Form + function: why I use and even prefer Microsoft’s technologies

Last week, out of frustration with what I see as missed opportunities with Microsoft’s Windows line of products, I wrote a pretty lengthy post wherein I let myself wax irate. But, in spite of this, I actually do prefer Microsoft’s way of doing things in many cases. Please note, this is not at all objective: I don’t claim that this is the “best” way to do things. I just feel the need to describe and define, partially for myself, why I use these services.

SharePoint and Office 365

  • Based on common Microsoft and Web technologies – learning to administer and modify SharePoint or Office 365 sites provides useful skills even if the platform dies
  • Hugely supported and incredibly common. Great for job stability and troubleshooting/research!
  • Very flexible from an administration and branding standpoint

OK, so I’m going to start with the technology I use (and administer, and train new users on) every day for work. Some of you might hate SharePoint with a burning passion (I often run into people who feel that way) but as an administrator and sometime web site designer, I have to say that I really like many things about it.

First off, SharePoint is one of the most common web productivity/portal solutions out there. As a result, it’s incredibly well documented in terms of support and extensibility. Lots of people are writing down their solutions to common or custom issues, lots of writing is being done about the “hows” and the “whys” and the “ins” and the “outs” of working with SharePoint, and that’s incredibly useful. What’s more, lots of people are coding web parts and server-side auditing applications, site types and what have you, and it’s actually fairly easy to plug custom code or CSS into, so it serves as a flexible and powerful tool for either collaboration or web content. Branding isn’t terribly easy, but it’s certainly manageable.

Many of the out of the box web parts (widgets, for those not familiar with SharePoint’s parlance) and views are fairly limited, and in truth it’s kind of easy to build SharePoint in a way that frustrates your users, but SharePoint’s massive community of admins, developers and MSDN/TechNet support feature tons of workarounds, custom solutions and more that can provide really powerful social, productivity or dashboarding tools. I’m continually impressed by what I’m able to make SharePoint do for myself and my users, and I’m not even an honest to goodness developer. SharePoint Designer (data views, workflows) and simple Web Parts or Views or filters or InfoPath can provide tons of functionality, and with CSS, HTML and JavaScript of JQuery it’s quite simple to make a stock SharePoint site look pretty sexy fairly quickly.

Even more, SharePoint is built using Javascript, ASP.Net, XML, SQL… that is, it’s built using really common web technologies. So, even if or when it becomes obsolete, the skills I have to learn and master to control SharePoint and make it work for me and my organization are just good to learn in general.

So, I really like SharePoint. Cool. Whatever. Moving on.

Outlook and SkyDrive

  • User interface
  • SkyDrive & Office Web Apps
  • Note taking, document storage, sync, sharing tied into other services

I’ll admit it. I am not a big fan of Gmail, Google Drive or its Docs solutions. From an email perspective, I find Outlook.com, SkyDrive and its sister web applications a ton more compelling and much less frustrating to use than what Google offers. Sure, other companies offer online storage, online document management, file sharing, task lists, email, and calendars, but seriously. Who else does all of this stuff in one suite of services, and who else makes it look this good and work this seamlessly? In my humble opinion, no one ( know tons of users out there routinely use Google Drive and Apps. More power to you, I do not like them personally but I ain’t hating on your solution of choice). I love that I don’t have to go to DropBox for one thing, Evernote for something else, and that I don’t have to suffer through Google Docs or Drive’s (IMHO) crippled interfaces. Just navigating around Drive is an exercise in frustration for me where I find myself wishing that the online version of Sky Drive’s aesthetic could somehow make its way onto the Windows desktop or other services I use.

To me, Outlook and SkyDrive are some of the most consistently useful and powerful tools I use on a daily basis. The ability to synchronize application settings and files between my computers, my phone and my tablet, and to quickly and easily access my contacts (along with communications I’ve had with them) and documents from anywhere, is something I rely on in work and at home. As SkyDrive does more and more things, and allows users to store, access and sync more applications and settings, it really is set to become my ideal situation of essentially a single touch point for productivity services (mirrored by the Microsoft Account Gamertag being a single touchpoint for entertainment services). It’s not there yet, but it’s this vision that keeps me invested so much into Microsoft’s products and services. Plus, Office Web Apps are like, the best online doc editing service right now in my opinion.

To me, SkyDrive/the Microsoft Account is pretty much the killer Microsoft service. From notes to application settings to the documents I create for myself, my work and my side job as a writer for RTSGuru.com, SkyDrive is essential to the way I interact with my environment.-

Windows Phone

  • Interface
  • Tiles/application slicing
  • Social integration

A couple weeks ago, I spent about 2000 words talking about my frustrations with Windows Phone and Windows 8, and what I saw as missed opportunities in these platform. I touched on the limited nature of Live Tiles, and the opined that perhaps the dashboard of the “Metro” UI wasn’t- quite to the point of being the time saver it’s promising to be. But, with all that, I still like the platform.

One of my favorite features of Windows Phone is that in many cases, pieces of an application can be treated as effectively their own application: new tweet, a contact, the RSS feed of a specific site or group of sites, a map location, a sub-category of a news application, a certain area in a traffic tracking app, etc. I find some value in this. These pinned application sections often have their own Live Tile, which can provide more meaningful information than an app’s main tile, or provide a shortcut into a specific feature that you access frequently. This is a time saver, and lets me do things like pin a trip destination, my car’s location when parking in a new area, or a Facebook group or website that I access frequently. It’s a nice system, and I look forward to seeing future implementations of it.

