Whos the host? (long)

I remember watching something on telly about these large fish (or whales or sharks or something) that play host to lots of small creatures. The system works well with the little creatures providing hygiene style services for the big fish. Overall they work better togther than apart. The big fish chooses the direction though.

I’ve always though of the eco-system that exists around Microsofts products to be a bit like this. Many of us are a part of this whether we realise it or not, it is possible to not be, for example by focusing on open source or Mac stuff. Me, I’m definitely a part of it.

In simple terms I provide add-on services to higher end spreadsheet users. A big chunk of that is spreadsheet specific, and for me currently that is Excel 2000-2003. I’ve had a few sniffs of Open Office Calc work, but no cash. Lots of my work is not spreadsheet based and for that I use VB6, C/C++ and C# for any .net stuff, Essbase, Access and SQL server for dbs, but it usually interacts with spreadsheets, so that section always targets 2k – 2k3.

I was sort of expecting MS as the ‘big fish’ in this ecosystem to set the direction. And as one of those little grubber things I’ll follow along filtering plankton. (Has anyone watched Spongebob the movie?)

I thought Excel 2007 would be so compelling that a large chunk of customers would update, or at least accelerate their update plans. This would have the follow-on effect of many of us smaller members of the ecosystem updating, and between us create a synergistic effect where the more people updating, the more service providers would update and the more potential customers would update. A delicate balance for sure, just like nature. But a workable one, and one that has worked with other products and other Excel versions (Excel 97 and 2000 were probably the biggest steps). I might be missing something, but I’m not seeing this effect, are you?

The way I see it there seems to be more emphasis on us service providers to drive uptake by the add-on services we offer. That effectively leaves us to cover the risks of poor update take-up. Its like the big fish is not setting the direction anymore, but the tiddlers are leading the way. But deep down we know the big fish is not forced to follow us. Ask anyone who created O2k3 products with simple commandbar interfaces.

The integration story between VS2008 VSTO, Sharepoint and Office 2007 certainly looks good, but is there a market there yet for us independent service providers? If not when? (JobServe is currently showing 2 VSTO job ads, both for permies).

It feels like we are expected to start working with this tech without confirmed orders (or any hope of orders almost!), in the hope that that will somehow encourage people to update to 2007.

Maybe I’m thinking too short term (I would be happy to think further ahead (like MS), if my bank balance was more like MS’s), but I need sight of a viable market before I invest time and effort in technology. I won’t earn a penny from Excel 2007 in 2007 (the opposite in fact), and I don’t see any of my current clients or companies like them moving in 2008. So for me the whole Office 2007 thing represents a zero or negative value proposition for the next 12-18 months minimum.  By which time talk will be of Office 14, and that could well undermine any potential 2007 opportunities.

So my questions are these:

  1. should we be driving uptake this technology somehow?
  2. should we be moving to more up to date clients?
  3. If we dump our current laggard clients:
  4. will the new ones be more valuable?
  5. what will our old clients do?
  6. will the new ones be a good long term bet?
  7. which market will have the more attractive competitive landscape?
  8. is there some happy intermediate approach?

 I guess I am seeing the early adopter/laggard thing in all its gory detail. Sadly I feel a bit like I’m the one in the chasm, as all the stuff I currently work with has been marked for retirement, and yet no fee paying customers have adopted the ‘replacements’.

My big concern now is that the Excel market is so technically diverse it splinters apart, and we are all forced to take sides. (Excel 97-2003 and VBA (90+% of Excel?) v Excel 2007 and VSTO (<5%?)). Dont get me wrong I think the technology is great, I would much prefer to work in .net and XML/Excel, but I just don’t see the market. Microsoft really has some work to do to make that market in my opinion.

I think what we need right now is a mop up exercise, an Excel (or Open Office Calc??/ Gnumeric??) to unite the majority onto a common platform. Something that will be a sustainable target for service providers. Excel 2007 with its incompatible interface and file formats is not it. I really hope SP1 fixes the interface at least. This consolidation version needs to be pretty simple to update too, and offer features that will make a ton of people want it. Personally I think a new integrated compliance toolset, and some decent VBAIDE updates would encourage both ends of the market.

What do you think? Are you seeing increased demand for Office 2007? (its been released almost 9 months now, and hyped for a year before that).

cheers (and sorry for the long post)

Simon

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9 Responses to “Whos the host? (long)”

  1. Harlan Grove Says:

    Excel 2007 no longer supports Lotus 123 .WK[S134] file formats. For companies with legacy systems that read/write files in those formats, Excel 2007 represents a huge transition cost.

    Companies like the one I work at that use Lotus Notes/Domino for e-mail, group calendars, document repository and intranet mostly don’t bother with SharePoint.

    And, as you mentioned, the ribbon UI is perceived as requiring substantial training costs.

    Then again, maybe cleverer corporate IT buyers have finally learned to wait for SP1 of any Microsoft product before beginning upgrade planning. And the really clever ones may figure it just may be smartest to wait for Office 14.

  2. Biggus Dickus Says:

    Once again you have spoken my exact thoughts. It’s spooky but somehow encouraging that two people on opposite sides of the “Pond” could muse over the same concerns and see the same problems and opportunities (hopefully).

