How Google Drive beats Dropbox and SkyDrive

As your company grows, so does the necessity to better manage company documents and files. Like many companies, SmarterTools utilized file servers at our data center and created shares for various departments. This was, of course, a decent solution, but one that required a bit of maintenance by our IT staff and required our employees to use VPN in order to access the server, and this wasn’t a good solution for the up and coming tablets. So, in 2010 we decided to evaluate “cloud based storage” solutions. We looked at Box.net, Dropbox, SugarSync and a few others and eventually settled on Dropbox. We have been a long time customer and supporter of Dropbox and we’ve used them through thick and thin, like their security mishaps and some terms of service issues. We weathered these storms because the service is robust, it’s reliable and its sharing and team features keep the management of our documents and files simple and secure. However, the recent updates and rebranding of both Microsoft SkyDrive and Google Drive has made us re-evaluate the functionality and pricing of Dropbox. Through this re-evaluation we discovered that we can decrease our file storage costs approximately $3700.00! You read that right – a $3700.00 savings!

Why use a cloud storage solution versus a file server?

Apart from the savings we see from an IT standpoint, there are some personal and technical savings as well. SmarterTools employees need access to documents and files whether they’re online or offline.  We work all hours of the day and from anywhere; some of us travel, some work better at night, some work better from home and several are responsible for 24 x 7 x 365 emergency support incidents. In addition, we use many different mobile and desk-based devices. While everyone is provided a laptop, that laptop may be Windows or Mac. We use tablets such as iPads or Asus Transformers and use a variety of mobile phones as well, including Windows-, iOS-, and Android-based devices. With an internal file server, in order to get to a file we’d have to deal with all of these personal, geographic and technical variables and use a number of different methods, applications and protocols to reach our company documents and files. Sometimes that became a huge hassle. For example, many tablets and phones don’t support VPN well and that’s a critical component for reaching a networked server. IN addition, some devices, like the iPad, aren’t file based.

Ultimately, we ended up with Dropbox because every situation, platform, location and device mentioned above is fully supported and we’ve found that everything synchronizes quickly and completely, and while we were paying close to $4000.00 a year to use the service, the price was worth it considering how it made things so much easier on the entire team.

So, why move to another provider? One of the things that makes SmarterTools a successful business is that we are never really content with how things run or with how we do things. We always look for improvements. With the recent announcements from Microsoft about SkyDrive and the rebranding and added features of Google Drive, we felt it would be worth our time to evaluate these new developments. I have to say, we’re pleasantly surprised with the results.

Doom for Dropbox?

First things first: Dropbox is a wonderful service. Even though they’ve had their share of adversity and public brow beating, we were very happy with the service they provided. The unfortunate thing for Dropbox is that their Team feature, which is what we had to use in order to be able to share department-level access across multiple users, secure access to folders and files, etc. requires adding additional “users” to the team account, and this can be very pricey. The pricing for our Dropbox usage is as follows: $795.00 for Team sharing, which includes 1TB of space and 5 users.  Additional users are $125.00 each, so for 25 more users we pay an additional $3125.00. All together, that’s $3,920.00. In addition to the cost, when using the Team features of Dropbox, each users’ Dropbox account is converted into your Team account. So, when an employee leaves, you must email Dropbox support and have their user turned into standard account. Otherwise, users wouldn’t have access to any files they’ve put into their personal Dropbox space.

Looking at Google Drive and Microsoft SkyDrive, their services are based solely on space. That means that only a main, corporate account needs a paid plan. Accounts that have shared access to folders on the primary account can be free! Using SmarterTools as an example, we only need one account that has 200GB of storage. We want to share this 200GB of content so our employees can sign up for a free Google Drive or Microsoft SkyDrive account and then accept invitations to the shared resources that are created on the primary account. As of now, accepting a shared resource on a free account does not impact the 5GB or 7GB allotments that Google and Microsoft respectively provide. That is a huge cost saving advantage! In addition, when an employee leaves the company, all that needs to be done is that the main SmarterTools account needs to remove that individual’s access to any shared resources. For Google Drive, those files and directories on the users’ machines are then automatically, and instantly, removed.

