Tag Archives: Microsoft

Office 365 collaboration – somewhere between easy and hard

The Microsoft Story around Collaboration Has Never Been a Straightforward One, with Different Styles of Collaboration from Email, through Skype and into SharePoint Each Being Supported by Their Own Microsoft Technical Team; at Times It’s definitely felt like the different teams compete rather than collaborate (and the irony is not lost on us).

With the emergence and massive growth of Office 365 the tale now has some additional subplots  in the form of OneDrive for Business, Office 365 Groups, Microsoft Teams and the still relevant  SharePoint Online. It’s not easy to unpick these different offerings and decide which to use where, especially as they share a lot of the underlying technology as each other.

Here are my summarised thoughts:

  1. OneDrive For Business
    • Think of this as effectively a file server in the cloud, but note that the assumption is that each person has their own area. With most Office 365 plans you get  1 TB of storage per person, which is a serious amount traditional  storage for your organisation. However it’s not the same as using a file server; best practice is to create a set of high-level folders within each person’s OneDrive: Personal, Team, Everyone In The Organisation, and External content. Share access of the last three appropriately. It is possible to have an admin or super user who can set their account up to provide something equivalent to departmental shares. It probably only takes a couple of days effort to implement this for a small organisation and that includes training and structuring the folders.
  2. Microsoft Teams
    • This is  both a browser-based and desktop application, which uses the Office 365 services on the backend. It’s described as conversation-centric collaboration (https://products.office.com/en-GB/Microsoft Teams/group-chat-software ); the front-end uses the chat capabilities of Skype for Business to provide the conversation element, though does have the ability to share files etc. and  includes OneNote  (you can also add other apps). The ability to configure it according to different needs is limited and there is no concept of an organisational hierarchy. It’s great for near real-time collaboration, discussion with team documents, but not so great for creating an organisational file store. Set up effort is also just a few days.
  3. Office 365 Groups
    • These are recently updated and provide email-centric collaboration, though with both simple file sharing and a full SharePoint site on the backend for each team or group (the language is starting to get difficult now, I’ll use uppercase when I’m in the product and lowercase when I don’t). ThUser experiences a bit of a mess  in that  the interface varies according to where you try to access Groups from – Outlook, Yammer, OneDrive for Business and SharePoint all provide access but the UI is different in each case). As with Microsoft Teams, there is no organisational hierarchy. Office 365 Groups are good for team collaboration and ongoing projects; also because the file store is actually in SharePoint, it does allow customisation so that libraries can have additional metadata and the full power of SharePoint; you can also create additional libraries within each Group;  however these are only  visible when you step into the SharePoint view of the Group,  not in this simplified view in Outlook etc. Our suggestion to make this really work for bigger organisations is to combine it with Cloud2’s Connect product, which will provide the hierarchy and a powerful entry portal. Individual Groups are very easy to set up, but there  is always some effort required to train users, determine best practice and extend some of the Group sites to meet organisational needs.
  4. SharePoint intranet
    • SharePoint is a huge application, highly suited for enterprise needs and with a massive range of capability to support collaboration, content management, communication, business processes and people. However this comes with complexity and the need to configure everything before it is effective (which is why Microsoft have introduced the previous three items). It will pretty much do everything that an organisation needs but a typical SharePoint Project in the corporate world takes upwards of 100 days of services. Even with digital workspace accelerators,  such as Hadron, the effort is still around 30 days, though these tend to incorporate other parts of the O365 stack such as Yammer and Skype for business. Where SharePoint really shines is for organisations with complex process needs , a requirement to govern some types of content and where the organisation itself is sophisticated with  a large amount of structure and enterprise level business needs.

 

    Clearly this isn’t a one size fits all situation and is unlikely at any one of the above will answer all the collaboration and content needs of an organisation. The right thing to do is to mix and match the technologies in the Office 365 suite in a way that suits your organisation, your strategy and budget. Whatever you do, research the tools and think hard before jumping in.

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Teams vs. Groups – Microsoft moves their vision forward a few more steps

Office 365 continues to develop, and it seems like something changes more or less every fortnight. This isn’t a bad thing, as long as Microsoft continue to make reasonable business decisions about the features and functionality; though the pace of change continues to present some challenges for partners and users alike.

