Bill Gates QandA: Changes Around The Office

Microsoft chairman and chief software architect Bill Gates last week discussed the company's Office strategy with InformationWeek editor John Foley. Their conversation ranged from the pumped up Office SharePoint Server to a new server-based version of Excel to blogging and enterprise data search.

InformationWeek: The subject here is Office 2007 and the Office System. You've got a developer's conference coming up.

Bill Gates: That's right. And there's kind of a framework here, which is that people have had for their very structured data, that's all driven by rules. They've had their ERP systems, and then for things where they're negotiating with customers and dealing with exceptions and all that, they've had electronic mail and the individual productivity tools. And yet a lot of things don't fit nicely into those categories, or kind of bounce back and forth between the categories where [for example] somebody gets a product but it's not quite right--should they send it back, should you give them a discount? Maybe next time you're committing to do something a bit different. You know, a bid, you're supposed to send a bid in, but the customer has very special requirements. All these things don't really fit the pure structured world, and yet the efficiency in dealing with these things and getting lots of people working together really determine how effective a business is.

And so there's been all this software that's kind of narrowly defined about, OK, we have documents, let's make those accessible, we have a portal that points to a bunch of things, let's have that. Let's have enterprise search, let's have enterprise rights management, let's have enterprise file servers, enterprise collaboration.

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There's really been nothing that's at critical mass and everybody's familiar with, other than E-mail, that involves many people, and yet has the flexibility to deal with unstructured situations. Even something as simple as I'm running a project and I want to have lots of people see the information and collaborate on, that ends up being difficult. If you want to do something like a Wikipedia or a blog inside a company, you want to have rights management and notification and things that aren't needed in the nonbusiness world. You don't really have anything that fulfills that.

Office 2007 includes a dramatically richer version of SharePoint in terms of its data model and its workflow and how it connects to rights management, and the templates for things like blogging, Wikipedia, community, discussion.

And so what we're trying to do is really show the developers how there's a whole class of applications, and there are many terms that have been used for these applications--you know, composite applications or whitespace applications--where you're leveraging the ERP world and you're leveraging the Office client applications, so you want to be able to make an appoint that shows up in Outlook and you want to be able to click a link in an E-mail and get right into the information that's relevant, but you also want to have data connectors back into the ERP world.

Anyway, [for] these applications that range from just picking a template to writing a few lines of code to rearranging the form to something fairly complex, there's an environment now that is about collaboration. So instead of thinking, OK, I'll buy a few seats of this document management thing for these people, and I'll buy rights management for these people ... everybody gets to work together. Even people coming from college or temp agencies or other companies are used to these templates: starting a project, here's what the standard form is; we're organizing a big meeting, here's what the standard form is; we're doing a community discussion at the top level or underneath one of those, and here's how you initiate that. And as you fire these things off, IT doesn't have to get involved, and in fact the infrastructure makes it so even people outside the company can securely be permissioned to come in without a lot of IT overhead.

So we have this big view of SharePoint as a platform. The simple version of SharePoint comes free with Windows Server, and then some of the more advanced features and workflow and templates and search actually cost a little extra, there's a Client Access License that goes with that.

It's a platform, and so DevCon is where we get together the incredible variety of developers who would think about this as a place to write and think about their applications being a lot easier to write.

I mean today, if you have to do something like a discussion application, you're kind of building from scratch a bunch of [the user interface], which is crazy because people want the standard discussion UI anyway. You just want to write the framework of the workflow and the stuff that's unique for that application. You want all the end-user interaction to just be these SharePoint components that you're just reusing and are there and the person is familiar with. It's been set up on this sort of high-volume basis so that you can just assume it's there, like you do with Office today on the client, but that doesn't work for these collaborative things, which are fairly key.

So if you have a bunch of people who work on bids, you just build a site and put all the requests for proposals up there, and people can come look at that. You can have a little bit of logic if something is getting near a deadline where people get a bunch of E-mail saying, hey, who's taking care of this one, look at calendars.


Gates: Well, no, in the past, you would have either not let people create that content, or you would have had to build applications sort of starting at the bare metal where you built a community navigation thing, or you built a search thing or group-editing type thing. Here, the types of SharePoint sites you're going to have, there will be quite a bit of variety. Take [Microsoft's] Office group, they use a bunch of SharePoint sites to manage their development process. And so it's just part of your normal workday that you go in and look at schedules and status and things like that. Now underneath some of those things there may be a discussion board that people are commenting on things, and that's just a real benefit to have it right there in that place.