Let’s look at a pricing comparison for Google Drive and SkyDrive. Again, with 30 accounts on Google Drive we’d need a primary account and pay $120.00 per year for 200GB of storage. The additional 29 users would be free accounts. With SkyDrive the cost is $100.00 per year for a primary account with 200gb of storage, and the additional 29 accounts would be free! Compare either of these to the $3,290.00 cost at Dropbox for users and and the $795 Team feature and you see the overall savings!

How do we protect our documents and files from a cloud storage disaster?

When you’re in the software and services business, you understand the risks associated with having tired programmers and network administrators. No matter how many policies or procedures you put in place, something can happen. Because of this, we don’t rely solely on the cloud storage company for backups. Even though Dropbox, Google Drive and Microsoft SkyDrive support file revisions there is still the possibility of file loss. To alleviate some of that concern we also have a server configured with an account which pulls down all documents and files. This server is then backed up in our datacenter as all our other servers are and can be used in case of a cloud storage disaster. Now this isn’t a “file server” per se, so we’re not accessing the server for access to files, etc. It’s a server that we use for other things that also acts as our backup server. Therefore, the maintenance and other costs associated with a standalone file server are not issues.

Ultimately, we chose Google Drive because…

So the question is why did we decided to go with Google Drive versus SkyDrive? The answer is really simple: just like Dropbox, Google Drive’s clients for Mac and Windows desktops download shared files to machines. As of today, Microsoft SkyDrive clients do not work like this. The shares are available in the SkyDrive Web interface, but their desktop clients and tablet/phone clients does not support shared folders and files which is a necessity.

Taking all of this into account, things are looking a little grim for Dropbox. Google Drive and Microsoft SkyDrive are incredible offerings at incredible prices. Apart from the cost savings, the effort both Google and Microsoft are putting into cloud storage gives us a great deal of confidence in their offerings, in the progress they’re making and that any issues we’re currently seeing will be quickly resolved. On the other hand, Dropbox seems to be screwed!

Read this blog post in Spanish language thanks to Maria Ramos from Webhostinghub.

Microsoft building an ecosystem with Barnes and Noble investment

Microsoft is one of the largest players in the next generation of platforms and operating systems but it’s the only one with out an ecosystem. That is, it’s the only one without revenue generating services that can help power and guide those platforms

In a previous blog post, “Windows 8 will succeed, but Microsoft could still fail“, I talked about Windows 8 and the impact it could have on the antiquated business model Microsoft has for their Windows Division. Specifically, I talk about how their business model is in trouble due to pressures on providing free upgrades like Apple and Google do for the iOS and Android platforms. I further propose that, without additional revenue generating services, Microsoft is going to have a difficult time competing in the platform space moving forward. In order for Windows to succeed in the Post-PC era, Microsoft needs to build an ecosystem that provides their main source or revenue in the consumer space.

Oddly enough, it seems Microsoft understands this and its recent injection of money into Barnes and Noble is proof.

It’s no great secret that Microsoft is years behind Apple, Amazon, and Google in providing online services. In addition, Microsoft will not be able to build these services in a reasonable amount of time and, to be honest, their track record has proven they aren’t necessarily very good at it. They have attempted multiple music services, either through building it themselves or via partnership, and none were very successful. In addition, their implementation had a long lasting impact on users because they took down DRM servers making some music no longer able to be played.  Bing has been somewhat of a bomb and continues to cost Microsoft money.

The “funding” of a new Barnes and Noble digital and educational company is brilliant. This allows Microsoft to complete against all three major e-book players on a fairly level playing field very quickly. Without Barnes and Noble, Microsoft would be in a world of hurt, plus they have added another piece to their ecosystem.  Microsoft is already planning to come out with an App Store for Metro, which will provide some decent revenue opportunities, but having access to the Barnes and Noble customer base and providing their e-reader on all Windows 8 versions is a step in the right direction.

Now the question is, where is Microsoft going to get video?

