Monthly Archives: June 2011

Technology

Useful Links: June 2011

A list of items I’ve come across recently that I found potentially useful, interesting, or just plain funny:

Technology

“5 reasons to avoid Office 365?” Are you really sure about that?

It’s not often these days that I feel the need to defend Microsoft. After all, they’re big boys and girls who can fight their own battles. And yes, I’m an MVP but if you ask Microsoft’s UK evangelists (past and present), I’m sure they’ll tell you I’m pretty critical of Microsoft at times too…

So I was amazed yesterday to read some of the negative press about Office 365. Sure, some Microsoft-bashing is to be expected. So is some comparison with Google Apps. But when I read Richi Jennings5 reasons to avoid Microsoft Office 365 , I was less than complementary in my reaction.  I did leave a lengthy comment on the blog post, but ComputerWorld thinks I’m a spammer… and it was more than 140 characters so Richi’s Twitter invitation for constructive comments for his next post (5 reasons to embrace Office 365) was not really going to work either.

Picking up Richi’s arguments against Office 365:

  • On mobility. I’ll admit, there are some issues. Microsoft doesn’t seem to understand touch user interfaces for tablets (at least not until they have their own, next year perhaps?) so the web apps are not ideal on many devices. Even so, I’m using Exchange Online with my iOS devices and the ActiveSync support means it’s a breeze. We don’t have blanket WiFi/3G coverage yet (at least not here in the UK) so it is important to think about offline working and I’m not sure Microsoft has that sorted, but neither does anyone else that I’ve found. Ideally, Microsoft would create some iOS Office apps (OneNote for iPhone is not enough – it’s not a universal app and so is next to useless on an iPad) together with an Android solution too…
  • I don’t see what the issue is with MacOS support (except that the option to purchase a subscription to Office Professional Plus is Windows-only). I’m using Office 365 with Office for Mac and SharePoint integration is not as good as on Windows but there seems nothing wrong with document format fidelity or Outlook connecting to Exchange Online. I’ve used some of the web apps on my Mac too, including Lync.
  • Is £4 a month expensive for a reliable mail and collaboration service? I’m not sure that the P1 option for professionals and small businesses (which that price relates to) is “horribly crippled” either. If the “crippling” is about a lack of support, I left Google Apps because of… a lack of support (after they “upgraded” my Google Apps account but wanted me to change the email address on my then-orphaned “personal” account – and you think Microsoft makes it complex?)
  • Forest Federation is a solution that provides clear separation between cloud and on-premise resources. It may be complicated, but so are enterprise requirements for cloud services.  If that’s too complex, then you don’t probably don’t need Active Directory integration: try a lower-level Office 365 subscription…
  • As for  reliability, yes, there have been BPOS Outages. Ditto for Azure. But didn’t Google have some high-profile GMail outages recently? And Amazon? Office 365 (which was a beta until yesterday) has been pretty solid.  Let’s hope that the new infrastructure is an improvement on BPOS, but don’t write it off yet – it’s only just launched! Microsoft is advertising a financially-backed 99.9% uptime agreement

The point of Office 365 is not to move 100% to the cloud but to “bring office to the cloud” and use it in conjunction with existing IT investments (i.e. local PCs/Macs and Office).  If I’m a small business with few IT resources, it lets me concentrate on my business, rather than running mail servers, etc. Actually, that’s the sweet spot. Some enterprises may also move to Office 365 (at least in part) but, for many, they will continue to run their mail and collaboration infrastructure in house.

Richi says that, if he were a Microsoft Shareholder, he’d be “bitterly disappointed with [yesterday’s] news”. The market seems to think otherwise… whilst Microsoft stock is generally not performing well, it’s at least rising in the last couple of days…

Microsoft stock price compared with leading IS indices over the last 12 months

To be fair, Richi wasn’t alone, but he was the one with the headline grabbing post… (would it be rude to call it linkbait?)

