Posey's Tips & Tricks

Is Microsoft Finally Reinventing Office?

Microsoft is testing out a new technology called "Fluid Framework." It could mean that Brien's dream of one Office app to rule them all might soon become reality.

Several years ago, I wrote a book about Microsoft Publisher. The book was essentially a step-by-step guide to using all of Publisher's features. As I worked my way through the writing process, there were two things that I kept thinking about, neither of which I actually mentioned in the book.

First, I kept thinking about the evolution of Microsoft Office. I personally began using Office in 1991. At the time, the Office suite consisted of Word, Excel and PowerPoint. Since then, Microsoft has added plenty of features and even introduced new applications into the Office suite, but the basic usage techniques haven't changed all that much over the years.

The other thing that I kept thinking about while writing the book -- and have thought about many times since -- is how much better Office would be if Microsoft abandoned the individual Office applications (with the possible exception of Outlook) and replaced them with a single application.

In case you are wondering why writing a book about Publisher made me wish for a single, consolidated Office application, it was because of the similarities and differences between Publisher and Word. Publisher is used primarily to create documents that make extensive use of visuals. You can type text directly into Publisher but doing so requires you to create a text box, and the text box has to be sized to match your text.

On the other hand, while Word is best suited for text-heavy documents, Word documents can include graphics, too. However, Word isn't nearly as well-suited to the creation of graphics-heavy documents as Publisher is. Similarly, you can paste tables and charts from Excel into Word, Publisher, PowerPoint and other Office applications, just as you can also add raw text or graphics to an Excel spreadsheet.

My point is that with a few exceptions, each of the Office applications can accommodate text, graphics, tables and other types of media. However, each of the Office applications is geared heavily toward one specific type of data. Excel, for example, would not be the best application to use if you were writing a novel, even though you could theoretically compose a long manuscript inside a spreadsheet. Likewise, PowerPoint isn't the best choice if you need an accounting tool.

Ever since I wrote that book on Publisher, I always envisioned a completely re-imagined Office in which all of the best-of-breed tools were brought together in a single application. Doing so would allow Office documents to essentially become blank canvases, capable of accommodating literally anything. Additionally, there would no longer be a need for file extensions such as .PPTX, .DOCX or .XLSX since such an application would presumably use a single file type (with backward-compatibility for legacy Office documents).

Although I have often thought about what such an application might look like, I assumed that Microsoft would never build it. After all, Microsoft has spent about 30 years building brand recognition for Word, Excel, PowerPoint and other Office applications. I couldn't imagine it simply giving that up.

Believe it or not, though, an application like the one that I just described may be getting closer to becoming a reality. Microsoft will soon begin using something called the Fluid Framework, now in public preview, to power its collaborative experiences for Office on the Web.

There aren't a lot of details available yet, but from what I understand, this technology will create a canvas-like environment that can accommodate virtually any type of content. The environment is meant to be fully collaborative, so you might see situations in which one person is entering text into a document while another person creates a spreadsheet within the same document.

So far, I have not heard any mention of the Fluid Framework being used to re-imagine the Office desktop applications. Likewise, I haven't heard anyone say that a single Fluid Framework application is going to completely replace the Office on the Web applications. Because Microsoft has already demonstrated the Fluid Framework being used in conjunction with Teams, I think that Teams will probably be the place where Fluid Framework shows up (in production) first. After that, I suspect that the Fluid Framework will probably begin showing up in the other Office apps.

About the Author

Brien Posey is a 16-time Microsoft MVP with decades of IT experience. As a freelance writer, Posey has written thousands of articles and contributed to several dozen books on a wide variety of IT topics. Prior to going freelance, Posey was a CIO for a national chain of hospitals and health care facilities. He has also served as a network administrator for some of the country's largest insurance companies and for the Department of Defense at Fort Knox. In addition to his continued work in IT, Posey has spent the last several years actively training as a commercial scientist-astronaut candidate in preparation to fly on a mission to study polar mesospheric clouds from space. You can follow his spaceflight training on his Web site.

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