056. Going Global . . . Mother Tree

“Konichiwa, Sinofsky desu . . . Arigatou gozaimasu.” – My Japanese language portion of the launch script for Office 2000

Launching a product in a local market, natively so to speak, is an extraordinarily special experience. It is so special that for nearly every product I worked on I chose to be outside the US and participate in some aspect of the global launch, most of the time in Asia. With this love of the market came a learning curve and some fun times. Office 2000 was my first chance to launch a product as an executive and in Asia—it was a dream come true.

This is the final post of the millennium and concludes the chapter and launch of Office 2000, which I think you can tell was a tremendous period of personal growth that went along with the scaling of our product team, and why the past three posts have been a bit more personal. The PC is entering a new phase, the maturing of the market as an enterprise product. The next two chapters cover this incredibly important time in an evolving Microsoft—everything was happening at enormous scale and global diversity yet coordinated in a manner consistent with the need to develop enterprise products. The stories of Microsoft during this time are few and far between and I’m hoping to fill that void because this builds the foundation of today’s Microsoft.

There will be no post next week due to the US holiday.

Back to 055. Office 2000 is Good to Go!

Everything about participating in our launch event in Japan was as orchestrated and as on time as the JR subway. For weeks before launch, I received down-to-the-minute schedule updates, “1635: move to event hall”, “0940: prepare with translator”, “1210: meet for the box lunch” and so on. I could not have been more excited to attend.

Photo of me sitting on a sofa in my office showing off the Mother Tree poster hanging on the wall.
The “Mother Tree” poster for Office 2000 launch in Japan. This is me in my office sending a photo back to my friends who did the launch. I wish I had a better photo of the poster so other Japanese speakers could offer up their take on the translation. (Source: personal collection)

My friends (co-workers) in Japan were frustrated that I flew there by myself, navigated the city on my own, and declined being met at Narita Airport (a 2-hour trip) to be shuttled into town. In the ’90s my ways were not how American executives did Japan, even though it was not one of my first trips (see Michael Lewis’s Liar’s Poker for how bankers did business in Japan). They were so concerned I might get lost that someone prepared a camcorder recording of the entire transit route for me from customs at Narita to the hotel, which they sent to me on a CD-ROM to view.

Using my video directions, I arrived in Tokyo. The head of East Asia R&D, Akio Fujii met me at the hotel—he insisted, no, he really insisted—and drove us (his car had a TV in the dashboard!) to the Windows World Expo/Tokyo 99 event, which was a 1000-person venue that we would fill. Oddly, a bright yellow Lamborghini was parked practically at the front door of the expo hall. Akio explained that the launch event creative manager drove that car and that he was (very) big in Japan event circles. I was already off to an over-the-top start to the event.

We arrived and met with Susumu “Sam” Furukawa (SamF). SamF, a tech legend in Japan, was the original leader of the Microsoft subsidiary, MSKK, and served as Chairman of Microsoft Japan. He was a relentless champion for the PC, Microsoft products, and an advocate for Japan in the United States where he kept a home by Microsoft. In addition to his passion for every conceivable electronic gadget, audio/video tool, or handheld device, Sam was famous for his love of model railroads and built elaborate scale scenes often featured in the magazines. He was also known as one of Japan’s leading gadget gurus and had deep relationships with Japanese consumer electronics companies. His enthusiasm was so remarkable and infectious I often failed to keep up with him in meetings because his excited English ran together and sounded like one long word or sentence. Then once BillG mentioned to me that he was pretty sure no one could keep up with Sam in Japanese either, which was quite a relief.

The stage seemed rather stark. Draped over most of the front of it was a plain gauze curtain, a scrim. Puzzling. SamF arrived and was his incredibly excited self. He secured “the brightest high-definition projector in existence from a best friend at Hitachi.” The Hitachi crew in matching jumpsuits and hard hats was up on the catwalk calibrating the projector.

They gave me staging for the next morning’s event. There was no room for improvisation. The translator was briefed. I was to say only what I was told to say—“Konichiwa, Sinofsky desu” and then recite the English script, ending with “Arigatou gozaimasu.” That became my Japanese business vocabulary that served me for decades. It was Lost in Translation happening to me (also I was staying at the relatively new Park Hyatt). It took hours to get everything right. At least I thought it was right.

