15 August 2007

Numbers

One of the great benefits of working at Microsoft is that when you add a new little one to your family, you get 1 month of paid paternity leave. Recently, we've had the opportunity to take advantage of this benefit. Since our little baby was born, I've been home working as Mr. Mom. I've been mostly offline, except for early mornings and late nights when the kids are sleeping. My boss isn't going to like it, but since I've been gone for paternity leave, I've logged on to my work email only once, and that was just to make sure my out of office emails were working. Needless to say, I've been happily busy with family.

I haven't been so busy that I didn't catch Apple's announcement regarding their new iWork application, Numbers. I haven't bought a copy, or logged into work to see what others are saying about this announcement, but I'm guessing it's much like when Apple announced Keynote for the first time. A combination of deep respect for Apple's software and design capabilities, coupled with sense of, "Let's get back to work and make something great!" kind of attitude.

What follows are some of my personal feelings that I've considered amidst making meals and playing at the park with my kids. I don't in any way attempt to speak for MacBU or Microsoft, these are just one person's opinions, specifically mine. And yes, I do work in MacBU, and yes I can't share everything I'd like to say for obvious reasons. So, here goes:

Once upon a time, it was decided that we needed to move to a more open file format. XML was the obvious choice. There were and are a lot of good reasons for opening up your file format. I'm not going to discuss these at length, but one of these in particular is that folks are not forced to use your application to both read and write files that others can use. This is a good thing.

Allowing anyone to read and write your file format is a bold move because it says in essence, "We don't need a locked down file format to compete. The format can be available for everyone, and we'll compete on the ease of use and efficiency of our applications. We have what we think is the best interface for reading, creating and managing Office documents, but if someone has what they think is a better way to build Office documents, wonderful, we welcome it!"

What Apple has done with Keynote, Pages and Numbers is exactly this. With each one of their applications, they've created a user interface that reflects how they think people want or should want to act when building a presentation, document or spreadsheet. I've been in this market for a long time, and obviously have opinions about how things should be done. If someone else has what they think is a good solution for building Office documents, I think that's great.

From another perspective, I think Apple's work on Numbers underscores that despite the large advances being made in web interfaces, there is still a place for rich client applications. Both iLife, iWork and even the Google Maps application on the iPhone reinforce that there's lots of opportunity left for innovation in the "rich client" arena. Numbers specifically proves there's opportunity left for innovation in the productivity applications space. I certainly think there is, and folks who think that the problem space that Office lives in is "essentially solved", should think again. There's plenty left to improve. Plenty. That's what makes it exciting.

Some have said, "I bet MacBU is envious of Apple being able to start from scratch." Now that's a loaded comment. Let me try to address the different parts. First the envious thing. Apple is a great software company and at Microsoft, software is pretty important too! ;-) At the very core of MacBU is the desire to produce great software for the Mac platform. When the business unit was created, the whole goal was to focus our energies on producing seamless and compatible, but very Mac, applications. There are a certain set of problems one must focus on when working on Mac Office. There's another set of problems one must focus on when working on iWork. You trade problems sets, but they are just different problems sets! The grass is not always greener on the other side of the fence. Most people with significant software experience will know that "starting from scratch" is one of the most risky and difficult things to do. I don't think anyone is excited about scrapping years worth of effort just to have a clean start at things. From a programming perspective, that just makes no sense.

Also, Apple isn't starting from scratch. They are building methodically on the several foundations they've laid over the years in Keynote, then Pages and now they've added Numbers. One might even say that, Numbers is Keynote and Pages with better table and function support, and not be too far from the mark. This kind of progressive building together is what Microsoft did with Office originally. There's a pattern here. The bigger questions in my mind are really these: "Will Apple's software foundation allow them to add to and improve their software for the next 20 years? What will be the rate of their improvement?"

Lastly, in a very real way, we do "start from scratch" every product cycle. I wish you could all experience the high energy and exhilarating discussions we have when we are planning for the next version of Office. We "wipe the slate clean" and do our best to remove all inhibitions and constraints when we think about what we can do next with Mac software at Microsoft. And this doesn't just happen in MacBU. My favorite example of this, right now, has to be the new UI in Win Office. Maybe someday I'll write about that more in-depth, but the way that Ribbon interface elevates access to the many features of Office and makes Office easy to use is just wonderful. Anyone who's serious about interaction design in software should take a serious look at what this interface does and how it does it. There's a great deal to be learned, not the least of which is that sometimes you need to dramatically re-think the user interface of your application and not be afraid to do exactly that.

