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Brett Nordquist (Customer Experience Engineer)

Rethinking SaaS

Written on October 25, 2019 by Brett Nordquist
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I had an experience with Office 365 that's made me reconsider how I feel about the SaaS (software as a service) model. When Microsoft began offering Office as a subscription, I jumped at the opportunity. The idea of paying a reasonable monthly fee in exchange for the latest version and features seemed like a great deal.

Office 365 has become an indispensable tool in my workflow. I use Excel nearly every day, and Word and PowerPoint a few times each month. Microsoft was smart to bundle a full 1TB of OneDrive storage for each subscriber which was the final nudge I needed to move away from Dropbox. Microsoft strongly encourages saving Office 365 documents to OneDrive which is helpful most of the time. More on that later.

Problems Begin

As I mentioned, one of the draws to SaaS is that I could upgrade to the newest versions without paying extra. A couple of months ago, I decided to upgrade to the latest version of Office. I logged into the Office 365 portal and started the installation process. Everything seemed to go well. At least initially.

The first problem that surfaced was an error message I'd receive when I tried to save documents to OneDrive. I assumed the issue could be traced back to a network or OneDrive outage, so I began saving documents to a local drive. A few days later, Excel began asking me to log into my Office 365 account at launch. Normally Office should save my login credentials and only for them one time. The login nag screen would show up regardless of what application I used.

The problems only escalated from there. Within a few days, I couldn't log in to my Office account from Excel, Word or PowerPoint. I tried logging in and out of OneDrive. I reset my password from the Office portal. I was in the middle of creating a PowerPoint presentation for a client and became so desperate that I performed a fresh install of Office, hoping that might fix my issues.

It all felt a little absurd. I had paid Microsoft for a year of Office 365. Even going back over 20 years, I'd never had issues with any version of Office that kept me from using it. And now, when I needed it most, Office refused to work because it couldn't recognize my login credentials? You bet I was upset.

Support to the Rescue

The final straw that made me take action was when Office began nagging me to activate itself. I didn't think about it much until I realized Microsoft had disabled features within the Office applications. Microsoft calls this "Reduced Functionality" mode and it essentially turns the Office applications into viewers which are unable to create or edit documents. In simple terms, Microsoft assumes you are stealing their software.

I'd had enough at this point. I had a presentation to prepare and didn't have time for more troubleshooting. So I tabled a call to support until after my presentation. In the meantime, I imported my presentation into Google Docs, and backed up all the documents I had in OneDrive to an external USB drive.

Once my presentation was finished, I decided to call Microsoft Support. I should also mention here that I took to Twitter with some of the error messages I'd received and the Office Twitter account provided a few solutions to try. None of them worked, but they also provided a phone number to support, which I could not find on the Office portal.

One call and three hours later, I was back in business with Office 365. The technicians traced the problem back to a corrupt profile that Office was having trouble accessing. The solution was fairly drastic and not one I would have attempted without a technician on the line. I had to perform a "Reset PC" that reinstalls Windows while keeping all your applications and files intact.

Rethinking SaaS

My recent experience with Office 365 has forced me to reflect on my expectations for software I don't own. Paying a reasonable monthly or annual fee for access to the latest features does not mean a lot if that software refuses to work when I need it. I'm also rethinking my reliance on cloud storage. It's all wonderful when it works, but issues outside my control brought my work to a halt during a critical week. This change is as much philosophical as practical.

I spent my first couple of years as a sales consultant at Puget Systems, which coincided at the time Adobe was aggressively moving their customer base from Creative Suite to Creative Cloud. Many customers I talked to were not happy about those changes and were not shy about sharing their concerns. I have a little more compassion for them today.

The reality is that most software companies have moved or will move to SaaS. I recently tried to upgrade to the latest version of 1Password, which I paid for years ago. But the only way to use their latest version was to move to their subscription model. The same thing has happened with iOS applications I use to access RSS and listen to podcasts. It feels inevitable that it won't be long before I'm paying a monthly fee for each software application I run today.

Well, except WinRAR. :-)

Tags: Microsoft Office, SaaS, Cloud
Misha Engel

When you have your $ bills in your hand it's your money, when you bring it to a bank it isn't yours anymore (a debit/credit card is money as a service).
The only way forward is to support the opensource community.

Posted on 2019-10-26 12:00:46
Randy Fellmy

While you're rethinking, consider how much can be done with free and open source software. Not everything, unfortunately... Linux still seems to be for people willing to spend more time maintaining, configuring and cajoling their computers than using them (especially if you do audio -- and yes, I understand it's not all Linux's "fault," but the end result is the same). Yet, consider... how much of what MS Office does can't be done with Libre Office? If you have access to a server, NextCloud can let you keep control of your own data. KeePass is a robust password manager, and you never have to worry about who might have access to your encryption key; KeeWeb uses the same database format and lets you access a KeePass database stored in the cloud (including WebDav, which means it can use NextCloud).

I wish I could warm to Gimp... someday, maybe, they'll get to where I can dump my copy of PaintShop Pro X5 (the last version you could install from DVD without challenge/response activation).

Posted on 2019-10-26 17:17:54
Misha Engel

South Korea just dumped MS and Europe is soon to follow due to security reasons, price and a lot more security reasons.
The convinience of MS, Apple, Google, AWS, US-govement, etc... services comes at the price of them owning you (including your data).
"1984" was kids play, compared to current day reality.

Posted on 2019-10-26 20:25:42

I'm going to research my options and I'll checkout the open source programs you mentioned. Thank you!

Posted on 2019-10-29 00:57:18

SaaS-style updates will always end up "inconveniencing" some percentage of the beneficiaries of such service (if we may so be called). I'm sorry to hear you were recently added to our unlucky cohort.

The Creative Cloud malarkey still irks me six years on (I'm getting old!) and I haven't even used the software since its introduction. I still can't agree with the Stallmanesque notion that proprietary software is fundamentally unethical, but I sure do find myself growing closer to that position as I age (and as I ever-more-frequently run into problematic silent and/or unescapable updates).

fwiw: KeePass is very solid and usable. I dropped LastPass for it and didn't have any issues.

Posted on 2019-10-28 12:53:24

I'll check out KeePass. I've heard good things about it. I purchased 1Password, and it's worked well on my phone, but hasn't been very smooth on Windows lately.

Posted on 2019-10-29 00:58:43
Jan Dorniak

One thing Autodesk did well when they move Eagle CAD to a SaaS model: once you log in and your licence is verified you can work offline for two weeks or so. And with their rapid development rate I would be more than happy to pay for their subscription had I used it personally.

Posted on 2019-10-30 09:09:06
Jan Dorniak

Although this is probably specific to electronics as we still sometimes have to work in places without internet access.

Posted on 2019-10-30 09:11:40