Office Graph is Microsoft's new secret weapon in the cloud wars

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright March 4, 2014
Could this be the technology that persuades enterprises to stick with Microsoft as they migrate content and collaboration to the cloud?

Bill Gates

"Make the graph universal."

That was the advice Microsoft founder Bill Gates gave at an internal review meeting last month with product managers of Office Graph, the new enterprise social context platform announced this week at the SharePoint 2014 conference in Las Vegas.

In one of his first meetings since stepping down as chairman to spend over a third of his time meeting with product managers as the company's technical adviser, Gates met with Jeff Teper, corporate vice president of Microsoft Office and Yammer co-founder Adam Pisoni, who is vice president of engineering for Office.

In a rare insight into the new engagement Gates is having with product engineering teams since the appointment of Satya Nadella as Microsoft's new CEO, Teper said yesterday that Gates had pressed them to rapidly open up Office Graph to the outside world:

"He was saying, 'More data types, more connections ... Go faster, make the graph universal'."

Gates' enthusiasm was surely driven by the knowledge that Office Graph has the potential to become the glue that binds a new generation of cloud users to Office 365 just as surely as their predecessors were locked into Office on the PC.

Better than web search

By tracking, analyzing and learning from users' daily interactions as they view and edit Office documents, meet via Lync, message over Yammer or simply exchange emails — and by mapping that live stream of events against the organizational chart in the corporate directory — Office Graph provides context that can surface relevant content far more accurately than conventional search products.

Project Oslo search
This is the holy grail of enterprise information management since long before knowledge management fell out of favor as a buzzword: to be able to capture users' interests and focus areas without adding anything new to their day-to-day work habits.

The result is that corporate search can finally overtake the performance of web search, claimed Bjørn Olstad, CTO of FAST, the Norwegian search technology business acquired by Microsoft in 2008 for $1.5 billion. Olstad's team has built a new search engine called Project Oslo that leverages Office Graph to present contextually relevant results in a visually attractive format reminiscent of Flipchart. His verdict:

"I think we can leapfrog web search. Enterprise search is fifty percent accurate, web search is about two-thirds. With this technology we should be able to get above ninety percent."

The catch? To achieve that accuracy, especially in smaller teams, everyone has to do all of their work somewhere where it can be captured by the Office Graph. When Oslo becomes available later this year, that place will have to be in the cloud, not on-premise — not until 2015 at least.

Come into my cloud, says Microsoft

What is the Office Graph?
No wonder Gates is pushing to extend the graph as early as possible out to a wider universe. Because there's a gotcha, too: once a history of signals and context has been captured, it becomes increasingly disruptive for any enterprise to move off the graph to an alternative platform.

This is what makes Office Graph such a powerful new secret weapon in Microsoft's cloud armory. It's the reason for enterprises to stick with Microsoft as they migrate their content and collaboration processes to the cloud — one that Google, Box, Dropbox and all the rest emphatically don't have today.

No doubt this week's announcement will set these rivals scrabbling to add similar functionality. But in the network era, scale is everything and the prime mover gets first crack at reaching scale: another reason why Gates' advice is prescient.

Fastest growing product

So now the task of Teper and his colleagues is to maximize take-up of Microsoft's cloud content and collaboration portfolio. Office 365 is already leading the charge, with a 500 percent increase in active online users over the past year and already a $1.5 billion-a-year business, making it the fastest growing commercial product in Microsoft's history (an accolade previously held by Sharepoint).

Yesterday brought a raft of announcements designed to accelerate the pace, including integrating Yammer conversations into Outlook and bringing Yammer group functionality into Office 365, additional APIs for developers and new mobile developer toolkits for both Windows 8 and Android.

Fighting back against incursions by cloud file sharing vendors, Microsoft announced OneDrive for Business as a standalone service, while introducing a low $1.50 per user per month price tag for customers who already have Software Assurance or ProPlus contracts. Teper emphasized the significance of this move:

"We will have the most aggressively priced document storage offering."

