Tag Archives: office

What would you like to see in Microsoft Office 15?

Today brings the news that Microsoft Office 15 is now in Technical Preview (also known as private beta).

There is little news about what is in it other than this:

With Office 15, for the first time ever, we will simultaneously update our cloud services, servers, and mobile and PC clients for Office, Office 365, Exchange, SharePoint, Lync, Project, and Visio.


So what would you like to see in Office 15? Here are a few things on my wish list:

  1. Properly integrate SharePoint (and therefore Office 365) with Windows so that you can use it easily without ever opening a web browser. That might mean fixing SharePoint WorkSpace or doing something better, like Explorer integration without the various hassles associated with WebDAV.
  2. Fix Outlook, or better still replace it. I hear many complaints about Outlook, either concerning its performance, or else one of its many annoyances such as how hard it is to reply to an email while quoting sections of the original message – astonishing, when you consider the maturity of the product.
  3. Improve cross-platform support. Office on the Mac is poor compared to the Windows version, particularly in terms of performance. It is also time Microsoft came out with apps for iOS and Android for touch-friendly document editing.
  4. Update the user interface for touch control as far as possible. This will be critical for Windows 8 tablets, especially on ARM.
  5. Improve structured document editing in Word. Styles are hard to use, so are bullets and numbering. I tend not to use the paragraph numbering in Word because it is so fiddly and annoying.

The problem is that Office is a huge and intricate bag of legacy. The work Microsoft did in replacing the menus with ribbon toolbars was admirable in its way, and potentially more touch-friendly, but if you scratch the surface much is unchanged underneath. All the old commands remain.

Microsoft financials: Office and server dominate as Windows falters

Microsoft has released its quarterly figures for January-March 2011. My at-a-glance summary is below.

Quarter ending June 30th 2011 vs quarter ending June 30th 2010, $millions

Segment Revenue Change Profit Change
Client (Windows + Live) 4740 -41 2943 -123
Server and Tools 4643 +494 1774 +214
Online 662 +94 -728 -40
Business (Office) 5777 +402 3618 +399
Entertainment and devices 1485 +341 32 +204

Business as usual? More or less, but there are a few points to note.

The figure that jumps out is the stunning performance of Office, which includes SharePoint and Exchange. Why is everyone buying Office 2010, when a document like the one I am typing now could be done just as well in Word 2.0 from 1991, or more plausibly the free OpenOffice?

The answer is the Microsoft has successfully transitioned many of its customers to using Office with SharePoint and Exchange, making it harder to stick with old versions and selling CALs (Client Access Licences) as well as the Office suite itself. This is highly profitable, though the aspect that puzzles me is that Office 365, which is cloud-hosted SharePoint and Exchange, is more cost-effective for the customer since it includes server software, CALs and in some cases the Office client for a commodity-priced subscription.

In other words, I find it hard to see how Microsoft can remain equally profitable if a significant proportion of its customers switch to Office 365. The company may be depending on its ability to upsell those customers to further online services; or perhaps it has not fully thought this through and has set Office 365 pricing at what it needs to be in order to compete with Google.

Fortunately for Microsoft, there is enough doubt concerning the safety of cloud services to sustain continued strong sales of on-premise solutions.

Second notable thing: Windows is in decline. The reason: it is losing market share to Apple and to Google Android. Netbook sales are down 41% according to the release, and I would guess that those sales have mostly gone to Apple iPad and Android tablets rather than to Windows notebooks.

Will Windows 8 reverse the decline? Speculation of course, but it will not repeat the success of Windows 7. In fact, my guess is that Windows 8 will be a hard sell to enterprises which have finally been persuaded to migrate from Windows XP. They are settling down for another five years of stability. Windows 7 was a consolidation release, just the sort of thing enterprises like. Windows 8 will be a revolution release, with most of the interest focused on what it can do in mobile and tablets. If it does succeed, it will do so slowly; there will be no rush to upgrade from 7 other than from the usual early adopters. It may improve sales in the consumer market, but neither Mac nor iPad nor Android is going away.

That leads on to mobile, the figures for which are buried under a pile of Xbox consoles. A good quarter for Xbox, though note how poor the margins are compared to those for Office or Windows.

