Microsoft and Facebook have launched the beta version of Docs for Facebook, an online applications platform that lets Facebook users create and share Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents. The launch represents yet another escalation in the cloud-based productivity arena, where Microsoft finds itself in competition against Google and a growing host of smaller competitors.
The announcement was timed to coincide with the opening of Facebook's F8 conference in San Francisco.
"Built on Microsoft Office 2010, the Docs app enables Facebook users for the first time to create and share Microsoft Office documents directly with their Facebook friends, using the Office tools they already know," Lili Cheng, director of Microsoft's FUSE Labs, wrote April 21 on the FUSE Labs blog.
Cheng wrote, "The fact that we've been able to adapt the Office 2010 'Web Apps' technology to work directly with Facebook truly speaks to the flexibility and power not just of the Facebook platform, but also of the Office system's rich 'contextual collaboration' capabilities."
It took four months for the FUSE (Future Social Experiences) Labs team to deliver the beta, from concept to implementation, according to Cheng,
Users can navigate to Docs.com and log in using Facebook Connect. From that point, a variety of options present themselves: Users can view documents being shared by their friends, or else create or upload a document. Once a document's been created and edited, it can be shared with any Facebook friends selected via an interface on the right-hand side of the screen. The application also includes granular controls for which friends can edit a document.
In October 2009, Microsoft Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie announced the creation of FUSE Labs with its focus on "software and services that are centered on social connectivity, real-time experiences and rich media," according to a Microsoft release at the time.
In an Oct. 8 internal memo leaked to several news outlets, Ozzie wrote that FUSE Labs would "bring more coherence and capability to those advanced development projects where they're already actively collaborating with product groups to help them succeed with 'leapfrog' efforts." Initial plans for FUSE Labs involved about 80 employees from Microsoft Startup Labs, based in Massachusetts, along with the Creative Systems Group and Rich Media Labs.
Ozzie's restructuring suggested an increased interest on Microsoft's part in social platforms and applications in a business context. In his internal memo, Ozzie suggested that FUSE Labs would serve as a way to quickly capitalize on social computing opportunities developed by Microsoft Research and other divisions: "The lab will prioritize efforts where its capabilities can be applied to areas where the company's extant missions, structures, tempo or risk might otherwise cause us to miss a material threat or opportunity."
Such a material threat—or maybe an opportunity—presents itself in the form of cloud-based productivity platforms. In an effort to counter rising competition from products such as Google Apps, Microsoft is introducing stripped-down, browser-accessible editions of OneNote, Excel, Word and PowerPoint for Windows Live subscribers. This new collaboration with Facebook likely represents another facet of that strategy.
Google has also been attempting to build out its Google Apps service, which has been gaining traction with a number of businesses and government agencies. On March 5, Google announced that it had acquired DocVerse, maker of an application that allows groups to collaborate online on Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents, potentially shifting the competition between the two IT titans into another gear if Google decides to integrate DocVerse's technology into Google Apps.