Windows 10 forced upgrades from another angle – email

Really annoyed at Microsoft, on behalf of a Windows 7-using relative. They received an email on their Outlook.com address (formerly hotmail) on 30th June saying that they will lose access to some or all of their messages as of 30th June because they’re using Windows Live Mail 2012, and server upgrades require them to immediately upgrade to Windows 10.
Thing is, they only just understand what they have now. And they’re in the middle of a larger life project, for which cutting off email access RIGHT NOW with no more than SAME-DAY notice would effectively kill the project stone-dead and potentially leave them in a *terrible* financial mess.

Sure, as the email from MS points out, they *could* continue to collect emails from the web client until the upgrade has been completed. But that’s *another* thing to learn at a time when they’re least able to put time or mental power in to processing that kind of change.

From a technical perspective it really annoys me that a simple email service needs sufficient upgrades both to server and OS/client just to deliver electronic mail, for which standards for doing this sufficiently securely and efficiently have existed for *years* now, and seem to be followed by just about every other service provider on the planet. Even Apple’s iCloud service I *think* has eventually got over itself and eventually allowed standard IMAP login from non-Apple clients.

We’ll work out a solution – but this whole thing leaves a very bitter taste in the meantime, especially for those of us who just need to coach our users to get things done, because they don’t have the time and brain-space to keep pace with *everything* going on in tech world and why it’s shaped that way.

We in tech world would do well to put the users and tasks first for a change.

Rocky road ahead: Google Cloud Print (BETA)

Background

An organisation whose IT team I know well has moved a lot of their services across to various Google platforms.  The move has been considered largely positive by users and management alike, not least because it has significantly reduced the management and infrastructure burdens on their organisation, and has genuinely improved IT-related life in many key ways.

The move therefore continues apace.  One problem identified by the organisation is that there seems little sense in paying c.£500-£1000 per head for a computer setup that spends the vast majority of its time being used (legitimately) as a web-browser.  The various Chromebooks undergoing trial have been a huge success given their planned usage, but with one common problem:  Users in 2013/14 STILL need to be able to print.

[Enter Google Cloud Print (BETA), Stage Left]

Image

“No problem!” says Google, “Here’s Cloud Print!”.  There are two flavours of documentation presented, in “consumer” and “IT Administrator” guises, both essentially saying (and ultimately describing) the same thing.

For those who haven’t come across it yet – the idea is that you buy a “Google Cloud Print Enabled” printer, give it 24/7 power and Internet, and you can print to it from anywhere, using your Google account in various creative ways.  Specifically for my friend, it gives print access to Chromebooks and other portable devices for which no other good printing solutions already exist.  Essentially if it can run Google Chrome, it can print.  And the concept is really neat.

Forecast: Storms ahead

There’s a thunderstorm in some clouds however, and this service is no exception.  I’ve heard a few common complaints in various pub-conversations, and even investigated a few when I’ve experienced them myself within my own Google Apps domains:

  • First off, some printers, once correctly hooked-up and signed-in, simply stop receiving Cloud Print jobs.  Often, turning them off and back on, and waiting up to a day, solves it.  But sometimes the log-jam becomes permanent.  Printing via local network or direct USB connection works fine from machines that can do it, but all Cloud Print jobs get stuck, forever destined to be “In Progress”.
  • The Cloud Print Management interface looks surprisingly mature for a Beta product, except that it gives very little information about what is really happening.  Once a job inevitably gets stuck, there’s no option to do anything other than to wait, or delete it.  It can’t be diverted to another printer.
  • More worrying, the status-codes are too general.  Sure, I don’t need a verbose running commentary when things are working well, nor perhaps when a job is “in progress”.  But when things get stuck, I’d like more information about the problem than the job simply being flagged “Error”.
  • Google provides no technical support for Cloud Print – so beyond what you can find in documentation provided either by Google or your printer manufacturer, you’re on your own.  No support. No apparent feedback mechanism even.
  • If something does go wrong, often the only way to fix it is to delete the printer on Cloud Print, and re-assign it.  This might be fine for single home users, but for anyone looking to share a printer between two or more people, this gets complicated, because you then need to share the newly-set up printer again with those who need it.
  • Then there’s the pervading security concern.  Where are those jobs going when travelling between the browser and the printer, and in what format?  Are they encrypted?  Are the documents scanned for content by Google or anyone else on the way?