Finally, the online money drain continues. Note that this is Bing and online advertising, not Azure or Office 365. Microsoft must feel that it the strategic value of these online services is worth the cost, particularly since they tie into mobile and the ecosystem which Nokia is depending on for a reversal of its fortunes. Given that the company has money to burn, there may actually be some sense in that; though for a segment to make such large and consistent losses over a long period has to be a concern.

Office 365 and why it will succeed

Today is launch day for Microsoft’s Office 365, which offers use of Exchange, SharePoint and Lync hosted by Microsoft at commodity prices – not quite as low as $50 per user per year for Google Apps, but low enough that it is likely to be a substantial saving for most customers, versus the cost of installing, maintaining and backing up on-premise versions of the same software.

The debate about the merits of Office 365 versus Google Apps is a fascinating one, but the reality is that many organisations are not ready to give up Word and Excel, Outlook and Active Directory. Why?

  • They are too deeply invested in Microsoft’s platform, and depend on home-grown and/or third-party applications that run on it.
  • Office and Exchange is a business standard.
  • Desktop applications still have advantages for things like word processing or manipulating large spreadsheets.
  • Offline is important, and Microsoft is better at this than Google.
  • Microsoft ticks boxes in areas like compliance and archiving

The beauty of Office 365 is that migration from on-premise servers can be almost invisible to users. It is also an easy and effective solution for new businesses. Every mobile device seems to support Exchange, and one thing it has always done well is to synchronise nicely with multiple clients.

The other side of the coin is that Google Apps is by far the better option if you want to live in the cloud. Outlook Web App is not bad, but creating and editing documents entirely with Office Web Apps would not be fun at all. Office 365 will also be a struggle if you are inclined to ditch Windows. Email will be OK, and I guess Mac users have Office 2011, though in my experience that is inferior to almost any version of Office on Windows.

What about the really interesting questions? Is data more secure with Google, or with Microsoft? Is either platform resilient enough to manage without backups? What is the risk of extended downtime that could have a drastic impact on productivity?

Unfortunately it is not possible to offer precise answers to these questions, which I guess is why on-premise retains its appeal.

OpenOffice moving to Apache; next step reunification with LibreOffice

Oracle has announced that it is contributing the OpenOffice.org code, the source for the free productivity suite that competes with Microsoft Office, to the Apache Software Foundation’s Incubator:

Incubation is the first step for a project to be considered among the diverse Open Source initiatives overseen by the ASF. A submitted project and its community will join the more than 50 projects in the Apache Incubator, and will benefit from the Foundation’s widely-emulated meritocratic process, stewardship, outreach, support, community events, and guiding principles that are affectionately known as "The Apache Way".

Everybody love the Apache Foundation so this is good news for the future of the project, though the Document Foundation, formed by renegade OpenOffice.org contributors fed up with Oracle’s stewardship, says the event is neutral from their perspective. The Document Foundation welcomes the ability to reuse code that will now but under the Apache License, but adds:

The Document Foundation would welcome the reuniting of the OpenOffice.org and LibreOffice projects into a single community of equals in the wake of the departure of Oracle. The step Oracle has taken today was no doubt taken in good faith, but does not appear to directly achieve this goal. The Apache community, which we respect enormously, has very different expectations and norms – licensing, membership and more – to the existing OpenOffice.org and LibreOffice projects. We regret the missed opportunity but are committed to working with all active community members to devise the best possible future for LibreOffice and OpenOffice.org.

It seems inevitable that the two projects will be reunited, and it seems that dialogue has already begun:

TDF is therefore willing to start talking with Apache Software Foundation, following the email from ASF President Jim Jagielski, who is anticipating frequent contacts between the Apache Software Foundation and The Document Foundation over the next few months.

A curious story, but one that seems likely to end in a good way. IBM, which is a big supporter of the ODF XML document formats used in OpenOffice, is welcoming the move:

Over the long-term, we plan to work with other Apache contributors to extend the vision of productivity beyond documents. We are learning much more about the semantic web through our additional work on LotusLive Symphony, and the vision in the research and lab teams has to extend productivity into new realms. Meanwhile, the Apache community can be expected to accelerate adoption of ODF as a primary set of document formats, and to drive ODF compatibility in other products and solutions in the future.

says Ed Brill. It is good to read about new approaches to productivity, because this has been a weakness in OpenOffice which is sometimes perceived a a kind of inferior-but-free equivalent to Microsoft Office. In the meantime, Microsoft has worked to make its own suite more distinctive, to defend a territory that accounts for a significant share of its profits. The ribbon user interface is part of that strategy, but more significant is its integration with SharePoint, and the emergence of Office Open XML as a unifying format for editing documents in desktop Office and within the browser using Office Web Apps.

