Delivering the connected cloud
by Simon Bisson
Microsoft solutions now extend beyond Windows to iOS and Android. Find out what Grey Matter’s Connected Cloud has to offer.
HardCopy Issue: 69 | Published: May 31, 2016
If you looked at Microsoft’s recent sets of company results you’d have seen that there’s a big shift underway, moving from the old world of perpetual licensed software to one where software is sold as subscriptions, and is a gateway to a wide range of cloud services. It’s a change that affects the way you buy and use software, and it’s one that’s bringing Microsoft’s tools and software to a wider range of platforms.
Part of that change involves bringing Microsoft’s flagship Office tools to other platforms, making them no longer dependent on Windows. While a Mac OS version of Office has been around for a long time, until recently it had fewer features than the Windows version, and wasn’t available as part of an Office 365 subscription. That’s all changed, and along with a regularly updated Office for Mac, there are now versions of the core Office tools on iOS and on Android as well as on Windows, along with new tools that build on the Office platform and let you try out new ways of working, from joining Slack-like groups to quick, almost IM-style messaging that can migrate from phone to desktop and back again.
Microsoft’s change of strategy is best encapsulated by its description of mobility as “mobility of experience”. Your information is the same everywhere, hosted in the cloud on Microsoft’s OneDrive and on other competing cloud storage services like Box and Dropbox where you can share it with colleagues and business partners, and with other cloud services like Adobe’s Document Cloud. With a mobile experience you can use any device and any OS to access your content.
It’s a strategy that’s suddenly jumped Microsoft applications to the top of the app store charts on iOS and Android. Search for Microsoft in these stores and you’ll find a large and ever-growing list of applications, including the core Office applications of Word, Excel and PowerPoint. When these were launched two years ago, they were clearly cut-down versions of their desktop siblings. Now, however, they’re quickly catching up, adding support for Office Store add-ins, allowing you to extend your Office installation into other applications and other workflows.
Applications are only part of the story, with other cloud services like EMS (Enterprise Mobility Suite) which provides tools for managing iOS, Android, and Windows devices, whether they’re users’ own, or provided by a business. With EMS you can manage your corporate directory in the cloud, handle single sign-on into cloud services and applications (along with security monitoring), and run your own corporate app store to download and manage apps for your users. EMS will also give you enterprise grade security, with threat analytics tools to help track down network intrusions, and Azure Rights Management to automate the process of protecting documents by controlling who can see, edit, and share them.
Microsoft services on iOS
Apple’s iPad Pro is its latest tablet, available in two sizes, both with a keyboard and an active pen in the Pencil. A more powerful processor and a higher quality screen underlie Apple’s positioning of it as a device for information workers, who need to work with documents while on the road. That makes it an ideal partner for Office, which has now been available on iOS for just over two years.
The iOS version of Office is like the rest of Microsoft’s mobile Office apps, and while it’s a free download from the iOS App Store, it’s at its best when paired with an Office 365 subscription which unlocks additional features. If you’re using the larger iPad Pro with the 12.9-inch display, you’ll also need a subscription to create and edit documents, something that comes for free on iOS devices with screens smaller than 10 inches, such as the new iPad Pro 9.7-inch.
A keyboard makes it a lot easier to work with Word and Excel, making the iPad Pro an obvious choice for working with Office 365. However, Microsoft offers alternative soft keyboards for other iOS keyboards, including its Office-focused Hub keyboard and an iOS version of its well-regarded Windows Phone word flow keyboard with an innovative curved one-thumb typing experience.
Perhaps the most important tool is the iOS version of Outlook, a renamed and updated version of the well-regarded Accompli mail client which Microsoft acquired in late 2014. The Accompli team now heads up much of Office’s mobile client development, and will be folding the popular Sunrise calendar tool into Outlook Mobile, adding improved cross-platform and cross-service calendaring features. The same code-base and design language is being used in the Android and Windows Phone versions, and in the Windows Mail client that’s bundled with Windows 10. It’s a powerful mail client, and one that’s a substantial improvement over the default iOS mail tools, with a focused inbox that lets you see the messages you need to act on right now; an important feature in any mobile mail client.
