Microsoft Office doesn't want you to be alone. Productivity should be a shared experience, apparently, and now the vaunted Office suite wants to integrate your social circles into all your spreadsheets, Word docs, and presentation decks.
Imagine your co-workers, gathered virtually around your desk, showing you how to get more from Office, and helping you improve your work. That's the next-gen Office that Microsoft envisions, and it's a trick that none of Microsoft's competitors--Google and all the other freebie upstarts--have yet to attempt.
Announced on Monday, Microsoft's description of the future of Office 365 shows an evolution from an individual user's application into a shared workspace. Yes, Office can help traditional customers, like college students, with traditional documents. But in this new, group-hug world view, the value of Office increases as the number of linked users increases. And that value can be summed up in two words: real-time context.
Office's evolution is, in many ways, running parallel to the evolution of most search providers: moving away from forcing you to search for information, instead delivering that information before you think to need it. We see that in Google Now, and in the leaked shots of Microsoft's Cortana digital assistant. Office will take that concept yet further.
Work like a network
Just months ago, Microsoft was suggesting that documents could be improved through live data. Now Microsoft seems to be exploiting is its overabundance of social and communication tools, including Yammer, Lync, and Skype.
"We believe the future of work is all about working like a network," Jeff Teper, the corporate vice president of Microsoft's Office Service and Servers Group, wrote in a blog post accompanying the announcements. "It's about how we build relationships, share information, and respond to ever-changing conditions."
The first incarnation of that is the Office Graph, similar, at least in concept, to the Facebook Graph, which exploits the relationships Facebook users have forged. Facebook, though, adopts a pretty basic approach: Yes, you can find restaurants in your area that your friends have liked, but that information is tucked away inside the search box at the top of the screen.
Microsoft, on the other hand, hopes to take data--including relationships between people, groups, files and conversations--from Exchange Online, SharePoint Online, and Yammer to provide contextual information as you need it.
The first incarnation of that is "Oslo," named for the location of the FAST search team Microsoft purchased for $1.2 billion in 2008. Oslo, according to Microsoft, will "surface," or highlight, key conversations, content, and the people you care about most, in Microsoft's words. Microsoft characterizes Oslo as a standalone app, so apparently it will serve as a sort of meta-tool pulling together the three separate products. At this point, as some of my colleagues noted, it's basically two things: an organizational tool to collect relevant documents, and a glorified org chart.
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