Tag Archives: microsoft

Colossus vs. Cloud – an Email System Showdown

This post was originally published on the Idealware Blog in January of 2009.

If your nonprofit has 40 or more people on staff, it’s a likely bet that you use Microsoft Exchange as your email server. There are, of course, many nonprofits that will use the email services that come with your web hosting, and there are some using legacy products like Novell’s Groupwise or Lotus Notes/Domino. But the market share for email and groupware has gone to Microsoft, and, at this point, the only compelling up and coming competition comes from Google.

There are reasons why Microsoft has dominated the market. Exchange is a mature and powerful product, that does absolutely everything that an email system has to do, and offers powerful calendaring, contact management and information sharing features on top of it. A quick comparison to Google’s GMail offering might look a bit like “Bambi vs. Godzilla“. And, as Michelle pointed out the other day, GMail might be a risky proposition, despite it being more affordable, because it puts your entire mail store “in the cloud”. But Gmail’s approach is so radically different from Microsoft’s that I think it deserves a more detailed pro/con comparison.

Before we start, it’s important to acknowledge that the major difference is the hosted/cloud versus local installation, and there’s a middle ground – services that host Exchange for you – Microsoft even has their own cloud service. If you are evaluating email platforms and including GMail and Exchange, hosted Exchange should be weighed as an additional option. But my goal here is to contrast the new versus the traditional, and traditional Exchange installations are in your server room, not someone else’s.

Server Platform

Installing Exchange is not a simple task. Smaller organizations can get away with cheaper hardware, but the instructions say that you’ll need a large server for mail storage; a secondary server for web and internet functions, and, most likely, a third server to house your third party anti-spam and anti-virus solutions. Plus, Exchange won’t work in a Linux or Novell network – there has to be an additional server running Microsoft’s Active Directory in place before you can even install it. It can be a very stable product if you get the installation right, but getting it right means doing a lot of prep and research, because the slim documents that come in the box don’t prepare you for the complexity. Once you have it running, you have to run regular maintenance and keep a close watch – along with mailbox limits – to insure that the message bases don’t fill up or corrupt.

GMail, on the other hand, is only available as a hosted solution. Setup is a matter of mapping your domain to Google’s services (can be tricky, but child’s play compared to Exchange) and adding your users.

Win – GMail. It saves you a lot of expense, when you factor in the required IT time and expertise with the hardware and software costs for multiple servers.

EMail Clients

Outlook has it’s weaknesses – slow and obtuse search, poor spam handling, and a tendency toward unexplained crashes and slowdowns on a regular basis. But, as a traditional mail client, it has a feast of features. There isn’t much that you can’t do with it. One of the most compelling reasons to stick with Outlook is it’s extensibility. Via add-ons and integrations, Outlook can serve as a portal to applications, databases, web sites and communications. In a business environment, you might be sacrificing some key functionality without it, much as you often have to use Internet explorer in order to access business-focused web sites.

But where Outlook is a very hefty application, with tons of features and settings buried in it’s cavernous array of menus and dialog boxes, Gmail is deceptively uncluttered. The truth is that the web-based GMail client can do a lot of sophisticated tricks, including a few that Outlook can’t — like allowing you to decide that you’d rather “Reply to All” mid-message — and some that you can only do with Outlook by enabling obscure features and clicking around a lot, like threading conversations and applying multiple “tags” to a single message. Gmail is the first mail client to burst out of the file cabinet metaphor. Once you get used to this, it’s liberating. Messages don’t get archived to drawers, they get tagged with one or more labels. You can add stars to the important ones. It’s not that you can’t emulate this workflow in Outlook, it’s that it’s fast and smooth in GMail, and supported by a very intelligent and blazingly fast search function. Of course, if that doesn’t float your boat, you can always use Outlook – or any other standard POP3 or IMAP client – to access GMail.

Win – GMail. It’s more innovative and flexible, and I didn’t even dig deep.

