Home opinion-and-analysis Beer Files Microsoft says Open Office.org 10 years behind

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Alan Yates

As general manager, business strategy, for the Information Worker Group at Microsoft Corporation, Alan Yates develops and guides new business initiatives for the Office products group at Redmond. While we await the release of Microsoft Office 2007, promised to hit our shelves before the end of 2006, Yates dismisses open source rival Open Office.org 2.0 as being 10 years out of date.

According to Yates, there are very good reasons for people to pay $500 or more for even the soon to be superseded version of Microsoft Office as opposed to paying nothing for a copy of Open Office 2.0, which the Linux crowd will tell you does the job just as well.

'It really depends upon what job you're trying to do. Certainly, if you're just trying to write a few notes or something, Open Office is just fine. The truth is though that Open Office.org is really designed to solve the problems that Microsoft focussed on 10 years ago when the model was an individual user working at their individual PC,' says Yates. 'The world and Microsoft software has grown way beyond that to make it very easy to do what used to be very hard things. Most documents today are not done by one individual. They're done by multiple people working on a project at once. Essentially, Open Office is fine if you have very limited needs because it was really designed around what Microsoft Office products were designed around 10 years ago.'

So can we have some examples please?

'The Microsoft Office product line has gone way beyond that to serve multiple constituencies. We have a home and student version. We have small business versions. We have multiple enterprise versions. It has gone on to encompass working with quite a bit of server software to encompass the real challenges that businesses have today.'

Yates claims that Microsoft in reality presents a compelling pricing proposition compared to Open Office.org.

'The pricing you quoted for Office were quite on the high side compared to what customers really pay whether you're a student or whether you're a business,' he says. 'The way we look at it is that the acquisition cost of the product is very rarely the end of the story. In fact, it's usually the tip of the iceberg in terms of cost. In terms of real cost, you might find a very low number of dollars between the real cost of using Open Office when you factor in deployment costs, migration of documents, training, patching and updating, and really taking care of the software.

'Once you have an apples-to-apples comparison of the real costs of using the software then you can start talking about the benefits. Most people for example do use communications software and Office is very well integrated with real-time messaging software, with email, with calendaring, with tasks, and so on.'

And this is not the case with Open Office.org?

'Open Office doesn't ship with an email client. There are a number of open source email clients that one can find, But, if you look at Office 2003 and use Outlook for your email, you can right click and set up a meeting.; you right click and see if someone's on the phone or in a meeting; you can right click and see their presence information; you can right click and call a meeting of multiple people; you can take a document, immediately share it with multiple people and see if they're available to give comments back to you or not. There is functionality that customers have asked us for and we've delivered well beyond just the ability to write letters and notes.'

But how many people actually use that level of functionality?

'In fact we find a really interesting situation where different people use different parts of the product and we very consciously over the years created a situation where the product has some features that are very important for some users. By design not everyone is using those features. Each different type of usage tends to use different parts of the product more than other parts of the product.

'I think you will see with Office 2007 that we've looked through millions of records of data about how customers actually use the product. What we've tried to do with this product that we're really excited about is to understand it in the context where someone is in a document or spreadsheet or presentation there are certain things that they tend to want to do more often than not. Previously, it's been a little bit too hard to do that with the current menu structure. So we've innovated with what we call the new ribbon user interface which recognises that wherever you are in a document, say in a table, you want certain things available to you. And we've made the changes you can make visual so you can go down through a gallery and pick them - pick something that looks right to you.

'So, some people may not place high demands on Office but they may place unique demands on Office and we've tried to represent that in the product. We've made it easier over the years to enable people to start small and grow with the product.'

According to Yates, criticism from some quarters that Office 2007 is going to introduce a steep learning curve for existing Office users is not going to present a major problem for Microsoft, although he admits the learning curve exists.

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'We're working with thousands of users right now and what we see is that there is a short learning curve, a short adjustment,' he says. 'Some people prefer not to have any training at all while other people do prefer to have a little bit of training to adjust to the new user interface.

'One of the things we have done, for example, is that we have really expanded the tool tips where, if you hover over something, you'll get directions to how that feature is used. As well, if you hover over something, the entire text will change right in front of you so you'll see what happens immediately. In fact, we have done some really smart things to mitigate the impact of transitioning to a new user interface. The result is that, yes, there is a short learning curve but, at the end of the day, you are so much more efficient compared to the old user interface that it is well worth it to undergo the switch.'

