One month with the Surface Pro 3

When I started my current job and tweeted about my new “laptop” (a Microsoft Surface Pro 3), I was a little surprised at the reaction from some people, including one of my friends whose words were along the line of “give it a month and then then tell me if you still like it…”

Well, it’s been a month, so here we go…

<tl; dr> I really, really, like it.

That’s not really much of a review though… so here’s some of the things that are good, and some that are less so…

Starting out with the positives:

  • It’s a fully-featured PC. Every time I see someone comparing the Surface with an iPad I cringe. I tried using an iPad as my primary device and it didn’t work for me. I can see why it would for some people but I need to work with multiple applications and task switch, copy and paste text all of the time. The Surface Pro runs Windows 8.1 and does everything I expect of a Windows PC, plus the benefits of having a touch screen display and a tablet form factor.
  • The display is fantastic. Crisp, clear, 2160×1440 (as Ed Bott highlights, that would be called a retina display on an Apple device).
  • The type cover keyboard is really good. Backlit keys, easy to type on, a good size. Combined with the kickstand on the tablet itself, it becomes a fully-featured 12″ laptop and it’s far more stable than many tablet/cover/keyboard combinations.
  • I live in OneNote. I can draw with the Surface Pen now – and that is incredibly useful.
  • It’s light. I haven’t checked how light, but light enough to carry with ease.
  • The power supply is not too big – and it has a USB charging socket too. Having said that, I can usually manage on the battery to catch the train in/out of London and get through a customer meeting.

On the downside though:

  • There aren’t enough USB ports and the use of a Mini DisplayPort means I need to carry adaptors. To be fair, I carry quite a few for my other devices too.
  • The price of accessories is way over the top: type cover is a penny under £110; Surface Pen is £45; Docking station is £165. Really? Add that to the cost of the device itself and you could buy a pretty good laptop. (The Surface Pro 3 range starts at £639 but the Intel i5 model with 4GB RAM and 128GB of storage that I use is £849 and the top of the range Intel i7 with 8GB RAM and 512GB storage will set you back £1549).
  • The type cover trackpad is awful. I use a mouse. That’s how bad it is.
  • The pen takes some getting used to (this post from Microsoft helps) – and I ran through the first set of batteries in no time (this support page came in useful too).
  • I’ve had some worrying issues with resuming from standby, sometimes not resuming at all, sometimes having to go through a full reboot. I suspect that’s the Windows build it’s running though – I can’t blame the Surface for that…

I’m more than happy with the Surface Pro 3 (at least, I am until the Surface Pro 4 comes out!). I was given the choice between this and a Dell ultrabook and I’m pretty sure I made the right choice. Maybe if I was a developer and I needed a laptop which was effectively a portable server then that would be a different story – but for my work as a Consultant/Architect – it’s exactly what I need.

If you need a Windows PC, your work is mobile (and not too taxing in terms of hardware requirements), and your employer has the facilities for effective remote working, the Surface Pro 3 is worth a look. I’d even go as far as to say I would spend my own money on this device. That’s more than I can say about any company-supplied PC I’ve had to date.

Microsoft News Q1 2015

This post is an edited version of one that originally appeared on my internal blog at Fujitsu.

Louis Lazarus’ Microsoft News Updates

Back in December, I wrote what I intended to be the first of a regular update on what’s going on in the world of Microsoft – a sort of Microsoft news round-up.  Since then, I’ve been alerted to a regular update from Louis Lazarus (an independent technology strategy consultant – @_louislaz) and I’ve been re-posting his updates via Twitter/OneDrive.  The links for recent updates are below (each one covers the previous month):

Directions on Microsoft Enterprise Software Roadmap

As featured in my previous post, Directions on Microsoft is an independent analysis service focused on Microsoft technologies, roadmaps and licensing policies and their latest quarterly roadmap calls attention to recent roadmap shifts for Microsoft enterprise technologies, including:

  • “Windows 10 and Office 2016 for PCs. Previews have appeared for the next versions of Windows and the Office desktop suite, giving organizations an early opportunity to identify potential migration blockers for software currently running on their Windows 7 PCs.
  • Windows Server. The next version of Windows Server has been postponed to 2016, which means Microsoft’s latest PC security and management infrastructure will not be ready when Windows 10 and Office 2016 ship later this year.
  • Mobile e-mail clients. An acquisition has fundamentally changed its mobile e-mail client roadmap for iOS and Android, and could trigger changes to bring-your-own-device (BYOD) policies in organizations.
  • Windows 10 tablets and phones with Office. Windows 10 previews are available for tablets and phones, and Office mobile app previews have appeared for Windows 10. Organizations can use the previews to re-evaluate the future of their Windows mobile device applications.”

