Microsoft 'officelabs' looks to open source for inspiration

Summary:officelabs, sources say, is a new kind of incubator that is taking shape inside the Microsoft Business Division. It's a fledgling group that is going to operate more like the Windows Live team than the Office one, by tossing a bunch of new products over the transom in beta form and watching to see what sticks.

One of the criticisms most often levied against Microsoft -- and not just by anonymous posters on Mini Microsoft -- is that the company has gotten too big and too slow to be effective. Can Microsoft change this dynamic?

Officials have been trying. That's what all those greenhouses and incubators seeded throughout Microsoft are all about. Allow small, targeted teams to flourish inside the bigger Borg. Good concept, but the results haven't been all that noticeable.

Enter, officelabs.

Officelabs, sources say, is a new kind of incubator that is taking shape inside the Microsoft Business Division (the unit in charge of Microsoft Office, Dynamics ERP and Dynamics CRM). It's a fledgling group that is going to operate more like the Windows Live team than the Office one, by tossing a bunch of new products over the transom in beta form and watching to see what sticks.

Tipsters say that Microsoft is encouraging the officelabs team to make use of open-source concepts in order to make better use of developers across different divisions within the company. Don't be limited by organizational hierarchy. Release fixes more quickly. Get new innovations into the hands of testers and users before they've been tested ad nauseum, to help build excitement for products -- instead of waiting for orchestrated mega-launches like the Vista/Office 2007 one that finally happened at the end of January.

Those kinds of concepts are very non-Office-like. The Office team prides itself on the lengthy, rigorous testing versions of Office undergo before they ever reach the masses of beta testers, let alone customers.

But it seems some company officials -- influenced, no doubt, by Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie and his "Live" transformation plans -- are ready to go further and actually try to make the company, in general, and Office, in particular, more agile.

Chris Capossela, a Corporate Vice President with Microsoft's Business Division, hinted a bit about this when we chatted at the Vista/Office launch in New York on January 30. Capossella and his team have been mulling how a team with a huge installed base like Office can roll out new products and updates more quickly, without completely abandoning the thorough testing required by products with millions of users.

In short, they can't. But what they can do is release code and services in "Live"-like fashion just to get it out there and see how it flies. Just don't call it "Office" (and maybe not even "Office Live"). Differentiate it from your existing offerings.

"Product branding matters way less in free- and ad-funded services," Capossela acknowledged.

Is a commercial software vendor like Microsoft really ready and able to think more like its open-source competitors? Will a change in philosophy lead to changes in Microsoft product development and delivery (in our lifetimes)? Guess we'll see.

Topics: Microsoft

About

Mary Jo Foley has covered the tech industry for 30 years for a variety of publications, including ZDNet, eWeek and Baseline. She is the author of Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft plans to stay relevant in the post-Gates era (John Wiley & Sons, 2008). She also is the cohost of the "Windows Weekly" podcast on the TWiT network. Got a tip? Se... Full Bio

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