Archive for November, 2010

Windows 7 Product Editions: A Comparison

Back in February, I wrote an article, Windows 7 Product Editions, in which I discussed the various SKUs (stock keeping units, or product editions) that Microsoft would provide with its next operating system. Now, with nearly fully-functional versions of each product edition available to the public, I thought I’d provide a series of tables comparing each Windows 7 product editon, similar in scope to the work I did documenting Windows Vista.

I believe these tables will help you pick which Windows 7 product edition makes the most sense for you, based on your needs and wants. Let’s dive right in.


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Note: This set of tables has been updated for the final, shipping versions of Windows 7. Unlike similar comparisons, these tables were generated using not by simply observering each product edition, but also by using Microsoft’s internal reporting mechanisms to determine exactly which features are, in fact, available in each version. For this reason, I can reasonably state that this is the most complete and accurate list of Windows 7 features anywhere. That said, I’m still human and could have made mistakes transcribing the information. If you see anything wrong or missing, or would like to see a certain feature added, please contact me.
Finding what you need

Availability     User interface features
Security features     Performance features
Reliability features     Bundled applications
Digital media and devices     Networking features
Mobility features     Enterprise features

Availability

Home Basic     Starter     Home Premium     Professional     Enterprise & Ultimate
Retail packaging                 Yes     Yes     Ult. only
Can purchase electronically                 Yes     Yes     Ult. only
Pricing: Full version                 $199.99     $299.99     $319.99 (Ult)
Pricing: Upgrade version                 $119.99     $199.99     $219.99 (Ult.)
Bundled with new PCs in major markets           Yes     Yes     Yes     Ult. only
Windows Anytime Upgrade (WAU)     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes
WAU pricing/To Home Premium     $79.99     $79.99
WAU pricing/To Professional           $114.99     $89.99
WAU pricing/To Ultimate     $164.99     $164.99     $139.99     $129.99
Virtualization rights (Can be installed in a virtual environment)                 Yes     Yes     Yes

User interface features

Home Basic     Starter     Home Premium     Professional     Enterprise & Ultimate
Windows Basic UI     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes
Windows Standard UI     Yes           Yes     Yes     Yes
Windows Aero UI (“Glass”)                 Yes     Yes     Yes
Aero Peek                 Yes     Yes     Yes
Aero Snaps     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes
Aero Shake                 Yes     Yes     Yes
Aero Background                 Yes     Yes     Yes
Libraries     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes
Windows Flip     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes
Windows Flip 3D                 Yes     Yes     Yes
Live Taskbar Previews     Yes           Yes     Yes     Yes
Live Preview (Explorer)                 Yes     Yes     Yes
Jump Lists     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes
Windows Search     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes

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Security features

Home Basic     Starter     Home Premium     Professional     Enterprise & Ultimate
More granular UAC     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes
Action Center     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes
Windows Defender     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes
Windows Firewall     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes
IE 8 Protected Mode and DEP support     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes
Windows Update (can access Microsoft Update)     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes
Fast User Switching     Yes           Yes     Yes     Yes
Parental Controls     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes

Performance features

Home Basic     Starter     Home Premium     Professional     Enterprise & Ultimate
Windows ReadyDrive     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes
Windows ReadyBoost     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes
SuperFetch     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes
64-bit processor support     No     No     Yes     Yes     Yes
Physical processor support     1     1     1     2     2
Processor core support     Unlimited     Unlimited     Unlimited     Unlimited     Unlimited
Max RAM (32-bit)     4 GB     4 GB     4 GB     4 GB     4 GB
Max RAM (64-bit)     n/a     n/a     16 GB     192 GB     192 GB

Reliability features

Home Basic     Starter     Home Premium     Professional     Enterprise & Ultimate
Windows Backup     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes
System image     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes
Problem Steps Recorder     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes
Backup to network                       Yes     Yes
Encrypting File System (EFS)                       Yes     Yes
BitLocker                             Yes
BitLocker To Go                             Yes
Automatic hard disk defragmentation     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes
Previous Versions     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes
Create and attach (mount) VHD     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes

Bundled applications

Home Basic     Starter     Home Premium     Professional     Enterprise & Ultimate
Internet Explorer 8     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes
Windows Gadgets and Gallery     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes
Games Explorer with basic games (FreeCell, Hearts, Minesweeper, Purble Palace, Solitaire, Spider Solitaire)     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes
Premium games (Internet Backgammon, Internet Checkers, Internet Spades, Mahjong Titans)                 Yes     Yes     Yes
Calculator     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes
Paint     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes
Snipping Tool                 Yes     Yes     Yes
Sticky Notes                 Yes     Yes     Yes
Windows Journal                 Yes     Yes     Yes
Windows Fax and Scan     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes
Windows PowerShell and ISE     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes
WordPad     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes
XPS Viewer     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes

Digital media and devices

Home Basic     Starter     Home Premium     Professional     Enterprise & Ultimate
Windows Photo Viewer     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes
Basic photo slide shows     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes
Windows Media Player 12 with Play To     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes
Windows Media Player Remote Media Experience                 Yes     Yes     Yes
MPEG-2 decoding                 Yes     Yes     Yes
Dolby Digital compatibility                 Yes     Yes     Yes
AAC and H.264 decoding     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes
DVD playback                 Yes     Yes     Yes
Can install MPEG-2 (DVD playback) add-in     Yes     Yes     n/a     n/a     n/a
Windows Media Center                 Yes     Yes     Yes
Number of TV tuners supported                 4 of each type (analog, digital, etc.)     4 of each type (analog, digital, etc.)     4 of each type (analog, digital, etc.)
Windows DVD Maker                 Yes     Yes     Yes
Device Stage     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes
Sync Center     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes

Networking features

Home Basic     Starter     Home Premium     Professional     Enterprise & Ultimate
SMB connections     20     20     20     20     20
Network and Sharing Center     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes
HomeGroup sharing     Join only     Join only     Yes     Yes     Yes
Ad-hoc network create and join     Yes     Yes, but accessible only via Start Menu Search     Yes     Yes     Yes
Improved power management     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes
Connect to a Projector     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes
Remote Desktop     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes
Remote Desktop Host                       Yes     Yes
IIS Web Server                 Yes     Yes     Yes
RSS support     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes
Internet Connection Sharing     Yes           Yes     Yes     Yes
Network Bridge     Yes           Yes     Yes     Yes
Offline files                       Yes     Yes

