A Month With the Surface Pro 3 and a Few Weeks With Windows 10 Preview

This post follows up with what I’ve previously written about my experience with the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 and Windows 10.

I had high hopes. Honestly, I did. I was excited to try both the Surface Pro 3 and, after reading about what was coming with Windows 10, I was even more excited. And I will be honest, the Surface Pro 3 is an incredible computer: It is a very powerful PC wrapped in a very small package with a screen that can be used as a tablet. This is exactly how Microsoft is marketing it, and it’s true…to a point.

My biggest problem with the Surface Pro 3 is that, whether you’re using Windows 8 or Windows 10, its actual usefulness as a Tablet is almost non-existent. Using IE on it is incredibly fast so picking up the Surface and browsing websites just destroys the Samsung Tab S and iPads. I did some side-by-side tests so this isn’t just my opinion. But that’s where the usefulness ends.

Every part of the Windows UI seems confused when using the Surface as a tablet. Every application from Microsoft just seems and feels wrong, except for People (the contacts app) and possibly Windows Mail. Other than that, Microsoft fails at allowing users to work side to side to side. That is, having multiple applications open at the same time and using the Surface Pro as a true productivity device. What certainly doesn’t help is that every application is full of bugs. I blame this on the Windows UI framework more than anything: Microsoft attempts to scale down applications when users attempt to split the screen, giving users all of the app’s functionality, but on a smaller scale. It just doesn’t feel right. What’s interesting is that app developers can override this functionality and provide custom layouts for the smaller screen, but few seem to take advantage of this. It’s odd as you’d think developers would want to control as much of their app as possible, giving users the best user experience. Not sure what the disconnect is there.

Even though my frustrations continue to mount, there are some definite pluses. For example, I continue to find little issues with our various application and how it works with things like the new mail, contacts and calendars apps. As a result, I was thinking of giving one or two employees Surface Pros to see if they have the same difficulties I do. In addition, I want them to use IE 11, which all other employees avoid like the plague.

Another plus is that the Start menu returning to Windows 10 is a HUGE step towards making the desktop experience feel the way it used to be. However, I just don’t see Microsoft resolving all the issues they have with the Windows UI interface. There is no way all native apps can be re-worked to feel right and that goes with all the 3rd party applications. On top of that, everything just feels BUGGY. And before anyone says that this is because Windows 10 is just in a technical preview at this point, the exact same things can be said about Windows 8.1, which is a full, stable release.

With Apple releasing iOS 8.1 and Yosemite, and Google releasing Android Lollipop, both of which continue to fill all the gaps and make these operating systems extremely solid, Windows is in absolute disarray. Microsoft, even with all the enterprise features, store changes and associated tools that you are introducing with Windows 10 you are not going to be able to NAIL the consumer market. When the iPad was released it was revolutionary. I get that Microsoft is trying to do something similar with this merged tablet/desktop direction they are taking. And believe me, I am completely on board with that direction. However, at this point their implementation has been horrific and it doesn’t seem like its going to change. Call me a glutton for punishment, but I have not completely lost faith.

We are committed to making sure our products work on whatever Microsoft releases, both on the OS side as well as on the app side. So, I’m still toying with getting a few more Surface Pro 3s for our employees so we can continue our testing. I’ll be sure to let everyone know what’s going on as we move in that direction

 

More Thoughts on Microsoft

So, my earlier blog post prompted some interesting discussions around the office. (See Microsoft Has So Much Promise…But Can’t Seem to Deliver). Many thought I was a bit too harsh in chastising Microsoft for their direction and business sense. Here are a couple of quotes that typify the “pro-Microsoft” side of our office:

I’m glad Microsoft isn’t rushing. If the next release is anything but perfect they’re done. iOS 8 being rushed is the reason it sucks so bad.

I think it’s an overstatement to say they’re [shooting themselves in the foot] when they make record revenue and profits just about every quarter. They have been reactionary since Windows 95 but it’s tough to argue with their bottom line.

I like a good debate as much as anyone, but let’s look at a few things:

First off, Microsoft’s revenue is up, but overall profits are down for 2014. The corporate side of their business is doing fine and because Windows XP is no longer supported, more and more business and consumers are having to upgrade, which is helping increase revenue Ironically, most of those upgrades are to Windows 7. More on that in a bit.