Over on Cloud Pro, Dennis Howlett wasn’t too impressed either. He quoted Mary Jo Foley’s Office 365 summary post:

Office 365 is not Office in the cloud, even though it does include Office Web Apps, the Webified versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote. Office 365 is a Microsoft-hosted suite of Exchange Online, SharePoint Online and Lync Online €” plus an optional subscription-based version of Office 2010 Professional Plus that runs locally on PCs. The Microsoft-hosted versions of these cloud apps offer subsets of their on-premises server counterparts (Exchange, SharePoint and Lync servers), in terms of features and functionality.”

Yep, that’s pretty much it. Office 365 is not about competing with Office, it’s about extending Office so that:

  • It’s attractive to small and medium-sized businesses, so that they don’t need to run their own server infrastructure.
  • There are better opportunities for collaboration, using “the cloud” as a transport (and, it has to be said, giving people less reason to move to Google Apps).

Dennis says:

“Microsoft has fallen into the trap that I see increasingly among enterprise vendors attempting to migrate their business models into the cloud: they end up with a half baked solution that does little for the user but gives some bragging rights. All the time, they seek to hang on grimly to the old business model, tinkering with it but not taking the radical steps necessary to understand working in the cloud.”

Hmm… many enterprises are not ready to put the data that is most intimately linked to their internal workings into the cloud. They look at some targeted SaaS opportunities; they might use IaaS and PaaS technologies to provide some flexibility and elasticity; they may implement cloud technologies as a “private cloud”. But Office 365 allows organisations to pick and choose the level of cloud integration that they are comfortable with – it might be all (for example, my wife’s small business) or none (for example me, working for a large enterprise), or somewhere in between.

Office 365 has some issues – I’m hoping we’ll see some more development around mobility and web app functionality – but it’s a huge step forward. After years of being told that Windows and Office are dead and that Microsoft has no future, they’ve launched something that positions the company for both software subscriptions (which they’ve been trying to do for years) and has the ability to host data on premise, in the cloud, or in a hybrid solution. “The cloud” is not for everyone, but there aren’t many organisations that can’t get something out of Office 365.

Photography Technology

Allowing people to download a subset of images on Flickr

My photostream on Flickr is reasonably well locked down.  I try to strike a balance between sharing and protecting my intellectual property (not that I use it to generate an income…).  Basically, I don’t add watermarks but everything is All Rights Reserved © (although they could be licensed, if they were good enough); only I can access my original image files; only I can print my images; and only I can download images.

RNLI Little Haven 7A few weeks ago though, I was enjoying a family holiday in Wales and I saw the local RNLI lifeboat crew returning from an exercise. I picked up my camera and grabbed some snapshots (and that’s all they were – there was no planning; I was shooting straight into the sun, etc.) but the Helmsman asked if I could send the images to him. Email’s not great for shipping around 12 megapixel images, so I thought I’d share them via Flickr. Unfortunately it seemed that I couldn’t let him download the images… not unless I dropped the security on the whole photostream.

Then I found a workaround.  Even though the default license I selected is All Rights Reserved ©, I can change the license on selected images. Granting a Creative Commons (i.e. Some Rights Reserved) license to the Little Haven lifeboat images gave others the option to download them. Result.

I’m sure this information is buried somewhere in the Flickr website but it didn’t come easily to me, so I’m sharing it here – hopefully it’s useful to someone else!

Technology Waffle and randomness

Social Media, the BBC and Jon Jacob (@thoroughlygood at #digitalsurrey)

Last month I travelled down to Farnham to see Michael Wu’s talk on the Science of Gamification at Digital Surrey. Despite a hellish journey home*, I enjoyed the evening and met some great people, so I decided to come back again last night for this month’s talk. I may feel like an interloper from “analogue North Bucks” – and it would be fair to ask why I’m at an event for networking amongst the Surrey digerati – but my first two experiences of Digital Surrey have been great, so it looks like I could become a regular, if they’ll have me!

Last night’s talk was from Jon Jacob (@thoroughlygood), a BBC writer, journalist and producer – who was at pains to point out he was speaking on behalf of himself, and not the BBC. Actually, Jon has a post about his own performance, which is worth a read.

