Tag Archives: office

Automatic transcription for journalists: still not viable despite Microsoft push for “Modern journalism”

I am just back from Microsoft’s developer-focused Build event, where some special sessions were laid on for press, on the subject of “Modern journalism.”

Led by Microsoft’s Ben Rudolph, Modern Journalism is described on his public LinkedIn profile as “a new program committed to helping the news industry fight fake news, tell stories that resonate with modern audiences, and succeed financially.”

The sessions appealed to me for one particular reason, which was the promise of automatic transcription. We were given a leaflet which says:

Tired of digging through hours of recordings to find that one quote? When you record a Teams interview, it’s saved to Microsoft Stream. Here you’ll get game-changing AI features: searchable transcript to jump to exact moments a key word or phrase was used.

Before the transcription thing though, we were taken on a tour of OneNote and Word with AI. The latest AI Editor in Word will tighten up your prose and find gaffes like non-inclusive language. There is lack of clarity over the privacy implications (these features work by uploading everything you type to Microsoft) but perhaps it is useful. I make plenty of typographical errors and would welcome help, though I remain sceptical about the extent to which AI can deliver this.

On to transcription though. Just hit record during a voice or video meeting in Teams, Microsoft’s Office 365 collaboration tool, and it gets automatically transcribed.

Unfortunately I do not use Teams for interviews, though it is possible to use it even for in-person interviews by having a meeting of one and recording it. I am wary though. I normally use an external recording device. Many years ago my device failed one day (I forget whether it was battery or something else) and I used my Tablet PC to record an interview with the game inventor Peter Molyneux. My expectations were not particularly high – I just wanted something good enough that I could transcribe it later. Unfortunately the recording was so poor that you can only make out about one word in ten. This, combined with my written notes and memory, was just about sufficient to write up my piece; but it was not an experiment I felt inclined to repeat – though recording quality has improved since that early disaster.

Still, automatic transcription would be an amazing time-saver. Further, I respect what can be achieved. Nuance Dragon Dictate can give superb results after a bit of training. What about Teams?

Today I put the idea to the test. I took a recorded interview from Build, made with a dedicated device, and uploaded it to Microsoft Stream. I tried uploading an audio file directly, but it would not accept it. I then created a “video” by importing my audio into a one-slide PowerPoint presentation and exporting it as a video. The quality is fine, easily intelligible. Stream chewed on it for maybe 30 minutes, and then my transcript was ready. The subject was the Azure Kubernetes Service. Here is a snippet of what Stream came up with:

 image 

There is an unnecessary annoyance here, which is that you cannot easily select and copy the entire transcript. Notice that it is in short snippets. The best way to get the whole thing is to click the three dots under the video, choose Update Video Details, and then download the caption file.

image

Now you get something like this:

image

The format is, shall we say, sub-optimal for journalists, though it would not take too long to write a script that would extract the text.

The bigger problem is the actual transcription. The section I have chosen is wrong in an interesting way. Here is part of what was said:

With the KEDA announcement today, what you’re seeing is us working with the ecosystem, in this case Red Hat, to solve some tricky problems around how to autoscale containers.

and here is the transcription:

with
the Kate Announcement. Today, which are seeing is also
actually working with the ecosystem in this case. We had
to sell some tricky problems around how to autoscale containers

Many of the words are correct, but the meaning is scrambled. Red Hat has been transcribed as “we had” losing a critical part of the content.

It is not my intention to rubbish this technology. Automatic transcription is very challenging, especially with specialist content. It is not unreasonable for the system to transcribe KEDA as “Kate”: it is a brand new acronym (Kubernetes-based event-driven autoscaling).

Still, the question I ask myself is whether fixing up the auto transcription will save me any time versus the old-fashioned approach. I use a Word macro that plays back the interview with hot keys to pause and backtrack, editing as I go.

The answer is no. It will take me as long or longer to make sense of the automatic transcription, by comparing it to the original, than to type it from scratch.

This might not always be the case. Perhaps with a more AI-friendly subject the transcription will be good enough to save some time. It could also help to find where in the recording a particular quote appears. So it is not altogether useless.

Transcription is difficult, but there are some simpler matters which Microsoft could improve. Enabling upload of audio files rather than video, and providing a continuous transcript that can easily be copied, for example.

Having a team within Microsoft rooting for journalists strikes me as a good thing in that an internal team may have more influence over the products.

It may be more a matter of some bright spark thinking, hey if we get more journalists using Office 365 that will help to promote the product. A strategy which will be more successful if effort goes into making product fit better with the way journalists actually work.

image

Microsoft Office and privacy: happy to send what you type to the cloud for analysis?

I attempted to open a document from on-premises SharePoint recently and was greeted with an error asking me to check my privacy settings.

image

“The service required to use this feature is turned off” I was informed. Hmm, what service is that then? The solution turned out to be in the new Office privacy settings, just as the dialog suggested.

