07
Sep 14

On the death of files and folders

As I write this, I’m on a plane at 30,000+ feet, headed to Chicago. Seatmates include a couple from Toronto headed home from a cruise to Alaska. The husband and I talk technology a bit, and he mentions that his wife particularly enjoys sending letters as they travel. He and I both smile as we consider the novelty in 2014 of taking a piece of paper, writing thoughts to friends and family, and putting it in an envelope to travel around the world to be warmly received by the recipient.

Both Windows and Mac computers today are centered around the classic files and folders nomenclature we’ve all worked with for decades. From the beginning of the computer, mankind has struggled to insert metaphors from the physical world into our digital environments. The desktop, the briefcase, files that look like paper, folders that look like hanging file folders. Even today as the use of removable media decreases, we hang on to the floppy diskette icon, a symbol that means nothing to pre-teens of today, to command an application to “write” data to physical storage.

Why?

It’s time to stop using metaphors from the physical world – or at least to stop sending “files” to collaborators in order to have them receive work we deign to share with them.

Writing this post involves me eating a bit of crow – but only a bit. Prior to me leaving Microsoft in 2004, I had a rather… heated… conversation with a member of the WinFS team about a topic that is remarkably close to this. WinFS was an attempt to take files as we knew them and treat them as “objects”. In short, WinFS would take the legacy .ppt files as you knew them, and deserialize (decompose) them into a giant central data store within Windows based upon SQL Server, allowing you to search, organize, and move them in an easier manner. But a fundamental question I could never get answered by that team (the core of my heated conversation) was how that data would be shared with people external to your computer. WinFS would always have to serialize the data back out into a .ppt file (or some other “container”) in order to be sent to someone else. The WinFS team sought to convert everything on your system into a URL, as well – so you would have navigated the local file system almost as if your local machine was a Web server rather than using the local file and folder hierarchy that we had all become used to since the earliest versions of Windows or the Mac.

So as I look back on WinFS, some of the ideas were right, but in classic Microsoft form, at best it may have been a bit of premature innovation, and at worst it may have been nerd porn relatively disconnected from actual user scenarios and use cases.

From the dawn of the iPhone, power users have complained that iOS lacked something as simple as a file explorer/file picker. This wasn’t an error on Apple’s part; a significant percentage of Apple’s ease of use (largely aped by Android and Windows (at least with WinRT and Windows Phone applications) is by abstracting away the legacy file and folder bird’s nest of Windows, the Mac, etc.

As we enter the fall cavalcade of consumer devices ahead of the holiday, one truth appears plainly clear; that standalone “cloud storage” as we know it is largely headed for the economic off-ramp. The three main platform players have now put cloud storage in as a platform pillar, not an opportunity to be filled by partners. Apple (iCloud Drive), Google (Google Drive), and Microsoft (OneDrive and OneDrive for Business – their consumer and business offerings, respectively), have all been placed firmly in as a part of their respective platform. Lock-in now isn’t just a part of the device or the OS, it’s about where your files live, as that can help create a platform network effect (AT&T Friends and Family, but in the cloud). I know for me, my entire family is iOS based. I can send a link from iCloud drive files to any member of my family and know they can see the photo I took or the words I wrote.

But that’s just it. Regardless of how my file is stored in Apple’s, Google’s, or Microsoft’s hosted storage, I share it through a link. Every “document” envelope as we knew it in the past is now a URL, with applications on each device capable of opening their file content.

Moreover, today’s worker generally wants their work:

  1. Saved automatically
  2. Backed up to the cloud automatically (within reason, and protected accordingly)
  3. Versioned and revertible
  4. Accessible anywhere
  5. Coauthoring capable (work with one or more colleagues concurrently without needing to save and exchange a “file”)
  6. As these sorts of features become ubiquitous across productivity tools, the line between a “file” and a “URL” becomes increasingly blurred, and the more, well, the more our computers start acting just like the WinFS team wanted them to over a decade ago.

    If you look at the typical user’s desktop, it’s a dumping ground of documents. It’s a mess. So are their favorites/bookmarks, music, videos, and any other “file type” they have.

    On the Mac, iTunes (music metadata), iPhoto (face/EXIF, and date info), and now the finder itself (properties and now tags) are a complete mess of metadata. A colleague in the Longhorn Client Product Management Group was responsible for owning the photo experience for WinFS. Even then I think I crushed his spirit by pointing out what a pain in the ass it was going to be to enter in all of the metadata for photos as users returned for trips, in order to make the photos be anything more than a digital shoebox that sits under the bed.

    I’m going to tell all the nerds in the world a secret. Ready? Users don’t screw around entering metadata. So anything you build that is metadata-centric that doesn’t populate the metadata for the user is… largely unused.

