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By | Dale Vile 26th January 2007 10:30

Vista and Office 2007 spin tales from the Underground

Vision versus practicality

Comment Microsoft launched Vista and Office 2007 at the end of last week to a gathering of developers in its UK headquarters in Thames Valley Park, Reading, and a couple of us from Freeform Dynamics were there to hear what the Redmond software giant had to say.

The event itself was typical of Microsoft, pretty slick and well presented. The over-arching message seemed to be that users have put up with poor or mediocre user interfaces for decades, but that this is no longer acceptable given the complexity of the modern information and communication landscape, the way in which user expectations are escalating, and the business requirement to maintain or increase end user productivity. Vista and Office 2007 as platforms for development were then positioned as key to addressing the challenge.

That's our interpretation of what we heard, anyway. There was, of course, lots of detail provided in terms of how Microsoft is going to take us all forward into the world of rich, integrated and highly interactive multimedia interfaces and applications. This was outlined at a high level during the key note speech by Sanjay Parthasarathy, corporate VP, Developer & Platform Evangelism, and expanded upon in later breakout sessions by other evangelists.

So was anyone converted?

Well, chats during coffee breaks seemed to suggest that what Microsoft was presenting resonated pretty well, and we heard general support for the notion of Vista and Office 2007 as targets for development.

Having said this, there were a couple of guys in particular from the London Underground who should take a lot of the credit for getting people really tuned in and turned on early in the day. They blew the crowd away with some proof of concept work they had done, showing how they were exploiting the potential of both Vista and Office 2007. The demonstration they delivered illustrated how much of their back end operational data could be tapped into and presented in a highly graphical and intuitive user interface in real time.

You really had to be there to appreciate what they had done, but imagine starting with the familiar tube map then being able to overlay data on tracks, signals, trains, maintenance, etc on top of that, with real-time updates, then having the level of detail changing automatically as the user zooms in and out. There were literally audible gasps from the audience when they flipped to a 3D view and you could see clearly how the tube dips under the Thames, along with the physical layout of locations for maintenance accessibility and planning purposes as you zoom in.

The point of conversion for some was undoubtedly when the London Underground guys said the whole thing had been put together by a team of four in two weeks. They did stress, however, that a lot of work had already been previously done on the project to construct web service interfaces to their back end systems as part of their move to SOA, so the eight man weeks related to the presentation layer only. Nevertheless, it was still very impressive.

So, how should we interpret what went on at the conference?

The first point to make is that the audience was probably already going to be receptive to what Microsoft had to say before they came along to the event – i.e. most of the delegates probably earn their living designing and developing applications in a Microsoft environment. Developers more into Java, dynamic scripting languages, dabbling with mash-ups, etc, may not have been so easily wowed. Of course, that's not to put a damper on things as the Microsoft developer community is one of (if not the) largest on the planet. However, it's worth pointing out that there's more than one way to skin a cat and "the Microsoft way" is not considered right by a large segment of the developer population.

It's also important to highlight that we picked up some reservations within the ranks of the converted – not so much in terms of what Microsoft is delivering, but with regard to how long it will take for the new Vista and Office environments to reach critical mass in the business sector in particular.

There is a bit of a chicken and egg situation here. When we caught up with Sanjay Parthasarathy for a chat later in the day, he highlighted in no uncertain terms that the anticipated drivers for Vista and Office 2007 adoption were the applications they would enable and the value of these to consumers and businesses. The view expressed was that the operational benefits of the new platforms, while significant, were secondary to this. Yet developers and IT departments will find it hard to justify committing to Vista and Office 2007 as targets for development if only a proportion of their potential user base is on these. The question then becomes how many snazzy new applications it will take to justify the cost, time, and risk of going through a desktop upgrade.

Relevant to this question is the fact that we still pick up quite a lot of scepticism within the broader IT professional and management community about the incremental value that the advanced user interface functionality of Vista and Office 2007 will deliver or enable. Even together with the operational benefits of Vista, the appetite to migrate still seems to be very limited, especially in the corporate space given the cost, risk and hassle of large scale desktop upgrades.

