Tuesday 10 June 2014

The Outlook is Cloudy

I had  problem with iCloud that I couldn’t solve, which is ironic as I don’t actually use iCloud. Every time I plug my iPhone into my PC, iTunes starts, which is fine as I like to back up my iPhone regularly. The problem is that each time it started, up popped a message asking me if I wanted to install the iCloud Control Panel, which I really didn’t, and nor did I want to be 'reminded later', which was the only other option. It’s a very Apple thing – you do it their way or you don’t do it at all. What’s wrong with a ‘No thanks’ option – or even better now I’ve seen the message a few dozen times, a ‘shove your iCloud where the sun don’t’ shine button. Then one day the same message popped up with a slight difference –the ‘Later’ button read ‘No Thanks’. I clicked on it. It was magical.

I’ve never been a big fan of Apple’s iCloud and in particular the way it works with Outlook– it makes no attempt at logically synchronising data but instead duplicates data, and every time I’ve worked with it I’ve started by doing a full backup of the Outlook data files which more often than not has saved my bacon. I’m told that even Apple themselves regard iCal as a joke. Probably the only useful feature of iCloud is that it can back up my devices wirelessly, but as the limit is a paltry 5GB before I start having to pay for the service I’m quite happy to stick with Microsoft’s OneDrive which happily backs up the Photostream from my iPhone, and rely on backing up the rest via iTunes.

OneDrive is part of the Office 365 family of products which in the past 12 months has matured into a robust and reliable platform, and for some time it’s been our solution of choice for both SMBs and home users who want to seamlessly synchronise their contact, calendars and data across multiple devices.

This is a market that is all about 365 Hosted Exchange, which is the preferred back-end of Outlook. Whatever Microsoft’s competitors would like to think, Outlook is what we see being used on pretty much every business computer and a fair proportion of home ones too. Mobile devices may not use Outlook, but they work seamlessly with Exchange, and even Blackberry devices manage to work reasonably reliably with it.

It’s been interesting to see the marketplace evolve – 365 is displacing Google Apps for Business almost completely; a couple of years ago Google ruled the roost, but their offering has hardly changed, and their delay in supporting Outlook 2013 was disastrous.

Before 365 the other option was to use Hosted Exchange which we regarded as the Rolls Royce solution – solid and reliable but expensive. This is still a sizeable market in our industry, but this has more to do with the profit margins offered to resellers than value to the customer. We still regularly meet customers who are paying hundreds of pounds a month for a mailbox that would fit nicely into a 50Gb £3.30 a month 365 Small Business subscription. To be sure, you’ll have trouble getting rich on the miniscule commission that Microsoft pays their Cloud Partners, but if it’s value to the customer you’re looking for then this is really the only choice.

As a result a lot of our work right now involves migrating customers to 365 Hosted Exchange, and this includes many of our customers who were using POP or IMAP email via our decrepit old 1and1 server. I’m looking forward to turning this server off – we haven’t actually used it for hosting for over a year, after 1and1 proved incapable of installing a secure image on it for us to work with (or for that matter to offer any support), and as they offered no migration path for the associated mailboxes we’ve been stuck with an expensive white elephant for far too long. For me the retiring of POP and IMAP marks a fundamental change in the way we use computers. It’s indicative of the move away from a single fixed device to multiple mobile devices, but it’s also about the move from locally stored (and easy-to-lose) data to cloud hosted systems.

Right now I’d love to spend some meaningful time living with a Windows phone to see how much of a difference this cross platform integration makes with a ‘native’ device, but the sad fact is that while I’d love to dump my iPhone 4 which has become rather lethargic since I reluctantly updated from iOS5 (and yes – I hate Apple maps as much as I expected to), I can’t because I’m too heavily invested in apps that aren’t available on the Windows Phone platform – yet…