Google Apps – the new best friend of an Office 365 fan?

This is probably not the first report of the “Battle of the Giants” and it will certainly not be the last. But imagine you work for an IT company for 6 years, evangelizing the Microsoft productivity tools (Office, Lync, SharePoint and later Office 365), and then suddenly you find yourself in an environment that is “breathing” Google Apps. I can honestly say that I approached it with an open mind, determined to make the best of it.  I want to make Google Apps my new best friend. But I am failing desperately. Let me tell you why.

The e-mail experience

I have nothing negative to say about the technical part of e-mail. You have lots of storage, a good spam filter (Postini), and you can send huge attachments. We had an outage (as far as I noticed) of about 45 minutes in the last two years. But it is the user experience that is driving me crazy.

The “preferred way” to work through your e-mail is the web interface, yes, the same one from Gmail. And although this might be satisfactory for my private e-mails (10 mails a day), it is failing for me to manage my flow of professional e-mail. You can label mails, star mails and create a “folder-like” structure, but if you are really using your inbox as a productivity tool (manage e-mail, manage multiple calendars, work with tasks..), the web interface is not sufficient. And I want my mail offline. Not just the last 30 days, the entire thing. Try working on the Thalys WiFi with your Gmail. “Something when wrong”, yeah right.

Indeed, I need Outlook. I need my “Send to OneNote”, “Reply with meeting”, “Convert to task”, I want my Lync presence indicator for the sender of the e-mail, I want the LinkedIn Social connector to see who is writing me. Oh yes, you can the Google Sync client and use Outlook. If you manage to get it installed and to keep it working, it “kind of” lets you use Outlook with your Google mail. Kind of. Scheduling meetings is a pain, managing multiple calendars is difficult.

I must say that I see a lot of people who like the web interface. I see that most of them are using the search function to find the e-mail that they are looking for, and that is indeed a very powerful function. But I like to organise my mails in an hierarchy, and that is simply not possible.

The file storage experience

Google Drive is definitely the best part of Google Apps. It is very much like DropBox, it has a good offline sync client for multiple platforms. You can easily add files to it via the web (don’t forget to turn of the automatic conversion of files or all your Word files are ending up as Google docs), and I use my local Google Drive folder as “My Documents” so I have an automatic online backup of everything. Microsoft understood that and with the recent Onedrive offering, they are catching up.

As long as you are on yourself, it is great. But then you start sharing stuff.

You can easily share a single document with other users. They’ll get an e-mail with a link. And another one. And another one. If you don’t start organising that yourself, you will end up with a folder “shared with you” with a couple of hundred documents. No context. Just documents.

Context is important. It’s not just the user who shared the individual document. If you are using a file share, the folder and the subfolder you are in, tell you something about the document. If you are on a SharePoint project site, you have the context of the information that is shared with you.

SharePoint. There. I have said it. 

Google Apps has no alternative to SharePoint. Not even close. Working together online is a tricky combination of shared Google Drive documents, lots and lots of e-mails and an occasional Google Hangout. SharePoint is a collaboration ecosystem. And yes, the “working together in the same document” is nicer in Google Apps, but we rarely use it. Google Sites is nice for publishing the results of your football team.

The Productivity Apps

I can be brief about that. The Google Docs, Sheets… are nice for quickly viewing a document online. Sheets is nice for making a simple list. In that sense, they are very similar to the “Office Online” versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint. For the “serious work”, we still use the Microsoft Office tools. We could not do without them.

Real time communication

Google Hangout is a good start, but again, it is not an enterprise productivity tool. It lacks a rich client like Lync (there is a Chrome plugin that keeps your Chrome running in the background and that is misbehaving quite often). Call quality is rather good, but very often there are delays of several seconds in the voice. Screen sharing is possible, but the quality is not very good. We end up using Skype if we are more than two people, because the quality is better.

There is also some strange mechanism that I did not figure out yet. People outside my company (friends, family) are popping up in my Hangout contact list. Probably has something to do with Google+ connections, but I did not figure out yet what is causing this. Weird.

And what is really bothering, is that using it with the outside world is not very easy. People need to have a Google account, you can not just set up a public meeting room. And certainly not schedule it in your calendar. So again, we end up using WebEx for outside meetings.

