A Mac User’s New Look at Microsoft

The perfect email setup has been something I’ve been searching for since I got my first account with a regional ISP in the mid-1990's. That ISP, a little outfit in Orlando, Florida called Magicnet, offered up a POP account at the time, which I left behind for AOL, then Yahoo, then iTools (what is now known as iCloud), then Gmail, back to .Mac, then back to Gmail, a brief detour through self-hosted email, then back to MobileMe, then to Gmail, to iCloud and finally, to a very unlikely service from Microsoft.

The only thing I found during this process was an expert-level proficiency at transferring my data from one service to another. The perfect email system still eluded me.

This is where I’d type something like, “Until now.”

Except that it still eludes me. I have, however, come pretty close to “until now,” but haven’t hit it yet.

Oddly enough, however, the thing that has brought it close to “until now” was Exchange. This enterprise-targeted email/calendar/contact server from Redmond has been around for a VERY long time, especially in internet years. It began life in 1993, and in 2010, entered a new phase as a SaaS (Software as a Service) product under the Office 365 banner. Though hosted Exchange goes back a bit further than 2010 (Microsoft first offered it in something called the Business Productivity Online Suite), the latest incarnation of Office 365 is based on Exchange Server 2013.

Office 365

History lesson aside, Office 365 caught my eye right around the time I was looking for an email solution using my own domain. Google Apps was my default choice, but I was tiring of Google’s omnipresence in my life and had decided to scale it back. Also, one of my favorite features about GMail was ActiveSync (since discontinued from the free services), and the idea of an Exchange-based system appealed to me after my time at eBay IT (great place to work, btw).

Rackspace has a decent deal — $10/month for a single Exchange mailbox, with a 14-day trial. I tried that, and it was perfectly adequate. Their customer service is pretty awesome, and I almost went with that — especially since they were also based on Exchange 2013 and the (much) nicer Outlook Web interface that went with it.

The Outlook web interface for Exchange 2013. MUCH nicer than the old 2010-based web Outlook.

Then I looked at Office 365. $6/month for a single Exhange Mailbox ($5/month if you pay for the year in one go) gave me the same deal as Rackspace with a couple of other nice-to-haves: Web versions of the Office apps, OneDrive with 25GB of storage, and the ability to upgrade to the “Premium” plan for $15/month and get the desktop and mobile versions of Office too.

Yeah, okay. Deal.

And that’s how MSFT got its claws into me.

Of course, that lead to me poking around Microsoft to see what else they had going on. Which lead me to Windows Azure and this bit of rumor and speculation from back in 2011, and whether it’s true or not, there’s a decent number of clients using Azure for their iOS, Android, and (of course) Windows Phone apps. Azure also has some other pretty cool services, including the ability to host Linux VMs.

The VM creation screen for Windows Azure

Poke around some more and you come to Outlook.com, Microsoft’s GMail competitor.

Okay, that part may be slightly laughable for now, but you never know. If you’re smart, you already know that in the interwebnets, nothing is forever. And Outlook is intended to replace Hotmail, which is, astonishingly, still kinda popular.

Still, Outlook.com is pretty powerful as an email provider. More importantly, since Google killed off the free Apps for Business option, Microsoft’s Windows Live Domains (or whatever the heck they call it) is a pretty decent solution to go with.

What you get: Free (ad-supported) email, calendar, and contacts, IMAP access to mail for desktop users (no calendar and contacts sync for desktop apps though) and Activesync support for mobile email, calendar and contacts — including iPhone and Android devices, and a (somewhat paltry) 7GB of free storage via OneDrive.

The Windows Live Domains Outlook Domains Free Domains thingamajiggy. I seriously can’t remember what it’s called, and there doesn’t appear to be anything anywhere that actually says, “This is what the service is called.”

Did I mention it was free?

Which brings me to the crux of my argument — and yes, I know I took my own damn sweet time getting here: This is a Microsoft I can actually grow to know and like.

