Microsoft Office's devices and services future becomes clearer

Exploring the document graph, in project Oslo Credit: Microsoft

The first day of Microsoft’s 2014 SharePoint conference in Las Vegas unveiled a slew of new products and services, as well as detailing elements of Microsoft’s cloud and on-premises productivity roadmaps. But what more fascinating was what those announcements showed about Microsoft’s -- and in particular Office’s -- devices and services future.

Take for example the plans to deliver of OneDrive for Business as a separate service from the full Office 365 suite of servers and services. While Office 365 subscribers carry on with a bundled service, if you’re planning on keeping Office on-premises, you can now still use Microsoft’s cloud enterprise storage tools (and the cloud-hosted Office Online) to give users 25GB of storage each along with collaboration tools.

Decoupling OneDrive for Business is possible because Office is a service. There’s no need to change the code, or even the underlying authentication tools. It still uses the same sync tooling as the Office 365 version, and it still uses Azure Active Directory for authentication -- and it’s still SharePoint Online underneath, albeit with a more constrained user experience. Microsoft has merely put a new UI on the existing services, giving it a new product line without having to make changes to the underlying software.

Similarly the new video portal for Office 365 builds a custom view on top of SharePoint’s document libraries and the Azure media services.

Then there’s Project Oslo, a new member of the Office family that is best thought of as an implementation of Bing’s Satori knowledge engine for the enterprise (though here powered by the FAST enterprise search system, which Microsoft acquired in 2002). Tying together documents and Yammer-powered Office 365 groups, and reusing an old code name, Oslo is a prototype of a new type of Office application designed to work with services rather than files and documents. It’s built on machine learning lessons from Bing and the object graph from Yammer, using them to deliver a new way of finding and navigating Office documents -- treating those documents as contextual objects embedded in a series of services that are exposed by searches. Some of those searches are contextual, linked to individuals and the groups around them, while others are specific, linked to actions related to documents -- for example whether they’ve been shared, modified, or created by a user.

Credit: Microsoft
Exploring a document graph with Oslo, with contextual information about an author, and their relationships

Oslo is an example of the type of smart endpoint we expect to see in any services model, a tool that brings together information from several different sources and wraps them in a new user experience. You can take a document-centric approach to working with Oslo, before drilling down into a document author and their relationships in an organization. What groups are they part of, and what information have they shared with those groups? With Oslo you can get context about a document and the team that built it without leaving your document explorer, making it easier to understand relevance and giving you a direct route to contacting an author for an action or just for further information.

Yammer’s Adam Pisoni has talked about how Yammer can power what he calls a “responsive organization,” where instead of rigid hierarchies and fixed processes, knowledge workers are free to use available services to solve problems, often collaboratively. While Yammer does a lot to expose relationships in an organization, it’s not perhaps the best way of exposing those relationships -- a problem that Oslo seems well placed to solve.  

The release of an Android SDK for Office 365 also makes the devices aspect of the Microsoft’s sea change clearer. An open source SDK, available on Github, it opens up Office development to more than just the Windows ecosystem. That’s a big change, and indicates wider support for developers building Microsoft services into their devices and applications. Using the new SDK, Android apps can quickly take advantage of SharePoint and Exchange in their apps -- and as the SDK is modular, they only need to use the elements that are necessary.

Treating Office as a service (and using the Azure Active Directory as an authenticator) makes a lot of sense. SharePoint lists are a powerful tool for storing and managing documents, and if Microsoft is to compete with Box and Dropbox, it needs to open up its collaboration spaces to a wider range of apps. Giving Android developers the tools they need to build those apps makes a lot of sense, particularly now that Microsoft is working with Samsung to add secure access to Office in its Knox Android security tool.

While we’re a year or so away from a new set of on-premises Office servers, including the next SharePoint, Microsoft’s separate developer keynote made it clear that while the on-premises SharePoint would continue to support full trust code, and that the Office desktop software would continue to run VBA code, the future is Office as a service, not Office as an application.

That’s an important distinction, especially when Microsoft makes it explicit that any future on-premises SharePoint will only support a subset of the features of the cloud release. As its transition to devices and services continues, Microsoft is not set to abandon its on-premises products, but instead to leave them in place as a legacy element in a hybrid service model, where the cloud gets new features and new services, and your on-premises servers get left running code that can’t be migrated to the new Office development platforms.

The services Microsoft is a very different beast from the Microsoft of old, and it’s fascinating to see that this future is being embraced by the very cash cow that in the past would have dug in its heels and held back. Perhaps the success of Office 365, already a $1.5 billion business that has signed up 60% of the Fortune 500 (and according to GoDaddy CEO Blake Irving in a keynote at the Parallels Summit, is signing up 10,000 small businesses a week just through GoDaddy’s portal), is key to this sea change.

If Office can successfully transition to a service, and use those new services to deliver new applications and new ways of working, then the rest of Microsoft can, too.  

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