Microsoft Office logo

The Inevitability of Office and How Microsoft Can Save It


Microsoft Office logo

When I am not writing for Tech.pinions, I spend a fair amount of my time doing a variety of  things, and a significant part of my freelance life is helping to write responses to Requests for Proposals, most of them for large, complex IT deployments. The RFPs, and the nature of the response to them, very a lot, but one thing they have in common in the pervasiveness of Microsoft Office and related software.

One thing I have noticed in a great deal of tech analysis and journalism is that except on sites focused on an enterprise audience, such as InfoWeek or ComputerWorld, there seems to be very little sense of how dependent the enterprise is on Microsoft. As a result, they tend to grossly underestimate both the importance and staying power of Microsoft.

To some extent, that is not surprising. Not many writers have much experience in the enterprise world. Journalists, in particular, do most of their work in content management systems that don’t use Office components. (When writing for Tech.pinions, for example, I either write directly in our CMS, WordPress, or use a markdown editor. Occasionally, I’ll use Excel to analyze data and generate a chart or table, but that’s about it.[pullquote]Microsoft also needs to come to grips with the reality that iOS and Android, not Windows Phone and Surface, are going to be the dominant players in the mobile enterprise.[/pullquote]

But other work is all Microsoft, all the time. The RFPs themselves are often published as word documents, and even if they are PDFs, it’s a good bet they began life as Word docs. And the RFPs generally specify response be in Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. The teams writing the responses depend heavily on the Track Changes and commenting capabilities of Word. SharePoint is used as the document repository and for version control. Team members communicate using Exchange/Outlook and Lync. (All of this, by the way, is supported on Macs, although the Mac Outlook client is pretty bad and the Mac SharePoint tool (Microsoft Document Connection) is extremely finicky.)

As for the systems described in the RFP, the back ends may be based on software from SAP, Oracle, or Microsoft, among others, but the presence of these systems being accessed by desktops or laptops running Windows and Office is simply taken for granted. In most cases, especially in government RFPs, mobile access is often an afterthought and is handled through a smartphone or tablet browser, if at all. iOS or Android support is starting to show up a bit more, particularly for HR self-service applications.

All of this is important because it shows that predictions of doom for Microsoft are grossly exaggerated. Microsoft clearly has long-term problems that will affect its dominance of the enterprise if not addressed successfully. One of the features of Windows 8 that could appeal to enterprises is sophisticated baked-in support for both public and private clouds. But Windows 8’s user interface mess is a non-starter for enterprise customers, and it is unlikely that windows 8.1 Update 1 is going to move the ball far enough to be of much help. It’s imperative that Microsoft come up with a Windows 9 that both gives enterprises the user experience they want (i.e., one that imposes a minimal retraining burden) while building the on ramp to the cloud services that are Microsoft’s future.

But a successful future for Microsoft, even in the enterprise, has to go far beyond hanging on to Windows PCs. While they are not going away, neither are they growing and are more likely to shrink as those workers not tethered to their desks trade their traditional PCs for more mobile devices. Microsoft needs to find a way to extend its software and services into the mobile space.

Jean-Louis Gassée argues in a Monday Note that the key is a radical invention of the Windows tablet:

Microsoft faces a choice. It can replace the smashed bumper on its truck with a stronger one, drop a new engine into the bay and take another run at the tablet wall. Or it can change direction. The former — continuing to attempt to bridge the gap between tablets and laptops — will do further damage to the company’s credibility, not to mention its books. The latter requires a radical but simple change: Make an honest tablet using a version of Windows Phone that’s optimized for the things that tablets do well. Leave laptops out of it.

I believe that’s the right track–I have maintained for a long time that trying to build a tablet OS down from desktop Windows rather than up from Microsoft’s phone software was a strategic blunder–but unless Microsoft has been quietly working that approach for many months, it is going to take too long to pull off a new tablet software design.

Microsoft also needs to come to grips with the reality that iOS and Android, not Windows Phone and Surface, are going to be the dominant players in the mobile enterprise. The company has taken small but important initial steps with SkyDrive (soon to become OneDive) and Lync apps for iOS and Android. But it needs to take the big step of providing solid Office and SharePoint apps for tablets, sooner rather than later. It will have to do a lot better than existing third-party solutions (not all that hard) and signal to the world that it will support its vital Office infrastructure on a heterogeneous world of mobile devices.