[the bullets above are a direct quote from the email I received from Directions on Microsoft]

Access to the report requires a subscription (which I don’t have) but even the snippets above provide a useful overview.

“Microsoft accounts” vs. Microsoft’s “organizational accounts”

If you’re using Microsoft’s online services, you might reasonably expect to authenticate against some form of directory service.  And, if you have your own directory service (like Active Directory), you might reasonably expect to be able to synchronise it with your cloud identity to provide a holistic view to end users. Unfortunately, whilst both of these things are possible, the end result can be really confusing and I’ve just had to explain it for one of my customers.

You see, a “Microsoft account” is not what you use to log on to Office 365 (or Intune, Azure, etc.) – for that you need an “Organizational account” (which is held in Microsoft Azure Active Directory) – although you might have logged on to your Windows PC, phone or tablet with a Microsoft account.

Still with me? No! Well, let me quote from an MSDN article:

Q. What is the difference between “Organizational account” and “Microsoft account”?
Organizational account
 is an account created by an organization’s administrator to enable a member of the organization access to all Microsoft cloud services such as Microsoft Azure, Windows Intune or Office 365. An Organizational account can take the form of a user’s organizational email address, such as, when an organization federates or synchronizes its Active Directory accounts with Azure Active Directory. […]

Microsoft account, created by user for personal use, is the new name for what used to be called “Windows Live ID”. The Microsoft account is the combination of an email address and a password that a user uses to sign in to all consumer-oriented Microsoft products and cloud services such as Outlook (Hotmail), Messenger, OneDrive, MSN, Windows Phone or Xbox LIVE. If a user uses an email address and password to sign in to these or other services, then the user already has a Microsoft account—but the user can also sign up for a new one at any time.”

Right. Hopefully that’s a bit clearer? Unfortunately the whole thing gets really messy when you have multiple browser tabs connected to different services and I often find I have different browsers (or InPrivate/Incognito browser sessions) running in parallel to access services.  One approach, although probably not recommended, is to manually synchronise the passwords between a Microsoft account and an Organizational account that have the same email address to give the illusion of single sign-on.

Maybe one day all of the consumer services will move to Azure Active Directory and we can just have a single identity. Probably not though… that’s what Microsoft Passport (Windows Live ID’s predecessor) was trying to do back in 2001 and it felt a bit “big brother” to some people (although today we seem quite happy to have Google and Facebook act as identity providers for multiple services).

Post Script

Since I wrote this post, “organizational accounts” have become known as “work or school accounts”, which I guess makes things a little clearer, even if the phase is a touch unwieldy!

Microsoft #TechDays Online 2015

Last week, was Microsoft UK’s TechDays Online conference, held over three days with thousands of virtual attendees watching/listening to sessions on a variety of topics, starting off in the IT Pro arena with a keynote on Windows 10 from Journalist and Author Mary Jo Foley (@MaryJoFoley), Windows Server, on to Intune, Office 365, progressing to a variety of Azure topics, containerisation and DevOps with a keynote from Microsoft Distinguished Engineer Jeffrey Snover (@JSnover) and eventually into full developer mode with a keynote from Scott Hanselman (@SHanselman).

This is the fourth year that Microsoft has run these events and I was fortunate to be invited to watch the sessions being recorded.  I attended the first afternoon/evening and the second day – driving my Twitter followers mad with a Microsoft overload. For those who missed it, here’s a recap (unfortunately I couldn’t commit the time to cover the developer day):

(I later retweeted this:)

And we continue…

Actually, he didn’t – I later published this correction:

And back to my stream of Twitter consciousness:

Sadly, I missed Mary Jo Foley’s keynote (although I did manage to get over to Microsoft’s London offices on the second evening for a Live recording of the Windows Weekly podcast and caught up with Mary Jo after the event).