Availability

Exchange, of course, is not subject to the vagaries of internet availability when you’re at the office. Mind you, much of the mail that you’re waiting to receive is. And Outlook – if you run in “Cached mode” – has had offline access down for ages. GMail just started experimenting with that this week. If you’re not in the office, Exchange supports a variety of ways to get to the mail. Outlook Web Access (OWA) is a sophisticated web-based client that, with Exchange 2007 and IE as the browser, almost replicates the desktop Outlook experience. OMA is a mobile-friendly web interface. And ActiveSync, which is supported on many phones (including the iPhone) is the most powerful, stable and feature-rich synchronization platform available. Exchange can do POP and IMAP as well, and also supports a VPN-like mode called Outlook Anywhere (or HTTPS over RPC).

GMail only supports web, pop and IMAP. There’s a mobile GMAIL app which is available on more phones than Activesync is, but it isn’t as robust or full featured as Microsoft’s offering.

So, oddly, the Win for remote access goes to Microsoft over Google, because Microsoft’s offerings are plentiful and mature.

Business Continuity

So, not to belabor this, Exchange is well supported by many powerful backup products. In cached mode, it mirrors your server mailbox to your dektop, which is additional redundancy.

GMail is in the cloud, so backup isn’t quite as straightforward. Offline mode does some synchronization, like Exchange’s cached mode, but it’s not 100% or, at this point, configurable. Prudent GMail users will, even if they don’t read mail in it, set up a POP email program to regularly download their mail in order to have a local copy.

Win – Microsoft

Microsoft also Wins the security comparison – Google can, and has, cut off user’s email accounts. There seem to have been good reasons, such as chasing out hackers who had commandeered accounts. But keeping your email on your backed-up server behind your firewall will always be more secure than the cloud.

But I’d hedge that award with the consideration that Exchange’s complexity is a risk in itself. It’s all well and safe if it is running optimally and it’s being backed up. But most nonprofits are strapped when it comes to the staffing and cost to support this kind of solution. If you can’t provide the proper care and feeding that a system like Exchange requires, you might well be at more risk with an in-house solution. The competence of a vendor like Google managing your servers is a plus.

Finally, cost. GMail wins hands down. The supported Google Apps platform is free for nonprofits. Microsoft offers us deep discounts with their charity pricing, but Dell and HP don’t match on the hardware, and certified Microsoft Administrators come in the $60-120k annual range.

So, in terms of ease of management and cost, GMail easily wins. There are some big trade-offs between Microsoft’s kitchen sink approach to features and Google’s intelligent, progressive functionality, and, in well-resourced environments, Microsoft is the secure choice, but in tightly resourced ones – like nonprofits – GMail is a stable and supported option. The warnings about trusting Google — or any other Software as a Service vendor — are prudent, but there are a lot of factors to weigh. And it’s going to come down to a lot of give and take, with considerations particular to your environment, to determine what the effective choice is. In a lot of cases, the cloud will weigh heavier on the scale than the colossus.

Regime Change

This post was originally published on the Idealware Blog in January of 2009.

I’ve been pretty fascinated by the news reports about how the Obama staff reacted to the technology in place at the White House. If you haven’t been tracking this, you can read the full story, but the short story is this: the Mac/Blackberry/Facebook-savvy Obama staffers were shocked to find ancient systems and technology in use at the White House “Windows XP, MS Office 2003, traditional phone lines, and web filtering in place” in other words, the same stuff my org uses. I found myself both sympathetic and skeptical regarding their plight, because I am a big fan of all of the new technology that they are familiar with, but they walked into a network that is a lot like 90% of the businesses out there. The Bush Administration, perhaps surprisingly, was fairly current in their use of technology.

Some quick things I draw from this:

* The Obama campaign distinguished themselves by their smart use of modern, internet technology, and that use played a major role in their successful campaign.

* The shock they’re facing is less about the technology in place than it is about the culture they’re moving into. Political teams run freely and nimbly, and Howard Dean established the Web as the infrastructure of choice in 2004. Businesses, like the White House, do not drive so close to the cutting edge, for a variety of good reasons, such as the need for standardization and security.

