Are You Ready for Microsoft 'OfficeTalk'?

Microsoft OfficeTalk works kind of like Buzz or Twitter, and might just be a killer app. But can Microsoft release it without feature bloat?
Every once in a while, Microsoft comes up with a super popular product, one that people love to use. No, really!

Windows 95 and Windows 7 are good examples. Xbox is awesome. Word had a good run. And a lot of people love Outlook. There are others.

The issue of lovable Microsoft products is separate and distinct from market success, which often earns Microsoft billions, even though people hate using them. Windows Vista, Exchange and Windows Mobile come to mind.

Don't look now, but Microsoft is sitting on a super lovable product -- or at least a concept that could be a product, if Microsoft can muster the vision to ship it before they smother it with features and functionality.

It's called OfficeTalk. Microsoft unveiled it last week.

What is Microsoft OfficeTalk?

Micro-blogging sites like Twitter, and hybrid micro-blogging/social networking services like Google Buzz, have proved the potential for collaborative decision-making and timely information sharing in the consumer world.

Like instant messaging, blogging and other communications technologies that started out in the consumer space and trickled up into the enterprise, micro-blogging is almost predestined to become a major enterprise application.

Microsoft OfficeTalk works kind of like Buzz or Twitter, but the data lives on company servers and is owned and managed by the company.

Its purpose, in addition to improving internal company communication, appears to be to redirect company information from closed e-mail conversations to open (within the company) searchable conversations. When any employee wants to find something out, they no longer have to ask the right person and wait for a reply. They can just search the company chatter stream.

Thousands of Microsoft workers have reportedly been using OfficeTalk internally for months. It started as a pet project of two engineers on the Office Labs team. Microsoft recently rolled it out to a small group of customers for a trial.

How OfficeTalk works

Each user fills out a profile, which is indexed for search.

OfficeTalk has two "feeds" -- one belonging to the user, like on Twitter or Buzz, and the other a "Company Feed" for company communications and conversations. Users can follow other people in the company by subscribing to their feeds.

As on Twitter, each user can specify whether messages sent go only to specific groups (such as followers, ad hoc teams or to the whole department) or if they go to the whole company.

OfficeTalk appears to have a Twitter-like 140-character maximum per message. We can assume that OfficeTalk messages are limited to ensure SMS compatibility. Like Buzz, replies are attached to the original messages and displayed in chronological order to form threads.

OfficeTalk also has a Twitter-like hashtag keywording system, whereby searchable keywords are added to messages and identified with the # symbol. So, for example, if the company has a holiday party each year, the event can be assigned the hashtag #holidayparty. When someone posts a message of note about that event, they add the hashtag: "Hey, can we bring our kids to the #holidayparty?". Any search for the hashtag #holidayparty gets all messages with that hashtag.

OfficeTalk will likely involve APIs that enable the development of custom applications integrated with Microsoft Office.

Why OfficeTalk Might Fail

OfficeTalk could join (or be joined to) two social media projects at Microsoft. The first is SharePoint 2010, which is a browser-based social content and document management system.

The second is Outlook Social Connector (part of Office 2010), which a contacts-centric social tool vaguely similar in purpose but different in function to Linked-in. (And, in fact, a partnership with Linked-in integrates Linked-in data.)

Outlook Social Connector gives users a social history (previous conversations, future meetings current conversations and so on) about that person, plus other information so users know who they're talking to. Outlook Social Connector mines data in Outlook and SharePoint to provide social "dossiers" on contacts.

Another way to look at Outlook Social Connector is that it's "glue" that brings together disparate sets of social data and presents it in various integrated views from within Outlook.

I don't know for sure, but I believe OfficeTalk functionality might be folded into one or both of these products.

How OfficeTalk Could Succeed

A Microsoft blog post about enterprise social networking almost apologizes to readers for OfficeTalk's limited functionality, saying that it's "pretty bare bones." In that same post, the blogger points out that the OfficeTalk project is "one of the most popular internal concept tests to date."

Microsoft should but probably doesn't understand that these two facts are related. Bare bones social networking sites are popular. Look at Buzz. Look at Twitter. There's no such thing as a bloated, feature rich but successful social networking or micro-blogging service. Limited functionality is the killer feature.

The most likely scenario, given Microsoft's history, is that OfficeTalk will be augmented, added to, extended, integrated and automated until nobody wants to use it anymore. It will then probably be buried inside one of the other initiatives and forgotten forever. And that would be tragic.

Microsoft: Why not hit a home run this time? Somehow, muster the vision to ship OfficeTalk as a "bare bones" micro-blogging tool. Just this once, give minimalism a chance.

Of course, Microsoft is Microsoft, so they can force OfficeTalk functionality on millions whether they like it or not and unfurl the "Mission Accomplished" banner. But why not ship something people love to use?

Google Buzz for enterprises (Buzz hosted on company servers) is coming. And Buzz will benefit from a massively painful, clumsy rollout, followed by breathtakingly rapid evolution based on user criticism and feedback. Buzz for Enterprises will probably be really good.

And if Google's enterprise-class version of Buzz isn't bare bones enough, you can bet Twitter's will be.

Microsoft has created a clean, "bare-bones" enterprise alternative to Buzz and Twitter. I just hope they can ship it without improving it to death.




Tags: Microsoft, Twitter, social networking, google buzz, OfficeTalk


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