The Microsoft Store Experience is as Broken as Windows

Apple Store vs. Microsoft Store

image courtesty of Cult of Mac

As I mentioned in a blog post earlier this week, I was thinking of buying a few Microsoft Surface Pro 3’s for some of our staff. This was ostensibly so we could continue testing all of our products on the latest version of Windows as well as the native applications that come with the new Microsoft devices. My experience brought to light a major, major issue that Microsoft is facing, one that is possibly even larger than the issues I mention in my previous post.

So, as I wanted to buy a few Surface Pro 3s, I figured the best place to start was on the Microsoft Store website. I pulled it up to look for any Business options. Unable to find what I wanted, I decided use the video chat with a Microsoft Employee. At first I was thinking “this is REALLY cool”. It’s like Amazon’s “MayDay” feature, available on the Kindle Fire. However, unlike “Amy” from Amazon’s ads, who seems to be able to quickly and extensively offer assistance, I found out that the person I was having the video chat with knew absolutely NOTHING. Even the most basic questions were not able to be answered. Ironically, I had a similar experience on Microsoft’s Dynamics website via live chat. The Customer Representative didn’t even understand basic questions about the Microsoft Dynamics application. They needed to set me up with a Product Specialist, which is what I thought I was already doing.

After a short stint in the video chat I call the the Microsoft Store located in Scottsdale, Arizona. (One of only THREE Microsoft stores in the state). At least I thought I was calling a local store; I quickly found out I was sent to a call center, not the actual store. What the heck? After speaking with the call center person for a bit, and explaining what I wanted, they felt that it would be best to talk to someone at the store! That’s what I wanted originally! I had to wait on hold for someone at the call center to find someone at my local store and then connect me. Very weird.

Once I was on the phone with a store representative, I started asking about discounts for bulk orders. We often do bulk purchases and by this time I was thinking about maybe converting all of our Customer Service staff to Surface Pros rather than just buying one or two more. The Business Person was less than excited on the phone, and it almost felt as if I was pulling teeth for information. The discounts on the Surface Pro 3 are VERY low. At least that’s the impression I got from the store rep. However, I was told that I should try contacting CDW as they probably had better pricing. Huh?! Now, I’m not a huge fan of CDW, but I asked for contact information for someone I could talk to anyway. However, the Microsoft Store employee didn’t have a phone number for a direct contact, but I was given the number for their call center. When I asked for an email address I got a default store email address. I did not contact CDW, to say the least.

The entire experience, from the online video and live chats to the phone calls, couldn’t have been any worse.

Despite all of this, I was determined to get an employee a Surface Pro 3. Not everyone, mind you, but by now I had decided that ONE employee, at least, should have one so that we could get some more live testing performed and make sure all our SmarterTools products were as good as possible on these devices. I decided to call the Microsoft Store again and purchase a single Surface Pro 3, complete with a docking station, Type Keyboard…the works. I wanted to buy it all and then have one of the employees pick it up over the weekend.

Once again I ran into a brick wall: The only option available is to purchase online and have everything shipped. I wanted to scream…

At this point, is Microsoft really even trying? They’re the underdog and they have NO clue how to provide a good user experience purchasing their products. It’s hard enough when the operating system itself is difficult and clunky, but there’s NO WAY that should translate into the buying experience.

To counter all of this, while we are a Windows software development company, 95% of our developers use MacBook Pros. All of our customer service and support representatives use Macs as well. We have worked with numerous Apple Business employees who are very responsive. When we need a MacBook Pro, we order it and have an employee run over and get it. If we need 10 Mac Minis, we can pick them up. If we want them customized, we order them through our Business contact and they’re either shipped to us directly or to the store and we pick them up. They’re shipped and delivered whichever way is the quickest FOR US. When we walk into our nearest Apple Store, they know us and treat us VERY well. It’s a great relationship and that experience makes the Microsoft experience that much worse.