    I mention this because, as we move towards vendor-centered repositories of our documents, it becomes an opportunity for vendors to do much of what WinFS wanted to do, and help users catalog and organize their data; but it has to be done almost automatically for them. I’m somewhat excited about Microsoft’s Delve (nee Oslo) primarily because if it is done right (and if/when Google offers a similar feature), users will be able to discover content across the enterprise that can help them with their job. Written word will in so many ways become a properly archived, searchable, and collaboration-ready tool for businesses (and users themselves, ideally).

    Part of the direction I think we need to see is tools that become better about organizing and cataloging our information as we create it, and keeping track of the lineage of written word and digital information. Create a file using a given template? That should be easily visible. Take a trip with family members? Photos should be easily stitched together into a searchable family album.

    Power users, of course, want to feel a sense of control over the files and folders on their computing devices (some of them even enjoy filling in metadata fields). These are the same users who complained loudly that iOS didn’t have a Finder or traditional file picker, and who persuaded Microsoft to add a file explorer of sorts to Windows Phone, as Windows 8 and Microsoft’s OneDrive and OneDrive for Business services began blurring out the legacy Windows File Explorer. There’s a good likelihood that next year’s release of Windows 9 could see the legacy Win32 desktop disappear on touch-centric Windows devices (much like Windows Phone 8.x, where Win32 still technically exists, but is kept out of view. I firmly expect this move will (to say it gently) irk Windows power users. These are the same type of users who freaked out when Apple removed the save functionality from Pages/Numbers/Keynote. Yet that approach is now commonplace for the productivity suites of all of the “big 3” productivity players (Microsoft, Google, and Apple), where real-time coauthoring requires an abstraction of the traditional “Save” verb we all became used to since the 1980’s. For Windows to succeed as a novice-approachable touch environment as iOS is, it means jettisoning a visible Win32 and the File Explorer. With this, OneDrive and the simplified file pickers in Windows become the centerpiece of how users will interact with local files.

    I’m not saying that files and folders will disappear tomorrow, or that they’ll really ever disappear entirely at all. But increasingly, especially in collaboration-based use cases, the file and folder metaphors will largely move to the wayside, replaced by Web-based experiences and the use of URLs with dedicated platform-specific local, mobile or online apps interacting with them.


17
Jan 14

Running Windows XP after April? A couple of suggestions for you

Yesterday on Twitter, I said the following:

Suggestion… If you have an XP system that you ABSOLUTELY must run after April, I’d remove all JREs, as well as Acrobat Reader and Flash.

This was inspired by an inquiry from a customer about Windows XP support that arrived earlier in the day.

As a result of that tweet, three things have happened.

  1. Many people replied “unplug it from the network!” 1
  2. Several people asked me why I suggested doing these steps.
  3. I’ve begun working on a more comprehensive set of recommendations, to be available shortly. 2

First off… Yes, it’d be ideal if we could just retire all of these XP systems on a dime. But that’s not going to happen. If it was easy (or free), businesses and consumers wouldn’t have waited until the last second to retire these systems. But there’s a reason why they haven’t. Medical/dental practices have practice management or other proprietary software that isn’t tested/supported on anything newer, custom point of sale software from vendors that disappeared, were acquired, or simply never brought that version of their software… There’s a multitude of reasons, and these systems aren’t all going to disappear or be shut off by April. It’s not going to happen. It’s unfortunate, but there are a lot of Windows XP systems that will be used for many years still in many places that we’d all rather not see happen. There’s no silver bullet for that. Hence, my off the cuff recommendations over Twitter.

Second, there’s a reason why I called out these three pieces of software. If you aren’t familiar with the history, I’d encourage you to go Bing (or Google, or…) the three following searches:

  1. zero day java vulnerability
  2. zero day Flash vulnerability
  3. zero day Acrobat vulnerability

Now if you looked carefully, each one of those, at least on Bing, returned well over 1M results, many (most?) of them from the last three years. In telling me that these XP systems should be disconnected from the Web, many people missed the point I was making.

PCs don’t get infected from the inside out. They get infected from the outside in. When Microsoft had the “Security Push” over ten years ago that forced us to reconsider how we designed, built and tested software, it involved stopping where we were, and completely thinking about how Windows was built. Threat models replaced ridiculous statements like, “We have the very best xx encryption, so we’re ‘secure'”. While Windows XP may be more porous than Vista and later are (because the company was able to implement foundational security even more deeply, and engineer protections deeply into IE, for example, as well as implement primordial UAC), Windows XPSP2 and later are far less of a threat vector than XPSP1 and earlier were. So if you’re a bad guy and you want to get bad things to happen on a PC today, who do you go after? It isn’t Windows binaries themselves, or even IE. You go next for the application runtimes that are nearly as pervasive. Java, Flash, and Acrobat. Arguably, Acrobat may or may not be a runtime, depending on your POV. But the threat is still there, especially if you haven’t been maintaining these as they’ve been updated over the last few years.