Unifying the open source teams behind OpenOffice and getting it away from Oracle are both important steps towards making the project more compelling.

Decent Microsoft results, but where is the cloud? where is mobile?

Microsoft has released its results for the quarter ending March 31 2011. The figures are pretty good; but despite much talk about the cloud there is little sign that Microsoft is reinventing its business – unless you count Xbox, which has had another excellent quarter and is delivering meaningful operating income for the company.

Quarter ending March 31 2011 vs quarter ending March 31 2010, $millions

Segment Revenue Change Profit Change
Client (Windows + Live) 4445 -205 2764 -399
Server and Tools 4104 398 1419 149
Online 648 82 -726 -17
Business (Office) 5252 911 3165 623
Entertainment and devices 1935 725 225 75

Windows is a little down in the quarter, which Microsoft says in the press release is “in line with PC trends”; a small statement which disguises what must be real concern about the market drift towards iPads and SmartPhones that are made by other companies.

Server and tools put in a decent but unspectacular performance. Office on the other hand was a powerhouse this quarter. Again, the press release statement is telling:

the integrated innovation with SharePoint, Exchange, Lync and Dynamics CRM is driving significant growth for the division

If you substitute “lock-in” for “integrated” you will not be far wrong. As an aside, I spoke to a major UK retailer last week about its move towards desktop virtualization. The exec I spoke to mentioned in passing that as they rolled out SharePoint 2010, they also realised that they would have to upgrade to Office 2010 at the same time, otherwise too much stuff just would not work properly. From Microsoft’s point of view, that is “integration” working as designed.

Online on the other hand, which I understand is mainly Bing and advertising revenue, had yet another miserable quarter. Microsoft says it is pleased that revenue increased; but the loss is bigger too, and the loss is comfortably bigger than the revenue which means it spent more than twice what it earned in this segment. Perhaps it is worth it, if Google is rattled even slightly by Bing’s growing search share, up to a claimed 13.9% in the US, but this is the longest of hauls.

So where’s the cloud? Azure is not mentioned in the release, and I am not even sure in which segment it lives; my guess is Server and Tools. Office 365, which is not yet launched, does get a mention. I think Office 365 will be big business for Microsoft, though it is going to cannibalise the server business a little.

Mobile? Somewhere lost in Entertainment and devices, where clearly the major element is Xbox. Something curious happened when Kinect launched; as a hands-free controller the device is imperfect but its genuine innovation seems to have boosted the profile and sales of the Xbox generally. A couple of years ago when we were all talking about the red ring of death I would not have expected such excellent figures.

This company remains a powerhouse, but the fact that its fortunes remain closely tied to those of the PC, and its lack of progress in mobile devices, are a concern.

Microsoft Outlook 2010 annoyance: tasks do not show in contact activities

I discovered an Outlook 2010 annoyance over this long weekend. A user I’m in touch with uses Outlook 2007 as a simple CRM system. He creates tasks that are linked to contacts, using the Contacts button at the bottom of the New Task window, things like “Call John” with some notes. If he then looks at the Outlook contact record for John, he clicks the Activities tab and sees all the tasks linked to that contact listed.

Trouble is, he upgraded to Outlook 2010 recently and the feature no longer works. The Contacts button is not in the New Task window by default, but you can get it back by selecting Show contacts linked to the current item in File – Options – Contacts. Even if you do though, the Activities list in a Contact window is broken and the tasks do not appear.

It turns out that this is a bug, possibly caught in the crossfire as Microsoft develops the Outlook Social Connector, which has its own Activities record.

Bugs are unsurprising in a product as complex and multi-faceted as Outlook; but Microsoft could do much better in its communication. This thread on “Microsoft Answers” lacks any official response; we do not even know if it is fixed in the Office 2010 SP1, now in private beta, or whether the feature has been removed and it is just the user interface that needs cleaning up.

