There’s been a heck of a lot of advice being bandied around to new Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella in the past couple of weeks. And almost all that I’ve read has been focused on the Windows 8/Windows 9/Windows Phone dimension of the company. The company has three big revenue pillars, and the Windows operating system business is one of them (Office and (loosely) Server are the other two).
Now the Windows franchise is the one that has seen obvious challenge in the years since the release of the iPhone. In that time the Redmond firm has seen it’s 95% share of the installed personal computer OS market slip to about a third. The switch hasn’t happened through a direct competitor to Windows PCs – but in the rapid growth in the market overall with the emergence of iOS and Android phones, and tablet devices too.
History shows that when a new information service comes into existence, incumbents tend to do two things: firstly dismiss the new technology as a gimmick, and secondly try to remake it in their own image.
The giant of telegraph Western Union, according to Timothy Wu’s book The Master Switch, both dabbled with trying to build a telephone of their own, and also dismissed Alexander Graham Bell’s invention (quite literally – they were offered the patents for $100,000 and turned them down). Similar dismissal and remaking happened with the introduction of radio, cinema and television.
One of the challenges is that when a company is highly competitive, it tends to become quite myopic about who its competitors are. Western Union could only see the telephone as a device that would support the real business of sending telegraphs “Miss Jones, come quickly. I have a telegraph to send…”. They couldn’t see people substituting telegraphs for phone calls.
Roll forward to the second decade of the twenty-first century. “Only content consumption devices” rings out as classic incumbent language…
But with all of the commentary focused today on Windows, I’m surprised people aren’t starting to question the longevity of the Office suite. A world without Microsoft Office seems, it appears, unimaginable (or if not without Microsoft Office, at least with some sort of Office-like “productivity” suite).
Whilst the traditional four-piece office suite is undoubtedly well-embedded into the corporate world, it seems to me that we are on the cusp of its substitution by other services.
Let’s look at the gang of four in turn – word processing, spreadsheets, presentations and the weird email/calendar/contacts hybrid thing.
Processing words for consumption by others via a printed document is a dying art. We don’t print stuff anything like what we used to.
Traditional portrait-format documents in A4 or US-Letter format are dreadful to consume on a landscape laptop screen, or the reduced size of a smartphone. They are only just passable on a tablet, but e-readers like Kindle show us that you need to remove most formatting for sensible on-screen consumption (pages need to be generated dynamically so you can scale font sizes up or down). Word processors were always a bridge point between the electronic and paper worlds. As the latter declines, we move to new methods to distribute words – blogging, wikis, email and social networks.
Spreadsheets are the dirty secret of enterprise IT. They are the silicon filler around the bathtub of massive scale ERP and CRM implementations – perpetually dirty, generally leaky and in need of regular replacement.
As most sane IT Management bans Microsoft Access en masse, speadsheets also provide the only sensible way for mere mortals to try to manage structured data, although they are horrible for that purpose from a purist data management perspective.
It strikes me, though, that the kind of kludges that Excel and it’s spreadsheety brethren are used to perform may, in the future, be done by web service macro engines like www. ifttt.com and www. zapier.com. These services allow non-programmers to create scripts that act in one place when certain triggers happen in another. No doubt spreadsheets will be around for some time to come, but in many cases the IT department will be wanting rid of them as much as anyone else.
Presentation tools have two purposes: firstly to act as a visual aide when one is talking to an audience, and secondly to fill the gap created by word processing not being great for on-screen content creation.
The former purpose is in the minority, but if video conferencing becomes increasingly popular I wonder if reliance on slides (which can be hell on earth on a teleconference) might decline. We might just converse rather than go through the performed nightmare of a business presentation.
The latter purpose is ripe for disruption. Designing content for on-screen consumption (outside of the digital creative world) is in the dark ages today. See word processing, above…
Finally we have the email/calendar/contacts combo that in MS Office is Outlook. It’s where most people spend most of their desktop time. Again, though, there is increasing competition for how to do these activities – with both open and closed social networks offering many ways to achieve the same things.
The two highest profile acquisitions that Microsoft have made in the past couple of years have both been ways to address this Office substitution threat – Yammer provides social “in the enterprise” and Skype is, well, Skype.
What commentary I have seen in recent weeks about Office has mostly focused on delivery of Apps onto iOS and Android. Whilst of some importance, I personally think that’s a sideshow. The future of the Office franchise will be dependent, in my outsiders view, on how quickly the traditional old components can be remade into the image of the new acquisitions – how much useful stuff from Word, Excel and Powerpoint can be migrated into Yammer and Skype.
History, however, will tell us that the temptation will be to push Yammer and Skype into the constraints of the old product and not the other way around.