Microsoft’s new budget Lumias are all about the services

Microsoft has unveiled a couple new handsets, the Lumia 640 and 640 XL, at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. The phones themselves are pretty low-priced for their decent specifications, but what’s particularly interesting about them is the degree to which they’re delivery devices for Microsoft’s services.

Both the 5-inch Lumia 640 and the 5.7-inch Lumia 640 XL, which cost from €139 ($155) and €189 respectively, come bundled with the [company]Microsoft[/company] Office apps and a year’s subscription to Office 365 that can be used across the phone itself as well as one PC or Mac and one tablet. That includes a terabyte of OneDrive storage and 60 Skype World minutes per month.

Bearing in mind that the same bundle of services usually costs €69/$69 per year, that’s a pretty sweet deal, and it may tempt quite a few budget phone buyers into using Microsoft’s subscription services.

What’s more, Microsoft also announced a “Universal Foldable Keyboard” – a fairly thin Bluetooth affair – that will work with not only Windows devices but also iOS and Android devices. Microsoft has been putting out some decent Office apps for those rival platforms of late, and the keyboard is just one more way for it to keep users of almost any device thinking of the Microsoft brand and heading for its services.

Sure, the company didn’t unveil any new flagships on Monday – these will probably appear closer to the release of Windows 10 – but it did demonstrate how its mobile hardware and software strategies are coming together nicely as the Nokia handsets acquisition shrinks in the rear view mirror.

Here are the specs for those new Lumias, by the way: The 640 and 640 XL are both based on a 1.2 quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon processor and a gig of RAM. The XL has a 3,000mAh battery as opposed to the smaller phone’s 2,500mAh affair, and a beefier camera too at 13 megapixels versus eight megapixels. Both devices have a dual-SIM option.

The 640 will cost €139 for the 3G version and €159 4G version, and will ship in April. The 640 XL will cost €189 for the 3G version and €219 for the 4G version, and will appear first in March.

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Microsoft Office can now save files to Apple’s iCloud Drive

Microsoft is really serious about enabling its services to run on all devices and work with other companies’ products.

The latest example: The Office app for iPhones and iPads can now save files to Apple’s relatively new cloud storage service, iCloud Drive, along with other cloud services providers, including Box, Google Drive, and any other service that decides to enable integration with Microsoft Office.

In the updated Microsoft Office app, the locations menu will let you open, edit, and save documents stored with the service of your choice. It’s not perfect — for instance, certain text files stored in iCloud will be read-only. Previously, the file picker in the Word, Excel, and Powerpoint apps only could display files stored in Microsoft OneDrive, and in a update last November, Dropbox.

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Microsoft also announced that Office can now be integrated into other companies’ enterprise applications, such as Box, Salesforce, and Citrix.

Microsoft still has a tricky tightrope to walk between recommending and selling its own services while still giving users and business users the flexibility to use the tools they prefer. It also puts companies like Box into an odd arrangement where they are both competing with Microsoft’s products while also collaborating with the Redmond giant. Now that a lot of companies have their own sync-and-storage product, Box and Dropbox want to turn into platform companies, which runs counter to Microsoft’s aims. But for the time being, the Office app can open Box files, and later this year, Office Online will be able to be opened in the Box app.

It’s also a bit of a defensive move to claim the interoperability mantle for mobile productivity — last week Apple opened the beta of its free web-based iWork suite to Windows users, but Apple’s probably not adding OneDrive integration. Google’s web-based work suite only works with files saved on Google Drive.

The update adding support for iCloud and other cloud service providers is available from the iTunes App Store today. Microsoft says its “hard at work” adding the same features to the Office apps for Windows and Android.

Microsoft’s cross-platform Office push includes revamped Outlook

If you’re a fan of Microsoft services and you have an iOS or Android device, today’s your lucky day. The company has taken the wraps off a bunch of updates and, in some cases, new releases.

First up, Android tablets. Late last year Microsoft released preview versions of its Office apps – Word, Excel and PowerPoint – for Google’s larger-screened mobile devices, and now it’s removed the “preview” label. All these productivity apps are now available for free download in their fully-fledged forms, as is OneNote for Android.

For those with Android tablets running on Intel processors, Microsoft said in a Thursday blog post that a native implementation of its apps would be out for those “within a quarter.”

Microsoft has also released a new Outlook app for iOS and a preview version of Outlook for Android. There’s already a more basic Outlook.com app for Android, but this new version also incorporates calendaring, contacts and OneDrive file-handling functionality, as well as new “customizable swipes and actions.”

The new Outlook app actually represents an impressively swift wrangling of Accompli, the email/calendar app that Microsoft bought late last year. As Outlook GM and former Accompli CEO Javier Soltero wrote in a separate post, the intention now is to “continue rapidly delivering new features and functionality” in the app.

Workflow in new iOS Outlook app

Workflow in new iOS Outlook app

Microsoft throws down the gauntlet in business intelligence

[company]Microsoft[/company] is not content to let Excel define the company’s reputation among the world’s data analysts. That’s the message the company sent on Tuesday when it announced that its PowerBI product is now free. According to a company executive, the move could expand Microsoft’s reach in the business intelligence space by 10 times.