Mobility features

Home Basic     Starter     Home Premium     Professional     Enterprise & Ultimate
Windows Mobility Center     Yes (No presentation mode)           Yes (No presentation mode)     Yes     Yes
Windows Sideshow (Auxilliary display)                 Yes     Yes     Yes
Sync Center     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes
Tablet PC functionality                 Yes     Yes     Yes
Multi-Touch support                 Yes     Yes     Yes

Enterprise features

Home Basic     Starter     Home Premium     Professional     Enterprise & Ultimate
Domain join (Windows Server)                       Yes     Yes
XP Mode licensed                       Yes     Yes
AppLocker                             Yes
Boot from VHD                             Yes
BranchCache                             Yes
DirectAccess                             Yes
Federated Search (Enterprise Search Scopes)                             Yes
Multilingual User Interface (MUI) Language Packs                             Yes
Location-aware printing                       Yes     Yes
Subsystem for UNIX-based Applications                             Yes

With MED-V, Microsoft Moves One Step Closer to the Future of App Compatibility

Last week, Microsoft announced the availability of the 1.0 version of its Microsoft Enterprise Desktop Virtualization (MED-V) product, part of the Microsoft Desktop Optimization Pack (MDOP) set of tools that the software giant makes available to its volume license customers. MED-V, along with associated tools like Virtual PC and App-V (Application Virtualization) is, I think, the future of Windows application compatibility, a theme we’ve discussed a few times here in the past. But now that MED-V has been finalized, what was once a theory can now be put to the test.




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MED-V removes one of the biggest barriers to adopting a new version of Windows because it eliminates the need for application compatibility testing. Until now, migrating to a new Windows version entails a lengthy compatibility testing process and, usually, investigations into what it will take to move critical custom applications, LOB (line of business) applications, and other client software over to the new OS. This delays the rollout of the new OS, and prevents users from taking advantage of that system’s enhanced security and functionality.

With MED-V, application compatibility is decoupled from the OS. Those applications that cannot run natively under the new Windows version can be deployed to desktops under a hidden Virtual PC-based virtual environment. To the end user, however, they’re simply running the applications that they need, and they don’t need to deal with separate virtual and physical desktops. Instead, MED-V allows virtualized applications to run side-by-side with native applications and interact properly with the underlying PC’s file system and other capabilities. The effect is nearly seamless.

MED-V
With MED-V, you can run virtualized legacy applications alongside more modern local applications.

Of course, in its current incarnation, MED-V requires you to participate in Microsoft’s volume licensing program, which somewhat impacts its availability. Too, similar MDOP tools like App-V–which lets you essentially stream virtualized applications from a server to clients without requiring them to be installed locally–are similarly constrained from an availability perspective. But I have no doubt that Microsoft will make this technology more broadly available in the future, if only for the simple fact that it removes the need to saddle the core Windows OS with backwards-compatible APIs and components. Suddenly, the fetters are off.

Even Microsoft hints as much. On its MED-V web page, the software giant hints at future use-cases for MED-V beyond the 1.0 release: “In future releases, MED-V in conjunction with the new VECD [Vista Enterprise Centralized Desktop] licensing, may be used to deliver a corporate virtual image to ‘unmanaged’ PCs, and reduce the tension between IT control and user flexibility. [This will] increase productivity for on-site contractors, offshore outsourcing and branch offices, enable employees to work from home or with personal laptops, [and] drive business continuity and recovery plans with virtual desktops anywhere.”

I’m excited about what this technology portends. I think it’s safe to say you can expect to see a lot more about this topic in the coming months. And if you’re already licensing MDOP or can do so, be sure to check out MED-V. It may just forever alter how you view application compatibility on new versions of Windows.

MED-V: The Final Piece of the Vista Compatibility Puzzle?

Microsoft this past week issued a beta version of its upcoming Microsoft Enterprise Desktop Virtualization (MED-V) tool, previously codenamed “Kidaro.” (Kidaro was the name of the company that originally created this technology; Microsoft purchased Kidaro in March 2008.) OK, so the name isn’t that great. But MED-V will be a key driver to more modern Windows versions because it provides enterprises with a way to overcome that final compatibility bump with Windows Vista and, soon, Windows 7.

As previously announced, MED-V will be made available to Software Assurance (SA) customers via the Microsoft Desktop Optimization Pack (MDOP), which is already a stellar collection of virtualization and management tools. (We last discussed MDOP in A Look at Microsoft Desktop Optimization Pack from April 2008.) This addition will make MDOP all the more valuable to SA customers, though I’d still like to see this important suite of functionality become available to a wider audience.



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MED-V builds off of Microsoft’s free Virtual PC desktop virtualization solution, but eliminates a key complaint about that product by removing the underlying virtual machine (VM) UI and allowing users to simply run Virtual PC-hosted applications as if they were installed locally on their PC. Consider the way Virtual PC normally works: The user would have to manually start up the VM, deal with two different Windows desktops (their “actual” desktop and the virtualized one), one of which is running in a window. And then they would have to remember where to find certain applications, as they typically run some things locally and some in the VM.

With MED-V, these distinctions disappear, and to the user, they’re using a single, cohesive environment. Shortcuts for virtualized applications and local applications appear side by side in the PC’s Start Menu, so users need only think of individual applications and not worry about which are running inside of virtualized environments and which are running natively. If there’s a major downside, it’s one of resource allotment: Virtualized applications still require the overhead of their virtualized OS, so the physical PC will typically need to be a bit beefier than that $399 Dell special.

From an administration perspective, MED-V allows enterprises to deploy virtualized applications on demand, and via a number of deployment technologies, including DVDs, USB memory fobs, and the web. You can use policies to lock down these environments, making MED-V a perfect solution for security conscious businesses with remote offices or transient workers. And MED-V can simplify management across the board because applications are decoupled from specific hardware configurations.

The biggest benefit to MED-V, however, is that it decouples application compatibility issues from the Windows OS for good, and my guess is that Microsoft will be closely watching how well this solution fares in the real world to determine whether it can form the basis for a broader compatibility break that could come in a future version of Windows. To date, one of the biggest concerns with any new Windows version is that it be compatible with legacy applications, some of which are over a decade old. This reliance has stymied innovation in some ways, because Microsoft must continually serve the needs of a market that stopped upgrading their applications years ago. With MED-V, it’s possible to gain the benefits of the newest Windows versions without worrying about application compatibility because it’s possible to use any previous Windows version as the guest OS for virtualized applications inside of this environment.

If MED-V sounds like it might be just the right fit for your enterprise, I recommend checking out the beta, which is now available via Microsoft’s Connect web site. The company has made a Quick Start Guide available as well.

Microsoft expects to ship the final version of MED-V sometime in the second quarter of 2009.

