Foley on Microsoft

Windows Lessons for the Office Team

Office Senior Vice President Steven Sinofsky and his troops could learn a thing or two from the Windows team about building software that can be tweaked quickly.

Welcome to Foley on Microsoft. I'm Mary Jo Foley and unlike many Microsoft pundits, I've never been part of the Redmond machine. While it's true I lived in Seattle for close to a decade, I didn't drive a Microsoft campus shuttle bus or flip burgers in the cafeteria of Building 9. Nothing but urban legends.

The facts: I've been a tech journalist for 22 years and have covered Microsoft on a dedicated basis for the past 12 of them. These days, I am editor of the Microsoft Watch newsletter and accompanying Web log (

But enough about me. On to our advice for the Office team.

Just over a year ago, the Longhorn/Vista train was close to derailment. The fix? The August 2004 "reset," where Microsoft ripped out the WinFS file system, curtailed its managed code plans and began backporting a number of Vista-specific goodies to XP—all in the name of shipping Vista sooner (2006) rather than later (2007-plus).

Office aficionados often brag that the Microsoft Office train runs like clockwork. Every two to three years, another version of Office magically arrives, and folks attribute this success to iron-fisted, tight-lipped Office Senior Vice President Steven Sinofsky.

But at Microsoft these days, transparency is valued over opaqueness, at least in theory. To be fair, we've seen the Office team open up a bit over the past couple months. There are now at least a dozen Office bloggers sharing real information.

Besides "Openness is good," Sinofsky's troops also could learn a thing or two from the Windows team about building software that can be tweaked quickly.

About two years ago, the Windows group created the Core Operating System Division (COSD), charged with improving the planning, building and testing procedures used by the Windows client and server divisions. Because of COSD's influence, Vista and Longhorn Server will be built upon layered subsystems that include relatively few interdependencies. If one piece isn't up to snuff, Microsoft should be able tweak it without completely overturning the apple … er, Windows … cart.

The Office team loves to tout its techniques, borrowed from anthropologists, for soliciting customer input. But if these techniques are so rock-solid, why do so many users balk at upgrading? The widespread perception is that Office is bloated and stuffed with features that aren't much needed by the masses. So who ordered these features?

Unfortunately, the Office team has no intentions of fielding Community Technology Previews (CTPs), product builds that Microsoft's Developer and Windows units are making available to testers in between full-fledged betas.

And, at least according to some testers, the Office team doesn't revisit product decisions once they're publicly declared—in spite of analyst and tester pushback. Example? There will be no "classic" version of the Office 12 user interface (UI), despite concerns about a steep Office 12 learning curve.

Hey, we're sure Microsoft garnered tons of user feedback about Microsoft Bob before fielding that product. But, as history shows, it never hurts to be flexible and accommodate last-minute lessons.

What else does the Office team need to learn? We'll send Microsoft the best suggestions (anonymously or not, depending on your preference). Reach me at [email protected].

About the Author

Mary Jo Foley is editor of the ZDNet "All About Microsoft" blog and has been covering Microsoft for about two decades. She's the author of "Microsoft 2.0" (John Wiley & Sons, 2008), which examines what's next for Microsoft in the post-Gates era.


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