One of the most recent announcements is the release of Microsoft Teams, an apparently new component in Office 365. Actually, not quite so new as this looks an awful lot like the immediate successor to Groups.

Groups was always a little odd; it started out as exactly that, pretty much a permissions group on to which Microsoft then tagged some collaborative functionality, initially as a shallow end alternative to a SharePoint collaboration or team site; this has evolved over a few iterations to now usefully include Skype-based group Conversations, Files (actually a SharePoint library, but with limited customisability), Calendar, OneNote Notebook (we really approve of that), Planner (their Trello competitor) and a related SharePoint Site. However, the Groups strategy was clearly work in progress. For example they got as far as introducing them into the Outlook online client and OneDrive for Business, though not really into SharePoint, which was odd. There are mobile apps, but no Group tile in the O365 App Launcher. Jeff Teper shared some of this thinking early in 2016 and indicated that there would be a change that would see Groups becoming Teams, removing the confusion between permissions groups and collaborative sites. It’s good to see this come to fruition.

Microsoft are describing it as an entirely new experience…

With the introduction of Microsoft Teams, Office 365 now has mail, social, and chat connections to SharePoint and OneDrive. When you create a team, you create or connect to an existing Office 365 group, and the group gets a SharePoint team site.

msteams

It is worth reading Dan Holmes pleasantly marketing-spin-free  description.

So with the imminent launch of Microsoft Teams (it is currently in preview) there have already been some changes. Groups appears to have disappeared from most places and Microsoft continue to tweak the positioning against full-blown SharePoint Online.

Microsoft Teams is available in preview to eligible Office 365 commercial customers beginning November 2, 2016. We expect the service to become generally available in the first quarter of calendar year 2017.

There have been some immediate refinements to the Office365 offering plans:

  • Business Essentials  explicitly  references  including Teams,  with no mention of SharePoint
  • Enterprise plans such as E1 take business essentials and adds SharePoint Online, Delve, Video Portal, Skype Broadcast, without the 300 user limit.

It’s not yet clear whether Business Essentials no longer includes SharePoint at all or whether it simply hidden away as being perceived as too complicated for simpler use cases. Whether you agree with that or not, is likely that Teams are here to stay for a while and they do provide a simpler means of creating a rich collaboration and team site than ever before.

 

 

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Microsoft Ignite 2015

Last week was the second of the huge Microsoft conferences, following quickly on from the developer orientated Build. Ignite combined, for the first time, several slightly smaller conference, including SPC, the SharePoint Conference, providing great reach into the increasingly connected Microsoft technology stack for IT Pros, Developers and Advanced Business Users/Strategists (amongst whom I count myself).

With this in mind I thIgniteough t I might share a few insights and observations:

Ignite was a bit of a mixed/ambivalent conference for me.

A key reason for going was to understand the updates etc. to SharePoint. The conference claimed to have 76 sessions on SP, but there were only 2 on SP2016 of any note and it is clear that SP2016 has been both delayed and pushed down the stack (though no one stated that out loud).

On the other hand the reasons for this were clear – the new stuff they are bringing through, especially those based on Office graph (OG) and the Next Gen Portals (NGPs) are very exciting but also not yet ready. Since many of those use SP2016 as the ECM backend it is understandable.

A key concern we have is around how the Microsoft push towards NGPs both impacts our services based business model and fragments the user experience due to poor discoverability to NGPs. The conference helped clarify that for us, especially how we should integrate NGP elements into future intranets and evolve our information architecture to take advantage of what is coming.

The Azure ML stuff is truly exciting and foreshadows a whole host of new features, thinking and possibilities. The power of this is incredible and the ability to extend it using your own R code and models is huge. Of course all this stuff relies on the enormous Microsoft cloud, so hybrid is now the minimum option for clients – something we have started advising. The Azure Stack is a neat way of Microsoft standardising between the cloud and on-premise and making it easy to move from the latter to the former when organisations are ready.

Insights into the various fixes and improvements to the technology are welcome, of course. More impressive is how deeply the cultural change at Microsoft reaches – this is truly a different company to the one partners and clients dealt with 2 year ago, and in good ways. This is evident in so many ways – from the Microsoft staff, to engagement via YamJams and User Voice, through to the products and the way they are releasing them (and keeping them secret!).

