On Piloting Apptix’s Microsoft hosted services, or, The Borg vs. Gumby

Our first experience as a pilot Apptix customer

Every now and again, SheTech and Company is asked to evaluate products and services from various providers for one reason or another. We have run a live test of Microsoft’s Business Productivity Online Suite (BPOS), for example, and are currently running a beta test of their Office 365. We ran an extensive field test of a conferencing service with an eye toward an affiliate relationship, and so on…

Not long ago, then, we were asked to participate in–and subsequently blog about–another pilot test of hosted Microsoft Products, this time by way of certified partner provider Apptix. Other companies are being partnered with other providers, so this is a test of the partner providers as much as it is of the Microsoft Online services.

We hesitated, largely because we had already been through the BPOS test and had less than ideal results. Largely due to the fact that we’re a mixed shop (PCs and Macs and the occasional Linux foray), we had a bad time with full integration, and not everyone enjoyed SharePoint–it can be rather cumbersome if you’re accustomed to Web 2.0-type interfaces. However, especially when we were told that Office 2011 for Mac supports the integration, we decided to give it a go.

DISCLAIMER: I began life in the UNIX world, so I confess to a love-hate relationship with Microsoft products. Just sayin’.

Here’s the thing: Microsoft wishes it were a Microsoft world. To some extent it is, but it’s by no means universal. Although our technical and strategy teams are PC users, our creative team still relies on Mac–and for good reason: Mac still rocks for multimedia design and production, and plays nicely with Linux. The thing that Microsoft fails to take into account over and over again is that some people will NEVER drink their particular brew. We have hope that Office 2011 actually makes nice with Mac for that reason, and that it’s willing to behave less like the Borg (inflexibly taking over the universe) and more like Gumby (infinitely flexible).

Call me a cynic. However, I’m also a pragmatist: many (okay, most) of our clients use PCs loaded up with the standard MS operating systems and office productivity software. It really is worthwhile to look at solutions such as what Apptix provides, because these certified providers may help make life easier for some of those clients–administration, security concerns, support, managed services, etc.

The integration piece is certainly yummy when it works properly, and I happen to be a BIG fan of SharePoint when it’s properly used, administered and governed (those are big, important variables!). Certified partner providers not only help with provisioning, they can also be on hand help with the strategy and governance process at the head end of the decision process. Having participated in strategic conversations around SharePoint on several occasions now, on both sides of the conversation, I can tell you that an outside perspective and that deep expertise is hugely helpful.

Our particular partner provider, Apptix, seems to have a few issues they’re apparently still ironing out, including documentation and the provisioning process itself. It took intervention from the Microsoft partner support folks to get it properly provisioned–I was told that it wasn’t configured correctly the first time around, but nobody seems to be clear on whether it was something I did during the setup process (I’m the ops nerd on the SheTech side–or at least I play one on TV) or something on Apptix’s side. Happily, their support was great in terms of the personal contact piece (props to Bryan Colcord for that piece). They were responsive and quick and very helpful.

Assuming they want provisioning to be as much self-service as possible, their users may encounter frustration with the purely operational aspects of the process in its current state, and the level of live support they offer doesn’t scale well.

Our initial feedback to them about the pilot was pretty harsh: there were severe usability issues with documentation (not to mention some pretty glaring mechanical and grammatical errors); the dashboard interface they chose is a bit cumbersome and confusing.

The Very Good News is that our feedback gets added to their arsenal to drive major upgrades to the site, including a much better online knowledgebase component (YAY!) and corrections to the content (props to Apptix’s Greg Matranga for his rather humorous response!). The jury is still out on the dashboard, but hopefully someone who has a good handle on usability will take the matter in hand. It’s a critical component in the strategic picture for a company like Apptix.

* * *

Being a product or service reseller can be incredibly challenging (I speak from personal experience!). Although you may be able to start with a great arsenal of tools, it often means that you start with an out-of-the-box suite that doesn’t precisely fit your business demands, or that you must develop your own UI around unadorned functionality. Tests like the one in which we’re participating help drive the direction of those tools, and we’re glad to see that our experience is helping refine Apptix’s product and service offerings. It’s a difficult undertaking, partnering with a core provider like Microsoft. In the end, though, usability and appropriateness of the offerings must take precedence over other considerations (an overzealous approach to branding, for example), even if it means going to some extra expense. The concept of “spending a little money to make a lot of money” is sometimes difficult to embrace, but those who succeed are the ones who do that part right. While Apptix may have some challenges, I think they’re on the way to making it right. I’ll be very interested to see the upgrades as they start happening–we’ve been promised an advance look at upgraded and expanded documentation, for example (a particular specialty of ours), and I can’t wait to see what they do with it!

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