Microsoft is back, but what can we expect in 2015?

MicrosoftMicrosoft will unveil Windows 10 next week, and the tech world will once again gravitate towards the company. It’s the company we love to hate. Great products? We haven’t seen much of that lately, though there were a few announcements and product releases in 2014. Blame it on the previous leadership if you will. But Satya Nadella is the man to watch in 2015.

In 2014 IT giant Microsoft announced its third CEO and this time it picked a person who was born outside the United States. Satya Nadella was elevated to the CEO post on Feb 4, 2014. He immediately got to work and made a lot of changes.

Nadella successfully transitioned Microsoft from a devices and services company to a platform and productivity company. Among the first products that Nadella announced was Office for iPad. Its Surface Pro 3 tablet sales doubled compared to a year ago. Microsoft’s Digital Assistant Cortana got good reviews. Windows Phone 8.1 put Microsoft back in the smart phone race. The Nokia brand was edged out and replaced by Lumia; many employees lost their jobs due to this merger. The Microsoft Lumia 830 showed the competition what Microsoft can do with smart phones, but the shortage of apps on Microsoft’s app store continues to be a damper. Microsoft also introduced Sway, its graphics rich, easy-to-use and affordable publishing environment.

Look out for Windows 10 (previewing next week), a new browser called Spartan, new versions of the Surface Pro tablet, a wrist assistant called Microsoft Band, and other great innovations from Microsoft in 2015.

Meanwhile, you may want to read this story I found on Business Insider.

 

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Are you self-learning like Satya Nadella?

Satya“I buy more books than I can finish. I sign up for more online courses than I can complete. I fundamentally believe that if you are not learning new things, you stop doing great and useful things. I’m a life-long learner”

Satya Nadella, CEO, Microsoft

I was thrilled to read the news about the appointment of Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. And I read this news  late at night, on my mobile phone, and again next morning in the newspaper. 

The thing about Nadella is that he is in a process of continual learning, always driving himself to learn new things. And that’s what keeps the mind sharp. So you should be a learner for life.

Today’s generation is lucky to have a plethora of learning resources at its disposal. And these are not limited to the confines of a library or classroom. There are plenty of free and paid online courses. Let me talk about my own experiences.

While  studying Digital Marketing at NIIT last year, I was often referred to certain videos on YouTube. In fact, I learned a great deal about Google Analytics on YouTube! I have to say that YouTube is one of the best online learning resources, that offers the shortest learning curve. On YouTube there are videos that teach you how to fix or build things. There are videos that show how to design websites, repair PCs, debug software, learn programming techniques, and there are numerous other topics ranging from photography & gardening to leadership & management.

Watch a 10 minute video on YouTube — or read a 200 page Dummies book to learn the same thing. What would you prefer?

While YouTube is a free resource, you shouldn’t dismiss paid resources, which have really good tutorials on a variety of subjects. A good one that I recently discovered is Lynda.com. For a flat monthly fee of $25 (approximately Rs 1,500), you get access to unlimited courses — all you can eat for a flat price. And the fee is settled through your credit card; you can cancel the charge from the next billing cycle. And Lynda.com has an app too, so you can log in using any device, from anywhere and pick up where you last stopped. I’m currently using Lynda.com to hone my WordPress skills. But I’ve also bookmarked courses on digital photography, photo & video editing — which I’ll complete sooner or later.

If you want industry recognized certification, try Skillsoft.com. They offer Cisco, Microsoft and other certifications. Read my interview with Skillsoft VP John Ambrose here.

Another good (free) resource for courses is Coursera.org. But I must forewarn you that they offer more academically-oriented courses from various universities. So if you want to brush up your statistics, calculus, engineering, language, history, chemistry etc, Coursera’s the place to learn online. However, they also offer courses for other topics such as songwriting, music production, Equine nutrition, gamification, decision-making, and courses in other diverse categories. The great thing about Coursera is that these courses come from reputed universities and are backed by certifications.

Also try out Khan Academy.

If you don’t have time for an online course and just want reference material that quickly explains a concept, then look up sites like About.com, Wikihow.com, eHow.com,  Howstuffworks.com and of course, the mother of them all — Wikipedia.org. And then, there are specialized sites like Dictionary.com, Thesaurus.com and Grammarly.com.

I haven’t talked about books so far, but these days you have plenty of resources for e-books online. Apart from Amazon.com (and the Kindles) you could also look up Project Gutenberg.

