Category Archives: UC&C

Universal version of Outlook coming to your phone

Big news from today’s Windows 10 announcement: Microsoft will be shipping a “universal” version of Outlook that works on Windows tablets, phones, and PCs. This is a really interesting move, and not something I expected based on the existence of OWA for Devices (MOWA) on iOS and Android. The universal Outlook uses the universal version of Word as its editing engine, a huge plus because it delivers all the rich formatting tools available on Windows PCs (and which are still, sadly, missing from Mac Outlook, hint hint), and during the demo, Joe Belfiore showed a fluid touch-based interface that nonetheless preserved much of the look and feel of Outlook and OWA.

This announcement raises a lot of interesting questions, though. A partial list, just off the top of my head… (and a disclaimer: I haven’t seen any preview versions of Office 16 so perhaps these are naive questions that have all been well dealt with in the code)

  • Is this new version of Outlook a replacement for, or a complement to, the existing rich Outlook client? In other words, will it be able to do everything that I can do with Outlook 2013 on a Surface Pro 3? If not, what will they leave out?
  • Will this app replace the native WP calendar and contacts app? I’d guess not, given that the People app got a lot of play in today’s announcement.
  • Outlook’s resource requirements would seem to be a poor fit for phones and low-end tablets. I’d imagine that we’ll have sync controls similar to what exist on WP8.1 to allow users to sync a certain amount, but not necessarily all, of their mail, but it’s going to take a lot of optimization to provide acceptable performance on these devices.
  • Will this version of Outlook support on-premises servers? If so, that means it probably won’t rely on MAPI over HTTPS, which isn’t widely deployed. But it’s hard to imagine Outlook built completely on Exchange Web Services.
  • Will the universal Outlook team match the slow release cadence of desktop Office or the faster cadence of, say, the Lync mobile clients? One of the nicest features of OWA for Devices is that new OWA/Office 365 features (such as Clutter and the People view) just automatically show up in MOWA because it’s essentially a container for OWA views. How will the universal Outlook team bake in support for new features as Exchange and Office 365 ship them?
  • Will Exchange ActiveSync-specific features (especially remote device wipe) be included in this version of Outlook? They aren’t included in the existing Outlook family, of course.
    • If the answer is “no, but you can use InTune or Office 365 MDM”, that’s going to displease a lot of existing users. On the other hand, you can’t remotely wipe a desktop Office installation, something which has led several of my customers to block Outlook Anywhere so that people can’t easily use Outlook from personal machines.
    • If the answer is “yes”, then it will be fascinating to see how Outlook interacts with native data such as contacts stored on the device.
  • What does this mean for OWA for Devices? I’d guess that we won’t see Outlook for iOS and Android, but I wouldn’t necessarily rule it out. Maybe we’re headed back to the days of yore, where the premium clients run on Microsoft operating systems, with a sort of best-effort client set for competitors.
  • Is this the logical vehicle for incorporating the technology Microsoft acquired from Acompli? Or is that being baked in somewhere else?
  • When can I get a Surface Hub?

Given the upcoming availability of previews for Windows 10 for phones, I suppose we’ll get the answers to these questions soon.

 

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Microsoft sneaks out Mac Outlook update

Good news: Microsoft just issued an updated version of Outlook for Mac. (I guess that’s the official name, as opposed to the older Outlook 2011). The list of fixes is pretty nondescript: you can change calendar colors, add alt-text to images, and use custom AD RMS templates. I suspect most of the effort for this release was actually focused on the “Top crashes fixed” item in the KB article.

Bad news: you have to manually download it from the Office 365 portal. The AutoUpdate mechanism shipped with Office 2011 doesn’t yet know how to handle updates for Outlook for Mac. I suppose Microsoft could either update the Office 2011 AU mechanism or ship a new one as part of a future Outlook update; presumably the latter choice would actually deliver the Office 2015 update mechanism, since there’s undoubtedly going to be one.