Secondly, although the XBox One hasn’t really done what they wanted it to do, it has increased revenues compared to the XBox 360 volume. OF course, growth of the XBox One is partly driven by some tactics unheard of from Microsoft in the past: lowering of its price in the UK to help drive sales.

Next, Microsoft’s services business has done well and their advertising revenue has jumped 15%. This is driven by the Azure platform, which, by all accounts I’ve read, seems to be a very robust and reliable platform. We’re hoping to have more info on this in a future blog post. Their ad revenue is growing due, in no small part, to the fact that its about all that’s available for Windows mobile. Ad networks like Google’s AdMob, RevMob, Vungle, AdColony and others don’t offer Windows SDKs for their services. AdMob has one for Windows 8, but with the push to Windows 8.1 on mobile, and no indication that Google is modifying their SDK to support 8.1, Microsoft’s PubCenter is about the only game in town.

Finally, about 15% of Microsoft’s stock value is based on its Windows operating system and desktop sales. Overall revenue has declined about 8% in this area.

Microsoft is a very diverse company with a significant amount of revenue coming from the enterprise, and that side of the house is doing fine. What is kind of funny is that the slow and steady transition of enterprises from Windows XP to Windows 7, and eventually to Windows XXX, has really helped Microsoft avoid a giant catastrophe. The current model corporations follow for the upgrade of their infrastructures is about every 5 years. That means that, essentially, the enterprise gave Microsoft 5 years to get Windows right.

However, the consumer market is struggling and Microsoft just can’t seem to get any traction in it. If Microsoft continues to stumble and not win the consumer market, it will start to impact their enterprise business. Microsoft’s initial entry into the enterprise was because they won the desktop. The question is, about 2 years from now when that 5 year cycle hits, will Microsoft have done what they needed to do to encourage upgrades enterprise level?

Over the years, Microsoft had the luxury of selling Windows to the consumer in the same way they sold it to the enterprise, using the same update systems, the same software life cycles, etc. With OSX, Apple changed all that, pushing free upgrades to their core OS, across all devices, and making sure the vast majority of their users are on the latest and greatest. And, that philosophy and strategy has been successful for Apple. So much so that it’s making Microsoft now have to re-think how they market, sell, distribute to the consumer while still managing the enterprise. Clearly this has been a struggle.

On the flip side, Apple has no idea how to manage the enterprise. Apple’s release philosophy is counter to the enterprise model. Therefore, there is very little threat to a substantial portion of Microsoft’s revenue in relation to the enterprise but they are at risk of losing the consumer market. So we come full circle and back to my initial blog post;

Microsoft should be releasing an updated Windows, complete with the UI changes, prior to the holidays or they risk losing the consumer market entirely.

The Windows Experience is impacting the entire Microsoft brand and making it very difficult for the Windows Phone or Surface to get traction. Over the holiday season Apple will sell 50 million iPhones. About 50 million PC’s will be sold over the holiday season as well. A new, exciting Windows release that focused only on usability would align very well with the $400 million Microsoft spent to promote the Surface with the NFL and would give the Windows Phone and the Surface Tablets a much needed boost! Instead, Microsoft blew their NFL marketing campaign by not coordinating some of the Windows improvements. Maybe if they had done this, NFL analysts would start referring to their tablets as “Microsoft Surface” tablets and not “iPad-like devices.”

Day 1 With Windows 10 on a Surface Pro 3

Image courtesy of Neowin

Image courtesy of Neowin

Even after the criticisms put forth in my last blog post, I was still chomping at the bit to get my hands on the tech build of Windows 10, and today was the day.

As a precursor, I should mention that I’m currently using a Microsoft Surface Pro 3 at work. I initially wasn’t sure I’d be able to run the tech preview on the Surface, but suffice it to say it runs pretty well. Also, I don’t believe any of the issues I discuss below are due to the hardware, but more to the fact that Windows 10 is a work in progress. Most of the little things will probably get worked out at some point. Regardless, I’ve spent most of the workday using it, so here are some thoughts…

Click for larger image

Click for larger image

Prior to running Windows 10, I preferred having the icons that were on my taskbar to be desktop related and left all the Windows UI applications on the start screen. Basically, I had two different configurations and, and ways to use, the Surface Pro 3, which wasn’t what Microsoft was going for. However, it feels natural to click Windows UI applications on the taskbar alongside the more traditional desktop applications. They coexist seamlessly.

