As office workers settle into new routines driven by the displacement of the pandemic and the availability of powerful new collaboration tools, Microsoft wants to make sure workers stay in Office.
The company will introduce Microsoft Loop, a new collaboration app that lives inside the broader Microsoft Office suite, later on Tuesday at Microsoft Ignite. Loop will roll out gradually, starting as a series of actions built on Microsoft's Fluid Framework that can be used within Microsoft Teams, Outlook and other key parts of Office, but will eventually be a standalone project-management and collaboration app.
"One of the things you might be wondering is under what circumstances does Microsoft decide we should launch a new app?" Joe Belfiore, a longtime Microsoft executive across its gaming and devices business who is now corporate vice president for the Office Product Group, told Protocol.
"A big 'aha' for us was that a lot of teams of people use applications like Word and PowerPoint incredibly effectively, for finished products," he said. "But the place where we saw an opportunity was to be focused on small-group collaboration around the part of the process where they're thinking and planning and brainstorming, where formatting doesn't really matter that much."
Loop will roll out in three phases over the next year or so. The first elements are called "components," essentially small widgets that can be launched from Microsoft Teams to allow groups to collaborate on tracking the status of a project or voting on next steps.
"These are really our atomic units of productivity that can help you collaborate and get work done right in the flow of your work," said Wangui McKelvey, general manager of Microsoft 365. "So it can be in a chat or an email, or even inside of a meeting."
Later, Microsoft will unveil Loop "pages," which are collections of components based around an event or task that can also incorporate Office files and emails. And Loop "workspaces" will allow teams to work on a variety of projects at the same time using any or all of the apps across the Office suite.
"What we're trying to accomplish right now, is really delivering a new form of Office that embraces collaboration, new media (and) AI in a pretty deep way," Belfiore said.
Keep 'em in the loop
One of Microsoft's oldest products, Office sits at the heart of its cloud computing strategy and is a widely used suite of tools that is starting to expand well beyond its word-processing, spreadsheet and slide-presentation roots.
Microsoft Teams has been the most notable part of that expansion over the last few years, an upgrade to Microsoft's older Skype for Business communications hub that is often compared directly to Salesforce's Slack as a central collaboration tool. Loop is a nod to a newer collection of remote productivity and collaboration tools that exploded during the pandemic, including Notion, Asana, Figma and Miro.
But Loop also echoes another trend changing the way enterprise software is bought and sold. Companies that embraced a wide variety of software-as-a-service tools over the last decade are starting to become overwhelmed with the cost and complexity of managing a dozen or more different tools from different vendors across their networks.
Assuming it works as advertised, Loop gives businesses that have chosen to go all-in on Microsoft Office as their central workplace tool some of the same real-time collaboration features that have become very popular in this era of hybrid work, nicely confined to the Microsoft Office walled garden.
"I hope you'll get a sense that we're really moving things a pretty long way to embrace new forms of communication, new mediums, and that Office really is taking up a new level of value that we can create for our customers," Belfiore said.
Microsoft hasn't decided whether Loop will eventually be included as part of the standard Microsoft 365 subscription package or as part of one of the higher-tier options when the rest of the product ships, Belfiore said.
"It's definitely our intent to create an experience that will have value for any group of people that wants to be planning, creating and brainstorming together. But it really will add even more value when that's combined with the full power of Teams, Outlook or Excel," he said.