SBS 7 Highlights Gaps in Microsoft’s Small Business Strategy

The Windows Small Business Server (SBS) world is being torn asunder as you read this, thanks to Microsoft’s decision to split the product into two separate product lines that will, in effect, compete with each other.

OK, maybe that’s a bit dramatic. But it’s impossible to evaluate both of these next-generation SBS products–SBS “Aurora,” which dispenses with most of the of the on-premise stuff in lieu of the cloud, and SBS “7,” which is basically just the next version of the SBS you all know and love–without feeling a bit conflicted.


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I’ve already discussed Aurora a number of times (see here and here). But since both products take a decidedly different tack, you might believe that Microsoft is hedging its bets between the cloud-based future and the on-premise past. But that’s not what’s happening here, not really. Microsoft’s bet, such as it is, is with the future, with the cloud, and with Aurora in the SBS space. SBS 7 exists solely because the software giant has already created a thriving ecosystem for partners that wish to sell and maintain SBS with their own customers. SBS 7 gives these customers a way to move forward.

Maybe “forward” isn’t the right word. SBS 7 gives Microsoft and its partners an upgrade to sell. But it’s an upgrade that is rooted firmly in the on-premise past. Those SBS-using small businesses that would like to move into the cloud can do so, of course. But they have to do that on their own.

Why is this? Simple: Microsoft’s partners–the customers that support traditional SBS products–have no incentive to push customers to the cloud. So while Microsoft can make the argument that SBS 7 provides its existing customers with a way to upgrade to the functional advances and improved security of its latest products, this product is really just a partner play. And at its heart, that’s what I don’t like about it. SBS 7 isn’t as customer-centric as it perhaps should be.

(That said, Aurora is perhaps too simplistic. Indeed, there’s a weird sense of “now what?” with Aurora.)

Hopefully, a future SBS version will bridge the gap between these two products, and Microsoft will provide an upgrade to existing SBS customers that lets them cross over to cloud-based solutions as an integrated part of the upgrade experience.

Perhaps. Meanwhile, back in the reality-land, I’ve spent much of the past week or so examining the next follow-up to Microsoft’s traditional SBS products, SBS 7. If you’re familiar with SBS, there are no major surprises. But if it’s been a while, here’s a quick overview.

SBS 7 installs as do traditional Windows Server versions and doesn’t utilize the super-simple Aurora-style installer. Indeed, the first phase of Setup is essentially identical to that of Windows Server 2008 R2 Standard (or even Windows 7), which is certainly simple enough. But in comparing SBS 7 with Aurora, you can see how the needle has moved even further towards idiot-proof in Aurora.

SBS 7 Highlights Gaps in Microsoft’s Small Business Strategy

Once Windows Server is installed, of course, you have to deal a bit of configuration as well as with the other Microsoft servers that are bundled into this product. It’s as tedious as ever, but no surprises there. Management occurs via the familiar management console, with its quick look at network health assessment column (where “green is good”).

Unlike Aurora, SBS 7 expects to be the center of your network, doling out DHCP addresses and whatnot. So it will detect the current network configuration and then seeks to replace it with its own scheme. This is actually understandable but speaks to the major underlying differences between Aurora and the old-school SBS 7.

Depending on your perspective, there are complexities–or tons of functionality–everywhere in SBS 7. You can create reports, manage software licenses, and access a variety of intranet web sites. There is a server firewall, a VPN connection, and a POP3 connector to think about. Users have roles, like Network Administrator and Standard User with administration links, and exist within groups, like Windows SBS Fax Users, Windows SBS SharePoint_MembersGroup and many more.

SBS 7 Highlights Gaps in Microsoft’s Small Business Strategy

Put more simply, SBS 7 is too complex for a small business. And while the original ideas behind SBS were always well intentioned, in today’s world, this product seems anachronistic. Where Aurora can be set up and forgotten, SBS 7 requires your time. It needs to be managed. I believe this product was specifically engineered to require oversight.

I understand that there are those fans of SBS who will recoil at my opinion of this product. But at least let me offer you this roundabout fig leaf: Microsoft’s online offerings are also woefully unprepared for the unwashed masses. Primarily, the issue is cost, not quality. With Google offering a free version of its Google Apps solution, I’m unclear on why small businesses–especially the smallest of small businesses–would ever opt to pay for Microsoft’s. It’s that simple.

For this reason, I suspect that the vast majority of small business customers out there that do adopt a Microsoft server product in the future will choose Aurora. But they’ll also adopt Google Apps, and not Microsoft’s BPOS or other hosted services, as the Microsoft offerings are just too expensive. And this is a situation that needs to change.

Note: Coincidentally, Microsoft this week touted some BPOS (and Live @edu) “wins,” including a tripling of the BPOS installed base and adoptions by some impressive corporations. This is fantastic, and no one is suggesting that BPOS isn’t a great offering for mid-sized businesses and the enterprise. My concern here is more for small businesses.

Microsoft and HTML 5: Solving the Compatibility Problem

At the Professional Developers Conference 2010 (PDC10) last week, a Microsoft executive misspoke, or at least over-generalized, with regards to the software giant’s plans for HTML 5 and Silverlight, kicking off an online debate about the viability of the respective technologies and a hasty public statement on Microsoft’s corporate web site. But this episode underscores a much deeper problem around compatibility that is going to dog businesses of all sizes for years to come, a situation that will only be exacerbated by the popularity of heterogeneous smart phone platforms.


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What kicked this all off was a set of comments by Microsoft Server and Tools president Bob Muglia about Microsoft’s strategy for Silverlight. “HTML is the only true cross-platform solution for everything, including [Apple’s] iOS platform,” he said. “Our Silverlight strategy and focus going forward has shifted … Silverlight is our development platform for Windows Phone.”

This seems straightforward enough. But with developers up in arms over the possibility that Microsoft was deemphasizing Silverlight on the PC and on the web, the software giant was doing some backpedaling early this week. “Silverlight is very important and strategic to Microsoft,” Muglia wrote in a statement on the Silverlight team blog. [It’s] “a core application development platform for Windows, and it’s the development platform for Windows Phone.”

I have to be honest: That revised statement is more in keeping with my understanding about Microsoft’s plans for Silverlight. And if you really care about Silverlight for some reason, please do read the whole open letter.

This specific topic isn’t of particular interest to me, however. Most businesses are never going to embrace Silverlight, at least not on Windows or the web. Heck, many businesses still haven’t moved off of Internet Explorer 6 anyway. Silverlight isn’t even on the menu. It may never be.