If you disable what Microsoft calls “Connected experiences” it appears to block access to SharePoint. Probably not what the user intended.

image 

This setting is not great for clarity. Privacy-conscious users like myself may disable it because it represents your agreement to “experiences that analyze your content”. Since this means uploading your content to the cloud for analysis it sounds as if it might weaken both privacy and security. If you look at all the options though, it may be possible to agree to access online file storage without agreeing to content analysis:

image

It looks as if by unchecking “Let Office analyze your content” you might be able to stop Office uploading your stuff.

Is there anything to worry about? We need to know more about what happens to our data. There is a Learn More link that takes us here. This lists lots of features but does not tell us what we want to know. Maybe here? This tell us that:

Three types of information make up required service data.

  • Customer content, which is content you create using Office, such as text typed in a Word document, and is used in conjunction with the connected experience.

It is still not clear though what happens to our data, other than that it is “sent to Microsoft”. Even the massive Microsoft Privacy Statement is no more illuminating on this point. In fact, it is arguably rather alarming since it contains this statement:

Microsoft uses the data we collect to provide you with rich, interactive experiences. In particular, we use data to:

  • Provide our products, which includes updating, securing, and troubleshooting, as well as providing support. It also includes sharing data, when it is required to provide the service or carry out the transactions you request.
  • Improve and develop our products.
  • Personalize our products and make recommendations.
  • Advertise and market to you, which includes sending promotional communications, targeting advertising, and presenting you with relevant offers.

We also use the data to operate our business, which includes analyzing our performance, meeting our legal obligations, developing our workforce, and doing research.

In carrying out these purposes, we combine data we collect from different contexts (for example, from your use of two Microsoft products) or obtain from third parties to give you a more seamless, consistent, and personalized experience, to make informed business decisions, and for other legitimate purposes.

This suggests that Microsoft will profile me and send me advertising based on the data it collects. What I need to know is not only the fact that this happens, but also the mechanism, in order to make an informed judgement about whether it is sensible to enable these options. Of course it is also possible that the Office content analysis service does not do this. I am guessing.

What can go wrong? These risks are hard to quantify. If you are typing something confidential, it makes sense not to share it more than is necessary, as further sharing can only increase the risk. There are some interesting scenarios too, such as what happens if Microsoft receives a legal demand to have sight of the content of your documents. Microsoft may not want to give access to your content, but in some circumstances it might not have the choice. Then again, I doubt it retains content sent for the purpose of personalisation, beyond whatever factors the service determines are significant. However this is not stated here.

Is this any different from storing documents on a cloud service such as SharePoint / OneDrive online? It is a bit different since in the Office case you are permitting Microsoft to analyze as well as to store your content.

All of this is up for debate. I accept that the risks are probably small as well as the fact that the wider world has little or no interest in most of the content I type but do not choose to publish.

Nevertheless, there are a few things which seem to me reasonable requests.

– A clear statement concerning what happens to my content if I choose to let it be analyzed by Microsoft’s cloud service, to enable better informed decisions about whether or not to enable this feature. Dumping the user into an all-encompassing privacy policy is not good enough.

– Improved settings (and possibly some fixed bugs) so that privacy-conscious users do not inadvertently disable access to on-premises SharePoint, as in my example, or other unexpected outcomes.

– A simple way to exclude a specific document from the service, conceptually similar to “in-private” mode in a web browser though with more chance of actually protecting your privacy (in-private mode is not really very private).

In general, I do not think the solution to a customer’s reasonable concerns about privacy and security of personal information is to obscure how this data is handled.

Office 365 vs Office 2019 vs LibreOffice: some thoughts

What has rescued Microsoft in the cloud era? It seems to me that Office 365, rather than Azure, is its most strategic product. Users do not like too much change; and back when Office 365 was introduced in 2011 it offered an easy way for businesses small and large to retire their Exchange servers while retaining Outlook with all its functionality (Outlook works with other mail servers but with limited features). You also got SharePoint online, cloud storage, and in-browser versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint.

There was always another aspect to Office 365 though, which is that it allowed you to buy the Office desktop applications as a subscription. Unless you are the kind of person (or business) that happily runs old software, the subscription is better value than a permanent license, especially for small businesses. Currently Office 365 Business Premium gets you Outlook, Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote and Access, as well as hosted Exchange and SharePoint etc, for £9.40 per month. Office Home and Business (which does not include Access) is £250, or about the same as two years subscription, and can only be installed on one PC or Mac, versus 5 PCs or Macs, 5 tablets and 5 mobile devices for the subscription product.

The subscription product is called Office 365, and the latest version of the desktop suite is called Office 2019. Microsoft would much rather you bought the subscription, not only because it delivers recurring revenue, but also because Office 365 is a great upselling opportunity. Once you are on Office 365 and Azure Active Directory, products like Dynamics 365 are a natural fit.