In these times when jobs are hard to come by, the best thing you could do for yourself, is to learn something new each day. Why wait for instructor-led training (offered by your company) when you can learn by yourself, at your own pace?

Go online and sign up now!

Indian entrepreneurs enthusiastic, yet cautious about Bitcoin

Interest in Digital Currencies like Bitcoin has been increasing. But the chances of its proliferation in trade remains a question, particularly in India, which has a highly regulated banking environment. Here’s why Bitcoin cannot be ignored.

In the early years of e-commerce, Indian consumers were wary of using their credit cards for online transactions. But with tighter regulations and security controls, consumer confidence improved, and online card transactions have increased. It was the same for Internet banking. Are we about to see history repeating itself with digital currencies such as Bitcoin?

bit-1It is estimated that there are 30,000 Bitcoins in India, with some 50 commercial establishments accepting payment in Bitcoins. These include shops, restaurants, bars, salons and other establishments. But it seems to be a stopgap arrangement, overshadowed by the fact that the Indian authorities could suddenly pull the shutters on digital currencies. In fact Bitcoin operators and exchanges had to suspend operations recently (See ‘Bitcoin in India’). Yet we observe that Bitcoin payment for online services such as Web Hosting is picking up. Globally, the number of transactions in Bitcoin per day has increased from 35,000 transactions in September 2012 to 55,000 per day in September 2013.

While Bitcoin is gradually gaining acceptance, it poses many questions: like the legitimacy of Bitcoin in the real world, as a currency for commercial transactions; about its potential for online transactions and for e-commerce; and about the risks and dangers posed due to misuse in the deep, dark Web of drug trade, money laundering, counterfeit documents, and other shady activities.

Bit-2And Bitcoin isn’t the only digital currency — it is estimated that there are about 50 such currencies worldwide, with unimaginative names like Litecoin, Ripple, Particlecoin, Peercoin, Namecoin, Lifecoin etc. In fact, we stumbled upon a desi version called LaxmiCoin, which is about to launch its mining operations (Laxmi is regarded as the Goddess of Wealth).

Bitcoin in India

In India, Bitcoin is in a state of anarchy, with no clear standing on whether Bitcoins (or other digital currencies) are legal or illegal. The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) recently issued a cautionary notice warning consumers about the potential financial, operational, legal, customer protection and security related risks of buying and trading in digital currencies. The Times of India reported that the Enforcement Directorate and Income Tax department took action against Bitcoin operators, causing others to suspend or close operations. Some operators have resumed operations, in the hope that lobbying by organized groups will legitimize trading in Bitcoin.

But Bitcoin cannot be ignored. Ever since its launch in 2009, its value soared to unprecedented levels. As of Jan 15, 2014 you’d need Rs 59,321 (1 US dollar = Rs 62) to buy a single Bitcoin. That value wildly fluctuates making Bitcoin a highly volatile currency and a risky proposition for investors. Online exchanges that accept real-world currency in exchange for Bitcoins, and Bitcoin operators that facilitate trading, are mushrooming on the Internet.

Since Bitcoin and other digital currencies bypass the central bank, it raises questions about how VAT and fees will be imposed during transactions, or how it will comply with the FEMA (Foreign Exchange Management Act) or other Acts and laws relating to Import-Export trade across borders.

While we wait for all these issues to be sorted out, there are many entrepreneurs in India who remain optimistic; investors are buying Bitcoin, perhaps like a hedge, hoping to cash in when the value soars further.

Bitcoins Alliance of  India

Meanwhile, a community of entrepreneurs in Bengaluru that call themselves the Bitcoins Alliance of India (BAI), had meet-ups to organize themselves, and to decide how they want to lobby for the acceptance and use of Bitcoin in the country. They want the government to recognize and legalize trading in Bitcoin.  BAI appointed the services of Nishith Desai Associates, a team of international Legal and Tax Counsellors, to look into the legality of Bitcoins in India.

In a note on the BAI website, this firm says: “Our Bitcoins Practice Group examined the issue from techno-legal perspective and have found that Bitcoins per se are not illegal in India. This is in consonance with international approach. US considers Bitcoins as a legitimate payment alternative. US Senate Home Land Security and Government Affairs Committee and the Senate Banking Committee consider that virtual currency has legitimate uses.”

I spoke to some Bitcoin enthusiasts for this story.

