Results tagged “office”

Spreadsheet Art Revisited

December 26, 2008

One of my recurring fascinations is people creating works of art using common productivity software. Office Tools of Expression as a review of this medium that I wrote last year, and Excel Pile offered an overview back in 2004.

Today, the idea of using office software as a means of expression is popping up more and more frequently. Danielle Aubert released 16 Months Worth of Drawing Exercises in Microsoft Excel about two years ago, as a fifty-dollar coffee table book offering exactly what the title suggests. Writer Response Theory presented a terrific overview of the work at the time, as well as an interview with Aubert:

I started making Excel drawings, never spending more than 30-40 minutes on each one, and I tried not to get hung up on whether I was making non-representational versus representational versus abstract versus systems versus typographic drawings. I just made drawings about anything that I thought might be pleasing in some general way. After a while I started to copy one day’s drawing into a spreadsheet for the next day’s drawing because I found that that way the drawings could build on themselves and maybe become a bit more complex. But really my main objective when I began making them was to experiment with making ’small art’ - or the equivalent of my friend’s small poems - in Excel.

And then, for the holidays this year, the Google Docs team has gotten into the game. They've released "Collaborative Spreadsheet Art", a winter-themed piece created by four artists working simultaneously in the web-based spreadsheet app. The introductory movie is only a minute long.

The Google Docs holiday site offers more insights into the creation of the work, including a look behind the scenes. Now I'm just waiting for the various web-based art programs to make performance videos of people using their tools to do calculations and analyze data.

If you're really taken with this stuff, my earlier post gathers up a list of interesting links about office app art.

Office Tools of Expression

August 29, 2007

One of my favorite posts that I've ever written was Excel Pile, about people's propensity for using Office tools like Microsoft Excel to track mundane parts of their lives, or even as tools of artistic expression. From that post three years ago:

[A]lmost every one of my friends has, at one point or another, made at least one Excel spreadsheet to document some arcane aspect of their lives. The number of consecutive sunny days, the types and prices of the cups of coffee they drink, or just straightforward charts about their boss's mood. There's no end to the ways one can misuse desktop applications in one's personal life.

Art of Office - Excel Pixelfreak.png

The team behind Microsoft Office for the Mac has built a site called Art of Office around exactly this concept. I had intended, with that original Excel Pile post, to make a site (called Office Pile, actually) which would let people share and collaborate around these kinds of expressive documents, and it's exciting to see that someone has done exactly that. At Microsoft, no less! They describe the site well:

Art of Office is for Mac users pushing the boundaries of what can be done in Mac Office. Explore. Contribute. Reuse. Remix. Add your best work. Take what you like (giving credit where it's due) and make it yours.

Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo created some postcards in MacWord, Phil Torrone made a 361-slide PowerPoint deck of illegal primes, and Pixelfreak made (what else?) pixel art in Excel. I dig it.

Blog readers who liked this post also enjoyed:

David Byrne - EEEI Arrows

End of slide show, click to exit.

What's the Word?

January 15, 2007

I found Frank Hilario's rant entitled Microsoft’s Mr Bill Gates And The Boy Who Cried Worp to be largely incoherent, but from what I could deduce, he thinks my assessment of Microsoft Office 2007 is off-base. Actually, he says:

If you can’t beat them, don’t join them; instead, change the rules of the game. That’s what Worperer Microsoft did with Word 2007, Paul Thurrott (2006, cited) says. Yes. Anil Dash (2006, cited) says: ‘By radically changing the user interface in Office 2007, Microsoft made the riskiest bet in the history of commercial software. And I think they’re going to win the bet.’ Wanna bet?

So, here’s another idea, also from me: Go get a fresh tablet of stone and etch on it the idea of an entirely new word processor. Worperers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your worps!

Once you've lost your worps, you may enjoy Rafe's musings on music collections, inspired in part by my loss of my iTunes library. There are also a lot of really great comments on that thread, thanks to everyone who's contributed.

Microsoft Says, "Steal This UI"

December 20, 2006

Summary: Earlier this year, I said that Office 2007 is the bravest upgrade ever, and the reason was simple: The audacity of introducing a radical new user interface was as surprising as the vast improvements it yielded in productivity. Now, Microsoft has decided to license that user interface to other developers, being surprisingly open in the license terms and potentially improving the user experience for dozens of other applications.

Word 2007 has the wacky ribbon

When I wrote about Office 2007 back in June, the benefits were obvious to me:

They killed the File menu, along with all the other menus. They added a giant, weird circular target up in the corner. They actually use part of the title bar as a menu sometimes. They even changed the default font in all the apps. What's amazing is not just that it works, but that it works so well.

