The Friday Interview: Wolfgang Ebermann, Microsoft

7 Oct 2005

In the world of Microsoft, Wolfgang Ebermann (pictured) qualifies as a big cheese. As head of the Information Worker Division within Microsoft in the EMEA region, Ebermann commands an empire that generates approximately US$5.5bn, or 14pc of Microsoft’s total annual revenues.

Microsoft is gearing up for the launch of Office 12, the latest version of the most widely used — and profitable — office productivity suite and German-born Ebermann is visiting Microsoft’s EMEA headquarters in Sandyford, Dublin, to rally the troops and talk battle plans. He is talking exclusively to to give an update on current progress.

The hallmark of a good interviewee is they know exactly what messages they want to get across and Ebermann doesn’t disappoint. The first of these is about productivity, an issue he believes is not only crucial to private and public sector organisations but one that has become central to government policy. As evidence, he passes over a photocopied page from the Annual Competitiveness Report of August this year, in which the Taoiseach bangs the drum about productivity’s importance to national prosperity.

The productivity issue is also hugely important to Microsoft given that Office is, by definition, about driving productivity. And the company has reason to be concerned given that a Microsoft-sponsored personal productivity study of 38,000 people in 200 countries found that one third of employees’ time was spent unproductively. This told Microsoft that it needed to make fundamental changes to Office, says Ebermann. “If employees feel that one third of their time is unproductive then it’s a huge gap and at the same time a huge opportunity in order to think about how you drive productivity gain in an organisation.”

One of the reasons for the productivity gap, he contends, is that workers feel they have no means of working efficiently across organisational boundaries with suppliers and customers. At the same time, decision-making cycles have got shorter and the amount of information in circulation has multiplied, making it difficult for workers to find the information they need.

Ebermann claims these issues have been addressed head on in the redesign of Office. This is why, for example, teamworking and communication tools will be a much more prominent feature of Office 12 than previous Office systems. These will include: virtual office collaboration technology from Groove Networks, a US-based software firm Microsoft acquired in March; an instant messaging (IM) tool, Office Communicator; and a task manager function, which will be integrated within Outlook, designed to enable users to manage tasks more efficiently.

Ebermann is particularly enthusiastic about IM, which he says is an underrated form of corporate communication and a perfect complement to email. “We implemented IM a year ago and at first I have to admit I was a little bit skeptical. Once I started using it I realised that being able to ask a quick question using IM was much more effective than sending an email not knowing if that person is really there or else having a dialogue over email that’s just clogging my inbox.”

Microsoft’s grand plan is that Office won’t just be a collection of disparate applications anymore but in effect a management console that puts users in charge of their work whether they want to communicate with suppliers and customers, run a project team, instant message with colleagues or host web conferences.

But the productivity gains will not just apply to users of Office 12; Microsoft is also aiming to reduce the burden of the IT managers who have to roll it out and support it, notes Ebermann.

“What we are really trying to get to is reduce the time spent in the IT department in rolling out and maintaining the Office platform and so IT personnel have more time to discuss with business decision makers about how technology can drive the productivity and effectiveness of the organisation.”

Another favourite theme of Ebermann’s is the level of Microsoft’s research and development investment, which in 2005 reached US$6.2bn or 16pc of total revenues. He reveals that Microsoft has about 30,000 developers overall, about 2,500 of whom are working on Office 12. Critics would argue that such intensity of resourcing only leads to the ‘bloatware’ school of software development, where the number of features rather than their effectiveness or usefulness becomes the guiding barometer of success.

Ebermann admits that feature overload has been a weakness of Office. “The functionality we’ve built into previous versions of Office has not been used to its fullest extent by many information workers. Users have not really explored the full potential of the product.”

This is being addressed in Office 12, he says, where one of the key objectives during development is to open up the product’s full potential to the user without requiring them to undergo an intensive training course. A new user interface (UI) has been developed in which the menus and toolbars are replaced by tabs and an interlinked ribbon of controls, which changes as the user moves from task to task.

“The new UI is much more focused on providing the functionality of Office based on contextual and task-driven work,” Ebermann explains.

I remind him that Microsoft has tried ‘context’ before in the form of the much-maligned help character, Clippy, that would pop up when it sensed you were involved in a particular task, such as writing a letter. “This is a completely new approach,” he counters. “The usability testing we did showed that people could do their tasks much faster and could more easily take advantage of the built-in features.”

While it is IT managers and senior management who will ultimately decide whether or not to invest in Office 12, the role of the humble user should not be understated, he feels.

“The end user pulls the trigger to drive organisational decisions as well. If the end users see a benefit they will put pressure on the decision makers to invest in Office 12.”

Office 12 is expected to launch in the second half of 2006. The first beta version is due at the end of next month.

By Brian Skelly