Photo of stage demonstrations during the Japan launch. Featured in the photo behind a lectern are myself, Sam Furukawa, and Nobuyoshi Yokio (Mr. Office).
A press photo of the launch event featuring me along with Sam Furukawa and Nobuyoshi Yokoi. Yokoi-san was known as “Mr. Office” in Japan for his tireless dedication to the Office business, having started as a recent graduate hire and part of the team that drove PIPC to enormous success. He remains a Microsoft executive today and is approaching 30 years with the company. (Source: pc-watch-impress-co-jp and personal collection)

They told me that after my rehearsed words, music would play and the scrim would drop, revealing a Hitachi projection of Office 2000. Sam had me leave the stage so I could see it all from the audience perspective. We headed to the back of the room by the control board that must have been twenty feet long staffed by six people.

The stage lights dimmed, a spotlight lit up where I’d been standing, and Sam said, “Pretend now you are finished.”

A rising crescendo of strings and wind instruments, like Yanni, rose in volume to almost an ear-crushing level. Then the scrim dropped in rather dramatic fashion. The stage lights went up. There was a giant backdrop projection of a single huge Bonsai tree brightly filling the brilliant and enormous screen that spanned the stage.

Over the tree in white letters it read Office 2000 with the new logo. There were some Japanese words that I could not read and in the Japanese font used for English letters the words “Mother Tree”.

Sam was blown away. He said, “Isn’t it amazing?!”

I said it was. “Amazing. Beautiful. Brilliant.” But I had absolutely no idea what Mother Tree meant.

I bowed to everyone I could make eye contact with. I said, “Arigatou,” while deeply expressing appreciation.

I had no idea what was being said on the giant display.

When I asked Sam for the meaning, he said, like he often had before, “It can’t be translated.” I asked Fujii-san and he said the same thing. I even asked the head of Office marketing, Nobuyoshi Yokoi (NobuY), who in MSKK was known as Mr. Office, and he simply pursed his lips, pulling in some air, creating a Japanese thought-bubble implying difficulty, and said, “So sorry, Steven-san, but there is no translation.”

The best I could gather was that it was marketing the importance of Office and how it was a strong collection of tools growing from a solid and enduring foundation.


While I never truly learned the full meaning, I loved it. It represented the hard work and dedication of MSKK and the incredible effort they put into the launch. I brought back a giant poster of the image (they packed it incredibly well) that must have been four feet high and six feet wide and hung on my office wall for years. Like every single thing I experienced in Japan, the poster was magic and evoked the warmest of emotions.

Photo of a slide projecting at the launch event. All the text is in Japanese.
The event was enterprise focused as you can tell from the words on this positioning slide providing evidence of the importance of XML and the Web for collaboration. (Source: pc-watch-impress-co-jp)

In Japan, as in the rest of the world we coupled the launch of Office 2000 with the long-anticipated beta release of Windows 2000, in a campaign informally called Desktop 2000, aimed at defining a new standard enterprise desktop PC. The launch event was a mix of enterprise and consumer thought it was clear the emotional connection was to retail customers. This should not be a surprise because of how the business was structured in Japan.

Unique to Japan, Office at retail was a huge business because it sold for the full retail price with newly purchased PCs. Japan had not yet embraced the top-down IT model of purchase and deployment, which was okay because the retail model was more lucrative for Microsoft Japan (so long as new PC sales kept growing). Originally offered as a service by PC stores, the idea of installing Office for customers—pre-installed PC, or PIPC—was a special offering of Word, Excel, and Outlook (with an option to upgrade and add PowerPoint) that was offered with a new PC for what amounted to full retail pricing. This offer was wildly successful and popular, though could never be replicated elsewhere. For years people would assume Office came “bundled” on new PCs, but really that was only true in Japan where the price stickers on new PCs made it entirely clear what the price was with or without PIPC Office. So successful was this business in in Japan that it was a significant part of the overall subsidiary, so profitable that it was a noticeable part of all of Microsoft’s earnings.