Microsoft’s enthusiasm for the subscription product has resulted in a recent “Twins Challenge” campaign which features videos of identical twins trying the same task in both Office 365 and Office 2019. They are silly videos and do a poor job of selling the Office 365 features. For example, in one video the task is to “fill out a spreadsheet with data about all 50 states” (US centric or what?).

image

In the video, the Office 365 guy is done in seconds thanks to Excel Data Types, a new feature which uses online data from the Bing search engine to provide intelligent features like entering population, capital city and so on. It seems though that the twins were pre-provided with a spreadsheet that had a list of the 50 states, as Excel cannot enter these automatically. And when I tried my own exercise with a few capital cities I found it frustrating because not much data was available, and the data is inconsistent so that one city has fields not available for another city. So my results were not that great.

image

I’m also troubled to see data like population chucked into a spreadsheet with no information on its source or scope. Is that Greater London (technically a county) or something less than that? What year? Whose survey? These things matter.

Perhaps even more to the point, this is not what most users do with Office. It varies of course; but a lot of people type documents and do simple spreadsheets that do not stress the product. They care about things like will it print correctly, and if I email it, will the recipient be able to read it OK. Office to be fair is good in both respects, but Microsoft often struggles to bring new features to Office that matter to a large proportion of users (though every feature matters to someone).

It is interesting to browse through the new features in Office 2019, listed here. LaTeX equation support, nice. And a third time zone in Outlook, handy if you discover it in the convoluted Outlook UI (and yes, discoverability is a problem):

image

It is worth noting though that for document editing the free LibreOffice is excellent and good enough for a lot of purposes. You do not get Outlook though, and Calc is no Excel. If you mostly do word processing though, do look at LibreOffice, it is better in some respects than Word (style support, for example).

I use Office constantly and like all users, I do have a list of things I would like fixed or improved, that for the most part seem to be completely different from what the Office team focuses on. There are even longstanding bugs – see the recent comment. Ever had an email in Outlook, clicked Reply, and found that the the formatting and background of the original message affects your reply text as well and the only way to fix it is to remove all formatting? Or been frustrated that Outlook makes it so hard to make interline comments in a reply with sensible formatting? Or been driven crazy by Word paragraph numbering and indentation when you want to have more than one paragraph within the same numbered point? Little things; but they could be better.

Then again there is Autosave (note quite different from autorecover), which is both recent and a fantastic feature. Unfortunately it only works with OneDrive. The value of this feature was brought home to me by an anecdote: a teenager who lost all the work in their Word document because they had not previously encountered a Save button (Google docs save automatically). This becomes what you expect.

So yes, Office does improve, and for what you get it is great value. Will Office 2019 users miss lots of core features? No. In most cases though, the Office 365 subscription is much better value.

Office 2016 now “built out of one codebase for all platforms” says Microsoft engineer

Microsoft’s Erik Schweibert, principal engineer in the Apple Productivity Experiences group, says that with the release of Office 2016 version 16 for the Mac, the productivity suite is now “for the first time in 20 years, built out of one codebase for all platforms (Windows, Mac, iOS, Android).”

image

This is not the first time I have heard of substantial code-sharing between the various versions of Office, but this claim goes beyond that. Of course there is still platform-specific code and it is worth reading the Twitter thread for a more background.

“The shared code is all C++. Each platform has native code interfacing with the OS (ie, Objective C for Mac and iOS, Java for Android, C/C++ for Windows, etc),” says Schweibert.

Does this mean that there is exact feature parity? No. The mobile versions remain cut-down, and some features remain platform-specific. “We’re not trying to provide uniform “lowest common denominator” support across all platforms so there will always be disparate feature gaps,” he says.

Even the online version of Office shares much of the code. “Web components share some code (backend server is shared C++ compiled code, front end is HTML and script)”, Schweibert says.

There is more news on what is new in Office for the Mac here. The big feature is real-time collaborative editing in Word, Excel and PowerPoint. 

What about 20 years ago? Schweibert is thinking about Word 6 for the Mac in 1994, a terrible release about which you can read more here:

“Shipping a crappy product is a lot like beating your head against the wall.  It really does feel good when you ship a great product as a follow-up, and it really does motivate you to spend some time trying to figure out how not to ship a crappy product again.

Mac Word 6.0 was a crappy product.  And, we spent some time trying to figure out how not to do that again.  In the process, we learned a few things, not the least of which was the meaning of the term “Mac-like.”

Word 6.0 for the Mac was poor for all sorts of reasons, as explained by Rick Schaut in the post above. The performance was poor, and the look and feel was too much like the Windows version – because it was the Windows code, recompiled. “Dialog boxes had "OK" and "Cancel" exactly reversed compared to the way they were in virtually every other Mac application — because that was the convention under Windows,” says one comment.

