Interview: The man behind the PowerPoint presentations
- 11 April 2013
- From the section Business
"It looks like you're writing an article. Would you like help?". The words conjour up a mental image of one of the most divisive individuals in software.
Clippy was the office assistant introduced into Microsoft's Office suite in 1997. The hopeful little wire character provoked an almost universal outpouring of hatred from users.
The company bowed to the inevitable in 2003 and sent Clippy to the great paper clip tidy in the sky.
But despite the loathing felt for the feature it had little effect on the seemingly unstoppable march of Office into homes and businesses globally.
Today, one in seven us - one billion people - use Office, whether at work or at home. It's a $24bn business which accounts for a third of Microsoft's revenue.
The man in charge is Kurt DelBene, and it's a challenge he obviously relishes.
"You don't have a job like mine or the people of my team unless you get excited everyday about envisioning what the future looks like for people, and how they express themselves," he says.
The ubiquitous chip
Office has been around since 1989, and was originally composed of Word, spreadsheet application Excel, and the progenitor of a million Thursday afternoon office presentations, PowerPoint.
It has since expanded to include email client Outlook, OneNote for note-taking, unified communications application Lync, and much more.
The current versions are Office 2013 and Office 365, their cloud-based subscription service.
That's not to say that there aren't pretenders to Microsoft's crown - business specialists like Cisco and SAP, open source options like OpenOffice and, not least, Google Apps. The service is cloud-based, so is accessible from most devices and the most basic level free.
So is the push to the cloud a reaction to competition from Google and other cloud-based applications?
"Actually not very much," says Mr DelBene. "We look at where we think the industry is going."
"I think we tend to think in terms of opportunities rather than threats. When it's a competitive environment, it forces us to do our best work. And I think it sharpens your skills. We respect our competitors, but we think we have a different perspective."
Offering software via subscription rather than selling consumers a package outright is becoming increasingly common, and it's a model Mr DelBene thinks will stick.
This doesn't mean that it always meets with customer approval however.
When Office 2013 launched earlier this year the company came in for some hefty criticism.
Those who wanted to buy the software found they could install it on only one machine. And when that machine died, so did Office.
Many felt they were being pressured into moving to the subscription model. The company swiftly backtracked.
"We changed that because we did get feedback from customers that it was not well received," says Mr DelBene.
"We'll continue to provide the perpetual versions of our products as long as there is demand for it."
Nevertheless, he maintains that most customers will move towards the subscription service to access regular updates.
The Home version lets you install Office on up to five machines, with a scaled price plan for business.
But should you cancel your subscription, after a series of warnings, you will only be able to read documents, rather than edit or create them.
The company bought the business social network Yammer in 2012 and recently announced plans to integrate it more closely with Office and Sharepoint, their collaboration tool. Yammer Enterprise now comes packaged with the business version of Office 365.
The suite is also designed to be used with touch screens - although Mr DelBene concedes that it could be some time before companies are replacing their desktops with touchscreen computers.
It's obviously no coincidence that Microsoft launched their own tablet computer in 2012, the Surface. But what if you're an Apple fan?
Office still isn't available for iPad and other iOS devices. There are a variety of apps by third parties that go some way to plugging the gap.
Microsoft have created an app for OneNote, but other than this, users are forced to rely on web versions, which don't work offline.
For now this is unlikely to change, according to Mr DelBene.
"I think what you'll see is a continued investment in web applications as a way of working well on an iPad, working well on an Android tablet, etc."
On the future he refuses to be drawn.
"We haven't announced anything at this point," he says.
If a recently leaked document is correct, iPad owners may have to wait until 2014.
This has caused some to speculate that the company is making a costly tactical error, pointing to disappointing sales of the Surface.
Whether this will give the Surface time to play catch-up - or whether some iPad users will stop using Office - remains to be seen.
Looking forward, Mr DelBene is focusing on better data management.
"We live in a web of information, and in some sense I should be able to use that web more effectively to start the authoring process and to express myself moving forward as well."
He also sees change coming in the types of devices we use at work.
"I think natural interfaces via touch, via voice will continue to be important.
"I think we will very quickly get to a place where people can have meetings, but all of us are not in the same room, yet it feels like we all are, because [with] a few inexpensive cameras [we can ] re-image you in the meeting as if you were here."
As for Clippy, things are looking up.
He even has his own channel on Youtube.
You just can't keep a good paperclip down, it seems.