While it is unimportant to most of us, clearly if you do use Outlook as a simple CRM system it is crucial. In fact, I recall when contact linking was introduced in Outlook it was touted as a major new feature.

Some users have resorted to re-installing Outlook 2007, which turns out to be rather awkward thanks to the interdependence between Outlook and Word, though it can be made to work.

Incidentally, I was interested to note that Microsoft performed a u-turn with regard to the availability of Business Contact Manager (BCM), an Outlook add-in and companion product. This used to be installed by default with Office Small Business edition, and was something that I used to uncheck or uninstall as I never used it and it could cause problems. Nevertheless, some people did use it, and were upset to find it missing from Outlook 2010 Home and Business. The updated Business Contact Manager was only available by download if you had a volume license for Office.

This was a silly decision, since Business Contact Manager targets very small businesses (including one-person businesses) who are least likely to have a volume license. Microsoft therefore changed its mind:

After careful consideration, we decided to simplify the Office 2010 lineup by including Outlook with BCM, a business product, only in volume licensing. We understand it is not ideal for every user. When we made this decision, we underestimated the importance of BCM to our small business customers and those who purchased previous versions of Office in retail stores or pre-installed on PCs. Worse yet, we left many of our customers, who didn’t want to buy through volume licensing, stranded with their data locked in previous versions of Office.

Since September, you can download BCM if you have any licensed copy of Outlook 2010.

Microsoft’s muddled licensing for Office Web Apps

I’ve been reviewing Microsoft’s Small Business Server 2011 – mainly the standard edition as that is the one that is finished. The more interesting cloud-oriented Essentials version is not coming until sometime next year.

In its marketing [pdf] for SBS 2011 Microsoft says:

Get things done from virtually wherever and whenever. With Office Web Apps (included in SharePoint Foundation 2010), users can view, create, and edit documents anyplace with an Internet connection.

This appears to be only a half-truth. You can install Office Web Apps into SharePoint Foundation 2010, but it is not included in a default install of SBS 2011 Standard, and as far as I can tell the setup for it is not on the DVD. If you try to download it, you will find it is only available through the Volume Licensing Service Center, and that you require a volume license for Microsoft Office to get it. You can also get it through TechNet, but this is for evaluation only.

The Office Web Apps site states:

Business customers licensed for Microsoft Office 2010 through a Volume Licensing program can run Office Web Apps on-premises on a server running Microsoft SharePoint Foundation 2010 or Microsoft SharePoint Server 2010.

and it also appears that each user requires a volume license for desktop Microsoft Office in order to use it. In other words, the Client Access License for Office Web Apps is a volume license for Office. You cannot purchase a volume license for 5 users, and then have everyone in your 50-person organisation use it.

This approach to licensing makes no sense. In fact, I’m not sure it is even internally consistent. Part of the web app concept is that you could, if need be, walk up to a PC in an internet cafe, log in to SharePoint, and make a quick edit to a Word document. You are not going to ask the management “is this machine correctly licensed for Office Web Apps?”

What if you are using Linux, or an Apple iPad (it almost works), or a RIM PlayBook, or some other device on which Office cannot be installed? These are scenarios where Office Web Apps is particularly useful; Microsoft cannot expect users to buy a license for desktop Office for machines which cannot run it.

Note Office Web Apps applications are severely cut-down in comparison to the desktop editions. It is not even close to the same thing. Further, Microsoft lets anyone in the world use Office Web Apps for free – provided it is on SkyDrive and not on a locally installed SharePoint.

Microsoft is also happy to give users of Office 365, the forthcoming hosted version of server apps including SharePoint, access to Office Web Apps:

Work from virtually any place and any device with the Office Web Apps

I’m guessing that somewhere in Microsoft the powerful Office group is insisting that Office Web Apps is a feature of the desktop product. Anyone else can see that it is not; it is a feature of SharePoint. Excluding it from SBS 2011 by default does nothing except to complicate matters for admins – and it is a fiddly install – thus reducing the appeal of the product.

Incidentally, I see nothing unreasonable about Microsoft charging for an on-premise install of Office Web Apps. But it should be licensed as a web application, not as a desktop application.

For more on this see Sharon Richardson’s post and Susan Bradley’s complaint.

