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Rod Drury AWS Summit Auckland 2015One of the advantages of cloud apps like Xero is that it is easy to link them. You do none of the hard work, that’s all handled for you. Best of all, you don’t need to buy fresh software or download and install patches.

Xero founder Rod Drury has hinted in the past that this year would see a lot of behind the scenes work to help small business owners get more from their existing data. He is also keen on automating processes.

Overnight  his company took another step along that path when it announced Xero now links directly to Microsoft Outlook. This means you can get to mail messages, documents and contact information without ever leaving the online accounting software.

Outlook feed

Likewise, while you are working with Outlook you can get a feed from Xero telling you details about a customer including what they have purchased and what they owe. You can then open their Xero contact information without leaving Outlook.

You need an Office 365 subscription to use the Xero link with Outlook.

Taken in isolation, it’s not a huge leap forward. However, Xero has set up a number of similar links weaving its functionality deeper and deeper into small business workflows.

Late last year Drury told me a new wave of innovation is on the way. He says: “When it arrives your software will be able to watch what you’re doing, spot something that matches a pattern it already knows then ask questions like: Here’s something we noticed that we need to ask you about.”

Office 365 businessMicrosoft partners have warned enterprise cloud service customers to expect a 22 percent price increase from April 1.

In a message to its customers one Microsoft partner says the increase applies to Office 365, Azure, CRM-Online, Enterprise Mobility Suite, Intune and other enterprise online services.

The customer message reports Microsoft saying

… this is an adjustment to more closely align prices to the NZ market and reflects the rapid evolution of cloud services and the dynamic nature of the market.

In Microsoft’s defence, the partner points out it is years since Microsoft prices have risen and that there is now more value in the products.

It goes on to say that a 22 percent price increase does not alter the financial sense of a subscription.

real price increase

While these points are both true, the price rise is still a long way ahead of New Zealand inflation. At the time of writing inflation is close to zero.

It is also out of line with the recent fall in the value of the New Zealand dollar.

Companies can renew before the end of the month and pay the existing rate.

Frazer Scott, director of marketing and operations, Microsoft New Zealand says:

Microsoft is committed to delivering state-of-the-art security and compliance enhanced cloud computing solutions. As part of our on-going business process and in light of the rapid evolution of the local market dynamics, Microsoft will adjust prices for company’s enterprise cloud products in New Zealand.

Microsoft’s price increase underlines the risk companies take when adopting cloud services. Although there’s no absolute lock-in, moving a company that depends on, say, Outlook.com for its email to an alternative service, is far from trivial.

Many businesses will feel they have little option but to swallow this price rise. Yet Microsoft is taking a risk here. If customers fear that subscription software prices will ratchet up in coming years, they’ll look elsewhere. A 22 percent increase tests the limits of what customers are happy to accept.

At ZDNet Ed Bott reports:

A little over a year ago, Microsoft announced with great fanfare that all Office 365 subscribers would get ‘unlimited’ OneDrive storage. Tonight, months after an executive shakeup, the company says it has no intention of keeping those promises.

Source: Microsoft reneges on ‘unlimited’ OneDrive storage promise for Office 365 subscribers | ZDNet

Microsoft isn’t the first company to panic when customers take the word unlimited at face value.

Bott reports the company is blaming its change of heart on “a few greedy users”. If that was true, Microsoft could deal with the problem head on. It could include a reasonable use clause in its terms and conditions. Then, Microsoft could move on the “greedy users” warning them to go easy, cutting their access if they don’t.

Instead, it reverted to its bad Microsoft personality and broke the earlier promise. It also reduced the free OneDrive storage from 15GB to 5GB. If you buy the “few greedy users” line, this means punishing all users for the actions of a minority.

Clouds  in my cloud storage

My feeling is that the “few greedy users” have little to do with the decision. It links to Microsoft now having a better understanding of cloud computing and where it will and will not find future revenue. Cloud storage may be profitable, unlimited cloud storage less so.

