Recently I snagged a beta account for Microsoft Office 365, also known as Office BPOS. My recent use of Chrome OS for most of my daily computing and recently leaked screenshots of Windows 8 have me thinking.
Let me start where many Desktop OSs start -- the Login Screen. Most people are accustomed to configuring a user account, or using one provided to them by the OEM. The account is typically local, with all settings and configuration information stored on the local system. In an Enterprise environment this changes slightly. The user account is typically owned by a Windows Security Domain. Some settings are stored on the domain controller, but most settings and applications are still local. Either set up ignores the idea of the Internet. Sure, the latter, Enterprise scenero assumes an intranet is available, but little else.
The nature of this kind of user identity management is that it only provides access to that system. Once you're in, any applications, operating system configurations, and user preferences do not come along for the ride as far as the user experience is concerned. This is why when you get a new computer, you need to go out of your way to download, install, and set up the system to your liking. Even if you don't intend on full customization, little things such as if file extensions should be hidden or not need to be configured on each initial login.
A couple of years ago when I began beta testing Jolicloud, now Joli OS, logins worked much more transparently. When you log into a Joli OS system, your applications, (many) settings, desktop wallpaper, etc., all come with you. You simply had to sit there for a minute while the system pulled them down from the Internet. Later, Joli OS offered the option to log in using Facebook, rather than an account on Jolicloud's own network.
Chrome OS refined this idea even further. Everything comes with you on initial login. Your settings are associated with a Google account. Local user account have little to no meaning in Chrome OS. Any Chrome OS system, or even Chrome Browser, carries everything with it. (Except for saved passwords -- a wise security choice.)
When screenshots emerged of Windows 8, the wheels began to turn. In the lower-right corner of the screen, on the taskbar, is a user avatar. While information is sketchy, it suggests that users will be able to link their Windows Live account to their computer's user account. Even more recent reports suggest that Windows 8 will back up key settings "into the Cloud".
What if Windows 8 takes a cue from JoliOS and Chrome OS, and integrates Live services into Windows 8? Instead of logging in using a local username and account, a Windows Live account would be used instead. This could be used on any Windows 8 system, eliminating the need to reconfigure user preferences on each initial-login. Deep integration could also be made with Live applications and Office 365.
What about applications? This is considerably trickier for Windows, given it's legacy of proprietary, binary installations. JoliOS's applications are either well dressed links to web services, or open source Linux software. Syncing may take time, but it's reletively easy to implement. Windows doesn't have this facility -- yet. Enter the Windows App Store. When tied to a Live account, it would be easy to offer a command that will install all free or appropriately licensed applications (associated with the user, not a system) without the need to do all that manual and installation.
Ideally, this would also include a new Application Packaging format that would enable applications to be cached rather than installed. This way, if an application is not used for a certain length of time, it could be cached out leaving only an icon to access it again transparently. This would handle the case of a user logging into a system once, never to return. Eventually the app cache would clear everything out. Enforcing .NET only applications for this would certainly help.
This runs into a remaining, nasty problem -- files. Moving an entire library of files automatically on initial-login is both dangerous, and resource-heavy. In the Enterprise, files can be worth considerable money given the time and effort it takes to produce them. The theft of a computer or sudden, catastrophic hardware failure could render those important files lost forever.
Microsoft appears to be compating this problem as well as the constant challenge of document collaboration through the use of Office 365 and Skydrive. These services provide the necessary functionality to share, collaborate, and edit documents without the need to download and install additional software or move files. Microsoft has a long way to go on this, however. Office 365 is no where near the level of quality expected of an Office product. Key features are missing, and editing is clumsier and more limited than their biggest competitor -- Google Docs.
Files, particularly Office files also present a fork in the road for audiences: The left fork says "Enterprise Users", the right, "Everyone Else".
Privacy is a huge concern for any Cloud computing product or ecosystem. If Windows 8 is to become more "Cloud-y", how will they prevent the possible abuses or leaks of personal information that seem dreadfully common today (see the PSN outage)? For Enterprise users, I believe Microsoft will offer the ability to store some or all of this information on your own servers. If Office 365 is based on Windows Azure -- and it'd be stupid for Microsoft not to have it so -- a Windows Azure appliance could be purchased and installed behind a corporate firewall. This could serve as the source server for files, or indeed, self-contained nodes of Office 365. This would compliment existing Domain Controller technology and allow medium and large businesses to buy their privacy. As for small businesses and consumers, well, we'll probably be relegated to whatever Microsoft tosses our way.
One might wonder why Microsoft is even producing Office 365 despite it being in direct competition with Office as we know it today. My thought is that Microsoft is hedging it's bets on the future of computing. While Office is still the productivity app standard, it is facing a world in which multiple devices, running non-Windows operating systems are becomming common place. Android has Google Docs (although still rudimentary), WebOS and Blackberry Playbook OS (QNX under the covers) have Docs-to-go, even Windows Phone has an altother different Office than desktop Office. While file format still points back to Office desktop, Microsoft lost that battle years ago to the Open Document Foundation and it's OOXML format (an ISO standard).
The common thread through all of these devices isn't Office the application, it's the Web. If Microsoft doesn't want to appear irrelevent in that possible future, the Web is where Office must go.