BillG’s investment in and focus on the Japanese market is not often appreciated. Very early in Microsoft’s journey BillG began a partnership with legendary Japanese technologist Kazuhiko “Kay” Nishi founder of ASCII Corporation (a magazine publisher), eventually partnering to bring MS-DOS based PCs to Japan. In the 1980s, Japan was innovating in PCs in an isolated way but also represented a huge market. Japan was the world leader in electronics and had a powerful government ally known as the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) that was often in the news here in the US because of concerns the US was falling behind in computers, chips, and software due in part to the intense involvement of the government in directing innovation.

It took a great deal of partnering and Japan-specific development to break into the market and ultimately win over in-country rivals. For many years until Windows XP was in stores, it was not uncommon to see DOS/V compatibility indicated on products, the variant of DOS supporting Japanese characters and video devices spearheaded by IBM. Working with Kay Nishi, Microsoft collaborated on PCs with Japanese companies and eventually sold Basic and then DOS to Japanese companies. In 1986, Microsoft opened the Japan subsidiary. BillG hired SamF to lead it. Sam immediately began hiring among the very best recent graduates and software people he could find to lead Microsoft’s first international research and development office.

The East Asia R&D leadership team pictured in front of large boxes of Office 2000 and Windows 2000
Several of the leaders from the East Asia R&D team for the 2000 wave of products. Fujii-san is on the far right. This includes the leadership from across Asia from mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Korea, as well as Japan. L-R: TBA, Cheng-Hong "Steven" Chen, Yun-Chiang "Jordan" Kung, Osamu Adachi, Sun Gi "SG" Hong, Tsutomu Nanjo, Akio Fujii. This photo was taken in the Microsoft Shinjuku office November 2000. (Source: personal collection)

Among those hires was Akio Fujii (AkioF, or as I generally preferred Fujii-san – in an interesting twist, Microsoft’s email people wrestled with reversing Asian names to be more proper but could never quite get that right, especially in Chinese where to IT the first and last names were often not obvious, much to the frustration of employees). Under the leadership of Fujii-san, the Desktop Apps development team in Japan coordinated the development of most all of Microsoft’s products for Japan and led development across East Asia (Korean, Traditional Chinese, and Simplified Chinese) with teams in several locations, known as East Asia R&D. Fujii-san was one of the earliest Microsoft employees in Microsoft Japan hired by SamF. Many of the people working at MSKK today trace their own lineage directly to SamF and AkioF and the original opening of the subsidiary, which has grown to thousands of employees and just celebrated its 35th anniversary.

In the early days, simply getting software to work with the mysterious double-byte characters used to represent Japanese in DOS and 16-bit Windows was a huge technical challenge. While standard practice today, almost no code from the early days of the personal computer was written to be localized or translated into other languages, and certainly not work with the alternate characters used in Asian languages. Many early Asian-language products were created by taking the English/European source code and hacking away at it for an entire product cycle without much help from Redmond, often taking more than a year to release.

The financial motivation and advancing technology brought this “delta” (the time between the US release being complete and localized variants of the software being complete) down to a predictable number of weeks. Aside from making the code simply function with Asian language characters, there were thousands of user interface strings and many thousands of pages of help files that were translated each release as well.

Even after all that, early products were simply wrong for the market, wrong as in customers were often puzzled by the missing features or the type of documents that were extremely difficult to create with Office, even as late as 1995. Fujii-san and team would perennially raise issues about the missing features or difficult to use features in Office for the Japan market, but these would often fall on deaf ears—not deaf for lack of empathy but simply because of the ongoing competitive battles just trying to win in the US.

A symbolic example in Excel was the lack of donut charts which are used routinely instead of pie charts but did not exist in Excel. After much consternation, donut charts would make it to Excel albeit much later. I could make many excuses from too busy to too complicated to have developers in another time zone on the same code base (a real challenge back then), but it really was a failure at making a distant market a priority. I previously faced this when I first met the MSKK development team trying to build Visual C++ for Windows, which also had local market challenges.