This is not the case today. Thanks to its lack of a mobile platform, Microsoft has a strong incentive to create excellent cross-platform applications.

There is more about the new cross-platform engineering effort in the video below.

Microsoft announces Office 2019, Exchange Server 2019 and SharePoint Server 2019

This was not one of Microsoft’s most surprising announcements, but even so, confirmation that some of the company’s most significant products are to receive updates a year or so from now. The announcement was made at the SharePoint and OneDrive session at the Ignite event here in Orlando.

image

If you have an hour or so spare, you can view the session here:

Note that fewer people now use these products; that is, increasing numbers of users are on Exchange Online and Office 365. These are the same but not the same, and get updates earlier than the on-premises equivalents. Still, we may well see a makeover for Office 365 at around the time Office 2019 is released.

Either way, we should not expect a radical departure from the current Office. Rather, we can expect improvements in the area of collaboration and deeper integration with cloud services.

You will also need to think about the following dialog, if you have not already (the exact wording will vary according to the context):

image

The deal is that you send your document content to Microsoft in order to get AI-driven features.

Microsoft financials July-Sept 2015: decline of Windows hits home, cloud rises

Microsoft has reported its financials for its first quarter. Making sense of these is harder than usual because the company has changed its segment breakdown (and the names are misleading). The new segments are as follows:

Productivity and Business Processes: Office, both commercial and consumer, including retail sales, volume licenses, Office 365, Exchange, SharePoint, Skype for Business, Skype consumer, OneDrive, Outlook.com. Microsoft Dynamics including Dynamics CRM, Dynamics ERP, both online and on-premises sales.

Intelligent Cloud: Server products not mentioned above, including Windows server, SQL Server, Visual Studio, System Center, as well as Microsoft Azure.

More Personal Computing: What a daft name, more than what? Still, this includes Windows in all its non-server forms, Windows Phone both hardware and licenses, Surface hardware, gaming including Xbox, Xbox Live, and search advertising.

Here are the latest figures:

Quarter ending  Sept 30th 2015 vs quarter ending Sept 30th 2014, $millions

Segment Revenue Change Operating income Change
Productivity and Business Processes 6306 -184 3105 -233
Intelligent Cloud 5892 +417 2400 +294
More Personal Computing 9381 -1855 1562 -57
Corporate and Other -1200 -1200 -1274 -55

A few points to note.

Death of Windows Phone: Microsoft acquired Nokia’s Devices and Services business in April 2014. In fiscal year 2015, according to Microsoft’s 10-Q report, the company “eliminated approximately 19,000 positions in fiscal year 2015, including approximately 13,000 professional and factory positions related to the Nokia Devices and Services business.” This was rationalisation following the acquisition; the real blow came a year later. “In June 2015, management approved a plan to restructure our phone business to better focus and align resources (the “Phone Hardware Restructuring Plan”), under which we will eliminate up to 7,800 positions in fiscal year 2016.”

Windows Phone is not quite dead, but Microsoft seems to have given up on the idea of competing with Android and iOS in the mainstream. Year on year, phone revenue is down 58%, Lumia units down from 9.3 million to 5.8 million, non-Lumia phones down from 42.9 million to 25.5 million. This is what happens when you tell the world you are giving up.

Windows: Revenue down 7% “driven by declines in the business and consumer PC markets”.

Surface: Revenue down by 26% because Surface Pro 3 launched in June 2014; this should pick up following the launch of new Surface hardware recently.

Cloud: Microsoft’s “Commercial cloud” comprises Office 365 Commercial, Azure and Dynamics CRM online. All are booming. Azure revenue and usage more than doubled year on year, with 121% revenue growth. In addition, Office 365 consumer subscribers increased by 3 million in the quarter, to 18.2 million, an increase of nearly 20%.

Server products: Revenue is up 6% thanks to “higher revenue from premium versions of Microsoft SQL Server, Windows Server, and System Center”

Xbox: Steady, with Live revenue up 17%, Minecraft adding 17% to game revenue, and hardware revenue down 17% because of Xbox 360 declining (and by implication, not being replaced by Xbox One, a worrying trend).

Further observations

Is Microsoft now facing permanent long (but slow) decline in Windows as a client or standalone operating system? It certainly looks that way. The last hope is that Windows 10 in laptop, tablet and hybrid forms wins some users over from Mac computers and iPad/Android tablets. Despite some progress, Microsoft still has work to do before Windows delivers the smooth appliance-like experience of competing tablets, so I do not regard this as likely. The app ecosystem is also a problem. Tablets need Universal Windows Platform (UWP) apps but developers can still target more Windows users with desktop apps, discouraging UWP development.

Microsoft is also busy removing the advantage of Windows by stepping up its first-party Mac, iOS and Android application development, though this makes sense as a way of promoting Office 365.