What I am interested in is how we solve the compatibility problems that have arisen in the wake of the platform diversification that has been sweeping IT. And this is across the board: On servers, on the desktop, and now on mobile devices.

While the server is unique and perhaps outside the bounds of this discussion, the client desktop and mobile devices come with arguably identical issues around compatibility. But unlike in the past, these issues are no longer insurmountable, or at least don’t have to be. And the solution, in both cases, is HTML 5. And the driver, in both cases, is user demand.

The latter is perhaps easier to explain. Whereas it was inconceivable that many users in a typical business would be able to choose a Mac over a PC, that’s no longer the case. Thanks to steady and regular market share gains, the Mac now has an appreciable share of the market, especially in the US, where Apple has exceeded 10 percent market share.

The demand for Macs comes, of course, from the demand for iPhones, which is in turn even more voluminous. A good experience with the iPhone leads to evangelism with other users, and also to repeated trips to the Apple basket, with more and more users considering and purchasing other Apple products, including Macs, iPads, and iPods. It is, as Apple recently noted, a virtuous cycle.

Android has benefitted from a similar popular demand on the mobile device side, and with Google’s platform, of course, users also have more choice, both with hardware models and with wireless carriers. Android and iPhone smart phones and, to a lesser extent, Macs are recasting the possibilities for knowledge workers, and not just those that are always on the go.

The problem with these disparate platforms, at least theoretically, is compatibility. This was a bigger issue in the past than it is now, however. As Google noted at its Google I/O conference earlier this year, no major new PC-specific applications have appeared in the past several years. Instead, all the major new apps have been web based, and run equally well on standards-based browsers on any desktop OS, including Windows, the Mac, and even Linux.

And while some Windows-centric shops are still building Windows-based applications, many intranets and extranets are completely web-based, and if they’re not, they should be. Embracing web standards can eliminate a lot of problems, and for those few remaining monolithic desktop apps like Microsoft Office, heck, there’s a good version for the Mac too.

And when it comes to web standards, the industry is rallying around something called HTML 5, which is really HTML 5 plus a host of related technologies, including in-progress versions of Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), the JavaScript/ECMAScript programming language, and more. HTML 5 is more promise than reality–right now–but even Microsoft is embracing it, their predictable backpedaling on Silverlight notwithstanding. It’s pretty clear that the changes we’re seeing in Internet Explorer 9 are only the beginning: I expect this trend to accelerate in Windows 8, due just 18 months from now.

On the mobile side, HTML 5 is a bit more future-leaning, but could, I think, bridge the gap between disparate and incompatible platforms like the iPhone, Android, and, soon, Windows Phone, just as it is on the desktop. Today, these smart phones all run different OSes with incompatible apps. But if developers create mobile web solutions instead of native apps–as they have on the desktop–this problem can be erased, where possible. In many cases, there won’t be any need to develop three completely different apps in different environments, and with different languages. Instead, they can create a single web app.

Microsoft is wise to restate its goals for Silverlight. But make no mistake: The software giant is embracing HTML 5 as its path to the future. You should as well.

Apple iOS 4

Apple’s fourth generation mobile operating system, renamed just before launch from iPhone OS 4 to iOS 4, is the standard by which all other mobile systems must be judged. And it’s a high bar: The iOS has matured from an amazing but deeply flawed platform to one that is both easy to use and achingly powerful. It’s so good, in fact, that’s it’s taken the rest of the mobile device industry years to catch up. (Only Google’s Android seems to have surpassed iOS in any meaningful way so far.)

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With iOS 4, Apple of course hopes to extend its lead and raise the bar yet again. Not to pull a Walt Mossberg here, but I’ve been using near-final versions of iOS for several weeks now on various Apple devices, including an iPhone 3GS (before it was stolen), an iPhone 3G, and a 3rd generation iPod touch. And while I’m still looking forward to getting an iPhone 4 as soon as possible, and to the eventual iOS 4 version for the iPad, it’s already clear that Apple has a hit on its hands.

That said, if iOS falls short in any one area, it’s the in-out-in-out usage model that’s dictated by the system’s heavy emphasis on discrete apps. Apple has somewhat mitigated the navigational issues caused by this limited system by adding multitasking support as described below. But this is one area–perhaps the only area–where Microsoft’s upcoming Windows Phone 7 system has the edge. For now, however, smart phone and device users are comfortable with the app-based usage model, and iOS 4 likely represents the high water market for such systems. Certainly, years of experience have given Apple an advantage with honing and fine-tuning how the user interface looks and works.

Multitasking
Apple was justifiably lambasted for introducing an otherwise innovative smart phone OS without multitasking in 2007 and then upgrading it over three years but not adding this obviously necessary feature. Now, finally, they’ve done so, and I have to say, it was worth the wait, with one major caveat. It doesn’t work with almost any of the 225,000 apps that are currently available for the iPhone and iPod touch. And yes, they will all need to be updated before they are compatible with iOS 4 multitasking. Every single one of them. (Built-in iOS 4 apps multitask just fine, of course.)

This is hugely important, and I’m a bit surprised Apple wasn’t more upfront about this major limitation. If you’re playing a game and switch to another app, and then back to the game, it starts over, losing your place. If you’re playing music via Pandora and try to switch apps, Pandora stops playing music. And so on. My guess is that app makers are going to race to add explicit support for multitasking and other iOS features quickly. But that means we’re all going to face massive, time-consuming app upgrades as well. (And if you use an iPhone, iPod touch or iPad today, you know exactly what I mean.) It’s going to be a busy couple of months, at least.

Complaints aside, as Apple has explained again and again, multitasking on a mobile device is easy if you’re not concerned about performance and battery life. But getting it right–supplying a good app switching experience while conserving both performance and battery life–is the Holy Grail. Both Windows Mobile and Android offer multitasking, for example, but both also suffer from some unfriendly issues around memory overuse as apps pile up in the background. (In both cases, the system is supposed to seamlessly shut down the oldest running app, but this doesn’t always work.)

Apple’s approach to multitasking is similar to what Microsoft plans to offer in Windows Phone 7, but is more complete in that it offers an actual app switching UI, one that will make plenty of sense to current iPhone and iPod touch users. Here’s how it works. When you’re using an app, just hit the Home button to return to the home screen. Then launch another app. Instead of quitting, the first app goes into suspended animation and waits to be relaunched. To access the app switching UI, double-tap the Home button. This brings up the new multitasking interface, where an icon for each running app sits in the bottom of the screen. This list can extend over several screens, so you can scroll left and right. And whatever was running–an app, the home screen–visually slides up above this list. To exit the multitasking interface, just tap anywhere in the app UI, or tap the Home button.