Microsoft’s cloud tools rely on cloud storage, and OneDrive is at the heart of its iOS tooling, and is a cheaper and more flexible alternative to Apple’s own cloud storage platform. With OneDrive for Business coming as part of most Office 365 subscriptions, it’s likely to be your storage platform of choice. However, with Microsoft’s apps you’re not limited to OneDrive for Business. You can also connect to the consumer OneDrive, to Dropbox, to Box, and to Egnyte, allowing you to use Office with your choice of enterprise content management tools or with your own personal documents. It’s a surprisingly important set of features that make it a lot easier to collaborate formally and informally with partners and colleagues.
It’s also easier to find and install the rest of the Office suite. You can start with Word and install the rest of the tools, from Outlook to Delve, and there are links that direct you towards other cloud platform tools like PowerBI. This is where Microsoft’s cloud evolution comes into play, extending use of your data into other apps. Microsoft’s list of iPhone and iPad apps is long, and it’s growing. Most work with Office 365 or with other cloud services, and with tools like EMS there’s also a cloud option for managing devices and deploying software.
One key tool for anyone wanting to take advantage of Windows applications and services is Remote Desktop. As well as delivering remote access to users’ PCs, there’s the option of using your servers, either in-house or Azure-hosted, to deliver what Microsoft calls Remote Apps: apps that run on the server and deliver their UI to your devices. That means you’re able to deliver Win32 desktop apps to iOS devices, making it quick and easy to support custom applications without having to rewrite them for other platforms.
There are also iPad apps for tools like Microsoft’s Dynamics CRM and for its PowerBI data analysis service, and for the cloud-hosted SME accounting package that Microsoft is developing. Office 365 users get a Skype for Business client and two factor authentication tools for Office 365 and for Azure.
Getting started is easy enough: download Word, Excel or PowerPoint from the Apple App Store and log in with an Office 365 account. Set up an Office 365 account in one app and you’re signed in for all the others that you’re running on your device.
Apple’s newer devices like the iPad Pro allow you to work with your apps using larger screen sizes in new ways. One is iOS’s new side-by-side view, which Office takes advantage of: open an attachment from Outlook, for example, and it will automatically display in side-by-side view. There’s also support for Apple’s Pencil. An active stylus, Pencil lets you draw on documents, adding sketches and the like, or perhaps annotating a document that you’re reviewing on the go. Pencil is nice and accurate, and preferable to working with touch (also an option from the Office draw menus).
One thing to note: The iOS Office apps aren’t the full featured desktop versions, but they are more than good enough for basic document creation, document editing and collaboration. With support for phones and tablets, and for the new Pro family of devices, there’s a lot of advantage to be gained by bringing your Microsoft cloud to your Apple device.
Microsoft services on Android
Like iOS, Microsoft has made a big move to deliver services and apps to Android phones and tablets. It’s now possible to run an Android device, like the latest Samsung Galaxy devices, with almost a pure Microsoft experience from start screen, to launcher, to apps, to keyboards. Install Outlook and you’ve got a mail client that integrates with the Android dialer and messaging apps, as well as with Skype for Business. Microsoft even provides apps that work on Android Wear.
The core Office apps are on Android too, though again you’ll get the most out of them with an Office 365 account. Integration with OneDrive means you can quickly get access to files when you need to edit or share documents. High end Android tablets offer additional editing tools, with support for pens and for Bluetooth and connected keyboards. There’s a lot to be said for a good keyboard with a tablet, as it turns a consumption and gaming device into a workable netbook-style device – especially as Android now supports mouse and trackpad devices.
Microsoft’s suite of Android applications also includes the Send quick messaging app and the Slack-like Groups tool which extend the core Office 365 services. There are also tools for working with encrypted files securely, and for using Android devices as part of a managed EMS environment. If you’re using the Intune component of EMS then Microsoft lets you deploy managed versions of core Android apps, including an image viewer and a browser.