Google comes close to a partial-answer in the FAQ/support page, with the following statements:

Documents you send to print are your personal information and are kept strictly confidential. Google does not access the documents you print for any purpose other than to improve printing.

For home users, that might be good enough.  At least there’s *something* in writing.  But for a business I’d suggest it’s too vague.  Let’s leave that alone for a moment and look at troubleshooting; how do I get a print queue working again, if I’m using a cloud ready printer?  Again, Google has a partial answer:

If you’re using a cloud ready printer…

Okay, done that, and checked that.  Still nothing.  Now what?

Conclusions?

Some reading this might say I’m being too harsh about what is *really* only a beta product.  And they might be right, if the product was released within the context of a beta product essentially being marketed or released only to technically-interested (and competent) people for evaluation, feedback and improvement before a wider release.  What’s happened instead is that some printer manufacturers have jumped onto the product by offering support (good), but without making it clear that this is a BETA service which may change, break or be taken offline at any time, without warning (bad. Very bad).

Even the business run-down provided by Google doesn’t mention its BETA status, and gives no clue as to how support or (useful) feedback can be found, nor even submitted.

So, is this going to be like so many other recent Google BETA products to get half a momentum going and then suddenly be killed? Or will it actually become more like Gmail and mature into a properly supported service, with SLA’s available to those who need them?  Only time will tell, but meanwhile based on what I know now, I’m finding it very hard to recommend deploying Google Cloud Print in my own organisations in its present form…

Some thoughts on using Google Docs

Following on from yesterday’s thoughts on using a Chromebook for an extended period, I thought it worth updating it (coming soon!), as well as jotting down some thoughts about Google Docs.  This got so big (and is relevant to all platforms, not just the Chromebook) that for the sake of clarity I decided to hive it off as a separate post.

Game-changing features

I think the main thing I’ve had to learn in terms of my expectation of what Google Docs can do, is to consider them as functions of a large and very advanced database.  From this perspective, the vague consideration of “wow – how do they even do that?” becomes much easier to resolve and put to rest.  With that in mind, I can now take a deep breath and present some major gains I’ve found with Google Docs as opposed to working in traditional desktop productivity apps like MS Office.

Never hit “Save” (or ctrl-S) again

This is a big one.  I type out a sentence, and then pause to look up to the toolbar… the word “Saving…” presents itself for a few seconds, before eventually changing to “All changes saved in Drive”. In theory, this means I can go into a document, type some stuff, then just navigate away from it in the knowledge that the changes were saved without my even having to worry about it.  Compared with MS Office, where it’s quite normal to get completely sucked-in to writing that important document then have it crash when fine-tuning the formatting and then find you didn’t manually save that last 3 hours of work, even the Autosave functionality often doesn’t keep up with important edits.  The Google Way™ seems so much better, and has saved many a draft.

Always available, on any computer in the world…

…provided that it has an Internet connection and a modern web browser.  This has massive implications for the freedom of users to roam the planet as they need and still have access to the information that’s important to them.  Obviously this doesn’t negate the need for backup of truly valuable data – but does act as a less-admin-intensive solution than providing a full roaming Windows/Mac roaming network account with all the security and software licensing hassles that creates.

Collaboration

It’s now routine for my boss and I to dump a load of notes into a Document, or run through entries on a spreadsheet, then have both of us view and edit the same document at the same time.  While we remain online and inside the document(s), we can each see who is doing what and where – even where the cursor is for each user.  This helps us greatly in documenting expenses, working through tricky wording of contracts, manuals, specifications and other basic project management tasks.  This feature alone, working across documents, spreadsheets and even presentations, has changed our working lives for the better.