As hard as Adobe and Oracle may try to keep these three patched, these three codebases have significant vulnerabilities that are found far too often. Those vulnerabilities, if not patched by vendors and updated by system owners incredibly quickly, become the primary vector of infecting both Windows and OS X systems by executing shellcode.

After April, Windows XP is expected to get no updates. Got that? NO UPDATES. NONE. Nada. Zippo. Zilch. So while you may get antivirus updates from Microsoft and third parties, but at that point you honestly have a rotting wooden boat. I say this in the nicest way possible. I was on the team shipping Windows XP, and it saddens me to throw it under the bus, but I don’t think people get the threat here. Antivirus simply cannot protect you from every kind of attack. Windows XP and the versions of IE (6-8) have still regularly received patches almost every month for the past several years. So Windows XP isn’t “war hardened”, it is brittle. So after April, you won’t even get those patches trying to spackle over newly found vulnerabilities in the OS and IE. Instead, these will become exploit vectors ready to be hit by shellcode coming in off of the Internet (or even the local network) and turned into opportunistic infections.

Disclaimer: This is absolutely NOT a guarantee that systems won’t get infected, and you should NOT remove these or any piece of Microsoft or third-party software if a business-critical application actually depends on them or if you do not understand the dependencies of the applications in use on a particular PC or set of PCs! 

So what is a business or consumer to do? Jettison, baby. Jettison. If you can’t retire the entire Windows XP system, retire every single piece of software on that system that you can, beginning with the three I mentioned above. Those are key connection points of any system to the Web/Internet. Remove them and there is a good likelihood of lessening the infection vector.   But it is a recommendation to make jetsam of any software on those XP systems that you really don’t need. Think of this as not traveling to a country where a specific disease is breaking out until the threat has passed. In the same vein, I’d say blocking Web browsers and removing email clients coming in a close second, since they’re such a great vector for social engineering-based infections today.

Finally, as I mentioned earlier, I am working on an even more comprehensive set of recommendations to come in a more comprehensive report to be published for work, in our next issue, which should be live on the Web during the last week of January. My first recommendation would of course be to, if at all possible, retire your Windows XP systems as soon as possible. But I hope that this set of recommendations, while absolutely not a guarantee, can help some people as they move away, or finally consider how to move away, from Windows XP.

Footnotes

  1. Or unplug the power, or blow it up with explosives, or…
  2. These recommendations will be included in the next issue of Update.

17
Sep 13

No, that new application you’re hearing about won’t replace Microsoft Office.

For two weeks straight, I’ve seen prognostications that <application> from <competitor> will replace Microsoft Office.

No. Nothing will ever replace Microsoft Office – at least for the time being for a huge chunk of business users. I know, I know… strong words – but let me explain.

While a single user who needs to simply compose their thoughts for personal use, or sometimes share them with one or two other users might be able to do so with a third-party Office document editor. Whether they save or export as an Office document, or insist that the recipients simply read it in a proprietary format (including OpenDocument), as soon as you have multiple users exchanging documents, embedding additional Office documents, using reviewing/track changes, or other complex Office features, these documents begin to fray and fall apart at the seams.

I typically see three use cases for Microsoft Office in a multiuser office setting:

  1. Simple Office document exchange between two or more users.
  2. Complex Office document exchange (use of “deep features” in Office).
  3. Custom Office document workflow between two or more users.

Even I have said in the press that the lack of Microsoft Office on the iPad has created an opportunity. However, that opportunity isn’t explicitly an opportunity for competitors. More often than not, it’s created an opportunity for the user in the sense that they haven’t had Office for the entire time they’ve had an iPad, so either they’ve simply “gone without” Office, or found alternative tools (most likely either a Web-based productivity suite or a productivity suite for their device that doesn’t include feature parity with Office for Windows or the Mac).

The users who have likely had the most “success” (using the term loosely) with replacing Office are likely the individual users I mentioned early on who are simply using Office documents as containers, not using any Office specific features to much depth, and can likely survive just using the document export features in Google Docs, iWork, or any other Web/mobile productivity suite not from Microsoft. Admittedly, Microsoft surely sees this scenario, and as such has made the Office Web Apps for consumers freely available and interconnected with SkyDrive.

For users who are simply throwing documents back and forth, but not relying either on deep features in Office document formats or the Office applications, there’s a possibility that they can switch to Google Docs, iWork, or another Office suite. But if an organization has been using Office for some time, odds are there are documents and document templates they rely upon that require actual Microsoft Office applications or even require applications that interoperate with Office, but have no direct competitor on non-Windows platforms or the Web (see Access, Visio, or InfoPath).