Finally, as in the past, the question will undoubtedly be asked, "What is the core value of Office on the Mac?" I'll answer that with one word: compatibility. Mac users are the kind of people that want things to "just work" and Microsoft Office for the Mac offers that exact value proposition. Mac users want to enjoy all the great things that make the Mac experience wonderful, but still be able to share documents and communicate in a Mac way in a Windows dominated world. MacBU is categorically in the best position to deliver on this promise of compatibility.

27 comments:

t3knomanser said...

I still don't get the core value of Office on Windows. You have no idea how long I spent trying to make Word stop resetting numbering in new sections of my documentation.

I jest, mostly. Honestly, until I saw Numbers, I had zero interest in owning a spreadsheet program. Of course, as soon as I had numbers, I started noting the things Excel has that I wish it did (data binding, user defined functions, scripting support) and things neither of them had that would make sense in Numbers (foreign keys).

That said, Numbers was a breeze for setting up a D&D Character Sheet tool- complete with auto-calced ACs and weapon base attacks.

Of course, when I converted it to Excel to send to someone... well, let's say I was underwhelmed by the translation.

Recession Cone said...

I hope Office 2008 offers more of that core value (compatibility) than Office 2004 does. I have had a lot of troubles with Office 2004's compatibility that seem simple enough that they should have been fixed. For example: if you drag a photo from OS X into a Powerpoint presentation, it includes the picture as a .tiff in the powerpoint document. However, Windows office Powerpoint can't read .tiff files, so all the pictures in my powerpoint documents end up being blank when viewed by someone using Windows. The workaround for this is to click through the Object->Add picture menu system to find the photo on disk, in which case it will be included in its native format. This mistake seems so easy to fix: either make Windows understand .tiff (not rocket science), or convert .tiff files into .png or .bmp or whatever Windows PPT can understand.

Secondly, Windows Meta File graphics support on Mac Office is basically broken. There are many presentations which are just plain not viewable on Mac Office 2004 because all the graphics are completely broken. And even when WMF graphics are viewable by Mac Office's WMF converter, there's that horrible MODAL popup window saying "Windows Meta File Conversion" for each and every graphic being loaded from the PPT. This should all be seamless and transparent.

Another big compatibility issue is font rendering, which is different in Windows than in OS X and can make PPT presentations look very different from one OS to the other. (Apple took care of this by including its own font rendering engine in Safari on Windows, maybe you should consider doing the same).

I hope these simple issues are fixed in Mac Office 2008. As of now, I have had such a negative experience with Office compatibility between OSs that I find the value proposition of Mac Office to be compromised.

Ian Ragsdale said...

Mac users are the kind of people that want things to "just work" and Microsoft Office for the Mac offers that exact value proposition.

If only this were true. How many features of MS Excel are crippled (pivot tables) or just plain missing (VBA, in the next version at least) from Office for the Mac? I can't even trust embedded images to operate correctly cross-platform, due to PICT and BMP issues.

MacBU is categorically in the best position to deliver on this promise of compatibility.

That's absolutely true, and I wish you guys could actually deliver. Don't get me wrong, I think the Mac BU has done an amazing job, and there are bound to be platform differences and bugs in any software product of that size (heck, even tiny applications have platform differences), but being a second class citizen (when it comes to office) is always going to be a game of catchup.

Anonymous said...

t3knomanser, could you put your D&D Character Sheet tool somewhere generally available? It would be nice to see what kinds of things one can do.

Adrian said...

If it's not too late, please change the default settings of Word and Entourage to not-AutoFormat and not-AutoCorrect. This to me is the most frustrating aspect of my experience with MacBU's software.

Anonymous said...

I would agree that the MacBU is in the best position to deliver compatibility and interoperability. But is it doing so? I ask that question respectfully, and as someone who was a user tester for MacOffice 08. Are we Mac users truly getting Mac functionality and full compatibility? Certainly, as someone who works in an Exchange environment, much as I like the new Entourage's feature set, I cannot give that question an "unqualified yes."

andrew.hankinson said...

This is a great post. I agree with what you said in principle, but in practice I'm afraid your view of what Office is from the inside isn't what we, the users, see on the outside.

I was excited to see Numbers appear too, and we've ordered a family pack of iWork licenses for our lab. They complete our day-to-day office software needs.

More importantly, though, they make our work stand above the crowd. Our presentations have a 'finish' to them that make people who are used to the standard-fare Powerpoint sit up and take notice.

The problem with Office is that it's lacking that 10% that Apple spends time on. It's what makes a report done in Pages stand out from the same-old, same-old that everyone is used to from Word. Powerpoint vs. Keynote is perhaps the best exemplar of this. Look at the difference between the Keynote 'cube' transition and the Powerpoint 'cube' transition. Apple's is smooth, refined and cinematic; Powerpoint's is, well, it's a powerpoint transition. It's choppy, the edges are warped in a strange way, and it just comes off as a 'me-too' attempt. It's not just the MacBU - It's an institutional problem at Microsoft that nobody there seems to recognize.

