2011?  I was just getting used to saying twenty-ten. Here's what you need to know about Microsoft Lync, Office 365, Internet Explorer 9, and Windows Phone.


Lync’s Time Has Come

Microsoft Lync 2010 Standard and Enterprise will be available by the time you read this, and Lync Online is coming soon as part of Office 365 (see below). This hybrid approach to mainstream Microsoft servers is going to be quite common going forward, with the software giant offering both on-premises and hosted versions of its servers, giving customers a choice of where to put their infrastructure.

More specifically, Lync is the next-generation version of what used to be called Office Communications Server (OCS). It provides enterprise-class presence, instant messaging (IM), audio- and video-conferencing, and more, in a package that naturally integrates with other Microsoft products, especially Exchange, SharePoint, and Outlook. There's a client application that's part of the Office suites and new PBX-like capabilities that will let us finally step out from the shadow of the ancient phone systems on which many businesses still rely.

OCS was, perhaps, a bit ahead of its time. But I recommend evaluating Lync. This is an enterprise service whose time has come.

Office 365

Last month, I wrote about Office 365, and about my belief that this new offering is all about putting Microsoft's most popular productivity servers and applications on a subscription payment plan. Now that I've spent some time using a beta version of the service, I feel that this is still the case.

But that doesn't mean Office 365 doesn't make sense for Microsoft's customers as well. In fact, I think it makes plenty of sense.

Office 365 is being made available in a wide range of product versions, but Microsoft neatly divides them into two main categories, Office 365 for Small Businesses and Office 365 for Enterprises. The small business version is aimed at businesses of one to 50, though most businesses will want to consider the upper-level enterprise-oriented options after they exceed 25 employees or so.

For those small businesses, Office 365 is pretty compelling. I'm talking

  • hosted Exchange 2010 with 25GB of storage space for each mailbox
  • self-service team collaboration websites via hosted SharePoint 2010
  • IM, presence, and online meetings with audio- and video-conferencing through Lync Online 2010
  • private versions of the Office Web Apps (web versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote) as well as Outlook Web App for email, calendar, tasks, and contacts management (and if employees have desktop versions of Office 2010, they're free to use those applications as well)
  • a simple, central web portal, with no IT required
  • a 99.9 percent uptime SLA

The cost for this service? $6 per user per month. Think about that for a second. Google's small business offering is a bit less expensive, about $4.20 per month, though you must pay for a year at a time. But Office 365 provides you with real Exchange, real SharePoint, and Lync-based conferencing capabilities that Google can't touch. There's no comparison.

Office 365 for Enterprises is actually several different product versions, and businesses are free to mix and match, providing different employees with different levels of service, functionality, and, of course, pricing. The basics are the same as the small business offering, but enterprise customers also get 24 x 7 phone support, single sign-on (SSO—and, optionally, federation) with on-premises Active Directory (AD), and the current (2010) version of Office Professional Plus, which includes desktop-based versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook with Business Contact Manager, OneNote, Publisher, Access, InfoPath, SharePoint Workspace, and Lync (client).

This version costs $24 per month per user, but there are many other enterprise offerings, including a kiosk offering (for light email and SharePoint usage). The prices vary accordingly, with some coming in even below the Small Business version: The kiosk offering is just $2 per user per month.

The more I use Office 365, the more I become convinced that this is the future of Microsoft all tied up in one neat little product bundle. The only thing missing is an Application Virtualization (App-V)-style remote application deployment model for the local Office applications, though one has to wonder if that isn't in the plans for version two.

But even in its current form, Office 365 is proof positive that Microsoft's plan to move to the cloud isn't just viable—it’s a good one.

Internet Explorer 9 Performance

When Microsoft introduced IE 9 at PDC 2009, it promised to better adhere to web standards and offer its best-performing web browser ever. Now, if you understand the company's history, you know that neither of these goals are particularly high bars. But IE 9, as it turns out, is quite impressive.

One of the weird side issues with web standards is that the various technologies—HTML 5, Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), JavaScript/ECMAScript, and so on—are in a constant state of flux. Various browser makers make claims about HTML 5 compliance, for example, despite the fact that the spec is in ongoing development, and is changing, and will be for a few more years at least.

The W3C web standards body hasn't really shown up with too many industry-standard HTML 5 tests, but when they finally did so in late 2010, surprise, surprise, Microsoft won. And by a long shot.

