Microsoft Office: Way Too Early for Obituaries


Office logoIn recent days, it has become popular to herald the impending death of Microsoft Office and the doom of Microsoft itself as its cash cow heads for the slaughterhouse.

  • In a series of tweets, Duke business professor Vivek Wadhwa argued that Microsoft has become irrelevant, largely because tablets are the future and Office doesn’t run on them.
  • Minimalmac blogger Patrick Rhone argued that Microsoft’s failure to get Office on the iPad allowed people to realize they could get by very well with the Microsoft suite.
  • At TechCrunch, John Biggs maintains that a paradigm shift away from printing and paper is leading us into the “post-Office” generation.

Not so fast.

While these analyses are right about the long-term trends, I believe they drastically underestimate the importance of office in the daily life of business, government, and other large institutions. Consumers may be realizing that they no longer need Office–that, in fact, they never needed Office and would always have been better off with something lighter and simpler such as Apple’s iWork. This will hurt Microsoft some. But the company’s bread and butter is Office and its attendant backend services, such as Exchange and SharePoint, in the enterprise.

There are bad and good reasons for this. The really bad reason is the inertia and conservatism of large organizations. Government is the worst offender. It’s tough to see how agencies that still run mainframes that communicate with greenscreen 3270 terminals using Systems Network Architecture  and whose managers think they have mobilized their IT because they support BlackBerrys are going to dump Office anytime soon. It is very common, for example, for federal agencies to require that responses to requests for proposals be submitted as Word and Excel files.

The much better reason is that there is a world of of documents far more complex than web pages (or tablet apps.) And production of those documents requires the right tools. Word is used not out of inertia but because it includes a lot of features that cannot be found elsewhere. In an environment where documents pass through many hands on their way to complete, tracking changes (also called edit tracking or redlining) is essential if you ever need to know who made what edits. Complex documents need automatically generated tables of content, indexes, and, in the case of legal briefs, tables of authorities. Footnoting and bibliography flexibility is essential. Furthermore, many companies have a vast investment in custom Word stylesheets (Word calls them templates, but stylesheet is a more familiar term for HTML users.)

Alternatives like Google Docs don’t begin to cut it. Apple’s Pages comes closer, but even Apple doesn’t seem to regard iWork, which has not be updated in three years,  as a serious competitor to Office. OpenOffice, in its various incarnations, offers all the complexity of Microsoft Office in a much less user-friendly package.

For now, and for the foreseeable future, preparing documents for print is still tremendously important. Over time,  it will become less so, but endless scrolling web pages are not a viable alternative. We will be doing more and more of our reading on tablets. But tablets are going to need software that can create proper documents for them. Nothing does a very good job of this today, but it is hardly an insoluble problem and I expect Microsoft will address it in both the rumored Office for iPad and Windows 8 version of Office, expected late this year.

Word, of course, is only one component of Office. In environments where Microsoft Exchange is the back end for mails, contacts,  and calendaring and scheduling, Outlook remains the indispensable client. Yes, you can get Mac Mail to work with Exchange and Exchange is iCal-compatible, but accessing an Exchange Global Address List from Mac Address Book is somewhere between difficult and impossible, depending on the configuration of the Exchange server.

Excel lives in a league of its own. My guess is that the bulk of Office users don’t make much use of Excel and could undoubted get by with something much lighter, even the spreadsheet component of Google Docs. But for the legions of Excel power users, it is absolutely indispensable. and many companies have spent a lot of time and effort building Excel models that cannot be ported to anything else.

And what can I say about PowerPoint? I’ve always found it the weakest major component of Office, an adopted child who never quite got integrated into the family. Not to mention the agony of sitting through those presentations. For Mac users, Keynote is definitely a worthy competitor (how bad can a program designed by Steve Jobs keynotes be?). But huge numbers of enterprise workers will only give up PowerPoint when you wrest it away from them. For better or worse, mainly worse, it’s here to stay.

All of these are reasons why neither Office nor the computers needed to create documents of any complexity are going away. We may do our reading on tablets, but content creators will still be creating on Office. As long as that is the case, Microsoft will be a highly relevant, and almost certainly highly profitable, player.





















Windows on ARM to Include Desktop Office. But What About Outlook?

