More than a quarter of a century ago, Microsoft put a word processor, a spreadsheet, a presentation package, and an email client into one box and called it Microsoft Office. In doing so, it created the productivity suite as the world came to know it. And for all that’s since changed about Office, the devices it runs on, and the competitive landscape, the basic defining idea–lumping together a handful of feature-laden apps, each of which handles a different sweeping category of business tasks–has hardly changed at all.
At last week’s Build conference in San Francisco, however, Microsoft articulated a new vision for its venerable productivity offering, which now has 1.2 billion users around the world. It involves breaking down Office down into its component parts, letting users and third-party developers mix and match capabilities in new ways, and layering on conversational interfaces which are far, far afield from the suite’s keyboard-and-mouse origins. At the conference, I caught up with Qi Lu and Julie Larson-Green–the executive vice president and chief experience officer, respectively, of Microsoft’s Applications and Services Group–to talk about where Office is going.
The fact that Office will grow only more mobile and cloud-based is not exactly a shocker: Microsoft has been positioning itself as a company that is simultaneously mobile-first and cloud-first ever since Satya Nadella became its CEO in February 2014. But there’s another core element to Office’s future vision: understanding what matters to people and companies by analyzing the voluminous amounts of data they create within Word, Excel, Outlook, PowerPoint, and other Office apps.
“Even though mobile and the cloud can be viewed as the big two tidal waves, intelligence is the single biggest driver of innovation,” says Lu, whose original responsibilities when he joined Microsoft in 2009 included spearheading its search-engine operations. “We see a world where we’ll be able to use data to fundamentally understand how work gets done, how people collaborate.”
Imagine a busy businesswoman barking instructions about an urgent project into her watch as she races through an airport terminal. As she does, a software agent understands every request, efficiently collecting necessary data from disparate sources and then alerting the relevant people–even though she never called upon specific apps or mentioned any colleague in particular. That’s the sort of scenario that Office’s future vision, in its most out-there form, intends to enable. It might seem tempting to write the whole thing off as the sort of glitzy futurism that Microsoft has often pitched in keynote addresses and in videos such as this:
But even though much remains to be done, Office’s new vision isn’t just, well, a vision–it’s a work that’s already in progress. “For our groups, Julie and I working together, the current vision is the culmination of work over the past two-plus years,” says Lu.
In retrospect, Microsoft has been pulling together the necessary ingredients for a lot longer than that. Last year, it introduced the Microsoft Graph, a set of hooks that let third-party developers build apps and services that have access to big data from within Office, such as the users within an organization, their calendars, and the documents they’ve created. In 2014, it launched Office for the iPad–not the first modern version of the suite for a non-Microsoft platform, but the first that didn’t give off a vibe that Microsoft was concerned about it being too good. Three years before that, it announced Office 365, which turned Office from a box of software for a particular computer into a service that entitled you to run the latest versions of all its apps on multiple devices.
And hey, the concept of “conversational interfaces,” which was a major theme at Build, is an exceptionally long-term Microsoft dream, dating back to the mid-1990s and the company’s Microsoft Bob and “Clippy” Office Assistant–both of which, though famously irritating and unsuccessful, were forward-looking in their own idiosyncratic way. They’re clear precursors to Cortana, the voice-enabled assistant that originated as a Windows Phone feature in 2014, is now part of Windows 10, and is in the works for iOS and Android.
Microsoft has also been prepping itself to build a new kind of Office by learning how to just plain move faster than it did in the era when the suite’s primary means of delivery was as software in a box. “Today, our ability to ship code is night-and-day different than two years ago,” says Lu. “We used to ship every one year, sometimes two years, sometimes three years. Now our teams ship every week, sometimes, and at least once a month. It’s a massive change. Having that velocity is so critical for us.”
The future of Office involves all of the above elements. “We’re moving from having people think about the tool to thinking about the task,” says Larson-Green. “Instead of saying ‘I need to make a PowerPoint,’ we think about ‘I have ideas to communicate.’ If we’re going to have a meeting together and then I’m going to follow up with you with the notes and the PowerPoint and the other things that came from the meeting, today there’s a lot of steps you take. You think ‘I need to go to email, figure out who was in that meeting, compose a mail, attach a PowerPoint.’ In the future, using the intelligence of the machine that knows all these things and all these connections between things, you can just say ‘Send the notes and the PowerPoints from my last meeting.’ Without having to give it more information than that.”
In this future scenario, precisely how you interact with Office will depend on what sort of device you’re using. Larson-Green speculates that Office could someday be available in purely voice-enabled form on some type of device that doesn’t have a screen at all. But she stresses that a conversational interface isn’t synonymous with Siri-style speech recognition and synthesis. “It could be voice,” she says. “It could be voice plus gesture. It could be text and typing. It could be a combination of different inputs. You tell it ‘No, more like this, no, more like that.’ And two-way conversations and disambiguating things by you being asked questions.”
For decades now, people who use Office have been used to loading up Word, Excel, and other apps and shuttling between them as a project demands. In the future, you might hand off a sizable chunk of this work to agents and bots–and yes, Microsoft draws a distinction between them. Agents are working on your behalf and–with your permission–can aim to piece together a deep understanding of your work by analyzing your documents, email, calendar, and collaborative acts within Office. By contrast, a bot may be operating as a representative of a third party, such as a retailer, an airline, or a hotel chain; it’s an expert on the tasks it’s been programmed to perform, but doesn’t have unfettered access to your personal information.
