Helping to move Office

Microsoft’s Office 12 may be months away from official release, but the software giant has high hopes for the desktop space leader — as Steven Sinofsky reveals

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By  Peter Branton Published  January 29, 2006

|~|Sinofsky-5body.jpg|~|Microsoft had been planning to install XML into Office applications for some time, Steven Sinofsky revealed. |~|With still anything up to 11 months to go before Office 12 ships, it is already attracting considerable interest in the IT analyst community. This is perhaps not surprising: Microsoft still owns more than 90% of the enterprise desktop space, its software is used by millions of developers, and Office is one of the biggest contributors to its bottom line. Moreover, any delay in releasing Office 12 would be a severe blow to the software giant, which is facing increased competition on a range of fronts and has kept users waiting for an unusually long time for new releases of some of its most popular products, such as the latest version of Windows Vista, which like Office 12, is scheduled to ship at some stage in the second-half of this year. So looking after development for the Office family can safely be described as one of the big-gest jobs in software. IT Weekly speaks to the man that does it — Steven Sinofsky senior vice president, Office. Let’s start off by asking what is going to be so exciting abo-ut Office 12, what is going to have people rushing to the shops to buy it? Well, that depends on who you are and what kind of things excite you. Let me tell you about a couple of things that we have talked about that people are already finding very, very, exciting. The first thing that we unveiled and displayed that has really been a big source of excitement is the new user interface for Office 12. This is a new way of interacting with the product, a new way of getting the full power and benefit of Office and it is really the first redefinition of the user experience of software since the invention of the Windows menus and toolbars. And does this make it easier to see the features of the Office suite? It makes it easier to see the features, and you feel much more in control of the program. So with the old way of working with Windows and menus and toolbars and stuff, you were constantly overwhelmed with things moving around, things changing. Basically our user interface had reached a point where it just couldn’t scale anymore to the depth of the product. When we first added toolbars to Office, Word had 150 commands in it. Today, Office itself has about 3500 commands throughout the whole product and with the user interface there’s just no room left, you have menus that are too long, bars that are to the side and things like that. What we did was we took a step back and thought about how you would first organise the tools and then how could you display them so that it’s not hide-and-seek, you’re not searching for the tools, they’re just there when you need them. That’s when we came up with this metaphor that we call the ribbon, which is a fixed-size user interface. This user experience is so much easier to use because the whole product is in front of you for the first time, so you don’t have to think about where something might be or learn new words that you might not understand because that is the name of the command. Things are just in the right place at the right time, so when you first start up Office 12, the commands that represent 80% of the clicks that people use are all right there in front of you. Getting access to everything else is always just one click away. What benefits will this interface bring to users? One area that has really benefited from this new interface is graphics. With the advent of colour printers everywhere, richer PowerPoint presentations and so on, now it is just so much easier to get to the rich graphics capability that is in Office. Plus, we’ve improved it dramatically, so we’ve added 3D effects, shading, its just much much easier to make cool looking documents. It’s a radical new definition of the way that your work products will appear and that is because of the new interface. So that’s probably the first area we would highlight and that one is going to apply to everyone who uses the product. Even if you’re an IT pro, IT administrator or system administrator, this just puts out there a product that is easier to use, easier to maintain and easier to get more out of. So, fewer helpdesk calls, less administration and just a more robust experience for the internals of the corporation. Another area that we have talked a great deal about is enterprise content management. This is really about running portal sites for your company inside your intranet or outside your extranet. Its about being able to do sites where you publish lots of information, being able to do web services where you bring together your line of business information and bring it up so that you can present that to your employees or your partners. Isn’t offering this type of functionality going to bring you into conflict with the business intelligence (BI) vendors? I don’t think it will be a conflict at all. What it will do is show different approaches to the market. We’re very focused on the end user experience, having the most number of people being exposed to Excel, what we’re doing is making the features they use a little bit more robust. All of these features use as their basis the XML file format in Excel. One of the things we’ve talked quite a lot about is the role of XML in Office 12. The BI vendors all have access to that XML file format, so it is a big opportunity for those partners to do some of the same things that we have done as well. Okay, lets move away from business intelligence and talk about another area that has got a lot of attention for Microsoft and that is the push towards introducing standards around XML for Office. How important a move is this for Microsoft? I think it is an important move for us, it’s one that we have been planning to do for quite some time. We’ve been working on XML in our Office applications way back since Office 2000. Office 12 really represents what was our long term goal of having a full, high-fidelity round trip-compatible format that will bring forward all the investme- nts that people have made in Office over the years but also delivers on a robust, maintainable, documented format for Office applications. So we’re really excited about bringing this to market. Part of our plan all along was to publish this in open standard, it doesn’t even have a licence, you just go to the web site and download it and use it all you want. Just to be safe we have also submitted this to an open standards body and are working with partners such as Hewlett-Pac- kard and Apple, who are members of this body, to make this standards-based approach as well.