I talk a lot about interface, but I’m really becoming enamored of the whole “Metro” style that Microsoft is adopting companywide. It’s clean, it’s to the point, and it just agrees with me in a way that really no Google product besides Android comes close to matching. Apple has a solid (and more mature) user interface, but their current solution for live data is quite inadequate and I don’t find the iPhone compelling, aside from wishing my phone had more child-friendly games on it like I see available on my wife’s iPhone and iPad.

One other thing I appreciate is how Facebook and Twitter are baked into the OS. The implementation in the People Hub for both services is, frankly, inadequate for my needs, but the ability to quickly and conveniently share across the OS is one of my most commonly used features.

Bing

You know, I was going to actually spend a bit of time talking about Bing, but I think in the context of this article it’d just be a distraction. It’s good that they’re baking this into their services and driving more than just Search with it, but I think Bing has not innovated much since its release and I hope to see that change in the near future.

Windows 8

  • Gaming
  • Shares design philosophy with Windows Phone/Xbox/SharePoint etc
  • Tied into ecosystem
  • Tablet and PC
  • Unified search across system and services
  • “Share” Charm makes it easy to share files/sites with social media or via email

I could spend a lot of time talking about my choice to use Windows as my main operating system. Partially, this boils down to SkyDrive and the value I see in that service. Partially (as incomplete as I sometimes feel the Start Screen currently is) I think that the Start Screen is in fact a better application launcher than the Start Menu. Partially, it’s because I consider myself a gamer and want to have access to the largest possible array of games at any given time. But with Windows 8 it goes a little deeper than that.

As Microsoft brings their visual story together with Metro, there’s this standardization in the way people interact with their devices, and the services provided by those devices. We’re not nearly there yet, but with the user interface standardization and the Microsoft Account, it’s getting closer. And yeah, I know Google offers a similar service with their suite of services. But if I look at the way I use my devices: gaming (PC and Xbox) communications (SMS, twitter, Facebook, etc) and productivity (SharePoint, SkyDrive, Outlook.com/email) I see Microsoft becoming a single touchpoint for all of these things in a way Google is not. Google’s getting the consumption and innovation angles completely covered, with their open source OS and monopoly on VODs (that is, YouTube) and lately their self-driving cars, predictive day planner application, and wearable computing (Glass) but Microsoft just happens to work and play the same way I do, and Windows comes part and parcel with that solution.

So yeah, Windows is my primary gaming platform. And yeah, it shares some visual similarities with my mobile device and console. And it syncs my settings and documents through my preferred sync platform. And that’s the beauty of the Microsoft system for me. I don’t have a dozen touch points for doc syncing, gaming, and what have you. I have a single service that can pretty much do everything I want, and that can keep me current no matter which of my devices I’m currently using. And hopefully, this will continue to improve over time, and introduce new ways of working across this ecosystem and leveraging these connections that I’ve currently not thought of.

Microsoft may or may not be sliding into irrelevance. But the way I see it, they’ve got me covered whether I’m playing Bioshock on my Xbox, reading a Word doc attachment from a game developer I’m interviewing for my side job, checking my work calendar and tasks on my phone, or sending new training documentation to my boss for review. That a single system can tie all this together for me… Well, I approve.

Alternatives

Google

  • Interface
  • Advertising company
  • Drive, Docs

OK, here’s the thing. Google does almost everything I mentioned above. Shoot, Android phones come with a feature that pretty much reloads a new device with everything from your old device (so I hear?) and Android is a huge platform where I could play games, live in Google Drive, etc.

But there are a couple issues with this, from my perspective. From a business perspective, I do not like Google Drive or Docs. I use them, I have friends that use them and share documents with me, and I do not like the interface of that service. Sure, it will improve over time, but right now, to me, it’s unattractive and often feels kind of kludgy. I do not see how people could work every day in these services happily. Every time I’ve touched them, it’s frustrated me.

I use Google Talk daily. I kind of like Google Plus, but it still feels like a ghost town that Google is trying to force everyone that uses their services to populate. But ultimately, Google just doesn’t have me covered in the living room or at work, and I don’t find their synchronization service nearly as compelling as Microsoft’s. While I might be giving up on a huge number of applications (with Android) or social connections (with Google Plus) I’m fairly content with the tradeoff since Google has yet to offer a compelling environment or interface that I enjoy for many things I rely on.

I know mileage will vary here. But I am not one to void a warranty to get a stock Android experience or to provide a questionably-supported custom interface, and I am not willing to work with unattractive and frustrating interfaces (Google Drive) when I have a well-crafted and nice looking alternative available (SkyDrive).

This is talking about my preferences, not about some mystical “best way” to do anything. I get that.

Apple

  • Cost
  • Ecosystem
  • Gaming
  • Live information access mechanics

Getting tired of writing. Apple is expensive, doesn’t play many of the game’s I’d be most interested in, and feels less connected than the offerings of Microsoft or Google. They make some amazing devices, but I am simply not compelled by what they’re offering right now.

Bottom Line

To me, SkyDrive and Xbox are the killer features of Microsoft’s system. 1 source for document storage, note taking, email, phone, gaming, music, file sharing and business productivity hits me in all the spots I need for the work and play I do every day. Other solutions exist, and perhaps I’m missing out on some killer service or application. But it never really hits me (aside from Google Now. That one makes me really worry for Microsoft in the long term)

There are issues, but Microsoft works the way I do and that is a pretty nice feeling.

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