It’s not the mean bully of the 90's and early aughts. It’s not the stumbling idiot that laughed at the iPhone and iPad, tried to make the Zune an iPod killer, and launched Windows Vista. It’s not the MSFT that tried to make ActiveX the defacto standard for the web or attempt a dozen other hamfisted attempts to conform the world to its odd attempts at domination, some of which actually succeeded for a while, sometimes to the detriment of technology.

No, this is a much more amiable Microsoft. It’s one that adopts standards like WebGL and HTML5 more than ever before for IE 11, that allows you to run Node.JS and Linux VMs in Windows Azure, that supports Safari on iPad for Outlook Web Access and, as of today, finally releases OneNote for Mac so it’s now available on Mac, iPad, and iPhone.

OneNote for Mac.

What’s striking about this to me is that aside from OneNote for Mac, I haven’t really mentioned a single desktop-related technology. It’s all about cloud and web services, or about mobile technologies and apps. Microsoft hasn’t stopped making Windows or Office for desktops, or trying to do something in the phone and tablet spaces. But it has stopped trying to lock out everyone else not using their desktop platform and has become a more genial member of the technology community.

The even more astonishing thing is that Microsoft is actually doing a good job at these services. An honest-to-goodness good job. Like XBox good. And that’s a welcome thing from a company that keeps stubbing its toes with stuff like Slate and Surface and Windows 8*.

Satya Nadella, CEO, Microsoft.
Image Courtesy Microsoft

Now Microsoft has this guy as their CEO. Nadella, to quote Wikipedia:

“…led a transformation of the company’s business and technology culture from client services to cloud infrastructure and services. He has been credited[by whom?] for helping bring Microsoft’s database, Windows Server and developer tools to its Azure cloud.”

Well that just makes me kinda upbeat about old MSFT. If they made their cloud guy the CEO, then maybe that’s the direction Microsoft is going to take even greater strides in. Because going off their track record in that field, they’re doing a pretty good job — not just with the technology, but with other aspects like customer service too.

When I signed up for Azure, I got two calls from Azure services, one that asked me what I was thinking about using it for, and another from the designated point of contact for me on the Azure team. This before I’d spent a dime and after I indicated that I wasn’t likely to spend too many dimes on Azure just yet. “That’s okay,” the rep said. “I’m sure you’ll love it and be able to use it in a future project.”

Guy had confidence.

It’s not all the way there yet, not by a long shot. There are many niggling issues; Outlook.com should have some kind of desktop sync for contacts and calendars, for example, and OneNote needs to allow local storage of notebooks, incorporate enterprise Active Directory accounts, and not require a Microsoft Account as it does now.

Yet despite those quibbles, it’s still giving a strong showing in the form of services and products that don’t necessarily advertise on TV or your local news site. These are services that exist in support of other “things,” and in that way, Microsoft might slowly become more pervasive again, but in a more benign way.

I’m a hardcore Apple geek — and not just because I used to work for the company. I buy into Apple’s hardware and operating system-level vision completely; no one makes the kind of effective, efficient, and just plain cool client systems like they do.

But Apple doesn’t have a cloud vision for business. iCloud works well for my mom but I need something better, as have many of my past clients and employers. Microsoft’s work in that space is turning into something that I am gradually liking enough that I anticipate getting to the “will recommend” point sooner rather than later. So far, Office 365 at least is meeting one key criteria for me: it doesn’t compromise my Mac/iOS experience. Through its cloud offerings, Microsoft seems increasingly to be laying the groundwork for the kind of ubiquity that is nearly invisible to the end-user, so whether you’re on a Mac or an iPhone, you could be interacting with a Microsoft system and never be aware of it (in a good way).

You might visit a website that’s running cloud services on Azure from your iPad, or check your email for your 2-man photography firm via Office 365 on a MacBook Air, or develop your new iOS app with cloud services from Azure. Heck, given how Microsoft is building out Windows Azure Active Directory and Federated Services, you might run your 20-person small business almost entirely on Microsoft’s back-end services while running an all-Apple shop otherwise.

Now that’s a Microsoft I can get behind.

Just one thing, guys. Don’t screw it up.

* I actually like Windows 8 more than I do any other version of Windows. That’s because, like John Moltz, I happen to think “it’s the least like traditional Windows.”

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