Microsoft cash cows alive and well, lame ducks still lame

Here is my quick summary of Microsoft’s just-announced quarterly results:

Quarter ending June 30th 2010 vs quarter ending June 30th 2009, $millions

Segment Revenue Change Profit Change
Client (Windows + Live) 4548 +1379 3063 +1134
Server and Tools inc. Azure 4012 +84 1546 +340
Online 565 +64 -696 -111
Business (Office) 5250 +683 3284 +578
Entertainment and devices 1600 +343 -172 -31

What’s notable about these figures? Well, the big-picture Microsoft question is how it is coping with industry transitions, in particular the transition from on-premise servers and desktop software to cloud services and mobile device clients. Of course you can debate the extent and speed of that transition, but I believe it to be real.

The story here is that Microsoft’s traditional products are still amazingly profitable, and that the effort invested in making Windows 7 a decent upgrade from Windows XP or Vista is paying off. Further, Microsoft Office sales actually exceed Windows sales. It does not really surprise me; despite the existence of capable cheaper or free alternatives, I rarely see business PCs that do not have Office installed; and Microsoft is busy locking in Enterprise customers with hooks between Office client and SharePoint server.

On the other hand, Microsoft’s progress in cloud and device looks amazingly bad. The figures are not all that easy to read, since Azure, Microsoft’s cloud platform, is part of the Server and Tools business; and BPOS, the cloud-based Exchange and SharePoint offering, probably sits there too. The “Online” business in the figures covers Bing and MSN, and earns its money primarily from advertising. This part of the business managed to turn in a loss greater than its revenue, which is remarkable considering how successful Google is with that same business model.

Entertainment and Devices is also hard to read. If you read the press release, it turns out that the reason revenue increased was not thanks to the success of Xbox or an unlikely rebound for Zune or Windows Mobile. Xbox actually declined, and so did Windows mobile, and the increase was thanks to increased sales of Windows Embedded:

Non-gaming revenue increased $35 million or 1% primarily reflecting increased sales of Windows Embedded device platforms, offset in part by decreased Zune and Windows Mobile revenue.

Windows Embedded is an interesting story. I don’t know how its figures break down, but I research things such as digital signage and point of service systems from time to time, and there is a lot happening in that space which deserves more attention from the technical press, especially as it directly touches our lives.

Despite the Embedded success, Entertainment and devices also turned in a substantial loss, though nothing like the horrors of Online.

Conclusions? One is not to write off Microsoft; it’s still a highly profitable giant. But the other is that the company desperately needs a big success outside Windows and Office to convince us that it really has a bright future. A sparkling launch for Windows Phone 7 would do nicely.

SharePoint 2010 web launch delivers blank web page

Microsoft has suffered an embarrassing technical problem at the launch of SharePoint 2010 and Office 2010. The pre-launch publicity made a big deal of how this launch was both web-based, with the keynote streamed globally, and built on SharePoint 2010.  

Microsoft’s global launch website http://www.the2010event.com for the 2010 suite of products was built on Microsoft SharePoint 2010, reaching more than 60 countries and 26 languages worldwide.

says the press release. CNet’s Ina Fried has some more background:

If we went with (SharePoint) 2007 we probably would have cut corners a little bit," said Carol Matthews, a senior marketing manager in Microsoft’s information worker team. Instead, she just had to convince boss Chris Capossela to bet the launch on a product that was still in testing. Microsoft does have an HTML-based backup for Wednesday’s launch, but Matthews said that has more to do with the unreliability of the Web than of SharePoint.

The hour came; and this is what the site delivered to me and, according to Twitter, many others:


By coincidence, this came just after I wrote a post about SharePoint including this comment from a consultant:

just because a thing can be done with SharePoint doesn’t mean it should (for example, websites usually should NOT be built in SharePoint, in our opinion).

Maybe the technical hitch is nothing to do with SharePoint. Still, it’s unfortunate.

Update: later on in the launch someone circulated an URL for watching the keynote directly in Windows Media Player. That worked fine – but bypassed all the SharePoint content.

Six abandoned features from the history of Microsoft Office

With Office 2010 about to launch, it’s fun to look back at earlier Office launches, especially some of the features which were hyped as breakthroughs at the time, only to be dropped or hidden a couple of versions later. Here are six which come to mind.