A friend of mine, Jeff Hardy, sent me an email and suggested, albeit sarcastically, that Microsoft buy Netflix. The funny thing is, I agree 100% with the idea.  Netflix is in trouble. They don’t have enough money to get enough content and they’re stuck.  Companies such as NBC, CBS, FOX, Showtime, HBO, etc. don’t like the Netflix model. Plus, Netflix has another issue: their model works great for older content but you can’t sell customers on older content. New and ever-changing content drives revenue. That’s why CBS, NBC, et. al. have their own apps and websites for customers to consume “new” content.

Microsoft has the perfect opportunity to get into the TV and movie service, immediately and across ALL platforms.  Microsoft could go from zero ecosystem to a complete ecosystem, across every device and platform available, practically overnight. Once Microsoft has their new media service (i.e., post-Netflix), they will have the money and the leverage to bargain with the NBC, CBS, HBO and other media companies. Microsoft will now own the platforms – Windows Mobile and Windows for desktops and tablet – and will have the ability to extend Netflix into a rental service as well, just as Apple has with iTunes and Amazon with their Prime service. The Amazon model is really the one everyone needs to move to. What’s holding Amazon back is that their video can only be played on limited devices and the service is very dependent on Flash.

So that leaves Microsoft with a need for a music service, and it sounds like they’re going to try to develop their own solution again. This time it should be simpler both because they’ve tried it before, and this time there are a few good models to use moving forward.

Investors, and even politicians, are giving Microsoft a lot of heat for sitting on nearly $60 billion in cash. This might have been a very smart decision and will give Microsoft a lot of flexibility in their direction and development of online services as there are some very well established companies that can make Microsoft very relevant very quickly, for the right price.

It would be a pleasant surprise if Microsoft could erase their consumer failures over the last 5 years. Apple’s iOS has had the same look and feel for the last few years and I don’t think Apple has felt pressure from Google and Android from a “user experience” standpoint. Microsoft, especially with there Metro interface, might be the nudge that Apple needs to evolve their very functional, but somewhat boring, mobile platform.

After all is said and done, what do you think of a Microsoft acquisition of Netflix? Does it make sense? Do you think Microsoft has what it takes to build a comparable ecosystem to Apple, Amazon and Google?

Windows 8 will succeed, but Microsoft could still fail

image courtesy of OnLive

I couldn’t agree more with M.G. Siegler’s post “The Slow Decay of the Microsoft Consumer” over on TechCrunch. He makes a few good points, but this point really got me thinking: “Windows 8 could be better for the company, or it could be worse. The world is drastically different than it was even just three years ago…While Microsoft is going all-in…on their tablet strategy with Windows 8, there’s no indication it will actually work. If it doesn’t that could significantly hurt the Windows Divisions’ numbers.”

Windows 8 will successfully create a “Post-PC” platform for Microsoft by merging their desktop and tablet strategies into a very functional and usable operating system. However, by doing this, Microsoft may have not considered the financial consequences and the impact this strategy will have on a $20 billion dollar per year business.

The current Windows business model is based on consumers paying for Windows on new machines as well as paying for major Windows upgrades. Microsoft also encourages customers to upgrade flavors of Windows, like moving from Windows Home to Windows Home Premium to gain access to new features and functionality. This business model will not work in a Post-PC world because the platforms of the two largest players, namely iOS and Android, are essentially free!

That’s because the platform itself is no longer the revenue generator. The platform is simply the delivery method for revenue generating services like movies, TV shows, music, books, apps and, most of all, advertising. Apple has iTunes/iCloud/iAd and Google has Google Play/Ads/AdMob which are integrated into iOS and Android and that generate billions in revenue. More importantly, if Apple or Google were to add another revenue generating service, they simply provide consumers with a free upgrade of the platform so they can consume that new service.

