Category Archives: Technology

Technology

Plantronics Voyager Legend not connecting with PC (but fine with phones) – re-pairing required

A few weeks ago, I wrote about a couple of Lync accessories I use every day – including my Plantronics Voyager Legend (BT300M). Since then, I’ve successfully paired the headset with both Windows and iOS phones (so presumably Android will work too) using their native stacks, although I use the supplied Bluetooth dongle on my company-supplied Windows 7 laptop.  I’m still impressed with the headset and the battery life is great too as it automatically goes into standby when I forget to turn it off (although it’s often sitting on its charging stand).

Unfortunately, I did find one day that my headset had “fallen out with” my laptop and whilst it would happily connect to the phones I couldn’t use it for Lync (VoIP) or CUCILync (VoIP breakout to our Cisco phone system and beyond to the PSTN). After some frustration of taking out and re-inserting the dongle in various USB ports, etc. I found an article on the Plantronics Sounding Board that gave the answer:

“Try pairing the headset to the dongle. Typically you would turn your phone(s) off to make sure they don’t  interfere in the process. Then press the call button on the headset until you go into pairing mode and insert the dongle in the PC, it should pair.”

Interestingly, the article also referred to a tool I’ve not come across before called DriveCleanup which can remove orphaned registry items related to non-present USB devices (forcing the dongle to set up the stack again on insertion). I didn’t need this but it could be a useful tool (there are several others on the page too).

Incidentally, at a Lync event at Microsoft last week, I tried out the Plantronics Backbeat PRO wireless noise cancelling headphones with microphone and they will be great for listening to music in a shared office but still being contactable for calls. Having upgraded my phone this week, I need to do some saving before I can buy more gadgets, but these could be on the list…

Technology

The relationship between Microsoft Office 365 and Azure

At a recent partner event, Microsoft Partner Technical Specialist, Robert-Jan Gerrits, answered a question that many people ask: does Office 365 run on Azure?

The short answer is “no” – the Office 365 infrastructure is dedicated – i.e. it’s not a bunch of VMs running on Azure; however there is a slightly longer answer.

Office 365 uses Azure for:

  • Office 365 video (media)
  • Azure blob storage (storage)
  • Azure AD for identity (identity)
  • Power BI app (cloud services)
  • Access services (storage)

Over time, we can expect to see more and more Office 365 components using Azure services but, for now, Office 365 is (almost) a standalone environment.

Technology

Short takes: directly embedding images from Dropbox; Pixlr (free online image editor)

Some snippets that were too small for a blog post of their own…

Directly embedding images from Dropbox

There’s little doubt in my mind that Dropbox is a useful service with an excellent sync client and I use it extensively (alongside the consumer version of Microsoft OneDrive, although I’ve given up on OneDrive for Business). Recently, I’ve found myself wanting to embed images held on Dropbox within forum posts.  Unfortunately, the link given out when sharing a file doesn’t work for embedding; however, as Canton Becker notes, if you replace ?dl=0 with ?raw=1 on the end of the URL, the link will work for an embedded image (more details on the Dropbox website).

Pixlr: a free online image editor

Whilst talking about images, I may have mentioned this before (or I might not have) but check out Pixlr – a free online image editor.

Technology

A couple of Lync accessories that I find improve my user experience

The company where I work recently upgraded from Office Communications Server (OCS) to Lync. Whilst Skype for Business is just around the corner, bringing many more features, our upgrade to Lync is a massive improvement and has allowed me to stop using WebEx for most of my conference calls and even to stop using my Cisco softphone for many of the direct voice calls (unfortunately we don’t have PSTN breakout configured for anything other than Lync conference call dial-backs).

Related to Lync, I’ve recently acquired a couple of accessories which, as well as creating discussion in the office, I find really help my user experience:

