Office 365 – the beginning of Microsoft’s death spiral?

Thursday, 30 June 2011

Microsoft has finally launched a Cloud version of its Office (Word processing, spreadsheet) product, to less than rapturous reception:

Dennis Howlett calls Microsoft Office 365 “a dud”.

The Register points out that “Office 365 …  been designed to complement desktop Office rather than replace it“.

Mary-Jo Foley, normally a Microsoft fan, posts that “Sorry, folks. This is not Office in the cloud

Meanwhile their acquisition of Skype has been slagged off as too expensive with no synergy and the dying act of a company desperate to be seen to be still relevant, the Windows line get worse and worse press, and some investors are calling for CEO Steve Ballmer to be replaced.

Poor Microsoft! I’m not a fan of their products, although I used to be and I use many every day, but I do really sympathise with their problems.

Addressing the Office 365 issue first, it is almost impossible to move a traditional (try not to call them legacy!) application to the Cloud. Cloud applications behave differently, so trying to both be a Cloud application and retain some look and feel of the old product is impossible. Microsoft is torn between wanting a decent Cloud product, yet not killing off the revenue stream from the old product (and killing their traditional route to market, the channel). So many traditional software companies have this problem, trying to both produce modern Cloud applications yet tied by existing user base, channels and revenue streams: SAP, Sage and even Oracle to name but a few.

Meanwhile competitors like Google Apps, Zoho, Open/Libre Office eat Microsoft Office’s lunch and open source (ie, free) software products like Linux and MySQL make inroads into their server based product line. Really Simple System’s Cloud CRM product is gradually moving off Windows Server onto Linux boxes for a myriad of technical (performance) and commercial (price) reasons. Windows Mobile is being killed by Android and iPhone. The only bright spot is that as yet there is still no credible threat to desktop Windows, although Macs are doing well and a few technologists like me are moving to Linux based desktops such as Ubuntu.

And Steve Ballmer? I’m continually drawn to the parallel between the handover of the British Prime Ministership/Labour party from Tony Blair to Gordon Brown: charismatic but tarnished leader hands over to gruff company man just before the ship goes down. Something I’ve noticed over the years is that when the original software company founders leave, the product vision goes and the company becomes just another money making business, milking revenue off the locked-in user base, until the old user base gradually drifts away. The names of Sage, Infor, Oracle and good old Computer Associates come to mind. No wonder Apple investors are worried as to what happens after Steve Jobs goes. Microsoft’s user base and revenue streams are so large that it will take a decade for that to happen, but happen it will.

Meanwhile I predict we’ll see Microsoft taking the traditional software vendor death spiral: ·

  • Short term investors force Steve Ballmer out, replaced with bottom line focussed CEO.
  • New CEO cuts swathes of costs, profits recover, share price is talked up, short term investors sell at healthy profit, new CEO pockets huge bonus and leaves. Products struggle on directionless.
  • CFO takes over as CEO. User base gradually moves on, more costs are cut, products languish.
  • Rinse and repeat until nobody cares any more.
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Data Security – Europe vs USA

Thursday, 5 May 2011

My friends and colleagues will tell you that I can get really boring about the different cultural and ethical stances that Europe and the USA take on data protection – a free-for-all in the USA, regulated (or not) by market forces; and a heavily regulated legal environment in Europe. For once, both regions’ legal system reflect the mood of the people. In the USA people seem happy (or are just resigned to the fact) that their personal data will be collected, bought and sold by unscrupulous web sites. In Europe, people expect their data to be held in confidence and abusing that trust can be a criminal offence. At Really Simple Systems we occasionally get calls from US customers asking us if we will sell the data that they enter into their CRM system. We don’t say we don’t do this on our site because – well, it is simply unimaginable that we would. Over here, anyway.

But last week I came across another twist in the data protection saga. We had a customer checking that their data was not stored in the US, not because of data compliance issues (they were not in the EC) but because their own customers would be unhappy if their personal (and financial) details would be stored in the US. Every since the USA passed the Patriot Act any government agency can demand to see any data stored on a computer in the US, or any computer anywhere in the world owned by a US organisation, and they can demand this without the inconvenience of a court order.

It is a well known fact that any law intended to be used for one purpose ends up being used for many other purposes not intended when the law was passed. The UK’s Anti-Terrorist laws being one example, having been (ab)used to eject hecklers from political conferences (the Labour Party) and threaten friendly countries (Iceland) who might not compensate UK savers in their failed banks.

So it is with the Patriot Act, and the concern of this customer’s customers was that agencies like the IRS might use such data to try and extend their tax reach beyond the shores of the USA.

If you think they are paranoid, coincidentally ZDNet posted a blog on the same theme this very day.


Amazon outage -the view from the mainstream press

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

When a story that gets the IT world excited actually makes it into the mainstream press – then for once the IT world was right to get excited.