Microsoft is in a much different position:

  • Microsoft may be able to sway consumers initially to buy into the Windows 8 platform, but Microsoft will not be able to force consumers to pay $199 for future upgrades. Microsoft will need to give more for less to gain on Apple’s 100 million iPad head start!
  • Microsoft is seeing the impact from iOS and Android free upgrades on the Windows Phone platform. Microsoft initially provided Windows Phone 6 customers free upgrades to Windows Phone 7. Now, consumers are demanding those same phones be upgraded to Windows Phone 8 for free. Microsoft is stuck between a rock and a hard place: either upgrade for free and lose millions in revenue or charge for the upgrade and risk losing revenue because customers find Apple and Android a better value.
  • Microsoft must build revenue generating services that Apple and Google already have today. Microsoft has struggled to provide media related services in the past and Google is finding out it’s not as easy as simply releasing a BETA service and hoping people sign up.
  • The numbers below paint a pretty stark picture. Microsoft will need to continually update Windows so that it can compete against Apple and Android and have the flexibility to provide additional revenue generating services to the largest possible audience. However, forcing paid upgrades on consumers will not accomplish this as consumers will simply stay on previous versions, just as desktop consumers are sticking with Windows XP versus moving to Windows 7.
    • Windows
      • Windows 7 – 57%
      • Vista – 8%
      • Windows 2003 – 1%
      • Windows XP – 34%
    • iOS
      • iOS 5 – 74%
      • iOS 4 – 25%
      • iOS 3 – 1%

As M.G Siegler pointed out, Microsoft is “all-in”. I believe Microsoft will succeed in building a very usable and functional post-PC platform that will make for an enjoyable experience, both on the desktop and on tablets. What has me most concerned, is Microsoft’s ability produce revenue generating services to replace the inevitable loss of Windows licensing revenues once customers demand what Apple and Android already provide– free upgrades.

That is my take, what do you think? Will Microsoft be able to charge for upgrades when others don’t? Will Microsoft be able to catch up to the leads they’ve already given to Apple and Google?

Microsoft’s Problem(s)

Everyone knows Microsoft has lost its vision and direction in the consumer market and is years behind most industry leaders, with the Xbox as the possible exception.  But few know that Microsoft is facing the same loss of vision and direction with its server and enterprise business.

Microsoft is losing the battle of the Web

Microsoft's IIS is in red

Lets start with a little shock value: At the start of 2009, Microsoft’s IIS software was responsible for hosting about 35% of the websites on the Web. As of March 2012, Microsoft is now at approximately 13.5%. This is a 62% drop in the last 3 years and has had, and will continue to have, a significant impact on Microsoft’s future. This drop is even more dramatic when you consider the history of the Web and Microsoft IIS. As a former hosting provider myself, I remember starting my hosting business back in 1995 running Windows NT 3.51. It’s true that over the last 17 years, IIS suffered a number of issues. Today, however, it is a VERY solid and stable Web server platform. So why is Microsoft becoming as obsolete in the hosting industry as it has in the mobile phone and tablet industry? (Yes, Windows 8 shows some promise for tablets, but when it is released it will still be years behind iOS and Android in terms of availability and adoption – those are years it can’t make up). Microsoft has done a number of things to make Microsoft a viable platform and has overcome a lot of obstacles. However, in many cases each change for the better seems to precipitate a change for the worse.

Changes for better and worse

  • While Microsoft was slow to adopt open source development technologies such as PHP and Perl, they DID adopt them into the IIS/Windows realm, which is something you can’t say of the open source community with relation to Microsoft technologies like .NET.  (The MonoProject does exist but has not been well supported).
  • They introduced the Service Provider Licensing Agreement (SPLA), which made all hosting and service providers pay monthly royalties versus one-time expenditures. SPLA itself isn’t bad but there were some pricing blunders, like one in 2009 that could have doubled the costs for hosting providers (anyone remember the authenticated/non authenticated license fiasco?), that really put the fear of God into many Microsoft hosting partners. Some proposed upcoming changes may have an even greater effect on the viability of hosting Windows products, like changing SQL Server 2012 SPLA pricing to be based on the number of processor cores a server has versus the number of physical processors.
  • They had security vulnerabilities that made it difficult to isolate many customers on one web server for shared hosting. Over the last several years they have solidified the Windows server OS through the ability to set .NET permissions on app pools and made it easier to manage multiple single app pools sites on a a single server as well as mange resources by site, thereby increasing security and performance in higher density environments.
  • They were initially slow to respond to hosting companies and the hosting model. They tried to force their own ideal of Windows hosting onto the community without listening to existing Windows hosts. For a few years, however, they actually made an effort to start a conversation with Windows hosts. Nevertheless, I get the impression from talking to partners that his conversation is, once again, turning a bit one-sided.
  • And more recently, they started competing against their hosting partners with Office Live, Azure, Office365 and more. Microsoft always had a semi-contentious relationship with hosting partners. On the one hand they did what they could to make it easier on hosting providers but, all the while, many providers knew that Microsoft was going to benefit most from whatever changes were made. Whatever positive change Microsoft made for partners was closely followed by some other announcement, like when they announced that with every Office Live sign up users received a free website and free hosting for it, that was in direct competition to what partners were offering.

