple way to protect yourself from remote exploits), and even a page that offers the latest security news.

$3 at Apple Store

iVerify is a brilliant app that gets regular updates to keep the information fresh and up-to-date.

iVerify is not free — it costs $2.99 — but it’s truly worth the money if you take security seriously. Even if you know your around iOS well, you’re likely to learn a few new things from going through all the guides contained in this app.

iVerify requires iOS 13.0 or later or iPadOS 13 or later, and is compatible with iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch.

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Source: https://www.zdnet.com/article/this-app-teaches-you-how-to-make-your-iphone-secure/#ftag=RSSbaffb68

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ZDNET

iVerify (version 17)

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iOS Haptic Touch

Just long-press on an app and see what pops up. It might be useful, it might not be. It depends on the app!
You can even do the same with built-in iOS features, such as Control Center. …

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Source: https://www.zdnet.com/pictures/iverify-version-17/#ftag=RSSbaffb68

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ZDNET

Avaddon ransomware group closes shop, sends all 2,934 decryption keys to BleepingComputer

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Avaddon ransomware group, one of the most prolific ransomware groups in 2021, has announced that they are shutting the operation down and giving thousands of victims a decryption tool for free. 

BleepingComputer’s Lawrence Abrams said he was sent an anonymous email with a password and link to a ZIP file named, “Decryption Keys Ransomware Avaddon.” 

The file had decryption keys for 2,934 victims of the Avaddon ransomware. The startling figure is another example of how many organizations never disclose attacks, as some reports have previously attributed just 88 attacks to Avaddon. 

Abrams worked with Emsisoft chief technology officer Fabian Wosar and Coveware’s Michael Gillespie to check the files and verify the decryption keys. Emsisoft created a free tool that Avaddon victims can use to decrypt files. 

Ransomware gangs — like those behind Crysis, AES-NI, Shade, FilesLocker, Ziggy — have at times released decryption keys and shut down for a variety of reasons. A free Avaddon decryption tool was released by a student in Spain in February but the gang quickly updated their code to make it foolproof again.  

“This isn’t new and isn’t without precedence. Several ransomware threat actors have released the key database or master keys when they decide to shut down their operations,” Wosar told ZDNet. 

“Ultimately, the key database we obtained suggests that they had at least 2,934 victims. Given the average Avaddon ransom at about $600,000 and average payment rates for ransomware, you can probably come up with a decent estimate of how much Avaddon generated.”

Wosar added that the people behind Avaddon had probably made enough money doing ransomware that they had no reason to continue. 

According to Wosar, ransom negotiators have been noticing an urgency when dealing with Avaddon operators in recent weeks. Negotiators with the gang are caving “instantly to even the most meager counter offers during the past couple of days.”

“So this would suggest that this has been a planned shutdown and winding down of operations and didn’t surprise the people involved,” Wosar explained. 

Data from RecordedFuture has shown that Avaddon accounted for nearly 24% of all ransomware incidents since the attack on Colonial Pipeline in May. An eSentire report on ransomware said Avaddon was first seen in February 2019 and operated as a ransomware-as-a-service model, with the developers giving affiliates a negotiable 65% of all ransoms. 

“The Avaddon threat actors are also said to offer their victims 24/7 support and resources on purchasing Bitcoin, testing files for decryption, and other challenges that may hinder victims from paying the ransom,” the report said. 

“What’s interesting about this ransomware group is the design of its Dark Web blog site. They not only claim to provide full dumps of their victims’ documents, but they also feature a Countdown Clock, showing how much time each victim has left to pay. And to further twist their victims’ arms, they threaten to DDoS their website if they don’t agree to pay immediately.” 

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DomainTools

The group has a lengthy list of prominent victims that include Henry Oil & Gas, European insurance giant AXA, computer hardware company EVGA, software company Vistex, insurance broker Letton Percival, the Indonesian government’s airport company PT Angkasa Pura I, Acer Finance and dozens of healthcare organizations like Bridgeway Senior Healthcare in New Jersey, Capital Medical Center in Olympia, Washington and others. 

The gang made a note of publishing the data stolen during ransomware attacks on its dark web site, DomainTools researcher Chad Anderson told ZDNet last month

Both the FBI and the Australian Cyber Security Centre released notices last month warning healthcare institutions about the threat of Avaddon ransomware. 

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Australian Cyber Security Centre

The notice said “Avaddon threat actors demand ransom payment via Bitcoin (BTC), with an average demand of BTC 0.73 (approximately USD $40,000) with the lure of a decryption tool offered (‘Avaddon General Decryptor’) if payment is made.”

The group was also implicated in multiple attacks on manufacturing companies across South America and Europe, according to the Australian Cyber Security Centre. 

Cybersecurity firm Flashpoint said that alongside REvil, LockBit, and Conti, Avaddon was one of the most prolific ransomware groups currently active.  

Digital Shadows’ Photon Research Team told ZDNet in May that a forum representative for the Avaddon ransomware took to the Exploit forum to announce new rules for affiliates that included bans on targeting “the public, education, healthcare, and charity sectors.” 

The group also banned affiliates from attacking Russia or any other CIS countries. US President Joe Biden is expected to press Russian President Vladimir Putin on ransomware attacks at a summit in Geneva on June 16.  

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Source: https://www.zdnet.com/article/avaddon-ransomware-group-closes-shop-sends-all-2934-decryption-keys-to-bleepingcomputer/#ftag=RSSbaffb68

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