The Word team set out to address this, in particular by hiring native or near-native Japanese speakers on to the team in Redmond. Several other members of the team took Japanese lessons as well. This began a long and sincere effort to fully adapt the product to the needs of Japanese users, working closely with and often with contributions from the engineering teams across East Asia. With this came extended visits to Japan to learn directly from customers and upon returning to Redmond, educate the team on the cultural differences. The hallways were filled with Japanese documents illustrating the differences in how features were used and what the difference was in printed output.

This animation above is a quick demonstration of “Table Pencil” in Office 97. Creating a table was as simple as drawing out the borders and erasing ones not needed. Text could be shown vertically as well and cells could be colored as they could be in Excel.

One of the most memorable examples was when the team explained how many Japanese customers preferred to use Excel as a “word processor” to create standard forms and templates rather that Word, which seemed a bit crazy to us. What followed was an endless series of example documents that were far more focused on grid-layout than anything we’d see in the US. As any English-native who has flown to Japan, checked into a hotel, and filled out an exit visa can tell you the documents are filled with boxes and lines, as well as vertical text. Word simply couldn’t create those documents and Excel was great. This changed in Word 97 when a feature known as table pencil was added, which let users draw (and erase) grid lines in a table and create documents that were literally elaborate tables.

Following this and several other lessons, the team got much better at integrating feedback and eventually features and additionally entire market-specific products for the Japan market. The East Asia R&D team developed some of the most innovative and earliest linguistic features for Office and Windows, features few today can imagine living without. Asian languages based on characters and not finite numbers of letters that fit on a keyboard require input via phonetics that translate that into suggested characters, which the user then chooses from. This is called the Input Method Editor, IME, and was one of the most significant innovations in the PC era for Asian languages. Starting with Japanese, then adding Korean and Simplified and Traditional Chinese, the team created the user experience for typing. In many ways, today’s mobile phone experience we share with autocorrect and fixing mistakes resembles what Asian language users have been experiencing since the earliest days of the PC. Early on they shared many of the same complaints about incorrect guesses and awkward suggestions.

While most new software companies were content to battle in the US and expand to Western Europe, Microsoft was early and aggressive about expansion into Asia. For me personally, the Office 2000 product launch marks the start of strong devotion to working in Asia and elevating that work. I had many fun product launches and visited multiple times per year, creating many strong friendships that continue today on social networks where these stories are shared. In 2004, I spent my Microsoft sabbatical (technically the Microsoft Achievement Award, MSAA, a three month break to do what you’d like, earned after seven years of service) living in Beijing and working with the subsidiary on local market issues with the government.

Back in the US, the product launch was decidedly enterprise focused. In fact, much of the fanfare would wait until the arrival of Windows 2000. The enterprise sales team geared up for a massive push of Windows 2000, Windows Server 2000, Exchange 2000, and Office 2000, then even added SQL Server 2000.  The launch of all this software—perhaps the release that came to define the company as an enterprise provider of software—was inspiring. Microsoft was indeed firing on all cylinders as an enterprise company. It would take a few years for customers to digest such a wave of software while at the same time we were relentless in releasing even more.

Video of the public Office 2000 enterprise launch event at the Metreon San Francisco, June 7, 1999. The Metreon just finished construction and would formally open the following week. (Source: personal collection)

The enterprise launch of Office was held at the newly opened Sony Metreon space in downtown San Francisco, featuring the long-forgotten first Microsoft retail store, MicrosoftSF, which featured displays of products you could look at and not buy. Steve Ballmer, in his first major launch as President of the company, brought his undeniable enthusiasm to an enterprise product launch. San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown also proclaimed it “Microsoft Office 2000 Week” saying he can do that because he’s the “Bill Gates of San Francisco”.

The event was also first of many of a new style of Microsoft event that reflected an enterprise level of information density. Every keynote or launch featured strategy slides, multiple demonstrations, video testimonials from customers and partners, and then a long-term vision for Microsoft. At this event in the IMAX theater, we even had Q&A with the customers and partners in attendance. It was quite a show—in length and density.

Steve Ballmer, President of Microsoft makes a point during the Office 2000 launch in San Francisco, June 7, 1999. The new product will be avaliable in retail stores on June 10. [And yep, that me on the right!] (Photo by Jeff Christensen, Source: Getty Images/Substack)

If the wave of products defined success in the enterprise, it was decidedly the opposite for consumers or just regular people, even small businesses. Across the board our traditional reviews were underwhelmed or even perplexed by the focus on collaboration, web standards, reducing cost of ownership, and other big company features.