That leads on to the next question. If Windows continues to decline, can Microsoft still grow with Office 365 and Azure? Of course it is possible, and on these figures that strategy looks to be going reasonably well. That said, you can expect both Google to continue integrating Android and of course Chromebook with its rival cloud services. Apple today does not compete so much in the cloud, but may do in future. If the future Microsoft has to relying on third-party operating systems for user interaction it will be a long-term weakness.

Inside Microsoft: Ex design lead gives perspective on Metro, Office, iOS and Android battles

Here is a must-read for Microsoft watchers. Two days ago a former design lead on the Office on Windows Phone team turned up on Reddit and said I designed the new version of Office for Windows Phone. Ask me anything.

image

The overall theme is that Microsoft did not get the design of Windows Phone quite right and is changing it; that Windows 8 was even worse; and that Windows 10 just might begin to pull it all together at last, though the company is also consciously moving away from a Windows-centric view. The Windows, Windows Phone and Office teams are now working together for the first time, we are told:

Windows didn’t believe in working well with others, certainly not that dumb upstart Windows Phone team.

Office believed it was the greatest software on earth, and didn’t get along with Windows.

Windows Phone was pretty proud of itself despite its middling marketshare. Too proud.

So now when these three teams got together to do something for the good of Microsoft, and the good of customers, there was a ton of ego in the way. Windows believed in the Windows way. Windows Phone believed their way. Office was like "fuck all y’all, we’re Office."

The new situation at the company is way better. People actually do care about working together in a way I hadn’t historically seen in my short time there. (or read about in many MS history books)

So I wouldn’t say Windows Phone caused the shift. You know what did? Sinofsky leaving, Windows 8 being a failure, Windows Phone failing to gain significant traction, and then Ballmer leaving.

They basically had to start working together. And it’s cool to see.

Here are a few more things that caught my eye. There are long discussions about the “hamburger” menu, three lines appearing at top left of many new apps where it is hard to reach if you are using the phone with one hand:

Don’t get me wrong, this is clearly a tradeoff. Frequently used things have to be reachable, even one-handed. But hamburgers are not frequently used, and one-handed use is not ironclad. Combine those two factors together and you see why the industry has settled on this standard. It wasn’t random.

From a developer perspective, the key insight here is that hamburgers are not frequently used. In other words, do not design your app so that users will have to reach constantly for the hamburger menu. Reserve it for stuff that is only needed occasionally.

Why is Microsoft appearing to prioritise iOS and Android over Windows, for example with Office?

When Ballmer saw the iPad version of Office, he reportedly said something like "you’re killing me." It was so fucking good. Way better than anything on any other platform. It leveraged a bunch of iOS stuff in a really good way, but it was still "unmistakably Office," as they say.

Ballmer knew it was good. And he knew the company’s other efforts were years and years out. And he iced it. Because his mentality, and what I’d call dogma, was that Windows had to be first. At all costs.

Good riddance. It was an outdated philosophy.

… The way Microsoft wins the long term war is to remind people where they’re strong. And no, it’s not through withholding Office on iOS. Not anymore. The ship sailed on Ballmer’s watch

I would love to know the date when Ballmer “iced” Office for iPad.

What was wrong with the design of Window Phone?

When Steve Jobs came back to Apple, he said he was going to save the company by reminding people of Apple’s sex appeal. He described colored plastics and technology as fashion. And the board thought "uh-oh, this guy is going to drive us into a ditch."

But from "Bondi Blue iMacs" and "OS X has an interface you just want to lick" you’ll notice their design went more and more subdued over the last 15-20 years. It’s because you need to shock people at first, then you get back to being more practical.

Metro had to shock people. It had to look like its own thing. And it did that really well. Pivots, panos, big text, black everywhere, it looked like art. And more than that it looked different. Something to witness. Steve Jobs even gave kudos to the Windows Phone design team! He said something like "I mean, it’s still clearly a v1, but it’s really beautiful." And he was right.

So what would I change?

Well. The interaction models, honestly. The pivots and the panoramas are a nightmare in day to day use. They’re as distinct as a Flower Power iMac, but it painted the interaction models into a corner.

In another post, there is a discussion of the difficulty with the back button. “when back is good, it’s good. But when it’s bad (from a user experience standpoint) it’s really bad.”

Here is another insight:

The stark look of Windows Phone seemed to turn off more people than fell in love with it. I know here in this forum we’re all fans but in the mainstream marketing was only one problem. Apps was another. But the biggest one was lack of relevance. People didn’t understand why they should care. A lot of people said it looked like a nice phone, but it wasn’t for them.

Despite the criticisms, the ex-Microsoft designer (who now works for Twitter) is optimistic, saying “I do have a lot of hope for Universal apps. It’s not a magic bullet, but given enough time for the system to mature, and the business support, and new initiatives, I see rosy days ahead.”