  • First up is the Bluetooth headset I use: a Plantronics Voyager Legend (BT300-M). Freeing me from the shackles of my desk on endless conference calls, I can nearly make it to the kitchen to make a cup of tea but, even when it does lose the connection, it seamlessly reconnects when I’m back in range. Not only do I use this with Lync but it’s also useful for my Cisco CUCILync softphone and, I’m told, as a mobile phone headset in the car (I haven’t tried that yet as my current car has Bluetooth built in but that will change in a few weeks…). Now, having said I can make it to the kitchen on a call, I have also heard about a colleague with a DECT-based headset who made it to his local village post office without losing his connection!
  • The other tool, which creates a lot more discussion from interested colleagues, is my Kuando Busylight. This is a visual indicator of my Lync status and, whilst it can be ignored just as much as the virtual version (I find that “busy” is treated as if it’s just a different coloured version of “available”…), it does have potential in offices with large groups of workers on the phone and a reliance on presence information. It also has a visual and/or audible notification when I’m called or IMed and I can customise the colours, create hotkey combinations and re-route second calls using the supplied software. Unfortunately It’s Windows-only – but so is my work PC! I do hope that the manufacturer, Plenom (@plenom) will release a Mac version too, so I can use it with Lync and my personal Office 365 account.

Whilst on the subject of Lync, I’m not sure if I’ve blogged it before but there is a shortcut to force the use of Lync Web Access for a call, rather than the full client. Simply add ?sl=1 to the end of the Lync meeting URL to force use of the browser client.

Technology

“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 username@orgname.com, 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).

Technology

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.

Exercise Technology

My activity tracking ecosystem

After I wrote my post on Monday about the Fitbit Charge HR, Dan Delaney (@Dan_Delaney) and Gregg Robertson (@GreggRobertson5) both tweeted me to say “try MyFitnessPal“. Well, after putting aside the really cringeworthy name (although “MyNetDiary” is not any better), I thought I’d give it a try and, so far, the experience has been really positive.

Not only does MyFitnessPal seem to have a decent UK food database (albeit one that could do with some tidying up for consistency in naming – although that’s probably just my pedantry again) but the app is pretty good (just as good as the MyNetDiary app I paid money for…) and, more importantly, the ecosystem of connected apps is pretty good (Strava and Fitbit are both there, which is what I need – but many more besides). It’s growing too; only yesterday Endomondo emailed to say they were joining the “Under Armour Connected Fitness suite”, which includes MyFitnessPal.  The only slight downside (and it’s really not an issue when I think about the data that I need to keep, long term), is that MyFitnessPal bundles up each meal into a summary when it passes it to Fitbit:

So, this is what my activity tracking ecosystem looks like now:

Ultimately, I only have to enter or capture each item of information once (exercise via Strava unless automatically captured on my Garmin Edge 810 cycle computer; food/drink/weight via MyFitnessPal; daily activity/calorie burn automatically from my Fitbit Charge HR) and it flows into Fitbit and onwards each day to Microsoft HealthVault.

Exercise Technology

(Just over) a week with the Fitbit Charge HR

Over the last couple of months I’ve attended a couple of British Computer Society (BCS) meetings on the “Internet of Everything”. Looking at the speaker’s activity band got me thinking about “the quantified self”. Just as, when I’m cycling or running, I like to track my activities and see how I’ve done compared with others, this year I decided to buy myself a fitness tracker. I’ve worn pedometers before (when taking part in the Global Corporate Challenge) but with the current (and upcoming) range of activity bands/watches, my device of choice is a Fitbit Charge HR.

Why the Fitbit Charge HR? Well, I’d seen the Charge and it looks good – discrete, but functional – and the additional £20 for heart rate readings sounded interesting (and should lead to more accurate calorie counting).  There are Apple and Microsoft watches on the way but I’ve been burned far to many times buying a first generation product (iPad, Nokia Lumia 800) and Fitbit have been working in this market for a while now – their trackers are pretty well established. I was also seeing some good reviews on the Charge including this one from Michael d’Estries (@michaeldestries).

Setup

The setup was simple – the product packaging directed me to a website to download and install the software on a PC (or Mac in my case), together with a dongle after which the band updated itself and continued to sync. There’s also an app on my phone that communicates via Bluetooth (I use this for call notifications and synchronisation). I’m not sure what technology the dongle uses (ANT+ perhaps?) but it’s certainly not the Mac’s built-in Bluetooth stack.  I also need to work out why, since I paired the band with the app on my phone, the Mac no longer sees it as present but that’s not stopping me from using it so can wait a while.

