Posey's Tips & Tricks
Why Microsoft's Fluid Framework May Be the Next Big Thing
Going open source is the kiss of death for many software projects. Here's why Microsoft's Fluid Framework might just be one of the exceptions.
Over the last several months, I have written multiple columns speculating on what Fluid Framework might eventually mean for Microsoft 365.
Fluid Framework was initially pitched as a collaborative platform for Office on the Web. It was essentially a free-form canvas that could accommodate a variety of content types. Early on, it seemed as if Microsoft might be laying the groundwork for a brand-new universal Office document format. I had envisioned users pasting snippets of Word documents, Excel charts, Visio diagrams and other types of Office data to a collaborative whiteboard. I also assumed that the whiteboard's contents could be saved as a document file for later use.
While it is possible that creating a universal document format might have been Microsoft's original goal behind Fluid Framework, Microsoft now seems to be going in a different direction -- one that is potentially even more interesting.
Back in September 2020, Microsoft announced that it had turned Fluid Framework into an open source project. I saw the announcement when it was made, but didn't write about it for one very simple reason: I thought that the announcement essentially put an end to Microsoft's Fluid Framework project.
One of the dirty little secrets of the software industry is that sometimes (not always), making a project open source is the modern equivalent to abandoning a project that just isn't working out. I have seen numerous examples over the years of software companies walking away from what they see as a failed project by making the code open source. I assumed this was what Microsoft was doing with Fluid Framework.
But now that some time has gone by, I'm becoming increasingly convinced that Microsoft is not completely abandoning Fluid Framework. In fact, I think there is a reasonably good chance that Fluid Framework will ultimately prove to be very useful. There a two main ways I think Microsoft and others will use Fluid Framework going forward.
Before I tell you what these two use cases are, though, I need to first talk about what Fluid Framework actually does. The Fluid Framework preview I mentioned earlier consists of a whiteboard or canvas application whose content can be simultaneously edited by multiple users. The important takeaway, however, is that the whiteboard is just an application and has little to do with Fluid Framework. Fluid Framework's job is to make that application accessible to multiple users who can perform simultaneous content editing.
As an open source project, Fluid Framework could conceivably be linked to just about any Web application that has been designed for content creation. Certainly this includes Office for the Web, but because Fluid Framework is open source, any developer who wants to make their Web app collaborative now has an easy way to do so.
Enabling developers to build collaborative Web apps is the official use case for Fluid Framework, but I think there is a second potential use case that nobody is talking about. Just to be clear, this secondary use case is not something that is possible today; it would require Microsoft to do a bit more work on Fluid Framework. Even so, it's something I can see happening in the future.
As I mentioned earlier, Microsoft's original Fluid Framework preview was a collaborative whiteboard application that allowed users to add a number of different types of content to a canvas. I wouldn't be a bit surprised to see Microsoft expand on this concept in the future. If Microsoft has made Fluid Framework open source, what's to stop it from also making its canvas application open source -- and modular?
With that in mind, imagine a collaborative environment in which users were not only able to add Office document content to a Microsoft 365 whiteboard application, but also content from their other line-of-business applications. If you want to take things a step further, just imagine if this third-party content could be tied to back-end data sources so that any data shown is always current.
While this might sound like a total fantasy, consider that Microsoft Delve incorporates a number of different types of content, as well as real-time collaborative data (such as inline conversations from Yammer). Creating an open source platform that does the same thing but also enables content from third-party applications really isn't all that unthinkable.
Brien Posey is a 20-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.