My experience has been the same as most of those who I know that are using the new version: Word went from being frustrating and confusing to fairly straightforward to use. PowerPoint went, in a single upgrade, from being the worst widely-available presentation software to being the best. Excel is a fundamentally different kind of spreadsheet application, focused on presenting information usefully instead of optimizing for the creation of complex formulas.

Anne Chen and Michael Caton wrote an excellent overview of Office 2007 in eWeek, and I don't know if they or their editor created the headline, but it gets to the gist of the story pretty effectively: "Office 2007 Will Rock Corporations' Worlds".

Though the Office UI Licensing page is a little short on details, as always, Jensen Harris articulates the story perfectly on his blog:

[M]ore than a year ago we started talking about how we could share the design work we've done more broadly in a way that also protects the value of Microsoft's investment in this research and development.

Well, I'm pleased to finally be able to definitively answer the question. Today, we're announcing a licensing program for the 2007 Microsoft Office system user interface which allows virtually anyone to obtain a royalty-free license to use the new Office UI in a software product, including the Ribbon, galleries, the Mini Toolbar, and the rest of the user interface.

Office 2007(Side note to Microsoft's communications team: I understand you feel you need to put out the standard boring press release, but why not at least link to Jensen's blog from there, so that people reading about this won't think it's quite so boring?)

The best part is that the guidelines themselves are written in clear English. You can download a sample (1.4mb PDF) of the 120-page guidelines document. The example guidelines are about an esoteric area, resizing the items on the Ribbon toolbars, but are clear, comprehensible, and promise a lot of potential for the other pages in the document.

This is a fantastic trend, mirroring on the desktop what companies like Yahoo have done with licensing their UI libraries for the web. I'm cautiously optimistic that other developers might even follow the guidelines correctly, promising some productivity gains from the new generation of desktop apps.

Links and Stuff

December 5, 2006

Now, I will outline a series of hypertext links, offer brief descriptions of the content to be found at those sites, explain why you might want to visit, and then wait patiently while you do so.

Target's Death Wagon

  • Startup Review. It's a new blog, but shows promise already. "Startup Review is a blog that profiles successful Internet start-ups in a case study format. The case studies are created through interviews with early employees at the companies profiled and industry experts." They've got a regular structure for the reviews, actually engage with the teams that built the sites, and aren't just pimping every random startup that comes along. If Nisan Gabbay can keep up the quality and the goals he's set thus far, it may become one of the best blogs you aren't reading.
  • Groklaw says Novell is forking OpenOffice.org, except they aren't. Novell incurred Groklaw's wrath by creating a plugin to support Microsoft Office's new XML formats, so at worst, they're making a proprietary plugin, which would result in... Microsoft Office formats only being readable by proprietary code. Kind of like, um, right now. Naturally, Groklaw has responded by basically shouting "she's a witch!" and handing out matches instead of, you know, explaining why that is or isn't a good idea. I haven't given out an Intellectual Dishonesty award in a while -- here's one for you, Dave Jakeman! (Hint: getting data in and out of applications is a good thing.)
  • I wish I had time to explore ScummVM, an emulator for LucasArts' storied SCUMM game engine. Sadly, the emulator, as good as it is, can't emulate games built for later, post-SCUMM games, which means I will probably never get to see it play Grim Fandango. That game (fansite, wikipedia) ranks right up there with Mario Kart among my personal best video games of all time.
  • And finally, Target wins a Truth in Taxonomy accolade for appending the phrase "Near-Death Experiences" to the Browse Similar Items navigation on this little red wagon. You'll shoot your eye out, kid!

More conversation about the Google Office

August 29, 2006

Okay, last Google Office post, honest. A roundup of some of the feedback on my post about Google Apps for Your Domain:

Update: Okay, here's one more link about this topic, but only because it's fantastic. Donna Bogatin carefully dissects the arguments I've made and rebuts many of them. I love the thought that went into this, and that the focus is on a long-term big picture, instead of a comparison of Google's and Microsoft's products today, which is where I was focused. It's a convincing counter-argument to my earlier post.

  • Maura Welch covers the announcement at the Boston Globe's Business Filter blog.

    I agree with Dash, though, that the small to medium sized business owner who is not tech-savvy is likely to be confused by both offerings. They might think Microsoft Office Live is a free version of Excel and Word - which it's not. And they may never even think of Google Apps for Your Domain because they only know Google as a search company.

