Microsoft's executives will candidly admit that the company's past attempts to help customers make better use of its Office product family were "a fiasco". "Bob and Clippy [the animated pop-up help characters] were too damn cute," says Bob McDowell, Microsoft's vice president for information worker business value. "Were they failures as products individually? Sure – but the concept was sound."
The next version of Office, when it arrives in latter half of 2006, will take a hint from Microsoft's approach to security patches: nudging office workers rather than aggressively pushing them towards more productive ways of using the software. But it is up to McDowell and his Microsoft colleagues to persuade workers – and ultimately IT directors and CIOs – that the latest additions to the Office suite are worth the money.
"Nine times out of ten, when companies come to renew their software licences, the questions I get are: ‘I love your product but I don't use 20% of the features in the version I have'; or ‘I haven't deployed the last one I bought'; or ‘I don't have a clear roadmap for where you're going with this product'," says McDowell.
His role is to persuade people of the value of their existing products, so they then actively want to upgrade when the next release comes around. "I think we have a great story but we're doing a lousy job of telling it," admits McDowell. "We're losing more by not being invited to the table than by going head to head. If we're seen as just about spreadsheets or word processing we're not going to be asked to the table."
While Office 2003 was sold as a set of integrated productivity tools, Office 12 will be pitched as a "platform to build solutions upon". "The productivity argument can only go so far," he says. Customers need to be able to make better decisions, not just quicker ones, he adds.
Recent agreements with other enterprise applications vendors, such as German giant SAP and supply chain management specialist i2, allow Excel and other Office products to be used as a front-end to these complex applications. These provide users with a familiar environment, hiding the complexity of the backend, says McDowell, as well as making greater use of software which has already been paid for.
This type of agreement is part of a wider strategy for Microsoft, as demonstrated by its decision to support the document standard XML (extensible markup language) as the default file format in Office 12. McDowell acknowledges that Microsoft software has not been so good at integrating beyond its own family, and analysts agree that employing XML marks a significant change for Microsoft – and its users.