Office 365 for free?

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been taking a good look at Office 365 and what it has to offer.   On the face of it MS’s new toy is pretty compelling, it offered businesses a decent way of moving their basic communications apps – email and messaging – into the cloud whilst still retaining the familiar Office experience for users.  For existing organisations that already have an MS platform it would seem like a decent path to follow.  But what about new or very small businesses?

One of the many good things about Google’s Apps platforms has always been that most of it’s capability is available for free.  It’s buried within the apps pages of the Google site, but if you don’t need more than 10 accounts you can sign up for apps for no cost.  There are some limitations but you do get Gmail, Calendar, Docs and Sites.  You can also set it up to work with your own domain (so no @gmail email addresses) and use those accounts with all the other Google services like Reader or Picasa.

The 10 user account limit used to be 50, so it was a pretty viable solution for small businesses or organisations.  I’m sure this must have worked out ok for Google as some of those organisations expanded and moved to the full Google Business Suite.  I do wonder why MS hasn’t offered a similar deal.

With BPOS and Office 365 arriving quite late to the online office party it does have some ground to make up.  Google has a proven offering, which is almost the default option if you’re starting a small business.  MS does offer a basic 365 product – it’s Plan P – which offers 25 users or less an Exchange mailbox and calendar, Office Web Apps, Lync messaging/conferencing and SharePoint Online for £4/$6 a month.  The basic Google Apps and Plan P are pretty much feature comparable for a small business, but why would you choose to pay $6 a month if you didn’t have to?  (That said… $6 a month for 365 vs $50 a year for Apps is far closer… but that’s another discussion).

If I were MS I’d be tempted to give Plan P away, at least for the same 10 users or less that Google Apps does.  By all means charge £4 a month for 10-50 users but have a free option to gain some market penetration amongst very small businesses and the more technically savvy home users.

Of course the economics of this might not add up, I’ve not idea how much this low end of the platforms offerings contribute to revenues… but I suspect it’s a very small part as Google kinda has that small market wrapped up at the moment.  The only way to change that is ‘free’…

Windows 8 is here

At work I have a set of floppy disks in my desk draw, three or four of them are MSDOS 6.22 and the rest are Windows 3.11.  It’s been a while since I installed them on anything, but the last time I did a couple of years ago it was enough to demonstrate that a) Windows 3.11 was blindingly fast on a modern PC and b) the user experience wasn’t really all that different from today.   Sure Explorer has replaced the old File Manager, and Windows 7’s Aero is whole lot nicer than Program Manager, but you don’t feel completely out of sync, the metaphors are still the same.

Windows 8 is looking to change all of that:

It’s quite a change, and one that’s long overdue.  Desktop operating systems, whether Windows, OSX or the various flavours of Unix shell all use the same basic metaphors, its incredibly refreshing to see Windows 8 try something new.  It’s clearly borrowed much from Windows Phone 7’s UI and it’s Metro design language.

As someone who’s IT background is in enterprise desktop deployment and management, what’s most interesting for me is the complete separation of the traditional Windows UI from the new Metro interface.  As the video above shows ‘Legacy’ Windows apps (I can barely believe I’m say that given the effort I’ve put into those apps over the years!) launch in what looks like a traditional Win7 Aero interface, but this doesn’t seem to be part of the Windows 8 experience – in fact I’d bet that part of the OS has barely changed from 7.

It’s easy to speculate about all of this, but the separation of these user experiences may be more than just visual.  Windows 8 will be delivered on both on the x86 platform that PC’s have used for years, and the ARM platform.  These are completely different architectures and this would almost certainly introduce application compatibility issues.  One way around this however may be some form of virtualisation.  This in itself this would be tricky, but perhaps the traditional Windows desktop is able to runs within a virtual machine which is surfaced though the new Win8 interface – much like parallels is able to surface Windows applications within OSX on a Mac.

The enterprise IT people among you might also have thought of another interesting idea… what if that traditional desktop could be redirected off to a centralised Virtual Desktop (VDI) infrastructure.  Low cost ARM devices all of a sudden look very tempting as thin client devices.

No matter how it’s delivered, that old Windows desktop will be a welcome site for enterprise IT departments.  Many of organisations are spending a lot of time and money migrating to Windows 7, and by far the hardest part of that is application compatibility.  Microsoft would do well to minimise the application compatibility differences in the new OS, if Win8 breaks apps that work in 7 – on x86 at least – then it would be difficult for organisations who have invested in Win7 to adopt Win8.  Just look back to Vista.  It looks that may not be a problem for Win8, which is a good thing.

