FORTUNE -- Microsoft (MSFT) has a spotty track record when it comes to acquisitions. (Remember Danger, Massive, and WebTV? Yeah, neither do we.) But snapping up enterprise search startup Fast Search & Transfer for $1.2 billion back in 2008 may prove to have been a prescient move.
Earlier this week the tech giant unveiled a series of updates to its Office 365 suite of cloud-based productivity tools, including a new application code-named Oslo. The app, developed by the Fast team based in Oslo, Norway, has a Flipboard-like interface and lets users view and search relevant data from a handful of Office 365 tools, like SharePoint and Yammer. According to Microsoft, the once-siloed applications now share an "intelligent fabric" (made possible by another new innovation called Office Graph) that allows employees to easily view recent documents, contacts, and conversations in one easy-to-digest user interface.
"Enterprise data has been like a black box," says Bjorn Olstad, corporate VP of Fast's engineering team. "What we found is that the real value is not in the content itself -- it's how people interact with the content."
According to Olstad, Oslo uses personal interactions and machine learning to highlight the most relevant, timely information for each Office 365 user. Right now it only pulls data from select applications, but the plan is to access content and interactions across all Microsoft tools in the near future.
"This is a starting point for a transformation, a shared, cloud-based team data model as opposed to working with siloed information," Olstad says.
The Fast team includes about 220 people, all working on machine learning, search, and other technologies that have gone into creating Oslo. They've also been working with groups across the various Office 365 products. In demos, Oslo seemed to be a much more eye-pleasing and effective way to do corporate search -- which, let's face it, is a pretty awful experience when done in a normal intranet-type interface. But it is also significant because it fits right into what Microsoft is touting as the future of work: a more networked, connected way of working together in teams, with a common fabric providing access to content and interactions that follow you from app to app.
"The new Office 365 experiences powered by cloud, social, mobile, and big data technologies enable people and teams to find the right connections and most relevant insights to get more done," Jeff Teper, corporate VP of the company's Office Service and Servers group, said in an announcement issued at Microsoft's SharePoint Conference earlier this week.
If it sounds a lot like other companies' attempts to "socialize" the enterprise, it is and it isn't. Yes, Microsoft has jumped on the bandwagon with Facebook-like enterprise social tool Yammer and other efforts. But unlike other players that offer just one or two enterprise software products (and are therefore limited in linking social to every aspect of an employee's work life) Microsoft still has an extensive suite of tools -- and data -- at its fingertips.
And yes, the way people work is changing, not just because the folks in Redmond said so. For Microsoft to succeed in the future, it not only needs to be cloud-based, but must use its assets to connect the dots, weaving together conversations and documents and presentations and serving it up in an easy-to-digest, easy-to-find and relevant context wherever employees are already working.
Is Fast the answer? Probably not, but it's certainly a decent start.
The competition between Microsoft and Google is heating up. This time, the tech giants are dueling over cloud-based software tools (think calendars and online documents) and the small- and medium-sized businesses that buy them.
FORTUNE -- It may not sound quite as sexy as search, web browsers or mobile phones, but there's growing demand for moving all sorts of office applications to the cloud. That's why, Tuesday morning, Microsoft took the wraps off MOREMichal Lev-Ram, writer - Jun 28, 2011 9:59 AM ET
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