Microsoft seeks to make Office 365 more useful with Delve

Most of us know the feeling of having a lot of information in our inbox, our cloud storage etc., and no idea how to find that one piece we need. It’s the old needle-in-a-haystack problem, the haystack being our own apps.

Microsoft says it’s addressing that problem, at least for some of its users, with Office Delve, (code-named Oslo) which it claims will “surface” relevant information and “personalized insights” from OneDrive for Business, your Outlook email, SharePoint Online and Yammer.

Key to the product is Office Graph, announced in March. It’s an updated take on the Enterprise Graph that Microsoft’s Yammer division has been working on for a while. Office Graph uses machine learning to map the relationships between people, content, and activity that occurs across Office 365.

Delve looks essentially like a workplace homepage for users. It shows project deadlines, people you may know (or may want to know) and content you probably want to see. The underlying Office Graph tech handles the data analysis, analyzing who users communicate with, hot they communicate, and the types of content they work on or access. It can add intelligence to a number of products — including, for example, Outlook — by prioritizing messages and surfacing information-related calendar appointments.

A demo screenshot of Delve.

A demo screenshot of Delve.

 PC World reports that Delve will be offered to various subsets of Office 365 users in phases:

The very first group to receive it will likely be those who have signed up for the Office 365 E1–E4 subscription plans, or the corresponding A2–A4 and G1–G4 plans for Academic and Government customers respectively. Of those, administrators who have signed up for the “first release” option will receive Delve as quickly as possible. Otherwise, Delve will slowly roll out to all of the remaining Office customers by “early 2015,” Microsoft said.

The complexity of that illustrates my biggest issue with Office 365 — well actually Microsoft in general — which is silly SKU proliferation. Why have one SKU when you can have seven? But I digress.

Microsoft has been talking for a couple years now about how it intends to capitalize on its machine learning expertise, even in the consumer space. We’ve already seen new features such as auto-complete and dataset suggestions make their way into Excel, and then of course there are the less-business-centric capabilities such as real-time voice translation on Skype and speech and gesture recognition on Xbox.

[company]Microsoft[/company] is facing heightened competition from [company]Google[/company] in productivity apps — at least among smaller companies — as well as from [company]Dropbox[/company] and [company]Box[/company], which are both trying to expand from online storage and file sharing into more inclusive productivity platforms.

But there are also challenges facing startups and smaller companies (Box, Jive, Highspot), and even Google, that want to compete with Microsoft in the productivity space, many of them touting their own focus on machine learning and intelligent services. Cloud services and APIs have made it easier to integrate a bunch of best-of-breed applications into a fairly cohesive whole, and while that’s very compelling for a certain class of customer, Microsoft still owns these applications for many companies — especially large ones.

If Microsoft can really figure out the cloud in terms of pricing and user experience, if Microsoft can show it’s willing to keep up on the innovation front and if Microsoft can deliver a quality mobile experience that doesn’t require a Windows phone, there’s no reason that has to change. They’re big ifs, but not impossible.