There have been howls of outrage from across the internet in response. Many users accuse Microsoft of bait and switch tactics. It’s possible the company will run into problems with consumer law in some countries where officials frown on bait and switch.

Microsoft’s critics will tell you this is all par for the course. That old-style monopoly thinking still lies beneath the more up-to-date rhetoric. I don’t buy that. Today’s Microsoft is different. It gets 2015 computing. The problem is that like everyone other than Apple and Amazon it struggles to tease out the best profit opportunities.

The scary aspect of Microsoft’s change of heart is how vulnerable cloud customers are when decisions are made by someone clicking a cell on an Excel spreadsheet 10,000 kilometres away. Who do you get on the phone to complain to?

Anyone who made plans based on unlimited OneDrive storage or even on 15GB of free storage will have to think again.

New Zealand - Australia

From March 2015 Microsoft will host New Zealand and Australian business customers from Azure datacentres in Sydney and Melbourne. Microsoft’s new Australian Azure datacentres opened in October and will cater for Office 365 and Dynamics CRM Online customers.

For most New Zealand customers the move has two implications.

First, Australia is closer to New Zealand than the previous datacentre hosting Microsoft online customers.

Better than Singapore

At the moment a datacentre in Singapore hosts Microsoft’s New Zealand customers. Direct data traffic between New Zealand and Singapore typically has a ping time of around 120ms. Things are worse over the public internet where NZ-Singapore connections can even travel via the US.

Australia is 24ms from Auckland. To put this in context, that roughly the same as the ping times between the Auckland and the most distant mainland destinations in New Zealand.

Conventional wisdom says latency becomes an issue when ping times go over 50ms.

Latency an issue, but not that much

In general lower latency means you access applications faster and speed up data storage. In the case of Microsoft’s Office 365 apps, that might not always be noticeable as they handle most processing tasks locally on your machine. It will make a difference when saving or retrieving data from OneDrive storage.

Yesterday Kordia announced a Microsoft Azure ExpressRoute service. This gives New Zealand companies a private connection to the Azure datacentres. It bypasses the public internet and makes it possible to build hybrid clouds using on-premise servers and Microsoft’s remote services.

The second point about Microsoft moving its Azure datacentres closer to home is a tricky one: data sovereignty, security and confidence. When Microsoft hosts your data on Australian soil, it is subject to Australian law.

Data residency

In a media statement Microsoft New Zealand’s managing director, Paul Muckleston, says Australian data centres help address data residency considerations, particularly in sectors such as healthcare, education, government and financial services.

Mucklestone is right in the sense that New Zealand organisations are more at home dealing with Australian rules than, say, those in Singapore. But Microsoft is an American company, which means it also has to operate under US law. If the US government decides looking at your data is a matter of its national security, then Microsoft is only going to resist so far.

The good news is that, to date, Microsoft has a good track record on resisting. However, if data sovereignty is a big deal for you or for your customers, you may want to look elsewhere for cloud services.

Data sovereignty

New Zealand government seems relaxed about hosting non-critical data in Australia. Some ruling National Party ministers and MPs have suggested moving most data offshore as a cost-cutting measure. That could yet backfire politically, but outside of specialist circles data sovereignty doesn’t seem to excite much interest.

For my money one of the best messages in Microsoft’s announcement is that the company will offer what Mucklstone calls “geo-redundant back-up”. What that means in practice is that should the Sydney datacentre run into problems, Microsoft will switch everything to Melbourne.

Although this kind of redundancy is exactly what cloud service providers would like you to think is standard practice, it would normally cost extra.

Microsoft Office

Apple rebooted iWorks early in 2014 with versions for both OS X and IOS. The software runs much the same on Macs and iPads although there are feature differences.

iWorks is free if you buy a new Mac or iPad. If you have older devices, you can buy the apps — Pages, Number and Keynote — from the app store.

Although iWorks is a suite in the sense that the individual apps play nicely together, Apple sells the components individually: the Mac apps are NZ$25 each while the iPad versions are $13.