The real news here is how quickly Microsoft released this update. While this is only one release, it’s an excellent sign that we got it quickly, and it makes me hopeful that we’ll see a steady stream of updates and fixes for the Mac Office apps in the future— with a cadence more akin to the Lync Mobile clients releases than the glacial pace of past Mac Office updates.

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My first week with Office 365 Clutter

Immediately after Microsoft announced that Clutter was available, I enabled it in all my personal tenants and started training it. As you may recall, you can train Clutter in two ways: implicitly (as it sees how you interact with mail from particular senders, such as by ignoring it or deleting it without reading it) or explicitly (by moving messages into or out of the Clutter folder). Because I’m fairly impatient, I set about explicit training by moving messages to the Clutter folder. I’ve done this with all of the clients I use: Outlook for Mac, OWA, Outlook 2013, the iOS mail app, and Outlook Mobile. Whenever possible I move the message while leaving it unread, so as not to make Clutter think I’m interested.

The upshot: it works reasonably well, but it seems to have trouble learning about messages from some sources. For example, both Strava and Twitter alerts remain resolutely un-Cluttered even though I’ve been moving 100% of those messages, unread, to the folder. I think that’s because the message subject for these messages often changes to reflect the message contents (e.g. “@jaapwess retweeted a Tweet you were mentioned in!”) and that confuses the algorithm in some way. It may be that the algorithm used to categorize these messages needs more data to act on before it can decide. The downside of machine learning systems is that, as an end user, you often can’t see just what the machine has learned, only the actions it takes. In this regard, machine learning is somewhat like owning a cat. I can see that Clutter isn’t moving some messages I think it should, but I don’t have any way to see why, nor any way to effectively correct it. This reminds me of the good old days of training neural networks from HNC Software to do various interesting things and sometimes being bewildered by the resulting behavior.

One bit of good news: I have been very pleased to see no false positives; that is, Clutter has not taken any mail I wanted to read and treated it as clutter. If the price of zero false positives is that some real clutter isn’t treated as such, I’m OK with that.

The junk mail filtering infrastructure continues to catch some messages that might more properly be treated as clutter, e.g. the flood of marketing crap I get from GameStop. I don’t mind such messages being treated as junk, though.

One unexpected side effect is that I have been much more diligent than usual about unsubscribing from newsletters or marketing mails that I no longer care about. This has helped to cut the volume of clutter I have to deal with.

In closing, I note that no matter how many times I tell Clutter that notifications from Yammer should be treated as clutter, they keep going right into my Inbox. I suspect a conspiracy.

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Why the Outlook for Mac folder pane changes colors

I mentioned in my review of the new Outlook for Mac client that the background of the folder list seemed to randomly change colors:

It may also be a feature that there is a color gradient fill in the folder list. At first I thought the color was the same as the color of the category of my current calendar appointment, but after changing all the category colors, waiting for sync, and quitting and relaunching Outlook, the color didn’t change, so I’m not sure what Microsoft had in mind here, and there doesn’t seem to be a way to turn it off.

Thanks to the most excellent Bill Smith, long-time Mac Office MVP, now I know the answer:

You’re seeing translucency in the navigation pane. So long as you have a window or other white object behind Outlook you’ll see a whitish background, but arrange Outlook over your Desktop picture and you’ll see those colors peeking through it. Choose Outlook menu > Hide Others to quickly show Outlook over your Desktop.

Sure enough, that explains it. I use SatelliteEyes to update my desktop background, and as I move around (and thus get new satellite maps), or as change the Z order of other open windows, voilà color changes. I normally don’t mind window translucency, but I don’t care for the combination of OS X Yosemite and this effect. Looks like I’m stuck with it, though.

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The difference between supportability and patching

I’m at the annual MVP Summit this week, and everything we hear and see is pretty much NDA (except for pictures of Flat Tony). However, we just had a really interesting discussion that I think is safe to abstract here.

A couple years ago I wrote a post about what it means to be supported or unsupported. What I wrote then still stands: when Microsoft says something is unsupported, there can be multiple reasons for that label, and you do whatever-it-is at your own risk.

