Microsoft's LeBlond: No need for an MS Web Office

Microsoft's LeBlond: No need for an MS Web Office

Summary: With all the news and speculation about Google building a collaborative Web Office of sorts, with a  browser-based spreadsheet, word processor, email and calendar for starters, I wanted to get Microsoft's point of view on Web versus rich client Office suites. Can Web apps match the capababilities of desktop apps?


leblond.jpgWith all the news and speculation about Google building a collaborative Web Office of sorts, with a  browser-based spreadsheet, word processor, email and calendar for starters, I wanted to get Microsoft's point of view on Web versus rich client Office suites. Can Web apps match the capababilities of desktop apps? What are the tradeoffs? Is Microsoft going to create lighter weight Web versions of Microsoft Office components?

I recorded a podcast with Antoine LeBlond, corporate vice president of Office Productivity Applications, who oversees the design, development and testing of Microsoft Office. The 17-year veteran also holds the rank of Distinguished Engineer at the company.

LeBlond maintained that desktop applications provide an opportunity to build richer software with a more finely-tuned interaction model than Web apps. "The browser does provide some great functionality for doing some manipulations, but in the end you are working in a sandbox environment," LeBlond said. He pointed to constraints that limit Web apps or make features difficult to implement, such as getting the right-click pop up menu to work well in AJAX or dealing with cut and paste operations (although Microsoft did introduce Live Clipboard to help manage that task). 

LeBlond identified printing in Microsoft Word, with fine grained layout and typogrpahic controls, as a unique capability of rich client apps, as well as to compute-intensive charting capabilities in Office 2007, which he said are not suited to a time-shared environment. "It's hard to do something like that in script through a browser," he said.  

I asked LeBlond if over time browser-based applications could handle some of the features that are currently best suited to desktop apps.

"At some point we should expect to see platforms that get built into browsers continue to get richer and richer...coming full circle to pushing more and more code onto the client, and in many ways it starts to look like a rich client application. The more complex and powerful these platforms get, the more difficult is is to have a completely compatible platform from browser to browser to browser," LeBlond said. He attributed that potential incompatibility to the natural effect of increasing complexity. That said, developers today are managing to support the two main browser platforms, Internet Explorer and Firefox.

On the subject of developing a suite of Web productivity apps, LeBlond doesn't see any demand coming from customers. He described Web apps as reduced functionality versions of the Microsoft productivity applications they have been using for years, and said that customers are not actively asking for them. He noted that Web-based productivity apps and competitors to Microsoft Office, such as, have been around for a while as well as AJAX-related technologies.

"No one ever self identifies as the person who only needs the reduced functionality....The truth is that there have been low or reduced functionality versions of all of our products for years and years, and they really don't get very much traction," LeBlond said. "That clearly points to the fact there really isn't much demand."

I asked LeBlond if he thought an inflection point had been reached, with more sophisticated use of AJAX and other technologies to more closely replicate the rich client experience, and if Microsoft would build lightweight Office applications (what LeBlond calls "reduction functionality" apps, which says a lot about Microsoft's perspective on the subject) for users who don't need the full richness of Microsoft Office.

His answer was no. "The need for functionality and what we are trying to do with the software doesn't change because of new technologies that are available," LeBlond said. He pointed to the spreadsheet size limits as an example of the kind problem users will run into with Web-based apps.

I also asked LeBlond if Google's foray into productivity applications is of any concern to Microsoft. His response: "That's not what keeps me up at night," he said.

At the end of the 25 minute podcast we discussed what does keep him up at night--rolling out Office 2007. He talked about changes to the user interface and the impact of the new rendering engine.

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Topic: Apps

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  • And, this in a nutshell is Microsofts problem. Google can just go for it

    and make the best web based app possible, see how it works. Sure some things are not as good as desktop apps, BUT, some things are better. Can you say colaboration?

    But at Microsoft, they don't have groups that can just "go for it" like at Google. They say things like "we don't really see any demand", "customers aren't asking for it", etc. Translation: "We are making lots of money off of fat office suites that run on fat OSes, and we are not about to cut into that revenue". So, there may be internal groups that would love to do the same thing that Google is doing, but they are not allowed. Inovation stifled internally.
    • And this in a nutshell is Donnie's problem

      No matter what the blog or news item, it's Microsoft's fault, Microsoft's worry, Microsoft's doom etc etc.

      People have repetitively put up the problems with Web apps. No-one wants to deal with or give answers to the problems with security, net connection, net traffic and server load. On top of this, we get apps that look like they came from the 1980s all wrapped up in a sandbox that prevents you from using the features of the operating system or computer. A browser is NOT an ideal environment for developing anything, which is why we have people turning cartwheels to try and make scripting languages pretend to be a local app. The clue is in the name - It's a BROWSER not an OS.

      And I know it's a suprise but collaboration is available for Microsoft products. Sure you have to PAY for it (remember when you used to pay for software Donnie?) but then I don't mind getting a professional product with support.

      Funnily enough, all I see at MS is innovation - in development tools, applications, interfaces etc. I don't see it in the toy web app copies, I certainly didn't see it with Apples Xerox OS copy and their rebadged MP3 players and as for *nix, well I used it in the 70s and my occasional forays now show that it hasn't really improved - fine for servers, but for desktops you actually need some choice and range in apps. And as for OSS, OpenOffice is the exception that proves the rule - a nice, free, rather slow copy of MS Office.

      As for the rest of OSS, why not try actually using some of it or, god forbid, try and customise it and you'll find yourself lost in a morass of poorly written code, no documentation, upgrades that refuse to install etc etc. Sure there are a few diamonds out there, but the rest is unsuitable for professional business environments.
      • Looks like you are still in the 70's

        Having worked with both Windows and Unix/Linux for more years than I can count, I have NEVER found Microsoft to be innovative.

        Yes, Apple took the ideas from the Xerox Sparc system, but they were the first to apply them to a desktop PC. Microsoft copied Apple here.

        As for poorly written applications on Linux, I haven't found them. Would you elaborate on which ones those are? Despite George Ou's massaged numbers, OpenOffice is not slow at all. If it was, I would be using something else.

        One of every 4 PC's that Dell is now selling, is installed with linux (Red Hat). I think that Microsoft has a real problem here. Microsoft is a very reactive company. They will only move when the heat gets too hot. Firefox has been chipping big chunks away from the IE market share. Now there is an new IE7 coming out as a result. Maybe a few more losing chips on the OS side may wake up Microsoft to finally fix it's OS.

        Since I support both OS's, I think that competiton will make both OS's better. I only wish that Microsoft wouldn't wait until it sees it's losing some ground, before taking action, rather than listening to it's customer base.
      • You forgot to mention that the internet is getting faster and more reliable

        You also forgot to mention that programming methods and frameworks are getting better. You seem not to understand that many net applications are already very successful, take webmail as the best example. How about Google maps? And, soon to be popular Google Spreadsheets.

        Seems to me Microsoft would be a lot better off letting the engineers inovate and see what web based applications they can create and how the publice accepts them. You ain't a gonna figure out how to do web applications and what customers want sitting on your arse giving a million reasons why fat office suites and fat OSes are here to stay.

        My prediction is that fat OSes and fat office suites will be irrevalent in 10 years.