“There are about 50 establishments that are accepting Bitcoins in India. But Bitcoins should be seen as a long-term investment as they have high volatility,” said Sathvik Vishwanath, founder of CoinMonk, and a founding member of Bitcoins Alliance of India.

Advocate Nishith Desai recently told a group at a BAI meeting that “ordinary people” should not be trading in Bitcoin because of its high volatility and risky nature.

Vishwanath and a group of like-minded entrepreneurs want to be recognized, and to make it easier for people or establishments to accept Bitcoins in India.

Amit Nirgunarthy, an entrepreneur and Bitcoin enthusiast who is also one of the founding members of BAI said, “Indian entrepreneurs are more cautious about investing in Bitcoins, fearing that the RBI may suddenly declare them illegal.”

However, he was all praises for the technology behind Bitcoin saying it could potentially be used for trading stocks across borders. And because it has digital signatures, it can also be used for filing documents in courts. Nirgunarthy feels it is much easier to do transactions with Bitcoins than using Paypal.

A note on the BAI website highlights the advantages of Bitcoin as:

  1. It facilitates “financial inclusion” to the poor and unbanked population
  2.  Significantly reduces transaction costs
  3. Enables the growth, ease and security of both ecommerce and physical transactions

“India should encourage the mining industry [trade in digital currencies] because that will lead to the widespread trading in Bitcoins. Indian entrepreneurs will be able to export their goods in exchange for Bitcoins, that could later be exchanged for dollars. But we will need a legal framework in place for this,” said Nirgunarthy.

Is this Outlook? Look again!

Take a close look at the toolbar and you shall see the words “CRM” and “Microsoft CRM” and also “Track in CRM”.

Well that’s how the front-end for Microsoft’s CRM and ERP apps will look in the near future. I was at the Microsoft office (the building, not the app) in Gurgaon on the 11th of March, 2010 listening to half a dozen product specialists rattle off Microsoft’s immediate plans. It seems their customers are really at home with Excel  and Outlook. That’s why you will have an Outlook like front-end to Microsoft CRM. Can we also expect Excel to be a front-end for SAP? And will this work straight out of the box or will it require some kind of middleware?

Meanwhile Microsoft went ahead and launched Azure, its Cloud platform in India. It claims to have 3,500 applications created for that platform and it is also SaaS enabling its enterprise offerings such as SQL Server.

Final Years for the Desktop OS?

On my way to the Windows 7 launch conference I pondered over the future of the desktop OS. Yes, physical keyboards and mice will eventually be replaced by multi-touch and speech recognition interfaces. Motion- and gesture-based controls are also likely. But the thought that really intrigues me is the replacement of the desktop OS with something else, like say virtual desktops or Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI).

VDI is a desktop delivery model. The client desktop (OS, applications and user data) reside on a server in the cloud or in a data center—not on client devices. Desktop images are pushed to client devices, so it appears as if it’s all there on the PC, but in reality it’s at the backend.

Microsoft and Apple may have independent views on desktop virtualization, and may dismiss my wild thoughts on the future of the desktop OS. But let me corroborate these with some facts.

* Firstly, companies and employees are already benefiting from desktop virtualization. NIIT for instance, is using desktop virtualization at its education centers.
Says Pankaj Dikshit, General Manager, NIIT, “Being an IT training operation we face a major challenge, which is the dynamic nature of the environment. In the evening we may teach Java but the next morning it is Dot Net and later Oracle. I can’t have a PC or server that does all this. We need to quickly switch between environments. The other issue is that the environment is becoming invasive—students want to install applications, change the configuration and customize the desktop.”

Dikshit says virtualization lets him achieve all of this using a single solution. He says virtual images provide different environments on the fly. It also helps him manage the dynamic environment very efficiently.

Desktop virtualization is also a boon for mobile workers. It let’s them access their desktops from any location in the world, using any client device. It’s a blessing in disguise for companies who fear the risk of data loss due to stolen notebooks. Also, the data always remains on the organization’s servers and is always accessible, regardless of whether an employee leaves the organization or goes on vacation.

* Secondly, Microsoft itself is gearing up for VDI. Windows Server 2008 R2 has Hyper-V and System Center Virtual Machine Manager.

After virtualizing servers, Citrix and VMware are set to do the same for desktops with products like XenDesktop 4 and VMware View respectively.

