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Metro, that ribbon, shared mailboxes: Has Microsoft lost the plot?

More money for the same functionality

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Sysadmin blog In a previous piece on Office 365, I discussed how difficult it was to enable public folders. The reality is that Office 365 doesn't support public folders in the traditional sense. Instead, to achieve a similar functionality to the most common use for public folders – a storage point for group emails – Microsoft have offered "shared mailboxes".

This isn't properly supported in Outlook, and so getting the same sort of communal mail handling requires either reliance on Outlook Web Access, or some fancy tinkering in powershell to get copies of mail sent to the communal account to drop into the mailboxes of relevant staff.

After that comes more tinkering to enable permission to send on behalf of that communal account. For all the other features you used to associate with public folders - including shared calendars - Microsoft points you at SharePoint.

There's a problem in this thinking; it is focused entirely on how Microsoft would like us to use its software (so as to maximise revenue potential) and has absolutely no connection to how people actually use it in the real world.

Once you remove public folders and shared calendars from Outlook, there are few - if any - compelling reasons to use Outlook over any competing mail client, even the free ones. Migrate the most popular features into another SKU (with accompanying separate licensing) and the advantages that "Outlook + Exchange" had over "anything + IMAP" evaporate.

Once you have no reason to use Outlook, then - outside of a few Excel power users - there is no reason to use Office. Without Office as the anchor, more and more of my clients simply don't have a reason to use Windows for their desktop. Without Windows on the desktop, why invest in Windows Server?

This cascade of irrelevance certainly doesn't apply to every company or situation. Lots of companies still rely on a piece of Windows-only industry-specific software, but even this is slowly changing. Microsoft's own design choices for Windows 8 and beyond make dragging legacy software into the future untenable.

In addition, the big industry push for Software as a Service woke the world to the idea of HTML5-delivered applications that could run in any modern browser, on any operating system. Virtualisation, App-V and similar technologies provide a way of running legacy Windows applications on a non-Microsoft operating system.

For a time, Microsoft might be able to stanch the bleeding with yet more licensing shenanigans. Demand that you must hold a windows licence on the device you are using as an RDP client, or deepen the already arcane and illogical set of rules on what can or can't be virtualised and when. While it might stave off immediate irrelevance, this approach only earns enmity, and deepens the resolve to exit what is increasingly perceived as a vexatious software ecosystem focused on lock-in.

Dedicated Microsoft watchers or a sysadmins devoted to Microsoft's ecosystem go to Microsoft conferences, read all the Microsoft blogs and get a handle on the "vision" of Microsoft as presented by the PR mouthpieces. While I do try to keep up, the bulk of my exposure to Microsoft's vision is neither a fancy PowerPoint slide accompanied by a free tablet, nor deep insider information from well placed sources.

Like most of you, dear readers, I get to extrapolate what Microsoft is doing by how it affects my clients in the real world. When I am not bumping up against Microsoft's aggravating licensing restrictions, I am inventing new epithets involving Powershell and Office 365.

I don't believe that the changes Microsoft has made over the past few years are necessarily all bad. Individually, arguments could be made for each. Consider however that there is still a significant chunk of the world uncomfortable with the ribbon bar. Adding to that, Microsoft is fundamentally altering the dynamic of its client operating system with Metro.

Consider the above alongside the cancellation of Small Business Server, and it's less-than-subtle push to get SMEs using Office 365. Not only is Microsoft making changes to user interfaces, by altering feature distribution amongst the SKUs, Microsoft is also forcing higher costs to achieve the same basic functionality as with the last generation of products during a period of international economic austerity.

Microsoft is rooting around in the dark magic of its own relevance, seemingly without a cohesive plan. For many businesses, Microsoft's licenceing and feature distribution strategies for the 2012 product suite is too much change, in too many products, too fast. ®

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