I think you get the point

Google Apps is not my new best friend yet. But I have not given up on him. I sincerely hope that you can use it better than I do. That you can share your comments and tips on how I can improve the way I handle it. Because there is still a very long way to go for me.

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OneNote for iPad crashes frequently

I am a big fan of Microsoft OneNote, and I am using OneNote for iPad, but I was experiencing frequent crashes of the iPad application.

Some tests and some searches later, I learned that I was not alone, and that the crashes are caused by OneNote pages that contain a table with meeting information (when you create a new Linked Meeting Note from an appointment in an Outlook calendar item). So try to avoid that, or remove the table from the note if you are syncing with iPad.

Update: Microsoft updated OneNote for iPhone/iPad on July 1, 2013, and this update fixes this issue !

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Office 2010 tips and tricks, right from your…screensaver

Remember the good old “Clippy”? “It looks like you are writing a letter, do you need help?”

A lot of people cursed the cute little paperclip for popping up at any time, but the idea of giving people small tips for common tasks is not that bad. Well, the tips are back, this time in your… screensaver. Microsoft recently released the Office 2010 “Getting Started” screensaver. 

Of course, we are no longer in the nineties, so the tips are animated, flashy… but the content is still very valuable.

Some caveats:

  • you need the .Net framework 4.0 (installed automatically if you don’t have it yet)
  • the content is pulled from an RSS feed on Office.com, so you do need access to that site
Download the screensaver
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Office 365 – first impressions

This week, I migrated all of our personal mailboxes to the Office 365 for Professionals and Small Businesses program (also called the “Plan P1”). These are my first impressions:

  • pricing is very good; I already had some Exchange mailboxes, and for about the same price I get more storage (25 GB mailbox!), SharePoint and Lync;
  • there is a one month trial program; however, in the trial, you cannot link your own domain to Office 365;
  • you can add multiple domains to the same account; the fact that you have to point the name servers of your domain to Microsoft was a surprise to me. I expected that it would be enough to point the mx records to Office 365, but apparently in this plan this is not the case. There are some rumours that it works, but it is not supported;
  • you can configure A and CNAME records in the Office 365 DNS manager; it took me a while to figure out that you can use an @ to create a record for your root domain (https://mylearning.be)
  • the Office web apps are included in the package, and are very useful, e.g. if you need to edit Office documents on a mac and have no Office installed;
  • the primary support channel is the Office 365 community; content is relatively good, but sometimes it is difficult to filter issues from the beta program or from the enterprise subscription if you are looking for a specific issue; I filed a service request and got a response within 24 hours.

I’ll post more experiences once I explore the possibilities of the SharePoint part of Office 365, but for the moment I am very happy with it.

More info and trial on http://www.office365.com.

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Teaching in the future with Microsoft Interactive Classroom

Sometimes you discover a great learning tool, hidden somewhere on the web. The Microsoft Interactive Classroom is such a tool, and it gives us a taste of what classroom training might be in the (near) future. If you have ever wondered if they was way you could avoid printing tons of paper manuals, if you are tired of distributing PowerPoint handouts that nobody ever uses, this is for you.

Basically, it is an add-on to PowerPoint and OneNote (2007 or 2010). As a teacher, you use PowerPoint to prepare your slides as usual, and you can use the Microsoft Interactive Classroom add-on to add question slides in your presentation. You get an extra tab in the ribbon for that:

Once you start giving your session, you click the Start Session button. This starts a broadcast of your presentation on the network. Your screen will look like this:

With the ribbon, you can annotate your slides (works great if you have a tablet!) but also start polls, display the results of the poll to your students…

But the best feature is yet to come. Your students connect to your broadcasted session with… OneNote! They automatically get a copy of the slides as a separate note page, they can take their own notes on the slides, they see the annotations of the instructor in their OneNote… and after the session they go home with their own annotated lesson material. Of course, they need to be connected to the same network (wired or wireless).

We tried it during an interactive session of one hour with 20 workstations and it was quite impressive. And what is even better: it’s free!

 

Download:

http://www.educationlabs.com/projects/IC/Pages/default.aspx

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