Sunday, September 30, 2012

MS Office goes Cloud: Quick overview of benefits and things to watch out for

Earlier this month, CNET's Mary Jo Foley reported on Microsoft's move to Office 2013. As noted on a previous blog post, this is a huge year for Microsoft as it moves to the tablet-centric  Windows 8 operating system. Well, they seem to be doubling down on dramatic shifts as they launch a SaaS offering of their infamous Office productivity suite; Office 365. Mary Jo reports that Microsoft will be giving a choice between purchasing Office 2013 as "normal" or as a subscription to its cloud version of the software. To sweeten the offer Microsoft is offering the following extras (credits: Mary Jo and Paul Thurrott): 
  • Ability to log-in to 5 different PCs or Macs 
  • Access to Word, Excel, Powerpoint, OneNote, as well Access, Publisher and Outlook
  • 60 Skype World Minutes a month
  • 20 GB of SkyDrive storage
  • Update on security and other patches
  • Access to new functions through the subscription period (i.e. you don't need to wait for the next version)
In contrast, the standard PC-installed version of Office 2013 can only be installed on one machine. Also, to get access to Access, Publisher and Outlook you need to Professional version (Mary Jo has a great table here that explains the different options). 

Office 365 Home Premium is $99.99/year, which covers an "entire household" (i.e. Paul Thurrott explains that it is not tied to a single individual, but can be used any person located at that address). Assuming that this will be same price in Canada, this would amount to $9.42/month (including HST) which is cheaper than two venti lattes at Starbucks. This is in contrast to Office 2013 Professional, which retails for 399.99+HST (and 139.99+HST for the Home & Student version, which includes Word, Excel, Powerpoint, and OneNote). 

However, the big story here is that Microsoft getting the average user  - to the Cloud! (Oh, yes – it was Microsoft that came up with those terrific ads didn't they?). Some may say that this is yesterday's news because Google Docs  has already brought cloud-based office productivity. Although that may be true, if you ask my students they're using Google Docs to collaborate but still rely on MS Office to print a report or assignment. And of course when they go on their work terms, the firms are still using MS Office (so they need to know how it works and be able to use it well).   

In other words: Is the world ready for moving their recipes, financial budgets, and other personal documents to the cloud? 

For those that want the full low down on cloud, they can download this whitepaper from the CICA, which I wrote with Yvon Audette of KPMG. Alternatively, here is a short list of things that you can talk to your friends or whoever that are wondering what happens if they decide to go to go with Office 365 or another cloud based app.

Pay for what you use: In terms of benefits, MS has really sweetened the pie with the extras they noted above. The other implicit benefit is that you are not paying for a static piece hardware upfront. Furthermore, if you decide to change your mind later on you will be out only $100 instead of $400. For example, to buy Office  Professional you have to fork over $400 on the spot, where as with Office 365 you pay as you go (i.e. $100 per year). So if you decide a year from now that you don't use all the extras that Office 365 comes up (i.e. let's say you are not using the extra software, such as Publisher, Access, Skype, etc) you can buy the Starter version or switch to an open source alternative. 

The Cloud Can Go Down, but so can your laptop: There have been cases of cloud outages, as I noted in my last post. Consequently, you should create a local backup of your files from Office 365, so that they are accessible off of the cloud (I am hoping Microsoft will make this easy) and won't get corrupted if there is a problem at Microsoft. However, let's be honest - what's more likely to go down Microsoft or your own laptop? The advantage of Office 365 is that if your laptop goes down, you can always access it from another laptop. In other words, your data is no longer tied to your machine.

You have less control, but you've handed it over to Microsoft (who should know a little bit about good computing practices): It should be clear that you are handing over your files to Microsoft to manage for you. But this may be a good thing, as they may do a better job than you. For example, if you don't do local backups (as you should), then Microsoft likely does. According to this link, they perform an ISO 27001 audit (click here to see what that covers) as well as HIPAA, FISMA, and EU Model Clauses. The certification that is absent is the new SOC 2 (see here for the difference between SOC 2 and SOC1. SOC 1 replaced the SAS 70 Type II reports, which outsourcers previously used and abused).

Terms of service (ToS), assume nothing: In general, cloud service providers have an army of lawyers to indemnify them from pretty much everything. So you should assume if anything goes wrong it's tough luck for you. Also, beware on what they say in terms of who owns the data (ZDNet did an analysis last year for online storage, we hope they update it for the new Office 365). According to this post, Microsoft pays back money for downtime for the Office 365 they were offering to businesses - but it is unclear whether they would do the same for consumers. 

Is a hacker also using Office 365? Amazon's cloud service, EC2, was used by hackers to launch the infamous attack on Sony's PSN. Security researchers were also able to spy on fellow "tenants". So what do these two facts add up to? Hackers will try to see what  vulnerabilities exist in Office 365 to exploit to get data from other users. That being said, hackers are mostly after credit card data and it may be more trouble than it's worth to mine terabytes of cake recipes and essays on Shakespeare to find what they are looking for (but 'big data tools' do make this easier). 

Privacy: accidental disclosures and the reality of law enforcement. In addition to nefarious individuals lurking on the internet, there is a risk that something will go wrong and the wrong user will get access to your documents. For example, Microsoft's precursor to Office 365 (known excitingly as BPOS) experienced precisely this kind of breach (to be fair here is MS's defense). In terms of privacy, the way the privacy rules works is that if the provider tells you in the ToS that they will hand over things to law enforcement then they are covered from a privacy compliance perspective. (See the Privacy Commissioner's handling of the complaints against CIBC). Furthermore, as noted in this article both American and Canadian law enforcement and other agencies can access what you put on Office 365 and they don't need to do tell you about it. 

With Microsoft's push to the cloud, it will be interesting to "consumer outsourcing" works out. For example, how will the masses react to an outage? Will grade school teachers accept the excuse that the "cloud ate my homework"? Or will we be surprised at how adept people are to the new realities of the cloud? For example, people nowadays have camera free parties to manage the risk of the 24-7 surveillance world we live in due to social networks. Practically, consumers can use free open source alternatives to keep their personal documents offline and use Office 365 for things that they don't consider sensitive or to meet the demands of employers/customers and some of these providers are keenly working to make their offerings interact with Office 365. However, the problem is that if they are used to using Excel offline to keep their budgets are they really going to switch to the open source alternative? I guess we will wait and see what happens. 

No comments: