This Week’s Technology News – 10th November 2014


Microsoft’s wants government at the table for “arms race” privacy talks
Speaking at Harvard Law School, Brad Smith, Microsoft’s general counsel, described the increasing battle between technology companies and governments over data access and user privacy as unworkable, along with the need for integrated discussions from different government departments. “Ultimately there are only two ways to better protect peoples privacy: stronger technology or better laws,” he said.  Smith confirmed that a new consensus had to be sought to balance public safety and personal privacy – hence the spate of courtroom battles in Europe and the US to protect their position (as last reported in our blog on 8th August).

A reminder that Microsoft’s first sea change was in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks in September 2001 when Microsoft and other internet companies and telecoms organisations agreed to voluntarily share data with US law agencies.   Microsoft adopted the principle that if it was legally obligated to do something it would comply, but otherwise it would not and that if its Government desired greater powers that had to be agreed by Congress.

The second game changer was the leaking of classified information about widespread surveillance and data collection by the US government, from disaffected NSA worker Edward Snowden. The impact of this was an immense loss of trust of technology companies by enterprise customers, with heightened concerns in Europe, Brazil and Japan.  Microsoft’s own survey found a 10-15% overall drop in trust from customers.

Besides strengthening encryption, Microsoft’s counter was to bolster its legal position around its enterprise client’s data:  “We said, if the US government came and served a subpoena on us, seeking the email or other records of an enterprise customer, we would resist that, we would go to court, we would argue to a federal judge that that subpoena ought to be served on the customer, not on us. Second, we said that if the data in question were stored exclusively outside the United States, we would go to court and challenge the extraterritorial reach,” Smith said.

Smith continued:  “One could understand a rule that would say, if you have an American citizen or resident, that is storing data in another place, one could imagine a public policy rationale that would enable the US government to serve a warrant. That stands in sharp contrast to the current position that the Department of Justice is taking in the lawsuit. They are basically saying, if the data center was built or is operated by an American company then they can reach anything inside. That really goes to the heart of sovereignty.”

US citizens might start to bristle if they thought about the long game.  For example, Chinese firm Alibaba is likely to go ahead and build a data centre in the US.  What then if the Chinese Government, Russian, Iranian or North Korean Government wanted to gain access to data stored in an offshore country?  How are those citizens’ rights protected, as it would no longer be by its own constitution and laws.

It is right for Microsoft to push this issue hard on the principle, as it goes right to the heart of the debate around safeguarding data, and on which our business rests.  But it is also about the policies and governance of that data along with compliance, to ensure end to end assurance and retain the trust of our business customers.


Microsoft changes direction with its Office strategy boosting BYOD in the process
For Microsoft, both Windows and Office have been the two big money makers for a long time. Despite the continued success of Microsoft Office, big changes are looming due to the rise of small, smart devices.

For many years, shareholders and consumers alike were demanding Office should also be available on devices like the iPad and Android tablets, as this is where the mobile market share was, in addition to Microsoft’s own tablets. This year Microsoft delivered the app, however users needed a paid Office 365 account to edit documents with no option the buy the app outright as with competitors’ alternatives.

Now Microsoft has changed their tune yet again, opening mobile Office for all.   Now users can download the free app and edit documents without either a one-time payment or a subscription charge. This marks a huge strategic change of direction for the Office team, once a premium, mobile consumers and workers alike can use best-of-class Office for free instead of look-a-likes.

In addition to a change in business direction for Microsoft, giving everyone free and easy access to Office on the go makes going BYOD a much simpler proposition. Now, no matter if a user comes in with an iPhone, iPad, or Android phone or tablet (Windows Phones already came with Office so were always easier to manage), you can now direct them, even automatically with an MDM platform, to download the free Office apps without the need to worry about subscription accounts or managing paid downloads.

Of course with employees even more likely than ever to be editing documents on their mobile device, the need for a coherent MDM policy to secure and contain the data becomes paramount.


Microsoft “catapaults” new technology to the visually impaired
Microsoft have announced a unique partnership with Guide Dogs UK charity and urban design group Future Cities Catapault to empower and offer independence to blind and partially sighted people in the UK. This has the potential to change the lives of over two million people in the UK alone.

Most successful projects have a personal connect which drives effort forwards. In this case it was a visually impaired Microsoft employee who cued the firm into collaborating on the pilot.  Microsoft acknowledges a lot of information comes from GPS and annotated maps in the Cloud, not just the lampposts on which the beacons sit.

The technology uses a headset that talks visually to the user with 3D sound conducted through bone conducting headphones ie. “parked cars and overhanging trees ahead” and clicking noises to confirm a desired route and assure the user they are staying on course.  The relayed information on location and navigation data is made via a smartphone (Windows or android) along a boosted route indoors or outdoors with wifi hotspots and bluetooth beacons.  It is like an intelligent Sat Nav for the walker enabling those affected to step out with increased confidence to safely navigate a town or city thoroughfare.

The spinoffs are two fold.  From an employment perspective, the potential for the visually impaired to seek employment and travel to work for the first time when they would not have done so before is huge. With 246 million people across the UK and US visually impaired and 65% out of work, this could change the landscape for accessing employers.   Secondly, the wider ramification of a near invisible technology could extend into an additional technology lifestyle assist, with realtime traffic information (“Your bus is running 10 minutes late”), to assistance in exploring cities or finding places.