As Microsoft refocuses to chase enterprise cloud opportunities, Google has an opportunity to lead the productivity software market. It has taken a decade, but now G-Suite can challenge Office.


Almost every office worker of my generation spent years working with Microsoft software.

For a while Windows was, in effect, a monopoly. Any other operating system was, in number terms, a freak show.

While Windows was the star of the show, it gave Microsoft leverage elsewhere. The most obvious example was with Office. Almost everyone used it. Most people had no choice.

Even people who chose a Mac over a Windows PC were more likely to use Office than Apple’s iWork.

Windows, Office everywhere you look

In the media companies where I worked, Office was the only option for over a generation. Today editors, publishers and designers still expect to receive Word documents.

Send them something else and they think you’re weird.

Or they don’t understand. Some get angry. Others make a private promise never to commission work from such an infidel again. Not using Word was a poor career move. It can still be.

When I use a non-Microsoft writing tool, nine times out of ten I still send the finished document in a Word format.

This keeps everyone happy. It keeps me in work. This is no exaggeration.

It doesn’t matter that often a plain text file might be a better option for everyone concerned.

Edit, review in Word

This works in reverse. People send me Word documents. They may need reviewing or editing. This has to be done in Word. The application borders on compulsory.

Sure, some alternative products can handle reviewing and editing functions as well as Word. At least they can most of the time. However, in practice the process is not always smooth or straightforward.

Which means, like it or not, it makes economic sense to pay the $160 or so each year for an Office subscription. It’s a bargain even if the software sits idle on the hard drive.

There’s an instant return on that investment the first time a piece of work arrives that you can only fix in Office. This is something that might happen a handful of times a year. It always happens sooner or later.

Apart from anything else, dealing with incomptabiliti takes time. For many of us time is money.

A $165 Office subscription is cheaper than spending half a day dealing with file formats.

The end of the Office era?

Windows, Office and Word are all still dominant. It may not stay that way much longer.

Before we go any further. Let’s deal with LibreOffice. This is an open source alternative to Microsoft Office.

While LibreOffice has its charms, it is Office for people who don’t like giving money to Microsoft. The user experience is similar. So is the workflow.

Your productivity is unlikely to change if you switch from one to the other. That is not the case with moving from Office to Google Docs.

Generation Docs

Many younger journalists and communications people prefer Google Docs. While I’m uneasy about privacy and security with Google, that’ not how other people see things.

I’ve worked for publications and editorial services where Docs is the tool of choice. Its collaboration features are great. Google Docs is easy to use.

It has flaws. Yet, flaws, privacy and security questions aside, Google Docs is better for journalists than Word.

That’s because it’s simple and pared back. Many of the heavy-duty features in Word are for lawyers or other specialist users. Most of us never fire up three-quarters of the program’s code.

The privacy and security questions about Google Docs are big ones. Especially in the light of recent revelations about how big technology companies snoop on customers.

Google can trawl through your Google Docs documents. It can collect data to help its customers target you with advertising. It can learn things about you. By now you should have figured out that with online services sometimes free can be too high a price.

Still, Google Docs does everything a journalist or communications professional might need.

Docs is good enough for most folk

In other words, Google Docs is at least a good enough alternative to Word. For many, if not all people, it is better.

There are reasons why it has yet to conquer Word. We’ve already looked at privacy and security. There’s also the question of inertia.

People might not love Word, but they are comfortable with it. The software took us a long time to master. A lot of people aren’t happy with discarding such an investment in time and effort. Of course this is an internal version of the sunk cost fallacy.

It’s easy to think about our personal productivity when we get to make our technology choices. Not everyone has that freedom. In large corporations Microsoft continues to hold a huge market share. Corporate IT departments tend to be comfortable with the devil they know.

And anyway, the security and privacy issues that worry individual users loom larger. Google Docs is often treated with suspicion by streetsmart IT professionals.

Exteral disruption

An external event could change the move from Word to Google Docs to switch from a trickle to a flood. One may be on the way.

Twenty years ago Windows accounted for about 19 in 20 personal computers. Today it is around four out of five and falling. Apple’s MacOS is now at about 12.5 percent of the market. Google’s Chrome OS is on the rise.

Computing is no longer restricted to personal computers. If we add tablets and phones to the mix, then Windows’ share has plummeted compared with its golden age in the 1990s. It may be around a third of the total today. Its share of new device sales is closer to 10 percent. So its influence is only going to drop.

Let’s not labour this point too much. After all phones are not great for writing tasks. The key here is that Windows no longer dominates. That, in turn, means the writing is on the wall for Office. It’s going to be less important in the future.

