Microsoft Planner is rolling out on Office 365

Microsoft Planner — the work management complement to Office 365 — was made available as a preview in December 2015, but has entered ‘general availability’, meaning it will become immediately accessible to users of eligible subscription plans. In Office 365, it will appear as another tile in the Office 365 tools (see the leftmost tile in the second row, below).
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Microsoft Planner is a task-centric work management solution, despite the ‘project management’ terminology other reviewers are using. The orientation of the tools is to support teams and team members tracking tasks and coordinating task work through social communications.
Planner is one of several task-oriented solutions that Microsoft is working to integrate, including Wunderlist and Microsoft Project. Conceptually, this means that users will be able to manage personal tasks (in Wunderlist), team work (in Planner), and to manage project planning (in Microsoft Project), and for these to be integrated in sensible ways. So for example, it might be helpful if I could see my work-related tasks, perhaps created and annotated in Planner, in a mobile Wunderlist app. Or to analyze the cost implications for a shift in personnel in a Planner project within the portfolio of company projects managed in Microsoft Project. That’s one part of the company’s long-range vision for Planner and the other tools manipulating task information. But it is going to be a long time before all the kinks and use cases are worked out for that grand vision. And at any rate, ultimately Planner will have to stand on its own, based on how good of a work management tool it is.
And that assessment poses another issue. If Planner requires Office 365 in order to use it — or even experiment with it — many prospective users will simply never jump through the hoops to try it out. I have raised that very issue with Microsoft representatives this year, as I was being briefed on the product. My suggestion is that Microsoft should create a standalone version of planner — at least a web app, if not mobile apps — so that an individual, team, or company could do an apples-to-apples comparison with Asana, Trello, or Wrike, and not the apples-to-oranges comparison with the umpty-ump boxes in that Office image, above. Also, that is the best way for Planner’s functionality to improve — in head-to-head competition — and not as a captive work management ‘capability’ locked into Office 365, relying on its integration with Office email, Outlook, Groups, and other tools.
The following is a condensation of the review of Planner from the in-process 2016 Work Management Narrative (much delayed), that I am authoring.
Planner is based on the well-known kanban-style, ‘board’ architectural model, and three modes of boards are supported at present: user-defined ‘buckets’, task assignment to members, and progress. As shown in the screenshot below, there is a left hand column where I have selected a plan, in this case Work Management Narrative, and I chose to display that plan as Buckets, not by Progress or Assigned to. In the ‘research tools’ bucket there is a single task, ‘research Microsoft Planner’, which shows icons indicating 0 of 2 subtasks have been completed, that there are comments, and the task has been assigned to Stowe Boyd. The half moon icon indicates that the task is in progress, a third state for tasks: unstarted, in progress, and completed.
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Clicking on ‘write method section’ expands that task (or, in the usual terminology, turns over the ‘card’), as we see in the screenshot below. At the foot we see a stream of comments — the one with a white background was entered in an associated discussion, about which more later. There are a variety of other attributes, showing a rich task model, however, lacking support for some common social communications like ‘@mentions’.
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What’s not clear from this zoom into Planner is that the ‘work management narrative’ plan corresponds to a Office 365 group of the same name. Groups support group-oriented communications, but those are not accessed in the Planner section of Office 365.
I believe that Planner users will find the need to return to Outlook to conduct conversations about their projects annoying, as opposed to the more normal model of an in-context — or best, in-project — activity stream. I bet that Microsoft will hear this as a frequent suggestion for additional Planner functionality. However, I often operate in multiple windows on the same project workspace, and so, having a conversation window and a Planner board view open at the same time is really not very different, and may be workable for many. Note also that if Microsoft builds a standalone version of Planner there will be no Outlook to lean upon, so an in-context activity stream or chat model would be best.
Office 365 users are likely using the spectrum of features — Outlook, OneDrive, Office apps, Groups, OneNote, and Planner — and therefore will rapidly habituate to transiting the many loosely integrated components, and will likely adapt to a model of use involving a lot of moving around. 
By itself, Planner would only be considered a team task management tool, not a true work management tool, since it lacks activity streams, @mentions, and other baseline social communications. However, that’s a red herring, since Planner — at present — is never without Groups and Outlook, and can’t be separated from them.

At present, I think the initial implementation of charts is a better indicator of where Planner is headed. In the screenshot below I’ve pulled an example from the Microsoft website (since my examples aren’t rich enough), and this shows the ease of quickly grasping the status of a Planner ‘document’ through a dashboard view.
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I also want to give a nod to the designers of Planner for including the three state model for task status: not started, in progress, and completed. The in-progress state is incredibly powerful, and after using it in some tools, I now chafe whenever confronted with a solution that lacks it.
Planner is an obvious choice for those already committed to Office 365 as a baseline for work productivity. However its current level of integration with Office 365 services — like Outlook, OneDrive, and OneNote — falls short of work management nirvana. Still, it’s early days, and when I reviewed it the product was only in a ‘First Use’ release phase.
I can imagine that within a very short time frame the myriad hooks that could make Planner a first-class member of the Office 365 suite will begin to emerge. I wager that creating tasks from email, or in the comments of a Groups or OneDrive comments — as just some of the most obvious examples — will be implemented within the next few releases, or sooner.
 

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 seeks to make Office 365 more useful with Delve

Delve for Office 365 claims to find useful message threads, contacts and documents before you have to go searching for them. It’s not groundbreaking stuff, but it’s another sign that Microsoft is willing to keep up and keep its customer base.

Summertime blues: Microsoft insiders brace for cuts

It’s that time of year for Microsoft to slim down. This year, expect bigger than normal cuts, given that the software giant’s $7.2 billion buyout of Nokia brought with it 25,000 new mouths to feed.

Microsoft could be making Office 365 a great place to analyze data

Microsoft is working some impressive new features into Power BI, its Excel add-on for Office 365 that’s focused on making analytics easier. Among the capabilities announced on Wednesday were natural-language search and visualizations, and new and improved maps.