Microsoft’s Flexible Workspace Initiative, Google Chrome, Chromebox, and Ice Cream Sandwich

As we head into the middle of 2011, Microsoft is moving quickly with plans to flesh out its on-premises server solutions while quickly revving the cloud-based alternatives that may one day be the company’s core products. Microsoft’s competitors aren’t sitting still either: Google announced key initiatives at its Google I/O Conference this year.

TechEd 2011

While Microsoft hosts and participates in various important IT-related conferences of its own throughout the year, none is as important as TechEd, held this year in Atlanta. As always, there were various product announcements at the show, and some are certainly worth mentioning.

But I’d like to highlight the start of a new Microsoft initiative that will be familiar to any of you that are aware of, and potentially taking advantage of, a previous strategy from the company called the optimized desktop.

For the uninitiated, the optimized desktop is essentially a formalization, or integration, of various Microsoft software solutions with the goal of creating the ultimate desktop PC, regardless of the needs of your users. It’s all based around Windows 7 Enterprise, because that version of the OS includes features—such as DirectAccess and BranchCache compatibility, federated search, BitLocker and BitLocker To Go, and AppLocker—that aren’t available in the lower-tier versions. Throw in a ton of desktop management and deployment tools, like those in the Microsoft Desktop Optimization Pack (MDOP), and a modern version of Internet Explorer, and you’ve got a party.

The optimized desktop makes sense, but it’s been kicking around for four years now, and as Microsoft sources told me at the show, the world is changing. Microsoft felt it needed to address the emerging needs of a highly mobile and diverse workforce in which employees often work at home, on the road, or on the go.

Microsoft’s new initiative, called flexible workspace, seeks to meet this need and the more general notion of the consumerization of IT. The scenarios addressed by the flexible desktop are solid and reflect real-world needs. These include:

Anywhere connectivity. Thanks to DirectAccess, users can have seamless connectivity to their work-based resources without the complexity or unreliability of a VPN.

Phone. Microsoft’s new smart phone platform, Windows Phone, includes a complete SharePoint client with offline access and mobile versions of various Office applications, giving users nearly the same access to their work-related content on the phone as they get from a PC.

Multiple devices. Users are turning to mobile devices, including non-Windows devices such as iPads and Android handsets. Depending on the device type, there are various ways in which they can access work resources on the go. These include VDI experiences, such as those offered by Citrix, which provide a remote version of the user’s full desktop. Those with Windows devices have more options, thanks to solutions like Application Virtualization (App-V), folder redirection, roaming user profiles, and the like.

Centralized device management. The next version of Microsoft’s management server, System Center Configuration Manager 2012, will include support for managing both Windows- and non-Windows devices, the latter through the devices’ Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) compatibility (common to iPhone, iPad, Android, and many others). This is an exciting capability that should enable users to use the devices they prefer but in a more secure and controllable way of which IT will approve.

Unlike the optimized desktop, I think,the flexible workspace is easier to understand up front. But like its predecessor, flexible workspace requires some pretty serious on-premise infrastructure. Yes, it’s infrastructure that Microsoft’s corporate customers are likely to have on hand, and that’s just fine.

But I think this concept really takes off when a coming generation of cloud-based products and services opens up the workspace to businesses of all sizes. That will come: It’s hard not to imagine a future version of Windows Intune that brings these capabilities to the cloud, perhaps even in a decentralized way that would appeal to much smaller companies.

More from TechEd 2011 next month.

Google Chrome OS, Chromebook, and Chromebox

At its annual developer confab, Google I/O, the software giant unveiled several initiatives that will directly affect consumers and business users, as well as Microsoft. That’s because Google’s increasingly aggressive strategy is putting it in direct competition with the software giant in virtually all of its key markets. A case in point: Google Chrome, the web browser, has morphed into a general-purpose OS for PCs, notebooks, and other devices. It will be generally available by the time you read this, or shortly thereafter.

Chrome, of course, has been a shining success story for Google. Since releasing the first version of the browser in late 2008, Google has maintained the product’s number one differentiator (performance) while enhancing it in dramatic ways. Usage, too, has skyrocketed: One year ago, Google claimed that Chrome had over 70 million active users. Today, it’s over 160 million.

Google also pushes Chrome ahead very quickly, a fact that clearly inspired Microsoft’s Internet Explorer team to speed up development. But Chrome development is off-the-rails fast: Google delivers a new version of Chrome every six weeks, so while it was only at version 4 a year ago, it’s at version 12 today.