Sessions were recorded and I’ll update this post with video links when I have them.

Microsoft News Q4 2014

This post is an edited version of one that originally appeared on my internal blog at Fujitsu.

Fujitsu UK’s resident Exchange Master (and Distinguished Engineer), Nick Parlow (@Hagbard) does a great job of running an [internal] email list with links of things going on around Exchange. Indeed, there’s so much there I don’t manage to keep up with it but I do know where to look to see what’s happening… and I’d like to be able to do something similar about broader developments in the Microsoft Community.

I’ll use my blog for the time being… this post is my first attempt at a Microsoft News round-up.

Directions on Microsoft Enterprise Software Roadmap

Directions on Microsoft is an independent analysis service focused on Microsoft technologies, roadmaps and licensing policies and their latest quarterly roadmap calls attention to recent roadmap shifts for Microsoft enterprise technologies, including:

  • “Windows 10. The next version of the Windows client operating system is scheduled for release in the third quarter of 2015 and will improve security and management as well as address the user interface problems that limited adoption of Windows 8 and 8.1 by enterprise customers. The new operating system will likely ship for phones as well as tablets and PCs, which will simplify development of applications that run on all three devices types. Organizations should evaluate Windows 10 previews scheduled for early 2015 to see if the new OS will be a viable replacement for Windows 7, which leaves Mainstream support on Jan. 13, 2015.
  • Office 365. Customers of the Office 365 cloud services and software will continue to get new capabilities in areas such as e-mail filtering, collaboration, and search that are not available to customers running the corresponding on-premises software. Organizations planning future investments in Exchange, SharePoint, and Office should review the capabilities of Office 365 and its roadmap, even if they are not ready for an immediate move to the cloud.
  • Office 16. The next version of the Microsoft desktop productivity suite has an estimated release date in the third quarter of 2015. A touch-oriented Modern Office suite for mobile Windows devices such as tablets is likely to appear at the same time. Organizations can expect previews of these Office suites in early 2015.
  • Skype for Business. New versions of Lync products and services will launch in the first half of 2015 instead of late 2014 as originally planned. The versions will ship under a new name, Skype for Business, but current Lync technology and licenses should transition without major disruption.”

[the bullets above are a direct quote from the email I received from Directions on Microsoft]

Access to the report requires a subscription (which I don’t have) but even the snippets above provide a useful overview.

Future Decoded

Microsoft’s flagship marketing event for the UK took place last month over three days at the ExCel Conference Centre in London’s Docklands. Each of the days focused on a different audience with business leaders on Monday, partners on Tuesday and a technical audience on the Wednesday, with different Microsoft teams leading the day. I attended the business and technical events.

Clearly, lots of money was spent on keynotes speakers – of varying quality – but the real gems on the business day were the afternoon sessions with real world customer stories of how they were implementing Microsoft technologies (not just product pitches). I heard from Marstons on how they’re using Dynamics CRM (just enough for me to get a feel of what the product can do), JustGiving on their GiveGraph big data solution that aims to make giving social by picking up on how emotion and sentiment flows between people, Schroders on the lessons learned from their Lync deployment, ThyssenKrupp on how they’re using data to change the way they maintain lifts [and hijacking the Internet of Things trend to discuss what’s really just “things on the Internet”], from Transport for London explaining the evolution of payment systems (contactless micropayments), and finally from Landmarc on the “private cloud” they built for the MoD (I mis-read the session title because I was interested to hear how MoD might embrace cloud services).

The technical day was a bit harder to jump tracks in the afternoon – I’ve fed back to Microsoft that many of us (particularly in the enterprise space) will have multiple streams to follow and not just one topic of interest – but I did manage to attend sessions on outsmarting the digital deluge, hyperscale solutions for the Internet of things, hybrid identity management, and Microsoft Azure Machine Learning (MAML).

All three days also featured an Expo with about 3000 attendees on each of the days I visited and delegates on the third day could also visit AppsWorld in the next hall (passes were valid for both conferences)…

In other news, one of the Platinum sponsors was Risual (the others were Dell and HP).  I didn’t tweet about this too much because I didn’t want to be seen to support one of our competitors but it seems they got plenty of PR when their promotional video went viral.

