Oct 28, 2008

Office 14 Sneak Peek

As a lapsed programmer at a developers conference (Microsoft PDC 2008) I am feeling, as Peter O'Kelly aptly described, snow crashed by all of the code I witnessed today. Despite all the pixelation, my focus (and really all my career) is mostly on the run-time and how it helps users to perform their work (I told you I was hanging out with programmers all day). For those of you who know my more than 20 years background in communications and collaboration, you know that my point of view is always rooted in productivity tools and improving how individuals and teams work together.

The keynotes the last two mornings have focused on the platform and run-time environments that support the applications the PDC attendees build. Yesterday (Monday Oct 26) Microsoft introduced Windows Azure a Windows server and service interfaces for hosting applications in the cloud. Ray Ozzie described Windows Azure as "Windows without walls." Today Microsoft filled our buffers, and show bags, with:

  • An introduction of Windows 7 (dropping the "Vista" millstone with a mea culpa) and gave attendees a beta build
  • A preview of the next version of Visual Studio - also in limited beta for attendees
  • Demos of the Live Mesh device synchronization services- beta due later this week
  • A sneak peek at Office 14 - not in beta yet

I'm not going to spend a lot of time on Windows 7 other than I think it looks like what everyone was hoping Vista would be. There are a few things I'm concerned about, such as being able to turn off task bar notices, and I'm sure more will come up once I try out the build. The same goes for Visual Studio, although some of the new features garnered applause. I started this out saying I am a run-time person.

The Live Mesh demos showed how users can share and synchronize content in near real-time with other users and devices over the Internet. One demo included taking a picture on a smartphone that was saved into a shared library on the mobile device. Saving the new photo set off an automatic Live Mesh sync with the cloud server, which automatically synchronized the image to another user's desktop device. This "real-time" syncing is powerful and will have significant impact on managing personal and shared content.

The Office 14 preview included the introduction of new web-based Office editors. The image (source: Microsoft) below is the Office 14 web-based Word editor in a browser complete with ribbon controls and rich-text editing.













Office 14 will include four web-editors including Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote.

Where the rubber meets the road here is the combination of Live Mesh with Office 14. In what Ray Ozzie describes an "office without walls," users create content using familiar editors from where ever it makes sense - the PC, a browser, or a mobile device - and where collaboration is done on the Internet with high scale, real-time synchronization across devices. The key is the collaboration bit. Today collaboration requires launching an interface that includes its own editors so users can synchronously (e.g., web conferencing, application sharing), or asynchronously (e.g., workspaces, store-and-forward messaging, blogs, and communities) collaborate on work. For example, I might use a web conferencing tool with application sharing to jointly edit a file in real-time, or use a wiki to share and edit documents asynchronously. With Office 14 and Live Mesh all users need to worry about is launching the Office editor that is most appropriate for creating their content.

There is a subtle shift here in the productivity world here. Small but significant. A common question that comes up within enterprises is how to instruct users when to use one tool over another. For example when do users use SharePoint versus a blog or a wiki to collaborate on content? Information workers generally know when they need a text editor over a spreadsheet editor. So instead of worrying about which tool to use to facilitate collaboration information workers only need to consider what they want to create and which users and devices can synchronize the end products. 

Being a collaboration-phile my mind swung to traditional collaboration solutions, like SharePoint. What does this mean? Actually I think it puts a more fine point on what SharePoint really does for purpose focused, team collaboration. It takes the burden off SharePoint as a place to compose content and makes it a content and activity manager for group-based work. SharePoint becomes a focused workspace where users can share and find content as well as coordinate group-based activities.

Ray Ozzie was in his element (literally a room filled with developers) this morning presenting a clear vision and showed leadership that was, quite frankly, inspiring. No, I'm not drunk on the kool-ade, it was a strong presentation. Ray also reminded the crowd that much of this seamless and integrated technology is nascent, even if the concepts aren't. Rightly so, it remains to be seen what customers will get in the first iterations. It takes a lot to decouple the back and front ends for more openness and then bridge everything in a useful way. Heady stuff I know, but this is what Microsoft has been up to since the last PDC in 2005. The demos showed that things are beginning to come together.

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