Apple iOS 4
When you double-click on the Home button, a list of running apps appears on the bottom of the device. (Well, on the right in this shot, since it’s in landscape mode for game play.)

If you choose another app in the list, it will pick up where it left off (assuming it’s compatible with multitasking; otherwise, it restarts). This UI works amazingly well, and the suddenly canonical example of when you’d use it the most often–you click on a web link in Mail, browse it in Safari, and then wish to return to Mail–illustrates this most obviously. Pre-multitasking, this series of steps could be dogged by many additional taps and swipes, depending on which screen your Mail and Safari icons were found. In iOS 4, it’s a simple process: Read an email. Click a link. Read that page in Safari. Then, double-tap Home. In the apps list at the bottom, tap Mail. You’re back.

Multitasking offers other unique capabilities. For audio apps–iPod now, but Pandora and others at launch and beyond–playback can now continue in the background. The iPod app offered this in all previous iOS releases, of course. But there’s a new pop-up player control, since the old shortcut–double-tapping the Home button–is usurped by multitasking. So this control is located to the leftmost part of the multitasking interface. As you slide all the way over, you’ll see these controls, along with two new icons. The first, on the left, is an orientation lock, a software version of the screen rotation lock on the iPad, and can be locked (or unlocked) when the iPhone/iPod is in either orientation. The second is an iPod icon, so you can jump right into the built-in media player.

Amazon Kindle 3

Amazon’s Kindle has always been the best eBook reader on the market, and with the latest version, the Kindle 3, the gap has widened to ludicrous proportions. There are two factors to this success. First, the Kindle simply offers the best eBook experience anywhere, with none of the horrific onscreen reflection, bulky heft, or lack of available titles that dogs Apple’s lackluster iPad. And second, thanks to heightened competition in the eBook market, the Kindle is now reasonably priced, erasing my only serious complaint about previous versions. No software or consumer electronics product is perfect of course. But the Kindle 3 comes awfully close.

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[ Read my review of the Kindle 2. ]

I ordered my first Kindle the day the original model was announced, and I jumped on board with the Kindle 2 immediately as well. But I’ve never been so overwhelmingly positive about the superiority of this product as I am with this latest version. The Kindle 3 is the culmination of years of software improvements, some steady if minor updates to the e-ink screen, some impressive (and Apple-esque) hardware design improvements, and an ever-growing library of content that is available not just on Amazon’s devices, but also on PCs, Macs, iPhones, iPod touches, iPads, and even Android smart phones.

Amazon Kindle 3
Three generations of Kindle eBook readers.

The improvements in the Kindle 3 are truly impressive. The device now ships in two models, a correctly priced (at $140) Wi-Fi version that comes in a gorgeous new graphite enclosure, and a higher-end $190 version, in graphite or white, that adds free 3G wireless connectivity with (non-free) global wireless coverage. I purchased one of each: A Wi-Fi model for my wife and a 3G version for myself. (There’s also a much larger Kindle DX, aimed at the education market, that sells for $380.)

Compared to the previous generation Kindle, the Kindle 3 is smaller, lighter, and more attractive, but it retains the exact same screen size. That screen, however, is much improved, with dramatically better readability thanks to 50 percent better contrast. The flash/pause effect that occurs when the screen redraws is less annoying too. This screen leaves competing eBook readers, and Apple’s reflection-happy iPad, in the dust. There is no comparison, especially in direct sunlight, where the iPad is reduced to a $650 mirror. (For those concerned about the Kindle’s lack of backlighting, Amazon sells a cover with an integrated reading light.)

Also, Amazon last year improved the presentation of periodicals, and with the Kindle 3 you also get nice new crisp fonts, making my daily reading of the New York Times all the more enjoyable.

Amazon Kindle 3
The Kindle 3’s contrast superiority is obvious.

The form factor changes are equally impressive. The new Kindle is so small and elegant looking, you can’t believe there isn’t an Apple logo on it. It makes even the previous generation Kindle, which was a huge improvement in its own right a year ago, look stodgy by comparison.

According to Amazon, the Kindle 3 is over 20 percent smaller than its predecessor. And its 17 percent lighter, at just 8.5 ounces. Put another way, the Kindle 3 weighs exactly one-third as much as an iPad. It is thus far easier to hold, and can actually be held and used with one hand. You’d ruin your wrist and your sanity trying that with Apple’s device.

Another area in which the Kindle makes the iPad look silly is battery life. Apple claims 9 to 10 hours of battery life for the iPad, whereas Amazon says the Kindle battery life is up to one month long, assuming wireless is off, or three weeks with the wireless on. I’ve only had the new version for several days, but I’ve yet to charge it, and the previous version routinely went longer than a week with the wireless on. Again, no contest.

Amazon Kindle 3
Another Kindle 3/Kindle 2 size comparison.

There are other improvements, both to the hardware and software. The storage allotment goes from 2GB to 4GB, though I have never even come close to filling up the Kindle 2, and I buy books regularly. Wi-Fi connectivity means faster book downloading, though this was never an issue with the 3G-based previous model. The PDF reader has been enhanced (as it was previously on the Kindle DX), though I believe Amazon’s bigger device would offer a better experience for PDF files.

You want books? Amazon has almost 700,000 books, including almost all of the 100 NYT best sellers. It’s compatible with almost 2 million free, out of print titles, too. And most Kindle paid titles–about 550,000 worth–cost just $9.99 or less, undercutting Apple’s $15 average. Meanwhile, Apple offers a much tinier library for iPad users through its iBooks store, with just thousands of titles. (iBooks does offer a much better PDF reading experience, however, assuming you can get past the screen’s reflective behavior.)

From a form factor perspective, I find the new graphite shell to be much nicer looking (and easier on the eyes) than the old Apple-like white exterior. There’s also less “stuff” around the screen, thanks to the smaller new form factor. The back and forward buttons are smaller and quieter–for those who like to read in bed but don’t want to bother their spouse–and the keyboard and navigational controls have been reworked a bit. Now, instead of the weird little joystick from the Kindle 2, there’s a simple and intuitive four-way control button. Perfect.

As with the previous Kindles, Amazon supports the Kindle 3 with various cases and other accessories. I purchased a leather case for both of our new Kindle 3’s, which make them look like classy old books while providing the necessary protection.

Amazon Kindle 3
Kindle 3 with leather case.

The only logical complaint about the Kindle 3 is that it doesn’t feature a color screen. Fair enough. But few of the books I read would ever take advantage of such a thing, and I prefer readability over color, as should any regular reader. This is an eBook reader designed for readers, not for trendy technology lovers. (Though it should scratch that itch as well.)

