Imagine OLE reinvented for the web and that's 90% of Microsoft's Fluid Framework: We dig into O365 collaborative tech

'We want to break down barriers, move ideas seamlessly across applications, across people, across devices'

Fluid Framework: same content, collaboration, different applications
Fluid Framework ... same content, collaboration, different applications

Ignite Microsoft is previewing its Fluid Framework, first announced at its Build developer event in May, and presenting it as a key technology for content-based collaboration.

Fluid Framework only occupied a brief and minor slot in CEO Satya Nadella’s keynote at Redmond's Ignite conference, running this week in Florida, yet the forthcoming preview, expected around a month from now, is one of the most intriguing and potentially significant technologies featured at the event.

Microsoft’s Office 365 is cloudy collaboration with its roots in desktop applications, especially the familiar trio of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. Documents get created in desktop Office and emailed back and forth, or perhaps sent as SharePoint links, in a manner that has not radically changed for 25 years. Google Docs, born on the web, is in some respects more advanced since it is browser-centric, better at collaboration, and conceptually treats content more like web pages than files, although users are still invited to create a document, a spreadsheet, or a presentation.

Fluid Framework is Microsoft’s attempt to change the way people collaborate and update content in Office 365. At a high level it is two things. First, a high-performance synchronization technology that is fast enough that it feels instant.

'People feel like they’re all on the same device'

“Real time collaboration is pretty standard,” Rob Howard, general manager of Microsoft 365 Foundations, told The Register at Ignite.

"There is a point where we see people behaving differently: when you get to 10, 15, 20 millisecond latencies, as opposed to a few 100, people feel like they’re all on the same device."

The claim is that this technology scales to hundreds of concurrent authors. Those contributors may, in some cases, be bots rather than humans, enabling scenarios like simultaneous translation into multiple languages.

“The notion of having an object that lives on one person’s machine and synchronizing it with an object that sits on another person’s machine is not a new notion," Howard continued. "We think we’re applying it in a new way. We’re using an eventually consistent model in order to have this high-scale experience that lets people distribute those objects across browsers, across experiences, across sessions. We think that is new."

Second, the framework is a componentized document model. In the keynote example, a PowerPoint chart is based on a table of data, and that table is copied, or rather shared, with a mobile application, such as Teams. A user updates the data on the mobile device and the PowerPoint chart instantly updates. It is not PowerPoint running on the mobile device, just the table component surfaced in a different application.

The Fluid Framework example in the keynote showed a PowerPoint chart updated in real time from a table in another application on another device

The Fluid Framework example in the keynote showed a PowerPoint chart updated in real time from a table in another application on another device

“Fluid Framework lets us decompose a document into paragraphs and individual components, take a table, paste it into another application, like Outlook or Teams, so that people can collaborate in the context of where they are, and continue to do their own work,” said Howard.

Componentized, or compound documents, will bring back memories for some – like, perhaps, Object Linking and Embedding (OLE), introduced by Microsoft in the 1990s. OLE 2.0 allowed one document to be embedded in another, such as an Excel spreadsheet in a Word document, with the link maintained so that when the spreadsheet was updated, so did the Word document. Then there was Office Binder, part of Office 95, 97, and 2000, which enabled users to combine multiple document types into one.

In practice it was clunky and not much used. OLE 2.0 was famous for bringing Windows to its knees in the early days. Another early and doomed example of compound documents was Apple’s OpenDoc. What do compound documents look like in the internet era? Fluid Framework may be Microsoft’s answer.

Fluid Framework will initially be a feature of Office 365. The preview takes two forms. There will be a customer preview here. A business Office 365 subscription will be required. It will enable users to create componentized documents, do real-time collaboration, and try cross-application features, though this will be simplified compared to the final release. Components available will include tables, text with basic markdown styling, checklists, tables that track simple actions with users assigned as owners, @mentions that notify users, and a date picker.

The preview may be for browser-based access only. Next in line are the Office mobile applications, and desktop Office maybe, eventually. This is web technology and reverses the usual expectation that desktop is the “full Office”, especially on Windows.

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The second form of the preview is private and aimed at developers. You can sign up here. “We think the technology is broadly useful for collaborative web experiences. We want to work with developers to understand the scenarios they’d like to apply it to,” said Howard.

If multi-authoring documents at scale sounds like a recipe for chaos, it is mitigated by comprehensive change tracking. “It’s part of the eventual consistency model,” said Howard. “You could imagine being able to do things like scrub the changes back and forth or create a keyframe of the document that you could go back to. You can even do things like branch and fork documents.” These concepts feel natural for developers, but may not be intuitive for other Office users. “From a user experience perspective this is something we have to figure out,” Howard remarked.

Microsoft, said he, plans to “bring this technology through all applications in Microsoft 365. This is foundational.” The intention is “to break down the barriers between those apps so you can move ideas seamlessly across applications, across people, across devices.”

The Fluid Framework project may fall flat. The concept of live content that can change before your eyes is often not appropriate for business documents. Performance may fall short of Microsoft’s claims. Users may be reluctant to break the habit of creating static content in desktop Office and sending it here and there for comment and revision. SharePoint was intended in part to break that habit and has only been partially successful.

All that granted, the Fluid Framework is an intriguing new take on how business documents work, and lets go of the idea that desktop Office is the best way to create them. ®

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