With two launches and availability dates, the reviews came in two waves. The enterprise reviews for Office 2000 were extremely solid. I don’t think we could have wished for better enterprise evaluations. With enterprise availability that April, InfoWorld, which was the go-to source for enterprise computing news, said:

Its many enhancements should ease IT administration headaches, reduce overall ownership costs, and improve the workgroup collaboration experience. For companies who are already standardized on the 95 or 97 versions of Microsoft Office, the move to Office 2000 should be a no-brainer. And even for those who are not, moving to Office 2000 offers some compelling benefits.

Office 2000 Plays Big Role In Microsoft's Future.
This type of coverage in the Wall St Journal made it abundantly clear that we were making a huge bet on the enterprise and business computing. This review was a big win, playing up the enterprise features. (Source: Wall St Journal, April 1, 1999)

The consumer launch in June brought another wave of coverage. Only this time, the words were not so positive. As successful as we were at orienting the business around enterprise, we clearly did not deliver what the consumer reviewers were looking to see. Walt Mossberg, with whom I personally met several times during development, wrote in an article headlined, “Microsoft Updates Office Suite, but It’s Not for the Little Guy”

However, I may be able to save you the trouble and expense. I’ve been testing Office 2000 for months now, and I believe that most individuals and small businesses that already use one of the last two versions of Office will gain little or nothing by upgrading. It’s not that the program is a dog. It works well, in fact. But this version has been engineered almost entirely for big corporations with speedy networks. Its most significant new features are aimed at helping people who collaborate over a network and post a lot of documents to the Internet or a corporate intranet. . . . Some new features look great on paper but work well only for corporate users. . . . The bottom line for consumers and small businesses is this: If you have a very old version of Office and a fairly new PC, or you need to post a lot of business documents on the Web, it makes sense to upgrade to Office 2000. Otherwise, forget it.

The sting was real.

I was hurting. Was Personal Productivity Is Priority 6 the wrong approach? Did we really mess up? Should we have seen this coming and adjusted along the way? It seemed so obvious. On the other hand, we did exactly what we set out to do. In Microsoft performance review lingo, this was a 4.0 (on our 2.0-5.0 scale of the time, where almost no one ever got a 4.5 or 5.0).

The answer, regretfully, in some ways, was that we (or I) did not mess up. The Office business depended on building a product for business customers. The reviews were positive in that regard. The consumer reviews were not the key to the success we were achieving and needed to achieve going forward. We built what could sell. And we were selling what we built.

We should do both was a constant refrain over many discussions—we should have a great consumer product and a great enterprise product. On paper that is the ideal situation. In practice it was not that the needs and desires of each type of customer were diverging; they were increasingly in conflict. It was not that consumers wanted different features; they also explicitly did not want the features of the enterprise. This worked both ways, as the enterprise IT view decidedly did not want more features, but rather fewer.

Practically, anytime one tries to take on two conflicting perspectives in one product, the product comes across as a compromise. It is neither one nor the other, but a displeasing mess. The hope I had at the start was that by making personal productivity Priority 6 we avoided the messy middle. We succeeded at that, but I was struggling with how unsatisfying this felt.

Even with all these challenges, the launch of a new release of Office was still a noteworthy news event around the world. Above is a collection of clips from local television news and the ubiquitous airline television programming showing off the successful efforts of the marketing team. (Source: personal collection)

The middle age of the PC was upon us. The age of designing for the individual, the lone hero using the PC as a tool of empowerment, was over. The tinkerer and influential end-user moved from the garage or basement to the office of the chief information officer, the new power seat in the boardroom. The PC was a tool of corporations, and Office needed to deliver that if it were to stay relevant. With Office 2000, the business results suggested that we were spectacularly relevant.

I still held out hope that we could find a path forward that was more appreciative to the individual sitting in front of Office with a job or schoolwork to do.

Reminder, taking a break from posting for the US holiday.

On to 057. Expanding Office in the Enterprise—Enterprise Agreements [Chapter IX]