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Microsoft hopes younger eyes have Office vision

What will tomorrow's workers want from their productivity software? Microsoft just asks them.

When it comes to improving the spelling checker in Word or finding new ways to draw charts in Excel, Microsoft probably has things covered.

But to figure out the broad changes needed for its venerable Office software, Microsoft is turning to an Indian medical student, an aspiring architect from Kenya and 13 other young adults from across the globe.

The young people, ages 19 to 24, are part of an "Information Worker Board of the Future" that will spend this week touring Microsoft's campus and discussing their ideas for the future of work and software.

Microsoft hopes the investment will pay off with some insight into how their flagship Office software needs to evolve.

"We want them to tell us what we don't know," said Dan Rasmus, a former Giga Information Group analyst who joined Microsoft last year to head up its Information Work Vision effort.

"We want them
to tell us
what we don't know."
--Dan Rasmus, Microsoft

Office is critical to Microsoft, with the Information Worker unit that includes Office accounting for roughly a third of sales and often more than half the company's profits. Still, convincing customers to upgrade is a constant challenge for Microsoft. The company also has an ambitious goal to increase the unit ninefold by 2010.

The students will also make out pretty well. In addition to picking up all travel costs, Microsoft is giving each a tablet PC and other goodies.

Rasmus said the Office unit is following the lead of other product teams that have turned to young people for ideas, such as the company's Threedegrees instant messaging project.

The company has already noticed changes in the way people work, notably in the way employees balance their work and home lives, often switching between the two throughout the day.

"Some of us already do that," Rasmus said. "We think that will become more of the norm."

Rasmus says he envisions some tension in the office of the future as this new generation starts to interact with an older generation whose use of technology is more centered around spreadsheets and e-mail and less about instant messaging and cell phone text messages.

"These guys use tech very differently than I do and my peers do," Rasmus said.

While Microsoft has product teams that try and figure out subtle ways of improving Microsoft's flagship Office product, Rasmus' team is tasked with spotting larger trends.

"We're looking for the discontinuities, the things that aren't linear," he said.