You know, Microsoft hasn’t had any issues copying Apple’s OS X over the years. Windows 10 introduces both virtual desktops and a an almost exact replica of Apple’s Mission Control. I think they should also spend time at an Apple Store…or several Apple Stores.  Microsoft stores are dead and full of people with no LOVE for Microsoft. For employees, it seems to be just a job and the way Microsoft sets up call centers and a mailboxes per store rather than for their employees further separates the customer from the company. Counter this with going to an Apple Store where everyone in the store, from employees to customers, are enthusiastic and almost awestruck. Apple Stores are where people with the love for a product congregate. Microsoft Stores are places where people almost seem to go by accident.

Microsoft, your products are VERY inferior right now and it’s hard to love them. Your store experiences aren’t helping matters much. I’d venture to say the buying experience is even more hurtful to your brand and products than the products themselves.

As a side note, while doing these tests and really trying to get a feeling for the entire Microsoft ecosystem, I flirted with the idea of switching from my Samsung Note 3 to a Microsoft Phone, either a Nokia device or one of the new Samsung M8s running Windows. I tell you, it was an eye-opening experience shopping for a Windows phone! I use Verizon, so I went to a few Verizon stores to look at phones. NONE of the stores I went to had any! At Verizon, one of the largest, if not THE largest, mobile providers, Microsoft is a third-class citizen! On top of that, I learned that Microsoft will be keeping with Windows Phone 8.1 until late 1st quarter or early 2nd Quarter of 2015! I tell you, we’re working on a new project – something unrelated to SmarterTools – that focuses on mobile devices. We planned on building it as a universal application across all 3 mobile platforms: iOS, Android and Windows. After my recent experiences, we’re focusing solely on iOS and Android.

For a person who had built a rather large Web hosting company and then a software development company based on Microsoft products, it’s been incredibly difficult to watch Microsoft’s transition. Or, to be a bit more precise, their FAILURE to transition and transform. It’s easy to see why Apple has exceeded 10% of the PC market, something they hadn’t done since 1991. All this being said, Microsoft IS still generating a ton of revenue, as demonstrated by today’s announcement. However, imagine how much MORE they’d earn if they JUST fixed the buying experience.

Knowing all of this, is it strange that I STILL want Microsoft to succeed? Should I quit trying and just accept the fact that Microsoft will continue on this path and never compete again in the consumer market? Others are on a much, much better path, and all indications are they’re leaving Microsoft in the dust.

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.”

Improving Disk I/O and Overall Performance for Your Mail Server, Part 3

In Part One of our series we discussed some tips for setting up your mail server, including tweaks to your operating system and any other software, such as anti-virus, running on your server. In Part Two, we looked at SmarterMail itself and adjustments to items like spam filtering, file attachment sizes and more that can increase overall performance. In this final post, we’ll look at hardware settings and some tips for optimizing email clients and mobile devices.

It doesn’t even matter if you’re running SmarterMail – any mail server will benefit from the various hardware, software and end-user/device mods mentioned. If you’re doing some of these already, then you’re ahead of the curve. However, read through and see if you can grab one or two more that allow you to squeeze the most out of your mail server performance.


Use IMAP and CalDAV/CardDAV for Syncing

IMAP is a time-tested mail delivery protocol – it’s fast, it’s reliable and every device and email client supports it for retrieving incoming messages. Therefore, it’s the best choice for syncing with any email account on any device or desktop client. While things like Microsoft Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) and Exchange Web Services (EWS) are a bit more robust in what they sync, they can be server-intensive. EWS is something to really review before it is implemented as it’s currently only available for Apple clients like Apple Mail and Outlook for Mac and doesn’t support syncing mobile devices. Further, Outlook users should really only sync their Inbox and not all folders. By default, setting up IMAP will sync all folders. However, syncing just the Inbox is the most efficient setup as folders can be synced “on demand,” or whenever a user clicks on it. This way, only the access that is needed is what’s being set up and processed with the mail server.

For customers concerned about syncing contacts and calendars, using the CalDAV and CardDAV protocols are great for syncing these items. This is especially true now that Windows Phone is rolling out support for both, and even Google started offering native support for both and deprecated EAS support. Android and iOS devices currently support both CalDAV and CardDAV (iOS natively supports it – Android devices do require third-party apps), so most users will get along just fine using them. Finally, IMAP, CalDAV and CardDAV are all free to use – no additional costs for service providers or end users, and while Android devices currently need third-party apps, most, if not all, are available for free. Therefore, IMAP, CalDAV and CardDAV are truly ideal alternatives for most customers. If you want to use something other than IMAP, CalDAV and CardDAV, EAS is the way to go as it is becoming the de facto standard for syncing both mobile devices and desktop clients.