Windows and Office are under threat from two directions. In both cases the biggest threat is from Google.

Chromebook looms

At the low end, Google’s Chromebook hardware is winning hearts and minds in schools. For now this is more true in the USA than in places like New Zealand. It’s a real trend there.

Few young American students have ever seen Windows or Office. They use Chromebook, Android or iOS. In most cases they work with Google’s G-Suite, now the preferred name for Google Apps.

When those students graduate and start work they are going to take that experience with them. Where they have a choice they’ll pick G-Suite because that’s what they know best.

Many will find Office to be clunky, restrictive and old-fashioned. They will puzzle over the clumsy collaboration tools — clumsy compared to G-Suite.

More Chromebooks coming

There are reports that PC makers are looking at extending their Chromebook ranges. Microsoft’s move into own-brand hardware makes any decision here easier.

The word from the US is that by the end of the year the big PC brands will offer business-oriented Chromebooks. They’ll be cheaper than Windows PCs. Chromebooks have a lower total cost of ownership. What’s more bypass the infrastructure corporations need to make Windows and Office work.

This is happening at a time when Microsoft is in transition. The company has gone from being The PC Company, to a cloud and enterprise computing business. Windows is no longer central.

Office licence revenue remains strong. Yet defending this may soon be a distraction from Microsoft’s new corporate mission. The company seems to have lost interest in Windows or, at least, pushed it down the pecking order.

This leaves a vacuum. Apple isn’t going to fill the gap. It has its own mission, the brand will remain a niche up-market option. Google has its eyes on the bulk of the market.

None of this will happen overnight. Most likely we’ll see Google gain market share at Microsoft’s expense for a while. Then something else happens to change the dynamic. A possibility is for Microsoft to spin-off what, by then, will be the non-core business.

Either way, Windows’ dominance is over. Google has an opportunity to win customers.

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Windows 10Since taking over as Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella has remade the company. What was a PC giant is now a cloud and enterprise computing giant. And that has implications for Windows.

Microsoft’s latest financials underline the change. In the three months to December 2017 the company’s revenue was almost US$29 billion. Of that, what Microsoft calls Productivity and Business Processes was almost US$9 billion. Intelligent cloud made up almost US$8 billion.

The remainder, a little over US$12 billion, fell under the label of More personal computing. This unit includes Surface hardware, advertising and everything Xbox.

Given the gaming business brought in around US$4 billion, that means in round numbers, Windows accounts for only a quarter of today’s Microsoft.

That proportion is falling fast.

Windows stagnant as cloud, enterprise booms

Microsoft’s More personal computing business grew around one percent between the end of 2016 and the end of 2017. Intelligent cloud was up almost 15 percent. Productivity and Business Processes climbed 25 percent.

Draw a straight-line projection and Windows will be under 20 percent of Microsoft’s revenue by the end of this year. Within two to three years it will be less than 10 percent.

Microsoft’s accounting is hard to break down, but looks as if the operating system business is fading into the background.

Some parts of Windows have done more than fade. During the year Microsoft dropped Windows Phone. Then company admitted it failed to keep pace with iOS and Android.

You can’t dismiss the phone OS as a meaningless sideshow. Former CEO Steve Balmer spent close to US$10 billion on it. This figure includes the US$7.6 billion write-down of the Nokia acquisition.

Poor performance

It would be fair to say Microsoft’s Windows strategy hasn’t been right since Windows 7. Some less kind souls say it hasn’t been right since XP. That’s extreme, yet Windows 8 was clearly a flop.

Windows 10 stopped the immediate rot, but did nothing to recover Microsoft’s reputation with uncommitted users. It’s no accident that PC sales have stayed in free fall since 10 appeared. Nor is it an accident that Apple sales have climbed in that time. Likewise Chromebook sales rocketed.

Those users who can are bailing out.

Something else is going on. Writing at ZDNet Ed Bott says: “Microsoft’s steady retreat from consumer products is nearly complete.” Bott’s story looks at how Microsoft has shifted its focus from the consumer towards business.

What’s next to go?

Bott doesn’t say so, but you could read between the lines when looking at the financial numbers and conclude that Windows could be next. He writes about Microsoft: “…shifting resources to business units that are thriving: enterprise software and cloud services”.

Go back to the financials mentioned earlier: those thriving business units do not include Windows.

People who are heavily invested in Microsoft and its OS may argue otherwise, but if you use another operating system and make occasional visit back, there’s a feeling things are running down. Not a lot, but there is a sense Windows is past its prime.

