Microsoft responds to commentary regarding Office bloat

If you've been following my coverage of Google Apps (that's Google's official name for when a collection of Google's services including Docs, Spreadhseets, Calendar, and GMail run in a domain-specific context), then you didn't miss how I poked holes in Google CEO Eric Schmidt's claim (or was it just a joke?) that Google Apps doesn't compete with Microsoft Office.

If you've been following my coverage of Google Apps (that's Google's official name for when a collection of Google's services including Docs, Spreadhseets, Calendar, and GMail run in a domain-specific context), then you didn't miss how I poked holes in Google CEO Eric Schmidt's claim (or was it just a joke?) that Google Apps doesn't compete with Microsoft Office. Yeah, feature for feature, if Google Apps was in the left column and Microsoft Office was in the right, you'd need one 8.5x11" sheet to list off Google's feature and a role of paper towel to cover Microsoft Office. But is that long list of features -- what some may refer to as bloat -- what the market needs? In a subsequent post, I answered the question of how it was we got here in the first place with here being a collection of software titles at the local computer store where 10 percent or less of the features serve 90 percent or more of the market's needs. In that post, I wrote:

Today, I'm not sure shrink-wrapped software vendors have a real clue as to what customers are using and what they aren't. Unlike a software as a service (SaaS) provider like Google with Google Apps who can monitor with exacting precision what features get used by way of the Web pages and APIs being accessed, shrink wrap software vendors must resort to educated guesses and projections based on indirect data like support calls.

In an e-mail response, Microsoft Office senior product manager Chris Schneider disputes my statement as conjecture, saying:

I saw your article on Office suite bloat and, as you know, we couldn't agree more when it come to the previous versions of Office. Word 2003 has over 1,500 commands and 31 toolbars, hence the complete redesign of the Office user interface for this new release.  Here are some stats that I thought you might find interesting on the knowledge we got from users of Office 2003 when we were working on the development of the 2007 Office system.

  • 1.2 billion data sessions collected
  • ~1.8 million sessions per day
  • As an example, over a period of just 90 days, we tracked 352 million command bar clicks in Word.
  • We tracked nearly 6000 individual datapoints.
  • From those sessions, we learned what commands people click on most often. As a result, the UI puts 80% of those commands on the first tab).

So I'm not 100% convinced that "software vendors must resort to educated guesses and projections based on indirect data like support calls."

OK Chris. Mea culpa. In the case of Microsoft Office (please recall that I said shrink-wrapped software vendors... a larger group), Microsoft has data on what features users are using and how they're getting to them (there are more ways than one to get to certain features of Microsoft Office). So, it's not entirely an educated guess. Since Microsoft must ask customers to allow such tracking to be turned on, I naturally had some other questions. Here's what they were and how Schneider answered:

  • Of those clicks you were tracking, what percentage of the Word user base did that represent? We looked at input from our broad base of customers as we developed the redesigned experience, so the changes reflect the diversity of the Microsoft Office users.  From schoolteachers to CEOs, we looked at gathering both a quantity of data as well as quality data to show us how to put the information people need for success at their fingertips.
  • Then, relative to Word 2003 having over 1,500 commands and 31 toolbars, how many does Word 2007 have? Are the total number of features up or down?  (this puts the number of commands/toolbars in context since there isn't necessarily a one to one mapping).  In redesigning the Office UI, our goal wasn’t to cut down on the number of features in the 2007 Office applications, but to make those features more discoverable. The new UI represents a shift to results-oriented design, enabling people to focus on what they want to do rather than how they do it.

Here's where maybe there are different conversations taking place. In the context of looking at the bloat issue -- in other words, is Microsoft Office so bloated that its market success could collapse under its own weight -- I think its relevant to know that if Microsoft has data on command/toolbar usage from some segment of Office users, the percentage of the user base it has this from is relevant. If for example, it represents 10 percent of the users or less, can we say the data Microsoft has is projectable to the rest? (that seems to be what Microsoft is saying when it explains the diversity of the group instead of answering the question). 

Even if it is projectable, it seems as though there's a bit of a disconnect between the action taken as a result of having this data and what was said about the previous versions of Office. Specifically, the part where I'm told "We couldn't agree more when it come to the previous versions of Office."

Actually, I think we're still in disagreememnt. What Microsoft agrees to is not that Office may be bloated with features, but rather that the older user interface didn't allow users to sufficiently and/or efficiently harness those features. The e-mail very clearly states that the goal wasn't to cut down the number of features. Instead, it was to make all of them more discoverable. 

In other words, Microsoft is still committed to a full-bodied locally hosted Office productivity suite that costs hundreds of dollars,  so long as the user interface is done right. That could be the right way to go. Or, in the case of Google (which should know exactly what features are getting used and which ones aren't based on page view statistics), the company is moving forward on the basis that a light-bodied, extremely low-cost (or free if you don't need storage, dial-up support, or Google-sanctioned add-ons) hosted approach is the way to go. And of course, the interface still has to be done right (as do a few other things). Which one will end up serving the majority of the market five years from now? Probably Microsoft Office. But I highly doubt it will resemble today's Office in functionality, user interface, or price.

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