You’ll often hear “document fidelity” discussed when the topic of Microsoft Office comes up. This is an important thing to understand. If I give you a complex Word format document (doc or docx) to edit, and ask you to use track changes to send it back, I’m going to be a bit upset if you a) send it back to me with the changes inline because your alternative word processor doesn’t support track changes, b) mangle the document because some formatting I had wasn’t understood by your alternative word processor or c) send it back to me in a .garble document or some other document format that Word doesn’t understand. Microsoft Office documents – both the original formats and the new xml-based documents – are the lingua franca of office productivity. Third-party tools may be able to open them. What they do with them from that point on is anybody’s guess.

Surely at some point, you’ve found a Web page that was interesting to you but was in a foreign language. If you translated it using Bing or Google, you got a result that was close to, but not an exact match for, the actual translated text as a human would have performed. More importantly, if you translate the result back to the source language, the result isn’t the same as the source text was to begin with. This is the same thing that happens with Microsoft Office documents (or WordPerfect documents among some professional fields – even today). If you want to tick people off or annoy them to the point of generating passive-aggressive behavior from them, screw up the formatting or the document type of an Office document that you’re supposed to look at and hand back to them.

For many organizations today, Office isn’t something they can just swap out – they depend on features and formatting capabilities buried in the Office applications – features that sometimes it even seems like Microsoft forgets are there (like Word outlining). When you must send Office documents back and forth between users and have the formatting and document type remain consistent, there are few choices other than… Office. I’ve tried numerous third party Web and mobile Office suites, and not really found one that doesn’t break documents here or there (often in undetectable ways), or only support <feature x> if you convert it into some other proprietary format.

The final scenario for Office users is that third case. In this case, you’re talking actual server-side code (SharePoint or other) or custom Office code that reads the Office document and could actually break if a document is incorrectly formatted or submitted as the wrong document type. Much like a user who is expecting a well-formatted document to be returned from review, applications centered around client or server-side consumption of Office documents don’t handle bad formatting or incorrect documents types well (though they respond logically, rather than emotionally as many users would).

I think Office, like Windows, is at an interesting inflection point. While some consumers and a smaller percentage of businesses may want to consider (and a small amount may actually be able to consider) not using Microsoft Office, their ability to do so will be directly in relation to how broadly they use Office documents today, and how deeply into the document format and type the features they depend upon are. In addition, many Web-apps are a no-op for truly mobile users as they need the ability to work completely offline – something that Office 365, being a streamed, but completely installed version of Office 2013, can do quite well. For most organizations, replacing Office with <application> is about as likely in the short term as replacing Windows with a Mac, an iPad, or a Chromebook. It’s possible, but you may be looking at ripping out deeply embedded line-of-business applications the organization has depended upon for years just to say you got rid of Office. You’re also usually then buying into someone else’s locked in hardware ecosystem or subscription-based software ecosystem.

I think there is opportunity for someone to do an Office suite better. But I don’t think most vendors so far are focused on that. Instead, most seem to be largely aping Office with locally installed or mobile apps, or aping Office with light-featured Web apps. Nobody is really pushing the boundaries, and making collaboration better – they’re largely reimagining what we’ve been working with for 20 years. So what eventually replaces Office? I’m not sure yet – but I don’t think it looks like envelopes of text sent from one user to another, or individual silos stored in a proprietary collaboration storage bin.


08
May 13

Tools to optimize working on the Mac

A few weeks ago I wrote about gestures on the Mac vs. Windows 8. By and large, I’ve shifted to using my Mac with most apps in full-screen, and really making the most of the gestures included in OS X 10.8. It isn’t always easy, as certain apps (looking at you, Word 2011), don’t optimally use full-screen. Word has Focus mode (its own full-screen model) and now supports OS X’s full-screen mode – but not together. Meaning if you shift to Focus mode, gestures don’t work as well as they could, since Word is on the desktop. More importantly, when working on a project, I often need two or more windows open at once. For this, full-screen doesn’t work, but something like Windows 7 Snap is ideal.

I’ve found quite a few tools over the past few weeks that have made working on the Mac an enjoyable experience. Some of these (Pages, and Office for Mac 2011) I’ve owned for a while. But most are things I’ve purchased since I bought my 13″ Retina MBP. In alphabetical order, here’s the list:

  • BetterSnapTool (US$1.99) – Elegantly snaps windows to a quarter, half, or maximized screen on the desktop (or custom sizes/layouts, using the cursor, keyboard shortcuts, or by overloading OS X’s native window control buttons. This is an incredibly well done app, and I would have paid far more than US$1.99 for it. (BetterSnapTool does not interact with OS X’s full-screen model, unfortunately, but that’s a minor thing.)
  • ForkLift (US$19.99) – Okay, OS X’s Finder kind of stinks. It works fine for the limited needs of most users, and honestly it really seems that Apple is keen to largely kill off the Finder in due time. (Try to get to the root of a Mac’s HDD on Mountain Lion. Just try it.) Regardless, Finder doesn’t flex very far to meet the needs of power users. For this, I’ve turned to ForkLift, which provides a multi-pane file browser. Our workflow has me working with local files, an SMB server, and a hosted SharePoint 2007 server. Though I have found a few small glitches – especially with SharePoint – ForkLift lets me move files through our workflow with little special hoop jumping necessary for any given step.
  • FormatMatch (Free) – One of the most annoying things in Word is its insistence on asking you how you want to paste in text. There was a better way to configure this in earlier versions of Word, but in 2011, the so-called “smart cut and paste” is more annoying than smart. FormatMatch effectively strips out formatting  when you cut so it receives destination formatting when you paste. A configurable shortcut enables you to turn it off when you actually do want formatting to stay applied when you paste. Not perfect, but it was free.
  • Jump Desktop ($US29.99) – In my opinion, the best tool to RDP to a Windows PC or VNC to a Mac (or other system). I’ve used the iOS client for years. Very full-featured client, supports Microsoft’s latest operating systems as well as features like Remote Desktop gateways and folder sharing. Because there is no Visio application for the Mac, and frankly no equivalent (I mean that in both the good and bad sense of it), I use “Physical Desktop Infrastructure”, and RDP to my Samsung Slate in order to edit Visio documents, which I sync using SkyDrive. (Disclaimer: I won a free copy of Jump Desktop – but already owned it for iOS, so I would have surely bought for OS X in time.)
  • Lock Me Now (Free) – Says what it does, does what it says. At Microsoft, you learn to lock your desktop or face the wrath of peers (who send email to management telling them how good you are about locking your desktop!) For this reason, I got in the habit of hitting Windows Key+L as I walked away from my computer, beginning with Windows XP, when it was first added. OS X has no such feature, locking your computer generally requires you to use the mouse, or find some shortcutting tool or script to lock the desktop. With an easily configured shortcut, this app can lock your desktop (I use the logical Cmd+L).
  • Office 2011 (US$219) – I’ll start by saying I’m not a fan of Outlook 2011. I use the mail, contacts, and calendaring features built into the Mac, and appreciate that they play better with Time Machine, which I use to back up all of my Macs. But as to the rest of the applications, there is no alternative for an organization that has a workflow that revolves around Microsoft Office format documents – there really isn’t. While Office 2011 has some thoughtful features that even Office 2013 and Office 2010 are lacking, at 2 years old, it’s starting to feel a bit dated, as it fails to take advantage of native OS X functionality (or do so optimally, as I noted). I expect an update to Office for Mac in 2014, so we’ll see how far that goes to catch up to where OS X (well into 10.9 by then) takes us. I’m a bit concerned, but not surprised, that the new crop of business intelligence features (both those built into Excel 2013 today and those in preview for it) are Windows only, and there only on the enterprise licensed/Office 365 variants of the suite). I don’t expect that to change – but there again is another reason why Jump Desktop is worth so much to me.
  • Pages (US$19.99) – Yeah, go ahead, say it. I bought Pages for one reason (I own both the iOS and OS X versions of all iWork apps, FWIW, but primarily use Pages). That reason? The ability to easily write in Pages and export to ePub in a reliable way. I’ve also recently decided that the value I got out of Evernote (I rarely used the search functionality, but was paying for a note synchronization service with search) was surpassed by the better UI offered by Pages, which syncs between OS X and iOS devices. I can create groups of files that are visible to all devices through iCloud. It just works. If I had a PC I used regularly, or I needed search, it wouldn’t work, and Evernote would be the more logical choice. But that isn’t the case. A follower on Twitter asked why I don’t use OneNote instead – this is pretty easy to answer. OneNote is overpowered on Windows, underpowered on every Apple platform it is available on, and not available on the Mac. So it doesn’t fit my workflow at all.
  • Pomodoro (US$2.99) – Gimmicky user interface that really should be cleaned up and simplified, but does what it infers – it’s a Pomodoro timer that tracks work sessions and breaks. 
  • Scribe (US$12.99) – I love this tool. Way overpriced for what it does, but I couldn’t find a tool that did what I wanted any better than this. I have found a few nits that cause it to crash, but overall, the simplest, most pleasant outliner I’ve found. Great for brainstorming and organizing thoughts. You might be looking at this and my earlier mention of Visio and wondering why I don’t buy the OmniGroup’s tools for outlining and mind mapping. Because I think they’re tragically overpriced and overrated for what they provide.
  • SkyDrive (Free) – Use it to sync a queue of Office documents I’ve got in progress between my Macs, Windows 8 Samsung Slate, and my iOS devices. I can’t tell you how much I love having everything synchronized and being able to open docs in the Office Web Apps when I need to.
  • Streambox (US$4.99) – Exceptional Pandora client for OS X that runs in the main Menu of your Mac, and provides configurable shortcuts for interacting with the service.
  • VirtualBox (Free) – I was a fan of VMware for years. I used Workstation at Microsoft, Winternals, and CoreTrace extensively, and was a beta tester of VMware Fusion from the very beginning. But the product has gotten so expensive, and required almost annual upgrades that seemed to diminish in value to me over time. I no longer use virtualization as a key component of my workflow, but do need to fire up a virtual machine once in a while. So VirtualBox meets my needs perfectly. It’s not the prettiest virtualization solution for the Mac, but it is the cheapest, and it works fine for what I need.
  • Voila (US$29.99) – I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of this tool that does an amazing job with screenshots, screen captures, audio, and more. It’s already proven quite useful for a few personal and work projects, though. Need to spend more time with it, but really like what I’ve seen so far.