Office logoWhile Microsoft has said a lot of Windows 8, it has revealed very little about its almost equally important software partner, Office 15. In in a post on the Building Windows 8 blog today, Windows boss Steve Sinofsky disclosed a vital bit of information about Windows on ARM (WOA), the version that will run on ARM, rather than Intel 86, processors and is especially important for tablets:

“WOA includes desktop versions of the new Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote. These new Office applications, codenamed “Office 15”, have been significantly architected for both touch and minimized power/resource consumption, while also being fully-featured for consumers and providing complete document compatibility. WOA supports the Windows desktop experience including File Explorer, Internet Explorer 10 for the desktop, and most other intrinsic Windows desktop features—which have been significantly architected for both touch and minimized power/resource consumption.”

I don’t know how much to read into this but there is one critical application missing from the list: Outlook. Sinofsky says the Windows 8 Metro mail app will support Exchange Active Sync (EAS) for mail, contacts, and calendaring. But supporting EAS does not necessarily mean the full Exchange policy support that enterprises want to see. Android phones, for example, can connect to Exchange servers for mail, but do not natively provide full Exchange support (some OEMs have tweaked Android to do this, and there are third-party solutions.)

I think Enterprise adoption  is going to be key to the success of Windows 8 tablets, so this is a big deal. On the other hand, porting Outlook as it currently exists to ARM is a non-starter. Outlook is a notorious resource hog and ARM programs are going to have to be resource sippers because of the relatively limited processing and memory power available on tablets. And Outlook’s massive databases would swamp the storage available on a tablet.

A Microsoft spokesperson declined to elaborate on Sinofsky’s blog, so I guess we’ll have to wait a while longer to find out.



The Mysteries of Office 15

As Microsoft works on the next release of Windows, it has been remarkably forthcoming about its details. The Building Windows 8 blog has not only laid out the changes in the new version, but the thinking behind them.

Office logoBut Microsoft has said almost nothing about the new version of Office it is developing in parallel with Windows 8. It has distributed an early version to a select group of testers, but wrapped it in a non-disclosure agreement. We’re not likely to get the full details on Office 15 (a development name unlikely to be used for marketing) until a public beta is released this summer.

The new Office is a big deal, perhaps the most important release in the suite’s history because Microsoft has to pull off a number of difficult and contradictory things. On one level Office and its associated back-end components such as Exchange and SharePoint are both mainstays of enterprise technology and by far the most important source of Microsoft profits. The last thing enterprise customers want to see is a drastic change in Office.

At the same time, Microsoft must deal with a revolution in user devices. Conventional PCs are giving way to tablets and, to some extent, smartphones. Even in the enterprise, where desktops and laptops will continue to rule for a long time, mobile executives and field workers are depending more and  more on tablets and phones.

Office as it exists today is a catastrophe on any sort of touchscreen device, let alone one with a 10″ or smaller display.  Starting with Office 2007, Microsoft began replacing Office applications’ traditional cascading menus with a “ribbon” of choices. For a traditional mouse-driven user interface, this is probably an improvement, but it’s no help for touch.

The Word 2010 ribbon
The Word 2010 ribbon






The little icons on the ribbon (above) are too small to hit reliably with a finger, and most of them open a window or drop-down with additional icons or menu choices. In addition to the difficulty of navigating this clutter by touch, the ribbon occupies an amount of real estate that is intolerable on a tablet, let alone a handset. And Office as it exists today is way, way too big for the limited storage capacity of tablets.

Still, the richness of functionality that all those icons represent is the essence of Office. It’s true that many consumers never use 90% of the functions, but in a business setting, complex options such as edit tracking, table of contents creation, and mail merge are often regarded as essential. It’s not at all apparent how this sort of rich application can exist in a simplified, touch-optimized user interface like Metro, which will be the default paradigm for Windows 8.

It seems likely that Microsoft will end up with two versions of Office, a classic UI for traditional PCs and a stripped down and simplified Metro UI for tablets. How seamlessly can these two versions co-exist? Will the simplified version be able to display complex content correctly (this has historically been a problem with all programs that purported to offer limited editing of Office files)? How do you even begin to make Excel useful on a tablet? Can  Microsoft developers find a way to bring full offline functionality to Outlook without downloading a multi-gigabyte database?

This is only the beginning of a very long list of questions about how this new two-headed Office should work. And it doesn’t even touch on the question of how much Office functionality will be available in the version that is to run on tablets powered by ARM rather than Intel processors. (Intel users will, in theory, have the option of running older, classic versions of Office. ARM users will not.)

Depending on how strictly testers adhere to their NDAs (and how serious Microsoft is about enforcing them) we may begin to get some answers soon. A version of Office that makes business users productive with their key applications could be a big competitive advantage for the forthcoming Windows tablets. But making this work will be one of the biggest challenges Microsoft has ever faced.