No longer will there be a need for two different applications that serve the same purpose because one works better for desktop while the other works better for the tablet. For example, I had IM+ as a Jabber client connected to our SmarterMail server when in tablet mode. But when in desktop mode, I would use Pidgin. Now, IM+ works in both environments. What does this mean for the Microsoft Store? It’s going to EXPLODE because the audience is going to be so much larger! In addition, Windows is going to be much more secure. Instead of finding .EXE’s or .ZIP files to download, users are going to look first in the store. It’s amazing the changes that can be made and should have been done in the first place that would have put Microsoft in such a better position.

There are some bugs, however. There is some interface and compatibility stuff that is expected from a working build. For example, Windows Defender getting repeatedly stuck and using a significant percentage of CPU, which prevented some Windows UI applications from running until Defender was disabled. However, so far nothing has prevented me from getting work done.

I REALLY, REALLY, REALLY hope that Microsoft finds a way to seamlessly integrate the Start Screen and the Start Menu layouts. It’s a real pain to have to manage the look and feel of both. I want them to be in sync.  Now that Microsoft made it possible to use all the same Windows UI applications in the Desktop, they should encourage us to use them by utilizing the Start Screen’s layout.  This is an absolute must! Right now it just feels broken and disconnected.

Click for larger image

Click for larger image

A quick note to users of the Surface Pro 3 or a HP Yoga, or other Windows devices that double as a tablet and a desktop: be aware with this first preview that you will need to manually change the settings to show the Start Screen when running as a tablet. To do this, right mouse click on the task bar, choose properties, go to the Start Menu tab and un-select “Use the Start menu instead of the Start Screen.”

The Microsoft Store is going to explode, and in a good way! Now that Windows UI applications run a regular application the the desktop, users are going to go to the store for apps.  No longer will users search the web and download EXE and ZIP files.  What are the benefits of that?  Fewer and fewer machines infected with malware and viruses.  Windows will be more secure!  It’s amazing the changes that can be made and should have been done in the first place that would have put Microsoft in such a better position.

Of course, with every new change comes additions requests from users. Microsoft had better get their network and support teams ready for a deluge! For example, now that I can utilize the native Mail application provided with Windows I needs to be able to simply drop files and attach them to new messages. I was also hoping to see some scaling options in the tech preview. One of the drawbacks of having the Surface Pro 3 connected to nice 27-inch monitors is that using the 100% DPI option in Windows makes everything incredibly small on the Surface but look normal on the monitors. Oh how software development never ends! (And how nice to be able to be on the giving end of suggestions rather than the receiving end of suggestions).

I must also say that the virtual desktops are so long overdue! It’s such a nice feature in OS X and it feel really good on Windows. Major thanks for this!

In the end, Windows 10 is on the right path. People will feel more comfortable using it as a desktop, which will go a long way to gaining traction in the consumer market. If they implement the “detection” of a keyboard and/or mouse and automatically switch from tablet view to desktop view, they could nail it.Of course, I still have to mention this: What they shouldn’t have done is delay the release.  As I mentioned in my previous post, Windows 10 should be out by the holidays so Microsoft could capitalize on the $400 million spent with the NFL to market the Surface. If I say it more and more often, maybe it will come true.

Microsoft Has So Much Promise…But Can’t Seem to Deliver

I really had high hopes that today was going to be a great day. Not that other days AREN’T great, but today Microsoft was releasing information on its new version of Windows. I had high expectations for the event and when all was said and done, much of the interface elements were exactly what I was hoping for. I even think that naming the release Windows 10 is a BRILLIANT move by Microsoft as it signifies NOT a new version of Windows 8, but a new version of Windows! By skipping the Windows 9 moniker, Microsoft is truly showing, in a most basic way, that they’re starting fresh and looking at the Windows operating system in an entirely new way.

And then all my hopes, high expectations and overall excitement at what was presented and discussed were shattered: Windows 10 won’t be available until “mid 2015”.

What?! Wow…what a lost opportunity!

Why do I think that? Well, let’s take a step back and look at what’s happened over the last 45 days, just to put some things in perspective.

First off, Apple has suffered a number of mistakes and missteps.