Word processing

Generally, for any document created in Google Docs itself, everything pretty much works as expected – at least from a simple “type up some notes, edit then, make them look vaguely presentable, and print/email it” perspective.
That said, some foibles have been found that have stepped in the way of my making a more complete switch to Google Docs full-time, and relying on MS Office:

  • Previewing of MS Office documents does indeed (mostly) work, but Google Docs’ more simple headings, formatting and layout options mean that document fidelity with formal reports tends to suffer.
    • Sometimes inserted graphics disappear, or are rendered very badly, or appear in the wrong place with text wrapping mangled in the process.
    • Appendices and other numbered/customised headings tend to get lost – sometimes changing the implied meaning and flow of the incoming report.
    • To get around these issues, I tend to ask those reporting to us to submit (both final and draft) reports to me either as email body text (for informal reports), or as PDF’s for more formal work.
  • Page layouts that preview well on-screen can end up with very different pagination, especially when printing to A4, or rendering to PDF.
  • Working with headers and footers is basic, but in fairness does allow insertion of tables, images etc for fine control over layout of logos, titles, author details, page numbers etc.
  • While I’m pleased to see that footnotes work, it’s not a full referencing system that can log and tabulate the source of each reference – again this makes full academic and some reporting use-cases awkward, and calls for migration to more powerful desktop software.
  • Table of Contents can be inserted, taking and automatically updating its entries from headings used throughout the document.  Good basic stuff, but:
    • No page numbers alongside the links.
    • No obvious control over which heading classes are included, nor over the specific formatting of the table entry.
    • Headings cannot be formatted with numbering, in the way that MS Word or other word-processing apps handle.  (Collaborative) Drafting of formal proposals, reports or academic writing can be done on Google Docs, but really formal documents are best having the final text copy/pasted into MS Word or a more advanced desktop word processing or page layout tool of your choice.
    • Table formatting is quite flexible, but not as many available line styles or formatting options as MS Word.
      • Also, can only move cell boundaries when they are visible, eg. when they have a border thickness greater than 0pt.
  • Printing and output
    • Page size is set to US Letter by default. This can be changed to any other supported paper size – A4 for me, please!
    • Equations entered through the Equation tool end up inconsistently placed and pixellated on both PDF and printed output.
    • Documents can be downloaded (or shared) as PDF
      • An example of the PDF output, combining these and yesterdays’ posts, is here:  SamsungChromebook303Cusability (2))
      • Useful for sending out fixed versions of a document files as a reference.
      • The PDF rendering engine can have some strange results, notably with changes to pagination.  Stray blank pages get inserted, and some placement changes made for the onscreen page preview end up looking different on paper.
      • A 20-page report (such as this one, according to the page count in the footers) on-screen ends up coming out as a PDF with 22 or more pages, depending on how and where simple page-breaks have been used.
      • Interestingly, automatically-generated page counts remain correct regardless of whether the document is viewed in the Docs editor, or as a PDF.
      • These are the kind of inconsistencies that most users I know find absolutely maddening for formal work – and a crucial limitation for users to be informed of. It’s like using a camera that takes a photo of the most beautiful mountain range in the world, at sunset, and when you download the photo to your home computer you find it actually gives you a photo of a discarded needle on a wet East London street-corner.
    • Documents can also be downloaded in common MS Office and other (more open) file formats.

Spreadsheets

My needs for spreadsheets tend to fall into one of two categories:

  1. Simple line-entries and basic summaries thereof, for things like expenses, inventory-lists and the like.  This kind of use is so easy to cater for that I’ve yet to find any flaws – and the extra collaboration and availability of the files tends to win over the bulk of a desktop application and opening an actual file from a disk.
  2. Complex mathematical data import, analysis and charting, with templates for print output of charts and tables  to be included in other documents.  Such work tends to involve complex and obscure cell functions, and often (in Excel) some customised VBA code.  Such documents have previewed in Google Docs with reasonable fidelity, but there’s no way I’d expect anything other than MS Excel to understand the file, let alone work with it in any meaninful way or timeline.

Presentations

Rather than using presentations in teaching, I tend to use more of a show-and-tell approach, or even use a Google Doc (word processor) as a virtual blackboard to help explain what’s going on.  That said, when I want a simple pack of slides to summarise the points made, or to outline the plan for a day,
I’ve not played with the Presentations tool much beyond this, mostly because I expect problems even getting Powerpoint files to open and play out correctly on another copy of MS Powerpoint – let alone transferring them to another app such as Google Presentations.