With MS keen to adopt ARM as a way of competing in the tablet space, where x86’s power consumption destroys battery life, the new interface also gives them some interesting options to make a ‘clean break’ away from their legacy.  If they have found a way to run the old interface virtually upon other hardware platforms, that could well spell the end for the old Windows.  One of MS’s traditional strengths, the backward compatibility of apps (ok, that’s always true…), has also been a shackle around it’s legs stopping Windows developing into something new.  Abstracting the old from the new would allow MS to move Windows on while still retaining its legacy apps.

The big assumption there of course is that developers adopt the new interface and development environment.  Of course at the moment we don’t really know whether the new Win8 interface is able to present the heavy duty apps that PC’s run day in day out.  I guess that Office 15 will be the first real test of this.  Will it surface through the new interface in Win8 or revert back to the old Windows.  I really hope its the former – the Office apps on WP7 are slick and fast, it would be fantastic to have the full fidelity apps presented though the Metro front end.  How long it would take the big third party apps like AutoCAD to follow is another matter of course, but if Win8 upgrades are made easy and cost effective it might happen sooner rather than later.

I’m also very pleased to see MS asserting some control over Windows 8’s hardware.  Whilst it’s nice to have choice, I’m no longer convinced that the vast PC ecosystem is a positive thing.  It’s a volume market so margins are low and its too easy for poor quality hardware and software to slip though.  Problematic driver software and the sheer amount of ‘crapware’ that litters new computers does nothing to help the end user in the long run, and is one of the main reasons for the PC’s poor reputation for performance and reliability.

If by asserting control MS can improve the quality of the overall end product, I have to say that I’m not all that concerned by a restriction of choice – though I know some manufacturers are crying fowl.  In the past I’ve spent too much time dealing with problems caused by crappy hardware and software, and I can still see those same problems today if I talk to the people doing those jobs now.

So all in all I’m quite impressed with what MS have shown us today.  Added to the other information that’s leaked out Windows 8 it’s looking like a very positive move.  The only concern I have it timescales… late 2012 is too late.  In my view they need to RTM this in the new year.

Lewis Hamilton at Monaco

Today’s Monaco Grand Prix was probably the most enjoyable race from Monte Carlo since Senna and Mansell fought their way to the finish there in ‘92.  Usually Monaco is a glamorous setting but a dull race but the 2011 race was a real classic.  Perhaps the only disappointment from today was Lewis Hamilton.

I’ve been a fan of Lewis since he joined the F1 circus in 2007.  I liked the way he took his McLaren by the scruff of the neck and hustled it around the race track whether it wanted to or not.  In the first season of his career he did things in an F1 car that no other driver did.  He pulled off some fantastic passes like the one at Monza above.

Today however I thought he let himself down.  Not by the after race comments that will grab the headlines, I can understand the frustration leading to his unwise words.  More I thought his driving was reckless and destroyed the races of others who did little deserve being hit by his McLaren.

I wonder whether when he looks back at the videos he’ll regret his comments blaming the other drivers.  He was never going to get past Massa in the inside of the hairpin, and his attempt on poor Maldonado was ambitious at best.  I do hope that Lewis comes to realise that those incidents had more to do with his own driving that theirs.

Following his championship win Lewis seemed to be maturing as a driver.  He toned down his do-or-die style and whilst he wasn’t perhaps as exciting to watch, it did make him a more consistent driver.  Since the middle of last season though he seems to have taken a step backwards.  The composure that kept is aggressive driving in check isn’t always present leading to silly mistakes like those today (or Monza and Singapore last year).

Lewis is clearly a world class driver, he’s shown a natural talent for racing that lets him haul even a slow car to a competitive position.  I don’t think its his driving per se that’s at fault.  Attitude and mental state play an equal part in success and I suspect that this is the problem.  Looking back at some of the performances below I hope Lewis gets the support he needs to regain his composure as the sport will be all the better with an on form Lewis Hamilton.

Silverstone 2006 (GP2)

Lewis and Kimi in the rain at Spa in 2008

Oh… and just because I can, the Senna and Mansell footage from Monaco.  Sorry about the Japanese commentary!