  1. The Apple Event to announce new iPhone’s and the Apple Watch was less than spectacular. (When the live video feed would actually work).
  2. The Apple Watch didn’t seem to strike the same chord as some of their past product announcements.  It’s hard to know if it is because Steve Jobs and his passion wasn’t there, telling us why we needed it or it it’s because, at Steve Jobs’ Apple it would have been available in a week not MONTHS.
  3. Then we had the releases of the iPhones and iOS 8. It seemed every other day there was something going wrong. Health Kit was being delayed…iOS 8 issues and then 8.01 and now 8.02 seems to have problems….the iPhone 6 Plus bending issues…and now iCloud Storage is deleting files.
  4. And if all that weren’t enough, let’s not forget about the iCloud security issue that has led to what the Internet has dubbed “The Fappening”, an issue that Apple apparently has been aware of since earlier this year.

Boy oh Boy! One of these types of issues can hurt a company. Two or three can cripple a company. Three or more? Forget it. However, Apple has survived. Is this because it’s Apple? Or, is it because everyone else is failing to capitalize on Apple’s mistakes?

I would argue the latter.

In a recent article Eric Schmidt made a comment that Apple and Google are more competitive than ever right now, and that in a the fast-paced world of technology, the speed with which both companies are moving means that we, as consumers, are benefiting from that competitive spirit. But are we, really? Because I really feel that some of the issues Apple is having might be the result of this FAST environment.

As for not capitalizing on this, Microsoft really missed the boat, and it seems like no matter how good their intentions are, they just can’t seem to get their house in order.

The Windows Event held earlier this year was Satya Nadella’s introduction as the new CEO and his time to tell the world: Things are going to change.  We are the NEW Microsoft! And yes, he did imply that, but it hasn’t really happened. Microsoft is still Microsoft, with the left hand making questionable decisions that the right hand isn’t aware of.  For example, they’re going back to the MSN Brand? Does anyone really think that highly of the MSN Brand?

Today’s Windows Event was going great: Windows 10? As I said, a brilliant decision to start fresh while avoiding all the negative publicity that went with a lackluster Windows 8 release.

All the changes in the UI and its evolution into a really nice hybrid desktop / tablet solution, a unified platform across all device types (which we are working with today for some new projects)…And then the kicker to really ruin all of the good news and great ideas: a mid-year 2015 release target.

Why?! What are the issues that are preventing Microsoft from taking advantage of Apple’s missteps? Why aren’t they leading rather than continually playing catch-up? How can you fight the “war for mobile” if you can only update 40% of your phones and it takes over 4 months to do it? (One of our staff has a Samsung device that STILL hasn’t received the 8.1 update, and there’s zero indication it ever WILL get the update). To Apple’s credit, they have a great model for distributing core operating system updates. Android has a similar issue to Microsoft, sure, but Google OWNS the mobile market! Plus, many people don’t realize that a majority of the functionality in Android is handled via apps, not from the core OS. Therefore, Google can update their functionality almost immediately for most Android users and can introduce new apps and or services with ease.

Microsoft really let me down today, and they didn’t just shoot themselves in the foot, they blew the darn thing off. Windows 10 should have been released before Christmas. There are some great and very cost effective tablets, laptops and mobile phones that should be flying off the shelves this holiday season. I feel bad for the hardware vendors trying to rely on Microsoft.  It’s amazing we haven’t seen more damage to the likes of HP, Acer, ASUS, and Toshiba, who have hitched their businesses directly to the success, or failure, of Microsoft. If it weren’t for Android, some of these manufactures wouldn’t even be relevant right now.

The question is, can Satya Nadella make Microsoft relevant again?  Apple’s lost some of its polish the last couple months, but Microsoft has nothing in the pipeline that could really put the pressure on Apple. When you’re an organization that has 24% of your market share using an operating system that was released in 2001 (Windows XP) and you have failed with your two most recent updates (Windows 8.0 and 8.1), you simply can’t announce what looks to be all the right moves for that operating system, and a huge improvement to the direction of your company as a whole, THEN say NONE of this will happen for at least 8 months. In a fast-paced world, people simply won’t wait.

Is the Cloud Your Best Option?

We receive a lot of questions from customers regarding using SmarterMail “in the Cloud.” Most often the questions revolve around using Amazon’s EC2 platform, but we also get questions about using Microsoft Azure, installing on virtual private servers and more. This blog post will answer those questions, as well as answer a more pertinent one: While it IS possible to install SmarterMail “in the Cloud,” the more pressing question is “SHOULD you install it in the Cloud?”