  • Steve Bryant, on his eWeek blog, pumps up a jokey press release that a competitor used to ride the Google announcement's coattails.
  • David Smith puts the announcement in the context of the (sadly underplayed) many educational institutions that might make use of the tools.
  • Roger Dooley says, "One way or the other, don’t expect an overnight change - businesses have to get comfortable with giving up some control in return for the benefits of remote applications."
  • Joseph O'Connell: "When are we going to see the insights gained from Web 2.0 (blogging, tagging, social search, wikis, etc.) further integrated into our office productivity tools? Personally, I think these opportunities are far more exciting than wondering who will "win" and "lose" in the Google vs. Microsoft debate." Amen!
  • Dan Farber, on his ZDNet blog, "What's true is that there are several signs that Web-hosted, software-as-a-service productivity applications are for real, but not that Office or Microsoft is dead…at least not yet."

A History of the Google Office

August 28, 2006

In describing Google Apps for Your Domain as "Google Office", I was somewhat deliberately making reference to all the conversations that have happened in the past around Google doing an office suite or even an entire operating systems. Here, then, are some selected posts on the subject in the past.

What a fantastic idea. If Google created a branded version of Firebird (with a few usability and stability tweaks) and made it available through google.com, promoting it in the same way they have been promoting their toolbar, I am sure it would be a sure-fire hit. It's simply a better browser than IE, and while most internet users have probably never even considered trying a different browser Google have the kind of brand recognition and trustworthy image that could convince people to try something new - it worked with the Google toolbar after all.

Imagine the effect this kind of development would have on the browser industry. IE would suddenly have a viable competitor! Web sites would be encouraged to support standards, Microsoft would practically be forced to start developing IE again, and the internet would start moving forward again.

  • John Rhodes' seminal article on Google 2.0 from September of 2001, which envisions a Google Client and predated common usage of the "Web 2.0" moniker by years. For perspective, when this piece was written, there was no AdSense, no AdWords, no Gmail, Google hadn't bought Blogger, and Mozilla hadn't yet birthed Phoenix Firebird Firefox.

Google Office (Goffice?) will be built in, with all your data stored locally, backed up remotely, and available to whomever it needs to be (SubEthaEdit-style collaboration on Word/Excel/PowerPoint-esque documents is only the beginning). Email, shopping, games, music, news, personal publishing, etc.; all the stuff that people use their computers for, it's all there.

There's lots of good thinking here, and of course it makes sense to finish by pointing out So Much Fanfare, So Few Hits, BusinessWeek's look at how Google doesn't dominate many areas it enters.

Office 2.0 Conference

August 28, 2006

Office 2.0 Conference As part of all-Office day, I should mention that I'll be speaking at the Office 2.0 Conference on October 11-12 here in San Francisco. If you know me, you'll probably not be surprised that I'd like to talk about how Office 2.0 connects to, say, Office 2000.

Google Office: Google Apps for Your Domain

August 28, 2006

The first version of Google Apps for Your Domain has been released, offering hosted applications that provide free, ad-supported services including email, chat, calendar, and simple web page creation. Each of the services is integrated with Google's authentication, and offers features that are either close to or on par with the best-of-breed individual hosted applications in their category. Google Apps doesn't compete with Microsoft Office; The primary challenge will be to market this offering to the small- and medium-sized businesses that are its primary audience.

The Product

The basic offerings that make up Google Apps are probably fairly familiar: Gmail, Google Calendar, and Google Talk are all fairly well-adopted, and even those who don't use them regularly are familiar with the influence and impact they've had over each of their categories. Google Pages, which makes up the Google Page Creator part of the offering, received more criticism at launch, but is still more than adequate for making standalone static web pages. There's also the ability to create simple email lists, which seems appropriate, as the full Google Groups functionality would be overkill for this audience.

Google Apps Setup Page

Of course these applications all existed, and in the case of Gmail, have been around for more than 2 years. That means the primary addition in Apps is a management interface for creating user accounts and assigning permissions. Fortunately, the account interface is simple and offers all the basic account creation and management functions required, albeit in a fairly homely interface.

As a side note, it's interesting to see the convergence around simple .CSV files as the defacto standard for lightweight user account creation. Movable Type Enterprise supports this same mechanism for users who don't want to hook it up to a full LDAP server, and I'm always surprised just how enthusiastic admins can be about the idea of just uploading a text file instead of doing something more complicated.