Your talk of the excitement when you're planning a new version of Office is great, but does that continue through the whole development cycle? Or do you come up with great ideas at first that ultimately get quashed because of ingrained user behaviours and transferrable knowledge in your users? Simple things like the styles selection process, or as the other commentor noted, the page numbering-across-sections process are areas that desperately needed attention. It was because of the awkwardness of those two features I abandoned Word when better options came along on the Mac. More telling, however, is that these features were copied directly from Office for Windows.


What I find most interesting, however, is your point on what the core value of Office on Mac is. You said it was compatibility, which is fine but unfortunately that means that you're always going to be following Office for Windows, rather than building something truly unique and fully 'Mac.'

Opening the file format up is an important first step towards being more free to innovate, so it should be interesting to see how things progress.

Good luck!

David Weiss said...

Wow, great comments. Thanks all. You are right, this is ours to lose. I've said it before, and I'll say it again, it's all about execution. If MacBU can't find a way to serve the market, someone else will. Obviously, I'm optimistic about MacBU being able to provide the Mac experience everyone has come to expect.

Anonymous said...

I don't know. Pages, Numbers and Keynote are using a weird format basicly a directory which includes everything. This might work on a Mac but not an anything else.

Office Open XML is a complicated weird format which is open but includes also not open parts.

Neither iWork application supports the only real open standard OpenDocument. Even though TextEdit in Leopard will support it.

I think it is poor of Apple, not include ODF in iWork '08.

Chris said...

Hi David,

This is somewhat off topic, but I just arrived here via a link from daringfireball.net, and you have a lovely, thoughtful blog!

My favorite posts so far are the lettter from your Dad, the 5th of July essay (freedom fries, indeed!) and your iPhone commentary, which has been very astute.

Also, your whole Apple v. Microsoft philosophy (We CAN just get along, see! It's easy!) is a refreshing break from the juvenile fanboy ethos both camps tend to fall into.

Ah, grown up conversations on blogs. What next?!

So, thanks, I'll be back!

Ben said...

Hello David,

I was forwarded this way by Rui Carmo's TaoOfMac.

May I first say... congratulations on your new child. I'm glad to hear how you are using the time that Microsoft has given you to spend with your family.

Echoing Chris's comments, this is truly a thoughtful website. It's nice to see such level-headed commentary.

I can only hope that the rest of the MacBU shares your depth of thought and understanding.

Best,
Ben

Shane Blyth said...

Interesting Blog. The lack of VB is a killer for me in the too be released office. I have Word documents for school with macros and iWork doesnt support this either.
I saw today a product being released for Mac and ordered it as it was really cheap (49.95 US I think) called MacOffice Professional which is also using the new file format BUT also has VB support ! interesting never did understand why MS is dropping VB from the Mac version of Office. I would be interested in the MS guys taking a look at the product and seeing what they think.. As I said I ordered it as it was on special and certainly is a fuller suite than iWorks . http://www.macofficepro.com

The Limey said...

MacOffice Professional appears to be just NeoOffice, a free and open source java port of Open Office.

If you paid any money for it at all, let alone $50, you're probably being ripped off.

Tom Davies said...

Judging by the screen shots you could have saved $50 here: http://www.neooffice.org/

Blaise said...

I have used Appleworks, NeoOffice, and OpenOffice, and for some reason, I keep coming back to Microsoft Office in the end. I bet a lot of macheads do the same. It's a decent product that certainly could be better, but a good one nonetheless.

Mark Weiss said...

I use Microsoft Office as well, It is the most Mac-like of all the "offices". Further, may I say I find your blog very thoughtful, levelheaded and meaningful as well. My favorite so far is also the Letter from My Dad.
Oh, and by the way, congratulations on bringing us our number 6 grandchild.

Your ever faithful,

Dad

Readon said...

Well, I've been a mac user for quite some time already. Currently, I have bought iWork 08 and it works like a charm on my Macbook Pro.

I think that iWork's suite is much more suited for the average user who does work on a mac. About compatibility and sharing issues, Apple has done a great job, as the file>export function allows for one to export say, a keynote into a .mov or .ppt file. One can also open office files in iWork, and now with numbers, the productivity suite has been upped by an ante from iWork'06.

Although I do have Microsoft Office 2004 on my Mac, and run VMWare Fusion to access the occasional non-compatible Office 2007 File, I throughly enjoy the iWork experience. It's different from microsoft's offering, in the sense that the workflow is very sleek, streamlined and enhanced. My productivity has clearly been boosted with the use of iWork.

