Mobile Surface Love 'em or hate em, it can’t be ignored that Microsoft has been making some big splashes lately.  I was reading some Office blogs the other day, and it caused me to start to reflect on how the software giant has been putting out some pretty cool stuff.  I’ll be the first to admit, they can definitely miss, and miss hard.  I mean seriously, do you remember Windows Me, or Vista?  How about Microsoft Bob?  I do (how can I forget, the trauma burned into my memory).  But, in a perfect world these bumps are lessons learned the hard way that help shape the future of their vision and level they put into their products.  I believe they try to listen to customers (far from perfect) and use that feedback to give the community at large what it wants.  Looking out at what’s out there today, Microsoft really has some pretty cool tools and technology, and a lot of it is free.  In years past thoughts of TerraServer and Microsoft PixelSense (Surface 1.0 table style) come to mind.  But cool doesn’t necessarily have to be “drop your jaw eye popping coooool”, but to me it’s something that is truly improves someone’s daily life or job. 

Having said all of that, let me share some Microsoft tech that impresses me.  These aren’t in any particular order of importance or awesomeness:

OneNote for the Masses (and Office Online while we’re at it)

imageI don’t know about you, but at C5 Insight OneNote has become an almost indispensible tool for capturing and collaborating on notes and ideas.  OneNote has been around for awhile (since Office 2003), but there have been some recent changes that I believe elevate it to a whole other level.  If you haven’t heard of it (or have but not checked it out), now you have no excuses:

  1. It’s free.  Who doesn’t love free?  Go to and sign in with a Live ID and you’re ready to go. 
  2. It’s available from anywhere on any device.  Name one other app that’s available and syncs across Web, Apple (Mac, iPhone and iPad), Windows (OS, Windows Store, Windows Phone), Android and Amazon devices.  You can have your notebooks in your SharePoint on-premise, Office 365 SharePoint Online sites, OneDrive or OneDrive for Business. 
  3. Can you say collaboration?  OneNote was built for the purpose of allowing multiple users collect, store and share various types of content in a freeform format very easily.  Co-authoring in Word has its purpose (and works really well in 2013), but a lot of times you don’t need a formal document, and just need to quickly brainstorm with more than 10 people at the same time.  Right? 
  4. It’s great for Education.  Over the past year, Microsoft has made it extremely easy for students and education faculty to get Office 365 for free.  Once you’re setup, you can take advantage of the OneNote Class Notebook Creator app.  Using Office 365 and OneDrive for Business for storage, it gives a platform for teachers to provide a managed collaboration space to share assignments, handouts and allow students to capture notes.  You can read more here and get other links to useful resources for educators and OneNote.
    Welcome to the OneNote Class Notebook Creator

  5. Great Experience on Surface Pro 3.  Click the stylus, and OneNote automatically opens to a new page ready for notes.  You can’t get much easier. 
  6. Business or Pleasure.  It can be used to brainstorm a database or process diagram, OR your grocery list so you don’t forget and get in trouble with the better half because you lost that hand-written list from 1984 at home sitting on the counter. 
  7. Has some nice plugins.  You can “clip to OneNote” from your browser, or email your notebook at (once setup) without anything extra.  But you can get some add-ons for Onenote by going to the Featured Apps page.  One that’s not listed that is pretty sweet (and free) is Onetastic.  Of course you can write your own with the OneNote API if you’re so inclined. 
  8. Office Online.  Oh yea, speaking of free, you can use Word, Excel and PowerPoint in the cloud for free.  Just sign in to with a Live ID. 

Office Lens

Right along with OneNote, Office Lens started as a Windows Phone app but now is integrated into Windows 8 and iOS OneNote apps that helps to capture, trim and enhance images of whiteboards and documents.  Microsoft says it’s like a OneNote scanner for your pocket.  Say you have a single page document in print, but you want to have it electronically in OneNote and searchable with OCR.  Or you just spent an hour brainstorming with a team on a whiteboard and need the image.  You take the picture, but Office Lens crops and transforms the image, and in whiteboard mode converts it to a high-contrast view to make the board writing much easier to see.  Nice!   There are modes for Whiteboard, Document and Photo.  You can read more on the latest updates here, where it will convert document images into actual Word documents, and whiteboard images to PowerPoint files! 

On a side note, if you’re a Windows Phone user I’d recommend you check out another Microsoft app called Office Remote.  It allows your phone to connect via bluetooth of your PC, and be your Office document remote tool, especially useful for controlling PowerPoint Presentations (advance, see your slide notes on your phone). 

Sway (Preview)

imagePart of the Office family, I got in on the preview for Sway before it was publicly available, and I really like it.  What is it exactly?  In their own words:

“Office Sway: Re-imagine how your ideas come to life.” 

Sway is a blank canvas to create and share a web-based expression of your ideas optimized for your phone or web browser.  What I love is that on one platform, you can express your ideas with text, images and videos in an easy to create but web-friendly format.  Take a trip recently you want write a story and share images and videos?  You can read the entire launch announcement here.  On December 17th 2014, it was announced that the preview is no longer on a wait list, and is open to the public for business.  Not only that, it already had some nice updates. 