Google Apps Account Setup Page

Google Apps doesn't compete with Microsoft Office

Google Apps for Your Domain is not a competitor to Microsoft Office. There's simply no other way to put it. There will undoubtedly be lots of breathless press or Web 2.0 hype about how this is Google's shot across the bow of the Office juggernaut, and this just plain isn't true. Feel free to poke someone in the eye if they say this version represents a competitor to Office. How are the markets different?

  • There are only 500 buyers of Office that Microsoft cares about. The CIOs who make the purchasing decisions at Fortune 500 companies have the ultimate sway over which direction the Microsoft Office takes. When they said they didn't want to retrain users, Office kept a stagnant interface for 10 years. When they decided that the new versions weren't worth upgrading to, Microsoft placed a huge bet on revamping Microsoft Office 2007. Those 500 buyers control hundreds of millions of dollars worth of Office revenues, and they're simply not going to use an ad-supported service that hosts their data on remote servers, doesn't connect with their (multiple) single-sign-on services, and offers no ecosystem of third-party support and vertical application integration. Google Apps targets small businesses, where Microsoft doesn't generate nearly as much revenue due to passalong piracy,
  • Microsoft Office and Google Apps do different things. Nobody wants to admit it, but Microsoft Office is overwhelmingly used for Excel Spreadsheets, Word Documents, and Outlook email. Sure, there's overlap with Gmail, but small businesses get very little use out of Outlook's calendaring function, since it requires an Exchange server (and all the attendant hassle.) FrontPage has been dead for ages, with most small companies using the site-building tools that come with their hosting account, or, increasingly, starting their own blogs, and Pages is aimed at a different task anyway. Small businesses don't yet understand the value of hosting chat at their own domains on open Jabber-based networks, so Talk may be a tough sell, but MSN Messenger isn't terribly popular here in the U.S. either.
  • System integrators have no incentive to recommend Google Apps. I used to offer Office integration and customization services, and I did it not just because Office was the best platform at the time (back then, there used to be competing office suites) but because it was the most profitable platform for me to sell. There isn't yet an affiliate program for recommending Google Apps, unless you count the Google Firefox or AdWords signup, which is kind of a stretch. Given that Google's already offering payments for Pack, Picasa and AdSense as well, Apps is probably only a matter of time. But it's still unlikely any third party could make as much money recommending Apps as they do selling Microsoft Office services and the promise of an upsell to big-ticket items like Exchange servers.
  • This is much the same functionality and market that Microsoft Office Live targets. Microsoft and Google are competing in some ways with Office Live and Google Apps. Office Live offers ad-supported hosted services, a free service level, web-based email, integration with your own domain name, and simple page creation. What's distinct is that Office Live also gives customers a free domain name and some web site statistics tools, but users have to step up to the paid level to get calendars, contacts, to-do lists, project management, or document sharing. The challenge is that most users, especially those that aren't tech-savvy or those who are busy running a small business, picture "Microsoft Office Live" as being a hosted version of Excel or Word, which just isn't hte case.

Bottom line: Google Apps will be used by companies that are relying on an in-house tech fan as their IT department, where larger companies who have a consultant or IT person on staff will stay with Microsoft solutions for these tasks. The truth is, Microsoft Office is great at traditional document creation, but it's lousy at collaboration, and that's the space that Google Apps, Office Live, SharePoint, and lots of other competitors are going after.

Google hasn't shown a consistent ability to successfully market to small business, with the possible exception of small businesses who see Google as an advertising venue similar to the Yellow Pages. Microsoft has huge credibility with small businesses looking for a hosted solution, but this audience doesn't see Microsoft Office as a brand that encompasses things like mailing list management or website hosting.