26
Jan 13

Office 365 and Office 2013 – A field guide

One of the most common questions I get asked – by our subscribers, by press, by my friends, by my family… by lots of people, is:

What’s the difference between Office 2013 and Office 365?

This is usually followed by the person meekly (unnecessarily) stating that they feel bad because they don’t get it.

Don’t. Don’t feel bad. Though Microsoft is getting better, the branding and packaging isn’t easy for people to digest (complex packaging and licensing is the cellulose of software?)

When I first started working with computers, the idea of Microsoft Office itself was confusing – as it packaged together applications that people were used to buying separately. In time, we got acclimated, though the many, often changing, flavors of the suite can still get befuddling at times

Before I break down the details, I’d like to offer an “elevator pitch” that describes exactly what Office 2013 is and what Office 365 is.

Office 2013 is the brand name of a series of product suites that you can pay for once and use forever.

Office 365 is the brand name of a series of products and/or services that you pay monthly for the rights to use. Quit the subscription, the software ceases functioning.

The former is a tangible software product. The latter is a volatile subscription service – Software as a Service (SaaS), even though some editions of Office 365 do include a special edition of the Office desktop suite.

The value you obtain from Office 365 (or any SaaS offering) directly depends on how you use the software and how often you upgrade. If you are a consumer or business that regularly updates to the next version of Office suite (or server applications in the case of a business), Office 365 may really make sense. For occasional updaters, or people who tend to buy and never upgrade again, perhaps not so much. You need to compare and contrast the offers with your typical usage, and see which makes the most sense for you. Before you ask, no – it is not easy to do a comparison of the two, especially when examining the editions for business. It becomes quite an apples/oranges issue with subtle nuances.

Prior to the unified Office 365 brand, Microsoft had used several different brands in order to attempt to drive subscription-based sales of Office clients and servers. I won’t go into that history here. The important thing to understand is that, where there are subscription services related to Office from Microsoft, they all exist under the umbrella brand of Office 365. Where there are perpetually licensed desktop applications, they exist under the Office <year> brand. In the case of the version expected imminently, that means Office 2013.

Take a quick look at this table, and it will hopefully help clarify the differences a bit more. Here, I have broken down the aspects of each offering, with a split denoting offerings for consumers versus for businesses. Note that as I was making this, I started adding asterisks all over the place for exceptions. But then I got rid of them. As a result, this is not an exhaustive table. It’s a quick draft, but I believe it to be accurate. You should check with Microsoft before signing up for, or buying, any software. If you spot any errors in the below, let me know in the comments and I’ll do my best to address them.

I’ll denote some of the exceptions below – but if you have further or deeper questions about licensing or packaging, we may have the answer over at Directions on Microsoft.

I have also specifically called out the 2013 variants of Office 365 – which is technically an oxymoron today. That will be changing soon. As of today, the non-preview editions of Office 365 are based around Office 2010 and 2010 server products (Exchange, Lync, and SharePoint)

Consumer Offerings

Business Offerings

Brand name

Office 2013

Office 365

Office 2013

Office 365

Office Suite

Office 2013

Office 365 Pro Plus

Office 2013

Office 365 Pro Plus

E-mail

Outlook.com

Outlook.com

Exchange 2013

Exchange Online

Communication

Skype

Skype

Lync 2013

Lync Online

Collaboration

SkyDrive

SkyDrive

SharePoint 2013

SharePoint Online

Synchronization

SkyDrive

SkyDrive

SkyDrive Pro

SharePoint Online

License type

Perpetual

Subscription

Perpetual

Subscription

Payment 

One-time

Monthly

One-time

Monthly

Licensee

Per-device

Per-household

Per-device

Per-user

Activation

Product Key

User ID

Product Key or License Server

User ID

Installations allowed

1

5 active

1

5 active

Standard install

Windows Installer

Click-to-Run

Windows Installer

Click-to-Run

Updates to next version of client & services

Not included

Yes

Not included

Yes

There are several key takeaways you should gather from this table:

