REDMOND, Wash.--For a company that is happy to list a million reasons why Office is better than OpenOffice or Google Docs or other rivals, Microsoft sure is putting a tremendous amount of effort into working better with those products.
The next version of Office will natively support the OpenDocument format (as will the next service pack for Office 2007). As it is developing the next Office, Microsoft is also documenting every change it is making as part of its commitment to documenting all of Office's various formats and protocols.
"We often talk about the changing needs of the customers and our industry," said Antoine Leblond, who leads the Office engineering effort. "The one thing we don't talk about is how those needs have changed our engineering process."
Adding support for more standards and file formats may not be the biggest headline-grabber, but it is important to customers, Leblond said.
"This certainly is as important as any feature we would go do," he said.
Although Leblond said it was a lot of work to go back and document 25 years of the Word file format, he said the fact that his engineers now have to write down what they are doing can pay off in a number of areas, including security.
"Frankly, it's just good engineering," he said. "It actually has a lot of benefits."
Microsoft isn't just trying to work with its rivals, though. Much of the effort in Office 14, as with the past couple of releases is to also make Office work better with business processes. Some of that is efforts like Duet, which links to SAP, but it is also about helping businesses automatically generate and integrate Office documents as opposed to having Office documents live in their own world.
"What people are doing tends to be stand-alone," Leblond said. "What we hear people asking for all the time is (ways of) extending these into corporate processes."
It will take some time for the fruits of this work to come to market. Microsoft has already said not to expect Office 14 this year. Microsoft hasn't given a lot of detail on when it will come, although, in an interview this week, Chris Capossela said that Microsoft is hoping not to be too far outside the company's traditional three-year time frame between releases.
As for naming, Microsoft is expected to eventually call the product Office 2010, at least according to recent trends as well as a few slips of the tongue I heard during my time at Microsoft last week.
In addition to the standards work, Microsoft's big focus with Office 14 has been about adding the Office Web Applications that will let Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote run in a browser. With Office 14, Microsoft will also have updated versions of the Office apps for Windows Mobile although it will really be up to cell phone makers to decide when those come to market.
Options for mobile workers
The browser-based Web apps will also help take Office onto the iPhone. Over time, Leblond says Microsoft needs to work on even more types of phones. "We want every manner of cell phones to read Office documents," Leblond said. "That's an important thing. We don't live in this bubble."
Leblond said he understands adding more options for mobile workers is key to keeping Office relevant. "People aren't always sitting in front of their laptops or in front of their desks."
One of the interesting things to see is how Microsoft will price access to the Office Web Apps. It has talked about them largely as an adjunct to their desktop counterparts. At the same time, Microsoft workers have said that businesses will be able to offer Web-only access to employees, an option that some companies seem eager to take up.
"We don't think of the Web apps at all as replacements," Leblond said, but acknowledged that will be a "tempting model" for some customers. He also added that there are some Web-only features that make sense, given that the Web apps work only when there is an Internet connection.
The desktop software also needs to work better with the Web, Leblond said, adding that Microsoft is looking at how to make it possible so that documents can automatically be saved in the cloud. Today, Microsoft has a number of options to save to the cloud, including Live Mesh, Windows Live SkyDrive, and Office Live Workspace.
Ultimately, customers just want access to their data, he said, whether that is on a PC or from the cloud. He pointed to the way Outlook has a cached mode that works when there is no network connection, but that the data is ultimately synchronized with a server. "That's a terrific model and certainly one that we strongly believe in."
For more from Leblond, check out this video interview.