Other tools for Android devices include support for the Dynamics AX and CRM tools, giving you quick access to corporate data whether on-premises or in the cloud. If you’re using Excel to work with data, Microsoft offers an Excel keyboard for Android phones that makes it a lot easier to work with the contents of large spreadsheets, as well as create and use formulae. Drop into landscape view on a phone or a tablet and the Excel keyboard will even give you a numeric keypad.
While Microsoft is unlikely to ever deliver its own Android phone, the apps and services it offers go a long way to giving you a Microsoft-tailored mobile experience. With EMS you can quickly manage a fleet of Android devices, and with Office 365 turn them into tools that will work well in most businesses, and across a mix of task and information worker roles. You can even use them with PowerBI and PowerApps to build and share mobile information dashboards, as well as your own custom applications without having to go through the Google Play Store.
Microsoft services on Windows
Windows has always been the home for Microsoft’s Office tools. The desktop Office Professional Pro that comes with an Office 365 subscription is the familiar Office suite we’ve known for years, giving you Word, Excel, Outlook, PowerPoint, Access, Publisher, OneNote and Skype for Business.
Microsoft’s two-in-one device strategy is focused on its Surface hardware, and the latest version of the Surface Pro is a powerful device with a crisp clear screen and a surprisingly high-quality keyboard, given that it is still built into a thin cover that snaps on and off. Windows 10’s pen support builds on more than a decade of development, originating in Windows XP’s tablet edition. Microsoft’s pen now comes with a choice of tips so you can choose the feel you want, from a hard pencil to a rolling-ball gel pen.
While Office remains firmly wedded to the keyboard and mouse, there’s a lot of pen support as well for navigation and for annotation. Outside of the core Office applications, the pen can annotate web pages in Edge, which can then be shared with OneNote.
Nowadays Windows isn’t just for the desktop or the two-in-one; it’s for all sizes of PC down to 7-inch tablets, and also for Windows Phones. That means there’s another set of Office apps designed for use on lighter weight hardware, including Windows Phone. With Windows 10 that software takes shape in the new Universal Windows Apps that have the same code base but a different look and feel on different size screens. A phone has one view, a portrait tablet another, and a landscape screen another still.
If you’ve got a Windows 10 Mobile phone like a Lumia 950, you can go a step further and use Continuum to project the phone screen onto a larger display, so letting mobile workers use a phone in the same way as they would a PC with a keyboard and mouse. This does mean you’ll need an Office 365 licence to edit and create documents, though, as you could be using screens significantly larger than 10 inches. Continuum will also work with a new version of Remote Desktop to deliver Remote Apps to larger screens, so you’ll be able to work with legacy x86 apps on an ARM-based phone.
While Windows is a familiar platform, cloud technologies are stretching it in new directions. With Microsoft’s cloud services the familiar screen is a portal into something a lot bigger, and while you can still use applications the way you used to, Office 365 and Azure mean you’re able to bring a lot more to the table, taking advantage of cloud-scale machine learning in apps like Delve and the ability to quickly bring cloud services together with cloud development tools like Flow and PowerApps (both of which need Office 365 subscriptions).
The Connected Cloud
Microsoft’s cloud offerings aren’t just about its applications. Redmond hasn’t forgotten its developer roots, so all its services are also APIs that you can build into your own applications. Once you’ve brought your business into Office 365, you can start using the collection of APIs that Microsoft calls the Office Graph. Here you’re able to use documents, directories, and services to map out a company. Want to build a knowledge management service, and need to know who’s the expert? The APIs that are used to build Delve can help you there – and they can also help you feed that information into Dynamics and into your CRM and customer support tools and services.
Grey Matter is now offering a set of services to support organisations that want to take advantage of Microsoft’s cloud services and software, and the devices that they run on. Grey Matter Services is being run by Mike Nicholas, who sees the offering as a way of helping organisations migrate into the cloud. “These organisations are adding services,” Nicholas says, “and that means they’re going to need ongoing support.”