There’s also a sense Microsoft no longer has a clear vision for its operating system. Or maybe any vision.

A year ago Microsoft introduced Windows 10 S. The company said it was a new edition. On paper it sounded good. 10 S boots faster, is more secure, offers better battery life and is more robust in the sense that its harder to corrupt files.

These positives are down to the fact that Windows 10 S is a cut-down, limited version of Windows 10.

10 S was a mess

Windows 10 S turned out to be a mess. Nobody outside Microsoft seemed to like it. Reviewers panned it. Consumers hated it. It is another shot-in-the-foot disaster on the scale of Windows 8.

At the time of the launch the idea was that users could pay US$50 to switch to Windows 10 Pro. Microsoft would pack 10 S with a new computer. Customers buying a new PC would then be hit up for an extra charge later to unlock all the features of the computer they purchased. Almost everyone would want to upgrade. At Redmond it looked like free money.

Let’s hope no-one at Microsoft wonders why Chromebook and MacBooks are selling so well.

Last week Microsoft backtracks on that madness. It said users can now upgrade to Windows 10 at no extra charge.

The10 S debacle tells us Microsoft no longer employs its best thinkers on its operating system software. It suggests Microsoft doesn’t really care about the product any longer. After all, it doesn’t make much money.

Microsoft has a huge cash cow. The software is still installed on most of the world’s traditional computers — although not the pocket computers people now use most often. There are ways it can and will continue to squeeze money out of its huge installed base.

Ring out the old, ring in the new

And yet you can’t help getting the impression Microsoft’s top brass are no longer interested. That’s the old world; a declining empire. Meanwhile there are exciting new opportunities to chase in the cloud and enterprise spaces.

One possible way out would be for Microsoft to hive off Windows into a seperate business and sell or otherwise demerge the operation. This worked for IBM’s PC business, although not for IBM. A similar approach also worked up to a point for HP.

More likely Microsoft will continue to manage down its Windows operation. Sooner or later even the most die-hard fans will realise they are neglected. Apple and Chromebooks loom. There’s an opportunity for Android or for a revival of desktop Linux.

We’ll soon be in a post-Windows world. It’s just that two-third of computer users don’t realise that yet.

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You have to hand it to Nuance. The latest Dragon Professional voice recognition software is impressive. So is its business model.

Dragon’s software is expensive by today’s standards. A single user licence for Dragon Professional version 6 costs US$300. You can buy a PC for less.

Keep in mind both Apple and Microsoft include voice recognition software as part of their operating systems. Neither application is free, but they are already paid for. So, in effect, Dragon is, asking people to pay again for something they already have.

That puts the business’s livelihood on the line. To make it work, Dragon has to offer something special. It does that. Dragon Professional version 6 performs far better than the alternatives from Apple and Microsoft. It uses something called deep learning to improve accuracy.

Dragon Professional more accurate than alternatives

Dragon claims this means the software has 99 percent recognition accuracy. There’s no easy way to verify the claim, but in testing the software does a near perfect job of turning spoken words into computer text.

What the numbers don’t tell you is that even a small improvement in voice recognition accuracy means a vast improvement in the experience. The difference between going back and correcting every tenth word, 90 percent accuracy, and every hundredth word, 99 percent accuracy is huge.

You can improve performance by training the software. If you’re committed to using Dragon, then investing some time makes sense. Yet in practice the software works so well out of the box you might decide to just get on with it.

It seems the software does some form of training when in use. Every so often there’s a message to say Dragon is updating your profile.

Integrated app

Dragon Professional isn’t a stand-alone application. It is integrated into the operating system. It works with other apps. Apple Pages and Microsoft Word are the obvious candidates, but any program using text input should work.

It works with almost every Mac app that uses keyboard input. In theory you can control less word-oriented apps such as image editors, but that doesn’t make practical sense. Having said that, Dragon Professional is excellent at performance everyday MacOS commands. It would be an ideal tool if you had access problems with your hands.

A small icon appears in the Mac’s menu bar, in much the same way as other system level apps. When the software is in use a small floating window opens on the screen with three more icons. There’s also a guidance window with help when you need it.

For most of the time the second window keeps out of the way. The main one is small enough to not be a distraction. The microphone icon shows green when it is on and red when it off, otherwise there’s not much to see.

If you like using the cursor you can switch between Dictation, Command, Spelling and Numbers mode using the main floating window.