I can’t recommend the Kindle 3 enough. I had originally planned to move my wife from the original Kindle to the Kindle 2 as I moved forward to the new model. But the Kindle 3 was so much better than its predecessors that I simply ordered one for her as well. It’s that good.

Highly recommended.

Windows Live Essentials 2011

Microsoft’s decision to strip out certain capabilities from Windows and make them available separately as a free downloadable application suite called Windows Live Essentials remains controversial. Indeed, the original justification for doing so–Microsoft says it can update the Essentials applications more quickly if they’re not part of the titanic Windows infrastructure–has not been borne out by reality. The company expects to ship the new version of Windows Live Essentials, the internally named “wave 4″ release, by the end of 2010, well over a year and a half after the wave 3 release. That’s not exactly timely.


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[ See my overview of Windows Live Essentials wave 3.]

And it’s not just the timing that leaves a rather unfulfilled feeling in the pit of my stomach. Today’s wave 3 version of Essentials certainly contains a number of valuable and useful applications, and for this reason it’s one of the very first things I install on my own PCs when I’m reinstalling the entire system from scratch. But it’s also big on promise while not fulfilling some very basic integration pieces. The current Essentials, for example, offers no way to directly access SkyDrive-based cloud storage. You can’t sync or even access Windows Live Calendar with Windows Mobile devices. And so on.

But it’s so darned close you can taste it. And with wave 4, the broad mission statement is the same: Windows Live Essentials consists of “rich applications that ‘light up’ Windows,” in this case Windows 7, though the suite will also work with Windows Vista. (Sorry, XP fans. Microsoft is using the new Windows Live Essentials as one of many ways in which it hopes to convince you to upgrade.) This time around, the integration is deeper, and the functionality even more full-featured than before. Microsoft has standardized on the useful ribbon UI, instead of the awful light-blue Windows 7 toolbar from the previous version. And it finally consolidates some tools that, before, were confusing and separate.

I can tell you right up front that I will continue installing Windows Live Essentials immediately each time I install Windows, and that its value has only increased in this release. But the wider question, the more pertinent question, is whether Microsoft has finally filled in those whole and provided a suite of applications that seamlessly bind Microsoft’s desktop OS with its online services. That’s the question I hope to answer in this review.

Note: At the time of this writing, Windows Live Essentials 2011 is available as a near-final public preview that is very representative of the final product from functionality, reliability, and performance perspectives.

Windows Live Essentials 2011
The new Windows Live Esssentials 2011 installer, called Windows Live Essentials Startup.

Office 2010 Review Part 3: Office Web Apps

As a long-time proponent of what is now called cloud computing, I’ve been eagerly awaiting Microsoft’s entry into the cloud-based office productivity market. This market has been dominated for too long by an unworthy entry, Google Docs, which to mind is dumbing down the user base by lowering expectations of what is possible on the web. Surely, I’ve thought, there’s got to be a better way.

Office Web Apps is Microsoft’s first real push into this market, since its disjointed Office Live Workspace and Office Live Small Business products neatly sidestepped the issue of working in the web and simply assumed that everyone would use PC-based versions of the various Office applications in tandem with live services. That strategy made sense years ago, but with Office Web Apps, Microsoft is finally making its first steps into Google Docs territory. My only worry is that it is doing so too tentatively.

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The Office Web Apps strategy is also just as disjointed as before. By my count, customers have several ways in which they can interact with both the Office Web Apps and the underlying cloud storage systems they utilize. These include:

Office 2010 desktop applications + Windows Live SkyDrive. In this scenario, you utilize a traditional Office application on your PC but access Microsoft’s free cloud-based storage service for consumers.

Office 2010 desktop applications + SharePoint 2010. Here, business users use traditional, PC-based Office applications with an internally-hosted (on-premise) document repository.

Office Web Apps Review
Office Web Apps running in an on-premise SharePoint server.

Office 2010 desktop applications + SharePoint Online. Here, business users use traditional, PC-based Office applications with a cloud-hosted document repository.

Office Web Apps + Windows Live SkyDrive. Consumers can access Microsoft’s free (but ad-supported), web-hosted versions of Word, Excel, OneNote, and PowerPoint via the Windows Live SkyDrive service.

Office Web Apps + SharePoint 2010. Businesses can host both SharePoint and Office Web Apps internally, where Office Web Apps is basically installed as an add-on for SharePoint 2010.

Docs.com. A special version of Office Web Apps aimed at Facebook users. This is essentially identical to the “Office Web Apps + Windows Live SkyDrive” option above, except that your sharing capabilities are determined by your Facebook friends list.

Office Web Apps Review
Docs.com works just like Office Web Apps on SkyDrive.

Confused yet?

It gets worse, of course, because you can also mix and match to your heart’s delight. And when Microsoft’s Windows Live Wave 4 arrives later this year, there are going to be some other changes and additions coming.

I’ve tested almost all of these scenarios, having left only the hosted SharePoint option to the imagination. And what I’ve discovered is that while Office Web Apps, overall, is far more capable than Google Docs, and offers a much more desktop-like experience, it still has a ways to go before it can replace any true PC-based solution. That this is all by design is, perhaps, the most frustrating aspect of this whole affair. Let’s see what’s happening.

Note: I’m going to use the phrase “Office documents” a lot in this review, and generally speaking I’m referring not just to Word documents, but also to Excel spreadsheets, PowerPoint presentations, and OneNote notes. This is just a convenient shorthand. If I want to reference something that is specific to Word, I will call that out as a “Word document.”
Office Web Apps 101

Microsoft positions Office Web Apps not as a direct competitor to Microsoft Office (or various desktop-based also-rans–OpenOffice.org, Lotus SmartSuite, Corel WordPerfect, and so on), but rather as a companion, or extension, to Microsoft Office. This positioning is important because Microsoft is wary of losing any of its many paying customers to a product that is essentially free to almost anyone who wants it. So Office Web Apps provides a familiar Office 2010 user experience, complete with a ribbon UI (albeit a very scaled back ribbon UI). It takes some advantage of its online-ness by allowing you to collaborate with others on the same document and in real-time. And it provides a relatively high-fidelity document viewing experience. Except of course when it doesn’t.

Office Web Apps Review
Each of the Office Web Apps provides an Office 2010-like ribbon user interface.