  • Items in italics are not included. Some Office 365 subscriptions do not include some services listed. Man I sound like a lawyer right now.
  • The business editions of Office 365 generally include services based upon Microsoft enterprise software (Exchange Server 2013, Lync Server 2013, SharePoint Server 2013). When a business buys a license to Office 2013, they have solely a license to Office 2013. The use of Exchange, Lync, and SharePoint from Office 2013 require licensing compatible versions of that software separately.
  • The consumer edition of Office 365 includes free services (Skype and SkyDrive, as well as using Outlook.com for e-mail), but also include additional calling time (Skype) and storage capacity (SkyDrive) above those free editions. The consumer variant of Office 2013 doesn’t inherently include Outlook.com, Skype, or SkyDrive – but a user can readily sign up and consume those free services.
  • Office 365 products include no year-iterative branding. This makes describing them quite complex, as you saw before the table. As I write this today, Exchange Online is based upon Exchange 2010. Within a few weeks’ time, it will be based upon Exchange 2013 for newly arrived customers (and during this year for existing customers). But the brand name, Exchange Online will not be updated to reflect that.
  • If you, a consumer or business, buy Office 2013, it is a perpetual license. You can use that software on 1 computer (a change from many previous versions of Office), but have no rights to the next retail version of Office. If you continue to subscribe to Office 365, you have rights to the next version of the desktop suite as well as services as provided in the edition of 365 you subscribe to.
  • Business customers can obtain upgrade rights for Office by acquiring Software Assurance (SA), which is an annual fee businesses can pay to receive product version upgrades and other benefits. SA on the client doesn’t give you any rights to the server software.
  • Client Access Licenses (CALs) are required for each user or device you connect to Exchange 2013, Lync 2013, and SharePoint Server 2013 on premises (or with some Internet-based hosters). CALs, as well as the Exchange, Lync, and SharePoint software must be acquired separately, and generally require SA to be maintained in order to qualify for an upgrade to the next major version.
  • CALs are not required when you connect licensed users to Exchange Online, Lync Online, and SharePoint Online.

I hated to include the discussion of CALs, SA, and licensing server software on premises here. But it’s important that if your head is buzzing right now, you think about why. That is exactly the appeal that many businesses see in Office 365 or other SaaS productivity suites. They can enable businesses to offset a chunk of their IT spend normally assigned to buying hardware, software licenses, management services, staff, and often datacenter space, and instead pay a single per-user, per-month fee in order to obtain the software. Since the software is self-licensing, I believe that Office 365 is also a good way for businesses who fear software noncompliance to obviate that risk.

Where Office 2013 generally limits your ability to install the software on a single PC now, Office 365 lets you install the Office suite (again, note that it is not branded Office 2013, but is that version) on up to 5 computers, and activates using user IDs associated with the Office 365 subscription. For business subscriptions to Office 365, this is 5 installs per user.  For consumer subscriptions to Office 365, this is 5 installs per household, regardless of user(s). Since these can now be streamed down using a derivative of the App-V application virtualization technology, these installs are fast! They’re also volatile – meaning you can visit family for the holidays, install Office on  their computer if they don’t have it but you need to edit a document, and it will cease functioning on it’s own.

Note SkyDrive (the service) and SkyDrive (the client) are analogs to SharePoint 2013 (the service) and SkyDrive Pro (the client). For more information on the difference between those and a deeper discussion, check out my article below.

As I stated, the table is not exhaustive. There are subtle difference between all editions – for example some Office 365 subscriptions do not include the Office desktop suite, only the Office Web Apps (see article below). In particular, I elected to avoid talking about the many editions of Office 2013 and Office 365, as well as their respective prices. To do that requires a much more exhaustive article, which was not my goal here.

I hope you found this article helpful.

Some additional, related resources:

 


01
Nov 12

Windows RT, Sideloading, and Office. Oh my.

When you start working with Microsoft licensing – well, to be fair, almost anyone’s enterprise licensing, it can be mind-numbing. Truth be told, when I stepped up to pinch hit for my colleague, to cover the immense changes to SQL Server 2012 licensing, I developed a migraine with vertigo – something that hadn’t occurred for several years. While it could have been coincidence, we’ve taken liberty with it at work, and turned it into a running joke for our boot camps, that enterprise licensing can give you migraines.

In junior high school, we had a science experiment using perspective-flipping glasses (kind of like these). Now the lore goes, if you wear this kind of glasses day in and day out for 3-5 days, your mind will actually adjust, and flip the image right side up (take them off and it’ll take a while to reverse again). I could barely walk, and felt like I was going to hurl when I tried the glasses.

But licensing? I’ve been wearing those glasses for around six months, and you know what? My vision is stabilizing, and I can honestly almost walk straight. So while some people new to (Microsoft) licensing may look at certain things that Microsoft does and say, “WTH?”, I say, “It makes perfect sense – squint and turn your head upside down for a second”.

Two recent decisions from Microsoft fall in this same category:

  1. Office Home and Student in Windows RT not including commercial use rights.
  2. Windows RT requiring a… bit of work to enable sideloading of applications.

