Ten years ago, the challenge to desktop applications was to bring information locked away in businesses' data stores to the workforce, Jeff Raikes, president of Microsoft's business division, told IT managers assembled at the software giant's IT forum in Barcelona in November 2005.
But today, Raikes continued, information access is no longer an issue. Indeed, a more salient problem for today's office worker is having too much irrelevant information presented to them.
"On the one hand, today's office workers have information overload," says Raikes, "but on the other hand, they can't access the right information at the right time."
It is this problem that Microsoft has addressed in the design of the next edition of its Office suite, which includes desktop applications such as Word, Excel and Outlook.
The new iteration will, according to Microsoft's vision, eliminate time wasted navigating applications to find data – an activity that consumes 25% of information workers' time, says Raikes.
"In our tests on Office 12, we've seen that the same tasks require 60% fewer mouse clicks than with previous versions," says Wolfgang Ebermann, general manager for Microsoft's Information Manager business group in the EMEA region.
This theme of simplifying information access is also reflected in the launch in November 2005 of an enterprise desktop search application from Microsoft's Google-aping online arm, MSN, following the release of a consumer version in May.
Also continuing that ideal is the recent roll-up of enterprise applications such as business intelligence, CRM and ERP into a single product group, Microsoft Dynamics, with the eventual goal of uniting them as a single application. Rather than switching applications to draw customer information and then financial data, for example, all systems will feed into a single interface.
And it is not just a matter of saving time: the ease with which information workers will be able to retrieve timely information will elevate their work to a more strategic and decision-influencing level, Microsoft hopes.
"We want to make the information worker feel like the chief executive in the information they can access, and the context it is presented in," says Ebermann.
The most substantial development towards this end is the inclusion of Microsoft's rudimentary business intelligence application, Business Scorecard Manager, in Office 12. BSM places constantly-updating key performance indicators (KPIs) in a dashboard on the desktop, and its introduction to the Office bundle will bring the presentation of business data in the context of strategic goals to a more mainstream audience.
Also empowering to the employee, says Raikes, is the availability of ‘unstructured' data, such as the contents of text documents, within business applications. In his keynote address at IT Forum, Raikes provided the example of a BSM screen which automatically presents relevant entries from a corporate news web site or blog alongside KPI data.
Wolfgang Ebermann concedes that reconciling this initiative to display ‘unstructured' data in a timely fashion while reducing information overload presents a few problems. He admits the seamless and pertinent integration of unstructured and structured data may not have been perfected by the time of Office 12's first release in the final quarter of 2006, and developments in enterprise search and server software are needed to deliver on the promise of the concept. Indeed, it seems that much of the promise of Office 12 is dependent on investment in up-to-date server software.
In developing tools that complement a vision of a new mode of information work, dubbed the "digital workstyle", Microsoft aims to help businesses capitalise on emerging communications practices such as instant messaging, says Ebermann.
"That new ‘workstyle' is already out there," he says. "There is a generation now joining businesses that has been brought up with SMS and IM, and those are skills that benefit the business."
The integration of instant messaging and voice-over-IP with Outlook for Office 12 offers businesses the benefits to collaboration of synchronous communications media without alienating those unused to the technologies. Again, however, this is a benefit that requires the capability of the network to support such communication tools.
Microsoft hopes that Office 12 will be the package that converts technological developments in servers and communications into a qualitative shift in the way information workers go about their business. After all, says Ebermann, it would not be the first time the software bundle effected such a shift.
"Think of the kind of work that secretaries were doing before Microsoft Office came, like using word processors to convert hand-written documents to an electronic format. Now, through Office software, their time is spent more productively, and they contribute more to the business. Office 12 will do the same for information workers."