“Starbucks’ bot probably knows all the coffees,” explains Lu. “If you’re a frequent shopper and it makes sense in context, it may even know that oh, you tend to order this type of latte. But that bot won’t know your birthday.”
Speaking of Starbucks, its CTO, Gerri Martin-Flickinger, was onstage during one of Build’s keynotes to show off an add-in that lets you order gift cards to bestow upon deserving coworkers and friends from within Outlook–an example of how Microsoft is thinking in terms of specific tasks, and letting third parties build functionality to let Office do new things.
“At work, Starbucks gift cards have become a bit of a thank-you currency,” Martin-Flickinger told me after the keynote. “And it’s kind of a pain if you want to go online and buy a gift card–it’s nice, and it’s beautiful, but you have to stop your brain from what you’re doing and go to the website and buy a card. Or walk into a Starbucks and buy a card at the counter. And so we were just brainstorming ideas and said ‘Wow, it would be really cool if Starbucks could be more integrated in that workflow process that knowledge workers have.’ And one of the places they live all day long, for good or bad, is email.”
Building Starbucks commerce into Outlook, though an entertaining and unexpected idea, is an example of Office’s long-standing ability to be a container for third-party functionality. But now Microsoft is also flipping that notion on its head. With the Microsoft Graph, developers can pull data from Office 365–sometimes enhanced by deep-learning technology–into their own standalone apps. At Build, for instance, Microsoft demoed how the DocuSign digital-signature service uses a few lines of code to let users send files to coworkers.
The Graph isn’t just serving as a mundane address book: Thanks to its deep understanding of the data generated by an organization that uses Office 365, it understands which people are involved in specific projects and even knows if a particular person is out of the office and therefore likely unavailable to sign a document. By calling on the Graph, DocuSign can make its own service more useful while also giving organizations that use Office 365 one more reason to keep paying Microsoft for the service.
In its current versions for iPhone, iPad, Android, and the web, Office is appealing in part because it’s comfortably reminiscent of the Windows version. But Microsoft is keenly aware that the further the suite ventures from its PC origins, the less its past formula is a template for future versions.
“We grew up in the era of, you add more features–‘here’s the eight new things we added,'” says Larson-Green of Microsoft’s classic product-development strategy. “In the mobile world, it’s not about fidelity or features or pixel-perfect layouts, or all these things that were really important on the desktop, and will continue to be important.”
She points to the Apple Watch version of Office’s OneNote note-taking app. “It’s a completely different interface, because you can’t actually put a [conventional Windows] user interface on a watch. We had to rethink the input, and we use a combination of voice, tiny keyboard, and gestures.”
For users, the incentive to use OneNote on an Apple Watch has nothing to do with its interface being familiar, and everything to do with the fact it shares the same repository of notes you create using other versions of OneNote. That’s a big part of how Microsoft sees Office staying core to how organizations work regardless of whether they’re working in Windows. It’s going to be about the ever-expanding corpus of corporate intelligence that a company creates as everyone within it uses Office.
“In the next five years or 10 years, it’s hard to image that as an individual user, as a team, you’re going to use devices that all come from the same company,” says Lu. “It’s going to be a mixture of devices. The power in many ways is going to be the data. The contents, the information about you, how you work.”
Which is not to say that Microsoft has lost interest in leveraging its operating system when it can. With Windows devices such as Microsoft’s own Surface and its pen, Larson-Green says, “we have much more control and a complete end-to-end experience, with integration into the [interface] and even influence on the hardware, which is why you’ll see some great things coming up in the inking world. We’re able to talk directly to the hardware team about what we want to see with ink.”
When Microsoft introduced the newfangled toolbar known as the Ribbon in Office 2007, it was quickly embraced by some users while others grumbled and clung onto earlier versions of the suite for as long as possible. Today, the Ribbon is among the most long-established and familiar interfaces in software, and it’s the idea of interacting with Office through voice, chat, and gestures that sounds like a journey to a brave new world. Convincing 1.2 billion people to come along is the sort of challenge that will occupy Microsoft for many years.
This time, however, it’s not an either/or situation. Unlike the Ribbon, which replaced Office’s previous interface, everything that Microsoft is talking about introducing is incremental to the current Office experience. And the company says that Office as we already know it will to continue to evolve. “I think the Ribbon interface has been great and will continue to be great for the mouse-and-keyboard world, and we’ll augment that,” says Larson-Green.
“Historically, any new experience paradigm tends not to replace the previous ones,” adds Lu. “They tend to coexist. What usually happens is the new paradigms tend to grow a lot faster.”
Lu, who says that Satya Nadella “has done a truly incredible job since he took over the company leadership,” also credits another notable Microsoft honcho for influencing the company to rethink Office from the ground up. “Even without the level of clarity we have today, we knew we had to revamp our platform,” he says. “One thing I learned from Bill Gates: He would tell me, ‘Any time things are moving forward, when there’s a new era, you have to make sure you have the right platform. Because the platform will prepare you. It pushes you to the new height.'”