I took a lot of notes in his talk, which included his reading test on LBC whilst being constantly heckled by Sandi Toksvig, but I think it was best summarised with these points:

  • Jon has used and shamelessly exploited social media to build a “brand” and pursue a career.
  • Social media is at risk of being taken over by dangerous forces who don’t understand it. Many of us like using it, or tolerate it, but more and more people are using social media, including groups that don’t “get it”. Early adopters need to keep an eye out for:
    • Protest-driven people who know technology, bring together armies of geeks and put together massive project management teams to deliver projects in time and budget.
    • People with a little bit of information – they learn how to use Twitter on a Tuesday afternoon and set up as “social media experts” on Wednesday.
  • Social media is a conversation to tap into for stories and sources. More fundamentally it’s a transaction between the author and their own audience. If we post something on Facebook, implicitly we want attention: if we deny it we’re liars! It’s the same for Twitter – about the actor and the audience – not about how large is the audience…
  • If we listen to a radio programme and don’t like then we won’t listen again… it’s the same for TV… if it’s a bit tired we’ll go elsewhere. If that’s how it works for radio and TV, surely it must be the same for social media?
  • It doesn’t matter how many followers you have, the focus is about copy/editorial, not the medium.
  • The secret to engaging copy is that the personality flows through. Be the same person on the medium and in person. Tap into joy rather than avoid it. Exploit everything about yourself in a good way and turn into something (on a personal level or a corporate level).
  • Social media is nothing more than a distribution method, just as TV and radio are.
  • The thing that excites Jon is coming up with ideas and doing things. Maybe people have ideas and feel a bit frightened. Maybe they have ideas and “marketing” didn’t like something. Clearly there are certain laws to follow but it’s actually quite difficult to be that naughty. It’s hard to bring down governments!
  • We need to tap into people with ideas. Don’t just ask them to write a blog post but inspire them, create a delicate ecosystem, get people enthused. That can’t be bottled or put in a book but we’re missing a trick if we’re selling something and have teams of copywriters – maybe we need to do break out of our boundaries and do something different.

By the way, I found Jon’s talk to be completely engaging (thoroughly good, one might say). I saw some negative comments and sure, maybe he went off in a few seemingly random directions, but at all times I was completely switched on to what he was saying. There’s not too many presentations where I can say that!

*OK, so “hellish” is a slight exaggeration but the Highways Agency did close 5 out of the 6 lanes on the M1 northbound where the M25 filters in, at around 10pm, to lean a ladder up against an overhead gantry. I’m sure the resulting queues were just for their own amusement.

Waffle and randomness

Humanising the customer experience (and why there are not enough Ts in alphabet spaghetti)

Every now and again, a story comes along that just makes you feel good. And it makes you realise just how important it is for employees to understand their personal impact on a customer experience.

I saw a tweet earlier this week which highlighting a couple of letters, one written to Sainsburys by a three year old (with a tiny bit of help) and the other, a response from their Careline. It would have been so easy for Sainsburys to ignore this, or just to respond in a “standard” letter but instead, they wrote in a style that was clearly aimed at “Lily”, signing off with their age, and enclosing a token gift. Very sweet.

And now there’s even imitation from nearly-31-year-old Managing Directors of PR agencies who don’t think there are enough Ts in cans of alphabet spaghetti for them to write their press releases. Oh how true that seems at times!

This sort of reaction is not new – but it is heart-warming, and great to see in today’s society of bland corporate identities.  (The positive press it’s generated won’t have done them any harm either!)

I’m sure, if I look hard enough, I can find a letter from the Institute of Advanced Motorists, congratulating me, aged 7 and a-quarter, on my entry in their road sign recognition competition at the Northampton Town Show (which was only beaten on the last day) and enclosing a book token. I still remember that today – and it makes me smile when my own son (who is approaching that age) asks about road signs on our journeys…

Technology

Can we measure online influence? And should we even try?

One of the challenges with managing corporate a social media presence is understanding the impact that you’re making. It’s notoriously difficult because there is no “one true way”. Indeed, if there was a simple way to assess online influence, I’d say that its inventor could clean up.

