Office on iOS Would Be Brilliant

There are rumours circulating about a possible version of MS Office coming to iOS (the screenshot shows something on an iPad). So far, it has been denied by Microsoft, but the Daily (which broke the news) is standing by its story. The best coverage appears to be Mary Jo Foley’s piece here. If Microsoft really wants a long-term future in mobile computing, Office on iOS and Android would be a smart thing to do. For better or worse, Office is still the standard in productivity suites.

Yes, there have been in-roads made by various other office suites. Google Docs has put a bit of a dent in Office’s lead, but it is still pretty far behind in terms of useful functionality (yes, Office has a boatload more features, but a lot of those seem to be there to “check the boxes”, not because people use them in any real way). The current community-sourced LibreOffice (a fork of OpenOffice that was created shortly after Oracle took over Sun) is also an alternative. Some have switched to iWork (Pages, Numbers and Keynote) from Apple. All of the alternatives are quite functional and are certainly useful. I have come to prefer Pages over Word, but I still find Excel a bit more comfortable than Numbers, but part of that may just be familiarity. I definitely prefer Keynote over PowerPoint. These alternatives may not be as rich in terms of functionality, but that situation will not last forever. Yes, MS Office is the standard. It is the one all the others have to remain compatible with, and therein lies MS Office’s strength: it is by definition compatible with itself. It is the one that the others have to follow. For now.

Yes, for now. Like everything, no lead is safe or secure. Just ask IBM, who once owned the computing space with the mainframe. Ask Palm, who dominated the PDA space at one point. Or Motorola, Nokia, RIM, GM, Boeing. All of these companies had products that owned the market they participated in at one point or another. Every one of them was supplanted by someone else, or by something else. Mainframes gave way to UNIX servers, which themselves have lost share to Linux servers. The IBM PC, from IBM, was once the standard in desktop computing. People didn’t buy a Windows PC, or an MS-DOS PC back in the early 1990’s. They bought an “IBM PC”, even when IBM wasn’t the leader anymore. People didn’t want smartphones, they wanted Blackberries. Starting in the late 1950’s and up until the 9180’s, GM was far and away the biggest car manufacturer in North America, at one point making half of all the new cars on the road.

So, while MS Office is still the standard, it doesn’t dominate the way it once did. Its share of the market will continue to decline while Microsoft limits the platform to a technology which is starting to give ground to smartphones and tablets. There will come a time where it is MS Office that has to be compatible with something else. It will have to be the follower, and not the leader.

There is probably nothing that can be done to keep MS Office in such an overwhelming position, but there are ways to let it maintain a meaningful place in the market. GM may not make half of the new cars on the road in North America, but it is still one of the biggest players and is still a leader in the industry. IBM may not dominate the computing marketplace, but it continues to innovate, and they still have a hand on the tiller, even if they have to share it with many others. While Microsoft still continues to live with the illusion that they are in control, they will continue to lose that control over time. At some point, they will be faced with a stark choice: make radical change and hope it works, or be consigned to the dustheap of companies that didn’t step out of the way of the on-coming train. They won’t be the first company to face that inevitability, and they certainly won’t be the last.

What Microsoft needs to do is recognize that change is upon them, and start to make decisions while they still have some control. Those decisions need to be one that fits the coming world, where Microsoft isn’t the dominant player in the personal computing landscape, but one in which Microsoft can still have an important and meaningful role. Their choice is simple: choose now, and continue to keep a chair at the table, even if it isn’t at the head, and be part of the conversation; or continue with “more of the same” and find themselves pushed away from the table and with no real voice in the discussion. Being a part of the app ecosystem gives them a chance to participate. Pretending they still can take over the mobile space won’t make it so. It is time to recognize that the world of computing is going to move forward, with or without Microsoft. Their current approach is one that will most likely put them on the outside. If they want to stay at that table and continue to have a voice, it’s time to rethink their closed-minded position on their most important products.