Many of these obstacles still exist but what Microsoft really seems to lack is a hosting division that really wants to commit to winning the “website count” battle. At one time the hosting division at Microsoft was VERY focused on this goal and we were often told that was how funding for the division was determined. I get the impression that this is no longer the case.

Hosting as a channel to the SMB

The hosting industry is an important channel for Microsoft as it allows them to access small and medium sized businesses, web developers and designers, and a number of enterprise customers. With a continued drop off in website count there will be a transition from not only IIS-based web servers but also many other server roles that are crucial to the hosting industry. This includes things like mail servers, application servers, cloud servers, virtualization servers and more. With the drop off, the impact on revenue for Exchange Server, .NET and Visual Studio, Hyper-V and Windows Server is clear but, bigger than that, will be the lack of a channel to reach the small and medium sized businesses and the design and development community, which is huge.

And I don’t think that Microsoft can make up for this loss by transitioning their focus to services like Office365. Microsoft is having an incredibly difficult time reaching small and medium sized businesses through their online services. Many SMB’s like the ability to have choice and go to hosting companies that may be local and close to their offices (or at least in their same city), that speak their language, that offer professional services beyond just hosting a website, that offer live and accessible customer service and support, and more. These are areas that Microsoft can’t compete. By focusing on the hosting market and by focusing on their hosting partners, Microsoft was spreading their technology and not only securing and increasing revenues on the server end, but they were also protecting their phone, tablet and desktop prospects.

What happened to “developers, developers, developers“?

The developer also plays a huge role in this. Microsoft has always done a great job creating opportunity for developers to build businesses around extending Windows and its overall platform. As Microsoft dwindles in its popularity the desire to work with Visual Studio, .NET and Windows in general will also decrease. As it is, many developers want to make the shift to OSX and want to avoid having to code to multiple machines and platforms. By moving to open source technologies such as Ruby, PHP, Perl, etc. they have this flexibility.

What does this all mean for Microsoft? Well, they are losing from all angles. Although their enterprise division is reporting growth, these “website count” issues will start to impact that business over time. In addition, it will impact the development division and eventually their desktop and consumer divisions will feel the pinch. As it stands, Microsoft’s own online services are years away from replacing their hosting partners and the personal and customizable services that hosting providers offer to small and medium sized businesses.

That’s my take, anyway. What are your thoughts? What does Microsoft have to do to start regaining market share in the hosting business and avoid becoming obsolete?

Road Testing the iPad – Final Thoughts

Derek Curtis and I on a conference call with the office.

With only 48 hours left on my trip, I feel I have experienced enough to write the last blog post and finish up my thoughts on the iPad and how it performs on the road. So, as I sit here in a cafe in Rome I offer you a summary of my almost 3-week experience with the new iPad while traveling through Germany, France, the Netherlands and Italy.

The miles have been plentiful and transportation methods varied: plane, train, automobile and boat. The locations have been as different as can be with heavily populated cities, very rural cities and even cities set on water, such as Venice’s different islands. The one constant, however, has been the iPad and its impeccable performance. Overall I am really, really impressed with how it’s performed for me, regardless of the circumstances of its use.