* Over the next few months, the Obama-ans are going to compromise, and I’m dying to learn what choices they’ll make.

In my work, I’m on both sides of that fence every day, working with staff to understand why we have to standardize in order to manage our systems, stay a little behind the curve in order to avoid risk, and stick with applications like Microsoft Office because they have the mature feature set that we require. At the same time, I rally my staff to be creative in finding tools and solutions for our people, to stay abreast of which new tools are going to be worth the risk in terms of the benefits they offer, and understand that, should we get too far behind, it will be as risky as being too far out on the technological edge. We don’t want to fall off of any cliffs, nor do we want to stand still as all of the other cars race around us.

Some of us, like the leader of the free world, can’t imagine a day without a Blackberry; others, like a former free world leader, don’t even want an email account. Most of us live in this world where we have to creatively embrace the new while we tighten our grips on the traditional, because technology platforms thrive on stability while they obsolesce rapidly. Where the Obama White House winds up might be a good indicator of where we should all be. I hope we’ll have a window into that.

Bit by Bitly!

A bizarre bug in a Firefox plugin pretty much 86ed this blog for anyone using IE in the last month or so. I installed the Bitly Preview Firefox plug-in, which expands shortened urls in web pages so you can see where they’ll take you. Seemed useful, since I’m active on Twitter and they show up there all the time.

Anyway, this plugin apparently had a bug. If you had the 1.1 version installed, and you edited anything in a rich text editor (like, um, the one I’m writing this post in), it would toss a little javascript code in after your text. The code wasn’t malicious – it was pretty ineffectual – but Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, versions 6 and 7, were completely dumbfounded by it (MS admits that this is a bug and say that they’ve fixed it in IE8). Anyone visiting the blog in those browsers recently has been hit with a pop-up error complaining that the page can’t be displayed. This blog is not the biggest destination site on the web, and I’m pretty sure that most of you are reading this in the comfort of your own RSS reader (you should be – look for my upcoming Idealware article explaining how and why, if you aren’t).

Anyway, the fix was to remove or upgrade the bitly plugin; load up PHPMyAdmin on my server and run the query:

select * from wp_posts where post_content like ‘%bitly%’;

then, since I only had a handful of matches (my last five posts), select them all and remove the line at the bottom of each post, which was a script containing the text:

s.bit.ly/bitlypreview.js

Definitely one of the odder glitches I’ve experienced!

Biting The Hand – Conclusion

This article was originally published on the Idealware Blog in October of 2008.

This is the final post in a three part series on Microsoft.  Be sure to read Part 1, on the history/state of the Windows operating system, and Part 2, on developing for the Microsoft platform.

Two More Stories – A Vicious Exchange

In late 2006, I moved an organization of about 500 people from Novell Groupwise to Microsoft Exchange 2007.  After evaluating the needs, I bought the standard edition, which supported message storageup to 16GB (Our Groupwise message base took up about 4GB).  A few days after we completed the migration, which included transferring the Groupwise messages to Exchange, an error popped up in the Event Viewer saying that our message store was larger than the 16GB limit, and, sure enough, it was – who knew that Microsoft messages were so much larger than Groupwise messages?

The next day, Event Viewer reported that our message store was too large and that it would be dismounted at 5:00 am, meaning that email would be, essentially, disconnected.  Huh?  I connected remotely the next morning and remounted at about 5:10.  I also scoured the Microsoft Knowledgebase, looking for a recommendation on this, and found nothing.  I called up my vendor and ordered the Enterprise version of Exchange, which supports a much larger message store.  A couple of days later, same thing.  My new software hadn’t arrived yet.  The next day, the message changed, saying that our message store was too large and would be dismounted randomly! What!?  This meant that the server could go down in the middle of the business day.  The software arrived, and I tossed the box on my desk and scheduled to come in on Sunday (which happened to be New Year’s Day, 2007) to do the upgrade. But when I opened the box, I discovered that my vendor had sent me Enterprise media, yes, but it was for Exchange Server 2005, the prior version.  I was hosed.