There’s a transcription mode which allows you to turn audio files into text. It’s a lot more hit and miss than the normal dictation software. It manages to cope with a few minutes of audio where there is only one speaker, but chokes if you attempt to transcribe, say, an interview with two people talking.

A personal productivity note

While the technology in Dragon’s latest voice recognition software is impressive, it’s not for me. After forty years of touch typing, I write with my fingertips. Any attempt to compose faultless prose using my voice ends in an embarrassing mess.

That’s not to say I don’t make typing errors. Anyone who has read my tweets can see that. Yet the flow of my writing is so much better when I hit keys than when I speak. No doubt that would change if I spent thousands of hours improving my technique. Simple economics says I’m better off sticking with what I know.

Take this blog post as Illustrating how this works. I started out trying to use the Dragon Professional software to write the post.

It was a disaster. Although professional scribes are taught to ‘write like you talk’, that advice is not meant to be taken literally. When I gave up on voice recognition, I hit the ground running and finished the post in minutes.

There’s another problem that may affect some readers. I feel self-conscious and uncomfortable when dictating to a machine. There’s nothing worse than knowing people can hear you as you compose a story. That’s not an issue when I type.

While we are on the personal stuff I should mention another major plus for Dragon. Most voice recognition tools struggle with my accent. It’s a hybrid British-antipodean thing.

UK voice recognition settings don’t work for me. Nor do New Zealand ones. Oddly, Australian settings get me the best result on Apple equipment. Nothing seems to cope with my voice on Microsoft systems. Dragon Professional worked out of the box even though the settings are hard-wired to New Zealand.

Verdict

All the above leaves me in an odd position. I’m about to recommend a product that I wouldn’t normally use myself. So let’s run through the main points again. Dragon Professional version 6 does an excellent job of turning spoken words into text. The software is accurate and reliable. It also provides a great way to control a Mac when you can’t or don’t want to use hands.

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I’m not an early adopter.

Early adopters must own the latest devices. They run ahead of the pack. They upgrade devices and software before everyone else.

Early adopters use the latest phones. They buy cars with weird features. They queue up in the wee small hours for iPhones, iPads or games consoles. Back in the day they’d go to midnight store openings to get the newest version of Microsoft Windows a few hours earlier.

Their computers never work because they are awash in beta and alpha versions of software screwing things up.

And some of their kit is, well, unfinished.

Computer makers depend on early adopters. They use them as guinea pigs.

Early adopters first to benefit

Marketing types will tell you early adopters will buy a product first to steal a march over the rest of humanity. They claim they will be the first to reap the benefits of the new product. It will make them more productive or live more enjoyable lives.

This can be true. Yet early adopters often face the trauma of getting unfinished, unpolished products to work. Often before manufacturer support teams have learnt the wrinkles of their new products.

There’s another reason computer makers love early adopters — they pay more for.

New products usually hit the market with a premium price. Once a product matures, the bugs eliminated and competition appears, profit margins are slimmer.

Companies use high-paying early adopters to fund their product development.

Being an early adopter is fine if you enjoy playing with digital toys. If productivity isn’t as important to you as being cool. If you have the time and money to waste making them work.

I don’t. I prefer to let others try things first. Let computer makers and software developers iron out the wrinkles while the product proves its worth. Then I’ll turn up with my money.

In technology the early bird pays the bill.

Acronis True Image promises to store all your data so you can recover it in a hurry. The company’s marketing says the process is complete and easy.

You are give a choice of storing data to a local drive, in the cloud or both. Acronis also says it has high levels of security.

None of this is unique to Acronis. Almost every other backup tool offers the same basic story. Acronis differs from the pack by adding defence against the ransomware dark arts. It also uses blockchain to keep the marketing, if not the software, bang up to date.

For testers there is a 30-day free trial. If you want to buy the software you can choose from a variety of options. You can choose a US$50 standard one-time payment for one computer. This rises to US$80 for three computers and US$100 for five devices.

Backup to cloud

Acronis’ advanced package is the same price. It is a one-year subscription that adds up to 250GB of cloud storage.

There is also a premium plan. This has 1TB of cloud storage. It also includes blockchain certification of files and electronic document signatures. This costs US$100 for a single computer and $160 for five devices.

I tested the advanced package. My first job was to download and install the software on my Mac. That task isn’t going to trouble anyone that has used computers before.

The software loads as a background app on the Mac. It places a discreet icon on the menu bar. This doesn’t add much functionality, but does remind you the software is running. Most of the time the software chugs away in the background making backups. It needs little human intervention.

Dashboard

Acronis deserves praise for its software dashboard. The design is clear and uncluttered. Although there’s a nod to the MacOS Finder design, you’re never left wondering where you are.