||**|||~|Sinofsky-6body.jpg|~|Sinofsky acknowledged the fact that Microsoft’s own installed base, users with older versions of their products, was the largest threat to Office 12. |~|While Office has been in a strong position for years, many people are now saying that the competitor products are stronger than ever. How competitive is the office productivity space right now? I’ve been working on Office for about 12 years now. I signed the release papers for Office 4.2d, which was the last 16-bit version of Office. I’ve got to say that at every release I always feel like the competition is greater. It just changes. Way back we were in really strong and competitive situations for individual products like word processors and spreadsheets, then we got very strong competitors in the suite market, then for a while in the 1999-2000 time frame, our competitors were all these web things that were going to put us out of business, like little downloadable Java programs and things like that. Then StarOffice, which was a German company, became a big competitor. So there is always lots of competition, there’s plenty of room for lots of people, in some countries we have competitors who only sell products in one country or one language. I think there is plenty of competition and they’re always approaching it from a different angle. Customers have consistently shown they think we’re doing a good job in delivering value to them and I hope that in Office 12 they see our ongoing investment at a very unique level in productivity software. Of course, plenty of people say that the biggest competitor to Office is your own installed base. Do you think that is the case? By far and large there is no doubt that the biggest competitor we face the most is old versions of our products. Software is a wonderful thing, it doesn’t ever wear out, you can use it 10 minutes a day or 12 hours a day, it doesn’t wear out and we do a pretty good job of servicing the product. The service packs that we do for Office fix hundreds of real-world customer problems and make it better. So we have to do a better job of showing people that there are things that you can do with the new product that you couldn’t do with the old product. I think we’ve done a great job on that with Office 12. We’re showing a lot of things that you can do. Our installed base is a huge asset for us, the thing that we work really hard on is bringing forward the investments they have made in the product, and making it a smooth and easy upgrade so you can realise the benefit at a small incremental cost on top of your existing infrastructure. At the same time, it’s much more than just more features in a word processor or a spreadsheet. That’s really been the big investment areas for us — to expand things to include, not just client applications which is what most of our competitors do, but including things like servers and services to ensure that you have a really deep and rich productivity experience. Another area that has received a lot of attention is online services. Microsoft made a couple of big announcements in this area last year, can you give a bit more detail on this? We have announced an initiative around what we call Live software. Live is the name that we are giving to a large set of services that run at internet scale. What they are all about is services that add value to both Windows and Office and to other products that we sell. We have announced two offerings: Windows Live, which is in beta, and you’l l see from that integrated messaging and a customisable platform. In the second,Office Live, we are going to introduce software that is going to be a great companion to Office for small businesses. That’s our primary focus early on. We have shown how small businesses will be able to have a web site that has their domain name and e-mail, and site hosting that also includes a number of templates tailored to the small business market. That will be in beta soon as well. Whenever we announce something we always think it is a big announcement and want to ma- ke a big push, so it is hard to measure that but we’re very excited by the idea of having services that are companions to the products that we sell. Some of those services will be advertiser supported, some will be based on subscriptions, but they’re building on services that we run on an immense scale today for customers. For instance, hundreds of millions of our customers around the world receive their PC administration, patches and so on from Microsoft Update on a daily basis. The Office web site, Microsoft Office Online, has over 60 million unique visitors each month and that is a web site that on its own would be a big property. Plenty of people were quick to say that your focus on online services was a way of countering the threat posed by Google, how would you answer that? I don’t tend to look at it as a threat. Google has been very successful in the recorded search business, we of course have MSN which competes in that area as well. We’re just looking at things in a very holistic view, we’re looking at what we can do to improve people’s productivity experience and how we can use the internet to do that. We’ve been doing that for a long time, long before Google. We’ve had Office Online since 1997 at least. So I don’t think of this as a threat, we’re just looking at using all of the technologies and all of the business models available to us: advertising, subscription, buying packaged software to deliver what customers really want from us. Well, there has been the much-publicised court battle with Google, Steve Ballmer’s alleged chair throwing incident, Bill Gates has commented on Google repeatedly, there certainly seems a sense that Google is getting a lot of senior management attention for a company you don’t see as a threat. I don’t see it as a threat, I just see it as competition. They offer a product that is very successful that competes with MSN and we just have to do a better job, we haven’t done as much as we could do and I think we could execute better and that’s where we’re really focused. Certainly, I think the press has done a good job of giving a lot of attention to Google. ||**||

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