Frantic, I went to Google instead of the knowledge base and searched.  This yielded a blog entry explaining that, with Exchange Server 2007 Service Pack 2 (which I had applied as part of the initial installation), it was now legal to have message stores of up to 75GB.  All I had to do was modify a registry entry on the server – problem solved.  Wow, who woulda thunk?  Particularly if this had been documented anywhere on the Microsoft Knowledgebase?

But here’s my question: What Machiavellian mind came up with the compliance enforcement routine that I experienced, and why was my business continuity threatened by code designed to stop me from doing something perfectly legal under the Service Pack 2 licensing?  This was sloppy, and this was cruel, and this was not supportive of the customer.

Cheap ERP

In early 2007, I hired a consultant to help with assessing and developing our strategic technology plan.  This was at a social services agency, and one of our issues was that, since we hired our clients, having separate databases to track client progress and Human Resources/Payroll resulted in large amounts of duplicate data entry and difficult reporting. The consultant and I agreed that a merged HR/Client Management system would be ideal. So, at lunch one day, I nearly fell off my chair laughing when he suggested that we look at SAP.  SAP, for those who don’t know, is a database and development platform that large companies use in order to deploy highly customized and integrated business computing platforms.  Commonly referred to as Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software, it’s a good fit for businesses with the unique needs and ample budgets to support what is, at heart, an internally developed set of business applications.  The reason I found this so entertaining was that, even if we could afford SAP, then hiring the technical staff to develop it into something that worked for us would be way beyond our means.  SAP developers make at least six figures a year, and we would have needed two or more to get anywhere in a reasonable amount of time.  It’s unrealistic for even a mid-sized nonprofit to look at that kind of investment in technology.

So Microsoft holds a unique position — like SAP, or Oracle, they offer a class of integrated products that can run your business.  Unlike SAP or Oracle, they’re pretty much what they are – you can customize and integrate them, at a cost, but you can’t, for instance, extend Microsoft’s Dynamics HR package into a Client Management System.  But, if you have both Dynamics and Social Solutions, which runs on Microsoft SQL Server, you’d have a lot more compatibility and integration capabilities than we had at our social services org, where our HR system was outsourced and proprietary and the client management software ran on Foxpro.

Bangs for the Buck

So this is where it leaves me – Micosoft is a large, bureaucratic mess of a company that has so many developers on each product that one will be focusing on how to punish customers for non-compliance while another is making the customers compliant.  Their product strategy is driven far less by customer demands than it is by marketing strategy.  Their practices have been predatory, and, while that type of thing seems to be easing, there’s still a lot of it ingrained in their culture.  When they are threatened — and they are threatened, by Google and the migration from the desktop to the cloud — they’re more dangerous to their developers and customers, because they are willing to make decisions that will better position them in the market at the cost of our investments.

But Microsoft offers a bargain to businesses that can’t — and shouldn’t – spend huge percentages of their budget on platform development.  They do a lot out of the box, and they have a lot of products to do it with.  Most of their mature products — Office, Exchange, SQL Server — are excellent.  They’re really good at what they do.  The affordable alternative to the commercial ERP systems like SAP and Oracle is open source, but open source platforms are still relatively immature.  Building your web site on an open Source CMS powered by PHP or Ruby on Rails might be a good, economical move that leaves you better off, in terms of ease of use and capabilities, than many expensive commercial options.  But going  open source for Finance, HR and Client Tracking isn’t really much of an option yet.  The possibly viable alternatives to Microsoft are commercial outsourcers like NetSuite, but how well they’ll meet your full needs depends on how complex those needs are – one size fits all solutions tend to work better for small businesses than medium to large ones.