Sync Devices For a Maximum of 30 Days

On many mobile devices you can set the default time frame for syncing messages. Most people want to have as much mail on their phone as possible, but that’s not always the best solution as syncing a ton of information with a mobile device can cause issues, both on the phone as well as on the mail server itself. These issues can not only cause delays in receiving new messages but also issues with lost emails, high disk i/o and more. Therefore, it’s best to sync just a few days’ worth of email and calendar items. The maximum should be 30 days, but a better solution is 5 days or less. Since SmarterMail offers a Web-based interface, even road warriors can get by with just a few days’ worth of email and calendar items – they simply need to log in to their mail account using any Web-connected browser to see the rest.

Keep Mailboxes Small

This should go without saying, but keeping your inbox uncluttered is a great way to ensure your mail server performs well. Large mailboxes are very difficult to manage, especially when using products like Microsoft Outlook as they download EVERYTHING.

So, how can you keep a mailbox small and things working smoothly? Well, first of all, SmarterMail Enterprise offers email archiving. When used, archiving stores every email as it enters the spool. Therefore, even if an user deletes a message, a system or domain administrator can retrieve it and replace it for the user as needed. In addition, archived messages can be stored on a different drive, further saving space and disk i/o.

In addition, when syncing with a mobile device, it’s not necessary to sync every folder a user has. If only the Inbox is synced, and only a few days’ worth of email is synced, then the mail server and device will remain in harmony.

Another thing to avoid is creating sub-folders within your Inbox. Many clients, especially Outlook, don’t handle folders within a user’s Inbox very well. Mobile clients perform even worse when a user has sub-folders in their Inbox. Therefore, it’s best to avoid them whenever possible.

Try to live by the Inbox Zero rule and manage messages rather than letting them sit. Delete, file, store and remove as much as possible and your email clients, servers and mobile devices will perform much better.

Remove Large Attachments

As we noted in a previous post, disk space availability and usage can impact the performance of your mail server. A possible way to avoid this is to either set up some auto-clean rules for your emails or just flat out delete any large attachments. Of course, an alternative to deleting attachments is to move them off the mail server and to a local drive for later retrieval – maybe move them to a Google Drive or Dropbox account so they’re still available for mobile users, but not cluttering up the mail server itself.

Server Hardware

Separate Your Spool and Data

A great way to increase your mail server performance is to separate your email spool and email data into 2 separate, physical drives. This is because your spool, especially on busy mail servers, will see constant reads and writes, which will impact disk i/o. In addition, email data can grow, especially with attachments, file storage, etc. Increased disk space combined with constant reads/writes can be a recipe for disaster for a mail server. Separating these functions (along with the other suggestions discussed) can lead to longer lifespan for your disks, and less chances for corruption, downtime and headaches.

Use SSDs

This may go without saying as SSDs are generally faster than standard hard drives, but it’s worth pointing out nonetheless. SSDs are great for mail servers due to the increase in performance. Sure, they cost more, but the performance increase that a mail server admin will see, as well as their overall durability, is well-worth the investment.  In addition, there may be some concerns over the lifespan of SSDs in a high-production environment. However, implementing some of the other suggestions in this post can lengthen the lifespan of your SSDs, making them not only affordable but a real difference-maker.

RAM Drive for Spool

A RAM drive (a.k.a., a RAM Disk) offers a huge increase in performance, even over the use of SSDs. Most people use RAM drives for loading applications and running things like games or photo-editing software, so using a RAM drive for your email spool means that messages are handled much, much faster than when the spool is part of your normal drive set. There are some disadvantages to using RAM for storage, most significant are that the size is limited to the RAM on hand and RAM drives are dependent on the server staying powered up and online. Then there is the need for third-party applications to manage the drive. However, these are minor headaches compared to the overall performance gains. For more information on RAM drives, PC World has a good article on supercharging your server using a RAM drive.

