Monday, March 20, 2017 [Tweets] [Favorites]

Complexity and Strategy in Microsoft Office

Terry Crowley (via Simon Willison):

Unfortunately, [FrontPage’s] Preview view ended up being a gift that kept on giving. The complexity it introduced had nothing to do with any failure in the initial programming of the feature. The challenges were that as we added new functionality, Preview required special consideration — additional specification — about how it should behave and interact with these new features.

[…]

When the Word team went to estimate the cost of these features, they came back with estimates that were many times larger than PowerPoint’s estimates. Some of this cost was because the PowerPoint code architecture was better structured to add these types of visual features. But the bulk of the growth in estimates was because Word’s feature set interacted in ways that made the specification (and hence the implementation) more complex and more costly.

[…]

What I found is that advocates for these new technologies tended to confuse the productivity benefits of working on a small code base (small N essential complexity due to fewer feature interactions and small N cost for features that scale with size of codebase) with the benefits of the new technology itself — efforts using a new technology inherently start small so the benefits get conflated.

[…]

The framework typically fails to evolve along the path required by the product — which leads to the general advice “you ship it, you own it”. This means that you eventually pay for all that code that lifted your initial productivity. So “free code” tends to be “free as in puppy” rather than “free as in beer”.

[…]

In fact, it was clear that [Google Docs was] using an asymmetric technical attack of leveraging their simplicity to deliver sharing and co-editing features. These features were clearly differentiated and would be immensely hard to deliver on top of the existing highly functional (large N) Office apps. As we started building the web apps, we needed to decide whether we were going to “walk away” from our own complexity like we had when we developed OneNote or embrace the existing complexity, with the costs and constraints that that would imply for future development.

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