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March 20, 2006

Bill Gates Q&A: Changes Around The Office

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Three years have passed since Microsoft last upgraded its widely used Office desktop applications--Excel, Outlook, PowerPoint, Word, and others--and related Office server applications. The next release, Office 2007, is due in the second half of this year, and Microsoft officials have begun to talk openly about what will be new and different, including features, pricing, packaging, and licensing. Office developers will convene this week, from March 21st to the 23rd, at the Office Developers Conference in Redmond, Wash., to learn how to tune their own software for the Office 2007 environment.

Microsoft chairman and chief software architect Bill Gates last week discussed the company's Office strategy with InformationWeek editor John Foley. Their conversation ranged from the pumped up Office SharePoint Server to a new server-based version of Excel to blogging and enterprise data search.

InformationWeek: The subject here is Office 2007 and the Office System. You've got a developer's conference coming up.

Bill Gates: That's right. And there's kind of a framework here, which is that people have had for their very structured data, that's all driven by rules. They've had their ERP systems, and then for things where they're negotiating with customers and dealing with exceptions and all that, they've had electronic mail and the individual productivity tools. And yet a lot of things don't fit nicely into those categories, or kind of bounce back and forth between the categories where [for example] somebody gets a product but it's not quite right--should they send it back, should you give them a discount? Maybe next time you're committing to do something a bit different. You know, a bid, you're supposed to send a bid in, but the customer has very special requirements. All these things don't really fit the pure structured world, and yet the efficiency in dealing with these things and getting lots of people working together really determine how effective a business is.

And so there's been all this software that's kind of narrowly defined about, OK, we have documents, let's make those accessible, we have a portal that points to a bunch of things, let's have that. Let's have enterprise search, let's have enterprise rights management, let's have enterprise file servers, enterprise collaboration.

There's really been nothing that's at critical mass and everybody's familiar with, other than E-mail, that involves many people, and yet has the flexibility to deal with unstructured situations. Even something as simple as I'm running a project and I want to have lots of people see the information and collaborate on, that ends up being difficult. If you want to do something like a Wikipedia or a blog inside a company, you want to have rights management and notification and things that aren't needed in the nonbusiness world. You don't really have anything that fulfills that.

Office 2007 includes a dramatically richer version of SharePoint in terms of its data model and its workflow and how it connects to rights management, and the templates for things like blogging, Wikipedia, community, discussion.

And so what we're trying to do is really show the developers how there's a whole class of applications, and there are many terms that have been used for these applications--you know, composite applications or whitespace applications--where you're leveraging the ERP world and you're leveraging the Office client applications, so you want to be able to make an appoint that shows up in Outlook and you want to be able to click a link in an E-mail and get right into the information that's relevant, but you also want to have data connectors back into the ERP world.

Anyway, [for] these applications that range from just picking a template to writing a few lines of code to rearranging the form to something fairly complex, there's an environment now that is about collaboration. So instead of thinking, OK, I'll buy a few seats of this document management thing for these people, and I'll buy rights management for these people ... everybody gets to work together. Even people coming from college or temp agencies or other companies are used to these templates: starting a project, here's what the standard form is; we're organizing a big meeting, here's what the standard form is; we're doing a community discussion at the top level or underneath one of those, and here's how you initiate that. And as you fire these things off, IT doesn't have to get involved, and in fact the infrastructure makes it so even people outside the company can securely be permissioned to come in without a lot of IT overhead.

So we have this big view of SharePoint as a platform. The simple version of SharePoint comes free with Windows Server, and then some of the more advanced features and workflow and templates and search actually cost a little extra, there's a Client Access License that goes with that.

It's a platform, and so DevCon is where we get together the incredible variety of developers who would think about this as a place to write and think about their applications being a lot easier to write.

I mean today, if you have to do something like a discussion application, you're kind of building from scratch a bunch of [the user interface], which is crazy because people want the standard discussion UI anyway. You just want to write the framework of the workflow and the stuff that's unique for that application. You want all the end-user interaction to just be these SharePoint components that you're just reusing and are there and the person is familiar with. It's been set up on this sort of high-volume basis so that you can just assume it's there, like you do with Office today on the client, but that doesn't work for these collaborative things, which are fairly key.

So if you have a bunch of people who work on bids, you just build a site and put all the requests for proposals up there, and people can come look at that. You can have a little bit of logic if something is getting near a deadline where people get a bunch of E-mail saying, hey, who's taking care of this one, look at calendars.

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