Re-imagining the Enterprise

Tony Muraki-Hart, CTO for the Microsoft-Fujitsu Alliance spoke at a recent Distinguished Engineers’ event about Microsoft’s forward-looking vision – how Microsoft is re-imagining the enterprise. Key themes included digital transformation, becoming a customer-obsessed enterprise, and the re-imagination of Microsoft as a productivity and platform company for the mobile-first and cloud-first world.

Unfortunately the slide deck is not one I can share publicly but, in essence, the Microsoft that Steve Ballmer led with a focus on Windows and Office is a different organisation to the one Satya Nadella is leading – more open, and cross-platform.

Wrap up

That’s it for now. I’ll aim to come back with another Microsoft News update in the new year. Until then, I’ll sign off with a link to a Redmond Magazine article from Mary Jo Foley on the five changes at Microsoft in 2014 that mattered the most.

Geeking out at Microsoft Research

A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to join the Microsoft Technical Community Council (MTCC), which is described as “a group of external IT professionals influential in the IT Pro world, who are engaged and interested in sharing their opinions and meet once a month via a Lync call”.  Basically, the Council is an opportunity for Microsoft to gain feedback from IT Pros with real-world experience of implementing Microsoft technologies and for those involved to understand a little more about the road ahead.

After some frantic NDA-signing, I was privileged to join the MTCC for a face-to-face meeting yesterday at Microsoft Research in Cambridge.  Last time I visited Microsoft Research, they were on a different site, on the outskirts of the city, and some of the stuff I heard about, quite frankly, blew my mind.  I was under NDA than (as an MVP) and under NDA again yesterday, so still can’t talk about what was discussed but the Microsoft Research website showcases some of the projects that have made it from the labs into the real world and describes the current areas of research.

We didn’t just learn about Microsoft’s Research operations though – there were other sessions – and the day also gave me a chance for me to meet with some of the people I’ve known for years but sort of lost touch with whilst my work was focused less on Microsoft and more on IT strategy – as well as to connect some faces to names – either from Twitter or, in once case, from my customers!

We also had rather a lot of fun, geeking out with Microsoft .NET Gadgeteer – a former Microsoft Research project described as:

“A rapid prototyping platform for small electronic gadgets and embedded hardware devices. It combines the advantages of object-oriented programming, solderless assembly of electronics using a kit of hardware modules, and quick physical enclosure fabrication using computer-aided design.”

Paul Foster (@PaulFo), whose antics I’ve written about before (on a home-made Surface table, among other things – and on PhotoSynth and Community Games) led us through an exercise more commonly carried out with school children, using Visual Studio with Visual C# Express and .NET Gadgeteer.  Using modular kits we were soon building simple digital cameras, before going on to add LED indicators, current sensors, motion detection, etc. – with a drag and drop design surface and a few lines of C#.  Even though I left it to the guys from Content and Code to crack out the code (I’ll do the infrastructure piece and plug things together!), I would confidently say that even I could have written the code that was required and it’s a very accessible way to get children doing something real with electronics.

Sadly, whilst the software is free, the hardware is a little on the pricey side, with an FEZ Spider starter kit coming in at around £200 (which is almost Lego Mindstorms EV3 money).  Compared with an Arduino and some raw electronics components, that’s quite a lot more money but it should be said that the graphical design surface provided in the Visual Studio IDE is easier to use and the modular electronic components do make the Gadgeteer-compatible kit easier to work with.  So, on balance, where the Arduino is great for “makers”, the Gadgeteer-compatible kit is probably a better solution for teaching kids the basics of controlling components with code.

Either way, it’s a lot of fun – and inspired me to start playing with electronics again… maybe I’ll even let my kids have a go…

Microsoft’s new focus on solutions…

Throughout its history, Microsoft has relied on a partner ecosystem to drive their business forward.  Now, as the Redmond giant transforms from a software/platform company to a devices and services company, that’s starting to change – and multiple teams are focusing all or part of their time on developing and publishing lab-tested, multi-product, end-to-end solution content.