Now, these don’t necessarily have anything to do with each other, except they do. Follow along.

When you have a business model – whether it’s working or not, you like the line for revenue to go up (and operating expenses to ideally go down) – even if it’s just a little bit. Microsoft is fastidious about this. Keep earnings up, and don’t drop the income ball.

So why is H&S free for non-commercial users? Easy. Windows RT (and largely Windows 8) is all about consumers. Look no further than the marketing materials. Windows RT and Windows 8 are intended to bring Windows, touch, and power efficiency to a new world of devices (and ideally, stave off some/much of the appeal of the iPad by doing so). Some businesses may move to Windows 8 in short order, but most won’t. They’ll stick with Windows 7 until they see how, and where, they want to deploy Windows 8. In the meantime, the users within these businesses will buy iPads, Android tablets (somebody does, right?) and Windows RT tablets for home use, and wind up bringing them into the office. All three platforms bring legal landmines for Microsoft and other enterprise software. But this isn’t the place for me to dive into that. We offer a whole 2 day course that covers many of those issues. 🙂 So Windows RT includes Office as, really, a loss leader. It’s a prize at the bottom of the Windows RT box. I don’t mean to denegrate either product by saying that – but the goal is very clearly a better together strategy, even though Windows RT includes only a few of the Office apps, and limited  functionality when compared to Office on x86/x64.

By offering H&S as free on Windows RT, Microsoft can make that platform more appealing to consumers. By not including commercial use rights, Microsoft can ensure that (back to two paragraphs ago) it doesn’t harm their enterprise sales/Office 365 subscriptions/Software Assurance revenue as it does so. All of those are non-small numbers for Office.

Mary Jo Foley walked through how businesses can obtain commercial use rights, and in a nutshell, you buy Office 2013 for a user’s Windows 7/8 PC, they get commercial use rights for Windows RT (turning RT into a companion device by definition). Now, that means that for the business, Office on Windows RT isn’t free, but it also means it isn’t full price. In many ways, businesses get to take advantage of the multiple-device licenses that Office has had for some time (install on your primary and a secondary device), it’s just that the license is applied to Windows RT, rather than the actual bits as users would have historically done in the past. So that’s Office. What’s the deal with sideloading?

Matt’s lengthy walkthrough demonstrates the technical hurdles of sideloading apps (putting apps on Windows 8 or Windows RT without going through the Windows Store), but there’s a licensing angle here too – and in many ways it’s the same one I just demonstrated, if you put your glasses on and turn your head over.

Why is sideloading so complicated? Because there are three competing forces at play (in no particular order):

  1. Microsoft’s desire to keep the WinRT platform and Windows Store secure – sideloading gates what can/cannot run on these devices.
  2. Microsoft’s desire to keep the Windows Store as the preferred means of obtaining apps written for WinRT – retaining the 30% (or 20%) of revenue from app sales.
  3. Microsoft’s desire to (hum along if you know the tune) maintain Windows enterprise licensing sales – Enterprise includes sideloading. It’s a paid option on other editions.

By requiring a key for other versions, and requiring payment for that key, and requiring a minimum number of those licenses, Microsoft discourages “casual bypassing” or piracy of those keys as a mechanism to try and avoid using the Windows Store by tinkerers or hackers, or commercial distribution of apps that wouldn’t meet store guidelines, which is something sideloaded apps can do (see 1 and 2).

By not requiring any special keys or costs in Windows 8 Enterprise, Microsoft rewards those customers who have invested in SA (or Intune) and incentivizes customers on the fence about Windows client SA (or Intune) to take one of those avenues (see 3).

Like Active Directory membership was in the beginning (guilty!), sideloading is important, but I think may have been overblown in terms of either importance or complexity. The more I look at it, the more I realize that there are very few apps that will really require sideloading. Most commercial apps should be distributed on the Windows Store, either for sale (sharing revenue with Microsoft) or for free with a subscription (which, unlike Apple, for now at least, does not require revenue sharing with Microsoft). Instead, only enterprises building in-house Windows 8 and Windows RT line of business (LOB) apps will really need sideloading – at least as Microsoft would like it to exist.

As we start progressing to more of these enterprises building LOB apps, the need for sideloading may become more important. But I don’t anticipate most enterprises going into their own Windows 8 development lifecycle in short order (<6-12 months). They’re still trying to get their hands around the platform as a whole. That, combined with the lack of guidance on building LOB apps that align with the design principles Microsoft has been evangelizing for the last year, are taking, and will continue to take, some time for them to digest. Not that some companies won’t build their own WinRT LOB apps – some already are, and those may likely require sideloading. For customers with SA, which are likely to align reasonably well with those who have the time and energy to build apps for Windows 8 and Windows RT, the licensing “bumps” put in front of sideloading are likely a non-event. For consumers or hobbyists? Sideloading is a non-starter. Exactly as it was likely intended.