What Microsoft's Sway says about the future of Office

Microsoft's Sway aggregation/presentation app offers clues about the company's future intentions in the productivity and platforms space.

It's been a while since Microsoft introduced a brand-new member to the Office family. So it's worth looking at how and why Microsoft made the design and development decisions that it did in devising Sway, the Office aggregation and presentation app that it introduced in preview form last month.

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Sway -- one of the apps that CEO Satya Nadella is touting as indicative of Microsoft's new focus on productivity --  allows users to choose among a variety of layout types, both linear and non-linear, to showcase their photos and accompanying text. The completed digital output that Sway users create are called "Sways." Users' sways are stored in Microsoft's Azure cloud. Photos used to create Sways are saved in Microsoft's OneDrive cloud storage app.

Technically, Sway is more of a service than an app, says Chris Pratley, Director of Program Management for Sway, Word, Publisher Office Lens and other incubations.

"We do the processing in the cloud, store stuff in the cloud," Pratley said. "And Sway has an API (application programming interface), just like OneNote does."

Half the Sway team which numbers fewer than 100, came from OneNote; the other half came from the now-defunct Office Labs team. The team has been working on getting Sway to the preview milestone for the past two years.

Pratley has been on the Office team for 20 years. Besides heading Office Labs, he also was the leader of Microsoft's OneNote note-taking app team.While involved with Office Labs, Pratley championed the idea of experimenting. The Labs team started a number of projects not knowing what the outcome would be.

For a long time, Pratley said he'd been trying to figure out how to  appeal to people who are too busy to take the time to make things look good." The idea of "hiding" complexity seemed powerful, he said. The thinking was to create an alternative presentation app for people "who didn't want all the knobs."

As is often the case with seemingly simple products or ideas, the more basic or intuitive something looks, the harder it is to build. The Sway team needed to solve some really hard technical problems, Pratley said, specifically, how to put content on an arbitrarily-sized screen and still make it look well-designed. PowerPoint assumes a rectangle as the design/layout surface, but Sway allows users more freedom in object placement.

Pratley said he knew he didn't want to go with templates or sockets. In coming up with an automatic layout-rendering engine, the team also didn't want to be bound by rules around grids and colums that were designed for 2D paper layouts.

"There was a mind-reading part we needed to figure out," Pratley said -- specifically, how to anticipate what users might want to do when they couldn't really articulate it through commands or drop-down options on a menu.

Pratley mentioned Chart Advisor, which was developed by Office Labs and ultimately shipped as part of Excel 2013, as a precursor to Sway. Chart Advisor made recommendations as to the right chart type, given a specifical set of numerical data. The optimal chart may be quite different if a data set is social security numbers or salaries.

The Sway team also worked with Microsoft Research teams in China, Cambridge (UK) and Redmond on creating a simple way for Sway to crop photos, when appropriate. Using an algorithm honed over time using multiple billions of images, Microsoft is able to determine the "busy"/interesting bits of a photo. Then, using face detection, horizon lines and other cues, Sway can determine if and when cropping is likely beneficial. In a coming update, Sway also will be able to make smart decisions about where to overlay text on images.

Incorporating machine-learning techniques into Sway is on the agenda, as well, Pratley said.

"We have styling algorithms and layout algorithms today," Pratley said. "We built an expert system that's like a designer in a box," though it's only partially visiable in the current Sway preview).

"The idea is if a user likes a particular color, what might be other good complements. That's where the remix button came from" he said, referencing the ability in Sway for users to "remix" a Sway design if they don't like the way it loooks.

"People have a tolerance for error as long as they ultimately feel like they'll be successful," Pratley observed. "We make it easy to turn the error into an appropriate thing."

Sway was built around the premise that user interfaces don't have to be staid and boring.

"What if a UI was more fun, allowing users to provide their input? It's like picking items from catalogs or shopping," Pratley said. Users make a choice but then have the opportunity to change their minds.

The Sway team is taking tester feedback into account as to where to go next with Sway. But Pratley is already thinking of the possibilities, as well as ways to take the learnings from Sway and incorporate them back into the existing Office app family.

"What if i had a foodie app that was a subset of Sway, or a vacation travel Sway?" he wondered aloud.

For now, the team has its hands full rolling out the Sway preview to an increasingly larger audience and building native mobile versions of the Sway apps for iOS, Android and Windows phones. 

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