So when The Economist covered Amazon’s and Sony’s problems last week, it was proof that cloud computing (and its teething problems) had broken out of the IT world and into general business consciousness.

Interesting to note that The Economist main recommendation was that SaaS vendors should not rely on just one hosting supplier, as I prescribed in my last blog.


More on Amazon outage – SLAs are not the point

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

While we await Amazon’s  autopsy on why their EC2 PaaS (Platform as a Service) went down the toilet for 36 hours, there has been a lot of talk on making sure that users check their hoster’s SLA (Service Level Agreement) to see what uptime they guarantee. But that is missing the point. SLAs are basically an insurance policy that pays out if you site goes down, but in the same way that life insurance doesn’t bring the insured back to life, if the hoster doesn’t meet their SLAs that doesn’t bring your site back online. And like many insurance policies, the small print will always get you when you try and claim.

Meanwhile, let’s just check the maths again on what needs to happen if you want the magic “five nines” of uptime:

36 hours down a year=99.59% uptime
53 minutes down a year=99.99% uptime
5 minutes down a year=99.999% uptime

No matter what Amazon does to learn from this outage, and no matter what SLA you negotiate you them, there is no way that EC2 is going to get to 99.999%. In fact, there is no way ANY one hosting solution will achieve 99.999%. The only way to get to 99.999% is to have (at least) two hosting solutions from different suppliers and to be able to fail over automatically, be they PaaS or your own servers.


Amazon Cloud Outage – The lessons

Friday, 22 April 2011

Over the past couple of years, well meaning people in the cloud industry have told me “You ought to host on a PaaS (Platform-as-a-Service) like Amazon or Google. Your customers would be reassured by having such a big name behind you, and it solves all the scalability issues”. And I’ve replied that, call us old fashioned, but we like to know where our customers’ data is and we like to have control of the technical environment we’re running on, and you only get both if you own and maintain your own servers. There is also the mostly-completey-ignored issue of complying with UK & European law and not holding data on EC citizens outside of the EC.

This blog post is not about schadenfreude, rejoicing in Amazon EC2’s two day outage that has taken a swathe of major cloud applications down, including some of our competitors. This is a plea (yet again!) for simplicity in IT design.

It is a truism that the more complex a system, the greater the chance that something will go wrong. The more firewalls, load balancers, routers and software layers between the customer’s browser and your application, the greater chance that something will fail, be it as simple as an engineer in the datacentre pulling out the wrong cable (as happened to us a few months ago).

The other reason we like hosting our own servers is that, if they go down, we have a team of our own people working flat out focussed 100% on getting our system back and not 1,000 other systems at the same time. Which is a lot easier job, especially as we’ve made sure that we have as few layers between our boxes and the outside world.

We also have a backup system on standby with real time data sync so that if our main datacentre does go down, we can fail over in about 20 minutes.

So, cloud developers! Rack your own boxes and keep the IT simple. Maintaining servers is not that hard, you’ll get much better scalability and efficiency by specifying your own software and hardware platform. And your customers won’t be left without an application that they have paid for.

Just make sure there are no Armenian old ladies near the building.


I was wrong. Windows 7 is horrible.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Well, I never actually said I liked it, I just said that Windows 7 actually seemed to work, which is more than could be said for its bastard sibling, Vista.

But having installed Windows 7 on my brand spanking new high-spec PC, I’ve wiped it off and am going back to XP Professional (well, as soon as the 64 bit version I bought off eBay arrives, that is). I thought I had better have a go rather than be accused of being a grumpy old man, but there are just too many bugs (IIS hangs, installed programs get dropped, network printers vanish, you can’t grant yourself Administrator permissions), too many incompatibilities (Office 2000 won’t work and Open Office is good but not quite as good) and my nice super fast PC doesn’t seem to run any faster than my 4 year old PC as Windows’ showy interface seems to have gobbled up all the extra power.

Now I’m back to a nice clean PC, with sharp minimalist screens that fire up instantly. What a relief.

While I’m waiting for my 64-bit version of XP Pro to arrive, I’ve loaded Ubuntu Desktop on the box. Its nice! Loaded up fast, detected all my network cards (more than Windows did), boots up instantly. When XP dies, I’m going Linux.


2011 Software-as-a-Service survey

Monday, 18 April 2011

The Really Simple Systems SaaS/Cloud Survey is out, and once again it shows that confidence in cloud solutions continues to rise.

The PR company chose to focus on the social marketing results of the survey (“62% of small companies are using social networking in everyday business”), and Dennis Howlett picked up on the fact that despite general confidence in cloud solutions, accountants were not so confident in SaaS solutions.

But the original point of the survey was to see how confident people were in cloud applications, and CRM applications particularly. The survey shows that 66% of respondents were confident in Cloud CRM, and in fact 45% were already using a Cloud CRM service.

Which is great progress. I suppose it is a measure of how far we have come in the acceptance of Cloud CRM that nobody finds it remarkable any more!