Microsoft may be well positioned for “the next big shift”:

Look beyond just Windows. Just make amazing software. Get back some relevance that was lost. 2) Of course keep competitive with hardware, and keep improving WP. 3) Then, a few years out, when the market experiences another big shift (it’s not a matter of if but when) I suspect MS’s strength as a multi-OS developer + cloud leader will help Windows regain a ton of relevance

Fascinating stuff, though note the disclaimer:

I have no idea what I’m talking about. I’m one designer and I don’t work at MS anymore.

Microsoft financials show robust performance, Office in transition to subscription, both cloud and server growth

Microsoft released its financial results yesterday, for the quarter ending September 30th 2014. It was a good quarter in most respects, though consumer Windows and Windows Phone licensing are weak.

Good news outweighs bad though, particularly the company’s success in transitioning Office customers from perpetual licences to subscription, even in the consumer market. It also seems to be performing some magic in the server segment, growing both cloud and on-premises revenue, a trick CEO Satya Nadella attributes to the “unique hybrid and private cloud capabilities that are built into our Servers”.

Here is the segment breakdown, if you can make sense of Microsoft’s segments:

Quarter ending June 30th 2014 vs quarter ending June 30th 2013, $millions

Segment Revenue Change Gross margin Change
Devices and Consumer Licensing 4093 -391 3818 -102
Computing and Gaming Hardware 2453 +1044 479 +274
Phone Hardware 2609 N/A 478 N/A
Devices and Consumer Other 1809 +255 312 -12
Commercial Licensing 9873 +262 9100 +295
Commercial Other 2407 +805 805 +531

A few notable stats.

Devices and Consumer licensing is weak, in line with the PC market, a decline in Office consumer review (these figures exclude Office 365), and a 46% decline in Windows Phone revenue – the non-Nokia licensees.

Surface Pro 3 is a hit and brought in revenue of $908 million, “twice the [sales] rate of Surface Pro 2”, according to CFO Amy Hood. The gross margin on Surface is “positive this quarter”, said Microsoft, though it is undoubtedly negative over the lifetime of Surface.

2.4 million Xbox consoles were sold (including 360 as well as Xbox One), and overall revenue is up 58%; a decent performance considering that Sony’s PlayStation 4 is generally outselling Xbox One.

Windows Phone: Nadella reported “modest growth driven by sales in Europe, where we gained share with lower priced devices”. 9.3 million Lumias were sold overall. Non-Lumia devices are expected to decline; Microsoft is not interested in this business, though it said sales were “in line with the market for feature phones.” No mention of the mis-conceived Nokia X.

Devices and Consumer Other is where Office 365 consumer revenue lives. There are now over 7 million consumer subscribers and it grew 25% over the previous quarter (most comparisons are year on year). Microsoft’s ability to shift customers to a cloud-based subscription model is key, especially as more of them run Office on an iPad or Android tablet.

Windows Server, System Center and SQL Server grew revenue again; revenue from server products overall is up 13%

Cloud – Office 365, Azure and Dynamics – delivered revenue up by 128%. Nadella added in the webcast that a “major Azure service or feature” is added every three days.

From a financial perspective, Microsoft has an advantage over cloud rivals Amazon and Google, in that its customers are more likely to purchase licenses for products like SQL Server along with the commodity-priced cloud infrastructure.

A key comment from Nadella: “Our premium services on Azure create new monetization opportunities in media, data, machine learning, advanced analytics and enterprise mobility.”

Aside: Microsoft created its online slide deck using a beta PowerPoint add-in called Office Mix, which I had not seen before. It creates a video from a powerpoint deck, with the ability to insert audio, video and interactive content like quizzes, as well as screen capture. Then you can upload it to the cloud. It is mainly aimed at education, but might also be useful for, say, journalists doing product review.

Coding Office for cross platform: Microsoft explains its approach

At last month’s @Scale conference in San Francisco, developers from a number of well-known companies (Google, Facebook, Twitter, Dropbox and others) spoke about the challenge of scaling applications and services to millions or even billions of users.

Among the speakers was Igor Zaika, Distinguished Engineer in the Microsoft Office team, and the video (embedded below) is illuminating not only as an example of how to code across multiple platforms, but also as an insight into where the company is taking Office.

Zaika gives a brief résumé of the history of Office, mentioning how the team has experienced the highs and lows of cross-platform code. Word 6.0 (1993) was great on Windows but a disaster on the Mac. The team built an entire Win32 emulation layer for the Mac, enabling a high level of code reuse, but resulting in a poor user experience and lots of platform-specific bugs and performance issues in the Mac version.

Next came Word 98 for the Mac, which took the opposite approach, forking the code to create an optimized Mac-specific version. It was well received and great for user experience, but “it was only fun for the first couple of years,” says Zaika. As the Windows version evolved, merging code from the main trunk into the Mac version became increasingly difficult.