Go to, sign up (again, with Live ID) and check it out!  I’ve got a couple in the works, my favorite so far is sharing my experience in the life cycle of the Monarch butterfly that I got to experience first hand (photography images copyright Doug Allen). 

copyright Doug Allen copyright Doug Allen

Excel 2013 Business Intelligence Euphoria

imageI just can’t enough of this.  I demo this and tell everyone who cares about it every chance I get.  By itself, Excel 2013 can do a lot in the form of pivot tables, charts and graphs to make some pretty visuals.  But what about when you have larger data sources from multiple locations (Excel files, a SharePoint list or SQL database)?  You would have to turn to Access, or if you’re lucky enough to have a data warehouse / BI staff, you would go bake them some cookies and ask nicely for an SSRS report or new SQL cube.  Ewww right?  Well have no fear, Excel 2013 has your back sorry Excel 2010 users, you’re not really getting the love)!  Enter the new set of “Power” free add-ins for Excel 2013 that bridge this gap, and provide the tools for the non-uber technical of us to turn our complicated data into super cool-looking visuals.  The evolution is really about moving away from flat static charts, tables and reports, and making it interactive.  You create the data model as needed and high level visualizations, but the consumer of the information can slice and dice the data however they see it.  They include:

  • Power Query
    • Get data from a wide variety of resources
  • Power Pivot
    • Create a relational data model and refine your data
  • Power View
    • Start to visualize that data model in an interactive dashboard of tables, charts, graphs, maps and animated bubble charts
  • Power Map
    • Stretch those visualizations to a 3-D map, creating animated fly throughs, complete with annotations
  • Power BI
    • Take that data model to the fullest potential by publishing that Excel data model in Office 365.  Get visualizations dynamically on the fly by asking it human-style language questions

There is WAY too much cool stuff in here to give it due credit, so to get a good feel for all of these features and what they can do, I’d highly recommend you go through the free Excel 2013 Power BI Fundamentals course on Microsoft Virtual Academy.  I wrote a quick simplistic example of merging related table data using Power Pivot in this blog.  Oh, and if you have Salesforce, Microsoft now is including 2 connectors in Excel 2013 to import Salesforce Objects and Reports. 

UPDATE!  Only a few days after I completed writing this, there was a new post on the Power BI blog announcing a new feature - Power BI Dashboards.  While still in preview, this looks to shape up to be a powerful new feature in the Power BI arsenal of functionality. 

Office Mix

imageJazz up that plain boring PowerPoint slide deck with polls, quizzes, videos and other apps with Office Mix.  I see this as really helpful for teachers, educators, trainers, or anyone that wants to produce a more media-rich learning platform for consumers.  You can annotate your voice over a presentation or with video, even while you write or draw on the slides.  So it’s just a much more interactive learning experience than just flat slides and a laser pointer.  You can read the whole release announcement here.

Skype Translator Preview

Now Skype users can opt-in to the preview program for Skype Translator (currently providing Spanish and English) but 40+ languages coming.  Via a live skype call, people who speak different languages can have almost real-time conversations with their speech translated for them on the fly and kept in a on-screen transcript.  You can sign up here

Project Siena (Beta)

imageThis is app development for the person who doesn’t write code.  Currently in beta (beta 3 I think currently), Project Siena is a Windows 8 app that basically allows those of us who don’t write code to make a Windows app!  You had me at no code.  While currently light on the output part in my opinion, it’s got a ton of flexibility and data sources even at this stage (Office 365, Bing, handwriting and speech, SharePoint on-premise or Online, RSS feeds, REST web services, XML, Excel, etc, etc, and etc).  The Project Siena team provides a good array of examples and tutorials and decent documentation on the provided functions.   Here are some links to get you started:

Microsoft Project Siena

Free Training at the Microsoft Virtual Academy

No one knows everything (shocker I know), and there’s always been a time when you didn’t know something that now you’re an expert in.  While Microsoft doesn’t offer all training for free, they do have a site called the Virtual Academy more geared at folks starting out (young or old) to get a leg out, to give you that initial push or rundown of a topic to help you over a hump whether for knowledge or certification.    Over time I had ear marked one or two courses that looked interesting, then I started poking around the site more.  There’s a lot of really good stuff there!  Not only that, but they’re not just 30 minutes either.  They can range from 1 hour that to over 13 hours.  Here are a few I liked:

Check it out, you just might learn something!

Office 365

If you’re reading this blog (and made it this far) I would be surprised if you haven’t heard of Office 365.  Providing various different subscriptions with different services, Microsoft’s hosted platform continues to grow in momentum and subscribed users.  In a recent a recent article in Windows IT Pro, they estimated there are now 29.76 million paid subscribers accounting for a 2.5 billion run rate that Microsoft announced at this year’s WPC conference, which amounts to 1.32 million new subscribers per month.  Wow!  If you bought any of the lower end 7 or 8” Windows 8 tablets this season, it likely came with 1 year of Office 365 personal so you can get Office 2013 plus some OneDrive for Business storage.  Starting back in 2012, Microsoft started to merge their Dynamics CRM business to the Office 365 platform, and new services are being added routinely.  You can get a la carte options like Project Online (hosted Project Server) and Power BI, and emerging technologies like Delve (formerly Oslo) with Office Graph, Yammer, and others.  Microsoft has really made it clear that they will be putting their time, money and efforts in their cloud technologies before on-premise tools, but those won’t go away any time soon either.  Here’s a quick link to the plan price list. 

If you want to stay up with the latest updates and releases, you can follow the Office blog here.

In Closing

Obviously this is not a comprehensive list, but seem to bubble to the top for me recently.  Windows Phones are cool but the lack of apps… SmartGlass for my Xbox One is pretty slick.  Windows 8.1 is growing on me, and the last few months it seems has been the season of the sub-$150 Windows 8 tablet.  If you made it this far, congratulations!  You get a gold sticker image.  I hope you learned something new, or heard about something you haven’t before.  Use your holiday vacation to do a deep dive into your favorite cool tool, and see what can be accomplished!  If you think there are others, please drop a comment. 

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