Tag Archives: microsoft office

The future of Google Apps: social features, high performance spreadsheets, working offline

Yesterday I spoke to Google’s Global Product Management Director for Google Enterprise (whew!) Matthew Glotzbach, at a press briefing for Google Apps which included the announcement of Google Docs Discussions, as covered here.


One of the issues discussed in the briefing was Cloud Connect, which I reported on here. Cloud Connect automatically copies and synchronises Microsoft Office documents with Google’s cloud storage. There are some performance and usability issues, but the biggest problem is that you cannot edit the documents in the browser; or rather, if you do, Google makes a second copy leading to versioning issues.

Google says this is a file format issue. The online Google Docs applications cannot edit documents in Microsoft Office formats – “the document models are completely different” says Glotzbach – though it can import and export those formats. Could Google develop the ability to edit Office documents online? “It is a technical challenge, something we haven’t built yet,” he added.

It is an interesting point. Microsoft’s Office Web Apps have flaws, but they do let you maintain the same document whether edited in the browser or in the Office desktop applications. It is an example of friction if you try to live partly in Microsoft Office, and partly in Google’s cloud. It may be better to stick with one or the other.

What about offline capability, something I hear a lot as counting against Google Docs. Google had a solution for this based on its Gears add-on, but then withdrew it.

We are actively working on offline. It is extremely important. Gears was a precursor. A lot of the ideas embedded in Gears have become part of HTML5.

says Glotzbach. I asked whether this will extend to the Chrome OS netbook operating system, and he said that it will:

Chrome, as the most modern browser based on HTML 5, has the capabilities built into its core. Chrome OS as a derivative of that has those offline capabilities baked into it, so it is a matter of having applications take advantage of that.

We also talked about the new discussions feature. I observed that it seems to be just one part of a bigger story. What about discussions spanning multiple documents? What about discussions without documents? Is there any way of doing that?

“Yes, email,” he said, chuckling. Clearly Google has taken to heart that email remains the de facto mechanism for most corporate collaboration. “We’ve also got Google groups. Obviously the manifestation of a group for many users is email, that’s how they interact with it, but there is also a destination site or page for that group.”

Might Google develop its own equivalent to Salesforce.com Chatter, for Twitter-like enterprise messaging?

The idea of eventually being able to pull in other streams, the idea of social media inside the enterprise Is a powerful idea. I think Chatter is a good example of that, and others such as Yammer. I think those ideas will likely find their way into businesses. It is not clear to me that social will be a destination within an Enterprise. Rather I see it as, features will emerge in various products that leverage those social capabilities. Discussions is influenced heavily by a lot of those social media ideas, and so you can see that evolving into more integrated social capabilities across the app suite.

What about Google spreadsheets, which seem great for simple tasks and collaboration, but suffer performance and scalability issues when used with large data collections that work fine in Excel?

There’s always work to do. We have today some limitations in terms of spreadsheet size. Those are things we are actively working on. With browser technologies I actually think we have an advantage over desktop applications. If I told you I had a spreadsheet that had 5 million columns and a billion rows, there’s no desktop spreadsheet in the world that can handle that kind of volume, but because we have in essence supercomputers on the back end processing that, what you display is just a window of that large data. So we’re using clever technologies like pre-fetching the rows and columns that are just off the edge of the page, similar to some of the technologies we use with Google Maps.

But it’s an example where we have some artificial limitations that we are working to remove. Imagine doing really sophisticated non-linear calculations in a spreadsheet. We’ve got a supercomputer on the back end that can do that for you in seconds.

Hands on with Google Cloud Connect: Microsoft docs in Google’s cloud

Google has released Cloud Connect for Microsoft Office, and I gave it a quick try.

Cloud Connect is a plug-in for Microsoft Office which installs a toolbar into Word, Excel and PowerPoint. There is no way that I can see to hide the toolbar. Every time you work in Office you will see Google’s logo.


From the toolbar, you sign into a Google Docs account, for which you must sign up if you have not done so already. The sign-in involves passing a rather bewildering dialog granting permission to Cloud Connect on your computer to access Google Docs and contacts on your behalf.

The Cloud Connect settings synchronise your document with Google Docs every time you save, or whenever the document is updated on Google’s servers.


Once a document is synched, the Cloud Connect toolbar shows an URL to the document:


You get simultaneous editing if more than one person is working on the document. Google Docs will also keep a revision history.