Of course, the anti-Microsoft crowd doesn't rely on the W3C to prove which products are superior. They've created non-standardized tests, like the SunSpider JavaScript rendering suite—which doesn't measure real-world browser performance—and the ACID3 HTML 5 test, which doesn't measure HTML 5 standards compliance but other things, including some HTML 5 features that are already known to be changing. IE has never performed well in either test.

Until IE 9, that is. IE 9 will never achieve a perfect score in ACID3, because Microsoft refuses to support features in its browser that will be changing.

But it does score a very respectable 95 out of 100, on those HTML 5 features that aren't guaranteed to change. IE 9 also scored the highest-ever rating on the SunSpider test, which must have been a shock to Google and Apple, given their incessant touting of their own products' superiority in JavaScript execution.

What I appreciate about all this is that Microsoft recognizes the futility of it all. These tests mean nothing in the real world, but they are always held against IE.

So the company is doing well on the tests that matter—even though they don't really matter, if you get my meaning—and focusing too on real-world performance. Here, the rating is a bit more subjective. I find IE 9 to be on par with browsers like Chrome or Firefox from a performance perspective, using websites that are currently popular or typical.

Where IE 9 should really pull ahead, however, is in the coming generation of content- and feature-rich websites. That's because IE 9 offers something that no other browser will ever offer on Windows: Complete hardware acceleration.

Yes, Chrome, Firefox, and even Safari will offer some forms of hardware acceleration, usually for certain content types only. But only IE 9 will be accelerated across the board. It's a huge advantage, one that makes websites run like native Windows apps, and one that points to the future, if you will, of hybrid web apps on Windows.

But I suspect we'll need to wait for Windows 8 before that vision is realized.

 

Windows Phone and the Carriers

One of the biggest promises of Windows Phone 7 was that Microsoft would bypass the carriers completely and deliver software updates both major and minor directly to users, just like Apple does.

It was a wonderful promise, a happy promise. It’s also completely untrue.

As it turns out, Microsoft's wireless carrier partners do in fact have the ability to throw a wrench into the gears of progress and prevent their users from getting a software update from Microsoft. And this ability is explicitly provided to them by Microsoft, as a weird concession of sorts, even though the software giant could simply choose to deliver updates through the Zune PC software and bypass the carrier networks altogether.

There are some rules, however. Microsoft will be testing each update against the carriers' own internal tests and will provide the carriers with those results, proving that the updates won’t harm any users or their phones. So in many cases, the carriers will likely let these updates simply sail through.

However, if a carrier feels that an update warrants more testing, it can prevent the update from appearing on its users' devices.

The good news is that Microsoft's updates are cumulative, and carriers can only prevent an update from appearing until the next update is made available. So the blocking capability is temporary at best.

Still, I'm curious to see how aggressive the carriers get once the first-generation Windows Phone buyers start getting close to the end of their two-year subscription term. I have to believe that these guys will put the brakes on and try to get customers to purchase a new phone instead of simply getting more free updates for their old one. Mark my words: We can't trust these companies.

 

Kinect and the Future of Computer UIs

Microsoft's Kinect motion sensor add-on for the Xbox 360 doesn't seem like the type of thing that would keep admins and IT pros up at night, but there is growing evidence that the software giant intends to add this interaction model to desktop versions of Windows.

This makes some sense, and not just for the obvious "Minority Report" reasons. We've been stuck in a fairly rote interaction model for decades now, and even touch and multi-touch interfaces from more recent Windows versions haven't done much to change that.

The reason Kinect is perhaps more important is that it signals a change to pervasive computing.

This is a somewhat abstract concept, but I think of it as the difference between interacting with a thing—a tablet, laptop, or whatever—and interacting with your entire environment. When you type at a keyboard, you're doing a very specific action. But with some future version of Kinect, you could be silently and seamlessly triggering events on computers across the world as you move around in a room.

Of course, PCs being PCs, Kinect isn't really going to replace anything else—it's going to augment the other interaction models. So I suspect we'll be mousing around and using keyboards for years to come.

But it will be interesting to see how motion sensors change everything, not just PCs but house and office designs, cars, and more. It's the future, and if you want to get started, I guess a quick game of "Kinect Adventures" isn't such a horrible way to get attuned to it.

Here's some reading on

Lync:
Microsoft Launches New Communications Server


Office 365:
Hands on With Office 365
The Scoop on Exchange Online, Exchange 2010, and Office 365

IE 9:
Paul's Picks: IE 9 and Kinect

Windows Phone 7:
Top 10: Windows Phone 7 Enterprise Features
Windows Phone 7 as a Mail Device
Q. Is it true that Windows Phone 7 doesn't support removable storage?