With users now able to get their hands on Microsoft's latest document format - rolled out under the umbrella of the Fluid Framework - the company is hoping it can deliver on its promises of better productivity and collaboration online.
The Fluid Framework was announced at Microsoft's Build developer conference in 2019, and at Build 2020 - a virtual-only event this year - the company made the format available for user preview for Microsoft 365 Enterprise and education subscribers enrolled in Targeted Release. It's also available as open source software; Microsoft said the code and SDK will be available on GitHub soon.
The goal behind Fluid is an ambitious one: users can create discreet pieces of content - such as text, tables, graphs or lists - that live on the web instead of the desktop or a SharePoint drive and are blower agnostic. These artefacts can then be collaborated on or snapped together with other elements in near-to-real-time across a variety of environments.
Nick McQuire, vice president for enterprise research at CCS Insight, believes Microsoft is on its way to making Office "a development environment," where organisations can start to "embed [Fluid] in business processes and deeper collaboration environments across your company.
"Microsoft does feel a bit of pressure to break down the silos within various, different applications out there, as well," he said. "Whether it is Google or other flavours of collaboration software, there are others that are pushing the boundaries of what it is to collaborate."
How it works
The basic Fluid experience involves a clean user experience reminiscent of Google Docs or Dropbox Paper. It is essentially a blank slate, with the option to create a document or Fluid artefact that can then be shared with your network.
And by open-sourcing the framework, Microsoft is allowing developers to work Fluid elements into a variety of other locations in the future, essentially allowing these items free roam on the internet and in various productivity apps already in use.
"Discovering the full potential of the Fluid Framework can only be accomplished through creating a diverse, open, and vibrant developer community," Jared Spataro, corporate vice president for Microsoft 365, said in an announcement at Build.
Where Fluid differs from the likes of Google Docs is how it enables people to work together on an item - wherever it resides. Instead of opening a proposed agenda from an email and editing it in Word, a users can just edit it in place in the email, with all changes staying up to date.
In practice, it looks like a typical Google Docs experience, with colleagues' avatars appearing next to the line on which they're working in real time.
If that sounds potentially chaotic, that's because it is. Microsoft is looking to achieve true real-time collaboration, where changes are relayed immediately and multiple users can work on items simultaneously, even if they aren't "in" the same document. That could lead to conflicts with co-workers, and concerns about version control.
Use cases will be fluid (sorry), but early examples include: tracking action items, building a crowd-sourced meeting agenda with minutes or sharing the results of a recent project with a team in a virtual meeting.
"It is becoming clear you cannot single handedly live in one application, so the ability for companies to make that workflow more adaptive and easier for people to do tasks across different applications, while retaining an experience that they prefer to work in, is becoming really important," McQuire said.
Further in the future, Microsoft envisions a model where software bots - like its Cortana virtual assistant - can work alongside users to translate text, suggest edits and perform checks directly within Fluid components.
McQuire believes the success of Fluid depends on the developer community. "They have to be the starting point to take Fluid in a direction that will bring some innovation into Office and 365 overall," he said.