The Competition

So, enough about Microsoft -- who else is competing with Google Apps? There are a few contenders:
  • Joyent: A well-rounded hosted collaboration suite which offers email, calendars, contacts, file sharing, and has the added bonus of actual paying customers. The Joyent team's well-respected by a lot of alpha geeks, especially for their ownership of TextDrive, but has a lower profile than is probably deserved, maybe because the service doesn't have a free ad-supported level. The focus on a well-defined audience with a straightforward product seems sensible.
  • Zoho: Gets a lot of exuberant Web 2.0 praise, but there's a pretty big gap between the Web 2.0 crowd and actual small business customers, so that's probably not valuable. They branch out from the core collaboration applications (Zoho Virtual Office) into the realm of browser-based word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations. The pricing for Virtual Office is very reasonable, but the sheer breadth of applications makes me a little nervous about their focus.
  • 37Signals: It's not just a brand, it's a software company! They get points for realizing that instant messaging is a key part of these types of collaboration suites, and for shipping Campfire before Google Apps shipped their version of Talk, though Campfire doesn't support open standards like Jabber. The burden now is to better integrate the existing tools, get on the ball about bringing email more tightly into the apps, and to balance "less is better" against the ingrained buying habits of the traditional software market, where more is better.
  • Yahoo: Don't ever count the Yahoos out. They've got versions of each of these applications that are at least the equal of Google's offerings. If the product teams can whip up a nicely-packaged business offering, it'll be a serious contender, especially since Yahoo already has an extremely strong small business presence. Then just keep the PR folks in line; There's an unfortunate Jan Brady tone to a lot of the communication around this stuff.
  • Best of Breed Apps: Unlike on the desktop, where distribution and packaging efficiencies helped application suites take over, the web makes it easy to mix-and-match functionality from a number of different services. A provider like QuickBooks Online could bundle much of this functionality with an accounting offering, and switching costs for accounting are much higher than those for a web-based spreadsheet. There are also lots of independent applications that provide these bits of functionality to users today. Customers will often go with these integrated suites but then replace one of the components with a more fully-featured option, like replacing Pages with a Yahoo Store for a retailing business.

In all, the strength of these competitors bodes well for the entire space. In every case, these independent competitors are charging money for their products. This is a great thing to see in light of the "slap ads on it and cross your fingers" trap that a lot of companies fell into in the first round of web office suites during Bubble 1.0. And Yahoo, of course, has the volume to make an ad-supported or hybrid subscription model work. Hooray for sustainable business models!

What's next?

We've seen the strengths of Google Apps, an overview of how it compares to Microsoft's Office offerings, a layout of the competitive landscape -- but where does Google go next? The obvious next steps are to expand into the traditional document-focused office applications.

  • Google Spreadsheet and Writely are inevitable additions to Google Apps. A key to success here will be to position Spreadsheets and Writely as complements to Microsoft Office. TheGoogle apps add a real collaborative element to Office that's been missing, leeting groups work on documents easily. For example, a spreadsheet power user can upload their Excel workbook to Google Spreadsheets, and a casual user can view it or make simple edits, without the company having to pay for an Excel license. It even works if the casual viewer is in another location or working for another company, as is often the case with shared documents. That's a killer feature, and one that would make it much easier for IT managers in bigger companies to overlook their qualms about Google's hosted model. Some rationalization of Writely vs. Notebook vs. Pages would be long overdue here, as well.
  • After spreadsheets and word processing, presentations are the traditional next component of an office suite. Given that PowerPoint 2007 will be the first version to offer up default output that's even remotely tolerable, I'm hoping people stop cloning the interface model of its older versions. this is an area that's ripe for some Google innovation, focusing on presenting a few small ideas well, instead of shoveling thousands of shoddy transitions and cheap clip art into a few ugly backgrounds. My suggestion? Rich media tools. I'd always hoped Google Video would be a tool for creating good videos, not just for sharing movie trailers.
  • Google Base, and more importantly, Gdata, seems roughly equivalent in both capability and user interface ugliness to Microsoft Access version 1.1, (and I say that with warm affection for both) so let's say there's a database application on the way. The killer app would be to hook the Gdata interface up to a database-backed web publishing tool. Of course you can't spell "killer app" without "a-p-p".
  • An online advertising/promotional/campaign management suite. I'm sure it's the path Google's already on, but reading my Sitemaps reports and determining what drives people to my site should connect to my Analytics output to make sure they're actualy buying stuff, and then automatically update my AdWords buys to make sure more people find my site. Then, you know, send me a Google Alert through Google talk to celebrate my successes.

Google Apps for Your Domain

In Conclusion

To understand Google Apps in the proper context, it doesn't make sense to look at office software suites as they've existed for the past 15 years. It makes sense to look at how web-based hosted services have taken off . For the most part, whether it was hosted email (Hotmail, AOL) or instant messaging (AIM, MSN, Yahoo), there has been active resistance by large corporations and enterprises, and adoption was led by small companies or by independent workgroups and remote offices within a company.

Google Apps is going to mirror that adoption, and wil take hold primarily in organizations where the culture isn't based around an existing process of mailing Word memos as attachments, but instead on IMing links to relevant resources. Most growing companies will have to manage a mixed environment where many core services are hosted, but in an informal, ad-sponsored model instead of the structured ASPs that large enterprises use. And they'll be managing heterogeneous application suites, where a primary provider like Google, Microsoft, or Yahoo will be augmented by one or two small vendors who either provide unique features or distinct vertical applications.