* Thirdly, consider the cost advantage. Since the OS runs off the server, you aren’t paying for thousands of client licenses. Ditto for applications that also reside on the server. With VDI, one is spared the chore of upgrading OSes and applications every few years, on desktops. The recurring costs of hardware upgrades or client device refreshes, every three or four years, goes away too.

There is another threat to desktop OSes. The Web browser can perform many of the functions of an OS. But there are doubts whether it will succeed in OS-intensive tasks such as managing devices and computing resources.

I am sure CIOs are aware about all this, but the question is, will VDI replace the desktop OS? And has Windows (client) reached the end of the line?

Personally, I believe that the two will co-exist. VDIs will be suitable for certain corporate environments, while desktop clients will continue to be used, especially with home devices.

Backup your Outlook mail and contacts

Business email and contacts are precious assets in the corporate world. Yet most executives do not even think about backing up this important data. Yes, there are other alternatives to mail on the desktop. For instance, high-end mobile phones such as the iconic Blackberry, can be synched with email systems and receive Push mail. You could also store your email in the cloud with services like Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail, AOL and others. But this story is really for those who use POP3 email clients on a PC.

As a matter of policy one should always make backup copies of important data stored on the PC, and it includes email and address books. Viruses can play spoilsport; nobody escapes system crashes with data corruption. Of course, there are other reasons for backing up, for instance, you may want to transfer your downloaded messages and the address book to another device such as a laptop or smart phone.

There’s a compelling reason for backing up Outlook email too. Outlook data files have a file size limitation of 2GB. This limit can be increased through a registry tweak, although we don’t recommend it. So after a year or so of usage the message data files approach this file size limitation and Outlook starts complaining with warning messages. There’s a temporary workaround — the AutoArchive feature of Outlook. To configure and use it go to ‘Tools | Options’ and look within the ‘Other’ tab. But what happens when the archive file itself swells to a huge size? Then it’s time to consider making multiple archive files, perhaps one for each year.

This workshop is based on Microsoft Outlook 2003, but the concepts explained here are generally applicable to any other email client. Of course, exact storage locations of data files and file formats will differ, even among different versions of Microsoft Outlook. But the backup procedure is similar for other clients.

In this workshop we show different ways to backup Outlook email. Use the method that suits you. But before you jump in, it’s important to have a clear understanding about how Outlook email works, the data file formats, and management of data files.

Data file management

Outlook 2003 stores all email messages, contacts, calendars, notes, and tasks in .PST (Personal storage Table) data files. Older versions use the .OST format. Outlook Express uses .DBX files (one for each mail folder) and a .WAB file for address book data. In the case of Outlook 2003 you need to look for, and backup three crucial files: Outlook.pst, address.pst and archive.pst. But where are these files stored? By default these are stored in a folder named ‘Outlook’ that’s deep down in the ‘Documents and Settings’ folder.

One way to find the location of the data files is to use Windows Search. Click the Windows ‘Start’ button and select ‘Search’. In the search criteria box type ‘*.pst’. Within the search results window, widen the ‘In Folder’ column and you will see the full path in front of the data file. In our case it is: ‘C:\Documents and Settings\Administrator\Local Settings\Application Data\Microsoft\Outlook’. Whew!

Tip: Simplify the long route to this location by creating a shortcut link to this folder on the Windows Desktop.

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There are two other ways to find the location of the data files. To view the three Outlook data files from within Outlook, Click ‘File | Data File Management’. Widen the column titled ‘Filename’ by dragging its border to the right. Keep scrolling to the right by dragging the horizontal scroll button in the box and you’ll soon see the three Outlook data files named address.pst, archive.pst and Outlook.pst. Click ‘Open folder’ to see the location of these data files. To view the three Outlook data files from outside Outlook, use the ‘Mail’ utility in the Windows Control Panel.

Method-1: Copy the PST files

The simplest way to backup Outlook data files is to search for *.pst files. When these are listed in the search results window simply right-click on these and copy these to a USB pen drive using the ‘Send to’ option in the context menu. The limitation here is the capacity of the pen drive. If that’s the case then burn a DVD or CD with a copy of the PST files. Unless you use rewriteable optical media, you’d want to burn a CD/DVD only when porting mail from one PC to another.
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If you later want to restore the contacts or messages you’ll need to copy these from the backup medium to the very same location (same folder) from where they were earlier copied. We’ve already told you how to find the folder where the Outlook data files are stored.

