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What's Been Happening with Visio?
Special Report by Ralph Grabowski
Since its acquisition by Microsoft, there hasn't been much
information coming out of Visio. There is the occasional press
release, but even those pronouncements have, so far, failed to
come to pass. For example, last April a press release announced
that updates to Visio 2000 could be downloaded from the Microsoft
Office Update Web site. Three months later, still nothing.
This week, Charlie Zaragoza of Microsoft's Business Tools Division invited me to Seattle to explain the silence of the past and the plans for the future. What, you may wonder, is the Business Tools Division? That's part of the working out that Visio has been thrashing through since January, 2000.
To explain, let me go back to last fall, when Visio first made the surprise announcement that it was selling itself to Microsoft. In the conference call with analysts and media, chairman Jeremy Jaech explained the two motives for the sale: (1) better worldwide distribution of Visio products via Microsoft's sales team; and (2) an improved price for shares.
As Rob Wakeling described it to me, the post-acquisition experience was very different from what Visio personnel expected. Better worldwide distribution? Perhaps, but it is taking a lot of work to explain to Microsoft's sales force the purpose of Visio. Visio may be important to you and I, but to the sales force it is just one of a myriad of Microsoft software products that they need to peddle - in just games, Microsoft releases 20 to 30 products a year. Indeed, I was told that some Microsoft people have difficulty in pronouncing "Visio."
As for the improvement of the share price, well, that was fairly short-lived.
When it comes to living in the same house as Microsoft, the
Visio staff quickly found out there were a new set of house rules
to live by. Some were to their benefit; others were just plain
hard work. On the positive side, Visio programmers found they
no longer needed to spend roughly 30% of their time trying to
be compatible with Microsoft. Before the acquisition, Visio programmers
created from scratch the user interface elements (toolbars, etc)
that mimicked Microsoft's latest changes to its GUI standard.
Now, they simply get handed the code.
Also positive was the large number of Visio technical personnel that stayed after the acquisition, a larger percentage than was expected. (The same cannot, however, be said of upper management, many of whom left for other companies after losing their "vice president" and "manager" titles.) The bulk of the programming work continues to be done in the Seattle office. The Dublin, Ireland office is responsible for localization (translating Visio in other languages). An office in Chicago IL creates the content, such as shapes. And an office in Beaverton OR writes the network AutoDiscovery code.
On the downside, Visio programmers needed to gut portions of their beloved Visio product to make it one of the "family" of Microsoft products. I'll describe those more fully in the next issue of Visions.eZine, where I'll also list some of the features in the next major release of Visio, codenamed "Visio 10."
The Business Tools Division
Although the Visio product is currently listed on the Microsoft Office Web site, it is not -- as you might expect -- part of the Office group. "Just another thing that needs to be changed," I was told. (Office includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint, etc.) Instead, Visio has been made part of "BTD" - the Business Tools Division. This is a new division in Microsoft that encompasses four products:
BTD is aiming for US$1 billion in revenue by next year. They
hope to grow by expanding existing business, embracing Web delivery,
and entering new markets through acquisitions. (If that sounds
like marketing talk, you're right: I copied that sentence from
the PowerPoint slide.) When I asked about the kinds of acquisitions
BTD had in mind, there was none in particular -- just continuing
the sorts of IT-related (information technology) acquisitions
the old Visio Corp had been doing over the years.
Mr Zaragoza provided a brief overview of how the products in his division could work together. For example, Project and Visio will be used to aid the deployment of Windows 2000. Project 2000 includes Project Central, yet another Web site for coordinating projects -- there already are some 170 other such sites available. MapPoint is a new product for Microsoft, and is still in the "category building" stage. The Visio team is hoping to integrate with MapPoint so that you can zoom right down into potted plant on the coffee table in your living room. The Clip Gallery Web site will be used to -- hopefully -- distribute Visio shapes. This will allow the content (shapes and solutions) to fall out of sync with product releases: new shapes can be shipped (at a price, I presume) when they are ready; customers won't have to wait until the next release of Visio is ready (something that occurs every 6 to 24 months).
