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Should Microsoft merge Office into Windows - or snap it off?

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Open ... and Shut Gartner research director Larry Cannell thinks Yammer gives Microsoft the impetus to "rethink Office". Cannell's point is that Microsoft needs to reshape Microsoft for the social age. He's right, but I don't think he goes nearly far enough.

Microsoft Office is losing its relevance in a world that creates vast quantities of new data every day, but comparatively little of it in Microsoft Office file formats.

How much data? IBM estimates that we produce 2.5 quintillion bytes of data every single day, which means that 90 per cent of the data in the world today was created in the last two years alone. My colleague Steve Francia calls this the Moore's Law of big data: data volume roughly doubling each year.

It used to be that Microsoft could count on its venerable Office productivity suite to sit at the nexus of much of the most important data as enterprises stored their company's thoughts in Excel, Word, and PowerPoint files, or in SharePoint collaboration sites. No more. In part this is simply due to the volume of important data being generated by sensors and social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, but it's also the case that the world is shifting to different modes of content creation and consumption.

More HTML. More mobile. Less Office.

This isn't helped by Office's cumbersome management of the data it holds. As Cannell writes:

Although Office 2013 (and Office 365) enables new ways of delivering components, emphasizes cloud storage, and sports a sleek new user interface, it does little to simplify how people use its various components and how enterprises can exploit the information it holds.

So, while there are many opportunities to integrate Yammer with Office components... simply adding Yammer to the suite makes Office more complex to use for the average enterprise worker. In many ways, Office reflects the fragmented nature of many enterprise intranets that accrete feature upon feature, but eventually become too complex and overwhelms the individual, whose productivity they are intended to serve.

Features such as messaging, managing profiles (or contacts), as well as handling documents, calendars, or tasks, are provided by multiple overlapping Office components (e.g., Outlook, SharePoint, Lync, and now Yammer). To make matters worse, each of these components stores information in disjoin knowledgebases. This impedes opportunities for information sharing and requires the end-user to search multiple tools or manually aggregate information.

This problem is compounded by the need for Office to ingest data feeds from beyond Office, for example, pulling in relevant information about an Outlook contact like their recent tweets or Facebook updates. Microsoft has done this fantastically well in Windows Mobile, but I've yet to see any real indication of a coherent strategy around integration of third-party data feeds within Office. Microsoft has enabled some of this social integration in SharePoint, but it doesn't go far enough to make Office the productivity hub it once was.

Having said this, while Microsoft is falling behind in terms of bringing social or other third-party data into Office in a consistent manner, one area that it looks to be nailing this is in big data, as The New York Times reports. Excel, for example, will be able to run analytics against large Twitter data sets, and Outlook will employ big data analytics behind the scenes to determine the relevance of messages to the user. This is hugely interesting and helps to keep Office relevant as big data grows.

If only Microsoft could be equally innovative in figuring out its interface for creating and consuming all these data. Office's interface really hasn't changed much in decades, despite the addition of the Ribbon interface and other (often unwanted) tweaks. And as other companies have shaped user behavior with the introduction of instant messaging, wall posts, tweets, and such, Microsoft has remained largely relegated to documents, spreadsheets, presentations, and emails.

The future of content creation and consumption, in other words, is being invented elsewhere, and Microsoft, for the most part, isn't even a fast follower in these areas.

All that said, there's hope.

I've argued before that Microsoft has a choice between its stolid Windows or Office franchises. Having seen Apple integrate things like Facebook and Twitter into the fabric of iOS, I'm beginning to wonder if the answer isn't so much for Microsoft to choose between the two, but rather to deeply entwine the two into one product. Something where the operating system basically is invisible as a product, with content creation, collaboration, and consumption simply functions of what happens on a (probably mobile) device.

In this world, Office would continue to be available for the Mac and possibly even for Linux, but would always feel like a clumsy bolt-on product. The Windows version would be a seamless, end-to-end user experience that doesn't distinguish between the operating system and the essential apps that it runs.

Think this is viable? Please let me know in the comments. ®

Matt Asay is vice president of corporate strategy at 10gen, the MongoDB company. Previously he was SVP of business development at Nodeable, which was acquired in October 2012. He was formerly SVP of biz dev at HTML5 start-up Strobe (now part of Facebook) and chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfresco's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open...and Shut, appears three times a week on The Register. You can follow him on Twitter @mjasay.

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