Finally, it’s all well and good to talk about adopting Microsoft software strictly on its merits, but, for many of us, it has far more to do with the critical, non-Microsoft applications we run that assume we’re using their products.  For many of us, considering alternatives like Linux for an operating system; Open Office or Google Apps for productivity; or PHP for our web scripting language are already nixed because our primary databases are all in SQL Server and ASP.  At the law firm where I work, we aren’t about to swap out Word for an alternative without the legal document-specific features that Microsoft richly incorporates into their product.  But it leaves me, as the technology planner, in a bit of a pickle. Windows XP, Office 2003/2007, Exchange 2007, SQL Server 2007, and Windows Server 2003 are all powerful, reliable products that we use and benefit from, and the price we paid for them, through Techsoup and their charity licensing, is phenomenal.  But as we look at moving to web-based computing, and we embark on custom development to meet information management and communication needs that are very specific to our organization, we’re now faced with adopting Microsoft’s more dynamic and, in my opinion, dangerous technologies.

This would all be different if I had more reason to trust the vendor to prioritize my organization’s stability and operating efficiency over their marketing goals.  Or, put differently, if their marketing philosophy was based less on trying to trump their competition and more on being a dependable, trustworthy vendor.  They’re the big dog, just about impossible to avoid, and they make a very compelling financial argument — at first take — for nonprofits.  But it’s a far more complicated price break than it seems at first glance.

Biting the Hand Part 2

This article was originally posted on the Idealware Blog in October of 2008.

This is part two of a three part rumination on Microsoft.  Today I’m discussing their programming environment, as opposed to the open source alternatives that most nonprofits would be likely to adopt instead.  Part one, on Windows, is here:http://www.idealware.org/blog/2008/10/biting-hand-that-bites-me-as-it-feeds.html

Imposing Standards

In the early days of personal computing, there were a number of platforms – IBM PC, Apple Macintosh, Amiga, Commodore, Leading Edge… but the first two were the primary ones getting any attention from businesses. The PC was geeky, with it’s limited command line interface; the Macintosh was cool with it’s graphics. But two things put the PC on top. One was Dan Bricklin’s VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet.  A computer is a novelty if you have no use for it, and VisiCalc, as it’s modern equivalents are today, was extremely useful. But the bigger reason why the PC beat out the Mac so thoroughly was that the Mac had a strict set of rules that had to be followed in order to program for it, whereas anyone could do pretty much anything on a PC.  If you knewAssembler, the programming language that spoke to the machine, you could start there and create whatever you wanted, with no one at IBM telling you with languages and libraries to use, or what you were allowed or not allowed to do.  As Windows has matured and gained the bulk of the desktop operating system market, Microsoft has started emulating Apple, raising the standards and requirements for Windows programming in ways that make it far less appealing to developers.

Unlike the early days, when no one had much market share, Windows is now the standard  business platform, so there are a lot more reasons to play by whatever rules Microsoft might impose.  So, today, being a Windows programmer is a lot like being a Mac programmer.  If you’re going to have the compatibility and certification that is required, you’re going to follow guidelines, use the shared libraries, and probably program in the same tools as every other Windows programmer.  The benefit is standardization and uniformity, things that business computer users really appreciate.

Accordingly, the Microsoft platform, which used to run on pretty much all PCs, now faces competition from Linux and other Unix variants, and for much the same reasons that IBM beat out Apple in those early days. What appeals to Java, PHP, Rails and other open source developers is very much the same thing that brought developers to the PC in the first place, and Microsoft’s arguments for sticking to their platform are much like Apple’s – “it’s safer, it’s well-supported, it’s standardized, so a lot of the work is done for you”.  I would argue with each of these claims.

Is it Safer?

The formal programming environment is supposedly more secure, with compiled code and stricter encoding/encryption of data in their web services model.  But it seems that the open source model, with, for the major apps, a multitude of eyes on the code, isquicker to fnd and fix security glitches.  Microsoft defenders will argue that, because Microsoft lives in a commercial ecosystem, with paid training and support, that support is more widely available and will continue to be avaailable, whereas open source support and training is primarily community-based and uncompensated. But my experience has been that finding forums, how-to’s and code samples for PHP, Python and Rails has always been far easier than finding the equivalent for ASP and C#.  In the open surce world, all code is always available; in the MS world, you either buy it or you pay someone to teach you.