Charging

Next up was charging the battery. It had some power out of the box but needed charging soon after (unsurprisingly).  Fitbit’s claimed battery life is 5 days but I’d say it’s nearer to 2-3. Actually, I don’t let it run down that far – I generally charge daily – and I started off by charging whilst taking a shower, etc. as any steps taken during the period are probably balanced out by steps recorded as a result of movement during sleep.  Unfortunately, putting it on charge when I woke (and before it had registered much activity confused the sleep tracking (it thought I was still asleep!) so I’ve since started to charge it whilst sitting at my desk, working at a PC.  It really does seems like this would be one device that really would benefit from wireless charging!  Added to that, the proprietary connector locks on well but I can’t help thinking it’s another way to make money (replacing lost/broken cables) and micro USB would do the job just as well?

Monitoring steps, hear trate and sleep

Importantly, the step count seems reasonably accurate. There are some phantom steps when driving/otherwise moving my wrist but the Charge HR basically seems to keep time with walking (goodness knows how as it’s nothing to do with how I swing my arms or not!).  Incidentally, you can’t delete/edit the recorded steps/floors data so it’s worth logging driving as an activity (take a note of the start and finish times) to negate the entries as it’s somewhat disconcerting to be notified that you reached your step target whilst driving along the motorway!  Unfortunately, although recording an activity trues up the step count and other metrics, any badges earned remain on your profile.

I’ve yet to check the heart rate monitoring compared with the Garmin chest band that I wear on my longer bike rides – it seems a little low to me but maybe a bike ride is more exerting than I think!  And on the subject of exertion, I was amused to see that, one evening, after visiting my local pub, the walk back up the hill counted as both active minutes (raised heart rate) and towards the number of stairs climbed (due to the elevation)!  Stair climbing (along with distance walked, when many of the steps are around the home/office) seems a bit of a gimmick but still another metric to compare. It’s not 100% accurate, because Fitbit measures a flight of stairs as 10′ elevation (based on atmospheric pressure) – modern homes may be less than this, and commercial buildings more – but it’s there or thereabouts.

Sleep tracking is another reason I was interested in wearing a band, which is also the reason I can’t charge at night (as I do my phones). I’m not sure exactly how this works (it tracks time in bed, restlessness, and time awake) but I’m pretty sure “time reading a book before going to sleep” gets recorded as sleep (perhaps the low heart rate?), as does “lying in bed being lazy (a lie in)”. As mentioned previously, so does taking off my watch and pugging it in to charge after sleep as the software only seems to end the sleep when I’m active – and therefore starting to charge it whilst I’m still in bed extends the sleep time!

Some niggles

There are some minor niggles to watch for:

  • The Charge HR has a proper strap buckle (the Charge has a different clasp) and it can be tricky to get the correct adjustment (not too tight, not too loose for HR monitoring); however I haven’t worn a watch for many years so it may just be me getting used to having something on my wrist again.  More significantly, the strap is quite short (even the large version). Mine only has about another centimetre of expansion and, whilst I’m a stocky guy, I’m not huge – I’m sure there are others with bigger wrists than mine.
  • The watch face appears to be plastic rather than glass and I was disappointed to see it had scratched after a few days of use, although I was shown a Microsoft Band a few days ago and that was clearly scratched (on a much larger screen). I guess I’ve been spoiled by glass smartphone screens and expect the same from all devices…
  • If you’re in the UK, Fitbit’s food record database is terrible. So far the only items recognised by the barcode scanner in the app have been from Costco (i.e. American products) and I’ve used other apps that do a much better job for this. Also, the Fitbit food tracker can’t create recipes (i.e. add a bunch of ingredients, save as a recipe with x portions, then eat y portions). After a few days, my common food items have mostly been added manually (which has taken quite a lot of time) but there’s still the issue of tracking food when eating out. Maybe it’s pedantic but it does seem to me to have little value in accurately tracking calories burned if I don’t accurately track calories eaten…
  • As with driving, when logging activities (exercise), be ready for some inaccuracy as (unless logged as a walk/run, etc. via the Fitbit app) because manually-logged activities can be recorded down to the second on duration but only to the minute on start/end times! So, if I take an activity from Strava (for example) that started at 16:39 and lasted 18m 11s… the heart rate graphs don’t quite match up. As you can’t edit an activity (only delete and re-record), it can take some trial and error to record it accurately.

App ecosystem

In general, activity tracking would actually be greatly improved if there was broader integration between apps (e.g. Strava-Fitbit or Garmin-Fitbit). There is an ecosystem of Fitbit-aware apps but we’re a long way from a universal health tracking app ecosystem. Added to that, the need for premium versions of each app, with subscriptions in order to integrate (e.g. MyNetDiary-Fitbit) could get expensive.  I’m hopeful that Apple, Microsoft et al will make great strides in this area (and I’ve linked my Fitbit account to Microsoft HealthVault) and it’s certainly something to watch over the next couple of years.