You can easily share a document by clicking the Share button in the toolbar:


I found it interesting that Google stores your document in its original Microsoft format, not as a Google document. If you go to Google Docs in a web browser, they are marked by Microsoft Office icons.


If you click on them in Google Docs online, they appear in a read-only viewer.

That said, in the case of Word and Excel documents the online viewer has an option to Edit Online.


This is where it gets messy. If you choose Edit online, Google docs converts your Office document to a Google doc, which possible loss of formatting. Worse still, if you make changes these are not synched back to Microsoft Office because you are actually working on a second copy:


Note that I now have two versions of the same Excel document, distinguished only by the icon and that the title has been forced to lower case. One is a Google spreadsheet, the other an Excel spreadsheet.

Google says this is like SharePoint, but better.

Google Cloud Connect vastly improves Microsoft Office 2003, 2007 and 2010, so companies can start using web-enabled teamwork tools without upgrading Microsoft Office or implementing SharePoint 2010.

Google makes the point that Office 2010 lacks web-based collaboration unless you have SharePoint, and says its $50 per user Google Apps for Business is more affordable. I am sure that is less than typical SharePoint rollouts – though SharePoint has other features.  The best current comparison would be with Business Productivity Online Standard Suite at $10 per user per month, which is more than Google but still relatively inexpensive. BPOS is out of date though and an even better comparison will be Office 365 including SharePoint 2010 online, though this is still in beta.

Like Google, Microsoft has a free offering, SkyDrive, which also lets you upload and share Office documents.

Microsoft’s Office Web Apps have an advantage over Cloud Connect, in that they allow in-browser editing without conversion to a different format, though the editing features on offer are very limited compared with what you can do in the desktop applications.

Despite a few reservations, I am impressed with Cloud Connect. Google has made setup and usage simple. Your document is always available offline, which is a significant benefit over SharePoint – and one day I intend to post on how poorly Microsoft’s SharePoint Workspace 2010 performs both in features and usability. Sharing a document with others is as easy as with other types of Google documents.

The main issue is the disconnect between Office documents and Google documents, and I can see this causing confusion.

Update: I uninstalled Cloud Connect after a couple of days. Two reasons. First, the chunky toolbar is annoying and takes valuable working space. Second, I had performance issues when working with documents opened from SharePoint. I guess the two do not get on well together.

Microsoft has its own unsurprisingly negative take on the product here. Apparently Cloud Connect uses the Track Changes feature under the covers, hence breaking this feature for any other purpose. If so, I would like to have been warned about this. On the other hand, I still like the usability of Cloud Connect. Microsoft is right to observe that auto-sync could result in inadvertent document sharing; but the simple and prominent sharing dialog is easier to use than SharePoint permissions.

Apple’s Mac App Store – and the forgotten Windows Marketplace

Apple launched the Mac App Store yesterday and I had a look this morning. It is only available to users of Mac OS X Snow Leopard, where it comes with the latest system update.


It is interesting that Apple has not used iTunes for the App Store, but has developed new client software. Maybe it is coming round to opinion that iTunes has become bloated; it is only for historic reasons that a music player has become an all-purpose app installer.

The store itself worked well for me. I picked a free app, TextWrangler, and signed in with my Apple ID. The UI showed Installing, then Installed, and I was done.


The TextWrangler icon appeared in the Dock so I could start the app easily.

What counts is what I did not have to do – reboot, select from setup options, or deal with perplexing error messages.

Users will also like the common-sense licensing, which lets you download and install a purchased app on any Mac you use, controlled by your App Store log-in. I am not sure what happens if you install your app on your friend’s Mac, then sign out of the App Store. There is some link between the app and your Apple ID, because if you copy the application to another Mac it will ask for your sign-in details when you first run it, but I am not clear whether this is checked on every run to deter piracy.

Most important, there is an attractive range of apps at good prices. In the UK, Angry Birds is £2.99, Pinball HD £1.79, and Apple Pages or Keynote £11.99 each. That is less than typical Apple Store shrink-wrap prices. The prices for Pages and Keynote makes the price Microsoft charges for Office look impossibly expensive. Good for customers; but worrying for independent software vendors who want to make a living.

Developers pay $99.00 per year to join the Mac Developer Program and then 30% commission to Apple on every sale. Of course, like the iPhone App Store, apps are subject to Apple’s approval.