Can't wait to see what Apple has in store for us. And yes, I would like to take Office 08 for the Mac on a test drive soon when it hits the shelves.

Anonymous said...

'You are right, this is ours to lose. I've said it before, and I'll say it again, it's all about execution. If MacBU can't find a way to serve the market, someone else will. '

No, you are wrong on this. In my opinion the MacBU doesn't serve the market, there are only two reasons why you are the dominant players here: 1. compatibility, because it's a windows world and 2. because everyone else does a worse job. It's like the cellphone business, and there's gonna be an iphone here too, the only question is when.

Having said that, I pray to all the Tiki gods that the next version of office is going to kick butt.

Anonymous said...

If I were on a programming team and someone said the core value of our product was compatibility (with others on another platform) I'd be embarrassed. What about ease of use? intuitiveness? powerful without being obscure? stable and reliable? Man, even if I worked for the MacBU where compatibility is important I'd want those others to be just as important as compatibility...especially since Office 2004 isn't exactly compatible across the board and 2008 sure as heck won't be.

G. M. Kearney said...

Please, make Office accessible to the blind and print disabled using VoiceOver on a Mac. This is one thing MS can do right now which will make office different from the Apple offerings.

sean said...

way to trumpet what you just read at TAUW.com. ;~)

when you are talking about making software for 3 - 5% of the market trying to fit into the larger office world, then your #1 goal *MUST* be compatibility. you can have all the intuitiveness and ease of use in the world, but if you aren't compatible then it's worthless.

i couldn't even begin to think about Pages previously because the Track Changes command hadn't been implemented. As beautiful as Pages was, it wasn't compatible and i didn't even open it up. Now that's this feature has been made compatible, i can consider using it. Compatibility with the world comes first for Mac users when talking about office applications.

cheers!

Anonymous said...

Interesting post, and good discussion all around.

My main use of Office for the Mac centered on Word. When Pages came out, I was ready for a change and made the switch despite the scarcity of advanced features. Since then I've come to love Pages, and Office has been removed from my machine. The reasons are easy and few: simplicity, stability, reliability, beauty.

What always has and still bothers me is the terrible translation that iWork does with the Office formats. I can't understand how Apple does so poorly with this open format that MS has. Any thoughts on why the translation with this very open format fails so often?

Anonymous said...

Allowing anyone to read and write your file format is a bold move because it says in essence, "We don't need a locked down file format to compete.

If OOXML were an actual, open, specification, this would be a bold move, and a welcome one. But when a spec is 6000+ pages long, and those 600 pages contains XML tags like "formatAsWord95" (without explaining how to format as Word95) -- it is not a spec. It is, at best, an angle bracket veneer of openness around a still closed proprietary format.

It is too bad, because, on the applciation merits alone, MS Office would likely still win the battle, but Microsoft seems completely unwilling to compete on that even playing field.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the previous comments: the "core value" of a software product should be ease of use, intuitiveness, powerful, stable, and reliable. Office:mac is not these.
And for compatibility... well, everything has been said.
If you want compatibility for "a Windows world", get to work on open, standard formats, and it's implementations.
Does anyone remember IE for Mac? Messenger for MAC? Compatibility, pfffffff...

JC said...

I am just glad I don't have to have ANY Microsoft apps on my machine now.

I spent way too many hours fixing/patching my XP box. And the fact that Office has so many bloated features, iWork is a blessing.

MS dropped the ball a LONG time ago, they haven't been seen as an innovator for quite some time now.

Just think back to Balmer laughing about how no one will buy an $500 iPhone. He is completely out of touch with the market and reality.

Anonymous said...

ich nutze seit langer zeit office für mac. keine schlechte sache. aber seit einer woche habe iwork.
es gibt nicht viel zusagen. der markt wird entscheiden. für mich ist die entscheidung gefallen. itunes, ipod, iwork und bald iphone. immer dieses "i" mir ist es schon peinlich aber egal, ich bin ja nicht mehr allein.
best wishes!

Konrad said...

"one month paid leave" merciful Microsoft. In Sweden you get 18 (yes eighteen) months of maternity/paternity leave. The rest of Scandinavia is roughly the same and the rest of Europe goes in right direction. At times I think, that the only reason why America is "so great" is due to its efficiency in squeezing own citizens and paid education that makes poor folks unaware of such places as EU. If my employer would mercifully offer me "one month" leave I would laugh aloud. And yes answering your about-to-be-posted, generally salaries are higher in EU. Jesus... one month that's crime for that kid, how is he going to develop bond with his father, through sleep? Or with use MS Outlook?