So, to put the initial question to rest, you CAN install SmarterMail on Amazon EC2 as long as you get an elastic IP address that you can map to the ports required for SmarterMail and select an Instance that will give you enough i/o. Regarding Microsoft Azure, it’s not recommended since, at least for now, Microsoft doesn’t offer a static IP. As for installing on a VPS, that’s fine as well and we have countless customers successfully running SmarterMail on VPS instances around the world.

So now that we know that you CAN install SmarterMail in the cloud, let’s look at SHOULD you do it. While Cloud computing certainly affords flexibility and scalability, especially when referencing things like EC2 and Azure, those can come at a price. However, there are other things to consider when looking at moving something like SmarterMail to EC2 or other provider.

First things first, a mail server is VERY i/o intensive. It is almost constantly reading and writing data as new mail comes into and goes out of the spool, as people check their email, etc. Unfortunately, spam plays a role in that, but so does a lot of legitimate email. In addition, people generally are checking mail from multiple devices: desktop clients, webmail, smartphones and tablets, etc. When you realize that most mail servers will have thousands of people on them – all doing the same thing at essentially the same time – you can imagine the pounding hard drives take. Cloud providers will generally allow you to set up disks in a way to maximize i/o – EC2 even offers a disk-intensive Instance for applications that do lots and lots of random disk reads and writes – but to efficiently set that up can significantly affect your pricing.

Then there is having to deal with moving a pre-built piece of software to a cloud environment. Ideally, if you’re going to use something like EC2 or Microsoft Azure you should your application is such as way as to take full advantage of those platforms. Many of the sites and applications that use these infrastructures were built specifically FOR those infrastructures. Not every application out there fits the Cloud model, either structurally or, more importantly, financially. Scalability is great but just like disk i/o, it can come at a cost.

Regardless of those caveats, we tasked one of our IT administrators with reviewing the costs associated with setting up our own SmarterMail installation across several different services, including Amazon EC2 as well as some VPS and dedicated solutions offered by a few of our partners. Below you will find the results. Now, it’s worth mentioning that this is how OUR installation would be managed and set up for the domains and users we have in our SmarterMail installation. Your mileage, and costs, may vary. In addition, information was taken directly from the links provided and while most companies offer discounts for paying in advance, the monthly costs were included for the sake of simplicity.

Base Configuration

All of the solutions listed below AT LEAST meet these base configurations, or come close:
Minimum Dual Core 2.4GHz CPU
6GB RAM
180GB SATA 6 SSD, 800 mbps, attached – RAID 10 preferred
Nightly backup/snapshots with retention

Cloud/VPS Services

Amazon EC2 “i2.xlarge” General Purpose Instance

COST: $845.26 monthly (pro-rated based on the day the Instance was created)

AppliedI Large Windows Cloud Server

COST: $249.95 monthly

Hostek Business VPS

COST: $99.95 monthly

Dedicated Servers

Newtek Quad Core Server

COST: $189.95 monthly

HostMySite Windows Value Server

COST: $149.00 monthly

HostGator Standard Dedicated Server

COST: $219.00 monthly

ServerSilo DIY Server Standard

COST: $149.00 monthly

So, what does this tell us? Well, first of all, prices and configurations vary quite a bit across different providers. Of course, price is dictated by a number of factors: hardware quality, processor and memory type, network speed, quality of service and much, much more. As you can see, pricing for the storage-optimized EC2 instance is substantially more expensive that VPS options from others, much less dedicated servers. All that being said, which option is the one we’d choose?

Asking our resident expert, the IT admin to whom we gave the task, he said the following:

“I’d prefer going with a dedicated server. While this may be a bit counterintuitive to the way the world is heading, the logic is sound: I want to know what my constraints are with regards to configuration. That means I know my memory and disk limits and can plan accordingly. That means I know that if something goes sideways – a spammer gets loose on one of our domains, we’re hit with a dDos, one of our accounts gets compromised – I know we won’t be facing a huge bill or a sharp increase in our cost due to an increase in data or CPU or memory that blow our base configuration out. Having a certainty gives me more confidence than having the scalability provided by most cloud services and providers.”

As for the million dollar question: “Which company would you choose?” He is a bit more coy. “The best hosting company is the best hosting company FOR YOU. There are a lot of great companies out there, it’s up to the person doing the research to make the best decision based on their needs and experience. Luckily, I don’t’ have that worry as we host things ourselves.”

So, what are your thoughts? Is “the Cloud” worth it? Are scalability and flexibility worth the potential for cost spikes due to issues that always seem to arise when running a company on the Web?

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