Published by

Steve Wildstrom

Steve Wildstrom is veteran technology reporter, writer, and analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area. He created and wrote BusinessWeek’s Technology & You column for 15 years. Since leaving BusinessWeek in the fall of 2009, he has written his own blog, Wildstrom on Tech and has contributed to corporate blogs, including those of Cisco and AMD and also consults for major technology companies.

9 thoughts on “The Inevitability of Office and How Microsoft Can Save It”

  1. MS is not going to accept being just a backoffice, or fringe player without kicking and screaming. Keeping Office off of tablets other than it’s own is part of the kicking and screaming. It may not be right, it may be worthy of contempt, but it’s understandable. By understandable I mean, it’s not random and without purpose.
    Supplying Office for iOS would be MS throwing in the towel.
    Should Apple provide iWork for Android? They would make money from it after all…
    This is about “winning”, not the next few billion.

    1. It’s a towel Microsoft has to throw in. Kicking and screaming is not a sound business strategy and I believe a real recovery in tablets is at least two years away–if Microsoft does everything right.

      1. And making an additional, say $10 billion, is sufficient motivation to throw in the towel? A billion isn’t what it used to be…

        1. That’s similar to Apple’s problem.

          Employee: I have a great product idea. We could make $100 million dollars in one year!
          Cook: Not worth our time. Come back when you have a BIG idea…

    2. They probably should do it now while Office still has relevance. Back in the day (1990’s) I remember Bill Gates saying if the Mac Business unit of MS were an independent software company, it would be the 4th largest software company.

      Of course by that time, Windows and Office were already entrenched, so throwing a bone to the Mac, even a profitable bone, did not jeopardize the Windows platform in anyway. But precisely because Windows and Office were so entrenched, it wasn’t an issue.

      Android and iOS are the incumbents now in the mobile space. And holding back Office seems like a logical decision. And for the time being it probably is, as Steve lays out a real situation I face quite often. But at some point the consumer won’t wait, and actually hasn’t been waiting. Consumers are already using or at least exploring other options. Pressure will mount and continue to mount on the services that currently require Office apps to change to some other alternative. I’ve already seen some services move to web based CMS for RFPs and such. I can apply for a carnet completely in a web browser now. Not the most efficient method, but it is now a possibility when it used to require Excel. Heck, even an Excel .cvs file caused me problems with that system recently.

      I would argue that introducing Office for iOS and Android would actually serve to help strengthen Windows and Office in the enterprise. I would also argue that if Surface or Surface Pro has a shot at relevance, it won’t be because of Office. It will be because it is a great device, which so far is not necessarily the case. But who knows what tomorrow may bring?


      1. There are a few things that can happen. Only one looks good for MS, but don’t discount it.

        a) They hold on to Office, and use their impressive R&D to become more relevant in mobile. Do not underestimate MS’s R&D. Then Office remains a brand equity.

        b) Failing a), they eventually release Office for iOS, if an equitable deal is even possible between MS and Apple. That would depend on the doldrums of that time.

        c) Release Office now, and die in mobile now.

        d) Mobile inspired Office competitors gain traction and end up on the PC as well, as a standard. MS goes into irrelevancy and some of the wrongs of the ’90’s get corrected.

        1. I have a feeling if MS loses relevancy in desktop land, that means there really isn’t much of desktop land left because it got supplanted by whatever is after mobile— implants?—and Apple/MacOS will be no better off, so your fears will be unfounded. But I could be wrong.


  2. As a consultant implementing SAP software I use the Microsoft Office components literally all the time. There are no alternatives to these products (Outlook, Excel, Word, Visio & Project) when “heavy lifting” work needs to be done. Keynote might be a viable alternative to Powerpoint but why exit the Office Suite for one product.

    This is the case in a huge portion of corporate America. This work is big, sometime multi-display work which can only be done with a keyboard and mouse. Because of this, Windows is necessary. Also, because of this, Windows 8 is way off the mark. Corporate America will move from XP to 7 but not to 8 until it performs better than 7 (excuse me for omitting the repetitive Windows here).

    This is a market that Microsoft should make its mission to support and provide the best tools for, not consumers. This is really the only market Microsoft has that it can keep in the long run. They need to focus on it and it alone.

    I am an Apple user for everything in my non-consulting life. The only overlap is my MacBook Air which runs both Mac OS X and Windows 8.1 through Parallels 9. This works well enough but Windows 8 and the Office Suite could perform much better. I hope that Windows 8.1.whatever coming next month will make it perform at least as well as Windows 7 did.

    We will see…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *