On the Future of MS-Office, or Actually How MS-Office Affects the Future

There’s was this interesting conversation on the future of MS-Office on Twitter, and Umang Jaipuria collected the tweets to make a very interesting read.

Matt Rosoff also wrote an informative article inspired by this discussion “Why Microsoft Office can’t be uprooted so easily”.

This is also something that I have been thinking about and I just want to add a few comments to clarify my thoughts.

Bendict Evans:

The future & importance of MS Office is a key to understanding a lot of the next few years. Often seems like a blind spot in the Valley

Bendict Evans:

Hence my original tweet: the way Office evolves or its use cases get reimagined is a big trend, which also affects tablets & PCs

This is a very important point which unfortunately seems to have been lost as the discussion turned into an MS-Office vs. Google Docs argument. What I think Ben Evans meant to say is that if MS-Office remains as important and relevant as it currently is, then the platforms that work well with it will be at a strong advantage.

I understand this to mean that what Microsoft chooses to do, and actually manages to implement with MS-Office, will strongly affect which platforms will win in the tablet market, and the extent to which laptops will be replaced by tablets.

Marc Andreessen

Plus Google Docs and its peers way better for online collaboration–automatic, seamless, all devices/OSs — new requirement.

Benedict Evans

Shared doc editing is a feature and not a universal core case. And isn’t a collaboration platform a better approach?

Here Marc Andreessen argues that the collaboration features of Google Docs are the core appeal. Benedict Evans on the other hand disagrees.

If I understand correctly, Benedict Evans views Google Docs as an inferior replacement for MS-Office whereas Marc Andreessen thinks that Google Docs is a collaboration platform more akin to a Wiki.

My opinion leans towards Benedict Evans. For one thing, the design of Google Docs simply resembles a folder with some Word, Excel or Powerpoint documents. Even the icon colors try to associate themselves with the color-coding for MS-Office; blue for a word processor, green for a spreadsheet, and orange for presentations. Inside the app, the user-interface strongly resembles pre-ribbon MS-Office interfaces. There are a couple of buttons for collaboration features, but that’s it. The design suggests that sharing is an addition to the core case (low-cost imitation of MS-Office) and not the other way around.

What this means is that Google Docs is probably targeted towards users who primarily want to edit a document.

Benedict Evans:

Excel is a platform. And an IDE

Benedict Evans:

Office is very feature rich but task-agnostic (Lawyers & admen use same apps). SAAS tends to be the other way around?

Chris Dixon:

yes, SaaS tends to be focused on jobs to be done. Part of is it “bottoms up” (division level) sales model.

Marc Andreessen

And it seems that because of that SAAS will end up being much bigger/diverse than we all thought 5-10 yrs ago.

There is good agreement here in what MS-Office is, and what the new SaaS products that Marc Andreessen and others foresee will replace it are.

Marc Andreessen appears to think that SaaS will diversify and evolve to the point where, for most custom solutions that can be imagined in Excel, there will be a SaaS solution for it. I find this hard to believe.

Whenever we adopt a SaaS solution, we are forced to adjust to it. There is very rarely a pre-configured product that fits what we need to do exactly. In addition to a learning curve, there is an adoption curve where we change our workflow to fit better with the fixed SaaS solution. What’s more troublesome is that we don’t really know before we embark on our learning, whether or not the fit will be good. Unless the application requires a lot of collaboration and simultaneous access, forgoing a SaaS and instead creating a simple solution in Excel is often by far the quickest and the most effective.

My view

Google Docs is an attempt to commoditize MS-Office. It imitated the design and functionality of MS-Office and is offered free-of-charge to maximize adoption. However, MS-Office is still very much the standard in corporate and professional environments.

Importantly, MS-Office is not just content-creation software. It is often used as viewing software. It is the equivalent of Adobe Illustrator, Adobe InDesign and Adobe Acrobat for the creator, but also the equivalent of Adobe Acrobat Viewer for the reader. The availability of MS-Office does not only affect the content-creation side, but is essential for the consumption side as well.

As Benedict Evans states, the evolution of MS-Office and how corporations use software will greatly affect tablets & PCs. This is a very strong card that Microsoft still holds, and which can sway the game to its favor. Its strength is very often underestimated.

There are a lot of unknowns and also technical obstacles.

Apple recently introduced new versions of its programs in the iWorks suite. The reviews were not pretty. In order to bring file-format and user-interface parity between the iOS versions and the Mac versions, many features of the Mac version were at least temporarily removed. Given that the PC versions of MS-Office have much more features than iWorks ever did, achieving file-format and feature parity between mobile and PC versions of MS-Office is likely to remain a huge challenge for many more years. However, Atom-based Windows tablets running regular Windows 8 will have no problem running the PC version of MS-Office, although the UI may be awkward.

It will be interesting to see how Microsoft plays its cards.