What we do have though is a number of indices – and two of the most common are:

  • Klout “the standard for influence”.
  • PeerIndex “understand your social capital”.

OK, so we have algorithms to generate a number, but I’m not convinced they are really measuring influence. Klout in particular seems to be swayed by volumes of online activity- I went on holiday for a week and tweeted less often, then my Klout score fell – no surprises there then; but did I really become less influential because I dropped out for a week?

Earlier this week, I wrote a post calling for “brands” to engage and not to simply use social media as a marketing tool to broadcast their own message (or positive customer feedback).  But there is another side to the story – what if you are a brand?  How do you target your limited resources effectively? How do you assess the influence of a social media renegade and decide whether they warrant a response or not?

I’m not sure that we should be trying to. Does it really matter whether a disgruntled customer is influential or not? If they are disgruntled, then they deserve help – even if that help is simply pointing them in the direction of the appropriate channel to get an appropriate resolution.  It’s interesting though to see where influence engines meay head in future (and, indeed, how they might be monetised).

At a recent Digital Surrey event, I was chatting with Simon Cast, Head of Product at PeerIndex. He sees a time when systems such as his will become integrated with customer relationship management (CRM) systems (like Salesforce.com). For a business, that’s valuable – when I call their customer services team, not only can they see details of my transactions with them, but they can also see if I’m influential in a broader sense (i.e. could I damage them if they don’t fulfil my request?).  And, not only will they see if I’m influential in general terms, but if I’m influential on a specific topic. A car manufacturer might not be too bothered if I’m influential in the world of telecommunications, but what if I could potentially affect people’s car purchase decisions?

I guess an analogy to the social capital-CRM tie up is a credit score. My credit score not only affects the financial services products that are available to me (and how much they cost) but it (along with other metrics) might be used to tell my bank how valuable a customer I am, and may influence the way that they interact with me (e.g. sending my call to a UK-based call centre instead of an offshore one). Online influence is a logical equivalent for customer service organisations, but it sounds like a risky strategy to me.

Just to recap on my earlier statement:

“[…] I know only too well the challenges of monitoring and measuring social media activity; the resources that are required; and I completely understand that it’s not always possible to respond to every mention of your company’s products and services.

Even so, I’ve heard of organisations that consider whether to respond based on the apparent influence of the user. That sounds dangerous to me – someone may only have a limited online audience (for example, a handful of followers on Twitter) but their influence could be much wider. Perhaps a journalist/analyst has a personal and a professional Twitter account (or a blog), one with just a few followers, the other much more influential? Maybe the aggrieved/frustrated consumer is also a CIO, or a stakeholder in the business services purchasing process?

We’re all consumers, but many of us have responsibility for business purchases too – and it’s unrealistic to expect that poor experiences as a consumer won’t prejudice business decisions […]”

So can we really measure influence? Maybe we’re getting closer, but I don’t think we’re there yet. And should we even be trying to? There might be some benefits, but beware of the risks too…

Technology

Social media: don’t forget the social (it’s time to engage)

Many readers of my blog will know that I’m a heavy Twitter user. I’m also very un-British when it comes to complaining about poor service and, for those organisations with Twitter accounts, I do have a tendency to copy them in on my frustrations.

One thing I find very interesting is the variety of reactions that I receive. As part of my job involves helping to develop the social media strategy for a major IT systems and services company, I know only too well the challenges of monitoring and measuring social media activity; the resources that are required; and I completely understand that it’s not always possible to respond to every mention of your company’s products and services.

Even so, I’ve heard of organisations that consider whether to respond based on the apparent influence of the user. That sounds dangerous to me – someone may only have a limited online audience (for example, a handful of followers on Twitter) but their influence could be much wider. Perhaps a journalist/analyst has a personal and a professional Twitter account (or a blog), one with just a few followers, the other much more influential? Maybe the aggrieved/frustrated consumer is also a CIO, or a stakeholder in the business services purchasing process?