Google has a significant challenge on its hands, since a lot of small business owners know Google only as "the search company". Much of the trade press or reviews will describe Google Apps in the context of Microsoft Office, which should only serve to further confuse its intended audience. That being said, the individual components are already successes, to varying degrees. This means the question now is how well Google's brand can make the transition in the minds of mainstream users from being an information provider and advertising venue to being a reliable provider of business application services.

Just the Links: Meaningful?

July 6, 2006

Alright, you deserve some links.

Continuing the Conversation

June 27, 2006

I take it back, people do sometimes leave good comments. I'm thrilled with the comments on "A Malcolm and a Martin", as well as the conversations on other sites:

From Scott Berkun: (Buy his book now!)

My position is that you need attention to have influence, and radicals can bring attention to an issue that is being ignored. But there are other ways to get attention. You can earn it from people who learn to respect you for intelligent work you do, problems you’ve solved, or smart things you say.

Interestingly, I'd summarize a lot of Scott's argument as a plea for civility and accountability. Put succinctly, you catch more flies with honey. I don't disagree, I just think the honey-tongued are inspired by those with a gut full of bile.

From Timothy Johnson: (Buy his book now!)

In projects and in life, you need those people who will challenge the status quo with reckless abandon. And you need those people who will calmly assess the status quo against the proposed changes, analyzing and logically weighing the alternatives to provide solutions. It's about balance, but it's also about tension.

On another topic, my ramblings on Office 2007's big bet have indirectly led to my quotes in Information Week's piece on TransMedia. I like both hosted web apps and installed desktop apps, and think they complement each other well:

"Writely and Word each enhance the value of the other, but they're for completely different purposes," he writes via e-mail. "Kids in junior high write their papers in Word from the Student version of Office, so we're at best 10 years from the workforce including a significant number of employees who had their primary word processing experiences happen with an online app."

Dash says desktop apps continue to offer obvious benefits: the ability to work offline and responsiveness that's not dependent on the performance of distant servers or network traffic. Then there's the issue of trust.

"I think there's something a little deeper behind people's attachments to desktop productivity software," he writes. "Documents created in Word are often lengthy, involved efforts, ones that people put a lot of investment into. The combination of browsers and AJAX applications isn't yet a platform that most people trust."

Nick Bradbury had a great take on my Office post, too:

Usability is the most important feature of any application, and the improved usability of the new MS Office is by far its best new feature. I agree with Anil that Microsoft has made a risky bet by so radically changing Office's UI, and it's a bet that will pay off.

That post also had the side effect of putting me right under Microsoft for search resuls on "Office 2007". I really should do something with that, but I'm struck by the fact that, despite the marketing team's efforts to rebrand as the 2007 Microsoft Office System, this is still what people are gonna search for. Shouldn't you also be posting info under that name?

Anyway, it's not all butterflies and hugs, some of the feedback has ranged from "Who the hell calls software brave?" to Could you possibly be any more of a corporate sycophant? This is your life? I can't imagine why some people think the blogosphere is an unkind place. Sure, that's a normal reaction to a conversation!

Office 2007 is the Bravest Upgrade Ever

June 19, 2006

Office 2007 Short and sweet, the Ribbon and new UI in Microsoft Office 2007 is the ballsiest new feature in the history of computer software. I've been using Office 12 for about six months, and not only has it made me more productive, I'm struck by the sheer ambition of the changes in this version.

To clarify the point: Microsoft Office is a bigger business than most of us probably realize. Office generated $11.5 billion in revenue for fiscal year 2005, and it'll exceed that in the current calendar year. But conservatively, you're talking about a billion dollars a month.

Now, most of us who like to prognosticate and pontificate about software like to say things like "It'd be easy to just..." or "It's trivial to add..." but the thing is, most of us aren't betting our entire careers on the little tweaks and changes we'd like to make to our productivity applications. Try making a mistake that jeopardizes a business that makes $250 million a week. I'd figure a 2% error, on the order of $5 million, gets you very, very fired. Maybe they're forgiving and you can make a 10% error, costing $25 million a week. I doubt it. Most of us would lose our nerve about suggesting radical changes if betting wrong meant betting lots of jobs on making the right call. (Nobody ever got fired for making incremental improvements to Office.)

Now, that being said, there have been really gutsy software improvements before. The leap to OS X from the classic Mac OS was huge, but revenues were much lower for Apple then, and the risk was mitigated by Apple's tight control over hardware and software integration. So, the change was radical but less gutsy. Windows 95 was a huge change, but it was before most consumers recognized that Microsoft had them by the short hairs, so it didn't feel quite so overbearing, and there was pretty great backwards compatibility. Honestly, Windows 95 was more of a Microsoft necessity than it was a risk -- Windows 3.1 had serious competition for people's future upgrade path.

