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365 in China: an ‘Upside Down’ UX

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Creating a nimble, adaptive Cloud-based offering in the form of Microsoft 365 has been essential to the recent continued success of Microsoft. Microsoft spearheaded personal and corporate computing in the 90s, but looked out of touch 10 to 15 years ago, as its hardware and software businesses slowed down. Enter the smartphone era, the rise of Satya Nadella to leadership, and the pivot to on-the-go computing across devices – i.e. the Cloud (read more on Microsoft’s Cloud journey here).

Nowadays, Microsoft 365 is the ‘productivity platform’ that combines products like Outlook, OneDrive and Teams. If you are one of the 28.75 or so million MAUs on the platform, you’ll know that its products do show an amazing ease of use and reliability. Microsoft has a knack for figuring exactly what kinds of average work a company needs to do; that know-how is based on deep familiarity with those needs, after 45+ years of drawing on customer data. 

Microsoft’s mastery of the Cloud-based consumer office tools space continues to grow. Making such products interoperable around the world – with functionality working in sync for users, no matter where there are – is key to their dominance.

And yet. To borrow a term from the popular TV show Stranger Things, Microsoft 365 has one major ‘Upside Down’ side: its functionality within China.  Like parallel universe in that show, Microsoft 365 in China is a Cloud space where many things are the same, yet many are not. China has its own internet rules and standards, yet many companies (both Chinese and international) still share tools like 365 to collaborate. The different standards and different available tools and UX can make life confusing.

When it comes to using Microsoft 365 in China, there’s a special set of differences that – if not addressed carefully at the start – can negatively impact how companies collaborate and grow together.  Not wanting to let our workflow get pulled into the Upside Down, in this blog post we’ll delve into the differences between using 365 both inside and outside of China, shedding light on the nuances that businesses and users need to be aware of.

Understanding the Landscape: Microsoft 365 Outside China

Let’s start by scanning the Microsoft 365 experience outside China, where users benefit from the interoperability of productivity tools like Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint, and collaboration engines like Teams. Microsoft’s global network of data centers is distributed strategically to ensure optimal performance across its main markets; laws surrounding data governance are different around the world, and so the company has a complex task when it comes to ensuring both a great UX and local compliance. This is key to understanding why different experiences apply to users inside China. A concept here is ‘tenancy’. What is a tenancy, according to the company?

According to official documentation, the company operates over 200 data centers across the planet, ensuring that the majority of global users enjoy reliable and fast access to their data. When it comes to China, fewer centers serve a smaller community of users, yet this remains important – both for companies entering China from outside and local companies reaching out into the world. 

For everyone involved however, compliance with the Chinese environment means a distinct set of challenges around functionality. The most important fact is that, while remaining super useful, the main impact is a reduction in functionality. This will apply to collaborating teams in different tenancies: if Company A is registered in Germany, and partner company B is operating in China, then Chinese restrictions will apply. The European partner in the collaboration will have to work within those parameters. 

21Vianet and the Great Firewall: Microsoft 365 Inside China

For some major players from the West, the challenges of working inside the Middle Kingdom proved too much over time. Microsoft, which has long recognized the importance of the Chinese market, has partnered with 21Vianet (check them out here) as its Chinese licensee to give Chinese users access to its flagship products. 21Vianet operates data centers compliant with Chinese regulations, which addresses data sovereignty concerns raised by the Chinese government.

When users face Microsoft 365 products inside China, they are using a service mediated exclusively by 21Vianet in compliance with the government and the standards of the so-called Great Firewall. This means that certain functionalities are not available. The main list is as follows: live events, webinars, audio conferencing, and other functionalities based on streaming and syncing media simultaneously are off the table.

Chat, file sharing and screen sharing remain for users. 

What else affects the performance of the suite?

Performance and Accessibility: Tailoring Microsoft 365 for China

In terms of performance, Microsoft 365 users in China may experience variations compared to fellow users outside, even when using the tools that remain on the table. This is primarily due to the need for data to traverse China’s huge, complex internet infrastructure, which can result in increased latency. However, Microsoft and 21Vianet have invested in optimizing the performance within China, with slowdowns reduced over time. 

Despite the limitations, the partnership appears to be evolving in a positive way: in April last year, the Cloud-based collaboration tool Teams was launched, in a sure sign that the demand from users inside China – and among their international partners – is there. 

21Vianet and Microsoft are aware of, and creating specific responses to the main concerns around the current User Experience. Three of the main categories are:

  • Data latency: As described above, using partner centers in China’s massive network can produce latency issues, especially when working across the international divide.
  • Software updates: Microsoft is famous for super-regular updates. As all local updates must come through the local partner, this can mean slower changes to crucial protections like cybersecurity defence. All the more important to stay up-to-date with the threat environment, with 21Vianet’s own communications and security and other service providers.
  • Accessibility: Microsoft products have decades of penetration into offices in the West. Working across the East/West divide means (for users) navigating a lack of familiarity with how cutting edge Microsoft tools work now. Effective language and customer support, and education and outreach are key. This is especially true when Windows Autopilot and Google Play services are restricted from use, inhibiting the speed at which users can connect new devices and synchronize their devices.

Security and Compliance: A Shared Responsibility

What does all of the above mean in practice?

That there is no major reason for international and/or local companies to avoid Microsoft 365 in China, but that support, information and education are all necessary for stakeholders.

This is essential for the Access problem mentioned above – and also for the Security headache.  

While Microsoft and 21Vianet handle the main infrastructure of the 365 products, businesses using the platform are responsible for securing their own data and managing access. This shared responsibility model is a normal situation, but in China it can mean some special challenges as companies try to figure out the security and education options open to them. 

In China, where regulatory scrutiny can be heightened, a steady and responsible approach becomes even more crucial for businesses aiming to maintain a secure environment.

Otherwise both productivity and security risk taking an uncomfortable trip to the Upside Down!