Disappointments – I had a few… not being able to get in to a few sessions because of oversubscription, the capricious wifi, the miniscule appearance of Cortana and the complete absence of Hololens and Band.

Upsides… apart from the above was how vibrant the Microsoft community is, how far reaching and audacious the vision for the technology is, how robust the current build of Windows 10 seems (every Microsoft and demo machine was running it – with zero stalled or dead machines) and what a fair city Chicago is in the spring.

About Ignite: https://myignite.microsoft.com/#/home

Watch the sessions: http://channel9.msdn.com/Events/Ignite/2015

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Two Weeks with a Microsoft Band

The very nice folks at Microsoft lent me one of the few Microsoft Bands in the UK and with the announcement of a 15th April UK launch I thought I should publish my observations from living with one for 2 weeks.WP_20150319_003

As ever Microsoft have done a less than spectacular job of marketing this innovative product up to now; while even the liberal Press such as the Guardian drools over the (to my mind) simply unimpressive Apple Watch, drawing appropriate comparisons with Android Wear and occasional forays into pure fitness bands such as the well-established Fitbit, there has been nary a mention of the Microsoft Band (with the exception of the ever reliable Rory Cellan-Jones. And that’s a shame.

What is Microsoft Band

Microsoft has bucked the trend, attempting to create a device that is neither a straightforward fitness band nor smart watch, but a category of its own. Let’s be clear, it’s definitely not a watch, though it has the ability to show the time. Like most of the other smart watches it doesn’t have an always on display unless you want to recharge it frequently, so you has to press the button to see the time. However it is much more than a fitness band.

The rectangular display has a full-colour touchscreen which show the now ubiquitous Microsoft tile interface. It synchronises over Bluetooth LE with your preferred smart phone (which can be a Windows, Android or Apple phone; Microsoft has been making a convincing strategy of being the only multiplatform vendor in the space), and has built-in heart monitoring and the usual collection of gyroscopes, GPS etc. So the Microsoft Band to tracks/records your heart rate and the number of steps you take throughout the day and displays these in the on-board apps along with further apps for your work outs, runs or bike rides. It has a sleep monitor which enable when you’re ready to close your eyes and turn off when you awake. Importantly, the built-in GPS means you don’t need to carry your phone during physical activity.

The other major function is its ability to pull the majority of notifications and updates from your phone, alerting you with a gentle vibration and displaying an update of whatever’s new for a few seconds. This means you can very rapidly see what’s going on on your smart phone without having to take it out of your pocket. Finally, it has a Cortana voice interface.

First impressions

It’s a simple, unobtrusive device with a discrete, if chunky black wristband, a 5 cm display and just 2 buttons. I was provided with it fully charged so immediately slipped it on my right wrist (I wear a proper watch on my left wrist and that isn’t going to change in the foreseeable future), face up, pressed the main button and was presented with the default home screen which shows the current time and date against a simple background. Always being one to eschew reading manual if I can, I jumped straight in to swiping and poking the interface. The good news is that the learning time is about 5 minutes; swipe left to see the current device status (battery charge, Bluetooth and heart monitor lock), swipe right for the list of installed applications, tap the home screen to see the health and fitness monitor readouts. A few interactions require you to press the smaller action button. ‘Simples’ as they say!

Applications

Live tiles work as you’d expect, showing the number of new notifications since last time you checked, in common with Windows Phone or Windows 8. Tapping and application icon shows a very brief summary of the email, news item etc.; just enough to know whether it’s something you need to attend to on your phone or laptop. In most cases you can’t interact further with the item, which is a shame as I like to be able to delete things from the Band and have them deleted from my phone etc. The exception is with SMS messages where you can dictate a reply via Cortana as you would when using Bluetooth with your phone. This is surprisingly accurate in quiet environments, but editing a message if you get it wrong isn’t very elegant.

You also receive incoming telephone alerts and have the ability to reject them or send a preconfigured text reply from the band; this is something I’ve used quite a bit.

The Microsoft Health app can be installed on your smart phone and provides detailed information on the health activities. There is even more information in the web application (which Microsoft barely mention, so here’s the link) and Microsoft are hinting at providing further insights driven by their massive machine learning engine running in Azure. I’m not quite sure how to use all this information yet, but is definitely encouraging me to walk more as I game my own fitness.