With its web-centric worldview, it’s not surprising, perhaps, that Google has used Chrome as the basis for its web-based, general-purpose OS, Chrome OS, that will ship with new hardware starting in June 2011. (Well, it’s somewhat surprising, since Google’s Android OS is quickly expanding beyond the smart phone and can now be used in general-purpose tablet-type computing devices as well. More on this below.)

Since its limited beta release in late 2010, Chrome OS has improved in interesting and useful ways. Designed to be used online, Chrome OS originally had some connectivity limitations in that it couldn’t be used to do much if the computer wasn’t online. So now Google has added offline capabilities to key services—like Gmail, Google Calendar, and Google Docs, its Microsoft Office alternative. And third parties that make Chrome “apps”—specially made web apps—can do so as well. (And many do, especially games.)

Related to these offline features is a set of new panels and UIs that help users do more with the machine. In the beta version of Chrome, there was no formal file browser, for example, or obvious way to move photos from a camera, interact with MP3 music files, or play locally stored movies. These issues have all been solved, and, in a uniquely “Googley” way, they’ve been implemented with a decided online bent. You can now download pictures from a camera, for example, and upload them to Google’s Picasa service or any third party that adopts Chrome’s extensibility APIs. Ditto for documents and other file types.

If you can accept the fact that a simple, often-connected Chrome OS–based device makes sense when compared to an expensive, complex, but far more full-featured traditional PC running Windows, you may also be interested to know that a variety of PC makers are selling Chrome OS-based notebooks (called Chromebooks) and Chrome OS-based “Chromeboxes” as well. These machines are low price ($349 and up at retail), with a standard set of functionality including 8-second boot time from a dead stop, instant resume, and killer battery life (6.5 to 8 hours on the first-gen machines).

Even more intriguingly, they’ll be made available for per-user subscription pricing to businesses, government, and educational institutions for what appears to be reasonable terms: $20 per month per user for educational and governmental institutions, and $28 per month per user for businesses.

But this isn’t just a box: It’s what Google calls “hardware and software packaged together as a service”; so what this gets you is a Chromebook but also a central (web-based) management console from which you can manage devices, users, apps, and Group Policy. For a modern workforce working on the web, this could be a viable option. While I imagine most traditional IT shops are shuddering at the relatively primitive nature of this solution, there’s potential for cost savings. And let’s face it: This will improve quickly and dramatically over time.

Google Android in 2011

Google’s Android OS for smart phones, and now tablet computing devices, is an absolute sensation, the number one selling smart phone OS in the US and around the world, and the mobile platform most analysts feel will dominate for years to come. Google claims that it’s activating over 400,000 Android devices every day. As of this writing, there are over 100 million activated Android devices worldwide.

While Android’s success is easily seen in these numbers, one might wonder why Android is so successful given that Google’s decision to leave the platform open has created a tech world version of the Wild West, with a variety of devices each running some random Android version, many of which will never be updated to more modern features via OS upgrades. Tech wonks call this “fragmentation,” and those of us who back more tightly-controlled systems like Apple’s iPhone (or to a lesser degree, Windows Phone), point to this issue as perhaps the single biggest problem with Android.

Google hasn’t helped matters by arbitrarily introducing further Android fragmentation of its own with the quickie release of Android 3.0 in early 2011. This version of Android, also called Honeycomb, was the first to be designed specifically for tablet-type computing devices—those that compete with Apple’s iPad—and at the time, Google said it had no plans to port any of Honeycomb’s unique features to Android smart phones.

That’s finally changing, and Google is addressing the original fragmentation issue as well. It will keep Android open, so its partners are free to do what they will. But Google is starting a consortium of important Android hardware partners and wireless carriers that promise to keep updating their devices with new Android OS versions for at least 18 months after purchase. The goal is to help Android users feel like the device they purchase will remain supported for the duration of their wireless contract and not strand them on older Android versions, as is now commonly the case.

As for the Android OS itself, Google will roll Honeycomb and other new features back into the core Android OS in a future release, annoyingly code-named Ice Cream Sandwich (and most likely to be named Android OS 4.0), due in September or October 2011. This Android OS will ship for both phones and tablets, and will include a new UI, better multitasking, a new launcher, and richer widgets, among other changes.

Will this be enough to satisfy complaints and keep Android in the driver’s seat in the mobile industry? Yes, I think so. Google is doing a lot of work to ensure that Android 4-based apps look and work equally well on smart phones and tablets, which is quite a feat given the screen size and processing power differences. It will be interesting to see whether Apple announces similar plans for iOS (iPhone + iPad) later this year.
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