Microsoft Word 6 (yep, on Windows, not on the Mac) was another software milestone; Getting out of the features war, declaring victory in the desktop applications battle, and starting to focus on usability, discoverability and user tasks marked a huge leap forward for productivity applications. Plus we got that little wavy red underline. But this, again, wasn't that risky. Back then, some number of people were going to upgrade their word processor just to see what was new. Netscape 4 was seen as pretty risky at the time, but um... yeah.

So there have been very few bet-the-company style risks, and certainly none from companies as large as Microsoft. What's more, the market for third-party applications on top of Office (er, the 2007 Microsoft Office system application platform) is bigger than most standalone software companies. There's a real risk of jeopardizing those line-of-business customizations that most large organizations use alongside Office. And of course, the 500 stodgy Fortune 500 CIOs who make the purchasing decisions about upgrading Office aren't going to be happy they lost their "File" menu.

Word 2007 has the wacky ribbon But Microsoft did it anyway. They killed the File menu, along with all the other menus. They added a giant, weird circular target up in the corner. They actually use part of the title bar as a menu sometimes. They even changed the default font in all the apps. What's amazing is not just that it works, but that it works so well.

My experience has been the same as most of those who I know that are using the new version: Word went from being frustrating and confusing to fairly straightforward to use. PowerPoint went, in a single upgrade, from being the worst widely-available presentation software to being the best. Excel is a fundamentally different kind of spreadsheet application, focused on presenting information usefully instead of optimizing for the creation of complex formulas.

I used to make a big part of my living doing customizations on top of Office, so I still know it pretty well. It also means I can be a harsh critic of their decisions around the platform. But this time I've got to give it up: By radically changing the user interface in Office 2007, Microsoft made the riskiest bet in the history of commercial software. And I think they're going to win the bet.

Some related links:

The Best Microsoft Blog

June 14, 2006

Congrats to Robert Scoble on his new gig, and no disrespect intended to great MS bloggers like Dare Obasanjo and Niall Kennedy, but for my blogging dollar, the best blog ever published by a Microsoftie is Jensen Harris' Office UI blog. I'm not the first to note it, but I wanted to chime in with my vote there. Honorable mention goes to Ray Ozzie, who's infrequent, but then some of the very best bloggers are.

It helps that Jensen's working on Office 2007. (If they paid me, I might call it The 2007 Microsoft Office System, but they don't. Speaking of branding nazis, there's only one "e" in "Movable".) Office 2007 is the single most impressive and ballsy effort that Microsoft's put into anything since Word 6, which I think was the best desktop software application ever created.

I'll hopefully expand on these thoughts more when I've got a few minutes, but I wanted to throw that out there while I'm thinking of it. Commence flames... now!

(More evidence of Jensen's greatness: The phrase "Install the Send a Smile tool" appears in a post. Really, shouldn't we all install the "Send a Smile tool"?)

Copy and Paste? Live Clipboard.

March 7, 2006

I guess I'm not the only one thinking about copy and paste. Ray Ozzie is way, way ahead of me. In a development that's clearly been brewing for some time, Ray responds to the demand for better data interoperability:

And what was the most fundamental technology enabling “mash-ups” of desktop applications?

The clipboard. And a set of common clipboard data formats.

Before the clipboard, individual applications (such as Lotus 1-2-3 with its Copy and Move operations) enabled intra-application data transfer – in a world largely designed around a single running application. But the advent of the multi-application user environment, combined with the simplicity of the Select/Cut/Copy/Paste/Clear model, suddenly empowered the user in ways they hadn’t previously experienced.

More on this later, but for now it seems like the only official Microsoft resource on Live Clipboard is this mailing list. I'm sure there will be more discussion on MSDN later.

Reinventing Copy and Paste

March 5, 2006

There's been a lot of conversation lately about reinventing desktop office applications on the web. The first (and sometimes second) versions of all the stalwarts are out there: Word processors, spreadsheets, databases. I can think of Writely and Writeboard and NumSum and JotSpot and of course there's dozens of others if you go out and do some research. (Good roundups and good analyses abound.)

But I spent a lot of time watching, learning about, and customizing office applications the first time they were rapidly evolving and picking up steam. I even made a living for a few years building on top of them. And there's some mistakes being made by this generation of web apps that I hope get corrected.