Today Microsoft is committed not only to Mac and Windows versions of Word, but to all the major platforms, by which Zaika means Apple (including iOS), Android, Windows (desktop and WinRT) and Web. “If we don’t, we are not going to have a sustainable business,” he says.

WinRT is short for the Windows Runtime, also known as Metro, or as the Store App platform. Zaika says that the relationship between WinRT and Win32 (desktop Windows) is similar to that between Apple’s OS X and iOS.

Time for a brief digression of my own: some observers have said that Microsoft should have made a dedicated version of Windows for touch/mobile rather than attempting to do both at once in Windows 8. The truth is that it did, but Microsoft chose to bundle both into one operating system in Windows 8. Windows RT (the ARM version used in Surface RT) is a close parallel to the iPad, since only WinRT apps can be installed. What seems to be happening now is that Windows Phone and Windows RT will be merged, so that the equivalence of WinRT and iOS will be closer and more obvious.

Microsoft’s goal with Office is to achieve high content fidelity and consistency of functionality across all platforms, but to use native UX/UI frameworks so that each version integrates properly with the operating system on which it runs. The company also wants to achieve a faster shipping cycle; the traditional two-year cycle is not fast enough, says Zaika.

What then is Microsoft’s technical strategy for cross-platform Office now? The starting point, Zaika explains, is a shared core of C++ code. Office has always been written in C/C++, and “that has worked out well for us,” he says, since it is the only language that compiles to native code across all the platforms (web is an exception, and one that Zaika did not talk much about, except to note the importance of “shared service code,” cloud-based code that is used for features that do not need to work offline).

In order for the shared non-visual code to work correctly cross-platform, Microsoft has a number of platform abstraction layers (PALs). No #ifdefs (to handle platform differences) are allowed in the shared code itself. However, rather than a monolithic Win32 emulation as used in Word 6.0 for the Mac, Microsoft now has numerous mini-PALs. There is also a willingness to compromise, abandoning shared code if it is necessary for a good platform experience.

image

How do you ensure cross-platform fidelity in places where you cannot share code? The alternative is unit testing, says Zaika, and there is a strong reliance on this in Office development.

There is also an abstraction layer for document rendering. Office requires composition, animation and touch APIs on each platform. Microsoft uses DirectX on Win32, a thin layer over Apple’s CoreAnimation API on Mac and iOS, a thin layer over XAML on WinRT, and a thinnish layer over Java on Android.

The outcome of Microsoft’s architectural work is a high level of code sharing, despite the commitment to native frameworks for UX. Zaika showed a slide revealing code sharing of over 95% for PowerPoint on WinRT and Android.

image

What can Microsoft-watchers infer from this about the future of Office? While there are no revelations here, it does seem that work on Office for WinRT and for Android is well advanced.

Office for WinRT has implications for future Windows tablets. If a version of Office with at least the functionality of Office for iPad runs on WinRT, there is no longer any need to include the Windows desktop on future Windows tablets – by which I mean not laptop replacements like Surface 3.0, but smaller tablets. That will make such devices less perplexing for users than Surface RT, though with equivalent versions of Office on both Android and iOS tablets, the unique advantages of Windows tablets will be harder to identify.

Thanks to WalkingCat on Twitter for alerting me to this video.

Office, Azure Active Directory, and mobile: the three pillars of Microsoft’s cloud

When Microsoft first announced Azure, at its PDC Conference in October 2008, I was not impressed. Here is the press release, if you fancy a look back. It was not so much the technology – though with hindsight Microsoft’s failure to offer plain old Windows VMs from the beginning was a mistake – but rather, the body language that was all wrong. After all, here is a company whose fortunes are built on supplying server and client operating systems and applications to businesses, and on a partner ecosystem that has grown up around reselling, installing and servicing those systems. How can it transition to a cloud model without cannibalising its own business and disrupting its own partners? In 2008 the message I heard was, “we’re doing this cloud thing because it is expected of us, but really we’d like you to keep buying Windows Server, SQL Server, Office and all the rest.”

Take-up was small, as far as anyone could tell, and the scene was set for Microsoft to be outflanked by Amazon for IaaS (Infrastructure as a Service) and Google for cloud-based email and documents.

Those companies are formidable competitors; but Microsoft’s cloud story is working out better than I had expected. Although Azure sputtered in its early years, the company had some success with BPOS (Business Productivity Online Suite), which launched in the UK in 2009: hosted Exchange and SharePoint, mainly aimed at education and small businesses. In 2011 BPOS was reshaped into Office 365 and marketed strongly. Anyone who has managed Exchange, SharePoint and Active Directory knows that it can be arduous, thanks to complex installation, occasional tricky problems, and the challenge of backup and recovery in the event of disaster. Office 365 makes huge sense for many organisations, and is growing fast – “the fastest growing business in the history of the company,” according to Corporate VP of Windows Server and System Center Brad Anderson, speaking to the press last week.

image
Brad Anderson, Corporate VP for Windows Server and System Center

The attraction of Office 365 is that you can move users from on-premise Exchange almost seamlessly.

