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Gates Packs Office

Microsoft's chairman outlines his vision for a next-generation development platform.

In what was likely his last statement of direction before transitioning out of his full-time role at Microsoft, Chairman Bill Gates gave his vision of the next generation of Office as a software development platform.

Kicking off Redmond's first-ever Office System Developer Conference, Gates took the wraps off a major new version of a new developer program for Office.

"Making Office into a platform is very important to us," Gates said in the opening keynote at the conference, held in San Jose, Calif. He added that Office will be taking on "a very ambitious agenda in the future."

Gates said that evolving hardware -- including growing storage capacity and ubiquitous connectivity -- is enabling an expanded vision for Office.

Bill Gates"As we think about software, we're running it on the personal computer, we're running it as a service, we're running it on servers, and we're running it on mobile phones," Gates said. "[So the need is for] software that works together across all those devices that delivers a complete solution."

Gates revealed a major new version of Office Live Small Business and some new tools for developers working on Office Business Applications (OBAs) that will be key to helping developers build such solutions. Gates unveiled the Winter 2008 release (version 2) of Microsoft's online Office Live Small Business service, which he said has had more than 600,000 subscribers since it debuted last year.

Microsoft is offering a free basic version; users can pay for additional services.

"These online, hosted services are becoming more powerful," Gates said. "But they're not done in isolation. They connect out to the client applications and to on-premise server applications."

Gates also announced a new OBA Composition Toolkit, which is basically a reference application that uses Office and SharePoint Server 2007 "to enable the creation of enterprise mashups using pre-built components." Additionally, he introduced a new OBA Sample Application Kit for PeopleSoft and SAP AG, which provides tools for the rapid development of enterprise-grade business software connected to Office; and Visual Studio Extensions for Windows SharePoint Server 1.1. A free download from MSDN, these new extensions add SharePoint project types to Visual Studio 2005 -- support for VS 2008 is expected this summer.

Bill Gates Quote

Gates Won't Leave Office
Even as Gates gets ready to give up his full-time role at Microsoft in July to devote time to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, he said he planned to stay involved with Office.

"I've always felt a strong connection to it, and I see great frontiers there," he said. "Our investment in the Office platform is greater today than it's ever been."

He said Microsoft is hard at work on the next version of the Office suite, which is referred to internally as "Office 14."

At the heart of Microsoft's strategy to promote Office as a development platform is OBA, which combines the ubiquity of the world's most widely deployed productivity suite with enterprise business processes and data for improved productivity. This new app species also fits neatly into the company's Software plus Services model.

Easier Said than Done?
"Philosophically, Microsoft's approach makes sense because customers will always prefer to extend the life and functionality of software that they've already put in place," says Jeff Kaplan, managing director of IT market analysis and consulting firm THINKstrategies Inc. "Practically speaking, it will be hard for Microsoft to develop, deliver and support Web-based services, which could compete with their existing products."

The Office-as-a-platform strategy is likely to appeal mainly to companies that are already satisfied with Office, and those that prefer to deal with an established player, Kaplan says.

"However, it's no longer the only choice, now that Google and others are offering viable alternatives," he adds.

And for Third-Party Developers?
"It's very hard for established ISVs to juggle the differing development, delivery, support and sales requirements of a hybrid model," Kaplan says. "This internal battle will be the biggest challenge for Microsoft."

And yet, there's no denying the advantages of exploiting Microsoft's position of strength on the desktop with Office and, increasingly, SharePoint, says industry analyst Neil Macehiter, of U.K.-based research firm Macehiter Ward-Dutton Ltd.

"From the customer perspective, it makes sense, because it allows organizations to deliver capabilities in the environments that users -- particularly business users -- are comfortable with."

FedEx Ships with OBAs
Microsoft disclosed some early adopter customers who were given early access to OBA. One was David Zanca, senior vice president of the e-commerce technology group at FedEx Corp., who demonstrated his company's use of OBAs during Gates' keynote.

Zanca demonstrated the just-released FedEx QuickShip, an Office add-in that leverages the company's Web services. QuickShip allows users to schedule FedEx deliveries from within Outlook 2003 and 2007. They can generate labels, track packages, check rates and schedule pickups from clickable icons on the Outlook toolbar, now called the "Ribbon." The application is available now as a free download.

Since Microsoft released a royalty-free version of the Ribbon -- called the "Fluent UI" -- to developers, more than 2,600 have been downloaded, Gates said. The company also provides access within its Office applications to developers via the Task Pane.

"The Ribbon got started with Office 2007, but we see it spreading to all the remaining client applications," Gates said. The next version of Windows will be using the Fluent UI "quite a bit," he continued.

Gates showed off several other OBAs at the show, ranging from Mindjet's MindManager brainstorming software to Xobni's e-mail organizer.

"Given the footprint of Office, I think there's room for Bill to be optimistic, particularly given Microsoft's developer and ISV propositions," Macehiter says. "Only IBM is anywhere close in terms of providing Office-like capabilities and a strong developer story. Microsoft's other key competitors here, such as Google with its hosted apps, and Adobe and Sun, have a long way to go."

Then again, Microsoft isn't taking any of its rivals for granted.

About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance author and journalist based in Silicon Valley. His latest book is The Everything Guide to Social Media. Follow John on Twitter, read his blog on ADTmag.com, check out his author page on Amazon, or e-mail him at john@watersworks.com.


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