And another thing 63

by Jon Honeyball

Jon Honeyball doesn’t appreciate Microsoft’s efforts to make him use Microsoft’s cloud.

HardCopy Issue: 63 | Published: May 20, 2014

Has Microsoft found its mojo? That’s the big question spinning around the industry, in the wake of the departure by Bad Boy Ballmer. It’s hard to find anyone who has a bad thing to say about the newcomer, and it is not helped by a number of product releases and changes which have arrived just after Steve went. It would be overly simplistic to suggest that these were all on hold waiting for Steve to walk out for the final time. Things simply don’t move that quickly, especially in Microsoft land, where things go slowly, and often seemingly backwards.

On the one hand, I am pleased with the changes – more aggressive pricing on the Azure family, finally releasing Office for iPad, making noises about Office for Android, and so forth. All of these are things you would want to see in a company that, finally, has a clear vision of where it wants to go, and an understanding of what compromises it needs to make to get there. Clearly it cannot force Windows, and Windows apps, down everyone’s throats moving forward. And these changes do follow that script, and point the way forward to a rosy future.

microsoft office ipad

For myself, I veer between hope and despair. Yes, it’s good that Microsoft is finally bringing out Office apps to other platforms. But have you looked at OneNote for Mac? It is truly disgusting when compared to its equally free Windows version. It’s not that it is lacking in a few features: it has been hung drawn and quartered. And then gutted. And put through a mincer. It is laughably bad when you sync any sort of advanced OneNote data from Windows into this thing. So much is simply not there, leaving barely more than the skeleton of a file reader with a few basic editing functions thrown in. Yes, it is free – and that’s all it deserves to be.

Office for iPad looks considerably more interesting at first glance. Somewhat more actually works here, and I could be convinced that a fair amount of care and attention was put into this. I accept it is free if you don’t have the appropriate subscription, and in that mode it is read only. But what’s this? It syncs only to OneDrive? Just hold on a cotton-pickin’ second…


An emotive issue

Storage is an emotive subject. It’s where we put everything. I accept that sometimes the storage metaphor gets a little blurred when we are talking about Exchange Server or SQL Server. But we accept that we need these extra layers for the additional capabilities that they bring.

File systems are where we keep our crown jewels. It’s what we archive, backup, tend carefully and fret over. It is the final bastion of our company and our personal data.

The arrival of cloud-based archive solutions, coupled with the increased speed of the Internet, has been a godsend. Just four short years ago, I lived in a small village just west of Sudbury in Suffolk. My internet connectivity was an unreliable ADSL connection which topped out at about 2Mbit. So bad was it that I had three of them, and tried to juggle them to get the best from the dreadful trio.

I moved house to a village in Cambridgeshire four years ago. My ADSL speed leapt to about 18Mbit per second, and it was a revelation. And last week, Fibre To The Cabinet (FTTC) appeared, taking my speed up to around 70Mbit a second. Now I have more speed than I can actually consume – even a 4K Netflix stream consumes less than 20Mbit a second. Moving a few hundred gigabytes of data into a cloud service, in my case Dropbox, is something that is now a possibility, not something which was a wild dream.

So we take our file systems seriously. Applications which sync data to and from our file systems are serious things too, whether they be corporate archive solutions that drive multi-headed tape libraries, or a more simplistic replicate and archive to the cloud.

We don’t expect our choice of sync tool to be driven by any factors other than a choice we make based on our own priorities. I happen to like Dropbox, despite its recent appointment of an American political apparatchik. I like that it works on all of my devices, irrespective of platform, and that upgrades come across all platforms at the same time too.

I have no particular beef with OneDrive. Well, that’s not quite true. Firstly, I hate the way that there is OneDrive itself, and an entirely different thing called OneDrive for Business. Ah, this is the one you must use if you have Proper Grown Up Versions of Office 365, such as my E3 accounts. OneDrive won’t talk to E3 account storage, because OneDrive is designed for Small People. That’s OK, I can go download OneDrive for Business. Except there is no OneDrive for Business for the Mac platform yet. Windows, yes, but not Mac. Microsoft still has no clue about cross platform synchronicity. So I can use OneDrive For Business storage from my iPad for my Office for iPad device, but I can’t sync files on that device to the file system on my desktop because Microsoft hasn’t bothered to write that bit just yet.

I understand why Microsoft wants to force all Office users into using OneDrive, or OneDrive for Business. It makes things much easier for them, especially when it comes to supporting such technical marvels as Office Web Applications. It’s so much easier for Microsoft if the document that this server-side web app is attempting to open is on another Microsoft server. Google does the same thing with its Google Docs – try finding an easy way to open a file on OneDrive from Google Docs, and you will soon be burying your head in your hands and gently whimpering.

And that’s where I hit an impasse. I don’t want to have my choice of storage forced upon me by my choice of tools. I don’t want to have to use Google Drive simply to use Google Docs. Think of the utter mess you will get into if you try to use Office 365 web apps from inside a ChromeOS laptop. And it really isn’t any better if I want to use the web version of Pages from Apple to reference a file that isn’t in their storage space.

The truth is that in old fashioned, insecure operating systems, you can have tools which can read and write to almost anywhere in the file system. And I understand why it must be that on iOS, an app cannot write outside of its own space, and certainly cannot gain access to the storage belonging to another app. That’s why we need tools which can act as gatekeepers to storage, and then hand it over in a controlled, verified way.

I don’t mind companies taking a grip over our choice of apps – I understand that some people like Office, others like Google Docs, or Apple’s apps. But we shouldn’t be moving to a world where our choice of tools determines our choice of storage. That way lies a real mess where it is impossible to know where things are, or where you last left something.

And are we happy at the thought that, as it appears to be the case, that OneDrive For Business is actually rewriting the data within files when it syncs them, without changing the file saved date and time stamp? I accept that OneDrive for Business is actually an active repository based on Sharepoint technology, rather than a ‘simple’ file sync system. But why am I being forced to accept these solutions simply because the vendor wants it that way?

There are many tough questions to be asked of companies as we move into the cloud. Some argue that these are early days, and that it will take time for things to settle down. That OneNote for Mac is a version 1 product, neatly ignoring the fact that Microsoft has been shipping Mac software for nearly 30 years.

We also need to tackle the question of “what is Excel?” What functionality level should we expect on different platforms? It is simply not going to be enough to have Windows as the flagship version moving forward. After all, by any reasonable viewpoint, an iPad today is easily as powerful as a Windows desktop running XP from a decade ago, if not more so. Features cannot be divided out to favour specific platforms. The companies that gain our trust moving forward are the ones who deliver the best experience on all platforms, at the same time. Anything less will be judged inadequate.