Gates Outlines Future of Office

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates took the wraps off a major new version of Office Live Small Business and launched a new developer program for Office Live.

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates yesterday took the wraps off a major new version of Office Live Small Business and launched a new developer program for Office Live.

In what might be remembered as one of his last statements of direction before he transitions from his full-time role at Microsoft, Gates kicked off Microsoft's first-ever Office System Developer Conference in San Jose, Calif. He talked up his vision of the evolution of the Microsoft Office Suite into a software development platform.

"Making Office into a platform is very important to us," Gates said in the opening keynote, adding that Office will be taking on "a very ambitious agenda in the future."

Gates said evolving hardware -- including growing storage capacity and ubiquitous connectivity -- are enabling an expanded vision for Office.

"As we think about software, we're running it in the personal computer, we're running it as a service, we're running it on servers, and we're running it on mobile phones," Gates said. "[So the need is for] software that works together across all those devices that delivers a complete solution."

The ABCs of OBAs
At the heart of Microsoft's strategy to promote Office as a development platform is the concept of the Office Business Application (OBA). OBAs combine the ubiquity of the world's most widely deployed productivity suite with enterprise business processes and data for improved productivity. This new app species also fits neatly into the company's Software Plus Services model.

During his keynote, Gates brought on stage David Zanca, SVP of the e-commerce technology group at Federal Express, to demonstrate OBA. Zanca showed off the just-released FedEx QuickShip application, an Office add-in that leverages the company's Web services. QuickShip allows users to schedule FedEx deliveries from within Outlook 2003 and 2007. They can generate labels, track packages, check rates, and schedule pickups from clickable icons on the Outlook toolbar, now called "The Ribbon." The application is currently available as a free download.

Microsoft makes a royalty-free version of The Ribbon, called the "Fluent UI," which is available to developers.

"The Ribbon got started with Office 2007, but we see it spreading to all the remaining client applications," Gate said. The next version of Windows will be using the Fluent UI "quite a bit," he added.

Gates cited several other OBAs, ranging from the Mindjet's MindManager brainstorming software to the Xobni e-mail organizer.

New Tools Announced
Microsoft announced a new OBA Composition Toolkit at the show. The toolkit is a reference application that uses Office and SharePoint Server 2007 "to enable the creation of enterprise mashups using prebuilt components."

Gates also unveiled the winter 2008 release (version 2) of Microsoft's online Office Live Small Business service. Gates said that more than 600,000 subscribers have joined the service since it had its debut last year. The company is offering a basic version for free, but users can pay for additional services.

"These online, hosted services are becoming more powerful," he said. "But they're not done in isolation. They connect out to the client applications and to on-premise server applications."

Microsoft also announced a new OBA Sample Application Kit for PeopleSoft and SAP. The kit provides tools for the rapid development of enterprise-grade business software connected to Office. He also touted new Visual Studio Extensions for Windows SharePoint Server 1.1.

"We debated whether to call this 2.0, so you know it's a major release," Gates said.

The new extensions, a free download from MSDN, add SharePoint project types to Visual Studio, Gates explained.

Despite his intention to leave his full-time position at Microsoft in July to spend more time on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Gates said he plans to stay involved in the evolution of Office.

"I've always felt a strong connection to it, and I see great frontiers there," Gates said. "Our investment in the Office platform is greater today than it's ever been."

Microsoft is hard at work on the latest version of the Office suite, Gates said, which is referred to internally as Office 14.

About the Author

John K. Waters is the editor in chief of a number of sites, with a focus on high-end development, AI and future tech. He's been writing about cutting-edge technologies and culture of Silicon Valley for more than two decades, and he's written more than a dozen books. He also co-scripted the documentary film Silicon Valley: A 100 Year Renaissance, which aired on PBS.  He can be reached at [email protected].

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