Lest you think it is clever of Apple to invent an app store for the desktop, it is worth noting that the concept is an old one. Linux has delivered free software like this for years, and some distributions have also featured paid app installers integrated into the OS.

So has Microsoft, which has run various varieties of Windows Marketplace over the years, for mobile and desktop applications. Windows Vista shipped with an app store for both Microsoft and third-party apps built-in. It was on the Start menu:


as well as in Control Panel:


On November 1st 2008 Microsoft shut down Windows Marketplace and “transitioned” it to a referral site. There was some angst at the time about the closing of the digital locker, which proved insecure against the threat of corporate mind-changing. It still runs the online Microsoft Store, but this is for Microsoft-only products. For example, you can download Microsoft Songsmith for £25.00:


Why did Windows Marketplace fail? Well, the user experience was poor, it was insufficiently prominent in the Vista user interface, setup could be troublesome. Major Windows app vendors figured out that they would be better off drawing potential customers to their own web sites, where they have full control. As is often the case, Microsoft was conflicted over whether it wanted to drive customers to the online store, or to partner retailers, or to app vendor sites; and the OEMs would have their say as well, when customising Windows for their own PCs.

Another factor is that Windows apps are often not well isolated. Silverlight actually solves this problem – out-of-browser apps are well isolated and secure – but Microsoft does not even ship Silverlight by default with Windows.

The indications are that Microsoft will have another go in Windows 8. Documents leaked last year show an app store. From my post at the time:

There’s a pattern here. Microsoft gets bright idea – Tablet, Windows Marketplace, Passport. Does half-baked implementation which flops. Apple or Google works out how to do it right. Microsoft copies them.

UK business applications stagger towards the cloud

I spent today evaluating several competing vertical applications for a small business working in a particular niche – I am not going to identify it or the vendors involved. The market is formed by a number of companies which have been serving the market for some years, and which have Windows applications born in the desktop era and still being maintained and enhanced, plus some newer companies which have entered the market more recently with web-based solutions.

Several things interested me. The desktop applications seemed to suffer from all the bad habits of application development before design for usability became fashionable, and I saw forms with a myriad of fields and controls, each one no doubt satisfying a feature request, but forming a confusing and ugly user interface when put together. The web applications were not great, but seemed more usable, because a web UI encourages a simpler page-based approach.

Next, I noticed that the companies providing desktop applications talking to on-premise servers had found a significant number of their customers asking for a web-hosted option, but were having difficulty fulfilling the request. Typically they adopted a remote application approach using something like Citrix XenApp, so that they could continue to use their desktop software. In this type of solution, a desktop application runs on a remote machine but its user interface is displayed on the user’s desktop. It is a clever solution, but it is really a desktop/web hybrid and tends to be less convenient than a true web application. I felt that they needed to discard their desktop legacy and start again, but of course that is easier said than done when you have an existing application widely deployed, and limited development resources.

Even so, my instinct is to be wary of vendors who call desktop applications served by XenApp or the like cloud computing.

Finally, there was friction around integrating with Outlook and Exchange. Most users have Microsoft Office and use Outlook and Exchange for email, calendar and tasks. The vendors with web application found their users demanding integration, but it is not easy to do this seamlessly and we saw a number of imperfect attempts at synchronisation. The vendors with desktop applications had an easier task, except when these were repurposed as remote applications on a hosted service. In that scenario the vendors insisted that customers also use their hosted Exchange, so they could make it work. In other words, customers have to build almost their entire IT infrastructure around the requirements of this single application.

It was all rather unsatisfactory. The move towards the cloud is real, but in this particular small industry sector it seems slow and painful.

Cloud users get Microsoft Office Web Apps update first

Users of Office Web Apps have just been given some minor but welcome updates, described here.

They include printing in Word when in edit mode,new chart tools in Excel, and again in Excel the handy autofill tool, which lets you drag the bottom left corner of a selection to extend it automatically. In the example below, the blank cells fill with the remaining months of the year.


Office Web Apps also work on SharePoint 2010 deployed internally. However, the version of Office Web Apps for SharePoint has not been updated, so these users (who have to pay for Office licenses) now have an inferior version to that available for free users on SkyDrive.

Automatic and incremental bug-fixes and updates are one of the inherent advantages of cloud computing.