At this point, the Visio people in our meeting admitted that another press release was premature: the VNE (Visio Network Equipment) shapes were still not available online -- just another symptom of the time it is taking to integrate Visio's wishes with the huge Microsoft machine. They noted that the frequency of Visio press releases had fallen dramatically since the acquisition because, under Microsoft, press releases have to be coordinated across all sectors. A related change was the flip flopping of PR firms. Prior to the acquisition, Visio used Waggner Edstrom (WaggEd, for short, and one of Microsoft's pr firms); switched to Prembroke for several months before and after the acquisition, then went back to WaggEd. I never did get a satisfactory explanation for the flip flop, which cost Visio one of the best pr people in the business, Rob Curran.
BTD wants Visio to be the graphics engine of choice within Microsoft. Examples include Visio being the graphics engine for BizTalk, and the
Visio engine areplacing the drawing tools in PowerPoint. I joked that it was easy for Visio to achieve world domination in diagramming software. Now comes the hard part: dominating diagramming at Microsoft!
I was given a frank "SWOT" analysis, listing the
Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats to Visio. I
am sure we are all aware of Visio's strengths (market leader,
mature technology) and opportunities (being attached to the Microsoft
On the downside, BTD sees Visio lacking awareness among Office users, and a confusing product line (four different Visios, each with a name that can be read a couple of different ways). For example, many Office users employ PowerPoint for creating diagrams, because it has those drawing tools built in. In the confusion of Visio product names, networking people sometimes purchase Visio Technical -- because they see themselves as "technical" -- instead of the more appropriate Visio Professional or Visio Enterprise.
One threat to Visio comes from users moving away from the desktop (I had my Palm, while the Microsoft employees had their Compaq PocketPCs at the meeting), as well as the lack of visibility within the Microsoft organization.
For these reasons, BTD is working to building "excitement" both within and outside of Microsoft. They are preparing to launch Visio 10 in the first half of 2001. The product will be available in 14 languages within 90 days of the English version shipping. They are hoping to establish a revenue-producing, Web-based extension to Visio for network specialists. No mention of a PocketPC version of Visio, though. And Visio-specific developer conferences might be starting up again.
On that last item, I recall asking at the sale-of-Visio announcement what would happen to Visio's developer conferences. Oh, they would become Microsoft developer conferences, I was told. Visio personnel have since discovered that Microsoft's overwhelming developer conference settings have not been particularly beneficial for its partners. While not official at this point, some informal work is going toward a Visio-specific conference, which I look forward to.
At this point, Burke Fewel presented the results of the Visio Usage Study, a survey of registered users that's been carried out every year for the past seven. There were many bar charts showing who uses the four Visios for what. Some of the statistics I picked out include:
I had gotten the feeling that Visio, under Microsoft, was going
to drop Visio Technical. But members of BTD assured that they
have no intention of doing that. In fact, the statistics Mr Fewel
presented showed just how strong the use of Visio Technical is,
even among non-engineering users.
With Visio co-founder Ted Johnson in the room, I had the chance to ask about the complex relationship between Microsoft and Autodesk, Visio and Actrix. Before the acquisition, there was a war between Visio and Autodesk. Visio launched its IntelliCAD against AutoCAD; Autodesk retaliated by launching Actrix against Visio.
Both products flopped in the marketplace: Visio gave the IntelliCAD 2000 source code away; Autodesk is giving away copies of Actrix Technical 2000 in boxes of AutoCAD LT. Visio says they sold about 25,000 copies of IntelliCAD in total, while PC Data reports that Autodesk sold 1,150 copies of Actrix in the fourth quarter of 1999 (not including direct sales).
In contrast to the war of products between Autodesk and Visio, Autodesk and Microsoft have a relationship described by some as "special." Ever wonder why Microsoft doesn't do CAD? So do many other people. Microsoft has gotten into all kinds of specialty software that occupies narrow niches (consumer mapping with MapPoint, for example), but has never launched a CAD product. In fact, it is rumored that Microsoft forced Visio to unload IntelliCAD as a condition of the acquisition.
Now, however, Microsoft has a product (Visio) that competes directly with an Autodesk product (Actrix). When I asked Mr Johnson about this complex relationship, he felt there was no "secret arrangement" between Autodesk and Microsoft to carve up the market, which would be illegal anyhow.
BTD's plans for Visio are to concentrate to its core strengths: (1) ease of use; and (2) diagramming fundamentals. BTD wants Visio's DWG import and export to combine visual integrity with as high a level of data integrity as possible. They will continue to target specific markets, including technical (CAD) markets, such as electrical and process engineering.
Part II: What's New in Visio 10?