InformationWeek: Could you characterize the scope of how it's used?

Gates:, one of the top 20 Web sites there is, is built using SharePoint. There's this whole spectrum of Web sites in terms of how many people use them and how organized you want the content flow to be. A Web site like that would have a whole check-in process where things go through approvals before they get up onto the actual site, whereas a more ad hoc site literally you just sit there and every participant, it's like everybody has the ability to edit all the material that's there, and it's just a matter of social review to make sure that people are doing something that's appropriate.

That's a key point. People don't want to learn a different UI or a different tool for their small-scale Web sites and their large-scale Web sites. When they go to the main Web site inside the company, it lets them find all the things going on. As they navigate from that central place to, say, the employee portal, which everybody uses, down to their departmental portal, down to their project portal, down to the ad hoc site they set up to deal with the interesting issue with a customer, to the site that was set up that may be less urgent where they're just brainstorming with somebody about where things should go, they want the user interface approach, the way they edit the forms, the way they think about rights and names and schedules and discussions, they want all of that to be identical.

And yet if you just give people a programming environment and say, hey, just program up Web sites, then your corporate purchasing site will be totally different than your employee benefit site will be different than your project type site. So you've got to create an environment that has a very easy-to-use development tool. The simple one is called SharePoint Designer, but the heavy-duty tools around Visual Studio have to be available as well. Then all these components about community discussion or calendars or sets of documents, all of those things just plug in.

So it's building Web sites, but where you're getting this massive reuse, and you're only writing the logic for the part that's unique to the particular Web site, and the whole security infrastructure just comes for free with the thing.

InformationWeek: One of the things that's included in SharePoint will be Excel services, a server version of Excel.

Gates: That's right. As you're browsing all these sites, you'll be able to have things that are presented through the browser from Excel. So wherever you have an Excel model, you can just create a little part that goes onto these Web sites, and the recalculation is done by an Excel server. Then if you have permission, you can take the whole spreadsheet and go in and edit the model, which runs Excel locally on your machine. But if you just want to see the information, you don't even know that, in fact, a server-based Excel model is used to compute it, you just see this great visualization.

So they've done a lot of very cool visualization stuff in Excel that lets you quickly look at a set of figures and see, you know, are you on target with the way it's doing the coloring and the bars and up arrows and down arrows and things. So it's just Excel, but it's Excel running on the server so that whenever the data changes, the server is recomputing it and then all the different Web sites that have parts to point to that, they get to see the latest data in this very visual way.


Gates: Well, Excel shipped on the Macintosh in 1985, I'm 90% sure. And then I think it ships on the PC maybe two or three years after that.

InformationWeek: So 20 years later, we're getting this server version of Excel. How is that significant?

Gates: Well, there's been a lot of demand for server-based Excel, and people love the direct nature of setting up models in Excel and the very direct nature of formatting the information. And yet they want to feed corporate data in that's changing on a regular basis and always has it be up to date, and be able to use the resources of the server if the model is very complex.

There's a bunch of work that was done in Excel to make it take advantage of 64-bit, take advantage of multithreading, let it run up on the server, and let you view the output of Excel through the browser. So it's really this corporate reporting scenario or Web part scenario using Excel, and reusing all the knowledge that you have about Excel, the formatting, the models, and those things.

We've really blown the limitations in terms of some of the sizes and performance things with this version. Then putting it on the server and make it accessible through the browser gives it a very different position than it's had. It's always been kind of a universal tool that everybody knew, but you couldn't really use it in server-based information presentation until this wave. So that's a big deal. Getting the workflow built in is a big deal, getting the rights management built in, getting more document management capability built in ... and now having SharePoint [be a part of it, too]. That really takes SharePoint to the point of being at critical mass as the collaboration platform in the same way Office for personal productivity got to critical mass on the client PC a little over 10 years ago.

InformationWeek: You mentioned blogs and wikis. Is it fair to say Microsoft was a little late to deliver this kind of functionality, but now it's coming? How do you see these technologies changing the way people use the Microsoft environment?

Gates: Well, we've had a lot of blogging tools out there for this public environment. Microsoft Spaces is the most popular blogging space, with millions and millions [of users]. Word supports the APIs to be the editor that lets you create material for any of these blogging type environments. So we've been participating in these things and benefiting from the rise.