Office 2010 install hassles

A user contacted me about a problem installing Microsoft Office 2010, just released. He had gone to John Lewis, a department store with a good reputation for quality, and purchased a Windows 7 laptop that had Office 2010 pre-installed, along with a Key Card for Office 2010 Home and Business. The idea is that you run Office, activate it with your product key from the Key Card, and you’re done.

Unfortunately the Office 2010 setup failed, after he had entered the product key but before it opened for the first time. The failure was in phase 3, whatever that is, gave a message about missing prerequisites, and advised to rerun setup, and if that failed to contact support. Repeating the operation gave exactly the same error.

This is bad, but the next question is who to call? He went online and got to Microsoft’s UK support page. He clicked the option to contact a support professional. If you run through the options you get to this “support options” dialog:


This dialog wants a product ID in order to “determine if no-charge support is available”. However, the product ID (which is not the same as the product key) is accessed by running the product, and in this instance the product will not run. The diagnostics wizard could not locate it either. So we have option 3:

Don’t use a product identification number (charges may apply)

Indeed, this leads to a demand for £46.00 before proceeding. Which hardly seems reasonable for a new setup on a new laptop.

Someone has thought of this problem, because earlier in the support pages this information appears:


It has a link for “Can you not get your Product ID”? The suggestion is to "Call our contact centre” which leads to this page:


Whew! So you click something vaguely promising such as “More Customer Service Information” and end up with a link back to the product support page you have just left. Or you dial the number which appears: 0844 800 2400.

This is where the story gets a little confused. The user told me that when he first called, around 7.00am, he got two options. Help with activation, or chargeable support. Neither appealed. However, when he called again, around 10.00am, he got more options including a route to the free support he needed. Once he got through, the incident was dealt with speedily and effectively; he was soon up and running. It sounds odd to me, since the number does not indicate any specific hours of operation, but there it is.

Still, I think the support web site could be improved. Users get particularly frustrated when confronted with setup issues; configuring a new laptop is hard enough even when everything works. For example, if someone thought of the issue with not being able to get the product ID, why not also link directly to the correct number, instead of a page with 16 options, some of which lead you round in circles?

Office and Windows Live SkyDrive – don’t miss unlucky Clause 13

How secure is Windows Live SkyDrive?

One of the most notable features of Office 2010 is that you can save directly to the Web, without any fuss. In most of the applications this option is accessed via the File menu and the Save & Send submenu. Incidentally, this submenu used to be called Share, but someone decided that was confusing and that Save & Send is less confusing. I think they are both confusing; I would put the Save options under the Save submenu but there it is; it is not too hard to find.


Microsoft does not like to be too consistent; so OneNote 2010 has separate Share and Send menus. The Share menu has a Share On Web option.


What Save to Web actually does is to put your document on Windows Live SkyDrive. I am a fan of SkyDrive; it is capacious (25GB), performs OK, reliable in my experience, and free.

The way the sharing works is based on Microsoft Live IDs and Live Messenger. You can only set permissions for a folder, not for an individual document, and you have options ranging from private to public. Usually the most useful way to set permissions is not through the slider but by adding specific people. Provided they have a Live ID matching the email address they give, they will then get access.


You can also specify whether the access is view only, or “add, edit details, and delete files” – a bit all-or-nothing, but still useful.


SkyDrive hooks in with Office Web Apps so you can create and edit documents directly in the browser – provided it is a supported browser and that the Web App doesn’t detect you are on a mobile device, in which case it is view-only. The view-only thing is a shame when it comes to a large screen device like an iPad, though the full version nearly works.


Overall it’s a major change for Office, even though similar functionality has been around for a while from the likes of Zoho and Google Docs. This is Office, after all, the most popular Office suite; and plenty of users will be trying out these features because they are there, and thinking that they could be pretty useful.

There is one awkward question though. Is Windows Live SkyDrive secure? It turns out that this is not an easy question to answer. Of course it cannot be 100% secure; but even assessing its security is not easy. If you try to find out you are likely to end up here – the Microsoft Service Agreement. Which says, in bold type so you don’t miss it:


We provide the service ‘as-is,’ ‘with all faults’ and ‘as available.’ We do not guarantee the accuracy or timeliness of information available from the service. We and our affiliates, resellers, distributors and vendors (collectively, the ‘ Microsoft parties’) give no express warranties, guarantees or conditions. You may have additional consumer rights under your local laws that this contract cannot change. We exclude any implied warranties including those of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, workmanlike effort and non-infringement.


