Unless you've just awakened from a Rip Van Winkle-style hibernation, you probably heard that Microsoft released the Xbox 360 last night at midnight.  The local news in Seattle was stationed outside of the Best Buy I normally go to in Bellevue, giving up-to-the-minute updates about the progress of the line (several hundred people long) and breathless testimony about Bill Gates inside "playing games and meeting the Best Buy staff."  I will say this: it's a frigid night in Seattle (low 40s and foggy) so I hope a lot of the people who waited actually got a console tonight.

As you might expect, I have friends and acquaintances who have worked on Xbox 360, and I'm happy for them that they finally are starting to reap the rewards and can kick back and enjoy the upcoming holidays.

As for me, I don't have one yet, but I do plan on getting one eventually.  Unfortunately, there's no employee discount or purchase program or anything like that.  In fact, the launch mail sent to everyone at Microsoft tonight implored us to "make plans to visit retailers early, and check back often, to pick up yours."

The whole Xbox 360 launch got me thinking about fun.  I'm a big believer that software can be fun to use--even a piece of productivity software like Microsoft Office.  But maybe that just cements my status as a hopeless geek.

Microsoft isn't one of those companies which focus groups itself to death (at least not in the Office group.)  But, from time to time, our product planning and marketing teams do lead focus group-type discussions to gauge the impact of certain marketing messages and to get a sense for how to talk about the product.

The first of these around the UI happened over a year ago now, in several major cities.  Marketing showed some mockups of the UI along with a voiceover explaining a little bit about how it would work.  Then, the people were asked to evaluate several different possible ways of communicating the new UI.  They were also given a list of words such as "innovative, fun, disorienting, bleak, optimistic, useful" and asked to rate on a 1 to 10 scale how closely the adjective fit the software prototype.

One of the words that people had a fairly negative reaction to was "fun."  I seem to recall that we had a statement like "The new user interface makes working with Office more fun."  While some people did agree with the statement, many people did not and revealed why in ad hoc comments: "Fun is playing with my kids, not sitting in front of the computer!"  "I go to work to WORK, not to have FUN.  WORK is not FUN."

So maybe it's beyond the reach of software to be fun for non-geeks.  Or, maybe the definition of "fun" needs to be a bit more liberal when describing the experience of using something we ourselves call "productivity software."

What I do think software can aspire to is to try to inspire a sense of possibility.  A sense that suddenly you're an expert at something than formerly seemed beyond your grasp.

Yesterday I mentioned that I thought Live Preview was fun.  Well, in a way I think it is.  Because the the combination of galleries, the Ribbon, and Live Preview, and I can see 25 great ways for my chart to look in about 10 seconds.  I'm not an expert, but I feel like one.

The software is making me look smart.  It's giving my ego a boost and making me feel like I know what I'm doing.  I feel in control, and I want to explore more of the galleries to see what else I can do with a single click.

That to me is "fun."  I kind of know what I'm doing, the software is responding to me, making me look good, and inspiring in me that sense of possibility.  I'm inspired to create better things.  Maybe it's not fun like "whee, we're going to Cedar Point to ride Millennium Force", but it's not a bad feeling either.

Is Office 12 all the way there?  Of course not.  But I think we've at least taken the hard first step at orienting the software towards positive, enabling experiences that make people look good at what they do.  This is a goal we should strive for every version.

Is using Office 12 anything like the Xbox 360 kind of fun?  Nah, probably not.  But if it was, your company probably wouldn't put it on your PC at work...