Chrome Laptops for $28 a month?

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Google has been holding it’s I/O conference this week and has been announcing all sorts of wonderful things.  One of the more interesting is a plan to sell it’s Chrome OS based laptops to businesses and educational establishments on a monthly subscription basis.

Four different laptops from Samsung and Acer will be available for between $28-33 for business and $20-23 for education.  This will include the laptop itself, warranty, support and updates for the 3 year term of the contract.  Organisations will have access to a management console in which the devices can be configured and managed.

So do the maths add up?  The devices are available outside of a subscription for between $350 and $499, the subscription will cost the organisation over a $1000 over the 36 month term.

That’s quite a premium, and it’s not really clear how much value the support and management capability will add.   Most, if not all, organisations would spent more than the $500 mark-up supporting a normal computer over three years, so in that sense it makes sense.  However I thought one of the main selling points of Chrome OS, and the Chrome Laptop, was that they weren’t a full OS, so wouldn’t need the sort of support, management and patching that traditional computers all need.  If these devices are meant to deliver on that promise then why wouldn’t a business just finance the capital cost cheaply elsewhere and simply buy the devices outright?  They’d still have the manufactures warranty, and the beauty of Google’s services is that the end-point is disposable as it hosts no data.

I suspect there are details yet to come as I think there has to be more value there that we’re not seeing – or I’ve just missed something! :)  Either way it’s a highly disruptive move and something that could well change the shape of how IT is provided into businesses.

Office 365 and Skype

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I’ve been a bit slow to post about this I know, I’ve been offline for for the past few days so have only just started reading reactions to Microsoft’s $8.5 billion purchase of Skype.  The odd thing is that most commentary on the deal seems to be concentrating on video conferencing as the main driver for the deal.  Sure, the integration of Skype with Messenger, Xbox and WP7 etc. is good news, it might even be the making of Skype as the de facto standard for web and home video conferencing. For MS it could be one of those ‘good enough’ solutions that business adopt ahead of the better, but expensive Cisco/Tandberg solutions.  But, would MS spend $8.5 Billion for that?

Skype has never been particularly profitable, though it does have a significant and loyal user base, something that its rivals in the video conferencing world don’t necessarily have.  Of course MS itself has a huge number of Messenger users, and can probably use its shareholding in Facebook to encourage further integration with Skype.  So in the long term there may well be some significant revenues there, especially if MS can drive wider adoption of Skype’s chargeable services. There is however another area of Microsoft that is crying out for some of the services Skype has to offer.

Microsoft has invested huge amounts of time and effort in its unified communications tools, in little more than 5 years it has taken the OCS/Lync platform from being a half decent corporate instant messaging tool to a genuine competitor in the corporate telephony market.   Whatever you might think of MS, make no mistake Lync is a very good product, if I were Avaya or Cisco I’d be scared of it.   With the Office 365 platform Microsoft is taking Lync’s core functionality to the cloud and offering organisations Exchange 2010 mailboxes (including voicemail), Lync instant messaging, presence, audio and video conferencing, SharePoint and even a copy of Office 2010 all as a per user per month subscription.  The one large gap between 365 and the boxed product is the ability to make voice calls.

If you talk to MS about Office 365 they’re very keen to point out that voice calling capabilities will be coming later this year, they just never have any details.  Talk to some of Microsoft’s big telephony partners and the implication is that they will be providing the voice gateways into MS’s cloud services.  Partly this is because MS doesn’t really want to be a telco, with all the additional regulation that entails.  It all seems perfectly reasonable, and will probably still happen, but the Skype acquisition gives MS another option –  tie the Office 365 platform into Skype’s existing telephony services.

This would give Office 365 the ability to make voice calls over the internet directly from the Office Communicator client, Outlook, SharePoint or any other app that surfaces presence. With Skype’s VoIP network MS can offer those calls at its preferable rates, and potentially offer included minutes in the same way as a mobile operator would.  You can even envisage MS providing free end-to-end VoIP calls between 365’s end users computers and a shiny new Windows Phone 7 Skype client.

I reckon a combination of Skype and Office 365 could well be a winning combination for Microsoft, it’s the missing link in the Office 365 sales pitch.  The universal video conferencing stuff is nice and all, but it won’t pay the bills.  On the other hand Enterprise customers pay good money for their communications services, and with Office 365’s subscription model they pay per user per month.