Microsoft Office 11: Ready, Aim ... Fizzle?

Commentary: Do you really want to go where Office 11 can take you?

When I first saw Microsoft Word 2.0, with breakthrough scripting facilities for an end-user application, I told readers that Microsoft wanted its Office suite to become the framework of enterprise task automation. With last months emergence of beta copies of Office 11, the company continues to track that moving target, and the question is not whether its developers can hit it—but whether it still exists.

The premise of COBOL, and of Microsofts Word Basic and Visual Basic for Applications, and now of Office 11, is that tasks change slowly enough to be worth the effort of coding and deploying task definitions in the form of application code.

COBOL worked with flat files and reports, Word 2.0 worked with databases and documents, and Office 11 wants to work with XML-demarcated data and with diverse client devices. But all of them share that premise.

The premise of the PC revolution, 20 years ago, was that tasks change quickly enough that software such as Lotus 1-2-3 was worth learning to use—in all its generality—so that users could redefine tasks on the fly. The clumsy integration of 1-2-3 gave way to the richer integration of embedded objects: tables, for example, that remembered their origins as spreadsheet arrays. The Web filled in the last gaps with essentially free, essentially immediate access to everything that anyone either knows or can tell you how to figure out—to paraphrase Jerry Pournelles 1980s definition of where PCs and networks would someday take us.

Efficient-market theorists will tell you that in a fully connected, real-time information environment, the only way to add value is to respond more quickly than anyone else to unpredictable events—not to enshrine what you knew yesterday in code that you hope to keep running for months or years.

The Office 11 ambition reminds me of what Robert Townsend said when he was running Avis. He suggested that IT people were like construction contractors who would rather build a road than worry about where it went. The Office 11 team at Microsoft can take you ... where they can take you. You have to decide if you really want to go there.

Send your application road map to