Conclusion

So, it seems that health tracking is useful, but I need to modify the way I work to deal with the Fitbit Charge HR’s shortcomings re: charging, sleep monitoring, food diaries, etc. I’m still really pleased with mine (and don’t think any other device would be any better, right now) but it’s not quite the put-it-on-and-ignore-it sensor I’d hoped to accurately quantify myself with! Maybe my expectations were just a little too high…

I bought my Fitbit Charge HR Heart Rate and Activity Wristband from Amazon UK.

Technology

Short takes: Shrinking Outlook OSTs; locating and removing “stale” Yammer users; editing GPS tracks

Some more snippets of blog posts…

Reducing the size of your Outlook offline store

Tim Anderson commented recently that he’d noticed how recreating his Outlook offline store (.OST) file was more effective than compressing it.  I decided to give mine a go (especially as my recently shrunken Inbox means there wouldn’t be much to re-sync).

Unfortunately, my IT admins appear to have locked down my configuration via group policy so I couldn’t disable/re-enable cached mode. @p3rfact came up with a suggestion that worked though:

As it happens, my file was not that large – although recreating it did reduce the size by around 25%.

Clearing out users from Yammer

Yammer  networks can be synchronised with Active Directory using Yammer Directory Sync but ours is not (for various reasons). There is a pretty simple workaround though for clearing out users from Yammer who have left the company (credit due to @AlanPurchase for working this one out):

  1. From the Network Admin view in Yammer, export a .CSV file with all the users in the network.
  2. Open the .CSV file in Excel and filter on the state field to show active users and on the email field to include domains that you are interested in (for example, I only wanted those in our UK organisation).
  3. Cut and paste email addresses into a new email in Outlook, then use Ctrl+K to resolve the names against the Global Address List. Anyone that isn’t in the GAL will not have their email address resolved.
  4. In Yammer, remove each of the users that are no longer in the organisation – you have the option to remove their posts or leave their posts and remove the account (more details in Microsoft knowledge base article 2820235).

GPS Track Editing

I’ve blogged before about how I log all of my bike rides, runs, etc. – it’s sad, but I like to see where I went on a map – and to know how I performed. Every once on a while, things go wrong though – like one time last summer when my Garmin suddenly decided I was several miles away and the route I was following became nonsense. The only answer was to reset the thing and start tracking again (breaking my ride into multiple tracks).

I found a free GPS Track Editor that helped me to merge/edit tracks (directly editing the XML in GPX files is a chore) and create something that at least represented the route I was on (although it does have one section that is a dead straight line “joining the gap” between my two usable tracks – it should actually follow the road via Whittlebury)!

Technology Waffle and randomness

A manifesto for improved use of email

Email. A critical business communication tool: ubiquitous in its use; with global reach – it’s clear to see how the benefits of improved, anytime, anywhere communication have broken down barriers and created efficiencies. But has email reached a tipping point – where the volume of messages and the need to respond have changed the focus from email as a tool that helps us to perform our work to one where email has become the work itself?

The problem of email overload has led some people to call for “no email days”, or to consider the “email rapture” (i.e. what would we do if email suddenly didn’t exist) and some organisations (most famously Atos) have initiated programmes to reduce or remove the use of internal email, using evocative terms like “information pollution”. (Forrester Analyst Philipp Karcher has an interesting view on this too.)  Others have targeted other drains on productivity (e.g. Coca Cola’s crackdown on voicemail) but it’s clear that there is a huge hidden cost associated with unproductivity in the way we communicate in the workplace.

I became an “email bankrupt” recently where, on return from the Christmas holidays, I processed the new items in my Inbox and moved everything else to an archive – starting a new year fresh with a new (empty) Inbox and vowing to stay on top of it (tidy Inbox… tidy mind).  Many of the archived messages were over a year old and whilst I intended to take action on them, there just wasn’t enough time in the day.  Mine is not an isolated case though – there are many stories on the Internet of those who have found it cathartic to start afresh – and many more with suggestions for keeping on top of things. Some ideas have gained traction, like the Inbox Zero approach evangelised by Merlin Mann or Scott Hanselman’s Outlook rules for processing email but the problem was perfectly summed up for me late in 2014 when I saw Matthew Inman’s cartoon depicting email as a monster that craves attention.