Is it Easier?

The bar for programming on Microsoft’s platform is high. To create a basic web application on the Microsoft platform, or to extend an existing application that supports their web programming standards, you, at a minimum, need to know XML; a scripting language such as Visual Basic or C#; and Active Server Pages (ASP).  Modern scripting languages like Ruby on Rails and PHP are high level and relatively easy to pick up; RAILS, in particular, supports a rapid application develoment model that can have a functional application built in minutes.  These languages support REST, a simple (albeit less secure) way of transmitting data in web applications.  Microsoft depends on SOAP, a more formal and complex method. A good piece on REST versus SOAP links here.

Is it Standardized?

Well, this is where I really have the problem.  MS controls their programming languages and environments.  If you develop MS software, you do it in MS Visual Studio, and you likely code in a C variant or Visual Basic, using MS compilers.  Your database is MS SQL Server. Visual Studio and SQL Server are powerful, mature products – I wouldn’t knock them.  But Microsoft has been blazing through a succession of programming standards that a cheetah couldn’t keep up with over the years, revamping their languages rapidly, changing the recommended methods of connecting to data; And generally making the job of keeping up with their expectations unattainable. So while their platform uses standardized code and libraries in order for developers to produe applications with standardized interfaces, the development tools themselves are going through constant, dramatic revisions, far more disruptive ones than the more steady, well-roadmapped enhancing of the open source competition.

Mixed Motives

The drivers for this rapid change are completely mixed up with their marketing goals.  For example, MS jumped on the web bandwagon years ago with a product called Frontpage.  Frontpage was a somewhat simplistic GUI tool for creating web pages, and it was somewhat infamous for generating web sites that were remarkably uniform in nature.  It was eclipsed completely by what is now Adobe’s Dreamweaver.  If you try and buy Frontpage today, you’ll have a hard time finding it, but it didn’t go away, it was simply revised and rebranded. Frontpage is now called “Sharepoint Designer“.  It’s a product that Microsoft recommends that Sharepoint administrators and developers use to modify the Sharepoint interface.  Mind you, most of your basic Sharepoint modifications can be made from within Sharepoint, and anything advanced can and should be done in Visual Studio.  There’s no reason to use this product, as most of what it does is easier to do elsewhere.

So it comes down to time, money and risk.  The MS route is more complex and more expensive than the open source alternatives.   The support and training is certified and industrialized. All of this costs money – the tools, the support, the code samples, and the developers, who generally make $80-150k a year.  The platform development is driven by the market, which leads to a question about it’s sustainability in volatile times for the company.  As concluded in part one, Microsoft knows that the bulk of their products will be obsolesced by a move to Software as a Service.  The move from O S-based application development to web development has been rocky, and it’s not close to finished.

Look for part 3 sometime next week, where I’ll tie this all up.

Biting The Hand That Bites Me As It Feeds Me? Part 1

This article was first published on the Idealware Blog in October of 2008.

Like many of us, I’ve been using Microsoft products for a long, long time, and I appreciate many of them. Microsoft is a significant vendor, period, with their dominance in operating systems, productivity applications and, well, most everything else software-related. But they are a particularly compelling vendor in the nonprofit sector. I’ve often noted that, should Microsoft ever take over the world, they would at least be benevolent dictators. As evidence, we have the great work of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and their long-established support for charitable institutions, by way of their affordable licensing to 501(c)3’s and generous amount of software donations, via Techsoup and otherwise.

But, hey, I wouldn’t be heaping all of this praise on them if I didn’t have a few criticisms, and these are criticisms developed through the eyes of a long-time technology strategist. In addition to using Microsoft software, I’ve beta-tested it, I’ve developed on the platform, and I’ve been deploying it since the early 1990’s. I’ve run into my share of frustrations. 20 or so years into my relationship with this vendor, I still find myself ridiculously attracted to and repelled by their applications and platforms. So I want to spend a few blog posts talking about one IT Director’s history with Microsoft, and some of the lessons learned and ongoing concerns I have with the software vendor that I’ve had the longest, largest relationship with in my career.