We’re all consumers, but many of us have responsibility for business purchases too – and it’s unrealistic to expect that poor experiences as a consumer won’t prejudice business decisions, so I’d like to call out some good, and some less good, reactions to online interaction:

  • First up, Dell. The company has been used as a case study in just about every social media training course since Jeff Jarvis’ “Dell Hell”. The story goes that they took Jeff’s comments and acted, before implementing a much broader social media strategy – one which now acts as a major revenue stream too. My personal experience was that, after blogging about a difficult purchase, Dell contacted me and gave me the technical pre-sales advice that I needed, and shipped the cables that I required. That was pre-Twitter (for me at least), but it was almost certainly as part of the company’s reaction to Jeff Jarvis’ highly publicised experience.
  • Another example, was Biffa – after a near miss with one of their drivers on a zebra crossing earier this year and a cathargic blog post by me, their PR agency picked up my comments and passed it to one of their directors. After I provided more information, the company tracked down the driver and took appropriate action (although the promise to replace my broken iPhone headphones seems to have fallen down a crack…).
  • On Twitter, @iPass were very responsive to issues using their service on Virgin Trains until they respectfully advised me to follow their support route (that’s fair enough). On the other hand, @VirginTrainsseem to monitor feedback but on respond selectively. To their credit, I tweeted about a rattling train window and they were straight back to me for details of the service and the carriage (to get it checked out) – I guess that could have been a safety issue. They also responded on my comments re: overcrowding/the need for more standard class seating (longer trains on the way) but apparently ignored many other items of feedback (like the issues with their on-train Wi-Fi).
  • @LondonMidland is more responsive. When I had issues following a change of mobile payment provider for their station car parks, they got back to me and even offered to help if I was unable to make payment before catching my train. When a train was cancelled and 150 people (I guess) were left waiting just a few miles from it’s original destination so that the driver could end his shift on time, they explained that there were ongoing issues in their relationship with the railway driver’s union.
  • @O2 responded to a tweet/blog post about their poor account management processes and at least managed to retain me as a voice customer, even though my data had since been transferred to Three. @VodafoneUK is pretty responsive on Twitter. Meanwhile @3uk is missing a trick…
  • @BTCares responded to a tweet I wrote about their poor service (I don’t recall the details now), but I got the distinct feeling that it was about appearing to be responsive, rather than caring (@BTDoesntCare doesn’t sound quite so good!). My friend Garry Martin’s recent conversations with @BT_UK would seem to back that up – first he couldn’t even get a response on the BT Infinity delays in his city, then @BT_UK replied with what was effectively an online shrug of the shoulders.

I’m sure I can list many more examples (both good and bad) but I think my point is becoming clear. As Jeff Jarvis wrote six years ago (quiting from a book published in 1999!):

“This is a story of customer relations in the new age – an age when, to quote blogger and Cluetrain Manifesto co-author Doc Searls, “‘consumer’ is an industrial-age word, a broadcast-age word. […] Now consumers don’t just consume. We spit back. We have our own printing presses.”

[Jeff Jarvis, “My Dell Hell”, Guardian 2005]

Even so, eConsultancy reported that 25% of retailers are unresponsive on social media. Sure, retail is just one part of the overall B2C market but that sounds pretty low to me in this day and age.

It seems that many companies are creating Twitter or Facebook presences (just as in the late 1990s we were all setting up corporate websites) but there are some fundamental differences with social media:

Technology

Domain management for Office 365 (Small Business)

A few weeks ago, I wrote about configuring DNS for Exchange Online in Office 365. In that post, I mentioned that Microsoft is only supporting small business customers with domains that are delegated to (i.e. hosted on) Microsoft’s name servers – currently ns1.bdm.microsoftonline.com and ns2.bdm.microsoftonline.com.

I wasn’t entirely comfortable with this (for a start, the Office 365 DNS Manager is best described as “basic”), so I decided to see what happens if I went through the process, but never actually switched over the name server records… as it happens it seems to work quite well (albeit in an unsupported manner).

If you want to retain control of settings, all that’s involved is creating the same records with an external DNS provider.