Repelling the cloud interlopers is one battlefront, but the bigger campaign Microsoft has to win is persuading the installed base to bring all its content and collaboration into the cloud and onto the Office Graph.

Eat your children

Jeff Teper on stage at SPC2014
Jeff Teper

Known to insiders as the father of SharePoint for his role in persuading Bill Gates and recently retired CEO Steve Ballmer to invest in creating the platform back in the mid-1990s, Teper today embodies the tech industry maxim that, 'If you don't eat your own children, somebody else will.'

This week he began setting out his pitch to persuade the installed base to go cloud. The main selling point will be pace of innovation. In Monday's keynote, he explained that his team had introduced 75 new features in the cloud over the past year:

"The cloud is the key because it lets us deliver more value to you. That velocity is accelerating."

"We want you to think of today as an inflection point. Phase one with Office 365 was about economics ... Today it's about transforming the experience."

Whereas the Office Graph will be rolled out to Office 365 customers in the second half of this year, the next release of SharePoint and Exchange won't ship as an on-premise server product until a year later at the earliest. By the time customers have completed implementing that product, it will be four years since the current SharePoint 2013 was announced. "In 2014, it's just crazy to be four years behind," he told me.

The only way is cloud

In the new online world, SharePoint instead disappears into the fabric, becoming part of Microsoft's infrastructure powering Office 365 and the Office Graph, rather than a server product that enterprises install and run for themselves. Teper's message is plain:

"SharePoint's the big Swiss Army knife but the message is we're going to transform work through Office 365 ...

"Overwhelmingly we are trying to tell companies to get to the cloud because it's the only way they're going to get this productivity experience.

"We cannot state this more clearly. Go to the cloud because that's the only way you're going to get this productivity gain."

That doesn't mean the applications themselves are moving to the browser, he added. Although there are browser versions for online access, the full-function products will remain on the Windows platform, he said.

"You can think about the Office client experience getting richer because of the Office Graph.

"We're going to be very careful not to break the power user experience. We want people's experience to be familiar. We're not going to go crazy. We're not going to break how you work, we're just going to make it better."

Since SharePoint Online was introduced in 2006, the company has helped hundreds of thousands of organizations to the cloud, he pointed out.

"The time to act is now. We're trying to get companies to see the benefit of going to the cloud and to understand that we can help them.

"We're not in year one of the cloud we're in year eight. The time to go is now."


Emphatic language from the Office team and in stark contrast to the cloud prevarication sometimes heard from other Microsoft divisions. This was a different Microsoft than the one I'm used to: using an iPad to demonstrate OneDrive on stage during the keynote; announcing a mobile toolkit for Android and posting the code on GitHub; and pushing an uncompromising cloud first message.

Just a few weeks ago I had questioned Yammer CTO Adam Pisoni on the challenge of filtering signal from noise in a socially collaborative organization. "It’s incumbent on us to use technology to surface the right information at the right time," he told me then, giving the impression that was still some way off. He must have been biting his lip as it's now evident that Microsoft was determined to keep a firm lid on the Office Graph ahead of this week's announcement.

It's gratifying to see the technology work to crack this problem was already in hand. Bear in mind though that this week's Project Oslo demonstrations of enterprise search are of a product that's not yet reached beta. Whether it lives up to the claimed promise remains to be seen. But after all the knocks I've heard SharePoint take from pretty much every user I've known who's experienced it, I was frankly astonished to find myself sitting in the deep-dive session presenting Office Graph yesterday and thinking to myself, 'I want that'.

If enterprise customers and prospects feel the same way, then Microsoft has just unveiled a powerful tool for accelerating their progress to the cloud at the same time as retaining and cementing their loyalty to its platform.

Disclosure: Microsoft paid the author's travel and accommodation to attend the SharePoint 2014 event. Box is a diginomica partner.

Image credits: All courtesy of Microsoft.


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