We can all learn a lot of lessons from the history of DDE/OLE/ OLE3/COM /ActiveX/DCOM /COM+ (you can start reading up on Wikipedia to get some background) and how we went from everyone using best-of-breed standalone apps to one integrated, nearly monolithic Office.

The Holy Grail It basically all started with copy and paste. People who never spent a lot of time in singletasking, character-mode operating environments like the DOS command line don't recall that simply copying-and-pasting information between apps was difficult at the time. And part of the revelation of Windows for mainstream users (or Mac, for leading-edge tech fans), was being able to easily share data in that way. This was different than what Unix users were used to with the command-line pipe, or from what most applications do with feeds today, in allowing structured information flows between applications.

There's a desire to combine data from different sources in an arbitrary way, and to have the user interface display the appropriate tools for whatever context you're in. The dominant model here, probably because of the influence of the early PARC demos, is to have toolbars or UI widgets change depending on what kind of content you're manipulating. Microsoft was really into this in the early 90s with OLE2, where your Word toolbars would morph into Excel toolbars if you double-clicked on an embedded spreadsheet. It was ungainly and ugly and slow, especially if you had less than an exorbitant 8MB of RAM, but the idea was pretty cool.

And it still is. People are so focused on data formats and feeds that they're ignoring consensus around UI interoperability. The Atom API and Metaweblog API give me a good-enough interface if I want to treat a discrete chunk of information (like a blog post) as an undifferentiated blob. But all the erstwhile spec work around microformats and structured blogging (I forget which one is for XML and which one's for XHTML) doesn't seem to have addressed user experience or editing behaviors.

All of this is a long winded way of saying, we don't have much beyond copy and paste right now. If I want to put a NumSum or JotSpot spreadsheet into a Writeboard document, I basically can't do it. Maybe I can do it if all the apps are made by the same vendor and are made available as part of a suite, but we had that with Halfbrain seven years ago.

Now, nobody really adopted the interop specs for embedding rich objects between apps when there was the chance to do this on the desktop fifteen years ago. And this was part of the reason Microsoft Office was able to so completely dominate on the Windows platform by the mid-90s. Nobody else would interoperate in a way that let you easily swap in, say, Quattro Pro for Excel, and nobody else had a consistent way of scripting actions between apps. Of course, the point is moot, because Microsoft used bundling, some brutal and possibly unfair pricing, and an almost pathological underdocumentation of the specs to solidify their lead anyway. And that gave them the time to standardize around VBA as a cross-app scripting language, which took years longer than they had planned.

I can't even imagine trying to debug cross-app scripting on Ajax apps. If it's possible, it sure can't be pretty.

But the battle for office app supremacy on the desktop may have actually been a fight instead of a rout if all the also-rans had added up to something more than the sum of their parts. What was needed was not just mixing and matching at the monolithic suite level, but more granular control over which components would edit particular types of information. It took Microsoft until Windows 2000 for apps to stop just grabbing each other's file formats indiscriminately, and most regular computer users still probably aren't sure what the hell application is going to start up if they click on an MP3. And if you want to automate the simple act of copying and pasting from Lotus 1-2-3 to WordPerfect today, more than 20 years after those applications launched? It's basically just as difficult as it was when Windows 3.1 came out.

So, I'd love to see, as a user, a way for real rich data exchange to happen between the new wave of online applications. I'd like to see some efforts by (at least!) this group of vendors to make it possible to make compound documents between their applications, and then to choose from one or more tools for editing the discrete objects that make up those documents. And I'd like to be able to automate actions between these multiple tools without resorting to Greasemonkey hackery or convoluted browser tricks.

What can I offer in exchange for these features? Well, I'd pay to use the apps that are useful, of course, and I'd help promote the apps by sharing those documents with people. But I can also offer some tiny bit of defense over being completely obviated by the inferior, less open web office applications of the future that have better distribution due to the bundling that will inevitably come to this space. And scriptability means you can get features for free that you haven't even thought of, which is a nice way to combat the bundled single-vendor suites that sacrifice flexibility for consistency and integration.

My theory is that the current wave of web office application developers, like the last one during the dot com bubble, has ignored the lessons of the desktop office suite battles. I'm hoping to be proven wrong.

Other links: Some pieces on this and related topics from the past couple years include my own stories and tools, an overview of web-app tech so naive it makes me wistful for my more innocent days. It's remarkable how similar it is to Dave Winer's What is a Web Application?, which predates it by two years. I found Dave's piece as a link from his review of the state of the art in web office apps six years ago. It reads an awful lot like Richard's review, only now we have feeds on everything and there actually seem to be some users.

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