For reference, on the markwilson.co.uk domain, these would be:

markwilson.co.uk. 3600 IN MX 0 markwilson-co-uk.mail.eo.outlook.com.
autodiscover 3600 IN CNAME autodiscover.outlook.com.
markwilson.co.uk. 3600 IN TXT "v=spf1 include:outlook.com ~all"
SRV _sip _tls 443 1 100 sipdir.online.lync.com. markwilson.co.uk 3600
SRV _sipfederationtls _tcp 5061 1 100 sipfed.online.lync.com. markwilson.co.uk 3600

Of course, if Microsoft changes the server names, you won’t be notified and that might affect your service but the settings seem to be the same as the ones provided to Enterprise customers as part of their domain management process.

Then, go through the normal process to add a domain to Office 365, but just click Next on the Edit Name Server Records page:

Ignore the step that advises changing DNS entries

At the time of writing, Office 365 is still in beta, so things could change (for example, the domain verification process has already switched from using CNAME records to using either TXT or MX records) but it might be worth a try…

[Update 20 June 2011: Microsoft has documented a workaround for domains that do not allow delegation (specifically for .NO and .DK but I see no reason why other domains should not be used in this way)]

Technology

Microsoft’s Windows Azure datacentres: some statistics

Last week I blogged about designing a private cloud infrastructure, based on the practices employed by the major cloud service providers.

Today I got a taste of the scale of some of those cloud operations, when Microsoft gave an online presentation on Windows Azure to their International Customer Advisory Board (ICAB) for Server and Cloud (of which I’m a participant).

Remember the shipping contains that I mentioned as units of scale in a modern datacentre? Here are a few stats about Microsoft’s Azure datacentres:

  • Each datacentre runs at around 95°F (or 35°C): that’s pretty warm but, even though there is air conditioning installed, it’s rarely used, as the containers are self-cooling (using a water system).
  • Containers are stacked in units that are two high and then connected to power, water and networks. (Now that’s some appliance!)

Microsoft's Azure appliances

  • Each container unit contains around 2500 servers and a whole datacentre has 360,000 servers.

Inside onr of the containers

  • The containers are normally dark – I described resource decay in my earlier post – that means that it’s rarely necessary to enter the datacentre.
  • In fact, the datacentres are so highly automated, that there are just 12 staff: 9 armed security guards and 3 administrators. (I’m guessing that’s working 3 shifts, so only 3 or 4 on duty at any one time.)
  • Humans are never alone – systems exist to ensure that people can only enter in pairs, and leave in pairs too.
  • So far, Microsoft has spent $2.5bn on its six Azure data centres, with more planned (and that doesn’t include the datacentres for its other operations).
Technology

Usage profiles for mobile devices

A few weeks ago, an agency presented some statistics to me about mobile apps.  Unfortunately, although I did ask for permission to use the statistics, I don’t have details of the source but I thought they were interesting to present on this blog, particularly in the light of Forrester CEO George Colony’s keynote comments on the “App Internet” at the Forrester IT Forum last month.

Mobile devices are changing the way we consume and engage digitally:

  • 66% [of mobile device owners] say they can’t live without their phone.
  • 64% [of mobile device owners] say mobiles and the Internet have made our life better.
  • 71% of smartphone owners have downloaded [at least one] app.
  • 28% [of Internet users] connect to the Internet via a mobile [device].
  • 20% of all Christmas online sales in 2010 were via a mobile [device].

What I found particularly interesting were two usage patterns that were presented to me for reading articles on smartphones and on tablets:

iPhone usage spikes

Smartphone users exhibited four spikes at:

  • 6am (early morning/breakfast).
  • 9am (start of work day).
  • 5-6pm (end of work day commute).
  • 8-10pm (couch/prime time, bed time).

Meanwhile, tablet devices are more likely to read at personal prime time – i.e. at the most relaxing time of the day:

iPad usage spikes

I’m not sure that I fit either of these profiles as I tend to use my tablet (my iPad) for my morning/evening commutes, and late at night (in bed) – in between I’m on a laptop, with occasional triaging of email (but not really reading articles) on a smartphone (an iPhone). Nevertheless, it’s interesting to see this marked difference in usage patterns for two classes of mobile device.

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