A cultural issue?

Many of the issues associated with email are cultural – in that it’s not the technology that’s at fault, but the way that people use it. For example, email is an asynchronous communication mechanism – i.e. the sender and recipient do not both need to be online at the same time for the message to be sent and received; however many email users seem to expect an immediate, or at least rapid response to email.  Multiply this by many tens or hundreds of emails sent/received a day – and their replies (possibly in various threads as people are copied or dropped from the distribution) – the resulting volumes of email become significant, as does the effort required to process it.  Consider the cost of this email mountain and the numbers are staggering (one infographic estimates the cost of processing email in North America alone to be around $1.7 trillion) – so anything that can be done to reduce the volume of email has to be positive.

In an age of smartphones and mobile communications, out of office messages may seem a little quaint (although we all need to take holidays – and that should include a break from business communications – although that’s a topic worthy of its own discussion) but the need to say “I’m travelling so my response may be delayed” is indicative of an organisation whose culture expects emails to be answered quickly – and where email is used as a task manager, rather than an information-sharing and collaboration tool. Not that there’s anything wrong with using email as a task manager within a workflow system – that’s a perfectly valid use of the technology – but when knowledge workers send an email asking someone to do something (often without context) as if it somehow absolves them of responsibility for a task and passes the baton to another, email becomes a giant “to do list” over which the owner has no control!

Paradoxically, the rapid response to email (fuelled by notifications each time a new one arrives) is feeding the email habits of others – if your colleagues are used to receiving rapid responses, late night replies, etc. to their emails then you make the problem worse by continuing to respond in that manner – a conditioned reflex which could be thought of as “Pavlov’s Inbox” (credit is due to Matt Ballantine for that observation).

Time for change – an email manifesto

In the 1990s, as email was rolled out to large populations in government and commercial organisations, it was common practice to include training on email etiquette. Back then, the focus was on use of informal language for business communication and the implications of emailing other organisations, forwarding/replying/replying to all/copying, capital letters (shouting), emoticons, etc. but maybe we’ve reached a point where we need another round of cultural change – a new email etiquette for 2015 – an email manifesto?

  1. Email should only be used where appropriate. If an immediate/rapid response is required, consider alternatives such as instant messaging, or a phone call. Save email for communications that are not time-sensitive. Use other systems (e.g. enterprise social media platforms and RSS-based newsfeeds) for collaboration/knowledge sharing.
  2. Emails should include a clear call to action. If it’s not clear what is being asked, you’re unlikely to achieve the desired outcome.
  3. Email sent does not equal action taken. Consider that emails may not be received, may not be read, or may be ignored. Just because something is a priority to one person, department, or company doesn’t mean it is to another and, if you need someone to do something, make sure they are on-board and ready to work with you. If you don’t hear back, follow up later – but consider using another method of communication.
  4. Carbon copy (CC) or blind carbon copy (BCC) means “for information”. If you expect someone to take action (see previous point), make sure they are on the “To” line.
  5. The subject heading must be relevant to the content of the email. Topics sometimes branch off in new directions as the conversation develops and if someone new is brought in to the discussion then it really helps to have a relevant subject line!
  6. Keep it brief (but not too brief). Emails should be concise – a couple of paragraphs – any more and it won’t be read. If you have to spell things out in more detail use bullets, etc. but consider the reader – they might be reading the message on a mobile device and if you make it easy to understand you’re more likely to get a positive response.
  7. Check your email before you send it. Brevity is good but does your message make sense? All too often one line responses require the recipient to decipher ambiguity or read through pages and pages of message history to understand the context.
  8. Check calendars when scheduling meetings. This is only tangentially related but, if the email system includes calendar functionality, take the time to check availability before sending a meeting request. It may be the best time for you – but is everyone else free? On a related note, emails to groups of people asking “when’s best for a meeting” are a waste of everyone’s time – use the calendar scheduling tools!
  9. Consider the cost of email. Not the cost of running the systems but of continually checking email. Multitasking is a myth. Turn off email notifications and try to get out of the habit of glancing at your smartphone in meetings. Focus on one thing at a time and do that thing well. Think before you send email and consider that every email costs money and time!
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