Microsoft’s support policy for Exchange 2013 can be summed up as “N-1″: when they release a new cumulative update (CU) or service pack, that version and the previous version are considered to be supported. So, in the fullness of time, when we get Exchange 2013 CU7, then CU6 and CU7 will be the officially supported versions.

It’s very clear that there’s a lot of confusion about what “supported” means in this context. Microsoft product support will always support you if you call for help with a product that’s within its lifecycle window. Call them today and ask how to configure Exchange ActiveSync on Exchange 2010 RU2, they’ll help you. Call to ask about an issue you’re seeing with DAG failover in Exchange 2013 CU2, they’ll help you. Call for help with Exchange 2003, and they may even help you on a best-effort basis.

What they won’t do is create fixes for bugs or problems in unsupported versions.

If you call them and say “hey, I’m having this problem with Exchange 2013 SP1,” they will help you troubleshoot it. If it’s a known problem, they may tell you “update to CU5 or later”– but Microsoft will not create a hotfix or IU that fixes that problem in SP1, or any other older version that’s outside that N-1 boundary.

So: help always, bug fixes only within the support boundary. Tell your friends.

 

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Microsoft announces data loss prevention, mobile device management for Office 365

Microsoft made a slew of Office 365 announcements at TechEd Europe this week. Taken collectively, they’re clear evidence of how Microsoft is executing their strategy of cross-linking capabilities across Windows, the Office suite, and Office 365.

Let’s start with data loss prevention (DLP), a feature first introduced in Exchange 2013. (Side note: I love it that yet another marquee feature in Office 365 was first shipped as part of Exchange.) The idea behind DLP is that you can have an automated system that will detect when users send out sensitive information (for certain selected values of “sensitive”) and take appropriate action, ranging from warning the user through a Policy Tip to journaling the message to notifying a person or group to blocking the message. DLP shipped with a template engine that allows Microsoft and its partners to build templates for different policies, along with a set of templates for common policies such as US HIPAA and PCI. However, Exchange 2013 DLP suffered from some limitations, chiefly that it only worked with messages sent through Exchange. Users only get Policy Tip warnings in OWA 2013 and Outlook 2013, and the template system seems primarily intended for use by a few specialized partners and not the general population.

Microsoft is addressing these problems by extending DLP into SharePoint Online and OneDrive for Business. While they haven’t discussed the specifics of how this will work, it seems reasonable that both SharePoint and ODB will consume the same policy templates used in Exchange, so that you can apply a consistent set of policies across the three products. Conspicuously absent from the announcement was any mention of bringing this capability to on-prem SharePoint. Maybe that was just an oversight.

The OneDrive for Business capability will be of huge interest to several of my large customers. Microsoft’s messaging around large, low-cost personal storage for business users is getting a lot of traction, with both users and enterprises eager to take advantage of it, but organizations have a reasonable concern that users will, accidentally or on purpose, put stuff in their ODB libraries that they shouldn’t. Assuming that you can define a DLP policy that covers what you don’t want stored in ODB, having this enforcement mechanism could potentially be very valuable.

In addition to these DLP extensions, Microsoft is giving Office 365 DLP the ability to recognize and act on tags created in the Windows Server file classification infrastructure (FCI). With this support, the automated metadata tags generated by FCI can be recognized by Exchange Online, SharePoint Online, and OneDrive for Business—so if you have, say, an Excel spreadsheet that’s classified as protected health information (PHI), the DLP infrastructure will recognize and treat it as such. I don’t have a good feel for how pervasive FCI is in the enterprise, since I don’t normally deal with file/print deployments, but I suspect that this is a nice 2-for-1 play for Microsoft: they can sell the benefits of FCI to cloud customers and sell the benefits of DLP that’s driven by FCI to entrenched on-prem customers.

Another major DLP improvement is coming in Office: Word, PowerPoint, and Excel will get support for Policy Tips. While it would be technically possible to roll this out into Office 2013, it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see this offered as a feature only in Office 16.