When we put this to Sanjay Parthasarathy, his response was that "end user pull" would overcome the IT reluctance, the premise being that once users get to see and experience what the new desktop can offer, there will be ground swell of demand that IT departments won't be able ignore. This is why Microsoft is investing so much time and effort in developer programmes, as the availability of a compelling range of third party applications, both for running on Vista and embedding in Office 2007, is seen to be an important catalyst here.

So what do we think at Freeform Dynamics?

Well, the important thing is not to generalise too much. Questions about whether Vista will be a success or not are largely irrelevant. Vista will enter the market by default through the OEM route which will take it into the consumer and small business segments relatively rapidly, both of which tend to just accept the operating system that is pre-installed on new machines. This in turn creates a market for third party developers to go at and perhaps a stimulus for some larger enterprises (travel firms, retailers, media companies, etc) to start exploiting the embedded service capability of Vista.

Based on past experience, common sense, and ongoing feedback from mainstream corporate IT departments though, we anticipate the entry of Vista into the large enterprise segment to be much more measured and controlled. It will happen, but relatively slowly. It took about four years for Windows XP to become genuinely pervasive in this segment, and at this moment in time we can see nothing to indicate that large scale Vista adoption will be significantly quicker unless Microsoft pulls some unexpected rabbits out of the hat.

But what about Office 2007?

Again, we need to beware of generalising too much. The full name for the new release is "The Microsoft Office System 2007", and there is one component in there, SharePoint 2007, that can easily confuse discussions about levels and rates of adoption. This is because SharePoint essentially fulfils two functions. Firstly it is a back end to what most people would traditionally think of as "Microsoft Office", i.e. the suite of desktop tools (Word, PowerPoint, Excel and so on). In this respect, it acts as a hub for collaboration, document storage/sharing, search and a range of other functions. However, SharePoint can also be used independently of the Office desktop components as a very respectable and capable portal environment for serving up either native .Net or composite applications to users through a browser.

SharePoint adoption within the business sector as a portal solution through the previous release is already significant, and indications are that the new SharePoint 2007 is a bit of a hit with early adopters that have migrated or otherwise taken it on board. And this is where things can get muddled. When Microsoft recently invited us as analysts to come and meet a range of organisations that had already deployed Office System 2007, it turned out they were all using SharePoint 2007, but none had yet adopted the new versions of the desktop applications.

Our analysis at this stage is that we expect SharePoint 2007 to gain traction rapidly in the market. Our research has shown consistently that there is a strong demand for portal solutions that enable composite application development and the creation of rich user interfaces that can be delivered through a browser. SharePoint delivers against this very well and we have already seen a tendency for it to be the default choice in many organisations, both because it is Microsoft, and therefore viewed as "safe" (you may disagree with this sentiment but many think this way), and because Microsoft was quite smart with its strategy of bundling basic SharePoint service capability with Windows Server 2007, which got many people "hooked" before they realised what was happening.

However, the jury is still out in our minds on the Office 2007 desktop components. At the moment, we are picking up little demand through our research, but the traditional Office applications do represent the centre of most professional users' desktops, particularly Outlook, so the notion of using this as an application delivery platform could possibly catch on as the market gets educated on the potential.

From the drill down sessions we sat in at the developer conference, Microsoft has done a great deal to enhance the way custom or party applications running in the "Office shell" can interact with the native Outlook, Excel, Word, etc. The updated APIs and development tools provide for much tighter integration and control, both at a user interface and data manipulation level, and the runtime execution side has been improved too, with new mechanisms in place to prevent applications interfering and conflicting with each other.

The bottom line though, is that IT departments generally remain sceptical, and while all of the stuff we saw at the conference really was quite impressive, it's the practicalities of transitioning to the vision that really matter. So if Microsoft does have any rabbits in that hat, now would be a good time to pull them out.

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