The band allows up to 13 apps to be installed, and you can set what order they appear as well as configure and further customise the band via the Microsoft Health app. Pimp My Band is available in the store and allows further customisation, including personalised backgrounds.

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Cortana

Microsoft are making some big bets with their intelligent assistant, Cortana. They are late to market compared with Siri and Google now, but Cortana running on their phones is surprisingly good and my developer friends are very impressed with the sophistication and flexibility of the APIs. Holding the secondary button on Microsoft Band fires up the Cortana listening engine, once you’ve stated your request it is passed to the phone for processing with results appearing on the Band in some cases, with more sophisticated responses showing on the phone.

It isn’t as quick as I would like, so you have to be patient for 15 or 20 seconds while it transfers the command, interprets it and acts on it. In quiet surroundings it’s very good however and does allow you to very quickly carry out the common Cortana commands such as “play music”, “pause”, “set alarm”, “remind me to…”, ”What’s in my diary today” etc. This has proved useful in a variety of situations, often when my phone is inaccessible (think running, being jostled on the tube wrapped up against the wind).

At the moment is only works with Windows Phones, but Microsoft have announced their intention to bring Cortana to the Android and iOS platforms.

As mentioned previously, my biggest reservation is the inability to activate it without pressing the button.

Notifications

My big concern was how intrusive the notifications would be. Someone who receives far too many emails etc. I make a point of turning active notifications off most of my devices. For this trial I left them on, fully expecting to be driven mad by the constant trembling with my wrist. Interestingly I found it easy to ignore this if necessary or, alternatively, I could glance quickly at the screen and determine whether the notification was something I could completely ignore or should act on. I found this to be much better than interacting directly with the phone as these tend to immediately suck you into responding, reviewing other messages and then getting distracted by Facebook, latest news or other emails. Overall it’s been a great way of staying focused, contrary to my expectation.

Wearing it

Very quickly I realised wearing it face up and interacting with the screen requires you to twist your arm to almost uncomfortable angle. I suspect this will be a problem with all smart watches. One hour in I rotated the band 180⁰ so the screen is face down on my wrist; this proved to be much more comfortable and easier to use (when I did eventually read the manual I learned that this is the recommended way to wear it). There are some disadvantages with orientation: it’s a little uncomfortable with the face resting on a hard surface, also the face does tend to get dirty or scratched unless you pull your sleeve over it.

It is a shame that there’s no easy way to activate it without using your other hand; basically all smart watches tie-up both your hands in use. I’d love to have a voice command or gyroscope driven gesture to turn it on and to enable Cortana.

Although I wear it on my right wrist and I’m right-handed, operating it with my left hand presented no problems whatsoever.

It is a little chunky, with some of the technology hidden within the band itself. While it is comfortable enough to wear, it doesn’t slipped inside sleeve as easily as a traditional watch. I have been wearing it in bed to get the benefits of the sleep monitoring and this is slightly altered my normal sleeping position. As with all things technology, expect future devices to get slimmer and lighter.

Battery life is also surprisingly reasonable. I generally have recharged after 3 days, 4 in one case. It charges remarkably quickly, so a quick boost while in the shower is probably enough to avoid a full one hour recharge for weeks at a time.

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Summary

Overall I’m impressed.

The ergonomics aren’t perfect, but they’re reasonably easy to live with.

The range of apps is limited, but useful to both the fitness orientated and those wedded to interactions via their phone. The SDK has been published, so expect more to come.

The build quality is good that the screen glass already shows some scratches. It’s the first device I’ve had the courage to take on to the squash court with me, that’s saying something.

The pricing is good, with the UK launch price of just under £170.

Whether Microsoft have got it right will be shown by its sales numbers. It is a genuinely useful device for certain types of user; it isn’t intrinsically limited to a particular ecosystem, unlike most competitive devices; the UI is simple and easy to get to grips with. However it isn’t a toy and it isn’t expensive jewellery and that might be Microsoft’s undoing. Time will tell.

If, after all that, you do want to buy one they are available to preorder now:

http://www.microsoftstore.com/store/msuk/en_GB/pdp/productID.314914700?CR_CC=200446078&WT.mc_id=oo_band_crm_smb2_pol&ocid=CRM_Band_SMB2?/_5671717_3629_2372968&=200446078

Microsoft Band

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