As Microsoft Corp. prepares to release the first beta for Office 11, the next version of its pervasive Office productivity suite, Jeff Raikes, its group vice president of productivity and business services, sat down with eWEEK Senior Editor Peter Galli at the companys Mountain View, Calif., campus to talk about the changes users can expect to see.
eWEEK: You have talked about pushing Office to vertical markets. Can you tell me what your plans are in that regard?
Raikes: There is the opportunity to reconfigure what people think of the suite of products today for segments like small business or the consumer environment or the home. Thats not really vertical to me, but it is to some people. Relative to real vertical functionality, I dont see us innately doing this. … Its not like were coming out with a specific distribution of Office for the legal market. It already has a lot of features for that market. But what we are doing that is very exciting is using XML capabilities more fully in the next major release such that the Office tools become a way to connect into functionality that will be specific to certain verticals. For example, we were just reviewing the idea of Excel accepting information done in a schema for financial reporting, so you can compare different companies. Theres a vertical characteristic to that, but its not a specific product for that. Today we have a small-business version [and a] student and teacher license edition, but there will be nothing beyond this. But there are things that people will do that will supplement Office for various vertical industries.
eWEEK: You have identified the business intelligence arena as an area of huge opportunity for Office. Can you be more specific about your plans in that regard?
Raikes: The challenge today with business intelligence is that it frequently ends up being the domain of a few people inside the organization. My view in part is that theres a big opportunity to make business intelligence more accessible, and one of the key ways to do that is to make it much more connected into the Office tools people are already using. So, if I can go from a SharePoint Portal site to look at a scorecard that leads me into an Excel solution that connects to Data Analyzer and then am able to e-mail this off to my sales team, then Ive really opened up business intelligence to something thats more accessible. Our goal is not to cannibalize the business of companies in business intelligence today; our goal is to help business intelligence become more accessible. The way to do that is to get the Office tools connected to the systems that represent that information.
eWEEK: So what are we going to see in Office 11 that makes that happen?
Raikes: A very good example is the support of arbitrary schemas, XML schemas, because XML becomes a way to open up Office to access that information.
eWEEK: You have said a goal of yours is to allow people to extract data from various systems and then run it through analytical programs to produce reports to guide their decisions. Where are you with that?
Raikes: Office 11 is a big step forward in this regard because of the arbitrary schema approach, where you have a standard schema for reporting financial information and immediately be able to access that data without massaging it. In Word too, which is a tool people use to create content. If you can have access to XML schema associated with content databases within your organization, you can dramatically pull that boilerplate text. Thats a pretty significant step forward. What we then will do with Office in the Longhorn timeframe will also be a significant step forward. One of the big steps there will relate to what we call the unification of storage. For our users one of the improvements to the experience will be [the ability] to unify the storage of certain applications like Outlook with the storage of the operating environment as well as some SQL-structured storage. This will result in one folder system, which improves the accessibility of information thats related to a given project–and to be able to do that on both the client and server and extend that because its one and the same storage system.
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eWEEK: You will be opening up the binary document format in Office 11, which will allow data mining and server-side processing. How will that affect users?
Raikes: Its already open, as you can save an Excel spreadsheet today in XML, you can save an Access database in XML. Weve had an “open file format” for years with Word and Excel. People somehow think this changes the dynamic between competitors trying in effect to clone our software. It turns out its not the file system that stops them, its the ability to write the software in a way that represents a good fidelity for the content. But the arbitrary XML schema element is the most interesting because … your ability to connect up with business application systems grows phenomenally because you dont have to write Excel specifically for a financial reporting schema or a content management schema. It just knows how to accept a new schema and do the right thing. And thats what we do in Office 11.
eWEEK: Youre also looking to use Word as an XML development platform, allowing others to create templates and solutions and repurpose content. Is that your goal?
Raikes: Yes, our Task Pane now also becomes programmable in XML so that as part of accepting that schema the actions that are associated with how to operate on that schema can be defined by the person who programmed the solution as well. So in effect it becomes a mechanism that guides you through the solution thats built on Office.
eWEEK: You continue to be accused of using file formats to prevent other productivity suites from interoperating with Office. Is there merit to these accusations?
Raikes: They can use RTF today, they can use XML if they want. The binary format is a proprietary format. The issue is not the binary format vs. RTF, its when they see a table they dont represent it right on-screen, and people care about that. In our opinion our competitors just dont do a good job around the fidelity of the documents. The thing that differentiates the competition is how they take advantage of XML for the type of scenarios weve discussed. Many of them just dont invest enough research and development in future-looking stuff. Theyre always just trying to play catch-up with us.
eWEEK: What improvements have been made on the digital rights management (DRM) front in Office 11, particularly in the light of the DRM server Microsoft is working on for release next year?
Raikes: We may be able to surprise you in what we can do with DRM. There was some really good work done on DRM for eBooks, but the real business opportunity for that is to use those technologies more broadly for business documents. It also needs to go across corporate boundaries. So the work has been under way, but weve made a corporate decision not to talk publicly about it right now. But I have some optimism about what well be able to do in the Office 11 timeframe.
eWEEK: There was a lot of interest in your pilot subscription offering for Office XP in Australia, New Zealand and Brazil. You recently terminated that in Australia. Is this the end for a subscription model for Office going forward?
Raikes: Not in my opinion. While its not a priority in the Office 11 timeframe, we have the technology. The pilot was successful in that we learned that the channel today is not really set up to do a good job of explaining what the subscription actually is. The channel created customer misperceptions that we then had to deal with after the time. A couple of things have to go hand-in-hand: One is a better infrastructure for the channel to reach the mass market with a subscription and clearly articulate it. The second is for customers to learn about it and understand what value it might bring. The more we have ongoing software value, the easier that will be. So I think those three things will come together over time and that will be the opportunity. The pilot taught us that.
eWEEK: Talk is that the first beta for Office 11 is ready to go and could come within the next two weeks. Can you give me an indication when well see it released?
Raikes: Soon. Its close. Well be referencing the personal productivity improvements relative to Outlook and placing a strong emphasis on collaboration and how it ties into SharePoint Team Services, as well as the use of XML to help the Office tools get well connected–and lots more.
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