Alternate Title: “Is Dick Moffat an Old Fart?”
Tonight on Twitter, David Hager pointed me to the latest blog post from one of my favorite people, Dick Moffat. In this post, Dick wonders whether the lack of an Office-specific conference is a bad sign. In essence, Dick’s concern boils down to these points:
- There used to be an Office Developers conference, now there isn’t one
- SharePoint is the only Office-focused conference these days, which is a sign that the traditional Office apps are basically disappearing into SharePoint
- That’s a shame because not everyone wants to adopt SharePoint – Office may start to disappear from the radar of non-SharePoint shops
- It’s a shame in general – it reinforces the vibe that Office is no big deal anymore, after being the center of the corporate universe for so long
- He openly speculates throughout as to whether he is just a grumpy old fart 🙂
Dick, I do see a number of challenges ahead, but I also think there’s much more good news than bad news here. Yes, I mean that even for point #5 🙂
Office customers don’t view the desktop apps as a platform anymore
In the old days, it was common for even large corporate customers to build entire applications around the Office desktop apps. For the first 5-6 years I worked at Microsoft, for instance, expense reports were done entirely in an Excel-based, client/server application. And I think the electronic Company Store ordering application used Access under the hood.
But around 2000 or shortly thereafter, both of those solutions migrated to a server-based implementation, presented via the web. Microsoft internal IT simply decided that was a much better way to go.
That same trend was playing out all over the world. Desktop solutions in general were being replaced by IT departments everywhere – replaced with web-based solutions.
No one was moving away from the desktop Office applications themselves. Excel, for instance, was just as important as ever. But IT departments were no longer building internal solutions (like expense reporting) on top of them.
In many ways, those are the “good old days” that Dick pines for. But they are simply never, ever, coming back. And that has nothing to do with Microsoft giving up on the Office apps. It’s just a lot easier to build, deploy, and maintain server-based, intranet web apps than it is to maintain an infrastructure based on the Office apps.
Good news #1: Faster Upgrades!
The good news here is that as corporations have moved away from the desktop apps as a solution platform, it’s become easier for them to upgrade to the newest versions of Office, because the chances of them breaking a critical solution have dwindled to near zero. They still don’t upgrade overnight, but I definitely have noticed Office being more quickly deployed than it used to be.
As an example, look how many PowerPivot folks replied and said they were running Office 2010 on Windows XP – about 30%! You know why? The OS is still a platform for applications, and customers are very reluctant to upgrade it at a consequence. Office has shed that role, however, and is now “pulling ahead” of Windows in terms of upgrade cycle. In the old days, most customers rolled out new versions of Windows and Office at the same time, so we never would have seen something like Office 2010 running on Windows XP at a 30% rate.
Good news #2: Office 365 as a Future Platform
Let me be clear: I am in no hurry, at all, to trade in my desktop copy of Excel for a web-based version. I think it’s very likely that 15 years from now, Microsoft will still be selling a desktop copy of Excel, and it will be widely used.
I haven’t tried Office 365, aka Office Online, yet. I’m pretty slow to adopt new stuff actually, both because there’s a bit of the “old fart” in me too, and because I like to let products “cook” for a version or two before I invest in them – PowerPivot is a rare exception for me.
But Office 365, in a future version, offers us the promise of Office becoming a relevant platform again. Server-based platforms > client based platforms – the market has spoken pretty clearly on that, and I agree. So the fact that Microsoft is investing heavily in a server-based version of the Office suite is very good news. Let’s give them a year or two and see how things are shaping up.
Good News #3: Does Not Require Internal SharePoint Adoption
Make no mistake, SharePoint is going like gangbusters. Their conferences are nothing short of amazing, as I noted in one of my first few blog posts ever.
But to be an Office 365 customer, you will not have to be a SharePoint customer.
Will we someday see a year in which both Office 365 AND SharePoint each have a big conference in their honor, or perhaps a joint conference in which both get equal billing? Yes, I believe we will, and it may not take very long.
Remember, conferences only make sense for platforms.