    I could have written this when 1-2-3 cerashed and burned but the Excel juggernaut had not started. I worried aloud and in print (an article in InfoWorld years ago) about the effect that VBA would have on the world of spreadsheet macro development (and I was prescient about that one). I have watched as each version of Excel takes longer and longer to get traction, but have been consoled (and kept from going broke) by backwards compatability. I even hedged my bets by becoming an Access guru (and that seems to have little future now).

    But at every turn I have managed to straddle the new and the old and have tended to prosper from my expertise at the issues of transition (even though they were usually very few).

    This time it’s different. The emphasis on the Ribbon (as my recent post on the Officezealot discussed) has thrown a major obstacle in our way though. Even this evening I was talking to a friend (who is also a client) and he was probing me for my opinions on whether they should upgrade to ’07…. across hundreds of users in three countries. I didn’t have an answer for him. Even waiting for SP1 will not fix the issues around the Ribbon and their main concern is backwards compatibility (something that is helped with the File Converter for 2003 but not cured).

    We have a problem here and I am afraid you are right to be concerned. The apparent answer would seem to be for people like us to broaden our offering beyond Office, but the risk of that is that we may not come back if we go there. That would be a shame for all concerned – including Microsoft.

    Dick

  3. Stephane Rodriguez Says:

    As an ISV, I see no uptake for Excel 2007, the new file formats don’t seem that much compelling to customers, probably because they are different on the surface (internally it’s BIFF with angle brackets ; the new OOXML has no programming interface, you still need to resort to the COM object model to do anything substantial).

    An interesting bit is the number of support requests I get from customers who are using tools like mine to work with Excel .xls files (pre-Excel 2007 era) loaded into Excel 2007, and find themselves in troubles because the compatibility mode is actually new code and has tons of bugs. Internally, what Microsoft has done is make BIFF much stricter for the compatibility mode, meaning that non-Microsoft file generation vendors have to mimic Excel internally more tightly than in the past. I have no idea if that’s intentional or not. If that’s intentional, it would mean Microsoft is trying to make sure that only Excel-produced files can be open and rendered well with Excel. If that’s not intentional, the unintended consequence is still that it hurts the transition (people share regular .xls files), in turn explaining the slow adoption.

  4. Dennis Wallentin Says:

    In my part of the world it looks like the server side is now one area with high priority, including virtualization and also to implement the latest versions of MOSS et al.

    Various aspects tend to have priority in different life cycle process so I don’t expect that Windows Vista and Office 2007 will be in focus for the coming 12 months.

    Interesting, new versions of client’s tools tend to take more time to be the de facto standard over the time.

    Kind regards,
    Dennis

  5. Ross Says:

    I guess you guys earn you keep from Excel and all the things around it, so you dont have the option to sit back too much. I am waiting for VSTA to come into play then take a looka at where to spend my time. Mean while i think I’ll look at C#.

    I dont think the “little guys” should be forcing adoption, infact i think this would be a very bad move. When your small your fexliable enought to chagne quickly, if you push all you customers to 07, you stand the risk of building a rod for your own back?

  6. sam Says:

    In my part of the world there are Excel 200 users and Excel 2003 users…
    None of my clients are bothering with 2007….most of them are waiting for SP1(with a corrected UI) or 2008…beside as Harlan said most companies wait for SP1 before upgrading to any MS product

  7. Charles Says:

    I look at it this way:
    If the client’s problem/task/project is one that requires one of Excel 2007’s compelling features (for example big grid/multi-thread calculation/Excel server) then I will be explaining to the client why they should use 2007 for that project, if neccessary on a departmental basis.

    For most other cases I will be happy to discuss the pros and cons of 2007, but AFAIK none of my corporate clients plan to move to 2007 within the next year or so.

  8. Harlan Grove Says:

    With respect to multi-threaded calculation, if calculation speed is critical, you shouldn’t be using spreadsheets, not even Excel 2007.

  9. Marcus Says:

    Symbiosis

    1. Biology. The living together of two dissimilar organisms, as in mutualism, commensalism, amensalism, or parasitism.
    2. Any interdependent or mutually beneficial relationship between two persons, groups, etc.

    “…service providers to drive uptake by the add-on services we offer”

    You can see that by ISV’s who had their 2007 version available almost immediately after MSO 2007 came out. You’ve also gotta feel for those who invest in a MS technology only to find that MS divest in it. VSTO drew zero results on Seek (Aust).

    “It feels like we are expected to start working with this tech without confirmed orders”

    Unfortunately this becomes a perpetually circular argument.
    Customer: “I’ll a buy a Blu-Ray player when there’s more movies.
    Manufacturer: “I’ll start producing more movies when more people buy a Blu-Ray player.”

    Independents like us have a major risk vs. return issue to deal with. Investing in a new technology consumes time and money. If VSTO (as an example) goes nowhere, we’d have a zero return on any investment (negative if you include opportunity cost). While a company of MS size has the resources to stick it’s fingers in a variety of pies, we have no such luxury.

    I can’t dump my laggard customers as they’re my bread and butter. Even .Net work has been marginal as it requires the framework installation.

    Once .Net is more universally deployed then ‘selling’ .Net as a solution to customers will be much easier as the deployment issue suddenly evaporates.

    I’ve seen zero MSO 2007 demand. I’d almost expect that many companies in Banking & Finance may bypass it and wait for the next version. Larger institutions tend to deploy in segments across the company over a period of time. File format incompatibilities may have an adverse effect on MSO 2007 take-up.

    Cheers – Marcus

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