For many years, Microsoft’s profit from Office and Windows has allowed the company to invest in new markets such as gaming at an early stage ROI that would make most VCs queasy.  The Xbox driven Project Natal may return the favor and help Microsoft Office outpace its competition; an unexpected, but pleasant, quid pro quo.

Microsoft describes Project Natal as:

“…a revolutionary new way to play: no controller required.  See a ball? Kick it, hit it, trap it or catch it.  If you know how to move your hands, shake your hips or speak you and your friends can jump into the fun — the only experience needed is life experience.”

Ina Fried was given a chance to try out the technology and reported:

“Playing Ricochet, a 3D breakout-like game, I found myself wanting to do whatever I could to stop the balls from passing me. It felt less like a traditional video game and more like I was a soccer goalie and an entire team was firing shots at me.”

While Project Natal sounds like the real deal for gamers, the technology has applications within the home, and more importantly, in the office.  Ina writes:

“At last week’s analyst meeting, Bach and Craig Mundie, chief research and strategy officer, also outlined the broad appeal of being able to interact more directly with computer interfaces. After Bach tried his hand at some Natal gaming, Mundie offered a demonstration of how gesture recognition might function in a work setting, saying that the desktop PC of the future could in fact encompass the entire office.”

Project Natal is clearly Microsoft’s response to Nintendo’s Wii.  The Wii has without a doubt forced the gaming industry to rethink the gaming user experience.  The Wii has forced competitors, including Microsoft, to, pardon the pun, raise their game.  End users have obviously benefited from simpler and more fun user experiences.

OpenOffice.org (OOo) could learn a thing or two from Nintendo and the Wii.  OOo appears content to competing by offering a similar user experience to Microsoft Office 2007.  This is surprising to some users who view the user interface (UI) shift from Microsoft Office 2003 to Microsoft Office 2007 as a reason to consider OOo in the first place.  If users are going to face a discontinuity in the UI, why isn’t OOo pulling a Nintendo move and innovating in an underserved portion of the market?  Okay, I know why.  I recognize that technology like the Wii controller or Project Natal doesn’t just materialize.  Often, significant research and related funding is required.  Whatever Sun invested in OOo, and I don’t know the numbers, it’s clearly not the same level of R&D spending that a Nintendo or Microsoft would have at their disposal.  And with Oracle taking the reigns of OOo, it remains to be seen if project budgets will be maintained.

Considering the profit that Microsoft derives from Office, there is clearly room for disruption.  But this won’t happen if vendors simply seek to recreate the Microsoft Office user experience. And if Microsoft does indeed introduce Project Natal technology into a future Microsoft Office release, competing by “doing what Microsoft does” won’t be an easy road to travel.

Follow me on twitter at: SavioRodrigues

PS: I should state: “The postings on this site are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.”

Project Renaissance is an OpenOffice.org project aiming to deliver a new user interface (UI) for OOo.  The team recently completed the prototyping phase and is asking for users to provide feedback on the 8 UI options.  The UI options strongly resemble the Microsoft Office 2007’s Ribbon UI.

Response to the Ribbon like user interface options has been, well, somewhat one-sided:

e7 writes: “This would be a killer feature for not using OpenOffice.org… Don’t implement this, do other things – like live editing in presentation, a correct ttf/otf export or such things.”

Andis writes: “I would like to see list of problems in previous interface of Impress and how these problems are addressed in the new interface. Because now I see only problems (at least for me) with that new interface…..”

.wu writes: “that’s brilliant! add even more to the top part of the UI because, you know – the screens aren’t getting wider…”

The three comments are fairly representative of the comments as of August 5th.  The concerns boil down to why work on a new UI when there are other higher priority items for the OOo to tackle, why introduce such a significant change to users and why waste vertical screen space?

I can’t speak for the OOo community as to why they’re working on this versus some other requirements.

The second concern raised is interesting.  Since many MS Office users are still using Office 2003 and some have resisted the shift to Office 2007 because of the Ribbon UI, why would OOo follow suit with a Ribbon-like UI?  A UI that more closely resembles Office 2003 will make it easier to adopt OOo versus training 500 or 20,000 or 300,000 employees on using the new UI found in Office 2007.  A commenter, talkimposter writes: “…In fact I use OpenOffice at work because they moved to Office 2007 and I just can’t stand that STUPID interface for idiots…” On the other hand, while initial user reaction to the Ribbon UI has often been negative, this is typically the case with many release to release UI changes. However, as commenter sRc writes: “I like where this is going, myself. To be honest, the Office 07 Ribbon does look “functionally challenged” at first, but once you get used to it, it is so much nicer to work with then a standard interface. After working on a project in Office 07 at my work, I find myself missing the Ribbon now every time I load up OOo.”

The third concern raised is much more troubling.  Screens have been getting wider, and when netbooks are considered, OOo should be innovating UIs that conserve vertical space.  Widescreen displays were not common when Microsoft researched and introduced the Ribbon UI.  Could OOo be making a mistake and following the leader with a UI technique that no longer fits with today’s devices?  Said differently, would Microsoft have introduced a horizontal Ribbon if they were researching a UI for today’s computers?  Interestingly enough, Lotus Symphony uses a vertical Ribbon-like menu system on the right-hand pane.  This approach takes advantage of widescreen computer displays.  I didn’t understand that design decision until today since I still have a 4:3 screen for work.  So maybe OOo should consider UI research conducted more recently than trying to mimic Microsoft’s approach?

You can test drive the UIs and provide feedback.  The prototype test requires Java 6 and takes about 2 minutes to load.  Well worth the time and effort.

Follow me on twitter at: SavioRodrigues

PS: I should state: “The postings on this site are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.”

I read Luis Villa’s post about why he’s not a big fan of OOo, but is a fan of Office 2007, with great interest.  In a nutshell, Microsoft’s Ribbon UI widgets are a key reason that Luis is an Office 2007 fan.  He writes:

“Three full years ago Microsoft shipped a beta build of Office that announced “the office suite’s menus have become so cluttered and badly structured that users find it impossible to locate certain functions.” Their solution, the Ribbon, does a really good job of grouping important functionality together in a discoverable manner, and made it very easy for me to go from zero (prior to this year, I had not really used Office since 1998, and was far from a power user at that time) to relative power user (which I’ve had to be for various school tasks this year) in a matter of weeks.”

Like Luis, I haven’t been able to get into using OOo for my work or personal purposes.  I simply find myself more productive with Office 2003 than with OOo 3.  But this is more about my 9 years of using Office than finding flaws with OOo 3 itself. I’ve resisted the upgrade to Office 2007, because the UI seemed so different than the Office 2003 UI that I’ve become so proficient with.  I clearly fall into the “everyone initially” category in Luis’ comment:

“That is part of why I am so impressed by Office 2007, from an innovation point of view- it took serious institutional balls to say ‘we know they’ll hate it at first, but we really believe that this is the Right Thing To Do.’ That isn’t easy, though I suppose it is easier when you’ve got an ironclad lock on people’s data ;)”

After reading Luis’ review of Office 2007, and more importantly, this awesome presentation about the Ribbon UI, I’m putting in a request to upgrade to Office 2007 (on my work machine).  At the other end of the spectrum, Sun’s Simon Phipps comments on Luis’ blog:

“…it’s worth noting that one of the differentiators that’s got some of the largest new enterprise users of OO.o on board has been the fact that they usually don’t have to budget to retrain Office users when they switch to OO.o. MSFT doesn’t have to worry so much as all their customers are locked in, but it’s been a significant growth factor for OO.o in the last year in my experience.”

What about you, are you an OOo or MS Office user?  And why?