Microsoft Copilot could fix a long-running Office problem


Disclosure: Microsoft is a client of the author.

In a sense, Microsoft Office and I grew up in this industry together. We both entered tech at around the same time, and I was one of its first users — when it had a problem that continues to plague it.

Office was largely built through acquisition, and as a result, it has often suffered from a lack of integration and consistency. While its  various parts have grown more similar over the years, even now, I could argue, they aren’t as integrated as Lotus Symphony was because Symphony’s parts came from the same code base. 

Integration gives you the ability to have a single interface in a product. You get the individual components necessary to either do a focused project (like a spreadsheet) or a blended document (more like a report) that includes pictures and data that are all updated automatically when new information comes in. 

Copilot, announced last week, should at some point begin to bridge all aspects of Office, making its various components feel far more tightly integrated than they have been in the past. Given that perception is often our reality, Office should feel increasingly integrated, finally correcting a problem that goes back to its birth. And that should make it even more productive for regular users.

Another Office overlay?

Historically, some tools such as cut-and-paste and spell check worked relatively seamlessly across all parts of Office. While the components themselves remained separate, these tool overlays created the perception of integration that didn’t require actual integration.

Generative Artificial Intelligence (AI) — the power behind Copilot — represents another overlay. It’s a component that is technically separate, but tightly coupled, to Office’s parts. Initially, it can behave the same way across the board and, eventually, call up Office components on demand to create more complex projects. 

The initial instructions that direct the underlying AI on what to collect — and what the finished product should look like — can be centralized and applied to all of Office. That would dramatically simplify and reduce the time needed to create a complex document with charts, pictures, and dynamic data that keeps a document, webpage, or other content up to date. 

Updating in real time, re-writing the future?

Imagine a school report that could automatically update itself for current events; a quarterly financial report that would self-generate and self-correct without the need to re-write it every three months; a news story that automatically updates with pictures that arrive after the piece was written; and content updates that give a reader the latest news in context. 

If pressed for time, you could even generate a framework for a report that anticipates data showing up closer to an event when that information will be needed. For instance, an article on an election could be fully formatted in advance, with AI tools being used to edit and revise the piece based on the information received within seconds of ballot results being announced. 

Competitive analysis reports, including conclusions, could auto update as new competitive information is captured. In addition, you could include what-if scenarios in a report to showcase how certain potential future events might alter outcomes and recommendations — whether that information is external or internal. For instance, say you wanted to convince someone a decision they’re making will be disastrous. You could generate a report that highlights a favorable outcome, change the parameters to include the bad decision, and then showcase how that favorable outcome flips as a result.

I had an experience like this years ago where my team was over-ridden and the resulting bad decision contributed significantly to the death of a company. Had we had access to a predictive tool like this, we might have been able to better prevent that outcome. 

The glue for Office

While those possibilities show how powerful generative AI could be in the Office suite, I still think its biggest benefit would come from using it as an overlay; much like a spell checker, it could operate independently of the individual Office components and call them up as needed. Over time, this should create a single conversational interface in Office that allows users to, from that one interface, not only create spreadsheets, documents, and presentations, but blend these tools into ever more complex document types that are auto-created and auto-updated over time. I’m not just talking about documents; this would work for web pages, metaverse elements, scripts, and news reports (to name just a few). 

With generative AI, Office should become easier to use and deliver a significant productivity boost. In short, the initial implementation of Copilot represents just a fraction of what’s coming. We’re at the very beginning of an AI-driven trend that will change not only how we interact with computers but each other as well.

I doubt we are ready yet for the depth of changes that lie ahead. But at least some of those coming to Office will be welcome.

Copyright © 2023 IDG Communications, Inc.


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