On the left of the display a column shows the important functions: Backup; Archive; Active Protection and Account.

When you’re in the main backup function you’ll also see a list of devices and their backup locations. Adding new ones is simple. You can choose the Acronis Cloud or browse your local network to find a suitable place to store a backup. You can check earlier backups from this screen.

There’s an option to backup now. When you create a backup you can choose whether to save everything or select files. Once you’ve made an initial backup, incremental backups are automatic. by default the software makes an incremental backup once a day. You can change this. If you like, hourly backups are an option.

Slow start

While the software works as promised, Acronis True Image 2018 is not trouble-free. The first problem was that I had difficulty activating the software with my code. It took a few attempts.

The other issue that might put you off is the sheer amount of time it took to make my first cloud backup. My MacBook Air has 256GB of SSD storage. I like to keep around 20 percent free, in part so there’s headroom when huge files come my way.

Acronis True Image 2018
Four days to go

Four days to goFor my initial backup I choose everything on the drive. A total of 203GB. You can see this in the screen shot above. Acronis interpreted this as a total of 180GB that it needed to send to the cloud.

The software warns: ”This backup is going to take a while…”. It wasn’t kidding. According to the display it was going to take four days and three hours.

Often MacOS starts a huge backup to my network drive warning it will take a long time. It then reconsiders and re-estimates once the transfer gets underway. I assumed this might be the case with Acronis True Image.

It wasn’t. It really wasn’t. In the end the initial backup took a little longer than four days and three hours.

Now here’s the odd thing: that screen shot above says the backup is running at 3.9Mbps. That’s fair enough, but I have a VDSL2+ connection that usually runs at between 45 and 70Mbps. I can BitTorrent at around 40Mbps. Streaming HD video works without a hitch.

Bandwidth blues

It’s good that Acronis doesn’t hog all the bandwidth on the home connection. But it could take more than under 10 percent. It turns out, it doesn’t use anything like 10 percent.

I took the second screenshot 24 hours after the first. Acronis says it works in the background while you get on with other tasks. That’s possible. But a whole day after starting the initial backup, it had only uploaded 4GB of the total.

Acronis True Image 2018 - after one day
After one day, there are another 33 days to go…

After one day, there are another 33 days to go…As the second screenshot shows, at this rate it would take 33 days to handle the initial backup. In the event it took 4.5 days, about 110 hours in total. So the average speed was about 0.5Mbps.

In the preferences there’s an option to halt backups if your laptop is working on battery power. There are no other settings here to tweak to speed things up. For the record I had the software set to continue while on battery power.

Australian servers

On the backup screen there’s a small cog icon to adjust settings. The options here allow you to chose where to backup your data. The software selected an Australia default server for me. If that bothers you, there are alternatives.

You get the choice of optimal or maximum data backup speed. Optimal uses less of your bandwidth freeing up capacity for other apps. At first, this didn’t appear to make much difference to the upload speed for the initial backup. The pace picked up some time after I chose the option. I’d like to see more transparency in these settings, four and a half days for an initial backup is not acceptable.

Once it finished the initial backup, Acronis works at a cracking pace. Subsequent incremental backups often hit speeds in the mid-20Mbps range. They all happen in the background. It’s reliable and rock solid.

There are some neat touches. Acronis allows you to archive files to its cloud. You can send them via the app, and retrieve them using a web interface. In fact, you can use this web interface to recover your data at any time without the app.

More secure than alternatives

Acronis’ key selling point is the blockchain technology. This determines if anyone else has altered your online archive.

Before we look closer at how this works, the description above should trigger alarm bells. You might think an online cloud backup service should be secure enough to guard against anyone else accessing your data.

Acronis says that one of the best defences against ransomware is to keep regular backups. Ransomware works when criminals encrypt your data. They say they will give you the encryption key in return for money, usually Bitcoin.

That defence only works so long as the ransomware criminals don’t encrypt your backups along with the main data store. Hence the need to check no-one else is tinkering with your files.

You’ll have to decide for yourself if this is useful.

Verdict: Acronis True Image 2018

If you’re in business and have important data you should already be making local and offsite backups. There are plenty of choices for making offsite backups in the cloud, Acronis is a good, secure option.

Once you’ve made the first backup, the incremental updates are fast. There’s little work needed on your part and you don’t need to be a geek to understand how the software works.

While True Image 2018 may feel like overkill for many user, Acronis prices are reasonable. It costs little more than alternatives that are neither as safe nor as simple.