You can recover from the Microsoft parties only direct damages up to an amount equal to your service fee for one month. You cannot recover any other damages, including consequential, lost profits, special, indirect, incidental or punitive damages.

I guess Clause 13 could be called the unlucky clause. If you are unlucky, don’t come crying to Microsoft.

There are two big questions here. One is how secure your documents are against unauthorised access. The other is how reliable the service is. Might you log on one day and find you cannot get access, or that all your documents have disappeared?

Three observations. First, despite clause 13, Microsoft has a lot to lose if its service fails. It has to succeed in cloud computing to have a profitable future, and a major data-losing catastrophe is costly, in that it drives customers away. The Danger episode was bad enough; though even then Microsoft eventually recovered the data it said initially had been lost.

Second, it may well be that the biggest security risk is from careless users, not from Microsoft. If your password (or that of a friend to whom you have given read or write access) is a favourite football team it won’t be surprising if somebody guesses.

Third, I have no idea how to quantify the risk of Microsoft losing data or denying access to my documents. That suggests it would be foolish to keep data there without backing it up elsewhere from time to time. The same applies to other cloud services. I guess if you pay for a service, and know how it is backed up to a different location, and have tested the effectiveness of that backup, and know that there are archives as well as backups – in other words, you can go back in time – I guess that then you might reasonably feel more confident. Otherwise, well, see clause 13 above.

Linux users will need a Microsoft Office license to use Office Web Apps

I spoke to Jeff Teper, Microsoft’s Corporate VP of the Office Business Platform, who runs the SharePoint engineering group. I asked him to clarify something has puzzled me: the licensing for Office Web Apps. From a technical point of view, Office Web Apps is an add-on for SharePoint; it does not require the paid-for SharePoint Server (success to Microsoft Office SharePoint Server), but neither is it free – you may only install it if you have a volume license for Microsoft Office.

That much I understood; but what are the implications for businesses who have a volume license that does not cover everyone in the organisation? For example, I might purchase 100 volume licenses for the people who need to run Microsoft Office, but have another 50 who have OEM Office, or Open Office, or who don’t need to run Office at all. Some may be running Linux, on which Microsoft Office is not supported at all – though some have it working using WINE. Another scenario is where you have a SharePoint installation published to partners over the Internet. Is it OK to let them use Office Web Apps?

“The simple answer is that you do need a volume license for each user”, said Teper, though he added, “Our volume licensing is tailored to each customer, we will do specific things for each customer’s need. But the blanket statement is that its available for volume license customers per user.”

So would a Linux user need a license for Microsoft Office in order to access Office Web Apps, even though they couldn’t run the desktop version?

“Yes, that’s our default licensing.”

I also asked about how the licensing works. Is it enforced technically, so that the server refuses connections if they exceed the licensed number, or is it on a trust basis? Teper answered somewhat mysteriously:

“We provide volume license customers the tools to track that.”

My guess is that it is essentially done on trust (though perhaps subject to audit) but I couldn’t get Teper to confirm that.

Still, it seems to me that this licensing requirement will inhibit organisations from taking full advantage of what the Office Web Apps can do. The advantage of a web-based solution is that anyone can access it, both within an organisation, and beyond it if you choose to publish it on the Internet. I doubt there will be much enthusiasm for buying Office licenses for Linux users, though maybe the kind of organisation that has a full Microsoft-platform deployment does not have internal Linux users anyway.

In mitigation, it’s worth mentioning that Microsoft is also making Office Web Apps available for free, through Live Skydrive and Office Live Workspace. If you use those services, anyone with a Live ID can be given access to your Office Web App documents.

Office 2010 offers choice of Open Document or Microsoft XML formats

I was surprised to see the following dialog after an in-place upgrade of Office 2007 to Office 2010:


Admittedly there is a strong steer towards the Microsoft formats which, we are told, are “designed to support all the features of Microsoft Office”.

On the other hand, this was an in-place upgrade and default save options were already present in Office 2007. Given that most in-place upgrades preserve settings – which is part of the point of an in-place upgrade – you would expect it just to keep the old defaults.

I’m guessing therefore that this is aimed at appeasing/convincing regulators and governments that Microsoft Office plays nice with standards.

That said, there is little reason to choose the ODF format unless it is required. It will cause problems with formatting and content, and is especially risky with Excel spreadsheets.

If you want to use ODF, save money and get more complete support by using OpenOffice.

Update: Neowin has some background here.