Good News #4: More Frequent Feature Additions and Bug Fixes
Awhile back I was talking to some of my former colleagues in Office. We were discussing support for a particular feature – something that is missing from the current SharePoint 2010 release of Excel Services.
Here’s the relevant part: at one point they mentioned that it would likely be a lot easier for them to add that feature to Office 365 than it would be to work it into a service pack of SharePoint 2010. That makes sense when you think about it: it’s the same reason why server-based solutions are so appealing in the first place. With server-based apps, you own every piece of the puzzle. Bing and Google don’t need to test and deploy a new monolithic desktop suite every time they want to make a fix or improvement. And neither will Office 365.
It’s not all fun and games in this future of course. First, if they want Office 365 to become a platform, they have to have a fully-featured API. Excel Services programmability has made great strides in 2010 for instance, but it’s a LONG way away from being as complete as the client OM.
And when they get such an API ready to go, um, how is it going to relate to the desktop OM? Like I said, I think desktop Excel is here to stay. Designing any sort of programmability story that is sensible and coherent across desktop and server is going to be a gargantuan task.
Lastly, I wonder whether Office 365 is architected in a way that’s conducive to all of us tinkerers uploading our custom applications. Even Windows and SQL Azure do NOT give you remote desktop access to the server machines for instance, and neither will Office 365. They will have to provide another way to upload solutions, which should be easy. Making sure those solutions can’t bring down the servers (that are being shared by other customers), overly tax the servers, read other people’s data, etc. – that’s not easy.
Is Dick, in fact, an old fart?
In my view there are two key indicators of being an old fart. One is constantly complaining that the old days were so much better than today, even if there’s plenty to be optimistic about. And yes, Dick DEFINITELY meets this criteria 🙂
But the other key indicator is a stubborn refusal to adapt and adopt. When I first met Dick and heard him complaining about the declining role of desktop Office as a platform, I thought he was going to cling to that stance and go down with the ship.
Six months later, guess who had become a rabid early adopter and vocal supporter of Access Services? Yep, Dick Moffat. For someone who complains so bitterly about the state of things, you’d never expect him to be ahead of the curve like he is. I suspect the same was probably true when they replaced Excel Macro with VBA in the 1990’s. I bet Dick complained a lot about that transition while busily learning how to do acrobatic things with the Range object 🙂
You talk a good line Dick, but I’m onto your little game now. I predict you will write your first line of Office 365 code before I do. Which is good, because you and I will still be helping each other then, too 🙂
This is in a comment below but I thought I’d include it in the post directly so that more people see it:
Yes Rob … You nailed it !
I AM an old fart (and a second ago I proved it to myself once again 🙁 ) but that only means that new technologies have to prove themselves to me before I’ll jump on the bandwagon. I also believe strongly that “Traditional” Office apps (most notably Excel and Access) are not only still relevant on their own but are actually the most significant potential source of content for SharePoint going forward. If Excel and Access aren’t used with skill then the whole SharePoint thing comes crashing down.
At the same time, yes, making it so that MS only talks about Excel and Access in the context of SharePoint is great marketing but I think it’s a dis-service to the customers and potential customers of Excel and Access themselves. As you say – nit everybody is going to be going to SharePoint soon (many never) so does that mean that they are cut out of the messaging around Excel and Access? Doesn’t seem right to me somehow.
I JUST got off a middle of the night call to Europe with a client who uses an Access Services database I developed for them… they also have a SharePoint site that consumes some info from the Access Services database. They NEVER considered the idea of integrating them directly and so so alternatively they are moving data from my database to the SharePoint one manually using Excel exported data from my site into theirs. I suggested we integrate them directly so the SPsite draws data from my Access Services database directly. They never thought of that before. I am now looking into that capability for them and will be making a proposal. THAT’S the kind of messaging we need out there. Without knowledge of the real capabilities of Excel and/or Access then it’ll all be moot – and yet another opportunity will be frittered away.
And don’t get me going on the messaging around PowerPivot :-)…