Raid 10 for Data

Scalability and reliability are crucial factors for any mail server. As anyone working for a hosting provider or ISP can tell you, nothing riles up customers more than when their email is down. Most people can handle when their website is having issues, but even a minute of downtime for a mail server can bring the most patient customer to tears. Having redundancy and failover in your hardware can ensure that, even if you lose a drive, customers see very little downtime, IF they see any at all. RAID 10 offers a simple and relatively cheap way to give your mail server a high level of reliability without sacrificing any speed.

Lots of Memory in the Machine to accomplish these items above

Use of a RAM drive and other suggestions means that your mail server will need enough RAM to be able to handle any situation. 8GB or more seems to be the norm nowadays, especially as RAM prices decline, 16GB being a sweet spot for most mail server admins. Of course, it all depends on load, number of users and how users interact with the mail server. Getting some baseline statistics on memory and disk usage using your mail server’s reporting features or from the server itself is a good place to start. SmarterMail offers system administrators some reports that detail disk and memory usage, as well as user trends and summary reports. Windows offers native reporting tools that can be used as well.

So, there you have it – three blog posts detailing how you can improve the overall performance of your mail server. Of course, these suggestions just touch the surface. I’m sure there’s more that can be done, so if anyone has any suggestions, feel free to leave them in the comments. Thanks for reading!

Improving Disk I/O and Overall Performance for Your Mail Server, Part 2

In Part One of our series on Improving Disk I/O for Your Mail Server, we discussed some tweaks to your operating system and any other server software, such as anti-virus, to increase overall performance. In this post, we’ll look at settings and tweaks to SmarterMail itself. If you’re doing some of these already, then you’re ahead of the curve. However, read through and see if you can grab one or two more that allow you to squeeze the most out of your mail server performance.

SmarterMail Tweaks

Setup Domain Auto-Clean Rules for Junk Mail and Deleted Items

When SmarterMail is set up it can be configured to move any spam mail to a Junk Mail folder and any deleted items can be moved to a Deleted Items folder. This is an easy and convenient way to manage these types of emails, but users can get a little distracted and leave these folders unattended. This means that the folders can grow in size and grow so large that they take up an inordinate amount of disk space. To remedy that, administrators should set up rules to automatically clean these folders after a certain amount of time, such as weekly or monthly. Setting up these rules is a great way to ensure that these folders don’t grow out of control, take up a ton of disk space and eventually bog down your disk i/o.

Limit File Attachment Sizes – Use File Storage Instead

It’s hard to get around users sending and receiving files via email. However, you can limit the size of the attachments that can be sent and then offer SmarterMail’s File Storage as an alternative for large attachments. Attachments are stored within a mail server’s GRP file, and encoded. This encoding can add anywhere from 30% – 50% to the size of the attachment. For larger files, this means that disk space can be greatly affected when limitations are absent. File Storage, on the other hand, stores the uploaded file in a user’s folder, but the file isn’t encoded, so it doesn’t increase in size. In addition, users can better-manage file storage files right from within the SmarterMail webmail interface, thereby keeping disk space utilization to a minimum.

Create Strict Spam Settings

A very simple way to keep your mail server running smoothly is to limit the amount of email that actually comes into the mail server. A perfect example is spam messages: it’s a good idea to set up and manage strict anti-spam settings to prevent messages from even making it to the server. We have a KB article of Recommended Spam Settings that you can follow, and one of our power users and a forum Product Expert, Bruce Barnes, has an extensive PDF document outlining different spam settings and efficiencies with setting up various anti-spam measures.

Consider Setting Up an Inbound Gateway

Using an inbound gateway is a great way to offload some of the spam checks and help weed out unwanted email before it gets set for local delivery. While inbound gateways only offer SMTP spam checks (things like Commtouch, etc. can’t run on an inbound gateway), utilizing extensive checks and setting up a variety of RBLs and URIBLs can greatly limit the the amount of spam that gets to the primary mail server. From there, you can use Commtouch or other third-party add-ons to further eliminate spam. You can use SmarterMail as an inbound gateway, for free, and we have a knowledge base article that can help you set it up.

There you have it, a few more tips to help maximize the performance of your mail server. In Part Three, we’ll discuss some hardware changes and email client and mobile device settings that will help keep things running smoothly, so stay tuned!


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