I suspect there are organizations out there that are eager to push their years-old investment in some earlier Office product forward a few more years, and that these organizations are looking to Office Web Apps as a possible solution to this need. I suspect further that these organizations will be disappointed, unless their users have very basic needs. Office Web Apps is a decent way to view Office documents, and a fairly decent way to edit them, but the latter is only true if you have never pushed the upper bounds of any Office application’s capabilities. But don’t get too carried away, because you may be surprised at what’s missing. What’s present, in these Web Apps, are just the basics.

By default, when you “open” a document in Office Web Apps, you will get the viewing experience. This experience hides the ribbon so that you can dedicate more onscreen real estate to the task at hand. Performance here is decent: In testing my most frequently used documents, each opened in 2-3 seconds and the viewing experience is pretty much exactly what you’d expect.

Office Web Apps Review
The Office Web App viewing experience dispenses with the ribbon.

Choose Edit in browser, however, and prepare for a wait. 5-6 seconds doesn’t sound like a lot. But in my experience, Word documents open more slowly in the browser–and that’s true whether we’re talking about the Microsoft-hosted SkyDrive experience or an on-premise SharePoint experience–than does the same document locally with Word 2010. And you get to see the ribbon render in front of you while you wait: A “Loading” graphic appears, and the gray outline of the ribbon, and you wait, and then finally the document is ready for editing.

Office Web Apps Review
Wait for it … Wait for it …

Light editing, that is. Because Office Web Apps only provides a small portion of the overall Office 2010 experience. Using Word as a typical example, there are three tabs instead of seven, and you won’t get any of the addition possible tabs–like Picture Tools–as you do in the desktop apps. These tabs, too, are less full-featured than their desktop counterparts and can’t be customized in any way. So again using Word as an example, the Home tab in Word Web App has 25 commands, compared to 38 for the PC application.

Office Web Apps Review
The Word Web App ribbon compared to the Word 2010 ribbon.

But we might expect the web-based app to be less full-featured, in fact that’s perfectly reasonable. But again, just looking at that Home tab, what’s missing is often unfortunate. You get no Format Painter, Grow Font, Shrink Font, Change Case, Text Effects, Shading, and many others. There’s no Reviewing tools at all, no picture editing. It goes on and on.

These missing tools make the Office Web Apps a lot less useful for intermediate to advanced users. Further problematic are the many problems. I routinely encounter weird little error messages that prompt me to “restart” Office Web Apps, which involves the current document closing unceremoniously, and that’s been true both on SkyDrive and SharePoint. And sometimes a document simply won’t open in the editing experience, prompting me to try Word (the PC application) instead. Sometimes those same documents open just fine in the browser, however.

Office Web Apps Review
A typical, unhelpful Office Web App error message.

And for all the high fidelity claims, I’m a bit disappointed that Office Web Apps can’t accurately display some pretty simple formatting. For example, it can’t even handle soft line breaks in Word Web App. (Well, sometimes. In testing this again, it worked in SkyDrive but not in SharePoint. What??)

Ultimately, what we’re left with here is a very basic web solution that looks like Office 2010 but only offers perhaps 20 percent of the functionality. The issue I have with this is that I believe Office Web Apps has been purposefully detuned so as not to eat into desktop sales of Office. What Microsoft should have done, of course, is offered a more powerful version of Office Web Apps with cheap, subscription pricing. That way, they could offer something that sits between “free” and “Office 2010 Home and Student.” Just a thought.
Sharing and collaboration

OK, so Office Web Apps isn’t a straightforward replacement for any existing Office products, but it does fill a few interesting niches. What if you own an older version of Office and need to access a document that has newer features? Office Web Apps will let you do that. What if you want to share a document with someone who doesn’t have Office at all, or a particular Office application? Office Web Apps will let you do that. Or maybe you need to share documents with a Mac user, who has access to Word and Excel but not OneNote. Office Web Apps fills that need nicely too.

Office Web Apps also provides some real-time collaboration functionality, though this varies from app to app. In Excel Web App, for example, two or more people can edit an Excel workbook simultaneously via either SkyDrive or SharePoint, and changes are reflected in real time, for both editors. OneNote Web App lets multiple people take notes simultaneously to the same shared notebook, and this even works with the desktop version of OneNote as well, so users can mix and match. (Note sync is “near real-time,” however.)

Word and PowerPoint Web App do not offer any collaboration functionality. However, the desktop versions of these applications do support co-authoring, and you can collaborate with others on documents that are hosted on SkyDrive or SharePoint.

PowerPoint Web App also offers one of PowerPoint 2010’s best features: Broadcast Slideshow. So you can present a full-featured PowerPoint presentation to others remotely without even having PowerPoint installed on your PC.
Google Docs comparison

I only occasionally use Google Docs, but as part of an ongoing effort to keep up on the competition, I have used this solution from time to time for writing and have, in fact, written a number of SuperSite articles and reviews in this environment. (We also use Google Docs in tandem with the Windows Weekly podcast, which gives me a regular look at what’s going on there.) For purposes of this review, I loaded up my three frequently-used Word docs in Google Docs to see how Google handled them. These documents are modern DOCX files, and they utilize Microsoft’s new Office 2010-era styles.

So, how do they look? In a word, terrible. Consider my WinInfo document, which is about as basic as things get. Google Docs destroys the styles, providing basic Times New Roman fonts for everything, and it removes the spacing between paragraphs. This is about as simple as documents get, people.

Office Web Apps Review
The same basic word processing document in Google Apps (left) and Word Web App (right).

On the other hand, Google Docs does provide a reasonable document width, one that is consistent whether the browser window is floating or full-screen. Office Web Apps, like some 90s-era web page, simply stretches the document out to the full width of the browser, making reading difficult, and it doesn’t provide any obvious way to change that. On the other hand, the styles (including the fonts and paragraph spacing) are perfect.

Presentations and spreadsheets fare even worse in Googleland, and I have to think that anyone trying to move from Excel or PowerPoint to Google Docs is going to be hugely disappointed. I’m not exactly a presentation jockey, but I did create a recent presentation using PowerPoint that included a few flourishes, including an embedded video. Office Web Apps handled this presentation with ablomb, but Google Docs choked on it, offering to let me “open” it, which, to my surprise, triggered my desktop version of PowerPoint.

One area where Google Docs does come out ahead is startup performance, and if you try to start editing a new document in either environment, you notice the difference. Google Docs takes about 2-3 seconds to start up, and once you’re up and running, the performance is notably good, probably due in part to the simplicity of the solution. Office Web Apps takes about twice as long to render the application so you can start working. But the actual editing performance is excellent as well.

