What does 2008 look like?

I don't have the type of job where I distill global economic indicators into sound bites and loose predictions, but I do spend cycles trying to understand what people are going to be thinking about in the future. For any software product manager, keeping an eye on ".next" is as important as any other part of the job. It's especially tricky when you work on a product where decisions that involve "1% of our users" affect somewhere in the neighborhood of 5,000,000 people.

Much of what any product manager does (I've held the role at 3 companies) is answering an impossibly random variety questions & challenges. I've compared it before to a 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-a-year pop quiz where any topic is fair game. We get asked by many people about many thingsā€¦ what should this cost?, how should it be licensed?, why does my <widget> work this way?, where can I find a partner for <solution>?, when will my bug be fixed?, what features do we need in the next version?, what should we call this feature?, can we have a case study? What does your product adoption look like? Which industry events should we attend? ... topics emerge, simmer on the surface for a while, and then subside, it can be very trick to keep this many balls in the air at one time.

Much like the weather, good product management requires a lot of good forecasting. Successfully anticipating the questions makes life a lot easier, given the variety & depth of what we cover on a daily basis. But it is also the opportunity we have to do a bit of agenda-setting; where we can accept the feedback from the community at large, and take action to help shape how our product is behaving in the world. Good forecasting and successful reflection of market requirements is at the very heart of innovation and technology leadership; it is the scrum of technological advancement.

2006 was about preparing for the launch of Office 2007. Last year (and for the foreseeable future), Open XML was a big topic; we knew going in that a file format change in Office was going to be a big deal. Compatibility, standardization, adoption, accessibility are among the many dimensions of the problem that require active management. Security was a bet we made in 2007 also, and our investment there resulted in the Office Security Guide. Groove and InfoPath continue to be important investment areas, as these products become a more prominent solution for front-ending line of business applications.

So what about 2008?

Emerging interest areas from our customers for 2008 include application virtualization, (even more) accessibility, migration to VBA.NET and the .NET framework for Office solutions, (even more) security, and of course Open XML. There are countless other topics to consider, but these are among the important ones.

Application Virtualization has heated up considerably in the last 9 months. The emergence of SoftGrid and Vista Desktop Optimization is driving strong interest in using application virtualization technology to solve for application compatibility issues, allowing the use of multiple Office versions on a single desktop, and even for simplifying the deployment, patching and management processes. We're seeing how virtualizing Office with SoftGrid is delivering on its potential of a lower TCO. For us, 2008 is about helping people understand, when, why and how to consider using SoftGrid and Office in combination to simplify an IT environment. It's a great opportunity for us to provide some bottom-line benefit.

Accessibility continues to be a critical topic for Office. There was a big push in the political arena last year to confuse the role of a document format with the role of an application in enabling assistive technology, but hopefully this will subside in 2008. Every discussion I had about document format accessibility last year successfully concluded by reasoning that the functionality of the consuming applications matters much, much more than the format itself. Nonetheless, we will deliver the DAISY Translator for Open XML in 2008, and the Open XML Ballot Resolution Meeting will include several important spec changes that incorporate greater accessibility support. Our product-related investments for accessibility will look toward future Office releases, engagement with our assistive technology partners, and a bunch of other stuff. Reed Shaffner on my team will be gearing up a blog in 2008 to share progress (I'll link to him once he gets underway.)

Visual Studio 2008 is an important advancement for getting control of the code written behind custom Office solutions. We're seeing many of the macro developers of the past mature into .NET and managed code solutions, so Visual Studio and VSTO will help these folks migrate into a more secure and stable environment. They're also gearing up on blog activity. For us (like so many other things J) we'll spend a lot of time helping to explain when, why and how customers will use VSTO as a solution for migrating Macros into a more robust environment.

For Open XML, the Ballot Resolution Meeting in Geneva is just around the corner. This means that national bodies voting on Open XML will have an opportunity to review the proposed changes to the 3,500 national body comments. The result of this period of the voting is a much improved specification; everything from the clarity and organization of the standard down to the notation syntax for form field has been updated. We're hopeful that this will address the comments raised by national bodies sufficiently to obtain ISO approval.

InfoPath and Groove are achieving critical mass . Both are central to Office Business Applications, and based on the deployments we're seeing in the wild today, we're feeling pretty good about progress on both products. As we invest more in helping our customers achieve line of business interoperability with the Office client applications, our progress here will only strengthen. This is a real bright spot for Office, and will have a lot of focus in 2008 as well.

Needless to say 2008 will be a huge year for me and my team as well as the folks we're partnered with inside and outside the company.

We're excited, refreshed and geared up for the new year.