If you’re familiar with PowerBI, you might understand why Microsoft is pitching this as such a big deal. It’s a self-service data analysis tool that’s based on natural language queries and advanced visualization options. It already offers live connections to a handful of popular cloud services, such as [company]Salesforce.com[/company], [company]Marketo[/company] and GitHub. It’s delivered as a cloud service, although there’s a downloadable tool that lets users work with data on their laptops and publish the reports to a cloud dashboard.

James Phillips, Microsoft’s general manager for business intelligence, said the company has already had tens of thousands of organizations sign up for PowerBI since it became available in February 2014, and that CEO Satya Nadella opens up a PowerBI dashboard every morning to track certain metrics.

A screenshot from a sample PowerBI dashboard.

A screenshot from a sample PowerBI dashboard.

And Microsoft is giving it away — well, most of it. The preview version of the cloud service now available is free and those features will remain free when it hits general availability status. At that point, however, there will also be a “pro” tier that costs $9.99 per user per month and features more storage, as well as more support for streaming data and collaboration.

But on the whole, Phillips said, “We are eliminating any piece of friction that we can possibly find [between PowerBI and potential users].”

This isn’t free software for the sake of free software, though. Nadella might be making a lot of celebrated, if not surprising, choices around open source software, but he’s not in the business of altruism. No, the rationale behind making PowerBI free almost certainly has something to do with stealing business away from Microsoft’s neighbor on the other side of Lake Washington, Seattle-based [company]Tableau Software[/company].

Phillips said the business intelligence market is presently in its third wave. The first wave was technical and database-centric. The second wave was about self service, defined first by Excel and, over the past few years, by Tableau’s eponymous software. The third wave, he said, takes self service a step further in terms of ease of use and all but eliminates the need for individual employees to track down IT before they can get something done.

The natural language interface, using funding data from Crunchbase.

The natural language interface, using funding data from Crunchbase.

IBM’s Watson Analytics service, Phillips said, is about the only other “third wave” product available. I recently spent some time experimenting with the Watson Analytics preview, and was fairly impressed. Based on a quick test run of a preview version of PowerBI, I would say both products have their advantages over the other.

But IBM — a relative non-entity in the world of self-service software — is not Microsoft’s target. Nor, presumably, is analytics newcomer Salesforce.com. All of these companies, as well as a handful of other vendors that exist to sell business intelligence software, want a piece of the self-service analytics market that Tableau currently owns. Tableau’s revenues have been skyrocketing for the past couple years, and it’s on pace to hit a billion-dollar run rate in just over a year.

“I have never ever met a Tableau user who was not also a Microsoft Excel user,” Phillips said.

That might be true, but it also means Microsoft has been leaving money on the table by not offering anything akin to Tableau’s graphic interface and focus on visualizations. Presumably, it’s those Tableau users, and lots of other folks for whom Tableau (even its free Tableau Public version) is too complex, that Microsoft hopes it can reach with PowerBI. Tableau is trying to reach them, too.

“We think this really does 10x or more the size of the addressable business intelligence market,” Phillips said.

A former Microsoft executive told me that the company initially viewed Tableau as a partner and was careful not to cannibalize its business. Microsoft stuck to selling SharePoint and enterprise-wide SQL Server deals, while Tableau dealt in individual and departmental visualization deals. However, he noted, the new positioning of PowerBI does seem like a change in that strategy.

Analyzing data with more controls.

Analyzing data with more controls.

Ultimately, Microsoft’s vision is to use PowerBI as a gateway to other products within Microsoft’s data business, which Phillips characterized the the company’s fastest-growing segment. PowerBI can already connect to data sources such as Hadoop and SQL Server (and, in the case of the latter, can analyze data without transporting it), and eventually Microsoft wants to incorporate capabilities from its newly launched Azure Machine Learning service and the R statistical computing expertise it’s about to acquire, he said.

“I came to Microsoft largely because Satya convinced me that the company was all in behind data,” Phillips said. For every byte that customers store in a Microsoft product, he added, “we’ll help you wring … every drop of value out of that data.”

Joseph Sirosh, Microsoft’s corporate vice president for machine learning, will be speaking about this broader vision and the promise of easier-to-use machine learning at our Structure Data conference in March.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella.

Given all of its assets, it’s not too difficult to see how the new, Nadella-led Microsoft could become a leader in an emerging data market that spans such a wide ranges of infrastructure and application software. Reports surfaced earlier this week, in fact, that Microsoft is readying its internal big data system, Cosmos, to be offered as a cloud service. And selling more data products could help Microsoft compete with another Seattle-based rival — [company]Amazon[/company] Web Services — in a cloud computing business where the company has much more at stake than it does selling business intelligence software.

If it were just selling virtual servers and storage on its Azure platform, Microsoft would likely never sniff market leader AWS in terms of users or revenue. But having good data products in place will boost subscription revenues, which count toward the cloud bottom line, and could give users an excuse to rent infrastructure from Microsoft, too.

Update: This post was updated at 10:15 a.m. to include additional information from a former Microsoft employee.

Goodbye, Google Enterprise; hello, Google for Work

The Google rebranding is meant to advance the notion that users use the same tools at home and on the job. But another factor could be that Microsoft still reigns supreme in “enterprise” accounts.