As an employee of one of Microsoft’s largest partners, we can either ignore this, or work with Microsoft to ensure that we benefit from their solutions content and use it to improve our own, value-add services.  With that in mind, a colleague alerted me to the presence of Microsoft’s Solutions Advisory Board (SAB) and, yesterday, I attended the first of the bi-monthly webinars that the SAB team are hosting.

In an hour, we briefly covered 4 topics – at a very high level – but to give some idea of the scenarios that were discussed:

  • New Office Solutions Content – content that’s been created by Microsoft to help customers make the most of integrating Office client and server products (and, to move towards the cloud at their own pace).
  • Using Windows Azure for disaster recovery of an an-premises SharePoint farm.
  • Integrating Lync Server on premise with Exchange Online.
  • Hosting Internet websites (on SharePoint) in Windows Azure.

I plan to follow up with more detail next week (after the slides have been published) – but this could well be a very interesting forum to take part in…

In the meantime, check out the solution guides for IT professionals section on the TechNet website.

Microsoft Consulting Services’ sporting analogy

Earlier this week I was at a workshop where Microsoft Consulting Services described their potential to engage with clients/partners on five levels, using a sporting analogy

  • Owner: full responsibility from design to implementation and go live.
  • Manager: lead in design and control – architect designs and have user experience lead, lead developer, lead test.
  • Player: Provide consultants for key point activities.
  • Coach: Work alongside individuals with a particular focus on skills transfer and mentoring.
  • Commentator: Review designs, plans, code, scripts.

Someone suggested it’s actually a football analogy and doesn’t work for their sport (Rugby Union) but I disagree. Regardless, the real point is that the relationship can work at one of a number of levels.  Would be interesting to hear what people who’ve engaged with MCS feel about this though…

Microsoft’s message to UK partners for FY13 (#PBBBirm #MSPartnersUK)

I spent most of yesterday at Microsoft’s Partner business briefing in Birmingham. The afternoon workshops were especially good value (I was in the Public Cloud session, learning more about Office 365) but the morning keynote (delivered by Janet Gibbons, Microsoft’s UK Director for Partner Strategy and Programmes) had some interesting messages that are worth sharing further:

  • 95% of Microsoft’s global revenues are generated through it’s channel partners.
  • 2012 is the biggest launch year in Microsoft’s history with almost every product having a major refresh or a new iteration (from Windows 8 to Halo 4).
    • Microsoft is spending significant volumes on product advertising.
  • Microsoft is still a software company, but increasingly a devices and services company.
    • Many of those services relate to software subscriptions.
    • Interestingly, there is a 26% piracy rate for software in the UK (20% of Office users are illegal/mis-licensed) – and no piracy with online services.
    • There are new partner opportunities for selling Office 365 and managing the customer relationship (billing, etc.) to expand the revenue opportunity with value-added services.
  • Microsoft’s FY13 priorities are:
    • Excite customers, businesses and advertisers with Windows 8 devices and applications.
    • Win against Google every time with Office 365 and launch Office [2013].
    • Build application ecosystem for Windows 8, Windows Phone and Windows Azure.
    • Win the datacentre with private, public and hybrid cloud.
    • Grow SQL Server through BI, big data and mission critical [deployments].
    • Drive deployment for Windows, Office, Internet Explorer, Active Directory.
    • Win with business solutions.
    • Grow Windows Phone market share.
    • Drive Xbox profit and grow Kinect and Live Attach.
    • Grow reach, search and monetisation of our consumer online  services.
Interesting to see the Microsoft FY13 scorecard in public: great openness at #PBBBirm - to be applauded #MSPartnersUK
Mark Wilson

Of course, there was the obligatory Windows 8 marketing message (maybe I’ve been through too many new operating system release cycles and it all feels like another turn on the merry-go-round so I switched off a little in that part) but it was also interesting to hear Intel stand up and say (I paraphrase), “we’re still friends with Microsoft and even though Windows runs on another platform too x86 is better [does anyone remember when Windows NT supported DEC Alpha and ARC-MIPS alongside Intel x86?]. Don’t forget that Atom is power-optimised too [not just underpowered] and we have all this lovely built-in security stuff in our hardware platform”.