Smart Tags

Smart Tags were the big new feature of Office XP. You would be typing a document, and as you typed it would pull in data or run wizards by recognising the content of your document. Smart Tags were originally envisaged for Internet Explorer as well, but controversial since they overlay third-party content with Microsoft’s interpretation of what it might be about; that feature was dropped. Smart Tags just about persisted into Office 2003, after which Microsoft stopped talking about them.


Curiously, if you hit Display Map in Word 2003, then after a few Internet Explorer convulsions a map of New York appears with the location marked (I have no idea if it exists, I just picked the numbers 12345). In Word 2010, the feature is hidden, but if I right-click the address I do get Display Map under Additional Actions:


However, if I select Display Map I just get a map of the UK with a search box. It appears that this feature in Word 2010 did not receive the most rigorous attention or testing.

The Tip Wizard

Introduced in Office 95 (along with the Answer Wizard), the Tip Wizard would observe your actions and come up with a tip if it thought you might need help. It was actually a better approach than the Office Assistant which was to follow, being less intrusive and occasionally even helpful.


The Answer Wizard was less impressive – billed as some sort of intelligent question parser, but in practice little different than simply searching help for keywords.

The Office Assistant

The unforgettable Clippy, introduced in Office 97, whose opening remarks were usually “It looks like you’re writing a letter.” Clippy had a wonderful range of animations though; almost as if more effort went into the animations than the artificial intelligence. You did not have to have Clippy; there were a variety of other characters available. The Office Assistant also hijacked certain dialogs, such as the option to save when closing a document.


So what was actually wrong with Clippy? Part of it was the faulty AI, but more seriously the application overstepped the mark between what is helpful and what is annoying and intrusive. Someone even wrote a paper on the subject.

Although everyone loves to poke fun at Clippy, Office 97 (in which he first appeared) was a huge success for Microsoft – accordng to the company, it was the fastest selling application in PC history at the time. Clippy did not last though; by the time of Office XP the Assistant was off by default, and in Office 2007 it is not available at all.

Adaptive Menus

Here is an idea which really seems to make sense. The problem: too many menu options that few people use, cluttering up the user interface. The solution: menus which only present the features you actually use. The other options are hidden by default, but can be revealed by clicking a double-arrow. If you use a hidden menu a few times, it starts to appear by default; if you do not use an option for a while, it hides itself. The feature arrived in Office 2000.


The problem with adaptive menus was the wrong things got hidden. I always found it annoying when Office hid the Print menu, even though I rarely print documents (which is why it got hidden).

They also fail the consistency test. Humans need landmarks in order to navigate, and making them shift and change over time is disorientating.

Outlook Net Folders

Once you have a network, then among the most obvious things to do is to start sharing basic things like contact lists. Microsoft has a feature in Exchange called Public Folders which does this nicely. But what about little workgroups that do not have Exchange? Outlook 98 introduced Net Folders, aimed at exactly this need. You could configure a Net Folder, in which case hidden emails were sent round the network to synchronize everyone’s changes.

Unfortunately nobody in Microsoft used Net Folders. Why would they, when they had Exchange? In consequence, the Net Folders feature never worked correctly; they would inevitably become corrupt or non-functional after a while. After Outlook 2000, the feature disappeared.

Access Data Projects

Microsoft Access has a decent user interface for managing data, but the underlying JET database engine is a bit hopeless over a network. That was the thinking behind Access Data Projects, introduced in Access 2000. Keep the friendly Access UI, but have the underlying database engine be SQL Server.

At the time Microsoft hinted that JET was nearing end of life, and that the local SQL Server engine might take over. It was a hard sell though. Users understood the MDB: a file that has all their data in it. You could copy it to a USB drive and take it home, or email it to someone, and it would happily open in another Access installation (version differences aside). SQL Server is just more fiddly. In any case, you can connect to SQL Server from an MDB or Accdb, so why bother? After Access XP, Microsoft moved away from the idea of Access Data Projects.

Actually, Access Data Projects are still there even in Access 2010, just hidden. Go to the backstage view, select New, and type a filename with an .adp extension. Then click Create. Access will ask if you want a new or existing SQL Server database.


And more…

I could go on. The Office Binder – a great feature of Office 95-2000 that rolls documents of multiple types into one file. Data Access Pages – a somewhat misconceived feature of Access 2000 for binding HTML to database fields. What’s your favourite abandoned feature?