With cloud computing changing the way applications are licensed, developed and deployed, Microsoft Office general manager Julia White discusses the impact on users.
In the past days of on-premise Office, Microsoft would add new features with each major release, which would lead to the company being accused of releasing bloatware. People often only used about 20% of the product's overall functionality and there was a huge learning curve associated with getting new functionality adopted.
The situation is now worse in the age of software delivered as a service, where products are continually developed and new updates are rolled out frequently. The challenge for software-as-a-service (SaaS) companies is in trying to make their products compelling, while competing on price.
Unless SaaS companies can get users to adopt the new features their products offer, they end up competing purely on price.
Google has been aggressively targetting Microsoft Office users with its enterprise product, which offers cloud-based collaborations, office productivity and email.
Those organisations that have switched from Microsoft to Google speak about good-enough functionality, over the feature-rich Microsoft Office alternative, and the lower cost.
However, unlike its Google rival – which offers a free version – all Office365 versions require a subscription.
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Office 365 security
Security is the frontline from a competition perspective. Microsoft Office 365 supports European Union (EU) model clauses and the ISO 27000 standard, among others. Data held in Office 365 is held securely and encrypted at rest.
In an interview with Computer Weekly at Microsoft's TechEd 2014 conference in Barcelona, general manager of Microsoft Office Julia White discusses how the company balanced security and usability.
"For decades we have had technology to lock things down, but people can't get their jobs done," she says. "Now, with consumer cloud apps like Gmail or DropBox, people work around security. Our philosophy is to give customers the full range of security controls, but we want to do it in a way that doesn't disrupt productivity."
According to White, once a user circumvents IT, the organisation becomes less secure. Microsoft uses policy tips that alerts the user they may be infringing an IT security policy. "Behind this, IT pros can apply a range of policies, such as digital rights management and host-side encryption," she says.
Simplifying Office 365
Microsoft updates Office 365 regularly, which can mean users do not know what is happening with the product in terms of new functionality.
"The things we roll out every day are not just new features. Some are new experiences," says White.
She agrees there is so much happening in product development users can easily get lost with what they actually have and how to make the most of the new bits.
"We are moving so quickly that we are actually ahead of customers. I am most concerned about what we deliver to customers and closing the gap to help them keep up" she says.
I believe machine learning personalisation intelligence will define the future experiences of the user
Julia White, Microsoft Office
It is an area Microsoft is spending a lot of time researching, according to White: "This is where we are doing some of our most innovative work. Around things like machine learning. It is no longer neccessary to clean an email inbox, for example – we can use machine learning to clean an inbox."
Another feature, TellMe, can be used to direct the user to the command to perform a task they wish to accomplish, such as inserting a table. "It takes you to the command so you don't have to worry about where it is," says White.
The aim is to surface the commands to the user in a way that makes sense to them, White explains.
"We are trying to switch from offering lots and lots of features to providing the user with the ones most useful to them at the time they need them," she says.
Combining cloud computing with the power of its Bing search engine allows Microsoft to gain a better understanding of what the user wants to achieve, says White.
"The Office Ribbon was our first attempt at trying to surface features in a logical way. The next step is for the user to tell us what they want, and we will bring it to you,” she says.
This is the type of technology that is appearing in Microsoft's speech engine, Cortana, where the user tells it what they want.
"I believe machine learning personalisation intelligence will define the future experiences of the user," concludes White.