As for Office and Office 365 – probably too much for this post but some of the changes coming up in the next release look fantastic. I’m certainly glad I made the switch from Google Apps, although maybe a P1 plan wasn’t the best idea…

Microsoft Surface: my attempt to cut through the hype

Over the last 24 hours, I’ve watched the hype build about Microsoft’s mysterious mystery event (thank goodness I missed the build-up last week as I was still on holiday in France…), watched the news break, and watched everyone either go ooooh, ahhhh, or hrmmm…

I couldn’t stand it any more and decided that I too should weigh in with my comments on some of the comments I’ve seen about Microsoft Surface. I may even come back and add to this list over the next few days:

  • Microsoft is too late to the tablet game: Maybe they are. There’s the iPad, and then there’s… well, no-one really. But there’s still plenty to play for. Maybe back in 2007 someone asked for a tablet and got a table instead? Seriously, the device we previously knew as Surface was rebranded PixelSense last year, but we don’t seem to get the PixelSense screen tech in the Surface tablets.
  • It looks good: it does – really good. But we don’t yet know enough about the Surface hardware – if this is underpowered, or battery life is poor, or the screen is unresponsive, then it will fail, just like all the other iPad wannabes.
  • The keyboard in the cover is a gimmick/great idea/an admission that soft keyboards don’t work: horses for courses, I’d say – there are times when I use my iPad keyboard and times when I elect for a physical version – this way we get both.
  • Microsoft is cutting OEM’s throats? Are they really? My view (personally, not as an employee) is that it’s saying “come on guys, this is what can be done when you put your mind to it – stop letting Apple run away with the tablet market and design something that’s just as good, now that we have (finally) got an operating system (nearly) ready for you”. But there is an issue when (presumably) Microsoft doesn’t charge itself $85 per device for a copy of Windows.
  • This will undermine Ultrabook sales: perhaps it will, but however big the marketing push, they would have been niche anyway. Do IT Managers really have money to spend on “sexy” laptops when functional ones cost half as much? It might have killed off the Windows tablet market though, except that Surface will only be available from Microsoft Stores and online, which limits its availability somewhat, and makes it a consumer-only purchase. OEMs don’t really need to worry too much (sure, PC sales are in decline… but there are many factors behind that and mobile devices have been expected to surpass PC for a while now). And for those of us outside the US… we might not even get a sniff.
  • Ah, so it’s for consumers, so it puts Microsoft back in the game when it comes to consumerisation? Hrm Not really. On BYOD, there seems to be a shift towards choose your own device (CYOD) – i.e. we’ll give you more choice, maybe even let you contribute to have a better device, but it needs to run Windows. CIOs do need to re-architect applications to embrace cloud, mobility, big data and consumerisation – but that’s a big ask and it’s not happening overnight. Until then there’s life in Windows 7 (and 8) for a while. And laptops/tablets are only one side of the story; Microsoft is still struggling for smartphone market share…
  • Two versions of Windows, both on Surface devices, one that runs Windows RT and one for Windows 8 Pro – what gives? On this I agree, it will confuse the market. Maybe the x86 hardware should have been a reference platform for OEMs to sell in the business market, with ARM to consumers?
  • Analysts say… Really. There is some really good insight there, seriously. But now what do CIOs say? How about: where will this help me to deliver business value; what’s the impact on the rest of the IT environment; how can I transition to become a competitive (internal) IT service provider who no longer cares about devices and operating systems? Having said that, I think Forrester’s Sarah Rotman Epps is correct to highlight issues with the way Windows is marketed and sold, and IDC’s Crawford Del Prete (@Craw) is right on the money:
MSFT Surface must win the hearts of consumers before the minds of CIOs. Good start #surface
Crawford Del Prete

For some time now, we (geeks, tech journalists and IT types like me) have lambasted Microsoft for being unimaginative, lacking innovation, and for being late to market. This time they have something bold, exciting and that could really shake up the way that PCs look and feel. They’ve also kept it secret and created a buzz (albeit a little too early, some might say) perhaps a bit like another company that seems to get credit for everything it does…

Let’s give the Surface a chance to get out of the door before we write it off, hey? It could actually be really good.

Now, what are they doing about smartphones?