To start, I just want to let off a little steam about the flagship product, Windows. I’ll follow this up over the next few weeks discussing their development environment and general philosophy, before tying it up with some commentary about the choices we, as nonprofits, can make. There will be no bold conclusion here, or any strong recommendation to dive in or stay away from their products – there are compelling arguments for doing both. But my hope is that I can ruminate a little bit on the main challenges I see in dealing with them.

Early Predatory Business Practices

My IT career started about 1991 at a small San Francisco Law Firm. Vendor lock-in was big at law firms in the 90’s, but the vendor was Wordperfect Corp., not Microsoft. Attorneys swore by Wordperfect for DOS, and bought anything else that they sold. So, when Novell, our networking software vendor, bought DR-DOS and released it as a free, feature-rich MS-DOS replacement for Novell customers, it made little sense not to use it. This proved to be my first — and early — introduction to Microsoft’s established predatory practices. MS wrote code into a beta of Windows 3.1 which basically said “If this isn’t running on top of MS-DOS, tell the user that it will crash.” This became known as the AARD Code, and it wasn’t removed from the actual Windows 3.1 release; just modified to not display.

Microsoft, famously, either engaged in or was highly assumed to be engaging in numerous other unfair practices, from hiding code in Word and Excel that made them faster and stabler on Windows than competing applications, to stealing product ideas, and to leveraging their desktop operating system dominance in order to put competing products out of business, the latter practice being one that they were found guilty of and fined for. The Consumer Federation of America has an excellent article summarizing and referencing all of the real and alleged abuses leading up to the ruling.

Today, Microsoft seems to be a bit less arrogant and more on the up and up. They’ve made conciliatory moves in the open source community, as their dominance in the industry seems to be waning a bit. This is largely in the realm of new technology, such as Software as a Service (SaaS) offerings. On the traditional servers and desktops, they’re still everywhere.

Dragging the Legacy Behind Them

In the 80’s and 90’s, Microsoft displayed a brilliant talent for buying or building the right thing at the right time. I might have deployed a competing version of DOS, but I’m one of the very few. They hit the zeitgeist with Windows, which borrowed heavily from the Apple Macintosh (which, in turn, was inspired by work done at Parc Xerox), but the combination of a GUI on top of DOS — an OS that could run on any number of manufacturer’s PCs — allowed it to soar to the top of the market share very quickly.

Note that MacOS was a graphical OS, whereas Windows was a graphical application that ran on top of DOS, a character-based OS. And even when Microsoft claimed to let go of that legacy with the release of Windows NT (NT for “New Technology”) it wasn’t fully severed. I found this out when I hired a consultant to help me with a crashed SCSI drive on a critical server. He brought the wrong replacement drive, but decided that there might be something else that he could do. In order to test his theory, he renamed the “C:” drive on my Windows NT 4.0 server to “E:”, after which, the server could not boot. I couldn’t help wondering why an operating system that had dropped it’s legacy roots was still crippled by as artificial a limitation as the boot drive requiring the label “C:”.

Decades Later…

If this were all ancient history, it would be fine, but when we look at Vista, which was pitched to us as a revolutionary new version of Windows, much like Windows 95 and Windows NT before it, what we really see is a revamped graphical interface on top of a ton of code, some of it likely dating back at least 15 years. They’ve rewritten the graphics and they’ve modified the basic code to operate at 64 bits, but they’ve included all of the 32 bit code as well, to support all of the “legacy applications” that are still being developed. And, believe me, there’s 16 bit (Windows 3 compatible) and 8 bit (DOS-compatible) code in there as well.

