Office 365 and Skype


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.

Windows 8 Application Delivery – AppX and App Stores


As information about Windows 8 starts to become more common, a few sites are starting to discover details about the new application delivery model Microsoft are adopting called AppX.

In a world where applications have become ‘apps’, and app stores look set to become the dominant distribution method for software, MS seem to have targeted AppX as a delivery model that will support as many types of application and distribution models as possible.

In it’s structure AppX looks very similar to Silverlight’s XAP format, the distributable file is essentially a zip archive that contains the source media and an XML manifest file that describe:

  • – The applications identity – it’s publisher, the applications name, version etc.
  • – The target architecture for the application – the required processor architecture (presumably important for an OS that will soon once again span more than just x86), OS pre-requisites, any application frameworks required (.net, Silverlight etc.)
  • – Application pre-requisites – other applications which are required on the system, for example if the AppX package contains a plug-in for an application, this section might list the name, publisher and minimum version of the pre-requisite app.
  • – Required Capabilities – any capabilities which the application will request such as file system or networking. It will be interesting to see whether it will be possible for an app to check for specific system performance through the Windows Experience Index. This would help developers ensure applications always ran on systems capable of running them as designed.
  • – OS Extensions – such as file type associations
  • – Tile customization – This an interesting one, as AppX is similar to the formats used in Windows Phone 7 this could be a carry over from there so that the format is reusable, or it could be a hint towards new interfaces within Win8. It covers properties such as logo, name, and colours.
  • (Info from the excellent I Started Something)

One of the interesting questions that AppX raises is what this new format will mean for business and enterprise customers. Many will currently be investing small fortunes in readying their applications for Windows 7, either in traditional Windows Installer (msi) format or through application virtualisation technologies such as Microsoft’s own AppV. Adding a third format into that mix will, and does complicate matters.

It could be that AppX can act as a wrapper for more traditional deployment tools, or it could be an addition – perhaps for surfacing apps though the App Store interface for example. Or it could be that newly developed apps will need to be in that format to make use of Win8’s new features. We also don’t really know whether the format will be limited only to MS’s forthcoming application store or whether it will be more commonly used for traditional download or CD installs.

With many large organisations having made big investments in internal application delivery tools such as System Center Configuration Manager (SCCM), let alone then checking and fixing apps for Vista/Win7 compatibility, it will be interesting to watch how the interaction between the new App Store and these internal systems will develop. If the Apple app store is anything to go by people will want to make use of the tools and utilities on offer even in a business context. Company IT organisations will come under pressure to make these apps available alongside the apps they typically provide.

It could be that the Windows app store will have a mechanism to publish existing applications though the App Store interface, or alternatively App Store applications could be made available though internal mechanisms such as SCCM (much like Windows Update apps are now).

Personally I would rather be able to surface internal application portfolios through the MS store, perhaps though a ‘My Company Store’ section or something of that nature. I think that’s a neater solution and will make it easier for end users – if you want an app on any Windows systems you happen to use, there’s just one place to go. Even if the App Store interface is then going off an using SCCM (or equivalent) for the actual installation tasks.

There are a number of pitfalls to that approach however. Businesses use different purchasing process to consumers – at least for now. People aren’t going to be keen to buy AutoCAD on their own credit card for example! The App Store would therefore need to have some form of approval workflow so people can request an app, their manager can approve the request and some sort of internal billing/purchase mechanism kicked off. It’s all achievable though, even through technology MS already sell and have at their disposal.

The AppX format could work well for surfacing these internal apps. If internal SCCM host apps could be wrapped with an AppX manifest to inform the app store how to publish them, there’s no reason why internally packaged apps couldn’t be included.

MS Exchange ActiveSync Logo

MS_Exchange_ActiveSyncFor sometime now ActiveSync has almost been the de facto method for providing ‘push’ email to any device that isn’t a Blackberry.  And to be honest it actually does a pretty good job.  If your company runs MS Exchange email – which plenty do – it’s an easy to setup, secure way of give your employees access to email on their phones.  What’s more it then allows you to configure and secure those phone and tablets.  Most smartphones now support it, iPhones and Android included.  (I’ve written about ActiveSync and described the options available here)

To back this up MS have now launched an ActiveSync logo programme that vendors that meet the right criteria can put on their device or its box to advertise their support for the protocol.

On the face of it this is a great idea, it’ll help consumers identify devices that do support ActiveSync, and also offer some confidence that the devices will work properly with it.  Technet describes the programme as:

Specific requirements for Exchange ActiveSync clients on mobile email devices set by Microsoft

Exchange ActiveSync client test plan defined by Microsoft

Third-party lab to test qualification candidates from handset OEMs

Support for Exchange ActiveSync client development by OEMs through Microsoft Services Premier Support

All good stuff, though I do wonder how exhaustive the test plan is as the iPhone is listed as a supported device despite the longstanding problems that Apples implementation has with calendars from mailboxes with delegated access (for example secretary access to a managers calendar).

There are 14 requirements that a device must meet before it can be considered for a logo:

– Must be current Exchange ActiveSync licensee

– Use Exchange ActiveSync v14 or later

– Direct Push email, contacts & calendar

– Accept, Decline & Tentatively Accept meetings

– Rich formatted email (HTML)

– Reply/Forward state on email

– GAL Lookup

– Autodiscover

– ABQ strings provided: device type and  device model

– Remote Wipe

– Password Required

– Minimum Password Length

– Timeout without User Input

– Number of Failed Attempts

Of course most devices, Apple IOS included, support a many more functions and policies than these.  You may find there’s a similarity between these relatively simple requirements and the limited subset of ActiveSyncs capabilities that Window Phone 7 supports….

Whilst it clearly wouldn’t do for MS to have a logo programme that it’s own platforms don’t comply with, I do think MS missed an opportunity here.  By adding in a requirements for say Encryption they could possible ActiveSync and the logo approved devices as a much more effective alternative to Blackberry.  Security is really Blackberry’s only significant USP now.

First Orbit: 50 Years On

This week marks 50 years since Yuri Gagarin started man’s ventures into space.  To mark the occasion documentary makes Christopher Riley teamed up with the European Space Agency and the crew of the International Space Station to recreate Gagarin’s first voyage.

Original audio and video has been mixed with modern footage filmed by Paolo Nespoli on the ISS – which was following as closely as possible the path of Gagarin’s Vostok 1 craft – to recreate what Gagarin would have seen 50 years ago.  It’s particularly nice to hear Gagarin’s obvious excitement from orbit!

The First Orbit site is here:

Fantastic Japanese Advert

A fantastic advert for the Sharp Touch Wood mobile phone.  I can’t imagine how much work went into planning and building the instrument so that the falling wooden ball would play the piece of music (Bach’s Cantata 147) as it travelled through the forest.  I wonder if they left it there?  I quite like the idea that it might be out there playing music where no one might hear.

/via Engadget