I’ll have a lot more to say about the details of these features once Microsoft releases more public details. While I’ll look forward to picking the collective brains of the Office 365 PM team at the MVP Summit, I don’t expect them to share any public details beyond what they’re showing in Barcelona. In the meantime, though, Microsoft is clearly trying to reinforce the ties between their core Office and Windows Server customers and Office 365, while at the same time providing some more tasty cloud-only features in an attempt to entice customers into drinking the 365 Kool-aid.

For another day, a more detailed analysis of Microsoft’s announcement that mobile device management (MDM) capabilities are being added to almost all of the existing Office 365 plans.

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A few quick notes on Office 365 Groups

Today the Office 365 team announced the rollout of the first phase of the Groups feature. I hadn’t been playing close attention to the roadmap for this particular feature, so I decided to play around with it and report my findings. Rather than the kind of carefully reasoned analysis you might expect from Tony or Van Hybrid, this is sort of a stream-of-consciousness record of my initial exploration. However, it probably reflects how most customers will discover and use the feature. Remember that this is written within a few hours after the feature launched, so things that I call out as not working or missing may not be lit up in my tenant yet.

  • First, I looked around to figure out how to create a new group. The screenshot in the online help shows Groups appearing in the left-side folder nav bar. I didn’t see that in my tenant. When I switched to the People view, I noticed that the People search selector had a “Groups” item available, but since there were no groups that wasn’t super helpful. Clicking the “New” icon at the upper right of the People view gave me a modal pop-up asking me whether I wanted to create a new group or person. The interface for creating new groups is straightforward: give your group a name, add some people to it, and off you go. Here’s what it looks like:
Creating a new group is straightforward.

Creating a new group is straightforward.

Note that there’s no way to specify an email address for the group object. You can send mail to it from within OWA, or by clicking the envelope icon in the group information sheet, but there’s no visible external SMTP address to, send to. This seems like an oversight.

  • The group documentation says that newly created groups get their own OneDrive for Business folder and group mailbox, but I haven’t yet seen any signs of those objects in my tenant. However, the docs also say that group members will get a “welcome to your new group” email once those objects have been created, and because that hasn’t shown up yet, I’m guessing that there’s just a short provisioning delay.
  • I created a new group named “Managing Consultants”. I picked that name on purpose, because I already had a mail-enabled security group with the same name. The Groups interface happily let me create a duplicate. The existing USG doesn’t show up in the Groups interface in OWA, nor does the new Group show up in Outlook’s online GAL (which may just be an artifact of AD latency). The help topic for creating and navigating groups shows a number of settings that aren’t visible in my tenant. For example, you can supposedly change the URL used to access the group or set the group to either private or public– those options aren’t available to me yet.
  • I clicked on the mail icon to create a message and sent it off; it arrived immediately in the target mailboxes. Interestingly, though, the group name doesn’t show up in Outlook; instead, the individual group members’ names appear.
  • Even after creating two groups and sending a message to one of them, neither group appeared in the OWA left navigation bar. Surprisingly, they didn’t appear in the OneDrive nav bar either:
Where'd my groups go?

Where’d my groups go?

  • Bizarrely, clicking the “Browse groups” item opens a new OWA window, which opens in mail view, not the People view. The new OWA window’s left nav bar has a People section, but it’s empty– even though the original OWA window I kept open still correctly shows unread mail from people in my Inbox.
  • When I create a Group, it doesn’t appear as an available group in Yammer. I presume this is by design.
  • I didn’t test Group conversations because there are no visible Group objects in OWA where the docs say they should be.

From the bumpy state of feature display and behavior at this point, I infer that there’s a multi-step provisioning task that runs when a new Group is created, and that at least the ODB step hasn’t run yet. This might confuse users who wonder why they can use a group for one purpose (sending mail) but not another (ODB). I’ll wait a day or so for the provisioning and loop back to see which of these items are bugs and which are just caused by setup delays.

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