Review of the new iPad for consumers

As a consumer, I’m concerned about some of the hardware aspects and how they affect standard usage. I’m also an avid user of various media (movies, video chat, photos, etc.) and the iPad excels in this area. Add in the simplicity and power of iOS and you have a pretty powerful combination. That said, there are a few items I want to note:

  • With over 50 different wi-fi connections that I’ve used, including the one on the train from Amsterdam to Paris, the iPad has performed flawlessly. This is contrary to a few of the Android devices I’ve used, including the Android phone I carry with me every day.
  • The AT&T cellular service has stayed well connected all throughout Europe.
  • Battery life was impressive, giving me a good 6 to 8 hours of continued use. However, I did notice the 100% battery issues some people are reporting. This will hopefully be resolved in a future update.
  • The new iPad does get hotter than the 1st and 2nd generation iPads. It’s not awful but it’s probably as hot as it should get without being uncomfortable.
  • The higher-resolution screen makes many tasks, like remoting into my iMac, much easier and more efficient. It also makes reading easier on my aging eyes.
  • Having access to a data plan and using the GPS functionality allowed me to always have maps and directions on a big screen. However, turn-by-turn navigation is much better on my Android phone. Even so, having an interactive map on the big, beautiful iPad screen  was awesome.
  • I used FaceTime and Skype to talk to the kids back home. So while I was away from home, using these on the iPad made is feel like I was still there with them.
  • Photostream allowed the family to see all of the pictures we took. Images went to our iMacs at home, to the iPhones of our children and even to the iPad my grandparents (try to) use–all in real time. I originally thought that Photostream was going to be a less than useful feature when it was announced. Boy, was I wrong! Allowing us to keep our family up-to-date on what we were doing and giving them the ability to see what we were seeing, practically in real time, was a great way to share the whole experience.
  • During downtime, it was nice to watch a movie or TV show on Netflix or Hulu or listen to music on the device or using iCloud/iMatch.

Review of the new iPad for business and the enterprise

Now, from a purely business perspective, here are some additional impressions:

  • VPN worked perfectly with our Microsoft RAS servers, unlike the constant issues we have when connecting with Android. I’ve been using VPN not only for business, but also so that I could watch Netflix and listen to Pandora–services that can’t normally be accessed from international IPs. It’s a great work around and the iPad worked flawlessly!
  • The native NT authentication in Safari is another lifesaver. Android’s lack of compatibility with NT authentication is one of the main reasons it isn’t being adopted in the enterprise.
  • The cellular data efficiency of iOS is outstanding. Using data on an international plan is VERY expensive, but iOS did a great job managing data activities and using wi-fi as the default alternative whenever it was available. As a result, I was able to keep the iPad on and get emails and notifications immediately while traveling overseas. I see this as a major benefit over using a MacBook Air on a trip like this.
  • I can’t say enough about the applications that are available, not to mention their quality. Dropbox, WebEx, Evernote, LogMeIn, RDP Lite, Kindle, Facebook, Tweetbot, IM+, Around Me, Quick Office, Hulu, Netflix and Atomic Web were among the most common third-party applications I used the last few weeks. The quality and usability of these apps played a major role in an overall great experience.
  • The ability to work on servers when necessary, write or review any document at the office, do simple coding in PHP or jQuery mobile, instant message with employees or even have conference calls and view presentations with and without video were all possible with the iPad, much to my surprise.
  • And usability isn’t the only area that is impacted but efficiency is as well. For example, something I appreciate in the Atomic web browser is the ability to remove images from webpages and also use the Google web mobilizer to strip webpages down to just the necessities (namely just to display content). This probably saved me hundreds of dollars on the trip, as condensing pages down to just text decreased my data usage.

So after all of this, how is the new iPad for business use?

I’m absolutely amazed at how capable the iPad is and I have to say that the results gave me a greater insight into the future of computing and where things are headed. Just like many others, I wondered what role a tablet can play in both our business and personal lives. I used a tablet for testing our products or reading the occasional website or even reading a book at night, but this test helped me see that the much-discussed “post PC era” is really here and the tablet will replace the computer for a large percentage of consumers. This is especially true for consumers who are on-the-go.

More importantly, this was primarily a test of a business use case, and I can easily state that the iPad (and eventually tablets in general) are more than capable for business use. I’m a bit of a unique case as I tend to want to do more with a tablet than most business owners. I can’t see the CEO of a management consulting firm, for example, needing to VPN into a server to modify DNS or other items; but even with my advanced testing, the iPad performed flawlessly. Tablets are here to stay and the post-PC era is creeping ever closer.

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