What there hasn't been is something that has that type of flexibility that's designed to work in a corporate environment. You don't want your internal blogs to be accessible to people outside the company, or you may want for other companies you trust, partners you trust, to let them come in and either see it or contribute to that. And so having the kind of blogging, auditing tools, the secure environment, having it fit into your Web application environment so that you can have a discussion connected to these other forms of presentation where you have, like, the quality metrics and you show we're achieving our goals, we're not achieving our goals ... well, then you want people underneath that to be able to talk about their ideas for that. So it's really bringing those flexible ways of collaborating into the business environment that that's what these SharePoint templates do.

InformationWeek: Let me ask you a little bit about application architecture and delivery because there's been a lot of talk about offering hosted applications, Google offering these browser-based applications on its site, and Microsoft continues to push a lot of these server products. Why?

Gates: Actually, the biggest services E-mail in the world by far is a thing called Hotmail from us, the biggest instant messaging client by usage is a thing called Messenger that comes from us. We support getting software as services, and that's why we've been the company pushing the XML standards and the Web service standards, which really give you the flexibility to break these things out. Our MapPoint service is the most popular, where you've got a Web service API and you can get map data and overlay whatever information you want on top of that.

There's a lot of reasons why people run applications inside their corporations in terms of resource management and security and integration. And what you want to do is give people total flexibility. Office Live, which we announced a few months ago and is in beta today, is SharePoint as a Web service where we actually run it for you. There's a free level and a couple different subscription levels where the flexibility of what templates you get and what capability you get, you get to pick. So that means that if you want to use Office Live, you might have run the server on premise in the past, and in this case you don't need to. So for E-mail we actually have Hotmail, hosted Exchange, and Exchange on premise, all three of them, and you just choose based on what you want to do.

The architecture has complete symmetry between what we're going to make available as a server and what we're going to make available as a service. You'll pick when you want things on premise, when you don't want things on premise, and it won't be an all-or-nothing type decision. Web site hosting has been the biggest thing people have done off premises, but we see with software really separating out these administrative models of what you want, what control you want versus what the hardware environment wants ... as you separate those out better, there can be more and more business hosting, not just consumer applications.


Gates: Office 2007 does not require Vista. It works better when Vista is there, it's been designed and tested with Vista, but it runs on previous versions of the operating system. However, we see customers as they look at their environments will often take these two things and say, OK, we see the benefits and the steps to get there coming together. There's a whole wave with Vista and the server we still call Longhorn Server and the security messages around that. I was just going through with our IT department how they do this next wave in terms of moving to smart cards and how they're going to do network protection and how they're adopting all the collaboration apps and where they see big savings because of those things.

Every company has its own rhythm in terms of its own corporate applications and where they are in various refresh cycles, but there will be a tendency for these things to come together. We'll certainly support a customer who just wants to go do them each individually, but I'll bet the majority will see them moving together.

So you'll have some things like moving to use SharePoint that you can do separately from upgrading all the desktop applications. Office 2007 takes advantage of SharePoint, but you can run these SharePoint servers with previous versions of Office as well.

What we do here as a company is we view them as one big wave, so we'll upgrade to Vista and Office 2007 pretty much simultaneously. And we, along with the early adopters that are pretty big numbers for all these products, will then be a showcase in terms of best practices.

InformationWeek: I see the references to improved enterprise data search in the next release of Office. Google is trying to sell its appliance to do search inside of companies. I'm guessing you might have an advantage, at least when it comes to Windows environments.

Gates: Well, the advantage we have is that we understand that the business environment is different than the public Web, so that inside businesses documents don't have tons of links inside them like you do out in the Web, and so the algorithms that work on the Web don't work as well internally. You also have rights boundaries. Some of the people who have put in search appliances have found salary data getting out because you have to have software that really understands all the different rights boundaries.

The other thing, the most revolutionary thing with SharePoint here in its search is that it's not restricted just to the document world, we connect up to the structured world. And so when you as an employee are trying to find something corporately, if you type in the name of a project, you want to know the people involved in that project. Well, that comes out of your directory. If you type in the name of a customer, that comes out of your CRM system. So you don't just want to have a place where you search internal documents and another place you go to search the directory and another place you go to search customers. You want to go to one place and have what we call the structured data and this unstructured data all come together in those results. And, in fact, the structured data actually helps you find the best results because you can see who works on this project, who has interest in this type of technology. So when they type in a question, the weighting we can use from those structured data sources makes all the difference in bringing back the right documents, the right sites to them. It's a big step up. It's the first time you had unstructured search get fused in with the structured information to create a real corporate search capability. So between that, understanding the rights, administering in with the common Windows infrastructure, people understand that what they want for business search is not just a subset of public Web search.