What innovations have yet to be seen from the traditional office suite? Despite what Microsoft will have its customers believe, there have been few advancements in this field. Simply put, it was perfected with Corel's Word Perfect (no pun intended). For the average user, even a simple text editor is sufficient. If you don't believe me, and you still think Office is essential, walk into a university library and look at how many students are collaborating on assignments in Google Drive. It also helps that many universities and institutions have been "Googleized." Each student has a Gmail account, and therefore has instant access to Drive, Google + and a host of other services.
The release of Apple's iPhone 5s and iPad Air included the announcement that it's iLife and, more importantly, its iWork software will be free with any new Mac or iOS device. That means every new Mac and iOS user will get a free Word Processor, Spreadsheet, and Presentation app. While this news was initially greeted with great joy, not all critics agree Apple is making the right move.
In a ReadWrite article titled "Software wants to be free," Owen Thomas claims we are now in the age of free bundled software. Apple's OSX became progressively cheaper over time, from $99, to $29, to $19, to $0. He says that the days of shrink-wrapped software sitting on store shelves are over. (I would argue they will still be advertised in stores, but that's beside the point).
"People expect their connected devices to work out of the box, and they don't put fine distinctions on what's an app and what's part of the operating system," says Thomas.
In essence the industry is being driven by user expectations. The baggage that's associated with the PC is very different from that associated with the tablet (or the phone). It's because of this shift that Apple is taking a different approach to software. It fits computer scientist Alan Kay's famous philosophy, "People who are really serious about software should make their own hardware."
However, in a contrasting ReadWrite article, Matt Asay feels that Apple isn't the right company undertake this challenge, and chasing Office is a fool's game. He says that in 2011, 11 percent of enterprises were "experimenting" with Office alternatives. That number dropped to 5 percent in 2013 - most likely a product of Microsoft's most recent offerings. He considers iWork a "rounding error," whereas Google Drive is everywhere. Asay feels that Apple's poor cloud service track record is the reason it's not the right company to displace either Microsoft or Google. There is "no sign that its hardware centric DNA as changed," says Asay. He does feel, however, that its creative apps (iMovie and iPhoto) are disruptive, and very compelling.
I have to agree with both authors. The game and expectations have changed, and Microsoft is too ingrained to be displaced any time soon. But, there is reason for Microsoft to be concerned. Office isn't as relevant as it used to be.
Historically speaking, why has Microsoft Office been essential? Well, there are numerous reasons, but I have tried to outline what I feel are the most important:
- The .doc (and later .docx) format was, and is, a universal standard. All competing office suites export to this format.
- Before the cloud, we needed to share our documents. Emailing .doc documents or sharing them via Sharepoint (my condolences for those of you who've had to use this cloud software) was how people collaborated. It stems from an era where we had 50 labels for our Outlook email.
- Schools required Office. When I went to public school, we had lots of Windows computers and Macs. But, all had Office installed on them. Why? We needed it for our assignments.
- The enterprise market is the biggest factor contributing to Office's success. I've worked in a lot of places, and I've never seen one business use an "Office alternative." Furthermore, any enterprise or government setting I've seen try to "implement" Google Drive has only experienced pain and frustration. They always end up having Google Drive and Office, not just the former.
The question remains, how many of these factors are relevant today? Considering that everything exports to .doc I would argue only number 4 is still relevant. Enterprise has historically been Microsoft's cash cow, and to its detriment, it's been reliant on this sector for the bulk of its profits. Collaboration is another factor that makes Office seem antiquated. Microsoft has since caught up in this regard, but it costs users $99 a year to get Google Drive-style real-time collaboration. Again, this is clearly aimed at enterprise. Perhaps Microsoft is happy with the enterprise market, but it shouldn't be. If mobile is the future, then they should be worried.
Mobile trends continually show that an increasing percentage of the internet traffic is made up by mobile devices. Microsoft is now a devices and services company, officially. When I buy a tablet, the last thing I'm going to do is purchase a copy of Microsoft Office for iOS or Android (whenever that comes out). I'm going to log into Google Drive and/or iCloud, where I have instant access to all my stuff. For many users, this is good enough. I've spent too much time in university to not appreciate the vast array of formatting options provided by Office - especially when it comes to citations and footnotes. But it's not an expense that average users need to shell out anymore. It's a luxury. Unless Office (or Office light) comes standard with every Windows 8 computer and Surface, I won't have much reason to use Office in the future. iWork, however limited it may be, does almost everything I need. Everything I create is saved natively and in Google Drive.
I posed this argument to some of my colleagues and friends. They would respond "how do you write your blog posts without Office!?" I took my iPad and went to draftin.com (Draft for short). Draft is a simplistic online editor, that not only exports to a variety of formats, but automatically saves all versions of my work - something any writer will appreciate. It's a truly excellent service.
I don't want to harp on Office. I love it. I still have the latest version, and I continue to get copies for my family. But, I'm concerned that Office's value depreciates over time, and there's nothing Microsoft can do to stop the bleeding. What other groundbreaking innovations can be incorporated into the traditional office suite? Office has done it all. Microsoft's competitors will continue to adopt more features, until the differences between their iterations and Office are negligible. Microsoft would really benefit from making, at least a basic version, of it's software free with Windows and the Surface. It's a compelling add on. I don't want Office to go away, even if I do think it's becoming irrelevant.