Google Docs also offers some form of offline mode–and yes, I know this is currently in the throes of changing, but the new solution is already in place–while Office Web Apps does not. So you need to be online and connected to use Office Web Apps, meaning that during those classic offline situations–like when you’re flying–you won’t be able to work. Unless of course you buy Office for your PC. Which is exactly the point.
Wildcard: Using online storage with your Office suite

The one aspect of Office Web Apps that isn’t getting enough attention, I think, has little to do with the web-based apps and everything to do with using the online storage in tandem with Office 2010. This is actually a very interesting scenario, because it gives you the best of both worlds, and looked at from a harsh, economic standpoint, is in fact what Microsoft wants you to do for obvious reasons. With Office 2010, you can somewhat easily–not seamlessly, but easily enough–access both SharePoint- and SkyDrive-based documents.

It’s a bit ponderous. You can’t just choose File, Open to open a document in the cloud, though businesses can of course do some mapping to make SharePoint-based storage the default open/save location. Instead, you can open SharePoint- or SkyDrive-based files in your traditional PC applications. This is more ponderous from SkyDrive. While both SkyDrive and SharePoint provide a browser warning about opening files from the Internet, when you open from SkyDrive, you also see the application open the document in Protected View, forcing you to manually enable editing.

Office Web Apps Review
You can save documents to the web or SharePoint using the Office 2010 applications’ Backstage view.

But it does work, and it does give you the power of the full suite in tandem with the 25 GB of free SkyDrive storage that is otherwise still pretty hard to access. And if you should lose your Internet connection while editing a web-based document, Office 2010 has the smarts to cache it locally so you won’t lose any work.
Availability and pricing

Office Web Apps is available now for SharePoint 2010 and will ship to the general public via SkyDrive sometime in June when Office 2010 becomes broadly available. It works with Internet Explorer 7 or later, as you’d expect, but also with Firefox 3.5 or later on Windows, Mac, and Linux, and Safari 4 or later on the Mac.

The consumer, SkyDrive-hosted version of Office Web Apps (or Docs.com, which is functionally very similar) is free. The SkyDrive version of Office Web Apps will be ad-supported.

Businesses that purchase a volume license version of Office 2010–Office Professional Plus 2010 or Office Standard 2010–will get a free a license for Office Web Apps as well. However, Office Web Apps does require SharePoint 2010, which is not free, or SharePoint Foundation 2010 (which is also not free, but is low-cost).

The Office Web Apps save documents in the Office 2010 (“X”) file formats only.
Final thoughts

As a reviewer, I’m arguably never happy, and I’d like to see Microsoft be more aggressive with its cloud-based offerings. That said, even in this deliberately stilted form, Office Web Apps offers some meaningful advantages over the competition and should stave off many possible defections to Google Docs or other online office productivity solutions. Microsoft is walking a fine line here, hoping to entice customers to upgrade to the latest Office applications and suites while offering a compelling online play as well. But Office Web Apps is very much as Microsoft positions it, a companion to the PC applications, and not a replacement. That, to my mind, is unfortunate but understandable. Hopefully the software giant will reevaluate this decision and, over time, improve Office Web Apps at a much more frequent clip than it does with its PC-based productivity applications. Put simply, I like what I see here, but Microsoft could have gone a lot further. I suspect it will in the future.

Hands-On with Office 365

Since late last week, I’ve been living in the future, sampling Microsoft’s Office 365 and examining what it’s like to go “all in” on cloud services. I like it a lot. My predilections towards cloud computing are probably well known by now. But now they’re backed up with some real world experience. And with Office 365, Microsoft is very clearly on to something.

We last discussed Office 365 back in late October–in Microsoft Gets It Right with Office 365–so there’s little need to rehash general information about the product or its licensing and pricing. Instead, this time around, I’ll discuss what it’s like to use the services, from the perspectives of a typical user and an administrator. Both experiences are already very nicely implemented, even in the beta.

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Users can logon to the Office 365 dashboard and access web-based versions of Outlook and SharePoint, and download the Lync 2010 client and, if on the appropriate subscription, the Office 2010 Professional Plus client suite. Users who wish to–and are licensed to–use client applications to access Office 365 will need to install an Office 365 first, to ensure that certain system components are up to date. Unfortunately, this client doesn’t configure Outlook and SharePoint Workspace for you, but doing so is a simple matter.

From the web-based version of Office 365, you can access your email, calendar, contacts, and tasks, using an Outlook Web App client that is very similar, from a look and feel perspective, to the desktop version of Outlook. Microsoft has dispensed with the previous bifurcation of OWA into low-end and premium experiences, so now everyone gets the premium experience. And aside from a few missing bits–like the inability to retain custom column widths in the UI–it’s quite nice.

Ditto the hosted SharePoint interface, or Team Site as it’s called, which is indiscernible from an on-premise install, from the user’s perspective. I was up and running on SharePoint very quickly, and even connected seamlessly to the site from the new Windows Phone, syncing the contents of document libraries to the device for on-the-go access.

The new Lync client is an update to Office Communications Server 2007 R2 and it looks and works much like its predecessor. Lync provides IM, audio- and video-conferencing, shared desktops and applications, and more, and while I haven’t had a chance to use the version included with Office 365 much, I’d recently used the product separately, and it offers nice presence integration throughout various Office applications and, as it turns out, even the Office 365 web applications as well.

From an admin perspective, the Office 365 dashboard offers similar simplicity. There’s plenty of documentation, of course, but also management interfaces for users, security groups, domains, the actual web services (hosted Exchange and SharePoint, primarily), and deploying Office.

The only thing I had any difficulty with had nothing to do with Office 365, and is arguably one of the simpler if rote activities one has to perform when moving to such a solution: When I added my own custom domain to the service and configured it for Office 365 via the hosting provider (Go Daddy, in this case), I must have done something wrong because SharePoint access worked fine, but Outlook client access was broken. I finally just started over from scratch and all is well.

Those businesses that are hoping to migrate to Office 365 from a current on-premise solution, or perhaps set up a hybrid environment in which some resources are hosted and some are local will have a bit more work to do, of course, but Office 365 does include web-based migration tools right in the dashboard and offers solutions that will get you moved off of your current Exchange 2003, 2007, or 2010 boxes, or even Small Business Server 2003, 2008, or 2011 (the latter of which has yet to ship); these solutions are for 1000 or fewer desktops however.

The beauty of Office 365, of course, is that it aims to work equally well for the smallest of businesses–literally, a business of one–and the biggest enterprises, and everything in between. It’s early days yet, and I’ve got months of testing ahead of me, but my initial impressions are all very positive. I was able to get an admittedly small domain up and running on Office 365 very easily. I suspect those in the trenches will make even shorter work of it.

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