At the moment companies are using a set of different third parties to keep their lights on. A firm of solicitors, for example, that wants to keep its email flowing needs to work with email services, network providers, mobile operators and software vendors. What Grey Matter is offering is a way of bringing together the various tools and services you need to deliver a successful migration into the cloud. As Nicholas notes, “We have a network of partners that specialise in the various areas. We’ll work with them to understand the requirements and find the right specialists for you.” Part of that process will be to find the correct partner for a migration, as different industries have very different needs. That’s most important when working with services like SharePoint and Dynamics CRM, where business-specific understanding is necessary if you are to build the right workflows and get the most from the services Microsoft offers.”
Nicholas sees Grey Matter’s role as helping to maximise the adoption of cloud services, “We’ll work with you to train your end users; to help them fully understand how best to use it. We’re here to help people understand what they can do with the products.” Key to delivering that goal is the central helpdesk that Grey Matter will be running. This will “give the customer a quick resolution to problems and issues.”
With a wide range of clients, working in many different industries, Nicholas is expecting to offer an end-to-end set of solutions. “We’re looking at it from a user experience; from the devices to the software,” he says. “We’ll let the customer focus on the solution while we take on the burden of everything else, right the way down to the desktop and the device.” That support goes as far as helping companies find the right airtime provider for their mobile devices.
One of the benefits of cloud services is that they change the way businesses pay for IT, helping them move from a capital expense model to an operational expense model. Making IT an operational expense is an important shift, which Nicholas describes as being “a bit like a car leasing contract, in that you pay as you consume the service.” In this way businesses can maximise their use of services, paying only for what they use when they use it. So, for example, with Azure you only pay for the compute, the storage and the bandwidth that you actually use. “As a business scales they only pay for the months during which they need that scale,” Nicholas points out.
Building a cloud model for a business isn’t easy, so working with a trusted partner like Grey Matter makes a lot of sense for businesses of all sizes. As Nicholas says, “Grey Matter has a name, and it understands licensing at a deep technical level. What we’re doing is bringing that expertise to the customer, along with support for the design phase and the journey from A to B.”
That journey can be complex, especially with businesses that rely on custom applications. There can be many ways of delivering the right solution for a customer, and a collaborative design and delivery process that works across many providers will often be necessary. Having Grey Matter as a single point of contact helps you manage and coordinate those partnerships, scaling all the way up to high speed direct connections to Microsoft’s cloud via dedicated MPLS ExpressRoute connections, and all the way down to ADSL small business broadband. It’ll even help companies choose the right devices for their users, from iOS and Android phones, all the way up to Microsoft 2-in-1 tablets for power users.
Nicholas suggests that “The journey to become fully cloud is a phased approach. We need to take people there in segments.” He sees things changing for companies like Grey Matter when the journey is complete: “When companies are in the cloud fully, from a Services perspective, then things will change. Local IT will become in-country IT, giving companies a seamless experience.”
Providing a managed approach to the delivery of cloud services and applications makes a lot of sense. As Nicholas notes, “Everyone is specialising nowadays, and that makes it a lot harder for end users to find people and to find the right solution. So what we can do is help them find the right partners, whether they be over-arching solution providers or specialist industry-focused partners.” If you’re an engineering company, Grey Matter will bring on board partners with engineering experience; if you’re a firm of solicitors, it’ll use partners who specialise in working with legal services. That way, businesses will know that their specific needs will be quickly understood, and their problems solved by a team with the right expertise.
As Nicholas points out, the heart of Grey Matter Services is its helpdesk, “The technical teams there will always be the first point of contact. Grey Matter owns the relationship with the customer and manages the partners who help build the solution.” As Grey Matter Services grows, so will the helpdesk, adding skilled team members with the aim of being cloud generalists. Nicholas sees Grey Matter as being cloud first responders, “We’ll only call on providers and partners when we can’t provide help.” That central helpdesk will also help partners, as it means they don’t need to invest in first-tier support services and call centres. “Our partners will be able to concentrate on their skills,” Nicholas says.
What Grey Matter is building with its Connected Cloud and Services offer can best be thought of as the next step on from a managed services model. Its focus is on services and products that grows out from a Managed Service Provider core, building on Grey Matter’s skills in managing software licences to give you a different way to market. So what should we call it? Nicholas doesn’t hesitate to answer: “We’re a trusted product partner.”