Then Azure changed. I date this from May 2011, when Scott Guthrie and others moved to work on Azure, which a year later offered a new user-friendly portal written in HTML5, and Windows Azure VMs and web sites. From that moment in 2012, Azure because a real competitor in cloud computing.

That is only two years ago, but Microsoft’s progress has been remarkable. Azure has been adding features almost as fast as Amazon Web Services (AWS – and I have not attempted to count), and although it is still behind AWS in some areas, it compensates with its excellent portal and integration with Visual Studio.

Now at TechEd Microsoft has made another wave of Azure announcements. A quick summary of the main ones:

  • Azure Files: SMB shared storage for Azure VMs, also accessible over the internet via a REST API. Think of it as a shared folder for VMs, simplifying things like having multiple web servers serve the same web site. Based on Azure storage.
  • Azure Site Recovery: based on Hyper-V Recovery Manager, which orchestrates replication and recovery across two datacenters, the new service adds the rather important feature of letting you use Azure itself as your space datacenter. This means anyone could use it, from small businesses to the big guys, provided all your servers are virtualised.
  • Azure RemoteApp: Remote Desktop Services in Azure, though currently only for individual apps, not full desktops
  • Antimalware for Azure: System Center Endpoint Protection for Azure VMs. There is also a partnership with Trend Micro for protecting Azure services.
  • Public IPs for individual VMs. If you are happy to handle the firewall aspect, you can now give a VM a public IP and access it without setting up an Azure endpoint.
  • IP Reservations: you get up to five IP addresses per subscription to assign to Azure services, ensuring that they stay the same even if you delete a service and add a new one back.
  • MSDN subscribers can use Windows 7 or 8.1 on Azure VMs, for development and test, the first time Microsoft has allows client Windows on Azure
  • General availability of ExpressRoute: fast network link to Azure without going over the internet
  • General availability of multiple site-to-site virtual network links, and inter-region virtual networks.
  • General availability of compute-intensive VMs, up to 16 cores and 112GB RAM
  • General availability of import/export service (ship data on physical storage to and from Azure)

There is more though. Those above are just a bunch of features, not a strategy. The strategy is based around Azure Active Directory (which everyone gets if they use Office 365, or you can set up separately), Office, and mobile.

Here is how this works. Azure Active Directory (AD), typically synchronised with on-premise active directory, is Microsoft’s cloud identity system which you can use for single sign-on and single point of control for Office 365, applications running on Azure, and cloud apps run by third-parties. Over 1200 software as a service apps support Azure AD, including Dropbox, Salesforce, Box, and even Google apps.

Azure AD is one of three components in what Microsoft calls its Enterprise Mobility Suite. The other two are InTune, cloud-based PC and device management, and Azure Rights Management.

InTune first. This is stepping up a gear in mobile device management, by getting the ability to deploy managed apps. A managed app is an app that is wrapped so it supports policy, such as the requirement that data can only be saved to a specified secure location. Think of it as a mobile container. iOS and Android will be supported first, with Office managed apps including Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Mobile OWA (kind-of Outlook for iOS and Android, based on Outlook Web Access but delivered as a native app with offline support).

Businesses will be able to wrap their own applications as managed apps.

Microsoft is also adding Cordova support to Visual Studio. Cordova is the open source part of PhoneGap, for wrapping HTML and JavaScript apps as native. In other words, Visual Studio is now a cross-platform development tool, even without Xamarin. I have not seen details yet, but I imagine the WinJS library, also used for Windows 8 apps, will be part of the support; yes it works on other platforms.

Next, Azure Rights Management (RMS). This is a service which lets you encrypt and control usage of documents based on Azure AD users. It is not foolproof, but since the protection travels in the document itself, it offers some protection against data leaking out of the company when it finds its way onto mobile devices or pen drives and the like. Only a few applications are fully “enlightened”, which means they have native support form Azure RMS, but apparently 70% of more of business documents are Office or PDF, which means if you cover them, then you have good coverage already. Office for iOS is not yet “enlightened”, but apparently will be soon.

This gives Microsoft a three-point plan for mobile device management, covering the device, the applications, and the files themselves.

Which devices? iOS, Android and Windows; and my sense is that Microsoft is now serious about full support for iOS and Android (it has little choice).

Another announcement at TechEd today concerns SharePoint in Office 365 and OneDrive for Business (the client), which is getting file encryption.

What does this add up to? For businesses happy to continue in the Microsoft world, it seems to me a compelling offering for cloud and mobile.