This isn’t a Mac vs Windows article, but there is one thing that Apple has done extremely right that Microsoft should really consider. When MacOS grew to version 9, they canned it. They took a healthy Unix variant (BSD), built a brand new GUI on it, and, while they included OS9-compatible code in the initial release, it was isolated from the current code base – you had to boot specially into it. This allowed Apple to create a modern GUI that does everything Windows does more on a faster and stabler platform. Early reports on Windows 7 — which Microsoft is rushing out in order to recoup from the damage that Vista has done — are that it’s pretty much Vista with a face lift. They’re not letting go of the legacy, and, as a result, they’re asking us to buy faster systems with much more memory in order to subsidize their rushed and sloppy development choices. It doesn’t bode well.

But, while Microsoft is continuing down the same superhighway that the Windows code has traveled since the early days of DOS, they are developing their own competition online. The question is, have they decided that investing in actually fixing Windows is too little and too late a strategy in the face of cloud computing and SaaS? It’s an interesting question, because it implies that our choices for staying with the vendor will mean living with Windows, as it is, or trusting Microsoft as an outsourced provider of computing infrastructure. That’s a proposition that I find easier to take from vendors who haven’t tried to lock me out of competing products in the past.

Next up

But this is only the beginning of the discussion. I’ll continue next week on their history with developers and their general philosophy of software, and I’ll come back to this point in the conclusion. Part 2 is here.

Smartphone Follies

Here’s my 9/18/2008 Idealware post, originally published at http://www.idealware.org/blog/2008/09/smartphone-follies.html

If you man the support desk, or are the accidental techie for an org of ten or more people, chances are that you get a lot of questions about smartphones. And these generally aren’t the “what should I get?” questions as often as they’re the “how do I get my email and schedule on my new [Blackberry/Iphone/Treo/Razr/MotoQ/Sidekick/Android Dream]?”. If the state of computing technology were akin to smartphones, you’d have Commodore, Leading Edge, IBM, and Apple computers, along with IBM Selectric typewriters to support, all running different operating systems and different applications. It’s somewhat insane.

So how can you politely impose some sanity on the smartphone madness? People love THEIR devices; the choice of an Iphone vs a Blackberry is as heated as any political debate. But there are some commons sense arguments that IT can make for a modicum of standardization, without totally denying your users some choice.

It all boils down to email. While smartphones feature a range of operating systems, email platforms tend to support cross-smartphone access. So what’s your email system?

Microsoft Exchange includes ActiveSync. If you run an Exchange server, ActiveSync-capable smartphones can connect directly and wirelessly to it, providing contact, calendar, email and (on some phones) task synchronization. Any Windows Mobile phone includes Activesync, as well as Palm Treos and the newest iPhones (version 2 and above). Exchange 2007 also includes handy features like remote device wipes and access to network shares.

Google Apps/GMail Google makes a GMail for Mobile application that works on most smartphones capable of running java applications, which includes all of the major variants (Windows Mobile, Blackberry, iPhone and Palm).

If you don’t use GMail or have an Exchange server (you either run Outlook or Outlook Express without your own server, or you use a different system), Blackberries offer the ubiquitous solution. RIM, the company that makes them, runs their own server that can act as a gateway for your email service and forward the mail to your phone. Before Microsoft figured out how to support mobiles, this was a sweet, revolutionary offering, but my take is that, compared to Exchange/Activesync, it’s now a bit of a kludge. If you use Blackberries with Exchange, you can increase functionality by buying their Exchange add-in server, but that’s a significant investment that you’re not likely to make without a large fleet of phones. In the meantime, though, here’s a tip: when you set up that Blackberry to access Exchange, pick Outlook WebAccess, not Outlook (assuming you also run Webaccess). The integration through Webaccess updates the server when you read messages on the phone; the vanilla Outlook integration doesn’t. Outlook should be chosen when you don’t offer WebAccess with Exchange.

At my job, we have Exchange and a smartphone policy that states that we support Activesync, as opposed to any particular device. We recommend that our users get Treos or iPhones, because we like them, but don’t complain if they get Wings or MotoQ’s or whatever, because Activesync works the same way on any Windows Mobile device. The staff appreciates the guidance and flexibility; we enjoy the reduced time figuring every new phone out.