However, Yates finds it difficult to quantify what the 'switch' to the Office 2007 will mean to a medium level user in terms of time and effort.

'It's hard for me to make generalities. If you're trying to do something simple, you can do that immediately. If you're an intermediate user and you're working on intermediate sized projects and you want to exploit a lot more of the product, our beta testers have reported that it's about a week's worth of adjustment. For those people like me, who are doing quite a few things, it's a week's worth of adjustment and I would never, ever go back.'

Hovering over things and tool tips sound nice in theory. However, some of Microsoft's past efforts, with funny faces appearing on the screen offering advice and so on, have often served more to annoy users rather than aid them. Is there a chance that Microsoft is merely repeating its mistakes of the past, attempting to foist an over engineered product on end users, with fancy features they neither want nor asked for? Naturally, Yates does not think so.

'There's always the risk that an individual user won't like whatever it is that we've done but these are not fancy things in a sense,' he says. 'This is about allowing people to have better results faster. If, for example, you're thinking about using a font, all you do is hover over that and you see what the change looks like immediately - that is so gratifying. We're not doing this for engineering sake; we're doing this for usability and efficiency sake. We think that by far the majority reaction will be sheer joy and happiness over solving some things that honestly the old paradigm of the tool bar user interface had outgrown its utility. Things had gotten too complicated there.'

Yates claims the backward compatibility issue of Office 2007 is another good news story because of its new Open XML file formats.

'We are changing the file format for Office. In 1997, this was a difficult event and we learned a great deal from the pain that was caused by people moving to the new file format,' he says. 'This time we've done a number of things. There's a wonderful reason to move to the new file formats which is that it's open and it's XML so that you can see everything that's in the document if you want to. Other software products can use the XML information in the format that it was originated in.

'The second big thing we're doing is to provide lots of the right transition tools, which will enable an update to Office 2000, Office XP and Office 2003 so that the older products can support the newer format. Also, we have automated conversion tools so that people can take existing documents and have them converted to the new file format relatively painlessly.

'Finally, we have a planning tool so that you can go through spreadsheets and documents and determine what nuances might be there that you need to think harder about converting. Say you have a specific template or macro that your corporation uses. The tool will identify those things and help you determine how to move those forward.'

According to Yates, Office 2007 will not consume any additional resources than previous versions.
'File sizes will be radically smaller so that when you're sending files around they will be zipped, compressed files and they will be anywhere from 50% to 90% smaller,' he says. 'In terms of overall performance, even though we're doing a lot of new things we don't expect the hardware requirements to be any different than Office 2003. We are developing it for the Windows XP operating system and later.'

So what we have is a new Microsoft Office suite that Microsoft is going to have to convince business and home users to pay extra to adopt. Yates obviously does not believe it is going to be a hard sell.

'I don't we foresee any problem in convincing people of the core value proposition for the product versus the competition,' he says. 'We have always faced cheaper products; we've always faced products that were not as functional; we've always faced products that may not have the same level of deployment support. The arguments for our product will not just be efficiency. It will also be ease of deployment, ease of use, efficiency and productivity, connectivity with the real scenarios in government and so on.'

Many pundits believe that Office 2007 is going to be a make or break exercise for Microsoft, given that so much of the company's revenue is derived from the product. However, Yates claims that this is overblown.

'I don't view it at all as a make or break thing because there are so many customers on long term license agreements for our software. In the past, customers have told us that they don't want much change. In this case, however, we've come up with a really break-through set of innovations that are going to make so clear and compelling to customers that change is worthwhile.'

Despite the view of Yates, his final statement underlines the importance of the release of Office 2007 for Microsoft and appends an exclamation mark. The company has been told users that they are comfortable with Office and they don't want to see too much change. However, in order to differentiate itself from its open source rival, Microsoft has decided to take the bold step - some might say gamble - of telling its customers what's good for them. If Microsoft manages to pull it off, then its dominance of the office productivity desktop is likely to continue for another generation. If users dig in their heels, however, then Microsoft has a problem because there is a very real rival out there and it's free.


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Stan Beer


Stan Beer co-founded iTWire in 2005. With 30 plus years of experience working in IT and Australian technology media, Beer has published articles in most of the IT publications that have mattered, including the AFR, The Australian, SMH, The Age, as well as a multitude of trade publications.


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