When Microsoft held its Professional Developers Conference (PDC) in Los Angeles two weeks ago, it knew it would have to trot out some exciting future products to hold the interest of the tech-savvy audience. That is why the company offered a preview of Office 12, the next generation of the desktop productivity suite that is scheduled to ship in late 2006 along with the Windows Vista operating system. Like Windows Vista, Office 12 will represent the biggest change in Microsoft's client software since Windows 95 and Office 95 took the market by storm over a decade ago.
At the heart of the changes in Office 12 is a completely redesigned user interface that Microsoft developed after studying how thousands of people work with current versions of the software. According to the company's research team, the current interface worked well a decade ago when the number of Office commands was relatively small. However, now that Office applications such as Word 2003 have over 1,500 commands, users have trouble finding the ones they need. They also struggle to work with the multiple menus and toolbars that clutter their screens and leave them with less space to work with documents.
To address these problems, Office 12 will replace the menu and toolbar clutter with a "ribbon" across the top of the screen that provides the commands that users will most likely need based on what they are doing. When a user changes activities--for instance, by clicking on a chart instead of entering text--the ribbon will display commands appropriate for working with charts. At the same time, commands not relevant to the task at hand will disappear from the ribbon.
In addition, Office 12 will feature "galleries" that will act as alternatives to the complicated dialog boxes found in current versions. Galleries will allow users to select from visual examples of the most common dialog box settings and get the results in a single click. Users who want to work with individual settings will still be able to click through to the old dialog boxes.
Content Management for the Rest of Us?
While the redesigned interface of Office 12 will be the first thing that users notice, the workflow and collaboration engine that resides under the product's hood will be what grabs the attention of IT professionals. The engine--which Microsoft announced at PDC as Windows Workflow Foundation--will be more than just an Office feature. It will be an integrated component of Windows Vista, the next version of BizTalk Server, and the Microsoft Dynamics family of business applications that I discussed in an article last month. Through the workflow engine, Office 12 users will gain out-of-the-box capabilities for version management, document archiving, policy-based retention, and Web content management.
In addition, Windows Workflow Foundation will be integrated into WinFX, the new programming model that will ship with Visual Studio 2005 in November. As a result, WinFX will enable developers to design workflows within line-of-business solutions, user interface page flows, document-centric workflows, and business rule-driven workflows. Many of these workflows will require the use of Microsoft's SharePoint Portal Server along with Office 12, though some will run on Office 12 on a standalone basis. Developers who want to take Windows Workflow Foundation for a test drive can download a beta version of it that is packaged as an extension to Visual Studio 2005.
By integrating workflow technologies into Windows and Visual Studio, Microsoft will make it significantly easier for companies to use Office as an enterprise content management platform. While the software giant has been promoting Office 2003 as a collaboration and content management platform, many companies have found the software suite to be a cumbersome workgroup solution. Put simply, Office 2003 requires a number of supporting products to function as a robust collaboration platform. By embedding Windows Workflow Foundation in Windows Vista and Visual Studio 2005, Microsoft could dramatically simplify the delivery of workflow and content management solutions via Office 12.
If Microsoft does deliver a simpler solution, it could become a serious competitor to traditional workflow and enterprise content management vendors such as EMC's Documentum division, Interwoven, and IBM's Lotus and Workplace divisions. While the solutions from these vendors will undoubtedly provide more robust content management capabilities than Office for years to come, many companies could decide that Office 12 is adequate for their needs. By creating a simple and relatively inexpensive workflow platform, Microsoft could both popularize and commoditize the content management solutions space. In the process, the market's weaker vendors could fall by the wayside.
It remains to be seen how Office 12 and its integrated workflow technologies will perform in the field. The jury is also out on whether Office users will accept the new interface that Microsoft is offering them. However, given Microsoft's heavy investments in workflow technologies and Office's dominant market position, there is little doubt that the next-generation suite will significantly change how millions of employees collaborate with each other.