Method-2: Import and Export
Most email clients have an Import/Export option, typically found in the ‘File’ menu. So messages and contacts can be transferred between email clients and also Web-based email using this option. The conduit here is a file in a standard or universally acceptable format. In this case it’s a .CSV (comma separated values) file. A CSV file stores data in a structured, tabular format. A line in the CSV file corresponds to one record or row in the table. And each field in the table is separated by a comma. A unique record corresponds to one person’s contact details or one email message. Each record comprises of fields, for instance, Name, Phone, Address, email—in the case of an address book.

1. From the Outlook ‘File’ menu select ‘Import and Export’. The Import/Export wizard appears. Select the option ‘Export to a file’ and click ‘Next’.


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2. Select the option ‘Comma separated values (DOS)’ and click ‘Next’.

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3. The Outlook message folder structure is now shown. If you want to export the address book, then select ‘Contacts’ otherwise select ‘Inbox’ to export all messages in Inbox and sub-folders.

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4. The name of the CSV export file and its default storage location are shown. At this point you may want to store the exported contacts or messages in another location/folder. Click the ‘Browse’ button and specify a new location (like the Desktop). Also notice that the default name of the export file is ‘Inbox.csv’. You can change this name to ‘Contacts.csv’ now, or rename it later. Click ‘Next’.

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5. The list of actions about to be performed is shown. Click ‘Finish’ to complete the task. Minimize Outlook and look for the CSV file in the specified location. You’ll notice that this file is associated with Excel. Double-click on it and view its contents. Do not save changes when exiting Excel. To make a backup, copy this CSV file to a pen drive or to another computer.

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ON THE OTHER COMPUTER

6. If you want to see your contacts or messages on another computer, first copy the respective CSV files to the desktop of the other computer. Then start Outlook and click ‘File | Import and Export’. Select the option ‘Import from another program or file’ and click ‘Next’.

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7. Select the option ‘Comma Separated Values (DOS)’ and click ‘Next’.

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8. You’ll be asked what action is to be taken in case of duplicate items. Select ‘do not import duplicate items’. Then specify the location (Desktop) where you copied the CSV file and click ‘Next’.

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9. The Outlook folder structure is shown. Depending on what you are importing select ‘Contacts’ or ‘Inbox’ as the destination folders and click ‘Next’.

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10. The list of actions about to be performed is shown. Click ‘Finish’ to complete the task.

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Method-3: Using third-party tools

We found a third-party tool called ABF Outlook Backup. The full version cost $40 (approx Rs 2,000). You can download a trial version from www.outlookbackup.com. This handy utility saves and restores all Outlook email messages and folders, contacts, calendar and journal entries, tasks, notes, RSS feeds, Outlook settings (with passwords), mail accounts, message rules, junk email lists, signatures—even Internet Explorer favorites. That’s a full and complete backup. A program wizard makes using this tool very straightforward. If depend heavily on Outlook for business communications, to schedule and plan meetings and appointments, or just to organize yourself, then this tool is highly recommended and well worth the price.

All messages, contacts and settings are saved in one backup file. This tool lets you backup directly to a pen drive, external hard drive or CD/DVD (with its built-in CD/DVD burner).

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Shut down Outlook before installing or using this tool. While installing ABF Outlook Backup you’ll be asked if you want to make a backup. Click ‘Next’.

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Specify what needs to be backed up. We suggest that you backup everything. Click ‘Next’.

The registered version offers the option of creating a self-extracting backup file. Otherwise you will need AFB Outlook Backup program when restoring from the backup file. As a security measure you can also add a password. Note the backup file name and its storage location (change it if necessary). Type a description for the backup that indicates when you took the backup or what was backed up. Click ‘Next’.

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A summary of the backup details is shown. Note the location of the backup file. Click ‘Next’ to start the backup. Depending on how many messages you have, the backup operation will take anywhere between 10 – 30 minutes. Once the backup is completed look for a .OB3 file in the My Documents folder, which is the default location. Copy this file to a CD/DVD for safe storage. If you want to restore all your email, contacts and settings then double-click on this file and specify what needs to be restored. The ABF Outlook Backup wizard will guide you through the restoration process. Be sure to close Outlook before attempting a restoration.

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–By Brian Pereira

The writer is a certified Microsoft Outlook Specialist (Office 2003).