Monday, October 26, 2009

Pre-beta Office Highlights

Bits and pieces of news on the suite keep coming in as they should, so here’s a bird’s-eye view on the latest ones.

(i) Security improvements and workarounds

Office is not devoid of the imperishable vulnerability – hack – patch cycles, and the strategic approach that Microsoft will be taking with the 2010 rollout is layered protection, structured as follows:

- File block (enhanced)

Office will retain the “broad-brush solution” introduced for the 2007 generation and backported to 2003. “File block” allows both individual users and network administrators to block certain file types.

- File validation

Introduced for Publisher 2007, validation of older, pre-XML formats will now acquire a suite-wide reach.

- Protected View

If you can’t beat them, sandbox them. Files downloaded from the web or opened in Outlook will be handled in the “Protected View” mode, i.e. isolated in a read-only environment. The implications are yet to show through, and the apparent ones are fewer fuzzy messages and a somewhat greater load on the system.

(ii) The Office button

To cut a long story short, the black sheep in the interface will become history. It won’t irretrievably go away though, but will move to the ribbon to house Backstage View – the brand-new usability concept by the Office team. There’s a whole long story behind it, which in a nutshell is an aspiration to divide, conquer and subsequently expose two types of functionality – things we do with a file from within and from without. The without part is thus represented by the Backstage View, now to be labeled “File” (which again has a long quest-like evolution background, starting with the cleverly disguised Office button up to a bow towards the 2003 visual/muscle memory pattern, revamped by both the Ribbon and the Backstage concepts). An interesting feature about the Backstage is a triple-check approach to saving changes, something like “are you sure you are not sure you want to save changes?” As facetious as I might appear here, I still believe it is a useful feature. Not once has Autosave – literally – saved people’s skins. What we will now be offered in addition to that is the ability to recover work that erroneously remained unsaved by accessing the autosaved versions sitting in the Backstage.

(iii) Web apps

The technical preview release has sparked heated debate on whether Office web apps can compete with the other options, namely Google Docs. Reviews range from disappointed to expectant. The minuses include the very limited functionality available in Office web apps as of now and some glitches in performance. High fidelity view, on the other hand, seems to be delivering its promises. The edit functionality is available with Excel and PowerPoint only (yet), and OneNote remains left out. Significant changes will definitely follow, although the capabilities demonstrated by Excel in particular have prompted a certain share of “Google threat” sentiments among the early previewers. The Office Web Apps demo, by the way, is to be found here.

Microsoft Rethinking Office Distribution Strategies

Earlier this month, Microsoft announced a cluster of changes in the way Office 2010 will reach the end-user. Routinely, this has generated discussion. Some did not hesitate to jump at the conclusion that Office is trying to scramble to a standing position, facing ramped-up competition from certain free productivity suites. The standpoint has become so trite that it passes off as by default valid, but I somehow fail to attach the above point to the situation at hand. In fact, I am pretty much happy with what Zdnet’s Mary-Jo Foley suggests – at the moment, the biggest competition for Office is Office itself, in its pre-existing versions.

With Office 2010, Microsoft is taking on a new distribution stractic concerning new PCs to be purchased after the release. These PCs will ship with Office pre-installed so that the user will have to activate it via a key provided with a single-license product card. According to Microsoft, this is beneficial in several ways, including increased ecologic awareness. This, however, implies an end to the practice of doing multiple installations with a single multimedia disc – a danger that some of the update-aware users have already been able to sniff.

Another part of the plan aimed at reducing the pressure from ye olde versions is flattening Office Works, notorious for its incompatibility issues, and replacing it with Office Starter. This offering is supposed to guide the users into 2010, i.e. familiarize them with the consistently promoted Ribbon interface (a concept already settled so deep in the netizens’ minds that they are ready to mistakenly spot it in weird places, e.g. the revamped UI for the next version of Mozilla Firefox) and ultimately walk them along the upgrade path. Just like Works, Office Starter is free (ad-based in fact), which has somehow managed to lead to a couple of misconceptions. In reality, Office was by no means conceived as a light-weight alternative to the full-fledged package. I am pretty sure it will not offer anything that would interfere with its primary function of an upgrade incentive. What will be offered are just significantly trimmed Word and Excel, so I have some trouble figuring out where the speculations are coming from. Similar considerations by the way are likely hold true for the web-based package – especially given the fact that until there is a public beta, it is yet really difficult to tell how perceivable a gap is going to separate the web and the desktop.

Finally, alterations are going to affect the trial and full Office downloads. These will become “click-to-run” offerings that are expected to make getting Office via the web a quicker and easier process. Again, pre-testing reviews from early this summer do not provide a reliable insight into the matter.

An Aesopian bottom line here will traditionally warn one against avoid crying wolf before it is at least remotely in sight.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

SharePoint, Google Sites and Data Liberation

Last week saw another round of the Google vs. Microsoft rivalry, which by itself is hardly surprising. References to the turbulent relationships between the two simply impose wartime metaphors, even if you get down to something as distanced from belles-lettres and figures of speech as plain factual reporting. In fact, some of the belligerent vocabulary makes up the terminology inventory utilized by the parties themselves. Examples are not really hard to come by – take Google’s Data Liberation Front for instance. If you don’t like your data stuck in a proprietary system of any kind, argues Google, why not move it in and out of Google-provided services as you please. It’s not quantum physics to decipher the Data Oppressor’s identity, by the way, and the latest news from Google has been logically perceived as a go at chipping a chunk off the major feather in the Oppressor’s cap, also known as SharePoint.

The latest report from the Front is the emergence of Google Sites Data API that can be used to liberate data from ECM systems like MS SharePoint or Lotus Notes and even, some believe, the respective vendors from their customers. However, many analysts just don’t see the latter happening. This round of the “Google the SharePoint killer” talk is all the same lukewarm and does not add substance to the discussion. In fact the subject was pretty much exhausted at the point where the Google Sites service was a brand-new announcement.

The overall conclusion made back then and continuously confirmed now is that in managing corporate collaboration, Google just doesn’t have it, just like Microsoft does not seem to have it in search. Google Sites (a reincarnation of the slick Jotspot wiki service) are unable to live up to too many requirements for sizeable enterprises to even consider the options they offer. The thing is that having data trapped in something you exercise control over is way less scary than letting your data roam free and subsequently finding yourself locked out of the very things that keep the business intact. However, I do not mean to debunk Google’s “live free” effort – for moderately-sized business, a quick and low-cost startup is a valid option that may turn out critical to their operation.

The bottom line I would like to draw here is that there’s no point in reading too much into developments that are not even in sight and won’t be there in the foreseeable future. Different companies are good at different things, and their trying to dent each other’s armor will hopefully make them more flexible.