Mac Office 365

On a Mac, Microsoft’s Office 365 means the four-year-old Office:2011. Microsoft promised a new version of its OS X software in 2014, at the time of writing it is overdue. I’m now told to expect it in the next few months.

Microsoft sells Office 365 subscriptions. There’s a NZ$119 per year personal subscription which buys just one copy of the software. A better deal is the $165 Office 365 Home which gives you the right to put the software on up to five computers and five mobile devices.

There are iPad versions of Microsoft’s main Office apps: Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote. Although they are free to download, you need an Office 365 subscription to unlock them for serious work.

Apple Pages, Microsoft Word

Although Apple’s Pages is often described as a word processor, it is also a page design tool. In some ways it is like having Microsoft Word and Microsoft Publisher in the same package.

Pages comes with lots of layout tools. All the formatting stuff displays in a context-sensitive Inspector panel taking up the right-hand quarter of the screen. You only get to see the things that you need immediately.

As you’d expect, Pages does a great job of making words look pretty on a page.

Word processing purists will consider Pages lacks the power of Word. Lawyers and people needing to create complex documents may find Pages can’t meet all their needs.

Moving smoothly from Pages to Word

As someone who writes for a living, I like Pages’ simplicity. I hide everything and work on a big blanks screen hiding the Inspector screen and the tool bar from sight. That way the software stays out-of-the-way.

Many of the keyboard commands in Word work in Pages. In fact I can move smoothly between Pages and Word barely missing a beat.

Most of the people I work for expect to get Word documents from me. Pages can save in Word format, so that’s easily done. I’ve never had a problem with this, nor do I have a problem loading Word documents into Pages for editing. However, not everything comes across from complex Word documents, so you may run into problems if you are, say, asked to use Word’s tracked changes feature to edit someone’s work in Pages.

Numbers, Excel

Word may have more features than Pages, but there’s not a huge conceptual or practical gap between the two apps. In comparison there’s a huge gulf between Apple’s Numbers spreadsheet and Excel.

In the same way Pages has fewer features than Word, Numbers offers less complexity than Excel in terms of calculations. But what it lacks in computational power, it makes up in layout flexibility. You can have multiple tables on each spreadsheet tab, then move them around to make things look great on the display.

Because Numbers lets you mix text, graphs and numbers on each page, you can quickly create attractive-looking presentations based on your numeric information. Numbers is a great tool for business planning and even better for presenting plans to others.

Keynote, PowerPoint

Apple’s KeyNote and PowerPoint each have their fans. The two apps are more or less on a par in terms of what they do. KeyNote is the more flexible and some people find it easier to use than Microsoft’s presentation tool. It has some great features including the ability to mask out image backgrounds without the need for Photoshop or similar, expensive apps.

Mac users who rarely create presentations might do better with Keynote than PowerPoint thanks to the sample slides and layouts provided with the app. The Microsoft templates are so familiar to many of us that inexperienced Keynote users get a creative head start with the less familiar images, clip art, designs and backgrounds.

iWorks ahead for now

To get the most from iWorks, you’ll need an iCloud account. It’s the only way to store iWorks documents from an iPad, on a Mac you can store locally or in iCloud.

Office 365 and iWorks were both showing their age at the start of 2014. Apple’s suite now has the edge, but that could change when Microsoft refreshes Office. The iPad Office apps are excellent so are the latest Windows apps. This bodes well for the next Mac version.

If you only need some office apps, say, just a word processor, then a one-off NZ$25 — or possibly nothing — for each iWorks app is a better deal than the NZ$119 a year for the most basic Office 365 subscription.

Microsoft Office 365 has the edge if you work with Macs or iPad and Windows devices. And Office makes life easier if you need to work with others who are on Windows devices. If you are committed to Apple, you may prefer iWorks. As a bonus, it integrates nicely with other Apple software like iPhoto.

Image from Microsoft.co.nz website