This week, Microsoft will host 15 college students from around the world at its Redmond campus to find out how they see the company's Microsoft Office suite evolving during the next 10 years, when they'll be part of the workforce that the company targets with the product. Microsoft hopes that the students, who are 19 to 24 years old, will inject a bit of a youthful outlook into Office, which has stagnated as it has matured. The weeklong brainstorming session is called the Microsoft Office Information Worker Board of the Future.
"We really want to understand how they think about information, about technology adoption, and technology in general," Dan Rasmus, the 42-year-old director of Information Work Vision at Microsoft, said. "My own computing experience coming out of high school and going to college was sending a message to a mainframe using a Teletype machine." Rasmus said that the participating students are part of the so-called Internet generation because they never knew a time in which the Internet wasn't a pervasive part of daily life.
The success of Office is still crucial to Microsoft, especially given the lukewarm customer reaction to the company's new nondominant products, such as the Xbox, Windows Powered Smartphones, and the Microsoft Broadband Networking hardware line, which the company recently shelved. Office still generates more than half of Microsoft's profits, despite a steady stream of lackluster upgrades that have done little to regenerate excitement in the suite. Microsoft says that it plans to increase unit sales of Office ninefold by 2010, perhaps an overly ambitious goal.
The students who are visiting Microsoft this week come from Argentina, Australia, Canada, India, Italy, Japan, Kenya, New Zealand, Norway, Slovenia, South Africa, Turkey, the UK, and the United States. Each attendee will receive a free Tablet PC and other Microsoft-oriented goodies; Microsoft is also picking up each student's travel costs.
Although this program is laudable, Microsoft's other attempts at reaching out to hipper young people have been failures. For example, the company's lame threedegrees Instant Messaging (IM) application, which is still available, is never promoted and hardly used, especially among the high school and college-aged students it targets. So whether Office can shed its corporate parent's dowdy image and get "the 411" (ahem) remains to be seen. Consider the product a work in progress.